2012-08-27

RNA, the True Secret of Life?

(also at Pulling on the corkscrew of life)



In THE DOUBLE HELIX A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA, James Watson narrates the famous story of Francis Crick bursting into the Eagle Pub to tell everyone within earshot that he had found the secret of life.

Certainly, DNA is one secret of life and (leaving aside a few viruses – which aren’t really alive) is a common (and rather vital) denominator of all terrestrial life. But life has many secrets. Since Crick and Watson (building on the often neglected contributions of Rosalind Franklin) elucidated the structure of DNA, life has revealed more and more of those secrets. But one important secret remains almost as well kept as ever: the secret of just how life emerged in the first place.

There are several rival theories as to how life may have originated on earth (or some other space-rock) but the question of just how we got from a non-living “Primordial Soup” to DNA-based life presents a particular puzzle.

What struck Crick and Watson immediately as they surveyed the model double helix they had constructed were the implications of that structure for DNA replication. Each strand of the DNA double helix comprises a series of nucleotides and (as was later found) these nucleotides constitute the individual “letters” of the DNA code. The two strands of the DNA helix are complementary and the sequence of one strand can be inferred from the sequence of the other. If two strands are separated and furnished with a supply of fresh nucleotides, each strand can serve as the template for the assembly of a new copy of the original double helix.

But if all DNA could do were to serve as a template for making more copies of itself, it would be pretty boring stuff. What makes DNA interesting is that it also serves as a template for making proteins.

It is important to realize here that while proteins are often structural molecules – like muscle proteins – they may also be enzymes – like the enzymes often included in modern detergents. Enzymes are tightly folded proteins that “catalyse” (ie speed-up without getting directly involved themselves) other reactions. Enzymes have specific shapes which allow them to bind to other molecules and thereby encourage those other molecules to react with one another. Enzymes are crucially important for regulating what goes on inside living things.

The way in which proteins (including enzymes) are produced from DNA is quite complex. The first stage involves the creation of multiple RNA copies of the “master” DNA template. RNA is a very similar molecule to DNA – consisting of long chains of nucleotides – but it is normally single-stranded. The second stage involves the creation (from the RNA templates) of long chains of amino acids (which is what proteins are).

But here’s the thing ....

In order to make proteins from DNA, and even to replicate DNA, you need to have proteins (enzymes) that make everything work properly. And where do these enzymes come from? They are coded for by the DNA.

While this system works perfectly well once it is all in place, it is difficult to imagine how the system ever got going in the first place. The solution to this conundrum is that the DNA/protein system is probably not what originally got going. It is almost certainly a refinement of a far simpler system.

It is a feature of the aforementioned single stranded RNA molecule that (as well as serving as a DNA analogue – at least for one strand of DNA) it can also adopt tightly folded configurations which double-stranded DNA could never imitate. This means that, in certain respects, RNA molecules are rather like protein molecules and, it was discovered, can act like primitive enzymes that catalyse other reactions.

Once you have RNA molecules (formed entirely randomly as the primordial soup dribbled down hot rocks) that just happen to be able to catalyse (however poorly) reactions that result in RNA copying, you’re away! The “chicken and egg” problem presented by the DNA/protein system is circumvented. A self-catalysing RNA system will, given a supply of nucleotides, keep on replicating until the cows come home – which, given that replicating systems constantly mutate and the best mutations are chosen by natural selection (and later on in the process by human breeders) is exactly what happened in the end.

Nobody knows for certain how terrestrial life began, but the RNA hypothesis is a strong contender. We may never know exactly what did happen but there is a plethora of exciting research going on with RNA (and similar nucleotide polymers) that is confirming the plausibility of some theories as to what might have happened.

So next time you are enjoying a pint in a university-town, watch out for someone bursting in and announcing that the real secret of life has just been found.

2012-05-17

Reginald D Hunter, Nadine Dorries, and the Shotgun Man

The Tweet

Was it a Joke?

Yes!

Sunny Hundal‏ (@sunny_hundal) – with whom I usually share opinions - offered the following non sequitur:

Obviously I'm not the biggest fan of @NadineDorriesMP but I don't think what she said last night was racist. It was a joke. Lighten up ppl.

Now I realize that Nadine Dorries has been accused of all sorts of irrationality and erratic behaviour in her time, but I don’t think even her fiercest critics have accused her of actually shooting (or threatening to shoot) people with a shotgun. Obviously Nadine Dorries’s tweet was intended as a joke and it never occurred to anyone of remotely sound mind to think otherwise.

But just because it was a joke does not necessarily mean that it wasn’t racist – people do tell racist jokes!

Was it Legal/Lawful?

No!

It doesn’t matter that Nadine Dorries had no intention of menacing Reginald D Hunter. It doesn’t matter that Reginald D Hunter didn’t feel menaced. It doesn’t matter that the tweet was not (in any meaningful sense) “sent” to Reginald D Hunter (@ReginaldDHunter). An extremely naive elderly couple on their way to one of Reginald D Hunter’s performances might have read Nadine Dorries’s tweet and become alarmed that shots might be fired at that performance. The tweet was and is (under the terms of Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act) “menacing per se”.

If you think I am making any of this up or exaggerating in any way here, you need to read up on the #TwitterJokeTrial of Paul Chambers (@PaulJChambers): by me; by David Allen Green (@JackOfKent) in The Lawyer with a comment by me; by David Allen Green (@JackOfKent) on his own Blog.

