The Students are Revolting

Of course there’s always the argument that high fees will discourage talented poor students from applying to university; but that argument is a non-starter because Conservative politicians don’t care about poor people – that is, after all, why they became Conservative politicians.

No, any successful arguments here have to concern themselves with the only thing Conservative politicians actually do care about:


Raising student fees will, we are told, “save money”.

This, of course, is bollocks. No money will be saved, the money required will, ceteris paribus, be exactly the same. The only real questions are about who should pay this money.

In the past, the tax-payer paid.

Now students pay for their own education by borrowing money and paying it back later – when they become tax-payers – and, in future, we may move to a “graduate tax” where students pay for their own education - by borrowing money and paying it back later when they become tax-payers - but they pay the money back through the tax system.

Now, one of the things about PAYE tax is that everyone in the country is essentially means-tested each year to make sure they are paying the right amount of tax. Low earners pay less tax. High earners pay more. We used to use some of this money for paying student fees.

Instead we now means-test students before they apply to university to see if they are entitled to a loan, then we means-test them in a more detailed fashion to see how much of a loan and what types of loan, they are entitled to. Once they leave University and get a job we means-test them regularly to see if their income has passed the required threshold for starting to pay the money back and then we calculate – on an on-going basis- how much they have paid, how much interest is due, whether they are still earning enough to continue paying back, how much they still need to pay, and what size the instalments should be.

All this alongside the normal means-testing conducted by the Inland Revenue on all its PAYE “customers” (as I believe we are known these days) each year (though perhaps there is some pooling of information).

I think it goes without saying that the infrastructure required to make all these calculations and to police the loans system is enormously expensive. Far from saving money, this system devours money as Eric Pickles devours pies.

“But making the tax-payer pay for other people’s education isn’t fair” bleat the Conservative politicians and newspapers - for whom fairness is and always has been the very scourge of the earth. Even the esteemed @DAaronovitch (for whom I have a lot of admiration and who does care about social justice) has presented versions of this argument.

The only people I can see who were “unfairly” treated by the system we had before student loans were high earners who did not go to university. They, though their higher taxes, were paying for education from which they themselves never benefited.

Except, that they did benefit. They benefited because everyone benefits from a highly educated workforce; and they benefited because they spent three years earning money when their peers were living in relative poverty in order to acquire an education.

So we need to save money and rescue the Liberal Democrats from the dreadful bind they now find themselves in.


Abolish student loans and pay all university fees by raising income tax for the better off.

Let's just fucking do it!


Template letter to MP regarding the #TwitterJokeTrial

I have sent an email based on the template below to my local MP using http://www.writetothem.com I hope as many people as possible will do the same.

In spite of what I say in this letter, I strongly suspect (though I pretend no legal expertise) that the real problem is not the 2003 Communications Act itself, but the perverse interpretation of that Act by the CPS and the lower courts. It will, however, take a huge amount of time and money to get this matter before a high-court judge. In the meantime I think we should press our MPs to clarify the law to prevent it being mis-used in this way.

NB It is always better if you write to your MP using your own words rather than someone else’s, but please all feel free to use whatever you like from the example I provide below - I assert no copyright!

Please be polite and avoid making personal attacks on any of individuals involved!

Dear Ms/Mr/Dr MP

I write to express my grave concern at certain provisions of the Communications Act 2003.

As you may be aware, a trainee accountant called Paul Chambers was successfully prosecuted in May 2010 for “sending a menacing message”. His conviction was upheld at appeal; the High Court Judges at his most recent appeal were unable to agree on their interpretation of the law; and Mr Chambers faces a further appeal in the High Court at the end of June this year (2012).

Paul Chambers’s “crime” was to vent his exasperation at a travel delay by making a (perhaps somewhat ill-judged and tasteless) joke about blowing up a local airport on the “microblogging” site known as “Twitter” – much as our former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman vented his exasperation with modern architecture and town-planning by calling for the bombing of Slough.

What is worrying about the law here is that:

  1. there was clearly never any intention by the author of the offending joke to menace anyone;

  2. no message was ever sent to the airport or anyone connected with that airport; and

  3. nobody who read the joke – Paul Chambers’s “followers” on Twitter (at whom the joke was directed), the staff at the airport who found the “tweet” (by searching on the internet for mentions of their airport), or the police (to whom the tweet was passed on) – felt menaced.

If Mr Chambers really had sent a menacing message to an airport designed to make them fear he intended violence he would have been, quite rightly, charged under the Criminal Law Act 1977.

Instead, the CPS decided to prosecute using the 2003 Communications Act and the court decided that a tweet can be a menacing message under Clause 127 of that Act regardless of whether the person writing the tweet intended menace or anyone actually reading it felt menaced.

This is absurd.

