And This Is Justice?

One of the worst knock-on consequences of the Northern Ireland troubles was the erosion of some key civil liberties by successive UK governments, both in the province and later on the mainland.

The right for the accused to remain silent, for example, when questioned by police and during a trial without adverse inference being drawn – a right embedded in English common law since the 17th century – was shredded. First in Northern Ireland with the Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1988 and then on the mainland with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Then we had the broadcasting restrictions introduced in 1988 by the normally sound Tory Home Secretary Douglas Hurd that banned from the airwaves 11 Irish Republican and Loyalist organizations. The absurdity of that ban was highlighted day after day when radio and television companies circumvented the ban by having actors read transcripts of comments made by members of any of the 11 organizations.

Far from undermining Sinn Fein, for example, the ban was a PR disaster for the British government, especially when it came to overseas opinion. It had the reverse effect of its intention — instead of being a useful weapon against the IRA, it was turned by the likes of Danny Morrison and Gerry Adams into a propaganda tool for Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, and allowed the government to be painted as illiberal.

The same mistakes are being made now in the UK and in the U.S. and there seems no easing up the further we get away from 9/11 or the terrorist attacks in London on July 7, 2005.

The Sunday Telegraph reports today that a handful of British police officers have lost their jobs in recent years when their security clearances were revoked by senior officers after checks were carried out because of fears of jihad “sleepers” in the ranks. The paper discloses the identity of one of the officers, who was suspected of being at a terror training camp in Pakistan in 2001.

According to the paper, Abdul Rahman had been a constable for about three years when MI5 warned that he might have visited a training camp in Pakistan. He resigned from the police force after losing an appeal against the revocation of his security clearance.

Obviously, it is disturbing to learn that al-Qaeda or any jihad group may be trying to place sleepers in the ranks of the British police, and vigilance is clearly needed to prevent this happening.

But far more concerning and corrosive is how this is being handled by the authorities, which, judging by the approach towards Rahman, have entailed severe breaches of natural justice and due process.

Rahman, a father of four, is suing for employment and racial discrimination and is seeking compensation from Scotland Yard. He admits he visited Pakistan – he was born in Bangladesh and raised in the UK – but claims he is entirely innocent and never attended a terror training camp, which would be a criminal offence under UK law.

He has never been charged with any criminal offences – nor even questioned or arrested under anti-terrorism legislation. After a five-year legal battle, according to the Telegraph, an Employment

Appeal Tribunal ruled that his case can’t be heard in public and should be held in secret and that Rahman and his lawyers can be banned from parts of the hearing.

Scotland Yard says that secrecy is needed to shroud the identity of sources and highly sensitive information. There is the hint that CIA sourcing may be involved – and as we know that agency never gets anything wrong!

A security-cleared “special advocate” will be appointed on Rahman’s behalf to listen to the closed-door evidence. What good that will do in terms of serving the former policeman’s interests is anyone’s guess. The special advocate will not be allowed to discuss what he or she hears with Rahman or his lawyers.

So, we have here national security once again overriding natural justice — another case of the authorities deciding when it comes to striking a balance between civil liberties and security to favor the latter.

Three weeks after 9/11, I wrote about the dangers of throwing out civil liberties in a column for the Washington Times.

The relevant passages are below:

“Some old rules about fighting terrorism, learned at bloody cost in Northern Ireland and during the Soviet-supported ‘wars of national liberation,’ need to be recalled and restated.

Veteran British antiterrorist experts say the first rule is to remember that terrorists feed on overreaction. Democratic societies that alter themselves by introducing draconian security measures that restrict civil liberties undermine the morale of their own people. Unleashing overly harsh retaliation garners sympathy for the terrorists, is counterproductive and risks making new enemies and inspiring more gunmen and bombers.

How do you defeat an elusive and fanatical enemy who fights in unconventional ways and doesn’t observe the Geneva Convention or worry about greater geostrategic constraints? And how do you do all of that without becoming like the foe you fight and closing your open society?

