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English: Tweeting bird, derived from the initi...

English: Tweeting bird, derived from the initial ‘t’ of Twitter Deutsch: Twitschervogel, entwickelt aus dem Anfangs-‘t’ von Twitter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given the great result in the #Twitterjoketrial this morning, and in a continuing effort to republish my articles which have disappeared from the Spectator Arts Blog, here’s what I had to say about the whole thing in November 2010…

I am a crazed demon. That’s right, you heard: a crazed demon. A journalist on a national newspaper says so.

And how do I manifest how crazed and demoniac I am? Do I roam the streets gobbling up children, waving my withered, sulphurous genitals, and committing small but necessary acts of petty vandalism? No. Do I reside inside the head of a young girl forcing her to utter profanities and spew forth a violently-green combination of bile and Cheestrings? No. Do I believe that hospitalised, pregnant women should be shackled in case they feel like running off? No

(Incidentally, Anne Widdecombe has proven the truth of Oscar Wilde’s quip that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire. In her case: sleeping…)

No, I believe that we should treat jokes as, you know, jokes. Unfunny, distasteful, worthless they may be, but jokes they remain.

And, so, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I am a ‘crazed demon’.

This afternoon, we will learn if Paul Chambers, he of the #twitterjoketrial, is going to attempt to have his conviction overturned in the High Court, or whether he has decided to draw a line under the whole affair. Whilst part of me hopes that he decides to do everything he can to overturn his conviction, to correct in court some of the damage done both to him and to the concept of free speech in this country, I shall understand if he chooses to cut his losses.

Paul Chambers has lost two jobs, and been fined £3,000 because he used figurative language to express himself to his friends the way millions of us do every day. The problem was, he did it on Twitter.

For those not familiar with the case, there is a great summary of the events that led up to today from blogger Jack Of Kent (who is now providing pro bono legal advice to Mr Chambers), here. In essence, Mr Chambers was convicted for having, on learning that Doncaster Airport was closed because of snow, sent a tweet that read:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

What should perhaps be most worrying to us, is the assertion of the security services that they cannot distinguish between a flippant remark made to friends, and a serious threat to an airport. The people we trust to deal with the threats of terrorism cannot distinguish between a threat of terrorism, and hyperbole.

Would we trust a dentist who finds it difficult to distinguish between evidence of tooth decay and the music of the Ramones? Would we feel safe in the hands of a surgeon who, just as we go under, says, “Looking at your X-rays you’ve either got a massive tumour or a Ford Capri lodged in your thorax. I’ll fill you with car polish, just to be on the safe side”? Our air traffic controllers hopefully don’t sit, staring at their monitors with a baffled look, going “What are all these crazy moving dots? Obviously some are planes, but what are the others? Poptarts? Angels? The original line-up of Simply Red? We just have no way of knowing!”

Do they really think that terrorists give ‘a week and a bit’s’ warning of their intention to blow up an airport? Does the list of demands usually come down to ‘getting your shit together’? Assuming, of course, that their shit hadn’t been got together, the airport would have been empty, still closed by bad weather; is it usual for terrorists to threaten empty buildings?

No. They don’t do any of those things, and the police and the CPS and the security services know it.

The key point is that, knowing that they would not be able to prosecute Mr Chambers under existing bomb threat or bomb hoax legislation, the CPS discovered s. 127 of the Communications Act 2003. Mr Chambers was not on trial for having issued a credible threat, but for having sent a ‘menacing’ message over a public network.

Had Mr Chambers said the same thing on stage at a comedy gig, he would have had no case to answer. Had he written in in a newspaper or blog (as Charlie Brooker excellently points out here) he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it to his friends in the pub he would have had no case to answer. Had he said it on Mock The Week, The Now Show, or Have I Got News For You he would have had no case to answer. Paul Chambers has a criminal record because he assumed that the rules of public discourse were the same on Twitter as they were in the rest of the country. He was wrong.

Twitter is a strange service. It feels more private than it is. Even though Mr Chambers only had around 60 followers at the time, all of whom were familiar with the ways in which he tweeted, his tweet was publicly visible if you searched for it. Whilst it was intended for the eyes of his friends, it was open to the scrutiny of the world. The District Judge the first time the case was heard suggested that the result would have been different if Mr Chambers had made his comment as an @-reply rather than as a comment on his general timeline.

In 2010, that’s the difference between being a menacing criminal, and someone joking with friends: @

Still, it’s just an isolated and unfortunate example, isn’t it? Except that, ten days ago, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham was arrested under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 for tweeting:

Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”

On the face of it, that’s a particularly unpleasant thing to say about a Muslim woman. However, he didn’t just tweet that. At the end of the tweet was the hashtag ‘#R5L’, indicating that this was a response to his listening to Radio Five Live. Ms Alibhai-Brown was on Radio Five Live at the time, arguing that (I understand, I have not heard the original segment) the fact that women were stoned to death in a country didn’t give us an imprimatur to invade. After all, she argued, the hands of The West are hardly morally spotless.

Mr Compton’s comment above, then, in context, becomes a spirited response from someone engaging her arguments, rather than a personal threat. The thrust is that Ms Alibhai-Brown can only be so dismissive of stoning women because she lives in a culture that doesn’t stone women. It’s common right-wing pablum – You’re only allowed your liberal lefty opinions because you live in a civilised country, civilised at least in part because there were people willing to bomb Dresden for that privilege – dressed up in a pithy way for the 140-character audience.

It’s not an incitement to stone to death a leading light of the commenterati. Not, that is, until you strip it of all context, of all meaning, and presume to be able to deduce intent from its literal meaning.

The British public prides itself on its sense of humour. The British establishment is apparently unable to spot a joke when it sees one, even when that joke comes with a helpful hashtag explaining what it is in reference to.

The Daily Mail (and one week I really will go through a whole article without mentioning them) recently ran a story suggesting that gingerbread men were being advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ in Lancashire schools (there’s a good rundown of the story at Five Chinese Crackers) because of ‘political correctness gone mad’. Of course, what had actually happened was that someone, playing on a sense of ‘PC-gone-mad’ wrote the menus with a joke in.

You can tell it’s a joke because they were advertised as ‘gingerbread persons’ and not ‘gingerbread people’. It’s (moderately) funny. Or a threat to our great British way of life. Whatever.

I suspect that we’re losing our sense of humour because the culture of the last ten years, has been deliberately humourless. We used to be able to distinguish figurative language from literal. No one really expected Denis Healey to go around grabbing rich people and squeezing them until the pips squeaked. Where would that have left the Queen, who, as a woman, doesn’t even have pips? No, the thought of Denis Healey grasping Her Royal Highness in a half nelson, wrestling her to the floor, and compressing her ribcage in the hopes of hearing things she didn’t have make a noise they wouldn’t make never occurred to anyone. Until just now.

