Sunday 31 July 2011

Quote for the Day - Finally Catching-up - West Winging It

Reverend: If our children can buy pornography on any street corner for $5 isn't that too high a price to pay for free speech?
President: No.
Reverend: Really?
President: On the other hand I do think that $5 is too high a price to pay for pornography.

Until this evening I'd never watched The West Wing. I've just signed over the rest of 2011 watching all 154 episodes...

On the Button

Button's inaugural victory for Honda
at the Hungaroring in 2006
My favourite F1 driver Jenson Button marked his 200th race in style with a victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix. There's something about Button that makes him a bit different from other drivers. He's exuberant without being brash or reckless, and he's a motoring purist.

When Vettel, Hamilton or Alonso drive a car, it's like they're highly skilled tamers fighting against a beast and more often than not coming out on top. It's quick, and in conventional conditions very effective, but it's seldom pretty. With Button, the car and driver become one. He is the beast. The response to a more testing track is the natural one; not a knee-jerk reaction. Button senses the grip; doesn't approximate. Where all the perks of modern technology are undermined by the elements, Jenson is the man who comes out on top. We need only look back to the 2009 championship to see how, with a balanced car he's in a class of his own.

Button victorious again 5 years on
It was fitting that Button should mark his 200th race with a victory, but all the more so at the same Grand Prix he won his first F1 race, and in mixed conditions then too. Here's to another 100 at least and hopefully a decent stab at the title if not at the tail end of this season, then next.

Thursday 28 July 2011

Quote and Analogy for the day - Beans, Beef and Hypocrisy

Stumbled across on the Virtually Naked blog a view that sums up my general feeling about politics and the Lib Dems in Coalition. Being called charlatans, sell-outs, lacking a mandate, ignoring our values and such like is something we've rather got used to. Charlotte Henry sums it up nicely.
"It hasn’t been easy being a Liberal Democrat in recent months. Being told you sold out your principles, when nobody ever bothered to actually find out what they were in the first place, has become rather grating after nearly 13 months."
Well quite. I've got a slightly clumsy analogy that I'm now going to hector people with for the next few weeks, and it's this:

A can of baked beans [liberalism] says "Hello. My name is Heinz. I'm a tin of baked beans: would you like to eat me?". The response comes "Look! A tin of corned beef [social democracy]! Let's buy that and take it home."

Then comes the time to eat it "Wait a minute, this isn't corned beef, this is baked beans. This corned beef manufacturer has sold out on its processed meat credentials!"

Meanwhile the poor bedraggled tin of baked beans keeps pointing out that if you read the big and small-print on his label, it clearly says "baked beans". If we were in fact Tesco Value baked beans, you could perhaps have accused us of failing to adhere to our true baked bean principles. But telling us we're not corned beef is just bizarre. We know we're not corned beef. Why the hell did you think we were corned beef? We said we were baked beans! If you don't like baked beans, stop buying them, but we think if you take the time to taste us properly they'll grow on you.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

DNA - Do Not About-turn

Just over a month ago at PMQs, Ed Miliband tried to bounce David Cameron into a u-turn over plans to end the routine retention of DNA samples given by those who are arrested but not charged with rape and other related offences.

At the time it was heartening to see Cameron refuse to back down on that front. From the outset, I should make clear that I don't think the Government's policy as it stood a month ago goes far enough to protect basic freedoms: those charged but never convicted will still have DNA routinely kept on file and those arrested but not charged can, on application have samples retained. My own position is pretty much exactly as stated in the Lib Dem Manifesto:
"Remove innocent people from the police DNA database and stop storing DNA from innocent people and children in the future, too." Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010 p94

I recognise that the Coalition's position on this was more nuanced, stating:
"We will adopt the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database." Coalition Agreement 2010 p11

