freedom to, freedom from, freedom for

Should prisoners be denied the right to vote?
No.

The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights yesterday has been, predictably, rounded upon by the awkward squads. The Daily Mail has called the decision “contemptuous”. I can’t bring myself to check what the Express thinks, it’s like not wanting to open a bank statement. There can only be bad things in there.

I’m glad for the Mail and Express having apoplectic fits of fury over prisoner voting rights, because it ticks all their boxes and therefore has to be right. Dealing with their opposition is similar to arguing with the pub drunk – there’s all the relevant points there, just not necessarily in the right order. As with many of those subjects which rile and vex, the tabloids have whipped up anger on their own fears, rather than the evidence. It’s as though a student has thrown their laptop across the bedroom because the essay is over a word limit.

The UK stands almost alone in its ban on prisoner voting rights, a view that puts us far lower down the list of respectable developed democracies than the tabloids would like.  That a convicted criminal receives extra “time off” from voting doesn’t differentiate them from the rest of the population for 11 months out of 12, and with turnout in the general population this year at around 30%, it’s not as though whatever logic existed beforehand stands up today.

Whatever general principle existed at the core of the current policy doesn’t make sense. How does giving prisoners an “additional extra” punishment work? Many criminals request – and are not barred from receiving in any case – help or communication with Members of Parliament. There have been a number of high profile cases of MPs helping release convicted criminals who were victims of miscarriages of justice. There is “justice” and there is “revenge” – denying criminals the right to vote is very much the latter – it does not stand up to scrutiny. Who wins because a convicted thief can’t vote for their local councillor, or a rioter was unable to vote in the AV referendum?

Prisoners are already considerably de-humanised by society – we are told that all those convicted  of a crime, from stealing a bottle of water to raping an under-age child – must be considered the same kind of evil. Jailed for sending a drunken tweet or beating up a pensioner? All the ban on voting does is feed resentment and bitterness amongst criminals, setting them along a spiral against rehabilitation. Society is at its best when it’s trying to take people away from criminal behaviour. This ancient pettiness is not society at its best.

The issue has very little about prisoner rights if you read the tabloids. There’s no concern in there about the levels of illiteracy, drug habits, access to employment opportunities. We’re forced to read the parallel rants, barely connected, against “Europe”, in favour of David Cameron “doing a Thatcher” against Brussels and all the usual, tedious British nationalism/EU-bashing. It’s the closest thing the tabloids have to showing signs of Internet trolling – the merest mention of a European decision sends staff to the keyboards in frenzied fury.

There’s people out there right now who have not stolen so much as an office stapler, but they can exercise their right to vote whilst not knowing one policy from another. There’s former prisoners living somewhere near your house who postal voted two weeks ago, and next door to you is a cannabis smoker who hasn’t voted for anyone in twenty years. Democracy is not just the right to slam your front door in the face of a leaflet-dropper two weeks before polling day; it’s about making  difficult choices for the right reasons. If we can get to a stronger, more liberal, more humane situation for convicted prisoners, it should be worth the long stretch of anti-European bile we’re about to drown in.

closing the broomcupboard

Tell that aardvark it’s a wrap…

As part of the BBC’s race to the bottom, following the Coalition’s six-year Licence Fee freeze, there was a glut of announcements made yesterday which saw knives slashed across Auntie’s output (or if you wish to be more brutal, Auntie’s face. Her loyal, service providing face).

From BBC 3 and 4 goes much of their original drama and BBC 2 sees repeats increase. Whether BBC 3 had any to begin with is a point for another thread, perhaps, although even my pro-BBC stance tends to waver a bit in the face of the channel which gives us “Snog Marry Avoid” and “Nympho Gyppos in Changing Room Hell”.

