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Sunday, 28 February 2010

Science and Libel: Beyond the Simon Singh case

English libel law operates on the basis that statements can be divided between comments and assertions of fact.

Of course, this seems odd to the layperson, and anyone thoughtful can immediately see that this is a problematic distinction.

So it is important to understand why English libel law does this.

The characterisation of a statement as a comment or an assertion of fact goes to the defence which the defendant has to show.

With a comment, the defendant has to show it was a "fair comment" (or "honest comment" as it is increasingly called). What this can mean is that the defendant has a complete defence, unless the claimant can show malice.

However, with an assertion of fact the defendant has to "justify" the statement, that is to show it is true.

Many of the injustices and counter-intuitive cases in English libel law come from the defendant having to show something as a fact. This is the current predicament of Simon Singh.

In the Court of Appeal hearing last week, the judges showed their awareness of the problems this approach has in respect of scientific judgments.

"There is no evidence" and "there is not a jot of evidence" may seem positive statements capable of simple yes/no verification; but what if the word evidence - in the context of scientific debate - itself carries an evaluative meaning?

For example: to say "that's not evidence" to another is not to factually deny that something has just been offered as evidence.

It may be that one result of the Singh hearing is that judges extend the "fair comment" defence to scientific judgments.

But would such an approach really work?

Would scientists saying there is no evidence (or that there is evidence) be content with the law treating them as mere pundits with opinions?

Or would this be worth the price of being free of the threat of a libel claim in an English court, unless the claimant can also show malice?


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Saturday, 27 February 2010

Andrew Wakefield: Libel Abuser And Worse

Sometimes all one really needs to know about a person and their reputation is how they use libel law and in respect of what claims.

The wretched and dishonest Andrew Wakefield managed to abuse libel law to the extent that even Mr Justice Eady complained (see paragraph 33).

Now, in an excellent piece of blogging, David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine sets out the story of The Fall of Andrew Wakefield.


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Thursday, 25 February 2010

"Leaked" BCA Legal Advice

Following this Blog's daring publication of the "leaked" legal advice to Boots on the 10:23 "Overdose" and the legal advice to the unfairly-maligned Storm, I thought it appropriate to disclose the legal advice just received by the BCA.

You will see they have a weird idea that might just work...


British Chiropractic Association

To: Governing Council

From: Legal & Regulatory

This litigation has not necessarily developed to the BCA's advantage.

The remark by the Lord Chief Justice that the case had a certain degree of "artificiality" and that he was "surprised" and "baffled" by us bringing it at all seems to suggest that he thinks the litigation to be, er, misconceived.

However, should the Court of Appeal rule against us, there is still one way we can succeed.

Remember that the libel is that we happily promote bogus treatments without a jot of evidence.

As you know, much of the attention so far has been on the words "happily", "bogus" and "not a jot".

Indeed, acres of the internet are given over to discussions as to what these terms mean.

And now the word "evidence" is being closely scrutinised.

But in all this, there is a crucial word which has been consistently overlooked.

A word where events are increasingly on OUR side.

It is the word "promote".

For, even with an adverse ruling from the Court of Appeal, we can still legally require Simon Singh to prove that the BCA is able to "promote".

And, of course, he will not be able to do so.

For example, our promotion of chiropractic for various children's ailments has been an absolute disaster.

Not only was the "plethora" of references supporting such treatment demolished by the blogosphere and Professor Ernst; the editor of the British Medical Journal said the demolition of the eighteen references was, to her mind, complete: that is, that not a jot remained.

And today, this has been reinforced by the General Chiropractic Council's own study, finding no or "inconclusive" evidence for the efficacy of chiropractic for the relevant ailments.

Other attempts at promotion by the BCA have also been utterly hapless.

We somehow managed to defame Simon Singh in one press release (and have to endure their very sinister radio silence on this).

Bastards.

And on our own website we managed to make a gormless claim which seemed to say that we had deciphered Linear A.

As for promoting chiropractic as whole, we have instead managed to create a situation where our members face hundreds of complaints to the General Chiropractic Council, the Advertising Standards Authority, and local Trading Standards.

Overall the evidence is clear.

We cannot promote a bloody thing.

And not even Simon Singh can prove otherwise.


Shall I prepare a press release?

