Wootton Bassett

Islam4UK want to march through Wooten Basset in a provocative protest against the British presence in Afghanistan. It is, as Dave Osler says on Liberal Conspiracy, a huge “headache” for the principled secular left who want defend free speech. Also at LibCon, Scepticisle points out that Anjem Choudry, who leads Islam4UK, is a “media troll” who is being deliberately provocative.  He wants to provoke a violent reaction, and the best course of action is to not give him one.  This means allowing the march to proceed, however offensive the message.  The small numbers it will attract will demonstrate just how fringe and ridiculous Choudry and his ideas actually are.

I’m surprised by the illiberal line taken by James Alexander at Progress:

This planned event will turn to violence and lead to a counter-response by the English Defence League. Then the BNP will begin to stir up divisions in the surrounding localities.

Even if you disagree with the actions of the brave soldiers who fight to protect British security, it is wrong to antagonise the families of the fallen. This is hateful and evil. I am writing to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson MP, to call for Islam4UK to be also banned.

I don’t buy into the meme that a provocative march will necessarily be met with violence from outraged Britons.  Politicians and public figures should seize this as a ‘teaching moment’ and now use their influence to condemn in advance such actions, and inspire people to a more tolerant approach.  Gordon Brown has failed to do this so far.

Alexander’s Progress piece seems to have been seized upon by the sort of comments that one usually sees on tabloid comment boards.  I’ve just posted my own comment which sums up what I think:

I disagree with James Alexander … in suggesting that the Islam4UK march should be banned. That would be anti-free speech. If our troops are fighting for anything in Afghanistan, it is human rights, including the right to free expression (something sadly lacking in that country at the moment). The greatest tribute to our soldiers, living and fallen, would be to maintain our principles consistently at home and abroad: This means allowing the Islam4UK march.

The idea that the British people en mass cannot control themselves when confronted with a sorry band of Islamists is ridiculous and divisive. Locals and others who disagree with Islam4UK’s ridiculous ideas are perfectly capable of staging a bigger, peaceful counter-march, without any of the pathetic threats of violence that the other commenters here are so keen to see realised. It is this, and only this course of action that is consistent with the British spirit of tolerance and democracy. Progress members should be using their power and influence to bring this course of action about. Anything less is to sink towards the level of the fundamentalists.

Photo by Robin Hodson
A Wootten Basset memorial procession, 17th Nov 2009. Photo by Robin Hodson on Flickr.

PCC to Regulate Blogs?

While we’re on the subject of the PCC: The new chair of the organisation recently said that she thought the commission should regulate blogs.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has drafted a collective response to this outlandish suggestion. I’ve “signed” in the comments and urge other bloggers to do the same.

The Treehouse Gallery

Treehouse Gallery Advert

There’s a great little project happening in Regents Park at the moment.  The Treehouse Gallery is an ever growing collective of artists, designers, musicians and educators, who have constructed their own public space in which to hold exhibitions and events.

I’ve been following the development of the events schedule for a few weeks now, which is steadily filling up with workshops and other events, but I don’t see much in the way of debates programmed.  Surely some LibCon readers and writers could get together to argue about something?  Localism is a live debate at the moment, and would seem a perfect topic to discuss in a community-made space.  CSJFabians? Demos? SMF?

#MichaelJacksonRIP vs #IranElection

Evenin’ all. I wanted to make a quick point about certain global news stories, and the relative amount of news coverage given to each.

Its fashionable, yet incredibly easy to complain that the Michael Jackson death has crowded out news of other more pressing matters. Shawn Micallef sounded an early word of warning about this attitude:

There is no need to compare MJ & Iran – completely dif, just intersect on same medium, not a social/moral lesson to be learned.

Then (again via Twitter, though the link is now lost in the maelstrom) I came across this MJ/Election mash-up, and it occurred to me that coverage (be it on Twitter, blogs or the international MSM) is not a zero-sum game, and that coverage of one piece of news could promote awareness of another.

If you consider Jackson’s output, there are actually loads of other songs that could fit a revolutionary template. Songs like “Heal The World” and “You Are Not Alone” seemed (to me) quite sanctimonious and irritating when they were released. But with the passing of Michael Jackson, the self-congratulatory element to those tracks seems to dissipate. They’re now ripe for the picking as a backing track to some feel-good montages of the peaceful demonstrations in Tehran. “Earth Song”, “Black or White” and (going back a little bit further) “Man in the Mirror” also carry that We-Are-The-World vibe… as does, of course, “We Are The World”! They could all fill the role of unofficial theme-tune to a non-violent protest movement.

Too cheesy? Not one bit of it: The “Yes We Can” generation of political campaigners are unafraid of such accusations. Meanwhile, tracks like “Beat It” could accompany comedic images of Ahmedinejad and Khameni and Keyboard Cat.

I meant to post this last week, so I feel sure I am behind the curve on this one. Yet a quick search through YouTube doesn’t yield further examples. Let us know your favourites, either in the comments, or via the tips form, and maybe we’ll do a round-up or something.

