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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Innocent until proven guilty?

I sent my sub off to the N02ID campaign today. It wasn't the article below which pushed me into sending it, but it was definitely in my mind.

We don't live in a police state yet, but we're heading there: With barely a protest, Britain's liberties are being eroded in the name of a dubious campaign against terrorism and crime
Henry Porter, The Observer, Sunday January 22, 2006

The argument for social control goes like this: if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from a national data bank of identity/the terrorism act/the tapping of MPs' phones/the use of the public-order act to control protest and limit free expression/the new powers of arrest/the retention of DNA samples taken from innocent juveniles.
Over the past few months, I have listened to five people airily make this pitch. Not one of them was a complete fool; it's just that they haven't been paying attention to the Prime Minister's unflagging mission to increase the power of the state over the individual, to the shoal of anti-libertarian laws which have slipped through a mesmerised parliament.

If they have noticed anything, they tend, without much thought, to interpret it as a government doing its best to make us safer from terrorists and criminals. They conclude that if you are neither a terrorist nor a criminal, you have nothing to worry about. Wrong.

They have only to consider the 24,000 juveniles who have not been cautioned, charged or convicted with any crime, yet whose DNA has been retained by the police, to wonder if some extra-parliamentary commission should be set up to examine the state of liberty in Britain and the motives of this odious regime of sinister mediocrities.

On the evidence, an outsider might guess that Britain has suffered a calamitous national crisis, a convulsion of historic significance. But it has not, and neither has the rest of the Western alliance. In the four years since al-Qaeda launched its war in earnest, fewer than 5,000 people have lost their lives in attacks in, among other places, Washington DC and New York, Bali, Madrid, London and Sharm el Sheik. Large numbers were wounded - 1,460 in Madrid; 700 in London - but compare this to the Blitz, in which more than were lost and many more were wounded.

Osama bin Laden only managed a small war and, whatever the intention behind the tape released last week, it must now be sensible to look at the past four years for what they are. Shocking, yes. Baffling and sickening, yes. But a catastrophe in the widest sense, no. Western society has not been derailed. Economies continue to grow and there is much evidence of optimism and energetic evaluation of the world's real problems.

This is not complacency, but a realistic assessment of how things are. We should not belittle the people sacrificed to this lunatic's need for attention, but, equally, we should guard against the habits of fear and the opportunism of sinister forces in Number 10, the Home office and the endlessly indulged police force.

Last week, I visited a publishing house in central London. A security guard asked me to enter my name into a keyboard before I received a pass. I noticed a tiny camera on a stalk peering over the keyboard to take a snap of the visitor's face as he keys in his name. I refused and made my way to the lift without a pass, to the consternation of the security staff. Why this obsessive need to photograph, to record names and times of entry? Any serious terrorist would get round this pathetic device. Besides, the building probably rates no higher as a target than my cat. It's a pointless exercise, yet it emphasises the state we have got ourselves into over the actual threat of terrorism.

We do not yet live in a police state, but we are certainly building a society where free speech, the right to protest and conduct our lives without scrutiny by a central authority could be seriously threatened. There is no government in the Western alliance, not even America, which has taken such a bewildering lurch to the authoritarian right since 11 September and met with such little opposition, either in the media or in parliament.

It has been a stealth attack, similar to the approach the Chancellor has used to raise taxes without appearing to do so. While seeming to be friendly to the idea of personal liberty on such things as opening hours and gambling, the government has steadily pursued its campaign of social control.

If you put to one side Blair's addiction to summary justice and focus on the measures carried out in the name of security, you find two streams: those devoted to reduction of free speech and the right to protest, and those that concentrate on the surveillance and monitoring of innocent citizens.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (Socpa) falls in the first category. Apart from increasing the police's powers of arrest, it removed the right to demonstrate within one kilometre of parliament, a right people still possess in Serbia and Ukraine. Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, meanwhile, allows police to stop and search anyone in a designated area. This has been used to obstruct demonstrations against the Iraq war, global capitalism and arms fairs and even those who heckled speakers at last year's Labour party conference. Linked with issuing Asbos, it has proved highly effective in controlling demonstrations which offend the government.

