Nor mine, now

I nearly installed Hyperwords this morning; the only reason I didn’t is that I haven’t moved to Firefox 1.5 yet (and don’t intend to until I’m confident it won’t break any of the extensions I’m already using). And, in principle, it looks great:

With the Hyperwords Firefox Extension installed just select any text and a menu appears. You can search major search engines, look things up in reference sites, check dictionary definitions, translate, email quickly and much more.

So why does the thought of actually using it give me the creeps? Alex is similarly ambivalent:

In principle, it’s a handy tool. But I would have to overcome a few personal adoption barriers before I started using it on a regular basis. As a consumer, I can see the appeal of opening up texts to interact with the rest of the Web; but as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control. I suspect that disposition colors the way I read things on the Web; I like my documents to feel fixed, not fluid. And the Web feels squishy enough as it is. That, and somehow the premise of cracking open someone else’s document with a toolbox of Web services feels like a kind of violation. This is undoubtedly my own personal neurotic hangup.

Well, if it is, it’s mine too. Mark Bernstein gets some of it:

In the very early days of hypertext research, people worried a lot about hand-crafted links. “How will we ever afford to put in all those links?” We also worried about how we’d ever manage to afford to digitize stuff for the Web, not to mention paying people to create original Web pages. Overnight, we discovered that we’d got the sign wrong: people would pay for the privilege of making Web sites. The problem isn’t the ‘tyranny’ of the links, and replacing it with the tyranny of the link server might not be a great solution.

and

Authors don’t offer navigation options to be “useful”; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. Argumentation seeks understanding, not merely access.

Let’s put some of that together: cracking open someone else’s document with a toolbox of Web services; the tyranny of the link server; thoughtful writers use links to express ideas. In other words, Hyperwords doesn’t extend existing hyperlink practice but undermines it. In the Hyperwords world you’ll no longer read a document, you’ll mine it for information – or rather, mine it for jumping-off points for retrieving information from authoritative sources. (Or retrieving whatever other stuff you may want to retrieve.)

Alex mentioned Xanadu, but I don’t think Hyperwords is a step in that direction. If anything, it’s a step backwards. (One of Xanadu’s key words is “author-based”.) Hyperlinks and the Web of dialogic, socially-produced content go together just fine; as Mark says, mass amateurism is already providing an answer to the question of where all those links are going to come from. It’s messy and incomplete, but it’s here – and it’s, well, ours (as a writer, I instinctively bristle at the idea of giving up that kind of control). You can see two visions of the Web here: the mass amateurisation of writing as against the ‘consumer’-oriented, authority-led, broadcast Web. Hyperwords ostensibly enhances horizontal, transverse linkage, but its effect would be to pull the Web further towards broadcast mode – albeit an ‘empowered’, roll-your-own broadcast mode.

Can’t keep quiet for long – I’m a human being!
Can’t help singing this song – I’m a human being!
You won’t listen to me,
I’m not an authority…

- Steve Mason, “Eclipse”

If nothing’s right, what’s wrong?

David Mills is a liar. At least, he is if he’s telling the truth.

David Mills, under police interrogation, July 2004:

Silvio Berlusconi had decided to give me a sum of money in recognition of the way I had managed to protect him in the course of the judicial investigation

Mills volunteered this explanation when asked to explain the following letter, which he’d sent to his accountant in February 2004 (emphases added):

The brief relevant facts are these.In 1996 I ended up with a dividend from Mr B’s companies of around £1.5m after all the tax and fees had been paid. This was all done on a personal basis: I took the risk, and kept my partners right out of it. Wisely or otherwise, I informed my partners what I had done and, since it was a substantial windfall, offered to pay them (I think) around £50,000 or £100,000 each as what I though was a pretty generous gesture. Which shows you how you can be, as they insisted the transaction should be treated as a partnership profit. To avoid litigation (we had just merged with Withers) I agreed to put the money on deposit in my bank until they were satisfied that there would be no third part claim. By 2000 it was clear there would be no claim (I knew that all along) and the money was taken off deposit and paid out; I kept just under £500,000 out of what was then getting on for £2m.

So all that risk and cost for not very much. The greatest cost was leaving Withers. I was not asked to leave it, but felt so uncomfortable there, not least because my Mackenzie Mills partners had taken most of the benefit for none of the risk, that I really couldn’t stay. I spent 1998, 1999 and 2000 as a sole practitioner, and it was evident that the trials were going on, there would be lawyers to pay and there was always the risk of being charged with something – which is actually about to happen now as a result of the latest investigation, which you know about.

I kept in close touch with the B people, and they knew my circumstances. They knew, in particular, how my partners had taken most of the dividend; they also knew quite how much the way in which I had been able to give my evidence (I told no lies, but I turned some very tricky corners, to put it mildly) had kept Mr B out of a great deal of trouble that I would have landed him in if I had said all I knew.

At around the end of 1999, I was told I would receive money, which I could treat as a long term loan or a gift. $600,000 was put in a hedge fund and I was told it would be there if I needed it. (It was put in the fund because the person connected to the B organisations was someone I had discussed this fund with on many occasions, and it was a round about way of making the money available.) For obvious reasons of their own (I was at that stage still a prosecution witness, but my evidence had been given) it needed to be done discreetly. And this was a roundabout way.

At the end of 2000 I wanted to invest in another fund, and my bank made a loan of the amount, secured on my house etc., of around 650,000 euros. I paid it off by liquidating the $600,000. I attach a copy of the dollar account. I regarded the payment as a gift. What else could it be? I wasn’t employed, I wasn’t acting for them, I wasn’t doing anything for them, I had already given my evidence, but there was certainly the risk of future legal costs (as there have been) and a great deal of anxiety (as there certainly have been).

So Mills told his accountant that ‘the B organisation’ had put a large sum of money his way; when the Italian authorities asked him to clarify this, he explained that Silvio Berlusconi had given him a bung in recognition of service rendered. This all seems eminently consistent with the facts of the case, not least Mills’ long association with the ‘B organisation’ in question. But Mills now says that the February 2004 letter set out a hypothetical scenario (which he presumably intended his accountant to take as factual) and that the July 2004 statement was extracted under pressure. (His Italian lawyer, wary of annoying the investigating magistrates unnecessarily, now denies that Mills actually said this. But denial is very much the order of the day in this case. Diego Attanasio, who Mills now claims gave him the money in question, denies it; Berlusconi himself has denied ever meeting Mills and spoken darkly of someone “tak[ing] advantage of my name to protect himself from the tax authorities in his own country”.)

In any case, the best-case scenario for Mills and Jowell – the scenario that Mills is actually proposing – is that Mills lied to his own accountant, then lied to Italian magistrates who were investigating a serious financial crime. This is extraordinary. You’ve got to wonder, if the Berlusconi story was a lie, what on earth was Mills hiding?

The case has a couple of other interesting angles. One was pointed out yesterday by the estimable Craig Murray:

Tessa Jowell tells us she did nothing wrong. She merely signed documents to remortgage her home. She strongly asserted today that this was “a very normal thing to do, and certainly not illegal.”It is indeed not unusual to remortgage, though it was unusual that she remortgaged with an offshore bank. It is also unusual to remortgage for as much as £400,000. But it is very unusual indeed to remortgage for £400,000, then pay off the full loan, within a month, with spare cash.

What sort of people do such a thing? Well, money launderers. If you have £400,000 of cash not easily explained, you now have remortgage papers available to show where you got it.

Mills, as we’ve seen, has another explanation for this money-shuffling operation – he needed some money in a hurry (I wanted to invest in another fund, presumably one which wouldn’t accept new investors for much longer) and the loan provided it. This makes a certain amount of sense, although it’s not clear why he couldn’t have drawn on the hedge fund directly ($600,000 was put in a hedge fund and I was told it would be there if I needed it). But you do wonder how often this kind of contingency could be expected to arise. If you’re David Mills, apparently, quite often. Tessa Jowell and David Mills bought their house in 1979. There was no mortgage at this stage – they bought the house outright, then borrowed money on it. Repeatedly. They took out a mortgage in 1987 and paid it off in 1996. In 2000 they took out the mortgage which is now under scrutiny, which they paid off (to the tune of £400,000) two months later. In 2002 they took out yet another mortgage, which is still outstanding. Mills has also raised a series of mortgages (in 1986, 2000 and 2002) on the couple’s second home, which he bought outright in 1984. This is speculation at best – hocking your property, investing the loan and hoping to come out ahead when it’s time to pay it back. The 2000 mortgage doesn’t even have this justification; it’s hard to see any rationale for it other than moving money from account A to account B. If Tessa Jowell thinks this is a very normal thing to do, her standards of normality aren’t those I’d expect of a Labour MP.

Then there’s the Ministerial Code of Conduct. As Craig notes, the question of whether Jowell’s conduct complies with the Code isn’t all that complex:

the Code precludes acceptance of gifts. That is what Mills claims this money was. As this “Gift” (note the use of a capital ‘G’) went to pay off a mortgage which was 50% in Jowell’s name and which she had signed, she also accepted it.

To be precise, the Code (which you can download from here, if you really want to) says:

It is a well established and recognised rule that no Minister or public servant should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him or her under an obligation. The same principle applies if gifts etc are offered to a member of their family.

The operative words here are would, or might appear to.

