Thursday, January 29, 2015 

You mean these ridiculously subjective rules apply to us as well?

It's hard not to feel at least a smidgen of sympathy for the good burghers behind the Durham free school and the Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland.  After all, what's the point of allowing any Tom, Dick or Toby Young to open up a new place of learning if they can't then attempt to instil whichever belief system they adhere to into their young charges?  If the parents want it, clearly they will come.  Who quite frankly is the government or Ofsted to stick their noses in and say a school in an overwhelmingly "White British" area is failing to "prepare its students for life in modern Britain"?  What is this outrageous political correctness being foisted on Christian and Jewish establishments when everyone knows the problem is with the Muslims?  Why is Durham free school having its funding pulled while the "Trojan Horse" schools remain open, albeit unable to recruit new teachers?

A weaker man would at the same time as feeling a twinge of sympathy also have a jolly good laugh.  From the very moment the panic over the schools in Birmingham erupted you could see this was going to happen.  There can't be one rule for schools in areas mostly populated by parents who, like it or not, might prefer education with an Islamic influence for their children, and another for those whom for whatever reason feel the need to bring God into it at every turn.  The fact the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair did not specifically have a Islamic ethos and were rather academies is by the by: start insisting every child must know what British values are, despite the vast majority of adults not having the first clue, and you get the kind of results the Daily Mail has been wailing about.  Kids asked if they know anyone who's gay!  Girl possibly asked if she was a virgin!  Child who says "terrorism" when questioned about Islam branded a bigot!  Schools failed on the grounds of being Christian!

Except, typically, if you bother to read the reports on either school the whole "not preparing students for life in modern Britain" angle, while there, is rather secondary to the schools just not being any good in general.  The Durham free school's governors, damningly, are said to "place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff and not enough on seeking candidates with excellent leadership and teaching skills."  I mean, blimey, who could have predicted that might happen with free schools?  Much the same is said of Grindon Hall, where "Many appointments are made without fair and open competition."

This does not make Ofsted's approach, which seems to be to ask young children questions on things they might not have the first idea about for perfectly innocent reasons, a good one.  How can they possibly conclude an answer which indicates lack of preparation for life in modern Britain™ is a reflection of the school's citizenship efforts rather than that of their life outside of school?  Why should the onus be on the school and not on the parents anyway, or would that be a government interference too far?  Worth remembering is that for all the shock and horror over the schools in Birmingham, there was not the slightest evidence presented of active radicalisation or that extremism was being taught.  Cohesion, folks, is a two-way street.  If clinging on to religion in a country that's become secular is seen as marking you out as not wanting to be a part of modern Britain®, might I suggest it could be time to join forces rather than spit out the dummy and say it's not fair?

Most amusing of all is the idea the ultimate architect behind this nonsense, one senor Michael Gove, was trying "to promote a politically correct diversity agenda".  Yes, that's exactly what Mr Drain the Swamp was doing.  Ofsted has been essentially recreated in Gove's image, even though he's now been replaced by Nicky Morgan, who coincidentally voted against gay marriage partly on the basis of, you guessed it, her religious views, so clearly more evidence of bias there.  The wiser heads might have seen the way this was going and spoke out at the time, before the education of more children was disrupted.  Such though is the way of those determined to leave their mark, regardless of the consequences.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014 

No sympathy for the devil.

There's only one question editors should ask themselves when offered photographs of a famous figure who has just been told the most shattering news: how would I like to be splashed across the next morning's papers, grief etched across my face, in what ought to be regardless of it happening in a public place, an intensely private moment?

If they would truly answer that reporting the level of grief outweighs the considerations of not intruding into it, something that the PCC code makes clear should always be approached sensitively, then they should make that case themselves. More likely is as is so often the case, should any paper even dream of reporting on the private life of a fellow editor, there would soon be phone calls a plenty and threats flying, with both sides usually backing down. Hence why the tabloids didn't report on Rebekah Wade (as was) splitting up with Ross Kemp, let alone the employment tribunal finding that Andy Coulson bullied and unfairly dismissed Matt Driscoll from the News of the World.

However Paul Dacre and the editors at the Mirror and Star defended it to themselves, they must have seen just how distasteful it was to fill all but their entire front pages with the image of Mick Jagger in such obvious distress. The Sun, perhaps stung by the criticism it received following the death of Reeva Steenkamp, having decided an image of the model appearing to undo her bikini top was the best way to illustrate the news, opted for a far smaller inset of the image used by the others, still obviously objectionable but not on the same scale as using it to fill the page.

It does of course raises questions about what now is beyond the pale. The extremely long lens shots of the People's Kate sunbathing topless were, but the Sun decided Harry buck-ass naked in a hotel wasn't.  The tabloids had an attack of the vapours when an Italian documentary used the images of Princess Diana lying mortally injured in the back of the Mercedes, despite having arguably contributed to the crash, yet don't think an ashed faced rock star learning of a personal tragedy deserves the same protection. This isn't about Leveson, as you shouldn't need a judge to tell you to feel the most basic compassion and human empathy. It's about a tabloid press that has never set itself a boundary it hasn't subsequently broken.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014 

Both the Mail and Harman have PIE on their faces.

(This is 1,705 words.  Just so you know.)

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  It isn't the Daily Mail's motto, unofficial or otherwise, but it easily could be.  Perhaps though, in line with the Mail's sudden shock finding that paedophilia wasn't universally viewed with the same disgust as it is now back in the 70s, when the National Council for Civil Liberties had an extremely ill-advised sort of affiliation with the Paedophile Information Exchange, it could just as well be a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

That the NCCL, now Liberty, had links with PIE has been known since, err, it had links with them.  It is not a startling new discovery.  Indeed, not a single aspect of the Mail's investigation and its corresponding attacks on Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey (husband of Harman) and Patricia Hewitt, all leading members of the NCCL during the period when PIE was affiliated, is based on new information.  I'm certain that there have been newspaper articles pointing this out on occasion in the past, pieces which have attracted a slight amount of attention and then been forgotten about.  It's not a proud period in Liberty's history by any means, and it's one which current head Shami Chakrabarti has apologised for.

This said, and despite how it sounds like an excuse and a cop out, it has to be remembered that it was a different era.  As the proposed changes to the law that Harriet Harman lobbied on make clear, up until this point it had not been a specific offence to take or make indecent images of children, although to an extent this would have been covered under other laws, such as the Obscene Publications Act.  As we've been rather forced to acknowledge over the past couple of years, the 70s was the in-between decade, a period where the new freedoms and excesses of the 60s continued to an extent, not least in those few European nations which legalised possession of all types of pornography, even if the production remained unlawful, just not necessarily cracked down upon.  It also wasn't unusual for "mainstream" European adult magazines of the period to feature post-pubescent girls under the age of 16, not surprising when the age of consent in the country of origin often was (and in some cases remains) under 16.  By contrast, and as Harman in her paper quotes, the judge in the Oz trial defined indecent as a woman taking her clothes off on the beach in front of someone else's children, or athletes wearing clothing which didn't fit properly.  Harman was writing only 17 years on from the Lady Chatterley trial, and a year and six months after the Sex Pistols and Bill Grundy had their tete-a-tete.  Views on what was and wasn't filth were polarised far beyond what they are today, even by the Daily Mail's maiden aunt standards.

