Friday, January 19, 2007

Moving On...

Well, it's been a blast. It's been real, and all that jazz. But those of you who still pop in here can't have failed to have noticed the somewhat decreased frequency of posting here. If I'm being honest, I'm just a little bit bored with the Militant Moderate platform. So, to go into nice management jargon, I'm diversifying, specialising, and expanding my operations.

From henceforth, you can find me blogging at the following ventures:

From the Dustbin of History for my political content, and

HawkEye for my sporting content.

PLEASE NOTE: The URLs are not the same as the blog titles.

For those of you who are interested, here's a link to my mission statement at the Dustbin of History - in short, it's trying to look at politics beyond the electoral cycle.

I hope those of you who've enjoyed reading here will stay with me as I start my new ventures!

And to all of you who have read, commented, or otherwise engaged with my writing here, thank you all very much.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Christmas Charity

One of the adverts currently playing on loop on TV is the Oxfam Christmas one. You've probably seen it - "You're Gorgeous" is the soundtrack, even though the juxtaposition of that song and a goat seems somewhat incongruous. (This man may disagree).

There is one thing I wonder about the amount of money spent by charities on advertising at this time of year, though. Is this really the best use of the donations given to them? After all, to advertise on national TV is very expensive, even assuming production costs are minimal. Regardless of what you think of any charity's work, the donations that are given are assumed to go to a charitable purpose, not for the promotion of the charity on advertisements.

Surely Oxfam has a high enough profile that it doesn't need to be wasting thousands of pounds on expensive TV slots? Surely the money fulfils the aims of the charity far more if it is directed towards aid?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Whatever Happened To Agency?

The victims of the serial killer in Ipswich are, it goes without saying, the victims of a terrible tragedy. One can only hope the monster responsible for these crimes is identified soon, and put away where he can be no danger to the public.

In the last few days, however, there have been articles appearing in the Times that have focused on the heroin addictions of the victims of the murders. The women who were killed were prostitutes, and in most cases were out on the streets to feed a drug habit. Alice Miles and Mary Ann Sieghart, the Times columnists, have both written in the past week to use this as evidence that more money should be invested in drug rehabilitation, including the state buying heroin to help wean victims of addiction off it.

I have no doubt that drug addiction is an awful affliction, and heaven forfend that anyone close to me ever suffers from it. But to read Sieghart's plea for the "medicalisation" of heroin, it would seem as if it is a disease that you just catch, a bit like the flu, or cancer. "Drug addiction is a medical condition; it should not be treated as a criminal offence."

Well, I'm sorry, but it's a self-inflicted medical condition. You have to take the illegal drugs before you can get hooked on them. And what's more, heroin and cocaine are illegal. It's not as if this is unknown - vast amounts of money are spent by police forces spreading this message in schools to warn children of the dangers of using these drugs. There is clear personal agency behind drug addiction. It is not only a self-inflicted condition, but it is also a condition that should not occur in a law-abiding society.

And yet the taxpayer, through the NHS, funds drug addicts seeking treatment to a large extent. To a much greater extent, for example, than diabetics. When I was diagnosed over ten years ago, we had to use syringes for our injections. Never mind that people who used insulin pens spent less time in hospital per year. Never mind that 75% of teenage diabetics had been taken into police custody for carrying syringes on their person. The needles for an insulin pen were 0.001p more expensive than a syringe, and so the NHS wouldn't fund them. Meanwhile, drug addicts were given needles 4p more expensive at the same time.

Pen needles are now funded on the NHS, after much lobbying. But they are still not the best treatment available for diabetics. That would be the insulin pump - which is the most accurate means of simulating the work of the pancreas that is currently known. The cost of providing the insulin for a pump and for pens is not much different; but the pump itself is significantly more expensive. These costs are offset by the fact that better control means less need for other hospital care, which results from complications caused by diabetes. But common sense never seemed to play a role in health policy!

The fact is that people suffering from cancer, diabetes, heart failure, kidney disease and all kinds of other problems have not fallen ill because of their own, conscious choice to break the law. And yet in many cases, on cost grounds, the NHS refuses to give them the best available care. All the while, those who have chosen to take drugs and seek treatment to deal with their problems have a lot more cash spent on them.

