Sep 072013
 
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I tweeted a couple of days ago an observation on how from WWII (the Second World War) to the WWW (the worldwide web), important stuff had changed dramatically in terms of government and people.  Whilst in the former case, cryptographers and brainy bods in general spent their time pursuing the evil Nazis, these days, it would seem, their job is to pursue us all (here and here).  And whilst some souls would – even now – look to reconstruct an Internet of laws (more here), it would appear that most of what the West does these days involves the “meth-head” approach to international relations.

What does this involve?  Essentially, a playing of mind-games with the general public.  This works in the following way:

  1. Knowing full well that one day all this rubbish would unspool, the game-plan says that when it does, distrust must be seeded in everything we trusted prior to any startling revelations.
  2. A sense of broader public distrust benefits only those intelligence communities whose day-to-day is suspecting everything and everyone anyway.  It allows the security people – and, let’s not forget, the criminals sooner or later too – to use tech-based backdoors and trapdoors to undermine our belief in our systems, so that any breaking of the law later discovered can be attributed to the weakness of the maths.  In reality, of course, it is always due to the weakness of our moralities.
  3. By rebooting time back to the beginnings of the Wild West, government agencies such as the NSA and GCHQ are using the law (for in general, it’s true, in a shady way they may be complying with it) to break down our rights instead of building them up.  For this is what I mean by the term “rebooting”: a return to where the rule of law was the law of rulers.  A return to the law of the mighty.
  4. The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle of “meth-head” international relations is that which encourages us to believe that the US and its allies are capable of “nuking the moon”.  By playing these mind-games, by aiming to destroy our trust in anything, we will fear far more the unpredictable self-made outcasts than we ever feared the monolithic self-made rule-players.

The problem we have, then, with this World Wild West which Western civilisation is in the process of constructing is that we have very few means to hand to halt the trends.

From the Lobbying Bill currently rushing through Parliament to attempts to censor online thought through corporate filters instead of parliamentary debate, legislation and oversight, we are living in times of extreme prejudice.

And there ain’t even a Gary Cooper on the horizon.

Or is there?

Maybe one chink in the armour of regressive behaviours is to be found in two tweets I wrote yesterday:

@Spritecut Hmm. I find it too easy to believe anything for sure. & increasing levels of distrust benefit those who live that world anyway.

@Spritecut Only thing which can beat distrustful community is community where trust is valued. That, I feel, is what they’d like to avoid.

To beat paranoid behaviours which wish to extend their belief systems to everyone – to beat the “meth-head” approach to national and international relations – surely the best way, then (perhaps the only way in fact), is to create massively – even where peacefully – opposing communities of high levels of trust.

We need to trust the maths; we need to believe in each other; we need to avoid being sucked up by the paranoias of security agencies.  And in order to do so, we need to create the systems that help us re-engineer what must yet again become a broadly-held understanding: that the law must be there to build up our rights, not there to break them down.

As Falkvinge says:

The news that the NSA has “broken crypto” is simply not true. What they have done is weaken the human factor creating cryptosystems.

And it’s that human factor – the weakness we all contain – which needs to be addressed here and supported.

As we have mentioned on innumerable occasions, we need to roll back the neoliberal removal of humans from their social sides if we to have any chance of recovering trust – the trust that otherwise blesses us, both as a species and a civilisation.

The Wild West was a fantastic frontier of opportunities.  But it’s also an “imagined construct” whose imaginings have done great harm to many.  It should not surprise us that the World Wild West is following a similar path.  We can, however, in the full knowledge of history, perhaps work out a way to recover our sensibilities – and, even, recover our rights.

If the NSA and GCHQ have seen fit to reboot the law of rulers, maybe it is time we equally saw fit to reboot the battles which sought to impose the rule of law.

The rule of law not only as sanctioned by Parliament.

The rule of law as sanctioned by software coders everywhere.

Repairing the Internet something which might attract?  Sure does seem that way from this laptop today.


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Aug 282013
 
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On another occasion, ten years ago, Robin Cook resigned from government with the following speech (the bold is mine):

The US can afford to go it alone, but Britain is not a superpower.

Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules.

He went on to describe the complex situation prior to what he knew would become a war against the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.

Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: the European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate.

Those are heavy casualties of a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.

I have heard some parallels between military action in these circumstances and the military action that we took in Kosovo. There was no doubt about the multilateral support that we had for the action that we took in Kosovo.

It was supported by NATO; it was supported by the European Union; it was supported by every single one of the seven neighbours in the region. France and Germany were our active allies.

It is precisely because we have none of that support in this case that it was all the more important to get agreement in the Security Council as the last hope of demonstrating international agreement.

Even as he returned to his overriding theme – the rule of law:

The legal basis for our action in Kosovo was the need to respond to an urgent and compelling humanitarian crisis.

Our difficulty in getting support this time is that neither the international community nor the British public is persuaded that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq.

But Cook lived, I think, in a better age – an age when, whatever our political colours, we still believed in and were attached to the idea – to the moral foundations – of what we called the rule of law.  Yet, only recently we have the American NSA breaching the law on thousands of occasions in one year; we have the British government allowing thousands of disabled people to die as a result of changes to benefit regimes; we have the summary privatisation of health, education and Legal Aid being bulldozed through Parliament without the committed support of a very large part of the voting population; and we have a Lobbying Bill which is morphing terrifyingly into a massive series of anti-free-speech measures (more on this subject here).

So what do we conclude as a result of all this?  Why does it make me think Robin Cook (unfortunately) got it wrong?

Because it wasn’t then – and it isn’t now – enough to argue we need to fight for a world of rules.

Because the world of rules we had then – and the world of rules we have now – has chosen, more and more, to bend us all out of shape.

Because – essentially, irrevocably, painfully in retrospect – the rule of law is now the law of rulers. 

Western civilisation has finally lost its universal centre.  It used to (seem to) mean: “If it’s legal, it’s right;  if it’s illegal, it’s wrong.”  Now we (sadly) discover: “If it’s legal, it’s right; if it’s illegal, we’ll make it legal.”  And if we must do so retroactively, all the better.

The objective is no longer to encounter a way of conducting ourselves “correctly”.  Instead, all we have to do is tread, in all that we do, the right side of the fine line between legal and illegal – and civilisation’s your uncle!

And what Blair and Bush were involved in a decade ago is only now coming back to bite us when we least expected it.  Whilst we, as readers and writers, are able to create a virtual folk-memory which compares and contrasts with growing accuracy the past and the present, our politicians – even the young ones – think controlling social media involves a few staffers shooting out banalities.  What few of them truly understand is that 2013 can never be 2003, because their voters’ abilities to remember and refashion realities has increased exponentially; has increased with astonishingly underlying power.

For our leaders, democracy may still – sincerely – involve the sacredness we all once felt in relation to this concept I describe.

