Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Remarks on Hitchens on Cannabis

I'm reading Peter Hitchens's latest book, The War We Never Fought, in preparation for our debate next Wednesday. A couple of comments occur to me, along with some slightly sketchy exploratory remarks:

Hitchens discusses the passage into law of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. He states (p.67): The proposed Bill abolished the absolute offence of allowing drugs to be used on one’s premises.

This is incorrect. By the time under discussion (early 1970), the Lords of Appeal had already, in the well-known case of Sweet v Parsley (23 January 1969), found that the relevant legislation (section 5b of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1965) did not create such an absolute offence.

He also states:
it separated the offence of trafficking from the offence of possession, and made the penalties for possession alone much weaker. As we shall see, this would lead over time to the effective decriminalisation of cannabis possession. This distinction was also to be the foundation of another key policy. From then on the state sought, with much rhetoric and rather less action, to interdict the supply of drugs, classed as an extraordinarily evil activity. Yet at the same time it viewed the use and possession of these same drugs as a minor offence. So it made almost no effort to interdict demand. Thus, in some mysterious way, the drug was evil as it flourished in the fields, evil during its long journey from grower to smuggler, and still more evil in the hands of the seller. But it became miraculously innocent at the moment when it passed to the hands of the buyer, the only one who would actually experience its effects. Yet it is presumably those effects which make the drug morally objectionable and justify its illegal status. This inexplicable transformation of a substance from appalling wickedness to light-hearted harmlessness, at the moment of sale, makes the Roman Catholic belief in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ seem a relatively undemanding concept. Yet it takes place between normal men and women, without ceremony or apostolic succession, hundreds of times each day at school gates, on street corners and in pubs, and nobody marvels about it at all. (p.66)

But of course the distinction between use and supply is not at all odd and was not unusual then. Sale but not possession of pornography were criminal offences too. Alcohol prohibition in the US, as Hitchens is keen to point out, had taken a similar approach. The underlying rationale for such distinctions - right or wrong - is not mysterious. The targets of the prohibition of supply are those who profit commercially from sale of supposedly damaging or corrupting things. Such people are conceived of - generally accurately - as involved in public acts, entered into for calculated gain, not private choices of personal conduct which one may characterise as foibles, follies or weaknesses, but certainly not as pursuit of monetary profit.

There are two closely-related aspects to this distinction: first, the contrast between private personal pursuits and public commercial activity. Second, the distinction between, on the one hand, detached, calculated pursuit of profit and, on the other, activities entered into in response to personal inclination - whether one characterises this as 'lifestyle choice', response to felt need, or 'greasy pleasure' depends both on the individual case and one's own views about it.

The first distinction - between personal liberty and commercial 'freedom' (as in 'free enterprise') is, incidentally, one which the economic Right, especially but not only so-called libertarians and the post-Thatcher Conservative party in Britain, seeks to eliminate from discussion, since it suits their purposes to pretend that business activity, which in reality is carried on only thanks to state institutions such as the monetary system and the laws of property and corporations, is continuous with the realm of free action of private individuals, and that state 'interference' with the behaviour of businesses is as offensive as incursions into real peoples' personal lives. (At the same time though, the conduct of business must always be conceived of as hard work which needs to be motivated by huge rewards, and not in any way as involving an aspect of showing off, enjoyable wheeler-dealing, or forms of compulsive gambling.)

Hitchens shows some inclination to accept this neoliberal fiction, for example at p.251 of the book: Economic liberalism is of course closely allied to political and social liberalism. He seems not to approve of the Thatcherite consensus, but does and says precious little to oppose its economic wing: he claims taxation is an unwarranted imposition, and that Bishops concerned about child poverty are propagandists for the dreaded Socialism, for example. Of course when he is paying attention and dealing with real issues rather than applying abstract right-wing nostrums, some underlying humanity pokes through: he decries the sell-off of council houses and advocates public ownership of the railways, but these are exceptions to the rule.

On the BBC's recent - and execrable - programme about Marxian economics, Hitchens fell in line with Stephanie Flanders's neoliberal orthodoxy by saying: Is there an alternative to capitalism? I've no idea...It doesn't occur to me, it doesn't seem to me to be important. It's like saying, is there an alternative to weather? Here he is basically a victim - though by no means an entirely innocent one - of the usual goalpost-shifting involved in discussions of 'capitalism'.

From Smith to Nozick, theorists of the 'free market' gain assent to 'capitalism' by using folksy illustrations to assimilate instrumental commercial activity - which is inherently public since it involves altering claims to the world's resources - to the same category as private activity entered into for its own sake. The reality is nothing like these carefully devised examples, being one of corporate power and rapacious pursuit of profit unfettered - supposedly by law, as those responsible like to point out: 'our hands are tied' - by any concern about anything else.

Which brings us to the second distinction: that between detached profit-seeking, and the exercise of individual liberty to purue individual projects, pastimes, and pleasures. The penal system distinguishes the seriousness of offences - and thus the maximum level of punishment that can be considered proportionate - according in part to the motives which underly their coimmission. The motives of cannabis smokers are personal: in some cases the motive may be desperation for oblivion, in others perhaps full-blown self-indulgent sybarism, but mostly rather modest aims such as relaxation, enhancing enjoyment of music, film or sex, stimulating creativity through unusual  thoughts and associations (but don't forget to write it down, and expect to discard quite a bit of it!), and so on. These are recognisably humane and generally unambiguously innocent motives, which - supposing that the drug has harmful effects worth speaking of - do not necessarily visit harm on others. The dealer of drugs does not have any such homely motives, and if harm is brought about by the drug, then it will necessarily impact other people.

No doubt Hitchens would object that people have free will; the dealer should not be blamed for the choices of drug takers. This is too quick. I often point out that blame is not a scarce commodity: there is plenty to go round. I may perfectly well be to blame for (supposedly) harming  myself, and yet another person may also be at fault - and even, depending on our relative power, character and so on, more so (consider agents provocateurs) - for enabling, procuring or encouraging such harmful activity. Hichens's views on free will, and related but here irrelevant views about addiction, will have to wait for another occasion.

Another different line (and perhaps a rather inconsistent one, if he insists that all blame fror the ill-effects of drugs must start and stop with the user - as he seems inclined to, though I'm ready to be corrected) Hitchens might take in this connection is to point out that legalisation will bring out the Bransons and their marketing men - which will promote cannabis use and thus increase the harm he supposes it to visit on its users.

(Hitchens tends to appeal to the knock-on effects on the family of harmed users, but even accepting arguendo that such harms are substantial and inevitable, I'm not inclined to accept Hitchens' variation on another right-wing trope - use of appeal to family as a way of blurring the line between self-regarding and other-regarding conduct. The usual right-wing use of this is for millionaires to appeal to 'providing for their family' to present their rapacious pursuit of profit as a kind of altruism. Hitchens reverses the valences, presenting the self-regarding conduct as bad because of ill-effects on family, but the move is the same. An ad hominem objection might be that this seems likely to lead to conflict with Hitchens' opposition - again, I may be corrected here - to state interference with the internal workings of the family. A more cogent objection by my lights is that if we allow (presumed) inconvenience,  disapproval or even distress of (presumed) family members - and then why not other relatives, and friends? - to justify prohibition of otherwise purely self-regarding conduct, we end up with a thorough-going paternalism. Hitchens may not mind this, of course.)

