Tennis girls

The primordial ball of energetic, elemental excitement that is Tim Henman popped up on the radio again this morning. And that can only mean one thing. Tennis approaches. Now, I’d hate you to think that I’d got anything against tennis per se. I can enjoy watching the rain fall at Wimbledon with the best of them, although there is always the risk that Cliff Richard might ruin its trance like purity. I can thrill to the news that not a single British player has advanced beyond the hemi-semi-finals or whatever, save the obligatory one upon whom the wildly unrealistic expectations of that unfortunate’s compatriots will immediately descend. I will squirm with everyone else as all the predictable consequences inevitably transpire, just like the ones that would flow from the descent of any other similarly crushing object.

No, it’s not the masochistic festival ushered in by July that worries me. After all, wondering why we can’t produce a sporting hero like those that just about every other country seems to be able to do is a sporting event in itself, and one at which we can excel. It’s not that. It’s the insistence that women tennis players must always be referred to as “girls”. Apart from some scarily precocious Americans and East Europeans, none of the tennis players thus described are girls at all. They are grown women. Why this infantilising nonsense?

It’s not only women tennis players, it’s women athletes generally. I hate it. I know that footballers are usually referred to as “lads”, but that doesn’t seem to have quite the same patronising, sexist ring to it. I know I’m a grumpy old git. But I think there’s something more going on here than just my personal ageing crisis.

Ryan Giggs can run, but he clearly can’t hide

This was always going to end in only one way. It’s taken a few days, but the inevitable has finally happened. Ryan Giggs has clearly lost, but have the rest of us won? We are now free to read in the papers what we’ve been free to read on Twitter anyway, but the greatest sense of freedom that I’ve felt over the last few hours is that of having been released from a farce. On the Today programme this morning, a kind of surrealist theatre was being played out. I knew what I’d seen on Twitter. I knew what the Scottish Sunday Herald had printed. The Today presenters knew that I knew. Well, not that I knew exactly, but that lots of people like me knew. And yet they had constantly to refer, coyly, to “a footballer”. I was waiting for one of the contributors to slip up, Naughtie-style, and call a Hunt a cunt, as it were, or at least Ryan Giggs an adulterer. They must have been well-schooled, under the watchful eyes of the BBC’s lawyers no doubt, since none of them did.

But no sooner had I felt relief at escaping from this surrealist farce, than I began to feel uneasy about how that release had come about. I have no sense that the masses have won a resounding victory for freedom. I don’t feel that the democratic twitterings of the internet generation have dealt a blow against fuddy-duddy judges who, as Kelvin Mackenzie never tires of reminding us, have had the confounded cheek to reach the age of 70. I take no pleasure in seeing the law fall to the force majeure of several thousand people openly flouting it. One day it may be one of us who needs its protection, after all.

The whole saga is marked out by having just about no redeeming features. At its root is a sordid affair and the breach of innocent people’s trust by an over-paid if undoubtedly skilful footballer. The other layers in the onion are no  more appetising. We have tabloid newspapers flagrantly repositioning their grubby money-making from lurid gossip as a whiter-than-white crusade for freedom of expression. An MP who seems more interested in his public profile than in upholding the laws he’s supposed to be a part of enacting, and then claiming that it’s a blow for “the little people”. And in so doing making judges, who gave their considered opinion on both sides of a difficult matter merely hours earlier, look fools by mid-afternoon.

And what of the principles that have been run rough-shod over in this unsavoury broo-ha-ha? Is privacy indivisible? Does everyone have an equal right to it, or is it a matter of horses for courses? Should our laws be determined more by accepting defeat at the hands of Twitter than by what lawmakers have decreed?

Questions are easier to come by than answers. But one thing seems to be emerging, whether we like it or not. Those who live by celebrity – whether the “real” celebrity that comes from sporting or other achievement, or the celebrity that comes from being famous simply for being famous – seem, it has turned out, to have entered into a Faustian pact with the media that now sustains the very celebrity that it delivered to them in the first place. There is something, perhaps, more than a little ludicrous in the image of someone shouting, “Look at me, I’m famous” whilst simultaneously demanding the right to maintain their privacy unalloyed.

