A fickle master

Seriously, you would think that the government and senior members of the military would know better. These are the people who lead our country and our military and should really know better. The fact they don’t is utterly baffling to me.

I am talking about the way our glorious leaders bend in the wind of public opinion like young saplings. The government is craven in how it panders to the media – ignoring any blatant contradictions and any strange notions of policies or morality. However this is not surprising. Its been almost two decades since the political parties in the UK had “party politics” rather than saying what ever they thought would get them elected. This entire century the UK has been governed by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph opinion pieces rather than any notion of public good.

What is surprising, to me anyway, is how quickly the MOD has fallen into this trap as well. Over the last few years we have seen an infuriating number of retired Generals and former Chiefs of the Defence Staff suddenly come out of the cold to criticise the government. This is annoying, because these are the same General Officers who presided over identical problems without the slightest hint of complaint until they were safely away from the system. This is not exactly living up to their heroic image, but such is life.

Showing a worrying reluctance to learn from the past, the MOD has had some spectacular blunders of late. Sadly, these are not blunders in the normal sense; more an example of how clueless the MOD / Government is when it comes to falling over itself to court the media – without remembering the media will savage it no matter what.

As a result we see, in recent weeks, such oddities as the government going to court to reduce payments to two people who were crippled in the line of duty. Now, in normal circumstances this would be ignored – the government is claiming it is not liable for secondary problems and is trying to reduce the burden on the taxpayer by reducing the payments these people get. This is not a bad thing as any other organisation would do it, and every penny the government has to spend comes from the public. It is not magic money.

The madness is this comes at a time when the government have been whipping the public up into a fervour about supporting “Our Boys” who are fighting wars in far away lands. Realising these wars are very unpopular, the government seems to have decided the only solution is to turn every soldier into a hero who deserves our undying support, no matter what they do. This played very well with the media (the Sun’s Help for Heroes has become such a powerful charity that on-duty police officers are allowed to wear its labels and promotional media, can you imagine that happening for any other charity?) but the government – or more properly the Civil Service who run the MOD – has failed to realise what this jingoistic monster will demand. With every service person being seen as the greatest Hero since Gilgamesh, any attempt to due the correct thing by the taxpayer is obviously going to be seen as a grasping act by a degenerate government. The whole deal is muddled even more by some MPs being so obvious about their desire to court the media they will go against both government policy and the taxpayers best interests (*). There is more irony than I can cope with in one sitting over this, but this is what the BBC reports about Mr Joyce:

Writing in Scotland on Sunday, Mr Joyce, parliamentary private secretary to Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth, said that although technically the MoD had a good chance of success, the appeal should be dropped.

So, although the case is sound – and the taxpayer is NEEDLESSLY paying these people money – we should carry on paying because not doing so will be unpopular. This confuses me. Is he saying that we should apply the same standard of payouts to Police, nurses, teachers, bus drivers, pharmacists, dentists, bin men, street sweepers, train drivers (etc)? These are all jobs which are essential to our every day life, more so than the military for 99.99% of the time and where (on the whole) people are paid a lot less than they deserve.

The government are never going to get it right. They are serving that most fickle of masters, the media. The same newspapers that will castigate them for spending one penny more than they should on something will also castigate them for trying to reclaim the said penny if the recipient has “human interest.” The government is a faceless bureaucracy and can never win. Ever.

The Military is no better and, despite the Heroes angle, its no safer from media savagery – simply because it is “part of the government.”

This twist has led to senior Army officers claiming they are incapable of fighting the war in Afghanistan with the current kit and manpower levels – even going as far as claiming we should, as a nation, move to a war footing. Before we go on, lets look at the war in Afghanistan. This is basically small manoeuvre warfare of Battalion size formations. This is not the “Major War” the British Army was geared up to throughout the cold war. It is closer to one of the small conflicts we were supposed to be able to fight two of, while having the resources for a major war left spare. However it seems that decades of defence spending has left the military incapable of fighting any war. Do the military chiefs accept responsibility for this? No, they claim it is down to the government who haven’t spent enough on them… Yet they agreed to the budgets. They furnished government with reports as to how effective they would be in Iraq and Afghanistan. But it is still the civilian governments fault… No, I dont get it either.

