Killed With Kindness?

January 7, 2011

Not too long ago, Frances Inglis reappeared in the headlines, with her failed appeal against her conviction for murder.

For those who don’t remember, she killed her 22 year old son, Thomas Inglis, by injecting him with heroin after he suffered a brain injury after falling out of the back of an ambulance. She had previously made a similar attempt on his life but failed, causing a deterioration of his condition. She was given a mandatory life sentence with a minimum tariff of eight years, reduced to 5 years on appeal after the judges heard that she had a long history of depression and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (the event that triggered it hasn’t been revealed) shortly before her son’s accident.

Now all of this sounds like a simple personal tragedy for Thomas Inglis and his family. What makes it interesting from a wider political perspective is the reaction of the media and public.

The almost unanimous view was that what Frances Inglis had done was justified, that she had saved her son from his horrific condition and that she had been victimised by a cruel and inflexible law. ”Don’t punish this Mother Courage” is the headline of an article by Fiona Philips, in the Mirror. “Courage,” along with “love” and ”brave,” appear consistently in the reporting of the case. Within the mainstream media commentary I can only find Dominic Lawson in the Independent and George Pitcher in The Telegraph providing a contrary view.

Very little attention was given to the facts of the case, as outlined in the appeal judgment. Almost immediately after Thomas Inglis’s accident, his mother became morbidly obsessed with the notion that he was suffering unbearably, even though he would almost certainly have been comatose at this point, and that it was her duty to put him out of his suffering.

His doctors were optimistic about the likelihood of him recovering enough to live independently, but his mother disregarded their opinion. She illegally acquired heroin and, just two months after his original injury, injected him with it leading to a cardiac arrest. He was revived by medical staff at the hospital but his brain was starved of oxygen resulting in a second, much more serious, brain injury, after which his prognosis was described by one specialist as “exceedingly poor”.

Oxygen deprivation would have affected his whole brain leaving little him with little remaining function or room for recovery. At this stage the possibility of his artificial feeding being removed was discussed between his family and doctors.

Nevertheless it’s worth drawing attention to the fact that the appeal judgment reveals that there were some reports that his condition may have improved before his death. A year later Frances Inglis managed to gain access to him in breech of her bail conditions, by pretending to be his aunt, and barricaded herself inside his room. She again injected him with an overdose of heroin and, when interrupted by a nurse, said that she had HIV, and threatened her with the syringe she had used to inject her son. This time doctors were unable to revive him, and she was charged and later convicted of his murder.

There were a number of aspects to this case that put it outside the standard debate on voluntary euthanasia.

Firstly, it was very much involuntary. Thomas Inglis never expressed a wish to die, or indeed had the capacity after his accident.

Secondly, he wasn’t dying and his prognosis was relatively good for regaining some level of independence. Besides which, his mother formed and acted on her intention to kill him long before the long term outcome of his injury could have been known.

Nevertheless, the case was immediately slotted, by both the press and the public, into the wider liberal case for euthanasia. This may have had something to do with the fact that a rash of assisted suicide cases, at the time, had brought the subject to the fore, particularly the case of Lynn Gilderdale, who had a severe form of ME and committed suicide with the help of her mother, and that of Ray Gosling who claimed (falsely, it would later turn out ) to have killed a former lover who was dying of AIDS. However, I think there is a deeper phenomenon at play, namely the way the concept of “mercy killing” has captured the public imagination. The popular perception of the Inglis case was carried along by the strength of this narrative, almost without regard for the facts, which were those of a mother with a history of mental health problems, who was unable to cope with the psychological pressure of her son’s injury.

So why has “mercy killing,” as a cause, found such a firm place in the public imagination?

Firstly, it is important to realise that euthanasia and assisted suicide are primarily advocated for by those who are currently able bodied. Liberalism’s respect for individual autonomy is often cited as the central reason for relaxing the law on euthanasia. However support for Frances Inglis doesn’t fit with this a core motivation. Thomas Inglis had no say in his death, but this didn’t stop commentators from queuing up to defend his mother.

Foremost among these were “Dignity In Dying” an organisation ostensibly set up to advocate for legal assisted suicide. I suspect that the stronger motive is fear: fear of pain, fear of incapacity and fear of dependency. Thomas Inglis undoubtedly had a long, difficult and uncertain road ahead of him. Recovery from brain injuries of any kind is a gruelling and often distressing process. It is likely that he would have been left with some degree of disability and he would certainly never have returned to the condition he was in before the accident. Nevertheless, he was 22 years old – the same age I am now – with his whole life ahead of him regardless of how different from that which he had had before. As a society we adhere to a very utilitarian view of the value of life, we imagine it as a balance sheet of very clearly demarcated pains and privileges and if it goes into the red, it ceases to be worthwhile. In a secure and well off society, where few people suffer significant privations, the threshold of suffering, at which this point is reached, is fairly low.

In addition to this our society places a high value on independence, so being in a condition where you would require assistance in everyday tasks would be viewed, by many, as demeaning. This was shown in the case of Daniel James who traveled to Switzerland, with the help of his parents to kill himself, after becoming quadriplegic in a rugby accident. His parents said he didn’t want a “second class life.” They were also widely praised for their “courage.”

