Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London's Burning

I've been just as appalled as anyone by what has happened in London, and now seems to be spreading across the UK. What may have started up after the flaring of a peaceful protest against the police has now turned into something in no way related to the initial spark.

People are having their homes burnt to the ground, the shops which are their livelihood ripped apart, and their communities destroyed. It's sickening.

It withstood two World Wars, but House of Reeve's was reduced to a smoldering wreck within minutes.

I'm not from the areas affected so really can't comment on what has caused these outbreaks of violence and criminality, but there are a few things to add to the current debate.

First of all, seeking answers as to why these riots took place is not the same as condoning the violence. If we're to stop riots happening in the future we need to understand why and how they happen, not just put our fingers in our ears and blame the 'bad people'. There has to be some reason why people have come out and destroyed their own communities. If your answer is that they're all thugs, then you have to ask why we have so many thugs in our country?

I was impressed by Dr. Clifford Stott earlier on BBC, an expert in crowd psychology, and one of the most qualified to speak about these riots. He also echoed the frustration in that when trying to analytically look at these riots he was accused of being an apologist. He is no such thing, he simply wants to understand rioting so that we can be better prepared to prevent future outbreaks.

It may seem an easy answer but you cannot attribute these kind of widespread riots simply to 'copycat' attacks, or to an outbreak of mob irrationality, or even as simply criminally predisposed individuals seizing the opportunity to break the law. As Stott says, no research into riots over the last 30 years has supported these views, they are far too simplistic.

People's lives were put in danger last night, people's livelihood's up in flames. Many were left without a home. The kind of damage people do everything in their power to stop outsiders doing to their cities was inflicted upon London by it's own residents. But to simply dehumanise the rioters as is the natural reaction is to miss the point, this will simply happen again if we don't learn lessons.

There are a whole multitude of theories as to what acted as the tinder which was caught by the spark of Mark Duggan's peaceful protest. I think trying to outline them now would be premature. But one of the lessons which does seem to be evident is that police need much closer integration with the communities they serve.

The violence was not a legitimate expression of anger against the police, but it remains high on the list of grievances of many in the communities that have been part of the rioting. If respect for the police breaks down, then the dangers are all too evident. No matter what powers or numbers the police are given, without the respect of the communities they serve they will be powerless to stop this kind of activity.

But before this looks like a criticism of the police, I should say that under great strain last night there were a lot of brave policemen and women on the ground who did everything they could to stem the violence, and they deserve credit for that. Hopefully, with nearly three times as many on the ground tonight, they should be able to regain control of the streets.

One final thing. There have been calls last night and today for either an increase in police powers (perhaps bringing in watercannons) or for the involvement of the army. Whilst I can understand why some people might call for this, I don't think either is a solution to the troubles.

Soldiers are not trained in police tactics, they are trained as soldiers. The best trained people to deal with a situation like this are the police, and their failure last night was not down to them being the police but down to the low numbers they had to deal with such widespread rioting. Bringing in the army against your own citizens should only ever be an absolute last resort, and I don't believe we are there yet. The army is no silver bullet, as Operation Demetrius proved in the 1970's.

The only situations I would like to see the army being used in would be as support for the police operation, such as in assisting fire engines to reach blazes or to provide communications support. Those are legitimate roles for which the army would be well prepared.

As for increasing police powers, I believe they already have the necessary powers to control this violence, providing they have the manpower to implement them. Clearly, an increase by 10,000 in police numbers on the ground is hugely significant and should hopefully be enough to quell the violence without any new emergency powers.

To end on a positive note, whilst last night may have seen the worst of London, today has surely seen the best. Thousands of people have turned out on the streets to clean up the area, and have cheered on the police as they've done so.

And if you're going to listen to only one person from last night's riots, listen to this brave woman, imploring people to stop destroying their own communities. We need more people like her.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Death Penalty Debate

Some people seem to think that even engaging in the debate around the death penalty restarted by the frankly reprehensible Paul Staines is playing into his hands, but I think it's worth reopening from time to time to remind ourselves just why it is so wrong and why its reintroduction has so consistently been voted down.

I'm going to argue this from a slightly different point of view to a lot of others. A lot of people have argued that the death penalty should not be reinstated for practical reasons, because it doesn't reduce crime and because the danger of a wrongful conviction is made to have so much more dire consequences.These are all valid points, and reason enough to not have the death penalty, but I think there's a much more fundamental reason why we shouldn't have capital punishment in our country, it is morally reprehensible.

The traditional argument goes that for some of the most serious crimes, usually including pre-meditated murder, the criminal has taken away the human rights of another and so does not deserve to keep their own right to life. It seems to me that much of the argument in favour of the death penalty is about exacting revenge, rather than justice, and so to me has no place in a civilised society.

The simplest argument against the death penalty for me is that the arguments in its favour make no logical sense. They start with the premise that killing is morally wrong, that it should be punished, and that it should be punished by killing the criminal. The flaw in that argument should be glaringly obvious. Victor Hugo put it well when he said, "What says the law? You will not kill. How does it say it? By killing!"

If you start with the premise that murder can never be justified, then you cannot end with the idea that murder is a suitable punishment.

As for the argument that murderers have forgone their human rights, I disagree entirely. Either human rights are non-negotiable or they mean nothing at all. I might despise what a particular criminal has done, it might make me sick to the pit of my stomach, but I would like to believe that I can be the better person by not stooping to the level of taking another human life.

