Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No miracles for the Swansea Valley

Sky News' Kay Burley
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

Few of us can have failed to be moved by the tragedy which unfolded in the Gleision Colliery in South Wales on Thursday and Friday. We saw the gradual extinguishing of hope in the grim but determined faces on our screens, optimism giving way to stoicism and finally resignation. Mining disasters have happened many times in this country, and mining communities have endured this pain often in the past, but we tend to think of the UK as being in a post-industrial age, and the sudden reality was shocking and raw.

Some of us no doubt made the comparison with the Chilean miners’ story from last year, a disaster which turned into a joyful story as those trapped were freed. Sadly there was to be no happy ending this time.

And the Chilean comparison was not lost on the army of 24 hour news teams which converged on the site as the story developed. They had, of course, had a bonanza on the Chile story – a gripping, heroic event with endless shots of tension and elation and a happy ending to crown it off. It was difficult to escape the impression that they thought they might have a repeat performance here.

There is that tension at the heart of all news journalism, of course – the inescapable fact that tragedy sells, and the all too easy step from informing the public to exploiting the victims. Add in a highly competitive landscape in which ratings make successes, being first with the latest consumes all, and social media, unfettered by principle, gazumps all scoops, and the mix becomes positively dangerous.

Enter Kay Burley.

For those who do not know, Ms Burley is a presenter on Sky News. If Sky News is an experiment in turning The Sun into a television channel, then Kay Burley is the lovechild of Kelvin McKenzie and Anne Robinson. For the avoidance of doubt, that is not intended as a compliment.

She has a well deserved reputation for blatant prejudice, glib ignorance and the excusing of both on the basis that her role makes her some sort of devil’s advocate. These are qualities which, of course, make her the ideal person to send to the scene of an unfolding tragedy.

Her questioning of exhausted rescuers giving their time to help update the nation on progress was banal beyond belief. “Can you tell us what the colliery is typically used for?” elicited a weary “It’s a coal mine” (the “you moron” being silent). She went on to harangue local MP Peter Hain, who had gone largely without sleep to organise help for the families and be a bulwark between them and the media. She asked stupid, offensive questions and criticised the baffled, sometimes rightly irritable response.

To say that Ms Burley has form here would be an understatement. Her spat with Labour MP Chris Bryant as she tried to dismiss the seriousness of the phone hacking case is well worth looking up on YouTube. She asked the visibly distressed former wife of the Ipswich prostitute murderer whether he wouldn’t have done it if she’d given him a better sex life. She conducted an interview with David Babbs of 38 Degrees which ended with her screaming at him and refusing to allow him to talk. Her live coverage from the scene of the police standoff with killer Raoul Moat was littered with leaps to judgement and invasive, unhelpful interviews.

There is clearly a time and a place – and an audience – for this style of confrontational, opinion-up-front presenting. But the time is not during an unfolding tragedy, and frankly the place is not the news.

The vicious circle of competitive 24 hour news channels is starting to create our own version of Fox News, and that is something that anyone who favours honesty and facts should be terribly afraid of. The hackgate affair put an end to Murdoch’s plans of taking Sky News permanently down this path, but there are clearly still forces at work pushing for the same thing.

There’s a grave danger that we assume the media has been shaken into change for the better by the recent scandal, and it has not. We’ve seen false contrition and careful legal work, but we haven’t seen fundamental change.

We’ll know when that fundamental change has come when tragedy starts being treated with respect, and Kay Burley is no longer on our screens.

Monday, 19 September 2011

An appeal for reason and compassion in the gay marriage debate

With the publication at the beginning of this month of the Scottish Government's consultation, a starting gun of sorts was fired in a national debate about same sex marriage. I say "of sorts" because in reality folk have been campaigning on both sides of this issue for a long time. But we now have a rough timetable: the consultation period will end on 9 December, meaning we're likely to see committee evidence sessions in 2012, and completion of whatever legislation is decided upon by 2013. Naturally this has galvanised people into action.

The Daily Record chose to announce news of the government's plans in a half column story on page 17 of the next day's paper. When you consider the months of hysterical front pages with which they greeted the announcement of Section 28 repeal in 1999, it's clear they have come a long way. Most other newspapers gave the news similarly unsensational coverage.

In some ways this is unsurprising. We have seen a major shift in public opinion on gay rights, and specifically on gay marriage, in the last decade. The most recent results from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey show that 61% of Scots agree that same sex couples should be allowed to marry. Newspapers are following their readerships.

There remains a solid bloc of opposition to gay marriage, and it is naturally finding ways to get its message across. Of course we should have no objection to this. All honest opinions should be heard, and it is only by engaging in debate that we will all be able to hone our own views.