Regards

A. Parody
Legal Adviser
The (ND)BCA




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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

A Good Day in Court

Simon Singh (appellant/defendant) v
British Chiropractic Association
(respondent/claimant)

Court of Appeal, 23 February 2010
Lord Chief Justice, Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Sedley



It was an interesting and very enjoyable day to be in court, especially given what happened after lunch: the British Chiropractic Association's case received a sustained battering by three of the most senior appeal judges in England, all of whom made favourable reference to the need for scientific debate.

But before we get carried away, please note that this is a case which Simon Singh can still lose - and for the reasons I set out below.

And please also be careful to read the "Health Warning" at the end of this blogpost.


Before the Trial

So to begin with the court room was packed.

There were the great and the good of the skeptic world: Wendy Grossman, Professor Richard Wiseman, Dr Evan Harris MP, and so on. The press bench was full, including Nick Cohen and Padraig Reidy; there were famous bloggers and activists, such as Crispian Jago and Alan Henness. And then there were dozens and dozens more, just coming in and crowding in at the back. The usher even found 'deck' chairs for people to sit in the side aisle, and one bench usually reserved for lawyers and clients was made over to the public.

It would normally take a major multiple murder trial, one lawyer told me, to have this many members of the public at a court hearing.

For me, all this had the rather surreal feel of a Skeptic in a Pub meeting transported suddenly into the designated court of the Master of the Rolls.

Sadly, those standing all had to exit the court, including a family from Leicester who had travelled down especially: but there was no more room.

There was a heartening atmosphere in the court room, even before the hearing began. And this positive though anxious atmosphere remained throughout what became a rather exciting day.

The hearing was estimated to last one day, and the lawyers agreed that Simon's QC spoke before lunch (for it was his appeal), with the BCA QC speaking after lunch; Simon's QC would have an opportunity to then briefly reply.


Simon's case

Simon's QC set out the basis of the appeal.

The judge at the High Court had been wrong in principle; the wrong tests had been applied; even if there was an allegation of dishonesty then there should still be a comment defence in certain circumstances; Simon was not alleging dishonesty anyway; the article as a whole should be considered as providing a context, especially the reference to bogus in the paragraph which followed the statement in question; but in any case the meaning of the "words complained of" was plainly clear: it was a comment - an evaluative judgment - on a matter of public interest.

The judges were relatively restrained before lunch. There were a couple of quite amusing exchanges about the "average Guardian reader" (and indeed whether he or she would speak French, as one potential alternative of "happily" in this context - I missed the exact word - was canvassed). Simon's QC settled on "blithely" as being what should meant by "happily" in the article.


What happened after lunch

The consensus in the Knights Templar pub during lunch was that the morning seemed to have gone well. Simon's QC had not been seemingly thrown by any of the incisive questions. We trooped back to an only slightly emptier courtroom.

And then the fun really began, and the BCA QC was on her feet.

The Lord Chief Justice - although careful to say that his comments would not influence the appeal before him - said he was "surprised" that the BCA had not taken advantage of the right to reply offered to them by The Guardian. Why did they not publish an article in response saying that Simon's contentions were a load of rubbish?

The BCA QC tried to deflect the blame onto Simon for not apologising or making any of the requested public statements.

The Lord Chief Justice did not seem impressed by this.

The BCA QC then listed various ECHR judgments which showed that it is not necessarily unfair to force a defendant to prove various matters of fact: this was a rather dry period, not unlike an Alistair Darling budget.

But then she moved on to the Guardian article.

The judges questioned the BCA QC repeatedly on the statement in dispute, trying to understand what it was which actually upset the BCA.

One question - "would happily promoting treatments which had not a jot of evidence be considered by your client to be defamatory?" - was met by a lengthy silence and (in my view) a non-answer.

But it was another question which may prove devastating to the BCA.

"What if Simon Singh had said there was no reliable evidence?"

"We wouldn't be here today."

But, responded the judge, isn't that what "evidence" means, especially in a scientific context? Is that not how medicine and science develops? Is that not what a reader of the Guardian article would understood the statements to have meant?

The judges then moved on to the following paragraph in Simon's article.

Is this not where he sets out what he means by bogus? He refers to some seventy trials which showed no evidence. Is it not clear what he meant by "not a jot"?

The BCA QC struggled on: not a jot, she argued, meant literally none whatsoever. But, said a judge, surely science doesn't work like that: when a scientist says there is not a jot of evidence, doesn't he mean there is not a jot of reliable evidence?