This is the age of ‘You are either with us or with the terrorists.’ There is no room for nuance, and those who seek distinctions between what similar things actually mean, those who question whether Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party were actually comparable, those who look for subtleties are helping the enemy. We are at war with monstrous theocrats and that is all ye need to know.

Everything must be judged in the simplest possible terms. To admit doubt, to suggest that meaning varies based on context is a heresy. The world is divided into good people and evil people, and to see shades of grey is giving the evil people a free pass.

A lot of comments on the Paul Chambers case have stated variations on the fact that ‘in the current security climate’ you shouldn’t even risk making jokes, or speaking figuratively about terrorism. Which would make a little more sense if they were saying it on July 8th 2005. They’re not. And we should ask when ‘the current climate’ is likely to end. There has been a half a decade since the last successful terrorist attack on mainland Britain. When are we allowed to tell jokes about it again?

Between 1982 and 1996, there were nine bombs in mainland Britain, set off by variants on the IRA. Why must we feel more threatened now, why should we curtail our liberties more now than we ever did then?

Do these commenters actually believe that Messrs Chambers and Compton were actually threatening anyone? On the whole, no, but they believe that the state has a duty to punish ‘silly’ behaviour, just to show it is serious about keeping us safe. We like to see examples made of people who aren’t taking the whole thing seriously because we are afraid. We like the police to step in when someone says something that upsets us.

Christianity used to be offered specific protections under the blasphemy laws. To correct that egregious state of affairs, did New Labour get rid of the blasphemy laws? No. It introduced the Religious Hatred Act 2006, which put all other religions on the same legal footing. Now all religions, even Jedi, which is recognised as an ’emerging religion’ following a concerted campaign in the 2001 census, are offered the same protection against people saying things they don’t like. If I foment hatred against the Jedi, I am committing a crime. Even if I am a Sith, and mandated to hunt the Jedi across the galaxy and exterminate them by my religious beliefs.

We have become a nation of Ayatollahs, howling for state reprisals every time someone says something we think we don’t like. We are just as happy to see the world in black and white. We are just as happy to rip things out of context, and present them (sometimes with extra things added, like they did to the Danish cartoons) as things that are insupportable.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has decided not to press charges against Mr Compton, but still opines that those of us who think that s.127 (designed originally to protect female telephone operators from menacing phone calls in the 1930s) and its application in the last few months have been an affront to civilised society are ‘crazed demons’.

Of course, if doesn’t matter that she isn’t pressing charges, as it is up to the CPS to decide whether or not there is a case to answer. It’s not reliant on her. Mr Compton may still face trial, but Ms Alibhai-Brown has at least had the good grace to wash her hands of it.

(This sort of not-quite-liberal liberalism was again on display with Ed Balls this week. He was cheered on by various left-wing bloggers as “accepting the importance of civil liberties” while still arguing that the state should be able to hold terror suspects for 14 days without charge. If he actually accepted the importance of civil liberties he should be suggesting that it should be 0 days.)

We are in a fight with a murderous ideology that wants to curtail our way of life and strip humanity of any joy and colour and subversion and humour. In fact, we are in a fight with two: Islamism and neoconservatism.

Benjamin Franklin said:

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

We’re doing something far worse. We’re giving up our sense of humour.

Great work, monarchists! Your desperation for a celebration hospitalised a 91-year old man, but don’t feel bad about it. So you’re desperate to see senior citizens float up and down on a golden boat in the drizzle to the point that one of them becomes seriously ill? That doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t hurt anyone. Except the people with bladder infections.

Because I’m going to take you at your word. I’m going to accept that being monarch is a hard, thankless task, requiring immense skill and boundless energy. Why then, in the name of all that is human, do you insist on its being foisted on people who never asked for it?

Is it good, is it decent, is it human to demand that we impose soul-crushing duties on any person who hasn’t explicitly asked for it? That’s the system you’re championing. Enforced, endless servitude until the day they die.

Because that’s what you want on your stamps.

I’m more than happy to give my opinions on whether there should be a Queen. You’re quick to add hashtags to give yours. You know whose opinion is never asked? The Queen’s.

As ever, Jake Yapp put all of this much better than I could in an interview with Elizabeth Peacock (1:46 of audio):

And that’s what you’re reduced to. “Is it fair to force someone to do a job they cannot leave because you want to be a subject rather than a citizen?” “Why not?”

I wonder what the Queen wanted to be when she grew up.

Because there’s no way out of the job. You don’t get to give it up except by an extraordinary act of Parliament. Or by being kept in Pontefract Castle until you’re so delirious with hunger that you sign the Crown over to your cousin. Fewer people have managed to get out of the job than there are fingers on your left hand. (Unless you are missing more than one finger on your left hand) Of them, one was starved to death, one executed, and one chased to France. The other was sent to the Bahamas for being “well-known to be pro-Nazi” [Lord Caldecote to Winston Churchill]. But let’s not spoil a lovely weekend by bringing all that up…

If you wish to see a woman in her ninth decade soaked by cold, Thames drizzle so that you get an excuse to wave a flag, fine. If you don’t care that the succession meant that Charles couldn’t marry the woman he loved, fine. If you have no concern over the fact that Edward must just look at himself each morning in the mirror and weep blood, good for you. Don’t pretend, however, it doesn’t make you a dick.

We must abolish the monarchy now. For their own good.

So, the DCMS Select Committee report on phone hacking came out today.

Of particular interest is paragraph 228, which reads:

228. Rupert Murdoch told this Committee that his alleged lack of oversight of News International and the News of the World was due to it being “less than 1% of our company”.306 This self-portrayal, however, as a hands-off proprietor is entirely at odds with numerous other accounts, including those of previous editors and from Rebekah Brooks, who told us she spoke to Rupert Murdoch regularly and ‘on average, every other day’. It was, indeed, we consider, a misleading account of his involvement and influence with his newspapers.

Which seems pretty clear. Rupert Murdoch gave “a misleading account of his involvement and influence with his newspapers.” Now, I’m no lawyer, but it seems that if you ‘give a misleading account’ to a Select Committee of Parliament then you are, in effect, ‘misleading’ that Committee.

In the conclusions, however, this isn’t taken up again. Paragraph 275, says that Les Hinton misled the Committee, Tom Crone misled the Committee, Tom Crone & Colin Myler misled the Committee, and that the News Of The World and News International as a whole misled the Committee, wilfully blinding themselves to internal evidence for which the companies’ directors—including Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch—should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”. So Rupert and James Murdoch wilfully blinded themselves to instances in which their company misled the Committee.