“War is a dangerous business” – certainly a truism and, in July 09, the British public were forced to realise this. However, rather than educate the public about what happens in war (one UK news outlet even claimed it was the most bloody conflict since WWII, neatly ignoring Korea, Aden, Borneo etc) and forcing people to realise that any conflict is going to cost lives, the craven military leadership laid the blame on various bits of equipment – mostly helicopters. This was a lifeline for distraught family members, who obviously needed some way to rationalise the loss of their loved ones. However its not the real answer. No amount of helicopters will stop the need for “boots on the ground” to dominate and in any firefight people are likely to die. Helicopters are great moving people from A to B and for providing air support to ground troops but they are not the magic solution people seem to think they are.

This has not stopped the senior officers seeing a chance to get some more toys to play with by claiming they need more helicopters to save lives (tell that to the bomb disposal people…), and they have been somewhat successful. Still this is not enough to placate the baying media. From the BBC News:

Reports in the Daily Telegraph claimed six Merlins – due to go to Helmand in December – did not have Kevlar armour.

The paper quotes senior RAF sources as warning this could prevent the craft’s use in missions against the Taliban.

The moral of the story is you really cant win. Once you enter into a dance with the media, you are caught in a death spiral. Nothing you ever do will be enough. Someone, somewhere in your organisation will have a different opinion (or just say something stupid by mistake) and the media will pounce. When this happens all the good will you generated by doing what the press wanted will vanish and you’ve be savaged again.

Why doesn’t the military and government realise this? Why do they try to grab the tiger by the tail?

(*) It is even more interesting when you think that the traditional Ministry of Defence politics align with the Conservative party, so it is unsurprising that the MOD seems to be having so many PR blunders of late. That the Labour government seems unable or unwilling to take charge and control this is a further indictment of the party and another sign that, sadly, this time next year we will almost certainly have an irritating bastard Conservative PM.

Protect your data

Compulsory ID cards are instruments of evil. They will not make protect you from crime and will not make you safer, unless they end up produced out of bomb proof kevlar and big enough to wear. They serve no purpose for any member of the public but will cost you money. The only conceivable reason why the government is so keen to force the British public into paying for them is to allow the intelligence and security agencies unparalleled access to personal data and activity.

This is actually the only bones to the “make you safer” argument, in that by allowing the Police / Security services access to your ID card data (which would, one assumes, include all the locations where your ID has been checked and what purposes it was checked for) it will increase their ability to find criminals and terrorists. If you have read any of my previous posts you will be well aware that I think this is very, very, wrong. But this is an argument for another day. Today’s ironic turn of events is that even if MI5 have all your data and are watching your every move it wont help – because al-Qaida are actually working for MI5 in the first place.

From today’s Guardian:

A senior Tory MP today called for an investigation into whether MI5 mistakenly recruited al-Qaida sympathisers.

Patrick Mercer, the chairman of the counter-terrorism subcommittee, said six Muslim recruits had been thrown out of the service because of serious concerns over their pasts.

The MP said he was writing to the home secretary, Alan Johnson, to call for an investigation into the matter.

Two of the six men allegedly attended al-Qaida training camps in Pakistan while the others had unexplained gaps of up to three months in their CVs.

The irony here is really not lost on me and points to two issues.

First off, and possibly most importantly, no matter how much vetting takes place BADPEOPLE™ will get into the police or government. This has been the case since the dawn of secrecy. By their very nature spies are people who are able to infiltrate the highest levels of an organisation by appearing trustworthy. Equally, as the police and intelligence/security services well know, agents are people who are currently trusted by an organisation but are vulnerable to being expolited by hostile groups. This is done all the time against “enemies” (criminal or political), and it is even done in the “civilian” business world. I am sure this is stating the obvious but it is important background.

Knowing this, do you think that having all your identity data in one central location is a good idea? For ID cards to work, huge swathes of people need to be able to access the database – which causes errors. The data has to be entered and maintained, which causes errors. These are accidental problems which would be bad enough. Criminals and terrorists have the funding and will to deliberately corrupt the data. The concept of an ID card moves the burden of proof from the government to the “innocent until proven otherwise” citizen. Do you have the resources and will power of an organised crime gang or terrorist group?

If a criminal can compromise one aspect of your ID data that is a BADTHING©™® but you can take steps to rectify it, knowing that it shouldn’t lead to a cascade of ID failures. Stealing your National Insurance number, for example, shouldn’t lead to them getting access to your bank account details or your drivers licence. Crucially, should a criminal use your NI Number – and nothing else –  in the process of a crime (odd but possible) then it is unlikely that you would be the suspect. However, with a central ID card that is not the case.

