Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Leveson... the Weasel Press speaks out

The past couple of weeks has seen a concerted defence of the British media by, er... well the British media. Articles such as "Don't Make us North Korean", "We must defend a free press" and so on have been a spectacular case of special pleading. So many people who cross the boundary between politics and journalism, from Boris Johnson to Paul Goodman, have been rushing to tell us why any regulation amounts to the end of the free press as we have known it.  

Well frankly Bul***it.

The fact is that the Press has been ignoring its own (self) regulators for years and- it is now blindingly obvious- have been routinely breaking the law of the land with impunity. As more charges are brought against News International, is it not a scandal that the same management, in the shape of Rupert Murdoch and his family, remains in control of the largest private media business in the UK? Is it not outrageous that the Express refuses even the toothless sanctions of the self regulator, the Press Complaints Commission, and continues to publish stories that are completely false, about the EU for example, with no realistic sanction even possible against them?

The self serving special pleading coming from across the media, from right to left, is not a sign that some kind of new regulatory regime is wrong- it is simply a sign that the media as a whole opposes it. Frankly the "feral beast" spends far more time examining the underwear of those in the public eye than it does unearthing the web of corruption that has clearly existed in the political-journalistic combine. Scandal is measured in the playground human interest of who is sleeping with who, and not the real public interest of who-owes-who and how much. The British press has conspired to suppress stories that are in the public interest in order to promote its own interests. This is why such figures as Guido Fawkes briefly acquired some influence- because they did make a few glancing blows against the establishment, which the wider media refused to do, unless it suited their own agenda.

The press are trying to get their retaliation in first to circumvent whatever Leveson is going to say. Given that he has had to circulate various drafts of his report, the media already knows that the Leveson report is going to be pretty blunt about their failings and scathing about their crimes.

The British media in the past few years has grown careless with arrogance. The fact they are circling the wagons in order to try to prevent any trespass upon their perceived freedoms is frankly contemptible. It is the action of a harlot seeking to defend her raddled trade on the grounds that at least she has sold her honour professionally. 

Within reason, the Leveson report should be adopted, and those who pretend that any regulation means a North Korean press should be treated with the disgust that they deserve. The Milly Dowler phone hack was only the most appalling of the crimes committed by the thousand by an unaccountable and irresponsible media. These cases should not merely attract criminal charges, they should also attract professional opprobrium too- and no journalist with any integrity should oppose this.

Pity that it turns out that so few journalists are prepared to accept that their profession is guilty of considerable wrong-doing. "They just don't get it", as we said of MPs. Now we should make damn sure that the media does "get it" and ensure that they do not use their power to weasel out of whatever the necessary measures are that come out of the Leveson inquiry.   

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Radek Sikorski stirs up indifference amongst his Tory friends

The Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski usually gets a good press in the UK. His fluent English and his academic intelligence help him stand out as an individual, while Poland is one of the few countries of Central/Eastern Europe where the British have a clear and generally positive view of what kind of country it is. It also helps a lot that Mr. Sikorski, as a graduate of Oxford University, has a big network of friends in Britain- including his former Bullingdon Club confrere, Boris Johnson. Mr. Sikorski's wife is the American historian and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her magisterial book Gulag , Anne Applebaum, and she is also a regular visitor to Britain.

Yet despite his close connections with the UK, and his former British citizenship, which he only renounced on becoming Polish Defence Minister in 2006, it is clear that Sikorski is hardly an uncritical friend of the UK. Indeed the Anti-EU faction in the UK would argue that he was hardly a friend at all, as he seeks to align Poland with France in the high spending group of countries, opposed to drastic budget restraint in the European Union. Nevertheless, his speech at Blenheim Palace and his subsequent  article for The Guardian reflect the deep concern that many close friends of the UK on the right wing have concerning the direction that the right wing of the Conservatives in Britain are taking towards the European Union. Although not the most British of the Polish Ministers- that honour goes to Jacek Rostowski who was born and educated in the UK and worked for the British foreign service, only "returning" to Poland in 2002- Sikorski's concern reflects the fact that while the British debate about the EU may be going on in a vacuum in the UK, is nevertheless being watched with concern amongst our closest allies beyond our shores.

