Thursday, 25 August 2011

Lifting the veil

Three stories have caught my eye the last few days, prompting some musing around the theme of privacy, secrecy and freedom of information.

The Guvmint - or perhaps more accurately the Civil Service - are probably already regretting setting up this e-petition thing. The BBC made a Freedom of Information request to the Government asking for Cabinet papers relating to the Hillsborough disaster 20 years ago. Was our Guvmint happy and eager to release these papers? You guessed it. The FoI Commissioner had to step in and rule in the BBC's favour, and the Guvmint were minded to appeal - until the e-petition on the subject soared above the 100,000 signature mark, thus potentially earning the matter a Parliamentary debate, not to mention getting it well onto the media/blogger/Twitter radar.

It seems the resistance to releasing the papers was from the Cabinet Office rather than our elected tools members. Sir Humphrey clearly doesn't like the punters knowing any more than is good for them, which is virtually nothing.

The second story in this little collection was the report of the website on which people post pictures of men they fancy that they've spotted on the London Tube and have surreptitiously photographed. Turns out that there's nothing illegal about this, since the Tube is deemed a public place, and only a tiny number of men have asked to have their pix removed.

The question arises: are we now fairly relaxed about the idea that our picture might be taken and posted without our knowledge or permission on the intertubes, for the whole world to see? Evidently quite a few British men are, and the idea has crossed the big pond and is taking off in the US of A too.

Linked to the BBC story hotlinked above was an older story in which an academic made this interesting comment: "If you look at privacy in law, one important concept is a reasonable expectation of privacy. As more private lives are exported online, reasonable expectations are diminishing."

If he's right, as many of us put more and more information about ourselves online - or permit it to be put there by others - the old norms of an expected degree of privacy and the legal rights to it will diminish.

Thirdly, Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, entered the Big Brother house, prompting a fair old storm of comment. Critics accuse her of being a media junky, demeaning the office that her husband holds and generally making an undignifed prat of herself. Supporters point out that she's giving a large proportion of her fee to charity, and repeat her own comment that she may be the Speaker's wife but she isn't the Speaker and is thus free to do whatever she wants. You will doubtless make up your own mind on this point.

Point of order...

Big Brother is by design and definition an almost total loss of privacy and secrecy, willingly accepted by the participants. While this was once shocking, and made the show a runaway hit, it's lost much of its impact as that loss of privacy doesn't carry the same weight any more.

So what do we Observers weave from these threads?

It seems to me that loss of privacy for the individual is inevitable given the increasing link between life and the internet. What will be interesting is to what extent society will demand a concomitant loss of State secrecy. My generation grew up behind lace curtains and D-notices, in the shadow of the Cold War with memories of the Second World War very much alive. Although automatic deference to authority was waning rapidly, there was still a fairly wide acceptance of the need for authority to have secrets. Times have changed. Young people today seem to be comfortable with less personal security, far more ready to put information about themselves out there online. But with that comes far less ingrained, unthinking respect for 'national security' and a 'need to know' attitude from authority. Given that our political parties are now so closely aligned in much of their thinking, I suspect that a party's willingness to really live and work under 'open government', rather than lip-service to that concept, could make a real difference to their electoral chances. Their biggest challenge may be taking the Civil Service along with them. "Knowledge is power" goes the old adage, so perhaps it's time for mature democracies to share a bit more of it.

I still like to draw the curtains, and I run this blog anonymously, but it could well be that we're moving in a healthy direction. Much of the above could of course apply equally to most of the West, and the Arab Spring suggests that the same could be true over much more of the world. If we hide less from each other, and our governments hide less from us, it might be that we all find we have more in common than we think; and where there are differences, they're better understood. I like to believe so, anyway.

And on that optimistic if alcohol-fuelled note, I bid you goodnight.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Everybody off the outrage bus, please

I wish to register a complaint.

Given the riots, the phone-tapping and the economic crisis, you'd think that our tabloids would have better things to report on than the case of Moira Pearce and her request for charitable donations to help her look after her ten children.

The Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail have all, with tedious predictability, made much of the fact that Ms Pearce (34) lives entirely on benefits. Her State-provided income amounts - if the reports can be trusted - to somewhat over £30,000 a year, and her housing is provided free too. They poke fun at the fact that her ten children have been procreated by four different fathers, none of whom appears to be helping financially (or indeed in any other way). They make mockery, too, of the children's names: Kayleigh, Jamie, Chloe, Tyler, Shania, Blade, Shonna, Candice, Chardonnaie and Maxy-Jane (sic). The heartless reporters also point out that Ms Pearce's latest boyfriend is 18.

