Saturday 27 December 2008

A terminological inexactitude

Andy Burnham, UK Culture Secretary, is quoted in the Daily Telegraph, 27 December 2008, as saying the following:

“If you look back at the people who created the internet they talked very deliberately about creating a space that Governments couldn’t reach. I think we are having to revisit that stuff seriously now. It’s true across the board in terms of content, harmful content, and copyright. Libel is [also] an emerging issue.

“There is content that should just not be available to be viewed. That is my view. Absolutely categorical. This is not a campaign against free speech, far from it; it is simply there is a wider public interest at stake when it involves harm to other people. We have got to get better at defining where the public interest lies and being clear about it.”

When will politicians learn either the value of freedom, or the value of accurate speech? Burnham is happy to trample on the former. He cannot manage the latter. His ideas very clearly do amount to a campaign against some free speech of which he disapproves. And free speech counts for nothing unless it is extended to things of which one disapproves. I might respect him if he said "Yes I want some censorship, for the following reasons". But if he said that, he would be forced to recognise the uncomfortable need to justify his proposals properly.

For those who care about freedom, and want to know where it is under attack, I recommend

Friday 19 December 2008

Ignoring the value of liberty

Sometimes, too often for comfort, there is cause for concern that those in positions of authority do not attach much value to liberty of thought, word and deed, not for its instrumental benefits, though they are many, but as a good in itself. Someone must be protected, or standards must be upheld, even if liberty is trampled on in the process. Here are two recent examples.

The General Teaching Council has issued for consultation a draft code of conduct for teachers. It can be found at

As well as containing the usual extensive but vacuous reformulations of the obvious injunctions to know your subject and teach it well, it requires teachers to “uphold and maintain standards of behaviour both inside and outside school that are appropriate given their membership of an important and responsible profession” (page 22). The manifest danger of these words is that they would leave a teacher open to disciplinary action because he or she got drunk, attended sado-masochistic clubs or did any one of a range of other things which were perfectly legal but which would attract the disapproval of the more censorious members of our society. This is an appalling interference with liberty. If a teacher drinks to the extent that it affects the quality of his or her teaching, then he or she can be disciplined for that failure, with no need to refer to his or her private life. If, like Professor Unrat, he or she develops a taste for Der blaue Engel, that should not be the authorities' business, even if the students turn out to be there too, or are peeping through the window.

The bossy turn of mind of the authorities, and their disregard for the value of liberty, is revealed by two quotations in the report of the story in the Times on 19 December 2008. Sarah Stephens, Director of Policy at the Teaching Council, said: “It [the draft code] gives greater clarity about what it means to act as a role model, and about a teacher’s conduct outside the classroom”. Keith Bartley, the Chief Executive of the General Teaching Council, said that teachers could be found guilty of unacceptable conduct without breaking the law – for example by belonging to a party that held racist views. He also said “We’re saying to teachers that, as individuals, they have to consider their place in society. There’s a sense that this [code] has to reflect society’s expectations of the people to whom we commit our children”.

Astonishingly, the code also goes on about the value of diversity and of non-discrimination (on page 14). Presumably only diversity of acceptable types is to be valued.

The second example comes from the Daily Mail, on 19 December 2008. Bob Singh, a shopkeeper in Port Talbot, received a visit from a police officer who warned him that some of the jokes he had for many years included on leaflets advertising special offers might be offensive. According to the police, he was “instructed to withdraw the leaflets”. The examples of jokes given in the newspaper were not very subtle, but only the most ridiculously sensitive person could find them offensive. In any case, it is simply not the police's job to instruct people to withdraw leaflets. I have a lot of respect for the police, but not when they act as the parish censor. If only the officer had stopped to ask himself “What about freedom of speech?”, or even, to put it in legalistic terms, “What about Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights?”. At least the article drew people's attention to the wonderful Campaign Against Political Correctness,

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Assisted suicide, respect and control

A programme on the assisted suicide of Craig Ewert at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland was broadcast tonight. The reactions of some opposed to assisted suicide were interesting.

The BBC quoted Dr Peter Saunders, director of Care Not Killing, as saying: "The danger is that we start to believe in a story that there is such a thing as a life not worth living". The BBC also quoted Lady Finlay, a professor of palliative care, as saying: "This programme ... perpetuates a myth that, somehow, to have a good death you have to end your own life and that is just completely untrue". These comments share a reluctance to accept that individuals can think clearly and make up their own minds in ways which we should respect.

Take Dr Saunders' comment first. It is obvious that there are some parts of lives that are, to the individuals concerned, not worth living, for example the last weeks of some illnesses. He clearly does not want us to believe that those parts of those lives are in fact not worth living. But if it is true, we should believe it. The only way to make it untrue is to say that the individual's judgement as to whether his or her life is worth continuing should not be accepted, because the individual must be failing to see that his or her life is worth continuing.

