An Idiot’s Guide to the Westminster Bubble

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Charming and disarming, a not too critical critic of Heretic TOC wrote on another blog recently that “There comes a point when even the best argument becomes too well written, too well researched and too learned. An Idiot’s Guide to both Stephen Hawking’s and TOC’s theories would be appreciated….” It must be admitted that the “punitive state” piece last time was a bit relentlessly heavy on the theory, although the number and quality of the comments, plus over 300 hits per day, suggests there is interest.

This time, then, for a little light relief (relatively speaking!), TOC brings you a taste of his adventures last week inside the Westminster Bubble, an experience more akin to Alice in Wonderland than to other phenomena with which it might be confused, such as the South Sea Bubble.

American readers will be familiar with the bubble concept from their own expression Inside the Beltway, or the Washington Bubble, denoting an intensely political world, peopled almost entirely by politicians, government officials and media folk who spend so much time incestuously preoccupied with each other that they lose touch with the realities of life outside their privileged zone.

Or so it is claimed. The real truth, though, is that these clever people have sharp political antennae, which is how they keep their power and influence: they need to stay alert in all sorts of ways, paying attention not just to opinion polls and focus group research but also to those who turn up in person to lobby them, from corporate interests (especially!) to activist groups of every hue.

Which is where my London trip comes in. I was there for a whole bunch of personal lobbying, networking and media reasons, and also to participate in various rallies, protests and debates.

Two of these events were in the Palace of Westminster itself, aka the Houses of Parliament, starting with Challenging the Campus Censors. Held in the Grand Committee Room with a panel of speakers, this saw the launch of the Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) by the journal Spiked. What FSUR devastatingly demonstrates, sadly is the extent to which freedom of expression is being eroded in the very institutions where it is most vitally needed if any sort of heresy – including but not limited to the Heretic TOC variety – is to survive the onslaught of hegemonic political correctness.

Back in the 1970s I appeared by invitation at a number of universities, mainly to address student gay societies on paedophilia and children’s sexual freedom. There were neither objections by the university authorities nor any attempt by students to No Platform me*. After speaking at Cambridge University, I was treated very hospitably by the organisers: they took me to hear (and of course see!) the choirboys perform evensong at King’s College. Those were the days!

In my case, the high watermark of this openness to heresy was a prestigious invitation from the president of the Oxford Union to address that august debating society, possibly the world’s most famous; its speakers have included three US presidents, top scientists from Einstein to Hawking, and celebrities of all kinds from Michael Jackson to Kermit the Frog. Ahead of the event, though, the university was subjected to heavy media pressure against my appearance, and the invitation was withdrawn.

We all know how the sorry saga has played out since then in terms of paedophilia as a There Is No Debate (TIND) issue. What I discovered to my horror, though, from FSUR and related revelations last week, is the extent to which free speech is now being denied on campus across a whole range of issues. As Ian Dunt told us in the Guardian:

“In recent months, Oxford University cancelled a debate on abortion because protesters objected to the fact it was being held between two men; the Cambridge Union was asked (but refused) to withdraw its speaking invitation to Germaine Greer because of her views on transgender issues; officials at London Southbank took down a “flying spaghetti monster” poster because it might cause religious offence; UCL banned the Nietzsche Club after it put up posters saying “equality is a false God”, and Dundee banned the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children from their freshers’ fair. The Sun is banned on dozens of campuses because of Page 3. Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines song has also been banned by many student unions.”

Note, especially, the relevance here of this last one: the lyrics are about sexual consent.

The curious thing, to someone of my generation at least, is that the censorious spirit is not coming from above, from heavy-handed political or administrative quarters. It is not state censorship. Rather, TIND reflects what seems to be a new fragility among the students themselves, who are arriving at university from a school culture in which they have grown used to seeing themselves as in need of protection, reflecting a wider cultural background in which child protection is seen as a priority. It reflects specifics of their cultural environment, such as school anti-bullying policies, and also their exposure to what is admittedly sometimes a brutally obnoxious scene of social media trolling. Feeling (with every justification) that being subjected to violent threats and venomous defamation online is just plain wrong and unacceptable, these youngsters are turning up at university believing they are entitled to remain shielded from “offensive” views of all kinds. They do not seem to realise that new but potentially important ideas are often shocking, and that a university is a grownup place whether intellectual debate needs to be unfettered.