For the rest of us, more and more I’m sad to say, it’s becoming encysted as a tool of those at the top.  We may be unfair; we may be too partial; we may, even, be wrong.  But the reality is out there: we simply do not trust our establishment.  Not just out of a destructive mala leche, either; also, out of the evidence which flits daily through our Facebook feeds, our Twitter timelines and our barely surviving – savagely competing – online mainstream.

How on earth can we – the ordinary citizens and subjects – believe in a system which so obviously wants to continue gaming our realities?

What’s more, where will it end?  You only have to read stories of potential opportunities for rapprochement between erstwhile bitter enemies to realise the world is just about at the end of its tether of coherent behaviours.

‘Tis for me, anyhow.  Maybe not for you.  Maybe I’m still too much of that wet-behind-the-ears wastrel I used to be when a kid.

Who’d have thunk it?


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Jun 052013
 
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I received an email a couple of days ago from Labour in relation to the European candidates selection process.  Part of it said as follows:

Arlene McCarthy, who was re-selected following a trigger ballot, will appear at the top of the list as the only sitting MEP in the region.

Beneath her, there are eight candidates – four men and four women – who need to be ranked in order of preference. The candidate who secures the most preferences will be placed second on the regional party list.

If a male candidate secures the most preferences, then the highest-placed female candidate will come next on the list, followed by the next male candidate and then by the female. If a female candidate secures the most preferences, then the highest placed male will come next on the list, followed by the next female candidate and then by the male.

This process is known as zipping and is used by the Labour Party in European candidate selections to help to balance male and female candidates.

You should vote by ranking the candidates in order of preference by placing a 1 against your first preference, 2 against your second preference and so on. You do not have to use all your preferences, although it cannot harm the chance of your first choice candidate if you do.

As Labour Uncut concluded recently:

At a time when there is widespread mistrust in politicians and disengagement in politics, does this really represent the most transparent way of selecting candidates?

Is “zipping” what the new politics is all about?

Meanwhile, I read yesterday (in Spanish) (robot English here) that in Spain the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) is looking to get enshrined in electoral law there the aforementioned procedure of zipping (the Spanish call it “listas cremallera” – “zip lists”).

Whilst the procedure hasn’t been explained as clearly as it could have been, and Labour Uncut is right to bring our attention to this, it is obviously looking to right a severe wrong which the privileged few who control politics continue to exert even in the presence of 50 percent quotas.  It serves no useful purpose whatsoever for men and women to make up an electoral list, if the majority of the electable seats end up in hands of men.

That it is time a representative democracy represents its people properly and transparently is no more self-evidently true than today, where a Cabinet of millionaires holds sway disastrously over our politics.

Zipping is a great idea whose time should have come long ago.  Although it smacks through the word used, even when better explained, emotionally of tying up freedoms, we shouldn’t allow those who maintain existing profiles of privilege to kick the procedure into touch.

We need a fairer and more truly representative democracy.  Properly implemented, a 50 percent quota with equal opportunities of winning for men and women will surely get us there eventually.

A case of a policy which might remove a raft of career choices for men like myself, but would – long-term – benefit us all socially a thousandfold over.  After all, what’s the point of winning if it involves oppression?  That’s not winning at all; that’s essentially the hierarchies of serfdom.

That’s a meritocracy built on catacombs of lies.

Let’s follow the PSOE’s example, and propose giving it legal backing.  Time – long overdue, in fact – to make zipping the law for all political parties.


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Apr 282013
 
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It’s really getting tricky to work out exactly what is going on.  Two examples come to mind:

Which brings me to this recent epetition requesting that someone devise laws that would cover at least the latter case:

Ban MPs from voting on matters in which they have a financial interest

Responsible department: Office of the Leader of the House of Commons

We call on HM Government for new legislation to ensure that:

i. No member of Parliament may speak or vote in a debate on legislation which could financially benefit any commercial operation in which they have a financial interest; and

ii. No member of Parliament may speak or vote in a debate on legislation which could financially benefit any commercial operation which has made – or currently makes – donations to themselves personally or their political party.

We believe this is necessary to prevent corruption. It is also in accord with the spirit of political reform supported by the government.

And this is why I point this out to you today: mainly because I don’t believe the real issue to hand is working out what our leaders HAVE done.  That is the job of journalists and other politicians – that is the job of all those who oversee how things work.  No.  I think the real issue to hand is quite another one.  As I tweeted a few minutes ago:

Leaders have spent last 30 years passing laws to control us in order we didn’t notice laws which for their own benefit they haven’t passed.

And when I say leaders, I do mean both business and political.  It’s what they DON’T do which should really be occupying us now.

Why has our democracy stumbled into the 21st century with no legislation of import in place to prevent those with certain financial interests from voting on a matter they will benefit directly or indirectly from?

Why have our allegedly free markets been built upon the foundations of a money-pricing system which allows the major banking corporations to collude in fixing their levels?

What other aspects of latterday democratic life simply choose to ignore pressing legal matters such as these – and prefer, instead, to pass laws relating to a whole host of curiously repressive regimes which only really affect the ordinary people?

And where they also – gently but persistently, and into the bargain – end up improperly distracting us from the above.

After all, we’ve had a plethora of constructive and revealing websites and organisations which continually register, define and explain what our leaders have been getting up to and are doing.  Isn’t it time, now, that we began to do the same with everything else – that is to say, everything else they quite deliberately HAVEN’T done?

Time for yet another Internet list then?

The hugely important list of all the major pieces of legislation, which those whose intention it is to seriously hobble democracy and free markets have made bloody damn well sure should never happen.

So anyone know where we might start?

Bite-sized replies on a virtual postcard, please!


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Apr 212013
 
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This story was brought to my attention by Paul Bernal on Twitter this morning.  It involves what he described as a Labour-funded think tank, IPPR, coming up with the brilliant (#irony) idea to turn unemployment benefit into a loan which would be repayable on returning to work.  You can find the story on the Observer at the moment here.

IPPR, meanwhile, is fairly transparent as think tanks go.  As per the Who Funds You? website, it gets an “A” rating – and on its own website lists current funders thus.  Quite a mixed bag, in fact: from charities and David Miliband himself to the European Commission, Serco (#hmm), Aviva, the consumer magazine Which?, a brace of Joseph Rowntree organisations and the City of London Corporation.  Hardly straightforwardly Labour-funded, then.

The news did, however, cause me to tweet in the following way:

Taxpayer bailouts; student loans; now the poor in their grasp. The real something-for-nothing scroungers are the bloody banks themselves!