And for the sake of completeness, the Conservative Manifesto said of DNA retention:
"The indefinite retention of innocent people’s DNA is unacceptable, yet DNA data provides a  useful tool for solving crimes. We will legislate to make sure that our DNA database is used  primarily to store information about those who are guilty of committing crimes rather than those  who are innocent. We will collect the DNA of all existing prisoners, those under state supervision who have been convicted of an offence, and anyone convicted of a serious recordable offence. We pushed the Government to end the permanent retention of innocent people’s DNA , and we  will change the guidance to give people on the database who have been wrongly accused of a  minor crime an automatic right to have their DNA withdrawn." Conservative Party Manifesto 2010 p80

For those who are unfamiliar with the Scottish system, anyone who is found innocent of any crime in relation to which they have given a DNA sample has it removed from the database (unless specifically challenged) after 3 years. The position in the rest of the UK is different; the limit is 6 years and was introduced under the Labour Government. Last year the Scottish Labour party's Holyrood delegation attempted to amend the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill to bring Scotland into line with the rest of the UK, but the SNP, Lib Dems and Tories(!) told them where to go.

My concerns today arise with news that whilst DNA samples of innocent persons will no longer be stored on the centralised national database, they will be retained by some local forensic labs. Whilst I can appreciate that there may be practical difficulties in ensuring the total destruction of innocent persons' DNA data, I have huge misgivings about this. It is inconceivable that particular samples cannot be linked to individuals even if they're being held locally rather than nationally, and that's simply unacceptable if those people have never been convicted of any serious offence.

If the government proceeds on that basis, it's a cop-out. My message to Clegg, Cameron, May and Clarke is this: ignore Ed Miliband; stand-up for freedoms and Do Not About-turn on your Coalition agreement with this miserable little compromise.

Don't let the state turn you
into a binary series

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Quote for the day - Goldfish and Liberalism

Today's quote really strikes a chord with my own political philosophy.
"If freedom means anything it must surely include the freedom to engage in activities which others may consider unwise. This includes smoking, overeating, not exercising, driving "off road" cars in cities, even winning goldfish. A Liberal society is one where people should be free to "make their own mistakes". The Liberal Democrats must surely be consistently rigorous in applying the principles of personal liberalism in the future."

David Laws "Reclaiming Liberalism" (2004) - The Orange Book

Friday 8 July 2011

Telephones Telephones Telephones

It's been a week for telephones it seems. I started my summer job as a telephone campaigner at my old school Robert Gordon's College, where we've been getting back in touch with our alumni asking them for support towards the George Barton Bursary fund alongside some other projects. As someone who received a bursary myself, this is something I do feel quite passionately about, giving as many young people from all backgrounds the opportunity to have a first class academic education and the best chance to progress in life. The response has been positive so far, with lots of alumni contributing, and most being happy enough to share their experiences of school and what they've been getting up to in the big bad world since then. Some of the "old boys" have very vivid memories of receiving the belt for insolence, something I'm glad was outlawed long before my schooling began!

The big story of the week is, however, the explosion of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. It's been bubbling at boiling point for a while, and I'm surprised that it hadn't become a major story before now. The new evidence that Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl's phone was hacked and messages deleted has provoked substantial moral outrage and rightly so. But I can't understand why the general public were so content to allow all of the previous (and for the most part, as serious) reported instances of this in the last 5-10 years or so to be swept under the proverbial carpet. It seems that as a society we don't care until we can tag it onto a scandal of personalities.

That was partly the problem with the connection between the Sheridan perjury trial and the behaviour of the NOTW in that little bubble. Phone hacking, whilst wrong in and of itself, doesn't undermine the truth or otherwise of the evidence obtained by it. Indeed one of the things we can probably say about phone hacking is that it shows just how far tabloid journalists will go to get a true, if not necessarily very good, story about someone of public notoriety. With Andy Coulson potentially facing perjury charges himself in relation to his comments about paying police for information and hacking phones, I'm struggling to see how, in and of itself, that undermines the reliability of Sheridan's conviction or undermines the assertion that he lied in his original trial. We shall have to wait and see how that appeal goes, I suspect.

