Saturday, December 13, 2008

British school choir forced to pull out of Christmas concert as carols were 'too religious'

A school choir was forced to withdraw from a Christmas event because organisers branded its carols 'too religious'. Around 60 children aged between seven and 11 had spent six weeks practising favourites including Once In Royal David's City and Silent Night for the Corringham Winter Festival. But they were let down at the last minute when their headteacher was informed their programme did not 'dovetail' with the festival's theme. The event ended up going ahead last week with non-religious music and displays from an Irish school of dancing and performing arts students.

The snub was widely criticised by furious parents and religious leaders who accused the organisers of pandering to the politically correct brigade. Nicola Hales, 36, whose nine-year-old daughter Rhiannon goes to Arthur Bugler County Junior School in Stanford-le-Hope, Essex, said: 'They must have been practising for about six weeks. 'All the programmes had gone out with the school's name on it but we got a newsletter home saying sorry for the confusion. I heard it was because the songs were too religious. 'It's ridiculous that you can't sing religious songs. It's Christmas - when can you sing them?'

Another parent, who delined to be named, said: 'The school was advised by the organisers that the carols they had chosen were not suitable because they were deemed to have a religious theme. The kids were really disappointed. 'I can't see how the Christmas carols they were going to sing would have been offensive to anyone.'

The Prayer Book Society, said 'winter festivals' were threatening traditional Christmas celebrations. Chairman Prudence Dailey added: 'These politically correct winter festivals seek to make Christmas part of a 'multi-faith' mix and hark back to pagan winter solstice observance. 'They see Christmas as merely a local seasonal event and miss its central religious significance at the heart of national identity. 'Perhaps organisers would benefit from reading the Book of Common Prayer and discovering what winter festivities are in fact about.'

Father David Rollins, of St John the Evangelist Church in Corringham, added: 'It's rather disappointing. Christmas is a major Christian event.' The school's headteacher, Sue Morris, said pupils had taken part in 'a great deal of rehearsal' before they were informed the songs 'would not have dovetailed into the event's theme'. 'There was no time to reorganise the choir's planned programme and we thought it best we did not take part,' she added.

The non-religious event was planned by Corringham Town Festival Partnership, even though the area is in Thurrock, where 75 per cent of the population described themselves as Christian in the 2001 census. The next biggest religious group was Muslims, who make up one per cent of the population, followed by Sikhs, who account for barely half of one per cent of residents. A spokesman for Thurrock Islamic Education and Cultural Association said: 'I don't think any Muslims would be offended by carols.'

There has been growing concern in recent years at the burgeoning politically correct attitude to Christmas because of concerns that people of other faiths will be offended or feel excluded. Councils have started celebrating winter festivals or wintervals, businesses are banning staff from putting up Christmas decorations and there is a thriving industry for cards with non-religious themes.

Last year the Bishop of St David's in Pembrokeshire, the Rt Rev Carl Cooper, warned political correctness was destroying the meaning of Christmas. 'Teachers and other public servants have become paralysed with fear and political correctness. They need to regain confidence in our culture and traditions,' he said.

The chairman of the Corringham Town Festival Partnership yesterday made the bizarre claim carols had been dumped because the winter festival was meant to be 'upbeat'. 'It was nothing to do with being politically correct or anti-Christian, it was a Christian celebration,' he said.


Children suffer as mothers forced to return to work

Young children in Britain could be suffering because their mothers are forced to return to work too soon, according to Unicef

The United Nations Children's Fund also says that today's babies and toddlers are the first generation in history to spend much of their early childhoods in formal child care rather than being looked after at home. A Unicef report claims the majority of British babies spend most of the day in nurseries or with childminders, despite a growing body of research showing that under-threes benefit emotionally and behaviourally if they are looked after at home.

The study, by Unicef's Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, raises concerns about the development of children who go into formal care outside their homes so early. Part of this change is down to greater equality and opportunities for women, Unicef says. But the study also says the fact that two-thirds of women in developed countries now work is a "cause for concern", as it reflects the fact that most families need two incomes to make ends meet.

In addition, it quotes scientific research that has found a lack of contact with parents can lead to children becoming depressed and withdrawn, perform less well at school and develop behavioural problems. "The younger the child and the longer the hours spend in child care, the greater the risk," it warns. The study says that in the UK, a "majority" of babies less than 12 months old spend most of the working day in child care. It recommends that babies should be looked after by their parents for the first year of their lives, and that Governments should ensure 12 months of paid parental leave is available at 50 per cent of salary.

