Barclays: why no criminal prosecutions?

After the credit crunch, it was very natural to think that surely someone somewhere ought to be punished for what happened.

But I was open to the argument that what had happened was a combination of incompetence, greed, systemic failure and macro-economic forces, rather than actual fraud — or at least that fraud was a small part of the story. And so it was not a matter for the criminal law.

And then this Barclays case comes along. And we have what, as far as I understand it, is a straightforward case of people conspiring to lie about important financial information in order to manipulate the market… and still no one is apparently facing criminal prosecution.

It’s not just that it would be satisfying to see a few City wide boys up before a judge. It’s that it makes you wonder how much other potential criminality has been left uninvestigated or unprosecuted for some reason. Because it’s easier to let sleeping dogs lie? Because fraud cases are expensive to investigate and prosecute? Because the authorities are still so worried about the fragility of the financial system that they’re scared of rocking the boat? Because of the same combination of cosiness and intimidation that stopped the police from investigating phone hacking properly?

The whole thing stinks.

The weird existence of tax havens

Tax avoidance/evasion is in the news again, and once again I find my mind drifting back to that book Treasure Islands, which I read a year ago and stuck with me since. Because a lot of these issues of tax policy are inevitably messy and complicated, both ethically and as a matter of pragmatic policy; but there is one particular point I keep returning to.

Which is this: when you think about it, it’s a bit weird that tax havens are allowed to exist. Because all those ‘companies’ which are just a pigeonhole in a lawyer’s office in the Cayman Islands? The only reason they exist is for the explicit purpose of escaping the laws and regulations of another country.

That’s not intended to be a rhetorical flourish; it is, as far as I can tell, a simple statement of fact.

If a company does its business in the UK but has part of its corporate structure registered in the Cayman Islands*: they are trying to avoid laws passed by a legitimate democratic government. To get pompous for a moment, they are rejecting the democratically expressed will of the British people.

They might be doing it to avoid tax, they might be looking for lax financial regulation, they might be trying to disguise corporate fraud or launder the proceeds of organised crime. All you know for certain is that they intend  to avoid the law.

So why do we put up with this crap? The Caymans, the British Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos, Jersey, Bermuda, Guernsey, the Isle of Man, Luxembourg: it’s not a list of great global powers that we need to tread carefully around because of their terrifying military and economic influence.

The EU and the US could simply† refuse to recognise the legal validity of companies and trusts registered in these countries. No doubt clever accountants and lawyers would still find ways to avoid paying tax, and to launder money, including of course the most direct way of avoiding tax: lobbying politicians to change the tax code in your favour. But I don’t see why we should make it any easier for them than necessary.

* or a trust in the Turks and Caicos, or Guernsey, or whatever it might be.

† Well, OK, it might not actually be ‘simple’. But I’m sure we could come up with something.

Half a cheer for Formula One

I’ll say one thing for Bernie Ecclestone: he may be a greedy, ruthless, vindictive, amoral little shit and a panderer to tyrants; but as far as I know, he’s never come out with any self-serving pablum about how Formula One brings the world together in peace and harmony, and thus promotes understanding and brotherhood amongst all mankind.

Unlike FIFA and the IOC.

Which doesn’t make him any less of a foul-smelling turd, but at least he isn’t a hypocrite about it.

Ooh, apparently I’m being militant again

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle in the UK over the past few days, since a court ruled that it was unlawful for Bideford town council to have prayers as a minuted part of its council meetings. The Daily Mail had a big front page headline CHRISTIANITY UNDER ATTACK; for once the Times managed to outdo the Mail for melodramatic language with Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer. Eric Pickles, the Communities minister, came out strongly against the decision, insisting that the UK is ‘a Christian country’, something I’ve complained about before. George Carey, the Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury came out with this wonderfully understated reaction for the Daily Mail:

These legal rulings may also mean Army chaplains could no longer serve, and that the Coronation Oath, in which the King or Queen pledges to maintain the laws of God and the lessons contained in the Gospels, would need to be abolished. This is a truly terrifying prospect.

Truly terrifying.

All of which seems ludicrously out of proportion when you actually look at the legal judgement, which had nothing to do with the separation of church and state: no such principle exists in British law. Moreover, the judge specifically ruled against the idea that this was a human rights issue, saying that just because non-Christian councillors were inconvenienced or made uncomfortable by the prayers, that did not amount to unlawful religious discrimination.

In fact, the ruling was based on a technical question: whether by holding the prayers, the council was going beyond the powers specifically allowed to them by the 1972 Local Government Act. Not only is this a narrow legal point with little relevance for the wider debate about the place of religion in public life; it’s not even relevant any more, because the 1972 Local Government Act has just been superseded by the new Localism Act which grants wider powers to councils. So prayers before council meetings are almost certainly legal again, although the point has yet to be tested in court.

And more importantly, all the other ways in which religion is entwined into our political system are still firmly in place. The Queen is still both head of state and head of the church; we still have 26 bishops sitting in the upper house of our legislature; bishops are appointed by the Prime Minister; Parliament officially opens every day with prayers lead by the Speaker; schools are supposed to hold daily acts of collective worships which are “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”.