OBL and DSK: fame, infamy, and due process

It’s probably quite unusual that two high-profile men should enter the vortex of publicity and thence become known almost iconically and universally by three-letter acronyms. But Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Osama Bin Laden have more in common than merely being shortened to DSK and OBL. They are also joined by their unhappy relationship to the due process of law and justice. They have both become hate figures, and that hatred has been used to justify a cavalier approach to the assessment of their guilt in the one case, and the administration of punishment in the other. I’ve dealt elsewhere with the case of Bin Laden, and why I believe that the extreme nature of his crime does not justify extra-judicial assassination. The case of Strauss-Kahn, languishing on suicide watch amid calls for his immediate resignation as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, is obviously very different, but it also raises important questions of justice and its prosecution in cases which involve famous people, and emotive accusations.

When I wrote about Bin Laden, I felt obliged to spell out that I was not offering an apologia for his appalling crimes. It saddens me that the very act of calling for justice to be both done and seen to be done is routinely interpreted as offering some kind of succour to wickedness. In the OBL case, there was no dispute about culpability since he had claimed and revelled in his guilt. That is the sharpest distinction between his case and that of DSK. Strauss-Kahn has not been found guilty of anything, but you wouldn’t know that from some of the media coverage of the last few days. However, in order to avoid any doubt, to refute the ridiculous idea that insisting upon innocence until guilt is proven in his case is tantamount to condoning sexual abuse, let me make myself crystal clear.

The charge on which Strauss-Kahn is indicted is of the utmost seriousness. It is not the forgiveable peccadillo of an over-active Gallic lover. The victim of this allegation, if it is proven, has been through an appalling and traumatic experience. Rich and powerful men have no more right to jump naked from their baths, pursue women half their age, and impose their sexual will, than does anyone else. If that is what happened, Strauss-Kahn deserves all the opprobrium, all the cataclysmic fall from grace, all the punishment that will come his way. But there is that small word, “if”.

When a story breaks such as this, so full of symbolism, so redolent of the “mighty” having been “put down … from their seat”, it is perhaps inevitable that the desire for it to be true overtakes our willingness to wait and see if it is true. And the heady mixture of sex and power readily intoxicates us. But we should resist. The facts that the accused is rich, that he is powerful, that he is so central to world economic affairs at this particular moment, that the victim is by contrast poor and weak, that the alleged crime is so heinous, none of these things should be permitted to deflect us from insisting on innocence first, and guilt second and only if proven.

The images of Strauss-Kahn in the dock, dishevelled and unshaven. The interviews with his lawyer protesting his innocence, and those with the lawyer of the accuser underlining her trauma. The notoriety of the prison to which he has been sent pending trial. The drama of his being placed on suicide watch. These are not elements in the unfolding of justice. Rather they are the plot-lines of an unsavoury soap opera; they should be kept for after a verdict has been delivered, and not before.

Thus we unite OBL and DSK in an extraordinary way, not because their crimes, or allegations, have even the remotest things in common, but because in both cases justice is put on the back burner in favour of drama, prurience, and a good old-fashioned morality play.

Beating the press into compliance?

So, Max Mosley has failed to convince the European Court of Human Rights that newspapers should be required to alert private individuals to impending publication of details about their private lives. By and large most people are breathing a sigh of relief that what many view as a serious and unwarranted curb on press freedom has thus been avoided.

That view is well-founded, and in most respects I share it. I have never really been able to get too worked up when the gap between the carefully manicured public images of the rich and famous, and the seamy reality of their actual conduct, has sprung suddenly and dramatically into the public realm. In Mr Mosley’s case one might well argue, as he has done, that his sexual proclivities are no-one’s business but his own, although his wife and children might beg to differ. But if you indulge in activity that, once discovered, might paint you in a ridiculous or unflattering light, presumably the best mitigation is not to indulge in it. It does seem special pleading at the very least to argue that the good things in one’s life should be open to everyone’s admiration, but the less good things must be protected from everyone’s scorn. That, I think, is wanting to have one’s cake and greedily consume it too.