Back to legalisation and marketing. I would like to see advertising and other form of marketing sharply curtailed. This applies to a putatively legalised cannabis as much as anything. Almost all marketing - as opposed to advertising sensu stricto, such as classified ads in the local paper, is an excercise in manipulation, often making use of a well-developed body of applied psychology to mess with peoples' minds, getting them to develop 'brand loyalty' and so on, in the interest of selling more product at a higher price.

I object to this, without abandoning all sembalnce of a belief in individual decision-making, because I recognise that we have a dual nature: we are both subjects, makers of decisions, authors of our own actions, and yet also objects, open to the manipulative influence of others and sometimes exhibiting what can only be regarded as compulsive or otherwise pathological behaviour. Giving full expression to the former aspect of our natures, while making allowance for and where possible preventing the latter is of course a tricky and imperfect business. One area in which it can be achieved is by heavily regulating purely commercial operations, on the grounds that these serve no inherent purpose to those running them, save for making money - it is in the nature of a business transaction that another equally profitable one can be substituted for it. (Of course some transactions have a mixed personal and business motive - I will ignore this complication as relatively unimportant and far too much trouble to deal with here.)

These points can be perfectly well understood without adopting the caricatured view Hitchens mocks, referring with heavy irony to

‘evil dealers’ who press [drugs] on their innocent, addicted or otherwise pitiable victims, the users.(p. 251; similar comments passim.)

Of course such people do exist - there are people who 'push' hard drugs with the intention of controlling vulnerable people, notably young girls whom they wish to pimp out - but I agree with Hitchens that this is far less applicable to cannabis than to the major habit-forming drugs, and in particular heroin. The point of the distinction between trafficking and consumption of drugs is not that one is always unspeakably evil while the other is always entirely blameless, but that if one really thinks that a particular drug is a scourge on society, and further that criminal measures are the way to reduce this harm, then deterrent punishments are better and more justly aimed at those engaged in a business decision to spread the substance than to those who consume it.

For these reasons, trafficking and sale of things which are (we continue to assume for the purposes of argument) harmful may perfectly reasonably be treated differently from the personal use of such things. The motives for use are generally less culpable and also, I would add, fall within the ambit of private conduct which is to be protected. Sale of a putatively harmful thing, on the other hand, is a public, other-regarding matter, which can also be prohibited without imposing any substantial hardship (just go into a different trade), and without impinging on personal freedom to conduct one's life.

All this is not to endorse the current regime under which possession of small quantities of cannabis is often (though selectively and capriciously) unpenalised while supply is (contrary to what Hitchens seems at times to suggest) pursued and punished with much greater enthusiasm, the more so (as in most things) the larger the operation. Still less is it to suggest that de jure decriminalisation of possession and not sale would be a practically consistent approach. The point is the relatively narrow one that Hitchens is incorrect to suppose that punishing use less harshly than sale is a baffling and unjustifiable approach.

Friday, 21 September 2012

The War on 'Aspiring Jihadists'

Below is a report from Stratfor, part of the lucrative terrorism industry. The report exemplifies the self-serving nature of commentary emanating from self-styled "Terrorism Experts".

It relates a tale of "a four-month FBI investigation and sting operation, during which undercover agents had been communicating with Daoud [a suspect now under arrest] and recording his statements. Sting operations", it notes, "have become the tactic of choice for the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement organizations when investigating would-be jihadists."

Note that the suspect was arrested only five days earlier, so any criminal proceedings are well in the future. Like the British satirical magazine Private Eye which recently disgraced itself by imputing guilt to Julian Assange on its front cover, Stratfor is willing to publish prejudicial matter about ongoing criminal investigations. Where they are getting their narrative from is unclear, but we can be pretty sure it isn't the defendant.

The report seems to be based on the premise that the FBI's conduct here - and in all the other similar cases - is unproblematic. The defence of entrapment is treated, in true Dirty Harry style, as one of those pesky 'technicalities', an obstacle to be overcome by ticking the right boxes.

The law of entrapment is of course rather complex, and in the US favours the authorities rather more than one might suppose natural justice would permit. But two things can be said with some certainty: first, the author of this piece is quite wrong to suppose that 'coercion' is necessary for entrapment - it's not entirely clear that he even knows what the word means. And second, whatever the exact legal position in the relevant jurisdiction, this case and a fair number of others like it, stinks.

The article states that "Daoud was a typical aspirational jihadist" - yes, of course he was, since 'aspirational jihadist' here means no more than 'the kind of loudmouthed showoff that is likely to attract the attention of FBI provocateurs'. There are a number of vague and uncheckable allegations which appear to have been fed to the author by the authorities, such as that Mr Loudmouth had attempted to 'recruit' a number of people to help him plot some kind of attack - we have no idea what this amounted to, except that he did not in fact actually recruit anyone for anything until he 'crossed paths' with an FBI provocateur - at which point the issue of who recruited whom becomes an interesting and open question.

"By himself," we are told - and he was by himself - "Daoud was still a long way from posing a direct threat to the United States". Some of the commentary has an air of parody - "One of the characteristics of dramatic attacks of the sort Daoud envisioned, ['envisioned'] however, is that they are difficult to execute alone -- especially if the individual doesn't know how to make explosives or a bomb." Yes, I should say so. The author continues: "Early in Daoud's planning, [so 'early in his planning' that there wasn't any plan at all, it seems] he saw it necessary to reach out for help, which helped to tip off law enforcement agents." Yes, to tip off law enforcement agents that here might be a clueless idiot who, given sufficient encouragement, assistance and coaching might provide them with a terrorism conviction.

The author notes that the FBI rejected the option of "immediately arresting Daoud and making a weak case to a federal judge based on an 18-year-old's online rants". Yes, I bet they did. Instead, "investigators continued to monitor Daoud, seeking more evidence to make a stronger case and get a more severe sentence." Or indeed, one might suppose just to make sure that he was as much of a joker as he appeared, and wouldn't be recruited by someone who actually had a plan or some expertise? No - quite the opposite, it seems. Not satisfied with monitoring this character, "the FBI set up a sting operation, during which authorities recorded Daoud plotting an attack with an undercover law enforcement agent." Not with anyone else, just this undercover agent provocateur.

"In a textbook sting operation targeting an aspiring jihadist, an undercover agent offers the suspect an explosive device (or other deadly weapon). As soon as the suspect attempts to use the inert explosive device, authorities have all the evidence they need to charge the suspect with attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction. The FBI has conducted dozens of these sting operations, where it finds an individual who self-identifies as an aspiring jihadist and then uses informants or undercover agents to collect more evidence against the suspect. Many of those put on trial have received 20- to 30-year sentences."

