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Archive for July 2010

V for Vendetta: “Don’t Get Fooled Again” cited in UK High Court defamation strike-out

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From the UK High Court, case HQ09X02688 (published by 5RB), March 2010:

THE CLAIM

2. Professor Bridle, who is the managing director of the Second Claimant company, brings this defamation claim against Mr Williams, a Health and Safety inspector employed by the Second Defendant, the Health and Safety Executive, (‘the HSE’) at the HSE’s offices in Cardiff. The claim is made in slander in respect of words allegedly spoken by Mr Williams, when acting in his capacity as an HSE inspector, on or about 24 July 2008, to representatives of the University of Wales Lampeter, Mr Cennydd Powell, the University’s Head of Estates, and his assistant Mr John Fowden.

3. The words complained of were that Professor Bridle “is not a real professor as he claims” and that Mr Powell and Mr Fowden (and by implication also the university and all other third parties generally) “should not believe a word that he says”. It is further said that in telephone conversations between Mr Williams and Mr Powell between 24 July and 31 July 2008, Mr Williams repeated to Mr Powell the alleged defamatory statements…

Summary of Defendants’ Submissions

…48. The Defendants submit that publications by the journalists referred to and by the author Richard Wilson in his book ‘Don’t Get Fooled Again’ contain far more serious allegations than those complained of in these proceedings. They are in permanent form, have received and continue to receive far wider publication and would inevitably have caused much greater damage to reputation than the alleged slander by an HSE inspector to the University’s estate manager and his assistant.

49. Richard Wilson’s book contains a Chapter entitled ‘Fake Experts and Non-Denial Denials’ which is almost entirely devoted to attacking Professor Bridle. It disparages his academic qualifications, and brands him as a ‘charlatan’ and a ‘liar’. An article in ‘The Guardian’ dated 30 June 2008 by Peter Wilby refers to Professor Bridle and Asbestos Watchdog in disparaging terms and suggests that his scientific credentials should be subject to careful scrutiny. A critical article suggesting that Professor Bridle was not a neutral expert and was linked to the Asbestos Cement Product Producers Association was published in CMAJ [ a scientific journal] by Kathleen Ruff on 22 December 2008. Critical comments have been published on a blog run by Richard Wilson in September 2008. Julie Burchill wrote an article critical of Professor Bridle and Christopher Booker in The Guardian on 2 November 2002.

50. It is therefore submitted that the incident giving rise to this claim is a peg on which Professor Bridle hopes to hang the next round of his campaign. It is submitted that he has been waiting for the opportunity to “get HSE in the dock” and this action is a contrived way of seeking that. It is submitted that were this action allowed to proceed it would also cause harassment and prejudice beyond that usually encountered in litigation…

CONCLUSIONS

…82. It is, I consider, apparent from the correspondence exhibited to the witness statements that the dominant motive in bringing the proceedings is to cause embarrassment and prejudice to the HSE because of the Claimant’s anger at the HSE’s refusal to accept his views on the subject in question. It is apparent from the evidence that Professor Bridle believes that a claim against the HSE will be likely to bring the debate about the difference in scientific views to a public forum more readily than a claim against an individual journalist would do. Thus I have concluded that, whilst I would not go so far as to characterise the claim as ‘vindictive’ in the same league as the claim in Wallis v Valentine, it does, in my view, fall into the category of a ‘vendetta’ as outlined in that case and in Bezant v Rausing.

83. I note particularly the fact that no defamation proceedings have been brought by Professor Bridle against any of the authors of some of the attacks made against him in the press, in the book by Richard Wilson and on the internet. The content of those publications are mostly in terms far more pejorative than the words alleged to have been spoken by Mr Williams, and will have had a much larger audience. The fact that such publications are widely available will inevitably put into issue the extent to which Professor Bridle’s reputation has been damaged by the alleged publication in this claim. I do not consider that Professor Bridle’s explanation as to why no such proceedings have been brought is credible when compared to the issue of these proceedings for words spoken in either a private meeting or a telephone conversation to either one or two persons (depending upon the evidence).

84. In the light of the lack of any convincing evidence as to why the HSE have been singled out for a claim, and the publishers of the publications referred to have not had proceedings brought against them, and on the basis of the evidence relied on by the Defendants, I have concluded that there is an improper collateral purpose to the claim against Mr Williams and the HSE, rather than simply vindication of reputation…

Accordingly the Defendant’s application for summary judgment and for strike out succeeds in its entirety.

