Thursday, 28 May 2015

Poverty Porn: We Who Are About to be Sanctioned Salute You!

For some time now, we have been used to what were once reasonably decent public service broadcasters - the BBC and Channel 4 - churning out a diet of Government propaganda. Whether Peston on the Nine O'Clock News blabbing on in his staccato way about economic orthodoxy or Channel 4's appalling Benefits Street, which elevated a few show offs to avatars fulfilling the neoliberal wet dream that unemployed people are all fat-guzzling couch potatoes, the mass media has long surrendered itself, like the printed press, to ever more extreme forms of capitalist apologetics.

Yet somehow the latest project from the BBC sticks in the craw even more than previous sagas of distasteful voyeurism. For now we have Britain's Hardest Grafter. This piece of poverty pornography sets poor people (only people earning less than £15,500 p.a. can enter) competing against each other. In return for doing physically unpleasant tasks - who knows, cleaning out the directors' septic tank perhaps or peeling his grapes on bended knee? - they will have the chance, via elimination for not working hard enough, of winning the equivalent of one year's living wage (outside London). In a truly generous step, the producers have promised that contestants will be compensated "not less than the national minimum wage" for the time they spend taking part.

The programme is being made by Twenty Twenty TV , a London production company which has produced classics such as The Hoarder Next Door, How Not To Get Old and Bad Santas. I did in truth see an episode of  the last on that list, which showed unemployed men being trained to be Father Christmas, with varying outcomes and a lot of exploitative insights on the way. While it had its humorous moments, it remained a voyeuristic treatment of human difficulties with no apparent attempt to ask why those experiencing them found themselves in such a situation.

Ultimately, what is the purpose of these programmes but to take a tiny, tiny sample of people and try to project their progress or lack of it in totally artificial conditions onto everyone else in their situation? Britain's Hardest Grafter will not, it seems, do anything to challenge the appalling undervaluing of very difficult types of work: if anything, it will reinforce it with a prize that wouldn't pay for a single advert were it being shown on a commercial channel. And by pitching it at poor people, including unemployed, it thrives on their despair - ten people a week competing for an ultimate prize that wouldn't even meet the annual living wage level for our capital city.

It's not just poverty porn. It's torture porn - inflicting yet more humiliation and suffering on people already struggling, offering no analysis of why so many are now mired in poverty other than implying they should be able to "graft" their way out of it, and, above all, setting people against each other. Divide and conquer, and what better way to do so than as "entertainment" on the gogglebox?

This may be the BBC's pathetic attempt to placate the Tory ogres, gathering at their gates to plunder their revenue and privatise the pitiful remains of public broadcasting, but it will be a short feast. Every threshold of exploitation crossed, every indignity heaped to the loudest acclaim will simply lead to demands for more, for fresh blood. Some have called this the Hunger Games, as today's parody becomes tomorrow's norm. And so true. This is the sort of media that brings forth programmes like Embarrassing Bodies and The Child Who Is Older Than Her Grandmother . These are the modern equivalents of the 19th and early 20th century circus "freak shows" that condemned thousands of vulnerable people to repeated lifelong abasement for the entertainment of the public, jabbering and judging about things of which they knew little or nothing, but encouraging and validating a cultural hierarchy where if your place was not much well at least you weren't one of  them.

And as we move from documentary (who would broadcast Cathy Come Home now?) to mocumentary (Saints and Scroungers) to sticking desperate people in an ever more wretched competition, what next? Poverty we know is associated with poor health. So if we are going to make a real show of making the masses work hard against each other, why not go for Last One Standing? Or maybe I'm Having A Heart Attack, Get Me Out of Here? Or how about Celebrity Benefits Assessment - perhaps David Starkey could sniff out the deserving poor over a nice glass of red?

This schadenfreude fest will only get worse under a Government keen to find public buy-in to its destruction of the welfare system and its stigmatising of the poor, fully backed up by a media eager to do its bidding. It marks the end of public broadcasting in any meaningful sense, twistedly helping to pave the way for the abolition of the licence fee system and the fragmentation of the BBC.

And in the future? We never thought we'd get here. So how long before we see the return of Gladiators? And no, I don't mean the ones with the gym equipment and cheesy grins.

If you have been disturbed by the contents of any of these programmes, you can help by signing the petition started by Green Party activist Sahaya James demanding the BBC scrap this programme before it begins. Please sign HERE.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Dark Arts; Or Be Careful What You Say Others Wish For.

The right to freedom of speech is a fundamental one but it does bring a responsibility with it to tell the truth. The right to smear an opponent is not one we should be defending.