On the other hand, I don’t agree with some of the arguments put forward by the press in resisting Mr Mosley’s legal challenge. Those arguments are much too black and white, and are frankly also more than a little puffed-up. The Trafigura super-injunction is constantly wheeled out as proof that any attempt to constrain press freedom about anything at all will inevitably allow bad behaviour to go undetected. In this version of the world, the press is characterised as some sort of knight on a white charger, selflessly protecting the body politic from all sorts of hidden evil. The key thing wrong with that is contained in the word “selflessly”. The idea that the press want to reveal things only because the public good is thereby protected and enhanced, but with no advantage for the press itself, is laughable. For every Trafigura scoop by a serious newspaper there are innumerable kiss-and-tell stories about minor and tedious celebrities of dubious worth engaging in sexual misdemeanours of every imaginable (and some that I’d never imagined, but that’s probably because I don’t get out as much as I should) type and frequency, of which the only beneficiaries are the newspapers concerned. I simply don’t buy the attempt by the tabloid press in particular to capture the moral high ground.

The key objection to Mr Mosley’s attempt in the courts is not so much about the right of newspapers to publish, but about whether judges should have any role in determining or constraining that right. Newspapers have consistently shown themselves to be incapable of distinguishing between the public interest and what things the public might be interested in – especially if those things have a prurient element. That is largely because the papers have a vested interest in terms of their circulations and commercial gain. That’s not wrong, but it doesn’t make them disinterested arbiters. It’s hard to know whether the judges have a better record, because by definition we’ve no idea how many cases come before them, at least in the “super-injunction” category. But I’d rather put my trust in the average judge than in the average tabloid editor, and judges do not have such an obvious a priori interest in publishing or not publishing.

Notwithstanding these concerns, I do on balance return to my starting point of broadly welcoming the ECHR’s decision, but it’s a close-run thing. And I note, also, that newspapers routinely ride rough-shod over the interests of non-celebrities such as defendants (or worse, those who are merely temporary suspects) in serious criminal cases whenever the mood takes them. Ask Mr Christopher Jefferies, the man whose private life was ripped apart and dissected in January during the Jo Yeates murder inquiry. Was that in the public interest? I don’t think so.

BBC World Have Your Say on the killing of Osama Bin Laden

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of being invited to contribute to a discussion on the BBC World Service’s “World Have Your Say”. The programme’s format is to begin with a number of contributions on a topical news item from the “great and the good”, and then to open the lines to other contributors who, like me, are neither great, nor in all probability, especially good. Its key advantage over programmes like “Any Answers” on Radio 4 is its international reach. I think I was the only England-based voice on the programme, and thus one tends to get a much wider range of perspective, and fewer people who are merely annoyed, from Surbiton, or both. In order to ensure that the contributors are not all self-selected, the programme’s producers research opinion on the matters at hand from services such as Twitter or Facebook, and the blogosphere generally. It was through my posting here on Osama Bin Laden’s killing by American special forces that I was contacted and invited on to the programme. The focus of the discussion was to be on the morality of the killing, prompted in particular by the controversy surrounding recent comments by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he confessed himself to be “unsettled” by what has now transpired to be the shooting dead of an unarmed man.

The initial hour of the programme heard a range of views from Gregg Easterbrook, an American writer and journalist; Tom Wright, an erstwhile Bishop of Durham; Rabbi Jonathan Romain; and philosopher, A C Grayling. What struck me most forcibly about the views expressed was how little they ventured into what might be termed ethical or moral territory. Although Dr Wright did refer to the important distinction to be drawn between justice and revenge, he did so having firmly identified himself as sympathetic to the American position flowing from the 9/11 atrocity. Gregg Easterbrook was refreshingly honest about what his country had done, and was clear that he believed that killing Osama Bin Laden was the pre-determined purpose of the raid and that there had never been any intention on the Americans’ part to engage in due judicial process. Nevertheless, he was still forthright in his approval of this. One might not be especially surprised about the Rabbi’s general support for the action, given that Israel has never shown itself to be averse to exactly the same tactics. It was left to the atheist Grayling to articulate most clearly the ethical inadequacies of countries resorting to assassination as a means of applying “justice”.