The Mail's fundamental problem with its claims, especially against Harman, is that they've produced the evidence against her in full and it doesn't stack up. Her paper's main suggestion is that images of naked children should not be held to be indecent unless it can either be proved or inferred from the photograph that harm to the child has taken place as a result. This sounds potentially outrageous, but in actuality this isn't far off from the test the authorities now have to apply when prosecuting those who have the lowest category of child abuse images in their possession, I.e. those where the child is naked and is posing in a manner considered to be erotic (see the controversy over Klara and Eddy Belly Dancing for instance). Harman's proposed amendment would have clearly left it up to the police and CPS and in turn judge and jury to decide whether or not a specific image or images were indecent. Her main justification was that parents could be prosecuted for taking such pictures when they had no malign intentions, something it was felt was possible under a new law. About the worst allegation that can be thrown at her is she was being naive, and that paedophiles would quickly exploit such grey areas. There is no evidence she was influenced in any way by NCCL's association with PIE, and the lobbying did not lead to the law being changed in the way she proposed.

Far more questionable is the NCCL's submission to the government on the age of consent, not signed but sent when both Dromey and Hewitt were with the organisation in 1976. While the Mail seems almost as upset about the proposal that it should be 14 instead of 16 (the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 in 1885, so has never been set in stone, and while 16 seems a good middle ground between 14 and 18 to me, other Europeans nations continue to think differently), the real problem is that while it suggests that those under 10 cannot consent in any circumstances, in cases where those between 10 and 14 have sex with an older partner it should be considered that consent "was not present, unless it is demonstrated that it was genuinely given and that the child understood the nature of the act".  The law as it currently stands holds that children under 13 cannot consent in any circumstances, and if the other person involved is over 18, then the act is defined in law as rape regardless of what the child felt.  The NCCL's suggestion might not have quite been a licence for abuse, as the onus would still have fell on the older partner to prove the child understood and had given consent, but it most certainly would be a substantial dilution of the protection we have in force today.

Again though, the NCCL's submission did not win government support, and there is no evidence suggesting it was influenced by PIE.  The other claims against the three Labour grandees is that the NCCL's association with PIE amounted to apologia or validation, in 1975 complaining to the Press Council about coverage of the group, describing it in their annual report as a "campaigning/counselling group for adults sexually attracted to children", which seems to be before the NCCL was properly aware that PIE was more than that; and that as late as 1982 the NCCL's newsletter carried a missive from a self-confessed paedophile defending himself.  Clearly, newspapers and magazines have never published letters from those whose views they vehemently disagree with.  One of the founders of PIE, Tom O'Carroll, was subsequently jailed for "conspiring to corrupt public morals" (and continues to promote sexual relationships between children and adults as being entirely normal), with Hewitt later writing that "[C]onspiring to corrupt public morals is an offence incapable of definition or precise proof", the Mail finding this especially damning.  Except as Harriet Harman's paper makes clear, this is almost a direct lift from Roy Jenkins, who said something remarkably similar about defining "indecency".  The other allegations the Mail makes, that the NCCL's submission to the Criminal Law Commission called for the decriminalisation of incest and also claimed that "[C]hildhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage", don't seem as yet to be supported by posted documents.

What though does any of this matter nearly 40 years on, and when so much has been known for so long?  The obvious reason is that paedophilia is so despicable and beyond the pale that regardless of the passage of time, just the connection with a group like PIE is still to be regretted and apologised for.  That the NCCL allowed anyone to affiliate and didn't at the time have a mechanism for expelling such groups isn't an adequate explanation, and indeed, it does seem as though there was a certain amount of sympathy within the NCCL towards PIE if only briefly, and then due to its stated mission as being to counsel those who found themselves sexually attracted to children.  Some within the NCCL may have been more involved, as the Telegraph has reported. In part however it also seems to be about simple revenge and glee at finding three well known politically correct right-on Labour figures didn't condemn paedophiles on sight, regardless of how long ago it was, especially when the left has been so quick to pounce on the past allegiances of Tories or horror of horrors, the Mail's own history.  Add in the typical Mail rage at how the BBC didn't address the topic until Ed Miliband did, and it all seems wearingly familiar.  That perhaps they didn't cover it immediately as a direct consequence of being so badly burnt over Lord McAlpine doesn't seem to have entered their thinking.

It would matter more if there was even the slightest indication the three held such views at the time, which again there is no evidence that they did, let alone if they had then carried such opinions with them into the Labour party and then parliament.  The fact is that they didn't, as Nick Cohen points out.  While Harriet Harman has been right to express regret today, something she didn't do in her Newsnight interview last night, she has been right not to apologise, as she has nothing to apologise for.  Whether perhaps Dromey or Hewitt do is more nuanced, considering their potential involvement with the age of consent submission and more besides, but again it needs to be stated that there are plenty of political figures who held opinions or which they even acted upon years ago they would now regret.  Bringing Jimmy Savile into it, as the Mail attempted to, is a nonsense.  They didn't validate Savile, just as the Mail and the rest of the media do not bear responsibility for failing to expose him while he was alive.  Despite the criticism of the lack of response, if anything it's Patricia Hewitt's silence that seems vindicated.  Reacting to the Mail just encourages it and convinces Paul Dacre that he was right.  The real reason the rest of the media ignored the reports at first is there simply isn't any evidence of anything other than naivety.  And if there's one thing that the Mail can't be accused of, it's precisely that.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013 

The feral press part 2.

Earlier in the week, Chris made a few good points about how us sad sacks tend to exaggerate the influence of the media in general.  It's an argument I'm more inclined to agree with than I was in the past, but I do think that over the longer-term biases against benefit claimants, asylum seekers and immigrants in general have had an impact that has contributed to the policies we're now seeing.  Of special concern is there's evidence that in some instances, the government and media have openly colluded with each other in such campaigns, as Peter Oborne revealed David Blunkett had with the Sun back in 2003.

It's more than reasonable then in light of the events of the last couple of days to wonder if the coalition has informally done a similar deal with the right-wing press over their sudden rage at the Guardian's revelations about GCHQ.  First we had the speech from Andrew Parker that gave them the laughable line that terrorists were being handed gifts via the Snowden files, accompanied by briefings that went even further.  Yesterday these were backed by the spokesman for the prime minister, who said he agreed entirely with Parker's choice of language, while today both Clegg and Cameron have come out and said the Graun is in effect helping terrorists.  The Mail and others meanwhile have further upped the ante by saying the paper "helps Britain's enemies" or is downright traitorous.

Quite apart from how this makes clear just how little it takes for the Mail to view someone or an institution as either hating Britain or guilty of treachery, it provides a quite wonderful contrast with last week.  Then we had the likes of Michael Gove defending the Daily Mail's right to tell lies about a dead man, which if said of someone alive would almost certainly have brought a libel suit, while other Tory politicians cautioned everyone to be mindful of the freedom of the press, as though criticism of the Mail equated to wanting to restrict its right to embarrass itself.  7 days later and we don't just have politicians attacking a newspaper on the grounds that its actions might have helped someone somewhere who wishes us harm, we have other sections of the press joining in, without so much as a thought to publish and be damned, as they have so often argued for in the past.

