Tuesday, March 09, 2010
The British Labour Party's cult of secrecy is an insult to all Britons
Just weeks before a general election, the prime minister provides a photo-opportunity of himself, posing with our brave boys in Afghanistan. A few hours later, it is announced that no reporters will be permitted to visit the front line during that election campaign, lest what they see and hear should influence the outcome.
Justice minister Jack Straw tells parliament he will not disclose the reason why Jamie Bulger's killer Jon Venables has been returned to prison, lest this prejudice possible future criminal proceedings.
And on Sunday, the BBC's Panorama reported that more than 60 per cent of NHS hospital trusts provide the public with inaccurate information about their performance.
Here, within the space of a few days, is an extraordinary range of examples of the manner in which official secrecy routinely operates in Britain, all year round. The alleged right of the Government and institutions to withhold information - even on issues of the utmost importance to the public interest - is exercised again and again, at the convenience of ministers and civil servants.
In 21st century Britain, a chasm now exists: between the feast of information the sovereign and corporate states possess about us and the crumbs they disclose about themselves. Each of us knows that records of our phone calls, finances, household circumstances, shopping transactions and even physical movements are monitored by thousands of computers and tens of thousands of CCTV cameras.
Perhaps you, like me, have become increasingly reluctant to conduct online shopping transactions that demand, say, 20 lines of personal details. We are aware that such information is likely to be broadcast and sold to scores of other organisations, regardless of whether or not we tick the box for non-disclosure. Making such tiny gestures to protect our privacy is futile amid the floodtide of data that is already jamming networks.
The Government, in contrast, discloses information about its own workings and those of public bodies like a miser paying his bills in 10p coins on the last day of the month. It knows almost everything about us - but we are told vastly less about them than we rightfully should be. The Afghan example above is grotesque. British forces are engaged in a serious war on the far side of the world. The Government has handled it badly - recklessly, even - above all, by under-resourcing. Many soldiers are understandably bitter, as almost every day they experience the consequences of trying to do too much with too little. This is embarrassing for our Government and should be a source of personal shame to the prime minister, if he was capable of such a sentiment.
But it is extraordinary that the Ministry of Defence should deem it acceptable to deny frontline access to the media ahead of polling day, lest reporters discover things that further damage New Labour.
Such behaviour, however, is institutionalised. Take another example: in recent months, evidence has emerged that the huge increase in immigration to Britain since 1997 was endorsed by the Blair regime in pursuit of its own political ends. Some of its principals favoured immigration as a social engineering tool. Blair believed a large influx of immigrants would irreversibly alter the character of Britain towards becoming a multicultural and more left-leaning society. Not only was any hint of such motives concealed at the time, but documentation on this supremely sensitive issue remains to this day locked in Whitehall files.
It is striking to contrast the manner in which this country conducts its official business with that of the United States. Across the Atlantic, there is an overwhelming presumption in favour of disclosure. Congressional committees constantly demand - and receive - information about the inner workings of government departments that in Britain would never be revealed to their parliamentary counterparts.
In the U.S. the Freedom of Information Act really means what it claims - an ordinary individual can exercise a right to be shown material, not least about themselves, which would be denied over here.
In Britain, the demands of security are routinely cited to conceal blunders. Remember the 2008 Gulf fiasco? British sailors and Royal Marines were captured by the Iranians in an incident that became a national humiliation. Some months later, the then defence secretary, the egregious Des Browne, told the Commons that an internal inquiry had been held. But he announced that its entire report was being classified, on security grounds. The Tories limply - and quite wrongly - acquiesced in this.
There were genuine security issues in some parts of the report, which it would have been right to blank out. But concealment of the whole document was designed simply to spare the blushes of the Royal Navy's top brass. Secrecy was abused for convenience, not security. The MoD should never have been allowed to get away with hiding its dirty linen.