+posted at Liberal Conspiracy. Comment there.

64 words for Aung San Suu Kyi

I didn’t know that Salman Rushdie and Aung San Suu Kyi shared a birthday:

On this day, my birthday and yours, I always remember your long ordeal and silently applaud your endurance. This year, silence is impossible. It is not any action of yours, but your house arrest, which symbolizes the suppression of Burmese democracy, that is criminal. It is your trial, not your struggle, that is unjust. On this day, on every day, I am with you.

Rushdie’s message launches the Sixty-Four Words for Aung San Suu Kyi project. Citizens of the world are invited to leave a 64 word message for Aung San, in honour of her 64th birthday on 19th June. Alternatively, you can leave a 64 character twitter instead, using the hashtag #assk64.


The project is led by the Burma Campaign UK and was created in only six days, which is a remarkable feat. In addition to Salman Rushdie, the site carries messages from Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and George Clooney. Why not add your message, and then let others know that you’ve done so?

Photographed at a press conference in her home, September 1996, after a government crackdown on her party. By flickr user taptaptap
Photographed at a press conference in her home, September 1996, after a government crackdown on her party. By flickr user taptaptap

Storm Brewing

The atmosphere in Westminster is oppressive. Hop up the steps from the tube and the cries from the Tamils on Parliament Square bite your ears. I’ve seen plenty of protests on that piece of green over the past few years, but this one crackles like a storm-cloud ready to discharge a bolt of lightning.

The wind seems angry too, sweeping through Victoria Tower Gardens, pulling the hats off tourists and messing up their grey comb-overs. The pigtails on school children billow in syncronicity with the union flag above the tower.

Meanwhile, the press and the suits hurry in and out of the building. They ignore the angry mob and the red flags across the street, and yet they are under attack. They shrug off the violent wind, yet there is a storm brewing inside.

A man of about thirty moves slowly through the crowd. He has a grubby brown jacket and a bad back, both of which accounts for the angry expression on his face. He is hungry and slightly dazed from some painkillers, which accounts for the punch-drunk gait. The protesters, the tourists, the wind, don’t help his mood. Seeds, pollen from the trees, waft down and interfere with his eyes.

And as he approaches Millbank, a tall man in a light grey suit emerges from one of the offices, and turns back towards the Palace. Around his neck hangs a security pass, one with the green and white stripes, the most sought-after there is. He walks with his head bowed, looking at his feet, and doesn’t see the man in the brown jacket lumbering towards him. And the man in the brown jacket has no inclination to move. Only when they are in each other’s personal space, does the man with the green striped security pass feel the presence of the other. He twitches only slightly but is visibly startled. It is as if he is expects to be mugged on the street.

He, the politician, regains his stride and heads towards The Commons. I, the man in the brown jacket, haul myself into the coffee shop on the corner, the better to take refuge from the storm.

Ernest Millington and the Common Wealth Party

The lives of those with distinguished World War II military careers still pepper the obituary pages, but not with the frequency that they once did.  I enjoyed this passage from his obituary by Roy Roebuck:

He first arrived at the Commons with his newly awarded Distinguished Flying Cross ribbon inexpertly self-sewn on to his uniform. A Conservative MP, who was a squadron leader in the RAF police, approached. “You are improperly dressed,” he told Millington.

“If you are talking to me as an RAF officer,” Millington replied, “take your hand out of your pocket and address a senior officer as ‘Sir’. If you are addressing me as a fellow MP, mind your own business and bugger off.” He did.

Millington famously won a by-election in the true-blue Tory seat of Chelmsford, standing for the short-lived Common Wealth Party.  Its objectives were “common ownership, democracy, and morality in politics.”  Perhaps it should re-form in time for the Euro elections next month?

(cross-posted at Liberal Conspiracy)

Police, Camera, Action

David at Minority Report offers some words of warning, regarding the slow trickle of citizen generated footage of alleged brutality at the G20 protests earlier this month:

Reconstructing events by using any number of restricted viewpoints is no replacement for vital missing facts. If I present you with a black box that contains a photo I made of a scene, I’ll happily let you make as many pin holes as you like – you will still struggle to make out whats going on. Especially if I choose the image.

Different circumstances, but I felt this way after Saddam Hussein was executed.  There is a real danger in allowing snippets of grainy amateur footage to act as the definitive account of an event.  The result in this case has been yet another trial by media, only this time the police seem to be on the receiving end.  In reality, we have no way of knowing precisely what killed Ian Tomlinson, and the account of the Nicky Fisher assault makes me uneasy (although admittedly this feeling is entirely based on her sightly spaced-out media interviews).

Was it inevitable that the police would lose this PR war?  Or is that some kind of optical illusion brought about by 20:20 hindsight?  My feeling is that these stories, which trickle out over a few days, played to our preconceptions, feeding into an easily understood narrative.  Clearly, the public have lost trust in the police.

