Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Don't shoot the messenger.

WE can probably all agree that what goes on in bedrooms, so long as it's legal, is none of our business.

Most of us would likewise concur that the contents of people's mobile telephones are best not reported on by journalists.

After a year-long inquiry into the ways and morality of the Press, there's probably quite a large number of us who think the people journalists write about are unwilling victims who are lied about and exploited.

And if anyone did reveal all those things, the public would be so disgusted they would not want to read about it. Right?

Well, we could be forgiven for thinking so until the middle of yesterday afternoon, when the drawn-out, ditzy car crash that is Chantelle Houghton showed the phone-hacking scandal, the Leveson inquiry and public moral outrage are only one side of the coin.

For those who don't know, Chantelle 'shot to fame' in 2006 on a series of Celebrity Big Brother, on which she was the only contestant who was not a celebrity. She had to pretend to be one for a week, and did so well - she's quite pretty, sweet-natured and dim - she went on to win the whole show.

She then married a fellow contestant after a bit of a love triangle with his existing fiancee, and they split, reconciled, divorced, and then did what most once-married couples would avoid at all costs and appeared together again in a recent Celebrity Big Brother.

Chantelle, a former Paris Hilton impersonator, model and promotions girl, has never displayed what her critics would call talent. She can't sing, dance, write, act, or anything else that usually sustains a public profile. And she is also, due to that profile, virtually unemployable in any other job.

Chantelle has one ability, which is being charmingly thick about men and then telling everyone about it. Quite sensibly, she has based her career upon the only skill she boasts and has done quite well, earning more than a million from it with appearances in magazines and television in return for revealing all about her personal life.

She's had her day in newspapers as well - but she doesn't sell like she did and budgets are smaller, so she usually only appears in tabloids when they are poking fun at her and they get the pictures cheap.
 
Yesterday Chantelle did something which, if a journalist had done it, would lead to a dawn raid from 10 Met officers in jumpsuits keen to seize everything in their house that wasn't nailed down.

She revealed the contents of another individual's mobile telephone, made allegations about his sexual proclivities, and identified two people he apparently had affairs with.

All without showing us the proof, it must be said, and what's more she did it for free. That's citizen journalism and open news for you.

Now there will be a number of you rolling your eyes or muttering about tittle-tattle and proper news. I look forward to seeing you in the comments section later. But stick with me, because what Chantelle has done is extremely important for 'proper news' in ways I am about to explain.

This woman did what many of us have, and trawled her partner's mobile. It is different, but very similar to, hacking. Whether it's text messages, accessing a call log, or perhaps ringing the voicemail and listening to what you find, it's electronic trespass and punishable, theoretically, by the law.

Because many of us look through a partner's phone to confirm or allay suspicions, it's unlikely to get anyone arrested. But while there's a big difference between that and blagging the pin code to a murdered schoolgirl's phone for a story, it is on the same spectrum. It is morally more acceptable to many, but technically a very similar offence.

Now if her partner had revealed his text messages to the world that would be one thing. But for an unfriendly ex to do so is, quite obviously, a breach of privacy. If I found Hugh Grant's mobile in a bar and posted the contents online I'd soon have be injuncted for denying his human right to respect for his privacy.

Yet it is common for people to post online things they see, hear and find out in the course of their day. We all live-tweet conversations overheard, photograph people misbehaving, and cast aspersions about friends, family and the famous without providing evidence to support them. We breach our own privacy by putting our personal details online, and we breach that of others without asking them first if they mind. Read thy own status updates before casting any stones.

Chantelle's ex - a cross-dressing cagefighter once married to Katie Price, none of which seems to have rung any alarm bells - is known to be a little odd. But it was not suspected, until she told a quarter of a million people on Twitter yesterday, that he had allegedly constructed a 'sex dungeon' in her flat, made her sleep on the floor while pregnant, used hookers, attended orgies or had gay flings in his alternative persona of Roxanne.

Unless it is true, those allegations are defamatory. If they are true, they are precisely the same kind of information about high-profile people often protected from publication by injunction, and which the likes of Max Mosley think the subject should always be forwarned about so they can injunct if they wish.

None of it's illegal, so no-one could argue the public interest. But yet it was of supreme interest to thousands of people yesterday, as even a quick search on Twitter would have proved. There were plenty who did not notice or care, but many, many more passing comment, having a nose, telling their mates about it and generally spreading gossip based on unfounded, unfriendly, private information gained through phone-hacking.

Think about that for just a second. We all generally try to be good as much as we can, and we all like to think of ourselves as 'above' socially-unacceptable behaviour or prurient interest in the sex lives of celebrities major or minor.

Put your hand on your heart and tell me you didn't read those tweets yesterday and that you won't go and seek them out now I've told you about them. If you can't honestly do that, then you have to admit you enjoy a bit of meaningless tittle-tattle about the private lives of others.

Let's leave aside the objections to people like Chantelle and her inevitable fitness DVD, mental breakdown, one true love, marriage, divorce, boob reconstruction, bankruptcy, eventual retirement to run an animal sanctuary and moral objections to someone who's made a fortune out of not much.

A person is not a newspaper, and it's right that we have more rules and standards to stick to than the average Twitbooker. But a newspaper speaks to and for the people who read it, and that means you don't just say the things they want to hear.

If some kinds of phone-hacking are all right - be it you at home keeping an eye on your partner, or a journalist trying to expose a crime - then we need to qualify the law to reflect that, because at the moment both are equally punishable.

If we treat privacy as a commodity, whether by selling stories as a career, posting things online or as Charlotte Church recently did invite journalists into our home to tell them about our personal lives to publicise a new album, then we need to separate genuinely-private individuals from people who object only when their privacy is breached by someone they haven't sold it to.

And if we accept that, as normal, healthy, gossipy human beings we all like a bit of prurient, salacious, entirely unnecessary detail in our lives whether it is about a cagefighter or the next door neighbour - well, then we need to keep our moral outrage for things we don't secretly enjoy.

You probably didn't want to hear that.


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Yes and ho.

CAST your minds back to the summer of 2010.

A few months after the General Election which nobody was liked enough to win, there was a big announcement from our shiny new Coalition about how lovely our democracy was going to be.

We had shown great disenchantment with politicians and the political process, said our baby-pink Prime Minister Dishface, so we needed to feel more involved.

He announced that a system of epetitions set up by the previous much-hated administration would be expanded, given its own website, and each that passed 100,000 signatures would be debated by our representatives in Parliament.

Dishface said: "One of the points of the new e-petitions website is to make sure that if a certain level of signatures is reached, the matter will be debated in the House, whether we like it or not. That is an important way of empowering people."

Quite right too.

Then a few months later it was announced the whole plan was 'under review' because someone had noticed the epetitions could be a bit embarrassing as they had previously been used to call for the resignation of the Prime Minister and overturn of major policies.

We can't have that, can we?

Then this August it was launched again, by then Leader of the House Sir George Young, 6th baronet, convicted drink-driver, millionaire but with enough normality about him to rebel against the poll tax and go out to collect rubbish as a Lambeth councillor when the binmen went on strike.

Sir George said at the time: "This is part of a strategy of making the House of Commons more accessible and more relevant. And there's a wide range of subjects... banning smoking in prisons, an English parliament... it's really important people should find it easy to let Parliament know what their views are and what they would like to see us discuss."

Asked if this was just a shallow PR exercise and MPs would just ignore petitions they didn't fancy, he replied: "If MPs decide, at the end of the day, that we're not going to do what the petitioners want us to do then we're going to have to explain. I think rather than hope the issue goes away and duck it and avoid it I think it's right the House of Commons should address the key issues people are worried about at home."

He added that epetitions of 100,000 signatures or more would all be debated over 35 allotted days during the Parliamentary year.

Which all sounds great, doesn't it? They seem to have an admirable passion for engaging the electorate, finding out people's views, and acting upon issues which large numbers of people feel strongly about. Democracy in action.

