Nov 152012

I read this story from the Guardian tonight and stumble across the following figure:

The BBC will pay £185,000 in damages to Lord McAlpine following the Newsnight broadcast on 2 November that wrongly linked the former Conservative party treasurer to historic allegations child sexual abuse.

Further background to this story, including an interview between the BBC and Lord McAlpine, can be found at New Statesman at the moment.

A wrong was clearly exacted of this gentleman by a well-known TV programme.  Paul has some thoughts as to why this happened in the first place – others will believe and hold that there were other reasons and causes.

No matter.  I’ve already given my opinion of where this is now taking us and what we run the risk of losing here.  But this post is for a different purpose.  This post aims to suggest our society is becoming more infirm by the minute in its ability to inform itself.

Free speech shouldn’t mean gratuitous speech.  I’m not arguing that.  Reputation is important to what a person is, becomes and cares to be.  But a society where people begin to feel the need to speak in code isn’t a healthy society either.  It’s probably a kind of litmus test of the degree of democracy we enjoy.  And I sincerely do not think we are doing at all well right now.  I sincerely do not believe we are healthy in the least.

Innuendo is an unpleasant way of transmitting information.  It demonstrates a lack of a proper desire to exhibit ownership for the statements made.  It causes unhappiness and yet serves to simultaneously deny to the victim that anything irregular has been communicated.

It’s not a fair way of communicating; it belongs, more often than not, to the anteroom and sphere of lynch-mob behaviours; and it leads only to a frustrating and painful sense of inferiority in the person or persons who find themselves subjected to its craft.  We only have to read what New Statesman quotes from the McAlpine interview to realise this:

[…] Asked whether Boris Johnson was right to say that to call someone a paedophile is to “consign them to the lowest circle of hell – and while they’re still alive”, McAlpine replied:

Absolutely. I think it describes pretty much what happened to me in the first few days of this event…it gets in to your bones. It gets into, it makes you angry. And that’s extremely bad for you to be angry. And it gets into your soul. You just think there’s something wrong with the world.

Yes.  Innuendo is a craft – a craft which many hone.  Tabloid newspapers for starters.  I think we could safely argue whole empires have been built on – for example – spreading celebrity innuendo.  Gossip wouldn’t work without the tool of innuendo fulsomely employed and applied to so many citizens.  Meanwhile, I think it would also be safe to say that the object of innuendo, and by extension gossip itself, is to destroy as many reputations as it can possibly entertain.

A reputation is a necessity for most people as they attempt to earn their way in this life.  It’s often built with great difficulty and can often be dashed with a terrifying immediacy.  It looks as if this is what has happened in this case – whether legal action will return intact the reputation formerly held by Lord McAlpine is something only time will tell.  But for the injured party, the damages thus agreed upon must help vindicate the same in some small way.

Just a couple of observations, then, in relation to wider issues.  Whilst nothing can return the situation to what it was before the ill-fated “Newsnight” report, the kind of sums which have been paid out do not seem excessive to me.  But I would want, hope and – indeed – expect for the judicial system to operate with the same alacrity, fierce resolve and contingency in cases of rape victims, sexual abuse sufferers and others on the receiving end of serious crimes various.  We have only to remember, for example, how long the phone-hacking inquiry is taking, or how long the first investigation into the cases of sexual abuse at the heart of the “Newsnight” programme in question originally took, to realise that justice is a poor servant to ordinary people here in Britain.

If Lord McAlpine does deserve the speedy compensation and admission of guilt his legal team has negotiated with the BBC, and in this matter I’m sure he does, there are just as many people out there who deserve the same.

People who are unable to make the system work as it should.

People who, in different ways, are as unfortunate as Lord McAlpine himself.


If truth be told, reputations are not always accurate.  They can be maintained and constructed on the basis of violent falsehoods – as happened in this case, and manifestly so; in other cases, however, these reputations may nominally be good, even splendid – and yet the falsehoods are just as untruthful.  Those who own and perpetuate them do so without real justification.

And people around them know this is exactly the case.  They know that the justification does not exist for the splendour of such reputations.  So where extreme hierarchy rules a society is when coded speech becomes a norm.  Where people in power can get away with not telling the truth is when innuendo of a primarily political nature becomes a terribly destructive norm.  Especially when those in power choose to insist that all defamation must be tracked down and eliminated.

Lord McAlpine is fair to ask people to apologise – and it is up to him to be the judge of how best to fight his corner as the process proceeds, especially as the corner he was painted into was as dramatically tight as it was.  But the implications longer-term here in Britain, where freedom of speech more generally is already an unhappy, damaged and damaging beast, are not good.  Which is why I suggest that if it continues thus, then – instead of free speech as per our world-renowned democratic reputation of other times – we will as a nation begin to acquire notions of how to codify our most intimate and frank thoughts, quite before we allow them to reach the light of dangerous and public examination.

