Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 26 March 2013

Shepherds watch their flocks by night.

A WHILE ago I saw a TV programme in which a farmer described sheep as creatures that try to kill themselves every day.

He wasn't wrong, either - from throwing themselves off cliffs, to choking on barbed wire and according to current news reports sinking stupidly into snowdrifts, sheep really do seem suicidally thick.

But perhaps the sheep are sad. Perhaps they have a good reason to end it all. Perhaps they're two billion in the hole to Vladimir Putin and it's a nyet from Moscow. Maybe they just can't bear to walk around with their own faeces stuck to them any more.

Facetious faeces aside, poor mental health is not our first assumption when it comes to wondering why people do things. We blame the parents, the media, social class or basic sheepy-ness long before anyone says: 'Hang on. Has anyone asked them why?'

There are two stories doing the rounds today which make you gasp to read them - because on first glance the people concerned seem so stupid, doing incredibly harmful things. There's not space in a newspaper story to do much more than present the facts in a roughly chronological order, so the extra job of thinking about why anyone did these things is left up to The Reader.

On the one hand we have a school where teachers supervised a vulnerable student while she cut herself with razor blades.

They provided sterilised blades, took her to a bathroom, and kept an eye on her before dressing her wounds afterwards.

At first thought you blame the teachers - how could they condone it? Then you read it was a special school for children with Asperger's and autism, and you realise it might be more complicated. Then perhaps you get as far as the bit where the teachers had agreed it with the girl's parents first as the best way of dealing with the problem, and you probably scratch your head and turn the page thinking 'people are bonkers'.

And on the other hand we have Josie Cunningham, 22, who had a £4,800 breast operation on the NHS because being flat-chested upset her. Such stories are common - I once had a mole removed because it upset me, although if the local anaesthetic and a scalpel had cost more than £20 I'd be very surprised.

You probably think it's all about breasts until you get to the bit where she says: "I can't wait to do topless and swimsuit photo shoots and become the new Katie Price. I want the world to see the new me and want money and fame just like Katie - and my new boobs can make it happen."

When you've taken your head out the wall, you might read that she has two children, earns £9,000-a-year in telesales, and reckons: "I will get used to living the high life very easily. I already have showbiz connections as my friend's boyfriend was a contestant on The Apprentice... I've even started to collect Louis Vuitton handbags and ordered a chihuahua puppy."

This girl didn't want different breasts - she wants a different life, despite the fact the one she's chosen is packed with relationship breakdown, abuse, and general unpleasantness.

The school pupil who cut herself in a different way probably did it for many of the same reasons. An inability to express emotion, to change their world, to externalise pain and self-loathing they have inside them - it could have been for any, all, or none of those reasons.

If you were that girl's teacher, and she came into your class every day with new cuts, you'd probably do your best to tell her she was beautiful, and safe, and to talk it out. But if she kept on cutting you might well decide the lesser evil was at least to make sure she did it when you were nearby, using clean blades and bandages - a bit like a parent who decides to buy drugs for their addict child to keep them away from the dealers.

If you were Josie's doctor, you'd probably tell her much the same but there comes a point where the psychological upset of a perceived physical flaw becomes medical. That mole of mine was black and ugly, I worried it would turn cancerous, and I picked at it until it bled. Much better to have it taken off cleanly.

There are patients who hate bits of their bodies so much they try to cut off their own limbs, and there are plenty of cases in this country where a doctor carries out an unnecessary amputation because the alternative is a mentally-unwell person bleeding to death in their garage with one leg in a Workmate.

If the teachers hadn't supervised their pupil's self-harm, would she have done it anyway? If the doctor hadn't improved Josie's boobs, would she have carried on hating herself?

Bad mental health is not only difficult to imagine for many, it's not easy to fix either. The problems that lead people to slice into their own bodies - the greatest and most amazing gift they've ever had - are ignored, laughed at, or dismissed as 'bonkers'.

It would be far more useful to find out why Josie thinks Katie Price is something to aspire to, to maybe give her new boobs but see if we couldn't chuck in some self-worth along with the silicone. It would be better, in the long-term, for us to wonder why autism syndromes seem to be more common yet we haven't come up with much in terms of proper therapies to solve its problems.

Because nothing in what the teachers or doctors did, as well-intentioned as it was, has done much to fix the basic problem for each of those girls.

The student still has a pain which she can express only with razors, and Josie is still Josie - a sad young woman who thinks 'things' will make her happier, when in fact neighbours already call her Katie Cut-Price and she's setting herself up for more cruelty than an A-cup could hold.

Self-harm comes in many forms, from tearing out your own hair or sawing off a leg to eating disorders, sabotaging your relationships or taking as many drugs as possible. We all do it, and different times and in different ways.

Some have it worse than others, and it's about as horrible and difficult to deal with as a creature covered in its own faeces determinedly trying to suffocate itself in the snow.

But we dig sheep out when it happens to them.

What does that say about us?

* To find out more about self-harm click here.

Monday 25 March 2013

The wrong track.

WELL. It's the immigrants, isn't it?

If it weren't for them we'd be rich. Or certainly not so poor.

It's not that we're racist. No, no, no, you misunderstand - we're a great and friendly nation. It's just money is tight and they come over here, providing cheap labour, taking the few jobs there are, and it puts the natives out of work. That's not fair, now is it?

As economic difficulties increase, so immigration is more of a burden. There is a lot of unemployment, growth has stagnated, the middle class worry they'll slip into poverty. Someone must be to blame. It's not hate, it's logic.

Then there's people who are not as fit and healthy as the rest of us. It's right we should look after them and all that, but does there seem to be more of them around? It's getting expensive. Can we afford to be so nice to the disabled?

Would it not be a kindness to make sure we didn't have so many? After all, disabled people who are only alive because of man's intervention would not, naturally, live to breed. We'd only be following the rules of Mother Nature by sterilising them all.

Then there's our money worries. A lot of countries have tied themselves to a rigid standard of currency which cannot be allowed to fail. So much so that some banks have failed, and to halt an immediate crunch some governments have been inventing money to give to the banks.

If one person pulls out of that currency system, then others will follow. The system will devalue, the money we invented for the banks will be worthless, and we'll all be up an oh-so-familiar creek without any method of propulsion.

That would be bad, so it would be best if we forced countries to stay in this rocky currency system, at gunpoint if necessary.

We know best, d'you see? There was a vote a few years ago where politicians failed to convince anyone to vote for them in sufficient numbers. But the growing public distrust in public officials is a problem in itself, because it doesn't provide freedom so much as disengagement from politics, allowing all sorts of fringe elements to gain control.

So it's for the best if we all muck in together and have a coalition government, headed up by someone who can describe these risks in a snappy soundbite, and lead us away from all the many terrors he would like us to know are lurking out there.

But if you're frightened now, there are people out there who want to frighten you more. There are terrorists with hooked noses, born of a culture alien to ours and with strange, crazy rules about bacon and beards. They're pernicious, they're rich, they have more money than us. They are, in fact, slowly buying our own country from underneath us.

