Lifestyles of the Censored and Redacted

Some of you may recall the time Jack Straw found himself embroiled in an unusual tabloid newspaper scandal. He had taken his son – William Straw – to a police station to ‘shop him in’ for selling cannabis. A court ruling blocked newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story. The press in Scotland could report the story without any problem, though this meant national broadcasters could not review the Scottish papers for fear of breaking the law. With the Internet very different to how it is today, such a story limped on, impeded by the strength of the legal system blocking an industry’s ability to print the news.

Fast-forward to today, and the Straw incident seems to much innocent and forgiving. We now live in the age of the “super injunction” whilst the so-called “hyper injunction” is already in use in some jurisdictions. The two well known early examples involve John Terry, and the Guardian newspapers remarkable Trafigura story. In both cases, media outlets were initially unable to report what had been blocked, or why it had been blocked, or who was involved on either side of the case. The Guardian’s front page at the time resembled a Kafka post-it note. “Somebody rang, can’t say who, or why, or their number, or for whom they’d called.”

The details from the legal document are worth summarising here –

Trafigura’s lawyers, Carter-Ruck, produced an extraordinary legal document, whereby they persuaded a judge to not just suppress a confidential and potentially embarrassing document, but also to deny anyone even mentioning the existence of the court proceedings and court order.

This week, Conservative MP and author Louise Bagshawe found herself brought into the latest injunction farce, during recording of the BBC programme Have I Got News For You. During the “odd one out” round (featuring Person A, Person B, Person C, and Person D), Bagshawe mentioned a footballer “whose name definitely does not rhyme with….” and the sound was cut. (Memories of the “Are you a friend of Peter Mandleson” episodes, of course).

In these very contemporary cases, the injunctions have only just managed to hold. Bloggers and tweeters have navigated themselves around the blocks like speed-skaters. It took only a number of Google searches to find the name of Trafigura (though remember that the legal block had initially forbid even Hansard from printing related questions, wrapping ties around freedoms within and beyond Parliament). The current injunction relating to “a family-man footballer whose name rhymes with such-and-such” is all the more bewildering because the person with whom he shaked up can have her name and face and womanly bits flashed all over the tabloids (Imogen Thomas, and no, I hadn’t heard of her either) whilst the footballer has the ”freedom” to live in anonymity.

Keyboard warriors have been tip-toeing around the legal injunctions in an act of defiance ever since they were first used. Identifying the footballer (well, footballers) is not difficult at all, just as identifying Trafigura was child’s play. This does not mean the courts are powerless against the First Twitter Corps. To coin a phrase, there’s many things we don’t know we don’t know.

The mood music is not melodic. The press is losing its fight against institutions and companies who can afford not to care. We tend to question the “might of the press” and rightly criticise the tabloid media’s moral high-ground and grandstanding. It’s easy to mock the morals of the redtops – chain up the pedos and look at this cheeky up-skirt pap shot. How far away from the press do we stand in the fight between privacy and press freedom? Can any celebrity – usually men – demand and expect privacy on their own terms?

We feed and fear the beast, the core problem in this entire issue. Investigative journalism still brings in the stories for the quality presses and tabloids alike – the “he is shagging her” breadcrumbs may make the headlines for being under injunctions, chances are the real scandals will never be uncovered. Beyond the locked doors and along the corridors sings the silent truths hidden and locked away. Our press may not always be moral, but they are free; injunctions of the strength, breadth and depth as we see today are compromising that freedom. Lawyers over-riding Parliament is one thing (and is sometimes greeted with pleasure and applause). But journalists?

It is very dangerous for the might of a lawyers hand to flatten both Parliament and the Press. It is not uncomfortable ground to inhabit – the whistle blowers and freedom-fighters and investigators at the heart of truth as much as Parliamentarians. This is much more than “[][][][][][][][][][] and [][][][][][][][][] have conducted a private affair.” At the core of this is covering up as much light as corporations can afford (and that’s a lit, enough to exhaust Professor Brian Cox of all his superlatives and metaphor). Choosing sides in arguments is not always easy. It’s difficult when the only right and moral choice includes tabloid journalists and Members of Parliament. Enemies closer and all that…

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Round-table tradition

Read the published diaries of almost any former MP – Alan Clark, Gyles Brandreth, Chris Mullin – and amongst the common themes is one ‘absolute’ which links through every political era and will doubtlessly do so for the foreseeable. If “reform” means anything to the Coalition government, the annual parlour game which distracts MPs, obsesses journalists and distracts even the most ardent policy-wonk from the finer points of the issue at hand. It is, but of course, the Cabinet Reshuffle, the one element of British political life which shared with football, and the one tradition no government has ever considered could be worth putting to bed.

