Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Illegal jokes in Britain

At last – legislation is about to be passed which will make homophobic jokes illegal. It has been a long time coming. I haven’t found jokes about homosexuals funny for at least two decades, so either way I win...

The other great thing is that jokes about homosexuals will immediately become funny again, because they are now contraband, samizdat and against the law. Those same boring old jokes about not bending down in the shower, being good at interior design, liking Judy Garland and so on, will now make one prick up one’s ears (ooh, get you, dearie! But not the ears, surely). And these days we need more things to laugh at.

For years I found racist jokes extremely boring – but they became funny when it was apparent that the act of telling them could (a) lose you your job and (b) bring the Old Bill down on you with a charge of inciting racial hatred. Now, as a consequence, I find almost all racist jokes hilarious, especially ones about Muslims and particularly if they are cartoons which feature Allah or Muhammad or fat ladies in burqas saying to one another: “Does my bomb look big in this?”

However, I don’t find them quite as funny as I find jokes about physical or mental disabilities – they are the real howlers these days. And that’s because the disability lobby has become so preternaturally sensitive, so disposed towards pouncing on anything which might be construed as disablist. Consequently, these days, all you have to do is say “and guess what . . . he only had one arm!” and I fall about laughing.

When my colleague Jeremy Clarkson described Gordon Brown as a “one-eyed Scottish idiot” I smiled briefly; but when the professional race monkeys and anti-disablist monkeys got on his case I suddenly found it all killingly funny. “How dare he imply that having one eye, or being Scottish, is an insult?” these terrible people ranted, and with every rant Jeremy’s comment became truly funny. Oh, I thought, in the end – strap up my sides, I can’t stand it. Such wonderful pomposity, a real gift to the comedian. Such hilarious hypersensitivity.

Jokes are almost never funny per se, when they are stripped of their social context (if they ever could be). The stuff that makes us laugh is never neutral; it involves poking that part of us which, for most of the time, remains unpoked. The part of us which civilised behaviour insists should remain below the surface. That’s why Ricky Gervais is so funny; he gets this point – he understands the latent humour of social embarrassment, of saying things which you are simply not supposed to say. The mentally handicapped kid in the restaurant, the black actor confronted by a golliwog.

It is the breaching of the social convention which is really funny, not the supposed slighting of black, disabled or homosexual people. It is the potential for naughtiness, which exists in all of us (yeah, okay, except maybe Patricia Hewitt). Bring on the legislation and bring on those queer jokes.


Why does it take a German like me to get the English to celebrate St George's Day?

By John Jungclaussen, London Correspondent, Die Zeit

I confess: I am an Anglophile. It is a condition I first succumbed to when I arrived on these shores some 16 years ago. Back then I spent my first week travelling round chocolate-box villages in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds. A week later I found myself on a teeming campus in the heart of London where I enrolled at university. One couldn't, perhaps, think of two places in Britain that are more different - and yet the tranquil and unspoilt beauty of the 'Heart of England' and London's relentless rhythm of people and politics, commerce and culture are both quintessentially English.

They encapsulate what is great about this nation: the instinct to try to preserve and protect its sublime countryside, including the social structure and cultural heritage that come with it, and the tolerance to absorb people from different cultures who have migrated to London over the centuries to create the most global metropolis in the world. Those are among the many things that I have come to love about this country.

I have now settled down in London in my job as a foreign correspondent and although my view of the English is perhaps not quite as rose-tinted as it was back then, my love for the English has only grown over the years. It is like getting to know a friend. The more you know about them and the more you understand their peculiarities, the dearer they become.

But the one thing that strikes me most about this dear friend is how little the English think of themselves. I can't think of a fellow Anglophile who is English. Those who love England are foreigners like myself. Ask an Englishman about his native land and all you get is a litany of how dreadful things are. This is a nation that seems to revel in a Press that is constantly talking the country down. Life in Britain these days seems to be about nothing else but Asbos, binge drinking and teenage pregnancy, spiced up only by yet another celebrity scandal.

About time then for somebody to do something to change that - and London Mayor Boris Johnson's plan to use April 23, St George's Day, to stage a festival of Englishness in the capital seems to be just the kind of event that is long overdue.

It is not surprising that an unashamed celebration of Englishness has to be organised from the top. The Welsh have been celebrating St David's Day for generations. Children have a day off school and wear daffodils when they attend eisteddfods to celebrate their music and literature. The Scots have Burns Night and St Andrew's Day to remind themselves of their national identity, and on St Patrick's Day the Irish celebrate their nation across the world from London's Trafalgar Square to New York's Times Square.

Were it not for a populist mayor who likes to boast about his Turkish roots [The reference is to Boris Johnson, an old Etonian and Balliol Classics graduate], it wouldn't even occur to London's English population to stage a celebration of their culture and national identity.

