Police, Protests and the Media

Thursday, 16 December 2010

At the student fees protest in London last week, a young man with cerebral palsy was allegedly twice hauled from his wheelchair and dragged across the ground by police officers. Footage of the incident soon appeared on the internet, while the man, a 20-year-old activist and blogger named Jody McIntyre, was invited onto BBC News to recount his ordeal. “Did you shout anything provocative, or throw anything that would of induced the police to do that to you?” he was asked by the presenter, Ben Brown. “There’s a suggestion that you were rolling towards the police in your wheelchair, is that true?” McIntyre kept his calm and replied. “Do you really think a person with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair, can pose a threat to a police officer who is armed with weapons?”

The BBC has already received a number of complaints about the interview. But the sneering tone of Brown’s questions, which repeatedly punctuate the 7-minute interview, are typical of how the mainstream media have responded to protests and the policing of them both past and present. Their automatic assumption is that the police are protectors of our best interests, defenders of public order, righteous upholders of the law. Protesters, on the other hand, are automatically perceived as a threat and a potential destructive force – they are folk devils: outsiders, troublemakers and vandals of decency.

The police are therefore at an immediate advantage in the media realm, for they are always given the benefit of the doubt. Officers may have had to crack a few skulls during the fees protests, however only because they were provoked by what David Cameron described as "feral thugs". And it is for this same reason that McIntyre was repeatedly placed on the back foot throughout his BBC interview. Was he a “cyber-radical?” Did he want to build a “revolutionary movement?” The police would never just attack a defenceless disabled man in a wheelchair, would they?

This problem is not a new one. For years protesters have been jarred by the gulf between the reality of protests and the way they are reported by the mass media. During the G8 summit in Gleneagles in 2005, for instance, I witnessed firsthand unprovoked police baton charges on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. Dressed in all black, wielding shields, batons and with their faces covered, riot police lunged indiscriminately at anyone within arm’s length – male or female, adult or youth. The sight was shocking. Yet the next day, there was not a whiff of it in the newspapers. “Those seeking to cause disorder laid down the gauntlet to police officers who were determined to keep control,” reported the BBC.

Likewise, when Ian Tomlinson died after being assaulted by a policeman at the G20 protests in London last year, almost all media outlets initially reported the police’s account of events uncritically. Tomlinson had collapsed and stopped breathing, we were told, so officers quickly sprung to his assistance. Police medics tried to revive him as hell-bent protesters threw bricks, bottles and planks of wood – but it was already too late. Of course, none of this was true. There were no bricks or bottles or planks of wood, and neither did the police attempt to assist Tomlinson as he fell to the floor. In fact, as it later turned out, Tomlinson was pushed to the ground by a policeman and it was protesters who helped him to his feet.

It is a difficult thing to accept – that the police, the very individuals whose role it is to protect us, can occasionally perpetrate hideous acts of violence. But those who witnessed police tactics at the recent fees demonstrations will know that the friendly British bobby has a darker side, too. A new generation of young people is consequently now waking up to the grim fact that all is not as it seems. However, unlike in previous eras of mass civil unrest – such as during the 1960s and the 1980s – this generation has technology at its disposal.

As in the case of Jody McIntyre and Ian Tomlinson, camera-phone footage can hold the police to account for their actions like never before. If the reality of the protest is absent from television reports, the truth will eventually surface via the internet. Mainstream media outlets may still continue to negatively portray protesters, but their credibility will slowly begin to wane and disintegrate if they do so for much longer. With the advent YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, there is now, finally, a platform from which both sides of the story can be told.

This article originally appeared at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/media-police-and-protest-now-both-sides-of-story-can-be-reported

Cablegate: Part II

Sunday, 12 December 2010

It has now been two weeks since the beginning of Cablegate – the largest leak of classified intelligence in history. In recent days we have seen the organisation responsible, Wikileaks, endure repeated attacks from across the political spectrum. Crude suppression tactics have been mobilised by powerful American politicians in a desperate attempt to remove Wikileaks from the internet; Paypal, Visa, Mastercard and Amazon have all now severed their ties with the organisation after pressure from the US Homeland Security Committee.

On Tuesday, after much speculation, the police finally crossed paths with Wikileaks’ co-founder, Julian Assange. He was arrested in London and jailed – incidentally in the same prison once occupied by Oscar Wilde – pending an extradition trial in relation to sexual offence allegations made against him in Sweden. “Many people believe that this prosecution is politically motivated,” said his lawyer on the steps of Westminster Magistrates Court. “I am sure that justice will out and Mr Assange will be released and vindicated in due course.”