*See also*: “Asbestos critic was ‘pursuing a vendetta’ against HSE”

Written by Richard Wilson

July 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Posted in Censorship, libel terrorism

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UK Foreign Office “covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents” over Iraq

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The picture of institutionalised mendacity presented by Carne Ross in today’s Observer is shocking – yet consistent both with my own personal experiences of the Foreign Office over the years – and the wealth of information that has emerged from other sources.

The unelected senior ranks of the civil service have more political power in their own right than is usually acknowledged. They now seem to be making the most of this in their attempt to evade accountability for their involvement in the systematic deception of the UK public (and Parliament) in the run-up to the war in Iraq.

From Carne Ross, writing in The Observer:

I testified last week to the Chilcot inquiry. My experience demonstrates an emerging and dangerous problem with the process. This is not so much a problem with Sir John Chilcot and his panel, but rather with the government bureaucracy – Britain’s own “deep state” – that is covering up its mistakes and denying access to critical documents.

There is only one solution to this problem, and it requires decisive action.

After I was invited to testify, I was contacted by the Foreign Office, from which I had resigned after giving testimony to the Butler inquiry in 2004, to offer its support for my appearance. I asked for access to all the documents I had worked on as Britain’s Iraq “expert” at the UN Security Council, including intelligence assessments, records of discussions with the US, and the long paper trail on the WMD dossier.

Large files were sent to me to peruse at the UK mission to the UN. However, long hours spent reviewing the files revealed that most of the key documents I had asked for were not there.

In my testimony I had planned to detail how the UK government failed to consider, let alone implement, available alternatives to military action. To support this I had asked for specific records relating to the UK’s failure to deal with the so-called Syrian pipeline, through which Iraq illegally exported oil, thereby sustaining the Saddam regime. I was told that specific documents, such as the records of prime minister Tony Blair’s visit to Syria, could not be found. This is simply not plausible.

I had also asked for all the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments on Iraq, some of which I helped prepare. Of dozens of these documents, only three were provided to me – 40 minutes before I was due to appear before the Chilcot panel.

Playing by the rules, I had submitted my written testimony to Chilcot before my appearance. In the hours before my appearance, invited to visit the Foreign Office to see further documents (mostly irrelevant), an official repeatedly sought to persuade me to delete references to certain documents in my testimony.

He told me that the Cabinet Office wanted the removal of a critical reference in my evidence to a memo from a senior Foreign Office official to the foreign secretary’s special adviser, in which the official pointed out, with mandarin understatement, that the paper sent that week to the Parliamentary Labour Party dramatically – and inaccurately – altered the UK’s assessment of Iraq’s nuclear threat.

In a clear example of the exaggeration of Iraq’s military capabilities, that paper claimed that if Iraq’s programmes remained unchecked, it could develop a nuclear device within five years.

The official’s memo pointed out that this was not, in fact, the UK assessment: the UK believed that Iraq’s nuclear programme had been checked by sanctions.

The paper to the PLP was instead sent by the foreign secretary to “brief” the wider cabinet. This paper was pure overstated propaganda, filled with ludicrous statements like “one teaspoon of anthrax can kill a million people”. The paper was soon made public, as part of the campaign to create public hysteria.

The official’s memo about the PLP paper contained nothing secret. It relates to a public document, the PLP paper. Yet, of all the references in my testimony, this was the one that the Cabinet Office most wanted removed. I refused. Strikingly, this memo has never been mentioned to the inquiry, including by its author, who testified earlier this year. Neither has the author of the PLP paper been questioned, or the paper itself discussed.

I was repeatedly warned by inquiry staff not to mention any classified material during my testimony. The only problem is that almost every document I ever wrote or read in my work was classified. It was made clear to me, and to journalists attending the hearing, that if I mentioned specific documents the broadcast of my testimony would be cut off. Other forms of retribution (Official Secrets Act prosecution?) hung in the air. It was a form of subtle intimidation.

Meanwhile, my requests to see documents about the infamous Number 10 WMD dossier were ignored, including requests for letters I had written.

This experience and the inquiry’s record so far is cause for concern. It is clear from testimonies so far that most witnesses, most of whom went along with the war at the time, are offering a very one-sided account to the panel. A story is being peddled that sanctions on Iraq were collapsing and the allied policy of containment was failing. Thus, the military alternative to deal with the Iraqi threat was more or less unavoidable.