Prior to the election – and reiterated last year both Cameron and Clegg have tried to distance the Government from the annual charade. If only anyone would believe them. It’s not necessarily their faults – football fans know that the merry-go-round will one day stop turning, and one of the chosen few will be back in a job not long before or after Christmas.

Only in the realm of politics could there be similar employment attitudes to the chairman of football plcs. The MPs I mentioned above cannot avoid writing – and enjoying – the sport of promotion and demotion, the rise and fall of backbench stars or Cabinet flops. Clark relished every chance to insult those who passed him on their way up the ladder or to scoff when they fell back to earth. Brandreth recalls the need to stuff the Ministerial red box of Stephen Dorrell (newly promoted at the Department for National Heritage as it then was) with videos of British film classics as he was in a position for which he had no understanding. Chris Mullin regularly recalls how ministers across Africa and Europe could not make strong relationships with British counterparts because, amongst other things, the 13 years of Labour rule saw over 30 different MPs given the jobs of Minister for Europe, or Minister for Africa.

The Reshuffle is enjoyed and endured as a consequence of the Old Boys Club attitude within Westminster. The most conscientious constituency representative becomes enslaved to the system – will the call from Downing Street come this year? Next?

Who would care about the Whitenslade Scouts Summer Fayre when there’s ministerial responsibility just around the corner? Mullin admits that even the most lowly promotion is grasped with both hands. He also writes very well about how sharp and short the experience can be; the Minister who has spent a year building relationships and strong reputations can be out the door in the morning to be replaced by someone who has to start the whole thing from scratch.

Reshuffles are outdated, outmoded, and clearly straight out of the Great British political traditions dressing up box. They are very expensive – Department names are changed and re-named at whim (“Department for Children, Families and Schools” lasted just over 3 years before returning to “Department for Education”. One has to ask – why did it have to change at all?). Ministers suddenly become experts in their new field (and did we have any faith in Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary? Really?).

Cameron, as ultimate hirer-and-firer, should take a lead from the rest of Europe on this (and for that matter, the US, where such pack-shuffling is almost unheard of). To allow Ministers and Secretaries of State to get on with their jobs, the constant ticking clocks must have their batteries removed. Cameron has made some unfortunate ministerial choices, but whilst in other jobs (especially in business) time is allowed for improvement, the Westminster attitude leaves sharpened knives at the door. Policies which are not delivering need focus and concentration. The delivery of policy is stifled if the carousel is whirred into action by pressure from every lobby hack with impatience and deadlines on their mind.

To show the wider public that the Coalition really does understand “new politics”, Cameron should avoid anything remotely close to a full-scale Reshuffle until at least next year. Another glut of traditionalists doubtlessly feel angered, another reem of right-wing Tories will huff and howl, though it’s all for the good. Few people in the real world see as much pointless, expensive, repetitious, duplicating japery as members of parliament. It infects their brains, alters their thinking. Any MP who knows their thing will tell you the same – and it has ultimately damaged our political culture.

One could argue that the only way to fix the Reshuffle bug is a wholesale revolution within our political system, cutting the link between constituency MP and Ministerial job (as happens in so many parliamentary republics), increasing the number of appointed Ministers who are not accountable to voters. Others could argue that no Reshuffle should happen at all between elections, giving voters the right to compare like-for-like over a parliaments life-time.

Some traditions are hard to break. The dinosaurs who want to keep First-past-the-Post (because, you know, an MP needs only 33% of the vote in their constituency to become Foreign Secretary) are the same who lap up the “fun” of the Reshuffle and all it represents. Football is rightly criticised for giving second, third, and forty-eighth chances to the same old dwindling number of ex-managers. Politics really should have the same fingers pointed in its direction. Cameron should lead by example and leave the parlour games for another year.

Lady Ho-Hum

Watching the careers of stella-star super-famous types wander up and down the hills and troughs of fame really could drive a person mad. Maybe it does, given the types who write celeb columns in the tabs and build themselves a ‘job’ from musing on the fickle nature of notoriety.

Two women whose pop careers have contributed a soundtrack to the lives of millions have reached the point where the mojo has clearly been diluted too far. It’s what homeopathy must do to those genuinely sick people. Madonna and Kylie Minogue, from two very different starting points, hit the same successful pattern; reinvent and reimagine the image at every possibility, and keep the music fresh and interesting. For Minogue, this was almost effortlessly easy – from pure pop in the late 80s to the indie-chic and mad-as-a-hatter dj cool.