But there’s yet another wrinkle, which Brian has pointed out. Gus O’Donnell, who is currently investigating the case against Jowell, has no authority to do so under the Ministerial Code:

The Code is not a rulebook, and it is not the role of the Secretary of the Cabinet or other officials to enforce it or to investigate Ministers.

As it stands, the Code is there primarily to be complied with voluntarily. If this fails, the only recourse is to the Prime Minister himself.

Ministers only remain in office for so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. He is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.

The ethical buck stops not with O’Donnell but with Blair, in other words – Blair, whose personal relations with Berlusconi are good enough for them to have had a holiday together.

If Mills’ past relations with Berlusconi kicked this story off, it may be Blair’s which finish it. We should be clear at this point just how political the underlying story is – or rather, how political it isn’t. It’s true, but not entirely relevant, that there’s an election coming up in Italy; the investigations into Berlusconi’s business practices have been going on since before Berlusconi returned to power in 2001. It’s true that the independence of Italian investigating magistrates allows them – or rather, obliges them – to investigate any possible criminal offence which comes to their notice: it is this feature of the Italian judicial system which led to Tangentopoli, the landslide of corruption cases which swept away Italy’s old political class. And it’s true that, while magistrates are barred from any party affiliation, in practice many are committed opponents of Berlusconi and believe that bringing him down will be a service to the country. What’s not true – and in many cases grossly defamatory – is that the investigations are a political operation, a strategy to advance Communist interests by judicial means. (Grotesquely, Berlusconi has even characterised Tangentopoli in these terms.) Italian politics is even more complicated than it looks (and this post is long enough already), but I will say that, while Berlusconi is certainly on the Right, the split between those who want justice done at whatever cost and those who want to let sleeping dogs lie is not in any sense a Left/Right split. Dave (in the excellent post which gave me most of these links) has it about right:

“Italy’s independent magistrates have targeted Mr. Berlusconi for many years, in what he regards as a politically motivated vendetta.” My emphases. That’s good writing.

This has the potential to be a highly explosive story, with implications for Blair’s position as well as Jowell’s – which almost certainly means that all concerned will handle it like an unexploded bomb, and nothing at all will happen. There was a straw in the wind two Decembers ago:

prosecutors made a tentative request to extradite Mr Mills in December 2004. But the Home Office responded by going to the Ministry of Justice in Rome – via the Italian embassy in London – rather than dealing with the prosecuting authorities. It is claimed that that meant they involved the government of Mr Berlusconi, which had a direct interest in the case.The Home Office denied any wrongdoing. In a statement it said: “In late 2004, the Serious Fraud Office received a request from the Milan Prosecutor for legal advice about the circumstances in which David Mills could be extradited under UK law, based upon possible charges against him. The request was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, who took legal advice which was passed by the Home Office to the Italian Embassy in May 2005, since extradition requests are normally handled on diplomatic channels. During this process, which was handled at Home Office official level in the routine way, there was no contact between the Home Office and Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) at any level, or indeed with David Mills.”

Whether Jowell was told is hardly the point. The SFO by this stage knew the name of David Mackenzie Mills well; specifically, they knew he had for several years been in deep with a dubious Italian businessman called Silvio Berlusconi. And yet the Home Office, fielding a question about Mills sent to the SFO from the independent Milan Prosecutor, sent the answer to the Italian government. If this wasn’t a deliberate tip-off it was quite staggeringly incompetent.

But perhaps incompetence was all that it was. And perhaps David Mills is telling the truth when he says he’s a liar. We may know soon.

earlier this month the Home Office authorised the obtaining of two warrants by the police to search David Mills’ property on behalf of the Milan Prosecutor, in accordance with UK law and the UK’s international obligations. Neither David Mills nor Tessa Jowell nor DCMS were informed of this before the warrants were executed. Once the warrants had been executed, senior Home Office officials informed the DCMS of the factual position in relation to the warrant.

Tobias Jones:

Mr Berlusconi’s lawyer, Mr Ghedini, was asked this week whether he thought that Mr Mills was foolish or dishonest. “Neither one nor the other,” he replied. “I would simply define him as a person who was very frightened.”

Not weak enough

Will Davies is cross with David Cameron:

he seems to have invented his own more radical way of by-passing politics. His mantra is to introduce ‘a new approach’. Where Blair can claim the ghost of Keir Hardie and the strategic acumen of McKinseys, Cameron has adopted a view from nowhere at all. All he wants is a ‘new approach’, which could potentially exclude everything we’ve ever thought was politics, from policies, to media interviews, to empirical consensus on social problems. Asked whether his commitment to the environment might lead him towards policies to cut air travel, Cameron answered that this would not be the right ‘approach’ to the problem. Not only does this keep his policies hidden, it obscures a priori questions as to what the hell he’s doing in public life. Is he even a politician at all?

I think this is perceptive, but also risks misunderstanding and underestimating Cameron’s approach. Firstly and most fundamentally, Cameron’s a Conservative – meaning that he’ll do, say or think whatever it takes to get the Conservative Party into power. The last few Conservative leaders have assumed that they needed to replace ideologically-driven Thatcherism either with more of the same or with a more traditional version of ideological Conservatism (cf. Howard’s flirtation with Powellism). Cameron seems to have realised that there’s a deeper vein of Conservatism that’s not ideologically-driven at all.

Secondly and relatedly, Cameron’s oriented towards politics as culture and philosophy rather than project – which is to say, he’s oriented towards Labour’s weak spot. Even a baggy, miscellaneous, sacred-cow-free Conservatism is likely to have more internal coherence than New Labour. New Labour’s coherence is all in the project – an intransigently future-oriented project which draws much of its power from its continual attacks on the party’s own culture and philosophy. The justification for this approach was that it would take the party on a forced march into the terrain of middle-Englander common sense. But there are two ironies here. One is that this terrain is, if anything, even more alien to New Labour’s managerialists than the party’s own despised culture; witness Mandelson’s ghastly attempts to evoke grassroots patriotism at the 1997 election, flag, bulldog and all. There was always a danger that the party wouldn’t know the promised land when they saw it, in other words. The second irony is that the forced march was never going to stop there in any case: to change metaphors, once you’ve started throwing the floorboards into the furnace it’s hard to stop the train. In other words, the very coherence of New Labour as a project is rapidly taking the party into areas where it loses any possible coherence as a culture – and loses touch with that very ‘middle England’ for whose sake the whole exercise was supposedly undertaken. Cameron’s refusal to champion any kind of unifying project is a timely and appropriate response. If I were a Labour MP in a pre-1997 Tory seat – and plenty of them are – I’d find Cameron’s nebulous ‘approach’ extremely worrying.

Thirdly, we are not in a pre-election period (although sometimes it’s easy to forget). Cameron’s main priority now is to oppose effectively – and, given the problems the New Labour project is already creating for the Labour Party, the most effective way he can oppose Labour is by supporting Blair, just as Baldwin supported MacDonald (or the rope the hanged man).

Cameron’s an idiot – and a Tory idiot, at that – but I think for the Conservatives his ‘approach’ makes a lot of sense. By rallying apolitical Tories and ex-Tories, by exploiting the contradictions of the New Labour project and by driving a wedge between Blair and his party, Cameron’s got the chance to do New Labour a great deal of damage in the next couple of years. As I said earlier, at this stage in the game that’s all they deserve.

This is your past

Better late than never:

Asked if he would press ahead and put the bill into its committee stages, as well as stay in office, if the bill received its second reading only with Tory support, he said: “To get through the legislation and say ‘now I should quit’ – I don’t think that is very sensible.”

John McDonnell, secretary of the Campaign Group, reacted angrily: “Mr Blair is cutting himself loose from the Labour party and forming a national coalition government with the Tories. If he can do it on this issue, he can do it on others”.

The only trouble with this argument is that Blair cut himself loose from the Labour Party years ago. As I wrote in 1997,

Blair is not simply right-wing, in the sense that Gaitskell and John Smith were right-wingers: indeed, Blair has dismissed the Gaitskellites as the right wing of ‘old socialism’. To find another Labour leader so eager to meet the Conservative agenda halfway you would have to go back as far as the leader of another neologism, National Labour; and Blair, unlike MacDonald, has taken almost the whole of the Labour Party with him.

Which is precisely the tragedy of the Labour Party. Thankfully the Tories have now given up the futile quest for habitable ground to the Right of New Labour – and found a leader capable of playing Baldwin to Blair’s MacDonald. (Playing him for a fool and wrecking his party, that is.) I’m afraid it’s all that either Blair or the Labour Party deserves now.

(But remember, from 1931 to 1945 was only fourteen years.)

All the things I could do

But (for new readers, this is point 2; point 1 is here, and you should go and read it immediately), it’s becoming clear that Web 2.0 is all about the walled gardens. As I wrote in that post, In the context of social software, when I use a word like ‘enclose’ – or a word like ‘monetise’ – it means something quite specific and entirely negative: it’s a red-flag word. Which means that, oddly, when I started reading Russell Beattie’s WTF 2.0 I found a lot to agree with.

The worst thing about all the Web 2.0 hype is the complete loss of business perspective. There’s a few companies out there that seem to get it but just about every other new website I’ve seen lately is nothing but features parading as businesses. Sure, these guys get to be entered in the “Flip It Quick Acquisition Lottery”, but beyond that, none seem to be creating anything of any real value.

