A few very quick thoughts on self-regulation of the press

I’ve been trying to put this idea about for a while, but thought it might be worth setting it down in more than the 140 characters that Twitter allows.

One of the main themes that has emerged during the Leveson Inquiry, as well as in the years and months preceding it while the phone hacking scandal and other press misdemeanours came to light, is how ineffective the Press Complaints Commission is in its role as a self-regulatory body for the UK press.  It would appear to an outside and casual observer like me that large sections of the press such as the News of the World and Daily Mail have been allowed to write pretty much whatever they want, whether or not it is true, and that they would suffer no consequences other than a sternly worded letter and a two-line correction in the offending publication, somewhere between the adverts for impractically-expensive cruise holidays and that Bose clock radio that seems to have been on sale since I was nought but a sprog.

There have been many calls for the PCC to be abolished, and for a more draconian government body to be set up to prevent unscrupulous members of the press from misbehaving, but these have been rightly criticised for restricting the ability of responsible journalists and columnists to do their job effectively.  So, in a moment of inspiration, I wondered: what about a chartered institute of journalists.

A bit of background.  I am a civil engineer.  There are several bodies that oversee the activities of civil engineers in the UK, depending on the discipline of the engineer, such as the Institution of Structural Engineers, Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation, but the oldest and most venerable of these is the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).  These institutions and others have a Royal Charter, which gives them sufficient clout to administer themselves to ensure that their membership act in a professional way, and also are competent to practice. 

In addition, a body known as the Engineering Council sits above all of these institutions, and is a register of chartered and incorporated engineers who have demonstrated that they have attained the experience and shown the professionalism appropriate to their grade of registration.  The overall effect of this is that being a member of such institutions indicates to fellow members, and to external parties such as non-technical clients, that one is competent to do the job of which one is asked.

So, my thought: why can’t there be a chartered institute to self-regulate the practices of journalists, columnists, etc; in effect, creating professional journalists.  That way journalists who were members of such an institute could demonstrate to other journalists, and to those they interview and discuss, that they are committed to a particular code of ethics and professionalism.  Acting in a manner other than this would result in suspension of the membership, disciplinary action, etc.  Such an institute would have to administer itself in a robust and effective manner in order to maintain its charter. 

These are just initial thoughts, feel free to point out any flaws.  *braces for impact*

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For the second time in my life I’m writing to my MP

Open letter to my MP regarding his support for Nadine Dorries’ appalling proposed Sex Education (Required Content) Bill:

Dear George Eustice,

I am writing to enquire as to your reasons for voting to take Nadine Dorries’ appalling proposed Sex Education (Required Content) Bill forward to further debate.

While I believe that there are some problems in parts of the country with teenage pregnancy etc, I fundamentally disagree with the reasoning Ms Dorries gives for seeking to reduce these problems, and am deeply suspicious of her motives for doing so.

From what I have seen and heard (and yes, that does include reading the content of the debate in Hansard) both in the House of Commons and in the media, Ms Dorries seems to be blaming the bulk of the problem – and hence placing the bulk of the responsibility – on young girls, and that these problems can all be solved by the simple act of saying “no” to someone – assumed by Ms Dorries to be male – who wishes to have sex with them. This claim is demonstrably false, and evidence from countries such as the US – where they are cutting back on abstinence programs that are shown to not work – shows that this is a pointless exercise in the terms of the aims Ms Dorries claims to want to achieve.

Ms Dorries has spread a number of falsehoods in her campaign, including the ludicrous claim that seven-year-old girls are being taught how to use condoms using bananas, which she has selectively (mis-)quoted from a teaching curriculum for children up to the age of sixteen. The fact that Ms Dorries has to rely on such obvious nonsense only serves to highlight how ridiculous her crusade is.

Most horrifying of all, on Vanessa Feltz’s chat show today she implied that if young girls were taught abstinence then there would be fewer instances of sexual abuse. I don’t even know where to begin in describing my utter disbelief at this. It demonstrates that she either has a breathtaking ignorance of the facts of the issue she is seeking to address, or a willful disregard of those facts in order to advance her own deeply flawed, fundamentalist, ideological agenda. Either way, I am disappointed that my elected parliamentary representative chooses to associate himself with this campaign.

I would appreciate it if you could explain why you have chosen to support Ms Dorries in promoting this horrendous bill through the Commons.

Yours sincerely,

Gregory Eden

A few words on AV

I know that what the world really needs is another blogger giving their twopenn’orth on the upcoming referendum on the voting system for UK general elections.  So, here it is.

Firstly I will state categorically that I am definitely voting for a change to the Alternative Vote system.  It would be preferable to move to a fully proportional system, but given the mentality of our politicians and the ability of any large change to happen quickly (I recall a quote from either Yes, Minister or Yes, Prime Minister here: “government has the engine of a lawn mower but the brakes of a formula 1 car”) I can’t see that happening within my lifetime.

There has been a lot of bullshit spouted by both the yes and no camps in this “debate” — I use the quotes because the official campaigns have never really been about debate, but about repeating trite soundbites and spreading propaganda and misinformation about the other side of the argument.  It really has been one of the most unedifying spectacles since — well, since the general election, quite frankly — where politicians have been behaving like the disgusting vote-grubbers I’m sure a lot of them are.

