Monthly Archives: January 2009

Coroners and Justice Bill: the most toxic law ever?

The Coroners and Justice Bill went through its second reading at the start of this week. If you read blogs, you will probably have heard about the clauses hidden away at the end of it which threaten to effectively neutralise the Data Protection Act. If you read my first edition of the Carnival on Modern Liberty you will have read my comment about it also giving the government the power to hold inquests in secret.

But that isn’t all. Justice outline their concerns about this Bill as follows (emphasis mine):

– the provisions for secret inquests;
– the restriction of public comment by inquest jurors and coroners on matters of legitimate public concern;
– the holding of inquests without juries in relation to some deaths involving public authorities;
– the implementation of new partial defences to murder in the absence of wholesale reform of the law of homicide;
overbroad criteria for the use of anonymous witnesses in criminal trials;
– amendments to bail legislation in murder cases which are on their face incompatible with Article 5 European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR);
– the near-total undermining of the Data Protection Act 1998 through allowing ministers to authorise disclosure and use of data to serve policy objectives.

But even that isn’t all. Not content with the prohibition of “extreme pornography” (which also came in this week), the Coroners and Justice Bill will also “ban the possession of any image involving sexual activity and children. For the purpose of the law, an image is said to contain a child if ‘the impression conveyed … is that the person shown is a child’.” I blogged about this proposal last year but didn’t realise it had made it into an actual bill.

Now this is a minefield of an issue to blog about because of its emotive nature. I realise that even by raising the subject I’m leaving myself open to attack. Pornographic images of actual children (as opposed to images of actual children that individuals may happen to find erotic) is obviously wrong as they involve children beneath the age of consent. But what if the image is a cartoon? And what if that cartoon is of an adult character who happens to look young? Fundamentally, if no actual harm is being caused, what is the offence? The mind is repelled by the idea of child pornography, but if we look at it clearly for a second, aren’t we talking here about thoughtcrime?

This isn’t just an issue for “lolicon.” Probably the most significant example of a work which appears to fall foul of this prospective new law is Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, an erotic work about the sex lives of Alice (in Wonderland), Dorothy (Wizard of Oz) and Wendy (Peter Pan). But there are numerous other examples of comics, manga in particular, which feature childlike characters in erotic situations. And how will this law apply to Delirium, from the Sandman series – a character frequently portrayed as childlike in appearance, despite wearing immodest clothing. How will the censors react to this line (illustrated in the book Brief Lives)?

“Touched by her fingers, the two surviving chocolate people copulate desperately, losing themselves in a melting frenzy of lust, spending the last of their brief borrowed lives in a spasm of raspberry cream and fear.”

We seem to have lost this anxiety about prose over forty years ago; so how are images so fundamentally different?

Interestingly, it looks as if these concerns are starting to surface in the comics industry itself, with the Telegraph reporting the website Comic Shop Voice expressing concerns about this new law, along with the broad definition of extreme pornography found in the Criminal Justice Act 2008. To what extent Comic Shop Voice are representative of the industry remains to be seen (I am investigating), but I would suggest that a wakeup call is needed.

This might sound paranoid, but I invite you to consider the following: firstly, the examples of the police using their powers come up with new and ever more authoritarian ways are legion. How many times have we seen photographers and protestors being arrested under terrorism laws for example? The fact that War on Terror boardgame can be confiscated on the grounds that the enclosed balaclava could be used for criminal activities tells me all I need to know. Secondly, there is the Lord Horror case. I seem to recall there being a number of other police raids on comic shops during the 1990s but since they were before the mass expansion of the internet I’m struggling to find confirmation of this.

We may not be living in a police state, but paranoid, authoritarian policing is certainly on the rise (cf. Form 696; Section 27 orders on football supporters). Paul Stephenson’s appointment as head of the Met does not exactly fill me with confidence. I’m pleased that the Lib Dems voted against the Coroners and Justice Bill at second reading (it is notable – and lamentable – that the Tories decided to abstain). What will emerge from the Committee Stage and the Lords remains to be seen.

Finally… the Carnival on Modern Liberty #1!

After a rough week, I’ve had a cold riddled weekend. So my master plan to get the first edition of the Carnival on Modern Liberty done on Friday fell flat on its sorry arse.

However, between sneezing fits, I did manage to get it done yesterday and now Sunny has published it on Liberal Conspiracy. Have a look, don’t forget to submit your articles for next week’s edition (which will be at Our Kingdom) and enjoy!