Yet amazingly, as Cablegate enters its third week, we must remember that this flurry of historic high-drama has been caused by the release into the public domain of just 1,344 of 251,287 – approximately 0.5% – of the confidential embassy cables. The worst, it seems fair to say, is yet to come.

It is going to be a long and arduous process. There will be months of scandals, colourful revelations and allegations of every kind imaginable. Concentration and stamina will be required, for there is a strong likelihood that some massive stories could slip under the radar, lost in an information abyss. Only 14 days in, the sheer deluge of cables already appears to be causing the onset of apathy and laziness, particularly among sections of the press.

Earlier this week, for instance, we learned from the cables that on 24 September 2009 Whitehall told America to ignore then Prime Minister Gordon Brown's statement on the UK’s nuclear deterrent, Trident. Brown had planned to scale back Trident, and on 23 September 2009 said in a speech to the UN General Assembly: “If we are serious about the ambition of a nuclear free world we will need statesmanship, not brinkmanship.” This announcement, one of the cables reveals, “caught many in HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] by surprise.” The Americans were subsequently reassured by high-ranking foreign office policy officials, seemingly behind Brown’s back, that there would be “no daylight” between US and UK nuclear policy. “HMG has not formally decided to scale back the deterrent but would only do so if a government defense [sic] review determines,” the officials stressed.

However the Trident revelations, publicised by the Guardian, were not widely covered by the British media – who were instead focused intently on the arrest of Julian Assange and the lurid content of the allegations made against him. Similarly, during the first few days of Cablegate, several newspapers – particularly the tabloids – devoted more coverage to diplomatic name-calling than to the major revelations that British officials not only promised to protect US interests during the Iraq inquiry, but also made a deal with the US to allow the country to keep cluster bombs in the UK despite the ban on the munitions signed by Gordon Brown.

This week we also learned that prior to the general election in March, Conservative party politicians promised behind the scenes to run a “pro-American regime” and made assurances that, if voted into power, they would buy more arms from the US. While the cables have further revealed – as many suspected – that prior to the release of convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, the UK was under intense pressure from the Libyan government. One cable, dated 24 October 2008, reads: "The Libyans have told HMG flat out that there will be 'enormous repercussions' for the UK-Libya bilateral relationship if Megrahi's early release is not handled properly [...] HMG is also adamant that, despite devolution, London controls foreign policy for the UK, not Edinburgh."

It is at a time like this when journalism should come in to its own. Forget that Vladimir Putin is known in diplomatic circles as “alpha-dog” or Angela Merkel as “Teflon” – there is simply too much at stake here to get distracted by the so-called “tittle-tattle”. As Henry Porter noted in an excellent piece for the Observer, “we have been given a snapshot of the world as it is, rather than the edited account agreed upon by diverse elites”.

Consequently, after having seen a mere 0.5% of the cables so far, we already have clear evidence that suggests members of the British political establishment have engaged in, at the very least, highly undemocratic practice. With clarity the cables confirm that unelected officials, whose faces and names are unknown to the British public, are shaping foreign policy and international relations behind closed doors. Not only this, but these same officials expect and demand the privilege of secrecy in order to do so. This not acceptable in any modern democracy.

But as the first few ripples of Cablegate reverberate through Whitehall, the present coalition government scrambles to “secure its digital borders.” And this will, of course, inevitably lead to greater secrecy and even less transparency in the future. Thus the British media must not fail to harness the moment. The press, web publications and citizen journalists should together use Cablegate to arraign the political establishment, for the good of society and the health of democracy. “You’re going to have so much information about what we do... so use it, exploit it, hold us to account,” said Prime Minister David Cameron in a video posted on YouTube less than a month ago. Now is the time to hold him to his word.

This article originally appeared at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/wikileaks-use-it-exploit-it-hold-us-to-account


Friday, 3 December 2010

"There is not a crime, there is not a dodge, there is not a trick, there is not a swindle, there is not a vice which does not live by secrecy."
– Joseph Pulitzer.

At approximately 6pm on Wednesday, Amazon ousted wikileaks.org from its servers after concerted and aggressive political pressure from America’s Homeland Security Committee. The move came after three solid days of ‘Cablegate’ – the largest intelligence leak in history. 251,287 dispatches from more than 250 US embassies and consulates, to be published slowly but surely in the weeks and months ahead. Among them are allegations of corruption, cover-ups and secret collusion between US and UK officials; dirty tactics exposed on a grand scale. Politicians, diplomats and corporations across the world must now be trembling. Could they be next?