The following day I was back in the palace, this time supporting Hacked Off, which Spiked muddle-headedly presents as a group lobbying against free speech. Hacked Off, as British heretics will know, was set up in the wake of revelations that newspapers including the now defunct News of the World, and the Sun, both owned by global media baron Rupert Murdoch (whose other crimes against humanity include Fox News), were engaged in illegal phone hacking and libellous smear tactics – including the infamous Fake Sheikh’s sting operations which have resulted in innocent people being jailed and many other lives shattered. As heretics here may remember, I was among those on the receiving end.

Where Spiked gets it wrong is in confusing the “right” of a handful of mega-rich media moguls to trash people as viciously, mendaciously and unaccountably as a Twitter troll, with the right of all of us to legitimate (non-libellous, not inciting violence) freedom of expression. The latter right, in Hacked Off’s view and mine, will be advanced, not retarded, by such means as giving a strengthened right of reply to those who are traduced in the press, and encouraging wider media ownership. Hacked off also supports the recent Leveson Inquiry report, which recommended measures aimed at securing a more independent press complaints body than the toothless Press Complaints Commission.

Hacked Off’s rally was in Committee Room 14, which turned out to be an even grander venue than the Grand Committee Room. When I think of a committee I have in mind no more than about 25 people, but about ten times that number were present for Hacked Off’s big day, packed along two sets of opposing benches like a miniature version of parliament itself. When I arrived, slightly late after an appointment with my MP, I was lucky to get the last seat before my attention turned to a distinguished-looking, silver-haired old gentleman who was holding forth as one of the panel speakers.

The voice seemed familiar. Then it struck me: John Cleese! Goodness, it was a face I probably hadn’t seen since The Life of Brian over thirty years ago. Anyway, he was on good form, blasting the new Independent Press Standards Body (IPSO) as anything but independent, saying it was designed to be a puppet of the big corporations, with editors given a key role, like setting foxes in charge of the henhouse. Actually, he had his own comparison, a rather good one:

“Of course they want to regulate themselves, we’d all like to regulate ourselves wouldn’t we?” he said. “Builders, accountants, murderers, they’d all like to regulate themselves.” He added: “The murderers would make a very good case – they’d say we murdered a lot of people, we know people who have murdered people. We really are best qualified to regulate.”

Dramatically, these remarks led within just a few minutes to the verbal murder of a particular journalist present in the room, one Mr Alex Wickham. Allow me to announce it Cluedo style: he was attacked by the chairman, in the committee room, with some very blunt accusations!

Wickham, as the chairman revealed, is a sleazeball sting artist working with political blog Guido Fawkes. The scurrilous scribe had immediately tweeted what Cleese said, in a message falsely implying the comedy actor had seriously compared the newspaper bosses to murderers. In a trice, news of this tweet got back to the committee room, where the chairman outed and admonished Wickham, saying he didn’t know how he could sleep at night, doing what he did. There were calls around the room for the malefactor to stand up and be seen.

The pressure must have got to the hounded hack, because he meekly stood up, as he had been ordered, and tried to explain himself. He didn’t get far before he was slapped down by the chair, who said, “Sit down, I don’t want to give you a platform as you have a megaphone”.

I didn’t feel sorry for Wickham, who is a double-dyed shit. I did, however, find myself a bit uneasy over the kangaroo court I had witnessed. And I noted, also, that one of the later speakers was a dreary feminist of the most humourless kind, who spent her allotted time at the mic grinding out a litany of demands for new press standards including a requirement that the term “under-age sex” should be replaced with “child rape”. Alarmingly, she was given a substantial round of applause.

Maybe Spiked has got it at least half-right after all.

Looking beyond Westminster, it has been another extraordinary week in Britain’s disastrous post-Savile Cultural Revolution, worth half a dozen separate blogs at least. Sadly, I’ll have to settle for a few brief news items with links.

* I tell a lie. The relaxed atmosphere changed once PIE hit the headlines in a big way. After that, in 1977, PIE speakers, including me, were No Platformed a lot. In Liverpool, for instance, I was not only prevented from speaking at the university, I was also banned by the Liverpool Hoteliers Association from staying in any of their hotels!  