Aborting common sense

Three examples of the zaniness of anti-abortion campaigners:

First of all, there was the curious case of the abortion doughnuts. I have to admit that when I first heard about “abortion doughnuts” my first thought was that Krispy Kreme had started putting marshmallow foetuses in the jam. However, the reality turns out to be much more prosaic. What happened was that Krispy Kreme issued the following press statement in advance of Barack Obama’s inauguration (emphasis mine):

“Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc. (NYSE: KKD) is honoring American’s sense of pride and freedom of choice on Inauguration Day, by offering a free doughnut of choice to every customer on this historic day, Jan. 20. By doing so, participating Krispy Kreme stores nationwide are making an oath to tasty goodies — just another reminder of how oh-so-sweet ‘free’ can be.”

The reaction of the American Life League was, well, over the top to say the least:

“Celebrating his inauguration with ‘Freedom of Choice’ doughnuts – only two days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision to decriminalize abortion – is not only extremely tacky, it’s disrespectful and insensitive and makes a mockery of a national tragedy.

“A misconstrued concept of ‘choice’ has killed over 50 million preborn children since Jan. 22, 1973. Does Krispy Kreme really want their free doughnuts to celebrate this ‘freedom.’

“As of Thursday morning, communications director Brian Little could not be reached for comment. We challenge Krispy Kreme doughnuts to reaffirm their commitment to true freedom – to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and to separate themselves and their doughnuts from our great American shame.”

Hat tip: Zoe Margolis, Miami New Times.

However, anti-choice reactionary zeal isn’t limited to the USA sadly. You might think that the Editor of the Catholic Herald would welcome the move by an MP to attempt to outlaw discrimination against Catholics, as Evan Harris is attempting to do. You would be wrong. Indeed, Damian Thompson would like to tell Dr Harris exactly where he can shove his bill:

You know something? Catholics don’t want to be liberated from this constitutional discrimination by a politician who advocates an end to the requirement that any abortion requires the consent of two doctors, arguing that the “procedure” can carried out by a nurse or even in the home.

I know I speak for many Catholics when I say that this man disgusts me… Let’s leave the constitutional bar in place for just a bit longer, shall we? It’s mildly offensive, but Catholics have more important things to worry about. Such as saving late-term unborn babies from the grisly fate that Dr Harris is happy to see inflicted on them.

Hat tip: New Humanist.

And finally, there is this video, which Iain Dale believes “even the most ardent pro-choicers will find some difficulty in countering.”

You know what, Iain? I might take that challenge. It would be tempting to respond with “when’s the Hitler version coming out?” but that would be to miss the point. The weakness of this argument is that it is essentially rooted in the unknowable. What is being argued is that Obama is a good man; Obama would not exist if his foetus had been aborted; therefore abortion is bad. But that argument is entirely contingent on Obama being not merely good, but the best president possible in all possible worlds. I’m all for saying nice things about him, but that is going a little too far Dr Pangloss.

If we’re going to talk about potentiality, let’s at least have an honest discussion and recognise that potentiality lies in everything not just in the decision whether or not to abort a foetus. The decision of a sixteen year old to have an abortion could lead directly to her completing a medical degree and discovering the cure for cancer. The decision of a woman to have an abortion could lead directly to her eventually raising a child in a more protective and loving environment, who subsequently goes on to build a fusion reactor which ushers in a new era of prosperity. And who knows what might have happened if Obama’s mother had aborted the foetus from which he grew? Her decision might have lead to the first black woman president being inaugurated this week – a woman who within her first 100 days solved the Middle East Crisis, global warming and the economic downturn in quick succession.

Sound silly? Maybe, but under the right set of circumstances all of these hypotheses are possible. And the fact is there are literally millions of people out there whose lives would have not happened or would be substantially worse if their mothers hadn’t had an abortion. Are we to automatically assume that these people’s lives are worth less than the foetuses they have benefited from the destruction of?

That isn’t to make the claim that because of this, abortion is good – that would be an equally fallacious argument. It is however to say that the value of a specific abortion or lack thereof is essentially unknowable both at the time when the decision is made and subsequently. We simply do not know what we do not know. Spending time worrying about what might have been is a shortcut to madness.

Due to the fact that we live in a vastly complex (read: beautiful, wonderful) universe, every time one possibility is closed off an infinite number of other possibilities arise. It doesn’t just apply to the few things that the Pope does or does not approve of. Indeed, CatholicVote give the lie to this by applauding Obama’s achievements despite being raised by a single mother – something that prurient Conservatives and Catholics spend the rest of the time assuring us will inevitably lead to children becoming drug crazed, gun toting thugs. Funny that.

I’m glad Barack Obama is alive but it is a simple fact to observe that if he had never lived, for whatever reason, I wouldn’t have known him to care.

Kawczynski is a disgrace

In a very short term, Daniel Kawcynski has, for me, come to represent everything that is venal about the Conservative Party. I’ve already written about him a couple of times, about his fact-free attack on electoral reform and his equally evidence-lite claim that evil liberals were trying to stir up hatred against Poles. Now he has turned his particular line in smear at the police, already (justly) reeling from the Damien Green affair.