As international reaction testifies, the repercussions of Cablegate are massive. Wikileaks is changing the world without invitation, and the political establishment does not approve. A global witch-hunt for Julian Assange, Wikileaks’ co-founder and figurehead, is now in full swing. Assange should be "hunted" and "executed" say prominent American politicians, who want him extradited and charged under the country’s 1917 Espionage Act, a law introduced to combat socialists and pacifists during the Red Scare. “Obama should put out a contract [to have Assange assassinated] and maybe use a drone or something,” said Professor Tom Flanagan, a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While in France, the birthplace of the Enlightenment, Wikileaks was described as a “threat to democracy”.

Even David Cameron, a devout convert to the church of “A New Politics”, has strongly condemned Wikileaks for their hand in Cablegate. “We condemn the unauthorised release of classified information," his spokesman said on Monday. “Governments need to be able to operate on a confidential basis when dealing with this kind of information.” Yet it was only 10 months ago, in February, that Cameron stood before an audience and proclaimed his commitment to open government and transparency. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he said at the time.

In February, though, Cameron was not Prime Minister. He was still masquerading as a fresh faced candidate for change – a new alternative to the ugly political past. He could afford to pontificate about wild things like “open government” and “transparency” because there was no way to test him on it. He could tell the public what they wanted to hear, and then backtrack from his position once in government – the oldest trick in the book. His Cablegate position confirms this is indeed what he has done, quite blatantly, on the principle of “transparency”.

So far Cameron’s strategy on Cablegate has been one of avoidance and denial. "We are not going to get drawn into the detail of the documents," said his spokesman. The Prime Minister was instead in Zurich yesterday alongside David Beckham and Prince William, making a failed bid to host the World Cup in 2018. But he cannot evade the encroaching reality of this exposé for much longer. According to the cables released so far, British officials not only promised to protect US interests during the Iraq inquiry, but also made a deal with the US to allow the country to keep cluster bombs in the UK despite the ban on the munitions signed by Gordon Brown. The cluster bombs issue, it is said, was deliberately concealed from parliament and was approved by then Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Clearly this raises serious questions about what appears to be a festering culture of backroom democracy across the western world, in which Britain is complicit. Diplomatic secrecy, as critics of Wikileaks argue, may well be in some cases entirely justified and necessary – however not if it means nurturing what Assange himself describes as the “corruption of governance".

The central problem, it seems, is that this “corruption of governance” runs so deep. It is embedded within the very DNA of the political class and has been for generations, hence the high-level, across the board political resistance and opposition to the brand of total transparency advocated by Wikileaks.

Yet as politicians and other powerful figures call for the head of Assange, in their haste they have forgotten he is merely the figurehead of the organisation. The human face of Wikileaks, he is bold, brave and deeply principled. His commitment and dedication to truth and justice should be applauded. But they could hang, draw and quarter Assange and Wikileaks would still survive – thrive, even. “You can kill a man but you can't kill an idea,” as the civil rights activist Medgar Evers once said.

And an idea is precisely what Wikileaks has become. It is no longer simply a website – it is a pure expression of democratic ideals, a philosophy realised by the force of technology. The powerful may condemn and attempt to repress Wikileaks and all it represents, but the situation has long since spun far from their control. Facilitated by the internet, a new battleground has been established. All traditions now hang in the balance and all bets are off.

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/wikileaks-truth-is-not-treason

Press Freedom in Kazakhstan

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

When Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the policy of Glasnost across all Soviet government institutions in the late 1980s, it marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Empire. What the policy meant that for the first time, the press would be able to disseminate uncensored information without fear of reprisal. The details of Stalin’s purges could be published for the first time; the previously hidden detail of endemic social problems could be printed in newspapers; and debates could be had and ideas shared with the Western world – legally. Gorbachev had pulled back the Iron Curtain and, if only momentarily, the Soviet Empire got its first authorised glimpse of democracy.

But 19 years have passed since the end of Gorbachev’s short tenure as President of the Soviet Union, and unfortunately the spirit of Glasnost does not live on. Today it is estimated that nearly 80 per cent of those living in the former Soviet Union still live under authoritarian regimes that deprive them of fundamental political rights and civil liberties. Tightly controlled news media, pliant courts and brutal security forces are prevalent characteristics. The last ten years in particular, according to an extensive survey by Freedom House, have constituted “a decade of democratic regression in the former Soviet Union”.

Nowhere is this more apparent than within the borders of Kazakhstan – where dissenters, journalists and human rights activists have been frequently and consistently repressed with zeal. Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s 70-year old president, is one of only two leaders in the former USSR who also held power during the days of communist rule. Nazarbayev presents himself as a man of democracy, often asserting his commitment to the “protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. In reality, however, he is a dictator committed more so than anything else to the protection and maintenance of his own power.