 

JAIL EVERYONE IN THE LAND, DEMANDS PM

Well, not quite everyone, but British prime minister David Cameron made a giant leap towards outright insanity by insisting it’s not good enough just to jail “abusers”; now he wants to put teachers, social workers and local councillors behind bars if they fail to meet his stringent witch-hunting targets. Coming in the wake of a report on the “grooming” of teenage girls Oxfordshire by ethnic minority males , the move is a blatantly populist piece of pre-election gesture politics. As letter-writers to the Guardian and others have pointed out, the main result will be to further discourage anyone from working with children in professions already suffering from low pay and low prestige. On the Oxfordshire situation, these reports are very revealing, although not necessarily in the way their writers intended: see professionals and kingfisher.

 

TOUCHING IS WORSE THAN TORTURING

Glam rock star Gary Glitter was jailed for 16 years for under-age sex with three girls. His offences, though serious, appear to have been essentially of a “statutory rape” kind plus lesser intimacies rather than truly violent: the three girls in question were his fans. The youngest was eight. A mother who tortured her eight-year-old daughter to death received a lesser sentence, of 13 years. The court heard that her lesbian lover convinced her that the child was possessed by demons and had to be “destroyed”. The women would give the little girl cold baths, force feed her until she was sick and make her scrub the bathroom floor to rid her of “evil spirits”. She died from a blow to the head at her home. What does this contrast say about our society’s values?

 

RACCOON WRESTLES WITH ‘ALLEGATORS’

The indefatigable Anna Raccoon has again been wrestling the ‘allegators’ in the Savile case on her wonderful blog, exposing the paucity of allegation after allegation. See her Home Page and scroll down for five recent blogs with Savile in the title. To my mind, though Anna’s most devastating recent piece was Alphabet Soup and Paedo Hysteria. which looks at the work of Kevin Harrington, the author of Serious Case Reviews on real child abuse, ranging from Child ‘A’ in London, through Child ‘C’ in Portsmouth, onwards to Child ‘K’ in Southampton and beyond. These are ghastly cases like the torture/death one above, most of which never even make the national headlines. As Anna points out, instead of pouring in resources to prevent these cases, money, effort and attention is wasted on paedo hysteria instead.

 

ONE THAT FLEW UNDER THE GAYDAR

To finish on a pleasanter note, Wendy Fenwick in the March/April edition of Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, reviews Craig Johnson’s recent film The Skeleton Twins, which sounds good, although way too gay for my taste. Anyone seen it? She writes:

[Milo’s] first sexual experience was with a high school teacher when the lad was only fifteen. It was a huge deal when it happened – things were settled quietly, we learn – but Milo isn’t completely over the relationship and in fact seeks out the teacher, named Rich, with thoughts of reviving the affair. Thus has the movie entered that radioactive territory of “intergenerational sex,” otherwise known as pederasty. What’s surprising is that the film doesn’t indulge in the usual hand-wringing over Rich’s turpitude or dwell on how Milo was traumatized for life by the affair. In fact, Milo wasn’t traumatized at all and insists that it was not only consensual but a positive experience in his early gay life. …I’m surprised it didn’t trigger more controversy than it did, including threats of a boycott.

Even Daily Mail critic Brian Viner allowed himself to like it, perhaps because the overall context is a gentle romcom not a fiercely challenging drama.

The long ARMS of the law

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“Show me six lines written by an honest man, and I will find enough in them to hang him.”

These chilling words, or some remembered approximation of them, are said to have been uttered to his clerical staff by Cardinal Richelieu, the notoriously ruthless, Machiavellian chief minister of King Louis XIII of France. He had the good sense not to write them down.

So the cardinal had much better sense than me, a man who will considered honest, I trust, at least by his peers, and who has written a great many more lines than six. Goodness, how many times might I have been hanged in Richelieu’s day, when they had a quicker way with heretics! But I’ve been jailed enough, God knows, so you might think I’d be very wary of writing to officers of the law.

But I have! This very month! A monumentally self-incriminating missive, as it may be, not of six lines but of more than six pages!

Why? What madness could have come upon me? Had I seen set upon the rack and tortured into a confession?

No, in truth, nothing was forced out of me. Perhaps it was more a case of giving a man enough rope, that he might hang himself. You can judge for yourselves. Here is what happened.

The police paid a visit to my home, as they do every three months, in mid-January. This was the latest of their routine monitoring visits, undertaken as a consequence of my conviction for distribution of indecent images of children in 2006 and of my resulting requirement to register as a sex offender.