Both Daniel James and Thomas Inglis, were, before their accidents, young men in peak physical condition, something that signifies a high status in our society. Wider society finds this difficult to reconcile with the much lower esteem they would have, subsequently, been held in because of their disabilities. There former status is then projected forward onto their subsequent one as their authentic state, trapped or concealed by what they became. That is why a certain nobility is imputed to Daniel James’ decision and Frances Inglis’s – the former because he was too dignified submit to disability, the latter because she sacrificed her freedom to spare her son this perceived degradation.

Another, less openly acknowledged, fear is of the loss of freedom brought about by caring for a disabled relative. Parents who kill disabled children, particularly those with learning difficulties often get significantly reduced sentences compared to other killers. For example, Jacob Wragg, who had a rare degenerative condition, was smothered by his father, who was given a two year suspended sentence for manslaughter, after claiming that the killing was a “mercy killing.” Other family members described Jacob as happy right up until the time of his death.

In a similar case in Canada, Tracy Latimer, who had Cerebral Palsy was killed by her gather. Robert Latimer was convicted of Murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, eventually serving 16 years before being released on parole, in December, however he received an outpouring of public support and is considered to have fundamentally changed the way euthanasia is viewed in Canada. Juries and the public empathise with the difficulties of parents caring for disabled children, often more than with the children, who are seen as “other” because of their disabilities.

As previously stated, the legalized euthanasia movement is primarily driven by able-bodied people. In contrast, the disability rights movement is ambivalent and often hostile towards the idea. Their primary concern is that the lives of people with disabilities are considered as valuable as those without and are granted the same protection under the law.

One of Frances Inglis’s surviving sons suggested that lethal injections be legalised for brain-injured people. It has also been suggested that those who kill family members in the honest belief that they are suffering should not be charged or convicted of murder, but perhaps some lesser offence or not at all. This suggestion was made without considering that it would removed protection from fatal violence from anyone with a disability and would enshrine in law the idea that some lives have less intrinsic value than others.

Collectively, the disability rights movement also rejects the balance sheet model of happiness, recognising that people’s desires can change with their circumstances and that people can tolerate more adversity than many people with relatively easy lives appreciate. Satisfaction isn’t related to absence of hardship in a simple linear way. They also reject the notion that suffering springs inevitably from disability, instead seeing social attitudes and neglect as the main obstacles rather than disability itself. From this perspective Daniel James’s choice to seek suicide did not occur in a vacuum but cannot be separated from the attitudes that saw his condition as a humiliation and “second class.” Pity itself can be intrusive and burdensome.

Providing for easy assisted suicide is also something of a cop-out for society as a whole, obviating the necessity and political will for providing people with disabilities, however extensive, with the resources needed to live as comfortable lives with as much self determination as possible. Particularly at a time when disability services and benefits are being cut, and people with disabilities are seemingly under attack, it’s easy to see why they would experience the promotion of an easy, socially sanctioned way out, as an existential threat.

Ultimately, these factors were what made the Inglis judgment such a departure from received wisdom and hence so radical. The appeal judgment states explicitly “however disabled Thomas might have been, a disabled life, even a life lived at the extremes of disability, is not one jot less precious than the life of an able-bodied person.” This is an admirable statement, even more so for being fairly unusual in the discourse surrounding disability and death in modern Britain. Frances Inglis became a liberal cause celebre, but her conviction paradoxically upheld many of the values inherent to liberalism, namely the autonomy and inalienable value of the individual, in this case Thomas Inglis even in his parlous state at the end of his life.

In the judgment it is written that the defence implied that “Thomas Inglis was ‘already dead in all but a small physical degree.” The judges respond: “the fact is that he was alive, a person in being,” and more concisely “the law doesn’t recognise [that] idea. May that continue to be the case.

Campaign for Libel Reform: Speak out to Defend Free Speech

November 10, 2010

In December last year, a campaign for libel reform was launched. (For more information on why such a campaign is necessary see a Nick Cohen article here, as well as Jack of Kent’s posts here and here).

Ministers will announce a draft Defamation Bill in the New Year, which is great news, but pressure must be maintained to ensure that this bill does not end up being watered down because of lobbying from vested interests.

The petition for libel reform already has 53,000 signatories, but the campaign is hoping to add at least 10,000 more names, or perhaps reach 100,000 names by Christmas. To this end Simon Singh launched an appeal for bloggers who are in favour of libel reform to contact him, and I was given a piece of text that I could amend into a blog post.

I’d rather just print the whole text in an unedited form below:

The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at

The Rules of War

November 10, 2010

Two significant stories have emerged over the past week relating to the western military presence in Afghanistan. The first is the publication of nearly 90, 000 American military files detailing incidents that occurred in Afghanistan, between 2002 and 2009, by Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. The second is the trial, for “war crimes,” of Guantanamo detainee Omar Khadr.