Criticising the Guardian on the basis that it hasn't properly thought through what its revelations could lead to is one thing.  To bring treachery, helping terrorists or putting lives at risk into it is quite another.  It's as though we've never been through these kind of controversies before: every single time the security services and government have shrieked about national security and lives being put at risk, and every single time they either fail to produce a single piece of evidence to back up their claims or they quietly drop them.  The prosecution against Chelsea Manning failed to provide one example of someone coming to harm due to the release of the files she leaked, and that was despite Wikileaks putting up the raw files for download, against the wishes of the media organisations they had worked with.  The claim by the prosecution counsel quoted in the Telegraph that agents have had to move due to the Snowden files isn't just ridiculous, it's an insult to our intelligence.

Despite having repeated the Guardian's articles, if we're to believe the Mail, Times and Telegraph, they now don't think the public have the right to know exactly what their intelligence agencies are up to.  They shouldn't have been told they were attempting to "master the internet", tapping into fibre optic cables and sucking up every single piece of data they can, that they're trying to break internet encryption, with all the potential consequences that could have, that they've been working hand in glove with the biggest internet companies behind the scenes, despite the denials of both in the past, and that all of this has been deemed lawful on the basis of a certificate a minister signs every six months, to focus on just the most notable things we've learned.  Indeed, according to the Mail all this has helped our enemies, while others quoted with approval suggest the paper should be prosecuted.

As John Kampfner points out, in the past the Mail has been (rightly) outraged over certain abuses by the security services.  That this time round it's taken the side of the government can't just be explained by anger at the Graun not agreeing with them on press regulation; it's that this is a government of a blue rather than a red hue.  It might not like Cameron much, but last week emphasised how it can expect nothing from a Labour government under Ed Miliband.  That their part in this campaign against the Graun betrays their readers' right to know seemingly doesn't matter, but then again, it never has in the past either.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013 

The feral press, pathetic in the face of real power.

Wouldn't it be lovely to have a free press?  You know, the sort that, rather than concentrating on trivia or revelations along the lines that an X Factor contestant has two cousins who are convicted murderers, actually undertook investigations, exposed wrongdoing, and held governments and the state to account?  If you were to believe the likes of the Mail and the Sun, that's exactly what we have and exactly what we stand to lose should the government's royal charter be used to set-up a new press regulator.  That it seems the same newspapers that plunged the entire British media into a crisis will instead go their own way yet again doesn't enter into it.

Nonetheless, if you ever needed further evidence what we in fact have is an industry that doth protest too much, you only need to see how the Mail, Times and Telegraph all decided today that rather than stand up for press freedom and journalistic integrity, they would instead side with the government and the securocrats against the Guardian.  Not only did they focus in laser like on what was a mere couple of paragraphs in the speech by MI5 director general Andrew Parker, in which he didn't so much as mention either the Graun or Edward Snowden, they were also helpfully briefed by "sources" who told them that "Parker is furious about the Snowden leaks", that the Graun has essentially provided a "handbook" for terrorists in how to avoid detection and that they "find it incomprehensible" there needed to be a public debate about such piffling matters.

When David Miranda was detained at Heathrow under section 7 of the Terrorism Act, plenty of people were quick to point out the number of Sun and former News of the World journalists who have been arrested, many of whom remain on bail, not knowing if they will yet face charges.  It was a fair enough point, and there probably hasn't been enough coverage in the ex-broadsheet press about the impact of the phone hacking investigations on journalism in general.  It's surely equally absurd though to then regard Miranda's detention, and as Alan Rusbridger later revealed, the pyrrhic smashing of a hard drive containing the Snowden files, as anything other than intimidation of the most unsubtle kind.  For the Mail, which unlike the other right-wing tabloids opposed New Labour's worst excesses on civil liberties, to tacitly agree with the government that the real danger is not from surveillance programmes which have grown exponentially without any oversight but the journalism which exposed them is a betrayal of the very values it claims to uphold.

There are obviously other factors at work here other than just anger at the Graun for not going along with the press barons on the new regulator.  The paper was the Mail's harshest critic last week during the Ralph Miliband row (with the possible exception of the Mirror)  and it was the Graun's own Jonathan Freedland who started the ball rolling with his column in the Jewish Chronicle on whether there was a whiff of anti-Semitism about the original article and then editorial (I didn't think there was, but can see why some felt that way).  This doesn't however explain why the Telegraph has took the government/securocrat line, especially when it was one of the few to follow up the Guardian's initial revelations.  The idea that either the Times or Torygraph would have refused to publish the Snowden files had he gone to either rather than Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald is laughable in itself.

The simplest explanation is that the majority of the press, and indeed MPs, are in thrall to the security state.  Parker's speech yesterday was in fact for the most part a sober, dry, and rather dull update on where MI5 stands at this moment.  Contrary to some reports, he did not say that the threat from terrorism was increasing, rather than it was diversifying, as anyone who's watched the news over the past year can tell.  Unlike previous holders of the job he didn't engage in scaremongering, and even suggested that some had done so in the past.  Whether it's true that as he said, the number of those who wish to do us harm remains about the same as it has for the past few years we simply can't tell, but it wasn't by any means an attempt to alarm.  Where he did venture into politics, apart from the nonsense about "gifts" and "handing the advantage to the terrorists" was in his claims that the intelligence agencies are well regulated and monitored, as well as all but asking for the powers that GCHQ already has to be given a proper legal basis.

All of which are the sentiments you would expect from a MI5 director general.  It's when the government agrees with those sentiments, and essentially accuses a newspaper of helping terrorists that we get into territory that ought to receive a response from all those who claim to believe in freedom of expression and the press.  The idea that terrorists or anyone else aren't already highly paranoid about how they communicate is laughable, unless they're the kind we've mostly dealt with of late, the incompetents.  The revelations about Prism and Tempora merely made clear what we and they already suspected.  Indeed, the New York Times reports that the US letting slip it was listening in to communications between al-Qaida leaders has had a far more chilling effect than anything that's emerged about the NSA and GCHQ.

The securocrat attitude is that nothing they don't reveal themselves should enter the public domain. And who can blame them? The last few years have seen their methods during the first stage of the war on terror when they were complicit in the rendering and torture of British residents brought into harsh light. They then lied through their teeth to the Intelligence and Security Committee about what they knew, even claiming they couldn't understand how the Americans were getting those they had captured to talk. They feel so secure in their position that they can make outrageous claims along the line that the Snowden files have dealt them their biggest blow in their history, as though the Cambridge Five never existed.  That these ridiculous sentiments are then repeated in a supposed feral press without criticism only underlines how supine they are in the face of real power.

When the media won't do the very basics, how can we expect those with even less inclination to do so? Just remember, if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear. William Hague said as much.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013 

We are all bourgeois now.