They have even, I'm afraid to say, infiltrated one of the world's biggest media organisations with televisions and newspapers in millions of homes throughout the land. They spread their lies this way, these enemies of reason and science and our way of life.

So it's best to make sure their newspapers in particular are attacked, vilified, and shut down. We will bring in stricter controls so that media reproducing their idea of news - that the government is split, that its ministers can't be trusted - are stopped.

We need to make sure the public trust and believe us - and we're socialists, so we must be nice.

And if everyone just goes along with all of that, everything will be so much better. More jobs for our people, less cost for our taxpayers, less worry from the banks. We had a boom a decade or so ago, but it all turned out to be built on debt and now our chickens are coming home to roost.

All those things were said by Adolf Hitler as he rose to power. He criticised distrust for public officials in 1929, he argued the disabled placed too great a burden on the healthy, he led a coalition government from 1933, and he used one problem - a fire in the German parliament - as an excuse to blame his enemies, set up a one-party state and repeal laws of human rights, including habeas corpus, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the right to protest.

Eighty years on, in the countries which resisted Hitler and his hate, we're doing the same.

Like Germany in the 1920s, we had a boom. Like them, it was built on debt. Half of Europe is broke as a result, there's protests and riots, everyone's getting poorer, the tax system's a mess, the currencies are as steady as a cork in a jacuzzi, and we're being encouraged to hate.

Germans were told to hate the Jews because they controlled all the money. In Britain today we're told to hate bankers and rich Arabs. We're told the disabled are putting it on, the poor are dragging us down to join them, and our only hope is to blame, and hate, and turn away from others.

Our leader even says we need to be more like the Germans, and that you can have too many human rights.

None of what's happened to us can be our fault, because we're fundamentally nice people and we had such a great Olympics.

There are many things attributed to Hitler he did not say. One of them is that if you tell a big lie often enough, people will believe it, and the other is that a man with no sense of history is like a man with no eyes and no ears.

Which is a shame, because of all the things he said they'd have been the truest.

So next time people talk about uncontrolled migration, benefit tourism, foreigners coming here to use the NHS, remember that only 2.6 per cent of people claiming the dole are from the EU, to claim benefits you have to be in work and pass a test which takes six months, and that the only free NHS treatment to foreign nationals is for emergencies and those with communicable diseases.

Of course, if you want migrants to stop coming here at all, you'll have to find a few millions to replace the money they repay the economy at far higher rate than they take out, invent thousands of jobs to replace the ones kicking out migrant-owned businesses would lose, and get rid of all the people like me who are descended from migrants several times over.

And then you would need to tell a great big lie, which is that these are just the tough measures needed to put us back on the right track.

How many times do we have to be told?

Friday 22 March 2013

Girls Aloud and the tragedy...

... which is the end of their 'incredible journey' to rehab and eating disorders is the topic of today's column for the Daily Mirror, which you can read here.

Glitters, my bum it does.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Riot by all means.

TODAY Twitter is seven years old.

Maybe you tweet and maybe you don't. Maybe you think too many tweets make a twat, and maybe like my parents you think it was invented by the Daily Mail to scare you.

Put aside for one moment the stories of death threats, stalkers, rampant porn, paedophiles and the navel-gazing likes of Geri Halliwell making a fuss about going on the Tube, and let's think about what Twitter's done for us since March 21, 2006 when its founder Jack Dorsey wrote this:


Not a very inspiring start, was it? And the grammar's not picked up much since then either.

It wasn't the first social media site - Facebook had started two years earlier, and today has more than a billion users while Twitter has around 500million, half of whom are pretending to be God, the Queen, or their own dog.

But then Faceache is full of wedding and baby pictures from people you went to school with and don't talk to very much any more for perfectly good reasons. It's got apps you can't get rid of (yes, The Guardian, I'm looking at you) and while it's more private it's also quiet, at times.

Twitter is never quiet.

If Facebook is like a school reunion then Twitter is like being in the middle of a riot. I've been on marches and protests, reported on demos and sit-ins and synchronised hand-wringing, and I don't mean it's like any of those. They usually get rained on, for a start.

I mean a proper riot. I mean smashing in the front of Fortnum&Mason because you feel like it, chucking stones at coppers, being seat-of-your-pants-terrified you're going to get sucked in to something serious but unable to tear yourself away.

And like a riot it has currents. You could be standing there minding your own business and then the crowd's mood switches, things go from benign to vicious, and you're picked up and swept away as the mob around you surges in a different direction.

When you're a journalist in a riot the trick is to watch your back and bear in mind that neither the coppers nor the rioters like you very much. Twitter is much the same, with the added variable that sometimes the riot goes to the pub, or watches the same TV show as you, or is bored at work.

Because more than anything else Twitter is humanity cascading down your computer screen in all its mundane glory - from what it had for lunch to making war, and everything in between.

It has the president of Kazakhstan on it. The real one. It has someone pretending to be Ben Fogle on acid. It has the media arm of government departments whose press office phone number is always impossible to find, it has celebrities invading their own privacy and people hurling abuse at the Pope.

It has people like Beyonce, who has gained 7.3m followers by tweeting virtually nothing and interacting with no-one, and Justin Bieber who has 36.3m from constantly talking to his fans.

As of yesterday it has Gideon, or more likely his advisers, fervently ignoring the mentions column.

Like any riot there are some people who are louder than others. Either they're famous so they get shoved to the front and everyone wants to watch them, or they're just natural-born gobshites; the kind of people who, when drunk, clamber on a table and argue with the whole pub, or laugh too loudly.

Most people want to be in the audience and if truth be told they're the most interesting ones. They are the people who find it hard to leave the house, or socialise, or say how they really feel. They are the ones who listen and don't immediately tell you their reaction. They get a little enjoyment from eavesdropping on the people they admire, and never stop to realise they're far more interesting than Stephen Fry.

I joined Twitter on October 26, 2009 and promptly despaired of it. I was there only to stalk celebrities for newspaper stories, had no idea how to gain followers, and it felt like a pub at 10am - empty, grubby, stained. I steered clear of it for a good six months.

Then, a bit like a crack pipe left lying around, it sort of drew me back. My alter ego had gained a few thousand Facebook friends while writing an anonymous blog about my divorce and life as a journalist, and when that story came to an end I found myself with a taste for online arsing about.

Back to Twitter I went, and I started to tinker. It became easier the more I did it, and it also seemed that in the intervening months everyone else had figured it out too. The pub had more people in it.

With a new blog to market - this one - and a manuscript to get published, I started to see Twitter might help. I found out people look at hashtags during prime-time television, and a witty remark about #BGT could put on 100 new followers. I learned that with enough followers you could find things out - you could crowd-source an opinion, drive traffic to a website, get recommendations, pick a fight, and ask for a book deal.

And aside from that I began to see Twitter as a source of news just like the wires which every newspaper subscribes to. In a newsroom they're usually read all day by a single drone, clicking through news stories filed by reporters all over the world, picking out the ones that might be relevant.

But if you follow the right people on Twitter you get the same. My feed is full of journalists reporting and arguing with each other, celebrities wittering inanities, and the genuinely-interesting people I want to hear from and are relevant to me - friends, bloggers, publishers, coppers, lawyers, politicians.

