Friday, October 24, 2014 

Restless city.

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Thursday, October 23, 2014 

Extremely loud and incredibly close.

John Harris is without a doubt one of the best political commentators we have.  Unlike many of the others with a column and their name in a large font, he bothers to respond to the keyboard hammerers below the line, and he really does go beyond, indeed anywhere but Westminster.  Just though as not getting out enough leads to losing touch, so too can travelling to wherever the next by-election is being held make you think the hot topic of the moment is the most important issue in politics outright.  Add in a straw man, and you pretty much have his piece for the Graun today.

To say I'm bored out of my mind by the immigration debate in general doesn't really cover it.  It's taken the place of the Iraq war in being constantly talked about without anyone ever making an original point or changing their position.  These are the facts: despite claims to the contrary, we've been having a debate about immigration for over half a century now.  Yes, there have always been some people who've shouted racist whenever the topic is broached, mainly for the good reason that up till relatively recently the majority of complaints about immigration, rather than being couched in economic or social terms, were based around skin colour or culture.  This is to simplify massively, but Steve Bell captured how far we've come in his cartoon from last week: we've moved on from the days of "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour" to "if you want a fruit picker from Romania for a neighbour, vote Labour".

Next, Labour did not try and transform the country into a truly multicultural society through immigration, as those who can remember back to the times when it was asylum seekers rather than eastern European migrants who were regarded as the biggest problem facing the country will know.  The mistake in 2004 was not realising the effect opening the borders to A8 states would have, especially when only Sweden and Ireland similarly didn't impose further restrictions.  Even fewer Poles speak Swedish than English, hence why so many journeyed here instead of to Stockholm.  Lastly, as it bears repeating, it's now almost been a decade since the Conservatives under Michael Howard used "it's not racist to impose limits on immigration" as a slogan.  Ever tighter limits have since been imposed, except of course when it comes to the EU.

Harris's piece could have almost been in response to my post on Tuesday.  He was though most likely thinking of the works of either Polly Toynbee or Richard Seymour, aka Lenin from the Tomb.  Without referring directly to Harris, Seymour has since tweeted this poll finding, which does rather underline his point.  No, people's worries and fears about migration writ large aren't racist, bigoted or down to prejudice; are however some of those fears at their most base down to as, Seymour puts it, entitlement and chauvinism?  Well, yes.

That topsy-turvy poll finding by ComRes does in its own way sum up the immigration, even the Europe debate in microcosm.  Do we still want the undoubted benefits of being in the EU, that past waves of immigration have brought here?  Certainly.  Are we as keen on the impact on public services, on how towns like Wisbech, Peterborough and Boston have been altered, and just how swift the pace of change has been?  Not so much.  At the same time, the poll makes clear those most concerned about immigration are extremely noisy, as a solid 36% still accept freedom of movement within the EU.  As Flying Rodent has argued, concern about immigration is one of the relatively few areas of public opinion which is pandered to.

And it hasn't worked, for the reason it hasn't addressed the fundamental right of freedom of movement, as politicians haven't had the guts to make the argument for why it's one of the few areas of EU policy they ought to be able to agree has been a success.  Chris answers Harris's question of whether free movement has been of most benefit to capital or labour, but that obviously isn't going to convince the people he's been listening to.  What might, and is something Westminster politicians have shied away from as it would reduce their control is, as we now know to a fair extent where the most pressures have been put on public services and housing, the targeting of extra funding to those areas.  This, finally, does seem to be where Labour is moving towards, with Ed Miliband today setting out 5 points around which an immigration bill from his government would be based.  We can quibble about the rights and wrongs of preventing migrants from sending child benefit and child tax credits back to their home nation when Brits working abroad can do the same, but if it helps to staunch public concern then so be it.

If some of the left has been blasé about migration, as Harris puts it, the reason is precisely because of the way we've arrived at this point.  Yes, public concern about immigration has been high in the past, and is high now.  Where though did the current mood have its roots, and is it all about migration or rather migration becoming the rallying point for a whole other myriad of concerns?  Easily forgotten is the way panic was whipped up last year over the looming ending of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians coming here, with the media all but joining UKIP in predicting a movement similar to that of post-2005.  It didn't happen.  What did happen is the economy continuing to recovery, albeit without a similar recovery in living standards, the former leading to workers in western rather than eastern Europe looking for jobs further afield.  The fault is not with the migrants, but with the joint failings of late capitalism and politicians both here and in Europe.