To limit what can be said in public, the government also inserted a provision in Socpa that criminalises opinions that are held to stir up religious hatred. You may not make a joke about Islam, Judaism or Christianity without risking a criminal record. And section 5 of the Public Order Act allows police to prosecute if they believe a hate crime has been committed. Last week, they were investigating a leading Muslim, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who made remarks on Radio 4s PM programme about homosexuality being morally and medically unacceptable. Sacranie's views are daft and tasteless, but why shouldn't he express them? Why should there be any legal restraint on the doubts I may voice about parts of his faith, its views on homosexuality, for example? That is the nature of free speech and we do not need a bunch of PC Plods patrolling our exchange.

If anything, the strand of Blair's campaign devoted to surveillance and bugging is much more worrying. He has already granted MI5 and the police powers to pry on people's email and text messages. According to the Independent on Sunday, he now plans to allow MPs' communications to be intercepted by MI5. It is astonishing that parliament did not erupt. If US senators and members of Congress were being bugged, there would be an outcry. The constitution would be flourished, as it is now by Greenpeace, the Council for American-Islamic Relations and a number of well-known writers such as Christopher Hitchens and James Bamford in a case claiming the Bush administration's use of wiretaps is a violation of privacy and free speech.

We need a constitution to guarantee similar rights, but failing that, I'd like to see a bit more of that truculence when it comes to Blair's pet proposal of a national database of identity that will include no less than 50 separate pieces of information on each of us, at cost of £350-£500 per head. What business has he got charging us for invading our privacy with his ID cards scheme when so many on his own side agree it will count for nothing in the fight against terrorism and fraud?

Does anyone care about the proposals to extend the automatic numberplate recognition system throughout Britain's motorway network so that the details of every journey by every innocent member of the public are retained? I spent an entire day last week being batted from the Home Office to the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency trying to determine what legislation enables this scheme. The answer is none. I spoke to the pleasant chief constable of Hertfordshire, Frank Whiteley, who advocates this system on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He made points about the detection of criminals and terrorists, but conceded there was indeed a cost to civil liberties.

Piece by piece, that system is being built because the CCTV cameras already in place can also read numberplates. Yet there has been no debate in parliament, no special powers enacted, no one questioning the cost or the privacy issues. Make no mistake - we are wiring up for the police state.

The article below is from Paul Kingsnorth's blog. My basic attitude towards free speech is to what extent would you like the state to limit YOUR freedom of speech. People are too ready to condemn what other people say, but apply those criteria to yourself without being a hypocrite?

Wednesday, January 18

An interesting article by Jonathan Freedland in today's Guardian (how often do you get to write that sentence?) with which I fully concur. Freedland writes about the chill wind of state interference that is blowing across our right to free speech, and he's dead right.

Taking as his starting point some well-publicised examples of police over-zealousness (arresting a student for calling a horse 'gay'; questioning Tony Blair's advisor about whether the Prime Minister insulted the Welsh in the privacy of his own home. Etc) Freedland questions the strain being put on free speech by the rising tide of don't-offend-me campaigners. I've worried about this for a long time; it seems clear to me that free speech is being eroded fast in this country. It seems our police forces have been instructed to zero in not simply on hate-motivated crimes (which is fine, because they're crimes) but on hate itself.

Bad idea. Hatred, bigotry and nasty opinions are not, and should never be, illegal. Our status as a free society is shown above all by our willingness to tolerate beliefs we - and particularly we over-sentive liberals - find horrible. It should never be illegal to be racist. It should never be illegal to dislike homosexuality. It should never be illegal to slag off Islam or Christianity. It should be illegal to commit crimes on the back of those opinions, but that's as far as we can allow it to go.

