TABOLID SHOCKER!!

Don’t starve us of information

Tabloid journalism is unhelpful. It often purports to present the bare facts, yet emotive language is often used to impose values and opinions upon the reader. An article of only a hundred or so words simply cannot provide an in depth discussion of events, as a longer article can. A reader cannot form detailed and valid opinions with the little information tabloids present. Instead, he or she is forced to take the point of view of the editors. This is a dangerous state-of-affairs.CHOICE

It is argued that tabloid newspapers are necessary because people must be free to choose how much news they read.

This is an empty and dangerous argument.

If a man chooses to live alongside others, he has a duty to be well-informed. He has a duty to form an opinion. He has no right to choose otherwise. This is a crucial aspect of democracy.

Unless a man takes himself off to subsist in a cave, he will interact with other people. He has a duty of care to his neighbours.

Anyone who has the right to vote, has a duty to seek out as much information possible on all the political issues that effect the lives of his countrymen.

He cannot get this from tabloid journalism.

PATRONISING

It is also said (in a soft and kind tone of voice) that some folk find the broadsheets too difficult to read. “They do not wish to read longer articles with longer words.”

This is highly patronising.

All men have the ability to follow a detailed, logical argument, and form an opinion on what they have read. This skill is what sets us apart from the lower mammals. They should be encouraged use that skill at every opportunity.

By ignoring these abilities, we are demeaned. By reading the over-simplified news, we surrender our humanity.

Basra, and the benefit of the doubt

When commenting on any political issue, the real challenge is to present evidence that convinces people who are not already predisposed to your point of view.

I am in a dilemma, because I don’t know what to think about the happenings in Basra this week. I am also feeling quite frustrated, because I know that whatever I end up thinking, others will say that I am being woefully naive; that I have been conned by the conniving of The Other Side.

First, our attention has been drawn to some deeply suspicious activities carried out by our British forces. Questions are left unanswered: Why were the two SAS soldiers operating in plain clothes? Does that make them illegal combatants? Why did they have so much weaponry in their vehicle? And most worryingly, why did the British bulldoze a police-station in order to liberate these two men?

Despite this, and despite my distrust of the US/UK governments regarding this issue, I am not convinced that British forces are staging flase-flag operations, as some blog sites have been asserting. There are many possible reasons why these soldiers were carrying so much ordinance, other than for the purpose of executing a terrorist attack during the Karbala festival. Crucially, it is not clear to me how a false-flag operation would benefit a government which is politically committed to winning a War on Terror.

On the other hand, I recall just how frustrating it is when people dismiss a suggestion of underhand dealings. Many people simply did not believe that the great British Government would exaggerate or fabricate the reasons for going to war in Iraq. That they are still credulous allows Tony Blair’s misjudgment to go unpunished.

My only offering is one on political discourse. We have to recognise that there are good people in the world who simply give the benefit of the doubt where we do not; and vice-versa. I rarely grant George W Bush this benefit, even when he appears to be up against an Act of God such as Hurricane Katrina. But people with a more conservative outlook will do so. Conversely, I do tend to give George Galloway MP, the benefit of the doubt where others will call him a Ba’athist apologist.

So it is with the Daily Mirror hoax, and the recent events in Basra. Whether you side with the British forces or the citizens of Basra depends not on your analysis of the facts, which are scarce, but on how your political opinions have shaped your world view. Thus we have the camp of people who condemn the Iraqi police-force as an insurgent-riddled lost cause; and the group on the other side who claim that it is the British forces who have been provoking all the troubles.

When commenting on any political issue, the real challenge is to present evidence that convinces people who are not already predisposed to your point of view. You must think like your opponents, and present arguments that will convince them, even if your own threshold has long been surpassed. Shouting “it is a conspiracy by the oil-mongers” does nothing to convince those who genuinely believe that the Iraqi occupation is morally right. By contrast, the Abu Ghraib scandal was one issue that transcended the political divide, and caused journalists like Johann Hari to change their position on the war. The photographs of two sullen SAS soldiers are not such evidence. Whether you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing does, I suppose, depend on your point of view.

Bland Christian Pop makes me cringe

Jesus was a radical politician who spoke for the powerless. This matters more than alleged divinity.

As a non-practicing atheist, its not really my place to give advice to the purveyors of Christianity. However, the pathetically earnest efforts of some Anglicans to spread their Word demands a comment.

I caught the latest edition of the BBC’s Song’s of Praise last Sunday. The programme featured a number of Christian rock bands and church groups, singing with guitars and drums that I assume are intended to present a modern facade to potential recruits.

Tragically, the songs weren’t great. Of all the possible music genres that could have been employed to spread the concept of Jesus, these people had chosen bland, bland pop. Accomplished musicians and singers they certainly were, but inspired the music was not. If you are singing about someone who you claim to be The Son of God, your music needs to be… well, heavenly. Mimicking the power ballads churned out by Pop Idol wannabes simply will not do, and the cause for which they were singing was critically undermined by each cringe-worthy note.