Sikorski has made a series of thoughtful and intelligent speeches concerning his country's relationship with the EU, Germany, Russia and now the UK. In all of them there runs a series of threads- based on the Polish experience of the deadly twentieth century. The emotion with which Poles state their case passes the British Tories by. They do not understand that Poland and the other radical states of Eastern Europe regard the EU as highly necessary; and that existential threats to the EU, (which the British anti-Europeans now more or less openly hope for) are a deadly serious challenge for countries determined to build on the cohesion that the EU represents. Those who wish for the demise of the EU are enemies, even if they share many of the same outlook economically or politically in other spheres.

So although the British Conservatives continue to talk to themselves or to the saloon bar creeps of UKIP about the European subject- the fact is that the UK is already paying a price for their recklessness and losing a lot of friends by both the hostility with which they promote their cause and the illiteracy and ignorance of the arguments they put forward.

Listening to the two minutes hate from the right wing press is not a sensible way forward, and it  is time for the real debate to be joined.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An Estonian anti-party revolt could lead to a new democratic system

I am a Liberal in more or less all meanings of the word. I am also a profound supporter of Estonia, the country where I have made my home over the past four years. My relationship with Estonia dates back decades, to when I was still in high school in 1979 and first got involved with the fight for freedom in Eastern and Central Europe, which was also the same year that I joined the Liberal Party.

One of the many great things about Estonia is that, since independence was recovered in 1991, it has been dominated by liberal ideas in both economics and politics. Indeed the the liberal Reform party has been and remains the most popular political party, while the opposition Centre Party is also a member of Liberal International, albeit that it represents a populist Liberal strand that I have less sympathy with. In fact one can find liberals in all of the Estonian political parties and there is no doubt that Liberalism is deeply woven into the political tapestry of Estonia.

Yet even the most nominally Liberal organisation may grow lazy or even corrupt if it loses sight of the need for political dialogue based on a certain amount of humility. Over the past few years no Estonian political party has escaped allegations that they have sought to break the rules on party funding. The nominally Conservative IRL has been accused of providing illegal documents to foreigners in exchange for donations. The Social Democrats too have been alleged to have broken the rules in a similar fashion. The Centre Party faces perennial allegations against their leader, the populist mayor of Tallinn, Edgar Savisaar. In recent months, however, it has been Reform that has faced a storm of different allegations. This, paradoxically, does not -so far- seem to have blunted their support, which has remained solidly above 30%, and comfortably ahead of the other political parties.

Now several activists have made a public complaint about what they see as corruption in the ruling party. They are a fairly heterogeneous bunch, but if I could categorise them I would say that they shared a radical mind set and are very open to what Estonia could be. They are not, in general, party political and certainly not in a tribal way. In fact they are quite genuinely intellectually liberal- and yet in their Tartu Manifesto, they are in revolt against a Liberal party.

Occasionally in the past on this blog I have made criticisms of things that I believe could be improved about both the political and economic system in this country, and I have noted poor decision making which was- wrongly- taken by the Foreign Minister and others to be a criticism of Reform. In fact it was a sharp criticism of IRL, the Conservative junior coalition partner. Now, however, it seems clear that the Liberalism of Reform is seeing its radical streak blunted both by the compromises of power, which may be unavoidable, and the stagnation of leaders who "focus simply on day to day administration and seem to have lost their political vision", which -by the way- is a comment from one of their own MPs. More and more, over the past two years, when discussing Estonian politics, the word "stagnation" comes up. The fact is that the list system has created a tribe of placemen politicians who lack an individual mandate to propose new ideas or to challenge the political hacks who dominate the back rooms of all political parties. The result is complacency and inertia- and increasingly a sense of frustration with a system of party politics that requires regular infusions of questionable cash.

In May 2010, just before the last general election, the radical theatre company, NO99 company, created one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre ever seen in Europe: The Conference of United Estonia. Advised by some of those who have now challenged the current political consensus, it was a huge production that exposed many of the critical problems facing the Estonian body politics. It should have been a wake up call for citizens to challenge their leaders more. Many politicians feared that the theatrical event might actually become a real political party and challenge the political establishment- some hoped that it would. Despite this powerful manifestation of disgust at political party corruption, the political establishments of all parties have ignored the message that United Estonia was sending.

Yet, the Tartu Manifesto that the activists have made against the specific problems of Reform has wider implications for the whole of Estonia. The fact is that citizens do have a weapon that they can wield against the political establishment, and that is based on the growing use of the Internet for Estonians to vote. At the last election over 25% of the votes were cast online, and the next election could see a further rapid increase. Estonia is now not only a physical nation, it is also an Internet community, The political discourse, as in many other countries, has moved out from Parliaments. The difference is that Estonians now have an efficient and cheap way to reduce party influence and make critical political and economic decisions directly. The implication, both of United Estonia and the Tartu Manifesto, is that the political establishment ought to be weakened, and the online voting system leading to more direct democracy is the method by which this might be achieved.