But the report says that maternity leave provision in the UK is "inadequate" and less generous than in many other countries including Slovenia and Iceland. Currently new mothers in Britain get 39 weeks of paid maternity leave, receiving 90 per cent of their average pay for the first six weeks and a fixed sum of œ117.18 a week for the other 33. Fathers are only entitled to two weeks' paternity leave at a maximum of 117.18 pounds a week. Government plans to give millions of parents greater rights to request flexible working arrangements to accommodate childcare arrangements last week triggered a backlash from business groups. Some companies fear that more red tape will make it harder for them to survive the recession. Overall, England is only meeting half of a set of 10 UN "benchmarks" for the care and education of young children, and is lagging behind many other developed countries.

In addition to failing to provide a full year of parental leave at 50 per cent of salary, England does not spend 1 per cent of GDP on early childhood services; has high child poverty levels; does not have near-universal health services for children; and allows more than 15 pre-school children to be looked after by one member of staff.

David Bull, the executive director of Unicef UK, said: "The report is clear that expenditure in England on pre-school education has quadrupled in the last 10 years. "However, despite the Government's undoubted commitment, the UK still has three million children living in poverty and higher rates of infant death and low birth weight than many comparable countries. "High quality child care is not yet available to all, and parental leave provisions remain inadequate. "This Government has taken great strides in advancing child wellbeing since our 2007 report, but much more still needs to be done. "These changes will require investment, but there is none better than investing in the prospects of our youngest children."

Unicef rates parental leave in the UK as less generous than in 14 other countries, with the list headed by Norway where the mother and father can divide 44 weeks' leave at full pay between them.


Forcing Britain to sober up

The proposed ban on pub `happy hours' is a metaphor for the government's miserabilist disgust with fun.

The economic downturn, and the UK government's tax-juggling efforts to resolve the crisis, has led some to proclaim that `macro' politics and economic management are back. Surely the financial turmoil means that the government will be too preoccupied to meddle in our day-to-day lives via hectoring advice and heinous bans? Surely politicians will now be forced to concentrate on bigger issues than what parents put in their kids' lunch boxes or how many units of alcohol Brits drink on a Saturday night? Dream on. It's business as usual for New Labour.

This week, the government will announce a new set of bans and regulations that will do nothing to stimulate the free market but will help to stifle a free society. Once again, the government's determination to demonise alcohol and drinkers is at the top of the agenda. As the `season to be jolly' approaches, the government's response is to crank up the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge even higher this year. Even though cash is tight for many people, politicians have decided to add to our fiscal woes by banning `happy hours' in pubs - those rather misnamed sessions where punters can drown their sorrows at a discount, usually for a couple of hours or more. From this week, pub landlords and club owners will no longer be allowed to sell alcohol at reduced prices at any time. So pubs and clubs can no longer attract punters with promotional offers, such as two-for-one or half-price drinks.

This policy comes after the UK chancellor of the exchequer, Alastair Darling, recently announced tax and spending changes to provide a boost to the ailing economy. While UK sales tax - value added tax (VAT) - would be cut from 17.5 to 15 per cent for a period of 13 months starting on 1 December, Darling said he would raise duty on alcohol further, in order to keep it at the same price despite the drop in VAT. This blow for the pub industry follows the nine per cent increase in beer duty announced in the last Budget in March with a promise of rises at two per cent above inflation for the next four years. The proposed ban on `happy hours' is yet another device to keep the price of alcohol artificially high with the hope of curbing `anti-social behaviour'.

Gerry Sutcliffe, the licensing minister, told the Commons Culture Select Committee last week: `If it [happy hour] is a promotion causing people to get drunk and causing problems then it is right that we should act.' (1) If Sutcliffe is worried about disorderly conduct, such as punch-ups at pub closing time, then there already exist enough laws to deal with such aggravations. It seems the government's real concern is that people choose to go to pubs with the full intention of getting drunk. For the government, unhealthily preoccupied with its citizens' personal conduct, such outrageous behaviour simply won't do.

Under the proposed codes, brewers will be forced to print warnings on drink labels and pubs will have to display the number of units of alcohol in each type of drink served, just in case pub patrons are too dim to realise that whisky is pretty strong compared with beer. The new rules would be enforced by local government trading standards officers and the police, who will have the power to place conditions on the issue of licences and to remove licences where premises breach the code.

