Rumpole and the ever-eroding liberties

There’s a great series of radio plays on the BBC iPlayer. Called Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, the first one is both amusing and profound (as well as being really good radio).

John Mortimer’s greatest creation faces the challenge of trying to defend a client who is not allowed to know the charges he is facing.

An excellent exploration of the idiocy and injustice inherent in much anti-terror legislation in Britain today, and funny to boot.



Dot com is over. Well, sort of. The internet’s ‘governing body’ has decided to add new, customisable suffixes (other than .com , .org , .net, etc) to web addresses. Soon we will no doubt be seeing (well, maybe not we) or (and this is my personal favourite) www.eastenders.cottongeddit? But when considering last week’s news, some other potential government and media addresses present themselves. For instance: , or the less catchy: www.officalattititudetozimbabwe.selectivemorality .

Robert Mugabe is again behaving like a lunatic and doing reprehensible things in Zimbabwe. News commentators have rightly condemned this, the Queen has withdrawn his knighthood and various politicians have started floating the idea of an ‘intervention’ in a manner that is eerily similar to the earliest calls for interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We can accept such suggestions with short memories and light hearts, happily lathered into a receptive state by the pleasant sensation of finding someone we can legitimately hate. On Radio 4 last weekend I heard a Christian suggest that God kill Robert Mugabe and encourage others to pray similarly.

But let’s pretend, just for a moment, that we are Christians (in the sense that we take at least some of what Jesus said relatively seriously). Forget that our master never told us to kill our enemies, render unto Caesar a crack SAS unit or to pray for death for those who despitefully use us (or Africans we suddenly started caring about a few years ago). Let’s just go on a plank-hunt in our eyes.

We’re appalled at Thabo Mbeki’s failure to publicly condemn Mugabe (‘it’s important that African leaders do this,’ we say, ‘because it doesn’t mean anything coming from former colonial oppressors,’ and then we demand a former colony do what we tell them to). We presume its efficacy as well as its morality. But is Mbeki’s ocular health really in a worse state than our own?

Last week an MP pointed out that while we’re condemning Zimbabwe, we’ve said quite a bit less about the government of Ethiopia. That’s the state that has invaded Somalia and whose army, according to Amnesty International and aid agencies, is guilty of large-scale killings and human rights abuses there. We are funding their leaders’ salaries. A week after we and the US gave Ethiopia $90,000 for famine relief, they raised their military budget by $50,000. That strongly-worded denunciation is coming any day now.

Or why don’t we look at a country regarded by many as perpetrator of some of the worst human rights abuses and civilian massacres of the 20th century: Indonesia. Since we take our moral duty to condemn injustice and violence so seriously that we expect it from others, I assume Britain has cut ties with Indonesia? Oh, no, sorry. My mistake. The FCO website tells me that ‘The UK has strong bilateral relations with Indonesia,’ and details our significant trading relationship with them.

No strong condemnations there then. What about for the USA, since it has been accused of war-crimes recently not just by the former PM of Malaysia, but by one of its own retired generals? Hmmm… not so much. Perhaps we’ll encourage Mbeki by making our own strong statement about Israel in Gaza? No?

Perhaps, then, we’ll just apply anti-terror standards to Zim and freeze the assets of British companies (like mining giant Anglo American), who we read last week are propping up Mugabe’s regime with investment. Or maybe not.

None of this makes what Mugabe is doing right. But it makes our disproportionate rage at a man who has done only as much harm as many of our ‘friends’ and our presumption of moral high-ground as laughable as African leaders see it. www.moral-outrage.hypocrisy , anyone?

To watch our allies, Indonesia, talk about human rights to comedian Mark Thomas, watch this (genius!):

What ho, Boris!

Boris Johnson is going to be Prime Minister one day. You watch him. News last week that he had beaten Ken Livingstone to become the new Mayor of London told serious political analysts what most viewers of Have I Got News For You have known for years: Boris is possibly the most likeable politician in Britain.

Lazy (and possibly racist) media shorthand that endlessly trots out the ‘dour Scotsman’ cliché aside, Gordon Brown is simply less of a laugh. Crucially, so is David Cameron. And the smartest thing the Tories could do now is ditch their current bicycle-bothering leader in favour of one who doesn’t just cycle for an environmental photo-op but publicly suggests getting in Navy Seals or Sharia law to deal with bicycle thieves in London.

There, Boris was, of course, not taking the traditional Tory line of being tough on crime to a new level, but joking. And a comment posted on the Guardian website shows how important this is. ‘There is hardly anything Boris Johnson appears to believe that I support,’ the comment said, ‘But at least Boris makes me laugh…’ And that sentiment is one I have heard again and again from friends in London: ‘I wouldn’t ever normally vote Conservative, but I do love Boris.’