There are several ways in which this is not at all like the Damian Green affair. For a start, it would appear that the police were investigating a serious issue. Sending white powder to a minister, post 2001, is a genuinely big deal. If there was an attack – and we have no reason to assume there wasn’t – then I would expect any MP to cooperate with the police. But even if this wasn’t the case, after the incidents of November last year no MP can be in any doubt about what the police can and can’t do. They didn’t have a warrant and so if Kawczynski didn’t feel like cooperating he should have simply shown them the door.

Except of course he has to have it both ways. So rather than turfing them out, he cooperated with their “intimidating” request while at the same time whinging about it on the floor of the House.

It is hard to see what case the police have to answer here. Worse, while the Green affair genuinely did raise some important questions, shouting about the Kawczynski One threatens to trivialise all that.

At a time when the State is taking a turn for the sinister, it is all the more important not to cry wolf. That Damian Green chose to sit next to Kawczynski and thus symbolically support his complaint to the Speaker, suggests that the Tories as a whole have got this whole business out of proportion.

Telegraph brands Christians as objectively anti-human

What the hell is Alex Singleton going on about? He has taken Christian Aid to task for using the slogan “We stand for humanity” on the grounds that it doesn’t “fit with the brand name.”

Now, it happens that I’m an atheist-pantheist-rationalist-secularist-humanist-whateverthemoodtakesmeist (I think that just about sums it up), but the last – the last – thing I would ever criticise a Christian group for being is pro-human. Quite the opposite; anything that emphasises the strong humanist thread that can be found throughout the Gospel (as opposed to the bits which get Mel Gibson all excited and quivery over) should be applauded. Without meaning to be patronising, well done chaps, you actually get it (millions don’t). Stick with that brand of Christianity and you won’t hear a peep of criticism from me.

Back to the blog, some eejit has commented: “I think it’s fair to say they have somewhat lost the plot.” I think its fair to say that only someone who doesn’t actually know the plot of the Gospels would actually write that. Who needs Dawkins, Hitchens et al, when you have fellow Christians, eh?

You are all individuals! (Obamamania)

I didn’t watch Obama’s inauguration this evening. Instead, I sat on the bus reading the coverage on Twitter. For some reason, reading all these excited 140-character messages about Obama bigging up the atheists and getting down with the gays (or possibly not) – interspersed with irrelevancies – reminded me quite a lot of this:

Introducing the Carnival on Modern Liberty (crosspost)

Another day, another crosspost. I will just add a link to this story about the Government attempting to stop the Welsh Assembly from publishing its own expenses – even if I had time to blog about this I couldn’t as words fail me.

Much as I support the Convention on Modern Liberty, I am very conscious of the fact that there are two dangers inherent to an initiative such as this. The first is that all it leads to is talk and a thousand people sitting in a hall munching on sandwiches. Linked to that is the danger that all it leads to is despair; that the problem seems so big and so intractable that people simply end up withdrawing altogether.

It is crucial that the Convention leads to positive action by as many people as possible (I made some suggestions a couple of weeks ago – I’m sure you can think of others).

Our mission must be nothing less than a paradigm shift in how the general public perceives civil liberties.

That is an achieveable objective and has happened in politics over the years on numerous occasions, but the level of consciousness raising we need can’t be done by a single journalist or even pressure group.

What’s more, the need for action has never been more crucial. I write this having given up a substantial portion of my weekend doing stuff to block the Government’s plans to exempt MPs’ expenses from the Freedom of Information Act.

If liberty is to have any meaning, we have to be able to keep an eye on those we elect to serve. Otherwise we are no different from the animals at the end of Animal Farm, enviously peering into the House and unable to tell the difference between pig and human. Harriet Harman, champion of equality, has just added the rider “but some are more equal than others.”

We need to take urgent action on issues such as this, but it also highlights why it is high time we started being proactive.

It is with this in mind that Liberal Conspiracy – in association with Our Kingdom and Unlock Democracy – are launching the Carnival on Modern Liberty.

As an online companion to the Convention, it is intended to help promote debate on civil liberties on the blogosphere over the next few weeks. Fundamentally however, it is also intended to spur both bloggers and their readers into action.

I will be producing the first edition this Friday on Liberal Conspiracy. Over the next couple of weeks it will move to OurKingdom and Unlock Democracy and then we’ll be looking for volunteers to host future editions – what about you? (email offers to modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net).