Then yesterday, in Parliament, this happened:

Nick Dakin (Lab, Scunthorpe): Considering the need to preserve our Olympic legacy, what does the Secretary of State have to say to those 150,000 people who signed a petition against his plans which will come into force this Wednesday to scrap minimum size regulations for school playing fields?

Michael Gove (SoS for Education): I admire their passion, but they are wrong.

And that, dear Reader, was that.

No-one was surprised. No-one nudged their mate and asked "Is he serious?" Nobody in a room full - well, all right, containing some - of our elected representatives asked a Government minister if he had seriously just said democracy was done with. They moved on to talk about other things.

But he did. And it is. And they are quite serious about it, too.

In the past year 6.4million people have signed 36,000 epetitions, with 12 people signing up every minute. The website has 46,500 hits a day, which shows how involved voters would like to be.

By this time last year seven epetitions had passed the target to merit a debate, and two were dismissed out-of-hand by a group of MPs who decide on Parliamentary business. Of the remainder two were sent to Westminster Hall, where there is no vote, and three were discussed in the Commons.

Two of those - one calling for referendum on membership of the EU and another on fuel price rises - sparked backbench rebellions. More than 80 Coalition MPs defied the whip to vote for a a referendum and the fuel debate forced the government to do a deal with its own backbenchers.

One of those 'discussed' in Westminster Hall - calling for rioters to lose their benefits, which was backed by 240,000 people - was not mentioned by MPs when they met to discuss it for three whole hours.

And another backed by 180,000 people was closed, without any debate at all, because it called on the government to reverse its NHS reforms.

Epetitions are just as easily ignored as paper ones - they merely take up fewer trees. We haven't helped ourselves by starting petitions on Jeremy Clarkson being Prime Minister, using spare Buckingham Palace bedrooms for the homeless and the reintroduction of Saxon on roadsigns.

And while suggesting MPs have IQ tests was entirely reasonable it was hardly going to fly.

We're all grown up enough to accept that democracy is a deal - it's not absolute. We vote them in, to do roughly what they want, but in the knowledge that we'll vote them out again if we don't like it.

Most of us could see epetitions were little more than a way for the obsessive to let off steam safely, and we are well aware that politicians of every party think they're right and the other 62million of us are wrong.

But we did at least believe that, with a following wind and a big wave of public support, we could make our opinion known. We could do something more than have a Twitter spasm which gets reported in the papers, we could campaign, demand, insist, and by sheer weight of numbers might be able to prove we had a point.

Well, I admire our passion. But we were wrong.

We are governed by people who not only find it easy to ignore us, but actively seek to do so. There is not so much a sense of entitlement as a total lack of any doubt that we also accept the entitlement they think is too obvious to merit a mention.

I say this not to depress you, but because the truth is an important way of empowering people. And the truth is our Parliament is less accessible, less relevant, less transparent and more opaque, obtuse and filled with the socially obsolete than at any point since the Glorious Revolution.

Rather than hope this issue goes away, it is time we faced it. Our servants think they are our masters, and we are letting them get away with it. We pay them, we mutter under our breath about them, and fewer of us than ever before bestir ourselves to go to the ballot box and kick them hence.

The only thing I want to see them discuss is how, on £65,738 a year plus extras, with free housing and furniture and food, with subsidised booze and sandwiches, with scandal heaped upon disgrace feeding off shamelessness, with barely anyone bothering to argue with them and no-one expecting anything better, they find the time or inclination to destroy the democracy they squat upon.

Admire this.



Monday, 29 October 2012

Take care.

MEET Simone Blake.


Simone is 21 years old and was born with part of a chromosome missing. It is one of the most common genetic defects in babies, affecting one in every three or four thousand children. The lack of this chromosome can cause cleft lips and palates, heart and kidney problems, feeding difficulties, and an IQ about the same as Forrest Gump's.

None of that is Simone's fault, and while bits of it can be addressed lots can't. She's a handful to look after so once she was an adult her parents, who are both in ill health, paid thousands of pounds a month to a nearby private care home called Winterbourne View.

People that have met her say Simone has a very infectious giggle. When she smiles she lights up the whole room, and like any child she is more than capable of showing a sunny nature and doing as she's told when treated properly.

This is Simone having a wash. She had buckets of cold water thrown over her while she screamed for help.


This is Simone being taught not to hit her carers. She was pinned under this chair for more than 30 minutes, had her hair pulled, her face covered, and was put in a headlock.


This is Simone being helped with her beauty regime. The carer who pinned her to the floor told her she was ugly.


This is Simone enjoying the gardens. They left her out there until they noticed her shivering from head to toe.


She had been at the home for a mere four months when these scenes were filmed for an undercover documentary, and she was aged just 18. She was slapped, bruised, bullied and terrorised. One one day she was slapped and humiliated by seven staff for 11 hours, and threatened with a razor.

The last time she was seen by the reporter who took these pictures, she was lying on her bedroom floor calling for her mum, who had sent a bunch of flowers which were strewn all around her.

Other patients were dragged, punched, jumped on, and threatened. One tried to jump from a window after being physically manhandled. Patient notes were falsified by staff. Records show another patient somehow twisted and fractured her own wrist.

The court which sentenced Simone's abusers heard that she had learned a lot from them, becoming more aggressive with other people. Rather than the childlike tantrums she used to have, she now acts like an angry, abusive adult, with all the violence that entails.

After the scandal erupted, Simone was moved to another home where everyone thought she would be looked after better.

Her notes show that in one four hour period she was restrained in a chair 10 times, and twice more on the floor. In June she was accused of attacking two members of staff, but it cannot have been one-sided as four carers were suspended as a result.

Then, without telling her family, Simone was moved one day to a secure unit where she is now kept under lock and key. Her parents are an eight-hour round-trip away and because of their health cannot visit her, something which Simone probably has trouble grasping.

Simone is not easy to look after. She is big and strong, doesn't always understand, and thanks to the mistreatment she has experienced needs lots of love and care to unlearn all the bad behaviour she was taught.

Instead she's locked up, because that's easier than taking a long, hard look at what is laughably called our care system.

A 'care' system which allowed dozens of girls from children's homes in Rochdale to be raped, coerced, drugged and abused by gangs of men for years and ignored them whenever they reported it.

A 'care' system which allowed Jimmy Savile access to vulnerable youngsters in hospitals, prisons, and council-run residential homes.

A 'care' system which lets the elderly starve to death, which pays peanuts, expects no or few specialised qualifications, whose employees are undervalued by both their bosses and society at large, and in which stories like Simone's are actually not that bad.

The reporter who exposed the mistreatment of Simone and others got the job without any experience or qualifications - not by duplicity, but because none were needed. I know of someone who, jobless after leaving university, was offered night shifts at a care home and was frequently the only person in charge.

A 21-year-old without a clue, running an entire care home, for ten hours at a stretch.

Oh, there are standards and commissions and ombudsmen and routes of appeal and complaint. But they're a fat lot of use when unqualified, cheap staff write what they like in the log book, when profit is put before everything else, and when what few rules there are treated more as guidelines so long as you look clean and professional for a pre-arranged inspection every now and again.

There are no rules about CCTV, or making it easy for staff to whistleblow. There are no rules about why you can't employ a random off the street. There are no rules about how care is the same as protection and love, and that the system cannot be relied up on to do either.

There are many people working in care who do so in spite of all of that. They have a vocation to help others and stick with it despite the profiteering, low wages and abuse they often see because they think that if they throw in the towel the people who need them are going to be even worse off.

And most of us think this is about 'them' - that it's nothing to do with us.

But if it weren't for people who care, we'd soon notice. The people who care for relatives at home, at their own expense and to the detriment of their own health. The staff who stick it out on minimum wage, the ones who do home visits which last longer than the regulated 15 minutes, the carers who know they're banned from physical touching but give patients a hug when they need it anyway.

