Sunday, 27 November 2011

Some libel silliness

Connoisseurs of badly written, illiberal, misconceived, and generally rather gormless libel threats will enjoy what the estimable science blogger Dr Andy Lewis is kindly providing for us - see here and here.

The author of the threatening letters even insists "You and your supporters can stop asking if I am an attorney".

But there is no need for him to say this.

The letters speak for themselves.

The important post which the "attorney" is trying to have taken down is here.

It is well worth a read.

(By the way, any threatening letters about this blogpost may be published in full and the author referred to the leading case of Arkell v Pressdram.)


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Friday, 25 November 2011

For Leveson and Free Speech!

The title above may not have the same ring as "Wilkes and Liberty".

But over at the New Statesman I have set out why the Leveson Inquiry may be doing more for genuine free expression than the tabloids ever did.


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Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Citizen's Arrest

It is a Saturday morning last June.

I am at a suburban train station seeing my friend off. The train doors begin to shut, and I step back, ready to wave.

To my left, with the corner of my eye, I see someone sprinting from the front of the train.

"That's funny," I thought, "people usually run for trains, not away from them".

That notion wanders around my mind, like Arthur Dent's yellow bulldozer, in search of something to connect with.

Suddenly I am running too.

There had been a shout of "stop thief!" as the running man went past me and so I turned and ran too, through the station hall and onto the road outside.

"That's funny," I was still thinking, "people usually run for trains, not away from them".

I used to sprint quite well for at least a minute, but that was 11 years, and an extra three stone, ago.

But now I was sprinting after a taller, faster man.

"That's funny, people usually..."

Then I realised what I should be doing.

"Right, barrister training, identification, what do I do?"

At Bar School, one thing you are taught quite early on is how to discredit eye witness evidence. "Oh, you say he was tall, do you? So it could be ANY tall man? You don't remember anything more, do you?"

"Right, sex, height, hair colour, build, jacket, bottoms, trainers, fabrics, colours of clothes, memorise them all before he goes out of view."

And then.

"Oh fuck, my ankle."

I had forgotten my ankle, twisted the year before late at night after an Index on Censorship dinner.

The tall running man went round the corner.

I turned the corner, and he had gone.

There was only one other person giving chase, and she now caught up. It was the victim. She was as short to me as I was to the thief.

It was her new iPhone which had been taken, she explained. She had dropped it on the floor on the train whilst at the station, and the man had just snatched it and jumped on to the platform and started to run. She also got off and ran after him, but could not keep up. It turned out that I was the only other person to run after the thief.

We stared at each other, wondering what to do next.

It seemed odd that he had disappeared. If he was still running, I would have been able to see him. I had heard no car or house door close.

He seemed to have silently vanished.

Then, two blokes loading a van beckoned us over. One of them put a finger on his lips, and the other pointed behind a low hedge.

And there he was: the tall running man was crouched in someone's front garden.

"Right, sex, height, hair colour, build, jacket, bottoms, trainers, fabrics, colours of clothes."

It was the same man.

And by him was the victim's iPhone.

The man now tried to run off again. But the two blokes could see how upset the victim was, and so we held him down to the ground.

The man was not happy, first denying loudly - that he did not know what this was about - then making various threats.

However, by this time we had dialled 999, and I told him his voice was now going to be recorded.

He shut up.

I also told him we were holding him only until the police arrived and they could deal with the situation.

On the phone I told the police control room what I could and was careful to detail the identification details I had memorised from the run a few moments before.

And for about ten minutes we all waited in what was the most awkward of silences, whilst the man struggled to get out of being held down.

Eventually the police came and arrested him, and they put him in the back of the van.

The two blokes now moved away, clearly wishing they had not got involved.

They had taken the brunt of holding him and, although sympathetic to the victim, they had not had a great time of it whilst we waited for the police.

The victim was emotional and delighted; she thought she had lost her phone to a snatcher and that no one would help her, and she was gushing with praise to all involved.

It then occurred to me what had just happened - "what if he'd had a knife" - and knew that I had been rather unthinking about the risks.

It turned out the man was a notorious snatcher on the railway network, and that he was wanted for questioning in respect of other and more violent snatches, but that he had never been caught. His method was to steal phones or computers when the train was at a station and to then jump off and run out of the station.

This month, after a series of adjournments, he was sentenced to 32 months, on five counts of robbery and theft. He pleaded guilty. I was told by the police that the identification evidence had been helpful, connecting the person who snatched the iPhone with the man apprehended in that front garden, and once he decided to plead guilty to that charge of theft, he pleaded guilty to the other four counts.

I am not a supporter of vigilantism or of anyone who takes law "into their own hands". I would much rather have a uniformed and professional police force than any alternative. I have no wish to ever perform a citizen's arrest ever again. Nonetheless, I am glad to have helped catch this particular criminal on that sunny Saturday morning.