Now back to MI5 and the other police and security agencies. Given the number of people involved, and recent large scale recruitment campaigns, it is unfathomable that some bad eggs haven’t slipped through the net. In the case of MI5 the pay is so pitiful by London terms that it is equally certain that there are some members of the organisation who would be open to financial corruption – not to mention the ones who could be co-opted in a million different ways. Do you trust them with all your data? Do you trust them to treat you fairly at all times?

Secondly: what sort of crazy world is it where an “unexplained gaps of up to three months” in your CV means you are a terrorist? I hope they never see my CV otherwise its Gitmo for me. Or is it just 3+ month gaps in the CV of people of middle-eastern descent? What is happening?

I’d say the world had gone mad but it seems an understatement. What really worries me is an old saying that keeps going round my head about when everyone else in the world seems mad its probably you…

Snakes and ladders

Inspired by the Rapture Index, this is an attempt to quantify the UK political news for the past week or so on an objective (:-)) scale. And to put it in a handy playable format.

  • MPs shown to be largely venal (3 square snake)
  • Labour Cabinet sets off self-destruct button: e.g. the previously unknown Purnell bids for political domination by saying Brown should be replaced; Flint tries to play a spurious feminist anti-Brown card (complaining he treated her as “decoration”. Comically this came after she posed in a ludicrous Observer fashion photoshoot, the subtext of which was “Look at me. I may be in the Cabinet, but I’m really HOT”; etc ) (3 square snake)
  • Jacqui Smith leaves Cabinet (merits a 2 square ladder by itself.)
  • Several repulsively self-promoting Blairite clowns leave the Cabinet, gamely deflecting the shame of their own discovered venality by blaming Brown for everything they can think of, from global financial meltdown to not being very nice, but mainly for being unpopular. (2 square ladder)
  • Relatively decent people in new Cabinet, eg, Glenys Kinnock. (Ignore the presence of Mandelson.) WTF didn’t Brown think of having a sensible cabinet at the start of his term? (2 square ladder)
  • Local elections: Labour trounced everywhere. Tories win pretty well everywhere, even taking Lib Dem councils, despite the LibDems having been relatively blameless in ExpensesGate. (10 square snake)
  • Euro elections: The repellent BNP gets two Euro Mps – one representing MY AREA, ffs. Grrr. The a-bit-less-repellent-but-still-sickening UKIP gets more votes than the Labour Party. (15 square snake)
  • BNP leader egged when he tries to hold press conferences. (2 square ladder. I know it’s childish and probably counterproductive to welcome it, but still… Whose heart is so dead it wouldn’t be cheered by the sight of Nick Griffin getting egged? Although a Bush-referential shoe would have been even more satisfying to the viewer, assuming it was the steel-toecapped Doc Martin, traditionally favoured by some of his supporters.)
  • House of Lords yet again does the decent thing – as they did when they refused to OK 42-day detention. (In your face, Jacqui Smith.) The Lords uphold appeals against control orders (trans. house arrests) that were based on secret, ie. unchallengeable, evidence. (1 square ladder.)
  • Whole new push for constitutional reform. Sadly the current suggestions generally involve measures like PR – which would probably give the demonic parties, like the BNP, even more influence – or reform of the House of Lords – which would make it into something more like a government rubber stamp rather than the current random collection of toffs, miscreants, retired judges, generous political donors and old party faithfuls, which is still independent enough to give bad bills a good kicking. (1 square snake.)

Sorry, I haven’t designed a board yet. There are too many snakes and not enough ladders. Feel free to try it yourself.

Police Disorder

Over the last few years there has been a steady flow of people warning how, in the west, we are sleepwalking into a surveillance state. Often this is accompanied with references to 1984 and how our government and national leadership seem to view this book as an instruction manual, rather than a stark warning. It seems, however, that we are growing a generation of people who are immune to this, they live under constant surveillance (even aspire to it in the form of Big Brother reality TV) and the idea of privacy may one day be alien.