As a Liberal I can only welcome this possibility. As a Radical I have always believed in trust of the people, and the well educated, serious minded Estonian nation is a perfect laboratory for a new, technology based, liberal, direct democracy, as it has been for a responsible,liberal free market economics.

My friend, Daniel Vaarik, one of the signatories of the Tartu Manifesto, on his superb Memokraat blog, makes a point that technology at a certain time may seem unchallengeable- yet eventually the Knight in Armour can be destroyed by the cannon. I think he is right, and the 19th century technology of representative democracy may now be facing the unanswerable challenge of a validated Internet-based direct democracy. Of course, the political establishment may seek to blunt this challenge - and almost certainly will. However the key to political success is to understand what you want and to work exclusively to that end. 

It is not just in the centre that Estonian politics is renewing itself. New, more influential regional groups - not least in the South, but also in the West and North East- may also help to shake up the cozy consensus in the picturesque Estonian national Parliament in Tallinn. Estonians in Brussels talk about extending the radical Liberal vision- and this may challenge the current arrangements in Tallinn too. The period of stagnation may be coming to an end. Whatever comes next may be less stable in the short term, but will also be more interesting and dynamic. The renewal of Liberal Estonia in a more radical shape will certainly be extremely interesting.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Sick Charter

The problem with the latest corrosive scandal to engulf yet another UK institution is that... well it's all so predictable. People, or organisations for that matter, that believe themselves untouchable quite often end up doing fairly unspeakable things. Although I didn't know Jimmy Savile from a hole in the ground, it does rather seem as though he believed he was untouchable, and lets face it he is dead and was given something of a hero's send-off- so in life he surely was untouchable. Those who have come out to complain about his behaviour since he died do seem to have the smack of truth about them and of course those "in the know" now say that they knew all along that there was something untoward about him. 

So far so tragically sordid.

What the BBC has done about "Savile" as we must now call him (certainly not "Sir Jimmy", although that is the style he knew until the day he died) has revealed the very culture that allowed this seemingly rather creepy man to commit some rather nasty crimes. The fact is that the BBC long ago lost a sense of humility. The very fact that the -now outgoing- Director General had such and absurd title as "Head of Vision" speaks libraries rather than volumes about the isolated culture that this vast and generally unaccountable bureaucracy has created. The fact is that the BBC relied on a false image of itself. It believed that it had a higher calling than those that it was supposed to report on and report to. Huge amounts of money are being spent recruiting "talent", yet this "talent" produces formulaic and pretty trashy television. Only on Radio can some glimpse of Reithian grandeur still be found- and even here, the arrogance with which the Today Programme devours the news agenda- rendering the remainder of the day's news output a mere shadow of its former self- suggests that another "sexing-up" scandal can not be far away. 

So as the BBC tries to pick up the pieces and as the temporary leader tries to convince the poorly named BBC Trust that he should be given the sceptre, the reality grows ever clearer: the BBC has not merely made mistakes, it has become a mistake. It has allowed a bloated culture of excess to drown out the mandate that public service broadcasting was supposed to sustain. The culture that permits gratuitous errors of fact. The culture that breaks the first rules of journalism- that the facts must be checked and corroborated. The reality is that the BBC has bullied and bludgeoned its way through its recent reportage- it was, in truth, an accident waiting to happen.

Without a wholesale change in the way the BBC does things, it -and its evil twin, the Murdoch Empire- serve no purpose save a negative one. The creeps and charlatans that have hidden under Aunty's skirts are now too numerous to be ignored and the cravenly political- mostly Guardian reading- agenda to which the organisation has subscribed must now be dealt with. The spectacle of the BBC disappearing up its own fundament has been ludicrous in the extreme, and yet, as I say, it all seems so predictable. After all Private Eye was there years ago.

Now Private Eye reminds us that they suggest some time ago that another knight- Sir Cyril Smith- was involved in some dubious activity, although here the evidence seems a bit more controversial, though as we have learned recently, the benefit of the doubt seems to be in short supply, and rightly so. 