“Features masquerading as businesses”, the “Flip It Quick Acquisition Lottery” – all good stuff. Except that Russell’s objections aren’t quite the same as mine.

You can create a new website, fill it with all the goodness in the world, be good to your users, and be a good netizen and use every open standard there is while you’re at it, if at the end of the day your users didn’t put money into your bank account, it’s a useless waste of time for everyone involved. I mean, hey, if you want to create the next non-profit service like Wikipedia, all the more power too you. But if you want to get VC cash, an office in downtown Palo Alto, do a bunch of development, attract lots of users and pretend you’re a business? Then act like one, create something of real value and make some real money from it.

“Real value”, “real money”. You don’t have to be a Marxist to suspect that those aren’t necessarily the same thing (although, to be honest, it does help). In the next paragraph Russell draws a hazy distinction between the two himself:

look at the Weblog federations for example. They’re making money like people have done for a hundred years or so: hire writers, sell some ads, publish using standard technologies. Nothing too innovative, but they’re making money and I totally dig that. Then again, those writers are generating real value, IMHO, so there’s something there to make money from.

Russell commends the Weblog federations, whoever they are (didn’t they have trouble with the spice routes a while back?), for making money. He then stresses that they’re also creating real value, which means there’s something there to make money from – but ‘real value’ is qualified rather worryingly with ‘IMHO’, suggesting that it may or may not be real. At the end of the day the money’s real, though, and Russell digs that.

Russell then reminds us that things are different in the ‘mobile world’. (If your immediate reaction to this sentence was “Damn right, things are obscenely expensive in the mobile world”, or words to that effect, you’re ahead of me already.)

I deal with companies every day who have no qualms about charging 25 cents to send 160 characters of data from one person to another, or who have no problems charging $3.00 for a 10kb .gif image or a bad .midi version of a popular song, or even up to $10.00 for a small Java clone of Tetris – a 20 year old game. Unlike the web world, the mobile world is accustomed to charging for every thing that has the slightest bit of value. The difference between the markets couldn’t be more drastic. I know of a mobile chat site that’s on many carrier decks that’s a great example of this. To use it, you need to sign up to a subscription for $3.00 a month, and in return you get a URL which links to a very basic WAP based chat. This would be okay in my mind if there was some sort of extra special functionality, but there’s not.

Follow this reasoning. Money is being charged; in Russell’s mind this would be okay if there was ‘extra special functionality’ involved; but there isn’t. So, by implication, it’s not okay. The money is real, the value isn’t. An equally poor service which was free would be better. A better service which was free would be better still. Right? Well…

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not that this is a bad service or a rip off – they are providing a chat app as promised and it works. It’s just the fact that this particular app could be written by any developer in the Valley in less than an hour, and yet they easily have thousands if not millions of paying subscribers world wide.

The part about how the value isn’t real and it’s not okay? Forget that. The value is real, obviously, because they are providing a chat app as promised and it works. In other words, the measure of the value of a service is the fact that people are willing to pay for it. And if people aren’t paying for a service that has value to them (because it does stuff that they want it to do), then that’s just wrong and we shouldn’t encourage them.

Why will people gladly pay $3.00 for a basic mobile chat site and not pay anything for a decent web service? I think it’s mostly because of expectations, and honestly, the naivete of many of the people trying to start “businesses” on the web today.

Really, the hype around Web 2.0 has got to stop until all concerned stop acting like a bunch of hippies and start concentrating on what really matters, which is of course money:

I really do think there should be a litmus test for new web apps launched from now on – something very basic and if they don’t pass, they don’t qualify for any buzz or linkage. It’s a simple test: Will they take my credit card? That’s it. I don’t care if they have advertisers or sponsors or god knows what else, all I want to see is a place where I can type in my credit card for some service.

Money: that’s what Russell wants. Or rather, that’s what he wants to be charged. After all, if you’re giving it away, it can’t have very much value.

Ultimately, for Russell, there are two very simple questions which software developers need to be able to answer if they’re going to have any hope of jumping the Web 2.0 train. Do you want to get VC cash and an office in downtown Palo Alto, or not? And if not, WTF is wrong with you?

Talk to my machine

Today, two loosely-related points about social software. Here’s the first. When I heard about coComment, it seemed like a really good idea; I signed up not once but twice (once for each of my main blogs). (Yes, I’ve got more than two blogs. Sort of. It’s a long story.) But I’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with it since then, and Ben Metcalfe has explained why.

What I hadn’t realised was that the coComment bookmarklet submit[s] the comment to both the coComment server and the original blog server. Consequently,

at the point of submission your comment is essentially semantically forked – with a version going into coComment and an identical version going into the blog server.

Ugh. As Ben says, if the blog administrator – or, in the case of sites which allow comment editing, the commenter hirself – chooses to edit the content of the comment, it isn’t reflected in the coComment representation of the post conversation. The possibilities for abuse are obvious – look at the comments thread below this post.

What’s worse is that the coComment representation of discussion is only of those who have also used coComment to submit their comment. Ugh^2. This is yet another attempt at snowball-effect marketing, in other words: coComment becomes useful when it gains momentum, which it gets from adopters (like me) who started using it before it was useful, in the hope that it would gain sufficient momentum to become useful.

To which I can only say, sod that for a game of soldiers. Flickr would still be useful for me if I were the only Flickr user in the world; Simpy would still be useful if I were the only user. And so on – it’s part of the definition of social software that it’s useful for everyone, even for a single user with no interest in its ‘socialness’. First you build functionality that works, then you extract value from the use of that functionality, then you expose that value back to the users. (Or user.) And, er, that’s it. At no point in the process do you say “hold on, we need to get more people in here before we go on”.

It could have been so different – although I confess that a profound ignorance of the underlying technology is lurking behind that ‘could’. When I comment on a blog that I don’t follow, what I want is to grab a comment feed from that specific post and look at it along with other comment feeds from blog posts I’ve commented on (excluding blogs whose post feeds I read – but in the first instance those exclusions could be managed manually). And, er, that’s it – I don’t want or need to bring a third party into the equation.

Apps like coComment are street performers – without a big crowd looking the same way there’s no event. Apps like Simpy are Katamari meetings: the crowd is the event. It’s obvious to me which of the two looks more like ‘social software’. Unfortunately it’s also obvious which of the two is easier to monetise.

Which brings us to the second point…

And was Jerusalem builded here?

[Updated and edited 26/2]

In 1997 – shortly after Labour came to power – a London-based lawyer named David Mills received a sum of around half a million euro, which was paid into an off-shore account. It has been suggested to Mills that the money came from Silvio Berlusconi; Mills himself has referred in writing to his work for ‘the B people’ and a payment from ‘the B organisation’. Mills, however, maintains that the money came from a southern Italian businessman called Attanasio, and that the stuff about ‘the B people’ was merely a hypothetical scenario, not a description of anything that had actually happened. Unhelpfully, Attanasio has denied being involved, claiming that he was in prison on corruption charges at the time the money was paid over. Berlusconi himself has expressed displeasure, effectively accusing Mills of trying to use his name to distract attention from his own fraudulent accounting – a charge which Mills rebutted with all the affronted dignity he could muster.

Oddly, you won’t find much about the background to this case in David Lane’s 2004 book Berlusconi’s Shadow: Crime, justice and the pursuit of power. Lane writes for the Economist, and the book drew on the magazine’s 2003 dossier on Berlusconi (reproduced here, among other places). In places, however, the book drew on the dossier rather selectively. Here’s a passage from chapter 3 (‘Corruption’), about an English court hearing at which Berlusconi’s representatives attempted to block the transfer to Italy of potentially incriminating documents:

The court in London heard that the applicants and others were alleged by the Italian judicial authorities to have been involved in a huge fraud whereby at least 100 billion lire had been surreptitiously removed from [Berlusconi's company] Fininvest and used for criminal purposes. Prosecutions were already afoot against Berlusconi for bribing revenue inspectors … and for making illicit donations of 10 billion lire to Bettino Craxi, the former prime minister and leader of the Italian Socialist Party.At the heart of the four days of hearings in London were documents held by CMM Corporate Services at an address in Regent Street. (CMM stood for Carnelutti, a Milanese law firm, and MacKenzie Mills, the surname of a British solicitor who was a partner of the London arm of the Milanese firm.) The Serious Fraud Office … had implemented a request for judicial assistance. A search warrant had been issued by the Bow Street Metropolitan Magistrate on 15 April 1996 and executed that same day.

The authorities in London believed that they needed to act quickly. … The documents at the centre of the legal battle had previously been kept in Switzerland and evidence had come to light that one of CMM’s directors had required those responsible for holding them in Switzerland to transfer them to CMM in London. The director of CMM had given the instructions at the beginning of April 1995, shortly after letters requesting judicial assistance had been sent to Switzerland from Italy. If there was an innocent explanation for this, observed the British judge, none had ever been provided.

(British judicial understatement – it’s the best sort.)

No prizes for guessing the name of the “British solicitor”. Here’s how the same episode is covered in the Economist dossier:

Following leads from their investigation of bank accounts under Mr Craxi’s control, prosecutors eventually discovered a secret and substantial network of Fininvest companies, incorporated in the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Channel Islands. Tens of billions of lire had flowed through bank accounts held in these companies’ names.In their search for Fininvest’s black funds, magistrates sent requests to foreign authorities for assistance (known as rogatorie in Italian), especially to Switzerland where many of the secret bank accounts were. This was a long procedure, involving judiciaries, ministries and embassies of both countries, and the banks where evidence of the alleged wrongdoing lay.

