Quote For The Day

 

“Every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action, because you deny yourself the right to hear something.”

The late Christopher Hitchens, addressing an audience on the ever-important subject of freedom of speech.

Je Suis Charlie Hebdo

Jesus And Mo Nous Sommes Charlie Hebdo JeSuisCharlieHebdo

 

And so 2015 begins as 2014 ended – with another murderous terrorist attack on a western city, this time targeting journalists, cartoonists and satirists at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo. For too many people, bereaved family and friends of the twelve victims, this will not be a happy new year.

Having been ill since the start of the year, your blogger was late to hear of the grotesque carnival of violence that played out in Paris on the morning of 7 January. Since that terrible moment, others have already offered moving and stirring words in response, far better than I. But the purported reasons for the targeting of Charlie Hebdo make it important for this blog to take a stand against the noxious idea that the mere act of depicting anybody, religious or otherwise, should be cause for the the huge amount of offence-taking, consternation and hand-wringing that it still is in the year 2015.

The following are therefore a selection of columns and responses that are informing this blog’s thinking at present, and then some closing thoughts.

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Boris Johnson’s Water Cannon Gambit Proves He Is Unfit For Higher Office

water cannon boris johnson

 

The sinister move by the Association of Chief Police Officers (or ACPO) to seek government approval for the purchase and use of water cannon as a means of crowd control on the British mainland was met with widespread alarm when the idea was first mooted in January.

Even more concerning now is the news that the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has unilaterally purchased three such devices from the German police in the presumptuous expectation that the Home Secretary will agree to ACPO’s request before Theresa May has had the opportunity to make her decision.

This blog noted at the time that the ACPO’s move was a transparent power play, that there were no serious concerns about impending violent protests in Britain and that even if there were a repeat of the 2011 riots, water cannon would be uniquely unhelpful to the police in containing the disorder:

So what is this really all about? One explanation could be that ACPO are politically agitating, and trying to send a message of their disapproval of coalition austerity policies to the public and their elected representatives, essentially saying “we told you that cutting government spending would lead to chaos and disorder and we were right; now we have to take the draconian step of procuring water cannon to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy”.

This is one plausible possibility – as we have seen only too recently with the Andrew Mitchell “plebgate” scandal, there are those in the police force with very hardened agendas who would stop at nothing to discredit or cast doubt on the performance of Conservative ministers.

But in truth, a more convincing explanation is that the police just really fancy having these new toys to scare and intimidate people, that they have decided that building good community relations with the public and doing the hard work of policing large scale events just isn’t worth the effort when they can just bully the public into cowed obedience much more easily.

And so it is. The coalition government’s ‘austerity’ policies have now been in effect for over three years, and have yet to provoke widespread public disorder of any significant kind, other than the usual antics of misbehaving students. Why then does ACPO believe that Britain is a smouldering tinder box about to erupt in an explosive delayed reaction to policies which are old news and have already taken effect?

The Guardian also condemns the Mayor of London’s actions in a stinging editorial, and calls on the Home Secretary to refuse ACPO’s request. This would have the double benefit of standing up for civil liberties and giving the mayor of London a slap in the face for presuming to anticipate her decision:

But this cannot be a matter for City Hall and Scotland Yard alone. The Met has a significance that extends beyond London. Westminster should have a say in what would be a profound decision affecting the rights of the UK citizen and the nature of British policing. The mayor will have his water cannon, but cannot use it without the approval of the home secretary. She should ensure it never leaves the depot.

The Guardian’s second point, that Boris Johnson’s move is of particular concern because the significance of the Metropolitan Police extends well beyond London, is also important. With some chief constables up and down the country agitating for water cannon of their own (though to their credit, some realise their lack of utility in policing normal protests), where the Met goes, others would be certain to follow.

The fact that Boris Johnson (in what he thinks is a conciliatory move) is publicly offering to demonstrate the water cannons supposed safety by being blasted by the newly-acquired water cannon himself  is entirely meaningless, unless he intends to be hit directly with the maximum force that the Metropolitan Police will be permitted to use the machines. This is unlikely.

Johnson will almost certainly only submit himself to a light sprinkling from one of the machines at its lowest power setting, and then appear charming and even more bedraggled than usual in front of the television cameras, assuring us that he got a good soaking but is otherwise perfectly unharmed.

Others who have come face to face with the full power of water cannon have not been so fortunate as the Independent notes:

Dietrich Wagner, a German pensioner, remembers the exact moment he was knocked over by a water cannon, in Stuttgart in 2010. It felt as though he was being punched. He fell backwards, lost consciousness, and when he woke, blood was running down his face. “I couldn’t open my eyes,” he says. “I only saw black.”

The former engineer, who turns 70 this year and has had six operations on his eyes, is still almost completely blind. He is in London to warn Home Secretary Theresa May not to authorise the use of water cannons on the streets of mainland Britain.

But the devastating injuries sometimes inflicted by water cannon and the potentially chilling effect on the rights and willingness of people to assemble and protest are already known and much discussed.

Of equal concern is the fact that this draconian, illiberal and presumptuous step was taken by a politician with a fair chance of becoming the next leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore also a potential future prime minister. How will Boris Johnson’s unilateral move to acquire draconian new policing weapons in response to a nonexistent threat affect his already somewhat inexplicable popularity?

The simple fact is that Boris Johnson purchased the water cannon before approval for their use has been given by the Home Secretary. Either he is attempting to strong-arm the government into giving him what he wants in the belief that the Home Secretary will rubber-stamp his decision, in which case he has no respect for the democratic process and the deliberations of government, or he has made a huge gamble and is willing to potentially lose taxpayer money by investing in capital equipment that may not be authorised for use at all, in which case he has committed a major strategic blunder and is terrible guardian of the public purse.