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Sunday, 20 November 2011

Police officers are people who want to put on uniforms so as to coerce members of the public

Here is disturbing footage of an American police officer beating a civilian, in front of other police officers.

"Oh, that's just a rogue bad apple police officer beating up a civilian whilst we do nothing to intervene," the other police officers must be thinking.

And, sadly, one can quite imagine an English police officer doing just the same thuggery, whilst their colleagues - usually so very quick to arrest for "public order offences" and "breaches of the peace" - happily look on.

A uniformed police force is better than the alternative of a plain-clothed "secret" police force.

Vesting coercive powers in trained professionals is better than having private armies on the streets.

And public order situations can be very stressful (though that is why expect professional police officers not to just become thugs when under pressure).

But all this said, and for all the good work certain officers do with their powers of coercion and arrest, the people who are police officers share one important quality.

And that is this: ultimately, police officers are the people who want to put on uniforms so as to coerce members of the public.

It is right to be wary of such people - however much they loathe and evade and obstruct being scruitnised and their motives being questioned.

This is not to deny that certain good works can only be achieved by uniformed individuals exercising coercive powers.

But, it must be remembered that police officers only exercise their coercive powers, and wear their uniforms, on our behalf - even if many officers (especially the ones who anonymously blog, comment, and tweet) seem to forget this.


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Saturday, 19 November 2011

Jack of Kent's Law of "Witch-hunts"

Those who want power without responsibility never respond well to scrutiny.

Religious sorts who want to use public policy to restrict the rights of others will often complain of persecution.

Police sorts who want to casually use coercive powers against anyone they choose will usually become mock-offended and verbally offensive.

But there is a special kind of reaction adopted by those whose obstructions and evasions mean that only a deliberate and sustained method of inquiry could ever work.

The tactic is to characterise that inquiry as a "witch-hunt".

And so the Guardian reports today that News International fears that is facing a "witch-hunt" by victims of their immoral and unlawful intrusions.

This, of course, is pathetic.

It is the bleating of the caught-out playground bully.

One almost expects News International to say "it's not fair", "we were only joking", and "they started it".

Such are the responses of the challenged bully, just as "lessons learned" and "draw a line" are the invariable excuses of the exposed incompetent.

Being unwillingly held to public account within a lawful process is not a witch-hunt.

One hesitates to posit a general law as to this kind of reaction.

However, as the original "Jack of Kent" was a medieval wizard, and so presumably had a view on witch-hunts, I would like to to offer the following adaptation of Godwin's Law:

The longer any person or entity is placed under any deliberate and sustained scrutiny, the probability of someone complaining of it being a "witch-hunt" approaches 1.

I wonder how well this "law" works in practice...


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Saturday, 12 November 2011

On Art and 'Art Exhibitions'

Every major art exhibition is always the same.

The ticket holders go in with their expensive tickets, and with their guide-books and ear-phone sets, and they look and they stare, and then they shuffle along and look and stare again.

But instead of looking and staring at the painting or other artifact, they look and stare at the typed caption 'explaining' the work of art.

And once they have looked and stared at this caption, they give the painting or other artifact a very brief glance, and they then move on to the next caption.

If you do not believe me, stand back at the next major exhibition you attend, and watch your fellow ticket-holders.

This is what they actually do.

It is almost as if the painting or other artifact is there as an aid to understanding the caption, and not the other way round.

Indeed, a visiting Martian - not versed in what is 'supposedly' happening - would observe this phenomenon, and think that the captions are the works of art really being visited.

I often stand back and watch this phenomenon happen, and I have very naughty thoughts.

I think about charging into every major art exhibition and running around, tearing down the captions, and shouting at the ticket holders: "No! Look at the bloody work of art, and form your own opinion".

And I would keep on doing this, at every major exhibition, until I was arrested by some police officer finally able to work out some plausible ground for arrest.

If charged, I would defend myself on the basis of the right to free expression.

It would only be for the public benefit, to allow people to be free at art exhibitions to actually contemplate the art exhibited.

It would be a mercy.

It would only be for their own good.


There is perhaps a more serious point to my threatened screaming criminal rampage though all the major art exhibitions of London.

(Sir, come with me. How do you account for all those exhibition captions in your bag? How many more exhibitions have you done, sir? How many?)

The serious point is this: for some reason, many people seem not to be confident about art.

Though people will readily form their own opinions about what they see on television, there is a certain discomfort when those people are presented with something they are 'supposed' to like and appreciate.

And, to my mind, this is a misconceived approach which makes me want to do something as illiberal as run through every gallery I can find ripping the captions off all the walls.

In one way, it all comes down to that most banal and preposterous of questions: what is art?

An answer to that question - and a completely inadequate answer it is - is to say that art is what is in an art exhibition, or some gallery.

Unfortunately, this inadequate answer is the one which is adopted by many people who really should know better.