On the accusation that James Murdoch had misled the Committee over the ‘for Neville’ email, or whether Tom Crone and Colin Myler did (as their stories were incompatible), the Committee “simply cannot adjudicate with confidence either way.” (para. 161) So, either James Murdoch misled the Committee or Tom Crone and Colin Myler did (again), but the Committee has no way of determining which is true.

All of which seems pretty clear. Rupert ‘gave a misleading account’, Rupert and James presided over an organisation that misled the Committee, James may have misled the Committee, but they cannot be sure either way.

Got that? Good.

Because, apparently Louise Mensch didn’t.

Or, rather, she did at first, but then she forgot. During the press conference presenting the report she said :

Every one of us [Conservative members of the Committee] while we share different views about the culpability of News Corporation, and the degree of culpability of James Murdoch in particular… [emphasis mine]

Again, pretty clear. At least some of the Conservative members of the Committee felt that James Murdoch was at least partially culpable.

However, within seconds, she appears to have forgotten that entirely, appearing on Sky News saying, when asked about whether James or Rupert Murdoch had misled the Committee:

As far as that is concerned, they are in the clear.

Well, they are in the clear in as far as it looks unlikely that the Committee will call for any Parliamentary sanction. The report, however, goes nowhere near absolving them of having misled Parliament.

It says one definitely gave ‘a misleading account’, they are both responsible for an organisation that persistently misled the Committee, and that they had no way of discerning whether the other misled the Committee in his evidence, but that they found his story ‘astonishing’ and ‘surprising’. This is not the clean bill of health Louise Mensch would have you believe.

Later, on Twitter, she was at it again. When asked why she hadn’t supported the report, she said:

we hadn’t heard one iota of evidence re fitness or otherwise; he didn’t lie to us; is outside SC remit. 3 good reasons.

You’ll see that she recasts ‘misleading’ as the slightly stronger ‘lying’ as she did in the press conference when she demanded that Parliament clarify its procedures for ‘people who lie to Parliament’.

“He didn’t lie to us.” Perhaps, but he did give you a misleading account, and oversee and organisation that misled you an a wide scale. And you all find the story of the Murdochs’ ignorance ‘astonishing’.

Louise Mensch may well just not understand paragraph 228 of the report. She may be angling for a ministerial post. She may just be shilling for the rich and powerful. Or she may be doing all three.

What she is not doing is being open and honest about the findings of the report. Indeed, she seems to be trying to distract from its content, by saying it’s ‘fatally flawed’ because she disagrees with one sentence.

If her line is “No one is accusing Rupert Murdoch of misleading Parliament”, then that’s simply not true. Her Committee is. In its report. In paragraph 228.

The only thing that’s fatally flawed here is Mensch’s integrity.

English: Nye Bevan in Cardiff Queen Street The...

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It’s weird that the government don’t have any, you know, facts and figures about the kinds of reforms it’s trying to introduce now. You know, the sorts there must be loads of, to show how much better it would be. The sort you’d want before undertaking a thorough restructuring of the whole system.

Surely there must be some sort of evidence from the last time an internal market was introduced (in an limited form) in 1991. Surely…

Oh wait! There is! Popper, Burgess & Gossage’s 2003 paper: Competition and Quality: Evidence from the NHS Internal Market 1991-1999.

Brilliant! This should put my mind at ease…

“We find the impact of competition is to reduce quality. Hospitals… in more competitive areas have higher death rates.”

…. Oh. Never mind, sure there’s some good news later…

“Death rates were higher in competitive areas in most years between 1992 and 1999.”

Really? But still, everyone’s living longer anyway, right?

“[T]he negative impact of competition in the more competitive areas more than offsets the positive impact of technological change.”

Oh poo. Please, please, please #savethenhs…

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This whole article is a parody of this. If you haven’t read the horrible Rod Liddle piece, you probably won’t get this.

My New Year’s resolution for 2012 was to become a bigot.

Nothing too bigotty: a light moment of racism posing as ‘political incorrectness’ on national TV; working myself into a really frothing high dudgeon at the idea of the poor once a week; or that newly-invented bigotry: hatred of the disabled.

There’s lots of money to be made from being a bigot. If you can reliably work the readers of a tabloid into a lather with a mixture of baseless opinion and made-up statistics, the editors will literally chuck money at you until you can afford to go and live in Florida like Littlejohn.

And it is far easier to be a bigot than it ever was. It used to be thought of as bad form to cultivate outright hatred of the disabled. It was felt that you had an unfair advantage because they were, well, disabled. Nowadays, however, with the imprimatur of the government you no longer have to be ashamed about kicking people’s crutches away. After all, what are their crutches but a crutch? Thanks, Lib Dems!

And being a bigot is incredibly fashionable: from Clarkson to Littlejohn, from Jeremies Kyle through Vine, the airwaves are dominated by men in middle age who are desperate to find someone to blame for their thinning hair and thickening waistlines. Impotent? That will the fault of the gyppoes at Dale Farm! Sense of malaise at having done nothing with your life? It’s probably the fault of the spendthrift Labour government. With every follicle that closes our moral certainty increases.

The world is shit. And it’s everyone else’s fault.

And who can blame us? Not you lot. Every time we find a new scapegoat, you all get to put the boot in, too. As long as we cultivate an air of national nastiness, in which there’s no problem that can’t be solved by puking hot bile at it, you can all vent your frustrations, too. Just realised that the mortgage payment will bounce? That’s the fault of a feral youth.

The latest figures about bigotry came out this week. They suggest that 50% of those writing deliberately provocative, ill-informed, poorly-constructed opinion pieces in the tabloids are actually fit for proper work.  Some of us don’t believe a word of what we’ve been paid to say, and yet we churn it out, day after tedious day. Some have been doing it for more than a decade.

But when you suggest that these people are nothing more than loathsome pondslime you get accused of victimising the mentally infirm.

Well, I’m not. I’m victimising the morally infirm.

Or at least, I’m trying to. But it will probably go in one ear and out of the other. Like the imaginary bullets Melanie Phillips dreams of firing into the heads of gay Islamicists from the BBC.

The Right-wingers will say, hey you fat old fag-enabler, more money is spent on Jobseekers’ Allowance than is spent on maintaining out eight or nine top bigoted columnists. To which I say: not by much.

But that doesn’t make being an awful, twisted bigot; a festering, crapulent, pustule of a person, who has a picture in the attic of someone who gave up long ago and hanged themselves in despair; a monstrous toad who fell into a bucket full of wet lips okay, does it?

That’s like saying we shouldn’t get worked up about people being cautioned by the police for the common assault of a pregnant woman because murder is much worse.

It’s a silly argument.

More than anything, though, those posing as bigots just to get their tabloid-assured moment in the sun, and the odd appearance on Celebrity Come Dine With Me are doing a disservice to those who really need our help: the actual bigots. Rather than directing our expressions of concern, and warmth, and facts to those who could really use them, we end up shouting at Rod Liddle. So nobody wins. Except Rod Liddle.

