Everything to fear

Back in 2008, Labour’s Jacqui Smith explained why it was ‘vital’ to monitor email, internet and other communication use. That plan was eventually dumped, though its ghost has been hanging around Westminster and GCHQ for some time. Somebody called ‘Chris Huhne’ (where he now?) slammed the plans as being “incompatible” with living in a free country. Back in 2009, Jo Swinson   rightly criticised plans to snoop on social media users.

But what now for these Liberal Democrat MPs, and others, who are not in Opposition any more, as time has moved on and plans to create databases of everything typed, texted and crammed into 140 characters is drawn up by Coalition partners? To what extent has the dynamic changed between the instinctive liberal belief in civil liberties and the responsibilities inherent in being the junior partner in a Government? One hopes the dynamic has not changed at all: all Liberal Democrat MPs, regardless of proximity to the Cabinet table, must reject these proposals outright.

Labour have little wiggle room with this. The party who came up with the plans in the first place have an embarrassing record on civil liberties and freedom of speech, regarding these as optional extras. Under Blair and Brown, Labour were amongst the most authoritarian government this country has ever seen – ID Cards, DNA database, locking up children without charge and driving tanks onto the tarmac of Heathrow airport in the name of ‘counter terrorism’. Successive Home Secretaries attempted to outdo each other in their ‘tough stance’ on civil liberties, out-Torying each other as they went. John Reid relished becoming more of a Conservative Home Secretary than any of his predecessors, concluding that the ‘not fit for purpose’ Home Office should be beefed up, toughened out. Labour were enemies of civil liberties, making the decision by Theresa May to scrap controversial stop and search laws  and control orders within months of coming into power all the more remarkable – when the Conservatives are in charge relaxing civil liberty laws, you should be worried about the extent to which you were extreme.

This snooping law proposal is obscene, a return to the dark Labour days, and must be resisted. The ‘internet community’ showed how dangerous SOPA laws would be for intellectual properties;  it must now do the same for freedom of expression. “Nothing to hide, nothing to fear” is an obscene parody of the danger inherent in these plans. GCHQ is unaccountable, unreachable, yet Ministers feel it right to allow the tentacles of that agency to reach out of your phones, laptops and tablet devices like so many scenes from 1980s horror movies: licking your ears, sewing up your mouths, stealing the words from your fingers as you type. This is not “safeguarding freedom”,  this is theft of your thoughts, your ideas, your opinions. There can be nothing more idiotic than this concept of ‘safeguarding’ by way of making freedom less certain, less secure. Remember the lie “if we change our way of life, the terrorists win?”.  This would be the terrorists “winning”.

The words of George Orwell are so often invoked in cases like that so as to lessen the impact. Make no mistake about the lessons from history, especially those written not solely as fiction but as a warning.

I am liberal by instinct (you wouldn’t want to choose being liberal, it’s like consciously choosing to be gay or an Aston Villa supporter).  My suspicion about Governments of all colours comes from their actions – as their words are often blocked by FOI requests and firewalls. Labour were rightly beaten by good sense and reason as they continued their assault on freedom of speech, but the Hydra in Westminster tends to have skin which is coloured red and blue: one hopes, beyond all hope, that there’s no orange. Liberal Democrat MPs must ensure these proposals are voted down and out at every opportunity. Not just on the broad brush “freedom of expression” motion but from each and every angle – legitimacy, cost, reason, sense, achievement. How can this forever morphing ‘war on terror’ have shaped itself into an attack on the millions of innocent British people using email, chat rooms, message boards, Twitter? What justification can there be  to ‘root out’ the bad guys by having everyone clicked ‘suspicious’ like so many Minesweeper boxes flagged for uncertainty?

This has not been a good few weeks for the Coalition, so anything which manages to knock down the reputation yet further must be a hum-dinger of a plan. This stinks to the highest heavens from the lowest sewers of the Big Brother tendencies within the Home Office. We’ve been here too many times recently, the shadow of ‘terrorism’ seeping into proposals like so much bonfire smoke in the eyes. We cannot allow this plan to happen – it’s disproportionate, it’s alien to British values and it’s just plain old damned wrong. Real time monitoring of conversations – just read that phrase out loud! – is not the act of a Government that respects its people. It’s the act of a Government out of control. We are a better people than that. Resistance must start now.

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Vote for Songs, Vote for Change

Someone have a word with Simon Cowell. If he of the high-trousers wants an international X-Factor, he’s better off saving his money. There already exists a multi-national amateur singing contest, it’s called Eurovision and at almost 60 it’s had ten-times the life span of most talent show careers.

