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Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

George Monbiot on another misuse of UK government’s “sweeping powers”

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From The Guardian

The villagers have marched, demonstrated, and sent in letters and petitions. Some people tried to stop the company from cutting down trees by standing in the way. Their campaign was entirely peaceful. But the power company discovered that it was legally empowered to shut the protests down.

Using the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, it obtained an injunction against the villagers and anyone else who might protest. This forbids them from “coming to, remaining on, trespassing or conducting any demonstrations, or protesting or other activities” on land near the lake. If anyone breaks this injunction they could spend five years in prison.

The act, parliament was told, was meant to protect women from stalkers. But as soon as it came on to the statute books, it was used to stop peaceful protest. To obtain an injunction, a company needs to show only that someone feels “alarmed or distressed” by the protesters, a requirement so vague that it can mean almost anything. Was this an accident of sloppy drafting? No. Timothy Lawson-Cruttenden, the solicitor who specialises in using this law against protesters, boasts that his company “assisted in the drafting of the … Protection from Harassment Act 1997”. In 2005 parliament was duped again, when a new clause, undebated in either chamber, was slipped into the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act. It peps up the 1997 act, which can now be used to ban protest of any kind.

Mr Lawson-Cruttenden, who represented RWE npower, brags that the purpose of obtaining injunctions under the act is “the criminalisation of civil disobedience”. One advantage of this approach is that very low standards of proof are required: “hearsay evidence … is admissable in civil courts”. The injunctions he obtains criminalise all further activity, even though, as he admits, “any allegations made remain untested and unproven”.

Last week, stung by bad publicity, npower backed down. The villagers had just started to celebrate when they made a shocking discovery: they now feature on an official list of domestic extremists.

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AC Grayling on the human rights “sceptics”

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From The Guardian

Critics of the UDHR and of the idea of human rights in general are of many kinds, but the three chief camps consist of the complacent, the inconvenienced and the disappointed. The former are those who, born, bred and fattened in peaceful and reasonably sane parts of the world, have the luxury of caviling and complaining at will, sometimes arguing that there is no such thing as a right, that talk of human rights is variously Eurocentric colonialist arrogance, or hot air, or pious claptrap, or all three. A few days in a windowless cellar with periodic episodes of water-boarding and electric cattle-prodding would change these minds faster than most.

The inconvenienced range from those who think one man is worth two or more women and therefore do not like talk of equality and rights, to those who (like Jack Straw and his new friends at the Daily Mail, from which his predecessor David Blunkett seemed to get most of his policy ideas in the days that followed Labour’s first flush of reform – led by Jack Straw’s Human Rights Act: what irony) have punitive and coercive instincts, and wish not only to lock people up or deport them, but make them suffer extra penalties while doing so, out of revenge and hostility.

The disappointed are those who point to the continuing mayhem, genocides, wars, use of torture and long detention without trial – by would-be respectable western governments too – and say that fine talk about human rights has made not a jot of difference, and indeed has often served as a fig-leaf for abuses.

Of these three camps the third has by far the most cogent point. But what one should draw from it is not defeatism, but renewed determination to make the idea of human rights work. In any case we are, from the long view of history, in the very earliest days of trying to construct a world order, a global sentiment, in which concern for human rights is widespread and operative. Enforcement is the key issue, and here we are in even earlier days: the International Criminal Court, for example, is an infant that does not yet walk. To give up on the idea of human rights now, so soon into the project of trying to remedy the world by its light, would be wrong… The campaign for human rights is the best hope for humankind, and it would be dereliction not to work to make that hope bear fruit.

Written by Richard Wilson

December 10, 2008 at 8:52 pm

The Sun comes out for democracy

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For years, The Sun newspaper and its erstwhile political spokesman Trevor Kavanagh have firmly supported UK government demands for ever more “sweeping new powers” to bug, monitor and jail us without charge and with minimal oversight. Two days ago, the newspaper was still demanding – albeit with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance – that the police be allowed to “detain suspects for as long as they need”.

But the arrest of Sally Murrer, combined with the government’s suicide attack against the last remnants of its reputation seems to have brought about a change of heart.

“We are a police state here and now”, declares Trevor Kavanagh in today’s Sun.

I used to think ID cards were a good thing. What law-abiding citizen could object to these new weapons against terrorists, rapists and murderers? Nothing to hide, nothing to fear. Not any more… If Damian Green can be banged up for nine hours for telling the truth, what hope for you and me? …

The Government’s kneejerk abuse of anti-terror laws as a political weapon is increasingly sinister. It uses them on any pretext – even freezing the economy of friendly Iceland recently when its banks went bust… Soon, unelected snoopers will be able to pry into our mobile calls, text messages and emails. These are the alarming consequences of an authoritarian regime that sees the state as paramount and the people as pygmies.

US State Department calls for release of Alexis Sinduhije

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From the Washington Post

The State Department protested the Burundian government’s arrest Monday of an aspiring presidential candidate and former journalist who was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people this year by Time magazine.

Burundian authorities arrested Alexis Sinduhije at his political party’s headquarters in Bujumbura on Monday, along with other party staff members.

“We believe that is unacceptable. We believe he should be released immediately,” Russell Brooks, spokesman for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, said Friday. “It remains our hope the government of Burundi will work to advance the cause of political freedom and speech in Burundi and allow citizens to exercise universally recognized rights.”

An ethnic Tutsi reporter who adopted a Hutu war orphan, Sinduhije has become a national celebrity in Burundi, a small central African country that has been plagued for more than 15 years by violence between the two ethnic groups.

In 2001 Sinduhije founded Radio Publique Africaine, an independent radio station that promoted reconciliation between the groups.

His reporting has drawn international praise. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists honored Sinduhije in 2004 with its International Press Freedom Award. He has also appeared as a guest on PBS‘s “Charlie Rose” show.