Rather than deal with fundamental principle, the discussion was centred around pragmatic concerns to do with the practical difficulties of bringing Bin Laden to trial; on whether radicalisation was more likely to be provoked by a long and public process than by the speed and finality of a bullet in the head; and on the “exceptional nature” of Bin Laden’s crimes. This last was taken to justify, or at least excuse, the abandonment of due process in favour of something quicker and dirtier.

It seems to me that the key deficiency in the entire debate was a confusion about what is absolute and what is relative. In my view the absolute things are principles of justice and right conduct. The relative things are political and historical perspective. Yet in this exchange, the absolute rightness of the West’s perspective on Islamic radicalism, of the superiority of Western political values and their right to prevail, were effectively taken as read. By contrast, justice was taken to be entirely conditional upon circumstance: if it’s too difficult, or too risky, or the crimes too awful, then justice can be set aside. I fundamentally disagree with this. It takes only the shortest historical perspective to demonstrate how fluid are our interpretations of what is so awful that we need not bother with formal justice, or what is so important that anything is justified in its pursuit. In Britain we learn now that concentration camps and torture were considered entirely justified in putting down the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya only 50 years ago. I doubt we’d see it the same way today.

I was disappointed that the considerations of the contributors were by and large so historically and morally constrained and blinkered. And disappointed too that representatives of faith were no better, indeed worse, than those without faith when it came to discerning the deeper truths behind the political convenience.

Osama Bin Laden: summary execution or just deserts?

The more the disjointed and contradictory details of the American military action to kill Osama Bin Laden spill haphazardly into the public domain, the more the issues pile up. What began as a killing of a notorious man by brave US servicemen in “real and present danger” of their own lives, apparently watched live by the President back in Washington, ends up it seems as the cold-blooded killing of an unarmed man and several of his aides who were posing no immediate threat to their assailants.

One could spend a lot of time, as many commentators are indeed doing, sifting through the legal framework; analysing the American-Pakistani political, military and intelligence relationship; scrutinising the manner of the disposal of the body; or wondering about the risks and benefits of publishing the photographs taken of Bin Laden’s bloodied head. These are all important issues, not to be lightly dismissed or glossed over. But they do not lie at the moral heart of the matter.

That central moral question is simply this: does the appalling nature of what Bin Laden planned and arranged to be executed in New York and other places in September 2001, that death toll of over 3,000 innocent lives, release the United States from any obligation to act lawfully or humanely? I do not believe it does.

It doesn’t because Bin Laden was not the only victim of the action at the weekend. It doesn’t because human life is not about arithmetic, with the weight of the 3,000 innocents simply cancelling out the collateral killing of a couple of Bin Laden’s associates. It doesn’t because revenge is not the same thing as justice.

And revenge, it is increasingly clear, is all that this was about. Avenging the deaths of those thousands is a different matter from obtaining justice for them. Indeed, it makes it impossible for them to get justice.

There will be those, and many of them, who will accuse me of bleeding-heart liberalism, of wasting my time being picky, of failing to apply proper perspective. I beg to differ. Justice is indivisible. It is not dependent on totting up the numbers. It does not become a dispensable luxury merely because an indescribably heinous crime has been committed, as indeed it has. Moreover, it is not given to any of us to set ourselves up as the ultimate judges of another man’s soul. That, if you have faith, is something for God to do.

The alternative vote is an alternative to sanity

On the eve of the referendum that has gripped the imagination of the entire country like a vice – unfortunately one made entirely of jelly – I content myself with merely pointing to the manifold discrepancies between what the AV tin promises on the outside, and what the internal contents are in fact most likely actually to deliver.