If all those people went on strike we'd see there is no system - just a few good people doing their best to keep the care system at bay for as long as they can. A system in which average hourly costs have risen 10 per cent in the past two years while its reputation has sunk ever lower with constant stories of abuse, mistreatment and neglect.

Even if we do not have a condition like Simone's, we will all need care one day. There are close to a million people with dementia and rising and we will expect the system to look after our loved ones or after us, and we shouldn't have to factor in the purchase of a secret camera to make sure that happens.

There needs to be a professional body to discipline, campaign and train. There needs to be qualifications ranging from simple, cheap, care-for-mum-at-home-yourself options all the way up to degrees if you want to run a residential home. There needs to be a junior minister devoted to it, at the very least.

There needs to be a change so that when we meet a carer we don't think 'Oh, stale wee and Winterbourne' and instead say 'Wow! Really? Well done you'.

Care is not a luxury - it's a need we all share with Simone. And more than anything else, we need to start caring about our care system before it's too late and there's nothing left worthy of the name.


Care.




Friday, 26 October 2012

Today's column...

... for the Daily Mirror is all about how to spend your whole life living off the state and you can read it here.

Don't get too angry.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

New brooms please.

THE worst thing about a cancer is that it spreads.

For years it was treated as a one-off lump which could be cut or make you write off the person who had it entirely. We knew very little beyond the fact it was nasty, so we didn't look at it too closely and kept our fingers crossed.

Then as we realised it was touching many people we took a closer look, and now we know how it starts, the symptoms, and more importantly than anything else that it can spread through your cells like liquid mercury and produce a problem somewhere unexpected.

And because we know more about it, we're better at tackling it. We don't need to keep our fingers crossed when our doctors have the best chance they've ever had to hunt it down and kill it without killing us too.

The same is true of child abuse.

We all grew up not knowing much about it, blaming it on the occasional 'dirty old man' we avoided out of instinct rather than any kind of knowledge.

It wasn't an offence that was easy to prosecute because the law used to insist on a third-party eyewitness, and because of that and the fact The Reader just didn't want to know, newspapers didn't report on it much.

Sexual assault laws have changed, people are more likely to come forward now and juries are more able to weigh up the facts. But it's often many years after the event, by which point the human tumour you're trying to put behind bars is beyond offending and has already done so much damage lives have long been ruined.

They're a manipulative, twisting, lying lot, child abusers, and like an ever-mutating cancer they're hard to pin down and examine. It takes money and time and effort, so few people go to the trouble.

But they're are not isolated cases. A parent who abuses their children will claim to have been abused themselves, and whether that is true or an attempt at sympathy we don't know because we don't care to look too closely.

What if child abuse is not one lump that can be easily cut out, but a chain that needs to be traced back to the source? Cutting out one link is not going to do much - it just creates two chains.

In the past few weeks the nation has been horrified, disgusted and then steadily bored by revelations of a children's TV presenter abusing youngsters from hospitals, mental hospitals, children's homes, and special schools.

And we've treated Jimmy Savile like he's one lump, now thankfully dead, who we can dissect a little and whinge about why we weren't able to spot him earlier and who should have told us sooner.

But it suddenly seems like there a lot of suspicious bumps, and most of them seem to be under the carpet.

Yesterday an MP claimed that a investigation into a man convicted of importing child porn - and who was a member of a group which campaigned for the age of consent to be reduced to four years - contained a number of leads which were not followed up.

That's like finding a cancer, seeing it leads somewhere else in the body, and not having a root around.

The leads included claims an aide to a former Prime Minister could provide pornographic pictures of children. The man who was convicted had also been in a relationship with the headteacher of a school for disturbed children, and we don't know if that was looked into either.

Sir Peter Morrison, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher, was this weekend revealed to have received a caution for cottaging with under-age boys. He was picked up twice, but due to his position as deputy chairman of the Conservative party never charged with gross indecency with children. Police officers tipped off a reporter (pay attention, Sue Akers and Brian Leveson) whose story was blocked by Morrison's abuse of the libel laws.

The long-dead PM Edward Heath is the subject of unsubstantiated rumours about paedophilia aboard his yacht, and an alleged friendship with Jimmy Savile who he awarded an OBE to in 1971 for services to charity which, in all fairness, had barely begun.

One person has even made allegations against a serving Cabinet minister. It may be completely untrue, but the minister is unable to defend themselves just as much as their accuser is unable to openly accuse.

The lumps may all be unconnected, but seeing as they're under the same carpet it's worth lifting for a look, don't you think?

The trouble is there are a lot of people standing on it and telling you there's no point. The Prime Minister and Director-General of the BBC say the three internal management reviews the corporation is holding are 'independent' and need to be 'allowed to do their job'.

After which, they will report to the BBC management. Not to us.

A Government minister stopped from raising the allegations during an appearance on the nation's prime political debate programme tried to present it as evidence of a cover-up to one of those reviews, only to be told it 'was not considering evidence from external sources'.

So a review into a possible cover-up at the BBC is only considering evidence from the BBC. I wonder what would have happened if the News of the World had tried that.

I also wonder what would happen if, during the course of those reviews, they accepted evidence from convicted child rapists. You'd think there'd be a fuss, although when Jonathan King claimed the Press had got him wrongly jailed at an Establishment-led inquiry he was listened to carefully.

It's all incredibly distasteful, and there are many when faced with grime who'd rather not look under the carpet at all and hope that's where it stays.

But the NSPCC has 161 allegations against Savile. The BBC has several allegations made about other stars. Downing Street questions to answer about at least one former member of staff. NHS doctors have been named, and former Health Minister Edwina Currie for some reason let Jimmy Savile take over Broadmoor in the 1980s. There are wild rumours flying about people living and dead, in positions of great power, which nobody knows to be true or false.

It is also the case that you do not need to do much more than call someone a paedophile to have them forever tainted as such, even if they are innocent. Imagine the fear some people must feel that false allegations may be made by damaged people, which unlike every other crime needs you to prove your innocence before anyone will believe it to be true.

Perhaps all those lumps under the carpet are unconnected. Maybe we'd all rather not look. But it's undeniably a hell of a mess and the only thing which has a hope of cleaning it all up is a proper investigation capable of following the evidence wherever it leads and letting everyone have their say.

If there is no public inquiry set up by the Government, the public will hold their own via the newspapers. Now that we know there's something amiss other victims will come forward because when denied justice everywhere else the court of public opinion is an effective last resort.

There is more smoking here than Jimmy Savile's manky cigar. We can all smell it, and it is far better to find out it's a weird one-off rather than a bloody great cancer galloping through our guts we've been ignoring the symptoms of for far too long.

And if it is a tumour with tendrils extending into all our institutions - let's blast it with something.

Sweep it up, or be swept aside.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Wanted, dead or alive.

ONCE upon a time there lived a man known as the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Whenever he came out of his castle to talk to the poor people he smiled and said nice things, but always had some of his servants with him to make sure the poor he saw were not too dirty and that they did not get too close.

He was a man who liked to have lots of money, so he charged his friends to eat with him and made sure he only ate with the richest people.

He decided the poor had too much money, so he taxed their food and their cheap holidays.

He thought poor people were bad, and rich people were good. So when rich people put up rents he let them, and told the poor people who could not afford to pay them they needed to all live together.

He left the very poorest people alone, so that he could have his portrait painted helping them later. But the everyday poor - those who were watching the pennies, waiting for pay day and being as good as possible so they did not lose their jobs - he decided were of no use to him.

So when each family was due a small copper penny on the birth of a new child, he very carefully gave it to them before taxing their pay to the tune of one small copper penny. He did this even if they were looking after children who were not their own and they had not been given the penny in the first place.

He let rich people keep their pennies.

He gave less money to the hospitals which looked after the poor people when they were ill, and he sacked police officers who helped the poor people when they had trouble. He gave less funding to the people who put out fires in the poor people's houses, and when he realised his private army was filled with people recruited from poor areas he sacked 20,000 of them.