For all the insults and asking of what the "modern left" would do, Harris himself doesn't offer a solution other than restricting free movement, despite how this both isn't going to and shouldn't happen.  We could start with being straight with the public rather than continuing to lie to them.  Who knows, it might just begin to have an effect.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014 

So damn easy to cave in.

Pressure is once again growing on ministers over their latest choice of candidate to lead the inquiry into historic child sexual abuse.

It had been thought all sides would unite around the appointment of the Witchsmeller Pursuivant, known for his long record in uncovering paedophiles, including in cases where there was no record of the guilty so much as having contact with a child.  "He's completely unbiased," said a ministerial source.  "Every single person he has accused has been found guilty, as proved by their failure to pass ordeal by water.  You can't get more unbiased than that."

Campaigners have since discovered however that Mr Pursuivant is a 10th cousin, thrice removed of Lord Brittan, bringing his objectivity into question.  The Witchsmeller denies ever meeting Lord Brittan, but admits he cannot guarantee having never been within 10 miles of the former Conservative home secretary, the latest stipulation asked for by MPs and lawyers.

Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, was scathing of the choice of Mr Pursuivant.  "How many more times does this government intend to choose establishment figures who are unable to prove they are sufficiently removed from Lord Brittan?  That he can't account for every single one of his movements over the course of the past 45 years simply isn't acceptable.  I don't know what world these people inhabit but where I come from you know if you're within 10 miles of a lizard in human skin.  You can smell them for a start."

Asked who he would like to chair the inquiry, Danczuk had the answer.  "There is only one man for the job.  I realise Geoffrey Dickens has been dead for 19 years, but that doesn't mean he can't be channelled by a medium, one suitably removed from Leon Brittan, obviously.  His spirit would also be able to answer questions over the contents of his dossier as no one else could.  The fact he was vehemently opposed to the occult poses a problem, I'll admit, but it shouldn't be insurmountable.  I'm sure he'll understand."

Should Pursuivant be forced to stand down, he will join Lady Butler-Sloss, Fiona Woolf, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Will.i.am, Jeremy Irons, Sara Payne and Chris Hansen, all of whom have been appointed only to then resign.

In other news:
Ched Evans speaks - "It wasn't rape, just a light sexual assault, and I apologise for my infidelity"
Meghan Trainor withdraws All About That Bass from sale, apologises for pretending to be African-American
Man kills everything

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 

Farage's face, staring out - forever.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell through O'Brien offered as a picture of the future a boot stamping on a human face - forever.  It's a visceral, shocking image you want to turn away from, yet it's not as horrifying as the current vision of the future we are presented with.  It still involves a human face, only rather than it being stamped on, there's a rictus grin across its mug, the eyes bright, teeth being flashed for all their worth.  The face, all but needless to add, belongs to Nigel.

Future historians looking back on the coalition government will have plenty to examine and debate over.  They will wonder how a government which insisted it was dealing with a national emergency, the size of the budget deficit, could first choke off the recovery left by the previous government by cutting back capital spending and then conjure to provide a recovery of their own in which the deficit fails to fall.  They will try to reach conclusions over whether it was the emphasis on cuts to the welfare budget by this government that led inexorably to the dismantling of the system of social security as the country had known it post-Beveridge.  Most significantly, they will be forced to consider how despite presenting himself as a strong leader, David Cameron was in fact the embodiment of a weak prime minister, at every step giving in to the worst instincts of his party rather than pursuing what was right for the country.

The evidence for just such a finding is there in abundance.  Most fundamental will be the colossal error Cameron made in January 2013, announcing in a speech that if returned to power in 2015, his government would hold an in/out referendum on remaining in the European Union by 2017, after a successful "renegotiation" with the other member states.  Designed to win over backbenchers complaining about his leadership and the party's standing in the polls, it does for a matter of days.  Having succeeded in pressurising a leader they have never taken to and never will into making one promise, they quickly demanded he move sooner.  They make clear their displeasure at legislation not being present in the Queen's speech preparing for the referendum, and again, Downing Street soon gives in.