Twitter, eventually, got my book published. It got me a launch party at Century, and some sponsored vodka and whisky. It got me a weekly column for Mirror Online, an outing in The Times, and offers of work. The university talks I sometimes do wouldn't happen if journalism lecturers hadn't found me on Twitter.

Elsewhere, it has helped people to fall in love, get a new job, find lost pets, deal with depression, make friends, and do the one thing you can't on Faceache - tell someone you don't like something.

Twitter is the world's dislike button - or at least, that part of the world with access to it. When the mob dislikes stuff enough, the world's most successful English-language newspaper loses advertising and is shut down, a Tory peer is wrongly named as a paedophile, and a daft feature writer becomes the most hated woman in Britain.

So much so, she's invited on Celebrity Big Brother. WTF?

Sometimes the mob gets angry for good reasons, and Twitter has exposed and ridiculed anorexia promoter Kenneth Tong, did the same to superinjunctions, and millions of users stood up for free speech when trainee accountant Paul Chambers was convicted for tweeting a joke.

After the 2010 London riots, people went out armed with brooms to clean up because they saw it mentioned on Twitter.

When I wrote a blog about domestic violence a follower contacted me to say she'd realised on reading it she had to leave her abusive husband. Another, about how I spent nine months wondering if I had cancer after a bad smear test result, led hundreds of women to tweet me saying they'd booked their overdue test after reading it.

Twitter - and Facebook, to be fair, but less often - is now so important a means of communication that those who post on it are subject to the same publishing laws as newspapers. Hate speech, threats, and abuse are taken seriously, the naming of rape victims is prosecuted, and sharing pictures of the killers of Jamie Bulger when they have lifetime anonymity orders is leading to criminal charges.

When a 17-year-old lad who had ADHD and missed his meds told Olympian Tom Daley he'd let his dad down by not winning gold, not only did the rest of Twitter start to bully the bully but the police raided his house at 2.45am and slammed him in a cell.

All that, and it's still only seven years old.

Like most seven-year-olds we don't know quite what it's capable of beyond tantrums and the occasional angelic moment. We know it's hungry, it needs educating, and that there will have to come a point where we let it do its own thing.

But it is still only seven. When it's angry it shouts, when it's happy it sings, and when it has an itch, it scratches it.

Whether you tweet or whether you don't, whether you like it or distrust it or worry about the harm it's quite capable of causing, you have to accept that it's here now. It's far better to help it mature than it is to lock it away, cut the wires, prosecute everyone on it or let rich men sue it when they fancy.

Because more than anything else, good and bad aside, what Twitter has done for everyone who's on it as well as those who are not, is that it has promoted the free expression of thoughts all over the world.

It has helped us rise above our social and geographical barriers, because you genuinely don't know if the person you're talking to is black, white, a real dog or actually taking acid. It doesn't matter if they're in Vietnam or Vancouver.

It has outwitted the law more often than it's been caught, and when the powerful try to stop people speaking out Twitter doesn't care if it's Ryan Giggs or Syria, it mocks them just the same.

Twitter is a daft, silly, annoying, stupid, brilliant and riotous thing. It is just like us.

So play nicely with it.

And clean up after yourselves.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Tell 'em to blog off.

Stolen from Guido Fawkes, and I urge everyone with a blog to reprint and share:

"A free and open world increasingly depends on a free and open internet. The internet empowers everyone — anyone can blog, create, learn, and share.

It is controlled by no one — no single organisation, individual, or government. It connects the world.

Today, more than two billion people are online — about a third of the planet.

Hacked Off supporter Max Mosley told parliament he wants the government “to cut off the wires” to websites he thinks should be censored. Millionaire celebrities like Hugh Grant want to regulate free speech on the internet.

They want laws to force dissident refusenik bloggers to risk paying exemplary fines if they refuse to submit to the regulator.

The Hacked Off-drafted press control Royal Charter aims to regulate any blog which carried news-related material aimed at readers in the United Kingdom.

Tell Max Mosley we will not be cut off, tell Hugh Grant we will not be regulated, we will not be fined.

Keep the world wide web open and free. Sign the petition here."

Today's budget...

... is the topic of a column wot I wrote for Daily Mirror and you can read it here.

Read it and try not to swear.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Oh, FFS. Really?

WHAT strange days.

First we wake up to the realisation that for the first time in the Western world a government is going to try to regulate what its citizens say on the internet.

China does it, quite effectively, but then they've got a lot of people to patrol the worldwide web. They do it in Cuba, North Korea, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan. In short, the kind of countries you wouldn't want to live in.

They haven't, until now, tried it in one of the world's oldest democracies where freedom of expression is enshrined in law.

Anyone who doesn't sign up to that is liable to massive legal costs if they are sued and even win a case; it's licensing by any other name, and it's such a bad thing that in Togo yesterday journalists protesting state licences were subjected to rubber bullets and tear gas.

On top of that, one afternoon's public adulation 18 months ago has led to a 29-year-old woman becoming almost unemployable.

Never mind that any slim young woman in a dress which cost thousands of pounds would be bound to look good; never mind that somewhere in there is an ordinary, but very privileged, person. Fact is that these days she couldn't get a paper round much less what most of us would think of as a proper job, because there's so much fuss around her any business would grind to a standstill.

She can't even give her boyfriend a kiss without it being reported around the world and people being instructed to come up with profiles about who he is. Who cares? Her bum cheeks are no different to any other sporty young woman's, and she is rapidly being pushed into the corner where the only way of earning the rent is to sell your soul, over and over again, in the style of Alex Reid and Chantelle Houghton.

It's fun at first, and withering in the end. You keep staring at her arse, people, and it'll wither before your very eyes.

Then we've got a couple of chaps who like doing interesting things in private who are forcing laws onto the statute book about what everyone else is allowed to be interested in. Max Mosley and Hugh Grant may, and do, behave as they please, but telling the rest of us what to do is a little rich.

The private company they and others fund has a right to lobby politicians - but there aren't many that get to sit in the room when laws are being written.

There's the oldest member of the cast on the country's oldest soap opera proving that age is no automatic source of wisdom by saying sex abuse victims must have misbehaved in a previous life and that we shouldn't be judgemental about paedophiles.

He'll probably be in a turquoise shellsuit and running for office in under a year. He could call it the 'Love Party' and there'd inevitably be a sex scandal and that would keep us all entertained for months, if only Max Mosley is all right with it...

So: strange days.

But they're going to get worse, and here's why.

A country which is in debt has suggested getting out of it by grabbing hold of its citizens' savings. Not just that - the savings of anyone who banks within its borders.

So far Cyprus has 'only' asked for 9.9 per cent of all accounts with more than £85,000 in them, and 6.75 per cent of every account with less than that. They are £8.7billion in debt, and grabbing hold of the cash might raise a little over half of what they need. A fair chunk would come from 60,000 British ex-pats.

Now, we all know the Mediterranean countries are broke. They've been broke repeatedly throughout history, and they'll probably be broke again in the future. Anyone who puts their money in a bank out there might as well be throwing it off the back of a train.

