Monday, November 19, 2007

London's PC despot

In the name of combating 'Islamophobia', Ken Livingstone has launched an attack on press freedom that reveals his fear of the public. The fact that there is no such thing as Islamophobia need not detain us, of course

What kind of leader launches an open assault on the press, accusing it of jeopardising public safety and demanding that it put its `house in order'? What sort of ruler proposes `guidelines' to the press on what stories it should cover, and even worse, what kind of language it should use to cover them, what kind of people it should employ, and what kind of values it should uphold and communicate to the mass of the population? Kim Jong-il, perhaps? Saddam Hussein, before he was chased into his hole in the ground and later executed? How about Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London?

This week, `Red Ken', as some people insist on calling him, launched a report on British media coverage of `Muslim issues'. Titled The Search for Common Ground: Muslims, Non-Muslims and the UK Media, the report was commissioned by Livingstone's Greater London Authority. It explores the alleged rise of Islamophobia in the media. And in the name of tackling the apparent spread of prejudice through the papers (especially tabloid ones), Livingstone and his supporters have crossed a line normally only transgressed by despots: they're using their political clout to try to shape the media in their own image. Strip away all the PC lingo about `protecting Muslims', and the London mayor's latest initiative comes across as an intolerable attack on press freedom.

The report argues that Islamophobia is rampant in the British press, and that new attitudes amongst journalists and codes of ethics will be required to deal with it. In his foreword, Livingstone argues that there is an increasingly `negative portrayal of Muslims and Islam in the media', which is helping to `[sow] divisions among London's diverse communities' (pxi). Elsewhere, the report argues that such coverage means `Muslims understandably feel vulnerable to hate crimes and unlawful discrimination'; indeed, the `drip-drip-drip' repetition of `abusive and emotive language' about Muslims could lead to `more hate crimes and acts of discrimination than otherwise' (p128). In short, the media's irresponsible coverage of Muslim issues is a threat to social cohesion and a potential harbinger of violence.

In fact, the report uses questionable, one might even say dodgy methodology to show that the media are continually `abusing' Muslims. For chapter 2 - `A normal week? Threats and crises in Britain and the world' - the report's authors select a `random' week in 2006 and assess the newspapers' coverage of Muslim affairs during that week. They chose Monday 8 May to Sunday 14 May 2006. During this week there were apparently 352 articles on Muslim-related issues in all the mainstream daily newspapers. The report's authors found that of these 352 articles, 91 per cent were `negative' in their portrayal of Muslims and Islam, and only four per cent were judged to be positive. Five per cent were judged neutral. This is evidence, the report claims, of the `demonisation' of Muslims by a `torrent' of negative stories (p18).

It pays - a lot - to look more closely at how this research was carried out. First, the random week selected by the researchers happened to be the week in which the government published its report on the 7/7 bombings. That report came out on Friday 12 May. Not surprisingly, there was a huge amount of press coverage, and not surprisingly most of it was `negative', in the sense that it was about four British-born Muslims who blew up themselves and 52 others in London a year earlier; even individuals of an old Stalinist bent, such as those who stack's Livingstone's GLA, would find it hard to put a `positive' spin on such a story. Of the study's 352 newspaper stories related to Muslims, 69 - or 19.6 per cent - were about the 7/7 bombings (p26).

What's more, the researchers made a broad sweep indeed when selecting articles `about Muslims'. They counted all articles that included the words `Islam', `Muslims', `Islamic', `Islamist', `Sunni', `Shia', or the words `radical', `fundamentalist' and `extremist' if the `context was such that it was reasonable to assume that an association with Islam or Muslims would be made'. In other words, even an article about an `extremist' online al-Qaeda sympathiser, say, could be selected as a negative story about Muslims, even if it did not say anything about his religious identity (p17). The researchers also included articles where the names of people were obviously Muslim, `even if their religious identity was not explicitly stated'. This leads to a bizarre situation where articles about the sentencing of the former boxer Prince Naseem for dangerous driving are included as part of the torrent of negative stories about Muslims. Naseem was sentenced to 15 months in prison in the week selected by the researchers (on 12 May 2006), and because his name (Naseem Hamed) is obviously Muslim, and because the stories (on dangerous driving) are obviously negative, they are added to the pile of evidence that the media are abusing Muslims. Of the 352 articles selected by the researchers, 15, or 4.3 per cent, were `negative' stories about Prince Naseem (p26).