So why do these occasional conflicts provoke such a hysterical reaction from the religious? Why do those of us who argue that religion and politics are best kept separate get described as ‘militant’ and compared to totalitarian governments?

Well, a clue lies in new survey results released by the Richard Dawkins Foundation (1, 2). Yeah, I know, Richard Dawkins is not an unbiassed source; but the survey was performed by a respectable polling organisation and the questions look fair. The survey was intended to investigate religious attitudes among people who identified themselves as Christian in the 2011 census.

Some of the details are interesting but ultimately irrelevant, like the fact that only 35% could pick the first book of the New Testament out of Matthew, Genesis, Acts and Psalms; I mean, it’s the kind of thing you would expect a practising Christian to know, but it’s not a test of the sincerity or depth of someone’s belief.

And it’s not a surprise that many people tick the Christian box on the Census despite not going to church, or praying, or reading the Bible, or believing that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was resurrected, or even believing in God at all. The survey results are messy and contradictory, but it seems like about half of Census Christians are what you might call conventional Christians, people who go to church occasionally and believe some of the central tenets of the faith.

But the really startling result is the proportion of people identifying as Christian at all. For the 2001 Census, that figure was 72%; the new survey suggests the figure may have dropped to 54% in 2011. If that number holds up when the official census data is released, it represents a remarkable cultural shift in ten years.

I’ve complained before about people who say that the UK is a Christian country. I’ve argued on historical/philosophical grounds, that there’s nothing particularly Christian about our most important values — democracy, the rule of law, free speech, tolerance, humour — and I’ve argued on political grounds, that to call this a Christian country is exclusionary, because it suggests that those of us who are not Christians are therefore less British.

But if only 54% of the population identify as Christian in even the loosest sense, then it’s barely even statistically true that the UK is a Christian country.

And that, I think, is the reason for all the hyperbolic stuff about ‘militant secularism’. It’s not that they believe that Richard Dawkins or the National Secular Society have profound political influence, that all it’s going to take is one strongly worded opinion piece in the Guardian for the whole edifice to come tumbling down.

No, the fear is that this is already a secular country, and that it’s only a matter of time before the politics catches up with reality. The fear is that Dawkins is pushing on an open door.

My Prime Minister went to Europe and all I got was this lousy veto

So, David Cameron went off to Europe, with the continent in desperate need of an agreement that might stave off financial catastrophe. And it was always going to be difficult to come to a deal which was acceptable to all the various countries, which was why the wrangling has been going on for months. But this was, everyone agreed, a moment of crisis, when domestic political concerns had to be weighed against the appalling consequences should the worst happen.

As it turned out, Cameron wasn’t able to sign a deal. His conscience simply wouldn’t let him. And what was his line in the sand? What was the principle that he was willing to alienate the whole of Europe over, and risk economic catastrophe for? It was (drumroll please)… he didn’t want to upset the bankers.

You know, when the whole financial system initially went tits-up, I wasn’t particularly inclined to be angry at the banks. Sure, where there is actual evidence of fraud and deception it’s a different matter. But mostly it doesn’t seem to have been illegality, it was just greed, recklessness and incompetence. And it’s hard to apportion blame when the whole world goes mad together. After all, banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, central bankers, rating agencies, governments and regulators all failed in one way or another.

But when the global economy went off the rails, that was the opportunity for everyone involved to pause, take stock, and think about what they’d done. All the stupid things the banks did to get us into this mess — that didn’t make me angry. Their miserable failure to take any responsibility for what they’ve done, the lack of contrition, the lack of gratitude for the fact that mountains of taxpayers’ money has been shovelled at them to save them from the consequences of their own incompetence — that is teeth-grindingly infuriating.

And these are the people the Prime Minister is bending over backwards to protect. Fucking marvellous.

» The picture is of David Cameron with David Cameron’s eyes.

» Incidentally, I’m not at all convinced that the European treaty is going to do anything to save the Euro anyway, with or without the UK, as it seems to be designed to solve the wrong problem. But I’ve demoted that point to a footnote because it only would have complicated a perfectly good rant.

Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

Michael S. Hart, RIP

Until this morning I’d never heard of Michael S. Hart, but it turns out he invented the ebook and was the founder of Project Gutenberg. So it was sad to learn of his death.

I remember when Wikipedia appeared, it seemed like this was a great new model which would be applied to all kinds of as-yet unimagined things, that the internet would be full of brilliant resources created communally by volunteers in their spare time.

It turned out not to be quite as easy as that; you can’t just apply the Wikipedia model to everything. But Project Gutenberg is one of the great success stories, as remarkable in its own way as Wikipedia. Tens of thousands of out of copyright books of all kinds, from great literature to obscure C19th pamphlets, available for free to everyone: it really is amazing, and it’s amazing how quickly we come to take these things for granted. And if you’ve ever tried reading one of those ebooks from Google Books which has just been run through text-recognition software and left unedited, you get some sense of how much work must have gone into proofreading the 36000 volumes on Project Gutenberg.