“We wanted to set an example of how relations between the ethnic groups could be humanized,” Sinduhije said in explaining his journalistic mission at the 2004 award ceremony. “We hired former fighters, both Hutu and Tutsi . . . to become fighters for peace and truth.”

Joel Simon, the committee’s executive director, said Sinduhije’s radio station “was a beacon” for those searching for an “alternative to the kind of politics of racial division which had brought Burundi to the brink of genocide.”

Simon said Sinduhije has been repeatedly threatened, beaten and jailed for his work as a reporter. Sinduhije left journalism in December 2007 to compete in Burundi’s 2010 presidential election. The government has refused to formally register his political party, the Movement for Security and Democracy.

“We don’t think this is a press freedom case,” Simon said, noting that the charges were nevertheless “trumped up.” He said, “We’re obviously very concerned about him, and this treatment illustrates the environment in which Burundi’s election is taking place.”

Burundi’s U.N. ambassador, Augustin Nsanze, declined to comment on the arrest.

Over the years, Alexis Sinduhije has been immensely supportive of efforts to get to the truth over the Titanic Express massacre, and secure justice for all Burundi’s victims. Click here for more background on his arrest.

Don’t Get Fooled Again reviewed by Tom Cunliffe

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From A Common Reader

Scepticism about media, politics and finances comes naturally to most of us these days, particularly when people who should know better have brought the world to a state of economic crisis (did our rulers really not know that unfettered greed is no basis for an economic world-order?). It is refreshing to read a book like Don’t Get Fooled Again, which takes our vague feeling that “things aren’t quite right” and shows us that gut instincts are often quite correct, and we really shouldn’t believe the utterances of any institution or public figure without first submitting them to some pretty stringent tests.

Richard Wilson puts forward a good case for scepticism, reminding his readers that humanity has a long history of “meekly engaging in depraved acts of inhumanity on the basis of ideas that turned out to be total gibberish”.

Much of his book focuses on the public relations industry, citing a number of case studies to show how opinion can be manipulated. He devotes a whole chapter to the way tobacco companies in the 1950s manipulated news organisations to question the increasingly obvious link between smoking and lung cancer. The strategy consisted of getting an influential academic on-side (geneticist Clarence Cook Little in this case), and using him to question every scrap of evidence which research scientists gathered supporting the need for anti-smoking legislation.

Little insisted that it was not enough to show that lung cancer victims were smokers, but that until the cause of the link could be demonstrated under laboratory conditions, the link was irrelevant. Tests showing that mice contracted cancer when exposed to cigarette smoke were contested, but on the other hand, animal tests which were favourable to the tobacco industry were heavily publicised. Wilson shows that genius of the PR campaign was capitalising on the media’s love of “debate”.

A story really takes off when two sides are seen in opposition, even when it is obvious that the alleged “controversy” is falsely based. This can be observed every day on programmes like BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when even the most blindingly obvious truth has to be contested by a protagonist with opposing views, with the result that equal weight is given to both nonsense and fact. One million people walked the streets of London to protest about the US/GB invasion of Iraq but this had no effect on those who wanted for a variety of reasons to believe the fantastic reports about Iraq’s offensive capability.

Wilson warns of the dangers of pseudo-science, and its ability to influence government and other decision-makers. Wilson traces this back to Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist who’s wrong-headed ideas about agronomy led to mass starvation throughout Russia. Even worse, Lysenko’s ideas were taken up by Chairman Mao and his followers whose Lysenko-inspired agrarian reforms led to the worst man-made famine in history, with the loss of 30 million lives.

The chapter on “groupthink” describes that way in which a closed group of people can adopts a false belief and then support itself in perpetuating it despite mounting evidence suggesting its falsity. I found myself thinking again of the decision to invade Iraq taken by Tony Blair’s cabinet when I read Richard Wilson’s list of symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Invulnerability – everything is going to work out right because we are a special group
  2. Rationalisation – explaining away warnings that challenge the group’s assumptions
  3. Unquestioning belief in the morality of the group and ignoring moral consequences of the group’s decisions
  4. Sterotyping those who oppose the group’s view as weak, evil, impotent of stupid
  5. Direct pressure being placed on any member who questions the group couched in terms of “disloyalty”
  6. Self-censorship of ideas that stray from the consensus
  7. The illusion of unanimity among group members with silence being viewed as agreement.

I have worked on many large I.T. projects and have seen these processes at work when projects have begun to fail and careers and reputations are at risk. Project teams easily acquire the need to plough on despite all warning signals to the contrary until finally the project is abandoned far too late for anyone to be able to recover any benefits from it.

Wilson goes on to consider the HIV/AIDS denial movement, begun in America and then influencing the thinking of the South African government where “AIDS dissidents” have had a malign effect on public policy leading to the denial of effective treatment for many. President Tabo Mbeki immersed himself in AIDS denial literature and invited American AIDS dissidents to join a presidential advisory panel on AIDS and HIV, one of whose aims was to inivestigate “whether there’s this thing called AIDS . . . whether HIV leads to AIDS, whether there’s something called HIV”. By 2005, more than 5.5 million South Africans were infected with HIV and 1000 were dying each day from AIDS.

In his concluding chapter, Richard Wilson lists the common threads which run through false and illusory belief systems: fundamentalism, relativism, conspiracy theories, pseudo-scholarship, pseudo-news, wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonisation of perceived enemies, groupthink. While many of the ideas in this book are nothing new in themselves, Wilson has gathered them together, with many fascinating examples from recent history, to provide a very useful handbook for people who know that things they read in the paper or hear on the television are “not quite right” and need to be challenged.

I was pleased to find that Richard Wilson has a blog Don’t Get Fooled Again in which he reports on many of the topics covered in his book.