Should the CPS Prosecute Nadine Dorries?

Only if they wish to contravene their own “public interest” guidelines again and make themselves look as ridiculous again as they made themselves look when they launched the prosecution of Paul Chambers (@PaulJChambers).

[NB The CPS (@CPSUK) are not generally irrational. Most prosecutions they launch are perfectly fair and reasonable. It may also be perfectly reasonable to launch prosecutions under Section 127 in cases where there was intent to menace and/or a victim felt menaced and/or a menacing message was actually sent to a victim. The CPS just made a huge error of judgement (which was compounded by the courts – who didn’t really understand the nature of Twitter) in this particular case.]

I suppose the only public interest that might be served by the prosecution of Nadine Dorries is that the pernicious nature of Section 127 (as recently interpreted by the courts – those who crafted the legislation obviously never intended it to be misused in this way) would be brought to the attention of the House of Commons. It is quite certain that such a prosecution (at least one held in front of the same judges who tried Paul Chambers) would succeed.

What was the Joke?

If the tweet had simply been: “As I looked over my shoulder, I saw a man talking to my daughter #wheresmyshotgunman”, the “joke” would have hinged on the facts that 1) as parents, we tend to be overprotective of our offspring and 2) men in general tend to be “just after one thing” when they engage with women – a somewhat sexist generalization I submit, but let’s let that go.

Now let us suppose the tweet had named a specific person (say Mick Jagger): “As I looked over my shoulder, I saw Mick Jagger talking to my daughter #wheresmyshotgunman”. Now the “joke” hinges (as before) on the overprotectiveness of parents and Mick Jagger’s specific reputation as a Lothario.

[NB I pass no judgement on whether MJ deserves such a reputation. Whereas Jonathon Ross (@Wossy) has described MJ as “an old goat”, MJ’s former girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, tends to defend him. I merely assert that MJ has such a reputation and that this fact is enough for the “joke” to work.]

But the tweet in question did name a specific person; not Mick Jagger, but Reginald D Hunter. So does Reginald D Hunter have a reputation as a womanizer or cultivate such an image in his public performances? I’d say not. I’d say Reginald D Hunter’s public persona (I’ve no idea what he’s like in “real life” of course, but that’s not relevant here) is more that of an innocent abroad with the exaggerated manners of the American South who’d ask a father’s permission (and call him “Sir”) before taking out his daughter.

So what specific attribute of Reginald D Hunter did Nadine’s tweeted “joke” hinge on? I wonder what it could be.

So is Nadine Dorries Racist?

Probably not.

Nadine Dorries, as Sunny Hundal‏, also pointed out, has no history of making racist remarks and (in spite of all her other failings) it would not surprise me in the least if her daughter actually took up with a black man and Nadine D did not turn a hair.

But this does not mean that her tweet should be allowed to pass without comment.

Carole Thatcher is probably not really racist (at least in the way Nick Griffin is) but that doesn’t mean that it’s ok for her to call a black French tennis player “ a Froggy gollywog”.

Ken Livingstone is certainly not homophobic or anti-semitic (I remember the days when the same tabloids which have recently criticised him were castigating Ken for his “loony left” commitment to anti-racism and gay rights) but that doesn’t mean that Ken’s references to the Tory party being “riddled” with gays or his remarks about “rich Jews” should not raise our eyebrows somewhat.

Strange Fruit

To the young people studying To Kill A Mocking Bird at GCSE last year, the events and attitudes portrayed seemed like part of ancient history – or so was my impression after accompanying a group of them to a stage adaptation of the novel. Yet, as late as the year I was born, a 14 year old black kid Emmett Till was horrifically murdered in Mississippi for allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman and many such cases are still within living memory for some older people. Although “lynchings” of black men suspected of relationships with (or simply feelings of attraction towards) white women (which had been commonplace during the previous hundred years or so) were coming to an end by the mid 1950s, it took a lot longer for the attitudes that gave rise to such racist atrocities to wane.

I think we can safely assume that no such thoughts entered the (conscious) mind of Nadine Dorries as she wrote her tweet (in fact I’d go as far as to say that a failure to connect ideas in a coherent fashion is what often characterizes Nadine D’s public statements) but that fact does not make a joke about killing a black man who shows an interest in a white woman any less disturbing – even in 2012.

2012-04-03

The Prejudice Whose Name we Dare not Speak


One can't be expected to have an opinion about everything.

  • Should Engelbert Humperdinck represent the UK in the Eurovision Song Contest?
  • Should Ken Barlow stay at Emmerdale Farm?
  • Who is your favourite Geordie Shore character?

I could ponder such questions until next Michaelmas and still fail to come up with any opinions.

And so it was, until recently, with the question of extending the institution of marriage to include partnerships between people of the same gender. Don't get me wrong, I've always supported the notion of equal rights for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, creed (or lack of creed), and sexuality. I've never been able to fathom why what other consulting adults do in bed together should even be an issue (let alone an "issue" - in the sense of that word when it is misused as it increasingly is today). But I suppose I don't perhaps take the institution of marriage quite as seriously as some. Marriage is simply a human institution like the rules of Scrabble or any other code we've invented and live by. We are free (collectively) to do whatever we like with such institutions.

