Thursday, May 17, 2007


The libel laws are an abomination. They favour rich, litigious bullies at the expense of free expression. Even a website for mothers to chatter on is fair game to this draconian law. Last week was forced to pay a five-figure sum for comments posted on its chat site. It stood by the comments but this law is such an ass that the burden of proof rests solely with the defendant. Meanwhile, claimants can make their allegations free from evidential proof. Their opinion is all that counts. They do not have to prove the comments are false. They don't even have to show any harm to their reputation. I can think of no other area in law in which an individual's spurious opinion outweighs the greater public good of truth and justice.

The Mumsnet case makes clear how libel affects everyone, not just journalists or those working in the traditional media. More and more of us, thanks to the growing ubiquity of blogs, chat groups and web forums, are vulnerable to this nefarious law. And while big media groups have deep pockets, the individual hasn't. If the damages don't get the writer, then legal costs certainly will. Most writers are not rich people and so they must settle. Result: vibrant debate is quashed, truth inevitably suffers. The law is so heavily weighted against freedom of expression that all writers (even those hosting blogs) are being urged to buy libel insurance; the freelance chapter of the National Union of Journalists is inundated with inquiries about its new policy.

No matter that the publishers of Mumsnet didn't even write the comments that the author Gina Ford claimed defamed her. Under the Defamation Act 1996 nonauthors can be held liable if they fail to expeditiously remove comments someone thinks are defamatory. But how quick is quick? The Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts said that the comments were taken down after little more than 24 hours. Yet the vagueness of the law means she would have to go to court to prove this was a reasonable time period.

As a result we now have a culture where the default position is not free speech but censorship. After the 2001 case Godfrey v. Demon Internet Ltd, all internet service providers became vulnerable to libel lawsuits if they failed to immediately censor comments that a person claimed were defamatory. Whether or not the words are true is irrelevant.

England's libel laws have never been about protecting individuals - at least not poor or helpless individuals. They are about protecting the rich and the powerful. A fair law would be one in which the claimant has to prove falsity, harm and malicious intention, while providing a defence for truth, reasonable care and the public interest. Then both reputations and freedom of expression could be protected. Until then, mum's the word.


APA Panel Convened to Discuss Abortion After Effects is Stacked with Deniers

Does the fact that the American Psychological Association has agreed to examine the possible adverse effects of abortion on women's mental health mean the organization is reconsidering the issue? Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor, counsellor and writer says, "Very likely, the answer is no."

The APA has convened a panel of experts to examine the possibility that women might be psychologically traumatized after abortion. Throckmorton points out, however, that each has gone on the public record saying there is no evidence that abortion has any long-term negative consequences for mental health.

Dr. Throckmorton warns that the APA's committee is necessarily biased, pointing to the APA's longstanding advocacy of abortion. In 1969, the Association declared that "termination of unwanted pregnancies" is a mental health issue, and resolved that "termination of pregnancy be considered a civil right of the pregnant woman."

The committee is charged with reviewing the published scientific literature on the impact of abortion on women's mental health and will report its findings in 2008. Given the APA's stated bias, however, it seems unlikely even to some of its members that an objective examination of the facts is possible. Dr. Rachel MacNair, an APA psychologist who calls herself a "pro-life feminist," told Throckmorton, "Although the APA included two experts on the trauma of domestic violence and an expert on methodology, three members have clearly stated ideological commitments to the `pro-choice' perspective."

MacNair said, "Only if the report comes out with conclusions opposite to what one would expect with the ideological commitment of half of its members would it have credibility; if it comes out as would be predicted, the absence of balance on the task force will be a problem for its scientific credibility." MacNair relates that she has experienced women who have claimed a connection between their abortions and subsequent psychological distress and been dismissed because of the APA's official pro-abortion position.


Huge expansion of intervention in people's lives under Blair's "New Labour" government

From 'fetal ASBOs' to calorie-counting on the curriculum: the Blairites intervened in family life in ways the Tories never dreamed of

I was one of Thatcher's children. I started school in 1980 and did my GCSE exams in 1991; a childhood and adolescence spent entirely under that Tory prime minister's beaky nose, absorbing all the emotional anti-Thatcherism of the times. I remember Thatcher as a pantomime villain, like the child-catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, immortalised in the Spitting Image puppet that gave you nightmares. When she resigned, it seemed like a happy ending in the making.