It has been easier to pose as a bigot ever since tabloids started espousing positions through their own self-interest that would previously only have been held by unspeakable turds: in favour of torture, against human rights, in favour of turning our backs on refugees, the idea that disabled people are disabled through some fault of their own, demonisation of the poor.

I think we should all pretend to be bigots for a month, and… No, hang on. That’s a horrible idea. A stupid idea.

Let’s not, eh? Let’s really not. Instead, let’s not be bigots at all for a while. The next time you hear the news, or the government, or a neighbour saying something that is clearly intended just to get you blaming someone else for your problems, why don’t we all have a cup of tea? Or a sit down? Or a ponder of the ways in which we’re culpable for making other people’s lives miserable.

Tell you what, let’s all pretend not to be bigots for a month. Or a year? Who knows, we might discover we’re not actually bigots after all…

Paddy Ashdown

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I’ve never had anything against Paddy Ashdown. I’ve always thought of him as a sort of genial, auburn raisin in camouflage gear, crinkling with amusement (or outrage) on Question Time, and occasionally being wheeled out at conference time so that young Lib Dems can come and dip their fingers in his facial crags and dream of hung parliaments.

No, I never had anything against Lord Ashdown until he piped up in the Lords debate over the Owen / Hennessy amendment on the Health And Social Care Bill yesterday. The amendment argued that the bill was such a drastic alteration to the way in which the NHS functioned that parts of it should be examined closely by a special committee. At a crucial moment as the amendment was coming to a vote, Lord Ashdown sputtered into life:

“If it must be considered in a committee,” he railed, looking for all the world like a squared-off orangutan scrotum in an ill-fitting suit, “What on earth is our function?”

Well, quite.

What is the function of the House of Lords? Except as an affront to the very idea of democracy. It somehow manages to be the least-democratic of the Houses of Parliament, which is saying quite something. (For the record: No, I don’t think a minority of swing voters in marginal constituencies deciding the government of the country for everyone else twice a decade is what Aristotle was thinking of when he talked about democracy. Had he any idea how close to oligarchy and aristocracy it could look, he might not have been so set against the idea of government by the people.)

Really, would someone like to explain what the function of the House of Lords is?

It’s not even like it’s a bulwark of tradition, because those peers who do not have to worry about the shifting winds of political opinion, the hereditary peers, have mostly been ditched. What’s left are those who could suck up to a government enough to be made a life peer.

Yesterday’s vote was defeated by 68 votes. There have been 100 new Conservative peers created since the election. David Cameron, has appointed more peers more quickly than any other Prime Minister in history, so much so that the chamber gets too full to accommodate them all. And their colostomy bags.

The Coalition pledged to reform the House of Lords, presumably by stuffing it to bursting point with placemen and placewomen, so that it would reform in much the way that ‘reclaimed meat’ does. They will become one, immense, dense, Spam of a House, issuing edicts from above. Lordzilla, filling her egg chamber – sorry, debating chamber – almost entirely, feasting on Manuka honey and stoat-corpses. Sometimes, if you peer closely, you’ll see the face of Shirley Williams or Floella Benjamin stuck just underneath the surface, screaming silently.

The other view you hear is that their greater life experience allows peers to take a more balanced, nuanced look at legislation.  Lord Hunt of Wirral, who introduced the Health and Social Care Bill into the Lords, is an exec director of Beachcroft, which advises many private health companies. Indeed, as reported in The Mirror, in a brochure advertising their lobbying services for private healthcare firms, Beachroft says “In David Hunt and Charles Clarke, Beachcroft has two former senior Cabinet ministers with unrivalled knowledge of the workings of ­Westminster.” In all, 40 peers have financial interests with private healthcare firms. Thank goodness their outside interests allow them to take a dispassionate look at legislation.

The other argument one hears is that the Lords serve as a corrective and a hindrance to The Commons.  Unfortunately, it’s not true.

As we saw time and time again throughout Labour’s period in government, the Lords were more than happy to wave through the Terorrism Act of 2000, or the one that followed not a year later, the Identity Cards Act of 2006. No assault on our civil liberties was too egregious to rouse the Lords from the slumber.

Well almost none. The one time in living memory the Lords have actually behaved in the way the Lords are nominally meant to behave was over, wait for it, fox hunting! What is it that can actually generate enough fury in the Lords to get them to send a bill back repeatedly? The right to have one animal tear another apart! And not because they are outraged by it, but because they support it.

The Lords is a profoundly undemocratic institution. The only argument for their continued existence is that they actually, on occasion, act as such. If there is a role for the Lords, it must be to represent those interests which are not represented by the majority party in the House of Commons, or at least to ensure that their rights are not abridged. It must behave like the undemocratic institution it is, if it is to have a purpose at all.

Or is it really just to provide a comfortable retirement home for Olympians and the principals of Oxbridge colleges?

One of the arguments used by the government every time it tries to get rid of the right to jury trials (oh, that’s right, they did! With the Criminal Justice Act 2003! Did the Lords do anything about it? Um…) is that juries sometimes return ‘perverse verdicts’. The argument runs that because juries decide that , despite the law, someone should or should not be considered guilty of an offence, they should be phased out.

But that is the point of a jury.

If justice were best served by the constant and consistent application of the law as written, then there would be no need for juries. Juries are there to look beyond the law and at the individual details of a case. They are there as reasonable, normal members of the community to make a determination as to whatever is just, in spite of the law when necessary. Because the law is a blunt instrument, it doesn’t fit all cases equally well, and the best system we have is to get a group of people together to discuss the case at a human level and come to a decision. Perverse verdicts aren’t a weakness but a strength of jury trials.

And the same goes for the Lords. If they aren’t perverse, they are pointless. And as we have seen, they are unwilling to be perverse. They are an ‘upper’ chamber in thrall to those in the ‘lower’ who appointed them. They are a bizarre anachronism, an insult to all thinking people, and every day they form part of our government is another day away from us ever achieving anything like democracy.

In answer to your question, Lord Ashdown:

Nothing. Now, piss off.

ZST's grandfather

John Rose Battley, MP for Clapham 1945 - 1950

John Rose Battley was never a well man. As a conscientious objector in the First World War, he was sentenced to work in a market garden. On a cold day in February, whilst he was putting 2,000 cauliflowers under cloches, he noticed that his toes were turning black. Despite having never been to the trenches, John Battley was getting trench foot.

With his brother, he started his own printing firm in 1897, working out of a room above their father’s shop. He built the business up, it survived his brother leaving, its proprietor not being able to work at it during the First World War, the Great Depression and at least one extended nervous breakdown, which lasted many months in 1933. That printing firm, although its name has changed, is still around today.