But…all the same, Cowell knows when he’s onto a winner. Not that the “final 4” in the current run of the X-Factor is exactly over running with talent. The main prize has rarely been given to someone who deserves it (see, for that matter, most talent shows, namely Eurovision and the fancy dress contest at a hotel in Split back in 1991. I’m not bitter but damn it, all the winners did was wrap themselves in out-of-date Beano comics……)

Sorry, back to the X-Factor. The apparent favourite is Daryl, who has the satisfied arrogance of a libel lawyer with an ability to add extra long notes to the end of everything he sings like some form of computer character “special move”. He’s up against a one-time contestant on Deal Or No Deal, called Olly Murs, who has been forced to warble the same old selections from The Greatest Copyright Free Swing and Blues Album…Ever! while being talked about as “one of the lads”. When he was made to perform (and/or murder) George Michael’s “Fastlove” in a tight shirt and AIDS awareness ribbon I wonder exactly what had happened to the “one of the lads” demographic. Maybe Simon had been off that week. He often is.

A squat gnome-faced 12 year old called Joe, who should have never been allowed near a microphone on pain of death, has been consistently voted through despite the (very) annoying habit of turning every song into a theatrical pastiche. You know Mitch Benn? You know how everything Mitch Benn does is a) unfunny, and b) forced, and c) unfunny and forced and annoying and unfunny? Joe is RIGHT up there with the forced, annoying, unfunny Mitch Benn. He’s likely to win. It’s just not right. If Simon Callow wants a winner – and it’s likely he doesn’t really give two-hoots now there’s the opportunity to reinvent the Eurovision wheel – then Stacy “Essex girl who actually lives in the London Borough of Dagenham but why ruin a USP” Soloman is the one on whom a fiver should be placed at the bookies.

Okay, Stacy does sound like an over polished Hazel Dean, but compared with the other three – Mr Arrogant Warbler, Mr Ambiguous, Mr Mitch Benn – she’s the only one who has a singing voice worth hearing more than once. Just.

Voting for any of these potential one-hit wonders is not something I am likely to do, all that said. My real focus is on actual voting and actual democracy, with long-term consequences and all that stuff. I am annoyed to the highest limits with the news that chicken-scared Labour MPs are attempting to force Gordon Brown into rushing changes to the Westminster voting system through Parliament to trap the Conservatives into looking like “status quo stick-in-the-muds”. In short, Labour MPs who may well lose their seats in 2010 (and so they should) hope that switching to AV will a) keep them in a cushy job for a few more years, and b) stuff the Tories ever ruling with a working majority ever again.

As a liberal, a democrat, and a Liberal Democrat, my life-long dream has been to see the introduction of a fairer voting system for Westminster. AV is not my first choice by any stretch. I would much prefer STV. But of course, STV means Labour are not likely to keep the big bad Tories out of office. And for some robotic ultra-loyal Labour MPs, they would rather keep their careers nice and feather lined (so hence this cynical attempt to force through a Tory blocking measure before March 28th), than actually deal with the inadequacies of the FPTP system.

Using “politics as usual” techniques to suggest “politics is really changing” is the lowest form of Westminster game playing. It’s little wonder Yes, Minister and Thick Of It make me cringe so much; they are so much like the real goings on inside the corridors of power they may as well be broadcast as news.

It’s enough to make me give up on politics all together and become a talent show judge.

Justified and Ancient

Well, hasn’t Nick Clegg caused a fuss today?

The leader of the Liberal Democrats has called for the cancellation of the Queen’s Speech, calling it “window dressing” and “a displacement activity”.

He is absolutely right, of course. And don’t the political establishment hate it when someone says something against the grain of the norm?

Let us be honest. Gordon Brown is a dead duck, covered in oil and mud, sinking deeper into the mud ever closer towards political death. Attempts to help Labour from the worst election demise in history is akin to racing to the beach with a bucket and spade as the first waves of the oil slick slurp against the rocks. This Queen’s Speech will absolutely be used for pushing the clean-up of politics to one side for the political benefit of the Labour Party; think about it as pinning a rosette on Elizabeth’s crown.

Clegg has set fire to the norm because, as a refreshing and radical voice in politics, all liberals and Liberal Democrats walk with matchboxes in their pockets. There would be no benefit for Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs spending their time – no more than seventy days before the next UK general election – helping Labour form their next manifesto. Labour are a deflated and dying clutch of the desperate, a Party which is hoping a list of Bills they cannot possibly get through Parliament can grab the last positive headlines of their final months in office.