But the Blair years have been worse. As a young person under Thatcher, at least you knew where you stood - you hated her, and you assumed that she hated you. Blair seems the opposite - a devoted daddy who wants to get down with the kids and help their parents, who professes to appreciate us and feel our pain. In reality, his reign has been a constant process of family-fiddling and therapeutic intervention, which has undermined parents and unsettled childhood. For example:

When Margaret Thatcher famously argued, back in 1987, that `there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families', this was understood as the apex of Thatcherite individualism. Forget the poor, the needy, the lonely - Eighties Britain was a place of sink or swim, and the family was seen as life-raft enough. That government's promotion of Victorian values and the virtues of home ownership, backed up by its intolerance of more `diverse' lifestyles or family forms (remember the ill-fated war on single parents?), have all entered the liberal lexicon as examples of just how bad the Tories were at looking after families. But Thatcher was more likely to leave us in peace and privacy than Blair's lot.

Blair's government had been in office a mere year when it published the consultation document Supporting Families. (One critique of the document had the apposite headline `Supporting Families like a rope supports a hanging man'.) As I have previously argued on spiked, the document's `message was clear: for too long, it has been assumed that families are best left alone to live their lives in private. Now the state should become more involved - through processes called supporting, helping and advising families - to encourage people to live their lives in the right way.' (See What future for the family?)

Under New Labour, the dynamic towards greater state involvement in everyday family life has intensified year on year. You can see this in initiatives such as the planned creation of a national database that effectively puts alls children under state surveillance (see Children: over-surveilled, under-protected), in the routine use of parenting classes and the more punitive parenting orders, and in the Sure Start scheme, which purports to be an anti-poverty childcare provision initiative but in reality is about sitting by the elbows of low-income parents and guiding them in the right way to bring up their kids (see A Sure Start for the therapeutic state). Parents under Blair are treated like irresponsible children, in need of constant guidance and monitoring by the state. If this is what is meant by society `supporting families', we'd be better off cut adrift.

One of Thatcher's most famous `nasty' moves was her decision, when education secretary in Edward Heath's government, to abolish free school milk: earning her the childish nickname `Thatcher Thatcher, Milk Snatcher'. But at least she never went down the Blairite route of demanding `Let them eat carrot sticks', and sending in a sort of Obesity Special Branch to check the contents of children's school lunchboxes.

The obsession with children's diet, formalised in New Labour's healthy schools initiative, is to me one of the most depressing aspects of bringing up children in today's society. Given a hysterically high profile by the celebrity chef Jamie `Parents Are Tossers' Oliver, the question of what children put into their mouths at breaktime is now considered of utmost political and educational importance. School prospectuses burble on about how keen they are to follow the government's healthy eating agenda and advise parents to ask themselves if their children really need a midmorning snack; reports by the schools inspection body Ofsted rate educational institutions on how well pupils are doing on their diet-and-exercise programmes and whether skinny-limbed kids come home refusing to eat their dinner because some teacher has told them that sausages are `bad foods' and chips `aren't healthy'.

Most parents are more concerned that their kids are eating enough than that they will turn into doughnuts, and we relish the enjoyment that children get out of eating the food they like. The Blair government's mean-spirited attitude to children's food is already poisoning the atmosphere around the dinner table and providing a bitter distraction from the fact that, when schools are not shoving the National Fruit Scheme down children's throats, they are filling their heads with junk. Yes, Thatcher messed about with the curriculum and got on the wrong side of most teachers. But she did not create a situation where calorie-counting was considered more important than maths.

Thatcher was hardly considered a teenager's best friend. Hers was the party of law'n'order as well as (unofficially) the party of youth unemployment, which would later, under John Major, push through the Criminal Justice Bill, widely perceived as a law against the `repetitive beats' of rave culture and other activities beloved of young people. But Thatcher never tried to give teenagers a criminal record while still in the womb.

In September 2006, Blair unveiled plans to identify and intervene in `problem families' at the earliest possible stage, to prevent their children becoming criminals later on in life. The UK media branded the scheme `fetal ASBOs' - a new extension of the Blair government's Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which are used to whip teenagers into line for such offences as hanging out on the street. This has also been a government that issues on-the-spot fines for all manner of trivial misdemeanours and sends parents to jail if their children play hooky from school (see Parents: we are not the law). The politics of behaviour is promoted through a policy of `Respect' - as though the long arm of the law is any way to get teenagers to respect anything. (See Respect for what?)

Already it is reported that teenagers wear their ASBOS as a `badge of honour', and if they have stopped wearing hooded tops it is presumably not because of the government's sartorial advice on the subject. But it all creates a climate of conformity in which the young, typically more adventurous and energetic than the rest of society, might find themselves in counselling simply for wanting to cross the road.

Of course, none of this means that I pine for the Thatcher era. I remember it as being quite grey and bleak, with the sense of any political alternative crumbling before one's eyes. But the chrome-covered Blair years have been unable to disguise the mistrust, the lack of vision, and the narrow authoritarianism that has powered this government's regime. And now it's about to go Brown..



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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