There is (IMHO of course) a darker aspect to this. In our rush to accept everything the government tells us when it is linked to the Evil Terrorist, we are giving up the basic rights and concepts that make a country a “free” democracy. The press, and police, love the high profile terror raids (such as the “Easter Bomb Plot“) which generate torrents of media coverage – along with huge amounts of right wing outrage at how easy it is for these evil Islamic terrorists to get into our country. These events are used to justify insane amounts of secrecy about police activity and huge public funding, even though it has no apparent return in public safety. When the inevitable happens, and those arrested are released without charge, there is often a short note at the end of the news and no withdrawal of the right-wing outrage. The damage has well and truly been done, so the fact it was a pointless event doesn’t need saying… In this, we are far from a free press. As an example we can look at two events:

1 – Police raid addresses in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Northern Ireland, and trigger riots that last over a day – followed by a series of hoax car bombs and attacks on other police patrols. All this was to find the people involved in the fatal shooting of two soldiers and a police officer a few days earlier.

2 – Police raid a few addresses in Manchester and Liverpool, England, and peacefully arrest 12 people. No community response.

The first event generated almost no coverage from the national media outlets. Few people would have known it happened. Less would have cared. The second event was “Breaking news” 24hours a day for days – even when most of the coverage consisted of bored police officers standing outside a house in some unknown street. It resulted in heated diplomatic exchanges with foreign nations and untold amounts of right wing outrage about “furriners” coming into our country.

It is in the states interest to present the situation in Northern Ireland as a closed deal. Peace has broken out. Unless the terrorists are actually “lucky” enough to kill, it gets no news coverage. There are hundreds of actual attacks and bomb plots over there but these are carried out by white Christians who were born in the United Kingdom (or occasionally the Republic of Ireland). There is no where to deport them and no amount of border controls can prevent them. Crucially they look like us, so cant easily be profiled at ports and for stop & search powers. Overall the peace process is working but the dissident republicans present a clear and present danger to the security forces. They carry out attacks, they have wounded dozens of people (and killed several innocents). They carry out atrocious punishment beatings.  They are real terrorists.

On the other hand, we have the Islamic terrorist cells. Yes, they got “lucky” once with devastating effect, but they have managed one attack in the UK. Ever. The biggest difference is they dont look like “us.” Often they are first or second generation immigrants. They speak a “funny” language. They (sometimes) dress differently. They are easy to spot in public. That most of this is nonsense hasn’t stopped Islamic terrorism becoming a massive bugbear, while the actual violence carried out by Republican terrorists is ignored.

The cynic in me suggests that targetting the Islamic terrorist is in the states best interest. Without turning into V for Vengeance, by generating this public fear there is little argument against draconian laws, huge spending on “anti-terror,” crazy policies (no fluids on planes for example), intrusive surveillance and out of control policing. We have to accept this because if we dont the Islamic Terrorist will get us. That the press pander to this crazy idea, and are instrumental in producing it, which can only benefit the state makes me strongly question how “free” our press is.

Without a free press, can we really have a democracy? Is it possible for the public to have an informed vote if their information is controlled by the state?

This leads on to the next bit, and the thing that really got me going. The Police.

Recently the UK enacted a law (part of the Terrorism Act) which has made it illegal to take pictures of police, military or intelligence services personnel. This has been presented as being important to prevent terrorism (how?) and the government claimed it would not be used out of context nor would it be used to restrict journalism.

This is nonsense. Every law gets used out of context. Councils use anti-terrorism powers to mount surveillance on people to see if they live in the correct district for their children’s school. This will always happen – if you give someone a legal authority to do something, they will do it if it makes their job easier. The only alternative is to right better laws – something often lacking with regards to rushed terrorism legislation.

The police are no better. The terrorism act is regularly used out of context. Be it climate change protesters or tourists, the various legislation is often misused. Crucially, looking at the tourist incident, the police not only misused their legislation but they broke the law doing so: (From the guardian):

Like most visitors to London, Klaus Matzka and his teenage son Loris took several photographs of some of the city’s sights, including the famous red double-decker buses. More unusually perhaps, they also took pictures of the Vauxhall bus station, which Matzka regards as “modern sculpture”.

But the tourists have said they had to return home to Vienna without their holiday pictures after two policemen forced them to delete the photographs from their cameras in the name of preventing terrorism.

Matzka, a 69-year-old retired television cameraman with a taste for modern architecture, was told that photographing anything to do with transport was “strictly forbidden”. The policemen also recorded the pair’s details, including passport numbers and hotel addresses.