This all makes me tired. We should be celebrating this fine example of British fecundity, tirelessly turning out new citizens for Gillingham. Only four of them were planned, she said, which makes her achievement even more admirable, and let's give her credit for her modesty. So what if she's called one of her girls 'Chloe'? The lass can always change her name to something more suitable when she's of an age, for heaven's sake.

As for her living entirely on benefits, I can set the record straight by pointing out that she does live entirely on benefits, but that includes her job-seeker's allowance. So she's evidently seeking a job, and if only employers were a little more imaginative they could see how having to look after 10 children and do a day's work wouldn't be that much of a problem.

And what of it, if she has a boyfriend about half her age and only a year older than her eldest child? Many women would like one like that, even if he doesn't have a job. Anyway, I think we can trust Ms Pearce's judgement of men, since she's evidently known a few. The real tragedy is that on medical advice Ms Pearce has had to be sterilised. I think the other women of Gillingham - and indeed the rest of this country - need to step up to the mark now. Ms Pearce has surely done her bit.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Switch off politicians during riots, say social networkers

Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger users were united today in calling for politicians to be switched off during periods of civil unrest.

"These politicians just hamper efforts to restore order on the streets, innit" said Twitter user MizzeeFab17, adding "lol #braindead".

A Facebook poll which promptly went viral asked users to vote on what had been most effective in bringing the London riots to an end, with the following results:

1. David Cameron saying "Let us be absolutely clear on this" = 0.001%
2. 16,000 pissed-off police officers with batons = 99.999%

Media executives backed the call, saying that politicians were of little use during the riots. "Obviously when we're looking for sex and sleaze stories, we need Members of Parliament, as there are only so many professional footballers around. But let's face it, when it comes to a choice between burning buildings and Hazel Blears, it's a no-brainer."

Meanwhile senior police officers complained that politicians consumed valuable oxygen that was badly needed by exhausted officers running after thieving scrotes.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Big Society

Intending to lighten the doom and gloom, I chose this quintessentially cheerful, hopeful, nay damn it, British picture to introduce the post. In the midst of our broken shop windows and burning buildings, there are some good things...

Ooops. Sorry. Wrong pic.

That's better. As I was saying, there are some good things coming out of the whole riot mess.

Last night here in Nottingham, police stations had petrol bombs thrown at them. Cars were set alight, windows broken, Clarendon College badly damaged. Against that, let's consider the Forest-County match I mentioned yesterday. Before the kick-off, a statement was read to the crowd asking them to go home safely and keep away from any trouble. The crowd stood and applauded. The official police report reads:

"One of the positive highlights of the evening was the impeccably behaved crowd of 23,000 spectators at the Carling Cup football match between Nottingham Forest and Notts County. Not a single incident occurred before, during or after the game off the pitch."

Nottinghamshire police managed the night's incidents extremely well. This, despite the low morale caused by the Government's plans to cut their numbers and reduce their pay and pensions.

Twitter & Facebook campaigns urged people to go out on the streets to clear up this morning. They had little to do: the City Council's teams were out there at 4am, clearing up before dawn. Respect to both groups, and indeed to the similar community clear-up campaigns in all the affected areas. They are being tagged the 'Riot Wombles', which I think we'd all agree is splendid.

All over the blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter, unfiltered by the media, there is huge support for the police and sympathy for those whose homes, businesses and neighbourhoods have been damaged.

And today, something from Nottingham City Council leader Jon Collins (with whom I've had distinct differences of opinion via email) that all here at the Observatory wholeheartedly applaud:

"Nottingham City Council Leader, Jon Collins, and Nottingham City Homes Chief Executive, Chris Langstaff, today announce that they will seek to evict anyone who is directly involved, or whose sons or daughters have been involved in disturbances.

"Cllr Collins added: 'Parents have a responsibility to control the young people living in their home. If young people living in your home have been involved in the violence over the past few days, they are putting your tenancy at risk.

'The perpetrators of these crimes are not only causing a great deal of disturbance and criminal damage, they are also inciting fear into our local communities, and that is totally unacceptable.

'If you or your children are involved, you are putting your family home at risk - don't let that happen.'