Alistair Carmichael, Lib Dem MP for Orkney & Shetland, 12 November 2010 in the "Shetland Times" Full note HERE

He smugly made out he knew nothing about it, but his shifty body language as he told the interviewer that things like the Sturgeon memo "happen during election" made it no surprise when now former Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael, the last Lib Dem MP in Scotland, finally had to admit that not only did he know the contents of the memo before it was published; he authorised the leak.

"An error of judgement", he called it after a taxpayer funded enquiry rumoured to have cost  £1,400,000 concluded he dunnit. 

Some error. His craven party, reduced to a handful of MPs and doubtless terrified of losing another, has rushed to his defence, pointing out he had generously foregone his £17,000 pay off for no longer being Secretary of State. And his adviser, seemingly tossed to the wolves, is similarly not getting his redundancy (Carmichael continues to receive his MPs pay and some of the highest expenses of any parliamentarian in the UK). So on that basis, the Lib Dem leadership, such as remains of it, hope it will all go away, just like Alistair has gone off on his holidays, doubtless somewhere out of signal of mobile phones and without a broadband connection. I'm thinking Rockall.

Much has been written about this which I won't rehash here. The issue goes wider than whether or not he should remain MP for Orkney and Shetland, where some of his constituents were protesting for his resignation yesterday - and the SNP have launched a formal process to have his election struck down.

Rather it goes to the heart of what he claimed in the interview where he denied knowledge of the memo before a journalist contacted him about it, that such things, smears, are routine to election campaigns.

On the whole, they are not; and when they are, they shouldn't be. But the hubris of our political class, of which Mr Carmichael seems to have been an eager member, is such that in spite of the expenses scandal and the low esteem politicians are held in by voters, the ruse to dishonestly undermine Sturgeon by a Government Minister has passed virtually without comment south of the Scottish/English Border.

And this is the wider scandal. Because the memo was leaked just after the SNP leader had performed so powerfully in the Leaders' Debate, challenging both Miliband and Cameron on austerity and nearly winning the viewers' vote. One survey suggested that 9% of English voters would have voted SNP had they had the choice.

So what did the memo leak attempt to do? Claim that this anti-Tory politician had told the French Ambassador she hoped that the Tories would win the election as she felt that would advance the cause of Scottish independence. Yet the contents of the memo conclude with the author noting his concern that the comments attributed to Sturgeon seemed out of character, extremely unlikely and "possibly lost in translation". Both the First Minister and the Ambassador confirmed the words had not been said but, with the enquiry not reporting until after the election, the potential damage would be done.

There was of course no apparent damage to Sturgeon in Scotland - the SNP pretty much swept the board with only 3 of the 59 Scottish seats not in its hands by 8 May. Of course, by a narrow margin, Mr Carmichael kept his previously safe seat over the challenge of the SNP veteran Danus Skene. Had they known, the voters of the Shetland and Orkney islands might have taken an even dimmer view of their Lib Dem parliamentarian.

But further south, it was perhaps a different story, and one which may have swung the election. With the memo seeming to make Sturgeon out to be a liar who would happily heap scorn on Ed Miliband to any passing foreign diplomat (just reading it, doesn't the whole idea seem absurd?) , the rightwing media, from the leak publishing Daily Telegraph to the Daily Mail thundered about the chaos that would ensue if there was a hung parliament where Labour had to reach an accommodation with the SNP. Miliband's own comments probably did not help, although to be fair his hands were tied to some degree.

At least some analysis since the election suggests that this fear of potential chaos between mutually loathing SNP and Labour above all else was the impetus driving many would-be UKIP (and even some Lib Dem) voters to swing to the Tories and deliver them the outright majority they now have. With several marginals only just clawed into the Tory column, the votes of as few as 900 people seem to have made the difference between 5 years of untrammelled Tory domination and a potentially progressive balanced Parliament. Consequently, Carmichael's little ruse may have had tragic consequences for the whole of the UK.

Be careful what you say others wish for....
To suggest Nicola Sturgeon was seeking this outcome, a Tory Government, is plainly ludicrous. On the other hand, watching Mr Carmichael's giddy relief on election night to have "survived the tsunami" as he put it, perhaps his own aspirations were not so far from being realised. But was this really just something motivated by his own focus on getting at the SNP (doubtlessly unaffected by Sturgeon's drubbing of him during a televised Scottish referendum debate)?

Or, given the potentially devastating consequences of Carmichael's dishonest ruse, as many are now asking, did this man, now The Bruised rather than (hilariously) The Bruiser, really do all this all by himself?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

If You Let Them Take Me, Next They'll Come for You

Back to the future - when will it be 1984 again?
The Tory election victory was of course a desperate disappointment to many of us, even if there was a sneaking sense in the final days of "1992" , recalling when so called "shy Tories" who would not disclose their political views to opinion pollsters plumped for the Conservatives in the anonymity of the polling booth. It was slim, of course, with just a few hundred voters scattered over a dozen seats making the difference between a hung Parliament and a Cameron regime with untrammelled power on just 37% of the votes cast.