Trying to turn drug addicts into victims because of the consequence of their own conscious choice removes personal agency from the equation. That should never happen. It is the same as condoning crime because of troubled upbringings. No matter what the circumstances, there is a knowledge that such actions are wrong. And it should not be the business of the state to provide a better standard of care for those who break the law than for those who are ill through no fault of their own.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What If... Diana Died Today?

Stephen Tall and Iain Dale have both posted their musings on the death of Princess Diana, and the mass hysteria that followed. Stephen takes the hard-headed approach, and talks of his feeling of alienation at the time; Iain is more in touch with his emotions (perhaps), and openly admits to "howling" while watching the funeral. I must say that I sympathise with Stephen's approach.

From the news breaking, the whole world seemed to be turned upside down. Not that the news of someone dying in a car crash - tragic as it is - was of earth-shattering importance. Especially when the person dying did not hold elected office. No, the madness came through the public seeming to lose their senses.

Or, at least, that was what the media told us. Later in the year, a group of my friends sat around waiting for our language examinations. We tried to think of a single person that we knew who had signed the fabled books of condolence that had sprung up across the country. Between 10 of us, we couldn't name a single one. And my family were travelling at the time of Diana's funeral. No matter what the viewing figures tell you, the roads were unquestionably busier than they normally are on a Saturday morning.

If Iain Dale were to travel back in time to the first week of September 1997, I'm sure he'd feel like he'd been transported to a parallel universe. Why? Because the blanket media coverage was so unquestioning, and so relentless, that it squeezed out all other news. Including the deaths of Mother Theresa (unquestionably a more deserving figure of such plaudits) and President Mobutu of Zaire (which was emerging from a bloody civil war), and the awarding of the 2004 Olympics to Athens. Why was Premiership football on the Sunday afternoon cancelled? For the death of an ex-Royal? It was crazy.

Of course, one thing for sure would have been different. Tony Blair was responsible for much of the mass hysteria that developed. His "off-the-cuff", "People's Princess" speech was a masterstroke of spin. It pre-empted the development of the round-the-clock media coverage of "the nation's grief". And the Prime Minister speaking so eloquently on behalf of the nation allowed the media to take that as their theme for the rest of the week. That would never happen nowadays. We would doubt, rightly, Blair's sincerity. And the absence of a prominent figure speaking like that would somewhat have diminished the media's ability to major so strongly on the story.

But, ultimately, even if Stephen's blog had been operating in 1997, I doubt the blogosphere would have had any impact whatsoever on media coverage. It would have provided an outlet for people like myself to grumble, moan, or rant about the mass hysteria of the media, but it wouldn't have changed the coverage significantly. Why? Because in these situations, the media is scared. Scared of losing its customers. It is the same reason why the Holly and Jessica story dominated headlines for so long.

Once a paper thinks it is selling more copies, or a TV station thinks that it is picking up more viewers, it will continue to plug the story. The BBC will have been flooded with telephone calls about Diana, at the total expense of everything else. Now, this is, of course, a vicious circle, because so much of it is driven by the blanket coverage itself. But in refusing to cover the story, the media organisation runs a serious risk not only of losing market share, but in getting permanent damage from being criticised vociferously. If this is on a political matter, it can be justified. It's a different matter where widespread public grief is concerned.

That, of course, is the downside of the 24-hour news cycle. If nothing else is happening, then non-stories that tug at the heart-strings can dominate the news - and the feedback loop it starts off sees the story rise and rise up the cycle. And, regrettably, there's no reason to think it would be any different today.

True Tales of Oxonian Life

Oxford's city centre is a mix of ambiguities. Tonight was a rather wonderful case in point.

Waiting for a friend outside the town hall, my earholes were regularly assailed by the Town Crier. Dressed in beautifully bright and ridiculous garb, he was vocally and heartily welcoming visiting dignitaries.

"Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! Members of the European Business Academy! Welcome to Oxford Town Hall, you are all most welcome!"

This delighted the visitors. Invariably, each arriving group would produce a digital camera and pose en masse. What a quintessentially English setting! Guests in black tie, posing outside the Victorian Town Hall with the Town Crier in his bright red jacket and all the frills. And driving into place right behind them, McCoys kebab van.

Digestable Blogging?

Last Friday, a mysterious package found its way into my pigeon-hole. A welcome surprise, however, when I opened it up and found that it was my free copy of the Blog Digest 2007. Until that point, it had slipped my mind entirely that I'd cheerfully given rights for this post to be included, and possibly the labour of my first born son, too.