There are, literally, trillions of passages of text on social networking sites and on the internet in general that could, if taken completely out of context, conceivably be found menacing by somebody somewhere. It seems that the 2003 Communications Act puts anyone who publishes anything on the internet at risk of criminal prosecution if any of his or her words (stripped of their original setting) could be misinterpreted as threatening in some fashion.

This does not only impact private individuals like Paul Chambers, commercial users of the internet are obviously impacted too. If we are all forced, when publishing things on the internet, to avoid any form of hyperbole or metaphor or figure of speech that could, if taken literally in some imaginary context, imply “menace”, we are clearly an intolerable situation.

The 2003 Communications Act obviously needs to be amended as soon as possible. I hope you and your colleagues in parliament will give this matter your urgent attention.

Yours sincerely



The Pope and paedophilia - are we being fair?

Pope Benedict XVI's opening salvo during his recent visit to these islands was a blatant attempt to link “aggressive secularism” in the UK with Nazism in Hitler's Germany.

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.

I also recall the regime's attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.

As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a 'reductive vision of the person and his destiny' (Caritas in Veritate, 29).


Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society.

In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.

Now I (like the Founding Fathers in the USA) am proud to be an aggressive secularist and, as an aggressive secularist, I rather took exception to Pope Benedict's remarks. [Of course - unlike many of the Founding Fathers - I am also an atheist - though I hope not an aggressive one - but this distinction seemed to be rather lost on his Holiness.

Had I had the honour of an audience with Pope Benedict, I might have pointed out that Hitler was brought up as Catholic. He never renounced his faith and indeed claimed he was "fighting for the Lord’s work" in "warding off the Jews" (ref). I would have then seen fit to mention Pius XII and the Reichskonkordat (ref). And finally I should have pointed out that (although we all know the circumstances at the time and if he had not brought this up I should not have mentioned it) POPE BENEDICT REALLY WAS A FUCKING NAZI HIMSELF!

Having said all that, I do feel slightly uncomfortable with the way in which the following list of Catholic sins is constantly repeated by people on my side in this matter: opposing contraception, misogyny, homophobia, spreading AIDs, opposing science, promoting woo, opposing measures to relive poverty, wasting the lives of millions by filling their heads with guilt and mysticism and demanding their adherence to a barmy worldwide cult, and (finally) buggering children.

Spot the odd-one-out!

On all except that last item I say “guilty as charged”. But that last item is slightly different. Of course the Catholic church are guilty of the sexual abuse of children on a massive scale and they are guilty of covering this up and allowing it to flourish and continue. You can also see how the insistence on priestly celibacy and a cult of secrecy facilitated such practices. Nonetheless, while the Catholic Church really does preach that the use of condoms and oestrogen/progesterone pills (not, as far as I am aware, much discussed in the Bible) is evil and really does preach that women are lesser beings and homosexuals are an abomination, the Catholic church has never actually preached paedophilia.

I can see why people might think I am splitting hairs here, but I don’t think I am. After all, if Hitler really had been an atheist rather than a Catholic, I think I should still have objected just as strongly to the Pope's comments.

I have yet to read a single book by an atheist in which it is claimed that genocide is a good thing – still less a book in which it is claimed that the goodness of genocide is a necessary consequence of an atheist perspective.

Pope Benedict hates gay people because of his professed beliefs. Pope Benedict tolerates child abuse in spite of his professed beliefs (presumably on purely pragmatic grounds - albethey miguided pragmatic grounds). While we should accept neither child abuse nor homophobia, we should accept this important distinction.


Job Application for Speciality Doctor in Homoeopathy

re NHS Tayside’s decision to sack 500 staff, but still advertise a £68,000 per year post for a homeopath.

Dear Sir / Madam

I think I have exactly the personal qualities, skills and attributes you may be looking for the post of Specialty Doctor in Homoeopathy.

I have an honours degree in biochemistry and genetics. I studied in the 1970s so I was out of my head on drugs most of the time and didn’t really take much in when they talked about the Avogadro constant and dose dependent effects and all that shit. I don’t think my science studies would present any obstacle to my carrying out the duties of this post with a straight face.

Later I did a BA in philosophy and a PhD in the philosophy of science. I realize that this does not really make me into the kind of Doctor you are looking for but you could put “Dr” in front of my name and lots of letters afterwards on the plaque on the door and nobody would really know the difference – after all Gillian McKeith got away with it and she got her doctorate from the American Holistic College of Nutrition which isn’t ever a real university. She’s into all that alternative medicine stuff and none of the people who consult her seem to notice anything wrong with her qualifications.

While my original science studies might be thought to disqualify me from believing that disease can be treated with sugar pills sprinkled with pure water, I think I can assure you that my doctoral studies make me uniquely qualified for the post you are offering.