And how untrammelled the Conservatives are promising to be with that power. Never has Britain's lack of a written constitution been more apparent: unlike every other country in Europe, none of us have any inherent rights as citizens of our country. Instead, as subjects of the Monarch, we are held to whatever freedoms, or lack thereof, are graciously granted in the name of the Queen through powers exercised formally on her behalf by the Prime Minister who, constitutionally, is the King-In-Parliament.

First major action promised - to be executed at express speed in the first 100 days of the new Cabinet - is to be the abolition of the 1998 Human Rights Act. So, to be clear, we will no longer enjoy the following legal rights under domestic law:
1. The right to life
2. The right to respect for your privacy and family life
3. The right to liberty
4. The right to not be tortured
5. The right to a fair trial
6. The right to freedom of religion and belief
7. The right to freedom of expression
8. The right to not be enslaved
9. The right to property
10. The right to start a family
11. The right to freedom of association and to join a trade union
12. The right to not be prosecuted for something that is not a crime

Astonishingly, according to the rightwing press, triumphantly proclaiming an end to human rights, these are not British values. Indeed the Daily Mail described the rights listed above are "hated" and "a farce". They have forgotten the history - the Act, introduced by Labour enshrines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in British law. That declaration, denounced repeatedly by the likes of the Daily Mail as "European", was actually largely written by British lawyers on the instruction of Winston Churchill at the end of the Second World War.

It was adopted by the member states of the Council of Europe, a much larger body than the EU, via the European Convention on Human Rights and was intended to extend to all people the protections that had been denied them in the years of Nazism and fascism. It represented the very values that so many British servicemen and women fought to defend (whilst of course the Daily Mail pre-1939 was infamously supportive of the German Fuhrer). Never again should it be possible for a  Government to legally detain and suppress its citizens in the run up to the brutal excesses of internment camps and gas chambers.

Churchill's legacy - architect of human rights declaration
If anything represents British values, or what we like to think of as British values, surely it is the European Declaration of Human Rights? It is framed to ensure that all of us are safe from arbitrary treatment by powerful governments. It is overseen by the European Court of Human Rights, which can instruct signatory governments to amend their domestic laws if they are held to be out of line with the letter and intention of the Declaration.

The Tories of course draw on two sources to attack this - the first is the widely held but completely false assumption that it is imposed on us by the European Union: if fact, we signed up to it over a quarter of a century before Britain entered the EEC as it then was. If the HRA is abolished, we will still be covered, if less clearly, by the Declaration/Convention, but many Tories are signalling a desire to get out of this too - so the current highspeed legislative plans are likely the first of two or three intended stages of dismantling human rights protection altogether. Both the current and previous Tory Justice Secretaries have made clear their wish to opt out of the European Court of Human Rights if the Council for Europe does not agree to their new legislation, which includes an intention to prevent the ECHR from instructing changes to British law. Any redress Britons might seek for breaches to our human rights would become harder and harder to obtain - a process likely to be deepened exponentially if we leave the EU, which would open the way to opt out of the European Convention completely.

Secondly, they highlight a handful of cases where terrorist suspects have made sometimes spurious claims for protection citing either the European Convention or more recently the HRA to avoid extradition. The most infamous case was Abu Qatada's long legal wrangle before he was deported to Jordan. The sticking point? The Jordanians had refused to guarantee he would not be tried using evidence obtained under torture.

However, the fact was that, in the end, he was deported to Jordan (where he was subsequently acquitted of the charges brought against him, although he faces prosecution on other unrelated matters). And for every Abu Qatada or Abu Hamza dragging things out, there are hundreds of thousands, millions even, of the rest of us - innocently seeking to exercise our rights in what is supposedly a free society.

And yet is it? Or will it be?

Introducing the Government's plans to conflate abolition of  human rights with the "war on terror", David Cameron said this week that as the act is abolished, to be replaced with something much less comprehensive and non-universal, he is now concerned not just by terrorists but by "non-violent extremists" as well. These, it seems, are people whose views undermine our society - how this is defined is of course anyone's guess. Is it fascists? Islamists? Conspiracy theorists? People who believe the Queen is a lizard? People who advocate a different economic system, such as ecosocialists or communists? How about Scottish Nationalists, whom Cameron's lackeys have portrayed as the greatest threat to the UK since, apparently, the Abdication Crisis of 1936 (you'd have thought they might have come up with something better than that, to be honest)?

In what must be one of the most chilling statements ever made by a British Prime Minister, Mr Cameron declared that obeying the law is no longer going to be enough:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone."