What was also missing was any substance to the lyrics. Saying Jesus’ name over and over again is no doubt an uplifting experience for people who already believe, but will convert no-one (except possibly some Westlife fans, who seem to respond to tiresome repetition in a way that the average person finds baffling).

Jesus was a radical politician who spoke for the powerless. This matters more than divinity, and it is this aspect of his life which can save mankind, not his alleged resurrection. Christian bands should be writing political songs, like Johnny Cash’s Man In Black:

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,
For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,
I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,
Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

Could that song be more relevant to current affairs? I’ve also been listening to For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield today, which I think could fall into the same category.

To be fair, it seems that Churches Advertising Network (CAN) have cottoned onto the key meaning of their faith. Their Christmas 2005 campaign features images of Jesus which parody other famous revolutionaries, Che Guevara and Chairman Mao. I hope the irony of referencing two famously atheist men to advertise the Anglican Church is not lost on church-goers.

Philosophy of the Internet reading list

Two articles I will be reading soon

The concept of Open Source computer code (such as the WordPress blog engine which powers this site) is both fascinating and fantastic. It is the first thing I cite when having arguments with pessimists who say that the human race is inherently slefish and motivated by profit. That fully working computer programmes are available free leave most people incredulous. That I would donate money anyway baffles them too!

On my reading list are two papers from the think-tank Demos: Wide Open and Open Source Democracy. Both concern the idea of open Source development, and what implications it has for government, democracy, and how we will conduct our politics (and, I suppose, our lives) in the future.

Excerpts and commentary will be posted on this site when I have read them!

The Cost of War

We should have just paid Saddam to leave…

Since the The Independent newspaper today asks what happened to the $1bn Iraqi defence budget, it seems a good time to mention some research by an old lecturer of mine, Professor Keith Hartley.

Professor Hartley estimates that the total cost of the war in Iraq will be US$1.25 trillion. This bill will be picked up by the US and UK taxpayers, and the new Iraqi state.

“If, at the outset, the Americans anticipated the Iraq operation would cost $100 billion, they could have given Saddam Hussein and his family $20 billion to go, $50 billion to Iraq and still have had $30 billion left over. The UK would not have been involved, no-one would have died and no buildings would have been destroyed. (PDF)

Internet Philosophy

When the aliens come to visit me, the first thing I will do is show them the Internet.

When the aliens come to visit me, the first thing I will do is show them the Internet. I think it is fascinating that I can surf from cross-stitch to cross-dressing in a single click. The Internet proves how diverse the human species can be, with little cliques and groups each posting their messages about those activities which take up their time.

I enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s article in The Times, discussing the internet as an innovation and a medium. Part of the reason for this site’s existence is my plan to discuss the philosophy of the Internet: How its uses are evolving; how design, and coding innovations allow easy access to information; the future of the medium. I believe that the Internet will have a seismic effect on society, in the UK and beyond. The ability to “communicate and connect” (as Winterson suggests) may cause a paradigm shift for the way we live, especially politics and the media. The Internet is about globalisation…. it will be at the heart of multiculturalism.

This post inaugurates a new category on this website. I will call it Internet Philosophy for now, but I may change it to something less (or more) grandiose, depending on the feedback.

US of E

I look forward to the day when we become the United States of Europe, when I can celebrate my illustrious countrymen

Reading Gary Monro’s post regarding Europhile Ken Clarke’s Tory leadership bid, prompts me to think once more about the arguments against the single currency.

I remember going to see Tony Benn speak a year or two ago, when he was promoting a recently published volume of his diaries. He made the point that if (or when) we joined the single currency, economic and financial decisions would be made by people who we could not “sack” out of office. Joing the single currency does indeed imply the “foreign control” that Gary speaks of.

There are therefore only two democratically acceptable positions to take on this issue: total non-participation, or total European federalism. Ken Clarke, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats do us a disservice by picking a position somewhere between these two stools.

Thoughts on the nature of culture and multiculture I must leave to another day. However, I think I find the idea of a federal Europe less offensive than most of my countrymen. In the UK, we already live in a federation of sorts. Despite an English accent, I have Welsh and Scots ancestry. Now I live in Edinburgh, I can be as proud of cultural icons such as David Hume, Walter Scott and Robert Burns as I am of anyone strictly English. I look forward to the day when we become the United States of Europe, when I can celebrate my illustrious countrymen: Da Vinci, Voltaire, Neitzche, Picasso!

Letter to Lord Falconer

Trust is not a right; it is something to be earned

Today begins what I anticipate to be a long series of posts. It shall consist of letters written to prominent politicians and public figures, asking for clarification to particularly ambiguous statements made in other parts of the media. The point raised with Lord Falconer (below) is perhaps of minor importance, but I do believe his comments are characteristic of The Government’s tendency to present non-arguments as something more substantial. Blogs and The Internet are the perfect place to examine such comments in more detail.

I am writing to ask for a clarification on comments you made to journalist Marie Woolf, published in The Independent newspaper today (5/09/2005).

You are quoted as saying:

That there was a disagreement about that issue [the decision to go to war in Iraq] should not lead to a corrosion in trust. Plainly those who disagree with us on Iraq do not in any way forfeit our trust, and it should not be vice-versa.