He said it was all the fault of the person who was sheriff before him, and said there was no money left for unimportant things. So charities which helped poor people who were beaten by their partners, poor people who wanted to work but were disabled, poor people who were old and poor people who had lost their jobs and wanted help to find another one were all told they would have to do without.

When the poor people marched and said they wanted jobs so they could earn and pay more taxes for him, he said they were being silly.

He was mean to all the maidens, and when they were angry he told them they were frustrated and to calm down and while there were always a couple sitting behind him in public he didn't promote too many.

When the poor people were bad and disrupted his holiday he locked them up for a very, very long time. When his friends were bad he said they shouldn't have to resign and were a credit to the government and a long life of public service spent helping the poor people.

His money-collectors were heard at the castle gate calling the peasants names, seen careering through Sherwood Forest in a gold-covered coach laughing loudly while watching a comedy DVD, shooting badgers, and being called incompetent by the very nasty Sheriff of Chingford.

He did not order a public inquiry into allegations lots of rich people had been sexually abusing poor children for decades, and when all his cost-cutting of public services meant he'd have to take a smaller pension himself his toadies suggested he be paid more to make up for it.

Meanwhile the bishops who said they were men of faith and believed in peace and forgiveness and that bum sex was bad unless they were doing it made money from men who sold guns to kill people all over the world.

The one person lots of poor people thought might help them and rob from the rich to make their lives a little easier turned out, once inside the castle, to change his mind.

Then a wandering minstrel arrived in Nottingham, and was appalled at what he saw.

He said: "It's Sheriff-of-Nottingham times: 'What do the working classes eat? Pasties. Let's tax those. Where do they go on their holidays? In static caravans. We'll tax them.' I didn't notice a tax on polo mallets. I loathe Cameron; I loathe Osborne. We didn't vote them in and yet here they are deciding for us. I'd like to see their heads on spikes on Tower Bridge. Seriously. I'd sleep well."

He said: "The Catholic Church has no right to wag the finger at gay people. How can we respect a church that has encouraged paedophiles by moving them from one parish to another, free to carry on again?"

He said all the things the poor people had thought for several years, but because he was just a minstrel the sheriff laughed at him from a high window in his castle and it didn't matter a damn.

And what happened to the sheriff in the end? Well, a good man dressed all in green who had lost his home and wealth and knew what it was to be poor came along and helped the peasants to rise up. The sheriff put up WANTED posters, unaware that Robin was precisely what everyone did want.

The only problem is, he's not here yet.

 And wouldn't we be merry if he were?

Monday, 22 October 2012

This is getting too silly.

WHEN things go horribly wrong it's tempting to stop and stare at the wrongness.

So after a car accident we all slow down to look at the gore; with a crime we fixate upon what was done to whom; and during a scandal we "ooh can you believe it?" about the cover-up.

We don't look at the cause - the brakes that failed, the background of the criminal, the facts which mounted while no-one was looking at them.

There is always a cover-up in a scandal, or at least something that looks like it, because if we'd all known whatever it was a lot sooner it wouldn't be such a scandal.

That's why most of Britain has an opinion about the BBC and who knew what about television personality and lifelong paedophile Jimmy Savile when. Everyone of us thinks something was amiss and someone knew earlier and a few others didn't tell anyone.

Which is all fair enough, probably true, and more than likely worth making sure gets stopped and doesn't happen again. But just as phone-hacking was wrong and its scandal did not address the collapse in morality and legality which must have preceded it, the Savile story's delayed publication does not tell us why he was able to molest hundreds of children for decades.

It does not tell us how an habitual child abuser was able to have access to children at the BBC, in children's homes, hospitals, schools and prisons.

And that is surely the most important bit - the enabling, the overlooking, the ignoring, the nudging and winking which allowed bad people to do bad things should be the bits that attract our scrutiny, rather than the blood on the walls at the world's most-respected broadcaster.

But they don't, because it's human to stare at the blood and point the finger at one or two people so we can feel it's been cleaned up and not look too closely at just how many people in the vicinity might have had access to knives.

And what happens then? A few people get the blame while everyone else gets to carry on playing with knives.

The same phenomenon is played out all the time. Someone bemoans their partner's affair without asking what made them betray in the first place, we complain about a lack of credit when too much of the stuff is what caused our economic mess, and we look at the government and say it's rubbish because we don't like it.

We stare at the wrongness of 'toffs' in charge, of whips calling people plebs, at u-turns and first-class travel, at a double-dip recession and £80billion of cuts and more to come, at marches that are ignored, the disabled bullied, the police cut, ministers promoted despite committing fraud, at a Coalition about as functional and happy as a bag of rabid cats.

It is whether or not that is wrong, and how wrong it might be, that occupies the minds of political journalists, party members, and your average voter when they bother to think about it. And as a result no-one looks at the cause of the problem.

I do not much care if members of the current government feel they were born to rule. In my experience, every politician feels that way from Prime Ministers down to parish councillors, and nothing will make them think different.

My problem is that, born to rule or not, they're making an absolute hash of it.

I wouldn't mind them being super-posh, mega-rich masters of the universe if they were capable of steering the nation through turbulent economic seas in roughly the right direction, but instead it feels like the captain's a two-year-old splashing about in his bath tub after too much Sunny Delight.

Today Dishface is going to relaunch his mid-term government by promising to be "tough and intelligent" on crime, keeping everything crossed the end of the recession will be announced on Thursday and hoping no-one notices the abortion they've made out of child benefit.

Which would be fine, if only it didn't make everyone wonder if up until now they've been soft and stupid on crime and the chancellor spends his days praying for a miracle.

So let me make this as clear as I can.

If you have to rebrand something as intelligent, it's because you look thick.

The PM is a PR man who has so badly mishandled his own PR that he has lost the support of his main cheerleaders in the right-wing Press, who have turned on him. He has no feel for the public mood which is why he didn't sack the whip who called a policeman a pleb, he can't control his own party or the Coalition which is why there's been so many u-turns, and last week his minions effectively called Paralympic heroine Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson a liar.

It may well be that cuts are vital, that disability benefit needs reforming, that Andrew Mitchell isn't too bad once you get to know him. But the one thing a party which elects a PR man to lead it should be sure of is that he will at least have an image of competence even if it's not true.

And he can't even do that properly! A good PR man would know he needs to keep the biggest newspapers in the country on his side, that Plebgate needed to be killed in something less than the four weeks it dragged on for, that a boss needs to look decisive and Dame Tanni is untouchable even by someone who mentions his dead disabled son more often than strictly necessary.

The real truth is that the PM wasn't too good at PR even when PR was all he had to do. Now he has more to do he facts show he's not up to it and even if he makes it to the next election he's no more electable than last time, which as we ended up with a Coalition was not very.

The whole government is a car crash we're watching more out of curiosity as to who will manage to survive rather than any wish to save them. And just like Jimmy Savile, it's the little things that seem amiss which reveal the biggest problems.

The Prime Minister can't make decisions, he can't enforce them, he doesn't know what the country wants and can't make it accept what it needs. He is a dead duck. He's not resting, not stunned, not pining for the playing fields of Eton.

At the root of the problem, when you bury right down to see what's gone wrong to start with and why we've ended up in the situation we have, there's only one conclusion to draw.

He's just no bloody good.

Time to run down the curtain.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Today's post on...

... Nick Griffin and his similarities with hook-handed hate preacher Abu Hamza can be read on the Daily Mirror website here.

Enjoy.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Lessons unlearned.

IMAGINE what would happen if no-one ever learned.

Aside from the fact we'd still be hitting each other with rocks because it made a nice wet thwacky noise, we would not have the Higgs-Boson, democracy, fountain pens, flu remedies and lots of other marvellous things which make life today more bearable than any number of yesterdays.