The bigger and biggest headlines of the day came in the gush of nostalgia from journos rushing to pay tribute to ‘Blue Peter’, following the confirmation that the programme would be switched from BBC 1 to CBBC. Former presenters came to bash the decision as anti-family. In addition to the demise of ‘Blue Peter’, flagship news package ‘Newsround’ is also on its way to the digital platforms, leaving the traditional post-school, pre-homework slot (or as it was known in my house, post-school, pre-SNES-all-night-homework-later) to the likes of “Great Antique Hunt”, “Great British Menu” and “Great Big Country Homes Bought by Great Big Comfortable Families with Great Big Marriage Problems We Can Only Hint Towards in the Voice-Overs”. The switch from BBC “mainstream” to “digital” was reported in very traditional terms, a kind of “analogue is best” attitude which no longer fits very well in an era when almost all British television regions no longer have analogue signals. If there was anything about the coverage which stank a bit, it was the whiff of anti-BBC pong that often seeps through any news story like this. Oh, the media says, and usually the Daily Mail for all that may surprise you, another nail in the coffin of traditional Britain!

It’s worth taking a much wider view on this. In common with most people racing towards middle age, I remember a time when “children’s television was much better than today.” We all do. Our parents remembered their television upbringing, limited as it was, having much less glitz, glamour and miming pop performances as our generation did, and the current generation are unlikely to consider “Going Live!”, “The Raccoons” or “Byker Grove” as examples of a better age. However, and I say this as an unashamed 90s nostalgist, there is a case to be made against holding on to a dedicated late-afternoon children’s television slot and all which comes connected with it. As much as it hurts every generation to admit it, society does tend to move on when you’re just in a position to consider it a scandal when it does so. Each generation has its “Oh, no, they’re not!” moment.  For some, it was the axing of “Top of the Pops”, for others “Pick of the Pops”, and for this generation, it’s…..

….Actually, that’s a point. What has been axed? Is ‘Grange Hill’ still going?

Former ‘Blue Peter’ presenter Anthea Turner is quoted in the Daily Mail as thinly criticising the move from presenters you could name to complete unknowns. The age I grew up in saw the golden age of the show – from Mark Curry and Yvette Fielding in the 80s through to Konnie Huq and Simon Thomas as I got to the end of high school. As nice as they might be in real life, I suspect the modern day presenters were stymied by the shift to multi-channel television, changes in attitude towards children’s television output, and a sudden lack of wider opportunities for cross-over/intra-channel appearances.  In short, most 21st century presenters of the show were their own Romana D’Annunzio’s, cursed to live their television existences as unknowns, curiosities on the sea of broadcasting history.

There are parts of my television upbringing which I would bring back to the screens had I the power: Saturday mornings should have the “Live & Kicking”s and “ITV Chart Show”s which were inexplicably lost to cookery shows around the time of the first digital switchovers. There point where practicality tips over to nostalgia is the dividing line where “entertaining” should always be  chosen over “instructing how to make restaurant style food to people holding hangovers in one hand and Coco Pops in the other.”

The BBC must be applauded for trying to save money under very testing circumstances. They’ve been forced to make cutbacks in the usual storm of criticism. The Morning Star calls the BBC “right-wing”, the Daily Telegraph calls the BBC “right-wing”, we all go round the mulberry bush. We’d all like to preserve our favoured bits of history in aspic – be it school days, holidays or the theme to “Going For Gold”. The Beeb is probably right, on balance, to shunt kids TV over to digital now that the platform is not so much of a graveyard anymore. Nobody likes to admit that they’re getting older, things were better in the old days, and songs used to have tunes in my day, don’t you know? There’s a greater problem with the BBC’s current list of announcements – shrinking BBC 4, hacking BBC radio to little pieces and neglecting original drama across all its channels. Let’s get into a rage for all the right reasons.

Gangbanged

Following a Daily Mail witch-hunt/campaign and the Conservative MP Claire Perry’s “Independent Inquiry” into online child protection (see the very good post from Ministry of Truth about defining the words ‘independent’ and ‘inquiry’ in this context), the UK is one step closer to State approved Internet censorship. The proposed law is now available to view, with its innocuous enough title of the “Online Safety Bill”.

I was born in the distant 1980s, making my relationship with adult material follow the usual path of “blissful ignorance”, “Late night Channel 4”, “dog eared copies of Whitehouse”, “copied VHS passed on from a friend of a friend’s friend” and then “Internet access” somewhere around early teenage-dom. If you don’t know ‘Eurotrash’ with the sound turned down and a quilt underneath the door, you don’t know the eagerness with which boys of a certain age wanted to see subtitled naughtiness.