  • AV will reduce tactical voting. Leaving aside the issue of what is supposed to be so heinous about tactical voting, supporters of AV assure us that it is very evil indeed, and that the current first-past-the-post system encourages more of us to indulge in this wickedness. In truth, it seems to me that AV opens up entirely new vistas for those who would be tempted to such debauchery. At the moment, the voter who wants to think carefully about what result in their particular constituency might best reflect their local or national interests and commitments has very little room for manoeuvre. They can either vote for the candidate that most nearly aligns with their own views, or for another candidate because they have some longer or more indirect game in mind. Not especially complex tactics, then. But with AV – oh my! I can vote tactically both with my first preference vote, and with all the myriad combinations of secondary preferences. I might need to spend some considerable time weighing up the possibilities, and a cursory familiarity with statistics and probability theory might also come in handy. So if tactical voting is the scourge that the AV supporters evidently believe it to be, voting for AV is a sure-fire way of having one hell of a lot more of it.
  • AV will prevent “jobs for life” in safe seats. And how, pray, will that work, exactly? In safe seats AV works exactly like FPTP, since a safe seat is only safe because a majority for a given party is so overwhelming that it’s a foregone conclusion. Seats with a serious minority of support for any one party are by definition not safe. So there is a very high likelihood that safe seats will immediately produce a winner with more than 50% of the vote, and then AV and FPTP are one and the same. So no, AV will not deal with the perceived evils of seats where a party’s donkey is as certain of success as would be that party’s leader. (Obviously, there are some parties in which a choice between donkey and leader exists only in theory.)
  • AV will make MPs work harder for your vote. Apart from the fact that most MPs work quite hard anyway, I’d love to see the work-rate that a BNP candidate would have to put in in order to tempt me to put a cross, even at the 100th preference, against his or her ballot. If I disagree with you, you can work as hard as you fucking-well like, but it’s not going to make me agree with you out of mere admiration for your Herculean efforts. Which brings us neatly to the next AV myth…
  • MPs will have to “reach out” to all their constituents. If this means anything all, which I very much doubt, it means simply this. That all candidates will need to become masters of spin. They will need to be able to deploy their arguments in ways which set out to deceive those who oppose them into thinking that they don’t oppose them as much as they thought they did. It’s an invitation to rush to insipid and fatuous claims of motherhood and apple pie. Frankly, we have far too much of all that already. Vote for AV and you’ll be getting a lot more of that sort of stuff. We’ll all need to become students of textual analysis, learning to perceive what is really meant amongst all the mood words and misdirections that will be used to put us off the scent. Vote for AV and you might as well ask Alastair Campbell to write all the candidates’ manifestos.
  • AV doesn’t give some people more votes than others. Now we get to the dark and mysterious heart of the AV system. In one sense this claim is true. Each eventually counted vote was possessed by one individual, and of course no-one will have more than one of their various votes actually counted. But that’s not the point. Don’t think of it as more than one vote, think of it as more than one bite of the cherry in deciding where that vote will eventually reside at the point at which it is counted. It’s like betting on the horses. If you bet for the horse to win, then you have less chance of success than if you bet for it to be placed. That’s the whole point of AV. It’s not a voting system, it’s a betting system. That’s why it lends itself to complex tactical voting as I argued previously. And there’s another way in which some voters have more influence over the result than others. Take a typical constituency with, say, 40% support for party A, 35% for party B, 20% for party C, and 1% each for parties D to H. If I vote for parties A or B they are extremely unlikely to be eliminated in the first round of voting. So my minor preferences will never come into play. On the other hand, if I vote for any of parties D to H, I can pretty much guarantee that not only my second, but my 5th and 6th preferences will also come into the game. Party C voters might or might not get to see their minor preferences taken into account. Tactics, see? OK – so if I’m a BNP first preference supporter, it’s very likely indeed that my subsequent preferences will get into the game, although of course (and has anyone in fact denied this?) only one of my “votes” will actually be counted eventually. If you want the second and third thoughts of lunatic supporters of fascist parties still to be swilling around the system long after the fascist candidate has been eliminated, then go ahead and vote for AV. Personally, I won’t be. I’ve no interest whatsoever in those whose first preference is for violent racists.
  • AV is more proportional. No, it isn’t.

So there you have it. AV does nothing to correct the perceived inadequacies of the FPTP system. It doesn’t do any of the things it says on the tin. All it does is serve the hubris of one politician who’s got into power, and who doesn’t want to lose it ever again. No, I don’t agree with Nick. Not on this, and not on anything else I can think of either.