And it’s true.  It seems to me that in a crisis entirely due to mismanagement in and around the financial sector – both technical and technocratic it has to be said – those who continue to pay the price for such disintegration are those hardest hit by its consequences.  So it is we reward instead of punish the banking corporations for having got it so wrong.  As money gets tighter for the poor, opportunities for the banks to make easy cash off our backs are expanded not only by the Wonga-style market forces of the desultory high street but also by the bright and bushy-tailed think-tank boffins themselves.  I can’t think of another sector in the world – or, indeed, in history – where failure was such a profitable act.

Nor, in fact, where it continues to get even more profitable.

But, on the train yesterday on the way to a Manchester policy forum, I stumbled across a solution to all our ills.  At the moment, corporations are legal figures with many of the rights and obligations of ordinary people.  This is well known and well documented and I shan’t repeat myself here.  However, what I would like to suggest is that a serious imbalance does exist as far as depriving the liberty of such corporations to act when under investigation – or, indeed, after being found guilty of certain acts.

Ordinary people, for example, quite often when arrested find themselves summarily deprived of their liberty – and no one questions the process.  Apart from the odd legal phonecall or interview or occasional family visit, their radius of action and ability to influence the result is radically reduced.  This allows for the police to carry out necessary investigations, untrammelled by the interference of too many interested – and perhaps self-promoting – parties.

This does not happen in the case of corporate entities: mostly, in cases of even quite severe misdemeanour (witness recent high-profile banking scandals around the long-term money-laundering of drug revenues by banks you’d hardly expect to exhibit such behaviours), we generally find such corporate figures – flesh-and-blood people in everything but flesh-and-blood – do not get arrested; do not need to request bail; and never get imprisoned.  Their liberty is never deprived; they continue to operate in the meantime; they proceed to make their money as before.

Sadly, of course, we often discover after the event that the potential for being fined for some act or another will have been factored into an annual budget before the crimes in question were committed.  A fine, even a large fine, even just the threat of a fine, becomes simply one more operating cost to be contemplated as the logistics of the year are calculated.

And although, on occasions, executives do find themselves accused of specific acts, the processes are so drawn out as to make any sensible adjustment to the direction of our socioeconomic fabrics impossible to engineer.  They frequently manage to stay at the top of their hierarchical games, despite the complaints of shareholders; despite the unhappiness of a wider consuming public; and despite the reputational damage this leads to.  With their battalions of legal support, these alpha men and women feel secure in their protective silos and bunkers of belief.  No wonder they behave as imperiously as they do.

In such cases, not only are the operations of the companies in question left untouched, the ability of their apparently criminal leaders to continue leading remains intact.

My suggestion, then, which came to me as I journeyed – quite appropriately – to the TUC’s founding place, is to engineer two new figures in company law:

  1. the figure of arrest without bail
  2. the figure of imprisonment

How would these work?  Well, in the case of the former, arrest without bail would mean the corporation would have to shut down all its operations immediately.  Just as a person who finds themselves under the same deprivation of liberty, whilst investigations into probable misconduct take place, so we should be able to do the same to a company.  And the mere threat of being able to do this would surely lead to a radical change in how fines and punishments for corporate maleficence were treated and assessed in the future by those who currently quite happily contemplate them.

In the case of the latter figure, the figure of imprisonment, we could suggest that a company might totally cease operations in a similar way once sentence had been passed a posteriori.  Under such circumstances, and for a certain period of time only, the company in question could not continue to occupy the marketplace, in much the same way as a person in prison must effectively cut off all connections to the outside world.

The result would be two powerful instruments to make the corporate figure far more like the human equivalent which – in so many cases – it loves to emulate.

Applied in particular to the banking corporations, it would send a hugely important message around the significance of competence, honesty and openness for our shared societies.

As well as, surely, end the terrible cycle of reward for utter failure – a cycle which appears to be the current tonic and reality of latterday capitalism.


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Mar 142013
 
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Peter Watt has a useful overview of the impact the interconnected world is having on politics.  You can find this post here today over at Labour Uncut.  It’s worth reading in full.

Essentially, Mr Watt argues that the political classes attribute the current fractures in society to economic crisis.  I think I made the same point recently, so am unlikely to find myself disagreeing.  Where I do think I diverge from the aforementioned classes – and in this so does Watt – is in assuming that if only we can sort out the economic crises currently assailing us, everyone and everything will revert to its former stasis and equilibrium.  In Watt’s own words:

[...] Following this logic through and when the economy upturns, then political business as usual will resume.  Labour and the Tories will battle it out for supremacy with Lib Dems battling for scraps or possibly further coalition.

But as he goes on to say (the bold is mine):

The result of this assumption is essentially conservative; it is the politics of no change in how we do our politics.  The countdown has begun to May 7 2015 and the only question is which of the big two will be the largest party the day after.   Whilst others may be suffering from the economic situation or the rapidly changing world, the world of politics appears unaffected.

To be honest, I would be inclined to argue that of the two, suffering from a rapidly changing world has to be the most significant challenge.  And by a massive margin.  A while ago I wrote a rather involved piece on the need to create a parallel parliament of coders to the one we already have: that is to say, the one of lawyers we have become so accustomed to.  In this I argue, as per Lawrence Lessig, that 21st century software code is a set of laws in much the same way that 19th century law was a set of societal codes.  Both required, and require, interpreters; authors too; and champions, of course.  But the difference between the two for our democracies is that the software coders do their law-writing behind closed corporate doors, as they fashion our online constitutions in terms of their companies’ diktats, and in accordance with shareholder requirements.

In a democracy it was never thus.  At the very least, Parliament was held to be sovereign – even if sometimes its ability to deliver was compromised.  As I point out in the post in question:

But if what Lessig has sustained for quite a while now is in any way true, the kind of profession which dominates our democracy is entirely the wrong one for our times.  If more law is being made in the online constitutions we now all operate under for our communication, peer-to-peer exchanges, commerce and gaming than is being made in our parliaments, surely we need a parliament stuffed with those who understand the new tools.

Otherwise, we depend on the good faith of people working behind closed corporate doors to create online and connected offline worlds with a sensibility and sensitivity to the needs of a wider democracy.

Hardly the essence of representative democracy, now is it?

Which brings us to my last point.  Watt argues thus:

But more and more people care less and less about the world of politics.  If they notice what is going on at all they don’t very often see anything that has much relevance to them.   In a world that is increasingly interconnected the communications from the parties are still essentially in broadcast mode.

And whilst he’s right as far as he goes, I think he could have gone further.  People care less and less about the world of party politics.  But not less and less about politics.  In fact, human beings are innately political – as well as in the thrall, sometimes despite themselves, of intrinsically democratic impulses.

And so it is that even Watt, from his position as professional politician, appears to attribute distaste for the political processes in question simply to a lack of bidirectional communication: that is to say, dialogue.

The famous listening mode of so many unhappy political experiments, perhaps.