As it happens I'm married, but if the continuation of my relationships with my wife and kids were somehow contingent on a piece of paper in a drawer somewhere, our relationships would - I submit - be rather sorry ones. Certainly, claims that the sex my wife and I have had since obtaining the aforementioned sheet of paper is somehow more "moral" than that we enjoyed beforehand are simply absurd.

Anyway, I digress somewhat.

What really persuaded me to take an interest in "gay marriage" was not some personal impulse to share the "benefits" of this institution with a small (though significant) number of gay people (who, after all, already enjoy marriage-in-all-but-name in the form of "civil partnerships") but the sheer irrationality and disingenuity of the arguments against such a change.

First of all came Britain's most senior Catholic, Cardinal Keith O'Brien's “We Cannot Afford to Indulge this Madness”.

Now I might have simply retorted: “Why should I take anything seriously that a celibate man in a Little Bo-Peep outfit and gold-lam√© penis-shaped hat has to say on the subject of gay-marriage?” indeed I believe I did thus retort; but I suppose I ought to extend Cardinal O'Brien's the courtesy of examining his arguments in more detail.

Cardinal O’Brien begins:

Civil partnerships have been in place for several years now, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationship and enjoy a variety of legal protections.
When these arrangements were introduced, supporters were at pains to point out that they didn’t want marriage, accepting that marriage had only ever meant the legal union of a man and a woman.

This was of course exactly the other way round. Supporters of the gay cause wanted full marriage but civil partnerships were introduced instead as a conciliatory gesture towards those who opposed the notion of gay marriage.

He continues:

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.


So marriage (in its full form) is a “stabilising influence” and a “worthwhile institution” for heterosexuals, but marriage (in its watered down “civil partnership” form) is “harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved”. Sorry, but I just can’t see the logic there; or, if there were any logic, it would seem to lead in the direction of full marriage rights for gay people.

But can we simply redefine terms at a whim?


Yes, and we often do. I agree this is not always a good thing (see “issue” above) but redefining words is hardly something that is going to shake civilization to its foundations. In any case, the long drawn out process of redefining “marriage” could hardly be described as taking place “at a whim”.

Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?


Has the meaning of this word been clearly understood in every society throughout history?

Has the Cardinal read the Bible?

Has he read, for example, Genesis 4:19 “And Lamech took unto him two wives: the name of the one was Adah, and the name of the other Zillah.” No mention that God had a problem with this. Or Genesis 17:16 where God blesses Abraham’s marriage to Sarai – his half-sister.

In any case, even if the meaning of this word had been clearly understood throughout history, what stops us changing it to mean something else? See “brontosaurus” or “retirement age” … or, once again, “issue”.

In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.


This bit is easily dealt with. It simply isn’t true.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights says:

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.


Nothing there whatsoever about men having to marry women and woman having to marry men. Just a statement that both have the right to marry and to have equal rights in the process.

This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.


Certainly all children to date (apart of course from the Christ-child) began life with a genetic mother and father. It may of course become possible in future to produce children from same sex genetic parents, but I’m not sure how gay marriage would help or hinder the science here. As for the suggestion that same-sex parents (genetic or otherwise) cannot provide the same stability and well-being that opposite-sex parents can, there is no evidence and certainly no “overwhelming and unequivocal” evidence that this is true. In fact the reverse may be true [see eg Children Raised by Lesbians Do Just Fine, Studies Show].

Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.


If same sex marriage were allowed, the vast majority of families would just as continue as before. A few gay couples might (as now) adopt or employ donors or surrogates in order to produce a child who was genetically related to one parent, but not a single family would be deprived of a mother or a father – unless the Cardinal is suggesting that, deprived of the opportunity to marry a same sex partner, gay people would just decide “on second thoughts I’ll just go off and marry someone of the opposite sex instead”?

Other dangers exist. If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another? If marriage is simply about adults who love each other, on what basis can three adults who love each other be prevented from marrying?


This is the old “slippery-slope”: allow A and they’ll allow B next. I’m reminded off Diogenes’s argument that touching your mother's foot is incest because all the rest is a matter of degree. But not only is this style of argument logically unsound, it has been falsified empirically on many occasions. As I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s you often heard (or read) the argument that acceptance of homosexuality – which was (let us not forget) illegal between men in England and Wales until 1967 and in some parts of the UK up until 1982 – would eventually lead to the acceptance of paedophilia. The exact opposite has happened. Greater and greater tolerance of homosexuality has developed in parallel with greater and greater intolerance towards paedophilia. And quite right too (on both counts) I say.

And even simply sticking with Cardinal O’Brien’s example of polygamy (which is – as has been noted – taken for granted in the Bible) from what I’ve read on the subject, polygamy is increasingly frowned upon by (for example) the US authorities – even in Utah – at a time when more and more states are considering or embracing same-sex marriage.

But there’s more:

In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King.


Oh dear, how terrible! A fairy tale about two kings who are a couple.

I wonder if Cardinal O’Brien has read Grimms’ Fairy stories in the original? In any case the above claim (even if it were true) is another example of a logical fallacy. The fallacy even has a name: “the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy”. What actually seems to have happened is that this book (originally published in the Netherlands) was translated and published in the USA. It was made available or in some cases read out in some schools or libraries and some parents reacted by bringing lawsuits to require those schools and libraries ban the book. You can read the full story here

But O’Brien saves the best until last (well almost last – his final flourish is to repeat the lie about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights):

Disingenuously, the Government has suggested that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be compulsory and churches could choose to opt out. This is staggeringly arrogant.
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”.