And then the BCA QC made what seemed to be a tactical mistake.

She compared herself with the BCA, saying that if she was accused as a barrister of promoting a bogus case without a jot of evidence, it would be open to someone to verify whether there was any evidence.

This did not seem to go down well as a serious point.

We can tell whether a case is bogus, responded one judge, we are judges. We can evaluate whether there is an evidence, just as a scientist can evaluate whether there is evidence, and if a scientist says there is not a jot of evidence, surely he means there is not a jot of reliable evidence?

And questions continued relentlessly along this line.

It was becoming painful.

It was not going well for the BCA.

The Lord Chief Justice then added - again stating that this was not influential to the outcome of this particular appeal - that he was "baffled" as to how this case had got this far, and at what must be considerable expense to the parties.

He described the "artificiality" of the case: if the BCA could rebut the contention that there was no evidence, why didn't they simply publish it?

As before, the BCA sought to deflect the blame onto Simon for not apologising or making any other public statement, but the question just hung there.

The BCA QC's submissions came to an end.


A devastating reply?

Simon's QC rose in reply.

She first noted in passing that the BCA's claims were no longer on their website.

She then, wonderfully, quoted from a US law report:-

"Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation...More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models-not larger awards of damages-mark the path toward superior understanding of the world around us."

Underwager v Salter, 22 F.3d 730

The judges seemed impressed - they had been clearly sympathetic during the whole hearing as to the importance of scientific debate, and this final quote seemed (to me) to articulate the views of three judges in the court.

The hearing then came to an end; the Lord Chief Justice said they will reserve judgment; it will be handed down in due course.


Aftermath

I just sat there on a high.

It had been thrilling to watch three of the country's senior judges tear into the BCA case, even though it was sad that it had come this far.

As Professor Richard Wiseman tweeted just after the hearing, the "Appeal made me ashamed & proud of being British. Ashamed it was happening & proud judges made BCA look like petty fools".

That was a fair comment.


Nonetheless, Simon may still lose: the Court of Appeal could decide that even if the High Court ruling is incorrect, it is not so incorrect that they should disturb the judgment.

There is also the chance that they could hold that Simon should have followed a "Reynolds" type process before publication, even though this was a comment piece and not the result of investigative journalism.

Even if the judges seemed sympathetic in the hearing, any lawyer will tell you that does not indicate that they will decide in your favour.

So we must wait for the judgment.

But, caveats aside: it was a good day in court.



Health Warning: the above is based on my recollections and notes; any reported speech not in quotation marks is my paraphrase; I am also biased, as a supporter of Simon Singh. Do not take anything here as indicating how the Court of Appeal will determine any of the points before it; and any legal observations are entirely subject to the final published judgment.


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Saturday, 20 February 2010

Simon Singh and the Court of Appeal

Simon Singh goes to the Court of Appeal on Tuesday 23 February 2010.

The Court of Appeal - with a panel comprised of three of England's most senior appeal judges - will hear Simon's appeal of the (in my view) astonishingly illiberal ruling of the High Court last May.

A great deal has happened since May: the adverse ruling ignited the current campaign for libel reform; the British Chiropractic Association has (in my view) discredited itself with the Plethora; the Quacklash has placed the promotional activities of the British chiropractic profession under anxious regulatory scrutiny; and Simon Singh has stood firm in his principled and inspirational defence, for he can do no other.

With all this activity, it is important to focus on what actually is before the Court of Appeal on Tuesday.

What are the issues which the Court of Appeal is being asked to determine?

Perhaps the easiest way to answer this is to start at the beginning.

First, the defamatory passage ("the words complained of" in legalese) in Simon's original article:

"The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."


Lets stand back and see those two sentences in the context of the paragraph they were in and the paragraph which follows:

"You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions."



Lets remind ourselves of what the British Chiropractic Association allege the words complained of mean:

"…that the [BCA]:
(a) claims that chiropractic is effective in helping to treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, although it knows that there is absolutely no evidence to support its claims; and

(b) by making those claims, knowingly promotes bogus treatments."



Now look again at this pleaded meaning, but with emphasis on the gloss which the BCA have placed on what Simon Singh actually wrote.

"…that the [BCA]:
(a) claims that chiropractic is effective in helping to treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, although it knows that there is absolutely no evidence to support its claims; and

(b) by making those claims, knowingly promotes bogus treatments."