Some British politicians have reckoned they ignored those rules for too long in Northern Ireland. British prime ministers would march their troops to the top of the hill, only to have to march them down again. Pledges were made. Forecasts offered of victory. Threats thundered. And overreaction increased as successive governments implemented law-and-order measures that may have made life a little more difficult for the Irish Republican Army and occasionally foiled a plot, but which corroded the democracy and orderly society that the British saw themselves as defending.

Out went the right to jury trials in Northern Ireland; out also went the right of a defendant to remain silent, both fundamental principles in Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.”

 

To Publish Or Not

Should newspapers publish photographs released by the White House of the dead Osama bin Laden, even if they are gruesome? The Washington Post has a thoughtful news report on the debate some newsrooms are having over whether to publish any photographs that are released.

White House aides are debating also what to do. According to the Post, President Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, says officials are worried about releasing such photos because: first, their disturbing nature per se, and, second, because of the danger they may inflame anti-American protest around the world and prompt a more violent Muslim backlash.

At the same time officials want to rebut skepticism among bin Laden’s supporters that his death is part of some American conspiracy.

But would publishing the pictures dissuade those who don’t want to believe: they could also maintain that the pictures are inaccurate and made up.

Surely, there is plenty of evidence around to prove the U.S. claim: for example, the testimony to Pakistani officials of bin Laden’s 12-year-old daughter, who witnessed her father’s death.

The traditional news media is confronting a similar question of sensitivity. As the Post points out, U.S. newspapers consider themselves family publications – the kids can see.

If the White House releases pictures, they are going to be all over the web and carried by traditional media in other countries: Latin America, for example, where the media have fewer qualms. If U.S. newspapers don’t publish, do they highlight the fact that their relevance is increasingly less in the digital age? If the do publish for that reason, do they debase themselves?

Surely news is news, though, and the pictures are the very definition of news. Publishing would not be in these circumstances gratuitous: there is real journalistic value.

Back in the mid-1980s when I was on the Sunday Telegraph an intense debate was prompted when an excellent reporter, Walter Ellis, managed to secure photographs of the bodies of two British soldiers who had been killed in Northern Ireland after blundering accidentally into a massive Irish Republican funeral.

The soldiers had been stripped to their underpants, slapped around and then shot. One of the bodies was left in the shape of a human cross.

After much soul-searching it was decided that however gruesome the pictures were, there was journalistic value to publishing. The photographs helped illustrate the hatred and violence of the Northern Ireland troubles and also showed how no one in the funeral crowd lifted a hand to help the soldiers or protested their ill-treatment.

Tax Them Until They Squeal…Or Move Abroad

If you took the U.K. Business Secretary Vince Cable at face value in his interview carried in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, you would think that he is unaware that Britain already has a graduated or “progressive” tax system where the wealthier pay a larger percentage of their earnings to the government than those less well off.

Take this remark from Cable yesterday in an interview full of his mantra about “fair taxes”: “What we are trying to inject into the argument is that if you become a very highly paid investment banker you finish up paying more than if you’ve gone off and become a voluntary worker or become a physicist in the National Physical Laboratory, or whatever. I want to make it progressive in that sense.”

The “it” in question is Cable’s graduate tax proposal that now seems worryingly to have secured some support from the Coalition’s David Willetts, the Universities Minister, who is now saying that more university finance should be met by graduates “after they are in well-paid jobs”.

Recommendations for how to cope with Britain’s universities funding crisis will soon be forthcoming from a review headed by Lord Browne. Despite disapproval from many Conservative MPs, the independent review into university finance was asked by the government to include Cable’ graduate tax idea in the mix of solutions to be considered. The review reports in the autumn.

What is strange when reading or listening to Cable explaining his graduate tax is that he seems less interested in finding a solution to Britain’s university funding crisis and more interested in using the opportunity it presents to increase taxes. The graduate tax is motivated by his wealth redistribution obsession – taxes, as far as he is concerned, are just not high enough.

In the interview, he avoids saying that directly but then how are we meant to interpret his position differently? When asked what he would consider success after five years as Business Secretary he responds: “a tax system that means people at the bottom end of the scale pay less and at the top end of the scale pay more.” Again, Britain already has such a system and will continue to have one with or without the graduate tax. The only conclusion is that Cable wants even higher taxes on the middle-class and the wealthy. So how high should they go?