Meanwhile, I would argue, especially in the light of my coder post, that in fact the fracture goes much further than that: people love democracy, love politics, love the cut and thrust of open and honest debate – and none of what Watt describes has changed that love one iota.  What has substituted the whole idea of 19th century lawmaking is the very worldwide web itself.  Via open source communities, via forums and social networks, people express and embrace their instincts for democracy – and slowly but all too surely move away from expressing their democracy within the space of party politics.

In a sense, party politics is now to democracy what HMV was to music and video sales.  And as Facebook, Twitter and a whole host of other social communication tools have been created in corporate skyscrapers without the oversight of our duly elected representatives, so our democracy has slowly but all too surely become a plaything of sub-democratic means.

Not just the traditional politicians and businesspeople, and those infamous revolving doors – but also the voters and citizens themselves in peer-to-peer ways and without apparent mediation, communicating with each other via the freemium software tools of highly intelligent individuals who are way ahead of the rest of us.

And yet … and yet … these democratic instincts – which all of us humans continue to exhibit – do seem to be marching on.

The real question, I suppose, is whether the majority of politicians care to pay attention to any of this.

Whether they notice that whilst they demonstrate how irrelevant they are to improving our sorry lot, their erstwhile dependants may be choosing to rebuild their own lives quite without them.

It won’t even be a question of having to regain someone’s lost trust.

It’ll be far more a question of ultimate redundancy.


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Dec 042012
 
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This is one for the lawyerly folk amongst you.  I’m surprised, and a little disheartened, to conclude that, apparently, laws can only be oppressive; that, apparently, they can never liberate.  Why do I come to this conclusion?  Partly because of cogently argued posts from people such as David and Rodney (more from the latter here), as well as James who wrote his particularly thoughtful piece before the last month was even out.

I guess I’m coming from a completely different direction.  Whilst the above all fear the dangers of legislation creep once governments have got their dirty hands on the press, I fear even more – at least right now, at least in Britain – the dangers of behaviour creep once media empires realise they’ll be able to get away with it – whatever it will turn out to be.

The thing is, I still haven’t received a clear answer from anyone as to why we should put our trust in transnational corporations to sustain our press freedoms over any trust we might expect to deposit in our governments.  If you’re really telling me that this is the case – if you’re really telling me a corporation with its nominal headquarters located in a large US city, its tax exposure located in a neatly clever tax haven and its profits located in a foreign country via all kinds of ingenious internal royalty “agreements” … well, that after all of the aforementioned, it is still going to be a more reliable guarantor of our most fundamental rights than our own democratically-elected government – then surely we must agree that we have a serious issue with our government.

And if you’re telling me that the laws which such a government might make will inevitably be oppressive, what is this thing we call Western democracy?  Are you really assuring me that in this democracy we are now labouring under there are no examples of laws out there which serve to liberate and empower a people?  Are you really arguing that laws only serve to control, impose and homogenise?  Are the ideas of free speech, diversity of thought and imagination – of creativity and generosity of spirit – so contrary to the legal mindset and all its outputs?

At the foot of one of Rodney’s pieces, on the 2020UK website, an attempt in itself to re-engineer society through measured legislative change, I responded thus (the bold is mine today):

I can appreciate a lot of what is being said here, but I think the free press stopped in large part being free when it started breaking the law not to preserve our wider freedoms but, rather, simply to up its readership.

We need to correct what’s been going on: the distortions in our media ownership, the limited number of sources used to generate most copy, the churnalism that comes out of lack of revenues, the predominance of pulpits of power as opinion-makers impose their agendas undemocratically. If you can show me this can be done without legislation, I’ll be happy to go along with it. If not, then we’ve reached a point where legislation will be needed.

Perhaps one idea – which I mentioned on Facebook yesterday – would be to have an irrevocably time-limited set of new laws to re-establish a real free market in communication and media here in our nations. Once that time had passed, and it’s job was done, the laws would automatically lapse and the freedom of the press would be properly recreated. As I suggested in a post I published this week on my own site, without a free market you cannot have a free press. And you’re surely not suggesting that it is better to leave the future of the free press, and our wider rights to free speech, in the hands of transnational limited liability companies instead of democratically elected and supposedly representative governments.

Finally, we don’t *have* to see legislation as only limiting and controlling. We can surely contemplate some kinds of legislation as being liberating and in favour of diversity. This 2020UK project, for example, aims to devolve many responsibilities to localities. Such a step would be liberating – but would also be an example of an objective which required the tool of legislation. No?

So it is that I knock the ball back into the court of the lawyers.

Is law only a tool of oppression – or can it liberate too?  What do you think?  Do you feel your profession is exclusively impositional – or is there a lighter and more positive side to all you do?  And can we legislate for freer speech – or does any such kind of legislation only guarantee more restrictions?

I’d be interested in your observations.

A lot might ride on the conclusions you come to.


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Dec 022012
 
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I Facebooked and tweeted the following thought a few minutes ago: “I’m afraid our free press is about as free as our free markets are free markets.”  On Facebook, in response to the argument that this means freer than state-controlled Pravda (or these days, I suppose, TV’s “Russia Today”), I then argued this:

No. I don’t mean that. I mean that elected governments are no longer the primary source of power over our lives.  I also mean, as Dan Hind observed recently, that any limited liability organisation is obliged to accept regulation.  If you don’t want to be regulated, don’t limited liability yourself.  Regulation is part and parcel of the corporate contract.  Prefer to be unregulated?  Then do what the rest of us citizens have to do when proclaiming our opinions to the rest of the public domain.  Accept unlimited liability as the downside of a greater freedom.

The truth of the matter is that our free press is no more nor less free than our markets.  As modern communications currently require industry on a massive scale to operate usefully – that is to say, to provide us with a broad understanding of what’s going on in the world – concentrations of wealth inevitably intervene.  If media ownership is reasonably distributed, and if the sources our journalists use to construct their tales are reasonably widespread, we may get a reasonably free implementation of what a democratic press should really be.  But if our free markets tend towards the monopolies of corporate capitalism, which they do, our press, supposedly free, open and honest, will tend towards exactly the same.

So if we cannot guarantee that in the future we will not begin to slide into Roosevelt’s definition of the fascist state, we must conceptualise our free press so that it does not depend on the state of our markets.  Yes.  It is true.  It is dangerous for government to control our media.  We’ve seen how the current Coalition has already seemed to have managed it, covertly and cleverly it must be admitted, in relation to our public broadcaster’s coverage of the changes being engineered in our NHS.  So to actually make it possible for governments to engage in legislation creep in the future, and acquire every right to participate in the making of the news, is clearly a foolhardy step to propose taking.

But it is equally foolhardy – and rankly naive to boot – to suggest that leaving our press in the hands of transnational corporations is the very best way to guarantee our nation’s freedoms.

There must, therefore, be a third way out of this nightmare.

Neither government legislation nor corporate whim?  Sounds good to me.  The question is: what?