And this is what the High Court held what the words complained of meant:

"12. What the article conveys is that the BCA itself makes claims to the public as to the efficacy of chiropractic treatment for certain ailments even though there is not a jot of evidence to support those claims. That in itself would be an irresponsible way to behave and it is an allegation that is plainly defamatory of anyone identifiable as the culprit. In this case these claims are expressly attributed to the claimant. It goes further. It is said that despite its outward appearance of respectability, it is happy to promote bogus treatments. Everyone knows what bogus treatments are. They are not merely treatments which have proved less effective than they were at first thought to be, or which have been shown by the subsequent acquisition of more detailed scientific knowledge to be ineffective. Bogus treatments equate to quack remedies; that is to say they are dishonestly presented to a trusting and, in some respects perhaps, vulnerable public as having proven efficacy in the treatment of certain conditions or illnesses, when it is known that there is nothing to support such claims.

13. It is alleged that the claimant promotes the bogus treatments "happily". What that means is not that they do it naively or innocently believing in their efficacy, but rather that they are quite content and, so to speak, with their eyes open to present what are known to be bogus treatments as useful and effective. That is in my judgment the plainest allegation of dishonesty and indeed it accuses them of thoroughly disreputable conduct."


What the Court of Appeal has to determine is whether the words complained of are comment or factual assertions.

To do this, it has to determine what the words complained of mean.

Simon will be urging the Court of Appeal to hold that his words were comment.

Simon's lawyers can thereby be expected to emphasise the context of the passage in the article as a whole, especially the paragraph in which the words are placed and the paragraph which follows. They will also be likely to stress that it was expressly a "comment" piece on a "comment page" in the newspaper.

If the words complained of are held by the Court of Appeal to be comment, then Simon has the defence of "fair comment" which then means he has a complete defence, unless the BCA can show he acted maliciously.

However, if the words complained of are held to be factual assertions, then Simon has to "justify" these assertions; and as the assertions go to the state of "mind" of a corporation, then this may prove very difficult.

And this will be even more onerous if the meaning held by the High Court - that is, dishonesty - is upheld by the Court of Appeal.

In granting permission to appeal, Lord Justice Laws held that such a predicament could raise human rights issues: to ask a libel defendant to prove such a thing could be a disproportionate interference with their right to free expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Overall, we can expect Simon's lawyers to argue that the correct context of the words complained of, and the effect Article 10 should have in construing the burden which a defendant has to discharge in these circumstances, mean that he should be able to use the "fair comment defence".

They will also be likely to challenge the gloss which the BCA placed on Simon's words, and which the High Court upheld.

For its part, the BCA will be seeking as far as possible to repeat the success before the High Court.

The BCA lawyers can be expected to argue that the words complained of were simple assertions of fact, even if dressed up as comment.

The BCA may not go so far as to insist that "knowingly" meant "dishonestly" - the High Court in May went further than the BCA's own oral submissions on that point - but the BCA will resist strongly any attempt to allow Simon the "fair comment" defence.

It is not yet clear how the BCA will combat the Article 10 point; it may be that their lawyers will contend that "reputation" is part of the Article 8 right of privacy, though I am not aware of any case where a company's reputation has ever benefited from Article 8.


The calibre of the Court of Appeal panel in this case suggests that any judgment will be significant. The Court of Appeal may even use this case as an opportunity to re-work the scope of a "fair comment" defence for defendants being sued by companies (where a defendant cannot really be expected to "justify" a statement of the subjective intention of a corporation).

It is important to remember that this particular hearing is not about the efficacy of chiropractic, either in respect of the named children's ailments or more generally; it is not about whether there is either a jot - or a lot - of evidence; and it is not about whether the BCA happily promote bogus or any other form of treatments.

These issues have not yet been tried; indeed, there has not yet been any submissions made or evidence adduced on any of these questions.

The hearing is instead about what Simon has to prove in the event the case proceeds to trial: does he have to somehow prove that the BCA - as a corporation - knowingly (or even dishonestly) promoted such treatments? Or does he just have to show that he made a "fair comment" - leaving the BCA to try and rebut that defence?