Battley was in his 50s by the time he married in 1933, and that seemed to redouble his activity. He was already an active member of his church and local choir, a leading light of the Temperance Society and the Rotary Club, and in 1938 he was elected to the London County Council, as a Labour member for Clapham.

During the war he worked on the Housing Committee on the LCC, even as his own house was bombed in the V1 attacks. In 1945 he stood for parliament, and became the first ever Labour MP for Clapham. He wasn’t a vocal MP. Although he made notes, he never made a speech in the House of Commons, but he was an ardent worker on behalf of his constituents. He voted with the government most of the time, the only exception being the National Service Act. 30 years after his pacifism had forced him to give up his business, he still believed that no Christian should ever have to (or, indeed, could) perform military service, and so he rebelled against the government once, in 1947.

Whilst he was an MP he also stayed on as a member of the LCC, an active Rotarian, church member, choir member, and managing director of his own business. By 1950 the stresses had got the better of him, and he did not stand for re-election. Indeed, he had another breakdown shortly thereafter, and stayed in a hospital until he died in 1952.

Without knowing it, on 5th July 1948 this quiet, dedicated man saved the life of his grand-daughter and great grand-daughter, neither of whom he was ever to meet.

By voting for the National Health Act, John Battley made sure that when, almost 60 years later, 29 hours into labour, his great grand-daughter – my daughter – Eleanor decided to get into severe distress as she tried to enter the world sideways, her life was saved. Both she and Zoe, Zoe Battley, received the instant care of two paediatricians, two midwives, and at least three nurses (I lost count, I was busy worrying, and wondering if I could sneak out with the gas and air canister).

Over the 34 hours that labour took we had (I say we, Zoe selfishly used most of the drugs herself): heart monitors, midwives, gas and air, an epidural, a room to ourselves, three trips to the maternity ward (three painful trips home), a ventouse (don’t ask), synthetic hormones that accelerate contractions, pethedine for slowing contractions right down. And in between all of the worry about how much pain my wife was in, whether or not I’d packed any of the right things, whether I was going to be a good dad, or, as things got more serious, whether I was going to get to be one at all, the one thing I never had to worry about was how much the whole thing was going to cost. As a self-employed comedian of variable success, I didn’t have to worry whether or not I could afford the things and people that kept my wife an child alive.

St Thomas' Hospital, almost eclipsed by a plump twat

Behind me is the hospital in which my wife was born, picture by Tiernan Douieb

Some people, of course, will argue that this presents a moral hazard. If I am never aware of the costs of treatment, I won’t behave in a way that avoids unnecessary treatments; that health care free at the point of delivery encourages poor decision-making. What that means in this situation I’m not sure I understand. Perhaps I should have impregnated my wife with a more sensible-sperm, which would have seen the birth canal as an opportunity for emerging normally rather than doing somersaults. Perhaps I should have severed the nerves in Zoe’s spinal cord myself as the contractions started, because epidurals don’t grow on trees. Perhaps I should have had to choose which of the two, my wife or my daughter, we could actually afford to treat. Perhaps that would have taught me not to be so feckless. Doesn’t take more than a funeral or two before people start making better life choices, right?

62% of bankruptcies in the USA are down to health care bills. People lose their houses because they get ill. And they aren’t uninsured people. 78% of those people had insurance. Insurance that didn’t, actually, insure them in any meaningful way at all.

It will confuse some people, I know, that someone so vehemently anti-government, a left-libertarian, someone who some days – whisper it – is probably an anarchist should have gone onto a bridge to defend a monopolistic state health provider. Those people are confused as to what Andrew Lansley’s Health & Social Care Bill is. The choice isn’t between a state provider and a free market. The choice is between a state provider of health run for the general welfare of the people it serves, or a state monopoly provider of health that is run to best produce profits for private healthcare companies. It would be bizarre to bemoan politicians plundering the public purse, but to cheer when corporations do it.

I’m not saying Andrew Lansley is a shill for private healthcare companies. That’s his wife’s job. I’m not saying that the £21,000 he received from John Nash, chairman of Care UK and founder of Sovereign Capital which owns several private healthcare companies would have in any way influenced his opinions on the issue of whether private companies should be able to profit at the expense of the NHS. I’m not saying it. But he is. In a speech in 2005, he said: “Demanding uniformity will negate the benefits of competition. How can competition work, whether on prices or quality, if it does not lead to variation and divergent outcomes?” Or, in other words, different people will get different levels of treatment under the NHS, otherwise competition would not work. His vision is an ideological one in which ‘competition’, rather than the needs of patients, is paramount.

And this isn’t a move towards a free market, or towards real competition. It is simply a move that allows private companies to cherry-pick profitable services. Services that are already provided. There is no guarantee that they will provide them better (the responsibility for the Health Service is to be turned over to a quango who are not answerable to Parliament, so out politicans can’t be to blame for however bad it gets in the future), the only guarantee is that money that once would have flowed through the NHS will now flow to shareholders in private health companies. Because ‘competition’ is the aim, not patient welfare.

This is pure kleptocracy. Assets that have been built with the public purse, maintained at the taxpayers’ expense, are to be auctioned off. And what’s worse, private health care companies aren’t even going to have to act like, you know, businesses to get in on the act. They won’t be competing in any meaningful sense, under the umbrella of the NHS, they will simply be pocketing our cash without having to guarantee standards in the way the NHS currently does.

The fact that the local health authority sees no conflict of interest for the practice in Yorkshire that recently started charging for minor skin surgeries highlights the bizarre situations that we must nod through in the name of ‘competition’. The fact that the same GPs at the same surgery will be in charge of deciding if funds are spent on a procedure, and in charge of performing the same procedure privately if they decide it isn’t is outrageous. That’s a moral hazard. You can tell, because it contains a moral element. Eating too many chips is not.

And don’t let them tell you these are cuts. That we need to make these cuts. This plan makes the NHS more expensive. It will cost £1.2 billion more to implement these changes than to not do it, and there are no cost savings at the other end. So we will end up with a service closer to France’s or America’s in that it will cost much more than the one we have at the moment.

And what is so clearly, arse-breakingly frustrating about the whole thing is that it received any Lib Dem support at all in the House of Commons. It’s like they don’t remember the clause in the Coalition Agreement, the line in the sand which, if crossed, would lead to the dissolution of the Coalition, the one about “no more top down reorganisations of the NHS”. Of course, by the time the policy documents for the Coalition emerged a couple of weeks later it was hedged with many qualifiers. The Lib Dems cannot have any serious claim to be a restraining influence on the Tories if they roll over at the disembowelling of one of the nation’s most loved institutions.