And the savings tax is being voted on today, might be rejected, and Cyprus could instead enjoy an all-out banking collapse, a default, and bankrupt the government.

Either way it's bad but the problem with it for the rest of us is this: the savings tax was suggested because Cyprus doesn't make much money, their banks were daft enough to invest in Greece of all things, and there was no other way to guarantee a loan from the Eurozone.

We've invested £8billion in Greek debt. Our main industry is banking. We have to import energy to run our businesses, cars and homes, and we owe £1.1trillion - that's 125 times what Cyprus does.

If officials in poorer, and less debt-ridden, places than us have emptied out the back of the sofa, searched the car footwells and are now reduced to simply mugging pensioners in order to pay the bills, we will not be far behind.

What starts on the Med soon spreads - democracy, terrible drum'n'bass, building booms. If the finance officials start looking at Italy, at Greece, then half of Europe will run on the banks and start stuffing their cash under the mattress.

And Europe is where we do 10 per cent of all our business, it's the place that energy we have to buy in is channelled through. The banks we now rely on have fingers in a lot of European pies, and we already know that when a banker's finger is burned it's us that pays for the Band-Aid.

There's every chance that before anyone can regulate the internet, before Pippa's bum fades and William Roache says 'I'm being silly, aren't I?', the Gidiot in charge of our economy is going to announce the disabled have been bled dry and there's nothing left for it but to start taxing the only people in the country with the wit to put something aside.

Eventually, we really will be out of cash, unless we can find a way to plant a magic money tree and call it 'North Sea Oil' or 'Industrial Revolution' like we have before.

Without that our frenzies about Pippa's bum or Ken's silly sayings will be pointless, and without the freedom to blog, tweet, whistleblow and castigate our leaders we won't be able to turn their stupid, stubborn heads to look at the things that really matter - to convince them that making money is just as good as saving it.

But then, the one natural resource we never seem to run out of is morons.

If only we could bleed them dry instead.

Monday 18 March 2013

You eat it.

OBJECTIVITY is something that comes only with knowledge.

A hack like me learns it when you meet people and they’re not what you expect. You learn when you interview one victim and want to write their tears away, and when you interview the next and want to slap them for being so thick.

Each doorstep you knock, each person you speak to, teaches you what you thought they couldn’t. You have to adjust every time.

So today I’m going to use 18 years of living like that to look at my trade. There’s a major vote in the House of Commons about the first Press law for 318 years, there’s been months of wrangling, lots of accusations, and a big fat inquiry.

It has to be looked at, but whenever journalists look at themselves they are accused of bias. This is fair enough, but everyone is biased. The only thing that sets us apart is the lives we spend putting our own prejudices aside in order to show you someone else’s.

So here we go. If you think anything that follows is opinion rather than bare logic, pipe up.

A free Press is a good thing.

Ours has been free since newspaper licensing ended in 1695, and Fleet Street was born seven years later when the Daily Courant was first printed in a room above the White Hart pub.

That model – of a ribald, mischievous, privately-owned, opinionated and puckish organisation which spent a lot of its time in pubs – has spread around the world. Today Fleet Street diaspora delve, dismay and get drunk in the name of news from Rio to Rotterdam, from Accra to Angkor Wat.

In Cambodia, a land where journalists and people who looked like they might be journalists were killed by the government as recently as 1987, there is, at the moment, no Press law at all.

That means that journalists in this country – from front-line drones all the way up to media moguls – have a responsibility not just to their colleagues and readers here, but billions more around the world.

It also means that if the recent phone-hacking scandal turns out to be true – and nobody has yet been convicted of the crimes we have already accepted as fact – those responsible will have damaged journalism all over the world.

Today the three main political parties, not one of whom won enough votes at the last election to form a government, have hammered out a deal for system of regulation of our newspapers tougher than ever before.

And we have a lot of laws regulating what our newspapers do. After licensing was revoked there were plenty of other rules to follow, including defamation, copyright, contempt of court, common law, civil laws about things like trespass, trial witnesses who cannot be named, and trying to work out when a joke becomes hate speech.

I spent a two-year indentured training scheme learning all that, and the years since trying to stay updated.

The Press has had a regulator since 1953, after a Royal Commission was set up to consider complaints about newspaper monopolies and factual inaccuracies. It led to the formation of the General Council of the Press, funded by the industry and arbitrating disputes.

In the 1960s it was revamped, and in the 1980s there were more complaints about newspaper monopolies and factual inaccuracies. Rupert Murdoch was causing consternation, and he was launching BSkyB into every home in the land.

Then playwright Alan Bennett stood up at the funeral of his friend Russell Harty, who’d been outed as gay by The Sun and on his deathbed endured reporters posing as doctors as they tried to find out if he had AIDS, which he didn’t.

Bennett accused the paper of hounding one of the nation’s favourite TV stars to his grave. We had another inquiry, then the Press Complaints Commission and a new code of conduct.

Outing went out-of-bounds, as did going into hospitals and accessing medical records.

In fact there are so many laws and regulations for journalists today that there was not one complaint aired at our latest Press inquiry which wasn’t covered by one of them.

The problem was that firstly those laws were allegedly broken, secondly that nobody bothered to do anything about it, and thirdly that it was difficult to call anyone to account.

And those problems can all be solved - by the laws being properly enforced and making them cheap and accessible to all.

In 2002 News of the World reporters told Surrey Police they’d hacked Milly Dowler’s voicemail. (Say what you like about the Screws, they were usually first with the story). The police didn’t arrest anyone, investigate, or so far as we know even have a word with the editor.

Then we have defamation, a law which goes back to the 12th century and is something only the rich like Lord McAlpine can afford to invoke if they are accused of something they didn’t do.

If I was named a paedophile as he was, there’s very little I could do about it. Even if I found a lawyer prepared to bear the costs in expectation of getting the bill settled by the eventual damages, it could take years to get to court.

There is a libel reform bill going through Parliament about to change all that. It’s taken three years to get there, and would make a massive difference to how newspapers deal with ‘ordinary’ people, as well as protecting scientific debate.

A couple of weeks ago supporters of stricter Press control added an amendment to it which had not been debated or discussed at any point in the bill’s passage through Parliament.
The amendment, had it gone on to the statute book, would be undemocratic for that alone. But it also called for publishers who were not part of the PCC and were sued for defamation to pay all the legal costs of both sides whether they won or not.

It would have meant a newspaper could be sued, and financially ruined, for printing the truth.

In order to get that amendment ripped out and let the libel reform bill pass our political leaders have been in talks to agree a system of Press regulation.

They have hit upon the idea of regulating a 21st century media publishing in print and online using a medieval device invented before movable type called a Royal Charter. It is overseen by former and current government ministers, and an unelected monarch.

Charters were invented to approve things, not regulate them. This one looks likely to be protected from future interference by law unless a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons wants to interfere.

Cast your mind back to the expenses scandal. Can you imagine a two-thirds majority?

Each of the parties have claimed this deal as a victory, and no-one has used the phrase ‘dog’s breakfast’.

Nor have they made much of the fact that what the charter is overseeing is a new PCC designed, like all our other regulators, by editors and funded by industry.