The release of the Afghanistan files was widely reported in the British Media, with particularly in depth coverage from The Guardian. The Khadr trial, on the other hand, has received little attention outside of North America. This is unfortunate, as the case provides a shocking insight into the behaviour of the US since 9/11.

Firstly, some background. Omar Khadr is a Canadian citizen, and the son of Ahmed Said Khadr, an Egyptian with close ties to Osama Bin Laden. The elder Khadr’s family describes him as a “charity worker”. This charity work may or may not have served as a front for financing Al Qaeda. In 2002, the Khadr family was living in Pakistan close to the Afghan border. At some point Omar, who was then only 15, was entrusted to a band of militants to act as translator.

On July 27 that year, American forces attempted to search the building that the group was staying in, resulting in a firefight. After the soldiers had retreated, air support was called in bombing the compound, leaving only Khadr, and one other, man alive. Medics arrived and US forces continued to through grenades at the compound. At this point Khadr emerged throwing a grenade killing US soldier, Christopher Speer. Khadr himself was severely wounded.

Since then he has been detained by the US, spending the past eight years at Guantanamo Bay, for much of that time, without access to the outside world or normal legal protections. He alleges (warning: disturbing images in link) that he was tortured. Last Sunday he was sentenced to a symbolic 40 years imprisonment by military tribunal having pled guilty to 5 charges including the murder of Speer and the attempted murder of other soldiers. In reality he will serve eight years, with one more year in Guantanamo and a further seven in Canada (this all presumes that his conviction is not struck out by the Canadian courts when he returns to the country).

Khadr’s conviction rests on the US’s designation of him as an “unlawful combatant”. This designation strips him of the protections of recognised combatants under the Geneva Convention and exemption from prosecution for murder for any killings during combat. This is a highly contrived designation, largely created for convenience by the Bush administrations and, as senior lawyer for Human Rights First, Daphne Eviatar, and Loyola Law School Professor, David Glazier point out, completely lacking in legal legitimacy.

Under international law if Khadr was a recognised combatant as described by Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, then he is protected from criminal prosecution under civilian homicide laws for any killings he carries out in combat. If he carried out those killings in breach of the laws of war, for example by posing as a civilian or by falsely surrendering, then he is subject to prosecution for war crimes. If he does not have this protection, then he is outside of military justice and is instead subject to the criminal law of whichever jurisdiction he was in at the time-in this case Afghanistan.

The Americans try to have it both ways by going one step further and saying that, not only does he not have privilege under Article 4, his fighting as a combatant despite not being recognised as one, represents a war crime under the Geneva convention – thus placing him under the jurisdiction of the military tribunal without the corresponding protections as a prisoner of war. It is this claim- that he is outside the protection of both ordinary criminal law and protocols on the treatment of prisoners of law- that has been used to justify effectively disappearing him for so many years, taking no account of his age and subjecting him to treatment that would not be countenanced under any advanced legal system.

It gets even worse, as the Military Commissions Acts that grant the tribunal its jurisdiction and create the status of unlawful combatants (and bear in mind, this status is the sole basis of Khadr’s prosecution, there are no grounds for charging him with his actions during the firefight other than because of his allegedly unprivileged status – the Americans knew they were facing potentially hostile forces, and indeed attacked first) date from 2006 and 2009, his prosecution is in breach of international laws preventing ex post facto (for crimes created after they were committed) prosecutions.

Add to that the trial was held in front of a military judge and jury, the conviction was based on a confession given under extremely coercive circumstances and the psychiatric reports were based on the work of a Danish scholar who believes that the Muslim gene pool has been irreparably damaged by inbreeding, the Koran encourages criminality, and Muslims should not be allowed migrate to Europe, this trial makes a mockery of the idea of due process.

This stands in stark contrast to the response to the incidents described in the Afghanistan war logs. The reports detail just some of the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by allied forces. These include one incident where six Afghanis were killed including a young girl. In addition, a boy and two teenage girls were injured. In another, a fourteen year old girl was killed at a checkpoint and a two year old seriously injured.

There is rarely any serious come back for the military personnel responsible, and there is a strong resistance to the idea of Soldiers being held accountable for actions taken whilst under the pressure of combat. To the extent that allied soldiers are prosecuted for their actions, they are tried in their own countries or by the courts of their own militaries with full legal protections. It is hard to imagine either politicians, the military or the public countenancing a situation where British or American soldiers faced the threat of prosecution in international jurisdictions, let alone that they could be captured and held by a foreign power for years without any recourse.

It is one of the characteristics of those groups with power that they wish to see others stripped of their ability to cause harm while shrinking from their accountability for their own misjudgments. As Slavoj Zizek writes in the Guardian, outsiders must have their autonomy restrained, to be “de-othered” in order to neutralise any potential threat they pose us. War may be engaged in but “our side” must be shielded from its horrors.

Sgt Speer’s widow and children were star witnesses in the Khadr trial. Now, he was undoubtedly a wonderful and much loved man, but the death on both sides is an unavoidable consequence of sending troops into action. Khadr is the useful scapegoat to divert culpability away from the architects of the conflict. David Glazier notes that the fundamental basis of Omar Khadr’s prosecution was that he was on the “wrong side,” when the Laws of War are predicated on the fundamental equality of combatants on each side, no matter how repugnant the leadership they fight under.

