Summer is always a lean time for news, but it’s been made worse by the media’s obsession with sport in general, and the Olympics in particular. The coverage in newspapers and TV in particular has been packed with drivel – celebrity interviews, speculation and journalists saying how they feel watching people play games. As someone who generally throws away the sports pages of the newspapers unread, I have never really understood why sports results are treated as ‘news’ at all. It’s not that there is never any news about sport – in the last week there’s been the story of the man who cheated at pigeon racing, and the reinstatement of a jockey who pulled back his horses to lose has all the makings of a film script – but these are out of the ordinary: man bites dog, rather than dog bites man. The existence of a sporting contest, and the inevitable outcome that someone will win a competition, is a regular part of some people’s leisure activity. I just can’t see why the results of competitions between elite sports stars in fields like archery or dressage are assumed to have any more interest than competitions between leek growers, video games players, sheepdog trials or the rankings of artists in the Country and Western Charts. And no, I don’t want the news media to tell me more about those things either.
An independent review for the Home Office has appealed for evidence about the application of sharia law in the UK. While Muslims may reasonably expect a balanced report from the Chair, Mona Siddiqui, and the inquiry is beginning with evidence from people with experience of sharia in practice, the terms in which the inquiry is framed are extraordinary. It does not begin by asking how sharia law or how the courts work, but whether sharia law isn’t dangerous and liable to misuse.
“Individuals with experience of sharia law are being urged to take part in an independent review examining whether the religious code is being misused within Britain. The government-commissioned sharia law review is exploring whether the application of sharia is incompatible with the law in England and Wales. It will also examine the ways in which the practice may be being misused, or exploited, in a way that may discriminate against certain groups, undermine shared values or cause social harms.”
I have no direct interest in sharia law, but I grew up in a world where people could always go to a rabbinical court if they chose; while I have may lots to say about the unreasonable bits in my own community’s law, I can’t see any fundamental objection to a system of mediation based in shared principles and voluntary consent. In the febrile and sometimes toxic atmosphere surrounding the current clash of cultures, a less tendentious brief might have been better judged.
The Scottish Law Commission has issued a lengthy consultation paper on the reform of defamation law in Scotland, but I’ve only just seen it and the deadline for responses is set for tomorrow. This is not my expertise (it’s forty years since I studied torts as part of English law, and I never used it) and I’m not proposing to make a submission, but there are issues of concern. I don’t share the view of the Libel Reform Campaign that “Corporate bodies do not have a private life, personal identity or psychological integrity.” Clubs, societies and charities do have identity and integrity and may well depend very heavily on their reputations. The law privileges financial damage over other kinds of reputational damage, and that by comparison with the protection given to commercial traders there is a relative lack of protection for smaller, non-commercial groups, such as a mosque.
The main issue affecting the academic community is the potential suppression of scientific debate or criticism, most notoriously in the action taken against Simon Singh by the British Chiropractic Association. There is an exemption made in the 2013 Defamation Act, but it only allows for material in peer-reviewed academic journals or conference proceedings. (For those who don’t know it, academic books are peer-reviewed too – 13 of my books have been peer reviewed anonymously, 2 others were subject to an editorial board.) The restrictions mean that academics have to rely substantially on defences of public interest and fair comment, and they are likely to be forced to fold long before they get that far.
Turkey has been transformed during my lifetime, both in economic terms and in terms of people’s welfare. In 1970, the average birth rate for each woman was 5.5, and the under-five mortality rate was 134 deaths for every 1000 children born. Now the fertility rate is 2.0, and there are 19 deaths per 1000.
The progressive improvements in welfare go a long way towards explaining the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP. Income per capita has almost trebled during their time in office. However, President Erdogan has been developing his own solution to Turkey’s traditional problem of governance – how to train tortoises. Erdogan has expressed the view that any woman who does not have at least three children is “deficient” and “incomplete”. There have to be more tortoises.
I’ve had a protracted debate in the course of the last week with some of the new Puritans, who hold that people who don’t agree with them should be isolated, ostracised and silenced. This approach is both illiberal and anti-academic. I was interested, then, to see some ratings of UK universities by Spiked, who have constructed an index of Free Speech. Of 115 universities surveyed, only 12 have substantially avoided censorship of objectionable opinions.
I don’t agree fully with Spiked’s position. Their manifesto argues for the removal of all limits on speech, including hate-speech and libel, and that’s why I couldn’t sign it. We should not underestimate the power that speech has to deny a voice to other people, and free speech should not extend to statements like “kill these people before they kill you”. There’s also an implicit contradiction in advocating the freedom to shout down other people.