Now we have to be careful when critiquing similes, metaphors, and analogies. For example, the speaker of the House of Commons (John Bercow) recently gave a speech in which he referred to our “kaleidoscope Queen”. Now I’m not entirely sure what John B meant, but I am almost 100% sure that he did not mean that the Queen is rather like a metal cylinder with a twirly bit on the end full of bits of translucent plastic.

Many commentators have suggested that O’Brien was comparing same-sex marriage to slavery (something which, funnily enough is, like polygamy and incest, tacitly endorsed by the Bible [see eg Exodus 21:2]). What I think O’Brien was really trying to say here (in his own clumsy way) is that, just because we are not forced to join in an activity, does not imply that we should condone that activity.

But of course, as in every other one of his arguments, he’s missing the point.

If an activity is something I disapprove of – like (say) watching TV soap operas – then I ought to accept that providing it does no harm to anyone (which I suppose might be debatable in the case of soap operas, but let’s try and stick to general principles here) and providing I’m not forced to join in, I can have no reasonable expectation that those who wish to engage in such activities might be prevented, by law, from doing so. If, on the other hand, an activity (like slavery) results in the suffering of third parties (ie those forced into slavery) then I am entitled to every expectation that those who wish to engage in such activities will be prevented, by law, from doing so.

If churches can freely refuse to conduct gay marriage ceremonies (as it happens, I have never gone along with the notion that belief in invisible sky residents should constitute a get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would otherwise be prosecuted under laws against racist, sexist, or homophobic discrimination, but that’s where we are) and if church goers can freely decide to marry whomever they wish, what possible objection can the devout have to other people wishing to marry whomever they wish?

The entire argument is like saying that someone else’s holiday in Skegness has devalued my holiday in Tuscany – even if you were inclined to go along with pairing of the Tuscany/Skegness axis with the heterosexuality/homosexuality axis, which I’m not.

Needless to say, after this incoherent outburst, lots of people on the internet began shouting “bigot” and “homophobe” at Cardinal O’Brien and a Telegraph journalist for whom I have a great deal of respect (not something I can say about most Telegraph journalists) Tom Chivers (‏@TomChivers) opined that a) shouting “bigot” and “homophobe” wasn’t necessarily the best way to win the arguments; and b) not everyone who opposes gay marriage is ipso facto a bigoted homophobe.

Tom pointed us all in the direction of a more measured article on this subject by his colleague Ed West: Gay marriage – why not just have a referendum?".

Now I’m not really interested in the referendum question per se – not least because that simply begs the question: “Yes, but which way should we vote in the referendum Ed?” – but we might examine Ed West’s arguments that relate to the actual matter at hand.

West begins by observing that
a huge amount of energy is being expended on something actually quite unimportant.


The problem is that this “argument” can always be used against doing anything that addresses the plight of a minority of people. There will always be something more important to do and the thing in question will never get done.

West goes on to claim that

marriage has always been, historically, between people of the opposite sex, and linked to procreation.


This immediately raises the two questions: 1) Is this actually true? (to which the answer is almost certainly “no”) and, more importantly, 2) Even if this is true, does this provide a “knock-down” argument in favour of the proposition that we should not do things differently in future.

To be fair to West, he (partially) considers both these questions (and thereby fatally undermines his own argument).

Of course people unable to procreate get married.
On the other hand I accept that just because this has always been the case, there’s no reason why things shouldn’t change.


West then goes on to repeat O’Brien’s concerns about children being deprived (specifically) of fathers. West does not duplicate O’Brien’s stridency, but he does duplicate O’Brien’s illogicality.

The only marriage that won’t have a (potential) father in it would be a marriage between two women – who would presumably be lesbians. The women in such a marriage might decide to raise a child – via sperm donation or whatever – and that child would then grow up without a father. But, again, does West seriously suppose that, blocked from entering into their marriage, the women would have married men instead before raising children?

I suppose there is one area where West and O’Brien might just have a case: lesbian adoption where the child in question might otherwise have been adopted by a heterosexual couple. But if this is the point, it should be spelt out and those making it should produce the evidence in support of their assumption that lesbian parenting has worse outcomes than heterosexual parenting – evidence that overwhelms the evidence already cited: Children Raised by Lesbians Do Just Fine, Studies Show.

West tries another tack:

Trying to change people’s hearts by law is always problematic.


What? Like drink-driving? Or beating children? Or racial discrimination? Or sex between consenting male adults? Or countless other areas where – at the time the law was changed – most (or at least a great many) people’s hearts led them to oppose the change in the law, but areas where the new status quo is now unquestioned by any remotely mainstream thinker.

Just imagine that someone today began to argue (as many of the devout in Northern Ireland continue to argue when it comes to “religious community”) that only people of the same ethnicity should be permitted to marry. We would call that person “racist”.

Given that those who oppose gay marriage do so not because they have any well-reasoned arguments that lead them to that opposition and that stand up to scrutiny, I am left wondering what, other than prejudice, really drives them.

And if it is prejudice, what should we call it?

Oh and if I am ever asked to vote in an opinion poll or a referendum, I shall certainly now vote unequivocally in favour of same sex marriage and encourage everyone else to do likewise.