One thing I learnt in my philosophy studies was that a lot of science is based on inductive reasoning. As Karl Popper has pointed out, however, just because a treatment has been repeatedly shown to work (in randomized controlled trials) does not provide any logical guarantee that the treatment in question will continue to work in the future. In my thesis I develop a line of argument that is a corollary of Popper’s insight: just because a treatment has been repeatedly shown not to work (in randomized controlled trials) does not provide any logical guarantee that the treatment in question might not start working next time it is tested.

I think you will agree that the credibility of homeopathy hinges on the plausibility of this line of argument.

How about it?

PS You can obtain details of the post from the above link and send your applications in to recruitment.tayside@nhs.net. @zeno001 on twitter is maintaining a list.

Conspiracy Theories and the Strange Case of David Kelly

While the Daily Mail is busy trying to persuade us that there was all kinds of skulduggery behind the death of David Kelly, David Aaronovitch (@DAaronovitch) and others are busy trying to persuade us that this is the latest example of a loopy conspiracy theory (I can’t provide a link because David now writes behind the Murdoch paywall - see below – but you can buy his book which devotes a chapter to this issue here.

While David A talks a great deal of sense on conspiracy theories, he does, at times, come dangerously close to using the inductive fallacy and presenting an argument something along the lines of: “all conspiracy theories so far advanced have turned out to be a complete load of bollocks therefore all conspiracy theories are bollocks.”

Of course his actual arguments are more subtle and presented more articulately than that that, but there is more than a whiff of the style of reasoning employed by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian when he argues that because BSE and various flu pandemics turned out to less catastrophic than many had feared, nothing scientists ever warn us about will ever really be dangerous (again I paraphrase slightly).

In fact, conspiracies are commonplace in the legal system – especially when it comes to terrorism. It was conspiracies to pervert the course of justice that resulted in the conviction of both the Angry Brigade and the Birmingham Six. Sadly, in the case of the Birmingham Six, those convicted had not actually committed the crimes for which they were “fitted up”.

It is, it might also be noted, not completely unknown for our security forces to engage in murder and torture – though it is more common for them to outsource such tasks to others; and more common still for them to distance themselves still further, while turning a blind eye to what they know or suspect is going on.

And finally, there are all sorts of strange unanswered questions about Dr Kelly’s death.

So is the Daily Mail right here and has David Aaronovitch got it wrong?

Well of course, there is no way to know for certain, but I think we can usefully apply a bit of rational speculation here:

Real conspiracies in the justice system typically involve a handful of police officers who become convinced that someone or other is guilty (or conversely that one of their own ought not to be found guilty) and set about manufacturing evidence or hiding evidence or lying in order to further their cause. These conspiracies may occasionally involve prosecution lawyers (a bit) but they do not typically involve judges or politicians. If they did, these conspiracies would unravel much more easily than they do. Of course (as in the case of the Birmingham Six) the judges and politicians may realize (or come to strongly suspect) that there has been a miscarriage of justice and attempt to keep a lid on the matter for as long as they can. But such misguided individual attempts to avoid embarrassment and avoid bringing the legal system into disrepute hardly constitute being part of a conspiracy.

Such considerations are, I submit, something to bear in mind when considering the Kelly case.

Kelly may not have died from haemorrhage alone (of course he may have died as the result of other actions he took to try and end his own life and/or from coincidental natural causes); it may have been a mistake to halt his inquest and hand the matter over to the Hutton inquiry; there may be a number of anomalies about his case that were not properly addressed at the Hutton inquiry; but to suggest that the security services and Blair’s government and the police and the coroner’s office and Hutton were all part of some baroque plot - to murder Kelly, make it look like suicide, and nobble subsequent inquiries in order to cover all this up - is simply bonkers.

I can’t establish beyond any reasonable doubt that the murder theory is wrong of course. Only more evidence and empirical investigation might be able to do that. But the murder theory is a bit like the alien space craft theory used to explain UFOs, it raises a hundred times as many difficult questions as it purports to answer.

I therefore make the following bold conjecture: When it come to the Kelly case. David Aaronovitch has got it right and the Daily Mail is talking twaddle. If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my tin-foil hat.

PS David Aaronovitch article now available here


Should we pay to read the Times online?

(Random thoughts on a tweet sent to David Aaronovitch)

I have never quite bought the argument advanced by some bloggers and fellow tweeters that there is something intrinsically immoral about charging for online content. In fact, it would probably be much better from the point of view of promoting journalistic integrity if newspapers relied less on advertising revenue and more on income provided by sales of their products.

Market forces will, I suppose, decide whether the new pay-to-view arrangements adopted by Murdoch’s flagship UK newspaper survive. As far as I can see, there are no great issues of principle here at all.