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Nov 292012
 
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Emily Bell argued yesterday in the Guardian that by making and sustaining a distinction between the press on the one hand and social media on the other the Leveson Inquiry had painted itself into the corner of irrelevance.  Her definition of the free press would, instead, be as follows:

The free press of the 21st century consists of the distributed social platforms, the WordPress blogging software and the “dark social” matter of the hidden web, as much as it is the venerable institutions that have local accountability to whatever regulator the UK government should seek to appoint.

Leveson is, however, quite undeterred.  He repeated his assertions today as he delivered his 2000-page report on press culture, its ethics and its possibly regulated future.  Try minute three of the video below:


http://youtu.be/8iuxaVkfHOA?t=3m

He’s clear there is a difference, isn’t he?  No doubt in his mind at all.  The question is, whose instincts should we run with?  Those of a professional journalist such as Bell, seeped, as she is, in communication lore and its dynamics – or a man with the kind of regulatory instincts which only the professions of lawyer and judge can infuse?

I’m not sure, actually, that’s the real issue to hand.  I’ve always felt my blogging – and latterly my tweeting and Facebook output – was more along the lines of a global conversation than publishing.  Certainly, if anything tended to the latter, it would be this blog – but even there, the habit of hyperlinking and bouncing off other’s occurrences, the fact that the purpose of my blogging has always been to brainstorm ideas and follow them to their ultimate consequences, surely gives me the right to side more with Lord Justice Leveson than with Emily Bell’s almost catch-all attempt to include social media under her professionalising umbrellas.

And I really don’t think I’d be the only blogger or social-media fan to believe that we converse and dialogue more than publish.  Whilst Leveson attempts to see beyond the technology – to identify what makes institutional and industrial communication very particular to the health of a democracy, to that holding of power to account – it would appear that Bell seems to confuse means and aims.

That newspapers like the Guardian use social-media technologies – blogging software, tweeting and Facebooking facilities, even the chatty discourse of conversation – doesn’t mean that the original social media, the bloggers and tweeters and Facebookers galore, have suddenly become paid-up members of the official British press.  And it goes without saying it’s my firm belief that all attempts to make us so, by anyone who believes that’s the way forward, should be firmly resisted.

Why?  Out of pure self-interest?  Out of a creeping set of double standards?  Out of a desire to be able to say without having to accept responsibility for one’s content?

I don’t think so.

Firstly, bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers do not have access to legions of lawyerly support.  Nor, in general, do they have the consistent and easily maintainable visibility which power of any real kind demands.  If they do have any power, it is the power of the crowd: a lent out, shared and circulated power.  Yes, in its negative manifestations, possibly similar to the power of the mob.  But in its positives, a glorious song to human collaboration.

Secondly, if we’re looking to have an area of reasonably public discourse which can follow trains of new and ground-breaking thought to their logical conclusions, which can imagine new worlds and which does offer our civilisation a route out of a pervasive group-think, surely anyone who cares at all about democratic communication will understand we need to encourage the ambiguity that social media has so eagerly generated and enabled.  The institutional press, in Leveson’s terms, is there to hold institutional power to account – and quite rightly so.  But social media should be reserved, equally rightly so, for the amateur citizen and interested voter to express their opinions as often and as freely as they like.

With certain limitations where the pale is gone so far beyond – but with a desire for “independent and effective self-regulation” whenever the free and open web is able to thus deliver.

As Peter on Twitter said today:

This is one of those days when its good to be mindful of the difference between “free speech” and “free press”

And he’s right.  Let us guarantee by all means the freedoms of the press, as Bell fairly pursues.  Let us also, however, consciously sustain the right of a virtualised base of evermore engaged citizens to use the very same technologies which the press is now appropriating as its own – but for purely individual, non-institutional, crowd-focussed and conversational purposes.

The difference between the press and social media is, therefore, after all, a useful distinction indeed: it is the clearly understandable difference between writing up and speaking up.

Keep that in mind, dear professional journalists – and it’ll be easier to comprehend why Leveson, in this at least, is absolutely spot-on.

Spot-on, that is to say, in his interestingly outsider’s perceptions of exactly where each of our duties really should lie in the future.

____________________

Update to this post: if you prefer reading to watching videos, you can now find a full transcript of Leveson’s statement this afternoon over at the Politics Home website.  The executive summary of the report itself can be found here (.pdf file); the report in its entirety here (.pdf file).


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Nov 262012
 
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Today, the Guardian publishes a fascinating story – a story that may have the most far-reaching of implications for democracy, free speech, online behaviours and the wider publishing industry.  Essentially it describes how an Australian jury has come to the conclusion that Google’s search engine is actually a full-blown publisher – not simply an automated disseminator of access to interesting, timely and relevant content.

Now if Google’s search, a “simple” aggregator of content, can be accused and sentenced as a publisher – or, presumably, re-publisher of sorts – by a legal system I assume is pretty similar to our own (for it’s hardly going to be more restrictive in matters of freedom of expression I would, at the very least, have thought), just think what kind of intellectual precedent the case could set for our more thoughtful judges over here in England.

Just think, in fact, what they might say about Sally Bercow and that tweet which referred “innocently” to a trending topic generated by Twitter’s very own corporate mathematics.

Just think what they might now have to consider in relation to Twitter’s responsibility for that topic and trend in the first place.

As I just tweeted on Twitter itself:

So algorithms and the companies which create them *can* be held responsible for the content they enable. Twitter (the corp) – watch out!

Meanwhile, a few days ago I was already arguing the following:

What I’m really saying with all of this is that Twitter’s Terms of Service attempt to argue that its software simply distributes and does not publish.  It takes no responsibility for the bringing together of such content – and it consequently allows form to come under one legislation and content, thus defined, to belong entirely to the user.  (Though we know that even this is not true: a user cannot normally access more than a limited number of tweets back in time, whilst companies pay Twitter good money to access on a massive scale such ancient thoughts and occurrences.)

My argument, however, would run as follows: deliberately dumbing down individual ideas into 140-character gobbets and then bringing them together automatically to create interesting streams of thought involves not just the process of distribution but also the process of transformation.  We are not just talking about giving someone else the tool to publish off their own bat: microblogging (ie Twitter) is essentially different from its much more discursive and single-authored precursor – which is to say, the blogging you see in front of you right now.  Microblogging, essentially, is collaborative writing which involves many many others – and in order for it to work someone, or something, needs to sort and filter the information.

That is to say, give it shape.  Edit and give sense and sensibility to what would otherwise be a morass of idiocies.

So who are the authors who write in a microblogging site like Twitter?  Obviously the individuals who post.  But also, surely, if we’re being realistic, the software which joins as a seamless whole the activities of so many busy worker bees; which is programmed and designed from ground up to prioritise speed of transmission over reflection; and which aims above all to indicate the latest over the lasting.

