Monday, August 14, 2006

"Londonistan" does not work

Few can have failed to shudder at the thought of a plot to blow up nine passenger planes and the intended mass murder of thousands of innocent people over the Atlantic. Whatever the outcome of the police investigation into a conspiracy that seems to have been stopped just in time, we should praise the alertness of Britain’s often criticised and overstretched intelligence services. Peter Clarke, deputy assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard, says at least three other serious plots by home-grown terrorists have been disrupted since last year’s July 7 attacks on the London Underground. The danger seems ever present.

It is now self-evident that there is an enemy within Britain who wants to destroy our way of life. Most of this relatively small group of fanatics are British-born Muslims who have been educated here and brought up within our tolerant democracy. Those looking for the outward signs that identify them as full of hatred would be hard-pressed to find them. Many seem all too ordinary, perhaps enthusiastic about football and cricket and living “normal” westernised existences in neat terraced houses. They work, study or run small businesses. Most show little indication that they have signed up to the distorted ideology of radical Islam, with its millennial ideology of bringing destruction to the corrupt West. As “sleepers”, they are perfect.

Why is Britain such a breeding ground for these young men, for that is what most of them are? Much can be ascribed to timidity on behalf of the authorities, wedded as they are to a multiculturalism that isolates many young men in ghettos and a reluctance to espouse British values through our schools and institutions. That appeasement was epitomised by the sanctuary offered to extremist Islamic groups in Britain — “Londonistan” — in the pathetic hope that it might offer some form of immunity from violence. The United States, with its intolerant attitude to those preaching hate, has been far more successful in integrating its Muslim citizens, offering them the ideals of patriotism and progress. Even France, which has a bigger Muslim population than Britain and has had its share of troubles with disaffected youth, has not seen the scale of Islamist treachery that we are experiencing here. MI5 believes up to 400,000 people in Britain are sympathetic to violent “jihad” around the world and that as many as 1,200 are involved in terrorist networks.

These extremists are drawn both from our educated classes and the Muslim underclass. The first alienated group seems susceptible to radical recruiters on university campuses, the latter to firebrands they meet in mosques or in prison. There they are fed the lines that the West is evil and corrupt. They are urged to look at a culture of binge drinking, reckless hedonism, moral laxity and materialism. They see little of the advantages to our society of freedom of choice, of religion, of individualism and of equality. Nor is it good enough to claim that extremism is fostered by poverty. Although Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are struggling to do as well as some other second or third-generation immigrant groups, many of the recruits are from relatively privileged backgrounds. It is more a matter of a battle for minds rather than pockets. Add to this the internet, the finishing school of global terror, and a legal system that appears to be inflexible about deporting foreign jihadists, and you have the ingredients for an explosive clash of cultures.

When an undercover reporter from The Sunday Times visited Beeston in Nottinghamshire, where three of the July 7 bombers came from, he found either a denial that they had been involved or, perhaps more alarmingly, respect for them as Muslim martyrs. It is this potent mix of self- delusion — witness all the absurd theories about 9/11 and 7/7 — and a sneaking admiration for jihad even among seemingly sensible Muslims.

The great challenge for Britain is how to stop this and minimise the future risks. Nobody should underestimate the scale of the problem or the time needed. We already have a generation of disaffected Muslims who see any excuse, whether it is war in Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon, as a reason for killing their fellow citizens. The government has commissioned studies on combatting the problem, so far with little tangible impact. Tony Blair has been wooing Muslim leaders, too often the radicals rather than the moderates, although this policy seems to lie in shreds as they moan about wars in the Middle East inflaming Islamic youth. They are perfectly entitled to be angry about these conflicts, but that anger should be expressed through the democratic processes of demonstrations and elections.

That is not to say that the government is not right to try to win over Muslim opinion. If terror is to be defeated, you have first to drain the swamp. Muslims have to be persuaded that we are on the same side, that there is no witch-hunt against Islam and that the wars involving British troops are about stopping Islamists and the corruption of their religion. This means Muslims being alert to extremists in their ranks and being prepared to identify them to the police. It means Muslims becoming intolerant of radical mullahs and hounding them out of their mosques. Equally the authorities have a responsibility to crack down on extremists in universities and in prisons, to close internet sites and bookshops that spread hatred and violence, and to take all reasonable measures to protect their citizens.