I have, nonetheless, thus far refrained from subscribing to the new “pay-wall” protected Times – even though I often read the online version in the past. A major attraction, in my case, was David Aaronovitch’s column. Not that I, by any means, agree with everything David has to say. In fact I often disagree. But, in my old age, I easily become bored reading articles I entirely agree with. Far more interesting to read intelligent coherent stuff from someone like David A and have my assumptions and opinions challenged. (Of course the newspapers – even the Times on occasion – are also full of reams of imbecilic incoherent stuff which I also disagree with, but I derive far less pleasure from reading that than I do from reading David Aaronovitch.)

So why – apart from being a cheapskate – do I refuse to hand over any money to continue reading David’s excellent journalism?

Well there are many reasons to despise Rupert Murdoch and his empire. My late father was fond of citing all of these reasons and his ashes up on the summit of Ilkley Moor would begin turning little pirouettes if his first born son ever handed over a penny to his favourite bête noir.

This is not, of course, to suggest that David Aaronovitch is doing anything terrible by working for Murdoch. Many of us end up working for firms and institutions we do not entirely feel happy with. I think I would baulk at being asked to write software for the design of (say) a cluster bomb, but I would - in the highly unlikely event that the Murdoch empire offered me some money to write something - be happy enough to accept the commission. While Murdoch’s business empire is responsible for many crimes against humanity – such as inflicting the soap opera “Neighbours” on an undeserving world - I’m not quite sure that the moral issues thereby raised are of quite the same magnitude as those raised by nasty weapons.

It is also a rather pointless gesture on my part to head a movement, of which I am the only member, which boycotts the Times. The boycott of Apartheid South Africa – though essentially symbolic in its effects – made sense. It enjoyed widespread international support and was directed at a regime that was a pariah in the eyes of every remotely reasonable person* - regardless of his or her general political views. There was a clear goal for the boycott and it ended when apartheid was dismantled. It is not at all clear what, if anything, would end the boycott of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper on Merseyside. Even though this boycott enjoys a great deal more support than my one-man Times boycott, it has, like my boycott, no real goal. It may be doing something for literacy skills in Merseyside (well unless they all read the Daily Sport instead) but it is hard to see the point of the thing.

Let me instead take a different tack: Just imagine you were a really big fan of “I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)”. Hard to imagine I concede, but some people must have been. It was top of the charts for four weeks after all. Would you buy it if you saw it on sale somewhere? (Let’s assume for the sake of this thought experiment that you can be sure that no royalties from the sale will actually reach the pockets of Gary Glitter and all the money will go to charity for poorly kittens) You wouldn’t, would you? This would not be a rational decision that you could justify to someone else, but you simply wouldn’t be able to do it would you?

Now I realize that this is a rather poor analogy on all sorts of counts, but it illustrates the point I wish to make. In the end, I suppose, I have to concede that my stance is not really rational; it’s just a matter of deeply held feelings.

Perhaps I should try and overcome those prejudices and start forking out £2 a week. If the Times were owned by someone nice and honourable and non-megalomaniacal who was not trying to take control of every media outlet in the world I probably would. As things stand, I shall probably just wait to see if the subscription model fails. I suppose I rather hope it does.

POSTSCRIPT I feel compelled to confess, publicly that, despite my remarks above, I did subsequently give in and start paying £8 per month to Mr Murdoch. It was very nice being able to read Caitlin Moran, David Aaronovitch, and even (sometimes) Daniel Finkelstein whenever I felt like it, but I did not find much else in the Times that particularly appealed to me. Also, since I wrote the above post, Mr Murdoch's power and influence in the world has waned somewhat. Currently on an economy drive while funding two children through university, I've cancelled my DD for a while. I realize none of this is of any particular interest to anyone else, but I like to set the record straight. What is of general interest is that the battle over the "Times paywall" still rages - on Twitter at least - and still conflates morality and simple economics in an unedifying fashion.

•Not, of course, in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher. I rest my case.


Does Israel have a right to exist?

Lest anything that I am about to say be misinterpreted, I should like to lay my cards on the table and reveal that:

A) I do not believe in any god or gods and I should be disinclined to worship a god even if I had been satisfied by some kind of evidence as to the god in question's existence. I am also of the opinion that the world would be a much better place without religion.

B) I find racism (in all its forms) not just morally repugnant but intellectually incoherent.

C) I do not believe that violence should be used to solve any of the conflicts in the Middle East.

Since ethnicity and religion are at the heart of the conflict in the Middle East (which has been brought into sharp focus once again by the recent deadly Israeli attack on the aid flotilla for Gaza - or, as the journalist Melanie Phillips prefers, the "Turkish terrorist flotilla attack on Israeli naval commandoes[sic]" ref) I think it is worth stressing that my opinions here (unlike, say, those of Melanie Phillips) do not flow from the fact that my religion or perceived ethnicity are different to those of any of the participants in this conflict.

