Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor

People in power like to hide behind national symbols (such as a flag or a monarch) as a way of deflecting criticism.

This blog is useful for many things: a jotter where I can experiment with half formed ideas; an outlet to vent my frustration at some form of shoddy public thinking; to impart advice or recommendations; or simply a place to marvel at the wonderful things that humanity or nature has created.

Today, however, it serves the useful purpose of providing l’espirit d’escalier—an opportunity to add to a conversation, after it has concluded!

The new Labour MP for Kensington & Chelsea is Emma Dent Coad, and she has caused controversy at the Labour Party conference by being rude about the royal family. Some of the things she said about Prince Harry have turned out to be false, but she also made some pertinent points about how they spend taxpayers money. This has prompted a conversation about the limits of civil and respectable speech, and echoes some of the discussion in the USA right now, about whether athletes who #TakeAKnee during the national anthem are showing this respect, and if so, to whom.

All this is ripe for discussion on a call-in radio show. Eddie Nestor was leading the debate on his BBC drive time show yesterday, and I went on air to make an uncompromising case for free speech. You can listen to the entire show again on the BBC iPlayer, either on the web or on the app, for the next thirty days. You can also listen to my contribution on SoundCloud, or via the player below. Continue reading “Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor”

Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?

Perhaps the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats could stage an online debate?

There’s a new app in town, called Meerkat.  It allows you to stream live video direct from your mobile phone or tablet, with the link appearing in your Twitter stream.

Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior advisor to Barack Obama, writes:

If 2004 was about Meetup, 2008 was about Facebook, and 2012 was about Twitter, 2016 is going to be about Meerkat (or something just like it).

(He is of course talking about US politics).  I wonder whether that’s true though: I fancy there may be a premium on asynchronicity—sending messages to people to read when they have time, rather than in the moment.  How much value is there in This Is Happening Literally Right Now over the Twitter news model of This Just Happened? Meerkat does not seem to have any catch-up functionality—if you click on a  link to a stream that has ended, there’s no way to view it back.  Other services like Ustream and Google Hangouts do offer that functionality and I bet the Meerkat devs are beavering away (or whatever it is a meerkat does) to get this feature into the app. Continue reading “Why not do an extra leaders’ debate via #Meerkat?”

Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz

Maajid Nawaz, the author of Radical and the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, has been at the centre of a controversy this week, after he tweeted a image from the satirical Jesus and Mo cartoon series.  Maajid had been a guest on the BBC’s The Big Questions debate show, where the illustration had been discussed.  He made the point that as a liberal Muslim, he found nothing offensive about the cartoon.

Cue an angry social media backlash.  Many people tweeted their condemnations and threats over what they perceived as a blasphemy.
Continue reading “Free Speech, Offence, and Maajid Nawaz”

Are Human Rights a vote winner?

When a politician speaks out in defence of human rights, the public need to show their approval of such statements and publicise them widely.

Writing in the New Statesman, Labour Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan brazenly declares that the Liberal Democrat’s record in Government has left Labour as the party of civil liberties. This has kicked off predictable outrage from Lib Dem activists and in the comments, with most people citing the poor record of the last Labour government.

Despite the Blair Government’s terrible approach to civil liberties and counter-terrorism, its wrong to call Khan a hypocrite. For starters, he was one of the Labour rebels who voted against Tony Blair’s 90-day detention policy, back in 2005. More recently, he has admitted the party’s mistakes on human rights and civil liberties. Part of his Charter 88 anniversary lecture was a scathing critique of the last Labour Government’s approach:

And I hold up my hands and admit that we did, on occasions, get the balance wrong. On 42 and 90 days, and on ID cards, where the balance was too far away from the rights of citizens… On top of this, we grew less and less comfortable with the constitutional reforms we ourselves had legislated for. On occasions checked by the very constitutional reforms we had brought in to protect people’s rights from being trampled on. But we saw the reforms as an inconvenience, forgetting that their very awkwardness is by design. A check and balance when our policies were deemed to infringe on citizens’ rights.