On March 8th and 24th 1995, magistrates sent rogatorie to Switzerland. On April 10th 1995, Tanya Maynard, then a director of CMM Corporate Services (CMM), told those in Switzerland holding the records and papers for the network of Fininvest companies to transfer them to London. CMM was a British-registered company, incorporated in 1982 under the name of So.Ge.S International. The change of name took place in 1989, and CMM was dissolved in 1997.

According to company filings, the owner of CMM in April 1995 was Edsaco Holdings (UK) Ltd (Edsaco), a subsidiary of UBS, a Swiss bank, which had bought CMM in June 1994 for £750,000. One of Ms Maynard’s fellow CMM directors, Mr Mills, the husband of Tessa Jowell, had received £675,000 for his CMM stake. Two months earlier he had increased his stake in CMM to 90%, when he bought a 65% stake held in the name of a Milanese company, run by Studio Carnelutti, a Milan law firm. Mr Mills was a partner of Carnelutti & Co, the London affiliate of the Milan firm, until he left in 1988 to set up his own practice. Mr Mills and the Studio Carnelutti company in Milan had incorporated CMM as a company to provide services to administer other companies. In other words, it was partly a name-plate operation.

Italian magistrates asked the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in London to obtain the records and papers moved from Switzerland. In October 1996 Berlusconi petitioned the High Court in London to stop them getting the documents obtained by the SFO. The magistrates needed these documents as evidence in the case of illegal donations to Mr Craxi, whereas Berlusconi claimed the alleged offence was political. “I just cannot see corrupt political contributors…as ‘political prisoners,’” concluded Lord Justice Simon Brown, a judge in the case, though he added at the end of his judgment that his words should not “raise the least presumption of guilt”.

Of Ms Maynard’s instructions to those holding the documents in Switzerland to transfer them to London, Lord Brown said: “ If there was innocent explanation for this, none has ever been provided.” In the SFO’s application for a search warrant, a senior SFO official had stated: “Those persons running CMM/Edsaco must be aware that what they have done in managing the companies…is fraudulent and might render them liable to prosecution in Italy.” Mr Mills denies any wrongdoing.

That’s not all the dossier has to say about Mills. He and Berlusconi go way back. The Guardian describes Mills’ relationship with Berlusconi as beginning ‘within six years’ of his marriage to Tessa Jowell in 1979; the Economist suggests that it began rather earlier:

Mr Mills gave evidence on Berlusconi’s behalf … at a hearing in London in March 2003. Asked when his professional relationship with Fininvest began, Mr Mills replied in 1989 or 1990, and denied any relationship as early as 1981 or 1982.Based on company filings in Britain, these statements were untrue. Mr Mills attributes this to “a failure of memory”. In March 1980 Mr Mills incorporated Reteitalia Ltd in Britain, as a 90% subsidiary of Reteitalia Srl, Berlusconi’s film and TV rights company, set up in Italy that year. Fininvest Srl held the other 10%. In other words, Reteitalia Ltd was a Fininvest company. Between May 1981 and September 1983, Berlusconi was one of its four directors, all of whom were resident in Italy. Mr Mills was Reteitalia Ltd’s company secretary from incorporation until 1989, when CMM took over.

In 1985 Mr Mills also set up Publitalia International Ltd in Britain for Fininvest, and signed the form appointing Marcello Dell’Utri, Berlusconi’s close friend, as a director. In 1986 Reteitalia Ltd changed its name to Reteeuropa Ltd. A few months later, Mr Mills set up another company in Britain called Reteitalia Ltd, of which he became a director. This company changed its name to Reteitalia (UK) Ltd in 1988 and back again to Reteitalia Ltd in 1990.

The first Reteitalia Ltd (ie, the one that became Reteeuropa Ltd) bought film rights from third parties, which it then sold to other Berlusconi companies. It was a tax wheeze. Between March 1980 and December 1987, Reteitalia/Reteeuropa Ltd made $75m in pre-tax profits, which escaped British tax as the firm was deemed to be non-resident in Britain for tax purposes. This was because, while registered in Britain, it did not trade in Britain, and its registered owner and directors were not resident in Britain. After changes in British tax rules in 1988 eliminated this type of tax-avoidance scheme, Reteeuropa Ltd sold all its films rights in 1989 and wound down its activity in 1990 to very small fraction of its previous level. It made total losses of $53m between 1989-90, after the tax law had changed.

The second Reteitalia Ltd also bought and sold film rights, but, unlike its former namesake, it did trade in Britain and had some British directors, including Mr Mills. It was therefore subject to British tax, but made only meagre profits, followed by a loss in 1990. It, too, sold all its film rights in 1989.

So Mills was simply the man on the spot in Britain, helping Berlusconi to exploit a loophole in British tax law. This wasn’t, perhaps, the most seemly occupation for a lawyer – let alone a lawyer married to a rising politician – but it’s not as if Mills was deeply involved in Berlusconi’s money-laundering activities. Oh, wait a minute…

These [the two British 'Reteitalia's] were just two of 29 companies in Fininvest “Group B”. The expression Group B was used to “differentiate the official companies of Group A from those which, although also controlled by Fininvest, should not appear as group companies and thus be kept out of the consolidated accounts”, Mr Mills told magistrates. On CMM’s summary sheet for each of the companies in Group B, were the words “very discreet”, an aide-mémoire to keep secret the link with the Fininvest group.None of the 29 companies had any employees or any administrative infrastructure of their own. Trust companies acted as the registered agents for the companies’ shares (which were mainly in bearer form) and leading financial institutions in the Bahamas, Britain, Jersey, Luxembourg and Switzerland acted as bankers. Mr Mills claimed to the registered agents that he was the beneficial owner of three of the 29 companies. Mr G Foscale, Berlusconi’s cousin, was presented as the beneficial owner of All Iberian.

CMM served as company secretary to 17 of the 29 companies. Ms Maynard was a director of Century One Entertainment and Universal One, and also of All Iberian. Mr Mills told Milanese prosecutors that Fininvest managed, directed and financed the operations of the All Iberian group. In other words, CMM was an interlocutor for Fininvest with bankers and registered agents of the Group B companies.

And so it goes on. What the Economist (and Lane’s book) describes is a mind-bogglingly complex network of business and accounting entities, operating on the outer limits of legality and devoted to money-laundering and bribery. And the Economist (although not Lane’s book) gives rather more than a walk-on part to David Mills.

There’s more from Dave here, here and here. But of course, we should bear in mind that Mr Mills denies any wrongdoing.

Update It appears that the money paid to Mills was on-shored, if that’s the word, by the interesting device of raising an appropriately-sized loan on Mills’ house and then immediately repaying it by emptying out the off-shore account. What’s particularly interesting is that Mills didn’t have sole ownership of the house in question. His co-owner – and co-signatory to the loan – was of course Tessa Jowell. Who says:

I signed a charge over our jointly-owned home to support a loan made to my husband alone by his bank. I am satisfied that no conflict of interest arose out of this transaction in relation to my ministerial duties.

So that’s all right then.

Can we turn around?

The first thing that has to be said about the “glorification of terrorism” law is that it’s appallingly ill-written legislation. Here it is, courtesy of ‘Unity’:

Encouragement of Terrorism (1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) he publishes a statement or causes another to publish a statement on his behalf; and
(b) at the time he does so—
(i) he knows or believes, or
(ii) he has reasonable grounds for believing, that members of the public to whom the statement is or is to be published are likely to understand it as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences.

(2) For the purposes of this section the statements that are likely to be understood by members of the public as indirectly encouraging the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences include every statement which—

(a) glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts or offences; and
(b) is a statement from which those members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated in existing circumstances.

(3) For the purposes of this section the questions what it would be reasonable to believe about how members of the public will understand a statement and what they could reasonably be expected to infer from a statement must be determined having regard both—

(a) to the contents of the statement as a whole; and
(b) to the circumstances and manner in which it is or is to be published.

(4) It is irrelevant for the purposes of subsections (1) and (2)—

(a) whether the statement relates to the commission, preparation or instigation of one or more particular acts of terrorism or Convention offences, of acts of terrorism or Convention offences of a particular description or of acts of terrorism or Convention offences generally; and
(b) whether any person is in fact encouraged or induced by the statement to commit, prepare or instigate any such act or offence.

I can’t be certain, but I think what’s happening here is that 1 (b) (ii) is qualified by 2 (a) and (b). There’s the bit about having ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ – a kind of ‘shouting Terror in a crowded theatre’ clause; then there are criteria for the kind of statement which, the government believes, would give somebody reasonable grounds, etc. These criteria are twofold: you have to (a) glorify something which (b) could be emulated. The whole is then dunked in a bath of circumstantial vagueness with 3 (a) and (b) and 4 (a): following these clauses, we could reasonably see a scholarly discussion of the case for assassinating Charles Clarke go unpunished while vague but inflammatory sloganeering is punished as encouraging terrorism. Of course, in many cases vague but inflammatory sloganeering could have been punished anyway – but not reliably, and (crucially) not as terrorism. The importance of the ‘terrorism’ label is underlined by the reference to “Convention offences”: a weird ragbag of offences, defined (or at least enumerated) here: explosives offences, hijacking, kidnapping and so forth. These are offences incorporated into British law in compliance with international (generally UN) conventions – hence the name. The offences enumerated appear already to be crimes in English and Scottish law; the effect of the ‘Convention offences’ labelling is to group them under the same heading as terrorist offences.