Kylie has had her noticeable drop in form, with “2 Hearts” (not, sadly, a Doctor Who tribute) and “Wow” sounding slim and unremarkable. The instant ‘hit’ the listener gets from, say, “In Your Eyes”, with its pounding dance beat wrapping around the sweetest of melodies, is utterly absent from later works.

The slow deflating balloon that is Madonna’s output (or if you like, Madonna herself) has been whistling away since “Bedtime Stories”. Whilst “Frozen” hinted at a slight return, most of what has come since is second rate. “Music”, “Hollywood” – is this the same woman? If the artist seems uninterested, so will the fans, and that is a factor clearly happening today.

When Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta barged her way into the club of notable pop starlets reaching a certain age, it was a revelation. Lady Gaga had a sound of her own produced from the mashing together of all her influences – every male and female mainstream chart sensation with underground flavours all swept up into subversive, compelling and darn catchy dance/pop. Music snobs melted at the sound of “Bad Romance” and “Alejandro”, the strongest chart bound pop records in a world dank with the fog of RnB and shouty-voiced harridans. For a woman so clearly intelligent (designing the Lady Gaga character to be as provocative as possible), the media-game she played was complemented by albums stuffed full of decent, good old-fashioned sing-along-able tracks.

So…what’s happened? To much fame and fortune? Too much self promotion? Too little time to decide what actually works in commercial music? Because Gaga has done in a few months what it has taken her most obvious inspiration and model a while career; to flop from innovator to background noise. It has been quite the collapse – two singles into the new album and the muttering whispers from critics grows louder: has Little Miss Promotion gone and parked her songsmiths ability too far for her brain to walk?

The first PR disaster was “Born This Way”. Without any sense of irony, this was a bad-taste facsimile of “Express Yourself”, and one Gaga declared was “the newest gay anthem”. We all know gay people, and they tend not to like being told what is and is not done for their benefit. Rather than celebrate this anthem penned for them from the conscious Queen of fashion, the community she claimed to love turned against her. That aside, “Born This Way” isn’t a particularly strong song – the chorus is a yawning chasm of dreary and the verses far too derivative to pass comment. “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen” did not, notably enough, get adopted by anyone any time soon.

The new single, “Judas”, sounds like three different songs hastily stuffed into one. Is it high-NRG pop? Is it dance? Is it a new take on the dubstep scene? To my ears, there are three elements struggling for attention (which could be how Gaga’s head must sound in times of quiet).

There’s the pounding beats, fresh from Britney’s latest remake (and let’s be honest, Britney Spears is looking like a woman who knows she’s lived Madonna’s career in fastfoward. Calling a song “If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me” is one step away from naming a sitcom “Three Irishmen walk into a bar…”

The other two options are recycled Gaga tropes. Spoken-word middle sections and the melody from “Paparazzi” create a song which appears to have been rushed out rather than considered. It’s confused and quite silly (and for a woman so controlling of her provocations, somewhat boring. There are far fewer Christians around to shock, for one thing).

There is nothing wrong with liking decent, honest and interesting commercial pop music, when and where it can be found. What interest Lady Gaga had to offer is currently bubbling at far less a temperature than she has shown able to produce so far. It should not be shrug-shoulders time so early in her career.

Second preference – Primary colours

Amongst and alongside the hundreds of council elections in England, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there is an additional ballot paper fought and argued over. It is, of course, the AV referendum poll, asking the population to become interested in voting reform and constitutional renewal in a way never done before, and especially unthinkable under a Conservative-led government, but these are the days in which we find ourselves.

(And today, for me, is looking like another very beautiful summer’s day, so if the sun doesn’t sign on the righteous then at least one hopes it will on pro-AV campaigners).

The level of debate on both sides has been somewhat…tetchy. It’s been awkward, unsettling, somewhat irritating. I can’t help shake off the feeling that the anti-AV lot are more concerned by their own short-term electoral future, which explains their partisan arguments and insults. At least the pro-lobby have tried to fashion a more rounded, deeper argument, not that it has been faultless on this side either.

It could well be a fatal blow for constitutional reform where AF defeated. My head and heart are saying different things (yes, I really do consider the finer points of voting reform in my quiet moments). There is a hunger for change in the country, one which simmers still after the expenses scandal and all which spewed out thereafter like so much Donner meat on a Sunday morning. Electors have their muscles flexed still, more cynical than ever and less likely to choose any of the main three parties as first ports of call. The age of the protest vote (and, as we’ve witnessed, the age of the protest) has not been this strong in decades.