If we assume the police were right to carry out the stop under TACT legislation, and this was information useful to terrorist, why did they destroy the evidence? Either they thought these two tourists were covert Jihadists, in which case an intelligence stop should have been conducted, with the pictures retained for the DPS to look at (and the intelligence services to brief the Daily Mail as to the plans to attack the bus station) or they knew these were innocent tourists and there was no reason to destroy the pictures. This seems to be unlawful destruction of evidence pertaining to a criminal act. Will anything be done about it?

The Metropolitan police said it was investigating the allegations.

Ok, thats “no” then. In magazines like Amateur Photographer there are regular reports of how people are stopped under similar circumstances (to the point at which a photo-friendly MP has tried tabling this in Parliment) however nothing has changed. Nothing is likely to change because the police dont care.

I am loathe to scream about how our police forces are out of control, but they appear to be under less and less force to obey the will of the people. The police enforce the rule of law with public consent. They are not an occupying army seeking to repress us. They are not here to control and dominate the public. They are public servants who have chosen to do a job which means they will protect the public. They protect no one by harassing tourists. They protect no one by killing newspaper sellers as they try to get home. The tragic death of Ian Tomlinson has opened up a whole can of worms about police behaviour, but it is unlikely to change anything.

As has happened countless times in the past (anyone remember Stockwell?), following Ian Tomlinson’s death the police were quick to issue a completely erroneous statement. It took a newspaper getting (what was actually illegal) footage of police violence before they would do anything. Even then, it took days before they actually got into action and started the investigation. Worryingly there were dozens of police officers there when Ian Tomlinson was hit, yet none thought to come forward about his death. This speaks of an institutionalised idea that hitting people from behind is acceptable. It isnt.

The police are faced with dangerous situations on a daily basis. They are also taught how to react and how to identify when the danger has passed. Although it was a few years ago, and for a different place, I have had considerable amounts of riot training (in the shield wall, as snatch squads and controlling) although thankfully I rarely had to put it into practice. However there were some basic lessons. You stood there knowing you would get abused. Verbal abuse was something to be ignored. No matter what the crowd shouted to taunt you, you were supposed to stand your ground. The idea that you would get a sly hit on someone walking away was unthinkable. It happened, but people reported it because it was a breakdown in discipline, and without that we were the same as the mob. Despite this, footage has come to light of several police officers attacking non-violent members of the public.

There is a time where the use of force by the police is acceptable. Backhanding a woman who has called you a name is not it. Hitting people who are shouting at you is not it. The police are there to PROTECT the public from violence, not be the cause of it. There is a harrowing amount of footage on the Guardian website which shows police failing in their primary duty. I have no idea if this is simply due to the group on the ground having become “maverick” or if this is a sign of larger problems with the police, but it is a problem.

For example: Police on the ground removed their ID badges to make it harder for people to identify them at a later date. This is wrong, as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary (HMIC) stated. It is very wrong and borderline criminal in itself. It means the officer was intending to do something wrong and mens rea is an important part of the law. What concerns me is the comment made by the HMIC:

“I firmly hope that will be rectified with some certainty”

What? Pure weasel words. What is the point in having the HMIC? Equally disturbing is the fact that these officers were not taken to task by their seniors before deploying. Instutionalised failure. How do you rectify that if the HMIC is beating around the bush? The simple solution is to punish the Sgts and Inspectors as well as the constables (when finally identified). That would very quickly change the behaviour.

This is tied into the behavour of the police on the day. In this video, the police carry out a baton charge against the crowd (who appear to be commiting the offence of singing badly and out of tune in a public place) and attack the press in the process. They are not carrying out a controlled act to move the crowd back, they are simply trying to break heads. At 36 seconds you can see them baton a guy with a camera facing away from them. That is unjustifable. They are not using controled violence, otherwise why hit the press photographer facing away? He is no danger to them and is not part of the crowd. Force is a last resort. Not a first one. The photographer lies on the floor until the police line moves back again (what was the point in the charge if it wasnt to dominate new ground?), when some one finally helps him up.

In the next video, the police impose Section 14 of the Public Order act to make the press go away for “about half an hour.”  Two big issues with this.

First off – why? Why did the senior office want the press out of view? Was it to calm the protesters down? (unlikely) or was it to remove public oversight of the police behaviour? We may never know.

Secondly – section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 provides police the power to impose conditions on assemblies “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community.” It is not a lawful use of the act to make the press move on. This act is often misused by the police so its almost understandable that they would try to misuse it here. However, how can they not have known better? Did the senior officer on the ground really think it was an appropriate use of Sect 14 powers? If so, why isnt he being sent away for retraining? Were the police just trying their luck to see if they could make the pesky press go away, hoping most wouldnt question the legality? Again we may never know.