This is more than a comment on one man’s popularity, though. It demonstrates a societal shift from politics to personality. Labour understood it with Blair and then started resting on their laurels, presuming they were still in power because the electorate cared about social welfare. The Conservatives have been more savvy recently, but have also been hamstrung by old-style thinking that anyone but media commentators and politicians themselves give a monkey’s about anything as prosaic as political philosophies.

For a few years now we’ve been hearing how David Cameron is a shoe-in for Downing Street and a perfect choice for Tory Grand High Vizier, mainly because he’s ‘nice’. But let’s be honest: how many of us believe that just because he’s ‘nice’ that changes anything about the Conservative Party that we may not have liked? But with Boris it’s a different story. Compared to him, Cameron’s ‘niceness’ is just a charisma-void on a bike. Boris is an original. Boris is a star. Hang his policies (or lack thereof)!

Of course, Red Ken’s defeat had much to do with people being sick of Labour and his foolish decision to rejoin them. One commentator last week said that Livingstone got in as a result of voters wanting to punish New Labour, and he was dumped for exactly the same reason. There’s something in that. And one hopes that while both parties clearly need to take stock again of what the public want from them, Labour will take a different tack.

In a social climate where the environment is on the top of everyone’s agenda, where selfishness is being challenged by the powerful idea of justice, not just for ourselves but for our poor neighbours; in a country where people are increasingly sick of the wealthy and their businesses riding roughshod over the poor and the ordinary; Labour could safely go left again.

And in a culture where celebrity is worshipped , where ideals are considered ‘boring’ and many people have given up their political responsibility, no longer caring about politics, the Conservatives could genuinely go glamorous and win.

And in the spirit of contemporary politics, both parties could borrow from each other, returning to their political roots and engaging with a dumbed-down celebrity culture.

Think of it: parties actually saying what they mean and being entertaining in the process. Boris and Clarkson vs Mark Steele and Bono. The public’s ever-receding interest in democracy, while ultimately ruinous, could at least prove entertaining.

Gum crime

A bank once had me arrested. I want to admit that up-front, to be honest about potential resentment I might harbour while commenting on banking news. Here’s the sordid story, in all its tabloid glory: Years ago, in South Africa, I thought I was funny and some people disagreed (some things never change). While waiting in a bank, I wrote what I thought was an amusing note on a deposit slip.

My message read thus: ‘I have a gun some gum. It is minty and fresh. Chewy chewy chewy, yum yum yum! Give me all your money.’ I left the note on the writing desk, happy to let my brilliant surrealist joke pass into legend without claiming any glory for myself.

I was, of course, an idiot. South African banks have a similar sense of humour to that of British airports, and the next time I went into the bank I was arrested on charges of attempted armed robbery. And put in the holding cells of Johannesburg’s violent crime police station for three days.

Since then, banks seem to have developed a robust sense of humour. Take last week’s news, for instance. The Office of Fair Trading won a court-case it had brought against Britain’s banks, asserting that the OFT should have the right to adjudicate when customers queried excessive bank charges. That means that over the last few months, while banks have been bombarding us with adverts about how much they love us, all-singing, all-dancing, laugh-out-loud feel-good romps designed to convince us that they care about their customers, they’ve been campaigning against fairness for them. That is hilarious.

Let’s be clear. What banks have been fighting against is not a specific judgement on what they may charge when we ‘dip into the red’. They have been campaigning against such charges even being assessed for fairness. The court battle they lost was trying to prevent the OFT from having any say in the matter.

Now, I’m no financial expert. And far be it from me to cast aspersions on any individual or business’s character. But if a person I’m doing business with seems very keen that independent standards of fairness are never applied to our dealings, I may be disinclined to trust him. If someone campaigns against fairness, the cynical part of me thinks that perhaps they are not keen on fairness. Shocking, I know.

The Bible obviously talks a great deal about unfairness in trade and business, and yet I find Christians I talk to are divided about this issue. While many, like me, think that banks should be forced to be fair, many others believe what one banking industry spokesman said on the BBC’s Moneybox programme on the weekend. When asked whether the penalty charges in question bore much relation to what the infringements by customers cost the banks, he repeatedly replied in terms of the banking industry being a competitive market. Apparently, those charges have less to do with cost and more to do with what the market will bear, what people are willing to pay. In other words, they may be unfair, but that’s just business.

As Christians we may not be conformed to the thinking of this world in terms of promiscuity, drugs or abortion, but I find myself assuming that businesses must obviously maximise profit at all costs, that such thinking is natural, that notions of ‘fairness’ are naïve and misplaced in business. And yet that is not what my Bible says. You don’t have to be a communist, an anarchist or wilfully stupid to believe that people are more important than profits. And you don’t need to write a note to steal from people.

more in this simplistic but fairly accurate series about what is really wrong with the banking system thatunderpins out economics, click here.

