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Trafigura goes on trial next week in Amsterdam – will the UK media dare to report it?

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The report they tried to ban…

The Anglo-Dutch oil company Trafigura goes on trial in the Netherlands on June 1st, over its role in the allegedly illegal exporting of toxic waste to the Ivory Coast. According to the Ivory Coast authorities, the dumping of this waste led to 15 deaths, with other reports putting the death toll at 17.

Trafigura is notorious for its willingness to use UK libel law – which is famously one-sided and prohibitively expensive for most defendants – to suppress critical coverage. As a result, while the Dutch, Norwegian and American media have reported the case freely, few UK newspapers will even cover it, let alone mention the alleged death toll (which Trafigura continues to dispute).

When Trafigura and their London-based law firm, MacFarlanes, were formally accused in the Dutch courts of bribing witnesses (a charge they deny), there was silence about it in the UK media.  According to MacFarlanes themselves, such behaviour “would have been illegal and it would certainly have constituted serious professional misconduct”. Under normal circumstances, the laying of such charges against a UK law firm would have been a major news story. The fact that it has gone unreported in Britain shows how much damage our libel laws have done to freedom of speech and public interest journalism.

When the trial itself begins on June 1st, it will be interesting to see if any UK media dare to cover it. This will be a key test of how much power Trafigura now wields over the British press – and how much courage our journalists and editors have in resisting this company’s sustained attack on press freedom.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 25, 2010 at 8:29 am

Trafigura and Macfarlanes deny bribing witnesses in toxic waste court case, threaten legal action against Dutch media

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Response to Volkskrant allegations, published on Scribd.com

Macfarlanes and Trafigura deny any involvement, whether direct or indirect, in what you describe as “bribery and influencing of witnesses”.

Not only would such conduct be grossly unethical, it would have been illegal and it would certainly have constituted serious professional misconduct by Macfarlanes. The suggestion that this firm or one of its partners would involve itself in such misconduct is as absurd as it is defamatory.

Furthermore, for reasons we touch on below, even if Macfarlanes or Trafigura had been willing to misconduct ourselves in this way (which we were not), it would have been completely illogical and counter-productive for us to have done so given the circumstances of these events.

We note that you acknowledge that these allegations are extremely serious. We trust, therefore, that if you consider yourself to be a responsible journalist, rather than pursuing a pre-meditated agenda against Trafigura, you will consider your position very carefully before publishing allegations about Macfarlanes which are indeed very serious, malicious, gravely defamatory, false and completely inconsistent with the previous course of conduct between the parties.

You state in your email that these are similar to allegations made last year. For the record, those allegations were also wholly without foundation. Indeed, they were formally withdrawn by the Claimants and their solicitors, Leigh Day & Co, in the Abidjan Personal Injury Group Litigation proceedings in September 2009.

Given your misapprehension of the true position and the fact that, regrettably, certain individuals have chosen to provide you with dishonest and malicious allegations, it is important that we address your questions.

It is equally important that you carefully consider our responses and weigh up how much reliance, if any, can be placed upon these false and malicious allegations.

In the event that you still decide to publish these allegations, we require you to ensure that you include our response to each allegation at the point in which it appears in the article.

You will appreciate that, given the seriousness and falsity of what you are seeking to allege, Macfarlanes and/or Trafigura will have no alternative but to commence legal proceedings without further notice if your story does not comply fully with the basic principles of truth, balanced reporting and responsible journalism.

From Radio Netherlands Worldwide:

Greenpeace accuses Trafigura

The environmental organisation accuses the multinational of having influenced witnesses.

In the Netherlands, Greenpeace has filed a complaint with the public prosecution against the multinational Trafigura, accusing the latter of having influenced witnesses and also of forgery.

According to the environmental organisation, a group of drivers reported to be Ivoirian would have agreed with Trafigura not to report being ill as a result of transporting toxic waste for the multinational.

A spokesman for Greenpeace has confirmed that information which had been disclosed by Dutch television and the center-left daily De Volkskrant.

According to the Ivorian justice, dumping of toxic waste in Abidjan in August 2006, by the cargo Probo Koala, chartered by Trafigura from Amsterdam, had killed 17 people and poisoned thousands.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 18, 2010 at 7:49 am

Posted in Censorship

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Simon Singh: Osler case highlights need for prompt action by new government on Libel Reform

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Award-winning writer Simon Singh famously won a libel case earlier this year that had been brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association. Simon turned out today in support of Dave Osler, and gave me his thoughts on the wider issues highlighted by the case.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 13, 2010 at 12:15 pm

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Blogger Dave Osler wins epic 3-year battle against bogus libel claim

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Just back from the Royal Courts of Justice. Here’s Dave’s response after his big win for bloggers. Here’s the background.