What other options exist if the AV vote is lost? Would the door slam on any future political reform, so much ideas and ideals turned to dust?

I am throwing onto the table of ideas (it’s a nice table, lots of room for wine and nibbles), the concept of American-style Primaries for almost all candidates for all Westminster constituencies.

Primaries have been tried in the UK in before, with the run up the last general election seeing the Conservatives trying them in some constituencies tainted the most by expenses sleaze. The idea, based largely on the US system of Primaries and caucuses and pulling names out of hats or whatever they do over there, sees residents register in advance their intention to take part in a public meeting at which candidates persuade the assembled bods who should be the candidate at the forthcoming election for a particular party. Crucially, the audience cannot be entirely taken from party members and supporters, it has to be a crowd made from all party supporters and none. “Oh but that could mean Labour supporters voting for the Tory candidate”, comes the cry. So? Under our tired voting system so many such choices are made in the selection of an MP, or is context important all of a sudden?

The Labour left are fond of Primaries too. Leader Ed Miliband is one of a number of left figures who has signalled support in the very recent past. In 2009, Will Straw told CommentIsFree that Primaries could work for a Labour party battered and unsettled by a drop in support. It remains true today that candidate selections are often dictated by the HQs, central office and gentleman’s agreements. Despite storming to victory at this year’s Barnsley byelection, Labour Party members on a number of their websites did cyber-sigh about the alleged imposition of a candidate above local members.

Primaries would hack away some of the grip from ‘on high’. Conservative high-ups are not entirely pleased that one of their winners from the process, Dr Sarah Wollaston, is a vocal opponent to NHS reforms, but we need more people like her, and the doors would open wider with Primaries introduced. We all know how candidates would react with non-party members asking questions unbound by convention, mini-Question Times breaking out across the country with the aim of selecting parliamentary candidates in the name of ‘attracting ordinary voters’.

Bring Primaries (candidates chosen by the people) with AV (an empowering voting system), and you drag the UK into somewhere beyond the 19th Century. Greater chance of BME candidates, younger participants, greater debate in the lead up to polling day with more coverage of each party and their policies. It is not a panacea, there are lots more to do, though they would shine much needed light into the dark of PPC selections.

I would open up Primaries to as many parties as possible. Each constituency must be opened up to allowing parties and the public to scrutinise the choices put to them, the policies promised and the personalities introduced. Yes, the US examples we see over here are filtered to amplify the ‘noise’. Our system is not presidential, our Primaries would not be such big-money freak shows.

If AV falls – and I hope it doesn’t – there has to be a flame of reform kept alive. If the Coalition wants to take a lead from its own past, Primaries would be the best thing to happen for the sake of democracy.

AV Q & A

Right, I’ve got my polling card through the post and I’m somewhat confused

By the new proviso they’ve tacked on the bottom about not getting ballot papers after 10pm?

No, the thing at the top. “Voting System Referendum”. What the merry Hell is that, I thought only backward countries in the depths of beyond held referedums. Like Switzerland and California…

Well both those parts of the world do hold referenda…Referendums…And now we’ve got one. It’s got the Internet in a right old tizz of excitement. We’re hoping members of the public will get involved around about 24 hours before.

I’m fairly certain it’s referenda…Anyway, what are we voting on exactly?

The voting system used to elect Members of Parliament.

Heavens above, what’s next, tarrif reforms relating to processed meat products outside the EEA?

Look, these things are rare and beautiful gifts given to us by our elected representatives and they must be cherished for what they are.

Fine, it just seems a bit ‘policy wonk’ to me.

You wait until I start explaining how the AV system works…

So, anyway, how did we get a referendum in the first place?

At the last election, the Liberal Democrats and Labour both agreed that the UK should change the way it elects MPs. Labour wanted AV, the Liberal Democrats a different system called STV…

Pff, another broken promise from the LibDems, then, that damn Clegg…

No, no, wait…

Where’s my gold unicorn, eh? WHERE IS IT?

Back in the room, back in the room, focus now…It is not a broken promise, it’s compromise…

Oh yeah, compromise, Coalition rules, all of that…What do you mean?

The Conservatives wanted to keep the current system, with a cut in the number of MPs to 585, whilst Clegg wanted it cut to 500. So the compromise between “same system, 585” and “STV, 500”, is “AV, 600”.

And are both parties happy with this middle ground?

Pretty much. The traditionist wing of the Tories are against AV to their very finger-nails, and I suspect most LibDems wouldn’t have asked for a referendum on the Christmas List but here we are…

And Labour?

