In recent years, America has been blighted by the rise of an extreme and uncompromising strain of political conservatism. ‘Tea Party’ groups attack moderates within the Republican party, forcing primary challenges on incumbent senators and congressmen who either have liberal leanings, or who are otherwise willing to co-operate with Democrats in Congress and the White House. The result has been a legislative impasse, with the Republicans disengaging from the process of government by consensus. Earlier this year they almost broke the US economy (and by extension, the world economy) due to bloody minded intransigence.
Thank goodness we do not have that sort of nonsense happening over here, eh?
I worry that the deselection of Tim Yeo MP from his seat in South Suffolk might signal the beginnings of the ‘teapartification’ of British politics, too. Yeo is a senior and respected Conservative MP, chair of the Energy and Climate Committee. And yety his local Conservative Association has deselected him as their candidate for the next General Election. Speaking to BBC Radio yesterday evening, Yeo pointed out that he was a strong believer in climate change and voted for the Same Sex Marriage laws, socially liberal positions that angered the few hundred members of the South Suffolk Conservative Association. These opinions appear to have cost him his seat. Continue reading
Readers of this blog will know how irritated I get with the quality of parliamentary and government papers online. Transcripts and other documentation are frequently uploaded as PDFs, as if the only thing a researcher or campaigner plans to do with the document is print it. The online version of the Houses of Parliament Hansard still retains references to columns and pages, and linking to excerpts of text is a laborious process.
For more on this, read my rant: The mess under the bonnet of the Houses of Parliament website.
So imagine my delight to see the launch of Say It, a new tool from MySociety. It provides a tool to put transcripts of debates, court cases, and official inquiries online. The tool has been launched with a searchable, linkable version of the Leveson Inquiry sessions.
It is this sort of thing that empowers grassroots campaigns and catalyses democracy. And by ‘democracy’, I don’t just mean voting, but the idea that citizens make the decisions together.
SayIt dovetails nicely with a project I have been tinkering with in my spare time – converting the text of the four volume Leveson Report into HTML, (though I confess I almost had a heart attack when I saw the link to the MySociety tool – I thought that my efforts had been duplicated!)
I have yet to post anything on Syria, and what the international response should be to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This omission is mainly because I was away when the House of Commons voted on whether to join in with any military action, and I missed all the debates over the morality of intervention. By the time I began consuming media again after my time in a communications blind spot, the conversation had become about whether David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s political fortunes had been helped or hindered by the parliamentary vote. I was coming to the issue with fresh eyes and ears, and such parochial analysis felt incredibly crass and wholly beside the point.
For the past ten days, there has been much discussion about how our collective democratic experience of the Iraq war in 2003 has affected our political judgements a decade later. Clearly the sense of betrayal that many of us felt back then still remains. The brutal aftermath in Iraq, and our lengthy, corrosive presence in Afghanistan has made everyone wary of more military action in the Middle East. Continue reading
The folk at the brilliant OurKingdom blog commissioned a piece from me on the next steps for Libel Reform. The crucial issue:
During the Parliamentary debates, the Government flatly rejected proposals to extend the Derbyshire principle to private companies spending taxpayers money. British citizens are therefore confronted with a looming democratic deficit. As private companies take over the running of prisons, waste collection, school dinners, care homes, and large swathes of the NHS, the space to criticise them is squeezed. By leaving the Derbyshire principle to the courts to develop further, the Government have introduced an unwelcome ambiguity into our public discourse, especially at the local level. It will be left to citizens to closely monitor how the big subcontractors behave in this area. Any hint that these corporations are stifling public criticism through use of the libel law must be met with a public outcry.
Read the whole article, What next for libel reform?, on the OurKingdom blog.
Here is a photo of imprisoned Azerbaijani editor Avaz Zeynalli at his verdict hearing yesterday morning in Baku, Azerbaijan.The photo was taken by his wife, Melahet Qisuri Zeynallı (via Rebecca Vincent).
- Photo of imprisoned Azerbaijani editor Avaz Zeynalli at his verdict hearing this morning in Baku (Photo: Melahet Qisuri Zeynalli)
From the PEN International case list, (December 2012):
Zeynalli’s trial has been littered with controversies, including his defence attorney exiting the courtroom mid-trial over a row regarding the order of witnesses; a courtroom altercation with the prosecution’s chief witness, MP Gular Ahmadova; claims from Zeynalli that the evidence collected against him has been illegally obtained; and serious questions about his health while in prison.
I think this image is fasincating for two reasons. First, a relative (not a journalist) was able to take the image of Zeynalli and broadcast it around the world. This is a commonplace occurrence, of course, but we should never take it for granted. In years gone by, Governments would have relied on the slow pace of cimmunication, and the distance between cities and countries, as cover for illiberal manoeverings.
Second, its noteworthy that the image has been ‘Instagrammed’ before upload! The faded sheen to the image conveys an iconic status. In the future, I wonder if people will use some kind of filter to make court-room photographs look like court-room sketches.
Did anyone hear the BBC Today interview with UKIP leader Nigel Farage this morning? I was tearing my hair out at the inanity of it all.
Presenter John Humphrys repeatedly asked Farage whether he wanted to be Prime Minister and whether he thought UKIP would soon be in Government. This is a no-win question for the Interviewee: if he says ‘yes’ he will be accused of being delusional. If he says ‘no’ he is accused of lacking ambition and not worthy of a person’s vote. So, like all minority party leaders, he was forced to give an evasive non-answer.