Written by Richard Wilson

May 13, 2010 at 11:43 am

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Lenny Bruce on TV debates

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From “Mistakes were made but not by me”, quoting Lenny Bruce on the 1960 TV Presidential debates:

I would be with a bunch of Kennedy fans watching the debate and their comment would be, “He’s really slaughtering Nixon.” Then we would all go to another apartment, and the Nixon fans would say, “How do you like the shellacking he gave Kennedy?” And then I realized that each group loved their candidate so that a guy would have to be this blatant – he would have to look into the camera and say: “I am a thief, a crook, do you hear me, I am the worst choice you could ever make for the Presidency!” And even then his following would say, “Now there’s an honest man for you. It takes a big guy to admit that. There’s the kind of guy we need for President.”

Written by Richard Wilson

April 22, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Some good news on the battle for freedom of speech in the UK – British Chiropractic Association drop “bogus” libel case against Simon Singh

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The BCA have finally dropped their vindictive and misguided attempt to use UK libel law to attack a well-respected science writer, Simon Singh. This follows a refreshingly sensible ruling from the Court of Appeal in which the judges made it clear that the libel courts were no place for trying to settle a scientific debate.

If we’re lucky, this could help to deter at least the most extreme abuses by cranks, quacks, and peddlers of corporate pseudo-science who seek to silence their critics through threats of legal action.

Simon Singh has done a huge service to the many British writers and bloggers who have been threatened by quacks and charlatans – and also to the British wider public, who depend on the freedom of the press (including scientific journals) to ensure that bogus and flawed medical claims are properly scrutinised.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 15, 2010 at 9:32 am

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Skeptical voter off to a flying start…

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Now that the election has been called, Skeptical Voter really seems to be coming into its own, helped along by this excellent piece on Telegraph blogs by Tom Chivers:

Are you, like me, a nerd? Do you care about nerdy things like science and rationality? Are you wondering, ahead of the 2010 general election, which parties and candidates also care about basing policy on evidence, rather than media scaremongering, opinionated ignorance and/or kneejerk populism? If the answer is yes to all of the above, I would like to point you towards Skeptical-Voter.org.

Because it’s true what they say – this is going to be Britain’s first digital election. But not, you suspect, in the way that the parties might think, or hope. For every vote swayed by WebCameron or the Labour Party’s official Facebook page, there will be thousands who change their mind because of the faster spread of information that the internet allows.

Skeptical Voter is a tool, similar in broad intent if not design to our own Vote Match, that allows voters to find out which parties and candidates match their views on rationalist topics. Worry that your MP wants creationism taught alongside evolutionary theory in schools, or to give Sharia legal status in the UK? Maybe you think homeopathy (I know I go on about it) should be subject to the same standards of scientific rigour as other NHS treatments, and want to know which candidate agrees with you. As the Bad Science blogger and Guardian writer Ben Goldacre put it in a typically acid Tweet, “Does your MP seriously believe in fairies and magic beans?”

Full article here

Written by Richard Wilson

April 10, 2010 at 6:52 am

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Three weeks before a General Election, Parliament refuses to disclose details of which MPs are being probed by standards watchdog

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Less than a month before a General Election, you are not entitled to know whether the MP seeking your vote on May 6th is currently under investigation for corruption.

On March 25th I made a Freedom Of Information Act request to the Parliamentary standards watchdog, asking:

a) How many MPs are currently under investigation for suspected breaches of the rules (this could be anything from failing to disclose a second job to taking cash from lobbyists)

b) The names of any MPs currently under investigation.

It seemed to me that in the run-up to the General Election, it was important that the public should be aware which of the MPs currently seeking their votes are at the same time being investigated for dodgy dealings.

Given the well-publicised complicity of the House of Commons authorities in the abuse of Parliamentary expenses by MPs – and their role in the subsequent cover-up – along with the cagey and defensive attitude of the person I spoke to when I phoned the Parliamentary Standards Office a few weeks ago, I was expecting a fair bit of obstruction and evasion. They haven’t let me down.

Today I got an email from Bob Castle, who carries the impressive job title of “Head of Information Rights and Security” at the House of Commons.

According to Mr Castle,

The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22  of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication).

Conveniently for those MPs under investigation (and for all we know this could be all 646 of them), “early summer” in this context almost certainly means after the General Election on May 6th.  Last year’s annual report on MP abuses was published on 29th June 2009, the previous one on 17th July 2008, and the one before that on 25th October 2007.

Bob Castle goes on to say that:

While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received.

This means, as far as I can tell, that in the opinion of the Commons bureaucrats, a 4o-page report published just once a year tells us, the public, all we deserve to know about the investigations being carried out by the body whose job it is to stamp our corruption by our elected representatives.

It would surely not cost the Parliamentary authorities very much simply to disclose the number of MPs currently under investigation. As a commenter on this article helpfully points out, releasing that information would almost certainly have taken less time than typing out their lengthy excuse for not doing so.