This is an important case on an important subject; and that is not just my own view, but also that of Lord Justice Laws in giving permission to appeal:

"There is no dispute but that the subject matter of the piece was of genuine public interest. There is, as I understand it, no question as to the good faith of the appellant, no suggestion that he was actuated by malice. But in that case the litigation proceeds presumably on the footing that the appellant wrote what he honestly believed on a matter of public interest and for the purpose of serving the public interest."


If you want to support Simon, please come to the Support Rally on Monday, jointly held by Westminster Skeptics and Sense About Science (no need to book), and also come along to show support outside the Royal Courts of Justice at 9.45am on Tuesday.

And do sign the Libel Reform petition. Large numbers do make a difference.


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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Posted: Bad Law column on Cherie Booth

My first "Bad Law?" internet column (ok, blogpost) is now posted over at The Lawyer.


It is on Cherie Booth and the serious allegation that she discriminated on favour of, and was lenient towards, a "religious" defendant.

This link should take you to the main Bad Law site, where there is also a RSS feed icon.

The "?" is the tribute my new blog pays to defamation law.

I will re-post the blogpost here in a few days.

And a brownie point for who can name the chap in my "Bad Law?" avatar.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Announcing my weekly Bad Law blog

I have been asked by The Lawyer to write a weekly blog on "Bad Law" for their internet edition.


The idea is that it will be like Ben Goldacre's Bad Science newspaper column, though about legal issues rather than science issues.

(I would like to think of it as an internet column, and I will be very flattered if you do so too; but it is really a blog, with a RSS feed, and so on.)

It will be interesting to see how it goes.

I am already writing a book on "Bad Law" about six or so particular areas of substantive law.

A weekly blog will allow me to dissect any legal story in the news, just as I did with the Paul Clarke case.

The first one should be posted on Tuesday, and it will be a balanced and source-based investigation of the recent case where Judge Cherie Booth QC was criticised for her sentencing comments regarding the defendant's religious beliefs.




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Wednesday, 10 February 2010

A Group Hug Of Political Bloggers

Earlier this week, the Westminster Skeptics organised a panel on whether political blogging really is making any difference.

The meeting was packed, filling the main floor of Westminster Skeptics' excellent new venue, The Old Monk Exchange, on Strutton Ground in the heart of Westminster.

In the last few days the meeting has had good and often insightful coverage.

An audio recording and some video footage is here; it was also filmed by BBC Parliament; and reports of the event have now been provided by political bloggers as diverse as Michael Ezra at Harry's Place, Dave Cole, Tory Bear, Mark Reckons, Paul Evans at Slugger O'Toole, amongst many others.

But what, if anything, did it achieve?

Well one thing: at the end, it achieved this rather splendid group hug.


(Photo (c) Jourdemayne, used with permission.)

From left to right:
Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy
Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole
Jonathan Isaby of Conservative Home
Paul Staines of Guido Fawkes
Nick Cohen

I plan to do my own full write-up later when I have time to compare my recollections of what the speakers said with the actual audio recording.

(Damn this new technology and my bias towards verification and an evidence-based approach...)


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Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Why Jack of Kent Turned Left - Revisited

The Joanne Cash resignation story today made me astonished to realise how much I continue to care about the Conservative Party; how deep my tribal loyalty is still.

Pity they are simply so incorrect on so much.

This is the blogpost - almost a year ago - where I explained my move to the Left.

It stands up quite well.

And I wonder if I will ever become really an anti-Conservative, rather than an ex-Conservative.

I do not need to hate them; it is enough for me that they are wrong.



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Fisking the Homeopaths

There are - for me - few things more beautiful than a linked, sourced, eloquent, systematic destruction of complete and utter bullshit.

Please do go over to the latest blogpost by Martin Robbins at Lay Scientist, for a lovely fisking of homeopaths.

One cannot but enjoy a blogpost which begins:-

"Over the weekend I received a rare honour, a press release directed at me with the full intellectual might of the British Homeopathic Association behind it"

and then just gets better.


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The Resignation of Joanne Cash


I am saddened to hear the overnight news that Joanne Cash has resigned as Conservative candidate for Westminster North.

She "gets" libel reform in a way shared by no other Tory politician.

This is not least because of her day job as a highly effective media law barrister, frequently (and successfully) resisting attempts to use injunctions to restrict public debate.

She is one of the few genuinely progressive liberals and civil libertarians left in the Conservative Party: for example, see the Guardian piece here .

Libel reform under an incoming Conservative government was always more likely if Joanne Cash became an MP.