Having laid out this 'textbook' model of gaining terrorism convictions (which will of course be cited by political and media hacks, spooks and 'terrorism experts' as real and serious disrupted plots, of course), even this author seems to realise it may be necessary to allay some obvious concerns about the usefulness and justice of this approach:

"While the government's pursuit of an incompetent, would-be jihadist may seem extreme, individuals like Daoud (known in some law enforcement circles as "Kramer jihadists," after the bumbling character from Seinfeld) have posed a threat before when they have linked up with competent jihadist operatives. For example, the FBI conducted surveillance on the group that would conduct the 1993 World Trade Center attack but dropped the investigation when the informant turned out to be problematic and when it was determined that the group did not possess the skills to pose a threat."

Er, let me stop you there, Ben. You say that the FBI dropped the investigation? I think you must mean 'discontinued their surveillance'. So that would appear to be the problem there wouldn't it. The FBI stopped watching people they had identified as potential future recruits. |So what you should be recommending is that the FBI should have continued keeping any eye on the suspects - who by your own account would then have led them to some actual terrorist recruiters. Of course that would also require that these bozos had not already been put away for some fake crime entirely manufactured by the FBI, wouldn't it.

Aspiring Jihadist Arrested in Chicago

September 20, 2012 | 0900 GMT

By Ben West
On the evening of Sept. 15, Adel Daoud parked a Jeep Cherokee loaded with a large explosive device outside a bar in downtown Chicago. As he walked down the street away from the vehicle, he activated a trigger to detonate the bomb. The bomb, however, was inert, and FBI agents positioned nearby immediately took Daoud, an 18-year-old from the Chicago suburbs, into custody.
Daoud had been the subject of a four-month FBI investigation and sting operation, during which undercover agents had been communicating with Daoud and recording his statements. Sting operations have become the tactic of choice for the FBI and other U.S. law enforcement organizations when investigating would-be jihadists. As U.S. law enforcement agencies perfect their sting operations to identify aspiring jihadists and prevent attacks, jihadists, too, can be expected to innovate and evolve alternate means of communication and vetting of those with whom they collaborate.

Details of Daoud's Case

Daoud was a typical aspirational jihadist. He read Inspire magazine (an online jihadist publication), watched jihadist training videos, cited arguments from the late Anwar al-Awlaki, participated in jihadist forums denouncing U.S. policy and justified attacks against U.S. citizens. He was not shy in voicing his intent to kill Americans in retaliation for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Daoud tried to recruit at least six people over the span of seven months to help plot an attack against the United States before he crossed paths with an undercover agent on the Internet around May 2012. Based on records later obtained by investigators, Daoud did not appear to have any hard skills to conduct a bombing attack. He downloaded several instructional documents and videos on how to make explosives and build bombs, but there is no indication that Daoud attempted to make any weapons himself. Instead, he talked about going to Saudi Arabia or fighting in Yemen, although he expressed a desire to conduct attacks in the United States before going abroad.

By himself, Daoud was still a long way from posing a direct threat to the United States, but he was bent on conducting an attack. Along the way, he made a number of mistakes. For one, it is apparent from Daoud's conversations with the undercover agent, documented in the Sept. 15 criminal complaint, that Daoud did not heed all of the advice that he read in Inspire magazine. Over the years, Inspire has emphasized that big, elaborate attacks are risky, expensive and hard to put together. One of the magazine's main contributors, Nasir al-Wahayshi, has argued that small, simpler attacks such as the Fort Hood shooting in 2009 are much easier to execute, are more effective than bombings and do not open up aspiring jihadists to discovery by the authorities during the planning stage.

Daoud unequivocally rejected the idea of a shooting attack, even mocking the July 20 shooting that killed 12 people at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Daoud insisted on carrying out a spectacular attack, killing "a lot of enemies" and making headlines worldwide. One of the characteristics of dramatic attacks of the sort Daoud envisioned, however, is that they are difficult to execute alone -- especially if the individual doesn't know how to make explosives or a bomb. Early in Daoud's planning, he saw it necessary to reach out for help, which helped to tip off law enforcement agents.

Rather than immediately arresting Daoud and making a weak case to a federal judge based on an 18-year-old's online rants, investigators continued to monitor Daoud, seeking more evidence to make a stronger case and get a more severe sentence. The FBI set up a sting operation, during which authorities recorded Daoud plotting an attack with an undercover law enforcement agent. The FBI also watched Daoud conduct surveillance on the bar he intended to attack. In a textbook sting operation targeting an aspiring jihadist, an undercover agent offers the suspect an explosive device (or other deadly weapon). As soon as the suspect attempts to use the inert explosive device, authorities have all the evidence they need to charge the suspect with attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction. The FBI has conducted dozens of these sting operations, where it finds an individual who self-identifies as an aspiring jihadist and then uses informants or undercover agents to collect more evidence against the suspect. Many of those put on trial have received 20- to 30-year sentences.

While the government's pursuit of an incompetent, would-be jihadist may seem extreme, individuals like Daoud (known in some law enforcement circles as "Kramer jihadists," after the bumbling character from Seinfeld) have posed a threat before when they have linked up with competent jihadist operatives. For example, the FBI conducted surveillance on the group that would conduct the 1993 World Trade Center attack but dropped the investigation when the informant turned out to be problematic and when it was determined that the group did not possess the skills to pose a threat. Later, the group met Omar Abdel-Rahman (also known as the Blind Sheikh), who arranged for competent jihadist operatives -- Abdul Basit (also known as Ramzi Yousef) and his partner, Ahmed Ajaj -- to come in and lead the group of amateur jihadists. Under the leadership of Basit, the group transformed into the terrorist cell that successfully attacked the World Trade Center.

Other jihadist operatives, such as Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, were similarly incompetent but became dangerous when competent bombmakers and operatives exploited their willingness to conduct jihad. Given these past failures, U.S. counterterrorism officials have no appetite for letting aspiring jihadists slip through the cracks just because they appear incompetent on the surface.

Pre-Empting Entrapment

With the investigation under way, the FBI initiated its efforts to dispel any inklings of coercion. Defense attorneys, civil rights groups and some in the media have alleged that FBI sting operations targeting aspiring jihadists are entrapment -- where law enforcement agents coerce an individual who would not otherwise have posed a threat into an illegal act. The FBI's handling of Daoud's case shows that it is taking steps to combat these charges.

Several times during recorded conversations, the FBI undercover agent gave Daoud opportunities to back away from his planned attack. The agent cited Ramadan as a reason to delay the attack and further delayed by fabricating excuses, such as needing to wait for approval from his sheikh. On at least two occasions, the undercover agent directly asked Daoud if he was sure he wanted to carry out his attack. The agent emphasized that Daoud had to have jihad in his heart in order to carry out a justified attack. He stressed that Daoud couldn't be pressured into the attack, that he had to be completely self-motivated to execute it. Any outside help would be just that -- help, not coercion.

As stated above, this step was likely included deliberately. Entrapment has been raised as a possible defense in the upcoming trial of Mohamed Mohamud, the 21-year-old Somali-born American accused of attempting to bomb a Christmas ceremony in Portland, Ore., in November 2010. Even though the entrapment defense hasn't proved to be successful, to avoid a recurrence of this defense in Daoud's case, the undercover agent cleverly used jihadist principles to get Daoud to emphatically show that he wanted to commit an attack himself and that nobody was forcing him to do it.

Recordings of these conversations will make for a more solid case when prosecutors put Daoud on trial in the coming weeks or months.