There are two current cases going on which should test where we stand on this. Case one is that of the deeply unpleasant Sir Iqbal Sacrani, head of the deeply unpleasant Muslim Council of Britain. Sir Iqbal has always been an enemy of free speech, at least when it applies to his religion. He was in the vanguard of those calling for the death of Salman Rushdie back in the 1980s for the crime of writing a book, and more recently he has been lobbying for the government's dangerous new law to ban 'religious hatred' (ie, to publicly express distate of stupid beliefs like his). Iqbal was on the radio last week making some unpleasant and ignorant remarks about homosexuals, which he claims are the opinions of God (sigh. Will we ever grow up?). Here is what he said:

'Certainly it is a practice that in terms of health, in terms of the moral issues that comes along in a society ... It is not acceptable. Each of our faiths tells us that it is harmful and I think, if you look into the scientific evidence that has been available in terms of the forms of various other illnesses and diseases that are there, surely it points out that where homosexuality is practised there is a greater concern in that area.'

There you go: a bunch of bigoted cobblers, for which Iqbal is now being investigated by police. Naturally he has now become a stout defender of (his own) freedom to say offensive things about minorities. But it's a freedom which I feel I have to defend, even though Iqbal is an idiot who talks crap - because the idea that the state's security forces can swoop at will on people who express ideas of which the state does not officially approve is so chilling, that I would rather find myself defending morons than shouting for their imprisonment simply because I don't like them.

Which brings me on to case two, that of Class A Scumbag Nick Griffin, currently being prosecuted for inciting religious hatred. Griffin, who has a long history not only of inciting it but of putting it into practice, is a more complex example than Iqbal, because he is charged not simply with expressing his usual vile views, but urging his lowing herd of pasty followers to act on them. Here is what Griffin said to a BNP meeting about Muslims in Britain:

'It's part of their plan for conquering countries. They will expand into the rest of the UK as the last whites try and find their way to the sea. Vote BNP so the British people really realise the evil of what these people have done to our country.'

Bigoted cobblers, again. But illegal bigoted cobblers? I worry about the zealousness with which anti-fascist campaigners call for the banning of such views and those who express them, as much as I worry about those who seem to think they have a legal right not to be offended by other peoples' opinions.

Above all, I worry about free speech. I'm a strong libertarian on these matters: I believe the state has to have very, very good reasons to ban the expression of personal points of view, however unpleasant society may find them. That way lies tyranny, and I do believe we are slowly headed towards it without even knowing it. I hope we wake up soon.

Below is Freedland's "interesting" article.

How police gay rights zealotry is threatening our freedom of speech: When lawmakers decide what we can and can't say, good intentions quickly tip over into something sinister
Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, Wednesday January 18, 2006

Future scholars might refer to it as the case of the gay horse. In May of last year, Sam Brown, an Oxford student out celebrating the end of his finals, decided to address a mounted police officer. "Do you realise your horse is gay?" he asked. Juvenile prattle, you might think. But that was not the verdict of the police. Two squad cars arrived, disgorging a group of officers who promptly arrested Brown under Section 5 of the the Public Order Act, for making homophobic remarks. He spent a night in the cells and was fined £80 - which he refused to pay. Last week the Crown Prosecution Service finally dropped the charges against him, admitting they had insufficient evidence to show that the accused was "disorderly".

The case of the gay horse now takes its place in what is becoming a bulging file. It emerged last month that a retired Lancashire couple got a knock on the door and an 80-minute police interrogation by two officers after they had put in a call to Wyre borough council. Joe and Helen Roberts had asked if they could display evangelical Christian literature in council buildings to counteract what they regarded as an abundance of gay-rights material. The council thought the pensioners "displayed potentially homophobic attitudes" and sent in the cops.

Meanwhile, the self-styled family-values campaigner Lynette Burrows had a call from the Metropolitan police after she took part in a debate on Radio 5 Live. She had argued that gay couples should not be allowed to adopt children, prompting a complaint of a "homophobic incident". The head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, is now also under investigation for telling the Today programme that homosexuality was "not acceptable" and should be viewed as a medical problem.