Though there is some truth to this argument, it was not what the Foreign Office, or the government as a whole, believed at the time. The true story is there to be seen in the documents. In memos, submissions to ministers and telegrams, the official view is very clear: while there was concern at the erosion of sanctions, containment had prevented Iraq from rearmament.

When invasion was promoted by Washington, the available alternative – to squeeze Saddam financially by stopping oil exports or seizing the regime’s assets, which I and some colleagues had repeatedlyadvocated, was ignored. Here the documents tell a different but equally clear and appalling story: there is not a single mention of any formal discussion, by ministers or officials, of alternatives to military action. It is hard to pinpoint a graver indictment of the government’s failure.

The oral testimonies delivered to the inquiry have not given an accurate picture of what the government really thought. Unfortunately, the panel is neither equipped, nor apparently inclined, to challenge witnesses on the contradictions of their testimonies with this documentary record. This may not be the panel’s fault: how can they know which pertinent documents exist?

In these circumstances, it is very worrying that the government machine is still trying to withhold key documents, and silence those of us with detailed knowledge of the policy history – and documents. I have been told too, from secondary sources, that members of the panel have been refused documents they have specifically requested.

There is a clear solution to these problems: break down the continued obstruction by the bureaucracy by releasing the documents – all of them. Only the most secret documents deserve continued protection, and there are very few of these. The vast majority of relevant documents relate to policy discussion inside the government before the war. Though profoundly embarrassing, there is little here that damages national security, except in the hysterical assessment of officials protecting their own reputation. Nick Clegg said a few weeks ago that almost all documents must now be released. He is right.

Carne Ross was the UK’s Iraq expert at the UN from 1997 to 2002. He now heads Independent Diplomat, a non-profit diplomatic advisory group

Written by Richard Wilson

July 25, 2010 at 3:46 pm

Trafigura: Guilty.

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BBC Newsnight has the full story 16m 15s into this piece.

See also, Amnesty International:

Amnesty International today welcomed the guilty verdict by a Dutch court against the multinational company, Trafigura, for delivering hazardous waste to Amsterdam while concealing the true nature of the waste, and for exporting the waste to Cote D’Ivoire.

Today’s verdict is the first time the company has been held criminally accountable for its involvement in exporting the hazardous waste to Cote d’Ivoire.

“This judgement appears damning given Trafigura’s previous denials of any wrongdoing. The waste, which was ultimately dumped in Cote d’Ivoire, had a huge impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people,” said Benedetta Lacey, a special advisor at Amnesty International who has visited Côte d’Ivoire and met victims of the dumping.

“While the ruling is a significant step forward, this is not the end of the story for those affected. There are unanswered questions about the impact that the waste may have had on people’s health, and the areas where the waste was dumped are yet to be fully decontaminated”…

Full text here

Written by Richard Wilson

July 24, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Review of “Secret Affairs” by Mark Curtis

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By me, from the New Humanist

Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis (Serpent’s Tail)

When Iran’s last democratically elected Prime Minister set about nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Britain sought to replace him with a “dictator” – in the words of our then Ambassador to Tehran – who would “settle the oil question on reasonable terms”. In the process, the Foreign Office actively supported a man they saw as “a complete political reactionary,” Ayatollah Kashani, whose hard-line followers organised the large-scale protests that preceded the 1953 coup, which installed the arch-conservative – but pro-Western – Shah. Kashani went on to mentor Ruhollah Khomeini, who in 1979 overthrew the Shah and installed the repressive theocracy that continues in power today.

In Secret Affairs, Mark Curtis delivers an unsettling verdict on the conduct of British foreign policy over the last hundred years. In pursuit of our national interest, the UK has repeatedly sided with the most brutal and conservative forces of political Islam – and aggressively conspired against democratic governments around the globe. While this has yielded temporary gains, in the long run the policy has proved enormously costly, even in its own cynical terms.

Across the Muslim world, for most of the past century, Britain’s chief enemy has been not religious extremism but the secular nationalists who sought to wrest back control of their country’s resources from the former colonial powers. Time and again, from Egypt to Iran to Indonesia, we have sought to undermine such leaders by arming and training their extremist opponents, while giving generous support to Islamist dictators willing to do business on favourable terms. In the process, we have contributed directly to the growth of radical Islam worldwide, and the consequences are now coming home to haunt us.