In all, this has been a long rant (sorry) but it is infuriating that we accept this behaviour from the representatives of the public. How can we live in a free democracy while this goes on?

EDITED TO ADD: Sadly I posted this rant before I saw an excellent version written by Alun over on Archaeoastronomy. If you havent already read it, get over there now and read. As always, Aluns post is well written and to the point. I especially like his closing remarks: (emphasis mine)

policing cannot happen without the consent of a community. Otherwise it’s just a paramilitary occupation. The video shows plenty of witnesses in yellow jackets. If they won’t assist the law, who will?

Well said.

UK Liberty coalition – not before time

The forthcoming Convention on Modern Liberty gathering on 28 February will be a …. call to arms, to all parties, to resist the government’s attack on our liberties, rights and privacy. “(from Henry Porter in the Guardian)

Supported by the Guardian, Rowntree Trust,Liberty and Open democracy, a host of people, including well-known lawyers, writers and MPs from all parties, will discuss the way that

the patterns we see in the Coroners and Justice Bill, ID card laws and the Communications Data Bill (which will allow the government to seize and store every text message, email, phone call and internet connection) tell us that our democracy is under serious threat.

Woohoo. At last. Almost brings a tear to my eye to see a disparate range of people coming together to challenge the encroaching authoritarianism of our country.

There are events throughout the UK. Details on modernlibertynet It isn’t cheap to attend these but you can access news on a blog, facebook, twitter, and so on.

UK Culture Secretary Fails Internet

In a terrible indictment on the UK government, Andy Burnham (Culture Secretary) demonstrates some fundamental gaps in his knowledge of both the mystical internet and what freedom of speech means.

From the BBC:

Film-style age ratings could be applied to websites to protect children from harmful and offensive material, Culture Secretary Andy Burnham has said.
Mr Burnham told the Daily Telegraph the government was looking at a number of possible new internet safeguards.
He said some content, such as clips of beheadings, was unacceptable and new standards of decency were needed.

Briefly defending him, Mr Burnham has only suggested it as an option. But that is as far as my charity will go.

First things first. Film style age ratings do not “protect” anyone from anything. Browser based implementations (such as blocking your browser from viewing certain ratings) would prevent people from seeing “offensive” material but that is a different matter. Film style age ratings are far from 100% successful in stopping people seeing offensive films (have you seen Mama Mia?) and they are only moderately sucessful in stopping people seeing age-inappropriate content. Why would they work on the internet?

Despite being culture secretary, Mr Burnham appears unaware that the internet is global in nature. This website is written by British people, hosted on a German server and has 60% of its traffic from the USA. Who gets to say what is, or isnt, appropriate here? Harmful content is very culture-specific and by its nature, the internet skips over these boundaries. Do we censor information that the Iranians find offensive? Or the North Koreans? Or southern-US Baptists? Who gets to choose what is harmful? What gives that person the right to say to me what is harmful for my children?

There are some common standards that could be applied, but I suspect there are less of these than Mr Burnham thinks there are. Some cultures think it is acceptable for people to watch criminals being executed, others don’t. Supporters of capital punishment talk about the death of the criminal serving as a deterrent to others. This only works if others know of the death, which is why most executions of this nature are public. Is it harmful (in this context) for people to see the punishment carried out? It is “harmful” in the eyes of a culture that does not condone the death penalty, but why should that culture control the internet?

One thing that screamed out at me was the idea that a video clip of a beheading was unacceptable, rather than the beheading itself… But, in my charitable mood that might have just been a turn of phrase.

The madness continues:

[Mr Burnham] also plans to negotiate with the US on drawing up international rules for English language websites.

Wow. So the UK and US will make a pact that dictates the rules for Australian websites? That sounds fair. What about Iranian websites translated into English? This is mind-numbing madness. Hopefully the US government is technologically literate enough to tell Mr Burnham to boil his head for a few hours. Equally, most video clips showing beheadings are on foreign language websites. What control does the US have over them (short of invading, although admittedly the US rarely stops short of that…).

“Leaving your child for two hours completely unregulated on the internet is not something you can do,” he told the Telegraph.