If an opposition spokesperson says this, I think they ward off the charge of hypocrisy when they subsequently criticise the civil liberties failings of the Governing coalition. We want political parties to admit their mistakes and reverse their policies, don’t we? Whether the voters believe Labour or not is another matter, but I think the fact that the spokesman is someone who was a Government rebel on 90 days, and who has been a target of surveillance himself, make Labour’s position that little bit more credible. Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, included similar nostra culpas in her Demos speech on security and surveillance.

Continue reading “Are Human Rights a vote winner?”

What the hell just happened with the Defamation Bill?

The Libel Reform Campaign will shortly issue a statement and analysis of the Bill as a whole. But I thought I would make notes on this particular bit of procedure, and how it can be spun to mean different things, depending on your point of view.

There’s a little bit of confusion over what happened during the Defamation Bill debate in the House of Lords yesterday afternoon, and today in the House of Commons. This is understandable, as the ‘ping-pong’ process is confusing, with ‘motions to agree amendments’… and amendments to those amendments.

The only issue at stake was was hurdles should be placed before companies wishing to sue. The pre-exising law allows corporates to bully critics with libel threats and a legal ‘reputation management’ industry has emerged, with websites and bloggers receiving threats unless they remove critical content. Which?, the consumer magazine that reviews products, often receives a legal threat after they give a product a poor rating!

In an earlier parliamentary debate, Labour succeeded in adding a significant clause to the Defamation Bill. It introduced a permissions stage for companies (you can’t sue without leave of the court) and asked them to show financial loss. It also extended the Derbyshire principle, so private bodies delivering public services could not sue when they are criticised by citizens questioning how taxpayers money is spent. Three measures in one clause.

Continue reading “What the hell just happened with the Defamation Bill?”

Writing on Libel Reform on Liberal Democrat Voice

Over the weekend, I wrote a short piece about the Defamation Bill for Liberal Democrat Voice, urging activists to lobby their party leadership.

Over the weekend, I wrote a short piece about the Defamation Bill for Liberal Democrat Voice, urging activists to lobby their party leadership.  The Defamation Bill is to be debated in the House of Commons today, so it is worth cross-posting this now, before the crucial votes render it obsolete!  This morning, Stephen Tall wrote a follow up post: ‘Lib Dems Libel Reform retreat points to a wider coalition problem‘.


There is a new threat to the Defamation Bill.

No sooner had the proposed law been liberated, after being taken hostage by Leveson negotiations, than Conservative MPs have begun messing with crucial free speech provisions.

Former libel lawyer Sir Edward Garnier MP has tabled an amendment seeking to remove a crucial clause from the Defamation Bill. The clause places some limits on corporations’ use of the libel laws. It does not bar them from suing entirely – just asks that they show financial loss before they do so. It’s an objective and measurable test for companies, who after all do not have feelings.

Such a law would have discouraged the crippling libel cases brought by Big Pharma against Dr Peter Wilmshurst and Dr Ben Goldacre. It would have helped Simon Singh. It would stop the costly ‘lawfare’ waged by the extractive industries around the world against human rights groups like Global Witness. It would stop scientists and doctors from having to decide whether to speak out for their patients and risk selling their house in order to pay legal fees… Or keep their mouths shut. Continue reading “Writing on Libel Reform on Liberal Democrat Voice”

Some Words on Primogeniture

Primogentiture is the right of the first born to inherit titles, estates and thrones. At present the UK has a form of male primogeniture, which sets the Duke of York and Prince Edward above the older Princess Anne in the line of succession. In the 21st Century, this is absurd. With the #RoyalWedding suggesting the possibility of new heirs being born soon, there are plans afoot to legislate for a more equal form of primogeniture.

Keith Vaz MP is quoted in a BBC report:

I hope that they will give their full support to my bill which is currently before Parliament.