There’s a persuasive academic argument from Scanlon that free speech is a misrepresentation of the true right, which is not so much the right of speakers to express themselves as the right of the audience to hear and decide for themselves. If the audience would be wrong to decide – “let’s lynch this murderer” – it may well follow, depending on the context, that the person saying it does not have the right to express it. The context does matter, however. In the course of teaching theory and ethics in academic institutions, I’ve reviewed arguments for lots of unpalatable positions, including eating babies, corruption, letting poor people starve and torturing people. The academic world depends on dialogue and developing the skills to deal with contrary views; suppressing those arguments is anathema to learning.
Arthur Koestler wrote a book once about uncanny coincidences. Late last night we were witness to an extraordinary conjunction of events: three right-wing newspapers, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Express, all decided, within a couple of hours of each other, to link the lack of flood prevention to the foreign aid budget. This argument is so strange that it seems difficult to account for it by rational explanation. The floods have been going on for some time, so the synchronicity is even more unsettling. One might almost think they’d got together to decide to do it.
I’m not at all sure that the papers are in tune with their readers. Some of us might imagine that the distressing and sometimes horrific experience of flooding might make us more sympathetic to the plight of vulnerable people abroad, who suffer floods in even worse state. The papers got it wrong about the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean; they may well be wrong about this, too.
Today is the last day of my employment with the Robert Gordon University. I have been granted the title of Emeritus Professor, and have every intention of carrying on with my work. I set up my own domain for the website and blog earlier this year. For the moment, I have short books in progress – on poverty, the welfare state and social security – as well as long with some articles to place.
This should also mean that in principle, I should be able to take up other opportunities as they arise. I’m open to proposals.
I opted out of legal studies when I was still a student, choosing to a PhD in Social Administration instead, and my only legal qualification expired a long time ago, but on occasion I still like to dip a toe in the water. I was intrigued enough by a debate reported by Mark Elliott to read a lecture by John Finnis on judicial power. Finnis thinks the Belmarsh judgment was a ‘debacle’, comparable to the nonsense they got into when the House of Lords was reviewing attempts to do the impossible. I agreed about the silly rule on impossible attempts, which was the law when I took the exams, so I wondered whether I might also agree about Belmarsh, and read the judgment front to back. I don’t agree with Finnis, as it happens, but I think I can see the problem.
I’ve only read a handful of judgments like this, but all have followed the same process. Up to nine judges offer individually written, considered arguments, most of which make sense in their own terms. There will usually be a statement to the effect that they agree with a particular one of their number, but hardly anyone does what Lord Caswell did in Belmarsh, and stop after saying, more or less, that ‘I agree with that one’.
This process creates two immediate problems. The first is a problem of over-inclusion. Each of the judges addresses a slightly different agenda. The longest judgment, by Lord Bingham, addresses a long series of issues: the statute, human rights law, international obligations, discrimination, public emergency, and proportionality. In the eight judgements, all the judges consider human rights issues; all refer to the terms of the 2001 Act (which Finnis accuses them of not considering adequately); nearly all consider discrimination (one only indirectly); six consider the public emergency; five refer to proportionality. The difficulty here is that even when judges are similar things in different words, it can be difficult to determine which is the best or clearest statement of the law. When they say different things, it is impossible.
The second problem is a problem of exclusion. Each of the Lords has arrived at an an individual judgment, and to do that they have had necessarily to select the issues that they consider to be most relevant and important. Two judges thought it relevant to refer to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; the others presumably did not. It is much more difficult to spot the issues that no-one thought pursuing, but that is the substance of Finnis’s complaint – that there were further considerations in the statute and the Human Rights Act which ought to have been included too.
Both of these problems have a common root. If the material was ordered thematically, instead of being argued one judge at a time, the contradictions, elisions and omissions would be evident; if there were visible gaps, they could be plugged. The decisions of the Supreme Court are not the decisions of individual judges; they are decisions of the Court. Unless and until they are stated collectively, they will never make sense.
I have given my notice to the Robert Gordon University. I plan to work independently, though I will be happy to consider any other opportunities that may arise. RGU gave me the opportunity, as Director for the Centre for Public Policy and Management, to engage with a varied range of practical projects in public administration, and I am grateful for that experience.
I moved my website from the University this summer; to be sure that there would be no disruption to readers, I have paid for the domain and web hosting myself. I hope to continue my work on the blog and the website in the future.
— Big Issue Scotland (@BigIssueScots) September 2, 2015
I signed a petition yesterday: No more drownings. I don’t agree wholeheartedly with its terms, because it doesn’t go far enough: I think we should be offering a safe and permanent sanctuary to refugees, as Germany has now agreed to do, and the idea that it is somehow difficult to find eligible refugees is beyond parody. The UK’s failure to respond to a mortal crisis is a disgrace.