It is virtually impossible to even begin to discuss the history of the Middle East or the legality of any actions taken during the conflict because every facet of that conflict is contested by the various parties. Even the terminology used to refer to the participants or the key historical events or the various patches of ground they are fighting over are loaded with assumptions and cannot be used without already entering into the debate about who is right or wrong.

It’s rather like it was trying to discuss freedom of travel from the former German Democratic Republic (or "East Germany") with someone who insisted on calling the Berlin Wall “The Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier”.

So let's try to ignore history and the question of who did what when and focus on one aspect of the situation now:

A key phrase that recurs in discussions of the Middle East is “Israel’s right to exist”. Search www.melaniephillips.com for "right to exist" and you get 50 hits.

I am always puzzled by this.

Israel does exist - it is internationally recognized (not that it shows any inclination to stick to the borders of the country that is internationally recognized) – but does it have a right to exist? Does the UK have a right to exist? I have absolutely no idea what such questions mean.

Like nearly all nations, including the UK, Israel was founded on the back of a good deal of theft, violence, and murder - by no means all of it emanating from the winning side. I don’t think any reasonable person would suggest that any good would come of subjecting the people who now live in the patch of land called "Israel" to the sort of treatment that the people who used to live there were subjected to. Of course, I willingly concede that there is no shortage of unreasonable people in this world. It is a characteristic of these unreasonable people that they tend not share my views on religion and ethnicity.

Since the Israeli government shows no inclination to negotiate any kind of settlement even with their more reasonable enemies, I wonder what on earth they are going to do?

They certainly have the military might to lay claim to the entire territory between Jordan and the Mediterranean and supporters of the Zionist cause (e.g. Melanie Phillips again) often do assert such a claim and insist that "Jews" have an inalienable right to set up home anywhere in this territory. But what on earth is to be done with the people who do not meet Israel's exacting ethnic/religious standards?

Should the Israeli army shoot them all? Drive them over the borders into the surrounding countries? Wall them all off in lots of little pockets and occasionally throw food over the walls?

While, there are clearly some who would applaud any or all of such measures (again people who tend not to share my my views on religion and ethnicity) I think even the US government (not to mention a substantial body of opinion within Israel itself) would baulk at this. But what are they going to do in their “democracy” where (as in the original “democracy”) everyone can vote - as long as they have the right credentials? I don’t think they know themselves – which I why, I suppose, they resort to repeating phrases such as "Israel's right to exist" than engaging in rational debate.

As it happens, about half my remaining extended family have the right credentials to go and live anywhere in Israel proper and lots of places outside Israel proper (the "settlements" in the occupied territories and the areas that Israel has "annexed") while still retaining the full rights of Israeli citizens – such as the right to vote in their “democratic” elections. None of my family believe in any kind of god, so their qualifications to enter Israel and settle there (a qualification not met by large numbers of people who were actually born there and who have been displaced or have fled) would be based purely on their supposed ethnicity (or marriage to someone with the right ethnicity).

This “ethnicity” is conferred by maternal inheritance – so through mitochondrial DNA I suppose. Except that genetic analysis of “Jewish” populations has shown that whereas Y chromosomal DNA (passed more or less unchanged from father to son) tends to point to Middle Eastern ancestry for “Jewish” men, mitochondrial DNA (passed more or less unchanged from mother to son or daughter) tends to point to disparate ancestry for “Jewish” women. Normal autosomal DNA points all over the place of course – just as it does for all of us.

In other words, there is no reliable genetic test the Israelis could apply to distinguish between ”Jews” and “non-Jews” – especially if the non-Jews are Palestinian men and thus fellow “Semites”.

So how do they know that my family members have the right credentials? Well my sister in law’s mother escaped from the Nazis on the Kindertransport. Her mother came to a grisly end. Though she does not seem to have been religious either, the Nazis just “knew” she was “Jewish” and categorized her as such under the Nürnberger Gesetze. This fact is the only verifiable criterion of her Jewishness and is, funnily enough, the very criterion that would be applied by the Israelis if they granted citizenship to one of my female family members.

Given that allowing Palestinian refugees to return to their former towns and villages in Israel would, we are often told, "threaten Israel’s right to exist” we can, I suggest, only conclude that the "right to exist” is really a euphemism for the “right to use Nazi laws to decide who gets to live in the area between Jordan and the Mediterranean with the full 'democratic' rights of an Israeli citizen, and who doesn’t".

I apologize to anyone who finds this statement offensive, but I'm afraid that I find the notion that citizenship of a country should depend on someone's ethnic or religious origins offensive. I think this needs to be said.

Remember: God was NEVER on your side!