They go into some place, with the twin clich├ęs of high ceilings and blandly painted walls, to see something presented which is considered a work of art.

The work of art will of course have a explanatory caption.

Most people will spend longer looking at the caption than looking at the (supposed) work of art.

And in truth it is only being treated as a work of art just because someone has put it in an art gallery.

This how so many "modern artists" get away with such shoddy charlatanism.

We appear to have reached the ridiculous point where the most serviceable answer to what is art is: art is what is placed in an art gallery.

This cannot be right.

A new major exhibition has opened in London: this is of Leonardo da Vinci's paintings during his time in Milan.

Leonardo happens to be my favourite artist. I actually went to Krakow for my 35th birthday just to see the Lady with the Ermine.

But I cringe at the thought of going to this London exhibition.

As far as we can tell, Leonardo himself did not care for "art" and probably would have been horrified at the prospect of his work being in art galleries.

He rarely finished any painting - there are only a few complete works extant - and the ones he did finish were probably because of some demanding patron, or because the work allowed him to solve some technical problem.

Leonardo was interested in sheer observation: the desire to form a view, uncluttered by the conventions of received wisdom.

This is why, by just looking keenly at the spatial relationships of shapes and thinking things through, his notebooks are packed with speculative designs of things which seem advanced for his time, from screws to helicopters.

But it was not not because Leonardo could "see ahead". It was just because he sought to see clearly.

Leonardo would not have looked at captions.

Any one who spends longer reading a caption explaining a work of art than actually looking at the work of art has no business in an art gallery.

Any artist who puts any effort whatsoever in writing the caption, or the catalogue or sales "explanation" of their work, has no business calling themselves an artist.

Should you go to the Leonardo exhibition, or any other major exhibition, just refuse the guide-book and the ear-phones. Refuse to look at the wretched captions unless you want to know the material used and the date of composition.

Then you can enjoy art; for to form your own, personal aesthetic response can be the most wonderful feeling in the world.

And the things in this world that can trigger that wonderful response are the best answer to "what is art" - and they do not need typed captions and white-washed galleries to make them so.


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Sunday, 6 November 2011

In memory of Kevin Sharpe

The early to mid 1990s were an exciting time to be a history student or teacher, especially in respect of the early modern period.

The lazy conventions of "Whig" and "Marxist" history were being undermined not by mere contrarian counter-assertions, but by diligent research presented in an accessible and attractive way by the so-called "revisionist" historians.

The most well-known of these revisionists was, of course, Professor Conrad Russell, himself a liberal politician and heir to great Whig hereditary title.

Russell's detailed critique of the Anglo-centric Parliament-v-Crown narrative of the years before the "fall of the British monarchies" (not the "English Civil War") was profound: perhaps for the first time in seventeenth-century historiography, causes were connected to actual effects.

Alongside Russell, covering slightly different ground, was Professor Kevin Sharpe, whose untimely death was announced today.

In his magisterial The Personal Rule of Charles I (the knocked-about 980-odd pages of which is before me as I type), Sharpe set out to show that far from the 1630s being a time of increasing tension which "inevitably" would lead to a crisis, there was actually a great deal of stability: it was a personal monarchy which did work - and could well have continued working.

It may well be that the Russell-Sharpe moment has come and gone in Stuart studies: revisionism about the "English civil war" could now be as "old hat" as the interpretations it challenged.

But at the time it was an intellectually exciting debate - and it showed that to dismantle a prevailing school of thought it was not enough to make bare rebuttals; instead one had to do the hard evidential ground-work to show why the new interpretations should be exchanged for the old. And, of course, this is true for many disciplines, and not just history.

I will now put my volume of Sharpe back on the shelf, next to my Russells (and AJP Taylors, EP Thompsons, and GR Eltons). I will probably not have another opportunity to read the near-1000 pages of this great book. But I am glad that I did read it, and I am grateful for the intellectual confidence it (and the works of many other historians) gave for thinking critically about what other people would want me to believe as true.

History sometimes has a mixed press as an academic subject; but in my view there is simply no better way to learn how to properly deal with reasoned arguments based on assessments of documentary and other evidence. (Indeed, I often think it should be a compulsory degree for litigators.)

So I am very proud and fortunate to have a history degree. In the hands of a great historian, the subject has the power to change minds, and to promote an evidence-based approach and critical thinking.

And Kevin Sharpe was a great historian. RIP.


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Friday, 4 November 2011

The abusive thuggery of Judge William Adams

Here is an example of some thuggery.

It is the thuggery of a judge.

And I am afraid it is quite disturbing.

(His daughter is interviewed here.)

The statement of Judge William Adams in response to this posted video is here.

What is particularly revolting about this complacent and evasive statement is that nowhere - at all - is there any realisation that the abuse is unacceptable.

It really is quite an astonishing read.

And this is a person who sits in judgment over others.


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