Baby P’s mother: The final injustice

Allison Pearson’s column today shows the nice dividing line between due process and mob rule:

“So now we are allowed to call him Peter. Baby P finally has a name. Yet the identity of the man and woman who caused his death remains a closely guarded secret. How come guilty adults enjoy more protection than an innocent child ever did?”

Some wonderful emotive sensation to get us going – we’re asked to consider why people who currently subject to legal investigation are given the anonymity not on offer to their victim. There are some very obvious answers to this – the protection, in this case, is temporary and genuine. This is the same as anonymity for Baby Peter – whose anonymity, if anything, went further, being not just temporary but, to some extent since we don’t know his surname, ongoing. In Peter’s case, however, it is unclear what genuine protection anonymity offered – the covering up of his name had more to do with securing a fair trial for those implicated in his death, rather than anything substantive to protect him. At most, it aimed at ensuring a right to justice for him. Allison is deliberately conflating the genuine protection anonymity offers to the adults with an anonymity which would be almost entirely pointless to offer to the victim. At the same time, she invites comparisons between the physical vulnerability of the Baby with the vulnerability of the adults, suggesting that they are being screened from a similar violence which is their due.

“The law, as we saw in the trial of the brute and his girlfriend for a separate crime at the Old Bailey last week, does not protect vulnerable children. Instead, it may end up shielding the adults who abuse them.

It makes a four-year-old girl come to an intimidating court to relive the trauma of being raped at the age of two.”

As a point of order, it should be noted that the person who made a four-year-old girl come to court was the person found guilty of raping her – who knew what they had done but tried to avoid taking responsibility for it. It should be noted that the court did all it could to make the experience less intimidating for the victim – removing wigs and conducting communication through videos rather than having the girl there in person. The alternative to this approach would be that no evidence was adduced at all in open court for these rapes taking place. That would not protect vulnerable children, but mean that someone who raped children got away with it. Alternatively, it would mean removing the solid principle of law that you have the opportunity to question evidence brought against you, allowing convictions on mere hearsay. No one wants to see children testifying in court, but when they do it is unfair to blame the justice system for it.

“The jury was not told the adults in the dock were also the couple in the Baby P horror show. The woman was found not guilty of cruelty to the raped child. Do you really think this would have happened if the court had known how she hoodwinked officials during Peter’s brief life? Of course not.”

Here Allison comfortably answers her own question as to why people in criminal cases are allowed anonymity. The fact that Baby P’s mother was involved in the Baby P case says nothing about her involvement in this case. The fact that you are guilty of one crime does not make you automatically guilty in all similar cases. It might make you more likely, but how is a jury to distinguish honest judgements of probability from the natural animosity which would stem from knowing that the person in front of them had committed something heinous previously? Surely there is a right to be tried for the crime you’ve been accused of, and not for others which you’ve already been convicted of?

“Do I sound angry? Well, too bad. Who will stand up for these children if their mothers won’t?

The brute, the mother and their lodger will all be sentenced on May 22 for ‘ causing or allowing the death’ of Baby P. The brute, whom Peter knew as ‘Dad’, can expect to get a maximum sentence of 14 years.

Perhaps the baby torturer could attend a woodwork class in prison and see if he comes out with his head still on.”

And so it ends – with the actual blood lust only hinted at in the introduction, carefully couched as a suggestion for the baby torturer to run a gauntlet of others fulfilling Allison’s desires. The anger is understandable, the feeling that a fixed sentence is insufficient is understandable, the abhorrence is understandable. It stems, however, from the feeling that this person has been brought bang to rights, a feeling which we have because we know our legal system to be fair and impartial with our juries unbiased by former prejudices. Were we to follow Allison’s prescriptions and take away protection from those we ‘know’ are guilty because we’ve shown them to be guilty of other things, that confidence would be gone. At which point we wouldn’t just have mob justice, but mob injustice as we started woodworking the genuinely innocent, fitted-up and reformed. Some guilty would, no doubt, ‘get what was coming to them’, while others would walk, free to carry on doing whatever abhorrent things they did while the innocent literally took the rap. Justice requires a uniformally fair system, even for people we don’t like.