Glasnost, therefore, is far from the agenda in Kazakhstan. According to Human Rights Watch, independent journalists who criticize Nazarbayev’s government policies and practices face threats and harassment, prohibitive penalties for civil defamation and “antiquated” criminal penalties for libel. This year alone at least two independent newspapers have been shut under Kazakh government pressure, while examples of press repression are reported almost weekly by Almaty-based media monitoring group Adil Soz, reflecting the country’s position as 162 out of 178 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

One newspaper in particular, Respublika, has faced repeated and well-documented harassment from the Kazakh government. In 2002, after having supported an oppositional political party (Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan), reporters from Respublika turned up to work to find the corpse of a decapitated dog outside their offices. Next to the dog was a note that read, simply, “This is the last warning”. The following day, their offices were burned down.

But Republika refused to be intimidated and continued to publish, often under a different name in order to evade the authorities. Banned from the printing presses, and faced with a $400,000 fine in 2009 for publishing an opinion piece critical of the government owned bank BTA, the paper is now self-published by dedicated staff using office equipment, maintaining a circulation of 19,000. They have also adopted social media such as Facebook and Twitter to get their stories out. But their website, which once reached approximately 33,000 people per week (a substantial figure given that approximately only 34.3% of Kazakhstanis have access to the internet), has been blocked internally by the government.

“We had a high readership and people were discussing things, sharing ideas and trying to take action…that was the reason they blocked us,” said Respublika reporter Yevgeniya Plakhina. “If our government doesn’t like the content, they just block it.”

Despite continuing to employ such draconian censorship measures, Kazakhstan has over the course of 2010 chaired the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – a 56 member intergovernmental organisation whose mandate includes a major commitment to “addressing and providing early warning on violations of freedom of expression.”

“It’s beyond ironic,” said Rachel Denber, acting Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia Division. “I think that there were real questions about Kazakhstan’s suitability as the chair of the organisation because of its deeply flawed human rights record. No country is perfect, but Kazakhstan really needed to do more before it had the chairmanship.”

It was felt by some, though, that giving Kazakhstan the opportunity to chair the OSCE would force the government to push through reforms. This was undoubtedly based upon a willingness to give the country’s leadership the benefit of the doubt. After all, when Kazakhstan made its initial bid for the chairmanship in 2007, then Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin had pledged at the OSCE Ministerial Council in Madrid that Kazakhstan would bring its media laws up to international standards. “We are going to incorporate various proposals into a consolidated bill to amend the Media Law,” he said at the time. Yet three years on, the pledge rings hollow.

“Tazhin promised in Madrid that we would stick to democratic laws,” said Plakhina. “But when Kazakhstan was chosen to chair the OSCE nothing actually changed. It got even worse… several newspapers were closed as a result of defamation lawsuits.”

Part of the problem, Plakhina believes, is Kazakhstan’s geographical location. The country is a corridor to Afghanistan and a key ally of coalition forces in the War on Terror. It is also home to the Caspian Sea, which contains oil estimated to be worth in the region of $12 trillion.

“We have oil, we have gas, we have other resources,” Plakhina says. “I think our rights and freedoms are traded for resources, traded for other political advantages that OSCE member countries are taking from us. Few of the OSCE members criticise Kazakhstan. That’s what really disappoints me.”

Later this week, Kazakhstan will end its one year term as chair of the OSCE by hosting the annual OSCE summit, on December 1 and 2. International security is set to form the dominant part of the programme, but human rights and media freedom issues will also feature. Human Rights Watch will present a statement at the summit that will “urge the OSCE to prevail on participating states to uphold their commitments to freedom of expression across the board,” and the British delegation – led by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – will also raise human rights concerns.

“We continue to be concerned about freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and of the media [in Kazakhstan],” said a spokesperson for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who also praised the country for taking steps with its reform agenda. “We and international partners will continue to encourage the Kazakh authorities, both bilaterally and through key international organisations such as the EU and OSCE, to press ahead with reforms, many of which they themselves have identified as necessary.”

This will offer little reassurance for Plakhina and her colleagues at Respublika, though. For them there remains a sense of anxiety about what will happen when Kazakhstan steps back from the international scrutiny inevitably attached to the chairmanship of the OSCE. The newspaper, for instance, recently received an anonymous email informing them that after the summit they would be closed down once and for all.