It’s tougher than the last one because rather than just making a newspaper print an apology it can also impose fines of up to £1m. That’s a very powerful deterrent.

For example if The Guardian were to wrongly report something like ‘The News of the World deleted Milly Dowler’s voicemails’ when they didn’t, and it cost hundreds of innocent people their jobs, they couldn't get away with a small online correction and Alan Rusbridger might have to write a cheque to Rupert Murdoch.

That would be interesting. And what’s more, it was going to happen without any new laws.

The new regulations will apply only to significant publishers of ‘news-related material’. It’s aimed at newspapers, but it will take in small magazines like the Spectator and Private Eye, individual bloggers, and I’ll be very surprised if it isn’t used one day against someone on Twitter with more than a few thousand followers who tells people something they didn’t know.

When journalists talk about Press freedom we are accused of defending ourselves but we are also defending you. There are 62.6million people in this country, and 20 to 30million of them read a mass-market newspaper every day. If we successfully defend the rights of the Press, we defend the rights of our readers and our non-readers too.

If a newspaper cannot ask a question, nor can you. If a newspaper cannot say something, nor can you. If a newspaper cannot take a picture of Hugh Grant in a public place with his new girlfriend, then when you take a picture and tweet it for a laugh you’re in the same pickle if he wants to come and find you.

Those rules on defamation, contempt, naming sex abuse victims all apply to Twitter, Facebook, and email. Every one of us with access to those things is a publisher now – and there’s no training if you’re not a journalist.

And we are, right now, in a place where a scandal born of public distaste for gossip and tittle-tattle has led us to a situation where all that’s safe to report is gossip and tittle-tattle as found on Twitter, as released by public relations officers, as approved of by government.

We are not short of laws. What we are short of is objectivity – the ability to put yourself aside when considering a problem.

If these Press furores happen on a twenty-year cycle, the cycle needs breaking. We need something new.

We need a Press regulator where editors aren’t welcome. Its members should be made up of ordinary members of the public, because I trust them more than I do anyone in Westminster. Alongside them, for expertise, should be a smaller number of ordinary journalists – hacks, snappers, subs, local and national – who know the ground and have the experience and wit to know what’s fair and what’s beyond the pale.

No Establishment figures, no appointees, no editors.

We're already getting big fines and libel reform, but we also need a First Amendment-style right to freedom of expression carved in stone right in the heart of our laws. That’s the only way to protect bloggers, citizens, debate, and difference.

Because without it we have anyone who deals in a loose definition of ‘news’ – and that could one day come down to something as simple as sharing a Facebook status – facing serious persecution.

Yesterday the deputy leader of the Opposition said: “There are a lot of things that can turn people’s lives upside down and are not criminal offences and that’s what we need to ensure we protect people from.”

So – in a country packed with potential crimes, at a time when everyone with a smart phone is a publisher, under threat of £1m fines and the Queen coming round to tell you off, we now want to legislate against things that aren’t criminal?

Objectively speaking, that sounds like you’re forcing me to eat a dog’s breakfast after it’s already been sicked up three times.

Objectively speaking, that sounds a bit like the Khmer Rouge.

And objectively speaking it sounds like a good idea for journalists to gravitate online, become anonymous, and be entirely unaccountable - which I could have sworn was not what anyone wants.

But then if you don’t know more than one thing you can’t be objective. If you don’t read Tony Blair praising the Iraq War in The Sun today as well as Colonel Tim Collins in the Daily Mirror saying what a disaster it was you can’t hope to have an informed opinion.

Objectively speaking, I don’t mind what I write being controlled by law, so long as the law guarantees that I can otherwise write what I like.

We’ve only got one law for that. It’s the Human Rights Act 1998, Article 10.

And the government wants to repeal it.

What could possibly go wrong?

Friday 15 March 2013

Benefit scroungers...

... and why we let them stay in Westminster is the topic of today's column for the Daily Mirror, which you can read here.

You will need some fresh air and a drink afterwards.

Thursday 14 March 2013

Men: Think it through.

THERE are many things it is worth devoting a day of the year to.

There is a day for mums, when you buy her flowers and try to get her tipsy, and another for dads when you buy them a gadget and try to stop them driving anywhere. There is a day for the whole family to get together and argue, and generally in this country we call it Christmas.

There is a world day of peace, which when you consider that there's 22 current wars in the world (three of them in Yemen, which is a busy place), another 20 conflicts of one sort or another, and a worldwide, oxymoronic war on terror, would be quite useful.

If anyone who was at war ever stopped fighting long enough to observe it, that is.

There are days, recognised by the UN or by common custom, for the anti-malaria campaign, a day for AIDS, a day for our midwives, firefighters, and blood donors. Yesterday was no-smoking day, something which the new Pope entirely ignored.

A day given over to any of these things, I think we can all agree, raises awareness, provokes thought, and could perhaps change things for the better.

There are silly days too -  a World Sparrow Day, a day of international jazz, and one for goths. There is another when you're expected to talk like a pirate for 24 hours.
Then there are days which are, frankly, offensive - not because of their message but because they're for things which we ought to think about every single day of our lives.

On Friday last week it was International Women's Day, as though a 24-hour period of furrowing our brows about the plight of girls in the Swat Valley made it all right to do bugger all to help them for the other 364 days of the year.

A few weeks ago it was Valentine's Day, when traditionally those of us with loved ones exchange sweet nothings and devote ourselves to making our partner happy to be with us. There are some people who find this oppressive, and in as much as it involves the colour pink I'm one of them.

Keep your pink, and stuff your Valentines. If you only love me one day of the year then I am offski, sunshine, and good riddance to you.

And, thanks to some men who felt oppressed by all of the above, today has been specially devoted to steak and - how can I put this? - oral fun.

Now, I'm not averse to either of those things, but let's look at this logically.

Firstly, this day was set up to counter female-friendly celebrations of relationships, as though by telling your girl you love her in February equates to red meat and a bit of slap and tickle in March. Not only is this a rather slow transaction, but if you love someone it shouldn't be a transaction at all.

Unless this day was dreamed up by someone for whom love usually involves a cash payment.

Secondly, while all relationships need a bit of give and take if they are to survive, I can't imagine any disagreement being resolved by someone saying 'look, let's get jiggy next month and forget about it'. Someone has to clean the dishwasher filter quicker than that.

Thirdly, and most important of all, the habit of devoting a day to something inevitably means people don't bother with it for the rest of the year. That's why female genital mutilation is mentioned by the Prime Minister only on March 8, it's why you don't buy Valentine's cards in September, it's why people try to stop smoking one day and are happy to fail the next.

So if you have just one day for steak and a bit-of-the-other, that's 364 days of the year you've talked yourself out of it. That's a year of pasta and headaches, right there.

Insofar as it might advertise the male cause for more attention and some old-fashioned attitudes about keeping your man happy, Steak And Wha-hey! Day is a disaster. Not only are you quite capable of managing half of it by yourselves, it's a failure for the simple reason that you didn't need it in the first place.