Whatever the reason for her resignation, I do hope she remains heavily involved in Conservative policy-making on libel reform and free speech issues generally.


~~~~~~~UPDATE~~~~~~~


Joanne Cash has just announced that she will remain as candidate. This follows what appears to have been a day of negotiations with party officials.

This is good news: a very welcome update to make.



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Sunday, 7 February 2010

Of Political Bloggers and Science Bloggers

The blogger Anna Raccoon makes some excellent points about the impact of political blogging on scientific questions here (even if her actual views on those scientific questions are misconceived).

And you will see a number of science bloggers being quite forceful in their responses.

The Westminster Skeptics event on political blogging will take place tomorrow (Monday) at The Old Monk Exchange.

All are very welcome: no need to book.

(Facebook event page is here.)


COMMENTS MODERATION

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A Day In The Life

From someone's Twitter feed yesterday:

[The journey there]

Am trapped in a car listening to Christopher Cross's greatest hits. Verily this is what Hell must be like.

oh fuck, the sax solo from the theme to that Dudley Moore film. I want to scream

no tweet can convey the full horror of my predicament - still only track seven

crying

shit, a romantic duet

Track 13. Am anxiously going though Good Pub Guide. Please, please let one be near.

This is not good.

I want to die.

Christ, track 19 is an agonising never-ending slow ballad.

AGHHH - its fucking looped back to fucking riding like the fucking wind

"...you've got such a long way to go..."

"Let's stop for lunch here"


[A walk around town]

is now in a New Age shop, with crystals and dolphin music.

Is impressed by a ceramic buddhist toad

I don't think I will be allowed back in a New Age shop again.

I am told there is a time and a place for being a skeptic

Yay, this next place claims to be "haunted"

Now in very earnest museum.

"No, we don't think we have any ghosts".

Point out place next door has one.

No, they don't want to borrow next door's ghost, even it would be good for visitor uptake

Have been told to go and explore 'lovely' herb garden.

Museum assistant looking very concerned

Off to main museum, which closes at 4.30

Looking at torture instruments. I think of Christopher Cross CD

Bookshop or wine bar ultimatum ended up with bookshop. Looking for erotica section.

No erotica section, but found a novelization of 1980s series Minder.

Dragged out.

Ooh, pub with view of castle, with a gorgeous sunset. Result


[The evening]

Am now at posh house party, but have been banned from tweeting.

Suffice to say, it is clarse and glarse, and not class and glass. Am smiling.

"Do you like pandas?"

"No, I'm not saying they should be killed off."

Oh, they spotted someone they haven't seen for ages.

"You're a lawyer too? How wonderful."

"Yes, the accent is from Birmingham. Ever been there?"

"Oh, you really should. It has a Selfridges now."

"Oh that is good news. I hear the housing market is up again."

Am becoming a bolshevik with every top up. Dreadfully rude of me.

Ooh. i can overhear a crisis. Where does one buy a 3/4 length coat these days. Am not able to help on this one

"No, I can't recommend a gym in the City "

“you did an overdose last week? how extraordinary."

tried but failed to get last conversation round to DC vs Marvel universes. oh well

"yes, i am from Birmingham. you have good ear for accents, well done."

"yes, just like jasper carrot."

just been told that it is splendid to be a blogger

have been told my grey hair looks distinguished, but sadly no 'just like George Clooney' follow-up. In kitchen

all now mellow, no more houseprice/job/schools/ middleclasscrap. Am now with humans again...

"So fun, we must have you round". Over, out...

Am home


[Edited and typos corrected.]


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Friday, 5 February 2010

Does Political Blogging Really Make Any Difference?

On Monday 8 February 2010, Westminster Skeptics will host a panel discussion on whether political blogging actually makes - or will make - any difference to the course of UK political events.

The starting point is that political blogging is now an established part of UK political life, for example:

- blogs break political stories;
- blogs report political gossip;
- blogs are a means of communication within parties, and between like-minded activists outside of any particular party;
- blogs are used (though not yet really that successfully) as a means for politicians to communicate with voters, and for voters to communicate with politicians; and
- blogs even cause (or contribute towards) resignations of ministers and ministerial advisers.

So it is perhaps undeniable that blogs have at least changed (to some extent) the form, if not substance, of UK political life.

However, have political blogs changed anything in any substantial way?

In particular, if political blogging didn't exist, would there be any significant difference to:

-the outcome of the next general election, or even any of the constituency contests?
-any policy making, either by parties or within government?
-the strategies and tactics of parties and individual politicians?
-the coverage of politics by the mainstream media?
-the way political news is transmitted to or received by the wider public?