I also recommend (and acknowledge the influence of ) Martin Robbins's [@mjrobbins] excellent Guardian article "The irrational and sinister campaign against gay marriage"

2012-03-02

Tom Watson MP, former News of the World editor Alex Marunchak, and the murder of Daniel Morgan


Anatomy of a Denial

Radio Four has recently been running a (at times moving, at times irritating) series on people who were intending to use the leap day of 2012 February 29 to do something special. Tom Watson MP decided to use this day (and parliamentary privilege) to relate some of the background to a brutal murder, the police corruption that has thus far thwarted any attempts to bring the killer/s to justice, and the curious role of News International in this sorry tale

An important role in this story is played by an Alex Marunchak, former chief crime reporter for the News of the World and later the paper’s Irish editor, and Tom Watson made (or reported) a number of accusations against this journalist.




Tom Watson:
The main conduit [for information obtained through Rees and Fillery’s corrupted contacts] at News International was Alex Marunchak, chief crime reporter for the News of the World and later the paper’s Irish editor. I want to focus the Minister’s attention on Marunchak in particular. Rees and Marunchak had a relationship that was so close that they both registered companies at the same address in Thornton Heath. Abbeycover, established by Rees and his colleague from News International, Greg Miskiw, was registered at the same address as Southern Investigations, run by Rees and Fillery. Rees’s confirmed links with Marunchak take the murder of Daniel Morgan to a new level.
It is important to remember that, in the days before the murder, Daniel’s family believe that he was on the verge of exposing huge police corruption. That was confirmed by Brian Madagan, Daniel’s former employer, in a statement in May 1987, in which he said that he believed Daniel was about to sell a story to a newspaper. In a second, later statement, Madagan said he believed that paper to be the News of the World and the contact to be Alex Marunchak who, until recently, still worked for the paper. BBC Radio 4’s “Report” programme also confirmed that it has seen evidence suggesting that, a week before the murder, Daniel was about to take a story exposing police corruption to Mr Marunchak and was promised a payment of £40,000. We also know, from the investigative reporting of Nick Davies at The Guardian that Southern Investigations paid the debts of Alex Marunchak.
As part of the third failed investigation, Operation Nigeria was launched. It included the surveillance of Southern Investigations between May and September 1999 and was run by the Metropolitan police’s anti-corruption squad, CIB3. It placed a bug in the offices of Southern Investigations that yielded evidence that convicted Rees for a serious and unrelated crime. Police surveillance shows frequent contact between Rees and Marunchak. I understand that the tapes made by the recording by the bug have not all been transcribed; if they were, they would yield more collusion, perhaps criminal in nature, between News International and Jonathan Rees. I hope the Minister will ask the police if that process is under way.
When Rees came out of jail, he was re-hired by the News of the World, then edited by Andy Coulson. Rees also founded a company called Pure Energy, in which Marunchak was involved. The police hold evidence to suggest that Rees discussed the use of Trojan devices with his associate, Sid Fillery. He was an associate of Philip Campbell Smith, who received a custodial sentence on Monday for a crime related to blagging. Campbell Smith is a former Army intelligence officer. I will say no more on Campbell Smith, because I do not want to prejudice the Operation Tuleta inquiry. However, I hope that I have demonstrated to the Minister a close association between Rees and Marunchak.
This is why I think that the Metropolitan police cannot be used in any further investigations: yesterday, the Leveson inquiry heard a startling revelation that Alex Marunchak — a close business associate of Jonathan Rees, then the prime suspect in a murder case — chose to put DCI David Cook and his family under close covert surveillance. The person who was investigating a murder was put under close surveillance by a close business associate of the man he was investigating. That was raised with Rebekah Brooks in 2002, the then editor of the News of the World. I would like the Minister to imagine what his response would have been to that information. A journalist employee tried to undermine the murder investigation of his close associate. Rupert Murdoch claims that News International takes a zero-tolerance approach to wrongdoing. However, far from launching a wide-scale inquiry to investigate wrongdoing, Rebekah Brooks promoted Alex Marunchak to the editor’s job at the News of the World in Ireland.
[…..]
It gets worse. I would like the Minster to request to see all the intelligence reports submitted about Alex Marunchak. I believe the Met is sitting on an intelligence report from late 2002 that claims a police contact overheard Marunchak claim he was paying the relatives of police officers in Cambridgeshire for information about the Soham murders. As far as we know, those allegations have not been investigated. I do not know whether the intelligence reports are accurate, but I do know that Alex Marunchak was involved in writing stories about how the Manchester United tops of those young girls were found. I also believe that at least one of the Soham parents appears in the evidence file of Glenn Mulcaire. The Met police failed to investigate both leads when reported in 2002 and 2006. I think that Rupert Murdoch owes the Morgan family an apology, and I do not think that he has made his last apology to the grieving parents of murdered children.
Alex Marunchak has just responded to these allegations.

Alex Marunchak
Mercifully I didn’t see Tom Watson’s performance but regret it came slightly too late for him to be an also-ran at the Oscar ceremony. 
It astonishes me an MP can abuse parliamentary privilege and waste everybody’s time by peddling untruths in this way. 
I have never met Watson, nor talked or communicated with him in any way. 
Perhaps I should make this clear at the outset – lest he be found crucified on a hill overlooking Jerusalem and I am held, in some way, to be responsible.