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The EU Budget... a Labour betrayal that will be remembered

Brits are told every year- especially by the anti-EU press- that the EU fails to pass its own audit test. It turns out that this is not strictly true. Each year mistakes and errors are found, but, it turns out that these are most often in the 80% of the EU budget that is administered by the national governments. In fact, the EU budget turns out to be in a far more orderly position than the "failure of the EU court of auditors to approve the budget" implies

David Cameron intends to reduce- if possible- the total EU budget, and this, in the context of the large austerity that national governments are being forced to impose sounds wholly reasonable. However, Mr. Cameron, together with the other EU leaders, has been asking EU agencies to do a lot more in connection with the crisis that the EU faces. Several of the Eurozone governments are also asking the EU to do more- and it can not do this without increases in the budget. Thus, the challenge to reduce or even simply freeze the budget is probably a literally impossible task- and is, it turns out, certainly not a reasonable position for the British government to adopt, especially since they have clearly failed to inform the British electorate what they have already agreed to.

The fact is that there is now a huge information gap. British voters are not being given the information about what the EU does and how it does this. Furthermore any attempt by- say the BBC- to provide explanations is denounced as EU propaganda by the Europhobes. It is easier for the media to avoid the issue, even though it has left a black hole of an information vacuum about the EU, into which the right wing Tories and UKIP send a torrent of their own inaccurate propaganda. 

The result was the utterly disgraceful spectacle of the completely unprincipled Labour Party under Ed Miliband seeking, for their own short term ends, to make Mr. Cameron's position even more difficult by voting with the know-nothing wing of the Europhobe Tories. If I ever think about  giving the adenoidal leader of the opposition any benefit of the doubt in the future, his mealy-mouthed display of the uttermost hypocrisy during the Commons debate will forever still my sense of mercy. The fact that he allies himself with the most poisonous of the Brownite micro-managers- Ed Balls- merely confirms that whatever principles he may adhere to will always be abandoned in time of short term political need- as with AV. Labour under Miliband are as cynical bunch of hypocrites as has been seen in British politics since Disraeli retired.

The Europhobes are wrong in their judgments, but at least they genuinely believe in their mistakes. Labour knew that what it was doing was against the national interest, but did it anyway- and that is what made it such a contemptible display.      

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Internet Freedom may make Estonia the first e-democracy

Living in the country with the freest Internet in the world opens up some interesting and surprising lines of discussion. Now that nearly 25% of the population choose to vote online, there are some very interesting implications that are coming out. 

Firstly there are the short term implications of more e-voting. The fact of being able to vote, even if you live overseas, keeps the Estonian diaspora far more in touch with home. In the recent Lithuanian election, for example, where online voting does not happen, the nearly a million people who live overseas from Lithuania had to make a significant effort to register and to vote- the result was that of the 74,000 Lithuanian citizens estimated to be living in the UK, for example, less than 9,000 actually voted. Had more voted from overseas, it is quite likely that the Conservative-Liberal government would have been returned to office rather than the currently deadlocked situation based on the controversial Labour Party-Social-Democrat-Paksas partnership. In Latvia and in Estonia, which both do have e-voting, the reforming parties were able to maintain themselves in office, despite being forced into radical austerity measures. Younger, more tech-savvy people have been among the most eager to adopt e-voting, but are also the most eager to spend time overseas. The political implications are therefore obvious.

Yet there is also a longer term set of issues. The fact is that the use of e-voting opens up the prospect of more issues being put the the voters directly. Although this has not happened yet, it can only be a matter of time before the first e-referendum takes place in Estonia. In fact the discussions around this subject go right to the heart of what makes a democracy actually so democratic. Simply asking a referendum in isolation tends to lead to knee-jerk or extremist responses, but where that question is proceeded by a nuanced debate, the results can change markedly. On the one hand the risk of populist and shallow responses, on the other the clear impact of a full debate- and the desirable result of far greater citizen participation in the political process. Given the many compromises that our so-called "representative" (in fact often deeply unrepresentative) democracies impose, the creation of a more open political system has very radical implications.

Estonia, like many other democratic states, has a troubled relationship with its political parties, and in particular how those parties are funded. There have been a series of escalating scandals which at various times have touched all the political parties, and yet still, no-one has devised sufficient safeguards to prevent such activity. Parties are unpopular in principle, yet they remain critical for the functioning of a stable representative democratic state. Yet part of me is beginning to think that the emergence of e-voting presents the first significant challenge to the status of modern liberal states as the bulwarks of freedoms. As e-communities emerge across the web, cannot a country also form an Internet community? Another plank of Politics 2.0 seems to be coming into place.