If they do so we can resolve this matter before any child of Prince William and Kate Middleton is born, not afterwards. The clock is ticking. We need to act fast.

Ignoring the distasteful idea that legislation has to race against one woman’s fertility, this is still not quite right. The legislation will only become awkward after a second child is born to Prince William and Princess Catherine. When their first kid is born, he or she will become 3rd and directly in line to the throne (bumping Prince Harry off the podium and, probably, into drunken obscurity). Only when a second child is born, and only if that second child is a boy and the older child is a girl, will there be any awkwardness. Assuming Wills and Kate do want kids, and assuming they want more than one kid, and further assuming this is biologically possible (because for some women it is sadly not) then it’s a 25% chance, and will likely take at least half a decade to occur.

So there is no urgency to this, just a bizarre set of sensibilities to spare the feelings of Royal toddlers who probably wouldn’t care anyway. Altering the law right now would mean demoting Princes Andrew and Edward and their offspring in favour of Princess Anne and her issue, and we don’t seem to worry about that.

Interestingly, had full cogniatic primogeniture prevailed, Queen Victoria – our longest serving and one of our greatest monarchs – would not have ascended to the throne. It would instead of passed to the family of Princess Caroline, a sister of George IV and William IV who was older than Victoria’s father, Edward. And since our current Queen is a direct descendant of Victoria, she would not have reigned either! This is doubly true, because Queen Victoria’s oldest child was a daughter (also named Victoria) who died in 1888. Had full primogeniture been law by the time Victoria died in 1901, the throne would have passed to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Great War would probably have been avoided.

On the other hand, that other great queen, Elizabeth I, would have ascended to the throne at exactly the same time, on the death of her sister Mary. However, since Catholic Mary would have have had an extra six years on the throne (with the sickly Edward VI being passed over) she may have maneuvered to exclude her Protestant sister from the succession.

In the last century however, Royal succession has been indifferent to gender. The eldest children of all the monarchs since 1901 were male, except for George VI who had only daughters, so questions of gender primacy never arose. Had a more equitable law of succession been passed when (say) women’s suffrage was introduced in 1918, there would have been absolutely no difference in the Royal lineage.

Its not an idle point about Women’s Suffrage. I would say that the argument over women’s equality was settled when they won the right to vote, so legislation on women having equal right to the Throne is at least 93 years overdue! I find it amazing that anyone in Britain or the Commonwealth needs to think about this. When Nick Clegg says that the issue still requires “careful thought” he is being utterly disingenuous… and I really don’t understand why.

Would Libdems be better off with a ‘two-tier manifesto’?

The Liberal Democrats might present a ‘Two-Tier Manifesto’ to the voters (although they would never use such a crass term). First, they will present a more general statements of principles and ‘red line’ policies, which they would expect to be a part of any coalition deal.

All this chat about how the Libdems have broken their manifesto promises leaves me a little cold. Or rather, in the modern parlance, “a bit meh”.

I think my failure to become outraged or agitated stems from a sense that the Liberal Democrats have fallen into a semantic trap. ‘Manifesto commitments’ are things that you promise to enact when you have Power to do so in Government.

But the situation that the Lib Dems find themselves in does not seem to fulfill the sufficient and neccessary conditions to merit such a desription!

A “U-turn” doesn’t really capture the essence of what has happened – It implies an agency and a mens rea that, by virtue of their Junior status, the Liberal Democrats simply do not possess.

This conundrum will have consequences for future elections. Now we have become used to the idea of coalitions (a prospect more likely if an AV or PR voting system is introduced), the way that political parties put their manifestos to the electorate could change.

The Liberal Democrats might present a ‘Two-Tier Manifesto’ to the voters (although they would never use such a crass term). First, they will present a more general statements of principles and ‘red line’ policies, which they would expect to be a part of any coalition deal.

Then they could present more detailed manifesto commitments, which they understand they may have to ditch if they were the minority partner in the Cabinet. The Greens, the Nationalist Parties and the Unionists might choose to do the same.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives and Labour could publish their own red-lines and general principles, signalling what is up for grabs in coalition negotiations and what would be out-of-bounds.