Paul Chambers, PhonepayPlus, and Perverse Interpretations of the Law

.... specifically the 2003 Communications Act

If you follow the Excellent @JackofKent on Twitter, you will be aware that a man called "Paul Chambers" (@pauljchambers) has just been prosecuted for sending a tweet which read

"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

Read the full story here and here (as provided by legal blogger JackofKent) or read one of the inaccurate accounts published by the mainstream media eg here (provided by paid journalists).

Now, unlike @JackofKent, I pretend no legal expertise, but I gather that the authorities originally wanted to try Paul Chambers under legislation designed for dealing with bomb hoaxers. Now while Paul Chambers's tweet may have been in poor taste, he clearly did not intend to threaten anyone or cause them to believe he really had a bomb. Nor did anyone at Robin Hood Airport understand Paul's tweet as a serious threat or even a hoax threat. These facts seemed to rule out a prosecution under the 1977 Criminal Law Act (which actually covers bomb hoaxes) so the authorities (not to be thwarted in their attempts to serve the public interest) decided instead to prosecute Paul under the 2003 Communications Act - designed to provide powers to the regulator body "Ofcom" and thus protect the public from suffering at the hands of unscrupulous people engaged the provision of electronic communications networks and services.

Funnily enough, this is by no means the first time that perverse interpretations have been put on this act in order to achieve ends which would seem to me (as a legally naive observer) to be the exact opposite of what those who drew up this act would seem to have intended.

A few years ago tens of thousands of people across the country suddenly discovered that they were running up huge phone bills. The problem, it transpired, was rogue software that was dialling up premium rate telephone numbers (this was before the mass adoption of broadband). Meanwhile, BT blithely continued collecting money from scammed customers and passing it on to the organized criminals who were operating the premium-rate numbers and distributing the malware which rang the numbers. You can read the full story here (bbc) and here (financial-crime fighter Jeffrey Robinson).

Faced with this huge scam, the body which was supposed to be regulating this industry "PhonepayPlus" (then called "ICSTIS") whose "helplines" were "in meltdown" did absolutely nothing for about eighteen months. It finally introduced a scheme whereby firms wishing to run legitimate dialler "services" had to seek prior permission from ICTIS. Strangely, for an industry which PhonepayPlus repeatedly insists is "99% honest", exactly zero honest dialler services emerged from the new prior permissions regime.

But to return to the point of this post, PhonepayPlus has its powers delegated to it by Ofcom and is, by virtue of that fact, the body responsible for implementing the 2003 Act - insofar as that act relates to the premium rate industry. Here's what the Chair of PhonepayPlus Sir Alistair Graham (always ready to criticize MPs accused of dishonesty) had to say about the 2003 Communications act and the rogue dialler fiasco:

The investigation undertaken by ICSTIS at the time was quite lengthy due to the complex nature of the technologies involved. In the interim not withstanding the existence of complaints, BT and other Network Operators were obliged to allow them to continue operating. This obligation is set out in the Communications Act 2003.
[letter to Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE MP, Minister of State for Industry and the Regions September 2006]

So, according to the body charged with regulating the premium rate industry by administering the 2003 Communications Act, that act does not protect the public from the scammers, it protects the scammers from the public. Of course Sir Alistair Graham may have got the wrong end of the stick here (I strongly suspect he has) but since he is responsible for administering this act, he (I suppose) has the final say on how the act is to be used.

Sadly, rogue diallers are not the only example of PhonepayPlus's failure to regulate the premium rate industry. Anyone who has your mobile number (ie has illegally bought a list of real numbers or has simply generated a block of random numbers) can send you an unsolicited reverse charge premium rate text message and your network will charge you for it - again blithely handing the proceeds on to the scammers. PhonepayPlus insists that the onus is on the "customer" to prove he or she did not request the text (something that PhonepayPlus acknowledge would be virtually impossible) and refuse point-blank to force the networks to allow consumers to opt out of these "services".

So we now know that the 2003 Communications Act does not protect consumers against rogue diallers. Does it protect us against unsolicited reverse charge SMS? The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MBE MP, Minister of State for Industry and the Regions certainly thinks it does. But she's wrong! According to PhonepayPlus, unsolicited texts are only illegal under the 2003 Act if they are (normally free) "promotional" texts - unsolicited reverse charge "services" (typically jokes and tarot card "readings") are merely "misleading".

But fear not. Let no one say that the "Law is an ass" (to quote Dickens) or that "when I use a law it means what I want it to mean" (to mis-quote Carroll). The 2003 Communications Act may not protect the public against premium rate crime, but it can be use to prosecute people who make poor jokes on Twitter.

I'm sure we can all sleep soundly in our beds tonight knowing that!

PS Much better MSM article from @SamiraAhmedC4 now at: Man fined for Twitter airport 'bomb threat'


On the Paul Chambers front, there is an appeal on 2010 September 24 _ I'll post the result.