Even worse, in selecting articles that include the words `Sunni' and `Shia', the researchers included all of that random week's coverage of the bloody mess that is postwar Iraq. May 2006 was the bloodiest month of the year so far in Iraq: according to the Iraq Body Count website, between 2,000 and 2,100 people were killed in Iraq during that month. Not surprisingly, articles about Iraq come second only to articles about 7/7 in the researchers' list of `negative stories on Muslims'. Of their 352 selected articles, 49 - or 13.9 per cent - were news articles about the violence and instability in Iraq. Here, even reporting about a bloody foreign war, which might not necessarily mention `Muslims' but by necessity mentions the words `Sunni' and `Shia', is cited as an example of irresponsible and abusive media content on Muslims.

What are the researchers saying? That coverage of things like Iraq and 7/7 needs to be more positive? That journalists who write on war and rare acts of terrorism should mind their language lest they offend Muslims? Or more to the point, lest they offend those who fancy themselves, through the power of self-selection rather than anything so grubby as an electoral process, to be the representatives of Muslims. The contributors to Livingstone's report include Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain, Mohammed Abdul Aziz of the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism, and Tariq Hameed, who writes reports for the Muslim Council of Britain on how journalists should cover Muslim affairs. Are these individuals so narcissistic that they read about the debacle in Iraq and think only of their personal feelings?

In labelling as `negative' and `abusive' even stories about war and terrorism, the report's authors show their deeply censorious streak. They are effectively updating, in PC terminology, the old BBC man Martyn Lewis's demand in the 1990s for more `happy news'. Where Lewis said news reporters should seek out `good news stories' as well as bad news stories, effectively spreading the `And Finally' bit of News at Ten across the whole news agenda, Ken's researchers label everything from coverage of Prince Naseem to the war in Iraq as overly negative, and demand more positive stories on Muslim affairs. This is a demand for the press to overhaul its agenda, for journalists to shift their focus, change their language, and, as the report says, `contribute to informed discussion and debate amongst Muslims and non-Muslims about ways of working together to maintain and develop Britain as a multicultural, multifaith democracy' (pxiv). In short, the press should do the kind of thing that Livingstone wants it to. It speaks volumes about Livingstone's arrogance and contempt for public debate that he would like to, if only he had the power, turn the press into an offshoot of his political fiefdom.

So, the demonisation of Muslims in the media does not normally consist of articles attacking or slurring Muslims - rather it consists of news reports on Iraq, 7/7, Prince Naseem, as well as Iran, Palestine and numerous other newsworthy issues. Thus, the authors of the report are forced to trawl the dodgier regions of the tabloid media for what they consider to be truly disturbing examples of anti-Muslim prejudice. In chapter 3 - `Britishness is being destroyed: worries in a changing world' - they flag up examples of the media abuse of Muslims. The main example - make sure you are sitting comfortably - appeared on the front page of the Daily Express in October 2005. It was headlined: `HOGWASH: Now the PC brigade bans piggy banks in case they upset Muslims.' The report spends five pages discussing and dissecting this silly but fairly typical `PC gone mad' story that the vast majority of us will have shrugged off at the time and certainly forgotten about since. In total, chapter 3 breaks down what the authors admit are `four small episodes', `each relatively trivial in itself' - that is, all of them are tabloid-style `PC gone mad' stories - yet cites them as evidence that there is an `attack on Muslims' in the media (p31).