Eager to retain a strategic foothold in South Asia – in Churchill’s words, to “keep a bit of India” after independence in 1947 – Britain was instrumental in the creation of Pakistan, an artificial state with little to hold it together but its identity as a Muslim nation. In recent decades, successive Pakistani governments have sought to bolster their power by fanning religious fervour at home, and backing militant Islamists across the region. Yet Pakistan has long been treated as a key UK ally, and a favoured recipient of military aid – even as, so Curtis claims, Pakistani intelligence services have continued backing the jihadi groups now fighting British forces in Afghanistan.

Closer still has been our relationship with Saudi Arabia, whose modern form Britain also helped shape, at the close of the colonial era. Seeking to position itself as the leader of the Muslim world, the Saudi state has, since the 1970s, spent an estimated $50 billion promoting its fundamentalist brand of “Wahhabism” around the globe, in what one US think-tank describes as the “largest worldwide propaganda campaign ever mounted”. In positioning the UK as a favoured trading partner for Saudi oil, arms and, latterly, financial investments, Labour and Conservative governments alike have systematically played down the true character of the regime, and its links to global terror.

The picture that emerges is of a nation locked into a series of uncomfortable alliances – of questionable overall benefit even to our narrow self-interest – whose nature our government is unable fully to acknowledge. The issue seems exacerbated by the extraordinary levels of secrecy around UK foreign policy, hindering effective debate about the decisions being taken in our name. Many of the files surrounding Britain’s abortive intervention in Suez, for example, still remain classified half a century later. Due to the UK’s controversial “30-year rule”, much of the more recent historical record is simply missing.

Curtis seems nonetheless to have done an excellent job with the sources available, assembling an impressive array of leaks and government admissions, to argue that, at least in ethical terms, UK foreign policy has changed little in recent decades. He makes a compelling, if somewhat disheartening, case.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 22, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Book reviews, terrorism

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Judgement day looms for Trafigura…

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From Agence France Presse:

THE HAGUE — A Dutch court will hand down judgment Friday in the first trial of a Swiss-based company whose chartered ship dumped waste alleged to have killed 17 people in Ivory Coast in 2006.

Multinational Trafigura, waste treatment company Amsterdam Port Services (APS), and the Ukrainian captain of the Probo Koala ship were tried with three others for allegedly breaking environment and waste export laws on Dutch territory.

They all pleaded not guilty before the Amsterdam district court. Trafigura risks a fine of up to 2.1 million euros (2.7 million dollars).

“We are happy that four years after the fact, Trafigura has finally been brought before a judge,” Marietta Harjono, spokeswoman for environmental group Greenpeace, told AFP.

“But there can only be real justice when Trafigura is prosecuted for the events in the Ivory Coast.” This trial was about alleged violations of European law.

Caustic soda and petroleum residues on board the Probo Koala were prevented from being offloaded on July 2, 2006 for treatment in the Port of Amsterdam and redirected to Abidjan, where they were dumped on city waste tips.

The waste, slops from the cleaning of fuel transportation tanks, was pumped back into the Probo Koala after APS demanded a higher price for treatment as it was more toxic than previously thought.

Trafigura declined to pay the increased price.

The company, which denies any link between the waste and casualties and has an independent experts’ report backing its stance, reached out of court settlements for 33 million euros and 152 million euros in Britain and Ivory Coast that exempted it from legal proceedings.

But a United Nations report published last September found “strong” evidence blaming the waste for at least 15 deaths and several hospitalisations.

The Ivory Coast claims the dumping caused 17 deaths and thousands of poisoning cases.

Dutch judges have yet to decide on a bid by Greenpeace to have those responsible for the waste dump tried in the Netherlands for crimes committed on Ivorian soil.

In the current case, the prosecution asked the Amsterdam district court to impose a two-million-euro fine on Trafigura.

It sought a one-year jail term for Trafigura employee Naeem Ahmed, 43, who coordinated the operation in the port of Amsterdam, and four months for the Ukrainian captain of the ship, Sergiy Chertov, 46, for allegedly falsifying documents and lying about the nature of the waste.

For APS former managing director Evert Uittenbosch, 60, the prosecution sought a six-month jail term, half of it suspended, for violating environmental laws.