One of the great things about Project Gutenberg is that Michael Hart had the foresight to set it up at a time when ebooks were still a niche idea. Now, as the Kindle and the iPad make the idea mainstream, this incredible resource is already there, ready and waiting.

» The illustration is from the Project Gutenberg EBook of Carpentry for Boys, by J. S. Zerbe.

Riots, again

There was a story on the front of the Times today (I’d link to it, but it’s behind a paywall), about a young woman, recently graduated from university, who was passing a looted store on the way to get some McDonald’s, and on impulse went and stole a TV. And then three days later, unable to live with the guilt, she went and turned herself into the police. So she had a degree, she was planning to be a social worker, she didn’t even need a TV… and yet in that moment she couldn’t resist a bit of looting.

I find it a very intriguing story, and the lesson I am tentatively inclined to draw from it is this: the stuff that happened over the weekend in London, the mob craziness; these are not normal events. And if you assume you can understand people’s behaviour according to your normal, everyday expectations — if you apply ‘common sense’ — you are likely to mislead yourself.

But perhaps that’s not surprising. If there’s one thing that experimental psychology has demonstrated over the years, it’s that our intuitions about human behaviour are surprisingly rubbish at the best of times. Our intuitions about behaviour in the middle of a mob are sure to be even worse.

Not that you even need that much of a mob, really; there’s always what you might call the Bullingdon effect. David Cameron would no doubt say it was cheap political point-scoring to draw a parallel between smashing up a restaurant in the course of a riotous evening out with the Bullingdon, and smashing the window of JD Sports in the middle of an outbreak of looting; but it’s not exactly radical to point out that young people under the influence of alcohol, adrenaline and peer pressure will do things — stupid, reckless, anti-social, criminal things — which in the calm, sober light of day, they would like to think were completely out of character.

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make, really. I guess I’m still irritated by David Cameron’s line ‘this is criminality, pure and simple’. When has human behaviour ever been pure or simple?

London riots

I suppose I ought to make some kind of comment about the fact that London seems to have suddenly gone nuts. But I don’t know what the fuck to say. I certainly didn’t see this coming, so I can hardly claim any insight into the causes.

I mean, it’s possible to step back and paint a broad picture which makes rioting seem inevitable: the third year of a shitty economy, a financial system bailout paid for by cutting benefits and services, a country with terrible social mobility where the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for decades, the most unequal city in the western world, where we help Russian oligarchs to avoid tax while cutting spending on homeless shelters and youth clubs, the rightward shift of the Labour party leaving the poor with even less of a mainstream voice in British politics, an Old Etonian prime minister from a family of bankers… these seem like the kinds of things that create the conditions for social unrest.

But all that was true last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to see London in flames. And maybe it isn’t all that stuff anyway. Smashing in the windows of Curry’s and nicking a TV isn’t exactly an overtly political gesture. It’s just too easy to spin a narrative and think it’s an explanation.

Maybe it’s better understood as a failure of policing, whether community policing before the event or the response once it started. Maybe new-fangled communications really are important, at least in terms of how it spread and gained momentum. Maybe the country really is in a moral decline. Maybe it’s just some random confluence of events, the flap of a butterfly wing in China. The hardest thing to do in situations like this is to try and remain open-minded, to hold on to the fact that actually you just don’t know.

» Ealing riots – the aftermath is © Erik Hartberg and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Out of sync

It’s always odd when you find yourself out of sync with public opinion. Specifically at the moment it’s the phone-hacking thing… there is a growing strand of opinion that the reaction is overblown and hysterical, that the media is only obsessed with it because it is a story about the media, that we should really be focussing on Very Serious stories like famine in East Africa and the possibility of a European sovereign debt crisis or a US default. And that the worldly, sophisticated reaction is to tut a bit over the bad behaviour of the tabloids but say t’was ever thus.

And there is some truth to it, of course. There is a touch of the feeding frenzy in the way that the story has completely consumed all news and politics for the past week or so. After all, the latest phase of the phone-hacking investigation had been rolling on for months; Andy Coulson resigned back in January. And there were already plenty of reports of large scale criminality at the New of the World, including payments to the police as well as blagging and phone-hacking, none of which seemed to get a lot of political traction.

And then the story of them hacking Milly Dowler’s phone came out and suddenly the world went mad. Yesterday, for example, BBC radio broadcast live, continuous, almost uninterrupted audio from parliamentary select committees for about seven hours straight. And it made a rather wonderful change, to get current events live and unmediated without all the usual commentary, analysis and gossip: but it’s still extraordinary, the way it pushed everything else out of the news altogether.

So I think you can argue that there is something disproportionate about that sudden ramping up in intensity, even if much of it was fuelled by events: arrests, resignations, the closing the of the News of the World. Either the media and politicians are overreacting now, or they have been underreacting for months.