The authors then get really desperate. Unable to find many clear expressions of serious anti-Muslim prejudice in the mainstream, they move on to the online discussion boards of the tabloid newspapers. On the Daily Express website they find that web-users have written things like `I am sick to the back teeth of hearing about Muslims this and Muslims that'; `The Islamic tail is wagging the British bulldog'; and `Instead of assimilating into our culture, Muslims whine and complain. They should return to the homeland of their beloved prophet Mohammed.' (p11) Clearly some of these statements were written by individuals with noxious views. But material posted on the free-for-all discussion boards of the Daily Express website hardly represents a mainstream torrent of abuse. If I took seriously everything that was ever said about me on online discussion boards, I'd never leave the house. That the researchers had to trawl the gutters of the World Wide Web in order to find abuse of Muslims (and even here, the abuse cited is fairly mild) shows that `Islamophobia' is not a mainstream or powerful prejudice. Yet the researchers seem desperate to demonstrate that it is. That is because this report looks to me less like an attempt to tackle real prejudice than to propose some quite authoritarian ideas under the guise of `tackling Islamophobia'.

This report demonstrates what the phenomenon of Islamophobia is actually about today. There has been no public groundswell in anti-Muslim prejudice, or in anti-Muslim violence; rather, the spectre of `Islamophobia' exists in the minds of the elite, who look upon Britain's white working-class communities as an unpredictable blob liable to carry out acts of violence against Muslims if they read an article about piggy banks being banned or Prince Naseem being jailed. The Islamophobia agenda, as pushed by central government, the GLA, the police, various self-selected Muslim community groups and, as it happens, large sections of the media itself, is underpinned by a poisonous view of the masses as irrational and given to violent outbursts, and Muslims as pathetic victims who need heroic Ken and his handpicked Muslim community warriors to protect them. That is why this report focuses mostly on the tabloids, because, as it says, these papers are read by `millions' of people. Those horrible, hard-to-predict millions; we can't have them reading inflammatory material, can we? (pxvii)

The report says that media coverage may lead to increased violence, yet all the evidence suggests that there has not been a rise in anti-Muslim attacks. At the end of last year, the Crown Prosecution Service revealed that in 2005-2006 - in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, when politicians, the police and others predicted there would be an anti-Muslim pogrom - there were only 43 cases of religiously aggravated crime, 18 of them against Muslims (or `perceived' Muslims). This represented a decline from 23 anti-Muslim crimes in 2004-2005 (1). It is the irrational fear of public opinion that is widespread in the GLA and elsewhere that leads some to see a connection between fairly ordinary media coverage of important events and a possible rise in violence. The truth is that Livingstone's desire to police the language that journalists use, just as central government has tried to curb the language all of us use in relation to `religious hatred', does nothing to rejuvenate or improve communuty relations or public life; instead it allows ideas to fester, unchallenged.

Common Ground, with its strange methodology, cliquish community group input and fear of tabloids and tabloid readers, ends by calling for an overhaul of the media. It calls for `codes of professional conduct and style guides about use of terminology'; for the employment of `more journalists of Muslim heritage who can more accurately reflect the views and experiences of Muslim communities'; and for the Commission for Equality and Human Rights and the government's Department for Communities and Local Government to focus on `combating anti-Muslim prejudice in the media' and in `the general climate of public opinion' (p133). These are explicit demands for increased government intervention into the press, and anyone who believes in the freedom of the press should rigorously oppose them and hope that the government ignores them.