Executive summary of the new clauses: if you say anything that we think is liable to persuade other people that what we call terrorism isn’t as bad as we say it is, then you’re more or less a terrorist yourself – and, more to the point, you’re nicked.

As for what it is that our government calls terrorism, here’s the current legal definition:

1. – (1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where-(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person’s life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.

Let’s unscramble that. (Anyone else reminded of that Robert Heinlein story where the kid is given an insanely complicated task as part of an aptitude test, and gets full marks for telling the examiner it’s logically impossible?)

Terrorism equals: serious violence
or serious damage to property
or endangering life
or endangering the health or safety of ‘a section of the public’
or serious disruption of ‘an electronic system’
(OR threatening any of the above)
when the action involves a political, ideological or religious cause
and EITHER is intended to intimidate people or influence the government
OR involves the use of guns or explosives.

Got that? Simplifying slightly and stripping away weasel words like ‘serious’, the definition of terrorism we’re left with is:

an organised political group hurting people, smashing things up or hacking systems – or threatening to hurt people, smash things up or hack systems – for political goals. (Or using guns or explosives, for any reason – that’s right out.)

So, statements glorifying terrorism are any statements about terrorism that the government chooses to designate as such; and terrorism is any violent, disruptive or threatening political activity which the government chooses to designate as such.

As I wrote back here, this is not really about security; a government that was primarily concerned with threats to public safety would go about things a lot more quietly. This is a profoundly political strategy, which seems to be calculated to divide and demobilise (in the first instance) the Muslim community, seen as a potential source of opposition to the government. How better to divide a group against itself than by letting it be known that most members of the group are decent, law-abiding British citizens, but some are scheming alien terrorists who ought to be rounded up?

Blair:

He said: “The new law will mean that if people are going to start celebrating acts of terrorism or condoning people who engage in terrorism, they will be prosecuted, and if they do not come from this country, they should not be in this country. We have free speech in this country, but you cannot abuse it.”He said yesterday’s vote represented a vital signal of strength “in circumstances where the threat is not just from the individual acts of terrorism, but the people who try to entice other people or recruit other people into doing it”.

Those people, they’re the ones we need to deal with. Not you, obviously, but… well, you know. Them. You know the ones. You wouldn’t happen to have anything you could tell us about them, would you? No? Not to worry. Mind how you go.

Update Shortly after writing the above paragraph, I read this. (Incidentally, the legality of Riz Ahmed’s detention seems extremely debatable. Schedule 7 of TACT(2000) would legitimise detention in the circumstances Riz describes, but only for the purpose of establishing whether or not he was a terrorist.)

Under the threat of “prolonging” my detention, I cooperated in allowing her to go through my wallet. She took detailed notes on all its contents. All of my bankcard details were noted down, as were the details on other people’s business cards I had in my wallet.

While searching through my wallet she asked me whether I intended to do more documentary films, specifically more political ones like The Road to Guantanamo. She asked “Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, you know, to publicise the struggles of Muslims?”. She also asked me what my political views were, what I thought about “the Iraq war and everything else that was going on”, whether the Iraq war was “right” in my view.She then asked me whether I would mind officers contacting me regularly in the future, “in case, for example, you might be in a café, and you overhear someone discussing illegal activities”.

You really can’t make it up.

The feeble and the bad

Here’s a curious coincidence (as predicted by Unity).

Passers-by stopped police officers to ask why the marchers were being allowed to carry banners threatening further suicide attacks in the city. One police officer replied: “Don’t worry. We are photographing them.

Here’s Blair:

there is another point, on which the right hon. Gentleman touched. Let me explain why I disagree so strongly with the position of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. He mentioned the terms of the amendment that he will support, which is about “the listener”. It does not cover written statements or images. In other words, it may deal with a sermon but not a placard. It would be incredible at this moment, after what has happened in the past few weeks, if we were to dilute the proposed law in that way.

The words in the amendment that he and the Liberal Democrats support—I hope that his hon. Friends realise this—refer to “the listener”. That does not cover images, placards or written statements. Supporting that would significantly weaken our ability to prosecute the very people about whom he complained on television a couple weeks ago.

And here’s Blair:

“There’s a bigger piece going on, isn’t there? It’s not only about these counter-terrorist measures, it’s also about the position of the prime minister. We can’t play entirely outside that process.”

A mean idea to call my own

Technorati’s new “Filter by Authority” feature depresses me intensely – not least because I thought they’d abandoned the word ‘authority’ some time after my last rant on the subject. There are three problems here. Firstly, as I wrote last year:

Technorati is all about in-groups and out-groups. … authority directly tracks popularity – although this is ‘popularity’ in that odd American high-school sense of the word: ‘popular’ sites aren’t the ones with the most friends (most out-bound links, most distinct participants in Comments threads or even most traffic) but the ones with the most people envying them (hence: most in-bound links).

In other words, ‘authority’ is a really lousy synonym for ‘high inbound link count’, raising completely groundless expectations of quality and reliability. McDonald’s is a popular provider of hot food; it’s not an authority on cooking. The relative popularity (or enviability) of a site may signify many things, but it doesn’t signify that the site possesses absolute qualities like veracity, completeness, beauty – or authority.

But hold on – is it absurd to call McDonald’s authoritative? You’ve got to admit, they’re good at what they do… There’s a sense in which this is a tautology – because what they do is maximise the numbers who come through the doors – but never mind. Let’s say that we can identify the McDonald’s branch with the highest number of burgers sold (or repeat customers, or stars on uniforms – the precise metric doesn’t matter). There’s a good argument for using the word ‘best’: it looks like this is the best McDonald’s branch in the world. And the best fast food joint in the world? Well, maybe. The best restaurant in the world? Um, no. Quality tracks popularity, to some extent, but only within a given domain – otherwise USA Today would be the best newspaper in the USA . (To say it’s the best national mass-market tabloid would be less controversial.) [Edited with thanks to commenters who know about this stuff.]

This is the second problem with authority-as-link-count, and one which Technorati shows no sign of recognising, much less addressing. I can live with the idea that the Huffington Post is more popular than Beppe Grillo’s blog – but more authoritative? I really don’t think so. (Any right-wingers reading this may substitute Huffington for Grillo and Kos for Huffington, and re-read. And rest.) At bottom, Technorati’s ‘authority’ ranking is based on the laughably outdated idea that there is a single Blogosphere, within which we’re all talking to pretty much the same people about pretty much the same things. Abandon that assumption and the problems with an ‘authority’ metric are staringly apparent: who am I authoritative for? who am I more authoritative than?

But if this is an error it’s not an error of Dave Sifry’s invention. As I’ve said, within any given domain of ideas, it’s not entirely meaningless to say that authority tracks popularity: among academic authors, the author who sells books and fills halls is likely to be the author who is cited, even if he or she hasn’t written anything particularly inspired since Thatcher was in power. The question is whether this is a feature or a bug: if we’re going to read one writer rather than another, should we choose the popular dullard or the unknown genius? Put it another way: if we’re choosing who to read in the context of a new publication medium with massively lowered entry costs – and with an accompanying ideology rich in levelled playing-fields, smashed barriers and dismantled hierarchies – who should we be trying to seek out: Dullard (Popular) or Genius (Unknown)?

The third and most fundamental problem with ranking by ‘authority’ is that it brings to the Web one of the very features of offline life which Web evangelists told us we were leaving behind. This kind of ‘feature’ – and the buzz-chasing worldview that promotes it – is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I find that it often helps me to also answer the question, “Who is the most influential blogger talking about XXX this week, and what did she say?”Dave Sifry

We climbed and we climbed

I don’t trust Yahoo!, for reasons which have nothing to do with my dislike of misused punctuation marks (although the bang certainly doesn’t help); I don’t trust Google either. Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember when MicroSoft [sic] were new and exciting and a major attractor of geek goodwill; maybe it’s just because I’m an incurable pinko and don’t trust anyone who’s making a profit out of me. Anyway, I don’t trust Yahoo!, or like them particularly; I switched to Simpy when Yahoo! bought del.icio.us, and I’ve felt a bit differently about Tom – hitherto one of my favourite bloggers anywhere – since he joined Yahoo!.

Still. This (PDF) is Tom’s presentation to the Future of Web Apps conference, and it’s good stuff – both useful and beautiful, to use William Morris’s criteria. The fourth rule (precept? guideline? maxim?) spoke to me particularly clearly:

Identify your first order objects and make them addressable

Start with the data, in other words; then work out what the data is; then make sure that people (and programs) can get at it. (Rule 5: “Use readable, reliable and hackable URLs”.) It’s a simple idea, but surprisingly radical when you consider its implications – and it’s already meeting resistance, as radical ideas do (see Guy Carberry’s comments here).