As unhappy coincidences go, today's announced rise in unemployment seems as fitting a tribute to Maggie as anything else.  We all Thatcherites now, says David Cameron, and while you can't level the accusation against him that he believes unemployment an acceptable price to pay for his overall reforms, especially considering no government since has believed in full employment, his government is going way beyond Thatcher's obstinacy on economics.  She after all did relent to an extent when monetarism sent the economy into free fall; Cameron and Osborne seem likely to ignore the advice of the highest priests of neoliberalism, the IMF, to scale back on austerity, such is the way they've made it impossible to do so without humiliating themselves.

Just as I didn't watch the royal wedding (and why on earth would anyone, for that matter?), I somehow managed to avoid the funeral.  Quite why so many find something to admire in our ability to put on pageantry when required equally escapes me; authoritarian nations also tend to be pretty good at putting on a show, and yet with the exception of the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, we usually make fun of them precisely on that basis.  Just as the only reasonable reaction to goose-stepping soldiers is to laugh at them, so the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the monarchy and also now the chosen few regarded as being the equivalent of royalty ought to be mocked.  It is utterly ridiculous, almost everyone except for the dewy-eyed few know it to be ridiculous, and so undoubtedly this ridiculous tradition will continue to be rolled out for every major state event, such are our ways.

If nothing else, today has at least been revealing of how politicians regard each other in private.  Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were first elected to parliament in 1983 on "the longest suicide note in history" manifesto, but neither it seems had any objection to Thatcher being given a quasi-state funeral.  Indeed, it seems the only major thing the Tories added to the plans drawn up under the last government was the military aspect.  They might not have known that the right would take the opportunity of her death to attempt to portray her as second only to Churchill in the great national figure stakes, yet if they've had any such concerns since they certainly weren't on display today.  Nor has the week of hype and eulogising left the Mail drained; if anything, it's reached such a peak that you doubt they'll be able to top it when Liz pops her clogs.  "A journey's end", the front page read, while below they claim up to 250,000 were lining the route of the procession (since changed to a more realistic 50,000).  Just as you have to multiple the figures given by the police for any demonstration other than one by the Countryside Alliance by the power of 4, so it now seems you have to divide the numbers given by the Mail by the same amount.

Nor was the ceremony itself beyond critique.  Today wasn't the time and place to discuss her politics, said the Bishop of London, Richard Chatres, who then decided at the end that it actually was as he defended her over the infamous "no such thing as society" comments.  She did believe in society, and the interdependence of people, he said, which is almost certainly true; what went unsaid was that however you read her remarks, she clearly said people shouldn't even expect to be housed by the state. I don't think anyone disputes that first and foremost our responsibility is to look after ourselves; it's that a majority of us still believe that the state should provide an adequate safety net, whether that be in housing or benefits. Society is not the state, as the Tories said at the last election, but Thatcher's government did more to fray the threads that tie communities together and make up society than any since the war.

The real irony of today is that for all their tributes to her, not to forget George Osborne's solitary tear, Cameron spent his first years as Conservative leader trying to repair the damage her overthrow did to the party. Arguable as his overall success has been, the last week has been a reminder to everyone that her legacy is still inescapable.  To suggest this is unlikely to go down well in those places that the Tories need to win to get a majority next time out is to put it too lightly.  The overwhelming mood might be apathy rather than anger, such as that in Leeds and Edinburgh rather than Goldthorpe, yet you shouldn't bet against Labour using a few of the images of the past week come in 2015, hypocritical in the extreme or not.

This said, Cameron was right in saying we are all Thatcherites now.  At least he was if he was meant the political class, as they clearly are all Thatcherite in one sense or another.  A significant number of the population by contrast remain in favour of an alternative, it's just they aren't so much as offered one. Nor are they likely to be. And eventually, something is going to break.

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Monday, April 15, 2013 

A small, ridiculous gesture for a massive, undignifed death jamboree.

One of the problems that comes from Labour deciding to just let the Tories have their week of mourning/deification with the very minimum of criticism is that you let the likes of George Galloway represent what a significant amount of people are thinking.  It was an utterly absurd, cowardly move for the BBC to not play Ding Dong in full, instead opting for the typical compromise that pleased neither side.  I really thought we'd moved past the point at which things that were in poor taste were banned/censored due to outside pressure, not least when it comes to music.  There's plenty of music in the top 40 that's offensive in terms of how objectively awful it is, but if people buy it, it gets played.  It's how the system works.  Start altering that and it renders the entire exercise even more completely and utterly pointless than it already is.  Also, regardless of what Guido or the Mail think, for 52,000 people to buy a song in one week purely as a protest only underlines how the attempts to claim Thatcher as our greatest peacetime prime minister are a step too far.

And so now Big Ben is to be silenced for the duration of Saint Margaret's funeral.  It's a small, ridiculous gesture for what is turning into a massive, undignified summation of how for all Thatcher's rolling back of the state, the parts that were in most need of trimming are still fully functioning.  Turning your back on the entire charade really does seem to be the best possible way to register discontent with what has been a fully fledged political campaign from the moment the news of her death came through.

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Thursday, April 11, 2013 

A political Queen.

Writing about Thatcher (and politicians in general), it's easy to forget that behind the often harsh, apparently uncaring exterior, there was a real, feeling woman who clearly was capable of great kindness as well as denouncing her opponents in the strongest of terms.  One of the more myth-squashing anecdotes from yesterday's Commons and Lords sessions was Lord Butler's retelling of how a student challenged her on referring to children as "illegitimate", despite their parentage not being something they had any control over.  Thatcher responded that it was better than calling them the alternative (bastard), yet later she reflected to Butler that having thought about it, the student had been right.  Looking at the photograph taken of her in Battersea Park only last month, I was reminded of my grandmother's passing last year, who also spent her final years battling with dementia.  Regardless of what we do with our lives, at the end every single one of us dies the same way, alone.

All the more reason why we shouldn't let Thatcher be remade into what is effectively political royalty.  The way Tory MPs tried to shout down both David Winnick and Glenda Jackson yesterday may well be typical Commons behaviour which all sides are often guilty of, yet it was surely inappropriate when so many of their colleagues made tributes that went far beyond the sycophantic and instead into the most slavering hero worship.  The idea she had any role in the fall of the Soviet Union beyond her early picking out of Gorbachev is absurd, as is her much overstated love of freedom.  She believed in it for those under Communism, not so much those under authoritarian regimes that were British allies.

Fair enough, David Cameron clearly admires her deeply, and so his rhetorical flourishes can be forgiven.  Ed Miliband also acquitted himself well, making a well-judged speech that covered both the good and the bad without riling either side. It's also unclear just how much of the planning for the funeral was done by which government: we now know Operation True Blue dates back to around 2006, indicating that some sort of public remembrance was going to take place regardless of who was in power. Which would have been fine. A ceremonial funeral goes well beyond that, giving her the same status as a royal, ignoring how one of the reasons we continue to grudgingly put up with Brenda is that she has stayed resolutely above politics.