And this, if I am right, would be a very sad moment.

A sad moment for free speech.  A sad moment for free thought.

A sad moment, in fact, all round.

Except, of course, for literature.

We all know why the Irish have won so much adulation for the blessed exercise of using English creatively, now don’t we?

Centuries of awful British oppression meant they had no choice but to refine and make far more subtle their use of a language which essentially belonged to the oppressor.

Oppression can be good for art, then.  As well as for gossip and innuendo.

Just terrible for the heart and soul.

As well as, ultimately, democratic discourse itself.

Free versus coded speech?  You really don’t want to go there.  But there is where I’m afraid we’re all being led.  There is where the future lies.

Nov 152012

I’ve always argued that blogging (and by extension, these days, social communication such as Twitter and Facebook) was quite unlike newspaper journalism.  In its heyday, blogging’s register and function was more akin to a chat over a pint or a natter over a garden fence than serious and solemn incantations of establishment and counter-establishment positions.

Yes.  There was that problem that it used the written word rather than the spoken.  But anyone who’s been through an old blog will come up against a frank reality: broken links are very much a thing of the present.  Whilst books may last centuries, digital content is very fragile.  I’m pretty sure no one cares too much about this blog, for example, to care too much about its future – even as my intention, as I started out, was to document my view and feelings of the 21st century for as long as I was lucky enough to inhabit it.

Even so, it would appear – with Internet archives various – that the disposable nature of some of the web, especially that bit which may relate to legal actions further down the line, is becoming less the case than it used to be.  Scraping content automatically as a service to the litigious sorts out there must be a profitable business model for some, I am sure.  If you lost something of real value, and wanted such services to get it back, they probably wouldn’t care to help out.  But if you said they could have a cut of any future legal process, you’d probably find they’d suddenly recover their virtual memories.

It’s the wearisome way of the world.

Anyhow.  It would now appear that it will soon be the case that even retweeting on Twitter holds two parties liable to being sued: retweeting being, for those of you unfamiliar with the beast, forwarding on a person’s comment to all the people who follow you.  And the two parties liable?  Not only the person who does the retweeting but also the person who made the original comment.  Yes.  The voluntary action of the former – to retweet or not, that is the question – may be the responsibility of the latter.

Which is why I just tweeted the following (now please don’t retweet!):

You know when Google specs come on the market and they’ll be able to see what we’re seeing? Will they be able to sue us for seeing? #legal

For it does seem to me that if you can be sued for retweeting a comment – and I’ve yet to see it proven that a retweet necessarily equals conformity with the content – and then some way down the line the technology also allows us to track what each user is seeing, there will eventually arise some legal eagle specialising in web-related circumstances who’ll argue that somebody is responsible, maybe both parties too, for the mere act of allowing something to flit past our field of vision.

I really do think we are getting to the point where a kind of mock-Roman Catholicism (my experience of Christianity) is violently reasserting – in virtual terms, I mean – its most profound manifestation of morality: that even to think something is to commit a terrible sin and deserving of severe punishment.

Something really isn’t working any more.  Democratic engagement with public debate should surely entrance us all.  And yet it’s becoming more and more a question of a quasi-religious fervour as we look either to strike down the next public figure in line or – equally – be struck down by a wealthy and properly aggrieved party precisely for having said something inexact.

It seems we are moving the dysfunctionality of mutual excommunication from the political arena to the social one.  And it almost feels as if the politicians and other public figures – unhappy with the dynamic of greater information exchange that blogging initially, and Twitter and Facebook latterly, have recently afforded ordinary and unprepossessing people – are now looking to ensure that such people when amongst themselves should be as constricted, terrified, tribal and solemn as public positions require of their occupants.

If hierarchy must exist in society – and our makers and shakers seem to be as one on this matter (though I do not necessarily agree) – then let that hierarchy work to the benefit of both parties.  You want the right to rule but must be publicly cautious?  Be so.  But let the rest of us who want to enjoy our lives feel free to comment with our friends and family as we might.

Allow that chat over a pint and that natter over the garden fence to continue to operate in online contexts.

If you do not, we will be losing something very precious: the ability to follow untrammelled a precious thought to its ultimately unpredictable conclusions.

And since that is probably the only process which can now save 21st century civilisation from the serious implications of historical mistakes, we would do rather better – do ourselves a massive favour, in fact – to preserve it with intelligence and love than to toss it carelessly away.