Lady Finlay's comment assumes that if someone chooses assisted suicide, that must be because he or she does not realise that there are other ways for him or her to have a good death. That only follows if we do not accept that someone could reasonably choose assisted suicide when there were alternative routes to a good death. But why should we not accept someone's choice of assisted suicide? There are, for some people, greater evils than immediate death, even if the deferral of death would not bring great pain. It is not for the rest of us to tell someone that his or her priorities are mistaken.

I see this theme of lack of respect for the decision of the individual as connected with a comment one sees occasionally, that some people fear debilitating illness, and will opt for suicide, because they have an exaggerated desire for control and independence. They may have a stronger than normal desire for control and independence, but why should they not? It is not for anyone else to say that someone's desire for control and independence is stronger than it should be.

While I am, as the above line of argument suggests, in favour of assisted suicide's being available, I do respect the desire of many doctors to have nothing to do with it. Indeed it could well be better for our confidence in the medical profession if doctors and nurses were statutorily excluded from involvement, rather than being allowed the choice. That should not be a problem. All that is needed is to supply a dose of the preferred substance which will definitely be strong enough, and which can be administered by the unskilled.

Finally, it is very hard to have any sympathy with the comment made by John Beyer, director of mediawatch-uk: "This subject is quite an important political issue at the moment (a Bill is being brought forard in the Scottish Parliament by Margo MacDonald MSP and there is a consultation currently running on End of Life Policies) and my anxieties are that the programme will influence public opinion". Lots of people make comments on this issue, with a view to influencing public opinion. The broadcaster has contributed to the debate by confronting us with an example of assisted suicide. All such evidence is grist to the mill of the debate. People will consider what they have seen and heard, and will make up their own minds. It really is the most appalling insult to all of us to say that we should be shielded from certain potential contributions to the debate, with the implication that we cannot stand back and think for ourselves.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Civil Service impartiality

The Damian Green affair rumbles on. This is Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service, speaking on 2 December at the Civil Service Diversity and Equality Awards ceremony:

"All civil servants serve the Government of the day. We are politically impartial and our actions are governed by the Civil Service Code. Political impartiality means we must serve the Government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of our ability, no matter what are own political beliefs. To quote from the Code, this means acting 'in a way which deserves and retains the confidence of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future government'."

There was no official connection with the Green affair, but his decision to touch on this topic, in a context in which it looks pretty incongruous, can hardly have been a coincidence.

I find Gus O'Donnell's words disturbing. They could be read as favouring impartiality. But they could just as easily be read as favouring utter, fawning partiality, doing the bidding of ministers to the extent of protecting their reputations even when those reputations deserved to be lost, until the next election, then showing the same partiality to the new government, even though its political stance and its policies might differ radically from those of the outgoing government.

In practice, ministers' reputations are indeed looked after far too carefully by civil servants. I agree that ministers, having got themselves elected, should take policy decisions. But such decisions should be on their own heads, and for them to justify. While civil servants should advise on the options and implement the chosen policies to the best of their ability, the presentation and defence of those policies should be left entirely up to ministers and their political parties. And when leaks happen, ministers should not be shielded from the consequences of disclosure of the truth by their civil servants.

I would therefore favour a much tougher understanding of Civil Service impartiality. It should mean that civil servants will provide ministers with a limited service of advice and implementation, and nothing more. Impartiality should mean impartiality every day, not a mere readiness to change loyalty come the next election. Only then could we justifiably refer to Northcote and Trevelyan, and at one remove to Plato, with the implication that we were carrying on a proud tradition.

Monday 1 December 2008

Government spin and bad logic on the arrest of Damian Green

Ministers have been busy saying that last week's raid does not indicate a police state, because it would be a police state if ministers directed investigations, and that did not happen. It is true that we would be in big trouble if ministers directed investigations, and it may be true that there was no ministerial involvement in this case. But it does not follow that the UK is at no risk of becoming a police state. The official line is an attempt to slip bad logic past us, in the form of denying the antecedent. There are other ways in which we could slide into a police state.

One way, directly relevant to this case, is to allow the police wide discretion which can all too easily be abused so that police officers can act against things which they happen not to like. The "misconduct in a public office" offences are like that. So is section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which has been used to punish people selling shirts which said "Bollocks to Blair" and to threaten with prosecution people holding up placards saying "Scientology is a Cult" outside the City of London headquarters of the Scientologists. The police can take control and act improperly when they are too little controlled by the law, as well as when they are too much controlled by ministers.