Of course not everyone learns, which is why we still have police tasering elderly blind men, laws which make it a crime to be sarcastic, and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson falling in and out of parties looking a right mess.

But, generally speaking, humanity improves itself - sometimes with a speed below that of continental drift, admittedly - by learning from its mistakes.

And it's just as well, because think about how appalled we would be if we ignored them. Picture what would happen if a journalist today was found to have hacked the voicemails of murdered schoolgirl Tia Sharp, or the BBC had recruited a career-long pervert as a children's TV presenter.

We'd not only be shocked at their stupidity, we'd be aghast at their amorality. Even more aghast than we were the first time such mistakes were made, because it is only the hope that mistakes are learned from which make them bearable in the first place.

Which brings me, with angry inevitability, to the MPs' expenses scandal of 2009.

This is a story which so rocked the nation's already-shaky faith in politicians that, in all likelihood, it was partly responsible for the fact no party won a majority in the 2010 General Election and we got a Coalition they tacked together themselves without asking us about it.

It was so major an event that it altered our likely government, and thus the policies it enacts for the following five years. It was not a flash in the pan, not a Silly Season media frenzy. It was a biggie.

Vast numbers of our elected representatives were stealing millions of pounds from the public to line their own pockets in what can only be described as a system of institutionalised fraud. They wrote their own very relaxed rules about claiming for anything up to £250 without receipts, switching their second home allocations and buying furniture and kitchens from expensive department stores, and when they found even those rules too restrictive they broke them.

Some claimed for things that were not allowed, like cutting their wisteria, £380 for horse manure, mortgage payments for houses while they rented another out for profit, a £1,645 house for ducks, repairs to their tennis courts, claiming £400 a month for food, and avoiding capital gains tax.


Still more produced fake documents to claim for mortgages and rent that did not exist. It claimed the scalps, over time, of six Cabinet ministers, 13 backbenchers and five members of the House of Lords who either resigned, stood down, retired early, were suspended or jailed.

They whinged and whined, but many had to pay back thousands in false claims and missed tax. It led to an upsurge in the number of independent candidates at the next election, and the most senior and important job it cost was that of pugnacious Speaker Michael Martin.

Martin had tried to block publication of the expenses long before the scandal broke. When journalists and a handful of MPs were campaigning for transparency and using the deeply-flawed Freedom of Information Act to force the issue, Martin insisted on as little transparency as possible.

He employed ex-SAS staff to handle the 'sensitive' material; he claimed to be protecting the 'security' of MPs whose home addresses should not be included (which would later prove their second home flipping, dodgy rental agreements and other lies); he oversaw debates in which MPs rejected calls for reform; he fought and delayed and when he could not stop publication he demanded massive redactions throughout.

Unfortunately for Mr Martin, and luckily for the rest of us, one of those ex-SAS staff was horrified at what he saw in the raw data and hawked it around the newspapers. Journalists were shown small details to see if it was worth their buying all of it, and snippets appeared here and there. The problem was there was so much information, and so many stories, that no mass-market paper could ever use all of it and no deal was struck.

One saw a way to do it justice, and the Daily Wellygraph paid £110,000 for the full set of info. They locked some journalists in a room for weeks to crunch the data day and night, and then they went big on the story every day for weeks.

Martin's response was to call in the police and criticise the media. He sought to punish the whistleblower, shoot the messengers, harangue MPs who denounced the scandal to the Press, and otherwise sought to cover everything up with the fat old man's favoured weapon of a giant harrumph.

It ended badly, of course. The MPs he was supposed to control turned on him, and those keen to find a scapegoat for their own failings denounced him, voted him out of his job and waved him off to bitter retirement while saying this could all never be allowed to happen again.

Yesterday his replacement as Speaker, John Bercow, was asked to 'protect' the 'security' of MPs and not allow their addresses to be revealed in a FOI request aimed at finding out where, exactly, they were claiming taxpayer's money for living.

The request centres on who the landlords are of those MPs who are claiming rent because, as we know all too well, they have a habit of renting from each other, secret boyfriends, and their own family.

Mr Bercow has asked the authorities to "reconsider" publication of the landlords' details as it "could involve causing unwarranted damage and distress" to the shrinking violets of the Commons if we knew where they lived and who they were renting their houses from.

Never mind that their home addresses - or at least, the addresses of one of their homes - are matters of public record. You can't stand for election unless you're on the electoral roll, so if someone is determined to damage and distress an MP it's a matter of some ease to bang on their front door and annoy them. That's how I do it, after all.

If they're not at home they're normally in the big palace we pay for, drinking booze we pay for or eating food we pay for, and if you can't get into one of the public areas you can always hang around outside and distress them on their way back to a London flat we also pay for. They haven't made that a crime, yet.

Bercow acted despite the fact that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which was set up in the wake of the 2009 scandal, has already admitted that four MPs are claiming expenses for renting from other MPs which, as far as I can tell, makes eight MPs on the make at our expense.

They might be the only ones, but I'll bet you the last shot of vodka in the bottle they're not.

There are many ways in which politicians can be differentiated, not least the good from the bad, the ones with a vocation from those best kept off the streets. But the one over-riding quality they always seem to share, regardless of their IQ, is a pig-headed, breathtakingly stupid degree of self-belief so misplaced it would make an X Factor contestant blush.

YOU DID THIS BEFORE. IT WAS BAD. DO NOT DO IT AGAIN.

What bit of that is so difficult to understand? What part of the expenses scandal made them look good? What exactly is possessing them to not only repeat the mistakes of the past but to find whole new ways of diddling the taxpayer and hope we don't find out?

There's not a journalist in the country with any wit who would hack a phone today even if they knew it would get Jimmy Savile bang to rights. Maybe in a year or two there would be a way for a reporter to write "we hacked a phone to get this story, and here's why you won't mind" in their copy and not get nicked, but no-one who's witnessed the public disgust and industry-wide witch hunt we've had in the past few years would have the death wish you'd need to invite it a second time.

Anyone who's got the tiniest skeleton in their closet and working at the BBC is currently spending their days gnawing their fingernails and praying the Savile sandal doesn't flush the whole corporation down the pan. There are officers at the Met who are very, very careful about not appearing racist, pathologists are keen to get organ retention forms signed in triplicate before they open the formaldehyde, and plenty of ordinary people up and down the country who, having screwed up once, do their darnedest not to do it again.

Everyone tries to learn their lessons so they're better tomorrow than they were today. Children of four years old manage that and even Tara Palmer-Tomkinson is trying, bless her. But not our elected representatives.

No, they still think the judges don't matter so long as they win the public vote.

The problem is they've forgotten the judges are us.

It's a no from me.




Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Know your place.

LOOK. I don't want to hurt your feelings. But you need to be told.

What you think does not matter. What you want to know you will not be allowed to learn, whatever you believe will be trampled upon, and when you raise a hand to complain it will be ignored.

You are not important. You are not running the country. You are proles.

Other people get to do all those things. People who are richer, prettier, better educated or remunerated. They are the ones who make all the decisions, not you poor simple fools.

They let you vote because it makes you think you have a say, a bit like putting a pet on an extending lead. Give them a little freedom, but not too much. Too much freedom would be disastrous.

Imagine if everything were properly free. What crises we would discover! People would be asking questions all the time, poking their noses in, asking what the bloke next to them earns, why this minister can't walk down Whitehall rather than drive, why the Queen really needs so many houses.

Surely one palace is enough, you might ask. Do secretaries of state need £300,000 armour-plated bomb-proof cars when they're always in high-security areas, you might wonder. How much time do civil servants spend mucking around on the internet, and let's have a look at Jimmy Savile's annual personnel reviews, you may very well insist.

They can't be having that, which is why they introduced a Freedom of Information Act.

You probably thought this was to give you - ha ha - freedom of information. But no, it was to control the freedom of information so that no important information was ever made free. Do you see what they did there?