But the reason I talk about feeling out of sync with public opinion is that I never understood why everyone wasn’t already horrified. Even when it was ‘just’ celebrities and politicians; I know people don’t necessarily empathise very strongly with film stars and footballers, but the idea that it’s not a big deal if journalists to casually listen in to their private messages, not as part of some kind of hard-hitting investigative journalism, but on the off-chance that they might hear something which will titillate the public enough to sell a few newspapers… I just don’t know what to say. The idea of it makes my skin crawl. And apart from the fact that it’s creepy and sordid, even if you had no personal sympathy for the victims, what about the fact that they were accused of hacking the voicemails of cabinet ministers. I mean, politicians are even less likely to get public sympathy than footballers, but doesn’t it imply something pretty terrifying about press overreach that they would do something like that?

However. Sometimes you just realise that other people are not outraged by the same things you are. And if they don’t share that emotional response, well, you’re probably not going to argue them into it.

» Tiger Shark! is © Miusam CK and used under a CC Attribution licence.

In defence of tabloid journalism (sort of)

The irony of the current situation is that at a time of much hand-wringing about the future of journalism, the News of the World was one newspaper that was actually making plenty of money. Unlike, for example, the Guardian, who exposed them. Or the Times.

And I like living in a country which has a strong, vibrant newspaper culture. Even if sales have been in long term decline, and the pressure to maintain profitability has probably led to a decline in standards over the past few years, we still have nine national daily newspapers and at least four of them are reasonably serious publications.

And it’s good that they have a certain ferocity and ruthlessness to them: better that than being instinctively deferential to the rich and powerful. I always thought there was something deeply wrongheaded about the American idea that you should ‘respect the office of the President, even if you don’t respect the man’. That’s one mistake you can’t imagine the British press making.

And I don’t particularly object to the popular press being driven as much by celebrity gossip as hard news, if that’s what sells papers. I’m certainly wary of a strong legal right to privacy if the result is simply that it hands the rich and powerful another tool to deflect criticism.

And I think that it is defensible for a journalist to use illegal means to get information in the service of a greater good. If the phone hacking and blagging and email hacking had been used to expose corporate fraud, or government corruption, or some other kind of criminal or highly unethical behaviour from a public body, I would be the first to defend it. Famously, the Telegraph paid for stolen information to break the parliamentary expenses scandal.

But. The trouble is, even leaving aside the most extreme cases, the British papers have spent the past thirty years undermining their own credibility. Celebrity gossip may be defensible. Phone hacking may be defensible in some circumstances. Combining the two is fucking insane. I don’t particularly care about Sienna Miller one way or the other, but illegally listening to her phone messages on the off-chance that you might learn something about her sex life which would help sell papers… it undermines the whole idea of investigative journalism. At this point, any tabloid journalist who stands up and makes a perfectly reasonable defence of the valuable role of journalism in a democratic society immediately comes across as hypocritical and self-serving.

The news of the News of the World

It has been an extraordinary run of events at the News of the World over the past week. The analogy that sprang to mind when I was lying in bed last night was, of all things, the fall of the Berlin Wall. I know that must seem like a ludicrously overblown analogy, particularly to my non-British readers; but it’s that sense of a power structure which has become so entrenched, so calcified, that it comes to seem inevitable and permanent.

Rupert Murdoch’s place at the centre of the British press has made him a power in the land for decades; he has been as much a fixture of the establishment as the Prime Minister, or the Director-General of the BBC, or the archbishop of Canterbury. Except we’ve been through a lot of prime ministers and archbishops in the past 40 years, and there has only been one Rupert.

We haven’t seen the back of him yet, of course. But still: to see News International in such disarray, and the poetic justice of seeing them at the mercy of a news agenda driven by someone else… it is extraordinary, and just raises the possibility that the whole edifice might come a-tumbling down.

But it’s not just Rupert, or the Murdoch empire: it is the whole brutal culture of the British tabloid press. And the relationship between politicians, the press and the police; the incestuous stew of money and power and fear. Because, after all, we have had decades of newspapers behaving badly. It’s certainly not news that they are willing to invade people’s privacy, trample on the vulnerable, display jaw-dropping hypocrisy and just make stuff up if they think they can get away with it. And it’s not really news that they will break the law to do it: anyone who has been paying attention already knew that they hacked phones and bribed the police, and knows that’s just the start of it.

But in the past it just never seemed to matter what they did: they always basically got away with it. It was easier for everyone to let sleeping dogs lie. The surprise really is that they managed to find something to do which was so repulsive that it still had the power to shock. But for now, at least, they have captured the attention of the British public. And they are running scared.

It’s early days, of course. In a few years, we may be looking back and realising that nothing really changed. A couple of years ago, when the world economic system almost collapsed, it looked like we might finally claw back the dangerous excesses of the financial industry… but the moment came and went.

But we can hope.  Perhaps the collapse of a 168-year-old newspaper and a few editors going to prison will be enough to scare Fleet Street straight. For a while. The real fun, though, would be for the investigation to spread to other papers. Apparently the police raided the offices of the Daily Star today, which is a start; but the real prizes are the Mirror, the Sun, and above all the Daily fucking Mail. This is not just about the News of the World, it’s about a journalistic culture which has poisoned British life for decades. We need big, serious changes, and this is a very rare opportunity to make them happen.

Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

This book apparently started as an attempt to get to the bottom of a particular news story which went around the world but turned out to be, broadly speaking, a load of cobblers: the Millennium Bug. Davies wanted to trace the process by which a story could start with such limited foundations and keep going round the world, gaining in momentum, and result in governments spending a fortune on what turned out to be a non-problem — as proved by countries like Italy, who didn’t bother to do anything about it and were just fine.

But the book ended up being a much broader condemnation of the news media’s systemic failure to do its their job properly: assuming you think its job is to tell us the truth about what is happening in the world.

Interestingly, the most common accusation — political bias in the interest of newspaper proprietors — actually comes fairly low on his list of worries. The Millennium Bug story is a good example from that point of view; it would take an exceptionally conspiratorial mindset to claim that it was whipped up because Rupert Murdoch had some kind of financial interest in it.

He suggests instead that the biggest single problem is more prosaic and more fundamental: that news organisations are understaffed. The logic of commercial efficiency has led to newspapers employing less people to produce the same amount of content: not just reducing the total number, but shedding particular categories like regional reporters and court reporters. Meanwhile the same process has happened at the local newspapers and wire services that were another source of stories to the national press. And something has to give. Forget real investigative journalism: simple fact-checking becomes a luxury.

And of course journalists don’t need to be malevolent or deceitful to produce bad journalism. They don’t need to actively choose to tell untruths; simply not caring whether something is true is bad enough.

So if the newspapers aren’t employing enough people to gather news properly, how do they find enough stuff to fill their pages? Well, the first source is wire services (the Press Association, AP, Reuters etc). At least those are real journalists, although they are overstretched themselves and only claim to offer accurate quotes rather than true fact-checking. But all the news outlets are getting their stories from the same wire services, so it doesn’t exactly produce variety. The whole system becomes one big echo-chamber.

And the other huge source of content is PR. A huge percentage of so-called ‘news’ is directly reproduced from someone’s press release. Isn’t that reassuring.

The book also gets into the world of government propaganda, including the truly staggering scale of CIA spending on media and propaganda during the Cold War (did you know the the CIA owned loads of foreign newspapers? I mean, seriously, what the fuck?) and the suggestion that the War on Terror has given them an opportunity to ramp up their activity again. It looks into the ‘Dark Arts’; i.e. illegal news-gathering activities by British newspapers, including but not limited to the phone-hacking which has been in the news lately. And there are some case studies of bad practice: the decline of the Sunday Times Insight team (key quote: ‘there are some journalists who would rather inhale vomit than work for Andrew Neil’), the failure of the Observer in the build up to the Iraq War (inexperienced editors seduced by their cosy relationship with Number 10 end up just parroting the government line), and the Daily Mail (for being the Daily Mail, basically, except that the racism of the paper is even more overt than I appreciated).

Anyway, it’s thought-provoking, interesting stuff. I’ve no idea how fair it is, but it all has the dismal ring of truth to me.

A thought on AV

I’m sure the whole world is on the edge of its seat on the eve of the UK’s referendum to change its voting system. I don’t particularly want to go over the arguments about voting reform again [previous posts for the truly interested], but I’m interested by the psychology of the supporters of first past the post. It is, after all, a truly terrible voting system for any election with more than two candidates.

There are two obvious reasons why people might support the status quo, one more cynical than the other. The cynical one is simple self-interest: FPTP tends to entrench a two-party system and creates a structural advantage for the two major parties. The other obvious reason is small-c conservatism. We’ve always done it this way, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, if it was good enough for Winston Churchill it’s good enough for me, blah blah blah.

But some politicians seem to have a visceral dislike of it, and I wonder if part of that is the psychology of party politics. You don’t generally end up as an MP, and certainly not a government minister, without a deep tribal attachment to a particular party. The kind of people who go into student politics, who get jobs as researchers for MPs, who go door to door with leaflets: these are people who always know who they’re going to vote for, who always have a dog in the race. If their man doesn’t win, that counts as a loss. People who are active in party politics are like sports fans — Chelsea till I die! — and their experience of elections is completely different to that of the mass of the public.

Perhaps that’s why they seem to regard the use of second preferences as somehow cheating. They can’t relate to people who are ambivalent about all the parties, who often feel they are voting for the least bad choice, or who feel unrepresented by the system.

I think AV is a better system than FPTP because it eliminates spoiler candidates and tactical voting. But I think it also appeals to me personally because it is a better reflection of the way I feel about the parties. I don’t go into the voting booth with one clear automatic first choice; I go in weighing up a mix of different priorities. I don’t agree with any of the parties wholeheartedly, and I don’t like them very much, but some are preferable to others.

I might go in to vote feeling that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens would all be acceptable, with Conservative a distant fourth but still clearly preferable to the BNP, UKIP, the Christian Party, the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, or Respect; well, AV allows me to express that.

Depressingly it looks very much like the referendum is going to fail, so we are going to continue with a voting system that is designed for people with the absolute political certainty and strong partisan instincts, rather than wishy-washy people like me. Ho hum.