Not that it was only backbenchers taking the credit for Cameron's shift.  In another example of Cameron's reckless promises coming back to bite him, prior to the 2010 election he set out how a Conservative government would bring immigration down from the hundreds of thousands to the "tens of thousands".  At first it looked as though he might achieve his aim, only for the continuing economic woes in the Eurozone to result in a surge of migrants from the western European states most affected by austerity coming to the country.  Immigration duly becomes second only to fears over the NHS in people's concerns, not because of it having a personal impact on most, but as a catch-all complaint over the sense of drift, the general feeling of powerlessness most are experiencing as real wages fall and politicians refuse to offer anything resembling a vision of where the country is heading.

So desperate are the public they look anywhere for an alternative.  In any other circumstances Nigel Farage would be an incongruous figure, a deeply boring, petty man who covers up for his party's lack of policies and rigour with an overarching narrative: things ain't what they used to be, and it's all the fault of the European Union.  Nigel smokes tabs, drinks beer, and so delights a media starved by the blandness and sterility of the focus grouped out of existence political elite.  They can't get enough of him, and the publicity combined with the mood of hopelessness leads to his UK Independence Party winning hundreds of council seats, before it comes out on top in 2014's European parliament elections.  Rather than bother to submit Farage himself to anything resembling proper scrutiny, with a very few select exceptions, the media instead focus on those lower down the party structure.  All the while the personality cult of Farage continues to build, to the point where a former DJ imagines the UKIP leader at Number 10 in a calypso inspired song.  It seems and is completely absurd, and yet the main topic of debate is whether Mike Read's appropriation is racist.

Absurd is the word.  Cameron's weakness knows no apparent bounds.  Only a few weeks ago he offered to his party and by proxy the country the promise he would put freedom of movement at the heart of his renegotiation strategy.  He said he wouldn't take no for an answer.  The outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, points out the answer could only be no when the rest of the EU, imposing its own restrictions on benefits or not, has not the slightest intention of curtailing one of the EEC's founding principles and biggest successes.  Panicked further by the prospect of losing the Rochester by-election, and apparently fearing a leadership challenge in the aftermath, we now learn Cameron is set to announce some form of unilateral restriction on low-skilled eastern European migrants, most likely by refusing to issue them with national insurance numbers.  How this will affect the economy he cares not; nor does he worry over the legal implications.

Cameron's gambit has failed on all fronts.  His backbenchers, meant to be sated by his giving them what they want, now realise they have pushed to the point at which they are closer than ever to reaching their goal of getting Britain out of Europe.  Why on earth would they stop now?  UKIP, meanwhile, has had its every argument validated, continues to gain support and still can point out that the only way to truly control the borders is to leave.  All this, and the Conservatives remain behind Labour in the polls.  The only reason Cameron hasn't been called on this disaster is due to the majority of the press sharing the backbenchers' opinion on the EU, and how they can't imagine anything as terrible as Red Ed in Number 10.  I can.  It's another 5 years of Farage's fizzog staring out from every screen, every alternate sheet of newsprint, every billboard, the same silent laugh emanating from his gob.  You're the one he's laughing at, Dave.

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Monday, October 20, 2014 

Poisoning national life? That'll be two years.

Gosh, was it really but two weeks ago some of the internet world was up in arms over the apparent suicide of Brenda Leyland, aka Sweepyface, aka one of those meanies still obsessed with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and still insisting her parents might have had something to do with it, or at least bear some responsibility?  Unpopular opinions certainly, but not illegal, and probably not really deserving of a doorstepping from a Sky reporter.

How fast things move these days.  Just as we saw in the aftermath of the riots, when some judges took it upon themselves to hand down harsher sentences to those who didn't riot but suggested they might than to some of those who did, so now Chris Grayling promises the maximum sentence for "trolls" will be lengthened from the current six months to 2 years.  Anyone would have thought we don't have a prison system in crisis, one where the debate over whether Ched Evans should be allowed to play football again ought to have been delayed until he'd served the full 5 years he was given after being found guilty of rape, but no, space can always be found for those who "poison our national life".

Apparently Chloe Madeley was last week subjected to "online terrorism".  I say apparently as I really, truly, don't care enough to look any deeper.  One suspects the rape threats she received amounted to what they usually do, a handful of people, sometimes not even that, reaching for the most obvious weapon in their verbal arsenal, either sexual assault and/or death.  Back in the day, we called the people whose first response to getting bested in argument was to say the equivalent of "I'd beat u up m8" internet tough guys.  Because in the majority of examples, that's all they are: cocky and arrogant online but likely to shit themselves if someone took them up on the offer and arrived on their doorstep.