So if you want to ask the BBC what the Director General had for his lunch and how long it lasted and how many hours he was actually at his desk and how much of that time he spent crying and rocking back and forth having ordered three internal reviews in a week, the act means they don't have to tell you.

If you want to see the discussions and briefings explaining why one computer hacker isn't deported and another is holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy surrounded by policemen 24 hours a day and wondering where he can get a cat, you'll get a confirmation your request has been received and little else.

If you want to see private emails between the Prime Minister and a woman charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and hacking a dead girl's phone during a scandal which threatened his job, the chances are you will be ignored altogether. The PM answer a question? What an idea!

Even if you are asking something harmless it will be wriggled out of by a faceless civil servant somewhere if it is not worded precisely, which of course is difficult if you don't know what the answer is.

If they don't like your question it will be lost, dropped, deleted or eaten rather than answered, because laws don't make you free. Laws stop you doing things. A law about freedom, by definition, limits it.

The worst thing you could possibly do is know what the people running the country are thinking. You might not like it, and it's therefore in your own interests that you are not told.

So if a man who by accident of birth is due to become head of the church, the fountain of all honours, an adviser to Prime Ministers, the approver of all laws and the last resort of mercy for prisoners all over the Commonwealth, tries to influence the policies of elected governments, well, it's best you don't know about it.

If you found out he was trying to bring back fox-hunting, moan about taxes on mansions, get Mohammed al Fayed deported or asking for camera phones to be banned, it wouldn't be much of a surprise and it might even damage his chances of being king.

Never mind that if it damaged his position as king you might have an even better reason for knowing it. Oh no.

Perhaps it might improve his image if he's complaining about the austerity cuts or fighting for pensioners in fuel poverty, but that would conversely damage the image of the people he was writing the letters to and they're the ones who have decided that you can't see them.

Never mind that if the people you elect might have done something which makes them less electable. Definitely don't bother yourselves with that.

So you'll never know whether Prince Charles' views are pleasing or infuriating to you, even though you can easily imagine they're probably a mix of both with demands for extra valets thrown in.

Despite the fact several judges have said you should see them you are not going to, because whatever they say someone, somewhere, won't look too great if you did.

Despite the fact a government minister says official information should be poured into the public domain because "liberal democracies can only exist with informed citizens", you're not going to see the information they don't want you to see.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who has decided that he knows better than the High Court, says the letters reveal the prince's "most deeply-held personal views and beliefs" and are "in many cases particularly frank".

And frankness and honesty are, at all costs, to be avoided.

Otherwise we'd know the Prime Minister was emailing his Fruit Ninja score to the former editor of the Sun, that deportation laws and human rights are only for those with a mainstream public campaign of support, and just how many times a certain TV presenter was told off for having children in his dressing room.

And we can't have that, because then you'd all get angry, they'd all lose their jobs and then they'd be one of you and wouldn't have the freedom to tell you what to do any more.

The freedom, it must be said, you've given them.

Because if you stopped to realise you're only proles because you let them be in charge, that freedom is a fundamental right and no-one should be on a pedestal unless they can prove they're using it to reach for something, we'd have pure freedom for everyone everywhere and that makes a hell of a mess.

Far better that freedom is regulated, controlled, turned on and off like a tap, and not allowed to blow your mind with 'frankness' and 'personal views' which would stop you performing your important function of being well-behaved proles working and earning and taxed and kept in the same place you've always been, which is under the pedestal someone else has hauled themselves onto purely so they're not one of you any more.

So, now you know where you stand.

In the dark.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Oh, Auntie.

THE thing about a frenzy is, well, that it's frenzied.

There are no rules, just a frothing free-for-all cartwheeling wildly out of control with all kinds of crazy-bonkers stuff flying off at a tangent.

That's what's happened with the scandal around Jimmy Savile, the DJ and children's TV presenter who one year after his death has been found out as "one of the most serious predatory paedophiles in criminal history".

It's been a fortnight since the first allegations broke, and a handful of victims have turned into at least 60 children abused over 50 years on hospital wards, in children's homes, and at BBC studios.

There are probably hundreds more who haven't come forward, either through shame, a wish not to reopen old wounds, or perhaps the belief that now they don't need to. There will, inevitably, be some adults who as youngsters were dazed by fame and see what happened to them as consensual.

Now the frenzy has turned, in the absence of seeing Savile brought to justice, to pointing the finger at who knew about the abuse earlier and failed to stop it.

And as is the way of these things, the frenzy is being used as a tool to attack people and things which others always like to attack. So there are people who say the tabloids should have exposed it earlier, there are others who say it proves the BBC is a hotbed of the worst kind of liberalism, and still more who cannot agree if the 'victims' are any such thing.

Journalists at the BBC and tabloids are busy blaming each other for not having got the story sooner, without actually getting very far in proving who knew what, when, or what to do about it, which is all that really matters now.

So let's just stop a moment, and think about this calmly. Where should all this whirling public anger be directed?

Well, first and foremost, at Jimmy Savile. He's the person who apparently molested children for decades, who was investigated by five police forces, who was thrown off a cruise ship, banned from a children's home, who bribed police officers and hired lawyers to threaten journalists. He knew what he was doing, he knew it was wrong, and he did it anyway.

He's the only person, so far, who seems to be a child abuser. So let's reserve most of our revulsion for him and what he did, not the hundreds or thousands of other people who have been swept up by his behaviour.

Now he's dead he's beyond our disgust, buried as requested at a 45-degree angle so he can see out to sea at Scarborough. It might be an idea to dig him up and rebury him face-down, but it's as petty and pointless as scowling at a stable door after the horse has been sent to the glue factory and shot.

Let's also bear in mind that the principle reason we've presumed his guilt is sheer weight of numbers, not because a single victim could have convinced us a national figure was a pervert purely on one person's troubling testimony.

Sex abusers prey on vulnerable people purely because they are easy targets who won't be believed, and I've sat through dozens of court cases where I'm sure the victim is exactly that but due to personal problems - often stemming from the abuse they're testifying about - their evidence is embellished, flawed or less than solid.

It doesn't make them liars, but it does make convictions less likely. Individually there will be some of those now complaining of molestation by Savile whose recollections could, by a good lawyer, be torn apart. They may be entirely right but the law does not seek out the truth - it rewards only what can be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

None of those who have spoken out have been cross-examined by anyone except a journalist with little more than 500 words to play with. Their testimony is being accepted as truth largely because we all know with that much smoke, it would be foolish to say there wasn't a hell of a fire somewhere.

That leaves us with the people who, knowingly or otherwise, helped him offend for so long.

Some of the victims who have come forward have pointed the finger at nurses, social workers, BBC staff and prison officers who either must have known, should have known or even warned children against being alone with him.

A man who worked as Savile's driver for a year, now suffering from dementia, apparently told his wife he was told to "take a walk" every time the DJ brought a young girl back to his caravan. Savile wrote about girls below the age of consent in his 1974 autobiography thousands of people read, along with orgies, angry parents, and compliant police officers. Girls and boys who say they were abused say BBC staff walked in on them in dressing rooms and walked right out again.

And of course there were the rumours. The rumours Controller of Radio 1 Douglas Muggeridge heard in 1971, which Louis Theroux asked Savile about in a documentary millions of people watched, and published in The Guardian in 2000, among other papers. There were a few victims - never more than the difficult-to-prove one or two girls - who approached newspapers in 1984 and who, on legal advice, never had their stories published.

It is those rumours now that are making journalists hurl mud at each other. The nasty old tabloids who hacked phones could surely have had the money and inclination to go after Jimmy, and the BBC should not have allowed an employee with his reputation - proven or otherwise - to be such a massive national figure.

This is almost a frenzy all by itself, and is due in part to the fact tabloids have had a year or more of beastings from the BBC in which every one of our thousands of staff have been tarred as phone-hackers, liars, corrupters of public officials and worse, purely on the basis of eight people now facing criminal charges.