On the premium rate front, PhonepayPlus have written to me to confirm that not only does the 2003 Communications Act (under which Paul was prosecuted) oblige them to allow rogue diallers and forbid PP+ from declaring the activities of unsolicited reverse charge SMS spammers to be "illegal", the 2003 Communications Act actually prevents PhonepayPlus and Ofcom from mandating the networks to allow their customers to opt out of premium rate "services" - even if the customers are minors. It would be interesting to learn which clauses of the Act PP+ rely on when they make these extraordinary claims. I may ask them.


Goodbye Fred Halliday

Fred Halliday died today

You can read more about him at Wikipedia. I am not an expert on his life or work and I have (I am somewhat ashamed to admit) never read a single one of his books. Nonetheless, Fred Halliday is someone who, in a small way, had a profound influence on my life.

I saw him speak once at a public lecture in London in the 1970s. I have no recollection what the event was or how I came to be there, but I do remember his lecture - or at least some parts of it - and those memories have stayed with me to this day.

He was an imposing and articulate speaker. I remember disagreeing with some of what he had to say that day but being struck - possibly for the first time in my life - that there were people like him out there in the world who were intelligent and well informed and shared many of my values but who, nevertheless, held different views to my own. Not everyone I disagreed with was a kind of comic book villain like Richard Nixon.

He spoke, as I recall, about international affairs in general and international conflict in particular. He went on to speak on the horrors of political violence and the dangerous attractions of political romanticism. There were, Halliday insisted, a number of quite stringent conditions which ought to be met before anyone considered launching an insurrection against those in power. These was, in should be remembered, at a time when the RAF ("Bader-Meinhof") campaign was in full swing as was, closer to home, that of the Provisional IRA.

We had all watched "Bloody Sunday" (where British troops opened fire on unarmed civilians taking part in a civil-rights demonstration) unfold on our black and white TV screens a couple of years earlier and the Catholic population of Northern Ireland still did not enjoy the same democratic and civil rights as the Protestant majority. A lot of people, even on the left of Labour Part at that time were prepared perhaps not to explicitly condone the IRA but to extend a certain degree of sympathy towards them. These attitudes were, Halliday argued, misplaced. One argument he supplied, the one that has always stuck in my mind, was that the IRA had not exhausted all democratic avenues before taking up arms. Even in complete tyrannies and certainly in less tyrannical states such as the United Kingdom there are almost always avenues for protest that do not involve violence. We all, Halliday insisted, have a moral duty to make every possible use of those avenues (however limited they are) before reaching for the AK47s.

Now what I am going to go on to say in the following paragraphs may seem absurdly bathetic, but I decided, after seeing Fred Halliday speak that day, that I would, thenceforth, be more tolerant of and open to different ideas. I also determined that, whenever I found myself in any kind of conflict with authority, I should explore every opportunity for putting my point of view across before abandoning democratic peaceful struggle. I was, I should point out, at no time inclined to armed uprising and all the "struggles" I have been involved in have been far more prosaic than anything Fred Halliday talked about that day.

I am, these days, an older and wiser and less idealistic man, but my blood still boils when I encounter evil, stupidity, and official indifference or connivance.

After a succession of cars had ended upside down in the field next to our house I decided to petition for a "give way" sign at the blind bend before the T-junction opposite the field. When my pleas were ignored, I remembered Halliday's talk and simply stepped up my efforts and petitioned more people. After two years or so the sign was put up and no one has ended upside down in the field since. A small achievement, I admit, but I may have saved someone's life.

When a number of Premium Rate mobile phone companies stole £50 from my family using reverse charge texts (against which there was and still is no general protection if you have a mobile phone) and I subsequently discovered that the most polite thing any informed person could possibly say about the body charged with regulating premium rate, "PhonepayPlus" (then "ICSTIS") is that they are about as much use as a chocolate teapot, I could have simply shrugged my shoulders and got on with life. Instead I remembered Halliday's injunction to explore every possible avenue and began waging (peaceful, polite-ish, and legal) war against this "regulatory" body and the firms it pretends to regulate. Several years on, "La lutte continue", but T-mobile and Vodafone now allow their customers (and, more importantly, their kids) to block incoming unsolicited reverse charge text messages and PhonepayPlus are about to begin insisting that every company in this "industry" has to register with them and satisfy some basic requirements - like having a real address, a bank account that is not in the British Virgin Islands, a company registration number, a named director who does not live (notionally) above a dodgy estate agency in Mauritius etc. One day Virgin, O2, Three, and Orange will capitulate! I like to think that my efforts have played a role, however small, in these changes.

And so it was too when the British Chiropractic Association decided to sue the science writer Simon Singh. I was sorely tempted to help organize a pitchfork and blazing torch wielding gang and head round to their offices, but I recalled Halliday's advice. I'm not a lawyer and couldn't contribute to the legal battle (see Jack on Kent on this side of things here et seq) but I could, and did, help to explore many other avenues (See Nick Cohen on this here).