Worse still, if this is about forcing his rival for the future leadership of the Conservative Party into making an illiberal and politically damaging decision that he can somehow later use against her, as is also being suggested, then he is also playing political games with the cherished civil liberties of our country.

None of these possibilities or their associated character traits are desirable in someone who has their sights set on the highest political office in Britain.

The June Fourth Incident

Tiananmen Square Protest June 4 Lego

 

In the West, knowledge of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in Beijing is so commonplace that 25 years later, even an allusion in Lego is instantly recognisable, conjuring memories of the time, the place, the victims and the perpetrators.

In ‘modern’ China, it could not be more different.

So successful have the Chinese censors and curators of false history been that reportedly only 15 out of 100 university students in Beijing have any knowledge of the event or recognise the iconic “tank man” image from that bloody day. The fact that the day is referred to and known in China as “Internet maintenance day” says everything that one needs to know about how this feat has been accomplished.

In Britain, America and elsewhere in the West there are certainly momentous issues to be debated, elections to be fought and leaders to be held to account. This is important work. But on the twenty-fifth anniversary of a day when hundreds of people were brazenly murdered by their government in the open air for the crime of engaging in political speech, let us be thankful for the relative safety in which our debates take place, and ever vigilant that we do not squander, barter away or tolerate the curtailment of our precious right to free speech.

Andrew Sullivan has curated a good selection of commentary and reflections on the Tiananmen Square protests anniversary here.

 

Image: Tiananmen Square, Mike Stimpson

EU’s Google Ruling Undermines Freedom Of Information

Google ECJ data ruling

The European Court of Justice, in another inspired ruling, has effectively declared that EU citizens have the right to request that Google delete undesirable search results which may portray them in a negative light.

With astonishing disregard for freedom of information and a troglodyte’s grasp of modern technology and its administration, the court held that there are certain circumstances when an individual may petition Google (and presumably other search engines) to delete links to various sites which contain information deemed false, obsolete or irrelevant.

Supporters of this backward and anti-democratic move might argue that Google search results function in a similar way to road signs, and that just as a city has a responsibility to remove road signs that point to closed routes or demolished visitor attractions, so a responsible search engine should prune its records to remove links to outdated information. And this neat analogy almost holds together.

Nearly, but not quite. The difference, of course, is that Google search results point to information on the internet that is still very much in existence and potentially of great importance. Forcing Google to remove search engine results is akin to a city deciding that a prominent building should be removed from local maps because it has fallen into disrepair and become an eyesore. The building remains, and it is in the interests of many people that its whereabouts remain public knowledge, whether or not it causes embarrassment for the city council or town planners.

Already a growing list of people with shady pasts are coming forward with petitions to Google, in the hope of wiping the digital slate clean of their past misdeeds, as the Telegraph reports:

Since it was introduced, more than 1,000 people have asked Google to remove links to unfavourable stories. They include a former MP seeking re-election, a man convicted of possessing child abuse images and 20 convicted criminals.

But more concerning than the granting people the ability to falsely curate the digital history of their lives for potentially nefarious purposes, the court’s decision places a human being at Google – or wherever the decision over which records should be removed is ultimately taken – in the role of moral arbiter of what information is still ‘accurate’ or ‘current’, and what information the public has a right to know. No human being or committee should be vested with such power, least of all one that hears petitions from people or institutions with overriding personal reasons to meddle with the perception of their past.

(Even the publication of false information, after all, becomes a matter of historical fact when it takes place, potentially an important one – such as cases of libel or political misstatement – which should be preserved for easy reference by future scholars, historians or lawyers.)

Furthermore, the court’s ruling shows complete and utter contempt for the ability of human beings to filter good information from bad, and accurate data from the misleading. Even if it were the case that erroneous information about a person’s criminal past or business dealings existed online, people are equipped with the mental faculties to check and verify the information before acting on it. The court’s opinion holds the human capacity to reason in such scant regard that it effectively decides it must be the job of someone – Google, the courts, the Truth Committee, anyone – to filter our reality before we observe it, lest we find ourselves being mislead.

Mark Weinstein forcefully sums up the argument against the ruling in the Huffington Post:

No company or entity should be able to build an online persona about us from the privacy of our actions and searches. Nor should anyone be able to erase legally documented history just because they find certain information unflattering. This is separate from the absolutely needed right to be able to remove my own personal posts or tagged photos of me posted by others.

One might expect that a ruling of this magnitude might prompt a response from the Prime Minister, but as is so often the case with matters of principle, David Cameron disappoints:

Asked by the Telegraph whether the ruling had any implications on freedom of speech, Mr Cameron replied: “I haven’t actually had a lot of time to look at this issue, so maybe I will have to get back to you on that.

“The basic principal that your information belongs to you is a good one, but I haven’t had a careful look at this, so I have to give you a considered answer another time.”

He added: “There you go – a politician who doesn’t know all the answers.”

It should not require many long nights spent poring over philosophical treatises and legal documents in order to form an opinion about the ECJ’s regressive ruling, but at least David Cameron is able to make a joke out of his total lack of conviction. For this blog, by contrast, the matter is quite clear-cut.

Our shared ideal of freedom and democracy requires as its aspiration (albeit never fully realised) the free and unfettered access to information on which to base our opinions and decisions. Establishing a precedent which says we cannot be trusted to distinguish current information from the obsolete, the relevant from the irrelevant, the true from the false, and setting up an intermediary system to do the job for us – which is what the European Court of Justice has so outrageously done – places the ECJ on the same morally repugnant ground as the internet censors of North Korea and the architects of the Great Firewall of China.

The people of Europe do not need the European Court of Justice, Google or anyone else to limit the scope of their information world. The justices wildly overstepped the mark, and should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Note: The Guardian has a good explainer on the case which can be read here.