The top rate of U.K. income tax stands at 50 percent. Impose a graduate tax of, say, 5 percent and will that be enough to satisfy the Coalition’s Business Secretary? Will that be enough redistribution? And how many Britons will emigrate as taxes rise?

What adds to the shock of the Sunday Telegraph interview is how uninterested Cable is with his ministerial portfolio as Business Secretary. Success in the post for him is to increase taxes – not to improve Britain’s corporate competitiveness, not research and development, not commercial or product innovation, not productivity and not even – at least in this interview – corporate governance. There is no discussion of industrial policy and what the right balance is between government intervention and the free market or whether government should avoid trying to pick winners and losers or instead focus on creating the right environment and circumstances for enterprise and the free market to flourish.

No, as far as this Business Secretary is concerned success will be determined by having imposed even higher taxes. One can only assume that Prime Minister David Cameron is prepared to let Cable talk as though he’s the Chancellor the Exchequer and Universities Minister and Business Secretary all rolled into one because to do otherwise will prompt a breach and a row in the Coalition government.

On some many levels, the graduate tax is a bad idea – as are higher taxes in general. On the fairness scale the tax doesn’t pass the smell test, as a study released today by the University and College Union shows. Yes, a graduate who went on to be a highly-paid investment banker would pay a ton of cash over his working lifetime for his degree but so would those lower down the income scale. A nurse, for example, could end up paying three or four times the actual cost of tuition fees and a doctor seven times. How is that equitable? The burden on the nurse, for example, is going to be heavy and much harder to cope with than the burden faced by the investment banker.

The graduate tax would have the inevitable consequence of encouraging a brain drain on the scale of what hit Britain in the 1970s and young Britons would have greater options and ease now of moving overseas and securing jobs because of their work rights in the European Union and because Asia and the developing World is competitively keen to secure talent and skills.

And those British graduates who did so and remained abroad would in effect get their higher education for free – they would never pay the graduate tax.

Second, the universities sector is now global and big business. As the Economist pointed out this week, the number of students enrolled outside their home country has trebled since 1980. America is the World leader in this global higher education market with Britain in second place. But that could change and the U.K. could lose its place easily because of increased and aggressive competition. There are now many continental universities that teach wholly or partly in English, American universities – and British ones – are opening more campuses overseas, in Europe, the Gulf and Asia.

The government not only has to ensure that British universities remain excellent and well funded in order to attract foreign students (who represent a revenue stream) but it will need in future to do everything it can encourage Britons to stay and study in the U.K. because increasingly they will have easier opportunities and maybe cheaper ones, if the proposed graduate tax is taken into account, to study for their first degrees, let alone their graduate ones, abroad.

That will certainly be the case for British students from wealthy or affluent families but the market is changing so fast that there will be a global education loans market developing quickly and available for students to tap into and free themselves from the constraints and restrictions imposed by individual countries and governments.

This is something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to Cable and others in the Coalition government. The brain drain could start involving Britons who have not even graduated yet. Britain is only an island when it comes to geography.

In the brave New One World we live in, education and the retaining of the best and brightest is going to determine the winners and losers when it comes to national economies. Instead of obsessing about wealth redistribution, the Coalition’s Business Secretary should be thinking along these lines and worrying about how to keep Britain competitive.

Bloggers as Journalists

Are bloggers journalists? Is blogging and journalism synonymous? A majority of bloggers may think so. A survey released this week by PR Week and PR Newswire found that 52 percent of bloggers questioned consider themselves just that – journalists. That’s a jump apparently from a 2009 survey when only a third of believed that what they did was journalism.

Another interesting fact in the survey – I am grateful to www.TechCrunch.com for highlighting it – suggests that bloggers are far more open to using other blogs and social media sites for research purposes: 91% of bloggers and 68% of online reporters “always” or “sometimes” use blogs for research. Not so with print journalists: only 35% of newspaper and 38% of magazine journalists surveyed use blogs or social networks when researching. It should, I believe, be second nature by now for print reporters to be keeping close tabs on blogs and online sites – and for them to use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook for research and self and institutional -marketing.