Of course there are vast problems with the British press, its tendency to scaremonger about the threat of terrorism amongst them. Yet as Karl Marx, history's most passionate and consistent defender of freedom of the press, argued, a `bad' free press is better than a `good' controlled press. Marx said: `The free press remains good even when its products are bad, because these products are deviations from the nature of a free press, [while] the censored press remains bad, even when its products are good, because these products are only good insofar as they represent the free press within the censored press' (2). Marx ridiculed nineteenth-century European rulers who argued that the press should be restricted because it threatened the `public good' and who called on newspapers to hire only `respectable' individuals whose `position and character guarantee the seriousness of their activities and the loyalty of their thinking' (3). Livingstone, if he had the power, would do precisely these two things. He argues that the media is `sowing divisions' and `harming social cohesion' - that is, threatening public safety - and his report goes so far as to suggest who the media should employ: more Muslims, who apparently have the expertise and the loyalty to uphold the multicultural vision.

There is something archaically tyrannical in Livingstone's vision for the press: on the basis of questionable findings, he and his supporters express their desire to cajole the media into promoting the Livingstone vision for society, which is the `building and maintenance of Britain as a multicultural society' (pxiii). If Livingstone got his way, it would represent an explicit politicisation of the media, though it would be done under the guise of representing the interests of Muslim communities and the British people more broadly. Yet as Marx said, in a controlled or censored media, the government `hears only its own voice, knows that it hears only its own voice, and is yet fixed on the delusion to hear the voice of the people...' (4) The press should remain free from all forms of delusional interference by the authorities. Our current bad media - fairly free, messy, a bit mad, but which represents at least an aspiration to independence and objectivity - is a million times better than Livingstone's vision of a calm, slavish and unquestioning `good media' could ever be.


Leftist hatred of success and flourishing in others embodied in a statue

"Alison Lapper Pregnant" has finally been carted away from the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. And as far as I'm concerned, it hasn't come a moment too soon. The sculpture, by Marc Quinn, which shows the disabled artist Alison Lapper naked and eight months pregnant, was installed in September 2005. Carved from 13 tonnes of white Carrara marble and standing 12ft high, it stared imperiously at the tourists and pedestrians walking through the square and milling around the entrance to the National Gallery. It was removed at the end of last week, and replaced by Thomas Schtte's Hotel for the Birds, which at least has the virtue of being quite colourful.

Over the past year-and-a-half, on the numerous occasions I walked through Trafalgar Square or passed it by bus, I grew to loathe the Alison Lapper Pregnant statue (not Alison Lapper herself, please note, who I'm sure has overcome great challenges to become both an artist and a mother). The statue captured much of what is rotten in the heart of new Britain. When it was first unveiled, some art critics gushed about how it would challenge people's perceptions. `Against a sky the colour of old underwear, and a circle of buildings that might as well be built of concrete for all the life and warmth their stony facades exude, Quinn's womanly but warrior-like Lapper [glows] like a beacon', said one overexcited observer.

In truth, Alison Lapper Pregnant was about as challenging as old underwear. It was a drab monument to the backward pieties of our age. It showed that we value people for what they are rather than what they achieve. In our era of the politics of identity we seem more interested in celebrating individuals' fixed and quite accidental attributes - their ethnicity, cultural heritage or in Lapper's case, her disability - rather than what they have discovered or done in the world outside of their bodies. We prefer victims to heroes.

The other three plinths in Trafalgar Square, and of course Nelson's column in the middle, hold statues that commemorate individuals who did important things: there's George IV, who was king of Britain and Ireland from 1820 to 1830; Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, best known for capturing Cawnpore from rebels during the Indian Mutiny of 1857; and General Sir Charles James Napier, who was commander-in-chief in India in the 1840s. What you think of these men's contributions to British history is not important right now; they are at least recognised for things that they did. By contrast, the statue of Lapper on the fourth plinth was a 13-tonne celebration of the distortion wrought by nature on a woman's body rather than of that woman's contributions to public life and society.

Alison Lapper Pregnant celebrated what nature, in all its arbitrariness, does to humans rather than what we do to shape, lead and transform the world around us. In this sense, it captured the deeply conservative nature of the identity agenda. The politics of identity privileges fate over self-made destiny. In all the talk of black, Muslim, gay or disabled `identity' - categories created and sustained by the authorities to describe sections of the population who apparently have special needs and desires - we can glimpse the reintroduction of fate into public life, where individuals' fortunes are seen as being determined by their skin colour or physical afflictions or cultural background rather than by the choices they make and actions they take.