It is noteworthy that Maranchak’s opening remarks are ad hominem rather than ad argumentum and that Maranchak begins by denying a “straw man” – the unalleged “he met Watson” and “he communicated with Watson”.

Watson’s comments about my professional dealings with murder victim Daniel Morgan are absolutely untrue.
I do not doubt that Morgan’s family now believe he was on the verge of exposing police corruption before he died.
If that was indeed a motive for his death – then I know nothing about it.
The reason is that I never heard of Daniel Morgan or Southern Investigations until after his murder.
He never phoned me, contacted or met me, neither directly nor through a third party, by telephone or letter or by any other method.
Nor did he leave graffiti sprayed on walls for me to spot on the way to work which asked me to contact him.
But, I admit, for all I know, he may even have employed someone claiming to have ESP powers to contact me.
Sadly, for Mr Watson, I did not receive any ESP messages either.
Perhaps he should look into this as the basis for his next parliamentary diatribe on the topic?
I was told to cover the Morgan murder story as the News of the World’s crime reporter.Then news editor Bob Warren told me: “Find out who this man is for a start. We’ve never heard of him.”
Neither I, nor anyone else at the News of the World, offered Morgan £40,000 for his story.
Nor did we offer £100,000.
In fact we never knew he even existed prior to his murder.

More ad hominem attacks on Tom Watson, though the man who made this particular allegation is Brian Madigan. Maranchak nevertheless offers two categorical denials here: that he had never heard of Daniel Morgan until after the 1987 murder and that he had never heard of or Southern Investigations until after the murder. I rather think these denials (especially the second) should be checked.

I was promoted to associate editor of the News of the World in 1997 after 10 years on the News of the World newsdesk.
My primary job was to edit the Irish News of the World in Dublin.
[…]
I never worked on stories about the Soham murders [which happened in 2002], never wrote copy, nor interviewed anyone.
I did not pay any relatives of police officers involved in the Soham murders.
Instead, I carried on with the task of editing the Irish News of the World and commuted between Dublin and London.
Watson said in parliament he had been told a police informant claimed he overheard me boasting I had paid relatives of police officers in Cambridgeshire for information about the Soham murders. He also claimed I had written Soham stories. For the avoidance of any doubt - what Watson said is completely untrue.
In the unlikely event an experienced Fleet Street hack like myself, based in Dublin, were paying relatives of police officers in Cambridgeshire, would he be stupid enough to blurt it out in front of strangers, one of whom was a police informer? Er, no. I don’t think so.
The simple fact is that I was not involved in the Soham story. It was an English story run by the London newsdesk. I was in charge of the Irish News of the World and had no role whatsoever in the Soham story.
Another categorical denial here: that Maranchak had “no role whatsoever in the Soham story”. The Telegraph says that there is a News of the World article about the case which had Mr Marunchak’s byline on it. Again, this ought to be checkable. There is also an appeal to the argument from personal incredulity: “would [I] be stupid enough to blurt it out in front of strangers?”. A problem here is that all our thresholds for incredulity have been raised considerably by the revelations coming out on a daily basis.

I received information from a source that then minor BBC Crimewatch personality Jacqui Hames was having an affair with a senior officer who was appearing on her TV show.
For the avoidance of doubt, I did nothing to check this, because it was of no interest to me.
I did not look at cuttings, because I had no time, and I was editing the Irish News of the World. But I passed the tittle-tattle on to the London newsdesk as a bit of gossip, which had been passed on to me, and left it to them to deal with as they saw fit.
I do not know to this day what checks they carried out, if any at all, or indeed if they did anything about the information. Nor did I ask them to keep me posted with progress or developments. End of story.
But I do know that I did nothing more than have a 30 second conversation passing on the rumour to the London newsdesk and that was the end of my involvement.
This would appear to be a rebuttal of the claim that Marunchak put DCI David Cook and his family under surveillance though it is noteworthy that there is no explicit denial of this core allegation.

As part of my master-plan to escape Fleet Street and become a multi-millionaire I registered a limited company at Companies House in London through a chartered accountant. I believe he registered numerous companies at the same address which is the office from which he worked and rented. My name and home address was readily available from Companies House records.

The master plan was to import vodka into Britain and become so incredibly wealthy I could afford to stick two fingers up at Fleet Street. Sadly, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, and the vodka company never traded. Not once. It did not take one single penny, nor import a single drop of vodka, let alone a whole bottle-full.

Instead, I was so busy carrying out my work for the paper I never had time to turn my attention to anything else. After a couple of years on the shelf and not trading I had the firm wound up after receiving threatening letters from Companies House for not filing accounts – of which there were none to file.

Now the reference to importing alcohol is interesting because (as reported here) one "Barry Beardall" (who was employed by the Sunday Times to trick staff at a law firm into revealing details from Gordon Brown's personal file, who met Jonathan Rees in prison, and who became a partner with Rees in a company that employed Marunchak as a consultant) was (when he met Rees) serving six and a half years for a £7 million alcohol smuggling operation. Of course this may be pure coincidence, but it is a coincidence that should perhaps be set alongside the other coincidence reported here: that Marunchak’s chartered accountant registered Marunchak’s firm at the same address as Jonathan Rees’s Southern Investigations firm.