Royal wedding weirdness

Interesting to see that the crown Prince of Bahrain has said he won’t be coming to the Will&Kate wedstravaganza because he doesn’t want the political situation in Bahrain to be a ‘distraction’ from the wedding. Because news stories about the arrest, beating and torture of political dissidents might be an unnecessary turd of realism in the candy-floss.

Perhaps he came to this decision spontaneously; it seems likely that there was some diplomatic pressure being exerted behind the scenes by the British government. Still, the Saudis are coming, so the government clearly doesn’t feel there’s a fundamental conflict between fairytale weddings and brutal human rights abuses; it’s not a question of morality so much as timing.

The guest list actually makes rather interesting reading. A lot of it is very predictable — friends and family, some British political bigwigs, various religious representatives. Where I think it gets interesting is the foreign guests, who basically fall into two categories: royals and the Commonwealth.

Prince William will one day be head of the Commonwealth, so it makes a quirky kind of sense that St Lucia gets an invitation ahead of, for example, the US or France.

But the royals category does make me just slightly queasy. All royals, from whatever country, seem to automatically get an invitation because, what, royals should stick together? Is that really what we think? Do we really think that it’s more important to extend this courtesy to the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia, a man whose family have not been heads of state since 1945, and whose country doesn’t even exist anymore, than to, say, the President of France? or Ireland? or Germany?

As I’ve said before, I’m a sort of pragmatic royalist by inclination. That is, I know that the monarchy is anti-democratic, anti-meritocratic and anachronistic, but I think it’s mostly harmless; and given the political melodrama that would involved in getting rid of it, on balance I’m inclined to let well enough alone. But there’s nothing like a royal wedding to bring out the republicanism simmering under the surface. It’s the symbolism of it, the idea that a title inherited through blood is somehow more special than one which is given via the democratic will of the people.

Kate Middleton confirmed into the Church of England

According to sources close to Miss Middleton she chose to be confirmed because of her own personal journey into faith rather than because of the Royal Family’s role in the Church of England.

Yeah, right.

I suppose it’s not actually impossible that she happened to have a religious flowering just in time to marry the future head of the church, but let’s just say the timing invites scepticism. Still, it’s probably harmless enough as religious hypocrisies go.

This, though, seems a little optimistic from the religious correspondent of the Times:

This is good news for the people of Britain. It is thrilling to think of what might come of Miss Middleton’s public commitment to her faith, and of the ways in which, through good works as well as faith, she will go on to use her position to contribute to the common good.

I know there’s a lot of interest in the royal wedding, but I don’t think Kate Middleton is the celebrity endorsement which is going to fill the pews.

Treasure Islands by Nicholas Shaxson

Of course no non-fiction book these days is published without a subtitle; this one is Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World.

It is a book with a particular argument to make, that tax havens are a Bad Thing. And it does a good job of making it engaging and readable, considering that it is, in the end, a book about international tax law and accountancy practices. It traces the historical development of the current system and illustrates it with plenty of colourful anecdotes about individuals along the way to keep it interesting.

Among the notable points it makes:

Tax avoidance is just one part of the problem. Offshore jurisdictions also allow businesses to avoid regulations and other legal obligations. And perhaps most significant, they provide layers of secrecy.

And of course it’s not just multinational businesses and wealthy individuals that benefit: it is also central to the workings of organised crime and government corruption. The secrecy in particular allows huge amounts of money to flow out of the developing world via the bank accounts of corrupt officials — amounts of money which apparently completely dwarf the aid moving in the other direction.

Not all of these jurisdictions are literally ‘offshore’. There is a single building in Delaware which is officially the corporate headquarters of 217,000 businesses, including Ford, GM, Coca-Cola, Google and so on. In the case of Delaware, the appeal is the very corporate-friendly legal environment. The City of London and Manhattan have also worked hard to turn themselves into tax havens in their own right.

The City of London is central to all this — it’s not a coincidence that so many of the key tax havens are parts of the old British empire: Jersey, Guernsey, the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos, Hong Kong, Singapore and so on. And the Bank of England, which I always thought of as a rather staid, conservative body whose main concern was economic simplicity, turns out to have been the most significant lobbying arm of the the City to the British government.

Interesting stuff, generally. The only reservation is that this is a very one-sided account about a subject I know nothing about, so I can’t easily assess how fair or accurate it is. And there are times it suffers from when-your-only-tool-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail syndrome; suggesting that financial secrecy doesn’t just contribute to but more or less causes ALL the world’s problems.  You get the feeling that if you asked him why your soufflés kept collapsing, he would say it was because of the laxness of trust law in the Cayman Islands.

Nonetheless, he does make a pretty convincing case that lack of financial transparency is an important contributor to many of the world’s problems; it may not cause them, but it certainly enables them.

» As seen on Google street view, that is 1209 North Orange St, Wilmington, Delaware. The legal home of 217,000 companies, including Google itself.

Egypt, Libya, foreign policy and honesty

I have been following events in north Africa closely, both via the usual media outlets and Twitter (see, for example, Andy Carvin’s one-man newswire for all the latest rumours swirling around). But I haven’t said much about it on this blog because, well, it’s a complicated subject of which I am ignorant.