The comparison is apt, because much as any criticism of Liz is treated as being akin to a modern form of blasphemy, so it seems the likes of the Mail now want Maggie to get the same treatment. As predictable as the outrage was from the usual suspects at those not treating their heroine's death with the due amount of respect, the Mail's pursuit of those behind one such death party is incredibly petty. Splashing two days in a row on the opponents rather than celebrating Thatcher's life and legacy seems a really odd way to go about things.

Then again, perhaps the Mail thinks focusing on the beastliness of some is the only way to win over those it would normally consider its natural allies.  To judge by the ratings the tribute programmes hastily screen on Monday picked up (3 million) and the number of views news stories on the major websites have received since, Thatcher's demise and the circus that has followed since might be fascinating the politics nerds (guilty), but it doesn't seem to be transfixing many others.

And why should it?  Those born on the day she left office are now 22, while the passing of time for those older appears to have dulled both the interests and opinions of the majority.  Moreover, we can either bemoan or celebrate her legacy, but none of the mainstream political parties want to truly break with it.  The battles she fought appear to be all but over, while her main disciple is urging Ed Miliband to not so much as inch leftwards.  Looks as though, yet again, it's up to the next generation to break the spell Thatcher cast over British politics.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013 

Anthems for a 17-year-old girl.

One thing almost completely buried (ho ho) by the passing of Margaret Hilda Thatcher (and credit where credit's due to both David Winnick and Glenda Jackson for refusing to go along with the consensus in today's tribute debate) has been the remarkable treatment meted out to Paris Brown, the unfortunately named 17-year-old appointed to be yoof crime tsar by Kent's police and crime commissioner.  Try to put aside the fact that Brown's mission was supposedly meant to be to bring the police and young people closer together, as "they used to be", or that almost no one wanted the PCCs in the first place, and instead marvel at the sheer laziness, cynicism and callousness involved in the Mail on Sunday's attack on someone still not old enough to cast a ballot herself.

You might recall that back in 2009 the Scottish Sunday Express ran what was quite possibly the most ill-judged and despicable newspaper piece in many years.  Written by Paula Murray, the article "exposed" what it described as the "shame" of the survivors of the Dunblane massacre, who now having reached 18 were daring to live their lives the way almost every other 18-year-old would. Murray had scoured their social networking profiles for the slightest evidence of "bad" behaviour, whether it be drinking, swearing, sex, getting tattoos or even into the odd fight, and instead of being told by her colleagues or indeed even her editor that this was just about the most appalling breach of privacy imaginable, Derek Lambie went ahead and splashed it on the front page.  Deserved opprobrium duly landed on the heads of all involved.

Four years later, and we have the first major evidence that the politicians and public figures of the future are likely to be damned for what they put on their Twitter or Facebook pages potentially decades previous.  The hatchet job performed on Brown is still astonishing though, both for the vehemence of the attack and the sheer breadth of what the MoS decided to focus on.  Understandably, most attention was focused on Brown's comments on "pikeys" and her description of everyone on Made in Chelsea as "fucking fags", but the paper also saw fit to draw attention to the fact that Brown talked of how the "worst thing about being single" was "coming home ... horny and having to sleep alone".  A young woman daring to express sexual desire in a public forum? How dare she!

Regardless of when she made some of the tweets, and as Brown swiftly deleted the account we can't check whether she did make some when she was 14 or 15 and not recently, there really isn't much here to get even slightly outraged about.  No, it isn't clever to say you're glad your little brother hit someone who gave his friend a black eye, nor should it be acceptable to call people fags or faggots regardless of the changing meaning of the word, although it should be remembered programmes like Made in Chelsea are produced with the intention of winding people up.  As for her attack on "pikeys", it's fairly apparent she was using the word not as an attack on gypsies directly, but in the sense it's came to be used in as shorthand for thieves in general.  Still not anywhere approaching OK, but are there many who can say that at Brown's age they didn't also make such sweeping condemnations of people, or even use racist language?  I know I can't.

Quite apart from the hysterical hypocrisy of the Mail stable of newspapers condemning someone's non-PC comments on race relations and gay rights, what really rankles is that they chose to draw attention to some of her more introspective, vulnerable tweets, including one where she's obviously criticising herself for how she has sometimes behaved when drunk.  17-year-old has on occasion had a drink! Hold the front page!

It was hardly surprising then when, presumably pressurised into doing so, Brown sat across from the PCC Anne Barnes apologising for the messages while crying her eyes out, all in front of the TV cameras.  I don't think I've seen a more pitiful sight in quite some time; a young person thought she was doing something to help those her own age, and was duly rewarded for it with the kind of attack usually reserved for those who have in some way or another attracted the Mail's ire.

Brown shouldn't have had to resign, but almost certainly had no option. Joe Jones says she have been fully vetted, with her social networking profiles looked at, yet is this really the kind of territory we're now getting into?  When teenagers can't even be allowed to make mistakes or say stupid things for fear they might later have them picked up on, we're in clear danger of creating a generation of politicians who are so desperately dull and have such indistinct opinions that the public becomes even less enthused with the system than they currently are.  Whatever you thought about Thatcher, she believed in what she was doing.  Plenty of those now growing up have the potential to be outstanding future leaders with similar qualities, and are presumably exactly the sort the Mail on Sunday would approve of.  If we're going to attempt to kill them off before they even get started because of daft things they've done on the internet, our democracy is going to be a very dry place indeed.

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Friday, February 15, 2013 

The tabloids: publishing death porn since the advent of the printing press.

Much comment, understandably, on the Sun's decision to run a front page splash (and in this instance it really does seem the right word) on the death of Reeva Steenkamp, illustrated with a full page photo of the model and presenter appearing to undo her bikini top.  It's certainly tasteless, and as Marina Hyde notes, just happens to come the day after the One Billion Rising protests, the campaign intended to bring more attention to violence against women.

It's hardly the most egregious recent case of tabloid death porn though, and one which at the time barely caused a ripple of complaint as far as I can remember.  Back in 2008, the Daily Star splashed on the latest evidence heard at the trial of Mark Dixie, who was subsequently found guilty of the murder of Sally Anne Bowman.  "MY SEX WITH SALLY ANNE'S DEAD BODY", the front page screamed, alongside the ubiquitous shot of Bowman from her modelling catalogue, hands in the top of her jeans.

As for the motivation behind using such photographs to illustrate crime cases, Dixie's trial more than provided a clue.  Found on Dixie's digital camera was a video of a man masturbating over a copy of the Daily Mail, the front page of which featured a photograph of Bowman.  The police also found said copy of the Mail in Dixie's possesion, and noted the cover was dashed with a "sticky substance".  The Mail, all but needless to say, merely reported that the police had found a video of Dixie "performing a lewd sex act on the six-month anniversary of the model's death".  Not, you understand, which publication and what material had further energised his "lewd sex act".

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Thursday, June 23, 2011 

Paul Dacre must die!

It's always nice being surprised. Just when you think those behind this nation's tabloids couldn't be any more hypocritical, pathetic or cowardly, along comes the legal threat from the Daily Mail to Kevin Arscott, blogger at Angry Mob. Two years ago he wrote a furious post on an atypical piece of Mail immigration dog-whistling which took what was a heart-warming story on the number of babies treated on a ward in Chelsea and Westminster hospital and turned it into an example of how NHS services were being exploited by foreigners, while also expressing horror at the number of mothers who themselves had been born abroad even if they were British citizens or legally resident here.