At times this may seem unjust. Muslims who visit Pakistan will have to be more closely scrutinised and it may seem that they are being systematically targeted. But Muslims will have to understand that it is their co-religionists who are bent on bombing trains and planes and that requires extraordinary measures. A mature Muslim response will be to co-operate and help to eradicate extremists in their midst. It requires the vast majority of Muslims to believe that their future is tied to Britain, a country in which their religion can be respected and freely practised. If the radicals succeed, it will foster only hatred and intolerance.

This low-level war is going to take a huge effort of will and courage. It is going to mean applying what may seem illiberal measures in order to save lives. In return, the state must exercise massive restraint and not abuse that responsibility. But the real key is for Muslims to realise that their future lies here and to embrace British values and reject violent Islamist theology. The country may indeed be in its greatest danger since the second world war, as John Reid, the home secretary, said last week. But as Britain prevailed then, so it will again.


A hairy moment for free speech

Tommy Sheridan’s libel win over the News of the World was no ‘victory’ for the working class. It was a victory for an archaic law over open debate.

On Friday last week, by a majority of 7-4, a jury of six men and five women found in favour of Tommy Sheridan, former Scottish Socialist Party leader and MSP, in his defamation action against News Group Newspapers, publisher of the News of the World. Sheridan sued the tabloid for printing articles in 2004 and 2005 claiming he was an adulterer, had visited Cupids swingers’ club in Manchester, and had taken part in orgies. He was awarded £200,000 in damages.

Celebrating his victory outside the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Sheridan said: ‘I have over the last five weeks taken on one of the biggest organisations on the planet…. What today’s verdict proves is that working-class people, when they listen to the arguments, can identify the truth from the muck.’

But there has been no shortage of muck thrown by Sheridan himself – during and after the trial. He accused the News of the World’s 18 witnesses of perjury and branded the 11 members of the SSP who spoke against him in court as ‘scabs’. Apparently, they’ve been orchestrating a witch-hunt against Sheridan in order to bring about his political downfall.

These are the same 11 members of the SSP who refused to hand over to the court the minutes of the meeting where Sheridan allegedly admitted he had attended a swingers’ club but said he would deny it publicly because the News of the World would never be able to prove it. It was only after a former comrade and friend of Sheridan’s, Alan McCombes, was jailed for contempt that the minutes were produced.

McCombes has since issued a statement, with the backing of the SSP national executive, likening Sheridan to Jeffrey Archer and claiming he would bring down the SSP.

As commentator Magnus Linklater reminds us in an article in Scotland on Sunday, Scottish hero Robert Louis Stevenson thought there was nothing uglier than a court of law: ‘Hither come envy, malice, and all uncharitableness to wrestle it out in public tourney.’ To add insult to injury, some members of the SSP are apparently considering legal action against Sheridan over comments he made following his victory. Also, MSP Carolyn Leckie says that those whose reputations had been tarnished would welcome perjury charges as a chance to clear their names. Lothian and Borders Police yesterday confirmed they are considering whether to launch a perjury investigation.

It is hard to see who the winners are in this sorry state of affairs. Sheridan has won £200,000 in damages, subject to appeal, but whether suing has in any way helped to restore his reputation (let’s not forget that he told the court he is a hairy ape and offered to disrobe ‘if my lord will allow me’) remains to be seen.

Some members of the jury may not have been impressed with the News of the World’s defence, but then again the tabloid newspapers’ practice of ‘chequebook journalism’ rarely elicits much sympathy from members of the public today. The fact that Sheridan won the case, despite 18 witnesses testifying against him, indicates how low the media have sunk in the eyes of the public.

Sheridan is not the only famous permatanned Scottish socialist to use the UK’s libel laws in recent years. In December 2004 George Galloway, ex-Labour MP, and now an MP for the anti-war, anti-Blair party RESPECT, successfully won his libel battle against the Daily Telegraph. The paper published allegations that Galloway was in the secret pay of Saddam Hussein. After the ruling, Galloway declared: ‘I am glad and somewhat humbled to discover that there is at least one corner of the English field which remains uncorrupted and independent, and that corner is in this courtroom.’

Galloway’s uncorrupted and independent ‘corner of the English field’ has won London the reputation as the libel capital of the world. The capital is often dubbed ‘a town called Sue’. Everybody knows that the UK libel courts are used by chancers, from around the world, to launder their reputation.