The Lapper statue's acceptance of fate was clear in the way it clashed with the other monuments in Trafalgar Square. The military men commemorated on the other plinths are shown in military garb and on horseback; they're depicted in their public roles. Lapper, by contrast, was shown naked, so that those who did not know who she is (and let's face it, she is not a very famous artist) were likely only to think: `Oh look, there's a disabled woman.' Where the three military statues commemorate individuals who transformed themselves in the name of achieving some higher purpose, the Lapper statue celebrated one woman's distorted physicality; where the military statues show men who shaped their own and others' destinies, the Lapper statue drew the eye towards a naked body shaped by the congenital disorder, phocomelia.

Ironically, this means that Alison Lapper Pregnant was during its tenure the haughtiest and most elitist statue in Trafalgar Square. For all the claims that Marc Quinn had introduced `reality' into a square dominated by stuffy dead imperialists, in fact Lapper assumed her place on the fourth plinth largely through an accident of birth. It was not her contributions to art or public life that were celebrated in Alison Lapper Pregnant, despite what the statue's supporters claimed, but rather the naked body bestowed on her by nature and birth. Her statue had more in common with that of George IV - who also ended up in Trafalgar Square thanks to an accident of birth: being born into royalty - than many would like to admit.

At the same time, Alison Lapper Pregnant was profoundly patronising to disabled people. Lapper herself has said: `The sculpture makes the ultimate statement about disability - that it can be as beautiful and valid a form of being as any other.' Is that really the `ultimate statement' on disability - that it is `valid'? The most common definition of valid is something that is `useable or acceptable until a fixed expiration date or under specific conditions of use'. What happened to the idea that we should see disabled people as equal members of society? Alison Lapper Pregnant took us back to the days when disabled people were something to gawp at and gossip about; it was a more sophisticated version of those old Spastics Society collection boxes outside corner shops that depicted sad little girls and boys with bad legs.

The final irritating thing about Alison Lapper Pregnant was the justification put forward by the authorities for erecting it: namely that it would help to `challenge people's perceptions' and `provoke' us into rethinking disability. In the past, public art was generally born out of public consensus: only when there was a palpable sense that a person had achieved widespread respect would a statue be commissioned in his or her honour. Now, under Mayor Ken Livingstone and the Fourth Plinth organisation, it seems the aim of public art is to hector the public, and help us to snap out of our apparently prejudiced views. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Alison Lapper Pregnant was a two-fingered salute by the political and cultural elite to the rest of us.

All of this goes some way to explaining why the statue was such a huge Greek-style monument. Where the military statues in Trafalgar Square are in fact quite modest, the Lapper statue was big and oppressive, a god-like figure surveying the masses that pass through Trafalgar Square. It perfectly embodied the new elite's contempt for the public. And I for one won't miss it.


A playground tumble can do you good

More experts recognise that a scraped knee can be a positive experience for a child. Let's hope they now relax about other 'dangers' in kids' lives

This week, Tom Mullarkey, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), warned against wrapping children in cotton wool. The head of a charity that normally raises the red flag about children having accidents made a very sensible comment: `A skinned knee or a twisted ankle in a challenging and exciting play environment is not only acceptable, it is a positive necessity to educate our children and to prepare them for a complex, dangerous world.'

Accidents lead to 12,000 deaths in Britain each year, and 4,000 of these occur in the home. Mullarkey said these figures show that RoSPA needs to continue with its accident-prevention work, but he also said that things should be `as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible'. RoSPA is calling for an intelligent debate about how we manage risk today, especially the risks facing children. With his new book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, author Tim Gill has helped to kickstart this debate, raising some crucial questions about risk-aversion and the impact it has on children's lives.