“After the summit you will hear about a lot of bad things going on in Kazakhstan,“ Plakhina says. “We won’t any longer have to hide our human rights violations… things are going to take a turn for the worse. We are trying to increase awareness in European countries about what is going to happen, but there is not much hope. As long as Nazarbayev is president, nothing is going to change.”

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/ryan-gallagher/decapitated-dogs-and-burning-bureaus-year-kazakhstan-did-democracy

Psychic TV

Sunday, 7 November 2010

At just after 1am on a Saturday morning, an emotional woman picks up her phone and dials a premium rate phone number. Moments later she is connected to a live television psychic, to whom she tearfully explains her predicament. Her partner has just left her, she says, and he told her he is never coming back. The psychic pauses for a brief second, takes a deep breath, and unleashes a stream of spiritual wisdom. “There’s going to be a time and space where you won’t get communication,” he tells the woman, “but I’ve got to say to you, he does come back.”

The example is just one of many that could be culled from an evening watching Psychic TV – a popular interactive television programme available on both SKY and Freeview. The show, which claims to have just under 30m viewers, operates under the discreet disclaimer that it is for “entertainment purposes only,” rendering it legitimate under Ofcom’s recently revised Broadcasting Code. But to spend a few hours glued to Psychic TV late on any given Friday night is to confirm not only that Ofcom’s rules are lax – they are also being heavily flouted.

At a cost of £1.50 per minute, viewers are offered “the truth” from “natural born psychic mediums” who claim they can communicate with animals, talk to the dead and even detail past lives. The trouble is, it’s all absolutely serious. The psychics are keen to present themselves as authentic, offering callers ‘validation’ that they are bona fide “the best psychics in Britain,” genuinely in touch with the spirit world. “Our job is to prove to you beyond all doubt, without making it fit, that what we are doing is real,” one psychic named Hazel Lee announces. “We change lives… and the next person we help could be you.”

Not one psychic on Psychic TV presents him or herself as a novelty act, offering a service solely for the purposes of ‘entertainment’. In fact, the psychics spend much of their time trying to convince the audience of their legitimacy, citing a range of credentials as proof. Some of them went to the College of Psychic Studies, we are told – an establishment that says it is a "beacon of light and learning for those seeking to explore a consciousness beyond matter" – while others were apparently visited by spirits as children or had their ‘gift’ passed down hereditarily. Whether it be “pinpointing the cause of medical and physical problems,” or “tuning into your animal's deepest thoughts” – Psychic TV can offer it all. But at what cost?

According to Ofcom, “while psychic services may give rise to concerns about moral harm, no evidence of such harm is known to Ofcom.” Research commissioned by the regulator even goes as far as to use adjectives like “informative”, “uplifting”, “inspiring”, and “insightful” to describe Psychic TV. Female viewers in particular, the research notes, often perceive the show as “trustworthy and supportive”. But not everybody would agree. During consultations in 2007, for instance, The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adopted a far more critical position. “Psychic reading channels raise significant harm and offence concerns,” they said.

The problem is that Ofcom, unlike the ASA, has been far too willing to overlook the huge moral and ethical questions raised by the existence of Psychic TV shows. It is part of their mission, they say, to protect against sharp practise and prevent misleading advertising. Yet their approval of a programme offering life changing ‘truth’ and advice drawn from ‘spirits’ at a price of £1.50 per minute suggests they have fallen asleep on duty. As a regulatory body serving the public interest, Ofcom must therefore reassess whether it is right, fair and decent that a for-profit business enterprise is given free rein to prey on the emotions, fears and anxieties of the lonely, lost and vulnerable.

Read Ofcom's response here.

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/psychic-tv-consciousness-beyond-matter-and-ofcom

The Woolas Judgement

Saturday, 6 November 2010

It was during the general election campaign in May that it began: a tense political battle that would eventually go down in history for all the wrong reasons. Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas versus Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins, in a fight to the wire to win the notoriously marginal seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth.

Woolas, of course, went on to claim victory in the election – by just 103 votes – but the real drama was only just about to get started. In the aftermath of the election, Watkins filed a legal challenge to the result. Woolas had breached the Representation of the People Act (RPA), he said, because he had published several false statements about him in order to sway the electorate in his favour.

Central to the allegations was a claim that Woolas had tried to infer a connection between Watkins and extremist Muslims who advocated violence. Racial tensions run high in the constituency – which has a troubled history of inter-racial violence – and the implications were severe. Was a senior and high-ranking Labour politician using smear tactics against an opponent, while in the process potentially inciting racial hatred in a desperate bid to cling on to his seat?