By the standards of swear blogging (including some of my own angrier responses to Mail articles), it was fairly tame stuff. Arscott wrote:

I hope Paul Dacre dies a slow and painful death and that people queue up to shit on his grave.

Thanks to Google's wonderful algorithms, his post somehow became (and remains, for now) the second result when you search for Paul Dacre. Whether or not Dacre was Googling his own name (doubtful, considering his aversion to the internet) or he was simply alerted to it by an underling, it seems that he was enraged enough by Kevin's impertinence to set the Mail's lawyers after him. As Unity points out, it's apparent that nothing he wrote is either libellous or defamatory; it's simply abuse, nor is it similar to yesterday's case where a man in Northern Ireland was convicted of an offence after writing on Facebook that a DUP MP should "get a bullet in the head". Arscott merely hopes Dacre dies a slow and painful death, not the most pleasant thing to say, but by considering the depths some on the internet sink to it's incredibly tame.

The Mail's lawyers must have known that the chances of winning any case for defamation on something so slight were minute; that almost certainly wasn't their aim, however. Just through sending their threatening email to Angry Mob's UK based hosting company they will have counted on them caving in immediately, thanks to the notorious Demon ruling and successive EC directives, or demand that he take it down himself or else they'd terminate his account for breach of their terms of service. They did the second, and like myself when faced by threats from Schillings over Alisher Usmanov and Craig Murray, he's removed the post for now.

It is remarkable though, isn't it, that the editor of the very newspaper which has so fiercely campaigned against super-injunctions now resorts to the use of solicitors over something so unbelievably petty: he doesn't want an affair or something embarrassing about his private life hidden away, he just wants someone being nasty about him on the internet to feel his wrath. The editor of a newspaper that repeatedly attacks those whom it thinks have risen above their station, whether it be through a perceived lack of class or for "outraging decency", who feels so self-concious about the second Google result for his name being something that isn't entirely adulatory. An editor who according to numerous accounts treats his staff in the typical tabloid fashion, where they ask each other whether they've been "double-cunted" that day, having been called a cunt twice in one sentence by a man who dedicates page after page to why-oh-whying over the supposed decline of standards, dares to send in expensive briefs over a 2-year-old post which doesn't even begin to lower itself to such name-calling.

Mr Dacre, if you or your solicitors happen to come across this, I too hope that you die a slow and painful death and that people queue up to shit on your grave. It won't even begin to make up for the shit you've been forcing down the throats of the English public for the last 19 years.

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Monday, May 16, 2011 

Anything else going on apart from...?

"It's been a week where you sit there thinking, is there anything else going on in this country apart from a bunch of z-list celebrities having sex with each other?"

So asked Ian Hislop, in what was to be the last episode of Have I Got News for You to feature Angus Deayton as host. It was also the same week in which Ulrika Jonsson said that she had been sexually assaulted by a well-known television presenter, who was inadvertently named by Matthew Wright shortly afterwards. The past week has seen a very similar situation, albeit it slightly hampered by how we're not supposed to know who some of those z-list celebrities are.

If nothing else, you have to hand it to the tabloid press: it often accuses the supposedly more serious-minded broadcasters and papers of hypocrisy on the grounds that they more or less duplicate their coverage, albeit under the guise of poking fun or discussing the potential implications for press freedom. There's been no such back-biting this time, for the reason that they've been amazingly successful in turning what have been only the latest incremental development in privacy principles into an issue of freedom of speech so vital that the prime minister has intervened on more than one occasion to declare his unease. Under the banner of "super-injunctions", almost none of which the recently issued orders have actually been, they've campaigned vigorously for their right to print more or less what they like about prominent individuals and what they might have been up to, invoking morality, censorship, democracy and almost anything else they think might win more supporters to their cause. Helped along by social networks and the difficulty of removing information once it's out in the wild on the internet, as well as a growing feeling, especially among those who live their lives online and hide very little about themselves from anyone who cares enough to look, almost no actual attention has been paid to the details of the cases themselves, the way the tabloids have personally fought the injunctions, or indeed to just how open they've been about why they really want to return the the height of "bonk" journalism as practised back in the late 80s.

Indeed, just how limited the general debate has been was showcased on Newsnight on Friday, where Hugh Grant and Charlotte Harris faced off against Helen Wood and Fraser Nelson. Grant, fresh from bugging a News of the World journalist, came across exactly you suspect as the tabloids would like: outraged that anyone should know absolutely anything about him without his express permission. Much as I find the argument that if you don't want to end up on the front page of a newspaper you shouldn't sleep with prostitutes to be self-serving in the extreme, Grant did his best to prove it, arrogant throughout while attempting at times to play the victim, demanding Nelson to condemn certain practices which he had never condoned. Charlotte Harris, who must be much more convincing in court than she has been in any of her innumerable television appearances, gave her questionable and limited legal analysis, while Fraser Nelson, who despite always looking incredibly pleased with himself seemed to be ignorant of many of the details of the recent cases. Then there was Wood, called on just twice during the entire programme, who looked distinctly uncomfortable throughout.

She wasn't helped by a quite incredible second report from Kate Williams, which happily alleged that injunctions were returning us to the Victorian era where rich men could do as they please and the women were left voiceless, as it galloped through over a century of sexual history in a couple of minutes.
Solipsistic doesn't quite adequately describe it, and poor old Helen was so confused that she clearly hadn't quite grasped what the sexual revolution was when asked whether it had worked for her. Considering she was on Newsnight talking about working as a high class escort, and indeed has been paid a considerable sum having sold her story vis-a-vis Wayne Rooney, even if she can't identify another "high profile" male she performed sex acts on, it's hardly resulted in her penury and exclusion from society, referred to as a tart and hooker in the same press she made a deal with or not.

Just how potentially misled we've been by the self-serving reports in the tabloids, gobbled up and regurgitated whole by the rest of the media is demonstrated by the interim judgement in the case involving Imogen Thomas and the anonymous, although widely named footballer. Contrary to Thomas's (literal) sob story of how her name's been run through the mud despite not ever wanting to sell her story, Mr Justice Eady relates the footballer's side of events. According to him, the whole thing appears to have been a set-up between her and the Sun, where she demanded to meet the player on two separate occasions at different hotels, both times asking for money with the obvious implicit threat being that otherwise she'd sell her story. Each time it seems the paper was waiting to take pictures of their arrivals: if the player paid up, then she got her money and the paper still had the story with no evidence that Thomas herself had been involved; if he didn't, then she would presumably have been reimbursed by the Sun. The footballer additionally says that rather than the six-month long relationship Thomas claims, they had only met three times between September and December last year. While that hasn't been contradicted by Thomas's representatives, she did later deny that she'd either asked for money or had "caused" the Sun's initial report last month.

