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.

Conspiracy for Dummies, Lesson 1: don't write it down

A rare - minor - case in which the conspiratorial (dishonest, co-ordinated, unacknowledged) behaviour that's an integral part of big business as usual is actually blown wide open.

BBC News:

Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), has been found guilty of tricking people into switching from their existing energy firms.
Steve Playle, of Surrey County Council Trading Standards, which brought the prosecution, said he was delighted with the court's decision.

"When we first became aware of the sales script being used by Scottish and Southern Energy we were convinced that it overstepped the mark and was misleading to potential customers," he said.

"A doorstep seller had a print out which he claimed showed consumers were paying too much with their current energy supplier, but the print out did not show this.

"The seller didn't actually have a clue but the sales script was cleverly designed to put potential customers on the back foot and to open the door to a sale," he added.

'Wilful mis-selling'

It is thought to be the first time that one of the big six energy firms has been prosecuted for using dishonest sales techniques.

The problem of doorstep trickery has plagued gas and electricity consumers since the industry was privatised in the 1990s.

Audrey Gallacher, of Consumer Focus, said the firm's behaviour had involved "deliberate and wilful mis-selling."

"'Misleading doorstep energy sales have been a nightmare for consumers for years, leaving many switching to a worse energy deal," she said.

"This verdict has revealed a deliberate tactic by SSE, not the behaviour of a rogue salesperson."

Honestly, it's really not difficult to do it properly: you employ the right kind of people (this can be by trial and error - just sack those who don't reach their targets) and rely on them to use a bit of initiative in making up the gap between your required result and what they can get by being honest. Even if managers coach the slower sales staff to improve their dirty tricks skills, they don't actually build it into a written script. That way, you have ample deniability, because as intimated, without the script, if you get caught you can simply blame "the behaviour of a rogue salesperson". No controlling mind, no awareness at upper management level, one expendable drone sacked and replaced, business as usual.

Let that be a lesson to these firms. Consumer protection means you do have to put a modicum of effort into making it look good.

Still, it's no biggy. The appeals process will no doubt be pursued (by the richer side) until such time as it's exhausted or finds that this was a case of a rogue manager and not the company's fault. And if past form is anything to go by, the fine will be manageable enough: for all I know it will be outweighed by the financial benefits of running a fraud without needing to pay for staff who have enough initiative to take a hint.

UPDATE, originally 12 May (Blogger has had a meltdown and quietly rolled back a few days' changes to this and other blogs, it seems):

Audrey Gallacher, Head of Energy at something called Consumer Focus agrees that This verdict is a wake-up call for the energy industry, but seems to take a more sanguine view than I do about what lessons might actually be learned:

Firms should be reviewing and incentives systems for salespeople...

Since this must be intended as a remedy for 'don't ask don't tell' sharp practice on the doorstep, it amounts to the suggestion that sales as we know it be abolished.