It has often been enthralling, even so. The spread of protests from country to country, the ebb and flow between protestors and their governments: at times like this, live round-the-clock news coverage actually makes sense. Egypt had almost the perfect revolution for a spectator; large photogenic crowds, plenty of reporters on the scene, a hint of euphoria, a frisson of danger to add some spice, and not, in the end, too many casualties. Libya has been a darker experience; the more brutal response by the regime and the effective news blackout just producing a swirl of horrifying but unconfirmed rumours swirling around on Twitter.

There have already been some extraordinary moments, like the Wael Ghonim interview,or the incredible celebrations in Tahrir Square after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Or last night’s speech from Saif Gaddafi, which was so weirdly rambling and unfocussed that the conspiracy theory, that he was just buying time for his father to flee the country, almost seems like a plausible explanation.

And it has been making me think about the way we talk about foreign policy. Because when a popular revolution peacefully overthrows the dictator of a brutal autocratic police state with a habit of torturing its own citizens, it would be nice to be on the side of the protesters. Which makes it slightly awkward that our governments have spent decades supporting the dictator. And it’s not just Hosni Mubarak; it’s Bahrain, it’s Saudi Arabia; even Gaddafi had managed to rebrand himself from mortal enemy of the West to someone we can do business with. And there’s the awkward fact that we supported Saddam Hussein until it stopped being convenient. At least we can say we definitely don’t support the Iranian theocracy… but then that did come into being after a popular revolution against a brutal dictator who, almost inevitably, was someone we did support.

The deeply murky nature of our foreign policy is hardly news, of course. What I find so frustrating is the way that we talk about it, the way that governments feel the need to gloss over all the unpleasant details right up until the moment when the regime falls, and we are shocked, shocked to discover that Hosni Mubarak was a revolting dictator all along.

It would just be refreshing sometimes to hear a politician stand up explicitly spell out the logic:

Yes, we know that in supporting Hosni Mubarak we are propping up a brutal police state. But look around at the other countries in the region: Sudan has had decades of civil war and genocide. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been at war. Somalia is a failed state. Libya and Iran are even more repressive states and supporters of terrorism. Yemen serves as a base for Al-Qaeda. And so on. So we take the position, on balance, that supporting a nasty dictator is a reasonable trade-off for decades of stability and no war with Israel.

Because that argument may be right or wrong, but I don’t think it’s stupid. I don’t think it’s even outrageously cynical. Because foreign policy is a fairly blunt instrument. Mubarak’s regime might not have been our ideal choice for the kind of government Egypt should have, but then we don’t really get to choose. We certainly don’t get to control the internal policies of the country; all we can do, presumably, is to look at the government in place, weigh up the possible alternatives, and decide to support them or not.

Of course it’s a bit more nuanced than that — there are different degrees of support, there are various pressures we can apply — but short of invading, which is hardly a panacea, we’re pretty limited in what we can do. Foreign policy has to be deeply pragmatic because the range of choices is so limited.

I’m not suggesting that foreign policy has to be horribly cynical, although it clearly often is. It’s just difficult. Even if you don’t allow self-interest to trump human rights. Even if your only concern was the well-being of the people of north Africa and the middle east, you’d still probably end up supporting a few dictators. But it would just be nice if politicians would be a bit more open about it, a bit more explicit about the bargains they are making. A bit less diplomatic, in fact.

» Demonstrators Praying and Riot Police and People Should Not Be Afraid of Their Governments, Governments Should Be Afraid of Their People are © Ramy Raoof and used under a CC by licence. The shot of protestors in Tahrir Square in from Al-Jazeera.

Yes to AV.

Just a quick pointer to a couple of my blog posts from last year’s election: ‘First Past The Post makes politicians lie to us’. And the follow-up: ‘FPTP makes politicians lie to us (hypocrisy update)’.

I would actually favour some kind of proportional representation — this one seems quite ingenious — but at least AV would be an improvement, because it would, I think, effectively get rid of tactical voting.

Serious political geeks will explain that tactical voting is technically possible in an AV system; but it’s much more complicated. It’s quite difficult even to explain how it works. Unlike FPTP. In a FPTP election with more than two candidates, tactical voting is so completely obviously part of the system that people don’t even have to think of it as tactical: there is an obvious and clear incentive to vote for a less-favoured candidate who seems to have more chance of winning.

Under AV on the other hand, anyone who wants to do tactical voting is going to have to do detailed research into voting patterns in their constituency and some careful mathematical analysis of different possible outcomes in order to work out how to maximise the effect of their vote. I don’t think many people will do that, and if they do, well, good luck to them.

Egypt, the cricket, and dead tree news

The current situation in Egypt has been the second thing recently that has made newspapers feel like a ludicrously old-fashioned technology.

The first, more trivially, was the cricket. England were playing in Australia, and because of the time difference, each day’s play was starting just before midnight and running until 7.30am — optimally designed to mess with the papers’ printing schedules. So I would stay up late and watch an hour or so of the match, go to bed, wake up in the morning in time to hear the very end of that day’s play and a bit of discussion from the commentators, and wander downstairs to look at the newspaper, which would have reports on the play which had ended the previous morning. So it was effectively a full 24 hours out of date. And although I understand why it was a day behind, it still felt ludicrous: like picking up the paper on a Monday and finding reports about the football from the previous weekend instead of the one which just finished.