We are also not allowed to know the names of any of the MPs under investigation, as this would apparently infringe the “priveleges of Parliament”.

What this is really about is an attitude. Despite being paid out of the taxes we earn, Bob Castle certainly does not seem to be behaving like someone who believes he is actually accountable to the British public. More than any of the details in this particular case, it’s that attitude that seems most worrying, because it seems to show that the same mindset that allowed the expenses to scandal to happen is very much alive and well in Westminster.

While many of our most corrupt and tainted MPs are stepping down at the next election, and while many others will be fired on May 6th when the voters have their say, Bob Castle and his unelected colleagues will all still be there on May 7th, doing, presumably, what they’ve always done.

As it turns out, Castle played a starring role in the expenses cover-up:

…the preliminary decision in favour of detailed [expenses] disclosure was made by [information commissioner] Mr Thomas.

Signed by Graham Smith, the deputy information commissioner, and dated October 2, 2006, it stated:

“The Commissioner requires that the House of Commons shall provide the complainant with the requested information with the following redactions made. “

The redactions included identification of any third parties e.g. traders; personal and third party addresses; and details of bank accounts and mortgages.

A leaked email from Bob Castle, a data protection and FOI officer at the Commons, sent to Nicole Duncan at the commissioner’s office, protested that the wording of the decision was “inaccurate and unfair”.

Further leaked emails show Ms Duncan continually tried to extract information about the expenses claims of the named MPs.

However, in November 2006, Ms Duncan emailed Mr Castle to “confirm that for the purposes of the [final] Decision Notice in this case we will not be reproducing the exact details of what information the House holds in relation to each of the MPs.”

A reply from Mr Castle at the Commons stated that “the House considered that it would be a breach of the fairness provisions of the first data protection principle to provide any personal data relating to an individual MP’s claims including information as to whether part of their allowances claim is in respect of mortgage or rental payments”.

He added that “until the case is finally determined” the Commons believed it was “released from its obligations” under key sections of the FOI Act.

I’ve appealed this latest FOI refusal, but conveniently, again, for the MPs under investigation, given the timescales involved for FOI appeals, it’s inconceivable that any kind of ruling would be made this side of the General Election.

My personal view is that clearing out the corrupt MPs will not be enough (although it is a very good start). We need a wholesale clear-out of the officials who, for so long, have been doing such a lamentable job of protecting the integrity of our Parliamentary system.

The exact questions I asked were:

I would like to know:

1) The number of MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

2) The names of any MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

And here are the exemptions cited in full by Bob Castle:

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is inquiring into these matters under the procedures set out in Standing Order No 150. The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22  of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication). While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received. Therefore, the balance of the public interest rests with maintaining the exemption while this information is being prepared and finalised for routine publication.

The procedure approved by the Committee under SO No 150 does not currently provide for the disclosure of the remaining information requested (a list of the names of MPs under inquiry).  As this procedure has been approved by the Committee in accordance with the Standing Order, the exemption under s34 is necessary to avoid infringing the privileges of Parliament, which include the rights of each Committee to interpret its own orders of reference. I must therefore refuse your request.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 9, 2010 at 11:17 am

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Simon Singh wins make-or-break libel appeal against the British Chiropractic Association

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1. From Dr Evan Harris MP (via Twitter), outside the Royal Courts of Justice:

“The judgment is simon…. Wins!”

2. Further updates from blogger and libel reform champion JackofKent.

3. Further background on the case here.

4. Via Index on Censorship – photo of Simon Singh speaking immediately after the ruling.

5. Via James o’ Malley. Audio of Simon Singh and his lawyer speaking about the case immediately after the ruling – link here.

6. “Love and Garbage” reports that the full ruling should be available on this page later today.

7. The British Chiropractic Association have reportedly issued a statement responding to the ruling…

8. A brief report on the ruling from the BBC.

9. A report on the ruling from the Independent.

10. Lay Science publishes statement from the BCA

11. BCA statement (PDF) now on their website (pdf).

12. Full court ruling now on Index on Censorship website.

13. Live audio from the Simon Singh press conference from James O” Malley.

More to follow…

Written by Richard Wilson

April 1, 2010 at 8:40 am

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A response from Tony Baldry MP

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I’m grateful to Tony Baldry MP for providing the following response to a number of questions I put to him last week:

Dear Mr. Wilson,

Thank you for your email.

I think it may be helpful if I make a number of points.

Firstly, I have sought to respond promptly to any letters or emails that are sent to me on this matter.   However, my experience is that organisations such as the Nigerian Liberty Forum and Rally for Nigeria either claim that they have never received my responses, or simply ignore the contents.