It already seems to be happening in Estonia.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Romney, Obama and the next four years

The American Constitution is a practical document, not holy writ as so many Americans might have you believe. It has its fair share of holes- as was most recently shown in 2000 when despite a popular victory of over a million votes, Vice President Al Gore was defeated by George W Bush in highly controversial circumstances. However in its practical way is sets a regular round of elections, with the election date being the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The 2012 election is thus due on Tuesday 6th November. It is an election in many states for the Senate, and in all states for the House of Representatives, on the ballot are innumerable state offices, from to sheriff to comptroller, to district attorney. Of course this is a leap year, and as a result the top of the ballot is reserved for the election of the President and Vice President of the United States- the two most senior officials of the Republic.

OK, so its an important election, and it is also a close one... if you believe the opinion polls. Certainly the incumbent President, Barack Obama, has not had an easy time convincing the American people that he deserves re-election. Nevertheless in the past week he has received some surprising endorsements: from The Economist and the Financial Times, which as part of the European fan club for Obama might not be all that surprising, but also Mike Bloomberg, the nominally Republican Mayor of New York City- an endorsement that came when Mr. Bloomberg was firmly in the public spotlight, dealing with the impact of tropical storm Sandy on the Big Apple.
In some ways, the choice is extraordinarily narrow- the choice between two Harvard Educated Lawyers. That, of course is not what Europeans think: the European support for Obama is massive. Indeed even Conservative politicians have been downright rude to the Republican challenger- even though the opinion polls have shown him within touching distance of the White House. More to the point President Obama, with his "pivot to Asia" and his continuing reset on relations with Russia is hardly the most pro-European president. Romney has gone out of his way to make positive overtures to the Europeans, he even speaks French, which the Republican party is as close to an admission of being political unsound as they will allow. Yet Europeans seem either blind to his blandishments, or indeed are openly contemptuous. Why is this?

Many point out Romney's own rather privileged background- and the fact that he has made himself hugely rich. However, in the United States, the fact that Mr. Romney created a business like Bain Capital puts him in something of the same light as Sir Richard Branson in the UK- an unabashed, can-do entrepreneur. Then, of course, there is the issue of the positions that Mr. Romney adopted in order to gain the nomination. There is no doubt that he espoused positions which, even within the US may be seen as pretty right-wing. Yet in fact since securing the nomination, he has rather tacked back to the centre on several issues, albeit that he chose the strongest fiscal hawk in the House- Paul Ryan- to be his running mate. More to the point, there is the matter of Mr. Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts, where he demonstrated a pragmatic and centrist streak in his administration that both speaks well of him as an administrator and also suggests that he would indeed be a very effective President of the United States. 

To my mind the issue that has remained unspoken- on both sides of the Atlantic- is the matter of Romney's Mormonism. There remains deep suspicion of the Latter Day Saints as some kind of cult, and although I would say that the LDS are no worse than most other millenarian Protestant sects- and better than many. Nonetheless if Romney was not a Morman, I think he would be firmly ahead in the race.

However, the fact is that if we believe the numbers coming out of Nate Silver, Mr. Obama seems set to secure a second term. Yet after having regained office, Mr. Obama may find that the difficult ride he had in his first term will be as nothing to the problems of his second. Even if we assume that he is indeed returned, the fact is that the Congress will remain fractious, with little wish to bridge the partisan chasm that has opened up across the aisle, Congress is finding it ever more difficult to complete the role that it is given under the constitution. As another "fiscal cliff" looms, the fundamental gap between the Republican tax cutters and the Democrats who refuse to cut spending is leading the most powerful country on the Planet to perdition. Without compromise- now a dirty word in American politics- the relationship between the Administration and the Legislature will grow ever more dysfunctional.

Then, of course there are the multifarious international challenges which will face the West  over the course of the next few years. The threat of Iran may be receding just a little, but the slightest mistake could lead to open warfare in the Persian Gulf. Russia remains resentful of its diminished status, and all to eager to challenge the West in Syria, or any other place where it retains the capacity to meddle. Above it all, there remains the growing challenge of China. For it is not just the United States that is changing its leadership this week- so too is the People's Republic, and it may yet be that the most deeply conservative factions of the Communist Party have been able to retain their influence and thus derail the prospect of a more liberal and open society emerging in the Middle Kingdom. In the end, that might be a more significant turning point than the turning of yet another page in the US constitutional calender.