And fuck the Labour Party, too. A supine, spineless, useless thin drizzle of urine that leaks down your face and calls itself champagne. Without the NHS reforms of 2000 and 2008, this Bill would have been impossible. As it is, it is only an extension of the ‘competition’ ethos introduced into the NHS by none other than Tony Blair. You remember, it was when he was telling us that anyone who objected was a ‘force of conservatism’ and that he had ‘no reverse gear’. Vehicles without reverse gears are terrible vehicles, Tony. Most people buy ones which have reverse gears. (Oh, and equally, George Osborne, Plan Bs are a good thing. Doing contingency planning is just sensible, yes? God, I hate them all…)

The ground was prepared for all of this by the Labour Party. They put the ideological argument for it years ago. Some might rail against this now, but what are they doing about it? Sally Bercow accidentally ended up at #blockthebridge because she was having a walk with her children. I saw John McDonnell there, but no other Labour MPs. They are a disgrace, and I’d suggest that they hang their tiny heads in shame, although it’s quite clear they have none.

My agent's office is in that building now. Hello, Corrie!

Me, in front of the LCC building, picture by Sunny Handal

And so I was proud to stand on that bridge. Proud to stand between what used to be the LCC building, and the Houses of Parliament. Proud to stand with a couple of thousand people in front of St Thomas Hospital, where Zoe was born. Proud to speak to, and on behalf of people who believed in a better future.

So, it’s too late to lobby your MP now. It’s too late to have come down on Sunday (you missed Josie Long, Mark Thomas, Nick Revell, Chris Coltrane, Tiernan Douieb, Grace Petrie, Lisa Egan and Nadia Kamil. You are a fool.) It’s too late to adopt a peer, although you could try faxing them something this morning. In a few hours we will know one way or another, whether or not John Battley’s printing business will outlast the greatest achievement of the 1945 Labour government.

The one thing you could do, right now, stop reading and do it, is to sign this petition. 115,000 people did it yesterday, but it’s not enough. Sign it, send it to your friends, tweet about it, talk about it on Facebook, argue with Tories about it (not that I’ve met a single real-life Tory who thinks it’s a good idea). For these last few hours, write and jump up and down and do whatever you can to make a noise about this. The only thing that might sway the crossbench lords (and don’t think I don’t find it utterly galling to have to go grovelling to someone who earned their place in the legislature by popping out of the right mimsy) is if they are left in no doubt that hundreds of thousands, millions of people are angry, worried, dismayed by this.

John Rose Battley was never a well man, but he left behind him something to take care of us all. Let’s do our bit to take care of it for the next couple of hours.

David Starkey circa 1980.

Image via Wikipedia

It’s been a bizarre few days. On Question Time we saw a nation agonising over the materialistic, greedy, celebrity-obsessed culture of its youth turn to Brian Paddick for answers. That’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and Celebrity Come Dine With Me contestant Brian Paddick.

Lots of commentators have weighed in on the mixed messages the police have been getting since the deaths of Ian Tomlinson and Jean Charles de Menezes. Because, you know, it’s simply unrealistic to expect police not to beat innocent people until their hearts give out or shoot them in the head and at the same time still expect them to actually intervene to stop people visibly stealing things from shops. Until someone finds a way of distinguishing people who are committing a crime from people who aren’t committing a crime we should just let the police beat everyone, just to be on the safe side.

And last night, on Newsnight, an eminent historian approvingly (but in a qualified fashion) cited Enoch Powell‘s “Rivers of Blood” speech, and said that the problem with the country was “whites acting like blacks”. You can see the whole incident here, it takes ten minutes but it’s well worth seeing in context:

What’s most shocking about the whole thing isn’t his constant conflation of ‘black’ with ‘black culture’ with ‘a particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture’. It’s not the part where he asserts that if you closed your eyes you would think David Lammy was white. It’s not even his bizarre reading of a text message, righteous contempt dripping off every emoticon he attempts to pronounce.

No, what’s most shocking is that the quality of our history teaching has become so debased, and the basic standard of our historical knowledge is so poor that Starkey can arrive unprepared and behave like a lazy undergraduate trying to derail a tutorial because they haven’t done their homework.

I say that as someone who was once an exceedingly lazy undergraduate who almost never did their homework.

It works like this.

1) You arrive at the tutorial having only read one thing from the reading list and having picked one incident from what you read.

2) You then say the most shocking and counterintuitive thing you can about your incident at the beginning of the tutorial and then, like a mastiff with a hare, or Niall Ferguson with a toddler, you grip and shake and worry at that one thing you know until you have drained it of all interest and meaning.

3) The incident you choose should be sufficiently obscure that if you pontificate about it loudly enough people will assume you know more about it than they do.

4) In order to spin this out for a whole tutorial you must at least know one picturesque fact, which you can describe and analyse in detail (in Starkey’s case the teenager’s text, or the woman putting on shoes outside the shop) and have one quotation you can give at length and in full (like Starkey’s paraphrase of Enoch Powell).

5) Every time anyone tries to widen the discussion, you must bring it back to the few pungent facts you have at your disposal.

6) That’s it.

For instance, I once got through a whole tutorial about Richard II knowing little more than the fact that Thomas of Woodstock, his uncle, had burst into the child king’s bedroom during the Appellants’ Crisis.

Every time anything was mentioned, I would bring it back to the impact having an uncle burst into your bedroom threatening violence must have on a child. I blamed everything that happened from 1377 – 1395 (when I had stopped reading) on that one incident, even though most of them happened before it.

I left without learning anything more about Richard II, but having successfully concealed my ignorance for another week. I didn’t even know Richard was deposed until I was doing my one bit of reading for the Henry IV tutorial the next week.

And that tactic was followed almost to the letter by David Starkey last night. I’m not saying he’s lazy. He might be incredibly hard working but rather dim.

He starts by grabbing our attention with Enoch Powell, a bogey man we all know about but few of us have read. We are soothed into listening by delightful phrases like ‘lambent flames’. And then he delights us by implying that Powell was wrong: the violence that was coming was not between races but between…

And this is where he falters. He is not as nimble as he thinks he is. The obvious way out of his bind would be to revert to a class analysis, but this is anathema to an old Tory like him. So he stretches: it’s not a clash of races, it’s not a clash of classes, it’s a clash of cultures.

And suddenly he’s no longer on thin ice, he’s not even on ice at all. His legs whirl beneath him, desperately trying to execute the intellectual pirouette he envisions, but he is simply splashing at the murky water below him. There is nothing for him to get traction on because he hasn’t thought very deeply about cultures at all, so he’s left pedalling the in air like an aquatic Wile E. Coyote, desperately churning the mixed metaphor below him.