Such a convention would be a nightmare for those drafting the manifestos, and would lead to much factionalism within the parties around election time… but at least the voters would have a much better sense of what would happen in various coalition scenarios.

x-posted at LibCon.

Crowdsourcing Clegg Commentary

It is surprising how often the act of yeilding some control of your content to The Cloud or The Rabble yeilds something true and pleasing

One perk of working for English PEN at the Free Word Centre is the annual festival, which includes the welcoming of a poet-in-residence.  Last year we had Ray Antrobus and Joshua Idehen dropping the rhymes. This year Kate Fox has been reciting poems to us at our desks.  Under the alternym Kate Fox News, she quickly writes and publishes poems about current affairs, such as the Pope’s visit and the party conferences.

Kate recited for us an experimental poem she wrote yesterday entitled “Nick Clegg’s Conference Speech Remixed“.  She has spliced some of Clegg’s soundbites together with realtime Twitter commentary.

Just imagine how different our country will be.
Not exactly a vision thing
Stick with us
It wasn’t a bad speech
Stick with us
Looks all so sincere
Stick with us
We’re stuck with U

I like this format.  For one, it includes a random, crowd-sourced element.  It is surprising how often the act of yeilding some control of your content to The Cloud or The Rabble yeilds something true and pleasing – Cybraphon and FOUND are the arch mongers of this type of art.  I also like the juxtaposition of the primary source material – the speech – with the commentary.  A poem that could not have been created before social media tools became ubiquitous.

Nick Clegg: Accidentally-on-Purpose

I wonder if his gaffes were as accidental as is being reported

Reading the reports of Nick Clegg’s unsteady Deputy Prime Minister’s Question Time performance yesterday, I wonder if his gaffes were as accidental as is being reported.

He ‘mispoke’ on two occasions:  First, he announced that the Yarl’s Wood detention centre will be closed down, only to have to clarify that it would only be the (horrendous) familiy detention unit that will be abolished.  Second, he referred to the “illegal invasion of Iraq” at the despatch-box in the House of Commons.  Government press officers spent the rest of the day trying to conjour up a new constitutional convention that would distinguish between Clegg’s “personal” view and the government line.

Everyone is discussing Clegg’s political ineptitude, but I wonder if he has pulled off a clever feint that shifts the political debate on these two issues firmly in favour of his long held views.  Closing Yarls Wood is surely a Liberal priority, so I suppose that his words could be described as a Freudian slip.  But clarifying that an unpopular or morally questionable government policy will continue, rather has the effect of re-opening the debate as to whether it should continue.  Clegg has given this question much greater prominence, and surely both Liberals and liberals will welcome that.

I am reminded of the fantastic stunt pulled by The Yes Men a few years ago.  Adopting a tactic of “impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them” the group went on TV pretending to be representatives of Dow/Union Carbide, and took full responsibility for the Bhopal Disaster.  Dow had to issue a retraction, saying that they would not take responsibility for the disaster.

Meanwhile, Clegg’s “illegal” gaffe reminds me of a tactic employed by Josiah Bartlett, the West Wing‘s fictional President.  In Season 3, Bartlett accidentally-on-purpose calls his election opponent an idiot.  He takes the political flack and issues an apology, but questions over the other candidate’s intelligence begin to dominate the news cycles for the rest of the week.  Back in real-life, the Deputy Prime Minister is certainly being criticised, but I do not see how it will dent his political capital among the Liberal Democrat MPs and party members.  They believe that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was illegal and it is in their interests to establish this as consensus.  Clegg’s comment unquestionably advances this aim.

So while the conventional wisdom is that Nick Clegg stumbled at his first appearance at the despatch box, it looks to me that he has advanced the Liberal Democrat agenda – at the first available opportunity, no less.

http://theyesmen.org/