Part of my frustration with the Independent on Sunday was that the journalist concerned made no proper effort to get in touch with me, or to put to me the matters which were going to become allegations in his article.  This hardly strikes me as being responsible journalism.

I think it is also fair to observe that notwithstanding the Independent on Sunday’s apology and correction, again, without making any attempt whatsoever to get in touch with me, you simply sought to repeat  the IOS’s earlier allegations which were untrue and defamatory.

I have no quarrel with political blogs.  I believe they serve a genuinely useful purpose in making our politics more vibrant, but I see no justification for bloggers, particularly those who are journalists like yourself, simply repeating allegations which the newspaper concerned has acknowledged were incorrect.

Incidentally, it was not my intention that your blog should be removed;  simply that the defamatory material should be removed.

As I had not had the opportunity prior to publication of discussing the issues with the journalists concerned, my objective was simply to ensure that there was a correction printed as soon as possible based on the facts.

I have not read your further blog.  I think that the Olswang letter, which is now available on the internet, together with the correction from the Independent on Sunday, reflect a fair and accurate statement of the facts.

As I have repeatedly made clear, I have taken no action in this matter as a Member of Parliament.  My locus has been as a barrister, properly instructed.

Attention has focused on the letter that I wrote to the Foreign Secretary.  Various allegations have been made against me, all of which are untrue; it has been said that the letter sought to persuade the Government to discontinue the prosecutions at present being undertaken at Southwark Crown Court – untrue.

It has been suggested that the letter sought to persuade the Government/prosecuting authorities to discontinue the investigation into James Ibori  –  untrue.

It has been suggested that I advised that any investigation into Mr. Ibori should be discontinued as being detrimental to British interests – again, untrue.

I understand that an application has been made under the Freedom of Information Act to the Foreign Office for disclosure of the letter  and this, I understand, has been refused by the Foreign Office on the grounds that its release could be detrimental  to relations between the UK and another Government and also that its release could be detrimental to the administration of justice, and as a member of the Bar, I  think I would be quite rightly open to criticism if, given those conclusions by the Foreign Office, doubtless in consultation with the Office of the Attorney-General, I was to publish the letter myself.  That matter, as I understand it, is now before the Information Commissioner for him to decide.

However, I think that you and organisations such as the NLF, might like to reflect on the motivation and tactics of whoever “leaked” the existence of this letter to the NLF.

If they had thought that I had done something untoward, as a Member of Parliament , they could presumably have “leaked” the whole letter, or acted in such way as that the letter could have been made available to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who regulates the conduct of Members of Parliament.  Indeed, the day after the IOS’s article was published, I immediately sent the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards a copy of  the letter myself.

So those who “leaked” the existence of the letter, chose to leak what were clearly selective, inaccurate, and untrue assertions as to its contents.

So, for example, the NLF at the outset were clearly convinced that the purpose of my letter had somehow been to interfere in the existing trial of defendants at Southwark.  But as I have explained to organisations such as the NLF, and Rally for Nigeria, way back in February, so far as the Southwark proceedings were concerned, my letter stated in terms “I do not represent any of these defendants, and am in no way involved with their defence, and of course the conduct of that case is a matter for the Crown Court”.

Moreover, I do somewhat have the impression that whatever the facts in this case, and however often I respond to queries,  there is a determination to try and find something untoward.  So, for example, I understand that you have made a request to the Foreign Office, under the FOI, for a copy of the envelope in which the letter was sent.  I hope they still have it, as it will show that it is a perfectly normal white envelope !

I repeat.  At no time has my involvement in this matter been as a Member of Parliament, but as a barrister.

As a Member of Parliament, I am under the rules of the House, obliged to make a number of declarations in the Register of Members’ Interests with regard to any outside interests.  This I have fully done.

Finally, as a general point, it has always been a valued tradition of the English Bar, that the English Bar will properly represent and give the best possible advice to anyone involved with the English criminal system, irrespective of the allegations being made against those individuals.  As far as I am aware, we have never had a situation in England where journalists and the media have sought to attack Members of the Bar because of the clients they represent.

I appreciate that I have not answered all of your questions and insofar as I haven’t answered all your questions, I have not done so because they do not relate to my conduct as a Member of Parliament and I think that it would be unprofessional of me to say anything further on this matter as a member of the Bar whilst criminal proceedings are still ongoing at Southwark Crown Court – about which, and for the avoidance of any doubt, I repeat, I have at no time made any representations and whilst criminal investigations are still outstanding against James Ibori.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Baldry

The questions I asked were:

1.  It has been alleged that you met with the Nigerian President last year, and discussed with him the criminal investigation by the UK authorities into the financial affairs of the Nigerian politician James Ibori. Is this true?

2. If so, did you conduct this meeting in your capacity as an MP or a barrister?

3. If it is true that this meeting took place, what was the purpose of the meeting, which issues were discussed and which actions were agreed?

