Monday, 19 October 2009

Kaminski, Your Time Is Up

Much has been said and written already about David Cameron's new friends in the EU. Anyone who has read much of this blog will know how I feel.

Each time the issue is raised, and someone expresses their concern at the beliefs held by the likes of Michal Kaminski, the usual Tory reaction is to ignore the issue - and, where possible, accuse the accuser.

Not content with kicking out the only Tory with the balls to question this ill-starred alliance, it now appears the Tories are attempting to rewrite history itself, in a risible attempt to make Kaminski look respectable.

Just a couple of points that someone in Tory HQ might find useful.

Number 1. Wikipedia is not the only source of information on the internet. In fact, arguably, it isn't a source of information at all. Still, it's good to know where you get the base data for your policies.

Number 2. If you are attempting to manipulate the published facts for your own sinister purposes, next time don't do it using a House of Commons IP address. With ignorance like that, it's a wonder you found the internet at all.

As for the rest of us, I think this is something we're going to have to get used to under our new Government. As I remember reading somewhere once: "All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers."

Next week: Boris Johnson's Wikipedia page is amended to show his five Olympic gold medals for wiff-waff.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Free Speech Isn't Free

One of the most basic rights available to those of us living in democracies is the right to freedom of speech, or freedom of expression. From this comes the right to vote, to report on events, to express our opinions, and to hold our leaders to account. Most, if not all, of us take this right for granted. And so we should. It is integral to our freedom in general.

The recent Trafigura debacle - where a previously little-known oil company used a notorious firm of libel lawyers to attempt to gag reports of a toxic waste dumping scandal - has reminded me how precarious this right is. And I'm not just talking about big companies using their financial muscle to (hilariously fail to) overturn 300-year-old laws just to cover up their own wrongdoing, which is egregious and heinous in itself, but that this sorry episode is just one small part of an increasing movement by various interests to restrict individual rights as part of their own agenda. It helps if you make annual profits of US$400million plus, so you can afford lawyers like this.

In the UK, we now have "super-injunctions", as used in the Trafigura case, where an injunction can be sought not only to prevent (say) a newspaper reporting on toxic waste dumping - but also that the same newspaper is not allowed to report on the injunction itself. This Kafkaesque moebius-strip of logic means that there may well be thousands of super-injunctions preventing what most people would consider public interest stories being released... and we're not even allowed to know about the injunctions themselves. As Richard Littlejohn might say, if he ever did any research - "you couldn't make it up".

As a Brit, I envy the United States somewhat, in that their rights and freedoms are clearly written down in a Bill of Rights and a Constitution - in contrast with the mishmash of common law that we have. The First (and by implication, therefore, the most important) Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America reads thus:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now obviously there need to be restrictions on the right to freedom of speech - and there are. No reasonable person would say that you have the right to be offensive, and to provoke violence and hatred, for example. And a US case from 1925 states that this freedom does not allow persons to use words which "by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the state." Seems fair enough, doesn't it.

Here's an example. The US Supreme Court is currently considering a case where a man sold videos of pitbulls fighting. The man got three years in jail for animal cruelty (although Fox News still calls him a "dog lover"), but still has the right to free speech - and this, his lawyers contend, even extends to his hateful videos. Personally I consider this bizarre and incredible - but it does demonstrate how precious this right to freedom of speech is to Americans.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I discovered the other side of this story. I remember the stories last year about how Sarah Palin tried to have books banned from Wasilla library. But that's Sarah Palin - she kerrrazy. Surely this sort of paranoid madness isn't that common. Americans are way too keen on their freedoms - aren't they?

So this is what Trafigura reminded me of. The utter nonsense of trying to suppress a story so much that you end up trampling on a 300-year-old law (and shooting yourself in the foot in the process), brought to mind another recent story that I had to read twice, it was so unbelievable.

You see, it's not just children's books about gay penguins that people want banned. Oh no. It's really serious hardcore stuff. Like Harry Potter. Or that dangerous revolutionary Philip Pullman. Stuff that millions of normal kids read. I mean, it's got so bad, that America now has a Banned Books Week.

I know.

America. Land of the Free. Banned Books Week.

WTF? It's THAT bad?? Shouldn't they be banning Jeffrey Archer first?

Don't they know this kind of stuff almost always backfires? Haven't they heard of the Streisand Effect? Or are these people (whoever they are) so blinded by hatred, intolerance, greed or whatever motivation they have, that they'll gladly ride into the valley of death to attempt to restrict the freedoms they claim to hold so dear?

Who are these people? Isn't it rather scary that some people are willing to go to such great lengths to stop other people reading words?

Some of them are companies with deep pockets who don't want us to know what they've been up to. Some of them are religious fundamentalists (y'know, the kind that seriously think Obama is the antichrist) wanting to impose their intolerant morality on the rest of us.

But ALL of them are dangerous. And if we don't stand up to them now, what price will we pay for our freedom in future? We cannot afford to live in a society where you can buy silence, or obtain it by threats. And surely we don't want to live in a world when harmless children's books are banned, while stories of vital public interest are quietly buried. Do we? The question is - can we afford the lawyers?