Terminal comedy (Airplane 3: The Revenge)

Like a downtrodden nerd who’s just been stuffed in his locker by an American movie jock and shouts ‘Oh yeah?’ too late to be effective, I’ve just thought of a comeback. It’s a year and a half late, but I’m going to say it anyway, because, as the kids say, that’s how I roll. Remember that British Airways employee banned from wearing a cross? At the time I was sympathetic, but also uneasy about something. I said nothing then, but here it is: I don’t care! If she works for an airline, she’s the enemy.

This has nothing to do with climate change. I just hate airlines. Apart from the fact that they are masters of shifting blame (you miss a connection because bad weather slowed your progress to the airport? Tough luck: your problem. But if you’re there on time and conditions hamper the airline is it their problem? Not so much). And apart from the fact they seem to think that getting your luggage to your destination with you is a bonus rather than an essential service you pay through the nose for, I believe they’re power-mad.

In what other customer-led business can you have someone arrested for making an obvious joke about a (or even saying the word) ‘bomb’ at the wrong time?

Airlines claim this is for safety. I think nobody wants to question their power. Why should one not be allowed to make an obvious joke about a bomb? I can understand hoax bomb-threats or wasting security staff’s time with serious allegations, but saying: ‘Ha ha, what’s that ticking sound inside your bag?’ or answering: ‘not a bomb’ when asked what’s in the suitcase is insensitive, but not dangerous.

Humour is the first casualty in any scary situation, and as someone who has actually spent time in a cell for the sake of a joke, I am aware how serious that casualty can be. But I do not think that justifies it. Comedy is a good way to deal with fear, with tension and with boredom. Those three things are essential aspects of the modern airport, so I’d like to call for Terminal 5 (opened last week by Her Royal Ha Ha Haness, The Queen) to be a comedy-amnesty zone. If anyone does or says anything to do with hijacking, bombs or terrorism that is not obviously a joke (like the idiot who ran onto a runway last week with a backpack and is frankly lucky to be alive), please feel free: let the most frustrated, downtrodden, resentful member of security staff lead them away, a gleam in their eye with a week’s supply of glee with which to rub their hands. But if it is clearly a joke, in Terminal 5 I think staff should be ordered to laugh or to critique the joke for originality, timing and cleverness. They, after all, will have heard most of them before. Followed by the sounds of tazers, screams and attack dogs.

I’m aware of the danger here. I’m aware that in between submitting this column and the paper going to print there could be a terrorist attack on an airport. It is important in these situations to remember that laughing does not mean you don’t care. In terrible circumstances, Christianity and comedy can have a similar message (if the style and approach of both is right, sensitive and well-timed): ‘The world is not meaningless; you still have power and choice over your reactions and control over your ultimate path; no matter what horrors confront you, you are still human; there is still hope, there is still reason for joy.’ Luckily there are no laws against preaching the Gospel in airports or on planes. Yet.

Pics taken from this site. Check it out.

Lynch the Arch-bish!

rowan the bear

“Run for your lives! We’ll all be murdered in our beds! Aaaa!” is not really a direct quote from a headline in The Sun last week. But I like to think of it as a spiritual/emotional paraphrase. The actual headline shouted: “What A Burkha”, cleverly calling the spiritual leader of the official Christian church in this country a ‘burke’ while still managing to have a dig at Muslims generally. And they say quality journalism is dead.

If it is dead, watching this story unfold last week was like watching the aftermath of a public gun-crime in a Hollywood movie: lots of emotion, lots of crazy talk and way too much shouting. Listening to various phone-in programmes, watching the headlines in red-tops and smelling the scent of paraffin that so often accompanies a public lynching, was I the only one who wanted to say in a firm, yet calm, commanding voice: ‘Whoah there… let’s just take it easy. Put the gun down. Nobody needs to get hurt – let’s just talk about this,’? Gosh, I hope not.

At the risk of having crosses burned on my lawn, I wasn’t really that upset by Uncle Rowan’s comments, suggesting that incorporating parts of Islamic Sharia law in some areas’ justice systems was unavoidable. He didn’t mean that burglars should have hands amputated or that murderers should be beheaded (though it seems odd that tabloids would object to this – perhaps if it only applied to immigrants?). Rather than Sharia applying to everyone, he meant applying it in civil (not criminal) cases, to some Muslims.