Quite apart from the fact that Justin McKeating had the good sense to include an effort from yours truly, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. And a significant upgrade from Tim Worstall's "2005: Blogged" effort last year, too. Firstly, there are few presentation issues, especially in comparison to Blogged. Sometimes pages contain a little too much blank space, but the quality of the writing more than makes up for it. McKeating clearly has an excellent eye not just for pithy polemicists, but for genuinely high-quality writing, too.

The anthology is all the stronger for being divided by theme, rather than chronology. The danger of the latter approach is that the collection reads more like a journal of the year, where articles are selected for being the best comment on a given issue, rather than being the one of the best articles around. The Blog Digest, therefore, creates room for efforts from the Curious Hamster and Jarndyce, to name just two, that aren't related to any specific events, but provide a better overview (on Iran and reasons for invading Iraq, respectively) on their chosen subjects than no end of broadsheet column inches wasted on the same subject.

And, like all good anthologies, the Digest reads just as well whether you take it from start to finish, or you dip in and out randomly. If it would have any difficulty passing the "Page 69" test, then it comes in the fact that page 69 is the back end of a post, and no commentary at all on the quality of any given article.

McKeating does an excellent job of why the blogosphere has been doing so well in terms of media coverage. It's not because it's new and shiny, it's because it has the quality necessary to be worth reading. And ultimately, that is why the nay-sayers who think that the media has built blogs up only to knock them down later will be proved wrong. What it's done is unleash the beast. No-one can read Dr Crippen without being able to trust him more than Dr Thomas Stuttaford. And once people are aware of the quality that is out there, they will stick with it. And the Blog Digest 2007 is as good a start as any.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Spy Ring

Those who may be tempted to write off the poisoning of a former spy as a one-off incident might want to look across the Atlantic, to Canada.

When Hampel was arrested, he was carrying what the Toronto Star has described as "the signature tools of a 21st century secret agent." Among the items seized: $7,800 in five different currencies, several bank and credit cards, three cellular phones, password-encrypted SIM cards, two digital cameras, a short wave radio and a fake Ontario birth certificate. And he was traveling under the third Canadian passport he had been issued since 1995.

Russia is doing its best to flex its muscles again. Or so it would seem.

The most interesting angle on this, however, seems to be the implications for the criminal justice system. The suspect is being denied access to some of the evidence against him on national security grounds. And the article linked to above suggests that the Canadian government may seize on this as justifying further legislation. I'll look into this further, and if there's anything in it, I'll write a bit more about it.

For now, though, the most amusing story I've heard concerning this is that Hampel was allegedly caught with a lot of Canadian cheat sheets. A primer in the basic facts of Canadian history. I suspect this guy might be, in the words of Andrew Mackinlay, a piece of fluff. Thrown up by the Russians to hide something a lot more sinister.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stuart Barnes wants to kill the game of rugby

Writing in the Sunday Times today, Stuart Barnes, perhaps the most pig-headed and ignorant of rugby commentators, has published his prescription for the death of rugby. The IRB has recently issued strong guidelines to crack down on stamping, and rightly so. One of the blights of the game is that when players are on the wrong side of a ruck, too many players consider it their right to jump in with their feet and give the offending player a good kicking. Not try and get him out of the way, you understanding, but to cause him maximum pain. Such an act, of course, is against the rules of rugby, constituting violent conduct, and as such is punishable by a yellow or red card.

Barnes considers this a "charter for cheats"; that if players aren't allowed to kick their opponents, then people will come in on the opponent's side of a ruck and 'kill the ball' with impunity. What he is essentially saying, however, is that he does not trust the referees of rugby to do their job.

The fact remains that killing the ball is against the rules; it should be blown up for a penalty every time the referee spots it. Moreover, referees are also instructed to look for repeated infringements by the same team, so that if a team, let alone a player, kills the ball three times during a match, the referee is entitled to send an offender to the sin-bin for ten minutes - and do the same for every repeat offence. A team that finds itself playing with men short for significant periods of time will struggle to win matches on a consistent basis. And, ultimately, that is far preferable than turning a blind eye to what amounts to thuggery.

