Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The cost of murder...

It turns out that, after all the fuss, it's probably not going to happen. Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward has ruled out the £12,000 payment to all those families who lost loved ones in the Troubles. He said that the "time is not right" for such payments to be made.

The idea was first mooted in the Eames-Bradley Report, a series of recommendations set out by The Consultative Group on the Past. The group is an independent body set up to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland's Troubles.

By far the most controversial proposal was that the families of paramilitary victims, members of the security forces and civilians who were killed would all be entitled to the same amount of money as an acknowledgement of the suffering caused.

This means that the family of a terrorist killed in an attack would receive the same amount as the families of those killed in the attack itself.

It's probably not surprising that such an idea has caused great hurt and anger among those whose loved ones were taken from them, and there's even been a political consensus - both members of the DUP and Sinn Féin have lambasted the scheme.

But the report, at over 190 pages long, has a host of other recommendations on how to deal with Northern Ireland's recent troubled past. It'd be an awful shame for the controversy surrounding one proposal to overshadow the rest before any real scrutiny.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Twitter ye not...

There's a new Facebook in town. You remember Facebook don't you? The one that took over from Myspace?

Twitter, the newest kid on the online social networking block, is taking the virtual world by storm. Twitter is a little bit like those status updates on the aforementioned Facebook; in 140 characters or less a 'Twitterer' can tell his or her fawning audience what they may be doing at that exact moment in time. If I, for example, were to 'Twit' right now I would write something along the lines of "I am busy slagging off Twitter on an alternative and rival networking website", to be read by whoever cared to take an interest. Which is almost certainly not going to be a great number of people at all.

Celebrities, on the other hand, command vast audiences of people who just have to know what their chosen fixation is doing. Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and Darth Vader are just some of the 'Twits' who provide such illuminating insights into their lives as "off for my walk" (Fry) or "I had a great dance rehearsal today" (Spears). As you can see, it's pretty hot stuff we're talking here. Fry alone commands an audience of over 200,000 followers.

So what else does Twitter do?

The short answer is - not much, really. It's been described as a way of sending a text message to the world, which in someways is a very good description; postings tend to be short, vacuous, narcissistic and generally without any real substance or merit. And it already replicates tools used in other websites, which have much more content besides.

And I don't think Lurcio would think much of that.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The importance of journalism

Traffic was at a virtual standstill in the centre of Leeds today. I managed to beat the queues of cars simply by walking past; it took my housemate almost two hours to get home on a bus journey that usually takes less then half that time.

So what was causing the congestion? An overturned lorry? A multi-vehicle pile up?

Nope, none of these. It was an NUJ strike outside the offices of local rag The Yorkshire Evening Post. In it's exuberance the mass of protesting journalists was spilling onto the street, causing total gridlock. Whether motorists were beeping in support - as the journalists' banners requested - or whether in anger is hard to say.

Why were the journalists revolting, so to speak?

Johnston Press, which owns the Evening Post, is attempting to sack a number of hacks, using the current economic climate as the primary factor behind its decision. And it's certainly true that, in the brave new world of the Credit Crunch, advertising revenues are drying up and circulation for many local papers is down. It's thought that 18 journalists may lose their jobs at the Evening Post and sister papers The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Weekly News.

The NUJ points out, quite rightly, that the enforced redundancy of 10% of the editorial workforce will only serve to have a detrimental effect on the quality of the newspapers' output. Not only will there be fewer journalists to cover stories, but those lucky enough to hold onto their jobs will find themselves far less able to cover the stories they do come across in any great depth.

The result? A poorer quality product. And who's going to want to read that?;

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The colour of oppression...

Back to Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin MLA Barry McElduff has apologised to the Northern Ireland Assembly for defending young republicans who were painting post boxes green. He said he was "strictly opposed to the imposition of British symbols" in Ireland, but apologised for words which had broken the code of conduct for Assembly members.

I remember walking up the ultra-nationalist Falls Road in West Belfast and seeing one of these green postboxes - perhaps the very same one - and, as you can see, felt compelled to take a picture. Strangely, the one symbol that clearly demonstrates the box's British origins remained intact. Can you spot it?

I saw something similar on a trip to Dublin too; there, right in the heart of the capital city of the Republic, was a British coat of arms on the outside of the Bank of Ireland.

Given the violent nature of Ireland's independence, it was certainly surprising to see British symbols of the type condemned by Mr McElduff alive and well in the heart of the Republic. It certainly didn't seem to be having much effect on the day to day running of the country the Sinn Féin man wishes Northern Ireland to become part of.

Are red post boxes symbols of British oppression? Or are they symbols of Northern Ireland's right to choose to remain a part of the United Kingdom? You decide...

Monday, 16 February 2009

Coal not Dole!

Talking of Thatcher, I took a trip to the National Coal Mining Museum at the weekend. The museum is based on the site of the old Caphouse Colliery at Overton in West Yorkshire, which was closed down following the miners' strike of 1984-1985. It's a fascinating place to visit, and a popular one at that; I'll certainly be visiting again after arriving too late to enjoy the highlight of the museum - a trip underground into the mines.

It's also hard not to feel a little sad that such an industry proved, in the long run, to be unsustainable; true, coal is not the most environmentally friendly of fuel sources, but when whole communities were supported by coal extraction and when whole communities died alongside the industry it's easy to see why coal mining's demise evokes such strong emotions.

For those not in the know, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government took on the mighty National Union of Mineworkers in a major industrial dispute which resulted in the closure of many pits and the smashing of trade union power. Massive unemployment and the desertion of whole communities followed.

Those that defend Thatcher's actions claim that she was doing something that was painfully necessary; that the coal mining industry was heavily subsidised and that production could not be continued.