Gill opens his book by discussing a primary school in Lincolnshire that has banned pupils from playing kiss chase and tag, because of concerns that children might bump into each other. `The prohibition has also been seen in the US, Australia and Ireland, where in one county, half of all primary schools have banned running in the playground altogether', says Gill.

These are only the more extreme examples of society's inability to deal with risk, and allow children to deal with it, too. As Gill rightly points out: `Activities and experiences that previous generations of children enjoyed without a second thought have been labelled as troubling or dangerous, while the adults who permit them are branded irresponsible.'

The principal chapter in Gill's book takes a long hard look at the discouragingly dull nature of British school playgrounds. Increasingly, children's play has been severely curtailed and restricted by society's exaggerated sense of fear. The rot started with an episode of the BBC entertainment/consumer activist show That's Life in May 1990. Headed by Esther Rantzen, a team of the show's presenters covered a campaign launched by a member of parliament to make safety surfacing a legal requirement in all British playgrounds. The show focused in particular on the case of an eight-year-old girl who died after falling from a swing and hitting her head on the tarmac below.

Quite quickly in the wake of this campaign, playground providers felt compelled to introduce impact-absorbing surfacing. But research in to the prevalence of playground injuries, carried out by David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University, revealed that these safety measures did not result in a decrease in the number of accidents. Accident rates were steady between 1988 and 2002 despite the introduction of new safety standards and the spread of impact-absorbing surfacing. In fact, as Gill writes: `A growing number of experts think that the rubber safety surfacing most often used in the UK may lead to more broken arms than other types of surface.'

The good news is that attitudes towards playground safety have become more relaxed in recent years. After a decade of fretting over playground safety, there is a new climate, says Gill, `in which providers can build less safety-oriented, more challenging playgrounds'. Gill himself, who has written about children and risk for a number of years, should be given some credit for helping to shift the focus away from mollycoddling children towards allowing them some freedom, alongside other researchers and writers, including Middlesex University's David Ball, spiked contributor and author of Culture of Fear Frank Furedi, and various campaign groups such as Generation Youth Issues in Scotland.

Yet while playgrounds are slowly but surely becoming more challenging again, and while even RoSPA now recognises the `benefit' of a scraped knee to a growing child, the challenge today is to move the debate forward on a whole range of issues relating to children and risk. There may be a growing consensus among play professionals and policymakers that children need more challenging play environments - that scraping knees, grazing elbows and getting bruises does children no harm in the long run, and may even, as RSoPA says, teach them `valuable lifelong lessons' - but very few people challenge the idea that other children, as well as adults, pose a potential risk to our kids.

For example, there is still an unshakeable consensus that children should never be subjected to the risk of `life-long harm' from bullying or `unwanted attention' from adults. Such is the climate of suspicion surrounding adults who work with children today that teachers, youth club workers and others are reluctant to comfort injured or distressed kids. Society may be more relaxed about children scraping their knees, but it is tying itself in knots over who should be allowed to put a plaster on that scraped knee.

Gill deals with this important issue in his criticism of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which was passed into law in England and Wales last year and which requires the millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children to undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks. `[This act] in effect places nine million adults technically under suspicion of abuse: a third of the adult working population', writes Gill. He warns that the attempt to regulate contact between adults and children `can undermine the very bonds of mutual trust that make communities welcoming, safe places for children'.

Inculcating children with a fear of strangers is actually counterproductive. Telling them to `never speak to strangers' can lead them to believe it is wrong for adults to initiate social contact with children. At a time when adult motives are treated so suspiciously, it is heartening to read Gill's defence of human compassion: `The vast majority of adults do not intend to harm children they do not know. So strangers are a largely dependable source of help if things go wrong.'

Gill is also sceptical about all the scaremongering in relation to screen-based technologies, the idea that kids are at risk when they venture on to the World Wide Web. `Risk elimination is no more possible here than anywhere else in childhood', he argues. `It is especially futile to base responses on the premise that children are in some global sense vulnerable. In their online lives, children are successfully learning and sharing ways to pursue their interests, while keeping themselves safe.'