More recently, of course, there was last year's Commons expenses scandal. From beginning to end, MPs fought tooth and nail to prevent the disclosure of their abuse of public funds. Their rearguard action was led by the then Speaker, the appalling Michael Martin, today a peer, if you please. Day after day in the courts, at taxpayers' expense, Martin struggled to conceal first the details of his own excesses and then those of hundreds of MPs. In the end, thank goodness, he lost and we won. Every window-box and lavatory seat was exposed. But how can MPs be surprised by the public's abiding suspicion and, indeed, contempt for the system? They strove to defend the indefensible to save their skins.
Most of us find it easy to define the criteria for protecting or revealing official secrets. There is a real public interest in concealing some processes of government, especially diplomacy, for a period of time. There is, however, no public interest in protecting ministers and officials who have blundered from embarrassment.
How many people suppose the details of Jon Venables's reimprisonment are being concealed merely to serve justice? How many, instead, think the justice department's overriding concern is to shield those who released him in the first place?
No U.S. government would dare to exclude the media from the Afghan combat zone when the congressional mid-term elections loom. But our government casually imposes a ban - because it is accustomed to getting away with such abuses.
Britain in 2010 is a more open society than it was in, say, 1960, but that is not saying much. The culture of official secrecy, the belief in the Government's right not to tell us things, remains deep-rooted in every inch of Westminster and Whitehall soil. We must dig and hack at it at every turn, insisting that when ministers and officials deny us information, they are challenged.
If legal super-injunctions to protect celebrities from the exposure of their follies represent an abuse of justice, official secrecy again and again proves an abuse of democracy. Politicians will always lie. That is part of their trade, as the panel of the Iraq Inquiry can testify. But the rightful business of a democracy's media and citizens is to ensure that they cannot manipulate the machinery of government to get away with it.
An evil pro-abortionist ignored by the media
Who is Harlan Drake, you say? You may well have forgotten him since the national media uttered barely a peep about his transgressions. After all, while Scott Roeder murdered an abortion doctor, Drake merely murdered a pro-life protester. In the American psyche, the former is a national outrage; the latter offers little worth lamenting. The murder of an abortion doctor will get you expansive amounts of shrill media coverage, an immediate statement from the White House, and a swift Department of Justice promise to step up security and enforcement at abortion clinics around the country. Killing a pro-life protester will not even get you ignominy. It will merely get you, well, ...oblivion.
Not even Harlan Drake disputes that he murdered Jim Pouillon. The only point of debate at the trial is whether Drake was insane at the time. The only point of debate in this writer's mind is whether anyone notices or cares that he did it at all.
Harlan Drake was every bit as meticulous in his assassination of Pouillon in Owosso as Roeder was in his own killing of George Tiller in Wichita. Drake dropped off his nieces at school that morning. He then edged his pickup into the vicinity of pro-life protester, Jim Pouillon. Pouillon, 63, was standing in one of his regular protesting locations on the street corner in front of the high school. Harlan Drake rested his left arm on the car window to steady his right hand as he shot the elderly man. He then pulled the truck still closer to fire again. In all, Drake landed four bullets in the defenseless man's body. Jim Pouillon fell down, then forward, and died right there in the grass. Drake drove away and moved on to murder a former employer, Mike Fuoss, and to search for a third victim, whom he fortunately never located.
What does “Mama” have to do with it? A former Owosso city councilman, Michael Cline, has testified that Harlan Drake's mother, Kimberly Staples, had phoned several days in a row leading up to the murder and asked the councilman to “do something” about the town's 'problem' protester, Jim Pouillon. She told Cline she would “send her boys over to go see Jim.” After the shooting, Cline reported that Staples called him and said “I have solved the city’s problem.” In other words, the defense was very simple: Pouillon needed killing. Mama said so.