The Bush administration tried to enshrine its own Manichean perception of its own fundamental, unshakable, righteousness (or at least so it would have everyone believe) into universal law. Now the Obama Government cannot or will not remedy this for fear of reactionary domestic voices and any potential risk to US citizens from any detainee.

To quote Prof. Glazier:

The U.S. approach has the practical effect of converting this armed conflict into a human hunting season; the government asserts U.S. combatants had the right to shoot Khadr on sight (he was shot twice in the back based on his being a hostile rather than because he posed any particular threat at the time) yet criminally prosecute him for fighting back.

Much media coverage has focused on Khadr’s potential for rehabilitation versus his hostility towards the west. In both narratives his past actions are viewed as fundamentally pathological. Far more radical and threatening is the idea that events since demonstrate the possibility that he may not have been entirely irrational.

The rise and fall of Philip James Woolas

November 7, 2010

It is hard to think of a series of more cliched jobs for a Labour politician Phil Woolas could have had before becoming an MP. They cover the usual bases of student politics (President of the NUS), media work (a producer for Newsnight and ITN) and working for a trade union (Head of Communications for the GMB Union), which he did before entering Parliament in 1997.

His rise through the Parliamentary Labour Party was swift and straightforward. Two years after entering Parliament he was made a PPS, and then became a whip in 2001. After serving as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (2003-5), and a Minister for both Local Government (2005-7) and the Environment (2007-8) Woolas was made Minister for Immigration in Gordon Brown’s reshuffle on 3rd October, 2008.

All this was smooth progress. Woolas was earmarked as a rising star of the Labour Party long before the Daily Mirror dubbed him with that cliche in April this year. He learned the art of political campaigning from Peter Mandelson himself (more on that later) and the job at Immigration was presumably seen as a stepping stone to something greater in the party.

Yet less than two years after being made Minister for Immigration, and less than seven months after being called a rising star by the Daily Mirror, Woolas’s political career is in tatters. He has been ejected from Parliament, barred from standing in any election for three years, and  might not even have a future in the Labour Party.

It is a mark of just how, for want of a better way of putting it, eventful Woolas’s time at immigration was that few people are shedding tears at his demise. Quite the opposite, in fact. Good riddance, says the most popular left-wing blog. Toxic, says another. Enemies of reason, in one of my favourite blogs on Woolas’s career at immigration, calls him “the man who tried to make New Labour into a Daily Mail wet dream”.

So what did he actually do as Minister for Immigration?

1) Woolas erroneously said that unemployment was caused by immigration:

Phil Woolas told the Times immigration became an “extremely thorny” subject if people were losing their jobs.

“It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder,” he said.

2) He referred to an “immigration industry” where:

NGOs and migration lawyers Woolas says, “by giving false hope and by undermining the legal system [they] actually cause more harm than they do good.” Where that leaves the 200 people who turned out to support the Kachepa family, for example, as they were dragged from their home by Home Office officials, or the communities across the country working to prevent friend and neighbours from being deported, Woolas doesn’t say. Maybe he’d suggest these misguided souls just aren’t reading the right newspapers although I think you’d struggle to paint the residents of Glasgow’s Kingsway estate as Guardianistas.

3) Most disgustingly of all, he called Conservative governments soft on immigration for letting in Ugandan Asians who were persecuted by Idi Amin. From the David Aaronovitch article linked to in Chicken Yoghurt:

Mr Woolas: “It’s assumed that Labour is soft on immigration. In actual fact the largest influxes of migrants into this country came during Conservative periods of government – if you look at the 1950s and early 1960s and indeed the situation with Eastern Africa.”

“The situation with Eastern Africa”? He means the time when the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians were expelled, and arrived in a Britain for which they had passports, where they were called “Paki”, and where they became some of the most successful and dynamic citizens this nation has possessed. And this is used by a Labour minister, a Labour minister, to attack past Conservative governments for softness on immigration! I wanted to throw up.

 4) Authorised the use of force to deport the young, vulnerable and mentally ill. See this story broken recently by Liberal Conspiracy:

When in government, Woolas authorised security guards employed by private contractors Serco and G4S to use “physical control in care (PCC)” techniques to remove people resisting deportation.

Not only did that include mothers with mental health problems, but children under the age of 18.

More recently, these “physical control in care” techniques led to the death of Jimmy Mubenga on 14th October 2010.

Phil Woolas was not connected to the Mubenga incident, but the same company, G4S, was instructed under his watch.

5) Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned his stance on the Gurkhas.