The Effectiveness of the Sting

U.S. law enforcement agencies have been extremely active with these types of jihadist sting operations, especially in the past three years. While most of the suspects that the stings involve do not appear to pose a serious threat at the outset, aspiring jihadists can be dangerous if they encounter the right people with the right tradecraft.

In addition to being an effective law enforcement tactic, sting operations also threaten the integrity of jihadists' communication channels. Such operations will increasingly make aspiring jihadists skeptical of the person to whom they are speaking. In Daoud's case, he told the undercover agent that one of his contacts thought he was talking to a spy. Daoud's sheikh, who was not aware of the planned attack, also repeatedly discouraged him from talking about jihad and violence. Others around him knew the risk of discussing plans of attack, but Daoud persisted due to his inexperience.

U.S. law enforcement's struggle with aspiring jihadists will be a drawn-out affair, punctuated by action and counteraction. The FBI and other U.S. agencies are refining their skills in sting operations, which have proved to be an effective tool for pre-empting terrorist attacks. The success of these stings will plant doubts in aspiring jihadists' minds about who they can trust, further complicating their efforts to conduct dramatic attacks. Now the onus is on the jihadists to adjust. They can be expected to implement alternate methods of communication and to step up efforts to verify one another's identities to avoid detection and arrest.

Errant husband apologises for "foresaking all others" vow (also: astroturf video)

So Nick Clegg has made a public apology for breaking his very public election pledge to oppose increased financial barriers to education, or 'tuition fees' (though few of those paying them will actually receive any tutorials).

Only that is not what Clegg has apologised for. The mainstream media have somehow managed almost entirely to skirt around the crashingly, painfully obvious fact that Clegg's strategy team has chosen to apologise not for breaking an election promise but only for making the pledge in the first place. Picture an unfaithful husband, caught in flagrante delicto, grovelling to his wife, begging for forgiveness. "I'm sorry darling - it was a terrible mistake. I should never have said 'forsaking all others'".
The closest Clegg gets to apologising (as if that is of any use to anyone but himself anyway) for breaking his promise is "we made a pledge, we didn't stick to it - and for that I am sorry": that is, he apologises for making-and-breaking the promise. But the context makes it absolutely clear that it's the making and not the breaking that he's apologising for.

This is not an apology for making a dishonest or empty promise, either: the wriggling Clegg claims the pledge was 'in good faith', and surrounding commentary (for example in this video from the BBC's politician-friendly Nick Robinson) clarifies and endorses the chosen narrative: had Clegg thought about it, he would have realised the pledge was impossible to keep.

It wasn't really impossible, of course, just inconvenient. But the grand myth of the Economic State of Emergency has by now become such an article of faith among the political and media classes that any cut - no matter how ideological or counterproductive, and the more brutal the better - can be presented, and accepted, as a fact of nature.

In one or two places the MSM does at least explain that Clegg is apologising for the vow rather than for the cheating, but only in rather obscure places, and never - of course! - spelling out just how disingenuous this actually is, nor examining in much detail the implied claim - largely left unstated - that it was 'impossible' for the Lib Dems to keep their word and oppose the massive fee hikes. Not that it would bear much examination. The news bulletins, the headlines, the stories in main current affairs programming: all lap up this obvious spin uncritically. (Even the Graun leaves it to the bloggers of their aptly named Comment is Free section to make these obvious points.)

But as far as showing contempt for the public is concerned, this carefully crafted non-apology, accepted almost without question by the MSM, is just a warm up. There's also the 'spoof' video.

As spoofs go, the 'viral' video (the press are willing to report it as viral on the basis of 'thousands' of views, it seems) is a real turkey. It doesn't even manage to attain the status of 'topical comedy', a genre familiar from such TV programmes as Mock the Week, in which general-purpose gags are hastily adapted to the weeks headlines without regard for truth or meaning let alone satire. There is nothing funny about the video at all. It is certainly not a 'spoof' - the speech is rendered faithfully and without any criticism, and Clegg is not made to look any more ridiculous than he already does. Yet for some reason the MSM have picked up on this utterly inoffensive, not particularly 'viral' and entirely unfunny piece of - frankly, excuse my French madam - shit, and run with it.

Rumours of the death of satire have been underplayed

The only effect of the 'spoof'' is to publicise the apology, while blurring and distracting from the detail: detail which, as I've pointed out above, is something the Lib Dems have every reason to want blurred and distracted from as much as possible. In fact, the lack of any discernible humorous content makes it a bit of a mystery what motive anyone would have to create this tedious little production, other than to assist the Lib Dems. We are told that Clegg has given 'permission' for the wretched ditty to be turned into a charity single; who on earth other than the Lib Dem strategy unit might actually have proposed such a thing is left unclear, of course.

Well, so far so circumstantial: as Surely Some Mistake acknowledges, the 'cui bono?' approach is heuristic, and cannot on its own establish conspiracy. But there are a couple of other features of the case which might be thought relevant to the question of just how contrived the whole affair is.

For one thing, the video, which - as the media put it - 'emerged' on an anodyne sub-humorous website called 'the Poke', is credited to "Alex Ross and James Herring". Alex Ross, the link divulges, is a professional-looking music producer, while James Herring - who does not provide a link - is a PR man who specialises in...publicity stunts!

And there's more. One of the few (relatively) in-depth analyses of the affair occurred on the BBC's Daily Politics show, on which Lib Dem minister Steve Webb is interviewed. His script contains a couple of intriguing comments. First he avers that Clegg 'knew it would be on YouTube' - leaving it rather ambiguous as to whether he is talking about the official spoken video or the musical version. Second, he quips that "We're going to hire those creatives for our next party political" - 'creatives' being a term used in the grubby world of PR/marketing/advertising to mean the kind of failed artist who comes up with this kind of crud in order to put one over on the likes of you and me.

Now you might think that these comments, which almost seem to be hinting that the whole thing was a manufactured PR stunt from the start, are not the kind of thing Webb would come out with if that were really the case. Wrong! The learnt naïvety of the media and the general public, bolstered by such tactics as the use of 'conspiracy theorist' labels at the slightest provocation, should not blind us to the fact that this apology is the Lib Dems' single biggest PR tactic of the year, possibly of the entire coalition period. This mid-term party conference is the moment chosen for some rather gentle ritual humiliation: long enough after the event to make it plausible that some real soul-searching has gone on and issued in a change of mind; long enough before the next election for the damage caused by such self-abasement to have worn off (so they hope).

A huge amount of work will have gone into it; consultants and advisers will have agonised over every angle, every nuance; hundreds of hours will have been spent discussing and choreographing it. Like a magic trick, much of the effect is due to the massive disparity in effort and deviousness between producer and consumer. The audience doesn't have much time, nor the training, temperament or insider knowledge, to analyse the trick - and to do so would in any case spoil the entertainment (I find it hard to believe that anyone finds it entertaining, but then the same applies to most prime time TV). So some effort is required to take off the rose-tinted specs and the dunce's cap, and put on the old tinfoil helmet for a minute.

In fact I strongly suspect these comments have three aspects: bluff, spoiler, and insurance.

First, bluff: the idea that only an innocent person would make remarks that draw attention to the possibility of guilt is exactly the idea a manipulator of the kind under discussion would expect and want the audience to have (or rather the particular tiny section of the audience that even notices any of this).