Jim Pouillon's tactics in protesting abortion were controversial to be sure. He carried signs with a picture of a healthy baby on one side and a photograph of a dismembered, aborted fetus on the other. He aimed to show passers-by the horrors of abortion. Pouillon's personal history was spotty with a series of family disputes and strained relationships. As a result, Jim Pouillon had few admirers in Owosso, Michigan.
In fact, the local paper, The Argus-Press, said in an editorial five days after the killings, "His sign, often accompanied by his shouting at passers-by, gave his cause, indeed his town of Owosso as well, a bad name." Nothing like blaming the victim for dressing too provocatively.
No evidence of such reputation editorializing emerges from Wichita after the murder of famed abortionist Dr. George Tiller. Evidently, in the public mind, vocally showing people pictures of aborted fetuses is one thing while being the one who actually, but very politely and quietly, does that dismembering is another thing altogether. The former is heinous and disgusting; the latter merely falls into the category of health care, or reproductive “rights.”
Again, Pouillon had few defenders for his pro-life protesting. Many residents found his protestations to be not only repugnant but evil. The trial is underway and should continue for two more weeks, but it will do so without the participation of Owossohites like Judy Jackson, 64, who told one reporter, "I don't agree with someone taking someone's life. But I don't miss the man on the corner or his foul mouth. He would chase you, call you names. He was evil. His pictures were so gross." In other words, to locals like Ms. Jackson, he had it coming. After all, Pouillon was “evil.” He performed the dastardly deed of displaying before human eyes the atrocities of abortion. Tiller? Well, at least he did his deeds in private.
In America, what offends is not so much what you do as it is how you do it. Suction babies out from their mothers' wombs, or stick scissors into their heads if you must, but please we just ask that you not show us the pictures. Actions are actions, but showing pictures is “evil.” Our eyes and our sensibilities are delicate. Our souls clearly are not.
Two men were murdered. One of them performed unspeakable acts of violence against the defenseless. The other showed us the pictures. America does not like pictures. And therein lies the difference between the cause celebre that is Scott Roeder and the quickly forgotten mama's boy, Harlan Drake
The feminist silence about Bill Clinton
By Carrie Sheffield
This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will headline soirees for today's (March 8, the original publication date) International Women's Day, a time set aside to honor brave women from around the world. Aside from the fact that the affair has Soviet roots and migrated to the United States via the Socialist Party of America, it's laudable to acknowledge women struggling for progress in all corners of the globe. Former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice celebrated the occasion as well.
As Mrs. Clinton distributes laurels to brave women from places such as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, she may reflect on perhaps the biggest barrier that obstructed her own career: her misogynist husband.
As reporters John Heilemann and Mark Halperin write in their newly released book, "Game Change," party leaders worried about Bill Clinton's ongoing sexual misconduct helping sink Mrs. Clinton's presidential campaign.
According to Mr. Halperin and Mr. Heilemann, party donors and senior leaders such as Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, saw the perennially aroused Mr. Clinton as a heavy albatross around his wife's neck, and so they looked elsewhere for their candidate. Their worries went far past Monicagate to a lifestyle Mr. Clinton embraced in Chappaqua and beyond.
Since leaving the presidency, Mr. Clinton has trotted the globe doing some valuable work through his Clinton Foundation, including attempts to empower impoverished women. But the sad irony is that he has an ongoing track record of abusing his powerful position to lure women into sexual submission, and his wife's career has suffered for it.
While I'm no big fan of Mrs. Clinton, anytime I see a woman held back because of her man's inability to keep his pants on, my inner feminist starts screaming. Yet there is profound silence from the largely Democratic, establishment feminist movement around Mr. Clinton's double-faced life and the extreme disrespect he shows for his wife.
Perhaps the Clintons have made some private, kinky truce under which each partner is allowed to boink whomever he or she likes. But if that's the case, why the facade of family solidarity and public wifey-boosting from Bill? Why not become like our European friends across the pond who adamantly and openly separate a public official's private life from his or her personal life? The answer is that here in the United States, we expect more from our leaders.
What bothers me most about Mr. Clinton's post-office career is that he doesn't acknowledge the damaging effect his brazen hanky-panky has on women who are trying to free themselves from chauvinistic societies plagued by Neanderthalic ideals of female subjugation. Reputation is a powerful thing. Why should men in the developing world respect their wives and quit abusing powerful positions to satisfy their bodily proclivities when a leader of the Free World continues to hamper women's progress?
It happens here, too. Mr. Halperin and Mr. Heilemann write that now-Sen. Claire McCaskill admitted that she kiboshed a run for governor of Missouri because she was worried that Mrs. Clinton might top the 2008 party ticket, testosterone-high hubbie in tow. "I had a lot of problems with some of his personal issues," Mrs. McCaskill told Tim Russert in 2006. "I said at the time, 'I think he's been a great leader, but I don't want my daughter near him.' "
Of course, Mrs. McCaskill seems to have rebounded; a Senate seat is hardly subjugation. However, she is the exception rather than the rule. Just ask would-be President Hillary Clinton, who saw her dream unraveled thanks to Mr. Clinton's imprudence. Why won't she just leave him? The answer, of course, is complicated.
Mrs. Clinton, whose policy positions I find less than appealing, is trapped in a marriage of convenience that is full of symbiotic benefits from Mr. Clinton. She likely couldn't have risen so high without him, and vice versa. But her fate is tied to his adolescent cravings, and she, like so many women around the world, has hit a glass ceiling held in place by a man's libido.
Today we'll see if Mrs. Clinton has the courage to break free from the machismo order and set an example for women around the world trapped in repressive societies. We'll see if Mr. Clinton renounces his juvenile traipsing and apologizes for turning back the clock on women's progress. That would be miraculous, indeed.
Australia: Rights bill is still a threat
By James Allan, Garrick professor of law at the University of Queensland
NEXT Wednesday, Frank Brennan is due to speak to the Labor Party caucus. Brennan chaired the Attorney-General's committee that came out in favour of a statutory bill of rights.
Brennan was described, when that committee was set up, as a fence-sitter, a disinterested person. Of course that label was nonsense. Before being appointed, Brennan had been on the record more than once as being in favour of Australia enacting a statutory bill of rights. In fact Attorney-General Robert McClelland didn't appoint a single known bill-of-rights opponent or sceptic.
Still, public opposition to this statutory bill of rights proposal, including among a big chunk of the Attorney-General's Labor Party colleagues, has been such that we learned a fortnight ago that cabinet was not treating a statutory bill of rights as a high priority. That's a polite way of saying nothing will happen before the next election.
Enter Brennan and the invitation offered to him by Labor Party proponents of a bill to speak to caucus. Presumably the hope is that Brennan will stiffen the spine of the government and get it to think again. Let's hope not. I'm a long-time opponent of these anti-democratic instruments and the Rudd government was brave to stand up to the chardonnay-sipping lawyers' wing of the party over this.
But what will Brennan say to caucus this Wednesday? Here's my bet. He will tell them that unless Australia enacts a statutory bill, our jurisprudence and judges' decisions will no longer be referred to by top judges in Canada, New Zealand, Britain and Europe. (Americans rarely refer to foreign precedents.)
He'll paint the spectre of isolation and urge caucus to think again. Here's why they should ignore Brennan.
To start, the claim about being isolated jurisprudentially on rights issues if you lack a bill of rights is largely false. When you buy a bill of rights, all you're really getting is the views of unelected judges rather than of elected legislators. But there's no reason judicial views should be more morally attuned or rights-respecting than those of elected legislators.
Take free speech. People in Australia have more freedom to say what they want than do Canadians. Look at hate speech or campaign finance rules or defamation regimes. Canada, which for 28 years has had one of the strongest bills of rights, has noticeably more restrictions on speech than we do here.
In fact, last year Canada's Supreme Court referred specifically to our High Court's views in changing their defamation law. The case was called Torstar. It hardly showed Australia being isolated on issues of free speech.
But if, for the sake of argument, the cost of not having such a bill of rights is that Australian top judges feel a tad isolated when next they jet off to international conferences, that's frankly a cost that is worth bearing. After all, we're talking about transferring power to unelected judges. We're talking about inroads into democratic decision-making.
That's true no matter how often proponents prevaricate and pretend that a statutory version won't make any difference, leaving us to wonder why they would expend so much effort.
The sensible wing of the Labor Party here looks as though it has killed off any explicit enacting of a statutory bill of rights. But the Brennan committee foreshadowed a back-up strategy that the lawyers' wing of the Labor Party just might try.
The ploy here will be to insert one of the key provisions of a statutory bill of rights, known as a reading-down provision, into another statute, probably the Acts Interpretation Act. This transplanted provision will do the same work of authorising judges to interpret all other statutes in a new-age way as it would in a real bill of rights. It will allow them to read other statutes in a way they, the judges, happen to think is more rights-respecting.
A similar provision in Britain has resulted in the judges saying they can ignore the clear meaning of other statutes and the clear intentions of parliament. Put one of these in some other statute and you get a bill of rights in all but name. Watch to see if this secondary ploy is being foisted on the sensible wing of Labor.
Germaine Greer rubbished
You may also have read this week that the playwright Louis Nowra has written an essay in The Monthly magazine, published yesterday, to mark the 40th anniversary of The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer's 1970 treatise. Nowra flays Greer and rubbishes her book.
She just didn't get women, Nowra reckons. Women, he says, still want romance and marriage and children and all the "fripperies" - frocks and make-up and cosmetic surgery - that Greer urged them to give up. (Many surely do.) They "love shopping more than ever". (My daughters certainly do.) Botox injections, says Nowra, have become "virtually a woman's rite of passage". (Mmmm? Maybe around Kings Cross, where he lives. He should get out more.)
Nowra says of Greer: "Her notion that women would use power differently from men was hopelessly idealistic." Perhaps, but so is this from Nowra: "One is immediately struck by how much the Western world has changed for women, who now run corporations and are heads of government bureaucracies, as well as being business leaders, film directors and soldiers. Few occupations are denied women … When Greer wrote her seminal book only 4 per cent of American wives earned more than their husbands; now this figure is verging on 20 per cent."
Wow! In Australia, we read this week, less than 2 per cent of ASX200 companies have a woman at the helm. One in 12 directors is a woman. Women earn 82.5 per cent of men's pay - worse than in 1985. Combat roles for female soldiers are severely restricted. Woman's Day, meanwhile, strikes a blow for the sisterhood by publishing a photo of a teenage Lara Bingle in the shower, taken in 2006 by her then lover, the footballer Brendan Fevola, and the mag reasons it was going to come out anyway. And Bingle was a "home-wrecker". Ding-dong, the witch is fair game. And happy International Women's Day for Monday.
All that said, Nowra's essay is a great read, a brutal but thoughtful and sometimes fair critique of The Female Eunuch and of Greer: the daughter embittered by her narcissistic mother's emotional abuse; the powerful polemicist who inspired women to leave their husbands but who wrote off gays as "faggots"; the fantasist who reckoned mothers could live in farmhouses in Italy where a revolving door of friends, relatives and local peasants would care for their children; the acid-tongued mauler of other prominent women; the woman who imagined herself as the wife of the Bard ("I'd f--- Shakespeare except that he especially asked that his bones not be disturbed"); the author of "dull and graceless" and "increasingly daft" prose; the attention seeker on Celebrity Big Brother; and, ultimately, the "irrelevant noise of a shock jock few people listen to any more".
Perhaps Nowra's cheapest shot is likening Greer, a "befuddled and exhausted old woman", to "my demented grandmother". If the dead could sue, his granny surely would.
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.
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