On top of all this reprehensible pettiness, the government is considering forcing brewers to reduce alcohol content in drink, while suggesting that tax on alcohol should be linked to the strength of alcohol content. Furthermore, the government is seeking to reduce the drink-drive limit to zero for drivers who are under 21 years of age - if a blood or breath test shows any alcohol in their bodies, that will be an offence.

Officialdom always likes to justify such restrictive measures in the only way petty officials know how - through soulless and dry statistics. Apparently alcohol `misuse' costs the National Health Service more than 2.7billion a year, while the economy suffers a 25billion blow every year through lost working days.

Well, here are some other figures that the government conveniently ignores: major brewers in the UK saw their profits slump by 78 per cent between 2004 and 2006, suggesting we're not quite a nation of public lager guzzlers. Thirty-six pubs close every week, on average, due to the smoking ban and the relentless hikes on the price of alcohol. The Campaign For Real Ale (Camra) estimates that such closures have cost 44,000 jobs over the past five years, and 43,000 are projected to be lost over the next five. There have been 37 major brewery closures, accounting for 25 per cent of all brewery employees. This year alone, 13 pub operators, operating 960 pubs, have gone into administration (3).

No doubt the economic downturn has affected pub sales of food and drink, but it is the government's war on alcohol that is ultimately to blame for destroying the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. For the government, it seems, forcing landowners and brewery employees into penury is a price worth paying if it gets citizens to behave in a sanitised and soberly manner on Saturday nights. After all, the new measures that will be introduced this week will only further increase pub closures and redundancies. So much for trying to kickstart the economy.

Indeed, all of this proves that far from New Labour returning to old-style social democracy and economic management, its obsession with micro-managing our lives continues at an alarming pace. Although some of these new measures, such as the drink-driving ban for under-21s, won't have a direct impact on most drinkers, they do help soften up public opinion for more wide-ranging bans and controls in the future. The government admitted over the weekend that some of its proposals, such as stopping cigarettes from being displayed in newsagents or vending machines, won't have any impact on public health and these initiatives have now been dropped at the last minute.

Nevertheless, the sheer relentlessness of these measures and proposals helps legitimise the notion that it is perfectly acceptable for government to restrict public space and personal freedom. That assumption is also based on the poisonous and corrosive notion that British citizens are inherently problematic, especially when we've had a few drinks. It is this genuine fear and barely concealed disgust for us that propels New Labour to carry on restricting our autonomy at every opportunity.

That fear and loathing is itself a product of New Labour's peculiar development in British politics, as a self-referencing clique of managers and technocrats with no genuine roots or connections in wider society. As such, their isolation from ordinary people has generated a succession of Labour ministers who are, at best, embarrassingly unworldly about adult life or absolutely petrified of the city they live and work in. One minister, Caroline Flint, said she `couldn't believe that people actually go out to get drunk'; Harriet Harman couldn't face touring the London district of Peckham - an area she has represented in parliament for 26 years - without wearing a stab-proof vest. This would be funny if New Labour's jittery nerves didn't have such destructive consequences on our freedoms and our lifestyles.

Anyone hoping for a return to `macro politics' and the end of New Labour petty meddling will be sorely disappointed. Although the government realises that Britain's economy is in a dire state, it still thinks most of us are sinking even lower in our personal lives. Having uncorked the sour whine of micro-management, it seems this government hasn't tired of pouring out strong regulation measures just yet.


A New York rebellion against libel imperialism

Brendan O'Neill meets the writers and publishers who have launched a war of independence from England's `notorious, repulsive' libel laws.

Rachel Ehrenfeld doesn't look like a fugitive. Petite, demure, and clad in the black skirt and blouse that is the uniform of New York's working women, she sits on a leather swivel chair in her twenty-fourth-floor apartment on the Upper West Side. Her living-room window offers a picture-postcard view of New York City in all its towering, light-flickering glory. She serves chai tea and a plate of oatmeal cookies. She asks how I am coping with the cold weather. You'd never think that this woman is effectively on the run from the English legal system.