Females are already taught, from the cradle, that their success in life will be measured by whether they can get and keep a man. From fairy stories to teen magazines, they're told to be pretty rather than clever.

From pubescence we are instructed by our peers, our clothes shops, our television programmes, the song lyrics of our idols and our reading material not only to have sex, but to do it 'right'. We are taught that if you don't do something then another girl will, so you'd better learn to do it better.

As adults we are encouraged to groom ourselves in such a way that meets the approval of men, whether he is our boss, our father, or a lover. Grey hairs do not make us distinguished, and wrinkles do not make us wise.

Skirts must be the 'right' length for our age, activity, or aim. Hairs that sprout over all of us quite naturally must be removed, and if we are to catch your attention it must be with the unspoken, ladylike, flirtatious yet shy promise of having the sexual skills of a middle-aged brothel madam.

Once in bed, you have two tasks - to make us happy, and to make it last. We have to make you happy, make it last, throw shapes like porn stars, not pull any funny faces, make encouraging noises, be casually adventurous but not intimidatingly experienced, pretend we're enjoying it even when we're not, and not get our make-up on the sheets.

You try doing all that with one leg behind your head, and then we'll talk about you having a 'special day' when things go all your way.

The fact is, men outnumber women at birth and, despite the fact our biology means we outsurvive you at every stage of life, we are under-educated, under-medicated, aborted and abandoned to such an extent you still outnumber those of us that remain.

You don't get to have the periods or the babies, which means you do get to have the jobs which pay you more and promote you higher. Your grey hairs don't make anyone think you're ugly, and your wrinkles don't mean that you're past it.

You can never marry, and the world will think you're a stud rather than a failure still waiting for 'The One'. You can get divorced and bitch about your ex and your friends will say 'too right, the bitch' rather than 'why don't you have a new boyfriend yet?'

You can have sex however you please, and if you don't want to see them afterwards it's just one of those things. Your magazines rarely insist you tie yourself in knots while demonstrating the biological knowledge of a gynaecologist.

You are the centre of the world's major religions, while all the sins are our fault.

This is not the fault of any one particular man, and nor should it stop you receiving steak and affection from your loved one. It does not mean you have to start revising.

But it does mean that, perhaps, the average man could stop for a moment and think about how many things in the world already suit him very nicely, thank you, and wonder if a day when he gets attention just for himself might not be over-egging the pudding, just slightly.

And, in the absence of the UN or Prime Minister recognising what we'd better call Steak and Cough Day, it also means that we women can choose what to do about it.

We can ignore it, just as we do World Sparrow Day, and which doesn't seem to bother the sparrows too much.

We could ask one of our foremost women - Kate, perhaps, or Hilary Mantel - to make a short, public statement of regret about men not having more fun. We could invent Cake and Let It All Hang Out Day.

But far better would be if we stopped treating ourselves like playthings, because what we allow others to do to us is just as bad as what they do without our permission.

We could start by insisting men compete for OUR attention; that they groom their hairy parts and learn to navigate our lives, needs and bodies without the need for therapy and a map; that they will get steak when they're good and not before.

Or, better still: We let them have their day.

Women do have it tough, in a lot of ways, and I have some sympathy for men who because of social changes can see the pendulum swinging the other way and are scared.

But it has not swung far enough yet, and the men who think devoting a day to their fun is going to stop it moving are fools. All your special day will do for you is the same as our special day does for us: it makes it easier to ignore you the rest of the year.

And trust me when I say that you wouldn't enjoy it at all.

Not one little bit.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Wanted: Pervert hunting virgin who tweets.

LOCKED away in a room in Rome, 115 virgins are deciding which one of them gets to be always right.

Whichever of them wins the dubious honour of being Honorary Dorothy and wearing the red shoes, he will get to be in charge not just of the other 114 cardinals but also a city-state, a private army, an impossibly vast property portfolio, a priceless art collection, and an unknown number of paedophiles.

On top of that will be 1.2billion followers worldwide and another 1.6million on Twitter, not all of whom were friendly to the pontifications of the last Pontifex.

So it's a tricky job for whoever wins. You're a nominal head of state as well as the personal vicar of Christ, a chief executive of a sprawling bureaucracy, a curator, a general, a radio station boss, and you're expected to personally sniff out every pervert in a frock.

But aside from that, the job's a waste of time.

Because despite the fact past popes have all told them not to, 98 per cent of sexually-active Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives.

Despite the fact past popes all say they're an abomination, somewhere between five to ten per cent of people identify themselves as something other than heterosexual, and the number is growing as social attitudes make it easier to be open about it.

Purely anecdotally, I haven't noticed the number of sinners dropping off either. Robert Mugabe's a Catholic, and the Pope's not once told him to behave a bit nicer.

So if the Pope can't make people be better, what's he got left? Talking to his invisible friend and counting the money, mainly, along with a little bit of trying to move the world and everyone in it backwards in time.

For which pointless task, I'll lay you good odds, any of those 115 virgins are eminently suited. No wonder it's taking them ages to pick one. It must be like sieving sludge.

Because whoever they pick isn't going to change a damn thing - the Catholic Church didn't get where it is today by being modern, after all - it comes down to little more than TV reporters getting their knickers in a twist about what kind of smoke they can see, whether the new Pope will be black or white, and just how old and knackered he's going to be.

It's possibly the only job in the world that an old man close to death can actually get, as well as the only one where people are still allowed to say the colour of his skin makes a difference.

Perhaps if he's black it'll help minorities all over the world; but women are still abused even though many think the pope was once a girl. I wouldn't hold your breath on that score.

Next to the journalists there's a lot of people stood under umbrellas in St Peter's Square waiting for the news. Some of them are the faithful, and a hell of a lot are tourists there to look at whatever everyone else is looking at.

I've been to St Peter's myself - I walked around the square, marvelled at the basilica and all the gold wibbly bits, queued for the Sistine Chapel and climbed narrow, winding, slippery-smooth and claustrophobic staircases to get on to the Vatican roof. I did the last half of the climb on my hands and knees while hyperventilating with terror, because while I can deal with enclosed spaces and heights on their own if you put them together I turn into a panicky jelly.

And that, ultimately, is what the church is: a thing to wonder at, a way of attracting attention, and something in which it is easy to fall, suffocate and be terrified.

The truth is that the biggest challenge facing the Catholic Church is being anything more than that - being relevant. Most of its members who I know follow the faith on their own terms. They've modernised it themselves, and reconciled their religion with their sexuality or personal code of behaviour as best they can. The church has not bothered to do that itself.

These things happened recently:

So far as I can tell, each of them is individually amazing and astounding, potentially alters the course of human history, and was totally ignored by the Vatican. And let's not get started on smashing protons together at CERN and discovering the God particle...

Opening a Twitter account for the Pope might be an effort to make him more relevant and modern, but if he ever read his mentions he'd have a heart attack and it's a total waste of time when the organisation he leads remains a 2,000-year-old anachronism which continues to exist only because its members are encouraged to breed without pause.

It's easy to make jokes likening the Papal election to Britain's Got Talent, and what it might be like with Ant and Dec gurning in the wings while weepy cardinals tell their sob stories, do a Gangnam rip-off, and someone makes a bomb off the phone votes.