For what Barnes forgets is that with TV cameras probing every angle of an international match, and increasing numbers of club matches too, such acts of thuggery will be broadcast to large numbers of parents who will consequently be highly reluctant to let their children play in such a violent environment. "The stud-torn shirt across the back, the pain of the iodine, was all part of the sport’s badge of honour," writes Barnes. A wonderful advertisement for a sport struggling to maintain numbers, with clubs going under on a regular basis, and with a desperate need for an infusion of youth outside of public schools. (To put this problem in perspective, consider that only 6 schools in the entireity of County Durham now play rugby at under-18 level. Four of these are private schools.) Rugby is a tough game, for sure. But it's a tough enough game without allowing out-and-out violence on top.

Barnes continues, "There were and still are a few thugs who stamp on heads, ankles, knees; areas that were deliberately targeted and a real risk to the health of the illegally located forward. Nobody has ever endorsed vigilante style justice." Unfortunately for him, vigilante style justice is exactly what he is endorsing. For there are more areas than heads, ankles and knees that suffer from a kick. How long before someone damages a kidney through what Barnes might term 'imaginative use of the feet'? And the thugs who will target those areas will feel emboldened by any acceptance of stamping - it will be increasingly difficult to draw a line between the stamp that is legitimate, and the one that 'just happens' to have caught someone's knee. The only way to secure player safety on the field is to clamp down heavily on any instances of thuggery.

While rugby is a sport that is associated with off-the-ball violence, it will struggle to attract the new players who are the lifeblood of the game. The solution to cheats lying on the wrong side of the ruck is to give penalties against them and sin-bin the offenders. Regulating the existing laws effectively is the best means of ensuring quick ball. Sanctioning one form of cheating to stop another form of cheating merely encourages lawlessness and violence.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Graham Poll, Jose Mourinho, and Making Tough Decisions

Graham Poll has recently been at the centre of media attention regarding his refereeing. Not content with booking a player three times before sending him off at the World Cup, he's provoked the ire of Chelsea, disallowing a clear goal by Didier Drogba, and becoming very card-happy, allegedly saying they "needed to be taught a lesson".

Not prepared to retreat to the quiet life, Poll then sent Everton's James McFadden off on Wednesday for foul and abusive language. McFadden denies calling Poll a "f---ing cheat", although the fact that Everton haven't appealed his suspension does give grist to Poll's mill.

This has become a far more major controversy because Poll is rated as England's best referee; he has represented us at the last two World Cups, and he would normally be in line to referee the Manchester United vs. Chelsea match later this month. What has to be questioned now, though, is whether Poll is in a position to make the tough decisions that he will be called upon to make in such a match.

He was unquestionably right to send McFadden off if he used the phrase of which he was accused. Yet such is the media storm that surrounds him (one, I might add, that may not be of his own making), that he may feel unable to make a similar decision in such a high-profile match - one, indeed, that the Premiership season may depend upon. And that is reason enough for him to be reassigned for the weekend. A referee should never be the centre of attention; he is there as an impartial arbiter rather than as a focal point of the entertainment. Yet if there is a borderline tackle in the penalty area, will he really be seen as unbiased, whichever way he gives the decision?

The answer, quite clearly, is no. If he gives the decision one way, he is biased against Chelsea. If he gives the decision the other way, he is overcompensating because of media attention. There cannot be sufficient confidence in his decisions to give him the match.

Pinkerton for President!

One of the more amusing aspects of the Sky News coverage of the midterm elections was the square-offs between their Republican and Democrat pundits. If ever you needed proof that the Daily Show's "Even Stephen" sketches were bang on the mark, this was it. The two pundits were so stereotypical as to be scarcely credible.

Particularly impressive was the sheer irrepressibility of Jim Pinkerton, the Republican. Every time there was a nanosecond's silence, Pinkerton would fill the void with an impressive, unhaltable rant, normally about the "tax raising Democrats". This had the amusing consequence of both pundits speaking faster and faster as the evening progressed. It's a good job for him that he was safely ensconsed in Washington, otherwise there may well have been a deputation from Oxford travelling to Heathrow to punch him in the face as a leaving present.

Particularly memorable was his comment on the Montana Senate race (I will paraphrase his argument slightly). "Well, our candidate may be known to have taken bungs and hang around with a known crook, liar, and cheat, but the Democrat wants to raise taxes!"

Anyway, I think it's now time to start a Jim Pinkerton Watch (with apologies to the Virtual Stoa's Tim Collins Watch). Any known sightings of your favourite Republican pundit, please let me know!