For while there is very much a sense in which a “violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture” is involved with our social problems, he will not, cannot accept that that is a culture that is widespread. His allegiances won’t let him see this ‘shopping with violence’ as a radical outcropping of Thatcherism. He’s trying to skip through fields of thought-experiments, but he is hobbled by his own adherence to ideology.

So he shorthands “violent gang culture” to “rap culture” to “black culture” to “black” and uses them interchangeably. He has the kernel of an interesting, nuanced analysis, and about new cross-racial youth cultures but it is crippled by his inability to put it into words. He’s so eager to shock with how transgressive his thoughts are that he fails to give them any, you know, thought.

In Salford, most of the rioters I saw were white. The one they interviewed on the news said he was rioting to protest against the Polish taking jobs. Starkey’s argument runs. This was a special kind of riot, a ‘shopping with violence’, concentrated on looting. White people don’t loot. White people did loot. What was the factor that made white people loot? Black culture. Or, to qualify it as he does a couple of times: ‘black male culture’. The circularity of the argument and its implicit assumptions are clear.

It’s so self-contradictory that the high priest of personal responsibility ends up blaming a whole race for the people of another race who burned down buildings.

White people don’t loot. How do we know this? We must take it on faith because David Starkey, eminent historian, states it to be true. Does he give evidence? No.

In Starkey’s world, those who trashed the Savoy Palace during the Peasants’ Revolt all did so because they were outraged about the legal status of serfs, were angered by wage laws that failed to reflect the new reality of the scarcity of labour since the Black Death, and a growing anti-clericalism that would result in Lollardy. Not the chance to get their hands on some of John of Gaunt’s golden candlesticks.

Except, of course, we’ve got evidence that that wasn’t the case at all. The leaders of the riot were very careful to tell no one to loot, they didn’t want to be seen as thieves, and they ground up the jewels and plate they found before throwing them into the river.

Except they had to throw a man in as well, who was found to be hiding bits of silver plate to hang onto for himself.

Or the cellar full of people who were helping themselves to the Duke of Lancaster’s wine when the roof fell in on them, killing them all.

I wonder if Starkey would have been more astounded or less at the sight of them guzzling away on stolen wine than he was by the woman who tried on a pair of trainers. They weren’t even bothering to flee the scene, so sure were they that there would be no repercussions.

Perhaps the moment when he gets himself into most trouble in his attempts to rule out a class analysis for his cultural one, is when he finds himself saying “If you were listening to him [David Lammy] on radio, you would think he was white.”

Bound up in this is clearly the assumption that to speak respectably, is to speak ‘white’. It’s indefensible, even Toby Young’s defence throws its hands up in the air at that point, just saying “He didn’t mean it like that.” Like there is another way to mean it.

(Oh, and yes Toby, Starkey was doing little more than parrotting the received wisdom, he also showed the racist conceptual underpinnings of the received wisdom.)

Accent is clearly an identifying feature, but what it identifies, usually, is class. Not race. Accent is stratified by schooling, employment, the people with whom you spend your time. Even those assumptions will lead to shake and frequently wrong conclusions.

And why would you even turn the screen of your television off anyway? Should we be outraged that the purveyors of radio are all depriving us of the information we need to make important snap judgements about people?

The real tragedy is not that David Starkey is ill-informed about certain subcultures and has a tendency to make generalisations based on race, but that he is allowed on television at all. His ill-informed, unprepared contrarianism is both misleading and tiresome.

I enjoy his waspish uncle persona, but it is a travesty that our one remaining television historian – the one who hasn’t decamped to the US – is more Teddy Taylor than AJP Taylor, more anal than Annales, more Ben Elton than G.R. Elton.

It is a tragedy that our national debate is so debased that starkey enjoys his position as sharp-tongued speaker of uncomfortable truths, rather than serial misinformer and thumping bore. starkey is the lowest-common-denominator Satruday-evening telly answer to history.

David Starkey is symptom of the dumbing down of our intellectual life. He’s X Factor for the Montrachet-drinking classes. He’s a twit.

(And don’t even get me started on Dan Snow. Anyone who can present a piece on The One Show and then have their other guest know more about it than him* is not an historian, no matter how many looters they sit on.)

*Al Murray destroyed Dan Snow after a piece he did about King John. Snow knew enough to fill his three minutes of Outside Broadcast time, but nothing more. It was pitiful to watch, and I hope that one day someone puts it on iPlayer.

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 29JAN10 - David Cameron, Le...

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Mr & Mrs Cameron,

Why did you never take the time to teach your child basic morality?

As a young man, he was in a gang that regularly smashed up private property. We know that you were absent parents who left your child to be brought up by a school rather than taking responsibility for his behaviour yourselves. The fact that he became a delinquent with no sense of respect for the property of others can only reflect that fact that you are terrible, lazy human beings who failed even in teaching your children the difference between right and wrong. I can only assume that his contempt for the small business owners of Oxford is indicative of his wider values.

Even worse, your neglect led him to fall in with a bad crowd. He became best friends with a young man who set fire to buildings for fun. And others:

There’s Michael Gove, whose wet-lipped rage was palpable on Newsnight last night. This is the Michael Gove who confused one of his houses with another of his houses in order to avail himself of £7,000 of the taxpayers’ money to which he was not entitled (or £13,000, depending on which house you think was which).

Or Hazel Blears, who was interviewed in full bristling peahen mode for almost all of last night. She once forgot which house she lived in, and benefited to the tune of £18,000. At the time she said it would take her reputation years to recover. Unfortunately not.

But, of course, this is different. This is just understandable confusion over the rules of how many houses you are meant to have as an MP. This doesn’t show the naked greed of people stealing plasma tellies.

Unless you’re Gerald Kaufman, who broke parliamentary rules to get £8,000 worth of 40-inch, flat screen, Bang and Olufsen TV out of the taxpayer.

Or Ed Vaizey, who got £2,000 in antique furniture ‘delivered to the wrong address’. Which is fortunate, because had that been the address they were intended for, that would have been fraud.

Or Jeremy Hunt, who broke the rules to the tune of almost £20,000 on one property and £2,000 on another. But it’s all right, because he agreed to pay half of the money back. Not the full amount, it would be absurd to expect him to pay back the entire sum that he took and to which he was not entitled. No, we’ll settle for half. And, as in any other field, what might have been considered embezzlement of £22,000 is overlooked. We know, after all, that David Cameron likes to give people second chances.

Fortunately, we have the Met Police to look after us. We’ll ignore the fact that two of its senior officers have had to resign in the last six weeks amid suspicions of widespread corruption within the force.

We’ll ignore Andy Hayman, who went for champagne dinners with those he was meant to be investigating, and then joined the company on leaving the Met.

Of course, Mr and Mrs Cameron, your son is right. There are parts of society that are not just broken, they are sick. Riddled with disease from top to bottom.