That level of smut is a world removed from the Internet age, in which people of all ages are one Google search away from seeing all manner of explicit bits, bops and fiddling about. There is almost no taste or fetish for which a website exists, and the popularity of YouTube-style amateur upload sites makes it all the easier for a couple (or a lone bloke feeling a bit frisky) to show the world how they’re feeling for about…five minutes (three if, you know, it’s been a hard day at work and I’m tired and this bed isn’t very comfortable and…anyway…..).

As we all know, the Internet cannot be censored, making every innocent search for the latest news headlines or an amusing cat picture one click away from Roxxie Thrust-McKenzie having her way with two garage mechanics….

…No, sorry, the Internet can be censored to a degree already, with parental controls and filters. As with most things in life, forbidden fruit is thought to taste better, which is how most teenagers end up smoking, trying weed, drinking cider in a park or trying to view naughty images on line. Forget to change Google’s image search to “safe” is enough to reveal Page 3 models showing their assets, after all. “Opt in” systems for any kind of assumed adult material has all the practicality of attempting to stop office workers from playing Minesweeper. The point being – if grown adults decide to filter/control Internet access under their own roofs, they can do.

Suggesting that the Internet should be censored or blocked in some way often comes from those “in the know” who choose to ignore that ‘temptations’ can also incorporate video footage of hostage beheading, graphic CCTV footage of car crashes or the 9/11 attacks. Graphic footage of Premier League footballers having their legs broken during play can be on YouTube or Daily Motion within fifteen minutes of it happening. These graphic examples are often dismissed or ignored by advocates of Internet policing, an attitude which differentiates between violence and sex, but not between different kinds of erotica. The lie – “It’s about making the Internet safe for children” – is retold enough times to suggest that no middle ground possibly exists between “free for all” and “State approved content”. Are certain lobby groups unable to suggest out loud that parents might be to blame for children searching for XTube? Or are MPs ignorant to how the Internet is navigated beyond blogs and Twitter?

Of all the worrying/facepalm inducing sentences in Perry’s report is the recommendation that – ” The Government should also seek backstop legal powers to intervene should the 
ISPs fail to implement an appropriate solution. ” If private companies won’t deal with Internet access, then the State is going to have to haul them to court! That’ll teach them to know their own customers, control mechanisms and processes! It’s almost as though there’s wilful blindness going on…

There is much to debate about the pornography industry itself – from what viewing explicit material might do to a person over a long-period to safeguarding the wellbeing of those who choose to participate in the industry. Parents have a responsibility to educate their children to whatever extent they feel comfortable doing, a stance which might put me on the opposite side of the room to Harriet Harman. (If there’s any view I hold which puts me with Harman, I might have to consider medication). As user generated content websites prove, there’s only so much of a moral crusade pressure groups can inflict across cyberspace to defeat the great Porn Demon – humans will always feel sexual urges and some will feel comfortable in sharing their acts amongst an audience. The all encompassing “opt in” will do nothing to stop shadier/un-registered parts of the industry from exploiting the vulnerable or abused, it will only make the Morality Police feel better about themselves. That rush of self-congratulation might soon fade if the “opt in” accidentally blocks ordinary material (as some mobile phone blocks incorporate Facebook and Twitter) or accidentally ignores potentially arousing images (such as tabloid newspaper’s favoured roll call of flashed knickers, bikini beach shots and the like).

“Opt in” adult content will not make the Internet cleaner, or teenagers less likely to share dirty photos through text messages or BBM/MSN. Whilst it’s easier to deny freedom of thought than it is to research why sexual content is so popular to view/share/experience, the State is much more comfortable getting its groove on, and for that, we’re all left drowning in a deeply unsatisfactory wet-patch.

anger management

As people who know me would testify without delay, I have been known to react disproportionately to the merest of situations, often triggers which observers would struggle to explain even after detailed analysis. Following an innocuous remark directed my way, my balanced and mature response was a full-on flounce resulting in an unscheduled snooze at a bus-stop in Standish. That happened last year; I was thirty-one years old.