4. If it is true that the meeting took place, how long afterwards did you write your letter to David Miliband about the James Ibori case?

5. Do you deny suggesting in this letter that the criminal investigation into Mr Ibori might be detrimental to British interests?

6. The Oxford Mail reports that a solicitor who has acted for the Ibori family recently paid you £37,000 for 29 hours’ legal work between September and December last year. What did this work involve?

Written by Richard Wilson

March 27, 2010 at 10:01 am

Trafigura vindicated? 115-page “Reply” which the company says rebuts the BBC’s case

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Trafigura’s Reply to the BBC’s libel Defence(PDF)

A few weeks ago Wikileaks published the 40-page court document in which the BBC laid out its defence against Trafigura’s libel claim, following this Newsnight report from May last year.

Trafigura had always insisted that the available scientific evidence vindicated them of blame for any deaths or serious injuries following the August 2006 Probo Koala toxic waste incident, and in December the BBC controversially withdrew their claims and agreed to pay damages. Yet Trafigura have never published the evidence which they say vindicates them, despite repeated requests.

Following the publication of the BBC document by Wikileaks, the blogger Calum Carr again contacted Trafigura to request their side of the story, but again to no avail.

Calum and I have now obtained this document ourselves. Given today’s very promising news about the libel reform campaign, we felt that this was a good moment to put the information out into the public domain, so that people can form their own view on this contentious issue.

Obtaining an electronic copy of this document has been an interesting process in itself. To do this, I had to:

1. Go to the High Court in person

2. Make a formal request for a copy of the document (giving full personal details including my home address)

3. Wait several days

4. Phone the High Court to see if the copy was ready

5. Visit the High Court again in person

6. Pay a not-insignificant photocopying fee

7. Pick up the paper copy of the document

8. Take the copy to a specialist document scanning company to get it turned into a PDF

9. Pay another fee

10. Wait another few days, before receiving the PDF via email.

This is apparently standard procedure for getting hold of key UK court documents. One would almost have thought that the legal authorities did not actually want the British public to have ready access to documents which are, at least in theory, available to all of us by right…

We might compare the above process to the mechanism involved in, say, accessing the text of a Parliamentary Question or a Select Committee report, eg:

1. Visit the Parliament website

2. Type in a relevant search term

2. Download the information (for free).

For all the concerns we might have about the current workings of the Parliament, its processes currently seem a whole lot more open transparent than those of the judiciary. Apart from anything else, the requirement that one has to visit the High Court in person to access a public document seems inherently discriminatory to anyone living a significant distance from London.

If and when we get some real progress on libel reform, it seems to me that opening up the judiciary to at least the same levels of scrutiny we have for Parliament could be an important next step.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Fair comment in the public interest

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*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

Some readers will know that the post I wrote earlier this week about Tony Baldry MP and James Ibori has been taken off this site. More on that in due course.

In the meantime, I would recommend that everyone take a look at this blog post from Will Jordan, which I believe is both fair comment, and self-evidently in the public interest.

It seems to me that the core issue here is, as Craig Murray also points out, the extent to which it is appropriate, in a modern democracy, for MPs to hold down second (and third, and fourth and fifth) jobs without creating serious conflicts of interest which threaten to compromise their independence as MPs.

Tony Baldry has been at pains to stress the extent to which his work as a barrister is distinct from his activities as an MP. And yet the website of his own legal chambers, One Essex Court (accessed and archived 6/3/10), seems to blur this distinction, stating that:

Recent Heads of Chambers include Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, a leading Conservative MP for over twenty years, and Parliamentary connections are maintained under One Essex Court’s current head Tony Baldry MP.

The question of whether or not individual MPs are currently “acting within the rules” is, to my mind, secondary to this much larger question of whether the rules, in their current form, are really doing an effective job of maintaining the robust independence we need from our Parliamentarians in order to sustain a healthy democracy.

As was often the case during the expenses scandal, we might happily accept at face value all of the public statements that Tony Baldry MP has made, yet still have grave concerns that the Parliamentary rules could permit the arrangement he describes.

And as with the expenses scandal, it is vital that members of the public are able to voice these concerns openly, without facing threats or intimidation.

As Chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission, Tony Baldry must surely be aware of the growing international concern around the use of UK libel law by super-rich claimants to deter critical reporting of serious public interest questions.

The debate around MPs’ second jobs – in which the controversy surrounding Tony Baldry is just one example – is clearly a public interest matter. Democracy depends on our freedom to scrutinise the conduct of our MPs, and question the rules they make for themselves.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 5, 2010 at 8:35 pm

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Support the Libel Reform campaign – Free speech is not for sale!

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Click here to support the campaign for freedom of speech in the UK

England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised – there is urgent need for reform.

Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.

The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.

The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.