While Eady is only presenting the case as it currently stands before any trial, the footballer's side of the story is all too plausible. It also fits with the pattern that rather than most of the injunctions being issued after individuals getting wind of a story or being contacted prior to publication, there is often also an element of blackmail involved, as there was in the controversial ruling where Eady issued a contra mundum injunction, as well as in that involving Zac Goldsmith. Eady, clearly at pains, goes on to point out despite much of the comment that the current process has been built around two major rulings by the House of the Lords, with four even more recent cases where the Lords refused permission to appeal (paragraph 21). Moreover, as he writes, in cases where blackmail is either alleged or where it looks to have conceivably been involved, anonymity has been previously given as a "matter of public policy". It's only now, when all the details have not even begun to be made public that this has been questioned.

Damningly, as Eady goes on, the Sun's representatives didn't even attempt to argue that any story would be in the public interest. Instead they simply claimed that Thomas's rights to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights were being denied by the footballer's "reasonable expectation of privacy". Worth quoting in full are the two final paragraphs of his ruling:

On the evidence before me, as at 14 and 20 April, I formed the view that the Claimant would be "likely" to obtain a permanent injunction at trial, if the matter goes that far. As I have said, it remains uncontradicted. The information is such that he is still entitled to a "reasonable expectation of privacy" and no countervailing argument has been advanced to suggest that the Article 10 rights of the Defendants, or indeed of anyone else, should prevail. There is certainly no suggestion of any legitimate public interest in publishing such material.

Moreover, in so far as Ms Thomas wishes to exercise her Article 10 right by selling her life story, she is entitled to do so, but only subject to the qualification that she is not thereby relieved of any obligation of confidence she may owe, or free to intrude upon the privacy rights of others: see e.g. McKennitt v Ash, cited above, at [28]-[32] and [50]-[51]. In so far as there are any conflicts of evidence or of recollection between her and the Claimant, it will be for the court to resolve them at the appropriate time. I will discuss with counsel whether it would be appropriate to order a speedy trial for that purpose.

This more than rebuts Thomas's claim afterward that she was being denied the opportunity to defend herself: if she wishes at length to contradict the footballer's version of events, then she can and hopefully will, albeit without naming him.

If this latest ruling were the exception to the rule, then the campaign waged over the past few weeks would be worthy of support. As previously argued, some injunctions have been questionable in their sweeping nature, but far too often as the Guardian pointed out they've been confused with our libel laws, which are currently under review. Despite having emitted such sound and fury, in many of the cases the tabloids don't even pretend that the public interest will be genuinely served by their serving up of the celebrity shags of the week; instead they make the highly dubious argument that it's such sensationalism and gossip that has enabled them to provide other journalism and campaigns which have benefited the wider public. Deprived of them, they'd wither on the vine and die, especially now as the internet has so eaten into their market.

Even in this time of declining circulations, the Mail sells over 2 million copies a day while the Sun clocks in at just under 3 million. Neither have suffered the massive falls of their competitors, and both will continue to be printed for a long time to come. They might fear the effect of kiss 'n' tells being completely choked off, yet even under the most extreme reading of Eady's latest ruling it seems laughable that every z-list celeb will be lining up for an injunction to cover up their dalliances. As morally (and hypocritically) outraged as the tabloid editors and long-time hacks undoubtedly are by the turn of events, it's cover as much over the phone-hacking scandal as it is an attempt to provoke David Cameron into doing something about it. What's more, the ultimate victory has been in making everyone delve into this world of who's shagging who, to make those of us who'd rather just let them get on with it have to dive into the depths of the "privacy" debate. Where Orwell once wrote of the decline of the English murder, so too they want to forestall the decline of the English affair, and they'll try everything in their power to do so.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2011 

Injunction hysteria and the failure of Max Mosley.

It's difficult to shake the feeling that this week's latest outburst of injunction outrage on the behalf of the tabloids and certain sections of what was once the broadsheet press wasn't so much to do with the mysterious InjunctionSuper tweeter (twatterer?), although they provided the excuse to clear the front pages, and much more to do with the fear that Max Mosley would triumph with his case at the European Court of Human Rights. Having so firmly established that philanderers and blackguards are effectively subverting democracy itself by stopping the popular press from reporting on their exploits, had Mosley won we would now be drowning in a veritable sea of anti-European, anti-liberal, anti-'uman rites venom, the death knell of the British media as we currently know it all having been all but sounded by an unelected elite sitting in judgement from afar.

Happily, and just to confound the caricature of the judges in Strasbourg as often depicted as interfering, foreign lunatics and incompetents, they quite rightly decided that Mosley's Article 8 rights had not been breached by this country lacking a mechanism through which newspapers must inform prior to publication those individuals they plan to run an expose or similar about. This wasn't because in Mosley's personal case there hadn't been a quite despicable breach of privacy, it was more that the circumstances were something approaching unique. As Justice Eady made clear in his ruling back in 2008, the supposed "Nazi element" of Mosley's spanking orgy was a construct aimed at giving the story a public interest defence, even while he accepted that the paper's editor and Neville Thurlbeck thought there was such a flavour, not least because they saw what they wanted to see. Had the paper simply gone with the spanking story and informed Mosley prior to going to press, an injunction would almost certainly have been granted had he taken legal action. Relying instead as the paper did on the story being totally in the public interest as it exposed the son of the fascist leader Oswald Mosley involved in sadomasochism with Nazi overtones, the ECHR's reasoning is that even if there had been a stricture where the press have to inform those they intend to write about he would have been unlikely to fall under its terms.

The Guardian, which while not exactly rallying to the side of the tabloids has been quietly concerned over the recent supposed spike in injunctions, made a third-party submission to the court which made the obvious argument against just such a requirement as Mosley was asking for: that rather than covering only cases where personal privacy was involved, it would apply across the board. While it's mainly standard journalistic practice to inform individuals or companies that they're about to have a report on them published, not least to give them an opportunity to comment, the Trafigura scandal makes plain just how some will seek to have the most destructive, illegal behaviour swept under the carpet. The ECHR in its conclusion made clear that what Mosley was asking for has the potential to have a "chilling effect" on the right to freedom of expression. Along with doubts over just how effective it would be and how such a "public interest" mechanism would work, there was really no other option than for the court to make clear Article 8 does not demand a legally binding pre-notification requirement.

There is no doubting however just how successful the tabloids have been in turning their woes into a matter of seeming immediate national importance. Away from the very few number of cases where the granting of an injunction has been questionable, or where the terms have been arguably far too broad, most have just been typical tabloid tales where the person involved is as much being humiliated and embarrassed because of their fame rather than down to the heinousness of their actions.

Take for example the supposed "world famous" actor, who if he is who we're led to believe I had never heard of before (he's not Ewan McGregor, despite initial rumours) and his dalliance with Helen Wood, the sex worker who did a number on Wayne Rooney. One of his pleasures apparently, again for the reason that we don't unequivocally know, involved a dildo being "used" on him. Such a detail, while not exactly out of the ordinary, is the kind of fact that people remember and snigger about. It is the sort of thing that leads to children and relations being bullied and similarly humiliated. This person is not any kind of direct role model to children, as the tabloids claim footballers and other prominent stars are, nor does he make money out of selling his image as such. He's simply a man who because of his acting work is considered fair game and is grist to the mill. As prostitution itself is not illegal (soliciting is) he's committed no crime other than one of stupidity. There is no public interest in him being exposed in such a way, yet we apparently "know" about it regardless of the injunction.