Getting the white vote angry

It became clear during the election campaign this year that Woolas’s seat was under threat from Elwyn Watkins’s Lib Dem campaign. Oldham East and Saddleworth was one of the key Labour/Lib Dem marginals in 2005, but in that election Woolas increased his majority. Ironically, there were disputes over whether the Lib Dem candidate, Tony Dawson, had doctored photos in that campaign. At the time there were also doubts over whether Dawson lived in the constituency as he claimed, and that he had made some sweary posts on internet message boards, but I can’t find a link to an article about them now. Suffice to say that, especially with the Lib Dem surge in the polls, Woolas’s notional majority of 3500 was looking rather shakey indeed.

His campaign team realised that as well:

An email by Woolas’s election agent, Joseph Fitzpatrick, to the candidate declared: “We need . . . to explain to the white community how the Asians will take him out . . . If we don’t get the white vote angry, he’s gone.” Another from Fitzpatrick to Steve Green, the MP’s campaign adviser, said: “We need to go strong on the militant Muslim (sic) angle” and proposed the headline “Militant Muslims (sic) target Woolas.”

This has disturbing parallels with the by-election Woolas fought for the seat in 1995, when it was known as Littleborough and Saddleworth. This is what Peter Mandelson had to say about the affair in The Third Man:

After the campaign was over, not only our opponents but some in Labour would denounce our “negative” tactics in highlighting Lib Dem front-runner Chris Davies’s support for higher taxes and a Royal Commission to liberalise drugs laws. [He was portrayed by Labour as being “high on crime and soft on drugs” – Cory] For tactical reasons, I felt we had had little choice. Labour was starting from third place, and especailly in a by-election, the bulk of Tory tactical voting was always going to flow to the Lib Dems. If we were to win, we would have to make that option as distasteful as possible. In the end, it didn’t work – or not quite enough. Davies won and Phil Woolas came second, though by a margin of only 2,000 votes. Our share of the vote was up by 15 per cent, while the Tories were down by more than 20 per cent. When Phil spoke at our almost victory party, he singled me out for thanks, memorably proclaiming, “Peter may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”.

It’s no wonder then that Woolas shows no remorse in his statement, and indeed seems to be trying to appeal against the decision (which, as I understand it, is impossible). He has no qualms with playing the race card to such divisive effect in a town like Oldham, where there were race riots less than a decade ago. Just in case it isn’t clear now: Phil Woolas is a moral vacuum.

The campaign literature that Woolas’s campaign put out in Oldham East and Saddleworth certainly tried to make voting Lib Dem as distasteful as possible in May. Please just look at it, and then try and say this is all just part of the rough and tumble of normal political campaigning. This one is perhaps the worst, and most well known, but the others are hideous too:

Aside from the obvious, which is that to stir up racial tensions like this is abhorrent, it’s also illegal. As the judgement of the court makes clear:

  • For the reasons which we have given we are sure that the Respondent made statements of fact in relation to the personal character or conduct of the Petitioner which he had no reasonable grounds for believing were true and did not believe were true.(my italics) Those statements were as follows:

  • Woolas won by only 103 votes, so it’s a virtual certainty that these lies about Watkins influenced the outcome of the election.

    Labour may want to try and paint Woolas as their “fall guy”, and it’s certainly not just Woolas who is trying to out-right the right, but spreading deliberate lies about a political opponent that you knew to be untrue is something else entirely. As this blog is long enough, I just want to explain via a diagram how bad Woolas’s actions were, and by how far he had crossed the line:

    One of the reasons I detest New Labour is their pandering to the racism and distortion of some of our tabloid media. Too cowardly to try and make a difficult, principled argument, they strove for power for power’s sake, rather than bothering to achieve anything worth achieving. Phil Woolas is the ultimate example of this. He is one of the main reasons I felt I could not give my vote to Labour in May, and the fact that Ed Miliband gave him a shadow ministerial portfolio before his expulsion from Parliament gives me great misgivings about his leadership too.

    Remember, remember the fifth of November. I certainly will remember this November 5th for a long time to come.

    A quick shout out to Nick Thornsby, who’s blogging on the Woolas case has been consistently superb and informative. Thank you.

    Late reflections on Coulson-gate

    September 25, 2010

    This is my first independent post on Paperback Rioter or indeed any blog, so please bear with any formatting hiccups.

    Here at Paperback Rioter we’ve had cause to discuss politicians behaving badly, the press behaving badly and the police behaving badly, now we have the ignoble trifecta of politicians, the press and police all behaving badly at the same time.

    Some weeks ago the New York Times concluded an investigation into the mass hacking of voicemail messages by News of the World employees. Much of what was revealed wasn’t new to anyone who remembers the original story from 2007. I doubt there are many who believed the then NotW editor Andy Coulson’s claims that he was completely unaware of what his reporters were doing, often whilst incurring substantial expenses for the newspaper. No, I’d imagine that most people who have been paying attention to the affair have worked out by now that some very dubious information-gathering tactics were endemic in at the NotW in particular and, seemingly, British journalism in general.

    What’s new and shocking from the NYT article is the extent to which the police spared the News of the World adequate scrutiny. The investigation was restricted to the eavesdropping of members of the royal family by two private investigators and one journalist, despite evidence of much more extensive criminality, with police withholding vital evidence from prosecutors and failing even to inform potential victims, effectively shielding News International from mass civil action.