Which is why we finally come to the question I pose at the top of this post: why is a company like Twitter’s social-media software not also legally responsible for what it – basically – creates? Or at the very least enables?

But if this Australian case now proceeds to open the floodgates for “simple” search engines to be taken to court on any and every matter libellous matter arising (the truth being, of course, that they’re not all that simple – levering as they do billions of dollars of advertising revenues), just imagine how this might all impact – as the implications bed down – on the usage and abusage of social-media networks such as the above-mentioned Twitter and the inevitable Facebook.

That it spreads the burden of responsibility for statements made in a bespoke software constitution is to my mind only reasonable.  That it may mean we lose all the virtues of Web 2.0, as well as online communication more generally, should however serve to stop us in our tracks – and make us seriously wonder if this is now going to be all for the best.

Do we really want the law to become even more wound up in our daily discourse?  Is this really the right way for the interactive web?  Do we really not know of any other way of exercising order which does not remove more and more our ability to communicate freely, spontaneously and democratically with other citizens?

As the Guardian concludes in its excellently measured piece:

If the Australian decision is followed by courts elsewhere search engines and platform providers will have to be a lot quicker in dealing with requests to take down material when they are contacted by a potential claimant and they will have to be more responsive to requests to sever links to defamatory content if their “not our responsibility, contact the webmaster” response opens them up to liability.

For those of us who put material online it might mean a more hostile legal landscape. The lesson will be that not only do you have to watch what you say online, search engines will have to do so as well.

And so is it that I fear a massive return to the deep web and its darknesses, if something is not done very quickly.  Just as I also wonder whether the battles are already well on their way to being quite unpredictably – quite hazardously – lost.

I do still choose to believe that there must, surely, be another way to guarantee a future world of intelligent sharing.

It’s just that I’ve become evermore totally ignorant of the proper means to engineer and implement such a goal.


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Nov 262012
 
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Dan makes a massively important point today when he underlines the following:

If journalists, editors and owners wish to speak with entire freedom then let them speak as human individuals, without the protection of the corporate form. They will stand full square behind what they say and will assume all the risks that necessarily accompany this freedom. The state will have no special interest in regulating them. But those who wish to contribute to the creation of corporate speech, and so enjoy the protections of limited liability, can raise no principled objection to the statutory regulation of their activities.

Essentially, you cannot enjoy the freedom and right to limit your liability without the corresponding duty to be inspected and regulated in everything you do.

Conversely, of course, this leads us to the following observation: ordinary people – the unlimited liability sort I mean: the sort who could currently lose absolutely everything out of a desire to actively participate in democratic discourse – should perhaps not be so much at the mercy of the same rigid and statutory overviews as described above, in relation to what they say and exchange in virtual-conversation environments such as those which latterday social-media networks create and sustain.

With such an understanding, you cannot seriously argue that the publication of corporately-created speech has the same legal quality – certainly the same moral position – as that which an unlimited liability person generates.

My argument in a nutshell?  If you want limited liability, be absolutely sure about what you say.  If you don’t demand such a freedom and right, as well as the opportunity to make a serious living out of your communications, your corresponding duty to be as precise as possible should be correspondingly reduced.

Legally as well as morally, let it be understood.

So anyone with the legal nous care to comment on such a potential future state of affairs?


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Nov 252012
 
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Last year, for some reason I never properly understood, I was invited to a number of briefings by the Law Society on the encroaching cuts in Legal Aid which this government quite unnecessarily proposed.  The Law Society produced its own suggestions which quite reasonably proposed greater savings than the Coalition thought necessary whilst simultaneously protecting citizen access to Legal Aid in many of the highly sensitive areas the government was aiming to take out of scope.  The government, running as it did – and still does – on petrol tanks of prejudice far more than the evidence-based approach which tends to guarantee equanimity, ignored those suggestions and the campaign failed.

More recently, I have heard that an American tendency to number-crunch crime statistics is under consideration here in Britain.  Predictive policing, if I understand correctly, involves analysing data in relation to what crimes and where have already been committed in a community to ensure that a police presence is maximised, refined and optimised in terms of where such crimes might take place in the future.

The crimes that generally get mentioned tend to be similar to burglary – I am unaware whether this is to soften up and ensure blind public acceptance of the technique’s potential implications or whether it lends itself especially to such activities (just as I ask myself why we couldn’t initiate our investigations with these new technologies in the fields of potential banking fraud, for example, before we deal with the petty lowlife) – but it does occur to me that perhaps such a concept could be introduced elsewhere with equally constructive results.  What if those who might commit crime – but unknowingly, through some complexity of the law and a wider general inaccessibility to the same – could access similar predictive systems which might inform them of their transgression before it actually managed to unknowingly consummate itself?

A kind of predictive Legal Aid, in fact, where the law would be democratised and made more understandable using the very same algorithms that the police are currently applying to catch criminals before they actually get to act on a “decision cycle” – but which in this case could be of very significant use to a wider population which wishes to remain law-abiding wherever they can properly understand how to.

A bemused population, in fact, which is already massively confused by the increasing number and penetration of laws into what is essentially an evermore domestic environment.

Now I do understand that in the ideal world we should still aim for, such a system of Legal Aid would never fully replace a face-to-face and sympathetic consultation.  We do not, however, live in an ideal world – and resources, they tell us, are short.  Just imagine, then, if we could harness the concept of predictive policing to help lawful citizens remain so: a preventative justice system, that is, which didn’t just help the police stop the baddies but helped the goodies proactively stop themselves from falling into the abyss of unconscious misdemeanourship.

I wondered the other day whether Twitter mightn’t do this for its own software constitution.  It’s a simple example: an automated system such as that which legal eagles, scraping the web for intellectual property infringement, might already use – but adapted to the needs of certain updateable keywords and phrases.  The tweet in question, before it was sent, would be parsed by the system and flagged up to the user if potentially libellous for a particular jurisdiction.

So just imagine a similar principle applied far more widely and comprehensively to the law: like a competent National Health Service, don’t only put the patients back together again when they fall ill but also provide them with the tools to avoid falling ill in the first place.

Too difficult to achieve?  Right.  OK.  Like putting a man on the moon was too difficult to achieve half a century ago.

The right political will can still move mountains of achievement.

*

To this moment in my essay, all well and good.  The question I now ask, with a modicum of bad faith, runs as follows: do the police and their evermore privatising colleagues – as well as lawyerly folk more generally – really want to reduce the number of crimes and misdemeanours committed or not?

Is it, in fact, in their interests to promote the prevention of crime?

Would they really like to make us all law-abiding?

Or do they actually need us to continue providing them with work – the kind of work which fills their profitable timesheets, their profit-driven prisons and their profiteering contracts for managing the underbelly of our societies?

And if you think I am being harsh, answer me this question: why start with those criminals who would wish to cause crime – and not with those who do not wish to fall foul of its consequences in the first place?