The minimalist view is that political blogging, although colourful and noisy, is ultimately inconsequential.

It is as if political bloggers line up in their pyjamas on the high street of the Westminster Village, trying to hand out their electronic pamphlets and often shouting at each other, whilst the rest of the world just gets on with its business.


At the other extreme is the view is that political blogging is part of a fundamental internet-based change in the relationship between those seeking/holding power and the wider public.

Here the suggestion is that the old style command and control approach that politicians and public officials had in respect of information flows to and from electors - sometimes via a compliant mainstream media - is simply no longer sustainable.

As a consequence there is a re-alignment comparable to the rise of national party political organisations in the decades either side of 1900.

There may be those - the party managers and the lobby journalists - who don't "get this" and want to carry on with the old ways: but surely they will go the way of the Whigs and the borough-mongers.


Forming the panel to discuss whether political blogging really makes any difference are four highly accomplished political bloggers.

Jonathan Isaby of Conservative Home was probably the first UK mainstream journalist to move professionally to the blogosphere. Conservative Home is regarded by many as the in-house journal of the Conservative Party, replacing The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator.

The radical left of course does not have anything as elegant as an in-house journal; but it does have Liberal Conspiracy, set up and edited by Sunny Hundal. According to its website:

"If we want to see a more equal, socially just, environmentally friendly and free society then we can’t just hope for it – we have to fight for it. And we have to do that by having a vision and spreading it. We have to take that vision out to society.

"You are the part of a new generation of citizens who can spread those ideas. You are part of the media. You and hundreds, even thousands of bloggers, can collectively impact national politics."


Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole created and edits a website which has become part of everyday political life in Northern Ireland, offering a forum where nationalists, unionists, and others, can discuss political and policy developments. The approach of Slugger - famously - is to encourage users to "play the ball, not the man". Its success in doing so is reflected not only in the numerous awards that the website has won, but also that reportedly 96% of the members of Northern Ireland's assembly read the blog.

And then there is Guido Fawkes.

Joining them will be Observer columnist Nick Cohen, who recently warned us of "the instant online anger of the HobNob mob".

I will be moderating the discussion.

The event will take place at The Old Monk Exchange, a spacious pub just 100 yards away from St James Station. (Facebook event page is here.)

Please do come - all are welcome - and no need to book. There is a head charge of £2.

The panel discussion starts at 7.30pm.


Westminster Skeptics is a recent off-shoot of the worldwide "Skeptics in the Pub" movement.

Its particular remit is to promote critical and evidence-based approaches to policy, media, and legal issues. Previous speakers have included Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, and Professor David Nutt, and its launch was featured on BBC Newsnight
.

Sign up either here or here for information about its events.


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Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Should Pandas be left to die?

I am sometimes allowed to go to dinner parties.

And at a recent dinner party, I found that a few of my opinions ebbed unhappily against fashionable wisdom:-

No, international law doesn't really exist, if it is not enforceable.

No, "denialism" is not actually a helpful term for encouraging public engagement in respect of climate change.



However, some of my opinions bobbed happily with the conventional flow:

Yes, Blair distorted both international law and intelligence so as to invade Iraq.

Yes, human rights are universal and should be enforceable.



But it took a quiet scientist to raise a topic of genuine controversy.

Pandas.


It would appear that there are some who urge that pandas should be "allowed" to die out.

Chris Packham is the pundit most associated with this view, and his contention is:

"The panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century."

The money spent on saving the panda, this argument goes, could and should be spent elsewhere.

The dinner party went quiet, for a moment.

My immediate thought was:-

But pandas are cute.

I then thought:-

No, unleashing "survival of the fittest" in respect of these cute pandas is just as callous as Lady Thatcher saying that one could not buck the market.

And then I realised that this - intellectually - was a very tough call.

For there is a clash between, on one hand, the elevated but very human notions of conservation and aesthetics; and, on the other, the harsh and unforgiving approaches of cost-benefit analyses and evolutionary biology.

It is not an easy issue to resolve.

But should pandas really be left to die out?



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