`I cannot go to England. It's too risky. I once visited Holloway Prison when I was researching correctional facilities, and I do not want to visit it as an inmate.' She takes a sip of tea. Her crime? In 2004, she wrote a book called Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It, in which she made allegations about a Saudi billionaire. The Saudi sued her, not in New York - where she lives and works and where her book was published - but in London, on the basis that 23 copies of Funding Evil were sold to residents of the UK via an online bookseller, and thus it was `published' in Britain, too (1).

Ehrenfeld refused to show up for the court case, and even refused to recognise the London High Court's jurisdiction over her (uppity New York broad that she is), and therefore lost by default. The judge ordered her and her publishers to stump up 30,000 pounds plus costs to the Saudi. Yet while Ehrenfeld might have a twenty-fourth floor apartment in the Upper West Side, she is still a mere writer and researcher by profession (`I don't have a private bank or oil fields, or any friends with a private bank or oil fields', she says), of whom the unworldly, wig-wearing lords of the English legal system might as well have demanded 30million as much as 30,000.

Now, she is legitimately concerned that if she goes to Britain she will be `seized', or at least treated as `persona non grata, the libel defendant who refused to grovel'. She is no ordinary fugitive, then. She is a `free speech fugitive', a victim of what she describes as England's `libel imperialism' and its `reach across the Atlantic'. Yet she is not accepting the ruling against her lying down. Instead she has spearheaded an American rebellion against English libel law - a war of independence, if you like, from English illiberalism and reaction - which has won the support of writers, publishers and senators, and which might soon get the nod from future-president of America Barack Obama himself. The end result could well be the completion of the American Revolution launched 230 years ago: full freedom from the yoke of British tyranny.

Ehrenfeld, born in Israel, has been writing about terrorism for 20 years. She is an expert on the cash trails behind terror groups, as her cluttered apartment attests: everywhere I look, book spines bearing the words `JIHAD' and `MONEY' and `EVIL' and `OSAMA' stare back at me. She has been a consultant to both the US Department of Defense's Threat Reduction Agency and the CIA.

After 9/11, which she witnessed from this apartment in midtown Manhattan, Ehrenfeld wrote the book that would land her in boiling water: Funding Evil. She says her experience - sued in London for something she said in New York - shows the dangers of `libel tourism'. Judy Platt of the prestigious Association of American Publishers, which is backing to the hilt Ehrenfeld's resistance of England's libel laws, tells me that `libel tourism' involves `wealthy individuals' using `plaintiff-friendly foreign libel laws in an attempt to silence US-based writers'. And it isn't only Saudis. In 2005, Roman Polanski, the Polish film director who lives in France, and who is literally a fugitive from the US after allegedly committing statutory rape in 1977, sued an American publication, Vanity Fair, in London. And won. In 2006, Britney Spears, the all-American celebrity, sued National Enquirer, the all-American tabloid, in Belfast (2).

It isn't hard to see the attraction of England's (and Ireland's) libel laws to plaintiffs who want to challenge or upbraid or punish American publications that have dented their reputations: our libel laws are far more claimant-friendly, stringent and severe than America's. Under English libel law, the claimant doesn't have to prove that the allegedly defamatory statement was false, only that it was potentially damaging to his or her reputation; under American law, claimants do have to prove falsity. In America, following the ruling in New York Times v Sullivan in 1964, there is a `public figure defence', which makes it difficult indeed for people in the public eye to sue for libel. In order to succeed, claimants would have to show not only that the allegations were false but that they were made maliciously or with reckless disregard for truth. In England, in an undiluted bastardisation of natural justice, the claimant doesn't have to prove very much at all; instead the burden of proof falls on the defendant to prove his own innocence.

Where England's libel laws are weighted in favour of the claimant and his almost sacred reputation, American laws of defamation err on the side of defending writers' and publishers' First Amendment right to free speech. So when English libel courts issue a ruling on a book or an article written by an American and published in America - when an English judge labels American-uttered words as outrageous, scandalous, Beyond Acceptable Debate - they do far more than cause an outbreak of headaches among the writers and publishers being sued; they also implicitly interfere in America's internal affairs, undermining from afar the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

English rulings, routinely enforced by American courts on behalf of English courts, subject Americans to a kind of colonial censorship, gagging by foreign lords. Even when English rulings are not directly enforced, simply their existence can have a `chilling effect' on open debate in the US. `Such judgements can - and do - chill the kind of reporting that US laws are designed to encourage and protect', says Judy Platt. Ehrenfeld knows two American authors who have had contracted books cancelled because publishers feared there would be libel cases in London (A Town Called Sue). `Just the prospect of expensive lawsuits and international humiliation can kill the kind of investigation we need [and] the investigative spirit itself', she says.