Second, spoiler: by raising the issues in this rather obvious way, Webb spikes the guns of any journo who might be tempted to actually run a realistic analysis of the kind I'm bothering to do. The 'concocted publicity stunt' angle has lost its originality, its off-the-wall contrarian charm, and instead is made, ironically, too obvious to comment on.

Third, insurance: in the unlikely event that anyone in the MSM might be even vaguely - and belatedly - interested in looking into the degree of complicity involved in the 'emergence' of the 'spoof' - the public have become inured to being manipulated, while the story will be dead in a few days with the only lingering effect, so the LDs hope, being a diffuse sense that Clegg is actually rather a decent sort of chap -  in that unlikely event, Webb's slightly cryptic comments can be cited to show that actually, the Lib Dems were quite open about the fact that this was a publicity stunt. So that's OK then.

And of course in that case, the press would be full of admiration for the brilliance of the Lib Dems' media manipulation, and suffer no embarrassment at all over the fact that it was they who allowed themselves to be manipulated. Of course some in the press will have their suspicions, and probably knowledge, about the astroturf nature of the viral phenomenon, but won't want to report it; it's too hard to explain; they'll be called conspiracy theorists; there's a convention that this kind of spin doctoring is to remain behind the scenes; for journalists who prosper so well on a diet of predigested press releases and ready-made stunts, this is the kind of dirty laundry that's not to be washed in public.

And shining through all of this, the total contempt these people, press, politicians, and obviously PR 'creatives', have for the general public.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Spuriouser and Spuriouser!

Peering back through the mists of time, another case of spurious retraction - of a statement which inadvertently reveals - just another bog-standard political conspiracy.

The Daily Mail ('Tear up the sentencing guidelines and jail EVERY looter': Crackdown on looters revealed) reports an incautious statement in court by a JP, Novello Noades:
Our directive for anyone involved in the rioting is a custodial sentence. That is the directive we have had - it is a very serious matter.
And indeed, as the Guardian discovered, emails were circulated to justices' clerks, telling them should advise magistrates to commit to the crown court cases of commercial burglary, or handling … or violent disorder arising from the recent disturbances. There is a general acceptance that what occurred earlier this week is not covered by the sentencing guidelines and it will be very much the exception that such cases are sentenced in the magistrates courts...
These emails were sent by a 'senior justices clerk' in the London regional office of Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service, that is to say, in effect, an official working for the Ministry of Justice, which was the body forced to release the emails in response to an FoI request. The reader is invited to consider how likely it is that this official produced these instructions on their own initiative and formulated them without guidance from higher up the political chain.

Friday, 22 July 2011

One Man's Poison

The previous post deals with the issue of cannabis legalisation policy approached as broadly speaking a matter of weighing costs and benefits. Here I'll make some first steps in discussing the relevance and impact of moral principles.

(My comments about Hitchens's position are inevitably somewhat sketchy; one could go on for thousands of words attempting to cover every fine gradation and distinction in the positions it is possible to take. An advantage of adversarial debate is at least that I can rely instead on Hitchens to clarify which positions he wishes to appeal to.)

A successful appeal to moral principle in this debate should establish two things: that the principle is valid, and that it has certain consequences so far as the criminal law is concerned. That is not, however, to say that either of these things must be established to any particular standard or by any particular method: perhaps the most that can be said here is that good reasons must be supplied. If they are not, the argument won't go through. And if a (supposed) moral principle can be shown to be invalid or legally inconsequential, then arguments invoking it can be rejected outright.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

What is To Be Done?

The present debate is about the legal status of cannabis. The topic is not itself whether smoking cannabis is an especially good idea, or the kind of thing everyone should do, or harmful, or beneficial. None of these will decide the question of legalisation and prohibition, certainly not on their own.

I do not believe any harmful effects to the user that might plausibly be discovered would be a sufficient justification for bringing to bear the power of the state to criminalise the possession and use of cannabis. Nonetheless, for those who disagree or whose attitude to cannabis has otherwise been shaped by highly exaggerated warnings, I've explained my reasons for thinking that the mental health risks from taking cannabis are minimal. I don't propose to go into those any further here.

The first issue I'll deal with is the burden of proof - in the first place, it seems clear to me that any exertion of state penal power over the individual requires justification. Hitchens advocates instituting a much harsher punitive regime than the present one, which already imprisons, fines, and brands as criminal a large number of users. One might suggest that the status quo is privileged, that any departure requires positive justification, but that need not concern us since neither Hitchens nor I consider the current position acceptable.

The 'precautionary principle' - that where it seems possible that a course of action may cause harm, the course should not be adopted - is of little help here - or for that matter in general - since unless unfounded fears are allowed to prevent any change, the 'possible' harms must in fact be probable to a sufficient degree, and since there will be pros and cons on both sides, the question rapidly becomes - which is to be preferred? The harmful effects of the present regime, and of the much harsher regime Hitchens advocates, are clear - imprisonment is a major harm in itself to individuals and those close to them, and while relatively few may be prosecuted, many more take furtive and burdensome steps to avoid it - which accounts on large part for the relatively low rate of conviction. And those who do not share the conviction that cannabis is an innocent herb may not appreciate the resentment, and perception of victimisation that this involves.

I've previously mentioned the harmful effects of the lack of regulation which comes with less-than-completely effective prohibition. These would occur even if possession and use were to be entirely decriminalised. Criminal gangs and unscrupulous dealers will sell to any age group and freely adulterate a product which in any case cannot be checked for strength or specific constituents (for example, one might wish to ensure that one's cannabis contained a relatively high proportion of cannabidiol).

Sunday, 17 July 2011

CANNABIS CANCER CURE? - More on scientific evidence

As promised, here is a detailed look at some prominent and relatively recent studies. I've restricted myself to two such studies, both of which have Murray's fingerprints on them. I haven't gone further because this kind of analysis is relatively time-consuming and I want to lay the issue to rest as quickly as is possible consistently with answering Hitchens's challenge to explain my views on harm.

While I've tried to avoid selecting straw men for this analysis, I haven't been terribly rigorous in my selection criteria - the selection is in any case limited by the need to choose studies which are freely available to, thus checkable by, the public. To address this potential source of actual or perceived bias, I will make this commitment: should Hitchens care to propose, in comments to this post, any other paper which he considers invulnerable to my objections, or should any author of a paper on the topic propose theirs, I will respond with a post dedicated to analysing that paper.

The two papers represent the two specific sources of error which I discern in this area of research: first, the existence of a common predisposition, in the sense outlined previously, that influences both cannabis use and the emergence of schizophrenia; and second, the confusion of transient cannabis-related phenomena with evidence of schizophrenia.

Before proceeding, I'll mention two other matters.

First, a merely illustrative example of the context in which this research is proceeding. A review paper published in the Lancet, Moore et al., Cannabis use and risk of psychotic or affective mental health outcomes: a systematic review, states that

There is now sufficient evidence to warn young people that using cannabis could increase their risk of developing a psychotic illness later in life.