Life often seems to be an unremitting battle against utilities, banks, and commercial companies in general in order to ensure that one is treated honestly and fairly. Again, I never give in. I remember Halliday's words and simply carry on writing letters and sending faxes and emails and making phone calls until they give in. They always do. I have only ever had to go to the Small Claims court once. I won.

Perhaps all this makes me a bit of a sad git who you wouldn't wish to sit next to at a dinner party, but perhaps it also means that I shall leave the world a very slightly better place than I found it.

As Edmund Burke once said "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little". Fred Halliday did a great deal in his life but, unbeknown to him, also played a small but essential role in my life and in my attempts to avoid the mistake described by Burke.


Cherie Blair, religion, and the broken jaw

Cherie Blair gets a hard time from all sides. Daily Mail reporters hate her because she is a dungaree wearing communist feminist who wants to take all the money away form the deserving rich and share it out amongst gay asylum seekers, gypsies, and black people. People like me hate her because she promotes woo, worships a god who has all sorts of really bigoted and backward views, is married to a lying warmonger, and whenever she smiles she makes me think the aspect ratio on my TV has gone wrong.

Not all these criticisms are entirely fair or justified.

As I go to press, Cherie Blair stands accused of discriminating against atheists. The story (taken from the above link) is that:

Shamso Miah, 25 — described as a devout Muslim — went from a local mosque in East Ham, London to a bank where he became embroiled in an argument with another man about his place in the queue. He grabbed Mohammed Furcan and punched him in the face. Miah ran outside but Mr Furcan chased after him and demanded to know why he had been attacked.

Miah then punched him again, knocking him to the ground and fracturing his jaw. Mr Miah said he had acted in self defence but the bank’s CCTV showed clearly that he was the aggressor. He then pleased guilty to occasioning actual bodily harm.

Yet despite saying violence on our streets “has to be taken seriously” Ms Blair/Booth QC let Miah walk free from court, telling him: “I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before. You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank. You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.”

Now, as the splendid @JackofKent (http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/) has noted, there is precious little evidence of discrimination here. We all, I hope, go along with the notion of mitigation and we have no reason to believe that had Shamso Miah declared something along the lines of "look, I don't believe a word of this religion horse-shit, but I've always been kind to animals and children, I help old people across the road, and I'll never do anything like this again" he would not have been treated just as leniently by Cherie Blair.

Having conceded that point, there is, nonetheless, something distinctly curious about our attitudes towards religion and morality.

If I avoid drinking and driving because I might kill or injure someone and I would rather avoid doing that, that is moral behaviour. If I avoid drinking and driving because I might get caught and be punished, that is not moral behaviour. It may be prudent behaviour, but ethics don't really come into it. (It is, of course, perfectly possible, and probably just as well, that many people entertain both lines of thought when wondering how to get home after an overenthusiastic night out.)

The traditional religious approach to persuading people to not do the "wrong" things has been to say something along the lines of: "you may think that's a good idea now, but just wait until you die and god puts you on the barbecue or brings you back as a mollusc" (depending on the specifics of the religion). I have never been persuaded that going along with this sort of thing constitutes moral behaviour.

But, especially in recent times, god seems to have become less draconian (at least within the Anglican church) and we are invited to believe that, even if we are not destined for the fiery pits of Hell, we should still go along with god's wishes.

The problem (apart from deciding what god's wishes are especially when it comes to stuff - like helicopters, internet porn, and contraceptives - that simple weren't around last time he gave us the benefit of his thinking) is deciding whether we should agree with him.

So for example, if god simply says "I think women should wear bags over their heads at all times" why can't we say in response "well I'm sorry god, but I think this is a bit bonkers". Why do we have to accept that such a pronouncement somehow constitutes a valid ethical judgement? After all, some people are quite convinced that it is god's wish that they should blow themselves up on crowded tube trains.

In reality, although people do claim that they are forced to take a particular line (for example when Iris Robinson claims we have to hate gay people because the Bible says so) they soon change their tunes when the relevant religious texts say something they don't actually agree with (for example when the Bible says the adulterers should be stoned). As a number of thinkers from Jean Paul Sartre to Dawkins have pointed out, you can't really evade moral responsibility in this way.

Some religious people are good people. Some religious people are bad people. Both groups contain moral actors who cannot, without disingenuity, claim that their goodness or badness depends on their religious persuasions.

Shamso Miah broke another man's jaw. Cherie Blair decided that, all things considered, Shamso Miah did not deserve to go to jail. Her judgement may well have been the right one. But I firmly believe that Shamso Miah must take full responsibility for all his actions (good or bad) and that his, and Cherie Blair's, various allegiances to invisible sky fairies have no place whatsoever in this matter.