Split. Ed Mil….Edward Miliband, forgive me, is all for it, and hopes to take most of his Party with him. There are dissentors amongst the Labour benches, though, and many local council groups are against it out of an automatic knee-jerk anti-LibDem bitterness…

Citation needed?

Yeah, well, it seems Edward is having a hard time persuading the grassroots to follow him on this one.

So what system to we currently use then?

MPs are elected using “First Past The Post”, or “Winner Takes All”. You just have to win by one vote over your opponents, regardless of vote share. If you top the ballot, you’re an MP.

And this is unfair?

In short, yes.

And long?

Many MPs sit on the green benches without a majority in their constituencies. And this isn’t a partisan point, there are MPs from almost every Party where this is the case. Phil Woolas (remember him….) “won” Oldham East and Saddleworth with 31.9% of the vote, only 0.3 ahead of the LibDems. John Pugh, the LibDem MP for Southport, was elected with 49.6%, still less than an outright majority.

The FPTP system was at its best when there was much more polarised support for the two main political parties. That era died many moons ago, but our voting system hasn’t caught up.

And how does this AV thing work?

Rather than forcing voters into choosing one candidate, even if it’s not one they really prefer…

…Like, ooh, forcing people into making a grubby little compromise?

Yes, thank you, I’ll choose the labels. As I was saying, rather than forcing people into making a choice they might not prefer – holding their nose to vote Labour in a ‘marginal’ seat – AV allows people to make as many choices as they see fit. It empowers, whilst FPTP anchors.

But “winner takes all” is quite easy to understand, isn’t it?

Oh it is, and in many circumstances it is the better system. Politics is not about “black and white”, though, it thrives on the grey areas, the compromise, the give-and-take, which AV promotes.

How do you count votes under AV then?

Voters rank candidates in order of preference – as easy as 1,2,3…All the first preferences are tallied up, and if a candidate reaches 50% of the vote, they’re an MP, easy.

What if they don’t reach this magic 50%?

The second preferences of the least popular candidates are redistributed until somebody does.

Isn’t there a worry that second votes from fringe candidates could swing results?

That’s the current line from the “NO” campaign, who are paranoid about the BNP somehow having a big say in British elections. It’s not as though the presence of extremists over 50-odd years hasn’t had an implied influence over policies, candidates and indeed results as it is, or anything…

Would I be forced into voting BNP? Because I sure as heck don’t want to do that…

Nope. Unlike the Australian system, there’s no compulsion. You can vote just for one candidate, as now, or all of them. Or just some.

But rank, not with a big “X”

Aye, that’s the one. Rank in preference order, and let the counters do the maths…

Don’t you mean multi-million pound counting machines which would deny a hospital of life-saving equipment?

No, no I don’t.

Is this new fangled system proportional? The LibDems liked to talk about proportional representation once…

Indeed so, and it’s a notable uncomfortable truth that AV is not exactly proportional…It was said that Blair’s 1997 victory would have been even more immense under AV….

I don’t like the sound of that…

It’s one of the ghost stories LibDems tell each other over the campfire…

I hear AV will end ‘safe seats’ stone dead? Is that true?

It is not exactly true – I doubt Birkenhead (Labour Majority 15,195) is about to turn into a knife-edge marginal constituency anytime soon…However for much more seats than at present, the contest will become much tighter – no more “tactical” voting, more votes than ever will actually be counted, rather than simply dismissed.

Why are people saying AV is complicated?

Because the NO camp seem to think that an ordinary person can carry around in their heads minute details about football results, soap opera story lines and national flags without any issue, whilst the concept of counting to 5 is beyond them…

Will AV mean more Coalition governments?

Maybe so, maybe not. The current system has had its moments – the 1970s was awash with minority governments and hung parliaments, and last year you may recall there being no single party with the right amount of seats to form a government on their own…

What would happen if the country voted no? End of the Coalition? Cameron angry, Cameron SMASH?

Er…No….Well, I say no, both men are dismissing talk of the Coalition falling if the country says “no”.

Well you’ve made that clear…

It is a tough cookie, and one which many LibDem members see as the only true prize for making such a hard choice last year…The Tory grassroots are hoping for a big fat NO so they can start tugging on the loose threads of the whole Government in the hope it all falls apart.

In summary then, the current system is not very good, proposed system is better if not perfect, and no baby monitors will be harmed either way?

That’ll do for me.

So you could provide a link to the Yes campaign website round about here, shouldn’t you?

Why of course..http://www.yestofairervotes.org