Fred the Shred’s an easy target, but we should all beware of the nihilists of the Left… itching to reduce this country to anarchy

Here’s a cheery column from Stephen Glover:

“There is an emboldened nihilistic movement bubbling below the surface whose beliefs are profoundly anti-progress, as well as being injurious to the poor in the West and the Third World. In a way they are far worse than the old communist Left, which at least aspired to running an efficient state. This new lot abominates cars and aeroplanes and technology – in short, most of the achievements of the modern world.”

The attack on Sir Goodwin’s Edinburgh property was merely the first skirmish of a bigger war, one that threatens the very heart of our civilisation.

“Just remember that their prescription is not to introduce moderate reforms, but to pull the system apart so that, if they have their way, we will end up eating soya beans, riding about on donkeys and growing clumps of maize in our back gardens.”

The anarchists are coming. Be afraid.

There are a couple of things that we might want to consider before we start barricading our properties to protect ourselves against Swampy’s massed hordes. For one, how are we moving from a single attack on a media hate figure¹ to the overthrow of everything we hold dear?

“Listen to the statement made to Edinburgh’s evening newspaper by those who attacked Sir Fred’s house: ‘We are angry that rich people … are paying themselves a huge amount of money, and are living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute and homeless. This is a crime. Bank bosses should be jailed.’

Simple souls, no doubt. But also revolutionary ones. And they speak for a growing constituency of anti-capitalists whose analysis of the economic recession – if that is not too grand a word – is fatally encouraged by the Government’s and the media’s jihad against Sir Fred Goodwin and his ilk.”

So, Stephen makes two claims: that this view is revolutionary, and that it speaks for a wider constituency. Well, it’s not that revolutionary, it’s actually quite reactionary in as far as it is singling out a small group of people for special treatment as scapegoats, rather than addressing the causes of the imbalances in the system. It doesn’t overturn anything, it merely adjusts unfavourable outcomes after the fact. Revolutionary would be nationalising the whole banking sector and re-organising it as a collection of mutuals run for the benefit of their members and employees, for example. Retaining the same system with the same people at the top creaming off a little less is not a revolution. With that in mind, how broad a constituency do they speak for? Well, quite a large one – the Mail, among others, thinks it is high time we looked at remuneration.

Does this constituency necessarily overlap with those wanting to overthrow the capitalist system? No, not even Stephen can conclude that it does:

“A single attack on Sir Fred Goodwin’s Edinburgh house hardly signifies the beginning of mob rule”

So why the shoehorning? If you want to talk about the anarchist mob, why not just have a run at the Wombles preparing for the forthcoming G20? How can we justify the fear that the media is turning us anarchist?

“Is this really what the Government, even the BBC, wants? No one doubts that many bankers, Sir Fred among them, have made unforgivable errors. The sensible response is to introduce reforms so that the same thing cannot easily happen again. The anti-capitalist brigade wants to tear down the whole edifice. Alone, they were pretty harmless and peripheral. With ministers and the media acting as their helpmates, and declaring that capitalism has disastrously failed, they could become dangerous.”

Stephen is equivocating here on the idea of the failure of capitalism. Capitalism has failed: it has failed to pull the underclass up, it has failed to to prevent the gap between rich and poor from reaching such unpleasant levels, it has failed to provide stability or security to the middle classes. These aren’t things it was ever aiming to provide, or which, conceptually, it was ever likely to, but from a human point of view it is a system which fails to give us important things. This is not the same as the system failing in the sense that it doesn’t work – it still works better than controlled economy and people are still better off, in some senses at least, than they would be under anarchism or similar systems.² I have yet to find a media source or minister who is proposing an alternative to capitalism (I’m happy to be corrected on this, as ever). While they’re happy to talk about systemic failures, such as the inability to solve poverty, they do not talk about the system failing.

The media and government, rather, seem to be calling for exactly what Stephen is calling for – reforms to make the system a little less abhorrent. His conclusion, on this basis, is completely unjustified:

“Lay off the bankers. Stop exciting the mob. Let’s hear some robust arguments in favour of free trade, capitalism and open markets. They have produced enormous wealth before, and will do so again, while the policies (if they can be so dignified) of the protesters who will be on show in London next week would lead only to anarchy, poverty and chaos.”

This begs the question, because it automatically excludes reforms of banking pay as part of the solution. It excludes discussions of whether free trade does provide enormous wealth, or whether they lead for anarchy, poverty and chaos for some. These discussions are not ‘exciting the mob’, they are the necessary activities of democracy.