It would be up to the judges to decide. A special election court was convened in Saddleworth, and there could scarcely have been a more incongruous setting for a trial of such historic significance. The first of its kind in nearly 100 years, it was to be set in a small Civic Hall in the confines of an idyllic Pennine town. High Court judges would travel from London, as would the national media, and all would watch closely as the dark underbelly of British politics was sliced open miles from the hustle and bustle of Manchester.

The court heard how emails were exchanged between members of Woolas’ campaign team. “Things are not going as well as I had hoped … we need to think about our first attack leaflet,” wrote campaign manager, Steven Green. "If we don’t get the white vote angry he’s gone,” responded Joe Fitzpatrick, Woolas’ election agent. An array of leaflets and newspaper-style materials were then promptly produced by the Labour team, approved by Woolas, accusing Watkins of trying to “woo” extremist votes, while Woolas himself was conversely presented as a tough on immigration candidate who had courageously defied extremist death threats.

Opinion was divided across the political spectrum. Many felt such tactics were simply part and parcel of electoral campaigning. “By-election hand-to-hand electoral combat can throw up trenchant exchanges and tricky campaign behaviour,” said Charles Kennedy of a similarly close-fought Saddleworth election in 1995. “One should not be too precious about this sort of thing.” Sitting in Labour’s Oldham office a week prior to the announcement of the Woolas verdict, Racial Equality First Director and lifelong Labour supporter Mohammed Tufail OBE adopted a similar position. Inflammatory leaflets werejust playing the game,he said. “Sometimes you put in nutty leaflets nobody takes seriously.”

Others, though, strongly disagreed. Among them were two High Court judges: Mr Justice Griffith Williams and Mr Justice Teare. Delivering a historic ruling in the Saddleworth Civic Hall, they found Woolas “guilty of an illegal practice,” for contravening section 106 of the RPA. “To say that a person has sought the electoral support of persons who advocate extreme violence, clearly attacks his personal character or conduct,” they said. “It suggests that he is willing to condone threats of violence in pursuit of personal advantage.”

The consequences, the judges made immediately clear, were serious. “Allegations of an illegal practice in elections,” they wrote in their full judgement, “have what are in effect penal consequences.” As such, the May election Woolas won by 103 votes was declared void, and he was barred from the House of Commons and any elective office for three years.

Some of us expected it, but the verdict still came as a shock. There was a collective gasp in the hall’s makeshift press gallery when the announcement was made, particularly when the words “election” and “void” echoed through the room. It was a historic moment and all present were acutely aware of it. Here was a former cabinet minister, a front bench MP, being found guilty of lying by two High Court judges in a Civic Hall in a serene Pennine town.

But the story has far from reached its conclusion. Woolas said after hearing the verdict that he would apply for a judicial review of the case, which could take months. Though it remains to be seen whether he will stick to his guns after the Labour Party confirmed they would not support his appeal – either financially or politically. Ed Miliband, who offered Woolas a position on the shadow cabinet just over a month ago, told Channel 4 News Woolas had now been suspended from the party. “The right decision is to suspend him from the party and to say we're not going to fund his further legal action,” he said.

Beyond Woolas, there is also a much bigger picture to be considered. If the judgement stands – which it most likely will – then there are potentially massive implications for politics on a national level. In the first instance, there is a danger that freedom of expression could be impinged. A paranoid self-censorship could result in overly sanitised, dull political campaigns lacking in fire or bite; there could be a “chilling effect” as Woolas' solicitor suggested.

Alternatively, the judgement may well serve as a timely reminder that there are some boundaries that cannot be crossed – that it is acceptable to push the line, to engage in rhetorical judo with opponents, but it is not legal to execute unfounded character assassinations, to spread lies or to incite racial hatred.

Or perhaps the repercussions will be limited, as legal experts have already predicted. Whatever the eventual consequences of the Woolas judgement might be, though, it is clear is that the trial – even if only temporarily – opened up the mechanics of political campaigning to public scrutiny, and that can only have been a good thing.

In essence, the whole dramatic affair was summed up in a few simple words quietly spoken by Elwyn Watkins in the moments after his historic victory. "Everybody is in favour of proper democratic debate, but that has boundaries," he said, standing outside the Civic Hall. “Politics has to be better than this."

This article appeared originally at: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/woolas-judgement

More coverage of the Woolas case by me appears in the FT: see here, here and here.

Groundhog Day in Metropolis

Saturday, 11 September 2010

The sound of my alarm clock hits me like a jolt of lightening at exactly 7.45am, as I am abruptly awoken from a vivid dream about a past life of some kind. I press snooze, but there is no going back; the birds are singing outside and I have a train to catch.