Usually, the two monitoring officers stay for only about fifteen minutes, making very limited enquiries as to any significant changes in my life in the intervening period, such as whether I have started a relationship, which might help lower the perceived risk presented by an offender if he seems to be turning towards adults instead on children, but which could set alarm bells ringing if this new “romantic” interest was someone with young children. As my answer to the relationship question, and most of the others, is always “no, nothing new”, there is no usually no need for the officers to be detained overlong.

But this latest visit was far from routine in nature. It turned out to be a long and difficult session. This is because the local police force in question have been introducing a new risk assessment tool, comprising a far more detailed set of questions than before, and I now found myself its latest “victim”. Devised under the auspices of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), the new tool is called ARMS (Active Risk Management System). It starts with the word “Active” partly because the initial “A” helps make a neat acronym; but “active” also hints at a distinction long used in risk assessment between “dynamic” (active) and “static” risk.

Static risk, as the name implies, is stuff that doesn’t change, or not much. It includes previous convictions. I cannot delete mine from the record, alas, and they will always indicate (to the statistically minded) a degree of risk of further offending. The more offences there are on the record – three in my case – the higher the risk of future offending. I have been assessed as High Risk on the standard static risk assessment tool, Matrix 2000, since my release from prison in 2007.

Matrix 2000 is actually quite a good predictor of future behaviour in most cases (the statistical boffins do actually know their stuff), so it is not being dropped. But it was felt a formal assessment was needed for the changing aspects, the dynamic side. What they came up with in a limited trial was a set of questions that systematically, and I would say too intrusively, probe the registered offender’s current life under a number of themed headings. These tools are invariably tested for their validity and reliability. No doubt the relevant data will eventually be published, but the national roll-out of ARMS in a revised version following the trial now appears to be going ahead before anything has appeared in the professional journals so far as I can tell.

The monitoring officers put me in the picture about ARMS, including the fact that questions would be asked relating to 11 factors found to have a bearing on dynamic risk. These were:

1. Opportunity for re-offending.
2. Sexual preoccupations.
3. Offence-related sexual interests.
4. Emotional congruence with children.
5. Hostile orientation.
6. Self-management.
7. Social influences.
8. Commitment to desist from offending.
9. Intimate relations.
10. Employment and positive routine.
11. Social investment.

Perhaps the correct response would have been to say, “Hang on a minute, this is being sprung on me very suddenly. Can we deal with this after I have spoken to my lawyer?” On the other hand, this was clearly a new regime to which everyone on the register across the land is going to be subjected. How could I hope to hold out against it? Why would I bother to resist when to do so would merely raise suspicions that I had something to hide?

Anyway, finding myself ambushed by these two guys, who are always very polite and I have known them for years, I meekly submitted. Once started, it soon became clear the exercise was going to be complicated and I found myself becoming anxious over how my answers were going to be scored. The guys, let’s call them Chris and Mike, told me they had both been on a training course, so they could interpret my verbal answers and assess each one as representing low, medium or high risk.

But the assessment exercise was to be carried out later, based on memorising what I told them and thinking about it. Typically, the interviews are expected to take an hour to an hour and a half. No notes were taken in my case. As I said to them at the time, it seemed to be asking a lot of anyone’s memory, especially in view of the fact that some of my answers, due to the complexity of the issues, were very finely nuanced, leaving the distinct possibly of them getting the wrong end of the stick.

In the middle of the exercise, when things were getting really complicated, Chris smiled and said “We knew this was going to be interesting!”

Well, yes, interesting as in the Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times!”

Among the “interesting” questions were a number encountered early on, under headings two and three. I found them to be very invasively intimate – the sort of thing one might expect on a sex offender treatment programme (SOTP). I politely declined to answer the most intrusive ones. Being too uncooperative, though, could result in a raised risk profile, potentially leading to more monitoring visits: maybe every month instead of quarterly.

There is much that I could say about all the questions, as may be imagined, and my answers to them at the time; but to cut a long story short I decided after the interview that a written follow-up would be necessary on my part. It came to over 5,000 words. On the matter of note-taking, I wrote:

“If the very clever leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition can forget the national deficit when speaking without notes for an hour or so, I don’t think it is too insulting to suggest that officers not making notes could forget important points in a long ‘speech’ of mine!”