Stephen has conjured an image of rabid anarchists attacking the institution of private property³ to conclude that all arguments against the status quo are out of bounds and all critics are as bad as each other. The argument is poor even were the threat not so overstated. If Stephen wants to reduce the threat to bankers, there is no better place to start than looking at his own paper’s coverage of them. From there he can start thinking about how he can modify the capitalist system to be less piratical. Using the damaging of property of a media hate figure as a prop for the entire edifice of expropriation because you don’t want to discuss reform or your own approach to social problems is a much worse solution.


¹ Interestingly, Stephen feels that the BBC is largely to blame for the demonisation of Sir Fred Goodwin (“I freely admit that all newspapers have played their part in turning Fred the Shred into Public Enemy Number One, but the organisation which undoubtedly went further than any other was the publicly funded BBC, which is charged with being neutral and even-handed.”). Now, the Mail provides examples like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9; and more throwaway lines as found here: 1, 2, 3, 4; throwing up your hands and saying ‘The big boy hit him harder’ in no way absolves you of the responsibility. This is a common enterprise across the media – the Mail has happily contributed to the construction of Sir Goodwin as a hate figure and the responsibility for people treating him as such lies squarely on their shoulders as much as anyone else.

² For very good libertarian and fraternal reasons, anarcho-syndicalism is still a ‘better’ system if you’re starting from scratch, but given our starting point in a capitalist system, there is no way you could achieve this without mass suffering. ‘Better off’ is relative to where you start, and from where we are, I’ve yet to see a better alternative to some form of capitalism.

³ Using Google Street View – “Incidentally, though there is no evidence that they played a role in this instance, Google’s new on-line street maps will be a marvellous aid for voyeurs, as well as for anyone who might want to burgle or damage your home. They show every house in 20 cities, including Edinburgh, and will be extended to many more. Where on earth is the public benefit?” – which Stephen wants to suppress, in spite, presumably, of robust arguments for free trade and capitalism.

To place children with two gay men when an adoptive mother and father are available, just to uphold a brutal dogma, is a sickening assault on family life

Right, just to justify another mention of the redoubtable Melanie (although, in my defence, she’s been extremely busy recently), I’ll start with the conclusion of her column and work my way backwards:

“The underlying agenda behind gay adoption, as it is behind the whole gay rights movement, is nothing to do with protecting the rights of gay people. Were it really so, there would be no objection. No-one should be discriminated against simply on the grounds of his or her sexuality.

That does not mean, however, that gay lifestyles must be regarded as of equal value to heterosexual households when it comes to the raising of children. To say that anyone who makes such a distinction is prejudiced is to turn reality on its head.

But that is indeed the whole point of the gay rights movement – to destroy the very notion of heterosexual norms of sexual behaviour and the definition of the family so that gay lifestyles can present themselves as ‘normal’.”

Which is an opinion.

So how did we reach this bold conclusion? Well, via

“The reason why adoption is so successful at raising healthy, well-adjusted children is that it replicates as far as possible the biological mother and father whose presence in the family is so crucial to the well-being of their children.

The prevailing argument that all types of family are as good as each other as far as the children are concerned simply isn’t true. While some children emerge relatively unscathed from irregular households, children need to be brought up by the two people ‘who made me’ – or, in adoptive households, in a family which closely replicates that arrangement.

Where that does not happen, the child’s deepest sense of his or her identity as a human being is at some level damaged.”

Now I like my sub-Freudian rhetoric about concept formation in the young as much as the next man, but sometimes I find myself yearning for something a little more substantial. Doesn’t Melanie have anything more compelling to hang her conclusion on? Well, as it happens, there is this:

“Such people routinely claim that research shows there are no adverse outcomes for children from same-sex adoption. These claims are totally untrue. The fact is that there are virtually no studies of children adopted by gay couples – or raised by male same-sex couples. In general, studies of same-sex child rearing are in turn extremely thin on the ground and methodologically too unsound to be authoritative.”

Now here is the crux. This is an empirical question – there is a right answer and a wrong answer. Or, if we’re picky, answers which have more support from evidence and answers which have less. Your average person on the street, although they have access to the evidence to make this judgement, tend not to have the time. We could find out, but we have lives to lead. Instead we rely on authority. A comparable example would be a war abroad – in principal we could find out what’s going on ourselves, but we’re busy. You can see where this is leading. Newspapers, surely, are there to inform. On matters of opinion it’s all well and good to say ‘there is an editorial line – we are pro-X and anti-Y’, but on matters of fact you’re either informing or misinforming. Leaning as we do on the authority of those who have the time and inclination to look at the evidence, we should be able to expect, at the very least, that newspapers debating fact have looked at the evidence.