Bleary eyed, I pull the bedsheets from over myself and stumble like a drunk towards the bathroom, stubbing my toe on a pile of half-read books propped up against a wall. "Bastards," I mumble, stepping into the shower in a clambering attempt to gain full consciousness, almost slipping in the bathtub as I attempt to open a window to let in some fresh air. Warm water blasts over my skin and I begin to feel alive, but time is short and there is no time to revel in the moment.

I get dressed, have breakfast and leave with plenty time to make my train. On my way I pass a school and it sends a chill up my spine. A car speeds past with music blaring, and my thoughts shift elsewhere. I focus on the sound of the bass drum repeating – a deep, low thud, loud enough to awaken the entire street – but the noise quickly fades as the car vanishes toward the city.

I continue walking and notice a smashed up car by the side of the road. It is wine red in colour with racing style markings in white emblazoned on its side. Beyond the car, on the opposite side of the street, I see a mother trailed by her three children – two boys, about eight years old, and a girl, about six – marching like soldiers along the pavement. They are all dressed in matching grey and navy school uniforms, and the boys look mischievous, as if they are plotting an escape; the girl, in contrast, appears passive and obedient as she trots alongside her mother.

As I approach the main road, I notice a woman standing smoking outside a grey, concrete, box-like building. Bits of broken glass surround her, though she seems oblivious. She is holding a mobile phone to her ear with one hand, and has a cigarette in the other. There is an agitated tone in her hoarse voice, and as I pass her an unwelcome blast of pungent perfume rushes with force up my nostrils; I feel awake now.

I cross the main road, dodging rush hour traffic, and with five minutes to spare arrive at the train station. I purchase a ticket from a female attendant and climb the well-worn stairs towards the platform. A handful of others are mulling around, waiting for the train. I lean against a wall and close my eyes. The morning sun shines on my face, and for a few brief seconds I feel as relaxed and content as I ever have.

At 8.46am a freight train speeds past, just as I notice two familiar looking women talking to a man on the far side of the platform. They look awake and full of energy; I wonder who they are, where they are going and where they are from. I make eye-contact with one of the women, but she immediately turns her glance elsewhere.

Seconds later, like clockwork, my train arrives on time. I board and find a seat next to an overweight middle-aged man wearing a black pinstripe suit. He is reading a tabloid newspaper, chewing gum, and has a briefcase clutched between his feet. I hope I don’t end up like him, I think to myself, as I concentrate on the sound of the tracks and fall into a daydream about the future.

The carriage is hot and stuffy, but thankfully the journey is only a short one. After only fifteen minutes the train stops and everybody shuffles off, entering into a clingy blanket of musty city air whilst neurotically avoiding physical contact of any kind with other passengers. I step carefully over the gap between the train and the platform and watch the rat race begin.

People pour from the doors of the train with furious speed, charging towards the exit; the sound of the station tannoy bounces from the walls like a football; and with my senses buzzing I catch bits of conversations taking place all around me. The only words I can hear, though, are those of Jimmy Reid:

“A rat race is for rats… a rat race is for rats… a rat race is for rats… a rat race is for rats…”

Amidst the crowds I suddenly begin to feel very alone, and just then I see a girl shining like the sun standing dead centre in the middle of the station. Dark skinned, with curly brown hair, her smile is like a beacon of light to a ship lost at sea. For a moment everything is in slow motion, but in a flash she is gone.

The sight of the girl fills me with a strange, unforeseen optimism. Her image comforts me as I gather my thoughts, stepping through the doors of the station, moving towards the city centre, towards the eye of the storm, taking one step at a time headlong into the metropolis.

Labour Party Leadership

Thursday, 22 July 2010

I put together an analysis of the Labour Party leadership contest for openDemocracy the other day. It's a bit too long and dry to repost here, but if you are interested you can find it by following this link: http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/ryan-gallagher/labour-leadership-contest-round-up

Giles Thorley and the Great British Pubco: a Sordid Tale of Inequality and Subjugation

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

After nine-years at the helm of Britain’s biggest pub company, Giles Thorley announced in March that he is to stand down as Chief Executive of Punch Taverns in order to pursue “time with his family”. The departure is amicable – a statement issued by Punch thanked Thorley for his “incredible commitment and drive” – but as the door closes behind him he will leave in his wake a trail of debts, bankruptcies and boarded up pubs; his steps towards life as a family man slowed only by the sheer weight of the gold lining his pockets.

Amassing for himself a personal fortune of an estimated £30m during his short tenure at Punch, Thorley’s success was built upon a mountain of debt. Clinging to his unwavering belief in the model of securitisation throughout the recession, he led the company down a path that seen them sink £4.5bn into the red, as the company estate was used as an asset in order to expand the Punch empire to encompass what at one point reached more than 8,500 properties UK-wide.