There was no insistence the police should be allowed to investigate first; there was no mention that tabloid journalists were as appalled as everyone else; there were plenty who said we could not be trusted to sort the mess out ourselves.

So there are many hacks who are glad it is now the Beeb's turn to see how it feels as they try to bat away a public inquiry by insisting that once the police have finished they can hold an internal investigation of their own, issue an apology and all will be well.

The News of the World tried much the same thing, and we all know how that ended - in a vomit of public disgust. And however much you hate us you cannot say that phone-hacking was, or could ever be, as bad as ignoring, overlooking or covering up child abuse.

Yet the BBC is deserving of praise for the way it has handled things in the past fortnight. Aside from the general headless chicken impression going on behind the scenes, its journalists have carried the story at the top of its main bulletins and news programmes, debated with radio listeners, and painted on a grimace while they report on their own business' alleged failings in a way which tabloids, to our shame, did not do a year or two ago.

The Beeb is also not the only publicly-funded organisation with questions to answer. The police forces Savile claimed were in his pocket, the children's homes who let him in their doors, the hospitals, schools and prisons who gave him hospitality, all stand accused of complicity.

They may not be guilty of it - one male prison warder from Broadmoor has already disputed evidence from one alleged victim that Savile wandered around women's wards on his own, as even male prison officers were escorted at all times.

But the questions are there, and they deserve to be answered. We need to know why the Department of Health signed off Savile's position as head of a Broadmoor fundraising task force, why social workers and nurses didn't report him or were ignored if they did, why the five police forces who investigated him while he was alive did not apparently talk to each other.

Any other business which employed a child molester who operated on such a grand scale could not investigate it themselves. The BBC made Savile someone every child in the country trusted. There are allegations their premises were used for abuse and their staff may even have witnessed it.

Of all the people and organisations who could have stopped Savile, the BBC had the best chance. It missed it.

When the story was finally uncovered the BBC had the scoop, and they decided not to run it.

Its journalists were so appalled news began to leak, reported first by a tabloid in January, and while the BBC did nothing for 10 months a rival TV show found extra material and aired it.

We now have a national scandal, victims who need to be listened to and questioned carefully, and witnesses who must be found. The longer the BBC and government dodge or delay a public inquiry, the worse this is going to get. Avoidance, as phone-hacking proved, just stimulates the appetite for more damaging revelations.

More than anything else, the scandal and the obfuscation which is going on around it have damaged the trust we all have in a national broadcaster which rightly has a reputation for fairness around the world.

The proof, if you need any, lies in the fact that those dozens of victims are coming forward to tell their stories not to the BBC, but to mass-market, tabloid newspapers which they trust more, on this issue at least, to reveal the truth.

Perhaps it is just a case of our making up for lost time in not having reported it sooner; and perhaps this is the first story we could safely report, so out of decades of frustration we are giving it some welly.

But the fact remains that Auntie has a problem with her credibility. Perhaps she did nothing wrong, but she has more questions to answer than anyone else.

She shouldn't be asking them of herself.

Not the best idea.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Purpose (n.): A reason to exist.

SKYDIVING is possibly one of the most pointlessly silly things you can do.

Exiting a perfectly-working aeroplane in no danger of turning into an airborne fireball is, to start with, very silly.

Plummeting towards the Earth at great speed and putting your faith in nylon is, again, pretty silly.

Doing it repeatedly would seem to be so silly it's near-suicide, but thousands of people do it every day anyway.

And there's no point to it. Jumping out of aeroplanes doesn't improve our knowledge, doesn't ornament the world particularly, and doing it regularly turns normal human beings into adrenaline-crazed whackos who think Russian roulette is too boring.

That's what I always thought, and one day I was invited - kindly, it must be said - to jump out of a plane.

I repeated the above arguments loudly, for days. I refused point-blank, and was told at length about safety standards and reserve chutes and how you're perfectly safe even if your tandem instructor dies in mid-air.

Then I got really, really drunk, and with the kind of hangover which made death a welcome risk to take I got in the plane, strapped myself to a strange man, and was so scared looking down that I insisted on doing a backflip rather than dangle out of the door.


It is the only time I've ever been afraid to fly - not because I feared the plane, but I worried about how safe my route back to the ground was.

Below is an edited, and extremely sweary, audio of my being 'encouraged' out of the plane and how I was still screaming when I hit the ground five terrifying minutes later:

 
And once I was down, I was very clear that while it had been utterly exhilarating and great fun, safer than I'd feared and a sure-fire hangover cure for which I was very grateful, the experience would not be repeated because it was also terrifying and doing it twice was tempting fate as far as gruesome death was concerned.

Every time that I have boarded a plane since, I have been extremely grateful to know that I did not need to jump out of it - and felt slightly safer knowing that, if I had to, I could.

This weekend Felix Baumgartner managed to do something which seemed even more pointless and silly.

For no real reason beyond the fact he wanted to give it a go, he caught a balloon 24 miles up into a bit of the stratosphere so thin it was almost the vacuum of space.

Three times higher than a cruising aeroplane, in a capsule and pressure suit which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to design and develop, he opened the door, took a look at an Earth which his perspective made seem no bigger than a desk, and jumped out.

It was not as silly as it might seem, because if he hadn't done it the balloon his capsule was attached to would eventually have collapsed and he'd have plummeted back to the ground anyway, surrounded by tons of screaming metal.

Still, he jumped, and did something so far only theorised in Star Trek movies. As well as setting a handful of records he hit Mach 1.24, travelling at 833 miles an hour, which is one and a quarter times the speed of sound.

At one point he briefly went into a flat spin, which is when your arms and legs spin around your torso so wildly all the blood rushes to your head and it can explode, but he recovered.

Then he landed, and there's lots of trumpeting his record while at the same time people wonder what the point was and think it seems to have been a very silly thing to have spent so much time and money on.

Which on the one hand, it is. Felix may be a very brave professional base jumper but he's probably someone you can only live with if you're prepared for near-death experiences to be a regular part of your life. The footage of his poor mum watching at mission control made me think he'd probably knocked 10 years off her life.

But the thing about parachutes is that, while using them for fun may seem daft, it's only because there are loons who do that which mean that the rest of us can put our faith in them on the rare occasions we really need to.

Because of your average skydiver jumping out of aeroplanes 20 times a day, it's much safer than you'd think. There are pressure gauges, reserves for the reserve, rules, technology, and lots of other things that make it not quite as bonkers as it sounds for the simple reason skydivers want to survive so they can get back in the plane and do it again.

Parachutes don't get handed out on passenger jets, but they made it safe for people to start using planes more often which then, in turn, became so safe they didn't need parachutes any more.

And what Felix did has just as much point, because his jump could potentially help us all go into space one day.

Because he was able to survive such massive speeds, because they designed a suit capable of keeping him alive with only two per cent of the pressure he's evolved to deal with, because they stopped his blood boiling, his heart cooking on the inside and his eyeballs being smeared all over the inside of his visor, because of all those things, YOU are one tiny step nearer a holiday on the Moon.

You're never going to get there, you see, until it's safe and simple. That means there needs to be a cheap method of mass transport and a reasonable chance of escape if it all goes horribly wrong.

Until now the only way off the planet was sitting on several million pounds of burning fuel to escape gravity, and the Challenger disaster in 1986 proved that when that goes wrong you're stuffed.

Now, perhaps, we could all catch a balloon to the stratosphere for an hour or two then transfer into a shuttle, where with much weaker gravitational forces we could putter over to the Sea of Tranquility without setting fire to ourselves.

And if we need to escape, well it would take only ten minutes to get home, there are ways of stabilising a flat spin, and we know we could do it without our internal organs boiling, baking or bursting.

There are a million more steps yet before we get to book that trip on a BOGOF deal at Thomas Cook, not the least of which is reducing the cost of space tourism from the £20m-a-head price tag it currently enjoys.