But did she have to stockpile coal so that the effects of the strikes were limited? And did she have blight whole counties with mass unemployment that still exists to this day in such an uncaring and aloof manner, and without providing any adequate provision for these people forced from their jobs? Did she have to promise that certain pits, such as those in Nottinghamshire, would remain open only for them to close? What price indifference?

Thatcher's legacy is not remembered kindly in this part of the world. The modern day ghost towns of Fitzwilliam and Grimethorpe are testament to a particularly uncaring time in British government. May it never return to haunt this land again...

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Thatcher: strictly liable?

Controversy seems to constantly dog the BBC these days; whether it's faking phone-in competitions or leaving elderly actors explicit messages on their answering machines, the BBC constantly seems to be wrong footed every time an embarrassing situation arises. And little wonder: it has an annual budget of more then £4 billion, much of it funded by the public via the annual television licence. It's this unique public accountability that makes it particularly vulnerable to criticism, particularly from those who have a vested interest in seeing the Beeb squirm. That's the private media sector, among others.

So when Carol Thatcher, daughter of former British prime minister and union-botherer Margaret Thatcher, likened black French tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to a 'golliwog' backstage in the BBC's green room, the BBC had to be seen to act fast. 'Golliwog' is generally considered to be an offensive term describing black people, and has a long history of being used as a term in prejudicial circumstances.

Carol's remark was reported to producers, and after a quick inquiry in which an unconditional apology was not forthcoming she was banned from taking part in The One Show, in which she'd been working as a roving reporter.

It appeared that the BBC, having learned from its past mistakes, had decided to act swiftly and firmly.

And yet the decision has still attracted controversy. The remark was not broadcast or made in a studio, but rather was off-the-cuff and made in private. And supporters of Thatcher claimed the punishment was disproportionate, citing the 12 week ban dolled out to Jonathan Ross in the wake of the aforementioned 'Sachsgate' telephone messages saga.

So is Carol's ban justified? Were her comments "wholly unacceptable", as described by the BBC, or merely a harmless reference to the golliwog motifs that she saw in her childhood on "jars of jam"?

In media law there is a concept known as 'strict liability', which means that intent - or lack of - cannot be employed as a legal defence.

I think it implausible that an educated and intelligent woman such as Thatcher Junior did not know that 'golliwog' is deeply offensive to a broad section of society, and, however innocuous its use, could and would prove deeply offensive to anyone described as such.

So is Carol racist? Probably not, in the sense that it seems unlikely that she'll become a mouthpiece for the extreme right any time soon. But should she have known that such a comment could be construed as such?

When it comes to anything that remotely resembles racist language, it's probably best to keep it away from the cameras, and that includes anywhere near one too.

Strictly liable? Perhaps. Should she have known better? Definately...

Saturday, 14 February 2009

What price freedom of speech?

I've been following the debacle surrounding the attempted visit to this country by far right Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Geert was trying to attend a showing of his film Fitna - a 17 minute anti-Islamist documentary - but was put on a flight back to the Netherlands after being refused entry into the United Kingdom. The Home Office justified this exclusion by arguing that 'the government opposes extremism in all its forms. It will stop those who want to spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities from coming to our country.'

Now I've not seen the film, so I can't say for certain whether it would actually fit such a description. What worries me here, however, is not so much the content of Fitna but rather the idea postulated by the Home Office that stifling such productions will make the views found therein disappear altogether.

This debate of freedom of speech versus protection of minorities from hatred and violence crops up frequently in Europe, and few are the voices that advocate the complete lifting of all restrictions on the broadcasting of extremist views. It's hard listening to recordings of the radio DJs in Rwanda exhorting the Hutu majority to slaughter the minority Tutsis in 1994 and still remain neutral on the issue.

But does that mean we should clamp down on every production and publication that contains views that deviate from the majority line of thought, even if such views are repugnant to most people?

Here in Leeds in 2006 BNP leader Nick Griffin and fellow party activist Mark Collett were cleared of inciting racial hatred, following an undercover BBC investigation of BNP meetings. After the charges had been dismissed Mr Griffin claimed that the state had failed in their efforts to silence him.

Most people in the United Kingdom do not support the BNP, and they do not have a single member in the Westminster parliament. The BNP are on the fringes of British politics.

And yet, by attempting to silence Mr Griffin, the government had inadvertently given his views an air of legitimacy, not to mention access to a far greater media audience. And now it's made the same mistake with Geert Wilders.

Would it not be far better to air, challenge and rubbish these views in open debate rather then transform these people into martyrs of the free speech movement?

Friday, 13 February 2009

The trouble with Republicans...

I've been having a read of Saoirse, which, for those not in the know, is the publication of the Irish Republican movement, or rather the hard-line section of it that utterly rejects any involvement with the British authorities in what they term the 'occupied six counties'. That’s what you and I might call 'Northern Ireland'.

This means, for example, that those Republicans who once rejected taking part in British government institutions - such as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams - but who now do so are traitors to the cause. Indeed, according to the front page of the February edition, they are involved in a "progression from collaborating with the British to actually taking part in enforcing British rule on the ground".

Now I'm not going to discuss whether this is the case or not at this moment, because my eye was drawn to an article later in the magazine regarding a rally in support of Basque POWs.

ETA, the group advocating Basque independence from France and Spain via military means, has often featured in Republican literature as being a group that should be supported. There are explicit links between ETA and the IRA that go beyond merely sharing a similar ideological relationship.

Now here comes the confusing bit: Irish Republicans are, in effect, demanding self-determination for the Basque country whilst arguing that it should be denied in Northern Ireland where - and you wouldn't think this from reading Republican literature - a majority of people still wish for continued union with Great Britain and have expressed this wish via the democratic process.

Glaring hypocrisy? You bet...