    Most disturbing is the suggestion that this was a deliberate policy motivated by a desire to maintain a close working relationship with News International. One anonymous investigator even recounts being approached by the Metropolitan Police’s press officer, Chris Webb, asking for restraint. The news of a special relationship between News International and the police, perhaps, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as its papers have a history of publishing leaked information from investigations in order to cover up the police’s latest embarrassment. What I hadn’t previously realised was that News International might gain a quid pro quo from this arrangement in the form of a blind eye turned to its illegal activities. It’s also worth noting that Andy Hayman, who lead the Met’s investigation into the hacking, is now employed by the Times, also a News International, publication, and has used this platform to defend the handling of the investigation. Andy Coulson, of course, is now communications director for the Prime Minister.

    That special relationship.

    This incestuous relationship between the Government, police and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers raises fundamental questions about the role of the Press in British society. In a representative democracy public opinion has the highest possible value to those who seek political office, and with the news media acting as the gatekeepers to public opinion, it’s no wonder that successive governments have sought to manage and control it. This gives enormous power to those who work for, and particularly those who own or run media outlets. It makes perfect sense that David Cameron would want to bring the representative of the most toxic section of the press into his inner circle as he wants to harness that power rather than risk bringing its full destructive force down on his head.

    This isn’t something that has really been deconstructed much by traditional liberalism, which has never really dealt well with non-state power. Government power is frequently critiqued, both by right-wing free-marketeers and left-wing civil libertarians, and the police, who are the shop-front workers of state power, are rarely free from scrutiny. The media, on the other hand is often overlooked. This is partly because the media itself is the main vehicle for public scrutiny of those in power. The public is remarkably pliant in its outrage: some truly despicable government behaviour has gone largely unnoticed, except for by current affairs nerds who read Private Eye, whereas the Telegraph was able to spin out the MPs expense fiddling scandal over several months and harpoon several political careers in the process. Even then the damage to reputations didn’t always correlate with the extent of the bad behaviour, relating more to whom the news organisations chose to shine the spotlight on. Besides being deeply unhealthy for democracy – leaving all but the saintliest of public figures as potential hostages to the media – this leaves the media itself without anything but self-scrutiny.

    The fourth estate.

    The second reason is that liberal philosophy has traditionally identified power almost entirely with legal authority. Where it is privately owned, the press has not really been seen as an existential threat to personal freedom. The debate with regard to the media has always been how to shield it from government interference. In the USA this is codified in the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. In the UK no such formal protection exists, but the concept of the free press still dominates public discussion surrounding, for example, the discussion of the reform of Libel Law, which is often said to be too “plaintiff friendly.”

    In fact it’s probably more accurate to say that UK libel laws are overly rich-person friendly, with rich individuals and organisations able to intimidate critics with the threat of costly legal action, and poor and ordinary citizens lacking the means to seek redress and protection from press harassment and defamation. This is the consequence of leaving civil law as the main regulator of the press. It relies on those wronged having the resources to fund civil court cases when, for people without significant financial means, the criminal law, enforced by the State, is the only accessible means of justice.

    Recognising that the influence of the media is a source of great power in a democratic society requires that press ownership be regulated to prevent cross-ownership and preserve a plurality of voices. It also requires that publicly-owned media organizations, such as the BBC, are protected, to counterbalance the commercial media outlets, resisting self-serving corporate demands to hand them over to the rule of the free-market. Greater oversight is also needed to prevent the press from violating individuals’ rights to privacy and security.

    Whilst I appreciate that it is not desirable to give the government the right to censor the media, we really need a body, independent of government, with real clout to ensure appropriate behaviour from journalistic organisations, and to fund civil cases for ordinary people and groups who suffer libel or press harassment. Unfortunately this is exactly what’s not going to happen with a very delicate balance of power in parliament and all parties very vulnerable to slight sways in public opinion. This might have been possible ten years ago, with a landslide Labour majority, but Blair preferred to indulge the corporate media in order to protect its position, and now we’re in the position of the unelected and often foreign press owners pulling the strings of our elected representatives and apparently unencumbered by the law.

    The horribly depressing case of Ian Tomlinson

    August 10, 2010

    “Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not.” – George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

    Ian Tomlinson was a newspaper seller trying to make his way home through the G20 protests on April 1st, 2009. Then this happened:

    Ian Tomlinson was not involved with the G20 protests. When Harwood pushed him over, he was walking away from the police officers with his hands in his pockets, not a threat to anyone. Two weeks ago, on July 22nd, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to prosecute police officer Simon Harwood with any offence connected with the death of Ian Tomlinson. This is despite the fact that they acknowledge that his actions could be unlawful:

    Whilst the officer was entitled to require Mr Tomlinson to move out of Royal Exchange, there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of proving that his actions were disproportionate and unjustified.

    Having concluded that the officer’s actions could constitute an assault, the CPS then considered the possible criminal charges.