This is a slightly amended version of a blog post originally uploaded on 15 October, and (ironically) taken down on 16 October

Power To The People

I recently attended a residents' meeting, held to coordinate opposition to a planned green belt development. Having never dabbled much before in local politics, I looked forward to a lively debate, and - with any luck - a bit of a ruck as well.

Imagine my disappointment.

The first clue that things might not quite kick off as I had hoped, was the venue: The local Methodist Church.

Now don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Methodists - no more than I do against any other Christian denomination, anyway - but I think it's safe to say that Methodists are not generally known for their rabble-rousing shenanigans. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Methodists aren't really known for anything.

On arrival, though, signs were initially more promising. A shifty-looking geezer was loitering outside the church hall entrance, shivering in the cold. He had a fistful of leaflets he was handing out to passers-by, which could not initially be discerned in the dark. As I drew near, I prepared to accept a leaflet. Just as I extended my hand, a terrible stench drew close around me, as if the gates of hell themselves had opened briefly to allow some excess sulphur to leak out. In the darkness, the BNP logo on the leaflet became apparent. I scuttled past.

I wish, now, that I had taken one. I'd love to see an insight into the BNP's angle on planning issues in rural Essex. I'd particularly like to see how they got the race angle involved, in what is possibly the whitest place I've ever lived. Sadly I may now never know.

The Methodist hall itself probably holds around 100 people. It was packed. I can only assume the live entertainment in the local pubs was pretty light this week. Maybe it was even karaoke. That would explain a lot.

The first part of the meeting consisted of the organisers of this little protest group introducing themselves to the assembled throng, and setting out the aims of the group - namely, to stop one particular development from going ahead. We were all showered with facts regarding flood plains, flight paths, traffic infrastructure and the lack of local school places - all good stuff, and strong arguments, but I did wonder whether any single person in the room didn't already know these facts. (Unless the BNP guy had got in, of course.) The proposed building site is indeed in a flood plain, and under a flight path... and it's on green belt land. So far so dandy - but we hadn't really learned anything yet.

All this would change in the second part; the open forum Q&A. This is the part we had all come for. Although admittedly in most cases it was because they had a question to ask. Rather than, in my case, because I hoped a particularly annoying question might result in fisticuffs.

Sadly, as you might expect, most of the questions - and answers - turned out to be pretty anodyne stuff. In fact, all bar a few questions were people asking whether we knew that the proposed development was on a flood plain, was under a flight path, was on green belt land, and did not have sufficient infrastructure to handle the additional traffic. Sigh. At this point I was beginning to wonder whether it might actually be me that started a fight, just out of sheer frustration. Fortunately, ennui just got there ahead of frustration, and I retained my inertia. I'm starting to develop a useful skill of remaining completely immobile while on hallowed ground. Just in case, you know. Just in case.

Most of the remaining questions were about other planned developments in the local area. Each one was dismissed on the grounds that this group was focussing on just this one development. Only. It must have taken a couple of dozen repetitions of this fairly simple concept before the questions dried up. I began to wonder if some people had come in here looking for salvation, and got lost in the talk of drainage solutions.

One contributor to the Q&A deserves special mention. Following a gentleman who described himself as an 'outsider' for living in the next town for the first 15 years of his life, I was initially surprised to find a besuited man stand up and claim to be a proper local resident, in a broad Scottish accent. He had a rant which he had prepared beforehand, plus visual aids. This could be good. This might even be 'it'.

But no.

Just as he'd got rolling, and was beginning to reach a crescendo of irrelevance, he was shouted down. "Excuse me sir, this is not a political forum" - we have polite hecklers out our way, you know. The man continued gamely for a few words, but the chorus of disapproval grew, and he sat down, chastened. A murmur passed around the assembled residents. I just caught the words 'UKIP' and 'idiot'. I wondered whether he had picked up a BNP leaflet outside. I also wondered whether a residents' meeting was the best place to canvass about the evils of the EU. I wasn't brave enough to raise my hand and ask, though.

And just as well. As the meeting began to draw to a close, we were all entreated to attend the council planning meeting next month, and to write objection letters to the planning committee in the meantime. The group organisers had brought some local councillors with them to help us understand some of the more arcane concepts relating to local planning law. What they didn't expect was to end up in a ten-minute bickering exchange on whether residents should support the Core Strategy or not. On such small matters can hang the success or failure of entire revolutions. So it was probably just as well that the matter was brushed under the carpet just before it got really nasty. Of course, nobody now knows whether they should support the Core Strategy or not, but hey - that's democracy. Or indecision. I forget which.

And so it ended. Or, more accurately, so it continued as I sneaked out. They might have still been going the next morning, for all I know.

So there it is. My first real contact with local activism. I don't know whether to be impressed with the protest group's confidence in the face of a vast development conglomerate, but I was expecting at least a minor scuffle. I hope Wolfie Smith would have approved.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The BNP can kiss my indigenous ar*e

As a follow-up to my first blog post, some of the Twitterati have alerted me to the fact that the BNP now have a freephone number.

So, "fellow patriots", feel free (it's in the name, after all) to phone 0800 008 6191 from as many public phone boxes as you can, and leave the phone off the hook. And feel free to pass this on to as many people as you like.

Update: It might be wise to dial 141 first. Some people are getting call-backs from the BNP!