In the face of massive arrears, though, Thorley reaped rewards. He earned £11.3m for a year’s work in 2007, yet his accumulation of wealth was starkly contrasted with the struggling plight of those renting pubs from Punch Taverns. The Guardian’s annual survey of executive pay awarded Thorley the dubious honour of “boss whose salary is most out of line with his employees,” for, as the report noted, his remuneration package was equal to 1,147 times that of his workers. The TUC’s general secretary, Brendan Barber, described Thornley's pay-packet as “morally offensive."

But such a stark level of inequality is not confined only to the bank balance of Punch Taverns' outward-bound CEO – rather, it is engrained in the very fabric of the pubco and its culture. A government report in 2009, for example, found that over 50% of lessees whose pub had turnover of more than £500,000 a year earned less than £15,000. “The pubcos may share the risks with their lessees but they do not share the benefits equitably,” it concluded. According to a separate report carried out by researchers at the University of Durham – which surveyed 3,000 landlords on their income, rent and costs – 73% of publicans on a ‘tied contract’ with a pubco earn less than £10,000 a year from the business.

A tied contract is, like its name suggests, a state of bondage. It is a ball and chain around the ankles of pubco leaseholders that forces them to work twice as hard as their ‘free’ counterparts for not even a fraction of the same reward. Seduced by the prospect of affordable entry into the pub trade, prospective tenants are lured into signing up with promises of reduced rent. However, obligated to purchase some or all of the beer sold on their premises at an inflated price from the landlord (i.e. Punch), as well as share with them profits from pool tables and fruit machines on top of meeting rent payments, the reality is in fact that it is often a struggle to make ends-meet for tied-tenants.

The arrangement is almost feudal in character, with leaseholders bound to a kind of contractual serfdom. Told they are ‘partners’ but treated like slaves, they are subjugated, regulated and observed from a distance by their lord and master. Every pint they pull is monitored at all times by an electronic device to make sure they don’t dare purchase beer from anyone else but the pubco.

Horror stories told by current and ex pubco leaseholders share the same narrative, to the point that reading alternative accounts becomes like a case of déjà vu. “My niece and myself are Punch Taverns tenants and we have had a tortuous time” wrote Graham Brown in a memorandum submitted to the Business and Enterprise Committee, “Pub Companies are using their purchasing power to increase profits rather than to benefit the tenants." Another Punch leaseholder named Val Hogan echoed the same sentiment in a post made on the Times Online website: “This company has single handedly showcased to me what greed actually means,” she wrote. “They take your money, your hard work, treat you like you are an idiot… 45k may not be a lot to them, but it sure as hell meant a lot to me, it was my house, and I lost it. Thanks Punch.”

Aware of the severity of the problem, the Business and Enterprise Committee (now the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (BISC)) began an investigation into pubco practice in 2004, with a follow up report published in 2009. Initially it was conservative in its recommendations, stating it was not clear "that removing the beer tie would make tenants better off" – but by 2009 the committee was fairly unequivocal. Quoting an FSB poll, the 2009 report noted that “94% of respondees wanted an end to the tie." It added that “the consistency of these themes suggests that something is seriously amiss." The committee finally recognised that the beer tie results in a “decrease in the lessee's income [that] is absolute”.

There is now widespread political support for pubco reform. Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, as part of their policy proposals announced prior to the general election, all pledged to implement statutory regulation should the industry refuse to self-regulate – providing cross party backing for the stern warning issued by the BISC in March. “If [the industry] fails to deliver on its promises by June 2011,” the BISC wrote, “it should be in no doubt what the reaction will be.”

Attempting to forestall government action, Punch Taverns has announced that it will trial a ‘free of tie’ lease in September, but scrutiny of the terms of what the company is calling the “Punch Buying Club” proves it is little more than an exercise in clever P.R – only some beer will qualify as ‘free of tie’ and any money the tenant saves in beer discounts will be quickly swallowed by a sharp increase in rent. In essence, the relationship will not change.

Statutory regulation is what is needed, for the notion that the market can and will regulate itself has again been exposed as one of the greatest fallacies in modern times. Too much damage has already been done. For too long the government has sat back apathetically whilst pubcos have swung wrecking balls repeatedly at the foundations of equity and decency in the name of profit. Giles Thorley might be sailing off into the sunset £30m richer, but thousands of pubco leaseholders are crammed onto a single ship and it’s sinking. It’s about time we sent a rescue party.