We the undersigned, in England and beyond, urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.

More than 30,000 people have signed so far – click here to join them

Written by Richard Wilson

March 4, 2010 at 7:29 am

Another surrealist masterpiece from Christopher Booker

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Update – False and misleading claims about asbestos are especially galling for those actually living with mesothelioma, a cancer whose only known cause is asbestos exposure. A Mesothelioma action group have now set up a Facebook campaign criticising the Daily Mail over its misleading coverage on this issue.

Compare and contrast…

1. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

Yesterday saw the launch of yet another scare campaign.

As so often before championed by the BBC, it warned us again of the deadly dangers posed by asbestos – this time in Britain’s schools.

It is true that most older school buildings contain asbestos products of one kind or another, such as asbestos cement roof slates or ceiling tiles.

But almost all of these products contain relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre…

…when it is encapsulated in cement, as it most often is, it is virtually impossible for those fibres to escape and be breathed into the lungs at all..

==> From the UK government’s Health and Safety Laboratory, 2007

Epidemiology has shown that chrysotile is a human carcinogen…

The claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer.

2. From Christopher Booker in today’s Daily Mail:

The dangers from such products are so vanishingly small – as many scientific studies have shown – that, in the cautious words of a report by the HSE itself, they are ‘insignificant’. The risks of their causing lung cancer are ‘arguably zero’.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 23, 2010 at 10:45 am

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Book talk: Skeptics in the Pub, Winchester, Thursday 25th February

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I’ll be speaking at Winchester Skeptics in the Pub this coming Thursday, convened by the  excellent Crispian Jago. Here’s the blurb:

The Roebuck Inn, 57 Stockbridge Road, Winchester, SO22 6RP
7:30pm Thursday 25th February 2010

Sceptics are people who are prepared to ask difficult questions, and point out uncomfortable truths. In societies where freedom of speech is denied, such habits can be seen as subversive, and even dangerous. One of the most famous sceptics in history, the philosopher Socrates, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the young” by encouraging Athenians to question accepted wisdom. Even in democratic states, sceptical thinkers can face difficulties. Journalists who expose quackery and corruption may find themselves on the receiving end of crippling libel suits, while scientific advisers are sacked for questioning government policy.

Societies that exclude scepticism become incapable of acknowledging and correcting their mistakes. At the extreme, the consequences can be fatal. In Soviet Russia and Maoist China, millions starved through the imposition of pseudo-scientific agricultural policies that few could question freely. In the modern era, the application of archaic media laws can allow corporate negligence and malpractice to go undiscovered.

Yet while today’s sceptics still face many challenges, modern technology also creates new opportunities for defending and extending the freedoms on which scepticism relies. In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, Richard Wilson highlights the relationship between scepticism and freedom of speech, and talks about the tools that modern-day sceptics can use to help preserve it.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 21, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Relativist poster-boy Paul Feyerabend finally gets his way

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From Feyerabend’s Against Method, 1975:

A mature citizen is a person who has learned how to make up his mind and who has then decided in favour of what he thinks suits him best… he will study science as a historical phenomenon and not as the one and only sensible way of approaching a problem. He will study it together with other fairy-tales such as the myths of ‘primitive’ societies so that he has the information needed for arriving at a free decision.

An essential part of a general education of this kind is acquaintance with the most outstanding propagandists in all fields, so that the pupil can build up his resistance against all propaganda, including the propaganda called ‘argument’… His decision in favour of science – assuming he chooses science – will then be much more ‘rational’ than any decision in favour of science is today…

Scientists will of course participate in governmental decisions… But they will not be given overriding authority. It is the vote of everyone concerned that decides fundamental issues such as the teaching methods used, or the truth of basic beliefs such as the theory of evolution, or the quantum theory, and not the authority of big-shots hiding behind a non-existing methodology…

From The Guardian, 12th February 2010:

Carbon dioxide is “essentially harmless” to human beings and good for plants. So now will you stop worrying about global warming?

Utah’s House of Representatives apparently has at least. Officially the most Republican state in America, its political masters have adopted a resolution condemning “climate alarmists”, and disputing any scientific basis for global warming.

The measure, which passed by 56-17, has no legal force, though it was predictably claimed by climate change sceptics as a great victory in the wake of the controversy caused by a mistake over Himalayan glaciers in the UN’s landmark report on global warming.

But it does offer a view of state politicians’ concerns in Utah which is a major oil and coal producing state.

The original version of the bill dismissed climate science as a “well organised and ongoing effort to manipulate and incorporate “tricks” related to global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome”. It accused those seeking action on climate change of riding a “gravy train” and their efforts would “ultimately lock billions of human beings into long-term poverty”.

In the heat of the debate, the representative Mike Noel said environmentalists were part of a vast conspiracy to destroy the American way of life and control world population through forced sterilisation and abortion.