Not for much longer. Thanks to Ehrenfeld, New York has become the first city in America to reject fully England's `repugnant' libel rulings.

After the London High Court judgement against her in 2005, Ehrenfeld, with the support of a veritable army of the great and the good of NYC - the Authors Guild, Forbes Inc, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Amazon - launched a counterclaim in a New York court. The memorandum filed by Ehrenfeld's lawyers said that writers should be free `to ferret out and publish the facts without fear of expensive lawsuits and huge judgments in foreign countries whose defamation laws and commitment to freedom of expression and public discourse are "repugnant" and antithetical and "contrary" to our fundamental public policy'. The use of the word `repugnant' comes from an earlier rebellion against English libel law. In 1997, the US Maryland State Appeals Court had been asked to enforce an English libel ruling against an American citizen. But in this instance the court refused, arguing that `the principles of English libel law fail to measure up to the basic human rights standards and are repugnant to public policy and the constitutional ideal of free speech'.

After months and months of legal wrangling, Ehrenfeld's counterclaim led to the introduction of the Libel Terrorism Protection Act by the New York state legislature in April this year. The Act is an enormous, historic kick in the teeth to English libel. Firstly, it forbids New York courts from enforcing a foreign libel judgement `unless the country where it was decided grants the same or better protection as US standards for freedom of speech'. And second, it `expands an individual's ability to have a court declare a foreign libel judgement invalid in New York' (3). This effectively means English libel rulings can no longer be enforced against anything said or written by a New Yorker or published in New York. NYC has made itself a no-go zone for English libel rulings; it has freed itself from the whack of the former colonial power's hammer.

`New Yorkers must be able to speak out on issues of public concern without living in fear that they will be sued outside the United States, under legal standards inconsistent with our First Amendment rights', said New York governor David A Paterson as he signed on the dotted line on what has become known as `Rachel's Law', after Ehrenfeld (4). Illinois has followed NYC's lead and passed its own Rachel's Law. More recently, a `Rachel-inspired' federal law - the Libel Tourism Bill - was passed in the House of Representatives in September. There is also a Free Speech Protection Bill being debated in the Senate, which would bar all US courts from enforcing libel rulings that are `antithetical' to the First Amendment. One of the great ironies of the recent outbreak of British gushing about `our' new, liberal, European-style president-elect Barack Obama is that one of Obama's first acts might be to sign in a new law that will label English libel rulings as `repugnant to our Nation's fundamental constitutional values, in particular its strong protection of the right to freedom of speech' (5). Obama may have to teach us backward Brits a lesson about what it means to be liberal.

It is fitting that New York should have led this American uprising against English libel. New York is, in Ehrenfeld's words, `the capital of American publishing'. It is a city that rattles and shakes with conversation and debate, from its numerous daily newspapers to its world-famous magazines (New York and New Yorker); from the garish, head-spinning advertising in Times Square to the 9/11 Truthers I saw loitering around the World Trade Center memorial site trying to engage passers-by in debates about `disappearing aeroplanes' and the density of steel. A cab driver taking me through Brooklyn pointed to a sign that said `Non-horn zone - $350 fine' and said: `Can you believe that shit?' Earlier this year, when some states discussed banning youth from letting their pants sag too low, NY-based lawyers and activists for the American Civil Liberties Union defended sagging pants on the basis that they are a form of expression. A city that publishes thousands of books a year and sells newspapers on every street corner, where restrictions on horn-honking (the most basic form of communication) are seen as an affront to individual liberty and where even showing your Calvin Kleins to the world can become a free speech issue, is no place for England's severe, repugnant and punishing libel laws.

The American rebellion against English libel law has been barely discussed in Britain. Perhaps it's just too embarrassing for us. Yet sitting in the flat where this all began, where Ehrenfeld's refusal to kowtow to English libel law and her decision to fight back were born, it is hard not to feel part of an historic moment. `I was determined not to have my rights undermined', says Ehrenfeld. `The American ideal of free speech and liberty emerged from the fight against British oppression more than 200 years ago. Now we find ourselves fighting against them again.'



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, OBAMA WATCH (2), 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 readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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