If anything, being English has become something to be embarrassed about. In the same vein as the previous Mayor Ken Livingstone, who thought it necessary and appropriate to apologise to the capital's African and Caribbean communities for London's role in the slave trade, 200 years after its abolition, the English would rather apologise for their history as conquerors of the British Isles and creators of the United Kingdom than be proud of their heritage.

The last stage for English national sentiment is on the terraces of the football stadium where - a German might be forgiven for saying this - Englishness does not present itself in its most appealing guise. I have often found myself in the firing line of bellicose football supporters, reduced to the German whose grandparents were beaten on the beaches of Normandy and whose parents were beaten at Wembley.

Although it seems too obvious that the English have achieved a lot more in the past 64 years than winning the war against Nazi Germany and winning the World Cup in 1966, all they are concerned with is debating notions of Englishness versus Britishness instead of celebrating the countless positive aspects and achievements that make up their identity. Let me suggest a few things about the English that are well worth celebrating.

First of all, the sublime beauty of your countryside. Millions of my fellow countrymen flock to England every year on holiday. They love the romantic beauty of the West Country with its quaint villages and the dramatic scenery of the Peak District.

Although the protest march against the Government's fox-hunting Bill in 2004 mobilised one of the largest demonstrations in English history, there is no sense that the celebration of the countryside is part of an English identity. It should be.

Second, William Shakespeare. Every child knows that the Bard is one of the greatest writers of all time and yet the world sees him as a Briton, not as an Englishman. Claim his heritage in the same way that we Germans claim the heritage of Bach and Beethoven and the Austrians have made Mozart their own. And while you are at it, acknowledge and be proud of the fact that English is the lingua franca and one of most important tools in the globalised world.

Third, your history as merchants and inventors. England kick-started the Industrial Revolution and led the way in the introduction of new production techniques which, in turn, revolutionised trade and helped to create in the 19th Century the first wave of globalisation.

Acknowledging these achievements and these aspects of English national heritage should be the norm in the same way that the notion of British cuisine, a focal point of Boris Johnson's London festival of Englishness, needn't be seen in the context of French cuisine. After all, the French don't suffer from an inferiority complex when they talk about gardening.

The English revel in individuality and instinctively question authority, which is why the cradle of modern democracy stands in Westminster. Kings and queens were well advised to hand over power to Parliament before an unruly mob could storm their palaces.

What happens in societies where the collective overrules the individual was amply demonstrated in the 20th Century across Europe when Queen Victoria's descendants lost at least their thrones and mostly their lives as they were sacrificed on the altar of great utopian ideas of revolutionary societies.

Such grand visions didn't appeal much in England where Anglo-Saxon pragmatism helped society to muddle through the upheavals of wars, economic crises and social change.

Whereas her European neighbours created societies according to textbooks, Britain relied on the age-old notion of getting by on a shoestring. Although that way the country avoided bloodshed and revolution and maintained an admirable political stability, over time it also lost a sense of its own identity.

Every now and then people and nation states need an earth-shattering event to remind themselves of who they are. Germany and countries all over Central and Eastern Europe had to redefine their national identities after the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. The US lived through the traumatic events of 9/11 to strengthen her sense of purpose.

England, on the other hand, continued to muddle through. Neither the 7/7 bombings in London nor the recent collapse of Anglo Saxon capitalism seem to have done much to refocus British society on a strong common theme.

So, Boris, organise a festival of Englishness that captures the imagination in the same way that the 1951 Festival of Britain excited previous generations. The Skylon and the South Bank Centre showed postwar Britain a new way into the future. What England needs is a reminder of her greatness to overcome all the current social and economic problems - for they are only going to get worse.


Setback for Australia's Gestapo

iiNet quits Government web filter trials. "Gestapo" is an abbreviation for "Geheime Staatspolizei" or "Secret State Police". Judge for yourself whether it fits

AUSTRALIA'S third largest internet service provider (ISP) has pulled out of the Government's web filtering trials, saying the plan is "no longer just about stopping child porn".

The Government's plan involves a nation-wide filter that stops "unwanted material" from appearing on Australian user's computer screens. iiNet says the ambiguity of "unwanted material" is what caused it to pull out of the trials. “We are not able to reconcile participation in the trial with our corporate social responsibility, our customer service objectives and our public position on censorship,” iiNet managing director Michael Malone said in a statement.

“It became increasingly clear that the trial was not simply about restricting child pornography or other such illegal material, but a much wider range of issues including what the Government simply describes as 'unwanted material' without an explanation of what that includes."