    Perhaps the most depressing aspect of this whole sorry episode is that I’m not surprised in the least at this. A prosecution seemed as remote as me being able to speak Swedish fluently at some point in the future. Admittedly, this might say more about my cynicism then the British justice system. I would love there to be a chance for a jury to decide on the actual cause of Ian Tomlinson’s death, but it’s impossible to argue against the grim logic of the CPS when they argue not to prosecute for Unlawful Act Manslaughter:

    In order to proceed with this charge [of unlawful act manslaughter], the CPS would have to prove a causal link between the alleged assault on Mr Tomlinson and his death.

    On that issue, the medical experts were and remain fundamentally divided. Dr Patel’s opinion is that Mr Tomlinson’s death was “consistent with natural causes” and that the cause of death was “coronary artery disease”. The opinion of Dr Cary and Dr Shorrock is that Mr Tomlinson’s death was the result of abdominal haemorrhage (internal bleeding) caused by blunt force trauma to the abdomen.

    A conflict between medical experts inevitably makes a prosecution very difficult, but the CPS proceeded on the basis that such a conflict need not automatically mean that a prosecution must fail. For that reason, we explored at some length the possibility of proceeding without relying on the evidence of Dr Patel. However, we were ultimately driven to conclude that, as the sole medical expert who conducted the first post mortem, Dr Patel would have to be called at trial as a prosecution witness as to the primary facts. His evidence would be that there was no internal rupture and that the fluid consisted of blood stained ascites and not blood alone. Even leaving out of account the stark disagreement between him and the other experts as to the cause of death, the CPS concluded that the evidence of those primary facts undermined the basis upon which the other experts reached their conclusions about the cause of death. As a result, the CPS would simply not be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was a causal link between Mr Tomlinson’s death and the alleged assault upon him. 

    That being the case, there is no realistic prospect of a conviction for unlawful act manslaughter.

    The CPS are probably right, but that Freddie Patel, given his track record, was appointed to conduct the first post mortem unsupervised makes me incredibly angry. At the time he was appointed to the case by the coroner, he was already under investigation by the GMC “for a series of allegedly botched postmortem examinations between 2002 and 2004” (the latest Private Eye, p27). George Monbiot has more:

    He is facing a disciplinary hearing before the General Medical Council for alleged incompetence in 26 cases.

    This isn’t the first run-in he has had with the council. In 1999 he was reprimanded by the GMC for speaking to reporters about the death of a man in police custody that he was investigating, and making an unsupported allegation against him. It looked like an unwarranted attempt to help the police out of a tricky situation.

    Patel decided that Tomlinson died naturally. But he found three litres of fluid in Tomlinson’s abdominal cavity. His notes initially suggest that this was blood. He disposed of the fluid. Then he changed his notes to suggest that it wasn’t blood but something else. Two subsequent postmortems, conducted by far more eminent pathologists, both concluded that Tomlinson died of internal bleeding consistent with his body hitting the pavement.

    We don’t yet know why Patel was chosen to conduct the first autopsy, but it is widely believed he was recommended to the coroner by the City of London police. The police have refused to comment. Why could a jury not have been allowed to decide which autopsy, and which pathologists, it trusted?

    Why indeed. The sucker punch of all this is that, because the CPS waited a year before annoucing they could not charge PC Harwood with manslaughter, they cannot now charge him with assault, because too much time has elapsed. Assault charges have to be filed within six months of the incident. As Private Eye says:

    The detailed file recommending a manslaughter prosecution from the IPCC was sent to the Cps on 4 August (2009), some four months after the death – and two months before the deadline.

    This is hardly the first case of probable police misconduct, and wasn’t the last either, as we shall see. I do apologise for linking to this article, because it’s incredibly depressing, but it’s one that ought to be read. It is about a film from nine years ago, about the 1000 deaths in police custody over the previous three decades; only one officer has ever been convicted as a result of these deaths. It includes incidents like these:

    In December 1995 Wayne Douglas was arrested for suspected burglary. He collapsed and died while detained at Brixton police station. In March 1996 Gambian asylum seeker Ibrahima Sey was forced to the ground, sprayed repeatedly with CS gas, and then held face down for 15 minutes. When he went totally limp and stopped breathing, an ambulance was called. He was dead by the time they reached the hospital.

    More recently, I came across this incident via the excellent Jack of Kent – who has also blogged on the Ian Tomlinson case.

    One officer was later found guilty of assault. It seems that:

    The court heard claims the ex-soldier, who had drunk about nine pints of beer, had interfered with a paramedic who was trying to treat a woman and racially abused an Asian doorman.

    But this hardly merits the brutal reaction from these police officers.

    Of course, the vast majority of police officers perform their tough jobs impeccably. But why should this mean that the hot-headed minority seem to be above the law? The Ian Tomlinson case is merely the well-publicised tip of the iceberg. Please try and persuade your MP to sign the Early Day Motion calling for an inquest into his death.

    How Roman Polanski can evade justice

    July 16, 2010

    by Hannah (who’s now writing so much I don’t think she needs the title of “Guest Poster”.

