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.

Freedom stolen by a thief in the night

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It’s been a bad week here in Britain for freedom of expression. For starters, Heretic TOC’s voice has been choked off by a “broadband” connection getting narrower and narrower for weeks now, finally strangling the life out of any internet availability in recent days. This follows a service “upgrade” by my ISP, which, in the Orwellian language of our times, is actually a downgrade.

No doubt it’s all a government plot, which is exactly what the press have been claiming about the new royal charter on press regulation, sealed this week (under the Great Seal of the Realm, stamped onto scarlet wax on a vellum document), although to our American friends it might sound as though King George is back on the throne, personally intervening to stop the press saying he is mad, and perhaps plotting under cover of press silence to take back the rebellious trans-Atlantic colonies.

Actually, it is not a royal plot, nor a government one, nor even a parliamentary one, even though all the major political parties support the new charter. It is a measure which in the long term has the potential to bring about not censorship but, on the contrary, a fuller range of information and opinion in the mainstream media. This is because the system of voluntary self-regulation by the press which is envisaged would provide for, amongst other important features, a right of reply for those who are traduced in the routine character assassinations carried out by press barons such as Rupert Murdoch, owner of The Sun, Fox News and much else, and Paul Dacre, editor of the hideous Daily Mail. These big guns look like rejecting such a voluntary code for the time being, but this could leave them seriously vulnerable to high court costs when defending any future cases brought against them for libel and other civil claims.

No, the real reason it is a bad week for freedom of expression here has come much more stealthily, like a thief in the night. The threat in question is a brief measure which has passed entirely under the radar so far. I am referring to the Coroners and Justice (Amendment) Bill, which you have probably not heard about even if you live in the UK. It is a Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Sir Paul Beresford, a Conservative Party MP, who has a track record of quietly sneaking nasty, freedom-slashing measures into law while his fellow legislators are shagging their secretaries or propping up the numerous bars in the Houses of Parliament. Or so it seems, judging by the lack of any hue and cry over his dark deeds. Or perhaps it is just Beresford’s tactical cunning that fools them, because he presents himself not as a thief of freedom but as – this will be no surprise – a protector of children, and of decency.

So what, then, is his latest wheeze, his new coup of legislative legerdemain? In the official summary on parliament’s website, it is “A Bill to amend section 62 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 so as to apply additionally to the possession of pornographic written material about children.” Yes, your suspicion is correct, this guy wants to ban possession not just of images, as per the existing section 62, but also of the written word where material about children is deemed to be pornographic – an extremely alarming development if it succeeds, and one which would be unconstitutional in the US. It could be used to censor and punish private fantasies in a personal unpublished journal, for instance, and could inhibit legitimate discussion of children’s sexuality in correspondence or on a blog like this.

Some heretics will remember the Sharpe case in Canada, where the law already restricts the written word. The case against Robin Sharpe’s writings was eventually dismissed when he argued in their defence that they had artistic merit. A professor of literature compared Sharpe’s written works to “transgressive expression” parallel to the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Under Beresford’s Bill, though, artistic merit would not be available as a defence.

The original section 62 was itself slipped into a Bill that, as the name implies, was supposed to be mostly about coroners and the courts over which they preside, and thus concerned with death, not childhood. On that occasion, in 2009, the Bill was used to outlaw possession of pornographic images of children other than photographs, which were already covered under the law against indecent images. This measure was aimed against pornographic Japanese manga and suchlike. The offence carries a three-year maximum prison sentence. There do not appear to have been any high-profile prosecutions under the Act but that does not mean it has not been used – I personally know two people who have been convicted following police raids in which their own drawings have been among the items taken along with (inevitably) any computers.

The proposed law says in order for material to be illegal it would need to be “grossly offensive, disgusting or pornographic or otherwise of an obscene character.” The same four descriptors are used in the 2009 Act with regard to images. In a BBC news item over a year ago Beresford outlined his plans, claiming the law would be tightly written to cover obscene writing of a nature “that it must reasonably be assumed to have been produced solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal”. Only “absolutely vile” material would be targeted, he said, adding by way of example that well-known novels such as Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita – which famously explores a middle-aged man’s sexual involvement with a 12-year old girl – would not be covered.

Plenty of people, though, have professed themselves grossly offended and disgusted by Lolita. Possession of that particular work might be hard to prosecute as it has become so well established, but the works of newer writers of equal merit would be much less secure. The Crown Prosecution Service advises that “grossly offensive, disgusting or otherwise of an obscene character” are not intended to be read as three separate concepts. “Grossly offensive” and “disgusting” are examples of “an obscene character” and not alternatives to it. But is that how a jury would see it? The wording will surely suggest to them that their visceral dislike of the material is a good enough reason to say it is illegal, and that is a very dangerous notion.

Bad law or not, though, Beresford tends to get his way. His successes include a five-year possible jail penalty for those who refuse to provide a decrypting key to allow police to inspect computers suspected of holding child pornography. He was also involved in efforts to introduce a fast-track procedure for issuing warrants in cases where people on the sex offenders’ register refuse police access to their home.

Yesterday, the Bill was due to be given its Second Reading in parliament – a crucial stage which usually determines whether a Bill will become law or not. It appears to have been postponed, though. Parliament’s website is now saying it will be next week, on 8 November. British heretics should consider alerting their own MP to the need to oppose the Bill – some parliamentarians, after all, even Conservatives such as David Davis, do actually take a serious interest in preserving civil liberties and opposing excessive surveillance and censorship. Only vigilance, including ours, can stop people like Beresford from going too far.

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