Another bit of madness. The internet is not a parent. It is not even a child minder. Parents need to be able to educate and assist their children, not rely on badly-thought out “ratings schemes.” Parents need to sit with their child as they surf the internet. Its like anything children do – if you abandon your child to do it, you have no control over what they do. You may think you have some say, but you dont. Take the ratings scheme: most children who are able to surf un-assisted will be able to change web-browers to one that ignores the ratings. Or better still, will be able to enter a URL without a .uk or .com ending where the UK/US RULE is ignored. Technologically backward parents will not be able to implement a control to prevent the child switching to [Lynx|Amaya|Chrome|Opera|FireFox|Mozilla|Safari|Etc]. Does Mr Burnham think every browser coder will be willing to implement a strong age-ratings control without new ones spawning up? Is he that foolish?

The final bit of oddness is: [Emphasis mine]

He went on to say it was time to review the accessibility of certain content on the internet and insisted he was not trying to curb free speech.
His plans are likely to anger those who advocate the freedom of the worldwide web.
You can still view content on the internet which I would say is unacceptable. You can view a beheading,” he said.
“This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it, it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people.”

For a culture secretary, Mr Burnham is woefully ignorant of what “freedom of speech” means. Personally I am opposed to beheading people. I find the death penalty for any crime offensive. Not everyone shares my opinion and, as a result, there are websites where you can read about executions. There are even websites that support the death penalty. I would say they were unacceptable. Does that mean they should be blocked from your browser? No, it means I shouldn’t view them. If I find something offensive, then I shouldn’t look at it. With my children, I sit with them to educate them about what they see. Should I accept your view of what is acceptable for them?

Despite what Mr Burnham says, freedom of speech is not about being free to say things that he (or anyone else) finds acceptable. I find political diatribes offensive and I find religious websites offensive. Will Mr Burnham have them removed? Or would that be a violation of the concept of Freedom of Speech? (I suspect the answer is yes)

The world is full of things which people will find offensive. I find children dying of hunger in Africa unacceptable. Does that mean we ban video clips of it (there go those Oxfam adverts) or does it mean we try to prevent it happening in the first place?

Mr Burnham is right to be offended by the video clips of beheadings. So why dont we prevent the beheadings?

I am sorry, Mr Burnham. As culture secretary you fail.

Live by the sword…

For years now, politicians of all flavours have been busy manipulating public opinion and cherry picking how they present information – all with the aim of convincing the largely apathetic voting public to agree with their crackpot ideas. As you can imagine, however, this has its own share of problems.

As an example, today on the BBC Radio 1 news show (*), there was a terrible indictment of just how mixed up people are. Basically, the Prime Minster Gordon Brown is trying to gain some media-credits with his claims that he is “tackling knife crime.” Obviously the PM and current government are unpopular at the moment so here we see yet another example of how politicians no longer have a political view, but will do what ever they think they can to get support from the barely coherent, rabid, tabloid media.

The knife crime panic is a great example of this. All year, we have been subjected to scare stories in the media about how knife crime is on the increase; if you believe papers such as the Daily Mail there are more stabbings than there are people. I am not for one second trying to imply that knife crime isn’t devastating for the victims and their families – but we need some form of perspective. While there were pockets of increased incidents, the chances of Joe Blogs UK becoming a victim was pretty much the same as it always has been.

However, our media-hungry politicians (on all sides) read the building tabloid-frenzy and jumped in early. For months we had debates about how bad knife crime was, and what were the government going to do about it. This was stoked with the public being drip fed “news” each time a cute, innocent kid got stabbed. Each one was delivered in that wonderful way the tabloids have of making their readers think that the one incident they report is just the tip of the iceberg – in reality, when things are so commonplace, the media loses interest in them… Seeing a great chance, the government (and opposition) built upon the general irrationality of people – isolated incidents were blown out of proportion, personal anecdote was given much greater emphasis etc. So far, so typical. This is all politicians have done for over a decade.

Today, the PM tried to deliver his latest great accomplishment.

The PM announced that the new “crackdowns” implemented by Police in high-risk areas had managed to bring down knife crime. Wonderful. I am sure he expected nothing but fanfare… Sadly, the general public are too depressed and gloom-laden to take good news like this. Also, for years we have been indoctrinated into the idea that out microcosm of life is more representative of society than anything else – which means no matter what the PM claims, people think things are getting worse. From the BBC Pages:

The Prime Minister has spoken to Newsbeat after the government said the latest police crackdown was working.