This ‘red mist’ and its responses are analysed by people earning a lot more than I ever will researching what makes the behavioural ‘tick’, mostly in men, which turns frustration into an outburst. Basic, back of the envelope assumption would conclude that there’s a) inability to deal with intense situations brought from childhood onwards, b) a mental imbalance of some kind, or c) a bit from both and more besides. As with all personal problems, from drug addiction to persistent low-level crime, admitting there is something wrong is always considered the first step: from there comes working with others to resolve whatever is curdling the brain.

Critics of David Cameron use the term ‘flashman’ to deride the Prime Minister’s occasional bursts of temper and red-faced snapping. Like many who suffer from this tendency to react badly to pushes and prodding, Cameron looks as though his eyes genuinely do fall behind a cloud of red smoke, and his mind becomes blinkered to exits, alternative options, spaces to breathe. It’s partly the nature of Prime Minister’s Questions, I wager, though it’s clearly part of Cameron’s nature. The “calm down dear” approach to argument might have been ill-advised sarcasm, but from that event onwards the suggestion of ‘red mist descending’ has become increasingly convincing.

Where could Cameron go with this? Will he bring something of the Australian parliament to Westminster by swearing or biting the head of a bat?

I come to this from the little local difficulty involving Joey Barton yesterday. Now we all know that Barton likes his philosophy and chin-stroking consideration, which frames many of the arguments pro- and anti- defending him for repeated violent moments and verbal outbursts. The growth of wisdom, as Nietzsche suggests, may be gauged exactly by the diminution of ill-temper, and as Barton claims to learn from Nietzchean philosophies, you’d assume that the ill-temper/wisdom see-saw would have been  rebalanced at some point. Yesterday’s nail-biting, heart-pounding, sweat inducing final Premier League day was not ruined by Barton’s elbow/knee/head, though it has cast a shadow. As thousands of people watched the games unfold – I did so in a pub which showed both Manchester games on adjacent screens which didn’t help the heart rates – the Barton flip-out took over the conversations across the pub as much as the David Cameron “LOL” revelation threatened to hijack the Leveson inquiry analysis that day. Sometimes the silly, trivial, the curiosities are bugs eager to dig into the topic to take it over, to divert attention from the really important stuff. Luckily both games had enough other stuff happening – and Aguero’s goal, Rooney’s miss and such were momentous enough – to allow Barton’s ‘red mist’ to be pushed to the fringes.

Because of his repeated assurances that he’s learning, self-analysing, reflective, Barton’s constant return to the stage of silliness has stripped away almost all sympathy from neutrals and fans. QPR fans have taken to the internet and phone-in shows to disown him. Barton took to Twitter, his own personal Speaker’s Corner, to act bullish with an edge of accountability. The edge was as thin as the head of a southern-pulled pint, which exhausted yet more patience.

Over at the arena of politics, D-Cam has a few more days before facing another bear-pit PMQs. More often than not, the bun-fights with Ed Miliband bring out the worst in Cameron’s argument technique.  He usually ‘wins’ against Ed, because the Labour leader has all the weight of a speak and spell machine, though it’s how Dave conducts himself which gets the attention, blogs and commentary pieces. Whilst Labour are led by a man who struggles to set jelly never mind the agenda, Cameron’s fits of pique shouldn’t cause too much damage. The term ‘flashman’ has stuck, and some MPs know how to press the right buttons. Cameron hasn’t learned from Tony Blair about how to flavour temper with sarcasm and theatrical flair. It’s all in the tag, as Kenneth Williams would advise. It’s all there in the punchline, the pay-off – get it wrong, and you’re a bully or a short-tempered prat.

Where Cameron and Barton align is the apparent lack of willingness to change, to repair the damage they cause and the damage in their own mental well-being. Whilst many are now abandoning Barton for good – the Guardian which took him around an art gallery now snidely dig at his “copy and paste philosophy” – there’s still sizeable support for Cameron and the Coalition. The temptation to go over the edge must be strong for the PM – the three years before General Election 2015 is a timeframe sprinkled with landmines, death traps, nooses and Nadine Dorries. Pushes from Labour, pokes from the backbenches, irritation from the constraints of compromise politics in this era of Coalition – all the little things which stir up the smoke, colour the mist, send the heart pounding further, stronger, harder. For a man whose ‘flashman’ snapping has been constrained within the House of Commons so far to save his reputation, Cameron will have to deal with all this before it happens in the television studio or on the stump.