This is of some interest for two reasons: first, the statement is couched in terms which suggest that a long-sought objective of gaining 'sufficient evidence' has been reached. Second and perhaps more importantly, the standard of evidence reached is low. The best that can be said is that it is sufficient to warn young people that using cannabis could increase their risk. If doctors are to warn of everything that 'could increase risk', they are going to be spending a lot of time issuing warnings.

Cannabis and cancer

Second, in my previous post I did my best to answer Hitchens by honestly laying out the strongest case against cannabis that I consider justified. I said I've already mentioned that smoking cannabis carries a risk of cancer. It hardly need be added that I would assume it imposes the other major risks associated with smoking. In any case, in Europe cannabis is most commonly smoked mixed with tobacco

These remarks were cursory, since my primary concern was not with any cancer risk (as indicated by the quote I supplied from Hitchens: As for the risk of cancer, while it undoubtedly exists, it is not my principal concern).

Since reading my previous post, Hitchens has shown some early signs of shifting his emphasis - as is his unquestioned prerogative - from mental health to smoking-related dangers. In a recent comment he states: As for cannabis being a poison, it is plainly injurious to its users in many ways, especially when smoked ( as Mr Wilkinson concedes in his latest posting).

So to nip this in, so to speak, the bud, I'll slightly expand and clarify my remarks on cancer and cannabis. Any smoking almost certainly imposes - causes - an increased risk of cancer. Many things contain carcinogens (I seem to remember reading that bracken is among them). Smoke and other products of burning organic matter are among these: smoked meats and burned toast are believed to increase cancer risk, for example. So the likelihood is that cannabis smoke does the same. However, Cancer Research UK make it clear that the specific risks of cannabis smoke are not understood and are probably lower than those of tobacco.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Reefer Madness - the evidence

Peter Hitchens asks: I want to know precisely which claims he [i.e. I, T.W.] views as ‘overblown’, and whether he accepts that cannabis has - or might in future be found to have - any dangers for those who use it. And if so, what he believes those dangers are..

I certainly do accept that cannabis carries some risks and is implicated in some harmful outcomes.

Cannabis - harms and dangers

First, I've already mentioned that smoking cannabis carries a risk of cancer. It hardly need be added that I would assume it imposes the other major risks associated with smoking. [UPDATE 17 Jul 2011 18:50: But see following post.] In any case, in Europe cannabis is most commonly smoked mixed with tobacco (and unfiltered, though that may be something of a red herring). So far as the present debate goes, Hitchens though has already said As for the risk of cancer, while it undoubtedly exists, it is not my principal concern..

Second, there are the effects of intoxication, some of which may be unwelcome. While stoned, for example, users tend not to be very attentive to some things, and may fail to lay them down in their memory - this is the fabled 'short-term memory loss'.

A stoned person may become rather self-absorbed and 'self-conscious' - that is, conscious of themself as the object of others' attention. This can mean not only being oversensitive to actual attention (yes, those 12 year old girls at the back of the bus might well be giggling about you, that shopkeeper might well be looking at you funny - but normally you wouldn't even notice, let alone care), but also 'paranoid' or oversuspicious of others.

In cases of extreme intoxication - for example after ingesting relatively large quantities of hashish (cannabis resin) - it is even possible to experience hallucinations.

Stoned folk often become lazy and may spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about who is going to go to the 24-hour garage to get Twixes and chocolate-flavoured long-life milk. Some people find the whole thing distinctly unpleasant, and may even in some circumstances feel sick - in which case once the effect has largely worn off in an hour or so, they can give it a miss and do something else. But all of these effects are transient, that is they do not persist once the drug is out of the user's system.

Third, problematic patterns of usage. I have no doubt that just like a hundred other activities, from overeating to computer games to routine and joyless sexual activity, cannabis can become the focus of obsessive and excessive behaviour. Being very stoned all the time is, just to be clear, not a good way of going about things. It is not going to do one's state of mind any good. Distancing oneself from reality for a prolonged period is bound to end up distorting your view of the world, your relationships and even to cause such warped perceptions and habits of mind as to count, technically, as 'psychotic symptoms' (this covers much more than persistently hearing voices, or harbouring bizarre and grandiose delusions). But such symptoms are symptoms of cannabis use or of an ongoing cannabis 'dependency', not of anything else.

Cannabis can no doubt be used as a crutch to deal with problems which would be better faced up to. (Or in some cases, perhaps for problems which are not best faced up to - in this vale of tears, we've all got to try and muddle through somehow and if you can fend off misery for a while I'm not going to frogmarch you off to the cells for it).

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

R. v Haddock (Is it a Free Country?)

The Australian:

In December last year, after WikiLeaks's publication of a large volume of leaked US diplomatic cables, Australia's Prime Minister agreed with US leaders that WikiLeaks founder, Australian citizen Julian Assange, must have broken the law. This proved to be a premature over-reaction. Not only was the law Assange had broken not identified, but the Australian Federal Police could not identify him as having broken any law.




THE Court of Criminal Appeal considered to-day an important case involving the rights and liberties of the subject, if any.

Lord Light, L.C.J.: This is in substance an appeal by an appellant appealing in statu quo against a decision of the West London Half-Sessions, confirming a conviction by the magistrates of South Hammersmith sitting in Petty Court some four or five years ago. The ancillary proceedings have included two hearings in sessu and an appeal rampant on the case, as a result of which the record was ordered to be torn up and the evidence reprinted backwards ad legem. With these transactions, however, the Court need not concern itself, except to observe that, as for our learned brother Mumble, whose judgments we have read with diligence and something approaching to nausea, it were better that a millstone should be hanged round his neck and he be cast into the uttermost depths of the sea.

The present issue is one of comparative simplicity. That is to say, the facts of the case are intelligible to the least-instructed layman, and the only persons utterly at sea are those connected with the law. But factum clarum, jus nebulosum, or, 'the clearer the facts the more dubious the law'. What the appellant did in fact is simple and manifest, but what offence, if any, he has committed in law is a question of the gravest difficulty.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Tim Wilkinson v Peter Hitchens on Cannabis and the Law - Part 1

These are my opening remarks in a debate on the legal status of recreational cannabis, agreed with Peter Hitchens, who will respond as time permits.

Neither of us is in favour of the status quo. I support full legalisation and regulation; he - I hope this is a fair characterisation - supports harsher penalties and stringent enforcement aimed at near-eradication of recreational cannabis use.

My remarks are intended as a starting point for debate - I've drawn on three of Hitchens's blog posts and addressed a variety of points (his remarks, taken from the specified blog post in each case, are in bold), without pretending to present a comprehensive manifesto for cannabis legalisation.

My starting point is that we should presume that behaviours should be legal, and then ask - are there good reasons to make this behaviour a criminal offence? My answer is no. Ordinary cannabis users derive great enjoyment and – yes – pleasure from their indulgence in the weed. Many report taking it in modest quantities and find that it aids relaxation, enhances their appreciation of food, music, art and sex, and even stimulates creativity. To deny these benefits by more effective prohibition would involve far more oppressive measures, for the sake of preventing abusive overindulgence and the risk of cancer which accompanies smoking (though not as far as I know ingestion or inhalation of vapour). Those risks could be adequately mitigated, or in the case of the cancer risk, properly and – one might hope - honestly  publicised, under legalisation and regulation.