Maybe if we're very lucky we'll get to do that, thanks to Felix. Maybe it will never happen in our lifetimes, and our children will get to spend a week bouncing around on a lump of cold rock while their offspring say they're bored and ask when it's time to go home.

But we are one tiny step closer - you and me, us, not astronauts, nothing special, not keen on jumping from great heights without good reason, just normal people - to going into space, just for the fun of it.

It may be very silly, but that's what they said about lightbulbs.

You don't need to have a point when you have a purpose.

Friday, 12 October 2012

As every Friday...

... today's column, about the one public inquiry we'd all like and aren't getting, is hosted on the Daily Mirror website here.

Have a nice weekend, and stay away from men in tracksuits.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Done.

WHORE. Slag. Sex addict.

Just words, right? They're written on a computer screen by someone you don't know, who's a long way away, and whether they are directed at you personally or just fired out at random you can ignore them if you want.

You can also cry yourself to sleep over it if you want, because sometimes words can really hit home and have a far greater impact than ever intended.

But they are, at the root, just words. When they are written by a troll from whom you are divided by keyboards, screens and servers they can have a powerful effect but they can also be avoided.

Then there are words you cannot escape, because they come from the mouth of a person you share your life with. The person who knows your flaws, your secrets, and the inside of your heart.

When a partner uses the same words as a faceless no-mark on the internet, they have a more devastating impact for the simple reason that you see the anger in their eyes, the spittle flying from their mouth, and know these things are coming from a person you love and trust more than anyone else.

Because you love them, you try to calm them down and stop doing whatever it was they got angry about. Because you trust them, you believe what they tell you - or at least that they have a good reason for thinking it. You might be a little frightened, but you change your behaviour, promise not to repeat it, and try to see this strangely virulent argument from their point of view. Things return to normal.

The next time it happens, you have learned how to take the sting out of the words so you change a little more. Perhaps it doesn't work quite as well, so you hunch your shoulders a bit and avoid eye contact with your partner in an effort to reduce the conflict. Things return to normal.

The next time it happens perhaps you've decided this is just getting silly and you're not putting up with it. You say so. Their response is the sort of stratospheric rage you've never witnessed; they put their face right up against yours and scream. Worried, terrified, and simply unable to know what else to do, you slap them in the face.

Your partner picks you up and shakes you like a rag doll, hurls you against a wall, and leaves you to cry in a crumpled heap. You think that things return to normal, but your idea of normal is whatever it takes to avoid a repeat of that. You get quieter, and you don't mention it to a soul because this is all out of character and you don't want anyone to think the worse of your loved one.

Perhaps it's never anything more than words. Perhaps it's never anything more than a bruise. Perhaps your partner never did that before or since.

Bruises heal in a few days and words can be forgotten, but the tone and the intent behind them lingers for years.

I have long forgotten whatever it was I argued about with the lover who who shook me and threw me into walls. I cannot remember what he said precisely, but I have a perfectly-clear memory of how terrified I was - not just for my safety but for what was happening to him, and to us.

I can clearly recall the times he kicked down locked doors, dragged me around by an ankle, and told me I had to apologise to him for it. I am no longer angry with him nor with myself for putting up with it, and I have long got past the point of fearing every subsequent man I meet might do the same to me, although that took me a while.

But it is still there and reminds me from time to time, like a scar that hurts when it's cold. It has been years now, and I don't imagine it will ever fully go away.

Part of the reason for that is because every time domestic abuse is in the news it is belittled, excused, and waved away in precisely the way internet trolls should be and are not.

Yesterday a man who called his lover a whore, a slag, a promiscuous woman "riddled with STDs", was found guilty and given 140 hours of community service. Had Justin Lee Collins' crime been just using those words - however deep their ability to wound a girlfriend - that would be a reasonable punishment.

But they were just part of his offence, because he wasn't found guilty of using nasty words. He was found guilty of two counts of putting another person in fear of violence, even though there was probably enough evidence to charge him with assault.

He slapped her. He hit her private parts. He spat on her. He threatened to kill her. He boxed her ears. He bruised her arms. He pulled her hair. He threw a sat-nav at her.

And that was probably not the worst of it, because the more serious long-term problems will probably come from the times he criticised her sexual history, complained she slept with a black man, questioned her morality, banned her from social media, wrote down a list of her lovers, threw away her DVDs, told her to sleep facing him, and bullied her for not moisturising his back.

Anna Larke told the court: "It destroyed my life, everything I had. I had no ­confidence. I didn’t want to go out. I don’t want someone else to go through what I did."

But they do, and they will, because despite Anna's courage in not only complaining and enduring a trial, and doing so while facing a millionaire celebrity's lawyers, and knowing they would tell the nation her sexual history and problems with alcohol, the court dismissed her.

Oh, the jury found in her favour and the judge delivered a sentence. But in every important respect they dismissed her as a person to whom it should not have happened. Judge John Plumstead described Anna as "a woman with many difficulties", and accepted Collins' defence that he had merely lost his self-control while trying to "deal with the difficulties".

It is not all right to hit someone because they're a recovering alcoholic. It's not all right to hit the most sensitive part of their body, to spit on them, pull their hair or threaten to kill them. Other people live with recovering alcoholics and manage not to do those things.

Collins' wife gave evidence saying he had never been violent to her and was kind and generous. She did not make much mention of the three affairs he had while their children were babies, which does not seem every kind to me, but each to their own.

The fact someone is not violent to one partner, and is violent to another, does not make it all right. Violence is not something a certain kind of woman entices out of a man, it is not something that can be blamed on 'chemistry', and however rarely it manifests it would not do so if it were not in that person to start with.

I sincerely hope the man who mistreated me is better to his current partner, but if he is I would not presume him to be cured. I would simply sit and wait, and wish her luck.

"This is not a run-of-the-mill case of domestic violence," Judge Plumstead told Collins. "This was genuinely out of character."

Which is funny, really, because that's what the victims of domestic violence tell themselves too. They tell themselves it when they are shouted at, when the screams begin, when the children cry and when the bruises appear and then fade.

They tell themselves it is out of character because they also know a side of their attacker which they fell in love with and occasionally still glimpse. They do not notice as the glimpses get rarer, and that's why they stay when they should go, and it's why two women are killed every week by their partners or former partners.

Judges know the power of words. They know that hearing "140 hours community service" is not as frightening as "six months' jail", and they also know that stealing a case of mineral water in a riot is not as serious as assaulting your partner over a period of seven months.

They also know, because the High Court ruled on this in July, that only words which contain a genuine and intended threat can be considered criminal. The judge in that case said people "are free to speak not what they ought to say, but what they feel".

So idiots who write unfunny jokes about murdered five-year-old April Jones, set up silly Facebook pages mocking the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, complain about British soldiers in Afghanistan or upset the grieving by writing about having sex with the dead are - and this is important - not criminals. They're idiots, they're offensive, but they cannot in law reasonably be thrown in jail.

But they were.

A man, famous or otherwise, who reduces his partner to a constant state of fear, who assaults her, bullies her and admits only the part of her story she was canny enough to catch on tape IS a criminal. Justin Lee Collins is a thug, a bully, and a liar. He CAN be reasonably jailed.

But he wasn't.

I don't think that was because he was famous, or because he could afford a good lawyer. I think it was because a change in the law recognising that words said by a partner are part of domestic abuse, and just as or more damaging than a punch or a smack, will not be in force until next March so it was impossible to prosecute this little toad as he should have been.

And it's also because we get incredibly angry about the words we see written down, forgetting that means we can tear them up, delete them or burn them, and not about the words we hear which wriggle into our heads and stay there until we are able to shake them out.

The most important words in your whole life are not the ones you see but what you hear - hello, goodbye, I do, I'm pregnant, it's bad news I'm afraid. You might forget precisely what was said, but they change your life one way or the other and you never forget where you were, and what you were doing when you heard them.

If only judges heard what everyone else does.

You're a dickhead, mate.