Yes. This. Get responsibility back where it belongs.

So, good stuff coming out as the flames die down. And, let us notice, from the grassroots. The Government have done sod-all, frankly, hastily unpacking from holiday and making a few empty speeches. I note that Parliament has been recalled, and that the taxpayer will have to pick up the bill for that. You know what, Members of Parliament? Between the police and ordinary people and local government, we're coping and getting on top of it. Sod off back to Tuscany.

Low expectations

Deirdre Clunge, lecturer in social studies at the University of Watford Gap Services, today said that there was a tragic lack of aspiration among some looters.

"There has clearly been an institutional failure on the part of Government to grasp the fact that there is today a culturally deprived generation of looters whose aspirations rise no further than packets of crisps from Poundland. Their lack of guidance in their formative years means that they don't even have the sense to wear hoodies so that they can't be identified from CCTV. Meanwhile, an unfairly privileged sector of more appropriately dressed and ambitious looters are able to benefit from JD Sports and Richer Sounds. A lavishly funded study is clearly necessary for me and my colleagues to identify the root causes of this terrible disconnect in our society and blame everyone except thieving scrotes out for a quick snack."

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Who'd be a Notts police officer tonight?

Informed rumour reaches the Observatory that the city authorities are ready for tonight. The Forest-County derby would make it a big night for the police in any event, so let's hope that anything that kicks off other than from the centre-spot at the City Ground is jumped on from a great height.

Meanwhile, by way of update to the previous post, Mr Cameron might just as well have stayed on holiday, as far as I can see. His announcement was full of the usual waffle, and Theresa May's been covering waffle pretty thoroughly already. I don't think I'll change the picture immediately above the mention of COBRA below to something more inspiring.

Riot control

The Government emergency planning committee - COBRA - meets this morning, with David Cameron and Theresa May hurriedly back from their holidays. We will have to wait and see what they do before judging whether or not the Government is in control of the country.

You would have thought, having watched the news coverage of wholesale arson, burglary and criminal damage in London and elsewhere, that something more robust than supportive speeches was needed. I mean, when buildings are going up in flames and windows going in and police getting out of their vans to find bullet holes in them, then yet another sentence beginning "Let there be no doubt..." or "Let us be absolutely clear about this..." is only so much use. That is, bugger all use.

The only kind of language that will help now would be a phone call from COBRA to Tim Godwin (acting Commissioner of the Met) along the lines of: "The water cannon, baton rounds and tear gas are on their way. Use them. We take full responsibility and will announce that. If you haven't got the balls to make that order, stand down and put your next in command on the line. Tell the officers on the ground that if they go hands on with their batons, they will have our full support and immunity from prosecution. We will announce that too. We are also telling the CPS to use the highest charges they can to prosecute anyone you arrest. We will announce that too. Now go and take back the streets."

Sunday, 7 August 2011

If only...

... just for once, the post-riot interviews sounded like this:

Community Leader: "I'm shocked and disgusted. I haven't got time to talk to the media as I'm leading the community in telling the lads to put down the petrol-bombs, organising a collection to pay for the broken glass and burned-out homes and businesses, making sure the thieving scrotes round here return every one of the items they stole from local stores, and going round to the law-abiding residents to apologise for the fear and disruption they've been put through. I blame the parents."

If you're going to loot a shop, you really ought to get the iMac...

Police Commander: "We are the police. We are not social services, teachers, parents or therapists. If you want peace and order on the streets, we can achieve that in 30 minutes with water cannon, tear-gas and baton rounds. Politicians don't like that on British streets, and the media moan like buggery if we go in hands-on with our little batons and someone gets hurt. So all we can do is stand here in flammable hi-viz vests, watch the buildings and cars burn and hope that not too many of our men and women burn with them. I blame the parents."

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Oh yeah?

From the Guardian yesterday: "Greek austerity plan will work, says OECD ... A leading economic thinktank has backed the embattled Greek government by predicting that the country's hugely unpopular austerity measures will work."

From Private Eye yesterday: "The financial affairs of Greece seem to be in a state of hopeless bankruptcy ... The expenses of the court and government, the carelessness of officials, and the non-receipt of the taxes, have added to the embarassment of the exchequer... "

Their quote is taken from Chambers Encyclopedia, Vol 5, 1868.

George Santayana, who famously wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", would have enjoyed that.