Now, I don't like what Sacranie or Burrows said; I probably wouldn't have too much in common with the Robertses and I can imagine that Sam Brown was behaving like a jerk. But none of that stops me being appalled by what happened to all of them. Their treatment suggests that when it comes to the most fundamental of all freedoms - the right of free speech - a dangerous chill is in the air.

It's not just those accused of homophobia that are feeling the cold. In an episode that strains credibility, the former Downing Street spinner Lance Price was questioned for two hours after an early draft of his memoirs revealed that Tony Blair had once cursed the "fucking Welsh". Officers from North Wales police journeyed to London to investigate whether Price had been a witness to a hate crime committed by the prime minister, specifically incitement under the Public Order Act. The same force spent £4,000 probing anti-Welsh remarks made by Anne Robinson on the Room 101 television show.

What explains this loopiness, simultaneously comic and sinister? Ben Summerskill of the gay rights group Stonewall says it begins with "perfectly good intentions". Determined to reverse the mistakes of their bigoted predecessors, today's police chiefs are falling over themselves to be sensitive to the communities they once ignored. Add to that the lesson of the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which concluded that a racist incident is "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person". That logic has been extended to all forms of hatred, so that now if someone phones in and says an incident is homophobic, it is.

Enter another, specific confusion. Police guidelines distinguish between a hate crime, when a conventional offence - a mugging, beating or murder - is motivated by bigotry, and a hate incident, where no actual crime may have occurred. In the case of the gay horse and episodes like it, police seem to have lost sight of the difference, seeing any incident involving bigotry as, ipso facto, a crime. They know, for example, that once hate is part of the picture a crime becomes an "aggravated offence", to be punished with a heavier sentence. But they have apparently taken that to mean that, if prejudice is involved, what was once mere speech becomes a criminal act. Hence imagining that Tony Blair shouting at the TV during the Welsh assembly elections of 1999 could possibly be a threat to public order.

Summerskill is loth to criticise the police for this; he knows they mean well. But even he can see the danger in cases that allow the tabloid right to bellow that weariest of cliches: it's political correctness gone mad. "It risks undermining public confidence in the prosecution of crimes that are genuine hate crimes," he says.

That is not the only danger. Including anti-terror legislation, there is now an alarming abundance of laws so broadly drawn that they don't just block direct and deliberate incitement to violence - which is and should be illegal - but criminalise ideas themselves. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty fears a "great assault" on free speech in Britain, one that can be seen even in the moves to crack down on antisocial behaviour. It's as if, she says, we are developing a new "right not to be offended or irritated". Any conduct that causes us distress, any view we find unpleasant, and we're dialling 999.

There are several intriguing elements here. One is the way the principle of gay rights has become so established that to oppose it is to guarantee one's ostracism from mainstream society: even the police have fully signed up. For this gay campaigners deserve enormous credit; it is one of the great political success stories of our time, for it now occupies a space that racial equality has struggled to reach. A small but telling example: David Cameron, desperate to show his modern, moderate credentials, does it by going to see the gay cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain on its first day of release last week. To make a statement on race would be so much more complex, but to be sound on gay matters has become a shorthand for reasonable, compassionate modernity.

Second, this recent round of police inquiries shows the inevitable morass of contradiction and hypocrisy we enter when lawmakers try to determine what speech is acceptable and what is not. Just ask Iqbal Sacranie. Having fought so valiantly to restrict free speech, through a law banning incitement to religious hatred, he now demands his right to free speech when condemning homosexuality on the radio. He must surely see that if he has the right to talk abrasively about gays, everyone else has a right to talk the same way about Muslims. So long as they stop short of directly inciting hatred, strictly defined, both should have the right to say what they like.

That's the way free speech works. Until now the government has had only the dimmest appreciation of what Tony Blair calls libertarian "nonsense". But Gordon Brown gave a thoughtful speech on Britishness at the weekend, arguing that liberty is one of the values that define us as a people. That certainly used to be true. But if it is to be part of our present and future, rather than just our past, it will mean rolling back or rewriting the gagging laws which violate our best traditions. We should have a right to say what we want - and if that offends the odd horse, so be it.


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