Written by Richard Wilson

February 13, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Groundhog Day in Burundi…

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I spoke to a Burundian friend earlier this evening who is deeply concerned about rising tensions in his home country ahead of elections scheduled for June. A video on the “Burundi Transparence” website purports to show the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth militia acting out a show of strength in scenes worryingly reminiscent of pre-genocide Rwanda in 1994.

Human Rights Watch put out a detailed report on the militias mid-way through last year:

Beginning in December 2008, residents of Busoni commune, Kirundo province and Kayogoro commune, Makamba province reported “militia-like” activities by former FDD combatants and members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, known as “Imbonerakure.” The youth, with the acquiescence of local administrative, police, and party officials, carried out harassment and arrests of political opponents…

In Busoni commune, Kirundo province, the CNDD-FDD youth league engaged in “night-time sports,” which involved parading with large sticks in military fashion.[229] According to media reports, these youth also chanted threatening slogans about “crushing their opponents.” Jean Minani, a prominent parliamentarian from Busoni and founder of “Frodebu-Nyakuri,” a splinter group of FRODEBU that generally aligns with CNDD-FDD, told Human Rights Watch he had observed the activities. He confirmed that the youth were armed with sticks and clubs, and chanted slogans in Kirundi which roughly translated as “Those who are not with us will be sent into exile or die.”

The International Crisis Group warned today that:

The CNDD-FDD youth wing’s physical training, war songs and quasi-military organisation raise the spectre of militia violence and a large-scale intimidation campaign. The other former rebels, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL) and the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) are mobilising their own youth wings to oppose intimidation tactics. The police have remained passive or become accomplices to the ruling party’s abuses.

The ICG recommends that the international donor community:

Warn Burundian political leaders that those responsible for atrocity or other grave political crimes will be prosecuted – by the International Criminal Court or a special tribunal if necessary – and that targeted sanctions will be imposed on those resorting to massive fraud or violence to win the elections.

On the face of it this might sound reasonable enough, but to someone who’s been following the situation in Burundi for nearly a decade now, there’s an eerie sense of déja vu.

Here’s a report from 2005 on the violence that preceded the elections last time around:

[Nureldine] Satti demanded an investigation into mortar attacks that wounded five in the suburbs of the capital Bujumbura on Tuesday night, and recent reports of summary executions in Bujumbura Rural province… “We want to know the truth. The UN and the international community will not tolerate war crimes anymore. Any individual, any group responsible for war crimes will be held accountable for its acts,” he told a press conference.

And here’s a report from 2004, after Hutu-extremists massacred 160 Tutsi refugees at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi:

“The people who committed this terrible crime must be out of their heads. They are really terrorists,” Mrs [Agnes] Van Ardenne told reporters after visiting the refugee camp at the weekend. She said the suspects should be tried by the International Criminal Court. The FNL has indicated it will face its responsibility and appear before the court in The Hague. There will be no mercy for the perpetrators of the massacre, Mrs Van Ardenne said.

And here’s a UN security council statement from 1996:

The Council shares the Secretary-General’s deep concern at the situation in Burundi, which has been characterized by daily killings, massacres, torture and arbitrary detention. It condemns in the strongest terms those responsible for such actions, which must cease immediately… It reiterates that all who commit or authorize the commission of serious violations of international humanitarian law are individually responsible for such violations and should be held accountable.

Not one of these declarations has been honoured. Efforts to refer the Gatumba massacre to the International Criminal Court quickly stalled amid a lack of political will – and silence from the International Crisis Group. The UN’s longstanding promise of a “special chamber” for Burundi remains little more than a twinkle in Ban Ki Moon’s eye, having got lost in endless negotiations with the same Burundian government officials who would likely become defendants were it ever to get off the ground.

Threatening to prosecute people – as distinct from actually putting war criminals on trial – certainly has the advantage of being free and not particularly timeconsuming. But if the International Crisis Group is really in the business of trying to stop Burundi’s political elite from organising yet more mass-killings, it’s difficult to see how, on past form, getting donors to issue yet more empty threats is likely to make any difference at all to the situation. 

Written by Richard Wilson

February 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm

“He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.”

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Here’s Plato’s take on experts, evidence, and evidence of expertise. These words were first written more than 2,000 years ago – it seems both intriguing and perhaps also a bit depressing that they still have so much currency today.

The text below is from a dialogue between Socrates and Gorgias, a well-known ‘sophist’ who made his living from teaching the art of persuasion – aka “rhetoric”. The word ‘sophistry’ is today synonymous with arguments that are superficially plausible, yet nonetheless bogus…

From Plato’s Gorgias

Socrates: …You claim to be able to train up as a rhetorician anyone who’s prepared to listen to your teaching on the subject. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And you’ll teach him all he needs to know to persuade a crowd of people – not to make them understand, but to win them over. Is that right?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: Now you claimed a little while back that a rhetorician would be more persuasive than a doctor even when the issue was health.