Shadow Minister for Communications Senator Nick Minchin said the iiNET withdrawal cast further doubt over the internet filtering trials. “This decision by iiNet casts further doubt over the veracity and credibility of these trials and raises more questions about the Rudd Government’s unpopular mandatory filtering policy,” Senator Minchin said. “While the Government has selected six ISPs to take part in the first stage of the trial, I am advised that none of them, other than Webshield, which already offers its customers an ISP-level filtering option are in a position to even yet start.

“The onus is squarely on Communications Minister Senator Conroy to demonstrate what he is proposing is even technically feasible and while the Coalition is prepared to examine any trial results that are produced, he must commit to an independent audit of any results to ensure they are credible. Without the involvement of the nation’s three largest ISPs it is difficult to see how any meaningful results will be produced," he said.

Earlier this year, the Government snubbed larger ISPs Optus and iiNet when announcing participants for its first round of live trials, instead favouring a handful of small ISPs. One of them, Primus, has since compared compulsory web filtering to China.

Optus will still seek to participate in the second round of trials, according to

iiNet had stated it would take part in the trials to prove that an ISP-level web filter won't work. “Everyone is repulsed by, and opposed to, child pornography but this trial and policy is not the solution or even about that." “In reality, the vast majority of online child pornography activity does not appear on public websites but is distributed over peer-to-peer networks which are not and cannot be captured by this trial or policy.”

The web filter is based on blacklist of websites administered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). Last week, a list of websites purporting to be ACMA's blacklist was leaked online, containing alleged links to child porn as well as more common sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and small businesses.

Geheimepolizist Conroy denied the leaked list was the same as ACMA's, but said it contained "some common URLs".


Australia: State of secrecy

THE media in the US enjoys an incredible amount of freedom, at least compared with the media in Australia. For example, the media in the US can tell you exactly what Barack Obama did on his first full day in the White House. He spent the first 10 minutes alone in the Oval Office in quiet contemplation. During that time, he read a letter that former president George W. Bush had left on the desk for him. At 9.10am, wife Michelle popped in. Together they went to prayers, then, on his return to the Oval Office, Barack Obama issued his first memo as President. The topic? Transparency in government.

In that memo, widely available online, Obama instructed the heads of all the various government agencies he controls to be open and honest with the American people. The presumption, he said, should be "in favour of disclosure". To that end, department heads should renew their commitment to freedom of information law and take "affirmative steps to make information public". Moreover, they should use modern technology (that is, the internet) to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.

Now, it's all very well for Obama to issue such a memo on day one in office. Time will tell how transparent his administration actually is, but it's interesting to compare that memo from Obama's first full day in office with the Rudd Government's progress on transparency in government.

When Labor was in Opposition in Australia, it too promised a "sunlight" policy on information held by government. It pledged changes to freedom of information laws that would make so many more documents accessible, in a reasonable time frame and at a sensible fee, to anybody who wanted to seethem. It promised protection for whistleblowers, who could include people such as the nurse who came forward and exposed the horror at the heart of the Bundaberg hospital scandal; and it promised shield protection for journalists such as the Herald Sun's top reporters, Gerard McManus and Michael Harvey, who were fined $7000 each and given criminal records for refusing to reveal their sources on a story about lax airport security that was correct and in the public interest.

These changes are necessary and overdue, and not just because the media says so. The ordinary member of the public probably has no idea how difficult it is to get even the simplest information out of government.

Under existing law and protocol, anybody employed by the government - that can mean a nurse, a police officer or a bus driver - is threatened with disciplinary action if they speak to the media.

It's not possible for journalists to call state schools and ask principals what they think about a state government plan to tackle bullying. It's not possible to call social workers in indigenous communities to ask them whether new rules on the supply of petrol have helped or harmed the young. All must go through the central press office: in other words, through government.

In recent weeks, the Rudd Government has busily been insisting that it has, or is, delivering on its promise to make government more transparent. Last Friday, for example, Attorney-General Robert McClelland congratulated himself for introducing to parliament the Evidence Amendment (Journalists' Privilege) Bill 2009, otherwise known as the Government's shield laws for journalists.

McClelland says the law will provide "much-needed protection for journalists", but it won't do any such thing. It won't give a journalist the right to protect their source and it won't place the onus on the government (or any other agency) to explain why a source should be exposed.

All the change will do is give judges some discretion when dealing with journalists who won't reveal their source.

How will this change compare with law in other democracies? The Australian National University's leading student of shield laws, Lorraine Ingham, last year compared Australian laws with legislation in New Zealand, Britain and the US. She says Australia continues to "lag well behind its foreign counterparts" because there is "no presumption in Australia that a journalist need not reveal their source" and the new legislation will not change that.

Moreover, there is nothing in the Australian amendment about public interest or about the right of the people to a free flow of information, both of which are features of the US and the NZ laws.