I have a signed, witnessed, dated statement of truth from the then bursar of the school attended by my sons that no one except myself ever paid school fees. These were gratefully received because they were never paid on time or in full.
Eventually these were finally settle in total after I had left the employ of the News of the World and only after the threat of legal action against me and two years after my youngest son finished university. That’s five years after he left the school.
But should anyone be interested, then I am happy to give tips to anyone interested in knowing how I managed to achieve this incredible feat and avoid paying school fees for so long. Ditto for my credit cards.
My response to Watson’s childish and infantile accusations, which have no basis in fact whatsoever, have been repeated ad infinitum whenever he mischievously makes them.But he persists in doing so, for whatever motives he has conjured up for himself. After all, he didn’t get to where he is on the Labour back benches by being stupid.

More ad hominem attacks on Tom Watson though the source of these financial allegations is actually Guardian reporter Nick Davis. One assumes that a police trawl of Mr Marunchak’s bank accounts might shed some light here.

Of course, what is often the most interesting is not what people accused of wrong-doing deny, but what they don’t deny.

What Marunchak does not deny (in this most recent set of denials) is that he knew (personally) and employed (as a source for information) and was a business partner of Jonathon Rees
It is interesting to contrast the recent denials with what he said back in March 2011:
Panorama: In 2006, whilst you were employed as a senior executive editor at the News of the World, you commissioned further research from Jonathan Rees (who had previously run “Southern Investigations”), notwithstanding the fact that he had recently been released from a seven-year prison sentence following his conviction for a serious criminal offence.
Marunchak: This is untrue. Information offered and brought in by sources of their own volition is not the same thing as being commissioned to obtain it in the first place. The conviction and sentence to which you refer, as I understand it, is currently being examined by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which was set up by the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice to assess if convictions should be referred to the Court of Appeal for reconsideration on the grounds the original conviction was unsafe.
Here Marunchak seems to be saying that though he received  (and presumably paid for)  information from Rees, he did not ask Rees for information and that Rees may, in any case, have not been guilty of the offence for which he was imprisoned. I think it is noteworthy that Marunchak makes no attempt to repeat these justifications in his more recent pronouncements.

So, to summarize, there is no new evidence here or anything that proves that Marunchak is actually guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, but there is a great deal to suggest that the authorities should now subject Marunchak’s account to a great deal more detailed scrutiny than they have so far.

Forget #horsegate; forget hacking celebrities’ phones, someone has got away with murder here and the allegations need to be fully and rigorously investigated.

Meanwhile, Tom Watson MP is to be commended for his role in bringing this matter to public attention.

2012-02-16

In Defence of Militant Atheism

The case for secularism is unanswerable. The alternatives are:
  • discrimination in favour of (and maintenance of the privileges of) a particular religion regardless of how many people continue to believe it – the untenable status quo;
  • discrimination against minority faiths by those in the majority – who might, in some places or given time, be Muslims, Scientologists, or (god forbid) atheists;
  • or
  • or equal rights for all supernatural beliefs – a route to chaos.
Given these considerations, most reasonable people – including (as this recent survey suggests) most UK Christians - agree that there is no sensible alternative to a level playing field for all religions-and-none (in the private sphere) and no case for anyone to have special privileges in the public sphere simply on the grounds of their adherence to certain religious beliefs and practices.

Probably the most pernicious consequence of the UK’s failure to distinguish between church and state is the segregation of school children along religious lines. I find this just as pernicious as the segregation of children along ethnic lines. Of course, given that religion is not randomly distributed among different ethnic groups and (especially) given the special cases of Sikhism and Orthodox Judaism, religious and racial segregation often amount to the same thing.

Again, opinion surveys suggest that most people in this country (including most notional Christians) do not support this kind of discrimination and segregation; and those who do support it struggle to justify it.

Since Baroness Warsi’s recent outbursts against secularism and her rambling incoherent address to the Vatican, atheists have been falling over themselves to emphasise that they are not at all “militant” and have no problem whatsoever with religion practised between consenting adults in private.

As Alain de Botton tweeted:
Atheists should remember that the goal is to clear public space of belief, not private space.
I disagree.

Even religion in the private sphere is highly malevolent.

It is difficult to generalize about religions. For example, according to your specific religion, you may believe in zero, one, or many deities. But certain themes do seem to recur:
  • The devaluing of real human life by contrast with an afterlife (or even an endless succession of lives).
  • The devaluing of real flesh and blood human beings by contrast with some kind of immaterial human essence.
  • Neuroses about sex in general and the female sex in particular.
  • Acceptance that certain things are true just because somebody once said they were true or because a certain community say they are true.
  • Prejudice towards those who adhere to the “wrong” religion.
  • Rejection of moral discourse. [see here for the point being made]
I could go on, but that will do for starters.

Such notions, I submit, poison the private thoughts of those who subscribe to them and ultimately influence their public behaviour – even when that public behaviour is not explicitly religious behaviour. Atheists should do all we can to eradicate such evils.

I do not, of course, suggest that atheists should follow the path carved out over centuries by the devout and use legal sanctions and violence to achieve our aims. As I have indicated, I support the principles of secularism, my intolerance is directed towards the ideas not the people who hold them, and (to slightly mis-use the old cliché) some of my best friends are religious. I do, however, think we should use rational arguments and setting good examples and education and every similar tool at our disposal to wipe irrationality and superstition from the face of the earth.