I won’t rehash all the arguments again as to why one campaign or the other is a particularly dishonest or shabby one, as that has already been done pretty comprehensively elsewhere, such as this fantastic blog explaining the numbers in detail, or Johann Hari’s excellent column comparing the process under the AV system to that used to vote for The X Factor — I realise they’re not the same, but the comparison shows up just how specious the “AV is too complicated” bullshit is.

I will, though, just say that I became very disillusioned with politics during the last election, and not just because I voted Lib Dem and the candidate I backed didn’t win.  No, I was most disappointed with the blatant tactical voting happening up and down the country.  Maybe I’m a bit naive, but for me I think that people should vote for the candidate who best reflects their views, and if that candidate gets the majority of the votes (under whatever electoral system) then fair play to them, they clearly represent the views of the majority of the voters who turned out.  If not, oh well.

This led to a large amount of people abandoning their principles and voting for candidates whose beliefs (and whose party’s beliefs) didn’t match their own.  This then skewed results towards relatively unpopular candidates in order to keep out a party who would be relatively less popular.

But here’s the thing: the candidate who got in still wouldn’t represent the views of the constituency!  Say the voter turnout was 50%, and of those who could be bothered to vote (though I have sympathy with the disenfranchised who saw their refusal to vote as an indictment of the whole system) the candidate won with 35% of the available votes.  This means that only 17.5% of the potential electorate voted that candidate in.  50% didn’t want to vote for them, or any one else, and the remaining 17.5% voted for someone else.  How is that a good thing?

My hope with AV is that people will take it seriously, and vote the way their hearts tell them rather than listening to the cynical electioneering of career politicians.  That way, the winning candidate is likely to best represent the views of the people who wanted to vote.  How is that a bad thing?

My fear, however, is that between now and the next general election, the political spin doctors and wheedlers will devise new and cunning ways to corrupt our democratic process by making it all about who shouldn’t get in rather than who should.  If we allow that to happen, and the process of deciding governments becomes even more of a grubby popularity and shit-flinging contest than it is now, then I may well never vote again.

Every time I see a politician on the TV spinning truth into a propagandised fiction, I’m more convinced that the “none of the above” campaign from the film Brewster’s Millions is a good idea.  Perhaps there should be an option on ballot papers for “none of the above”, so rather than not turning up to vote people can turn up and declare that none of the candidates are worth voting for.  Who knows, if “none of the above” returns a majority, maybe it would force candidates and parties to confront the fact that people would rather turn up and vote for nobody than vote for anybody.

More than anything, I just want to be able to believe that our democracy is a good one.  At the moment I can’t say that.  I don’t know whether adopting AV will help, but I hope it will.  For now that’ll have to do.

More than a little confused

Well, it’s happened.  The Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review has finally been unleashed on to a barely-comprehending public, and we await the onslaught to find out what the specific effects will be (beyond it being pretty bad, to say the least).

I am more than a little worried.  As examples, I am worried about the cuts to the DfT budget, and the amount of large capital schemes that are going ahead.  This may mean that there will be less money available for smaller schemes or those promoted by local authorities.  I am worried about the cuts to local authority grants, as this will also have a similar effect on the spending on such schemes.  As a result of these, I am very worried about the amount of work that my company – which relies very heavily on work from a local authority – will have in the immediate aftermath.

These are very selfish reasons, and I acknowledge this, but unfortunately selfish reasons are often those that are considered first.  In addition to these, I am worried about the 490,000 public sector jobs that are predicted to be lost.  This is bad enough in itself, but Messrs Osborne and Cameron are assuming that the private sector will hoover up all the staff suddenly released into the job market.

This seems to me to be a very naive proposal (note – I’m not an economist so probably don’t understand the wider implications.  These are just my opinions based on what I’ve read).  For a start, there will not be a direct fit between the skill sets of the people who will be made unemployed by the public sector and the available vacancies of the private sector.

Secondly, this also assumes that there are enough jobs to satisfy the demands of the inflated unemployed workforce – there aren’t enough jobs to go around at the moment.

Thirdly, this assumes that there will be sufficient work available for these people to do.  I know first-hand how much of a downturn the private sector has taken in the last few years, what with my enforced move back from Ireland; the reduction in workloads both in my own company and elsewhere; and the number of colleagues, friends and family looking at redundancy.

Fourthly, the combination of a reduction in jobs available, increase in competition for positions, and reduction in benefits available to people looking for what jobs there are still available, mean that there will be less impetus for people to go out and spend, spend, spend and kickstart the economy.

Osborne et al seem to be assuming that the recovery will be driven by an injection of cash from some as-yet-undetermined drive from the private sector to start building and investing.  My question though is from where will this money come, and who will buy the products on which this investment would be based?  If everyone is tightening their belts and preparing for the worst, luxuries and extravagant purchases are fewer and further between than during the good times of even just a few years ago.  I myself have had to scrap my car and walk everywhere because the cost of running it became just too expensive.

I leave the issue of “fairness” to other, more informed folks to comment upon.  My issue is that this all seems to have been rushed through and not very well thought out.

Like I say: I’m worried.