This is ‘gotcha’ questioning from Humphrys, and reveals nothing about the matter at hand: why are UKIP doing better in the polls?
There may be instances where ‘gotcha’ questioning is appropriate – for example, to highlight a contradiction in a Government policy. However, the electoral paradox that Farage must confront is not of his making. Instead, it is a feature of the political system. There is no value in wasting broadcast time trying to get Farage to explain this. Voters are savvy enough to understand the conundrum. It is patronising to suggest that Farage is somehow pulling the wool over their eyes.
Single issue parties seeking protest votes is an entirely legitimate use of representative democracy. Any kind of electoral success brings influence and an audience, and so can be an aim in itself , not just as a route to power. When Humphrys and the BBC portray such political activism as fringe or Quixotic, they are being unhelpful to the voters and to the issues. And when this journalistic cynicism is practiced at the expense of actual scrutiny of UKIP’s policies, it is downright harmful and wrong.
The Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant, and my Twitter timeline and Facebook wall have immediately been filled with curmudgeons complaining that the issue of #Leveson and other important stories will get buried. I think this may be an over-reaction – there will be other news reported in the papers tomorrow.
Most of the comments in my timeline were meta – discussions about the discussion, not a discussion about the news itself. This is unsurprising because of course, there is no actual analysis that can be done on this kind of story: Kate is pregnant. The kid will be born about 7 months from now. They will one day be monarch, regardless of gender.
I have little patience for those complaining about the level of coverage. Britain is an immensely influential country, and a new head of state – one that could potentially reign for decades – has just been designated. We went nuts for discussion of the US Presidential election, and the French Presidential election. The opaque appointment of a new Chinese leader was also well documented. Why should the emergence of a new British Head of State be any less talked about?
The madness is not the level of coverage given over to this story. The madness is that British heads of state are still chosen by the hereditary method. If you are annoyed, irritated or angered by the news overload, but you’re not a republican, then you’re just being inconsistent.
President Brack Obama celebrates with Michelle Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, and Jill Biden, in Chicago after winning re-election. (AFP)
Congratulations President Obama, re-elected. Its a relief that the candidate with the broader coalition and the policies of inclusion, not division, won the day.
During the campaign, there was much analysis of how President Obama’s first term was disappointing. Blocked by a hostile Congress, he was unable to implement his full agenda. Big issues like Global Warming were left to fallow.
I was struck by a line in his victory speech: “The role of citizen does not end with your vote”. Concerned Americans need to be activists. When they take matters into their own hands, as Gay Rights activists on the left, and ‘Tea Party’ activists on the right have done, they are able to shift the political consensus.
Fololowing Obama’s re-election, the Democratic Party now has a unique database of information on voters and supporters. It seems to me that this was an under-used resource during the President’s first term. Obama and his party colleagues need to start campaigning now for a better, more liberal congress in 2014 – one that can deliver proper reform on climate change and other issues that urgently need attention.
The ‘Innocence of Muslims’ nonsense also raises the questions on the other side of the controversy: should the American filmmakers have published the video? Should they have been are allowed to upload it to YouTube?
First: The principles of free speech are pretty clear cut in this case. The video is pretty awful, but does not call for violence towards anyone. So banning such a video would set a terrible precedent. It would allow the religious to censor criticism of their religion… And God knows, the Christian fundamentalists in the USA would relish that opportunity.
However, the question of whether the authors should have made the video is another matter. I wish they had not. They did it for hateful, disrespectful reasons. It comes from a bigoted mindset, and is designed to provoke and inflame. People who make that kind of art tend not to be very nice, interesting, or intelligent. But, to repeat the key point of the article I wrote about Günter Grass for the New Statesman, To say this is an act of artistic and moral criticism, not a statement on the principles of free speech.
Finally: should YouTube have removed the clip or suppressed it in certain countries? They did precisely this in Egypt, I believe. I think that this might be the most interesting part of the whole affair. On the one hand, YouTube is a private company, with its own Terms & Conditions that are distinct from the law of the land. If it wants to set a higher bar for free expression then I suppose it has the right to do that. On the other hand, YouTube has become so ubiquitous that It has become part of our public square, a shared communal space that is essential for democracy. Perhaps it has to act more like a government than a private company, and take a more permissive attitude to free expression.
A few days ago I tweeted the following:
I know I should be glued to #Leveson analysis, just have the feeling that it will all play out as it should without me. Passive politics.
A few people asked me about this, and suggested I should care more about this most important of issues.
To be clear, I was not doubting how important the Leveson Inquiry is, or the significance of the scandal(s) he is investigating. Rather, I just have a sense that the issue has reached something of an apotheosis, and that a better order of things will now inevitably result. Henry Porter’s column today captures my thinking:
We can take heart that Murdoch is already finished as a political force here, that the record of his morbid influence is being settled and serious crimes will be prosecuted. What we have to focus on now is protecting our democracy from the influence of such a character again.
Porter goes on to say that there are still questions left unanswered – for Alex Salmond and for Jeremey Hunt, in particular – but I think we can now be confident that those charged with getting to the bottom of this now have the political and moral clout to pursue these issues to their conclusion. A far cry from the days when Tom Watson MP was mocked for his obsession with phone-hacking at News of the World.