That would be a bit silly, if it really happened. But if it's really God who gets to choose who the Pope is, there's no reason why the 1.2billion around the world can't say what he's telling them, nor the 400,000-odd priests and bishops, as well as the cardinals.

Even if they don't get a vote, they could be asked for their opinion if the church wanted to engage with its members and draw up a shortlist of people who might actually be listened to, rather than ignored.

Because while the virgins might think it demeans them to ask the opinion of someone other than God, the inescapable conundrum of modern life is that no-one is seen as infallible, even by the faithful. In fact the last Pope even announced that he was, and what's more so was God.

If they want the next elderly virgin to be listened to - and if he's not, there's very little point to having one - he needs to be someone who can look the world in the eye and win its interest and respect. And the world these days is a cynical place wondering why, if God is telling the cardinals how to vote, he's not telling them all the same name.

Otherwise, all we're left with is a lunatic instructing other people to be more like them, from a position of immense privilege and wealth, and if that's the way we're going you might as well get Gwyneth Paltrow to do the job.

She'd insist billions of people go macrobiotic and cut out carbs, and when we all ignored her she might realise she was an idiot in a way that popes, apparently, don't.

And at least she doesn't look a pillock in a dress.


Tuesday 12 March 2013

Nothing to see here.

FIFTY years ago a young man who had been raped by a celebrity plucked up the courage to report it.

He was told to "forget about it" and "move on".

In 1964 a policeman wrote down allegations about a TV star visiting a paedophile brothel, staffed by children from a state-run home. No-one looked into it.

In the 1970s a man went to police after his girlfriend tearfully told him she had been assaulted by a famous man as a child. He was warned he "could be arrested for making such allegations".

Fourteen years ago an anonymous letter named a household name as a paedophile. It was marked 'sensitive' and forgotten about.

Ten years ago a woman came forward to say a star had groped her when she was 15. The file was marked 'restricted' and no-one else got to see it.

More recently, a victim who rang a newspaper to say a famous man had attacked them was urged, quite rightly, to report it to the police. The police then urged her not to pursue the case.

The man at the centre of each of those allegations was Jimmy Savile, a BBC star for decades, a pen-pal to Prime Ministers, and idolised by children the length and breadth of the country.

And do you know what? Each of those instances when something was reported and nothing was done is fair enough.

Human error is a fact of life, even more so in 1963 when things weren't put on a computer. It is understandable that one officer with too much to do, with a low opinion of sex abuse victims, or an old-fashioned disbelief that someone famous can also be bad, might overlook, ignore, or disdain whatever he was told.

What's outrageous is that we're expected to believe every officer who heard similar stories at police forces in Sussex, Surrey, Cheshire, Merseyside, West Yorkshire, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Met over 50 years and did nothing about it was equally thick, busy or thoughtless.

We're expected to believe that the senior officers whose job was to read those reports when they were filed have no questions to answer. We're supposed to ignore the fact that for someone to mark a file 'restricted' or 'sensitive' it has to be read by someone who knows full well that sort of thing is for state secrets and not perverts, and that such words mean they're filed in a corner of the deepest basement and are never seen again.

Even if you put those failings to one side, we are expected to be happy that our police forces found just seven reports of Savile's behaviour in their files when more than 600 people have since come forward to claim they were among his victims.

A screw-up is bad enough. A cover-up is a disgrace. But police who don't notice or get told about a man raping children all over the country is an utter abomination of everything our officers of the law are supposed to stand for.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary snuck out its report on Savile at midnight, when it was far too late to be reported in any but the latest editions of the nation's newspapers. It used words like 'mistakes' and 'failures' and 'concerns', as though what has happened here is equivalent to slipping a grade in the end-of-term exams.

No - what happened here is hundreds of children were raped by a man who could have been stopped in 1963.

And in 1964. And the 1970s. And 1998. And 2007.

That's not a 'mistake'. It's not a 'failure'. It's not a goddamn 'concern'. It's a horror, a nightmare, a terrifying, appalling thing which proves that the power of celebrity and wealth and its associated ability to obliterate the truth with lawyers can fool the whole world into giving up its innocence.

Savile was no doubt helped by a lack of technology. Had all these complaints been put on a computer database they would have been more concrete and easy to trace, but that is starting to happen only now. When three victims went to police as recently as 2007, the investigating officers weren't able to see the 'restricted' files. The anonymous letter sent in 1998 could not be seen by other forces until 2011.

And he was helped, far more, by the law. Until 1988 any allegation of child sex abuse needed to be witnessed by a third party to ensure a conviction. Being the victim and speaking up was not enough; another adult who witnessed it needed to point the finger too. Perverts rarely seek an audience and if they do it's among like-minded people so there weren't many convictions, beyond flashers who exposed themselves to several witnesses.

That's why, when we were growing up, you just had 'dirty old men' - grooming and paedophiles were virtually impossible to prosecute, and if no-one gets to hear about such things you can't imagine they'd ever happen.

That alone made it easier for Savile to do what he did, because what he did was considered impossible.

But we still had 23 years between the law being changed and Savile dying in 2011 to hold him to account. We had four years after three people came forward to Surrey Police in 2007 for his victims to know they had safety in numbers.

Yet those hundreds of people did not put their hands up for 50 years. They were scared of being hated, of fighting a rich man, of revisiting their abuse, and probably thought the police wouldn't do very much.

The fact they were right about that should make us all stop and think. Think about the way rape victims are named on social media, or accused of inviting their abuse; the way a much-needed reform to our libel laws which would stop people like Savile quashing their victims is at risk of being overturned by idiots; and the way you'd be treated, today, if you walked into a police station and complained of something similar.

A report into a police unit investigating rapes recently found officers failed to believe victims and put pressure on them to withdraw their statements to up their crime detection rates. The top police officer in the country, Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, apologised but dismissed the problem as 'relatively historic'.

It was in 2009. Hardly in need of archaeology, but it shows we still have plenty of dinosaurs.

The most awful thing about the Savile report is that the woman who wrote it says "there is a distinct possibility that such failures could be repeated".

And what is happening to our police force as a result of all this failing to detect serious crimes which end up being exposed only by journalists, scandals and inquiries?

The number of frontline officers is at its lowest for a decade. The number that remain have had their pay cut several times, and despite the fact the Prime Minister crows every Wednesday in the House of Commons that 'crime is down' it cannot be unrelated to the fact there are fewer people to detect it.

On top of that any police officer who speaks to a journalist without approval from above faces arrest or at the least a bollocking. Even if they're not doing it for money, whistleblowing of the kind that might have exposed Savile sooner has been outlawed as 'misconduct'.

The police, that body of people we rely upon to look after us, has become more secretive than ever just at the time that we want to know what the hell it's been up to. From phone-hacking to Savile, to the Sapphire units to arresting members of a free Press and its own officers, the public have an unshakeable right to know exactly what the police are doing and to whom and why.

Yet all we're told - the public, the Press, the ordinary officers - is to move along, stay back, and if you get any closer you'll be nicked.