But dishonesty, deliberate misrepresentation, distortion and vilification are things we should all object to, whichever side of the argument we are on. Because we know from the traumatic experience of the Section 28 battle how harmful they can be. 12 years ago the lies and hounding of the Keep the Clause campaign did serious harm to LGBT people across Scotland, as I wrote about earlier this year. Much of that harm was the result of the currency of pernicious lies about gay people, their relationships and their lives which was used to try to persuade MSPs to oppose a small step towards fair and equitable treatment.

There is a grave danger that that same currency of lies and hurt will resurface in the coming debate, and could have the same hugely damaging effect on vulnerable Scots.

Already Philip Tartaglia, the Catholic Bishop of Paisley, has claimed that the government has no right to define marriage - a simple falsehood, as evidenced by the many times governments have redefined marriage in the past.

Worse, Cardinal Keith O'Brien has claimed that gay relationship are "harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved". This is an old lie sometimes justified by fake pseudo-scientific papers produced by the US religious right. He went on to claim that gay marriage is only supported by "a small minority of activists". In truth, not only do the majority of Scots support equal marriage, the majority of Catholics do too.

And this week we have seen the intervention of Brian Souter, the fundamentalist Christian who funded that homophobic campaign to the tune of £1m 12 years ago, echoing some of these same lines.

I think there is a real and grave danger that this debate will descend into the sort of hate speech and misinformation campaign that Keep the Clause embodied. I think that right now, as we see the first warning signs, we need to try, together, to stop it happening again.

I therefore call on all sides in the gay marriage debate in to agree to a set of basic decency principles, to try to ensure that statements which misrepresent, vilify or do harm to others are not the currency of our discourse, to thereby prevent a repetition of the harmful, painful promulgation of anti-gay sentiment we saw in the Section 28 debate, and to permit reasoned, fair debate on a polarising subject.

I hereby declare:
  1. I will not lie or make false generalisations about the lives or behaviour of any group in our society.
  2. I will not knowingly lie about, distort or misrepresent any material fact.
  3. If something I believe to be fact is shown to be unreliable, I will immediately stop saying it, publicly retract previous statements, and make every effort to stop others repeating it too.
  4. I will recognise the right of our democratically elected government to enact legislation according to our constitutional law.
I call upon church leaders, politicians of all parties, media organisations, campaign groups and all other participants in the coming debate to make the same declaration. Please let us discuss this issue without condemnation or vilification, but with respect, with honesty, and with compassion.

Thank you.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Put a cork in it, West Lothian

This is not Susan Boyle
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

This week an old, thorny question was in the news again. Harriett Baldwin, a Tory MP for nowhere near West Lothian, brought forward a private member’s bill in the House of Commons to try to settle the issue of MPs from non-English constituencies voting on English-only matters.

Private members bills are an important part of Westminster democracy. They allow any backbench MP to propose legislation to a largely empty parliament chamber, hold an entirely meaningless vote among a handful of MPs, and then barter with the government to try to get a small sliver of their argument into law.

Calling things obscure names because of events many years ago is also a strong Westminster tradition, which explains why the issue of MPs voting outside their geographic competence is known as the “West Lothian Question”.

In 1977, when “home rule” for Scotland seemed just around the corner, the then MP for West Lothian, Tam Dalyell, was a vocal opponent of devolution. He pointed out that if Scotland had a parliament which was in charge of things like health and education, and English MPs therefore had no say in those areas in Scotland, then the fact that Scottish MPs would continue to have a say in those areas in England was a bit tricksy.

People nodded sagely, some muttering under their breath about the state of his hair, and agreed that at some point, something would have to be done. Enoch Powell, the fun-loving member for South Down, christened this the “West Lothian Question”, possibly because he couldn’t spell Dalyell’s name, and the moniker stuck. Happily for Tam, the mooted home rule never materialised, the Tories took over, and his question was shelved until 1997, when Labour got back into power and immediately embarked on devolution.

Remarkably, Tam Dalyell was still an MP, though by this point after boundary changes, for Linlithgow. (Disappointingly the question was never re-christened as the Linlithgow Question.) Once again the point was made about this clear problem, once again people nodded sagely, but in those heady early days of the Blair years all problems seemed minor, the sun glinted off Tony’s teeth, and it was decided to deal with it in due course, at some point, but really not worry about it too much.

Okay, perhaps a more honest version of the story would be that, with a large number of Scottish MPs being Labour, and the Blair government pushing through difficult reforms to English public services, having Scots voting on English-only matters was really quite handy for ensuring bills got passed, actually.

Fast forward to today, and with a Conservative-led government now pushing through their own disastrous challenging legislation, the existence of a phalanx of Scottish MPs, all but one of whom isn’t a Tory, brings the question to life properly. Tam himself is, sadly, no longer an MP so is unable to take part in the parliamentary discussions. But despite the government’s polite dismissal of Mrs Baldwin’s bill, it seems something may actually be about to be done.