To that extent I am proud to describe myself as a “militant atheist”.





PS

Partly in response to Paul_H's comment below and partly just because it's an excellent article, here's a link to @mjrobbins on secularism and why Christians should support it just a strongly as atheists.

2012-02-07

If Paul Chambers’s conviction is allowed to stand, what should we not do in future?

STOP STOP STOP STOP PRESS Victory! 27-07-2012 Paul's conviction overturned. CPS are not going to appeal.
STOP STOP STOP PRESS Result of the 26-06-2012 hearing tomorrow at 09:45 27-07-2012
STOP STOP PRESS Third appeal (I think - I'm losing count) goes to penalty shoot-outs between an odd number of judges in court tomorrow 26-06-2012.
STOP PRESS Second appeal non-verdict announced today (28-05-2012): the judges can't agree on a verdict. The two High-Court Judges concerned have been thinking about the question I examine in this post for three and a half months and they can't even decide what the law is. This begs the question even more strongly than I beg it in the post below: How on earth are mere mortals, with no legal training, supposed to know how to obey the law on tweeting when it comes to the 2003 Communications Act?
Part of the function of the justice system is “pour encourager les autres”.

If I read in the newspaper that a "Paul Chambers" has been convicted for (say) using a hand-held mobile while driving and I wish to avoid a similar fate I can draw the inference that, if driving, I had better not use my mobile (at least without a “hands-free” kit) or, conversely, that if I am using a hand-held mobile, I had better not drive.

In January 2010, his travel plans frustrated by snow, Paul Chambers posted the following piece of hyperbole on Twitter:

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

and was arrested by anti-terrorist police – so alarmed that they waited a couple of weeks before bothering to take any action. [ref]

At his subsequent (original) trial on 2010 May 10 Paul was convicted of "sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003"[ref]. This conviction was upheld at appeal on 2010 November 11 [ref].

Paul goes to the high court today (2012-02-08) to try and overturn the previous two judgments [ref].

But let’s assume Paul loses (again). What inferences can I draw? What should I, henceforth, not do if I wish to avoid a criminal prosecution and avoid losing my job and becoming unemployable?

Perhaps (if there is any doubt about the content of what I wish to impart) I should avoid ringing up airports or sending them emails? But Paul did not do either of these things. He posted on “Twitter” (essentially a website which anyone can view). Paul did not even “mention” Robin Hood Airport (using @RobinHoodAirport or whatever their “twitter name” is – if indeed they have one). But apparently this still constitutes “sending a public electronic message”. So I suppose (subject to an appraisal of what I wish to say) I must never submit anything to the internet or the phone networks or radio networks.

So that part of the equation is clear enough. When it comes to modern technology, there is apparently no distinction in law between sending a message to someone and simply saying or writing something. This seems a bit different from the days when there was all the difference in the world between (say) sending someone a letter and (say) writing something in a newspaper.

But now comes the tricky bit. How — assuming I do not wish to eschew all use of telephony, radio, or internet (and yet still wish to avoid Paul’s fate) — do I censor my productions? As we have learned, it is not enough that I don’t intend menace (or indecency or obscenity). (If Paul had intended to cause anyone to believe there was a threat to the airport, he would have been quite rightly charged under the relevant legislation rather than under the 2003 Communications Act.) Nor does the fact that nobody reading or hearing my thoughts felt any menace (or offence) help. A public electronic message can apparently be menacing per se [ref].

So how do I avoid writing or saying something that is “menacing per se” — menacing by or in itself? What does this mean? Fortunately the appeal court provided some guidance here and considered the plight of an imaginary couple travelling from Robin Hood Airport (even though the airport was closed at the time of the “threat”) who had happened upon the tweet in question [ref]. Now leaving aside the implausibility of constructing any sort of coherent narrative in which a couple begin to feel concerned about their travel plans as a result of consulting Twitter, the legal implications would seem to be clear enough: If some imaginary context can be constructed in which something I have said or written might be considered menacing (no matter how far removed this context might be from the actual context of my remarks) them my remarks are menacing.

So can I tweet “I’ll throttle my son if he doesn’t tidy his bedroom”? After all some people (sadly) do strangle their children and there could be a context in which someone might think such a remark to be menacing.

Can I tweet “My local council need a bomb under them”? Again, some people do plant bombs and there could be a context in which someone might think such a remark to be menacing.

Can I even tweet “I’ll be there in five minutes”? After all, there might be someone out there who has been threatened with violence by someone with a similar name to mine and that potential victim might read my tweet and feel menaced.

I have no idea what the answers are to such questions.

I am an IT consultant with a PhD and two first degrees and I have absolutely no idea whatsoever about what I should not do in future in order to avoid being prosecuted for sending a public electronic message that is of a menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003.

I fully accept that ignorance of the law can never be an excuse for breaking the law.

I refuse to accept that ignorance of the law should be a necessary consequence of the law.

[An earlier blog post of mine related to this topic]
[A template for a letter to your MP about this case]
Postscript: Having tossed and turned all night in bed thinking about this, a free RT for anyone who can see a way out of this quasi-syllogism:

All tweets are messages
Some messages are menacing per se
"Menacing per se" means "it is possible to imagine a context in which someone might feel menace if they read the text in question"
It is always possible to imagine a context in which someone might feel menace if they read any item of text
Ergo
All tweets are menacing