In the case of Egypt, of course, it’s not the time difference, just a highly unstable situation. I have been following it with a great deal of interest and mixed emotions throughout the day, following the live blogging and TV coverage from the Guardian, the BBC and Al-Jazeera online. And when I wake up in the morning, the idea that I would turn to the newspaper for news just seems ridiculous; I go straight to the computer to check what’s happening.

This isn’t something new, of course; newspapers haven’t been the place to go for fast-breaking news stories since the invention of the wireless, and their position has been steadily eroded by television, then 24 hour news channels and eventually the internet. But it seems so stark now; I read the paper every day, but I’m more likely to get breaking news from Twitter.

That’s despite the fact that I actually like newspapers. I like having something lying around the house which I can pick up and browse through while I eat a sandwich. I read the columnists, I might do the crossword, I check the TV listings, maybe look at the film reviews. I will even read the news coverage, I just don’t do it expecting to be surprised.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of iPad* newspapers, even though it is clearly the obvious technical solution. I like paper newspapers. You can scribble notes on them, use them with sticky fingers, spill things on them, and split them into sections so that more then one person can read them at once. They don’t weigh much, and you can discard them when you’ve finished with them. But they don’t fulfil the same role they used to.  One way or another, they’re going to have to adapt to that. If they want to be at the cutting edge of hard news journalism, they have to be electronic. If they want to survive as paper objects… well, that’s the difficult sentence to finish. And if they want to keep making money? That’s anyone’s guess.

One thing I would say is: I’m not pessimistic about the future of news-gathering. Just the future of newspapers. There is a line of argument that, if newspapers can’t find a way to make money in the digital age, it will be a disaster, because we need journalism and someone has to pay the journalists.

Now, despite the frequently revolting behaviour of the British press (i.e. 1 2 3), I do strongly agree that we need journalism.  I have been glued to the coverage from Egypt and I admire the people who are willing to go out into the chaos to bring back that news. Newspapers are part of that; and I don’t claim to know what would step up to replace them if they all went bust tomorrow.

So this is a statement of faith, to some extent. But I just don’t believe that a technology which makes the distribution of information easier than ever before in human history is going to have the net result of reducing the amount of information available to us.

* or, you know, whatever non-Apple device eventually emerges as serious competition.

» image: Ricky Ponting, captain of Australia, looks pensive as he considers the situation in Egypt.

Egypt joke

A joke I heard a few years ago, can’t remember where:

Three agents are drinking in a bar, from the CIA, Mossad and the Egyptian secret police. After a few beers, they all start boasting about their tracking skills, and have a bet to see who can be quickest to head out into the desert and bring back a live gazelle.

The Mossad agent is fastest, and within a few hours he’s back at the bar with a gazelle tied up in the back of his truck. An hour or two later, the CIA man turns up as well. But many hours pass and eventually they head off and look for the Egyptian secret policeman.

They find him around the corner with a big stick, thrashing a donkey and shouting: “Come on, just admit it, I know you’re a gazelle!”

Gay marriage through the eye of a needle

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Someone is blaming the recent bird deaths on ‘the fact that America is violating God’s prohibition on homosexuality with support for gay marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’

This is annoying on so many levels, but the particular one which is bothering me today is this. I’m no biblical scholar, but I do know that Jesus said absolutely nothing about homosexuality. I don’t remember him saying much about sex at all, in fact.

On the other hand he did say quite a lot about money. Most memorably, of course, he said:

And moreover I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

But I don’t remember any of these bible-wielding nutters ever standing up after an earthquake, or a flood, or a load of dead blackbirds, and pointing the finger at Goldman Sachs, or Bank of America, or CitiGroup, or BP, or Exxon Mobil, or for that matter Apple or Google or Wal-Mart. Nope, it’s always the gays, the atheists, the liberals.

Admittedly, it would be equally nutty to blame natural disasters on Wall Street. But at least it would provide a bit of variety.

More thinking about Wikileaks

One interesting thing I’ve noticed since Wikileaks exploded out of its relative obscurity: I keep finding myself of things which I wish someone would leak to them.

So, after FIFA awarded the World Cup to Russia and Qatar in what is widely asumed to be a more-or-less bent bidding process, I thought ‘there must be someone who has some dirt on Sepp Blatter and the FIFA organising committee, someone who knows where the bodies are buried… be nice if they leaked that to Wikileaks’. And today, when we learn that no charges will be brought following a probe into phone hacking at the News of the World, I thought ‘those nasty fucks have got away with it again… there must be someone who has the evidence that Andy Coulson knew what his reporters were doing and could send it to Wikileaks’.

Because the powerful have so many ways of suppressing information, the simple idea of an avenue for people to anonymously release information is rather intoxicating. And the higher-profile Wikileaks becomes, the more likely it will be that individuals within organisations like FIFA, or the News of the World, or the Metropolitan Police, will feel able to get that information out.

Interesting times.

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