Joey Barton is the very definition of the angry young man, and whilst I’m not about to dismiss him entirely, I can see why frustration with his constant return to idiocy on the pitch and at the keyboard has turned into abandonment. People can only take sympathy so far. If the constant misbehaviour never goes away, than either the person has a serious problem which requires longer-term help, or the person just has no intention of ever bettering themselves. Cameron is not some crazed loon at the dispatch box, though he has shown no sign of calming down the red-faced tendency or sarcastic snapping. The temper tantrums which infect Barton’s character, and those which taint Cameron’s responses, are parts of the same diagnosis, and both fans/voters will deliver their medicine whether it’s wanted or not.

Titanic, deckchairs, football ground

Working for the Football Association must me remarkable fun, and by “remarkable” I mean “barely”, and by “fun”, I mean “an alternative to slamming your dangly bits in a car door.”  It’s not as though football fans are ignorant of the constant stream of brain farts guffing from the collective mind of the FA, we’ve suffered down the years, from the Wembley reconstruction mess to the constantly bewildering way managerial choices are mishandled. Do they get rejects from The Apprentice to make these choices? I don’t want to imagine how that might work out. Sorry, Fabio, it’s just not working out (you being statistically the best manager we’ve had in 40 years, and all), so just dance in your pants, dance in your pants!

What the FA has splooged all over the place this week is somewhat niche in its audience though no less an example of them getting a simple task utterly Andover-over-Timperley. Having looked into how to resolve pressing issues amongst the cluttered number of divisions in non-league football they have announced the equivalent of shoving paperwork into a top drawer for looking at ‘you know, later, like when I’ve less, you know, busy?’.

In short, the FA was tasked with sorting out the perennial problem of cutting back the weeds and cleaning up the rock garden that is the middle bits of the non-league pyramid. As currently constituted, the pyramid resembles a capital “A” written by a drunk, blind monkey, on fire, in space, which makes the latest decision all the more frustrating and self-defeating. Pushing back decisions into the never-never might work for the full-time, professional leagues; it tends not to have much of a positive outcome for semi-professional or amateur sides. Non-league football has been allowed to develop its current wobbly state precisely because decisions on the geographic spread of divisions and the number of teams in each league have been deferred and delayed year-on-year.

In broad terms, each step down provides for each division to become more geographically specific. Blue Square/Conference Premier is a national league, fed by the geographically spread Conference North and South feeder divisions, themselves fed by the Northern/Midlands/Southern feeder divisions, and so on. Due to the unpredictable nature of the football season, with some relegations/promotions not confirmed until April or May, fitting teams into the right place can be an arduous (read, improvised) process. Don’t need to tell fans of Durham or Bishop’s Stortford or King’s Lynn about being plonked into the wrong leagues. Having to travel across the East Coast Main Line for every away trip, Durham have recently requested to be demoted from the Northern League Division One for financial reasons. King’s Lynn were wound up by the Courts. Bishop’s are wound up by not being able to travel south for any away game in their “northern” leagues.

By expanding divisions at Steps 3 and 4, the FA is putting more stress and strain on the financial constraints suffered by teams who can’t add extra away days without feeling the pinch. There’s no argument for expanding the Premier League or Championship, so how can it be justified further down? What compensation will the FA offer for the inevitable damage to non-league grounds after four (or more for ground share clubs) games being played across winter or spring?

From Step 4, the FA should look at streamlining the feeder leagues whilst ensuring the geographic spread is as tight as possible. It’s not the kind of thing which looks to me as brain surgery, and yet the great and good suits always make the easiest task the hardest execution. There can only be one consequence from this week’s decision – more games for clubs which can’t always afford it, more games for fans who can’t always travel, and less confidence amongst teams towards a streamlined, relevant league structure. Deferring decisions on this can’t wait any longer.