More or less in passing, Tom’s presentation also shows why the Shirkyan attempt to counterpose taxonomy to folksonomy is wrongheaded. If you’re going to let people play with your data (including conceptual data), then it needs to be exposed – but if you’re going to expose data in ways that people can get at, you need structure. And it doesn’t matter if it’s not the right structure, not least because there is no right structure (librarians have always known this); what matters is that it’s consistent and logical enough to give people a way in to what they want to find. To put it another way, what matters is that the structure is consistent and logical enough to represent a set of propositions about the data (or concepts). Once you’ve climbed that scaffolding, you can start slinging your own links. But ethnoclassification builds on classification: on its own, it won’t get you the stuff you’re looking for – unless what you’re looking for isn’t so much the stuff as what people are saying about stuff. (Which is why new-media journalists and researchers like tagging, of course.)

Anyway – very nice presentation by the man Coates. Check it out.

If a tree don’t fall on me

Apparently I’m up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog’s first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I’ll call Old Local. It’s not particularly old – it’s six or seven years old, in fact – but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It’s a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery’s ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there’s New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it’s a Thwaites’ pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn’t serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it’s good ale – their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it’s not that stark a contrast; I’m not sure where you’d go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don’t hear many local accents in New Local; from what I’ve overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)

I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won’t come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, ‘market forces’ only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it’s not just clean air that the ban will promote – or rather, it’ll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that’s what worries me. I’m a middle-class incomer, with an incomer’s accent, an incomer’s taste in beer and an incomer’s habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one’s just me. But anyway – middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I’d like it more if it wasn’t quite so full of people like me. I’m settled here – I’ve been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 – but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that’s appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don’t object to being reminded that I’m not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx – not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big ‘up yours’ to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:

To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.

I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn’t about doing just that – or if it is, it’s a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris’s post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you’d give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it’s not just the management you’re taking on, there’s a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted – but that’s another rant.) This in itself wouldn’t do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you’d legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you’d enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly – starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian‘s post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I’ve just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

No sweat at all

I agree with Michel Houellebecq, up to a point.

Atomised became a bestseller at home and abroad. It won the Prix Novembre, though it missed out on the Goncourt. The publication of Platform saw him prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, after describing Islam as ‘the most idiotic religion’ in a promotional interview. (His exact words were: ‘La religion le plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.’) He argued that he was entitled to criticise Islam, and that he had never conflated Muslims with Arabs; he was cleared; the book sold 200,000 copies in two weeks.

In any case, Islam’s the shittiest religion of all. Now: consider Islam as a body of ideas about the source, meaning and ultimate purpose of human life, intertwined with a body of practice and ritual, both of which are incarnated in a community of believers. In short, consider Islam as a religion like Christianity. In that perspective, Houellebecq’s acquittal was well-deserved; indeed, in that perspective I don’t see that the remark raises any significant issues. We might disagree with it profoundly; we might see it as hostile and divisive; we might see it as counter-productive to broader political projects with which we sympathise. All of this is beside the point: religions – like other ideologies and bodies of community-based practice – cannot be protected against disrespect, and it’s no kind of radicalism to insist that they should be.

On the other hand: consider Islam as the body of practice and belief which defines a minority community, whose members are born into that community and can no more cease to be members than I can cease to be English (and part-Welsh). In short, consider Islam as a religion like Judaism. If it’s appropriate to consider the Muslim community as a minority ethnicity, then it’s equally appropriate for the state to protect that community’s identity against slurs like Houellebecq’s – and for radicals to protest against its failure to do so, in line with the ruling classes’ eternal divide-and-rule strategy.

I don’t think there’s a right answer to this question, although I do think that for conceptualisations of Islam to develop away from the ethnic perspective and towards the contemporary Christian model would be profoundly desirable. All of which means that we need to make things more complicated and qualified rather then less – even if it means our writing becomes less bracing:

There’s little point in denying that he has some profoundly fascistic tendencies (the biography reveals that he is, or at least was, a committed racist). Like Céline, he’s a right-wing misanthrope who has produced a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture of French society – obscenified and isolating. He’s also a careless writer (in his view the modern world doesn’t deserve anything better). His fiction is often crude and repetitive. His observations, bracing at first, seem specious and grating when repeated, in almost identical form, in novel after novel.

Theo Tait’s conceding too much here. I realise that Damn. braces, but is frankly-expressed racism and misanthropy really bracing? We’re dealing here, I think, with a kind of perverse inversion of the role Richard plays for his readers, and Tim for his: That stuff you read in the paper today? It’s all a load of rubbish. You know what’s really important… In Houellebecq’s case what comes under fire is not so much what you read in the paper as what you think, and the flattery of the reader is rather indirect, but the basic dynamic – a kind of antinomian evangelism – is very similar. Don’t believe them – you know what’s really going on… It’s agitprop, essentially, promoting simplification and blame. (The two go together: if the issues are so clear, why are we told they’re so complex and difficult? Because they‘re idiots, or liars, or idiots unwittingly serving liars, or…) As literature, this kind of thing is contemptible. As political writing it’s not much better.

So I agree with Martin Kettle (up to a point):

Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy’s enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi.

The all-embracing anti-imperialist mindset is a reality on the Left today; it’s a distraction at best, at worst positively dangerous. Ironically, the alternative perspective Kettle appears to propose – one wiped clean of any allusion to socialism, which has supposedly been proved to be a utopian daydream – is not much of an improvement. Nothing in Kettle’s piece is more revealing than the point when, after discussing his Communist Party background, he refers briefly to ‘other’ socialist currents; these are immediately qualified as ‘democratic and moderate’, i.e. reformist. As a post-war Communist, Kettle comes from a group which identified the revolutionary hopes of socialism with Stalinism – that weird combination of great-power realpolitik, managerialist Gleichschaltung and Fabian gradualism – and systematically denied that any rival claimant to the ‘socialist’ name deserved it. Even now, Kettle seems genuinely unaware of the possibility of being left of Stalin.

There is, in other words, no alternative; faced with the collapse of actually-existing socialism, Leftists must either live a lie or abandon it and embrace the more progressive elements of liberal capitalism. And if the latter course involves finding a home from home on the non-socialist Left, so much the better. (An awful lot of old CPers have ended up with New Labour; I suppose one authoritarian, bureaucratic party that blots out the rest of the Left is as good as another.)

The problem with Michel Houellebecq is less that he’s a racist than that he thinks simplistically and encourages over-simplification in others, erasing qualifications and concealing viable alternatives. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one.

It’s just work

Suw Charman types too fast. She’s produced what looks like a fascinating record of the Future of Web Apps conference, but I can’t see myself ever reading the whole thing. But this jumped out at me (slight edits):

Joshua Schachter – The things we’ve learned
Tagging is not really about classification or organisation, it’s user interface. It’s a way to store your working state or context. Useful for recall. OK for discovery because someone might tag similarly to you. Bad for distribution.Not all metadata is tags. People ask for automatic metadata, but that’s not the value – the value is attention, that you saw it and decided that it was important enough to tag. Auto-tagging doesn’t help you do what you’re trying to do. … because there’s a small transaction cost that adds value. But don’t make them do too much work.

the value is attention … because there’s a small transaction cost, that adds value The value of tagging is in the meaning it encodes, and the meaning is created by people doing a bit of work. If you make things easy by automating the process of getting meaning out of data, that creativity is not called upon and what you get doesn’t have the same value.

This parallels my thoughts about the impoverishment of technology through the collapse of alternative ways of using it, often in the name of ease of use – not to mention the thoughts I put down on my other blog about how the best communication (and the best narrative) is gappy and open to multiple interpretations. One way of understanding why gappiness and plurivalence might be a positive virtue, finally, is suggested by Anne, who counterposes predictability and foretelling to potentiality and hope.

I think what all these arguments have in common is a sense of meaning as not-yet-(finally)-constructed. In this perspective the point of social software, in particular, is not to connect data but to enable people to talk about data – while preventing that talk from being entirely weightless by imposing a certain level of friction, a certain opportunity cost. (A cost which can always be raised or lowered. Thought experiment: Wikipedia makes it impossible to revert an article to a version less than a week old. What happens?) In the case of tagging systems, there has to be a reason why you would want to tag a resource, and want to tag it in ways that have meaning for you. Meaning is created through conversations that require a bit of effort, within the shared context of an open horizon: it’s work, but it’s work without a known outcome. A journey of hope, as someone wrote.

(My blogs are crossing over – I hate it when that happens…)

The shapes between us

Peter Campbell writes in the current LRB:

Inanimate things in museums – teacups from which no one drinks, pictures which will never again be bought and sold – can, as much as stuffed animals, make one think sadly of the time when they were alive. Modern curators know this and spend much time and money avoiding notions of dust, death and mummification. Even art museums do not cram everything in the reserve collection onto the walls. But in avoiding the confusion, heterogeneity and abundance of old-style museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, some of what they shared with the street has gone: an ability to feed the imagination with unexplained, comical, sinister and melancholy juxtapositions, for example – the aspect of collecting the Surrealists exploited.

A well-designed and artistically curated set of exhibits, in other words, enables the viewer to experience the exhibition as a whole, rather than being constantly interrupted by lacrimae rerum for the lost use-value of each individual exhibit. However, in the exhibition that this form of curation creates – a single-minded, smoothly articulated conglomerate – more is lost than a melancholy evocation of the exhibits’ past life. This kind of exhibition turns the viewer into a passive spectator, receiving and absorbing an achieved whole rather than responding imaginatively to an assembly of disjointed parts.