This is a desperately dangerous state of affairs, of course.  However, I think the vilification that the police now receive is a delayed punishment for earlier and more egregious clusterfucks.  Despite the fact that no-one in authority was punished for the Jean-Charles De Menezes killing, it is not unreasonable to draw a line between that incident, and the current debate.  Although neither Sir Ian Blair or Cressida Dick (or for that matter Tony Blair or his Home Secretary Charles Clarke) lost their jobs over the incident, the security services certainly lost credibility as a result.  They were ‘punished’ in the sense that they lost the public’s trust, a vital form of political capital.

There should be a bittersweet satisfaction to this: we’ve learnt that institutions simply cannot maladministrate, or violate our civil liberties, with total impunity.  We’ve learnt how to ‘police the police’, and some thuggish elements will be brought to prosecution through evidence collected by citizen photographer.  However, its also true that the men and women currently tasked with policing our capital city were not the ones who ordered a policy of violence upon us.  Those people who made such decisions still walk free, and unaccountable.  This latest success for citizen journalism is a Pyrrhic victory.
Continue reading “Police, Camera, Action”

On Trolls, Liberty, Debate and Damian Green

There’s a recently concluded debate over at the Liberal Conspiracy about ‘feeding the trolls’, that is, engaging with commenters on the blog who are just there to provoke an argument. I think there is a distinction between proper trolls, who are actively seeking to waste their own time in order to waste others’, and other people who simply have a wildly differing worldview. In the case of the former, it is rarely worth engaging. But in the case of the latter, debate can sometimes be helpful. It all depends on what kind of conversation you want to have, and on the Liberal Conspiracy, it is often impossible to talk about something at the level of detail you desire, if you are arguing first principles with someone else (be it a troll, or bona fide member of the seething classes).

Sometimes, I wonder if the mainstream media aren’t trolling. Today I spotted this headline from the Daily Mail, and feel confident that it has been written to waste my time.

Human Rights: Straw To Get Tough

Exclusive – Minister tells Mail how he’ll reform ‘Villiain’s Charter

Its not that I do not disagree with the idea of labelling the Human Right’s Act a “villiain’s charter”.  Its just that attempting to engage with it – especially on a blog – is a bit pointless. Its not as if they are making some kind of technical or categorical error that a plucky blogger might tease out and add to the debate. This article is speaking a genuinely different language. I have been silent on the ‘Baby P’ issue, because the debate was of this highly toxic, divisive type. Others gamely engaged with the trolls, so to speak, but there comes a point where its down to someone with a little more profile that bloggers to take up the political fight. This is why people often end up criticising political allies, for relatively trivial reasons, apparently missing the wood for the trees. Its not that we’ve lost our moral compass, just that we’re angry that other people are not speaking up for us in the places that matter.

As to the substance of the article, I’ll merely note again that it is the hated and the vulnerable who have their Human Rights violated first. The Declaration of Human Rights was created precisely to guard against populist tendencies in governments. They’re inconvenient, but then so is the task of retaining our humanity in the face of violence and antagonism.

For those with a fatigue for this sort of thing, I highly recommend a visit to the ‘Taking Liberties‘ Exhibition (no, not that Taking Liberties) at the British Library. It has the Magna Carta and other declarations of Rights and Freedoms penned by various men and women from around these isles.

The exhibition set me thinking about the Damian Green affair (something else that seems so divisive that there is so little common ground between the warring parties that debate seems futile). Whilst I personally don’t believe that Jacqui Smith ordered the police into Mr Green’s office, and I do not believe that the Speaker, Michael Martin, colluded in the warrantless searching of the Tory MP’s office, the outcry itself seems like a healthy thing to me. It is good that there is an ‘awkward squad’ barrage of questions every time there is any hint of impropriety. Far from us living in a Stalinist State, as some alledge, it is the indignant calls to account which prevent us sliding into one.


Heh – I wrote:

its down to someone with a little more profile that bloggers to take up the political fight

Ask and it shall be delivered unto you.

A Case for Internet Regulation

If, like me, you have a knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone suggests regulating the Internet, this A List Apart article on captioning/subtitling of online videos is a challenging read. Joe Clark argues that the voluntary approach to developing a good, standardized captioning system has failed, and that only governments can enforce some sort of progress:

In short, disabled people’s right to be free of discrimination trumps the belief, however fallacious, that the internet cannot or should not be regulated.

Earlier this year, the Liberal Conspiracy take on Andy Burnham’s recommendations on Internet regulation, was that it was merely a sop to the powerful music lobby and their outdated business models.  Contrast this with the case of subtitling, where it is the lack of regulation which has allowed the studios and broadcasters to ignore their obligations to provide accessible content, in favour of greater profit margins.

It was the political concept of ‘accessibility’ that got me interested in web design, and fuels my current love of all things social networky. When we made The Unrecognized, I took particular pride in the subtitling, a project I worked on alone and probably took as long as the edit of the film itself. We were in a sense lucky that the film featured three languages, because it meant that a captioned video was the norm, as Joe Clark now recommends.

The internet can and should be an equalising force, yet for deaf people the online landscape is still an unwelcoming jungle.