The real story behind this, however, is two pronged. Firstly, this sort of illegal subterfuge by journalists (and not just at the NOTW) has been allowed to thrive and dominate (especially tabloid) news because of collusion and incompetence by the law enforcement agencies. That includes the police, who face serious allegations of bribery and a pathetic effort in their initial inquiry, and it also includes the Press Complaints Commission. The latter has been completely lackadaisical in its attempts to investigate complaints and allegations of wrongdoing not just by NOTW but also, for example, the Mirror Group's attempts at "blagging" for information and more generally in its quasi-judicial role of regulatory oversight. I'm pleased to see that it's going and that a full public inquiry is to take place and hopefully it won't pull any punches.

The second issue is the relationship between the media and politicians. There has grown this obsession with the idea that media moguls like Murdoch hold all the cards to winning elections and maintaining public support. This has made politicians fear and revere him which, in turn, gives him political bargaining power. They don't seem to realise that it's all a big con. Manipulating the dissemination of information and political direction is not the end game; it's simply a means to protect and perpetuate the success of News International.

The success of private media enterprises is not in and of itself a bad thing, and indeed it is important that we have a free press which is subject to no more stringent a law than any individual. What we must remember in trying to tackle this scandal is not that regulation (or in the view of some, lack thereof) has failed but that the structures and independence of the regulators, be they politicians or the police or the PCC, has been found wanting. The power isn't being balanced because the elites have engineered a situation where the press and politicians are one and the same.

Where is the impartiality and dispassionate investigatory zeal? Where is the political willpower to enforce existing laws on things like phone-hacking in their own right rather than simply to get a few good headlines or placate media pressure? Why is it that both the Tories and Labour continue to fall over backwards to socialise with Murdoch at a private party just a couple of weeks ago, before pretending to dissociate themselves days later when his organisation is no longer politically chique. Why is it that these politicians pander to the galleries about how awful this media culture is while employing people like Andy Coulson and Tom Baldwin, both of whom have form in the "dark arts".

No, the whole culture of media and politics has to change, and a bit more space between the big and powerful in the two areas of public life would be an excellent place to start. With the PCC getting done away with hopefully we'll see a better form of oversight and enforcement replace it. If the inquiries are to mean anything they have to dig out the corruption in the police or these practices will begin all over again.

A final thought on media plurality and the implications of recent events on the take-over at BSkyB. Plurality is hugely important and it's not the sign of a healthy and free democracy where news output is dominated by a small handful of powerful organisations and individuals. But Murdoch's empire, stretching from the tabloid Sun, the broadsheet Times, to Sky News television, for all its variety, is still responsible for considerably less of the UK's news intake than the BBC. If anyone thinks that giving him full control of BSkyB is going to have a marked effect on diverse news output, I'd give them more than just a sceptical look in return.

Murdoch is interested in making money, and BSkyB's operations have only a passing interest in news output as a relative afterthought: anyone who has ever watched how shit-amateur Sky News is must know that. As and when it goes through we should be concerning ourselves not with the plurality of journalism, for it is still very healthy in this country, but the quality and standards to which the profession holds itself. As for the NOTW? It was a shit paper. Sure it's getting replaced by the Sunday Sun, but even so, good riddance.

Monday 4 July 2011

Hate to say we told you so...

As someone who favours greater European integration (for example, taking down trade barriers and maximising freedom of movement), but thought the single currency was a disaster waiting to happen, it was quite satisfying to read this column piece by Mary Ann Sieghart in The Independent. It emphasises the economic illiteracy of fiscal union without political union, or as I like to style it, the Frankfurt arm without either the Strasbourg or Brussels arms of Europe. As long as countries have no control over their interest rates, but continue to have debt attributed to them and conduct socio-economic policy through their national governments, monetary union simply doesn't work. The disparity in economic structures would always lead to an artificial boom, a huge bust, and bailouts which throw good money after bad.

I'm probably in a minority of my own party on this issue, but unfortunately a lot of Lib Dems hold the Keynesian responses to crises in higher regard than my own Austrian perspective. For me even the British situation shows us the huge limitations of central banking and supports the assertion that simply boosting aggregate demand does not make an economy any stronger. The bigger the scale of central banking, the poorer the cost of borrowing reflects the real risk.