Why not start with prevention when it’s so manifestly better than the cure?


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Sep 102012
 
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In many ways, the virtual reflects the real world.  Identity online, who you are really communicating with and even with what degree of privacy, is an issue electronically just as much as it can be offline.  In the early days of the printing press, meanwhile, uncontrolled copying of content meant authors and publishers were left with little compensation for their efforts.  And so we could argue that the Internet – or more exactly the worldwide web – is at such a stage in its development.

The law, however, is in many respects another case altogether.  Traditional ways of making constitutions which rule and structure how people behave have either been conscious and overt – as exemplified by written constitutions the world over – or unwritten but just as binding through sentences handed down by courts.  In both cases, however, to a certain degree anyhow, representative democracy has acted over the process.

Latterday 21st century constitutions are utterly different from the above.  Here, software code itself defines how we behave and interact.  Code, in fact, is the law of our times.  But democracy has not been involved in the game.

Which is why I would argue that people who become specialists in their technical fields need to acquire and learn how to follow strict moral codes.  For the following reasons.

Firstly, let me explain that I don’t mean the already regulated areas of teaching, the legal profession and doctoring here.  Instead, such areas of knowledge which help to define, without an appropriate democratic oversight, our current and ever-growing extra-democratic rights and responsibilities: software engineering, entrepreneurial activity, risk-taking of all kinds … the stuff, that is, that we’ve allowed to slip out of democratic control and essentially subvert any chances of an a priori debate.

We could, of course, decide we needed to democratise our specialists far more than they are.  Or, alternatively, we could decide to dispense with them altogether.  But the former would hardly work in an environment where representative democracy is manifestly failing us – whilst the latter, if we care to continue with technology as our civilisation’s driver and saviour, is really no option at all.

No.  Democracy can’t mean we all take part.  Not because democracy doesn’t call for it.  Rather, because our technological prowesses mean it is impossible to contemplate without radically changing how we look as a society.

So we will continue to need specialists as before – to interface between the complex and the ordinary.  But a different kind of specialist: a specialist who doesn’t greedily make huge wealth out of their ability to know something someone else can’t; a specialist who knows how to communicate peer-to-peer.  Peer-to-peer in the sense of human-to-human and not in the sense of competencies.

For there is an alternative: we may choose as I am implying above to introduce a sense of professional vocation into all acts of business, politicking and cultural activity.  If we educate our societies – in a perhaps predistributive way, and as applied to a wider culture – to want different things from the things they currently aspire to, maybe then we can change the results we are currently getting.

It’s no accident that you and I should hanker after new versions of gadgets we already have.  It’s no accident that we should want to eat more than our bodies naturally call for.  It’s no accident that life involves substituting the desire for wealth over the desire for health.  All these instincts are not natural to the human being.  They require nurturing on a grand scale: a grand scale which amoral advertising campaigns have spent the last century delivering.

The only thing we have to do is decide, then, at a grand societal level, that we want our people to want other things which don’t break them – and our societies – down.

We need specialists as we’ve never needed them before, that is true.  But we don’t need specialists who believe in using their knowledge to pull the wool over our eyes over and over again.

The lesson?  Don’t hoard as William Gibson is alleged to have said.

Share.

And share before our necessity leads us to take.


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Jul 052012
 
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A few items this evening.  First, MPs have raucously rejected a judge-led investigation into the Barclays Libor-rigging scandal.  Rejected, it must be said, in the main, by a Tory-led Coalition government voting on partisan lines – and clearly in consonance with the banking community which funds the aforementioned party thus:

The Conservative Party has become reliant on bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity moguls for more than half its annual income, an independent analysis of Tory finances has revealed. Since David Cameron became Conservative leader in December 2005, the amount of money the City has given to bankroll the Tories has gone up fourfold, to £11.4m a year. Over those five years, the City has donated more than £42m to the party.

There’s also been time for personal and distracting fireworks, of course – the blame for these firmly lying at the feet of a man named George Osborne.  To be honest, I’m pretty clear that Libor is just the beginning.  A whole lot more is going to come out in the next few months – and possibly years – of weary discovery.

And it is most wearisome.  Foolish banking caused our economic misery.  Foolish banking provides half the income of the Tory Party.  The Tory Party throws even more money at foolish banking.  And so the cycle goes on.

You see, the problem here isn’t just lawbreaking.  It’s also a question of observing natural justice:

There are two rules that natural justice is concerned with. These are the rule against bias (nemo iudex in causa sua) and the right to a fair hearing (audi alteram partem).

The basis for the rule against bias is the need to maintain public confidence in the legal system. Bias can take the form of actual bias, imputed bias or apparent bias. Actual bias is very difficult to prove in practice while imputed bias, once shown, will result in a decision being void without the need for any investigation into the likelihood or suspicion of bias. Cases from different jurisdictions currently apply two tests for apparent bias: the “reasonable suspicion of bias” test and the “real likelihood of bias” test. One view that has been taken is that the differences between these two tests are largely semantic and that they operate similarly.

The right to a fair hearing requires that individuals should not be penalized by decisions affecting their rights or legitimate expectations unless they have been given prior notice of the case, a fair opportunity to answer it, and the opportunity to present their own case. The mere fact that a decision affects rights or interests is sufficient to subject the decision to the procedures required by natural justice. In Europe, the right to a fair hearing is guaranteed by Article 6(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is said to complement the common law rather than replace it.

The issue here, of course, at least in my eyes, is that our corporations, elected representatives, civil servants and other empowered figures are all too clever at getting away with breaking the spirit of the law.  You don’t evade tax (illegal), you just avoid it (immoral).  You don’t force elected majorities to do your bidding, you just use the markets to downgrade their room for democratic manoeuvre.  You don’t fix elections, you just out-gun the opposition in ads, general media support and long-term destructive drip-feed journalism.

None of this is literally breaking the law.  To impose your will in the kind of democracies we are now left with, breaking the law is no longer necessary.  All you need to do is not observe natural justice.

And no one will remember to say anything.

In my previous post, I suggested we should invent ASBOs for corrupting bankers – not for the illegally acting ones, though; for the antisocially acting ones.

Not the ones we might one day be very lucky to prosecute.

No.  Instead, for the ones who under the guise of a supposedly professional occupation will continue to sully and disgrace any concept we might have had of the meaning of civilised behaviour.

And I wonder, after today’s decision by Tory and Lib Dem MPs, whether we don’t need corresponding ASBOs for the political classes too.

For these alpha men and women – those who occupy themselves with business, politics, revolving doors and rotten hearts – have not only been trained by the financial services sector to beg for financial support and kowtow to its every whim; if it were just that, we could still say our Anglo-Saxon legacy might even now be saved.  No.  In everything they do and everything they think, they mirror money’s natural instincts to invent, undo, fire, inspire fear, abuse, disabuse, bully and trample its way to the top.