The government says stabbings are down and fewer teenagers are carrying blades in the 10 parts of England and Wales where there’s been a big effort to tackle the problem.

The figures also show under-18s going to hospital for stabs and cuts are down by a quarter and more serious attacks have dropped by a fifth.

Great news. It doesn’t really say much about the government policies though. Nothing like enough time has passed to know if this is a long term change or a simple “blip”  in the numbers. Equally, there is no way of knowing if the “massive” (**) increase was a statistical blip. The information provided doesn’t tell us if the crime has simply moved elsewhere, or if this is part of a national downturn in knife crime. It really is a non-news item. There isn’t enough information for the viewer to do anything but rely on how the sparse numbers are spun to the public.

Shocking, but this is how the government have wanted us to interact with news for many a year now. If the public were given all the information that drove national policy, half the crazy things we suffer now would never have survived.

Equally comical, is how Gordon Brown reacted to the predictable nonsense questions. According to the BBC, the text messages from their listeners saying things like “I was stabbed 2 years ago, how has knife crime gone down” were a valid counterpoint to the governments figures. A normal, sane, educated person would have laughed and said “shut up crazy fool.” But this is gold to politicians – they want people to think like this so that future crazy laws can be passed. This lead to a very bizarre exchange:

Newsbeat: The statistics on knife crime say one thing. We’re hearing other things from our listeners.
Gordon Brown: That’s why we want to get knives off the street. I’m not complacent at all. A lot of young people are stopping carrying knives but we’ve got a long way to go. And that’s why today you’ve got all these people from all different walks of life; sports people, from the world of entertainment, from radio, from television, all saying, working with the community groups, no to knives. (blah… blah… blah…)

A touch strange. The PM is saying nothing as an actual response. It is certified 100% content free. Isn’t that nice. That was just mildly odd but it was followed by this:

Newsbeat: The stats that you’ve published today seem to show that knife crime is down. A nurse at Bristol Royal Infirmary says stab wound admissions are going up.
Gordon Brown: What I want to know is how we can actually get knife crime down and how we can make sure it stays down. Making sure it stays down is more policing that’s visible on the streets, a presumption to prosecute if you’re seen to be carrying a knife, tougher police and prison sentences when that happens, shops banned from selling knives to young people and schools and community groups doing an educational process whereby young people are discouraged from carrying knives.

What? Listen to it on the radio. Newsbeat phrase their statement as a question. You can hear the question in the reporters voice. She is expecting an answer. Granted she seems unable to actually ask questions, and just makes statements with a rising emphasis at the end to imply a question, but if you speak English you can hear the questioning tone.  However, our glorious PM ignores it. It is really like he has been asked a different question and Newsbeat dubbed their own over the top of it. Nothing he says bares any relation to the question.


Are we really in such a disconnected world that any of this makes sense? Do politicians think this is acceptable? Do reporters? (He wasn’t challenged on it).

Equally sad, but much more common, is the idea that the experiences of a nurse at the Bristol Royal has such an insight into national trends that their comments outweigh national reports. Even if they are the person who records every admission (and the cause) they have no idea what is going on in Liverpool, Barnsley, Truro, Southampton (etc.). The national statistics are based on reporting from various sources and show the national trend. Knife crime can go down 90% nationally but still show an increase in a region. That an otherwise well educated nurse doesn’t understand this element of statistics gives me concern over how disease surveillance is carried out.

The BBC mentions the “crime hotspots” that were targeted, and show a reduction:

The 10 knife crime hotspots are London, Essex, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Merseyside, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, South Wales and Thames Valley.

Unless the Bristol Royal has moved across the River Severn  into Wales, it is not in that list. It could show a trillion percent increase and the governments figures for the crime hotspots would still be down. This nurse’s experiences may be 100%, but they are irrelevant. The only way this person could have had real impact was if the debate was about knife-crime admissions to the Bristol Royal Infirmary. But it wasn’t.

Still, in this day and age of citizen journalism, no one was going to say this. The nurse’s (and others) comments were treated as valid counterpoints to the report and dutifully skipped around by the PM. Are the BBC’s news reporters really so empty that this seemed reasonable?

Sadly the answer seems to be “yes.” Well done Great Britain, I am so proud.

(*) Please note, this is a link to the current newsbeat page – the actual content I am talking about here may have gone by the time you read this. If you can, though, this is worth listening to. Its almost like they re-recorded the PM and asked him different questions…

(**) For an arbitrary value of massive.