A commission – of experts, no less – has just been set up to look into the issue. They will no doubt report on the usual glacial parliamentary timelines, but it is possible that before the end of this parliament, restrictions will be placed on non-English MPs to stop them voting on English-only laws.

But as Pete Wishart, the SNP MP, said in Friday’s debate, there is an elegant solution to this problem. It isn’t, as he suggested, Scottish independence, because that would leave people in Wales and Northern Ireland still voting on England’s business. No, it is even more obvious than that. It’s devolution for England to match the devolution in every other UK nation.

A federal United Kingdom. It’s the perfect answer. It has just one tiny flaw: the English don’t want an English parliament. They’re happy with the one they’ve got because they’ve never really noticed that it is anything more than an English parliament.

So, we shall see. Constitutional change of one sort or another is definitely coming. Scotland may vote for independence before Westminster hears back from the experts. English-only bills might end up getting special treatment in the Commons. Or the English people might rise up and demand their own, slightly different, parliament for some of the things that trouble them. But the main thing is, West Lothian will have its question answered. And I managed to get through this entire article without mentioning Susan Boyle. Ach, dammit.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Sectarianism: message received?

This article was originally published on Amansaman.

Sectarianism has rarely been out of the news since a spate of high-profile threats at the start of the year spurred the Scottish Government into action. A “summit” (as in “we have to do summit aboot this”) was held in the run up to the Scottish election, and football clubs, police and politicians promised action. When, after the election, Celtic manager Neil Lennon was assaulted on live television, the rhetoric hardened and the newly anointed SNP majority government pledged new laws to solve the problem.

Fast forward a few months and, while the passage of new legislation has been slowed to allow for proper consultation, the Lennon case has been prosecuted, and this week the jury reached a verdict, sensationally acquitting John Wilson of the assault charge, convicting him instead of a breach of the peace. But more interestingly as far as I’m concerned, the jury chose to remove the statutory aggravation of “motivated by religious prejudice” from the charge, meaning that Wilson was not convicted of a hate crime.

Under Scots law, any charge can have an aggravation attached to it by the Procurator Fiscal to identify additional factors in a crime, but different approaches in different areas mean that they are used haphazardly. Statutory aggravations are a relatively new concept designed to standardise aggravations to identify hate crimes. The first was introduced in 1998, covering racially motivated crimes; in 2003 a statutory aggravation for religiously motivated crimes was brought in; and last year more, covering homophobic and transphobic crimes, were created.

The logic is pretty reasonable. If hate crimes are accurately identified and similarly prosecuted across the country, then sentences can be consistent and the authorities can gather statistics which help formulate policy to combat these type of offences.

So far so good. Juries are being asked to assess the motivations of actions, like those of John Wilson, to decide how harsh his sentence should be. They have to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt of those motivations. So it is right that, when they cannot establish that certainty, such aggravations are dropped from the conviction. Nonetheless, statutory aggravations give a solid and useful method for identifying and monitoring hate crime across Scotland.

So if we have an effective way of prosecuting hate crimes (even if not all prosecutions are effective, as the Lennon case shows) then why is the Scottish Parliament in the throes of constructing more law to tackle sectarianism?

The answer, unfortunately, is that it is trying to “send a message”. A dodgy form of politics and a dodgy form of law, because it is essentially a sleight of hand. “Send a message” politics tries to change behaviour by giving it a special status in criminal law, when in fact the behaviour is already against the law. It tries to set up a hierarchy of badness, making a particular crime worse than another simply because it is part of a social phenomenon which is of concern.

We saw an analogy in the aftermath of the recent London riots, when magistrates were instructed to hand down jail sentences for all offences committed during the unrest. So the smashing of a shop window which might have attracted a fine were it done the day before, attracted six months in prison because it was done as part of that dangerous few nights. By all rational assessment this is ludicrous, and it’s highly likely that a series of expensive appeals will overturn the worst excesses.

The danger with current proposals for anti-sectarian law is that they may do the same. It is one thing to use statutory aggravations to track and monitor hate crimes; it is quite another to enshrine in law that committing a crime on the day of a football match is worse than committing the same crime the day before. A famous political fallacy is in danger of being brought to bear again: “Something must be done; this is something; therefore it must be done.”

Sectarianism is a scourge in parts of Scotland, but so are racism, homophobia and Islamophobia. And if we’re honest, they all have the same root, and it’s nothing to do with religion, race or sexuality. Some people are violent and pig-ignorant. We’ve developed ways of dealing with such people over the centuries, none of which are perfect, but they are the best we have. We ought to think carefully before we send any more messages using the law. They might just get lost in translation.