Overblown claims about the dangers are rightly seen as ridiculous by those who know anything about it, which makes officialdom look foolish and means that even accurate information is likely to be disregarded. Legal regulated cannabis would be of known strength and free from such very harmful adulterants as wax, petrol, even plastic, which can be found in poor-quality illegal hashish. The current system already exposes users to criminal sanctions and means they must become involved at the margins of the criminal world to get hold of it, with the concomitant aversion to police and contempt for the law.

People need to be treated like adults, rather than infantilised by what some might refer to as the nanny state. Danger may be a reason for regulation, but with few exceptions like weapons, not for criminal sanctions on behaviour which need not be dangerous, and specifically not dangerous to others.

Spurious Retraction: Goldstone

This is overdue; I'd been planning a longish post analysing the Goldstone 'retraction' which Israel and allies have of course accepted at face value - face value, that is, if you're not reading too closely and stick to the headline message.

But I think Ha'aretz pretty well has the essentials covered, and even provides an explanation for the spurious retraction.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Fear and Loathing in the Press Pack

An assortment of vids illustrating the stitch-ups and shut-outs of the corporate media, in case you hadn't noticed anything amiss. Got round to posting these as a result of Bensix's coverage of the media's non-coverage of the indoor pachyderm that is the Bilderberg Group's latest meeting.

First, a feature from BBC Radio 4's PM from 25 May 2011. Eddie Mair discusses press subservience with a sample of 4 hacks, the sample suitably diluted by the presence of fashion, sport and gossip correspondents. Ridicule is mentioned as a common means of keeping awkward correspondents in line, but another method, banning them, is also mentioned as what seems a pretty robust back-up plan.

(Quote from Humbert Wolfe.)

Next, a couple of clips of everyone's favourite cartoon neocon John Bolton throwing his weight around, illustrating the US approach to these matters. (He claims not to be a neocon, not sure on what grounds - the moustache perhaps.) Rajesh Mirchandani should be sacked for the very mildly challenging interview shown, apparently - the mind boggles as to what treatment the intrepid correspondent in the second segment merits.

And finally, a reporter daring to ask interesting questions of a politician is firmly rebuffed by members of the US media clique:

The Difficulty of Cynicism - Julie Nicholson on the July 7 inquest

Julie Nicholson, relative of one of those who died in the Jul 7 attacks, frankly discusses her reaction to the coroner's report into the deaths, her desire to lay inquiry to rest and the need to adopt an attitude of trust, even though one may recognise that such trust is not objectively speaking merited.

Julie Nicholson interviewed by Eddie Mair for PM, BBC Radio 4, 6 May 2011

Friday, 17 June 2011

"We will never knowingly risk a civilian life" - ISAF

Lt-Col. Mark Wenham, speaking for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), enunciates a previously unknown rule of engagement for 'coalition' forces in Afghanistan. From an interview with Shaun Ley on The World at One, BBC Radio 4, 30th May 2011.

[UPDATE 24 Jun 2011: the LA Times reports an interesting response from Wenham's colleagues to what seems a reasonable request from the Afghan president:

Karzai said at a news conference in Kabul:  "This should be the last attack on people's houses. Such attacks will no longer be allowed."

His call was viewed as mainly symbolic. Western military officials cited existing cooperation with Afghan authorities and pledged to continue consultations, but said privately that Karzai's presidential authority does not include veto power over specific targeting decisions made in the heat of battle.

(via Glenn Greenwald, via Anonymous at Aaronovitch Watch)]

Walter Schwarz on the phenomenology of self-censorship

Walter Schwarz gives a creditably (and unusually) honest account of how and why he decided not to report outrageous remarks made by a member of the Likud party - remarks which were a forewarning of the official policies and attitudes of that party and of Israeli officialdom.

Taken from an interview with Libby Purves on Midweek, BBC Radio 4, Wed 5 May, 2011.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

"The Crowning Attainment of Historical Study" - David Aaronovitch on the Death of Osama bin Laden

THE TIMES | Tuesday May 10 2011
Times Modern, pp4-5
Bin Laden dead? Only in theory
With the death of Osama bin Laden, the conspiracy theorists have mined a rich vein of incredulity. Yet, asks David Aaronovitch, are the internet and 24-hour   news channels making us all susceptible to exotic disbelief
What Americans now "needed" to do, the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner told Radio 5 listeners on Saturday night, was to match the newly released video of a blanketed Osama bin Laden watching TV with the rooms in the house where he was killed. And to do it so that we could all see. That was what was required.
But, the sceptical soul demands, why would President Obama and company "need" to do any such odd thing? Might such "proof" be of assistance to the US in fighting the remnants of al-Qaeda? Hard to see how. Or could it help to reassure the world community — some of whom seem to believe that bin Laden should have been taken as though he were a local villain being apprehended by the parish plod — that the killing was justified? Nope.

Sceptical? What is the scepticism about here? Sceptical about what Obama "needs" to do? That's a funny kind of thing to claim scepticism about; more a practical matter than one of belief. Or is the scepticism about there being any necessity to provide evidence? Again, that's a funny thing to be sceptical about. It's almost a one-liner: You say we should not believe things without evidence, but I'm sceptical. (You can have that one for your next dinner party.)

I think it's really a matter of the 'sceptical soul' - that is the person who is by nature a sceptic - and I think Aaronovitch is suggesting that scepticism is relevant here because - you guessed it - he's about to go off on another sneering binge, in which he and the rest of the quietists are, despite appearances, sceptical by nature, while the rest of us are flaky weirdos with fixed ideas.

Gardner's concern was not, in fact, connected with the practicalities or ethics of what we may not any longer call the War on Terror. His advice was aimed at quieting the idea that it wasn't bin Laden who was shot that night in Abbottabad, or that if it was bin Laden he was already dead, or any of the other exotic conspiracy theories that started almost the instant the news broke.
The fact that Aaronovitch has chosen Frank Gardner, of all people, to upbraid for conceding too much to the shabby basement-dwellers illustrates just how implacable his demand for orthodoxy is. And see how the sceptical stance 'account of covert op not to be trusted' has been transformed into a positive thesis - that what actually happened was one of (x,y,z...), that is, anything incompatible with the official account, including its bare denial. In other words, the rejection of a claim has been presented as a family of positive assertions, the only common component of which is of course the rejection of the claim. Thus scepticism becomes credulity, credulity scepticism. Voodoo Bollocks!

These Are Secrecy, Not Privacy Laws.
(+ Aaronovitch on sexual frugality)

The big problem with recent developments in common law 'privacy' protection is that they are happening under the rubric of the tort of breach of confidence. They are thus highly likely to be used by corporations to press even further the absurd degree of 'commercial confidentiality' and even 'taxpayer confidentiality' that they already enjoy, and which helps to obscure the workings of what is now in effect the ruling class.

Once precedents and principles have been set by personal privacy cases, they are likely to be used by corporate lawyers. Given the huge resources at the disposal of big corporations, they can afford to wait for favourable cases, then press their advantage to the full. An example of one such principle is the idea that confidentiality can be owed to someone you've never had anything to do with before, rather than resting on a duty that emerges from some particular relationship.