PRNewswire argues that the study shows media convergence is happening quicker now. I draw different conclusions. The survey results suggest to me that most bloggers don’t understand the distinction between most blogging and most journalism, and that practitioners in the traditional print media still are not exploiting media convergence and the online World enough either to break stories or market them or to gather information. It is as though we are still dealing with two different, partially uncomprehending cultures. Whether that is partly a result of age differences between bloggers and print journalists, I have no idea. But there are plenty of examples of old journalists who have embraced the online World to great advantage, both for themselves and for their reporting.

Whatever the reason for the traditional print media’s failure to embrace media convergence it potentially has alarming consequences in terms of audiences and revenue streams. Whether the traditional media like it or not they have to make their peace with the Internet, mobile phone and wireless technology and media convergence and to find ways to transition more intelligently whereby they have a Web-first attitude. If they don’t they will become as irrelevant as land phone lines or as cable delivery is fast becoming.

Writing for the Web doesn’t diminish the writing or the journalism per se. I began my journalism on newspapers back in media pre-history. For my first job in the 1980s at the weekly Tribune newspaper off the Gray’s Inn Road in London I had to write on a typewriter (you remember those things) and the typewriters were nicknamed after the great and good who had gone before and, according to legend, had used those actual machines – George Orwell, Michael Foot and Nye Bevan. The only computer in the office – a monstrous early desk-top – sat on the desk of the then editor, Nigel Williamson, who with great pride would show it off but who, from what I could see, hardly touched the thing and understood it little. It was a relic before its time!

My second job was towards the final years of “Fleet Street” and one of my Saturday evening duties at the Sunday Telegraph every fourth or fifth week would be to assist the night news editor to change copy “on the stone”, i.e. direct the printworkers to change the hot metal pieces during breaks in the edition runs so stories could be updated or corrected.

All has changed. Of course, a lot of the romanticism has been lost – there is nothing quite like grabbing a paper off the print-works with your byline on the front-page and there was something glorious about the crescendo clatter of typewriters as the first-edition deadline loomed. With the romanticism, a sub-culture has disappeared that involved a lot of drinking but had as a spin-off off-the-job training as old hacks shared with younger ones the “tricks of the trade” – and those tricks went beyond just learning how to get your expenses accepted.

But a lot of good has come from the brave new World of media: more information and from a variety of sources with different class, gender, cultural and racial points of view; greater dissemination of information; computer-assisted investigative journalism, etc. There is more immediacy – both a good and bad thing. Journalism is more three-dimensional in all kinds of ways and deeply exciting for it.

One of the resistances to blogging by some of the more traditional-minded journalists has to do, though, less with Luddite sentiments and more to do with the poor quality of the writing and thinking and reporting on offer in the blogs. When it comes to politics and news and current affairs, too many bloggers believe that what they should be doing is what they see the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hanity or Glen Beck on the right and Keith Obermann and Rachel Maddow on the left do every night – namely, rant. And that is not journalism and not even high-quality opinion journalism.

Blogging can be journalism when being done by a trained journalist or by an amateur who has trained themselves. And for both the end-goal is journalism. What do I mean by that? For it to be journalism, surely, there are certain standards and approaches to be followed? Facts and views have to be gathered, people have to be interviewed off or on the record and that can’t all be done just by online research. Those standards may be relaxed when it comes to opinion journalism, but even then there are certain rules of fairness and accuracy to be observed. Above all, actual knowledge can come in useful – the best of journalism is digging out the truth, as much as it can be known, throwing light on complex problems, explaining process, bearing witness to conflict and loss and terror and tragedy.

Of course, by those standards a lot of what passes for journalism in many newspapers and print magazines and on television is not that – it is entertainment. There is, of course, little difference between a news-room full of journalists re-writing wire copy the whole time and a blogger bashing way at the keyboard in his sitting room.

And that leads on to a point that was touched on above but needs to be stressed – most bloggers when it comes to politics, news and current affairs are not news-gathering. They are commenting on facts – and often half-truths — that others have gathered and twisted them to fit in to their ideological perspective or party affiliation. That can be fun but it is not journalism.