Along with Home Secretary Theresa May, he has stated an objective to interfere in the lives of people holding extreme views whether they are violent or not, or, by implication, even if they are not breaking the law. As well as "disruption orders" to silence individuals and groups deemed extreme, the so-called Snoopers Charter will be reintroduced, allowing the authorities to monitor all of our electronic communications whether or not there is a reasonable suspicion of illegal activity. And of course woe unto anyone who goes "off grid" and stops using mobile phones or email as these are likely to invite an immediate assumption of wanting to hide some undesirable activity. Taking a break from Facebook? Hmm, presumably to attend some sort of dodgy training camp. Or maybe off reading some really dangerous philosophy or economics tracts!

In a distinctly Orwellian twist, May claimed that all this would help to protect British values of tolerance and free speech. Black is white and four is five in Tory Britain.

Were the new anti-extremist plans being brought in with the Human Rights Act still in place, there might have been some comfort that they could at least be subject to legal challenge. That the Act will be gone makes the developments particularly threatening to free speech and liberty, especially set against Cameron's comments.

Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany legally. He used methods such as anodyne "protective custody orders" to suppress people he deemed to be extremists - ie, opposed to his interpretation of German society and values. Cameron is not Hitler, but alongside some of the post-9/11 powers brought in, ironically, by Labour, his actions create a framework for abuses of power by British Governments to go unchallenged and unchecked. It may start with ISIS and al-Qaeda supporters as its proclaimed objectives, but as with all too many all-encompassing laws covering legally vague concepts such as "extremism", it will be able to be interpreted and re-interpreted by state officials, inevitably extending its scope and impact and the degree of interference in perfectly law-abiding, peaceful citizens lives.

Imagine one truly nightmare scenario - a politicised police force run by a private corporation, implementing a watch on people it deems extreme for campaigning to end privatization of the police.

Far-fetched? Perhaps not - heed the words of a Federation speaker at yesterday's protest march by 30,000 police that "privatisation by stealth" is already underway. And then reflect on how laws introduced to counter terrorism have been used to stop protestors reading out the names of dead soldiers at the Cenotaph, or even to detain them for booing at the (Labour) Home Secretary.

In the USA, under some laws, perceived threats to the nation's economic wellbeing are now treated on a par with terroristic violence. If Britain treads the same path, what future for those arguing for a different type of economics, or to counter the overweening power of giant business corporations? Will we be designated hostile to our way of life? Will it be dangerous for you to read this blog, and for me to write it? How will we know if we can be peacefully following all known laws but still deemed beyond the pale as far as someone like Theresa May is concerned?

And whoever polices the new approach, it will almost certainly be very counter-productive. In recent weeks, in my own town, two 17 year old school boys ran away from home to join ISIS in Syria. Their families expressed their dismay, while the local rightwing paper took the entire Asian community to task for not somehow knowing the adolescents' intentions and stopping them. Quite aside from the complete impossibility many parents face in anticipating the actions of teenagers, when I discussed the episode with some local community members, they told me that many in their community are too scared to discuss ISIS at all, fearing it will lead to them being seen as potential troublemakers. Consequently, there is no clear dialogue that allows them to identify vulnerable individuals at risk of being seduced away by the terror group's slick internet videos and social media grooming techniques. The new climate being created by the Government seems unlikely to improve this situation.

Britain's history is one of tolerance of different views: Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, German anti-semites, Italian anarchsts and many others of many hues were all granted asylum in Victorian/Edwardian Britain in spite of their being wanted by our then-Allies in Czarist Russia and elsewhere. Karl Marx's opus magnus, Das Kapital, was written in the heart of the British Library during his exile from Germany. Tory Governments were as open as Liberal ones to the exiles' presence, at least until the Aliens Act of 1905 , although even this still permitted entry to those facing prosecution for their political views regardless of what these were. And throughout the 20th century, however imperfectly, there has been no official attempt to suppress peaceful expression of even the most odious views unless they have sought to promote active hatred or violence. Cameron's rolling back of human rights at the same time as extending his intention to "interfere" in the lives of peaceful, law-abiding people smacks of the thin end of a very long, very dark wedge.

"Martin Niemöller (1952)" by J.D. Noske / Anefo - Nationaal Archief.
You may of course think it has nothing to do with you. After all, if you've done nothing wrong, why would they do anything to you? Except that is precisely the threat Cameron is making. Doing nothing wrong will no longer be enough.

Not all Tory MPs are likely to support the full range of Cameron's coup d'etat against liberty and freedom. Hopefully the likes of David Davis will lead a challenge in the Commons, while the Scottish Government has said it will withhold the consent legally required from it for the Westminster Parliament to abolish the Human Rights Act.

If they fail, our liberties will face their biggest legal reverse since the Barons forced the Magna Carta from the hand of King John in 1214.

Shy Tories? Shame on you. Time you read some Pastor Niemoller: "First they came for the Socialists..."