Court 13 – where Galloway’s case was heard - is the place where in July 1987 the now disgraced peer Jeffrey Archer won his £500,000 libel damages from the Daily Star over allegations that he had had sex with a prostitute. Later convicted of perjury and perverting the course of justice, Archer was forced to pay the money back to the Star. It was also in Court 13 that high drama and farce were played out between Harrod’s owner Mohamed al-Fayed and former Tory MP Neil Hamilton - described during the proceedings as the meeting of a ‘habitual liar’ and a ‘politician on the make’.

Galloway and Sheridan have unfortunately given the UK’s anachronistic libel law - a law that grew out of a dissatisfaction with the old aristocratic ways of dealing with defamation through duels - a new lease of life. (The Scottish libel law is based in large part on England’s libel law, though with some minor differences.)

They, of course, see things differently, depicting themselves as brave working-class heroes fighting against the mighty media empire. Sheridan even accused the News of the World of endangering his unborn baby’s life with its lies. But it is far from brave to sue newspapers for libel. As claimants, the odds are clearly stacked in their favour, whether or not what was said about them was true - which is why the vast majority of claimants win their libel cases.

Under libel law, claimants do not need to prove that what was said about them was untrue (although Sheridan’s wife, Gail, did her bit to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the jury by pointing out that none of the women who allegedly had affairs with Sheridan referred to his unusually hairy body). Rather, in libel law the assumption is that the defamatory statement is false, and the burden falls on the defendant to prove it is true. This reversal of the burden of proof – with the defendant pretty much guilty until he proves his innocence – is almost unique to UK libel law.

Libel laws are censorious and have a chilling effect on the whole of the media. The law does not only affect those journalists, broadcasters, editors and publishers who are faced with libel writs. If authors, editors or publishers have the smallest inkling that the truth of a proposition cannot be proven in court (even when made in good faith), the knowledge that they will have a less than a one-in-five chance of success in a libel trial means the story is most likely to be dropped.

Newspapers should have the right to publish abusive articles about politicians and celebrities, who, after all, are at the centre of public life, and who have recourse, more than anybody else, publicly to dispute unfair allegations made against them.

Some may argue that a law curtailing the freedom to publish titillating revelations about the allegedly sordid sex lives of politicians is not much of a threat to free speech. Of course, it would not be much of a loss to society if the claims about what went on between Sheridan and various women - including in Cupid’s - were never published. But as long as society is preoccupied with celebrities, whose private lives are – most often willingly – continually paraded before our eyes, we will have a media constantly searching for ever more salacious stories.

The way to deal with the dire state of public debate today is to fight for more speech and debate, not less. That means scrapping the UK’s censorious libel laws, for a start. Sheridan and Galloway’s cases are a further nail in the coffin of press freedom.


Truganini replica removed

The National Museum of Australia has denied bowing to political correctness in withdrawing a bust of Aborigine Truganini from an international exhibition. A wooden bust of Truganini, once claimed to have been the last "full-blood" Tasmanian Aborigine, was to be part of a visiting show displaying beads from across the Commonwealth. The bust would have been used to display a shell necklace.

Museum public affairs director Dennis Grant said the bust had been removed from the exhibition, which began in Canberra yesterday, partly because of fear it would cause offence. "People said Truganini was the last Tasmanian Aborigine - that's insulting to Tasmanian Aborigines because what does that make them?" [It makes them half-castes -- which is what they are, though even that is overstating it. Most so-called Tasmanian Aborigines today have only a tiny amount of Aboriginal ancestry] Mr Grant said. "That's where we are coming from."

Tasmanian Aborigines believe the memory of Truganini, who died in 1876, has been misused by non-indigenous Australians to create and perpetuate the myth their people died out on the island. Mr Grant said it was also decided that the bust of Truganini, who remains arguably Tasmania's most well-known woman, was out of place being used as a mannequin to display beads.

The legal director of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Michael Mansell [who has blond hair and blue eyes], said local Aborigines would be outraged to learn the work was included in the show. He said no museum should contemplate using the bust, crafted by Queensland sculptor John Vink in 1990 and modelled on a work by 19th-century artist Benjamin Law displayed in Hobart. Mr Mansell said the replica should be destroyed, as Truganini's death had been falsely but potently used as evidence of the end of Aborigines in Tasmania.


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