all trigger, no bullets

What we know in Britain as democracy is a clumsy and chaotic compromise position, moulded through centuries of give, take and establishment necessity. Without the structure from a written constitution, it’s been possible to grow electoral administration only as successfully as it is possible to call “gardening” the act of throwing seeds onto a pavement. Every element of our electoral and constitutional machinery is broken – from the way in which legislation is timetabled to the voting system for Town Halls. Nothing works as it should, or indeed could, and for all the talk of necessary “repair work” on that machinery, not one party leader seems willing to break out the WD40.

It’s only a few years ago that David Cameron appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up and a screwdriver in his hand. Politics was broken, and he was the emergency call-out man who could help fix it. With the formation of the Coalition, it seemed even more likely that something would be done, as after all there’s no group on these islands more obsessed with improving the democratic ills than the Liberal Democrats. Maybe, just maybe, something would actually be achieved.

And then they had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like, “It’s being considered very carefully”. This is establishment speak for “We’re not interested, go away”.

The cases of Eric Joyce, Patrick Mercer and to an extent Nadine Dorries in the jungle have brought into stark focus one of many problems which keep the 21st century United Kingdom anchored in the 19th century. The good voters of Falkirk, Newark, and Mid-Bedfordshire did not vote for their MPs to leave their parties (or for that matter the country to appear on reality television), nor did they vote for an MP to confirm he won’t stand at the next election after being arrested though would stay on as an MP, on full pay, away from his party. The people of Falkirk voted for a Labour MP, not an independent, and under our broken system they can’t do a thing about this. They can’t even protest at the next election, because Eric Joyce won’t be there to face their decision.

This situation is one amongst many cuckoo-banana realities of British democracy.

When Cameron and Clegg spoke of the “right to recall”, one of the ways these situations could be resolved, there was a sense that lessons had actually been learned. Maybe, just perhaps, “right to recall” was on its way, and Britain would be able to boot out errant MPs in-between elections.

And then, the proposals came out, and the chance collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. What the Coalition proposed was not “right to recall”, as wanted by Douglas Carswell, Zac Goldsmith and others, but a form of State-approved confirmation hearings. Rather than allowing members of the electorate to decide if an MP should be subject to a recall by-election, Nick Clegg and Tom Brake put their names to a process by which electors would have to wait for the establishment to make its own decision. Policing the police, and all that, and nothing close to how Cameron had initially voiced his determination to clean up politics.

“Right to recall” would deal with examples like Joyce, Mercer and Dennis McShane if there was a genuine will within their constituencies. There’s little to no danger of opposition supporters trying to “rig” referenda; who other than political obsessives would attempt to oust all 650 MPs? There’s plenty of clear and obvious safeguards against “rigging” – including only permitting the process to start after a resignation or under-12 month prison sentence – that fears expressed about all MPs being under constant threat sound nothing more than willing the long grass to grow.

The Clegg/Cameron approach to the “trigger” element of the process lacks exactly the power which voters need to keep their MPs in check. It’s exactly the same fault which killed off the AV referendum, boundary reviews and House of Lords reform – a lot of talk about weaponary, very little evidence of firepower.

There are so many faulty and failing elements of the British electoral system that’s it difficult to know where to start. I’d love to see a fully proportional system for electing local government, I’d love to see an end to the stubby pencil, I’d love to see votes at 16, but with every passing year it seems the UK is happy to slide back another decade into a dusty, irrelevant past. “Right to recall” is a sidestep into responsibility, maturity, and the present day. Or at least the 20th century. Let’s see it introduced properly.

top shelf and behind closed doors

In those hazy, lazy, faraway union-flag-quilt-and-Smirnoff-Ice days of the 90s, “lads mags” were all the rage. Whilst faded in glory today, they retain a certain grip on both supermarket shelves and amongst the court of public opinion. Recently a group of disgruntled feministbots raged against them with threats of legal action on grounds of human rights and sexual harrasment, provoking another flurry of he-said, she-demands outrage on- and off-line.