Natural justice?  Doesn’t exist.  All that exists is the letter of the law.  And when the letter doesn’t suit, we change the meaning of the sentence.

This crisis isn’t just one of banking and its mores.  This crisis is much bigger than that.  This crisis is about how the lending and borrowing and paying back of money has become a Mafia-like construction built on the backs of blameless and humble workforces.  And anyone who touches it and anyone who is touched by it immediately acquires a relationship akin to that of a drug addict with their pusher.

It’s not just the Libor rates they fixed.

It’s also our concept of civilisation; of humanity; and of how we should conduct ourselves in polite society.


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Jun 182012
 
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Yesterday, I suggested that politicians – as opposed to evidence-based professionals like lawyers, doctors, scientists and educators – really were anchored in medieval times:

[...] those times when lords did their lording over serfs who did their kneeling; where people occupied castes which knew their place; and where every attempt at social mobility involved a threat against the integrity of the status quo.

I also concluded that:

Even as doctors, lawyers, scientists and educators have left behind them the dark and dreary miseries of medieval imposition and woodentop thought, politicians continue to believe in top-down hierarchies, in pyramidal politics, in tribal loyalties, in conditional relationships of all kinds … essentially, in the pursuit of a grand largesse where you get ahead only as far as birth allows you to; where you get ahead only as far as money defines is permissible.

Now I realise, in retrospect, that I was perhaps using a rather broad brush when I painted all politicians as medieval throwbacks.  So here’s a gentle – and I hope reasonable – qualification of my original thesis: the higher up the greasy pole of power a politician gets, the more medieval his or her behaviours become.

Medieval in the sense I describe above.  Or, alternatively, just as constructively, medieval in the sense of a persistent and resilient plague.

So not all by any means.  Just those who exert power and count.

Does that sit more nicely?

Of course it doesn’t.  And those of you who are practising politicians will resent my casting aspersions on a whole profession – especially in times of terrible crisis.  “It doesn’t help one bit!” you will exclaim.  “It’s unfair, unjust and totally unhelpful to be describing the vast majority of good professionals in terms of the awful ones at the top.”

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  When we talk of professional classes such as doctors or educators, we’re talking about roles where training periods can be between one and seven or more years.  And whilst this training is taking place, performance, attitude and behaviours are all measured and tested so that the individuals under the microscope of improvement understand exactly what is expected of them – before they go out and practise.

Where is the training-ground of politicians?  Local government politics perhaps?  On the job, most certainly.  My experience at parish-councillor level is depressing.  Most significant decisions were taken (or not, as the case may be) on firmly partisan lines.  No real thought going on there; no careful analysis of what was really needed.  Just small people acting out of personal prejudice – and things they’d picked up from the papers.

Multiply this experience up a thousandfold and what happens?  The more you get these politicians moving out of their comfort zones, the less they are likely to use data to guide them.  Instinct, impulse and hunch rear their ugly heads.  Which is when we get the plague of the greasy-pole theorem I mentioned above.

If politicians truly want to be treated on the same level as other professional classes, they must want to show the rest of us they are prepared to be trained, channelled, instructed and measured in the same evidence-based ways as those they would aspire to rule.  And they must also show, as lawyers, scientists, educators and the medical profession do most days of the week, that their vocation and goal in life is to be what they train to become.

For far too many voters, there is a perception that political activity is a simple springboard – on the backs of ordinary people’s interests – to better and materially more satisfying things.

What do I suggest, then, we require of our political class before they can begin to enable our societies?  A very short list made up of the following two items:

  1. proper and professionally couched training and study as a minimum requirement before any formal political activity which involved representing others can be countenanced; and
  2. a firm and indissoluble promise to never exercise any other profession or activity on the back of one’s political history

Would that do us?

Does that seem reasonable?

What, as a chastened voter, would you think of such changes?

And would you have any other items you’d like to add to the list?


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Apr 182012
 
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This story today makes me wonder what sort of government – and perhaps by extension, what sort of law – we want:

A Libyan military commander is taking legal action against Jack Straw, to find out if the ex-foreign secretary signed papers allowing his rendition.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj claims CIA agents took him from Thailand to Gaddafi-led Libya, via UK-controlled Diego Garcia.

His lawyers have served papers on Mr Straw after the Sunday Times reported claims that he allowed this to happen.

It’s interesting that whilst the users of Twitter and other social networks (my take here) are battling to keep the law out of encroaching on their casually couched freedoms of speech, that selfsame tool for supposedly exacting the truth of a matter is reaching up to the stratospheric levels of ex-government ministers and the like.

And my question really is: do we know what we are doing?

Once the law begins to get involved with the minutiae of relatively trivial intercourse, it can hardly resist the temptation to go after the mightiest in the land.  That’s what seems to me to be happening here.  A game whereby everything must come under its apparently objectivising gaze.  Maybe bearing more than a passing resemblance to that bewildering profession of economics which currently rules so many of our roosts.

Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong: it’s not the purpose of this post to decide.  It may be fair to send racist and foul-mouthed social-network users to prison; it may be right to serve civil papers on ex-ministers of previous governments.  I do hold my own opinion – but as a simple voter, what does that count?  In a society evermore circumscribed by the supposedly “good” and “wise”, what can be the point of me expressing it in relation to concrete cases which clearly have their complex and incommunicable ins and outs?

It does seem to me, however, in a more general sense, that there must be an alternative to an eternal legalisation of society.  In a way, it surely parallels the terrible medicalisation of what other ages judged to be the glory of human eccentricity: two professions – the medical and legal both – marching side by side in their awful attempts to type, control and ultimately homogenise our every instinct and movement as multifarious and ever-so-gentle beings.

Is this a battle, then, between the professions on the one hand and a wider and far more educatedly intelligent civic society, now far more aware of its intrinsic and moral rights, on the other?

Is what we are witnessing actually a turf war where economists, lawyers and doctors are all – maybe subconsciously, maybe with massive intention – fighting in some sad way to recover the respect and deference of yore?

And is it time the rest of us understood this war for what it was – and, by so doing, tried to renegotiate and reshape the compact which previously existed and defined our society?

In much the same way as some have argued in favour of an uneconomics, maybe it’s now high time we began to extend the principle to the other professions in the mix: unlaw, unmedicine and – even – uneducation.

Who knows?  Perhaps that’s exactly what this Coalition government is really all about.

It’d certainly help to explain very many of the dynamics currently on show.

And, as a result, whilst implementing foolishly and destroying quite unnecessarily, they may have a point in some of what they think.  If only our ministers knew how to properly verbalise their instincts, perhaps we could get somewhere through tried and tested methods of debate.

That greatest unprofession of all: the politico with nothing to do but retread old empires and resell them as something new.


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