This isn't always the case, as #gamergate has (somewhat) demonstrated.  Madeley doesn't seem to have had her personal information posted online, as Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian have.  #Gamergate has also now been going for two months, an incredibly long time by internet standards for a drama to still be developing.  For those who've missed the whole farrago up to now, in microcosm #gamergate is either one of two things: a crusade against corrupt videogame journalism, or a dying, backwards community trying desperately to keep its domain in aspic, without politics, especially left-wing politics and feminism, gaining a foothold.

As you might expect, in reality it's neither.  Both sides doth protest too much: despite how gaming journalists have tried to argue there was no truth behind the claims of corruption from Quinn's ex-boyfriend, who detailed how she had slept with journalists and others in the wider industry while still in a relationship with him, there has long been a problem with cronyism at best and outright corruption at worst in gaming media.  Rather than face up to the initial outcry following the spreading of Eron Gjoni's allegations, one of the first responses came in the shape of multiple news and review sites declaring the "gamer" label itself dead, all on the same day.  You know, exactly the sort of collusion and refusing to listen the old media used to indulge in and still does, albeit on a smaller scale than before.

Then again, you can't exactly blame them considering some of the abuse directed their way.  Think the trolling of Caroline Criado-Perez et al except multiplied many times over.  Nearly everyone with even a passing role has been "doxed", items really have been sent through the post, and so on.  It has also been to a certain extent orchestrated, one internet subculture organising for all out war on another.  Their enemy is "SJWs", social justice warriors, imposing their values and standards on others whether they like it or not, and anonymous most certainly does not like it.

You'd think being something of a left-winger, believing wholeheartedly in equality and so on I would be in alliance with those criticising games and gamers for their continued Neanderthal ways.  And I would be, if that first response hadn't been so woefully constructed, the backlash against the mere asking of questions so vehement.  The reason this has gone on so long without burning itself it out is precisely because those on the side of Quinn and Saarkesian have risen to the bait over and over and over, just as Criado-Perez and those supporting her did.  Moreover, just as the coverage of the banknote campaign and its aftermath made clear how journalists themselves ramped it up due to how they knew those involved, or indeed, how they were being targeted themselves, so any semblance of objectivity went almost immediately.  It's shone a light on the vulnerabilities and insecurities of both sides, highlighting groupthink and the way narratives are constructed in this extremely new media landscape.

There is of course no defence for threats, for "doxing" people, for scaring them to the extent they feel compelled to leave their homes.  Concerted, sustained trolling has to be tackled in some way, and if that means involving the authorities, so be it.  You don't have to be a cynic however to note it's only some victims the media cares for, and there are plenty of journalists who have never taken to their writing becoming so open to criticism.  We've already seen people imprisoned for making tasteless jokes, or given community service for daring to make angry political statements. Handing judges the power to impose longer sentences for going beyond what we consider the bounds of free speech, will, as it always does, encourage them to use it, just as publicity also makes them believe they have to set an example the next time a spotty herbert with a miserable life and a hateful online alter ego appears before them.  The only people who ever truly poison national life are those in positions of power, and the vast majority of keyboard denizens have none.

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Friday, October 17, 2014 

Unnatural.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014 

Not a statement from John Grisham.

(This is a post about child abuse and paedophiles.  I despise "trigger warnings", but considering the content on this occasion thought it should be made clear.)

The reaction to John Grisham's remarks in his Telegraph interview has been all too familiar.  His argument, which it must be said is not wholly convincing in itself and certainly lacked in delivery, was there is a major difference between someone who finds themselves prosecuted for downloading a small number of indecent images of a post-pubescent child and someone who actively abuses a child.  Grisham was talking in the context of America in particular jailing far too many people, including "60-year-old white guys" who "drunkenly" search out such things, relating an anecdote about an old friend from law school caught up in a "honey trap" operation by Canadian police.  The Telegraph itself notes a study from the U.S. Sentencing Commission that found the average sentence for possessing child pornography had doubled since 2004, from 54 months to 95.

Jon Brown of the NSPCC, talking to the BBC, repeated the regularly heard claim that "every time these images are clicked on or downloaded it creates demand that ultimately fuels more child abuse".  In the Guardian, Suzanne Ost writes that "seeking out these images can encourage the market and thus the abuse of more children to fulfil demand".  Which raises the following questions: what kind of a market is there in child abuse images?  Does one exist at all, and if it does, what form does it take?  Does it adhere to the classical laws of supply and demand?  Does it resemble the market for adult pornography, or say the one for illegal drugs?