Thinking out of the norm is second nature to the real, credible alternatives in politics. Let us clean up Parliament for good, make real reform possible now, and stop dragging ourselves over the deep ruts of tradition for the sake of it.

Fixed-term parliaments, automatic General Elections as and when Prime Ministers are changed, voting reform, votes at 16, full devolution for Wales and the English Regions, ending the Royal prerogative on all but the most vital of reasons of the State, an automatic maximum number of Government Ministers, a fully elected House of Lords, directly elected Chiefs of Police, halving the number of Councillors and introducing “Street Panels” and inner-city Parish Councils: so much to do with our democracy, and not a single one of them needs Her Majesty, Black Rod, or the other flim-flam of a Queen’s Speech.

Toothless PCC "protects" homophobia

Yesterday’s Daily Mail included an article from Jan Moir entitled “Why there was nothing ‘natural’ about Stephen Gately’s death”. The inverted commas are not my doing; they were in the article.

Included in the piece was the quite bizarre and rather offensive observation;

Whatever the cause of death is, it is not, by any yardstick, a natural one”

Moir then continued to pour scorn and homophobic derision on the late Gately on the eve of his funeral. Clearly this article was the result of a tight deadline and undiluted ignorant prejudice. Her article questioned how a 33-year old man could possibly die of “natural causes”, suggesting that the death was “sleazy”.

Like so many people – the latest figure is around 1,000 – I contacted the Press Complaints Commission to lodge my concern at the article’s content. That Moir shows signs of homophobia was not my primary concern; the PCC “Code of Conduct” was breached (particularly Clauses 5 i), 12, i) and ii), and 3 i)) and like so many people I felt it necessary to draw the PCC’s attention to these breaches.

What occurred, and has been picked up by various bloggers and magazines in the 24-hour period since, is the clearest sign of the toothless-tiger that is the Press Complaints Commission.

The PCC sent an email to anyone who forwarded their complaints that, in most cases, “third parties” cannot complain about specific articles concerning individual people. Pink News magazine says;

However, the body’s remit does not include offensiveness and it is likely that action can be taken only if Gately’s family complain.

If anything comes from this complaint it may not even be published; the PCC is not required to publish its findings.

I am no Boyzone fan, and the only time I have ever listened to Gately’s “New Beginnings” single is when an orchestrated version was used at a Liberal Democrat Conference in Southport. My problem with the article, and the problems felt by so many, is how the article was merely an unchecked and unbalanced prejudiced rant. There was no concept or requirement to stick within the rules of the PCC Code of Conduct. Stephen Fry said, via his Twitter feed, “I gather a repulsive nobody writing in a paper no one of any decency would be seen dead with has written something loathsome and inhumane.”

If the PCC cannot push the Daily Mail into publishing an apology or fining Ms Moir, then its Code of Conduct is meaningless. The voluntary scheme it operates has no function in an age where social media and blogging sites can whip up far more support far quicker for situations like this. Press freedom is absolutely paramount in any developed Western democracy, and is not under threat from a tribe of Tweeting liberals. However the Daily Mail and Jan Moir got their freedom of speech completely upside-down yesterday, while probably knowing nevertheless that the PCC could do nothing to stop them from keeping the article on-line.

Homophobic attitudes are not “in the past”. Like so many prejudices they cannot be completely wiped off the face of the planet for prejudice and value judgements are part of human nature. On the football terraces and in the clubs and at the water-coolers people will make statements that could attract the fabled ‘politically correct brigade’ and as a proud democrat I do not want to wander around the country slapping injunctions on anyone who thinks that a situation is “a bit gay” on the grounds of gender-hate. Jan Moir is an extreme example, however, a woman whose article did more than just question the details of Gately’s death. In implying that somehow being gay was the cause – with more than a hint of Chris Morris’ ‘good AIDS/bad AIDS’ – she was allowed a national platform to print an article of innuendo and offense at the worst possible time.

There is a thick line of decency under which is prejudice, over which is freedom of speech. The PCC are lying on the line unable to comment on anything which falls beneath it. To tighten up the rules governing press content in the spirit of OFCOM and ASA rules is surely a pressing priority to maintain the right to live however one chooses in this day and age. The Daily Mail should publish an apology for Moir’s article immediately.