There’s plenty of threads to pick at here. Let’s start with the body image argument, one which has a very valid foundation even if the rest of the building is unsound. The desire for a body beautiful worries men as much as women, only the boys chasing a six-pack tend to be pushed aside by mainstream media’s coverage of teenage body image crises. As long ago as 2001, the British Medical Journal warned that male concerns about chasing the magazine “approved” look was leading to suicide.

Whilst it’s valid to point to the ladies with the ample balcony and cry “foul”, the lack of any concern for the male equivalent is worrying. Young men are likely to be as wary of not looking “built” as young women are for not appearing to have a glossy-cover body. (And this is before we look at something like the cover of Gay Times, for example, where the well-built and tanned cover stars might attract more concern for perfection from a community already beset with issues of self-confidence and image problems.)

And then we get to porn. Good old fashioned, every day porn. The days of my youth were peppered by attempts to read the top shelf goodies which even by the 1990s were still heavily censored – and for that matter, heavily hirsute, if you know what I mean. What teenagers of 2013 can access with a few clicks makes the 1993 versions seem as tame as Victorian ankle-flashers, but even then dire warnings rained down about the dangers of seeing half-naked women in the pages of “Whitehouse” and “Razzle”.  Iceland would like to outlaw Internet porn entirely and Labour in this country have hinted a similar policy would be forthcoming if they win in 2015. There’s a lot of sayings crossing my mind here – horses, stable doors, the closing of such.

I’m not in denial about the realities of some members of the pornography industry, or of the harsh and often dangerous circumstances for women behind the XXX website banners. But I’m not here to defend the State-sponsored censorship of the Internet on the back of a misguided concern about safety, either for children or women or both. If this sounds like “protesting too much”, I counterargue that the reality of Internet porn is as much wobbly and out of focus amateur videos uploaded to Cam4 as it is slickly edited “professional” material locked behind passwords and subscriptions.

My automatic discomfort against any form of legal threats and censorship comes not from an obsession with porn, but a determination to stand against the moral guardians strongarming common-sense. It’s unjust and unfair for feminist outrage corps. to dismiss lads mags as unacceptable whilst implicitly allowing Take A Break and Closer and others to zoom into wobbly thighs and lumpy stomachs with thick red circles and thicker yellow arrows. If Zoo magazine showing a glamour model is sexist, of what crime is Closer guilty for showing a soap star without make-up under the label “ROUGH AS!”?

A debate has to be had about the attitude towards sex and sexuality which has taken the State unaware, that much I accept. There’s no validity in the “BAN THIS FILTH” argument, especially from such moral champions as The Daily Mail who run an hourly sidebar of shame ticking off women (specifically) for being too thin, too fat, too garish, not garish enough, too daring, too old-fashioned, too feminist and not feminist enough. They’re not being “the best friend” pointing out fashion tips, they’re being the bitter bitch behind the net curtains hating women for being themselves long after their own beauty has faded.

Maybe I’m naive, but teenage boys finding women attractive is the way of nature. If they didn’t have Zoo (or page 3 or anything as soft/censored as I did in the 90s), they’d have some way to beat out (snigger) their natural desires. Ditto women, for whom there’s enough sniggering and tittering about fit men within the pages of their magazines. There’s no innocence amongst women’s glossy magazines when it comes to showing the flesh of either sex, or the demands on men in the bedroom. Is that not counter to the belief amongst certain kinds of feminists, or am I being dismissive?

The debate the country needs must look at everything which relates to sex and sexual politics, and that has to be cut through by some pretty obvious realities about human nature. The fallout from Leveson shows just how dangerous the topic of press freedom can be, especially when the State is put under pressure to regulate or censor material before publication. Let’s not pride ourselves on being a country in which, during a time when people are reminding us “not to let the enemy win”, we sleepwalk into blocking, banning and censoring material on the grounds of morality.

shoot ’em up

The US Supreme Court has given full First Amendment protections to violent video games (see coverage on CNET, LA Times, and a more specific, chin-stroking look at The Atlantic .