Attempting to answer those questions is as you might expect, incredibly difficult to next to impossible.  What we do know is that child pornography operated for an extremely short period of time as an above ground industry, and only then in a tiny number of countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, although magazines were also produced in this country as well the United States.  When it comes to the internet era, less than 10 years ago research suggested a "substantial amount, if not most" of the child abuse imagery circulating could still be traced to this period, roughly between 1969 and 1987, when one of the last mail order magazines was closed.

This will have undoubtedly changed since then. There is still relatively little however to suggest there is a market for child abuse images beyond the relatively small paedophile communities established on private forums, and most notably, on the so-called "dark net(s)".  Nor with the exception of the occasional professional operation, mostly based in eastern Europe, have there been what can be described as commercial producers of "new" child abuse material rather than simply distributors of that which already existed.  Most of the forums and sites to be found on the dark net, of which there have been a dwindling number since the shutting down of Freedom Hosting, require registration, with the most "exclusive" even requiring that prospective members first upload child abuse images they have obtained from elsewhere before they are given access.

One of the best insights we have into the volume of child abuse material available online was provided by the Anonymous raids on Lolita City, with those behind the hacking of the site claiming it hosted over 100GB of indecent images.  Anonymous first discovered Lolita City and the hosting of child pornography on Tor via the Hidden Wiki; the wiki itself claims that a month before it closed, Lolita City hosted 1.4 million images.  How far the Hidden Wiki can be relied upon is obviously open to question, as with any wiki: one of its pages attempts to do nothing less than provide a "history of CP", including describing in graphic detail the abuse of children depicted in some of the videos presumably available via the sites it provides links to.  The page for one of the newest established forums, up only since August, claims it already has over 110,000 registered users.  For context, the BBC suggested that Black Market Reloaded had around 300,000 registered users back in December, while the FBI indictment against Ross Ulbrict, the alleged owner of the Silk Road marketplace, claims it had 957,079 registered users.  The BBC also in June conducted an interview with a self-described former operator of a dark net paedophile forum, which he said had 40,000 registered users.  His own cache of material amounted to "12 gigabytes".

We can't of course know how much of the hosted and exchanged material would be found to be indecent under the Protection of Children Act.  There has long for instance been a demand for "non-nude" images of children, and on some of these forums they would almost certainly be hosted alongside the illegal content.  Without doubt the most widely available indecent content is that categorised as Level 1, erotic posing without sexual activity.  This raises the question of how erotic posing is defined, as past controversies have centred around.  By the same token, the rarest is likely to be Level 5, which involves either sadism or bestiality, referred to by some paedophiles as "hurtcore", although it would presumably also comprise some of Level 4, defined as penetrative sexual activity between children and adults.

None of which answers the question of whether merely viewing an indecent image, beyond its illegality, really does encourage the abuse of more children, taking out of the equation for the moment whether doing so can encourage the viewer himself to either abuse a child or lead to the belief that sexual attraction to children is normal.  Certainly, the forums hosted on Tor would soon wither if there was no new material posted, and they are without doubt used by abusers themselves to share images and videos of their crimes, and are encouraged to continue by their fellow abusers.  At the same time, it is far too simplistic to claim as Brown does that "every time these images are clicked ... it creates demand".  It's certainly arguable that this could be the case if some of the admins of these sites were producers of material, and also if they were charging for access to it.  Very few if any are.  Even those actively seeking out material through web searches or on "clear net" p2p services are unlikely to be creating further demand, mainly because the battle against abuse imagery has been so successful when it comes to the overground.  The image Brown conjures up is one analogous to that of the adult pornography business, which could not survive even in its current emasculated form without consumers being willing to pay for content.  It just doesn't work like that, and never really did.

Ost in her piece goes on to further describe how viewing child abuse images harms beyond the simple market and demand argument, and on this she is on far sturdier ground, also pointing out how much harder it is to stumble across such material than it once was.  One wonders though whether the immediate criticism of Grisham in such condemnatory terms really helps anyone.  It certainly doesn't add to our understanding of how online paedophiles are currently organised or how they operate, nor does it do anything but further stigmatise those attracted to children who have no intention of acting on their feelings.  It could however push them towards others who do.  Surely that's something no one wants, regardless of how paedophiles as a whole are viewed.

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