Let's not pretend either that Twitter, blogging, social networking or the internet on their own make such injunctions and potentially a privacy law untenable and unenforceable, as has been claimed. The rumours about the applicants all have to begin somewhere, and it's more than fair to say that the newspapers themselves have been getting incredibly close to breaching them on their own, dropping almost excessive hints in some cases. Private Eye, which always faces both ways when it comes to the tabloids and their obsession with the sex lives of the rich and the famous ran a "lookalike" in its last issue in which Wayne Rooney was compared with the man alluded to above. Elsewhere it all but named the footballer involved with Imogen Thomas, while reiterating how the papers had covered the injunction involving the TV man who had an affair with a co-star, described more than once as "shameless".

What is apparent is that even if they end up not being able to publish a story which might shift a few extra papers, the tabloids seem to be determined that it gets out there somehow. As some predict, this latest outbreak of belly-aching about how unfair it is not to be able to ruin lives will probably peter out. No one seriously expects the government, even this one, to legislate, not least because it would have to almost certainly draw up some privacy protections which the tabloids would complain bitterly about even while removing the wider threat to their profit model. Judges will continue to cop the flak for making nuanced decisions which politicians are too cowardly to get involved with. Who though could possibly blame them when we have such a wonderful, law-abiding media?

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Thursday, April 21, 2011 

Playing the victim in the privacy wars.

Whenever the tabloids start to play the victim, it ought to be apparent that there's something far more vital at stake than the freedom of the press: that other enduring freedom, to make money out of the misery of other people. If you've been cynical enough to think there might be something else afoot that's encouraged the so-called popular press to spend much of this week complaining bitterly about how they're not being allowed to continue to focus on shag 'n' tell journalism to the detriment of everything else, then you'd be right. Even if the phone-hacking scandal hasn't (yet) touched any other newspaper than the ever egregious News of the Screws, they know full well that the longer it rumbles on the more likely the same celebrities and politicos now demanding recompense from Murdoch's minions will turn their attention onto them. Why else after all would they have done so much to either ignore or play down the NotW's sad troubles with the Metropolitan police if they didn't themselves know there would be be similar discoveries if their own email records were exposed to the same intimate attention? It certainly isn't the old Fleet Street spirit of solidarity, of dog not eating dog, which has always been something of a myth.

Anything then to deflect from how so much of tabloid journalism is currently under scrutiny. Politically wise or not, considering the potential for revenge to be taken in the most damaging of ways, Ed Miliband's call for an independent review of the Press Complaints Commission and newspaper practices once the police investigation into the Screws has finished was both brave and welcome. It must have also been alarming to tabloid editors and their owners, not so much because they fear such an inquiry taking place, something doubtful to happen when the levels of mutual sycophancy between themselves and David Cameron are still high, more because it's a sign of just how precarious their craft is becoming that any front line politician feels bold enough to call for something they would have usually not touched with the proverbial ten-foot barge pole.

The resurrection of the issue of super-injunctions for mostly specious reasons should be reasonably apparent due to how the cases the tabloids are complaining about are err, not super-injunctions, otherwise they wouldn't be able to complain about them at all, as they're meant to ban the press from even mentioning they've been gagged. Instead the courts have recently favoured the slightly subtler form of injunction which allows the media to make clear that they've been stopped from printing a story, and even to go into some of the relevant details which could potentially identify those involved. Hence we know a married footballer has stopped the press from splashing on his affair with the fragrant Imogen Thomas, a former Big Brother contestant who's made her living since appearing on the show by exposing her plastic breasts for money, while a "world famous" actor who paid for some sort of sexual activity with the equally lovely Helen Wood, an escort universally known in the gutter press as ROONEY TART/HOOKER for her past dalliance with the Manchester United striker has also been saved from the ignominy of having his poor taste in sex workers revealed.

Justifications for informing the world that famous people tend to be just as human as the rest of us range from the moralistic, such as Paul Dacre's notable attack on Mr Justice Eady for stopping newspapers reporting on the "unimaginable depravity" of the likes of Max Mosley, to how it enables superstars to continue to present themselves as role models to the young while profiting from it through marketing deals, all the way along to the usual press freedom arguments. Others still are now pointing to how unfair it is on the women involved that they can't either protect themselves or sell their stories, as if the likes of Imogen Thomas or Wood are somehow damaged further having usually informed the media in the first place. Excepting Wood, it also ignores their own responsibility for involvement in the affair, even if their identities don't always stay hidden. In a recent case the News of the World had intended to claim that a television presenter had been sacked after the fellow host she had conducted an affair with had requested the break up of their partnership, only for her to support the seeking of the injunction.

It would be much easier to respect the principle of "publish and be damned" if the stories the media does manage to get into the papers were reported accurately. Not content with the already sensational likes of Mosley conducting spanking sessions with dominatrices, the Screws had to sex it up further (arguably to give it something resembling a public interest defence) to Mosley having a Nazi orgy. The John Terry saga of last year took on a rather different air when the quietly determined Vanessa Perroncel managed to extract apologies from both Sunday newspapers involved, more than suggesting that the claims of an affair between the two were inaccurate. Terry has since been restored to the England captaincy, the role he lost after the tabloids called for him to lose it following his "infidelity".

This isn't to suggest there aren't potential problems ahead should the law be more contentiously interpreted by judges. A judgement published yesterday by Justice Eady seems to go a step further than anything so far: in a case he describes as an example of "straightforward and blatant blackmail", he imposed a contra mundum injunction, forbidding not just the national but worldwide media from identifying those involved. These have only formerly been issued in cases where those seeking them were not just at risk of having their right to privacy under the European Convention of Human Rights breached, but their article 2 and 3 rights also; John Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger had their new identities protected in such a way, as did Mary Bell. Regardless of the solid medical evidence suggesting the health, including the mental health of those involved has been affected, this could well be a step too far: it's one thing to protect those who have committed terrible crimes as children from being hounded for the rest of their lives or even killed by banning the publication of their whereabouts and names; it's quite another to do so over a case which involves "intimate photographs and other information". Moreover, it's bound to lay down the gauntlet to media outlets overseas who've graciously respected the past rulings who will be far less likely to do so when the stakes are nowhere near as high; and after all, what exactly can they be threatened with which might make them think twice before doing so?

Despite David Cameron today voicing his "unease" over the recent injunctions, it's still manifest that judges are not making the law, merely interpreting it as best they can and following rulings
which have set precedents, usually delivered either by the highest court here or by the ECHR. It's also clear that politicians still seem unlikely to be willing to get involved in something which will mean them rather than judges deciding on how to balance the competing rights of privacy and freedom of the press, whether or not they have the tabloids screaming at them to do something or not: in this instance there seems to be too much to lose either way. Having spent so long complaining about vested interests and their role in British life, it's would be nice if the tabloids recognised theirs in preferring exposure over privacy. It's only when it comes to their own newsrooms that they opt for the latter.

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