It is not a 'distinct possibility' it could all happen again. With laws enforced by a body which punishes itself and everyone else for scrutinising it, which dismisses rape, tells victims to 'forget about it' and insists any problems are mere human error, it is an iron-clad certainty.

Which means they're policing the victims more thoroughly than they do the criminals.

What helmets.

Monday 11 March 2013

Human wrongs.

SEVEN hundred and ninety eight years is a long old time.

It's not far off a millennium, it's longer than the Bible says Moses, Isaac and Abraham lived, and most of us might well think that anything that's lasted for 800 years or so was, well, useful.

In 1215, in a field not far from Windsor Castle, a king was forced to sign a document which included among its many clauses several which still hold legal sway in this country.

One of them says this: "No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgement of his Peers, or by the Law of the land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right."

That clause is what is known as the right to due process - that everyone on these islands is equal before the law and can be tried by a jury according to the law.

It is a rule which, for 798 years, has stopped the rich and powerful abusing their position, carrying out illegal punishments, acting like dictators or covering up their own crimes. It's quite a useful and good thing.

Of late the woman in charge of our justice system has said she would like to scrap it.

Home Secretary Theresa May wants to tear up the Human Rights Act, a law intended to do no more than make the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights more effective.

You see, after the Second World War when lots of humans were treated like they weren't - Jews, gays, Poles, gypsies - a lot of people thought it was a good idea to make it impossible to do that again.

So we wrote a convention guaranteeing their rights to life, to not be tortured, to not be slaves. It said they had a right to privacy, expression, marriage, freedom of thought and conscience, and a fair trial.

The problem was that if anyone's rights were abused, they had to go to European courts to defend them which was an expensive and long-winded business. So the HRA was introduced so that legal remedies could be quicker and cheaper for us Brits.

Fair enough, right? Except some bits of the HRA were left rather woolly, so that 17 words about everyone having a right to respect for their privacy got abused by, among others, MPs trying to stop you hearing about their expenses, cheating footballers protecting their family-friendly sponsorship deals, and even journalists trying to stop other journalists reporting things.

And if you put into law that people have a right not to be tortured, it makes it tricky to, well, torture them.

Hence why Theresa says: "I'd personally like to see the Human Rights Act go because I think we have had some problems with it.

"I see it, here in the Home Office, particularly, the sort of problems we have in being unable to deport people who perhaps are terrorist suspects. Obviously we've seen it with some foreign criminals who are in the UK."

Now, it's undeniable there are problems with the HRA. It certainly needs a tweak, although you won't hear many lawyers saying that because as a body they've made a mint out of it.

The issue with what Theresa says there is the word 'perhaps'.

People who 'perhaps' are terrorist suspects.

She is referring, if you don't know, to a gentleman of Palestinian extraction called Abu Qatada. Don't get him confused with hook-handed Abu Hamza, or other people who are a bit brown and a bit Muslim and a bit not-too-friendly.

Abu Qatada is a fundamentalist Islamic scholar who fled here with his family from Jordan in 1993 claiming he'd been tortured and suffered religious persecution. He had been trying to overthrow some despotic Arabic regimes, and because we didn't like them either we granted him asylum in 1994.

In 2001 Abu Qatada was arrested over connections to a German terror cell, but the case was dropped. It was claimed his sermons had been found in the flat used by the 9/11 hijackers, that he'd offered advice to Osama bin Laden, and he gave advice backing suicidal terrorists.

What do you think Britain did with him?

Put him on trial? Use some due process? Ask him if could stop?

No, we ignored lots of warnings from other governments, refused to arrest him, and tried to use him as a spy instead.

Seeing as he was friendly with lots of terrorist types, this brilliant plan quickly failed and in less than a year the British state realised it was being taken for a ride, and brought in a new law saying it could hold terror suspects without trial. Qatada took to his heels, as most of us would.

MI5 looked very silly, the  British government looked stupid, and when they finally tracked him down to a council house in in south London they banged him up in Belmarsh. On, as you might expect by this point, no charge whatsoever.

He has spent the years since being shuttled between prisons, fighting a legally aided battle against deportation which has cost at least £3million so far. He's been bailed once or twice to live under surveillance so strict he can't allow a mobile phone to be switched on within his home, in a security operation which costs around £100,000 a week.

He has just been re-arrested for breaching his bail conditions, which are so strict they include banning him from using a motor car, talking to anyone outside the UK, using a computer or mobile phone, or allowing anyone to bring a DVD into his house.

He is barred from having more than one bank account, writing any documents, or attending a mosque.

In short his bail conditions alone infringe his right to freedom to worship, to express himself, and to have free movement. They're astonishingly strict, but then some might say so is he.

Abu Qatada has not been convicted of a single crime in this country. Yet he's been locked up, on an off, for 12 years.

Spies are the only people who say they have evidence of his wrong-doing, but they refuse to present it to an open court, leaving his guilt to be decided not by a jury but by successive Home Secretaries who find him embarrassing.

He's been tried and convicted in his absence in Jordan, but their legal system and human rights record make it equally likely you or I would be convicted of much the same thing if we were citizens and so much as tweeted we didn't like their government. It's not much of a benchmark.

Abu Qatada may well be a man who encourages terror. He might praise bin Laden, condone murder, and find ways to convince the fatally-stupid their prophet wants them to massacre as many people as possible. He might be guilty of all he is accused of.

The problem is that, without evidence or a court hearing, so might you or I. If it crossed Theresa May's mind to crack down on thirtysomething journalists as a security fear I could be banged up in Belmarsh without so much as a by-your-leave.

There is just one thing which separates bad guys from the good guys and it is not that terrorists are all brown, or Muslim, or have hooks and funny physical flaws.

It is that the good guys have decided to treat everyone like they're human, no matter how inhumane their actions.

We have decided that is a given value of 'good', and that it is only by persistently and irritatingly insisting on equal rights for all that we can prove just how fascists,  narrow-minded and vicious the alternative is.

We have decided that if you take away human rights what you are left with is human privileges, and that if you start saying who can and can't have them you are on a slippery slope back to the days before we had the Magna Carta.

Men fought and died, defied and bullied their king to get him to sign that document. In the 798 years since the words they forced him to agree have protected millions of Britons and, what's more, have been adopted in the constitutions of free countries all over the world.

Billions of human lives have been, and will be, better because of our equal right to a proper trial. As with all rights they get eroded, and nibbled away at by the authorities, and if we want to keep hold of them we have to each stake a claim and say 'this is ours'.

And that means Abu Qatada too. If he's a hate preacher, let him out to preach his hate, catch him in the act, and then bang him up or deport him. Radical hate preachers rarely turn into pussy cats, in my experience, and if you let him out first off it'll be cheaper and secondly he'll get himself in trouble soon enough.

Deporting him purely for being unlikeable is silly enough. But tearing up one of the few documents which guarantees we cannot be tortured, enslaved, shut up, persecuted, killed or abused is an epic case of cutting off our entire heads to spite our face.

I would rather have my freedoms, and Abu Qatada skipping down the street making an arse of himself, than I would let our government to give up its pretence of being law-abiding.

But then some animals are more equal than others.