This critique, it seems to me, is not that far from Adina‘s review of Walk the Line:

the unimaginative or condescending literalness of the movie is a good reminder of what I can’t stand about Hollywood style. It’s not hatred of emotion, or even melodrama. I loved Farewell My Concubine, which featured a damaged artist, unrequited love, drug addiction fueled by rejection, beautiful photography, and plenty of tragedy per foot of celluloid. The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference.

Or, for that matter, Ellis’s argument here:

The first author opens up the thoughts of both his characters. Everything is controlled and explained. Meaning is processed for the reader. When the character speaks in German, she then helpfully provides an instant translation into English. The first author duly goes on to supply the reader with a sex scene.The second author seems about to supply a sex scene, then abruptly and unexpectedly denies that readerly expectation. Sketches displace sexual intercourse. Looking at sketches and making more sketches becomes more attractive than sex. What the woman thinks of this is withheld from the reader. We remain inside a single mind. There are no judgements made for us about the state of this mind. The reader has to process the writing and discover for herself where the meaning lies.

There is a difference in these two passages, I think, between writing (conventional, conformist, explanatory, offering the warmth of familiarity and shared values) and literature (incomplete, resonant, resisting familiarity and a single dimension of meaning).

(You’ll have to read the post to find out who the two writers are.)

The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference. The meaning’s in the gaps – at least, that’s where you’re being treated as a thinking being, a participant in communication (which is always imperfect) and not a spectator of composed images.

So close to the answer

Thanks to a post at Burningbird – and in particular some thoughtful comments from Yule Heibel – I saw the Danish cartoons today. I won’t say I was shocked, but I was surprised. If offensiveness has anything to do with intention to offend, these are strikingly inoffensive images. Certainly the widespread comparison with hate speech, and with cartoons used as hate propaganda, doesn’t hold up for a second. The images have been seen as offensive because they’re portrayals of Mohammed, and because they’re critical of Islam: it’s an explosive and provocative combination, which probably shouldn’t have been attempted. (Although not because of the ‘predictable’ violent reaction – which I persist in regarding as entirely unpredictable, and entirely the fault of the people who were directly responsible.)

That said, I don’t think there’s a case for censorship, even in the case of irresponsible provocations (or rather, especially in that case – hard cases make bad law). I don’t think it’s acceptable that the Muslim community should have a veto over portrayals of Mohammed, any more than that Christians should be able to have ‘blasphemy’ banned. As for the political content of the cartoons, I think that the questions they ask about Islam can be asked reasonably and without racist intent. Is the subjugation of women justified by reference to Islam? Is suicide bombing? Is violence against apostates and blasphemers? Or violence against non-Muslims who commit what would be blasphemy if they were Muslims, e.g. Danish cartoonists? And, if the answer in practice is Yes (as it clearly is in the case of question 4), does this say anything about Islam as a body of doctrine and practice? Are these beliefs aberrations from the mainstream of Islam – like professed Christians supporting the death penalty – and if so how are they justified in terms of Islam? These are troubling questions, but they’re open questions – or should be. As I wrote back here,

It would be absurd – and grossly insulting – to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of ‘fit’ between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.

And, I would add, out of the shadow of accusations of racism. Christianity isn’t afforded immunity from criticism – even biased and ignorant criticism – in our societies, and I don’t think we should approach other religions any differently.

Henry Porter has it about right:

We should accept that it has caused deep offence to people whose religion we do not fully comprehend. But, equally, Muslims must allow for the error in a continent of free but flawed societies. They should understand that our societies are not simply based on godless consumption and self-indulgence, but on one or two deeply held convictions.

An anonymous commenter at Indigo Jo goes to the heart of this disagreement when [s]he writes:

there are areas [in Islam] that can be “compromised”, but there are foundational areas that cannot. When you reach those core areas, a choice has to be made as to what you stand for, who you are, etc. … your identity is not guaranteed under the law [if] the law allows for trivialisation and ridicule of those core beliefs/principles that constitute your identity. True it may not be inciting to hatred or murder, but such ridicules and trivialisation still has some effect in the society. It is only a matter of time before it culminates in the likes of Jerry Springer’s portrayal of Jesus (peace be upon him), and ultimately mockery of Christianity. The outcome is evident. Religious values and its objectives are destroyed in the hearts of people.

Well, I liked Jerry Springer: the Opera, and I’ve got a great deal of time for the teachings of Jesus. More generally, I believe firmly that mocking the symbols and impedimenta of a belief does not mock the belief itself – and that even mocking a belief itself doesn’t destroy it: books don’t burn (Mikhail Bulgakov said that). Perhaps it’s a British (or Northern European?) thing; there have been quite long periods when Christians of different denominations have had to think of their faith as something that wasn’t protected from mockery, by the state or anyone else. I have beliefs and I expect you to respect my right to hold them, but my faith isn’t protected from criticism, mockery or abuse – and neither is yours. Between this outlook – this conviction – and the conviction that my faith needs to be protected, I’m not sure how much dialogue there can be.

But I may be wrong. And there could, in any case, be more respect – from both sides.

Postscript Ken MacLeod has the mood of much of this discussion bang to rights.

If anti-semitism is, in an important aspect, a rage against the machine, against progress, is there an opposite rage: a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition? A rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned, against what is solid and doesn’t melt into air, against ways of life that resist commodification, against use-value that refuses to become exchange-value? And might that rage too need a fantasy object?

I’ll admit to an element of rage – rant, even. I think it’s partly because I was brought up Christian and still have a distinct emotional investment in religion: I know that (a certain type of) religious belief can be not only compatible with but conducive to liberal and radical politics, leading people from a vague wish to be good and do good to the shores of libertarian socialism. So seeing a violent mobilisation in the defence of religion against liberalism, with the apparent approval of socialists… well, there are people who read the New Testament and find nothing in it but what they already knew (queers are bad, abortion’s bad and smacking your kids is good, essentially), and I feel pretty much the same about them. Apart from anything else, it seems such a wasteWhen you’re so close to the answer, why don’t you go in?

Anyway, Ken’s comment is one of the few things I’ve read during this affair that has really given me pause. Read the whole thing. (Then re-read this post. Balance, y’know.)

And the high plains too

Tom comments on this post from last year:

Thoughts: (1) Pledgebank is about increasing the perceived effect of ones actions by connecting it to a larger purpose (2) Wikipedia already seems to have that mechanism but (3) I like the idea of building social processes alongside wikipedia a lot…

Yes and No to point 2. Wikipedia already has social reinforcement/reputation feedback effects built in, but they only really work once you’re on the inside. If you’re on the outside, the fabled dedication and energy of the Wikipedia community is actually a barrier – not least because, if you’re unlucky, all that dedication and energy will be applied to reversing your edits. (Think of Thomas Vander Wal‘s discovery that he disagreed radically with Wikipedia’s definition of ‘folksonomy’, and his subsequent struggle to get the definition changed – the point here being that Thomas actually coined the term, and not that long ago.)

This isn’t a new discovery: reputation-based regulation inevitably creates a barrier to entry, as anyone who’s tried to get noticed on Usenet can confirm. Reputation adds a bit of friction to the weightless process of making your mark online, and adds a bit of glue to the shapeless aggregate of people who do it; the fact that you have to build up a bit of reputation before your words gain traction is, mostly, feature rather than bug.

So is the Pledgebank idea reinventing the wheel, simply trying to use reputation-based peer pressure to mobilise a group who could have been subjecting themselves to Wikipedia peer pressure all along? I don’t think so. Compared with a Usenet newsgroup or a Web board community, Wikipedia has a couple of curious and atypical aspects. Firstly, the currency of Wikipedia reputation-building is work, and plenty of it. I’ve known people make a reputation on Usenet with a single post. The size and complexity of Wikipedia makes that highly unlikely. Secondly, Wikipedia is unusual in parallelling areas where people already have reputations, built up through domain-specific conversations. As always, issues of authority and reliability come into sharpest focus when the area’s one that you know personally. I can say that, if you’re interested in processes of consensus-formation in an area of hotly contested political debate, the Wikipedia page on the Lega Nord makes fascinating reading. If you’re interested in getting some reasonably authoritative views on the Lega Nord, it’s no substitute for reading the literature. This isn’t to say that Wikipedia is wrong – but it’s less right than it could be. And this is partly because Wikipedia’s informal reputation management mechanisms are orthogonal to the mechanisms which produce subject area experts, and partly because Wikipedia’s mechanisms operate to repel anyone who isn’t committed to building a Wikipedia reputation – perhaps because they’re more interested in building one within their subject area.

Hence the proposed Wikipedant posse. If – like me and Tom and Thomas – you’ve seen something on Wikipedia & thought That’s just wrong, but it would take a long time to fix it; and if you not only (a) know stuff, but (ii) know when you don’t know something and (3) know how to find stuff out; then this could be your kind of thing. The idea is simple: we compile a list of wrong-but-timeconsuming Wikipedia pages (usually involving simplistic or tendentious renderings of a subject); we dish them out, presumably at random; and, when we get assigned a page, we take ownership of it and try to put it right. This wouldn’t be a lifetime commitment, but it would almost certainly involve a couple of months of checking back and reverting unhelpful edits, on top of the researching and writing time.