California’s law banned the sale of violent video games to customers under 18. Lawmakers defined “violent” as activity involving “killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” Each violation could bring a $1,000 fine.

From the British perspective, it always seems the US obsession with creating law and subsequent trips to the Supreme Court makes the jurisdiction of anything as confusing as the results of a modelling balloon show carried out by a man on meow-meow. On the specifics of video games and their sale, the US is markedly different to Britain with its self-regulated industry, one which California (and in a related manner, Florida), had tried to regulate by State law. In Britain, the video game industry has been brought into film/cinema certificate registration, and as such stores are liable for any under-age purchase.

Has the US-approach turned out more responsible than the marzipan layers of regulation over here?

In 2003, the UK government confirmed it had chosen the Europe-wide “PEGI” classification system, over the BBFC’s ‘in house’ judgements, which resulted in the latter giving a “I don’t like it, but I’m going to have to go along with it” reaction you may recognise from the German Finance Minister talking to Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan.

The safety-net of the First Amendment is a comfort blanket for Americans across the political divide – and good heavens, is there not a more appropriate word than ‘divide’. Protecting the right to freedom of expression obviously makes some feel awkward – what one person considers the right to speech is another’s chipping away at decency. It’s something like this which shines a light on what appears to be inherent contradictions within the attitude over here – swearing and violence can be broadcast on television without many eyebrows raised, running parallel to a strict certificate policy for video games.

For the most part, video game players know their own market, and self-regulate far more than the suited legislators realise. Playing Fallout 3 or Red Dead Redemption is far for funny than fierce – however hilarious it is watching the heads of your enemies flying through the air, a very small minority of those playing would consider continuing the action outside.

(Likewise, cannabis smokers self-regulate far more than drug enforcing politicians understand, for whom the idea of quality control amongst drug dealers seems more outrageous than the concept of homes constructed from malt loaf)

Not much has changed since my earlier blog on Mortal Kombat. My view then, and now, is more in line with how the Supreme Court has seen things. There is a moral justification for a level of regulation which ensures children don’t see, for example, R18 pornography; though the ultimate responsibility must always be with guardians and not censors.

One notable, if distressing, milestone along the way in the UK was the murder of Jamie Bulger in 1993. His killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were known to have watched violent videos, including Child’s Play 3, which includes a toy possessed with murderous rage ultimately killed by a runaway train. No firm connection was ever drawn which connected their actions to films, never mind games. From the coverage of that story, tabloid outrage about violent films, and by extension computer games, grew into campaign for moral reinvention. Clearly the results have turned from uneven to totally haphazard – for every demand for a strict watershed (“Ban this sick filth!”) there is a general demand of, and acceptance for, realism in films which stretches across language and sexual content to violence. The Bulger case has, in time, directed attention to criminals and our attitude towards rehabilitation. What causes the most extreme of crimes, and whether constraints should be put on the freedom to choose, fades into the background of the argument.

Whether video games are influencing cinema, or the other way round, is open to debate. The US Supreme Court recognised the relationship between the two by referencing from the start how many filmic tropes appear throughout the produce of the gaming industry – from narrative structure to character development and explicit scenes. We are expected, and show pretty darn well on the whole, to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, between the world outside the door and that inside the television sets (do we still use “sets”?). Unless the media is suppressing dozens of attacks on innocent bus-stop commuters by crazed Duke Nukham addicts, I’d wager the majority of the UK population clearly can differentiate reality from fantasy, and act accordingly.

I am cheered by the opening paragraph of the Supreme Court ruling. If the United States continues to show far more libertarian attitudes towards personal freedoms in this regard, how deeply embarrassed should European governments or censors feel in comparison?

Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And “the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary” with a new
and different communication medium

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…