Talking of 'privacy' law as protecting corporations and other impersonal entities is of course quite out of place. Describing laws about what may be published, however the information was obtained, as being about privacy rather than secrecy is somewhat strained too. I tend to think of privacy as being concerned with such issues as freedom from intrusive surveillance, spying and indeed phone hacking, which is a criminal matter apart from anything else. I'm not sure I've made out an utterly clear distinction here, but I think there is one to be made which is of some importance.

The recent civil actions that have carved out the new doctrines have tended to rely not solely on the tort of confidentiality as extended in reponse to the HRA and Convention, but also on such actual invasions of privacy. This tends to muddy the waters, since the 'anti-invasive' conception of privacy undoubtedly has an influence on what is seen by the judge as the desirable outcome, but given the prior state of the common law and an incremental approach to developing it, the legal doctrines enunciated in their decisions tend to fall on the secrecy/confidentiality side of the distinction.

Aaronovitch, Lies - a retraction

In my last post, David Aaronovitch: expert on lies, I stated that Aaronovitch's 2005 article we weren't lied to was "bollocks". It has come to my attention that this is a misleading statement.

Andrew Watt, of the voluminous and absorbing Chilcot's Cheating Us blog has pointed out that in fact the article is Voodoo Bollocks.

I acknowledge that while I did not intend to mislead, this was a half-truth which might have given an inaccurate impression, and that Dr Watt is entirely correct in his observations.

I am therefore glad to accord this correction prominence commensurate with that of the original statement.

I had considered merely appending a little footnote somewhere unobtrusive, perhaps even including a dismissive remark instructing the reader to conclude that it doesn't affect my main argument. I might even have adopted the common technique of silently editing the post, or the less common one of just deleting the original while avoiding embarrassing 'page not found' errors by substituting a blank page. However, not being a paid journalist, I can afford some professional ethics.

Apologies to both of my readers. I should have been more careful.

UPDATE 29 May 2011:

via Jay Rosen, via Crooked Timber: the most spurious and creepy retraction I've come across yet.

As reported by the Washington Times
John DiIulio, the former director of the White House faith-based initiative office, yesterday apologized for saying that President Bush's domestic priorities are determined exclusively by political considerations.

Using words uttered hours earlier by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who called Mr. DiIulio's remarks in the January edition of Esquire magazine "baseless and groundless," the first high-ranking Bush official to leave the administration asked for forgiveness and vowed never to speak or write again about his short White House stint.

"My criticisms were groundless and baseless due to poorly chosen words and examples. I sincerely apologize and I am deeply remorseful," Mr. DiIulio said in a statement.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

David Aaronovitch: expert on lies

Accountability depends on long memories. Alistair Campbell's performance over the Iraq war was transparently mendacious to rather a lot of us, but it's apparently only now, at a comfortable temporal distance, after he has 'moved on' and nothing is likely to be done about it, that his lies on behalf of the Blair government are being nailed down.

Major-General Michael Laurie, a former intelligence official involved in the dossier that's not already known as 'dodgy' and which was defended so passionately by 'tears on tap' Campbell has recently given evidence to the Chilcot inquiry:

In written evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, Maj-Gen Laurie rejected Mr Campbell's claim that the dossier was not intended to make the case for war: "This was exactly its purpose and these very words were used."

Among former and current members of the BBC news department, the comments were received yesterday with mixed feelings that combined a sense of vindication with anger at the way the organisation's journalism has been treated. Mr Marsh said he was unhappy with the implications by Lord Hutton in his 2004 report that the staff on Today had shown a lack of professionalism. "This vindicates our position and shows Hutton was wrong in criticising Andrew, criticising me and criticising the Today team," he said. "Just flat wrong." Rod Liddle, a former Today editor who hired Mr Gilligan, said: "These comments tell us what we knew already – that the BBC told the truth, Gilligan told the truth and Alastair Campbell's outrage was confected and it was a lie."

While we're revisiting old lies, it's worth having a quick shufti at what David Aaronovitch had to say about the dossier and the wider case (such as it was) for war. After all, Aaronovitch certainly seems to consider himself an authority on who is or isn't lying, as the ex cathedra pronouncements throughout his voodoo theories book bear witness.

So his expert opinion on this little matter? We weren't lied to.

That's bollocks of course, but perhaps Aaronovitch suffered from the same problem that, if he is to be believed, afflicted the Blair government: The government didn't deceive anybody over Iraq and WMD, but was misled itself. I couldn't possibly comment - let the reader be the judge.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Prison Works (better with offender management and probation services, and not at all without them)

In the news: Longer prison sentences deter re-offending, study shows.

Yes, this is just one study, yes it seems to have been picked out for publicity by the Cons, yes it only looks at the effects on a specific individual of past punishment directed at them, more relevant to a 'short sharp shock' doctrine than a more general conception of prudential deterrence. But does it indeed show that longer prison sentences reduce reoffending - or in four-legs-good terms, that 'prison works'? Not really.

From the study, produced under the rubric of the DoJ's Compendium of reoffending statistics and analysis

Those sentenced to 1 to 2 years in custody had lower re-offending rates than those given sentences of less than 12 months – the difference in proven re-offending rates was 4.4 percentage points in 2008.

Custodial sentences of less than twelve months were less effective at reducing re-offending than both community orders and suspended sentence orders – between 5 and 9 percentage points in 2008. This reinforces the finding in the 2010 Compendium which was only based on 2007 data. The findings were similar for both community orders and suspended sentence orders.

The findings are not conclusive on whether the deterrent effect of longer custodial sentences is effective at reducing re-offending. Despite higher re-offending rates, offenders receiving sentences of less than 12 months do not have access to offender management programmes and are not subject to supervision by the Probation Service upon release. This latter factor is also likely to explain some of the difference between community sentences/suspended sentence orders and short prison sentences. However, the true impact of offender management programmes and Probation supervision cannot be reliably established using current Ministry of Justice administrative data.

I won't try to assess the multiplicity of considerations (e.g. small samples, arcane statuistical disputes) that may mean the study is of little or no value in showing anything. So, taking the report on its own terms:

  • Sentences under one year are less effective at reducing reoffending than non-custodial sentences.
  • Sentences under one year, which are not accompanied by offender management programmes and probation service supervision, are less effective than sentences between 1 and 2 years, which are.

From this we might infer that prison makes things worse, but supervision etc. is so effective that it more than compensates for that.

This doesn't address the matter of the comparison of 1-2 year sentences with 2-4 years, though. The report seems to show that the longer sentence is correlated with a lower reoffending rate (during the year after release). I'm not trying to rustle up some comprehensive rebuttal here - a study is a study, there is a large literature on these questions, and for all I know longer sentences in this range do have some effect on reoffending (how that happens is another question - there are many factors that might be involved, some of which might be achieveable without custodial sentences). I will permit myslef to say that longer stences fior the same offcne might reflect other factors which could in turn lead to closer supeervision in that post-release year - i.e. there might be an informal or less clearly-documented difference of the same kind as that already addressed.

But no further. Let the last word go to the report itself:

The findings from this paper are not conclusive on whether the deterrent effect of longer custodial sentences is effective at reducing re-offending.