Readers outside the UK cannot be expected to remember this reference to Labour party leader Mr Ed Miliband’s party conference speech last year, but I am sure everyone will get the gist.

In my written answer, things begin to get really dangerous for me not on the questions relating to sexual feelings and behaviour but – and this may come as a surprise to those who know me as a rather mild sort of chap – in the section on “Hostile orientation”. Chris and Mike, bless them, are perfectly well aware that I bear no grudge against them personally, or against the police force. I would much prefer to live in a country with effective law enforcement than in some hellhole of a failed state where your only “protection” comes from terrifying militias toting Kalashnikovs. It’s just that I would like our sex laws (and a good few others, actually) to be a bit more sensible!

I’d like to see more sensible training for the police, too. As the courses they are required to attend become steadily more focused on ideologically based diagnostic tools (albeit with real statistical analysis mixed in, so that everyone is blinded by science), the less scope officers have for the exercise of their common sense and experienced judgement. They find themselves obliged to ask set questions and then rate the answers in ways that accord with the prevailing dogma. Yes, this way of doing things reliably predicts behaviour on average, across large groups, but not in individual cases, especially when the individual concerned has been investigated and prosecuted for purely political reasons, as in my case.

The “hostility” questions furnish striking examples. I was asked, for instance, who I blame for my offences. The politically correct answer, of course, was myself: I take full responsibility. This is in fact what I said to Chris and Mike, albeit with complex caveats and qualifications that I feared might not be accurately represented in their later write-up and formal evaluation. So I wrote as follows, in order to clarify the position, and hence also, no doubt, as an unavoidable by-product, giving excellent reasons why I should be hanged! I wrote:

“… in the case of my first two convictions I was targeted essentially for reasons of profit and politics that owed nothing whatever to child protection. Misled by those convictions into supposing I was engaged in further conspiracies, which upon investigation proved to be utterly chimerical, I was then under close undercover surveillance for three years with no criminal behaviour disclosed. Desperate to ensure this resource-heavy operation would not end in total failure, the unit in question decided to set me up for what was a wholly police-generated offence [leading to a third conviction]. It would never have happened without their action as agents provocateurs

“Particular individuals I would blame are Rupert Murdoch, Sir Michael Havers and ‘Fake Sheikh’ Mazher Mahmood. I would never have been targeted for investigation and prosecution for the first offence, ‘conspiracy to corrupt public morals’, were it not for the legitimate activism (especially lobbying parliament for law reform) conducted by the Paedophile Information Exchange, which I chaired. This was classically a trumped-up charge. Central to this was a campaign by the News of the World, owned at that time, and until its recent closure following exposure of its own criminal activities, by Mr Murdoch. Also important was political intervention by Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General of the day – a politician who overruled the DPP, who had not wanted to bring a ‘public morals’ prosecution.”

As for the perfidious role played by tabloid sleazeball Mazher Mahmood, I also put the police in the picture about this: no need to reprise the story here as I blogged about it last year in When Heretic TOC met the Fake Sheikh.

Further reasons to hang me could surely be found in the way in which my letter addressed the more personally intrusive aspects of the questioning. As indicated above, I declined to answer at one point. I wrote:

“What might be an appropriate question in the context of voluntary attendance on a SOTP while serving a prison sentence, or on probation, is not necessarily acceptable in the case of someone who has served their time. Being on the register is in theory not meant to be a punishment, but every incremental step taken in the direction of intrusive monitoring takes it in that direction. I would draw your attention in this regard to a Home Office Review of the Sex Offenders Act 1997 which discusses the registration requirement in the light of human rights issues and concludes that ‘were the registration requirement to become more onerous, there could come a point at which the Act could no longer be seen as an administrative requirement.’ ”

I now find myself wondering whether that point has been reached and whether I should consider making a legal issue of it under the Human Rights Act. Not that I would necessarily succeed. And he who rises in rebellion but fails to carry the day will surely end up on the gallows!

FOOTNOTE:

According to the pilot project report, “The ARMS manual contains a fourth ‘priority category’ (in addition to high, medium and low priority for action) – ‘unable to rate’ or ‘not applicable’…” I would just add that this manual does not currently appear to be publicly available; nor am I able to say how much it has been modified following response to the report.

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