Which is why I get worried when the Mail routinely denies climate change, ignoring bodies of evidence and scientific studies. Or, as now, when Melanie ignores scientific data en route to telling the non-homosexual members of her readership that the Left is marginalising them and their way of life in favour of reprobates¹. If Melanie tells us there’s no evidence for healthy children from same-sex relationships and we know no better, we assume she probably knows better than we do. She has the evidence, we don’t.

Except she doesn’t. She denies that there is any, then speculates on what she believes is probably true. As it happens, she’s wrong. As one set of researchers puts it, this is a “growth industry” (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001). I thought I’d start with something nice and small scale – a single, peer reviewed study from an academic journal. A quick straw poll of journals with likely sounding names dredged up Brewaeys et al. (1997), who concluded “These results, like those of prior research (Steckel, 1987; Patterson, 1994, 1995; Flacks et al., 1995) indicate that child and family development in lesbian mother families is similar to that of heterosexual families.”. Feeling that this might just be a lucky stab, I tried to find a multi-article review² in a peer reviewed journal, instantly alighting on Patterson (2006) (“Does parental sexual orientation have an important impact on child or adolescent development? Results of recent research provide no evidence that it does. In fact, the findings suggest that parental sexual orientation is less important than the qualities of family relationships. “)

There was still a risk of lucky picking, so I went one further – are there any serious medical/psychological associations who have voiced an opinion on the matter? As it happens, yes – the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and even the American Psychoanalytic Association support adoption by same-sex couples, to name but three. I have not found any serious organisation with a position on the matter who are against it.

This is not hard. This information is readily available with only the lightest searching. Melanie and the fact-checkers at the Mail have no excuse for not knowing that when she says “These claims are totally untrue”, her claim is, in fact, totally untrue. A newspaper isn’t just a throwaway item – if it weren’t able to influence they wouldn’t be wasting their time with it.  They have a responsibility to come down on the right side of factual arguments, whatever the position they want to take in debates on ‘morality’ or ‘standards’. To do otherwise is to cheat and fool their audience into believing that their bigotry carries the weight of scientific fact.


¹ And just while we’re thinking of the Left; surely Melanie has her left/right distinctions wrong – human rights are, and always are, libertarian matters. They are about what people cannot do to you. When we talk about the right to adopt, we’re not talking about granting homosexuals a boon, we’re talking about not standing in their way. Which is what she’s talking about when she conjures her evidence that same-sex partnerships harm children – there is a reason, she feels, to stand in the way, to annul what would be a right in the natural scheme of things. She’s totally upside-down, the Right should be rallying to the cause of the individual, not weighing itself down with tradition and small-c-consevatism.

² When originally published, this said ‘meta-analysis’. I corrected it because it wasn’t a meta-analysis, and I wanted to look like less of an idiot. Apologies for the mistake.³

³ Although, if you want a meta-analysis, try one which informed the decision of the American Academy of Pediatrics (above): Allen and Burrell (1997) Comparing the Impact of Homosexual and Heterosexual Parents on Children: Meta-Analysis of Existing Research Journal of Homosexuality 32:19-35

Arrogant, ignorant and out of his depth, is Banana Boy Miliband our worst Foreign Secretary ever?

I’ve touched previously on the paranoid style in Daily Mail articles, but I thought this was quite impressive even by usual standards.

“Beyond hectoring this country’s allies in this way, Miliband also remains a global warming zealot. This is even though the world’s climate is actually cooling, the ice is expanding, the seas aren’t rising at a rate which should concern anyone and there is overwhelming evidence that the whole man-made global warming panic is an anti-west scam of unprecedented proportions.”

I’ve spoken before about climate change in the Mail and I’ll not do it again so soon. What I find more interesting is the idea that it’s a conspiracy  – who by, and for what purpose? Is the West ripping off itself, or is this some sort of evil developing world scheme to hobble our once proud industry further? How have they managed it? I mean, it is a hell of a scheme – it’s not just Miliband they’ve fooled/bought, this con is big. A lot of people who really should know better have gone and got the wrong answer to a simple either-or question. That’s a good scam.