Regardless of whether or not the decision to go to war was correct, your comments seem to imply a willful misunderstanding of the nature of the public disagreement the Government has faced over this issue since September 2002. I suggest the Government did not lose trust because of the decision made in light of the facts available at the time. Instead, trust was forfeited due to the perceived Government duplicity concerning the veracity of those facts, and indeed the chronology of the decisions made. Likewise, the BBC also lost a great deal of trust over its presentation of the facts during the Kelly-Gilligan affair.

If you think someone is lying to you, is it not perfectly rational, sensible and prudent to trust them less? Were your comments directed towards campaigners against the decision within the public at large, or against specific sections of the media? In any case, trust is surely not a right, but something to be earned.

The Devil's Alternative

Better that we allow a dozen commuters to die, than kill one innocent electrician

The news that Simon Harris, the suspected murderer of Rory Blackhall, had been facing sex offence charges, has led to calls for yet another reform to the crimminal justice system. This time, it is suggested that we add people who have simply been accused of sex offenses to be added to the sex offenders register until their trial. This idea of pre-emptive justice inevitably reminds me of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who died at Stockwell tube station on 22 July.

Then as now, the argument centres around the idea of public protection. Those in power declare that it would be crimminally negligent of them to allow innocent people to die. For them, to ‘err on the side of caution’ is to neutralise potential threats, and ask questions later. Menezes is simply a tragic casualty of war. Likewise, depriving a potentially innocent man of his civil liberties is a price worth paying, to reduce the treat of harm to the Great British Public.

However, we must admit that people will kill and abuse each other, whatever the actions taken by the State. If they are doing this in numbers that society deems unacceptable (for now, 52 people dead on the London Transport system fits that criteria, in this country at least) then the problem is not necessarily a failure of policing, but a failure of society and a failure of political decision-making. Locking people up, putting them under surveillance, or even shooting them seven times in the head (and then once in the leg) is a simplistic policy answer.

The fact that these crimes occur highlights the fact that the security services are not all-powerful. The State simply cannot protect us from everything. It is crucially the role of the State which is under scrutiny here. Not only the State’s to deal with such threats, but where the State exists on the moral plane. We must be very clear about this point, and at present the waters are muddied.

The State is not a person. It cannot make snap decisions based upon the ‘facts on the gound’. Instead, the State is a collection of people, all of us, and we have to make decisions in advance, which are then applied equally throughout the country. They are our laws, and we must stick to them. There can be no special circumstances when these are flouted. If there are, then they become unfair, unjust, and ultimately meaningless.

Many people have said this before, but often they conclude their argument at this point. However, respecting the rule of law, and our civil liberties, has some very unpalatable consequences which we must nevertheless admit to ourselves if we are to have any chance of improving our society.

Perhaps it is better for another child to be murdered, than for an innocent man to have his life ruined by false imprisonment or even a false accusation. Perhaps it is better that a dozen innocent people die on a tube train by terrorism, than it is for one innocent electrician to be wrongly murdered by the State. Whatever the choice made, someone will die. In the case of a true suicide bomber or a child murderer, the killer is an individual. But in the Menezes case, the killer was the State. It was us. There is a moral difference between allowing a death that even the police are powerless to prevent, and proactively causing the death of an innocent person.

The choice is of course a Devil’s Alternative, but when our agents made our choice for us on 22 July, we all became murderers. To absolve ourselves of this sin, we must ensure that it never happens again. Some of our laws make it harder to catch terrorists. Better that we allow innocent people to die by terrorism than to become murderers, terrorists, ourselves. Altering our laws can no longer help us win the battles against terrorists, sex offenders or indeed any other crime. We need to begin altering our society, and the way we conduct our political debate, if we are to stand any chance of winning.

Narrow Definition of Web Design

Star letter in July 2005 issue of Creative Review

This was the Star Letter in the July 2005 issue of Creative Review.

If the websites showcased recently in Creative Review are any guide to the industry as a whole, our definition of what constitutes a good website design is far too narrow. The emphasis at present seems to be purely on the visual, with websites being laid out using exactly the same rules as print design. Focus is given to ‘wow’ technologies such as Flash, while the basic rules of accessibility are ignored.

A film with immaculate cinematography may be totally let down by poor narrative structure or sound-track. Likewise, a website with an pleasing and original visual style will be let down by invalid markup, slow download times, and a lack of accessibility features (such as ‘title’ and ‘alt’ attributes to aid site visitors).

Examining the Aardman and Nike websites, showcased in the 2005 Annual, we see that neither site validates for HTML or CSS, and all the copy is presented as images – not searchable by Google or Yahoo – with no textual alternative. I can’t remember the last site featured in CR that was NOT designed to fixed dimensions, which reduces accessibility for those who may wish to enlarge the site on their screen. The end result of all these choices is that the key messages are communicated less efficiently to less people.

Designing good website visuals is not the same as designing a good website. I would encourage readers of CR to read one of the countless guides to website accessibility that exist online, and design accordingly. The ability to separate content from presentation is one of the positive aspects of the Internet. The web should be treated as a medium in itself, and not a metaphor for print.