According to Ingham, it should be incumbent on the Australian government, or whatever other party is seeking disclosure, to explain why the identity of the source is a matter of public interest and the reason can't be: "Because we want to charge them with the offence of leaking."

McClelland says that, under his amendments, judges will have to consider "the potential harm disclosure of identity could cause both the source and the journalist".

With respect, the fact journalist or source may come to harm if their identity is revealed is hardly the point. The point should be: Is this information in the public interest? If so, it's right and proper that it's before the public.

The protection of one's source is of paramount importance to journalists. This was proven in 1995, when The Australian's editor, Paul Whittaker, who was working as an investigative reporter for Brisbane's The Courier-Mail, refused to answer 430 questions at a commission of inquiry about the source behind a story about former Labor senator Graham Richardson. The inquiry was set up to determine who had leaked to Whittaker and Marian Wilkinson, then a reporter at The Australian, information about a politically sensitive investigation into allegations of corruption concerning Richardson. Richardson was accused of being supplied with prostitutes by Gold Coast businessmen in exchange for making favourable representations on their behalf to a US defence contractor. Whittaker's home was raided and he was threatened with being jailed indefinitely for contempt, but he held firm and 14 years later he shows no sign of buckling. He has never revealed his source.

A coalition of media organisations, formed last May under the banner of Australia's Right to Know, has welcomed the planned changes, saying the amendments, if passed, will at least mean that journalists won't "automatically face conviction or jail" if they refuse to disclose the identity of a source.

McClelland says the new law should be read in conjunction with the Government's planned laws to protect whistleblowers, which are likely to be introduced later this year.

The whistleblower laws are likely to be informed by the findings of a legal and constitutional affairs committee headed by Mark Dreyfus QC. That committee suggests that whistleblowers first take their concerns to a superior of some kind (and, in the process, probably wreck their career); and, if that doesn't work, they should complain to an external body such as the Commonwealth Ombudsman (a process that is itself likely to be a bureaucratic nightmare, befouled by politics). If - or when - that fails, the whistleblower must wait a reasonable period (whatever that may mean) before taking their concerns to journalists, and then only if the matter concerns "an immediate and serious threat to public health and safety".

According to Dreyfus, these changes would "transform the culture of the public service and protect whistleblowers from reprisals".

In fact, whistleblowers would still have to jump through hoops and lawyers would have a field day trying to decide what constitutes an immediate and serious threat.

This newspaper wonders: would airport security qualify? After all, it was The Australian that in 2005 published details from an internal Customs report that revealed lax security and drug-smuggling rings at several airports, leaving the country vulnerable to terrorism. The report had been ignored by internal officials for two years before it eventually was leaked to the newspaper. No journalist was dragged to court but Customs official Allan Kessing was charged, convicted and sentenced to nine months' jail, later suspended. He lost his job and is fighting an appeal, which has cost him his savings, all while protesting his innocence. The Australian has never given up its source. Its view issimple: the story was correct and in the publicinterest, and therefore was published.

University of Queensland business school lecturer Bill De Maria has described the planned reform of whistleblower law as "mean and narrow in its vision" and "embarrassingly conservative in its proposals". "It won't give protection to ordinary members of the public wishing to report instances of commonwealth wrongdoing," he says. "It won't give protection to people fed up with bureaucratic obstruction and harassment who go to the media."

Australian Press Council chairman Ken McKinnon agrees, saying: "The future situation will be hardly better than it is today. Whistleblowers know that their best and quickest chance of rectifying corruption, waste and general governmental incompetence is to go directly to the press."

Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance federal secretary Christopher Warren says: "This Government made some very positive noises in Opposition. There are some signs that it has a positive attitude to some of these issues, but we'd like it to go a lot further. Paying lip-service is not enough. It demands national leadership, practical legislation and committed campaigning. It also demands a change in culture, from that of secrecy to one of transparency and openness."

Nobody is pretending the news media always gets the balance right when it comes to the release of information. As John Hartigan, chairman and chief executive of News Limited (publisher of The Australian), said in one of his many speeches on this topic: "Certainly our media is imperfect and its journalism sometimes flawed. The media, like most industries, has room for improvement."

Hartigan's point, however, is that media "remains our primary source of information" about politicians and government, and "the only one that can challenge that information, to test that it's right ... to unearth the things they're hiding, tell everyone what's really going on."

That is why members of the Right to Know coalition - Fairfax, the ABC, SBS, the commercial television networks and News Limited - remain united on the subject of media freedom. Today this group will host a forum on the Right to Know.

Of particular interest will be Special Minister of State John Faulkner, who is expected to outline details of the freedom of information reforms. He has hinted that a change in culture is necessary. That's both true and overdue.



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 readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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