I'm not religious, and so don't think life is a gift from some higher power, but I do believe it's pretty incredible. The very fact you or I are alive right now and able to do all the things human beings do is spectacular. I don't think the taking of life can ever be seen as a good thing, regardless of my feelings towards another person.

Surely, we are better as a nation than a primitive tit for tat style of justice, than succumbing to the temptation of 'an eye for an eye'. How are we to claim we value life when we so willingly take it from others. And who amongst us would willingly do the job of the executioner?

Who is more humane, the man who demands the death of another, or this man, who is campaigning for the life of Mark Stroman, who shot him in the face.

As he said, "these crimes were hate crimes, and hate crimes come from ignorance. His execution will not eliminate hate crimes from this world, but we'll simply lose a human life."

That's the kind of society I want to live in, one which tries to better itself, rather than equaling the actions of its lowest members. One which sees the right to life as inalienable, not something to be disposed of when convenient. One which sees the taking of a life as reprehensible, not something to be carried out at the will of the state.

"Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement." - JRR Tolkien

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Shoddy Mail Journalism

I have used the title of 'shoddy' journalism for the Mail, as I struggled to think of a more apt word, but I hope you agree that their front page today goes beyond shoddy, and in my eyes should be illegal.

The Mail appears not to have heard of the presumption of 'Innocent until proven guilty'
It may or may not turn out to be the case that this nurse was in fact responsible for the deaths of patients at Stepping Hill hospital. If she did indeed tamper with the saline bags then clearly she is a reprehensible individual who should be dealt with by the full force of the law.

However, she should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and a front page splash like this is no way to treat an innocent individual. If it were to be found that she was in fact innocent, this nurse could well have her career ruined as patients recognise her face as being the one that the Mail claimed was responsible. Social ties that she has made and recently had broken as they peel away in disgust may never be remade.

Whatever the outcome of this, guilty or innocent, this nurse has had her life changed in a major way, and had it changed irreversibly.

It is the exact same kind of disgusting journalism I commented on at the time of the arrest of Chris Jefferies over the murder of Joanna Yeates. He was made to fit the profile of a murderer and so help the tabloids to sell more copies. The exact same thing has happened here, with the Mail releasing information about her personal tastes to give character to the story.

It eventually turned out that Chris Jefferies was innocent, but I suspect his life has never been the same since. Whether this nurse turns out to be guilty or not is irrelevant, it is wholly irresponsible, and if the media won't stop doing it voluntarily, someone should make them.

NHS Debate Re-opens

For now the Hacking scandal is having a relatively quiet time, but an old favourite has popped back into the news again recently, the NHS reforms.

The row over NHS reforms looks set to reopen, and more publicly than ever.

People may remember the recent listening period that the government held when their proposed changes to the NHS were met with fierce opposition from both the medical profession and the public. After intensive lobbying from the BMA, RCN, and RCGP they agreed to substantial changes.

This would all seem positive, but the problem now is that the changed bill is a complete and utter mess. It is a confused bureaucratic nightmare, with no-one being quite sure what its aim is.

The changes even prompted this motion from a  recent BMA Council meeting, "[this council] rejects the idea that the Government's proposed changes to the Bill will significantly reduce the risk of further marketisation and privatisation of the NHS."

That's why the BMA, the association representing 140,000 doctors, has again stated that it is opposed to the bill, despite the changes, and that it would be better for the bill to be withdrawn altogether.

The biggest news from the BMA meeting was that it agreed to start a 'public campaign to call for the withdrawal of the Health and Social Care Bill.' It seems that far from the easy ride through the commons Cameron had hoped for, there will be an almighty battle for public support.

As well as this, the campaigning group 38 degrees, with 850,000 members, have restarted their campaign against the bill, raising £10,000 (in fact, at last check it was over £30,000) within hours which will be used to hire a legal team to look through the bill line by line, looking for any hidden dangers.

With trust in politics in serious decline after Hackgate, and the Medical profession being the most trusted, I hardly think there will be much appetite in the government for a fight with the BMA. It will be interesting to see how much political capital Cameron is prepared to lose in order to pass the bill.

Without a Lib Dem backlash, which seems unlikely, he will probably manage to pass some form of bill, but what it contains, and how much he loses in the process, remains to be seen.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Vigilante Journalism

I seem to have written a lot on both this blog and Twitter recently about the media, but in my defence it has been one of the biggest media scandal's of a generation. I just want to post once more on this, the last day of the News of the World.

A lot has been written about how the News of the World closing will be a loss to journalism, and about how it was apparently the top of its field in investigative journalism. I personally think this is sentimental rubbish. I've looked through the 'famous' front pages that News of the World claims as its successes and see little to write home about. Many of the 'exclusives' are just celebrity tittle tattle, with no real benefit to the public.

On one issue, a great deal of people seem keen to praise News of the World, the naming and shaming of paedophiles and their campaign for Sarah's law. A great deal of people that does not include myself.

Although it may seem bizarre for me to apparently disapprove of their crusade against paedophiles, I hope you'll bear with me and see why. It reminds me of a particularly brilliant episode of Brasseye, paedogeddon. If you haven't seen it you really should, it's hilarious. It's a mockumentary about the whipped up hysteria of the press and the unforeseen circumstances.

No-one is going to condone paedophilia, but when that same whipped up hysteria is responsible for innocent people being attacked by vigilantes then you have to question whether it truly was a 'force for good'. For example,  there was a case in Wales of a paediatrician having her home attacked because someone mistook this job title for 'paedophile'. The stupidity of such people really is beyond my grasp.