Just let me be clear about this (It’s a good phrase, Mr and Mrs Cameron, and one I looted from every sentence your son utters, just as he looted it from Tony Blair), I am not justifying or minimising in any way what has been done by the looters over the last few nights. What I am doing, however, is expressing shock and dismay that your son and his friends feel themselves in any way to be guardians of morality in this country.

Can they really, as 650 people who have shown themselves to be venal pygmies, moral dwarves at every opportunity over the last 20 years, bleat at others about ‘criminality’. Those who decided that when they broke the rules (the rules they themselves set) they, on the whole wouldn’t face the consequences of their actions?

Are they really surprised that this country’s culture is swamped in greed, in the acquisition of material things, in a lust for consumer goods of the most base kind? Really?

Let’s have a think back: cash-for-questions; Bernie Ecclestone; cash-for-access; Mandelson’s mortgage; the Hinduja passports; Blunkett’s alleged insider trading (and, by the way, when someone has had to resign in disgrace twice can we stop having them on television as a commentator, please?); the meetings on the yachts of oligarchs; the drafting of the Digital Economy Act with Lucian Grange; Byers’, Hewitt’s & Hoon’s desperation to prostitute themselves and their positions; the fact that Andrew Lansley (in charge of NHS reforms) has a wife who gives lobbying advice to the very companies hoping to benefit from the NHS reforms. And that list didn’t even take me very long to think of.

Our politicians are for sale and they do not care who knows it.

Oh yes, and then there’s the expenses thing. Widescale abuse of the very systems they designed, almost all of them grasping what they could while they remained MPs, to build their nest egg for the future at the public’s expense. They even now whine on Twitter about having their expenses claims for getting back to Parliament while much of the country is on fire subject to any examination. True public servants.

The last few days have revealed some truths, and some heartening truths. The fact that the #riotcleanup crews had organised themselves before David Cameron even made time for a public statement is heartening. The fact that local communities came together to keep their neighbourhoods safe when the police failed is heartening. The fact that there were peace vigils being organised (even as the police tried to dissuade people) is heartening.

There is hope for this country. But we must stop looking upwards for it. The politicians are the ones leading the charge into the gutter.

David Cameron was entirely right when he said: “It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to think that the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities, and that their actions do not have consequences.”

He was more right than he knew.

And I blame the parents.

*** EDIT – I have added a hyperlink to a Bullingdon article after a request for context from an American reader. I have also added the sentence about Nick Clegg as this was brought to my attention in the comments and it fits in too nicely to leave out. That’s the way I edited it at 18:38 on the 11th August, 2011 ***

***EDIT 2 – I’ve split the comments into pages as, although there were some great discussions going on in them, there were more than 500 and the page was taking *forever* to load for some people, and not loading at all for others. I would encourage everyone to have a poke around in the comments, as many questions and points have been covered, and there are some great comments. Apologies if it looks like your comment has disappeared.  ***

First, read this…

Let’s call it Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution. I wrote it in January 2011, and, I think we can all agree, it’s a fine example of the ‘mediocre sketch with vaguely interesting premise’ genre.

Now watch this:

You see? You see? And that, my friends, was put up on the Internet back in 2009.

Conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that the writing staff of That Mitchell And Webb Look are compulsive thieves who have developed time travel. The only feasibly explanation for this is that they roam the timestreams like multidimensional magpies, purloining comedic gems wherever they go.

Or, alternatively, it was a pretty obvious idea. And one that shows exactly why a lot of new writers spend far too long worrying about people stealing their ideas.

When two people have the same idea, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone stole it. And, in this case, it’s not just the idea, the execution is fairly similar: the setup is the same, both have a gag about crystals, and the patient ends up dead. Mine doesn’t have the second-scene coda which gives some nice context, but they’re similar enough that I felt an irrational pang of anger when I saw the Mitchell & Webb clip.

But I knew that was all it was, an irrational response. It took about four seconds for me to realise and fully accept that writers sometimes have the same ideas, especially comedy writers addressing the same topic.

I often think when I see the efforts people go to to send themselves scripts by registered post, register things with the Library of Congress, and only conditionally let producers see some of what they have written after they’ve signed an NDA, that this energy could have been better used, well, writing.

No one wants to steal your scripts.

No one reputable wants to steal your scripts. For the amount of hassle and legal trouble that will be caused if they do, it’s cheaper just to buy your script. That way, you’ll also be likely to offer them your next script. If someone thinks your writing is good, they will want to make it, and they will want to make other things you write (or at least be offered them, which is unlikely if you are embroiled in a legal dispute over ownership of a previous script).

Many people won’t read unsolicited scripts now because they worry about being accused of plagiarism in the future. Rather than protecting themselves, new writers are reducing the number of people who are willing to read what they’ve written.

Are there unscrupulous people focused on short-term gain in the movie and TV businesses? Almost certainly. Moreso in films, where anyone with a mobile phone and a table at a decent restaurant can call themselves a producer. But these people are very few and far between, and they are usually too busy ‘setting up deals’ to actually make a film in which they rip off someone’s idea. There are easier ways of getting someone to work for nothing than theft. Usually you can just ask them: “Will you work for nothing, giving up all rights to your work?”

However, most people are hard-working, creative, and desperate to turn good scripts into good programmes or movies. Without exception, the people I have worked with have had one goal: making the best things they can make with the resources they have.

And, besides…

Your ideas are not all that important.

Ideas are ten a penny. Everyone has an idea for a film. Everyone can have ideas. You don’t need a writer to come up with ideas.

You need a writer to write a film.

The idea has very little relevance to how good a film is going to be. Just look at all the straight-to-DVD ripoffs that come out every time there is a huge hit at the cinema. The ones with a business model that depends on the confusion of the buying public. “Avatard? Didn’t that get pretty good reviews?”

Look at Deep Impact and Armageddon; Volcano and Dante’s Peak; Antz and A Bug’s Life. (What? I watched a lot of films in the 90s. What?) The fact that the premise is similar doesn’t make these films equally successful, either commercially or as films.

It’s all in the execution.

And sometimes even that comes out quite similarly. See above.

Time spent worrying about who is stealing your work is time you’re not spending working. If, contrary to all logic, there is someone out there desperate to steal the work of new writers and to pass it off as their own, paying money to ‘register’ your script won’t stop them doing it (In the UK, you hold the copyright on something you have written as soon as it is written. You do not need to register it).

In order to succeed you need to leave your house, meet people, and, most importantly, let them read your work. To paraphrase Cory Doctorow, obscurity is a greater threat than being ripped off. You can’t protect yourself against everything. Especially not time-travelling thieves in the pay of two of Britain’s best-loved contemporary sketch performers. More’s the pity…

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