For me, the weakest part of No Fear is the chapter on `Who is to blame?' Gill rightly argues that, although parents may be the conduits of much risk-aversion, they are not the source of it. Yet having argued that a host of social and cultural changes have made parents more danger-aware and controlling of their children's lives, Gill then writes: `Perhaps foremost amongst these is traffic danger.' He seems to believe that one reason why parents keep kids in doors is because the roads are, and have long been, unsafe.

Gill cites a 2001 UNICEF report on child deaths by injury: `Telling parents that they are being overprotective and that the roads are becoming safer for their children is, in this context, like telling them that they can let their children play with matches again because deaths from fire have been falling.' What Gill is getting at when he quotes this UNICEF argument is that the fall in the pedestrian death rate over the past few decades could be due to a corresponding decrease in children's exposure to traffic.

Fewer and fewer children are allowed out and about on their own today. Where the average mileage children travelled by car increased by 70 per cent between 1985 and 2003, the average mileage they travelled on foot declined by 19 per cent, and the average mileage they cycled fell by 58 per cent . So, you could indeed argue, as Gill does, that children are safer because they are not exposed to traffic to the same extent as children in the past were.

Yet the dramatic reduction in road accidents involving child pedestrians cannot be explained solely on the basis of the reduction in the number of children on the streets. Traffic deaths have fallen also as a result of safer car design, better braking technology, improvements in accident and emergency services, reductions in the prevalence of drink-driving, and the introduction of traffic-calming measures. Also, the UNICEF report shows that the Netherlands and the UK have managed to reduce child traffic death rates to similar levels, even though children's exposure to traffic is very different in these two countries. Sixty per cent of Dutch children (aged 12 to 14) travel to most places by bike; less than 10 per cent of British children travel by bike.

The solution is not to insulate children from traffic. Ultimately children need to learn to cross the road on their own. Indeed, one could argue that they are now so insulated from traffic that they are not becoming sufficiently `street-wise'.

My other beef with No Fear is that Gill sometimes lets the government and policymakers off the hook, arguing that `the media are undeniably major factors in the escalation of public anxiety yet, as always, are unwilling to accept any responsibility for this'. I agree that the media have a lot to answer for. Journalists and reporters constantly tell us how dangerous the modern world is for children, and unquestionably cover all the advocacy research that backs up this doom-mongering worldview. Hardly a day goes by without new media reports suggesting that children and young people are on the verge of a mental breakdown, at risk from paedophiles, bullying, anti-social behaviour, drugs and alcohol, and are facing an obesity epidemic that will result in them `dying before their parents'.

All of this no doubt contributes to a sense that the world is a scary and threatening place for kids. However, we should avoid pinning all the blame on the media. The government and various government-sponsored charities have done far more than their fair share of scaremongering. For example, it was a report published by the House of Commons Health Select Committee in 2004 that triggered the irrational panic about the obesity epidemic that would apparently `kill off' many of our children; it is the government's Sex Offenders Register that institutionalises the idea that perverted adults are stalking kids; it is the government's Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, a Stalinist piece of legislation that legitimates spying on millions of adults, which communicates the message: `Children are at danger.' And numerous charities, including the NSPCC and ChildLine, help to sustain the idea that life is worse for children than in the past. And yet, because No Fear is aimed very much at policymakers, Gill seems keen to tread carefully, and avoid alienating government officials and charity workers too much.

Gill has been able to get the government's ear in recent years, so as long as he continues challenging today's risk-aversion he is making a positive contribution to the debate about children. And his book is a very welcome antidote to all the wild scaremongering about children's lives. If we can harness this positive outlook not only to call for more challenging playgrounds and more childish rough-and-tumble, but also to challenge institutionalised suspicion and state-authorised scaremongering, then we really might free up our children's lives and allow them both to enjoy themselves and to learn through living.