APS faces a 250,000-euro fine for the same violation, and the city of Amsterdam, which administered the port, 150,000 euros for not having prevented the exportation of dangerous waste.

The head of the Tommy company which dumped the waste from the Probo Koala in Ivory Coast was given a 20-year jail term by an Abidjan court in October 2008.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 22, 2010 at 11:29 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu. Again.

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See also (from 2008): Free Jean-Claude Kavumbagu

UPDATE - I’m pleased to report that the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch have both put out statements condemning the arrest and calling for Jean-Claude’s release.

Burundi’s EU-bankrolled kleptocracy strikes again

I will never forget the enormous help Jean-Claude Kavumbagu gave me while I was writing my first book, Titanic Express. This is now the fifth time he has been jailed simply for telling the truth.

One of the things that seems to have particularly riled the authorities on this occasion is Jean-Claude’s claim that “our defence and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend their country”. Unfortunately this claim is so clearly and demonstrably true that it’s difficult to imagine what the Burundi authorities think they have to gain in suppressing it…

From Agence France Presse

Burundi police arrested a journalist for alleged “treason” Saturday over an article questioning whether the security forces could deal with an attack like one that hit Uganda a week ago, an official said.

The July 11 bombings in Kampala claimed by Al Qaeda-inspired rebels killed at least 73 people watching the World Cup final in what the insurgents said was retaliation for Ugandan troops serving in Somalia, where Burundi also has soldiers participating in an African Union force.

“The police arrested the director of Netpress on a warrant issued by the prosecutor of the republic and which had as motive ‘treason’,” police Colonel David Nikiza told AFP.

Jean-Claude Kavumbagu, head of the online news outlet, was later detained at the central prison at Bujumbura, relatives and prison officials said.

“The authorities are reproaching Kavumbagu for an article that appeared on July 12 and which questioned the capacity of the Burundi defence and security forces to face an Islamist attack like that which has just hit Kampala,” a Netpress journalist told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In the article that appeared Wednesday, Netpress wrote that “since Monday morning, the anxiety has been palpable in Bujumbura for all those who have heard about what happened yesterday at Kampala because they are convinced that if these Shebab militants wanted to try something in our country, they would succeed with disconcerting ease.”

This was because “our defence and security forces shine in their capacity to pillage and kill their compatriots rather than defend their country,” it continued.

It is the fifth time that Kavumbagu, 45, has been imprisoned for his work.

Written by Richard Wilson

July 18, 2010 at 8:42 pm

“Yourfreedom” – hit, miss or maybe?

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Amid much fanfare and mockery, the UK government this week launched a new website, “Your Freedom”, which invites the public to nominate laws that intrude on our civil liberties, hamper business or are simply unnecessary. The suggestion is that the best ideas could then be included in a forthcoming “Great Repeal Bill”, with the aim of lightening up the statute book, promoting free enterprise, and reversing the last government’s creeping restrictions on freedom.

Most of the reactions to this idea that I’ve seen have been broadly hostile. I’m still trying to figure out why this is, and the extent to which I agree with the criticisms that have been made. Here are the main arguments I’ve come across:

1. Most government “consultations” are completely bogus

The last government engaged in a whole series of consultation “initiatives” – perhaps the most memorable of which being New Labour’s “Big Conversation“. The perception many have is that these were essentially bogus exercises – seeking to create the impression that the government was “listening” when policy-makers ultimately just went along and did what they were going to do anyway. There is a widespread expectation that “Yourfreedom” will end up going the same way.

2. “Direct democracy” is too easily hijacked by extremists, special interest groups, and ‘single issue fanatics’.

Some have also expressed the opposite worry – that the government may end up being influenced too much, and in a retrograde direction. Early suggestions on the website included a number of calls to un-abolish the death penalty, repeal our membership of the European Union, and scrap the Human Rights Act. Hardly inspiring…

3. Many of the proposals put forward by the public have been absurd, and this undermines the credibility of the whole exercise.

One widely-reported “Yourfreedom” proposal was that marriage to horses be legalised. Although I can’t find it on the website now (I’m guessing it either got deleted or the Daily Mail made it up for effect), there are plenty of other jokey suggestions in evidence – including that we repeal the law of gravity and the second law of thermodynamics.