“Much of this comes from a way of looking at the world through a highly ideological and distorting prism. Miliband is very much a child of the post-modern era in which the dominant  belief system of the progressive classes comprises ‘soft power’ – under which negotiation, legal processes and compromise take the place of war whose objective is actually to defeat an enemy with an unconscionable and non-negotiable agenda; ‘trans-nationalism’, under which the nation state is defined as the source of all the ills of the world; and ‘cultural relativism’, under which the west refuses to hold itself superior in its values to the third world, whose ‘narrative’ of its own oppression and powerlessness thus trumps all attempts by the west to defend itself against the attacks the third world mounts upon it.”

I admit that this juxtaposition reads a little strangely, there were some intervening paragraphs, but I’m assuming that the argument is consistent, and this is the first bit that would seem to reflect back on the dastardly scheme to scam the West. Turns out that all those Tuvaluans with their plans to live in New Zealand once their nation submerges are really only trying to undermine Western values with their narratives of oppression. First the petty cultural relativists¹ let them take our light bulbs, and next it’ll be our wives, castles and prejudices.

What this misses is the perfectly reasonable middle ground between mea culpa and right all along – that the nation state, while having its plus points, can also be guilty of some fairly dodgy things. For example, the system of propping up odious dictatorships as a protection of ones own people is a rum one, as are protectionist tariffs and the Olympics. We can safely question these without giving in to self-flagellation – think of it not as relativism but healthy jingoistic introspection. Thinking things through, we might find that we are, in fact, responsible for some of the ills of the world, and that some ways of improving things may be available through negotiation with those we’ve disadvantaged (or ‘wronged’, should you wish to be accurate).

The idea that we can just pretend that the damage we sometimes cause doesn’t happen is one we should have grown out of before hitting school. We can’t pull girls hair and claim that they’re making it up when they go crying to mummy – it didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. Ad hominem attacks ( “a twerp of the first order”) won’t change that. And claiming that the crafty poor majority are coming to steal you incandescent light bulbs under false pretences before accusing  other people of disconnecting from reality won’t either.


¹ As an aside, she’s right about cultural relativism – to suggest that ‘x is wrong’ is the same as ‘x is wrong for me, but other people may disagree and are entitled to their opinion’ seems to me to misunderstand the meaning of ‘wrong’. Presumably we’re none of us relativist about, for example, rape – when we say that is wrong, we’re saying exactly what we mean. I’m not sure how ‘chauvinism is wrong’ or ‘causing animals unnecessary suffering is wrong’ are different – that is to say, what makes them different has never been adequately explained to me.

Why DO women have these tramp stamps?

I almost wasn’t going to blog this column from Liz Jones, because aesthetic opinions can’t be right or wrong, but then I hit the conclusion:

“She [a concentration camp survivor] is proud of her tattoo, an indelible reminder of mankind’s inhumanity to man. Her disfigurement is a badge of courage, not a woolly-headed fashion statement.”

As ever, the column isn’t entirely sure what it wants to be. It starts off solidly enough as a ‘aren’t tattoos awful‘ piece, with tints of ‘isn’t society in decline’ as everyone starts to take on these awful fashion symbols. It then collapses into a list of people who have tats, and where they have them¹, followed by a little history, some ‘tattoos are stupid, in addition to being ugly’ and a barnstorming finish by way of comparing meaningful tattoos to vacuous ones. Liberally sprinkled throughout is some glorious snobbery (“[Tattoos] merely detract from [Angelina Jolie’s] beauty, rendering her cheap and hopelessly common”) and hyperbole (” tattoos, the most tasteless, tacky, tawdry, terrible plague to infect our nation since mad cow disease”²), as we discover that the negative judgement of tattoos has more to do with the sort of people who have them (Dame Mirren’s is fine) than anything actually intrinsically wrong.

To try and pad this out slightly, the second half of the column aims at undermining arguments for tattoos, while resolutely looking past the most obvious one: some people might disagree on points of aesthetics with Liz, and genuinely believe them to look nice. In the same way that expensive handbags do. Or, in the way Angelina Jolie does. In this sense, they need not be any more “a load of self-indulgent b******s” than any other kind of adornment. ‘Scarring’ is, in this light, the wrong term.