Critics claimed this would create a parallel legal system for Muslims and that that was very dangerous. I don’t want to alarm anyone, but (cue dramatic chords: dun-dun-daaaah!) it’s already happening (eeek!). Some Muslim courts already operate in some areas of this country to help settle divorces. Can you feel the very fabric of society unravelling around you? Funny… neither can I.

We heard ad-nauseum last week that orthodox Jews already have their own courts presiding over limited matters in accordance with their faith. They don’t have the right, so far as I am aware, to acquit an Hassidic Jew of multiple homicide. Nor have they, to my knowledge, ever prosecuted a gentile or non-orthodox Jew for driving on the Sabbath. So, really, they don’t scare me. The argument goes, however, that we can’t have special legal systems for specific parts of society. Really? So should we disband military tribunals? Their rulings are legally binding. What about the rulings of governing sporting bodies? When they fine a racing driver or cricketer, he doesn’t have the right to refuse, does he?

What the archbishop was arguing for was more recognition of religious values in our legal system. Surely supporters of blasphemy laws or opponents of abortion or unfair trade can see the value in that? If we’re worried that official legal recognition of Islam might lead to the spread of a false religion, to the islamification of Britain, let’s remember that centuries of legal recognition for Christianity has hardly left us with a country full of born-again believers or laws that Christians love. Christians today need to be vigilant not so much of the undue influence of other religions as the aggressive attitude of secular society to our beliefs and of believing too much media rhetoric. Today the fear is of Muslims. In the 1930s it was of a Jewish conspiracy. We remember where that went.

Of course I say all of that, but I watched with relish last week as a group of hackers called Anonymous started their campaign against the church of Scientology. I wish them well. It seems even my religious tolerance has a limit. Who’s the hypocrite now?

Soliciting, generally (Hookers! Hookers! Everywhere, hookers!)

‘Local Crochet Circle At Car Boot Sale’ is a rubbish headline. ‘Hookers Ply Their Trade On Suburban Streets’, as I think Mad Magazine once translated it, is a little more interesting. Which is why, last week, some press used the trial of a man convicted of killing several prostitutes as a way to reignite the fiery debate about the legality of prostitution. To be fair, the government also mooted the idea the buying sex should become a criminal offence, as it is in Sweden. I’m not going to make the point that Sweden is the home of Ikea, the most painfully dull furniture in the universe, and that their suicide statistics dwarf ours. I am sure these facts are not relevant.

And let’s be clear: prostitution in reality is not the same as prostitution in a Julia Roberts movie. It’s dirty, dangerous and degrading, often motivated by drug-addiction. Dummy. But several campaigners for criminalising prostitution call it an inherent act of violence against women, and I’m not so sure that that is accurate or true. It assumes that no prostitute has chosen her profession, that no woman who makes a moral choice we disagree with (or find repugnant even out of a concern for her wellbeing) could be in her right mind. And not only is that ridiculously patronising, it is also naïve and rests on a failure to understand our postmodern pluralist society. We see sex as sacred for whatever reason (it may be Christian faith, it may be humanism or feminism), and we assume that everyone else does too. We are wrong in that assumption. Many people do not share our core beliefs on many things. As Christians our role may be to convince them, but forcing our personal morality onto other people is a dangerous path to tread.

I hear you shouting: ‘Hypocrite!’ You’re thinking: last week you tell us to use our influence in society, but this week you tell us to sit down, shut up and leave the nice pimp alone. What’s the difference between working for our concept of justice in an uninterested world and promoting our vision of personal morality? After all, both involve pressuring people to be more righteous than they want to be. Answer: Issues of justice affect people who have no choice, whereas issues of personal morality concern acts between consenting adults who, if they harm anyone, harm themselves.

Ah, you cry, waving your ‘Stop The Traffik’ leaflet at me. Am I forgetting that many prostitutes are forced into the work by people-traffickers? No. Are you forgetting that forcing anybody to do any kind of work is already illegal? Are we all ignoring the fact that police getting tip-offs from prostitute-visitors as to instances where girls are enslaved in this way (apparently it happens) become unlikely if the informant is likely to be arrested for his trouble?

I understand. I really do. Prostitution is not the sign of a healthy society. And the argument that ‘it has always been around’ doesn’t mean it should stay. Slavery had also always been a part of life. And I understand the revulsion at the mere concept of bringing money into the sexual act. But this is our morality, not everyone’s. And unless we are planning on supporting moves to make homosexuality illegal, or making sleeping with someone you don’t really love after they buy you dinner and a movie punishable by jail, supporting this is at best disingenuous and at worst cultural, not moral. Might as well go the whole hog and make adultery criminal too. If we make the punishment harsh enough, we’ll go a long way towards building bridges with more extreme, sharia-lovin’ muslim communities. I’m sure we all want that?