If you have an article you would like to be included in the first edition you can submit it either by following this link or emailing modernliberty *at* quaequamblog *dot* net. The deadline is 4pm on Thursday 22 January (if you miss this it is no problem as it will simply carry over to the next week’s edition). We are particularly looking for articles on the following sub-topics:

  • ACTION: our favourite category! ideas and initiatives for raising awareness of civil liberty-related issues.
  • EVENTS: civil-liberty related events that you are either organising or would like to promote (you don’t need to wait until 28 February before holding a meetup, tweetup or even just a social to the pub or cinema – if it’s civil liberty related, publicise it here).
  • JEERS: reports of the latest assaults on liberties.
  • CHEERS: good news (we do get it occasionally!) and praise for the champions of liberty.
  • WHAT LIBERTY MEANS TO ME: think pieces about what liberty in a modern context actually means (once you’ve been all philosophical, do an action post to balance things out :)).

Finally, if I have one goal for the next six weeks, it is to get this debate out in the wider blogosphere instead of the usual political bloggers arguing amongst themselves. The UK blogosphere is gratifyingly diverse, yet too often the politicos seem to exist in a bubble.

So your first mission, if you choose to accept it, is to think of five bloggers who are not the “usual suspects” who you would like to encourage to take part in the Carnival – and then encourage them!

My five will be:

To help get the Carnival off the ground, please blog these five (so they get pinged!) and submit your post to the Carnival – thanks!

URGENT – Help us to stop the plot to conceal MPs’ expenses (crosspost)

Defend the right to know about MPs' expensesI have crossposted this message from here and would urge people to do the same. More to the point, I’d urge them to carry out the action – we only have until Thursday!

Dear friend,

Today I had intended to write to you to encourage you to take part in the Convention on Modern Liberty, of which Unlock Democracy is proud to be a partner organisation. I had intended to write about what an inspiring event I hope it will be, the impressive lineup of speakers, the nationwide parallel sessions that Unlock Democracy is organising with NO2ID and its timeliness.

But events, as ever, have overtaken us.

On Thursday, the Government sneaked out the draft of the innocuous sounding “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order.” This “statutory instrument” (not an act), if passed, will

“…change the scope of the application of the [Freedom of Information] Act in relation to information held by the House of Commons and House of Lords regarding expenditure in respect of Members of both Houses. This includes information held by either House about expenses claimed by and allowances paid to Members. Such information is no longer within the scope of the Act.”

In short, they intend to exempt the expenses of MPs and Lords from the Freedom of Information Act and thereby close them to public scrutiny. This is to be passed almost a year to the day after the Derek Conway scandal erupted, when it emerged that the MP had been paying his sons as research staff while they were at university, despite not being able to demonstrate that they had actually done any work for him. If the Government gets away with this, scandals such as this will be allowed to continue and we will not be permitted to find out about them.

It is completely outrageous that the Government should seek to do this at all, let alone in such an underhand manner. The Government is planning to put us all on a national identity database, force us to carry identity cards, keep the DNA of millions of innocent people on a database and to read all our emails, phone and internet records regardless of whether we are supposed to have done anything wrong. Their argument is always “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Why, then, is it one rule for us and another rule for politicians?

What’s more, when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, one of his first acts was to publish the Governance of Britain Green Paper which asserted that “It is right that Parliament should be covered by the [Freedom of Information] Act.”

This proposal is going to be debated in the House of Commons this Thursday – we don’t have much time. For this reason I am strongly urging you to do the following as a matter of urgency:

  • Write to your MP (use www.writetothem.com) and urge them “to sign the Early Day Motion “Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 (Jo Swinson MP)” – the text of this motion is below for your reference.
  • Phone your MP’s office (the main switchboard is 020 7219 3000) and ask to talk to him or her to ask them to oppose this proposal.
  • If you are on Facebook, join our group and invite all your friends to join – ESPECIALLY the ones not normally interested in politics.
  • Forward this article to everyone you know either by email or any social bookmarking websites you use.

Please, please do this as soon as you can. We can defeat this proposal if we put pressure on MPs this week. In 2007, a group of backbench MPs attempted to get a similar proposal passed. We beat them then and we can beat them again.

With best wishes,

Peter Facey
Director, Unlock Democracy

PS Katherine Gunderson has written an excellent chapter on Freedom of Information for our book Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88. I would encourage you to buy a copy for yourself – and your MP!

PPS For more information about the Convention for Modern Liberty, please see the website.

TEXT OF EARLY DAY MOTION

Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009
Primary Sponsor: Jo Swinson (LD, East Dunbartonshire)

That this House notes with concern the provisions in the Freedom of Information (Parliament) Order 2009 to exempt remove the expenses of Members of Parliament and Peers from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act’; notes that this order will single out MPs and Peers in a special category as the only paid public officials who will note have to disclose full details of their expenses; notes with concern the regressive effect of this Order on Parliamentary transparency and the detrimental impact it will have on Parliament in the eyes of the public; calls on Ministers to block or repeal the Order in the interest of MPs’ and Peers’ accountability to members of the public.