    I’ve watched precisely two Roman Polanski films all the way through; both times with my school, and both were adaptations of books I was then studying. The first was “Macbeth” – a bizarre adaptation with lots of gratuitous nudity; the second was “Tess” – adapted from “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”.  For those of you not familiar with Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel, it follows the fate of eponymous heroine, Tess Durbeyfield, an impoverished teenage girl, after she is sent to the household of a wealthy patron, by her dangerously naïve and complicit Mother, in a scheme to enable her to break into the social elite.  She suffers an abusive sexual encounter with her new boss, possibly rape, possibly after being administered an illicit substance (even the author couldn’t decide on this point – the details of the incident are different in different editions of the book).  This was an interesting choice of subject matter for Polanski – mirroring, as it did, an incident in his own life, in which he played the role of the predatory patron.

     In 1977, less than two years before “Tess” was filmed, Polanski was arrested and charged with various sex offences against a 13 year old girl, whom he had taken to Jack Nicholson’s house and plied her with champagne and Quaaludes, having photographed her, ostensibly for modeling shots.  She has always maintained that he raped her and her sworn testimony can be found here.  At trial, Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse in exchange for other, more serious, charges being dropped.  The prosecutor accepted this plea in order spare the victim a full trial in front of the world’s media.  Polanski served 42 days in a psychiatric hospital to undergo evaluation and expected to get off with probation.  When he learnt that the judge planned to sentence him to prison and deportation he fled the country and hasn’t been back since, only living and working in countries that don’t have extradition treaties with the US.  Astonishingly, this hasn’t had any negative effect on his career and he has produced a large body of work for which he has received numerous awards all while being on the run from justice.

     So why is this now suddenly a story?  In 2009, while on his way to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, he was placed under house arrest in Switzerland, which lasted until Monday, when the US application for extradition was turned down.   The case has ramifications beyond simple celebrity tittle-tattle. Within days of his arrest, last year, a petition calling for his immediate release was circulating, containing over 100 signatures, many of them from some of the world’s most renowned and influential artists.  The text of the petition is a prime display of the sense of entitlement of the rich and famous.  It describes Polanski as “one of the greatest living film makers” as if this, in and of itself, should grant him leniency from the authorities, not granted to mere mortals.  It then expresses shock that “their international cultural event” – the film festival that Polanski was due to attend – should be tainted by such ugly matters as international law enforcement, and makes the extraordinary claim that film festivals should be sanctuaries for any artist who falls foul of any government for whatever reason – a status not recognised by any society and which they had entirely concocted out of their own pretensions.  It also places great emphasis on the serious consequences extradition would have for Polanski – consequences he surely knew about when he committed his crimes, and which are what the law demands. 

     Since then Polanski’s supporters have clamoured for his release.  Besides a constant stream of innuendo against his victim, these demands have rested on two claims, outlined by Agnes Poirier here and here.  Firstly, that he was unfairly treated in his initial trial, in that the trial judge intended to give him a sentence far more severe than he was given to expect, when he pled guilty.   This is despite the fact that his plea transcript shows that he knew he could face up to 10 to 15 years in prison and that the court was scrupulous in making him aware of his rights and the implications of his guilty plea.  This claim rests, in essence, on the belief that Polanski has the right to determine what is and is not an appropriate sentence for him to serve, for his own, very serious offences.  The second justification, is that his victim has long wanted to the case to be dropped and has publicly forgiven Polanski.  It is true that she has said that “enough is enough” as well she might, given that every time that the case is reopened, she endures a flurry of media attention on her rape, and is minimised and sometimes even vilified by prominent cultural figures.  Since last year, Whoopi Goldberg has been on American daytime TV saying that it wasn’t “rape-rape” and she has been described as a “hooker” by Gore Vidal in a magazine interview.  While I am in no position to doubt her claims to have forgiven Polanski, her desire to see the matter closed can’t be separated from the hostile attention she has had to endure because of the case, the very situation Polanski was offered such a favourable plea to avoid. 

    In essence, what we have seen is a cultural elite use their powerful position to protect one of its members, by intimidating his victim into silence.  He has the influential supporters and the wealth to fund his continued evasion of justice, while remaining in the limelight, and to mount a skilled defence should he ever come to trial.  Prosecuting him seems near impossible so the only route to closure for her is in acquiescence.  This illustrates the reason that her wishes should not be the prime factor in deciding whether the case should be pursued or not.  A just society cannot be maintained by allowing the privileged to use their financial and cultural clout to avoid the consequences of their actions in law.  This would send out the message that people like Roman Polanski can do whatever they like, and the little people, and their most fundamental rights and dignity, simply do not matter.  This is particularly clear when compared to what should have happened.  She should have had her anonymity protected throughout the legal process, he should have been convicted, and jailed, then deported and shunned and drifted off into obscurity – in spite of what a loss this would, undoubtedly, have been to the artistic world

     So, Roman Polanski should be sent back to America to face justice.  In the meantime I have no intention of contributing to his privileged position, during his lifetime, talented director though he may be.  I look forward to the Polanski themed movie-marathon when he shuffles off this mortal coil.  Hopefully the law will catch up with him before then.


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