Death Penalty Deters Future Murders, According to Remarkable New Empirical Study

Statistical Evidence Establishes that Each Execution Prevents 74 Murders, Shifting Burden of Persuasion to Death Penalty Opponents

In the never-ending debate between capital punishment proponents and abolitionists, one ongoing point of contention centers upon whether the death penalty actually deters future murders in America. According to a new study by Pepperdine University professors Roy D. Adler and Michael Summers, the answer is an emphatic "yes." Based upon their evidence, capital punishment exerts a demonstrable, significant statistical deterrent impact upon the number of murders in America. As a consequence, their study shifts the burden of persuasion dramatically to abolitionists.

Of course, one should note that even if capital punishment had no demonstrable deterrent effect upon crime or murder in America, several other justifications for its imposition would nevertheless remain. The preceding declaration stems from the fact that, according to the heritage of our common law, four philosophical and moral justifications for criminal punishment exist. Deterrence is merely one of those four.

The first justification, which is perhaps most ingrained in basic human nature, is what we commonly know as "retribution." This elementary moral justification asserts that one who commits an illegal or immoral act should himself suffer for having committed that act. Or, in common parlance, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Although some people consider this a vulgar, unfortunate or improper justification for imposing criminal penalties upon other human beings, the simple fact is that it continues to constitute an important basis for criminal law and punishment. Agree or disagree, our society generally believes that a bad deed should not go unpunished.

The second traditional justification for criminal penalties is what we know as "incapacitation." Very simply, this holds that by removing a criminal from society through imprisonment or capital punishment, the criminal is thereby incapacitated from committing additional crimes. Indeed, this partly explains why crime rates in New York City fell so dramatically under the tenure of Mayor Rudy Giuliani. According to his theory, the same small segment of society tended to commit both the seemingly "minor" crimes as well as the "major" crimes. Thus, removing those who committed supposedly "minor" crimes incapacitated them from committing future "major" crimes if allowed to remain on the street, and crime plummeted. In similar fashion, capital punishment serves this incapacitation rationale because it permanently removes our most vicious criminals from society, thereby eliminating any threat of future crime that they pose while in prison, after escape or after parole.

The third of four traditional justifications for criminal law is that of "rehabilitation." In other words, in a perfect world, imposition of criminal penalties would serve to rehabilitate those who commit crime, whether through education in prison, or teaching the more fundamental truism that "crime doesn't pay." Obviously, capital punishment does less to serve this particular justification, apart from the possible improvement that a murderer can undergo between capture and execution.

This brings us to the fourth justification for criminal law, and the subject of the eye-opening new study: "deterrence." In other words, society aspires to create a criminal justice system that deters future crimes by making an example of those who commit them. In turn, this brings us to Professors Adler and Summers, and their remarkable new study. Examining the 26-year period from 1979 to 2004, they correlated the number of executions in America to the number of murders during that span. It became immediately clear that as executions in America increase, murders decrease. Conversely, when executions decreased, murders increased. In fact, the study revealed that each execution was correlated with some 74 fewer murders the following year.

Obviously, Professors Adler and Summers were concerned that this corollary relationship was merely coincidental. Therefore, they conducted a grueling statistical regression analysis on the relationship. To their surprise, their regression analysis established that the odds against the pattern being random were approximately 18,000 to 1.

Naturally, death penalty opponents will struggle to suggest alternative explanations for this remarkable evidence of capital punishment's deterrent effect, such as increased police activity, economic prosperity or perhaps demographic shifts. In light of the professors' new study, however, such opponents now carry a much heavier burden of proof in refuting this dramatic deterrent relationship.

Even more fundamentally, death penalty opponents now carry a heavier burden to explain why sparing the life of a convicted murderer somehow outweighs sparing the lives of dozens of future murder victims. Let the debate continue on this powerful new note.



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 INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL 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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