Update to this post: I’ve just read an interesting overview by Paul Bernal of defamation and Twitter.  You can read it here.  And probably a good idea if you do.

Truth it would seem, at least under British legislation, is no reliable defence when making statements.

Nov 152012

Today, we have the opportunity to vote.  I’ll be voting for our Labour candidate in the Police and Crime Commissioner’s election.  I don’t know much about the role and I’m not sure many do.  Though I did tweet last night the following thought:

How can you be a police *and* crime commissioner? Surely oversight of one precludes involvement in the other. Should be two separate people.

It does seem to me that the whole role itself is fatally compromised from the beginning.

And if you think this means the vote today isn’t important, I’d refer you back to a post I wrote back in June on the experience other countries have had of different ways of managing crime control.  It’s pretty horrifying, I have to say.

Anyhow, just so that you know – those of us who live in Cheshire – this excerpt from an email I received from 38 Degrees yesterday gave the responses to a number of key questions of all the candidates up for the job.  Firstly, 38 Degrees’ introduction to their own very focussed interests:

Here’s what the Cheshire candidates said to 38 Degrees members about privatisation. Not all of them have given a clear answer about privatisation, some have made a distinction between “back office” and “frontline” privatisation. Others have said they won’t privatise but may consider outsourcing – having a private company take over some parts of the work that police forces do.

Now the candidates’ replies to some relevant questions:

Ainsley Arnold (LibDems):

I am firmly committed to policing being undertaken by Police Officers.

The Police and Crime Commissioner is replacing the police authority and it will be that person who will formulate the policing plan and hold the Chief Constable to account over policing performance in Cheshire and set the budget.

Companies like G4S have demonstrated that they are incapable of running of services efficiently, so I would strongly resist any initiative that I considered would be to the detriment of Cheshire Policing.

To answer your final question I have no connection with any company that would be interested in police contracts.

As a past Vice Chairman of the Police Authority I am acutely aware of the excellent work our police officers do in keeping Cheshire a safe place for us all to live, and if elected I want to ensure that our police officers are fully supported in their roles.

John Dwyer (Conservatives):

No response forwared to office

John Stockton (Labour):

I will not be allowing the further expansion of private sector contracts in Cheshire Police (currently 9% of budget is spent in private sector – I will be looking to return these contracts to the public or voluntary sector, where I can). I will not let companies like G4S become involved in Cheshire policing. I have no connection to any private sector companies interested in police contracts.

Louise Bours (UKIP):

No candidate can make ‘promises’ regarding budgetary commitments, if they did they would be disingenuous – this is a new role, completely uncharted waters, the entire scope of the Commissioner will only be revealed to the successful candidate, however, considering the recent Olympics fiasco created by G4S, I would be amazed if anyone considered privatizing any aspect of the police service. I believe G4S lost several prison contracts just yesterday.

I can confirm that neither I nor any members of my family, have any connection to any kind of company who would seek tender for any service already provided by the constabular

Sarah Flannery (Independent):

1. Privatisation of Cheshire police services.

I don’t think that private sector expertise, in and of itself, is negative. In some instances such as technology it makes sense to look at the best that is available and utilise it where there are clear benefits for public safety. There are also many examples I can think of, such as victim support, where commissioning services from outside the police service could be of benefit.

That said, I am implacably opposed to privatisation by stealth. I believe in our public services. I want to support their development, their value for money, and our confidence in their ability to deliver successful delivery of results.

So my first response will always be to consider how they can evolve and develop, using private/community/voluntary/third sector involvement only where I believe it can accelerate best practice.

In those instances I would make the commissioning process as clear and transparent as possible and seek to commission any such work or services from within Cheshire if possible to benefit the local economy and community cohesion.

I can also promise that I will never allow profitability to compromise public safety.

2. Will you allow companies such as G4S to be involved in running Cheshire police?

My remit as PCC is to be democratically responsible for the strategic direction of the Cheshire Police force. In all of my campaigning, I have not witnessed any desire that companies such as G4S be involved and, as the voice of the people, I will respect the wishes of the people. The Chief Constable retains responsibility for all operational running of the Cheshire Police force.

3 Do you have any connection to companies which may be interested in police contracts?

No, neither I nor any members of my family have ever had any connection to companies that have, or may have, an interest in police contracts.

It’s notable, I think, given the current anti-democratic climate of this government, that the Tory candidate couldn’t find the time to reply.

Come to your own conclusions.  I’ve come to mine.  And don’t vote in these elections on the basis of giving the Coalition a kicking.  That would hardly be in the democratic spirit we should be entertaining.

Though it might make some of us feel less unhappy at the end of the count.