4. The site has been badly designed and plagued by technical problems, which again undermines the project’s credibility.

The “Yourfreedom” website crashed within hours of launching, and was very slow-moving for much of the rest of the day. At the time of writing, these problems have still not been resolved – the site was again inaccessible for several minutes when I checked it in the last hour. Some more detailed technical criticisms have been made by Chris Applegate here.

Looking these points in turn…

1. Government consultation.

I’m not surprised that people are cynical about government “consultations” in general, and online “listening” initiatives in particular. The “Big Conversation” was just one high-profile example of a much wider tendency within government. A friend of mine was recently involved in a campaign to save her local maternity ward from closure. The (unelected) local health authority had set up a “public consultation” about the whole thing, but none of the available options involved not-closing-the-maternity-ward. Government consultation has too often been used to give a veneer of democratic legitimacy to a fundamentally undemocratic decision-making process, with the discourse tightly controlled, and the outcome pre-determined by those in power.

The last government’s e-petitions site was arguably a step forward from the “local consultation” model, but it shared some of the same characteristics. All proposed petitions would be reviewed by the government, and only those deemed appropriate would be published. I tried submitting one myself, after a friend of mine in a country to which the UK gives a lot of aid money got locked up for criticising that country’s President. The petition got rejected, for reasons that still don’t seem clear to me, and I know that many other people had a similar experience.

For me, one crucial difference with “Your Freedom” is that there appears to be no pre-moderation, and no vetting of comments. This is the first government consultation I know of where the discourse is not tightly controlled by those in power, and this seems like quite a significant step forward. (By contrast, it’s pretty common for newspapers like the Daily Telegraph to pre-screen all comments on their online articles, weeding out those that criticise their coverage or touch on sensitive issues.)

The flipside of this, obviously, is that people will then use the website to say things that we find offensive or strongly disagree with, or which mock the entire exercise. I actually think this is one of the site’s best features. Every General Election I’ve voted in has had a pile of candidates wanting to bring back hanging, set up a Christian fundamentalist state, deport all immigrants etc. They all lost. Standing alongside them were a long line of “Monster Raving Loony” candidates from the “Forward to Mars” party – but no-one took this to negate the value of the entire electoral process, and neither did their presence cripple our democracy. In fact, I’d suggest that any large-scale democratic exercise that doesn’t feature significant numbers of cranks, wingnuts and piss-takers is probably not very genuine or open. While I don’t think the cranks and wingnuts are particularly good for our democracy, as soon as you start setting up criteria for excluding people you make it easier for those in power to shut out genuinely valid criticism, which to me seems far more dangerous.

I think it’s too early to say whether the government will really take on board any of the suggestions that come out of the “Your Freedom” exercise. I know there’s a high risk, based on past form, that they won’t. Political priorities may change. The civil service may see the idea as a threat to their pre-eminence and do their best to frustrate it. Or maybe this really is nothing more than a cynical public relations exercise.

But there is one element to this process which I think could lead to some real changes, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t been given more attention. Within an organisational system as large, old and complex as the UK state, it would be very surprising  if there weren’t some areas of the law that are dysfunctional, and that could productively be tweaked or trimmed down. Given the number of people who work within, or engage with, the UK government on a day-to-day basis, it is likely that there will be some people who have detailed information about the nature of these dysfunctions, and ideas about what could be done to address them. Given the sheer size of the state, and the nature of large organisations more generally, it seems possible that at least some of this information has not yet been brought to the attention of the people who make decisions at the top of the heirarchy – ie. ministers and senior civil servants.

It seems to me that “Yourfreedom” is quite well set up for capturing – and prompting debate around – just this kind of specialist information, and highlighting it directly both to policy-makers and (equally importantly) the wider public. Here’s an (imperfect) example of the kind of thing I mean, from an idea submitted to Yourfreedom on July 2nd: “Reinstate the right to work for people awaiting a decision on their asylum claim”.

I work in a specialist NHS service for refugees and people seeking aslyum and the academic and anecdotal evidence shows worklessness as a detrimental force in almost every client I see. They lose essential skills and confidence and struggle to find something meaningful and productive to do.  It places barriers in the way of developing language skills, adjusting across cultures and establishing the kind of social capital that supports everyday life.

In addition to lightening the burden on taxpayers, service providers and the host community, permission to work would enable the individual to maintain their skills, many of which would be of great value to us here in the UK, maintain their well-being ( particuarly their mental health) and fit them for the challenges that lie ahead – whether they gain or are denied refugee status.