I’ll be appealing to pedants, autodidacts and (OK, I admit it) academics rather than Wikipedia enthusiasts, and I’ll be appealing on a strictly time-limited basis rather than trying to create new Wikipedians. It will, unavoidably, involve quite a lot of work, which is why I’ll be calling in aid an external source of peer pressure in the form of Pledgebank.

And I’ll be doing this… some time soon. This year, definitely. (Terrors of the earth, I’m telling you.)

Update I wrote:

I’ll be appealing to pedants, autodidacts and (OK, I admit it) academics

and

Wikipedia’s mechanisms operate to repel anyone who isn’t committed to building a Wikipedia reputation – perhaps because they’re more interested in building one within their subject area.

Which perhaps isn’t precisely the impression I gave last September, when I wrote:

I’ll just reiterate that I’m not talking about people with expert knowledge, so much as perfectionists with inquiring minds.

What a difference a few months’ full-time employment makes. (I was a freelance journalist from 1999 to 2004, and kept it up on a part-time basis until last summer.) Let’s split the difference: subject experts will be welcome, just as long as they’re also perfectionists with inquiring minds. (Which of course they will be, what with being subject experts and everything.)

The rich man’s militia

Ian Blair:

“There’s a bigger piece going on, isn’t there? It’s not only about these counter-terrorist measures, it’s also about the position of the prime minister. We can’t play entirely outside that process.”

In 1983 Jean-Paul Brodeur, a Canadian criminologist, published an essay called “High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks About the Policing of Political Activities”. Brodeur defined ‘low policing’ as the unending and mundane job of maintaining social order and responding to breaches of the criminal law. ‘High policing’, by contrast, is policing with an agenda and a long-term perspective: the use of police methods and resources to achieve coherent political ends. Such as, for instance, clamping down on political protest.

‘High policing’ is rarely advertised as such. Indeed, one of the most popular images of police work has it that there is only ‘low policing’: the law is above politics, and it’s the police’s job to maintain social order, not to maintain any particular social order. Brodeur’s research demonstrated that ‘high policing’ is a reality, governing at least the Canadian police’s approach to political activism of any type (legal or otherwise, orderly or otherwise). It also suggested the rather more disquieting conclusion that ‘low policing’ is at best framed by, and at worst permeated with, the political calculations of ‘high policing’. ‘Low policing’ arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; ‘high policing’ turns them into informers and lets them go. ‘Low policing’ lets orderly demonstrations proceed unhindered and breaks up disorderly protests; ‘high policing’ lets protest events continue or not according to their longer-term political significance.

The police operate in defence of the state and the status quo; the political calculations of ‘high policing’ will always be with us, at least until such time as the protection of the state and the status quo is a wholly apolitical aim (smiley goes here). What we can hope for is that ‘high policing’ operations are carried out with a degree of transparency and accountability – and, above all, that ‘high policing’ is not allowed to take precedence over the demands of ‘low policing’. The ideals of impartiality and equity may seldom be achieved in the context of ‘low policing’; in the context of ‘high policing’ they aren’t even relevant considerations. ‘High policing’ sets the police at odds with the public; the immediate effects of what’s happening right now don’t matter nearly as much as its implications for the longer, political game. It’s a sophisticated game, which can be played with an eye to the press and public opinion as well as the requirements of the government of the day: deliberately under-policing disorder may be popular in itself, or it may help forestall criticism of a subsequent crackdown. But, whatever its short-term effects, the increasing dominance of ‘high’ over ‘low’ policing is corrosive of any claim by the police to impartiality, and of any possibility of broader public trust in the police.

Which brings us to those cartoons, and that demo.

BBC, 4th Feb:

A march in which protesters chanted violent anti-Western slogans such as “7/7 is on its way” should have been banned, a leading British Muslim said. Asghar Bukhari said the demonstration in London on Friday should have been stopped by police because the group had been advocating violence.The chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee said the protesters “did not represent British Muslims”. He said that Muslims were angry over satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in European papers but it was “outrageous” for anyone to advocate extreme action or violence. “We believe it [the protest] should have been banned and the march stopped.”

Guardian, 4th Feb:

Passers-by stopped police officers to ask why the marchers were being allowed to carry banners threatening further suicide attacks in the city. One police officer replied: “Don’t worry. We are photographing them.”

Metropolitan Police, 5th Feb:

Arrests, if necessary, will be made at the most appropriate time. This should not be seen as a sign of lack of action … The decision to arrest at a public order event must be viewed in the context of the overall policing plan and the environment the officers are operating in.

Low policing says: “I don’t care who you are or what you’re protesting about, stop that and move along.”

High policing says: “You lot can have your fun, we’ll reel you in when it suits us.”

Into the fireplace

As a postscript to this, here’s Stephen Sedley from the current LRB:

When I read for the English Bar in the 1960s, the legal history lecturer stopped when he reached 1649 and explained that he was now moving directly to 1660, because everything that had happened between the trial of the king and the restoration of the monarchy was a nullity.

That’s some nullity.

Sedley’s reviewing Geoffrey Robertson’s The Tyrannicide Brief, a vindication of the regicides collectively and Charles’s prosecutor John Cooke in particular. Sedley’s conclusion demurs from some of Robertson’s larger claims, but leaves one significant claim intact. (‘Bradshawe’ is John Bradshawe, the president of the court which tried Charles.)

Robertson claims too much when he credits Cooke, first in his courtroom defence of John Lilburne, then on his own arrest, with introducing the right of silence into the common law. The supposed right, which developed in the early canon law, had by Cooke’s time acquired a mythological status: widely believed in, respected in the ordinary run of cases but ignored in favour of torture when anything serious was at stake. Cooke’s fate, however, was by the time of his arrest so firmly sealed that there was little point in pressing his interrogation. Nor, I think, could Robertson make good his suggestion that Bradshawe was breaking new ground, in anticipation of Locke and Rousseau, when he said to Charles: ‘There is a contract and bargain made between the king and his people … The one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty.’ This embryonic notion of constitutional monarchy, looking – through a reluctantly commercial metaphor – for middle ground between traditional liberties and government by divine right, was by 1649 a commonplace of political theory. What was novel was Bradshawe’s pointing out to a captive king the consequence when it was the monarch who broke the contract: ‘Farewell sovereignty.’

When it comes to justified rebellion against over-mighty rulers, in other words, the Americans have nothing to teach us. The English did it first – and ushered in a decade of legal nullity, a short-lived no man’s land in which the impossible could become possible. I’m not (solely, or necessarily) talking about Abiezer Coppe or Winstanley, or even about the Levellers. 1649 saw a permanent defeat at Burford as well as the brief nadir of the monarchists, but it wasn’t Thermidor: Cromwell himself was venturing into terra nullius.

It was not the Bill of Rights of 1688 but Cromwell’s Instrument of Government of 1653, still lost in the official void three and a half centuries later, that first set out some of the foundational principles of a modern democracy: triennial parliaments (for a united state of England, Scotland and Ireland), not to be prorogued except by their own will; a non-hereditary Protector, empowered to legislate, tax and govern only with the consent of Parliament and to make war only on its advice; abolition of the established church, and religious toleration (except of ‘Popery and Prelacy’). But not then, or after 1660, or after 1688, did it come true.

From what I know of him, I’ve got a lot of respect for Charles Stuart as a person – and I certainly don’t think Oliver was a nice guy. But it’s not hard to choose between the two. The constitutional ferment of the English Revolution remains a landmark in the country’s history: unsurpassed in many areas, in some still unattained.

You may look like we do

David cites an empirical analysis of social network evolution in a large university community, based on a registry of e-mail interactions between more than 43,000 students, faculty, and staff. (“Hey, gang, let’s do the research right here!”)

The results show that at least in this particular environment, people were more likely to form ties with others when they had a shared “focus” such as a class that brought them together or a mutual acquaintance, but were less likely to interact solely on the basis of shared characteristics such as age or gender.

David headlines his post “Interests, not demographics”, but I don’t think the study is quite saying that. It’s true that demographics do not a network make – but then, I’ve known that ever since my mother first enjoined me to play with a complete stranger of my own age and sex while she talked to the kid’s mother, who wasn’t a complete stranger (to her).

But I don’t think the data’s there to conclude that ‘interests’ are key either, as much as I might like to. The reference to a shared “focus” such as a class that brought them together or a mutual acquaintance sounds more like history than interests. It may be a reasonable generalisation to say that enduring communities are interest-based – particularly if we include the granfalloonish limit case of communities which perpetuate themselves by making a shared interest of their own perpetuation. Conversations, though, just happen. A conversation starts for any number of reasons – not least because two people find each other simpatico/a – and once it’s started the participants generally want to carry it on. History, not interests.

From this it also follows that there are times when conversations just don’t happen, and all the shared interests in the world won’t make them happen. And, given that people who are having a conversation generally want it to continue, there are sometimes very few gaps in which a new conversation can get a foothold. Which brings us back to the granfalloons. Perhaps we can see some communities as large-scale conversations which have outlived any connection with interest, for many or most of the participants, but still persist – and, by persisting, prevent new and potentially interest-based conversations from arising.

(I can be a phenomenologist and a Marxist, can’t I?)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 212 other followers

%d bloggers like this: