Thursday, December 09, 2010
Britain backs off becoming even softer on crime
David Cameron ruled out a change in minimum jail terms for murderers yesterday, reversing Government policy on sentencing in just 24 hours. On Tuesday, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke had indicated that he wanted to scrap fixed sentences for knife killers and other murderers, leaving judges to decide how long they should serve.
But after a backlash by victims of crime, Tory MPs and grassroots supporters, Downing Street intervened to head off claims that the Government is 'soft on crime'.
Aides said Mr Cameron will not sanction any reductions in minimum sentences and pledged that the 25-year minimum for knife killers would stay. 'The Prime Minister feels very strongly about this,' his press secretary said.
The U-turn throws into chaos Mr Clarke’s shake-up of the criminal justice system.
Judges are currently under strict instructions on which murders merit a 'whole life' sentence behind bars and which should be imprisoned for 15, 25 or 30 years. Those who kill police get a minimum of 30 years.
But policy experts in Downing Street and the Ministry of Justice spent months working on plans to rewrite the section of the law that spells out minimum sentences.
Asked to explain the consequences on Tuesday, Mr Clarke dismissed the current rules as 'complete nonsense'. 'At the moment, if you murder me you’ll be punished more if you use a knife than if you strangle me painfully. I don’t think you should be too prescriptive. 'It is absurd to say the judge needs a statute to say what method of murder is more serious than another method. 'If I’m getting stabbed, I don’t whether it’s a screwdriver or a knife really.
'We do not need to tell judges that murder is a serious offence. They are perfectly capable of setting a minimum term.'
But police officers, bereaved families and knife campaigners, were outraged by his proposals and victims groups announced plans for a demonstration.
Before the U-turn was announced, Simon Reed, of the Police Federation, had said: 'Rather than diluting this 30-year rule we should be making sure police killers actually spend life behind bars.
Tory MPs openly denounced the plans and the ConservativeHome website, an indicator of the views of the Tory grassroots, was inundated with complaints.
But as Mr Cameron returned from Afghanistan yesterday, his advisers sought to clarify the Government's position, saying the minimum sentences 'were never going to be scrapped'. Instead, a Green Paper will see Schedule 21 of the 2003 Criminal Justice Act, which spells out the minimum sentences, rewritten, they insisted.
'We will look to simplify it, to make it clearer, easier to use, and more readily understood by victims' families and the public,' a Downing Street spokesman said. 'This Government has absolutely no intention whatsoever of reducing sentences for murder. 'We will never abolish the mandatory life sentence, or seek any general reduction in minimum terms imposed for murder.'
No 10 intervened amid concerns that the plans would undermine Mr Cameron's election pledge to get tough on knife-wielding criminals, which included plans to jail anyone found guilty of crimes involving a knife.
Sources close to Mr Cameron said Ben's Law, named after 16-year-old Ben Kinsella who died at knife point in 2008, which means knife killers must serve 25 years, 'will definitely not be scrapped'. One said: 'The idea that we were going to end mandatory sentences is for the birds. On murder, nothing will change.'
It is the second time this year that Mr Cameron has had to intervene to overrule the Ministry of Justice. No 10 officials disciplined Justice Minister Crispin Blunt after he announced that taxpayers would have to fund prison Halloween parties for killers and paedophiles.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said: 'They’re clearly in chaos over this and it’s a shambolic way to make policy.'
Papal interviews undermine caricatures of the church
A series of official meetings at the Holy See last week served as a reminder that, in its governance function, the Catholic Church is very bureaucratic. Yet Pope Benedict has just done what few government or religious leaders would do. He gave six interviews of one hour's duration each to the German journalist and author Peter Seewald.
The product of this conversation is contained in Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times (Ignatius Press), which has just been published. In the Western world, which is increasingly subsumed with sex and celebrity, media attention has focused on the Pope's answers to two questions about HIV/AIDS in Africa and the church forbidding condoms.
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Commentators have homed in on Benedict's comment that in the case of some individuals - he cited the case of a male prostitute - the use of condoms may amount to "a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way towards recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants". That was about it.
But commentators tended to ignore a more significant papal refrain in Light of the World. Namely that "people can get condoms when they want them anyway".
And that's the essential point. The Pope recognises that not all Catholics follow the teachings of the church. Moreover, Africa is by no means a Catholic zone. The unfashionable fact is that HIV/AIDS is rife in large parts of Africa because many African men have multiple sex partners. Only some of them are baptised Catholic.
The Catholic Church has a good understanding of the devastation of HIV/AIDS. It is estimated about 15 per cent of the world's population is Catholic and that 25 per cent of all AIDS victims around the world are treated in Catholic institutions. That's an impressive statistic.
There is another inconvenient truth. The church's interaction with HIV/AIDS victims primarily focuses on caring for wounds and emptying bedpans - rather than writing opinion pieces in newspapers and attending international conferences.
The obsession with Catholicism in the Western media also impacts on discussion of world population growth. Last October, the presenter of Late Night Live, Phillip Adams, interviewed the former Catholic priest Paul Collins about his book Judgment Day - The Struggle for Life on Earth.
As the title suggests, Collins's work is primarily about the environment, climate change and all that. But Adams introduced the interview with predictable comments about condoms and the ridicule-laced claim that Catholics believe "it's naughty to have contraception because it might eliminate a couple of babies and every sperm is sacred".
Collins did not object to Adams's sneers. But he did point out that Catholic fertility in Australia since the late 19th century has been pretty much the same as Australia's national fertility. Collins did refer to the fact that, in Australia, Catholics suffer an enormous amount from caricature. He added that in parts of Catholic Italy the population is in decline.
This suggests that the Pope has a much better understanding of contemporary Catholics than do such secularists as Adams. As Francis Fukuyama pointed out in a lecture in Sydney in 2008, the huge increases in world population are taking place in sub-Saharan Africa where the Pope has little influence. If Adams was truly concerned about the need for condom advocacy as a form of birth control, he would take his cause to the Islamic nations - or, indeed, to Islamic settlements within Western societies. It's just that it is easier to ridicule Christians in the West than Muslims anywhere.
During his visit to Britain in September, Benedict was subjected to more low-level abuse. The author Richard Dawkins described the Pope as a "leering old villain in a frock", the philosopher A.C. Grayling compared him to "the head of a drug cartel" and the humanist Andrew Copson accused him of undermining human rights. Yet, as Bryan Appleyard reported in The Sunday Times, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, obtained a papal blessing in Rome a few months before joining the protests in London.
The evidence suggests the Pope is more considered than many of his critics. This is evident in Light of the World where the former theology professor acknowledges the church handles some issues poorly, concedes that "the Pope can have private opinions that are wrong" and accepts that "no one is forced to be a Christian". The Pope also apologises for the "filth" involved in the sexual abuse of young children by male priests and brothers.
The reader does not have to agree with the views of Benedict to be impressed by the fact he gave lengthy interviews in the absence of minders and that Light of the World was released without "talking points" memos being issued to bishops and priests.
PA Town Removes 57-Year-Old Nativity Scene From Gov’t Building: ‘Highly Disrespectful’
A small Pennsylvania town has removed a Nativity scene from its borough building after a resident complained that the creche is offensive to non-Christians. And while town leaders say they don’t like having to remove it, they say they are legally obligated.
WPXI in Pittsburgh reports Canonsburg Borough and its Manager Terry Hazlett received a written complaint last week from resident Megan Hartley who said the creche was disrespectful to citizens who aren‘t Christian and that it shouldn’t be displayed at a government building.
“I think that it is highly disrespectful to the citizens of this Borough that are not Christian to have Christian iconography displayed on government property,” she reportedly wrote, “a government that is supposed to represent all of the citizens, not just the majority.”
In response to the complaint, Hazlett asked the local Knights of Columbus chapter, which owns the scene and has been displaying it at the borough buiding for 57 years, to remove it. The group obliged, and has since relocated the creche to a nearby business.
That upset local Knights of Columbus member Robert Clark, who told the Observer-Reporter that the removal of the creche offends him. “I think that we have to show tolerance to one another,” Clark said. “It’s disrespectful to my rights, too.”
According to the Canonsburg Borough website, a dozen people showed up at Monday night’s council meeting to protest the move. There, town Mayor David Rhome said he has received several calls questioning why the creche was moved, and asked the council to reconsider....
That sentiment is echoed by Mayor David Rhome. In an interview with The Blaze he said the town is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. While he believes the creche should be allowed, and says that his constituents want it there, the fact remains the courts have decided it cannot.
“In the world we live in, the courts dictate what we can do,” he said. “The law is the law.”
The law he’s talking about refers to a relevant U.S. Supreme Court case that took place in another Pennsylvania town. In County of Allegheny vs. ACLU, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a nativity scene on the steps of the County Courthouse violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
Australia: Bolt case reflects hollow commitment to free speech
The courtroom is no place to shut down even the most offensive opinions
"SORRY, Janet. To better defend my right to free speech, I should stay silent." So said Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt recently when I asked him about the Federal Court action brought against him by Aborigines claiming that he "offended, insulted and humiliated" them in breach of the federal Racial Discrimination Act.
The case is due back in court on Monday and Bolt has been advised that the best way to defend his right to free speech is to not speak about the matter. Welcome to the West's wacky commitment to free speech.
It gets worse. Many who have penned a defence of Bolt's right to express his opinion have offered up a sniggering, begrudging defence littered with a great deal more insult and offence than anything Bolt wrote in the columns now the subject of litigation.
And it gets still worse. A single judge will be asked to form an opinion as to whether Bolt, an opinion columnist, is entitled to express his opinion.
Bolt and his employer, Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, are not being sued for defamation. Neither is the allegation that they used words to incite violence. Quite rightly, the law will censor speech in such circumstances. No, Bolt simply expressed an opinion that there is a fashion for some light-skinned people to self-identify as Aboriginal which is divisive and has the unfortunate aim of entrenching racial differences.
In two columns written last year, Bolt says a number of people, often more European than indigenous, have been able to advance their careers by applying for positions, prizes and scholarships by self-identifying as Aboriginal. He says it is "sad that we harp on about differences and rights based on such trivial inflections of race". For expressing these opinions, Bolt must now front up to court.
Never mind that Bolt acknowledged that these people may have identified as Aboriginal for "the most heartfelt and honest of reasons". Never mind that Bolt expressly says he is not accusing them of opportunism. His aim is that we move "beyond black and white to find what unites us and not to invent such racist and trivial excuses to divide".
Yet the claimants are demanding an apology, a retraction "and any other redress as is deemed appropriate". Welcome, once again, to the wacky world of free speech in the West, where the law hinders open debate about the implications of people who choose to self-identify as Aboriginal.
Of course, if the law allows such claims to be made, no criticism can be made of those who exercise their legal right to sue. However, the law is, in this respect, undoubtedly an ass.
The inconsistent way such a law can be used only compounds its hypocrisies. For example, in a 2002 article in Good Weekend Magazine discussing the vexed issue of establishing Aboriginality, Larissa Behrendt, a well-known indigenous legal academic, said: "If that [issue] isn't resolved, you run the risk of having the parameters stretched to the ludicrous point where someone can say: 'Seven generations ago there was an Aboriginal person in my family, therefore I am Aboriginal.' "
We are entering dangerous territory if the case against Bolt succeeds. Too often, claims made under the plethora of human rights acts can appear to have the result - intentional or not - of shutting down particular views and, even more troubling, particular people who challenge the politically polite views of progressives.
Bolt, a white conservative man loathed by the Left, is sued. Behrendt, an indigenous progressive woman, is not. Instead, Behrendt is listed in the Australian Human Rights Commission complaint form as one of those likely to be "offended, insulted and humiliated" by Bolt's comments.
While the complainants in the Federal Court are no doubt well intentioned, and are perfectly entitled to exercise whatever rights the law gives them, ill-drafted statutes can hijack free speech in pursuit of special interest political agendas. Vaguely drafted provisions proscribing speech that is "offensive" "insulting" or "humiliating" scream out to be pressed into the service of stifling debate.
In Canada, Mark Steyn, another white conservative writer, was hauled in front of a human rights commission to defend his views about multiculturalism and the growing conflict between Islam and the West. In Germany on Friday, the politically moderate German Chancellor Angela Merkel made similar remarks. She said that multiculturalism had "failed, utterly failed" in Germany. It was time for people to integrate, she said. Will she be sued for offending those who haven't integrated?
Let's hope not. The courtroom is no place to determine even the most contentious political debates or to shut down even the most offensive opinions. The prosecution of Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician now facing a retrial ordered in October for inciting hate and discrimination against Muslims for criticising Islam, is political, not legal. There are no useful legal tests about hurt feelings or inciting hate. As Oliver Kamm wrote about Wilders, "the state has no business concerning itself with how its citizens feel".
It's unfortunate that this needs to be said again and again. Freedom of expression is meaningless if it does not include a right to be offensive. The real gem at the core of Western progress is the free market of ideas where better ideas triumph by exposing, challenging and contradicting the dud ones. Many views that were once regarded as too offensive to air have been vindicated. Hence Merkel's new-found courage to talk about integration, not multiculturalism.
Even if Bolt wins in court, we lose. Misguided racial discrimination and vilification laws can kill free speech slowly by threatening censorship. Create a bureaucracy and watch its empire blossom. Even some who supported the creation of human rights commissions are having second thoughts. A robust democracy is fuelled by debates that often offend some people. We sharpen our minds and bring clarity to ideas through open, reasoned discussion. By setting up empire-building bureaucracies to shut down offensive views proscribed by ambiguous laws and determined by a handful of judges, we import the standards of censorship found in countries across the Middle East.
That's why the case against Bolt is wrong. Before you say "She would defend him, wouldn't she?", remember that she also defended Phillip Adams when he was the subject of a racial vilification complaint. Adam's view after September 11 that the US was its own worst enemy was offensive. But the notion that he could be hauled before some bureaucracy to censor him is far more offensive to our liberty.
Sadly, some progressives have tried to bask in the sunlight of the high moral ground that comes from defending free speech while aiming a series of insulting slurs at Bolt. When you spend so much time dumping on Bolt, rather than arguing a straightforward defence of free speech, your commitment looks phony.
Free speech is not a Left v Right thing, as Steyn said. It's a free v unfree thing. The case against Bolt shows we are all unfree.
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, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN (Note that EYE ON BRITAIN has regular posts on the reality of socialized medicine). My Home Pages are here or here or here or Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when blogger.com is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.