Possibly understanding that there wouldn’t be much of a column in ‘aren’t tattoos awful, even if their uptake shows that people disagree with this judgement’, Liz moves on to misinterpreting symbols:

“It is as if the person is trying to say: ‘I love my son/boyfriend/wife more than you love yours.'”

It needn’t be a competition – maybe it is merely an outward sign to the loved one, after the fashion of a wedding ring. Although, obviously, more permanent than a wedding ring (and, arguably, more impressive as a result). The ‘it’s as if’ is entirely Liz’s own take on it – a perceiving of aggressive intent when the benefit of the doubt was a more obvious alternative.

Then she misreads the interplay between belonging and rebellion. Although social mores are a natural target for rebellion, founded as they tend to be by generations other than ones own and thus invested with values that you have not created but merely had passed down, it needn’t be that large scale³. Courting parents disapproval, or challenging the expectations attached to the role of Tory-leader’s-wife would do quite well. Symbols of belonging and allegiance can also be rebellious – combining examples, a teenager wearing the name of their first love is a way of rebelling against their parents through the display of new commitments. Rebelling implies the holding of alternative values, a owning of them and belonging to the group which shares them which you can display in ink.

This lack of understanding of symbols informs the seemingly tenuous conclusion that only concentration camp tattoos are worth being proud about, while a better understanding would have proved the opposite. The Nazi’s tattoos were brands – imposed and unwanted. They symbolise a shared suffering, but also a shared endurance and survival. The pride lies in the object of the representation, not the tattoo which is the representation. In exactly the same way, we can have pride in the commitment symbolised by the name of a loved one, or the achievement of the rebellion in upsetting Tory grandees. One could even take pride in marking oneself out as sharing different ideas from Liz Jones, if one disagreed with her. And if you can do that while adorning yourself in a way you find aesthetically pleasing, I say go for it.


¹ Stat watchers may have noticed 14 of the 40 sentence in the piece (not including picture captions) refer to named individuals, which is a little more than a third.

² And notice the sound of a metaphor breaking as it tries to carry too much weight – tattoos are a plague in as far as they are a bad thing and widespread, but not in as far as they are tawdry, tacky or tasteless. Those aren’t the defining features of a plague, hence them resolutely failing to apply to Mad Cow Disease.

³ Although the very fact that it does still upset Liz shows that tattoos still work as a way of breaking with the values of the previous generation.

Why should we have to pay for ‘stars’ who spit in our faces?

I wasn’t going to do another Sachs Scandal post, because the whole thing is tired and dull, but the Mail is still discussing it and this column from Peter Hitchens took me aback somewhat. I’m not going to dissect it, it stands very much on its own, so I’ll keep this brief.

This is a blog about fear, mainly of the broadly existential¹ kind where we feel that the world we know is slipping away from us and that our place in it is uncertain as a result. All fear is worrying, because it is unpleasant and disfiguring for the sufferer, and because fear causes anger.

Hitchens fear in this piece is either well founded, or it overstated. For the first to be the case, we would have to weigh BBC’s Radios 3-5, most of the output of Radio 2, the digital channels for politics, news and children, the political, investigative and other journalistic coverage, family and variety shows, documentaries, lifestyle programming and at least some drama output of the two terrestrial and other digital channels, weigh it against the instances of the “liquid manure of ‘popular culture'” and find the balance in the favour of the latter. For the second to be true, all that is necessary is for Hitchens to want to silence voices he doesn’t want to hear because they threaten him.

The BBC, as I understand it, has a chartered obligation to represent the diversity of the population it serves. Hitchen’s position opposes this principal, denying others the opportunity to hear things which he disapproves of. It is ironic that his position, based as it is on the idea that he is paying for that which doesn’t represent him, seeks to do exactly the same for those it does. At the moment, however, the likelihood is that there is somewhere else on the BBC he can tune to. In his future BBC, this will not be an option for anyone else.


¹ In the sense of considering our place in the world, rather than the narrower French philosophical sense

God help us. This will soon be a country more spied upon than Communist East Germany under the Stasi

Stephen Glover has an eye for the incisive:

“Even in the socialist Seventies, no one imagined the Government could control not one, not two, but three High Street banks.”

Well, quite. Presumably no one imagined the need arising for the government to purchase non-voting preference shares in two banks and nationalise a third either¹. Nor that the Tories would support it. But we’ll let that one go. What’s more to the point is a slight doubt I have that anyone in ’70s East Germany would see any equivalence between their own ghetto state and the Britain of CCTV and databases.