For a simple overview of the issues: link

2. Direct Democracy

It does seem possible that input from the “wingnuts” may sway the government to some extent on an issue like immigration or the Human Rights Act, where the coalition doesn’t yet seem to have fully made up its mind – though I’m doubtful that the more extreme proposals will have much of an impact.  But as it happens, the picture is a bit more complicated than some of the media coverage (not least the recent BBC Newsnight piece in which I featured as a token “Joe Public”) would suggest.

While a proposal to “Bring back the death sentence” has received more comments than most others on the site – 286 at the time of writing – the average “rating” from users is just 1.7 out of 5, suggesting that many contributors strongly disagree. The call to scrap the Human Rights Act is also widely commented on, but gets a score of only 2.8 out of 5. A proposal to “Repeal the Digital Economy Bill”, meanwhile, has had nearly as many comments (278), and an average rating of 4.9 out of 5.

There have also been a number of suggestions to scrap Control Orders (which allow the government to impose de facto house arrest on anyone they say they suspect of being a terrorist), reform the libel laws to protect freedom of speech, clarify the law that led to the notorious “Twitter joke” trial, and repeal the law restricting demonstrations outside Parliament.

3. Joke suggestions

My personal favourite called for a ban on “necro-bestiality” (“I don’t want to have to worry about what some pervert might do to my cat when it dies”), prompting a heated debate: “If I want to maybe sell my dead cat to some sicko, I don’t need any bureaucrats in Brussels interfering”. There’s also a rousing call to repeal “Sod’s law” (“This law has dogged my life and the lives of millions of others”). I find it odd, though, that anyone would think this negates the value of the whole exercise, any more than the existence of the Monster Raving Loony party undermines the point of an election.

4. Technical problems

If you wanted any more proof of the UK government’s collective, ongoing problem in understanding the internet, you saw it in the technical problems that have plagued “Yourfreedom”. That the website crashed after just a few thousand visits could be taken as a sign that the government wasn’t expecting very many people to use it, and therefore didn’t allocate enough bandwidth. Also disappointing was the fact that these problems dragged on for so long.

A further annoyance is that an idea can rank as “highly rated” simply by having a high average score – even if the total number of votes it has received is very low, thereby overshadowing a rival idea that has a slightly lower average but a far larger support base.

Whether these problems end up crippling the project will, I think, depend on how quickly they get sorted out. For all the difficulties, the government claim to have had 2,205 ideas, 7,419 comments and 18,000 votes on the project’s first day, and it’s clear that the site is still being actively used several days in : I’ve counted 14 new contribution in the last hour in the “civil liberties” category alone.

Old media meets new media

One thing that hasn’t surprised me is the near-universal derision that “Your Freedom” has prompted from the mainstream media. The Mirror, the Daily Mail, the BBC and others have chosen largely to ignore the serious contributions made by the public – even the very popular ones such as the call to repeal the Digital Economy Bill – and focussed instead on the most extreme and frivolous proposals.

Partly this seems to be a class issue. For years, mainstream journalists and editors were the gatekeepers for any critique of government policy, and this gave them a great deal of power. Whether you were a thinktank, a lobby group or a campaigner, if you wanted to be heard, you had to get on the news. The voices of ordinary members of the public could only be heard in tightly-controlled circumstances – a 30-second slot in a pre-screened radio-phone in show, a 100-word “letter to the editor” which in most cases would not even have been published. Columnists and TV pundits were “opinion leaders” and “opinion formers”, with a near-monopoly on the analysis of government policy. Now ordinary people are getting to form – and express – our own opinions on these things. The internet is giving us more and more opportunities to cut out the middleman, and many members of the “pundit class” feel very threatened.

When people feel threatened, they tend to retreat into stereotypes. To many within the UK media, the British public now seems to fall into two basic categories. We are either stupid, fixated on the X-factor and shamefully apathetic about politics, or we are extremist “single issue fanatics”, contemptibly obsessive about politics. Anyone who writes a blog, or contributes an idea to something like “YourFreedom” must, by definition, fall into the latter category, and the idea of asking people like us for our opinions is almost as contemptible as we are. Welcome to the world of the Daily Mail, and John O’ Farrell

Written by Richard Wilson

July 5, 2010 at 12:48 am