Gorgias: Yes I did, as long as he’s speaking in front of a crowd.

Socrates: By ‘in front of a crowd’ you mean ‘in front of non-experts’, don’t you? I mean, a rhetorician wouldn’t be more persuasive than a doctor in front of an audience of experts, of course.

Gorgias: True.

Socrates: Now, if he’s more persuasive than a doctor than he’s more persuasive than an expert, isn’t he?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: When he isn’t actually a doctor himself. Yes?

Gorgias: Yes.

Socrates: And a person who isn’t a doctor is ignorant, of course, about the things which a doctor knows.

Gorgias: Obviously.

Socrates: So any case of a rhetorician being more persuasive than a doctor is a case of a non-expert being more persuasive than an expert in front of an audience of non-experts. Isn’t that what we have to conclude?

Gorgias: Yes, in this instance, anyway.

Socrates: But isn’t a practitioner of rhetoric in the same situation whatever the area of expertise? He never has to know the actual facts of any issue; instead he’s equipped himself with a persuasive ploy which enables him to make non-experts believe he knows more than experts.

Gorgias: Doesn’t that simplify things, Socrates? Rhetoric is the only area of expertise you need to learn. You can ignore all the rest and still get the better of the professionals!

Written by Richard Wilson

February 7, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Amazing work by the 10:23 campaign

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Many long-established campaign groups would struggle to achieve anything like this level of coverage – yet in just a few months the 10:23 campaign has gone from nowhere to getting national exposure several days in a row.

Here’s just one example from the BBC:

Homeopathy sceptics have staged a mass “overdose” of homeopathic remedies, in a bid to prove they have no effect.

Protesters ate whole bottles of tablets at branches of Boots in places such as Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, London, Leicester, Edinburgh and Birmingham.

They have asked the pharmacy chain to stop selling the remedies, which they call “scientifically absurd”.

The Society of Homeopaths called it a “stunt”. Boots said it followed industry guidelines on homeopathy.

From 2005 to 2008 the NHS spent almost £12m on homeopathic treatments, according to a 2009 Freedom Of Information request by Channel 4 News…

The demonstrations were organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS).

Michael Marshall, from the MSS, said: “We believe that they shouldn’t be selling sugar pills to people who are sick. Homeopathy never works any better than a placebo. The remedies are diluted so much that there is nothing in them.”

Mr Marshall said demonstrations were also planned in Canada, Spain, the US and Australia.

The Society of Homeopaths said it did not expect the protesters to suffer any adverse reactions from taking large quantities of the remedies.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 31, 2010 at 9:40 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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Nigerian sceptic Leo Igwe held on trumped up charges

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*UPDATE* – Leo has reportedly now been released on bail, but at the time of writing still has a trumped-up murder charge hanging over him. Full details here.

Nigerian sceptic and humanist leader Leo Igwe was detained this morning, apparently on trumped up charges, and at the behest of a man who stands accused of raping a ten-year-old girl – Leo had been campaigning for justice on the girl’s behalf.

In response to this appeal I phoned the Police who were holding Leo, to ask what the basis was for his detention, and emphasise the international interest and concern around the case. If you would like to support Leo Igwe at this difficult time, this is the appeal from his family:

Leo and his father risk being tortured or murdered in police custody for his role seeking for justice for Ms Daberechi whose parents are very poor and cannot afford two meals in a day not to talk about paying legal charges.

We need to call the Police authorities in Nigeria about the risk of additional international outrage now that this fertile ground of religious bigotry and suppression of justice and human rights has already misled a citizen of ours to suicide in the name of God!

The numbers to call are : AIG Ringin: +2348033225349
PPRO Umuahia: +2347030988278
Com Aloy Okoro: +2348037217361

I am monitoring the situation closely and will report back. But anyone who is able to call will be helpful to scale up the pressure.

When I called the first number on the list and spoke to the police, they denied that Leo was formally under arrest and said that they were simply speaking to him in order to investigate the complaint that had made. They also allowed me to talk to Leo directly. Yet it did seem that Leo had been forcibly detained – he had been visited at his home by a number of men, including several soldiers, who had taken him away to the police station. Leo himself told me that he had, in fact, been arrested.

When I asked Leo what people internationally could do to support him, he emphasised the need to raise awareness both of this case, and the wider campaign of harassment that he and his family have faced over his efforts to secure justice for a young victim of rape.

Leo has reportedly been denied access to a lawyer.

In addition to calling the authorities directly on the numbers above, you can spread the word on Twitter using the hashtag #LeoIgwe, and watch for updates on the case from Alan Henness at Think Humanism.

Written by Richard Wilson

January 5, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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