Let’s think about this comparison for a second:

“The Home Secretary envisages a society more spied upon than communist East Germany was under the Stasi, and potentially more watched over than George Orwell’s nightmarish society in his novel 1984.”

At the time of its fall in 1989, the Stasi employed 102,000 people with 500,000 paid informers and possibly rising to 2 million if you include occasional ones (a total of around 1 in 8 of the population at the time reporting on each other). They operated through bugging houses, conspicuously stalking people, intercepting post, tapping phones – an entire armoury of routine techniques outside the normal operation of what we understand as the law. These tools were used to root out crimes more ideological than criminal, crushing dissent of an unelected authoritarian government.

If the analogy hasn’t already broken down, the East German system was designed to monitor people, picking up incriminating evidence as it arose. Spying, if you like. Compare this with CCTV cameras: CCTV exists as a large collection of very localised systems – making it impossible for you to track someone in real time. If I want to follow your trip from the carpark to the cornershop, I’ve got to start wherever the NCP monitor their carpark, run off to wherever the council are tracking the street cameras and finish up in the back of the shop watching you make your purchase. Although I can put your journey together after the fact, if I wanted to get Stasi on you and keep up with what you were doing, I’d have to stalk you. So even if

“We have more CCTV cameras than any other country in the world.”

they cannot circumscribe our actions beyond any deterrent effect they have. We are being recorded, not spied on.

What really sets the DDR’s system apart from ours, however, is its purpose. The Stasi were enforcing the rule of an undemocratic government who denied basic freedoms of speech, assembly and travel. Now there may be very good reasons to oppose a database of email and mobile calls, not least the fact that it will end up being left on a train and I’ll spend the rest of my life having people try to sell me company and lightbulbs. But deliberate and dodgy scheme does Glover think this will further? He doesn’t name one, the best he can manage is

“Most of these had nothing to do with terrorism or crime. Some 800 agencies, including nearly 500 councils, have the right to snoop on our e-mails.”

Which is a set of disparate organisations trying to finger us for crimes defined by democratic parliaments within a system of free courts to adjudicate on their excesses. Stephen Glover would not have got figures like

“In the last nine months of 2006, 253,557 applications were made to track phone calls, private correspondence and other communications, the great majority of which were granted.”

from the Stasi².

Allowing that, there may be some weight to the point that

“I don’t want to live in a country where that is possible.”

It is possible that we might end up with a corrupt totalitarian government who have a scheme that this database will move on. But that requires a totalitarian government. The collection of the data is still not the problem. It is just data, a record of things you have done. The problem is the users and the use that it is put to.

Which brings us to the point of the column: Labour are to the Socialist Unity Party of Germany as 21st Century Britain is to the DDR. We are asked to believe that schoolboy Trots grew out of the communism that justified the authoritarianism, but retained the authoritarianism as a useful means to, what? Enforcing PPIs? Imposing minimum wages? Just what ideology is it that Labour are supposedly defending with all of this? If we are being spied upon, to what end? Other than a naive ‘maybe they’ll use these systems to do what they say they’ll use them for’, I’m stumped. And even if there were something they believed in, how would the records help them achieve it? If they wanted to do anything with the data they found, they’d have to do it withing a democratic system with a free press and independent judiciary with appeals to liberal European courts. Without invoking 1930s Germany, I’m not sure how they manage that, and if they could they could quite happily manage better than the databases on offer.

This sort of paranoia is absurd, it’s hyperbole to the point of slander and scaremongering. God (who famously sees everything and knows what you’re thinking, as step up even on the Stasi), need not be invoked. Unless you can think of a way your emails could be used against you, and a reason for trying to, you’re going to be all right.


¹ And, for the record, this wasn’t a socialist takeover – three banks within a competitive system are no good if you want to exact control over the banking system, depositors can still go elsewhere. Also no good are non-voting shares. Arguably, things like this wouldn’t happen in a socialist banking system.

² And Stephen can update his figures: 2007’s are out, and even ‘worse’ than 2006’s. Sections 2.9 and 2.10 are fun if you want to find out what national bodies are using your intercept data to do, 3.7 covers our local authorities’ activities and 3.24 the reasons why. Turns out it’s housing fraud and trading standards. Who’d have thought?