Archive for August, 2011

The Daily Mail and Amy Winehouse

August 24, 2011 4 comments

The Daily Mail report today:

After her tragic death in July there was considerable speculation regarding the cause of Amy’s death.

But today it has been announced that the toxicology results have been returned to the Winehouse family by authorities and confirm that there were no illegal substances in Amy’s system at the time of her death.

A few weeks ago, various writers for the Mail website had their own conclusions already made.

Melanie Phillips had it:

she herself chose the louche lifestyle that eventually claimed her life. But many others were complicit.

As Amy Winehouse was synonymous with addiction, it was unsurprising that many guesses would be made in this direction – but Phillips felt it appropriate to throw caution to the wind and assert that a “louche lifestyle” got the better of her in the end.

Phillips also said:

The singer had battled drug and alcohol addiction for years, and while the cause of her death has initially been put down to drink, there are reports she bought drugs the night before she died.

These reports, also seen in the Mail, are echoed only by suspect reportage that a drug dealer by the name of Tony Azzopardi helped her score Class A drugs the night previous – though this conflicts with her Father’s pleas that Winehouse had kicked her habits, with reports before her death to say the same – and are seemingly at odds now with the toxicological assessment that Winehouse had no illegal substances in her body at her time of death.

The rest of Melanie’s article is filled with self-praise that she has it right on drugs, and that the liberal-left have it wrong; drugs equals death and that’s that – just look at Winehouse.

It fit her narrative, so why wait for test results to appear.

The day before her death, Ephraim Hardcastle, known for lazy journalism, wrote about a picture of Amy and her Father, Mitch, by saying:

Druggy pop singer Amy Winehouse’s cabbie father, Mitch, 60, pictured with her, is warbling at New York’s Blue Note jazz club.

For both of these writers, clues that Amy may have curbed her drug use were all too clear. Over the days before her death there are a mess of articles in the paper they write for concurring assumptions that she kicked drugs (even if they then went on to criticise her for her drinking habits).

And over the 15 days before her death the Mail had articles (contradicting themselves) on the site called:

  • She’s back and in fine form: Amy Winehouse returns to the stage for comeback gig in Brazil
  • Amy Winehouse can’t help but admire her assets as she soaks up the sun in Brazil
  • Life’s going swimmingly: But a healthy-looking Amy Winehouse doesn’t get her beehive wet round the pool
  • What a difference a year makes! Clean-living lifestyle pays off for healthy-looking Amy Winehouse
  • Bruise that girl: Amy Winehouse displays nasty leg injuries as she hangs out by the pool
  • Feeling a bit bloated, Amy? Winehouse shows signs of overindulgence as she lets it all hang out by the pool
  • Amy Winehouse looks glowing as she arrives back in London after Brazil trip

For some writers, the death of a singer was an excuse to re-hash the anti-drug message, but today results reveal the tenuousness of that excuse. If true, the toxicological results should embarrass writers for whom it’s their unique selling point to taunt troubled individuals.

Freedom to wait

August 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I know that pretty well everyone inhabiting the blogosphere logs on to Though Cowards Flinch as soon as they wake up in the morning, desperate for an update on two vitally important Freedom of Information requests I have in train.  So here’s a quick update.

1.  Lancashire County Council/BT contract (back story here and here)

 17 May 2011: FOI request made

I wish to request, under Freedom of Information legislation, a full copy of the contract between Lancashire County Council and BT as it pertains to the Joint Venture Company, One Connect Ltd.
In reviewing my request, you may want to take into account the Information Commissioner’s recent decision to order the publication of the contract between Liverpool City Council and BT in respect of the Liverpool Direct Joint Venture Company.

14 June : Reply from LCC stating that extension on 20 day time limit needed in order to conduct public interest test. Deadline for reply 14 July

15 July:  Follow up from me chasing reply, and reply from LCC saying views of BT being sought and apologising for delay

18 July: Reply from LCC saying reply of 15 July was wrong and that BT views are being examined by LCC legal services

01 August: Follow up from me asking about progress (unanswered)

24 August: Follow up from me requiing subsantive reply by 26th August, failing which formal complaint about Council misconduct will be made, along with direct approach to Information Commissioner on basis that Council have not acted reasonably.

2.  Regional Growth Fund funding application and scoring criteria (BIS) (back story and details here)

20 April 2011: FOI request made

I wish to make a request for information under the Freedom of Information legislation. Please provide:

1) Copies of all funding applications that were successful in attracting Regional Growth Funds, as announced on Tuesday 24th March 2011.

2) A copy of any assessment and scoring criteria used by the Regional Growth Fund panel used to decide which applications should be funded.

3) Any correspondence from BIS and the Western Morning News in relation to this organisation’s application to the Regional Growth Fund.

24 May: Reply from BIS stating that extension on 20 day time limit needed in order to conduct public interest test. Deadline for reply 22  June

22 June: Reply from BIS turning down sections 1 and 2 of the FOI request (section 3 complied with).

05 July: I request internal review of BIS decision, on these grounds.

24 August: I chase internal review process and receive immediate reply giving second week of September as expected response time.



The further delusions of Tony Blair

August 23, 2011 2 comments

Tony Blair’s Comment is Free article on the reason for the riots brought the inevitable howls of derision. Of the 1986 comments posted to date, the vast majority are either too vicious for the moderator to allow through, or focus on whether Tony Blair’s character and/or war criminal record really make him an authority on moral issues.  Relatively few people actually seem to have bothered to digest what he actually says.  This is a shame, because the article reveals a lot not just about Tony Blair’s deep revisionism concerning his record in office but, more importantly, gives an important insight into one of the very worst aspects of the New Labour paradox – its overbearing managerialism set alongside its refusal to engage with the murky but very real world of policy implementation.  As such, the article offers an important lesson for the Centre Left/Left on how to do things better the next time it gets the chance.

For our purposes, this is the crucial section in the article:

Most of them [those involved in the riots] are shaping up that way by the time they are in primary school or even in nursery. They then grow up in circumstances where their role models are drug dealers, pimps, people with knives and guns, people who will exploit them and abuse them but with whom they feel a belonging. Hence the gang culture that is so destructive…..

By the end of my time as prime minister, I concluded that the solution was specific and quite different from conventional policy. We had to be prepared to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred. And we had to reform the laws around criminal justice, including on antisocial behaviour, organised crime and the treatment of persistent offenders. We had to treat the gangs in a completely different way to have any hope of success. The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were “stigmatising” young people. After I’d left, the agenda lost momentum. But the papers and the work are all there.

Let us leave aside the petty jibe that, had Blair remained in office, he would have sorted out gangs and gangs culture by now, so it must be Gordon Brown’s fault.  Let us also leave aside for now the evidence, ignored by Blair, that a large section of those who involved themselves in the rioting and looting actions are not actually in gangs, at least under any generally accepted definition of what a gang is (see Shiv Malik on this).  Let us instead focus on the Blair view that what is needed to sort out the problems, as he conceives them, is a radical new policy, specific to those who engage in anti-social behaviour, which he devised in his last years as PM and the like of which we had never seen before.

At one level, we can see this assertion as a simple lie by Blair.  We need only look at the Social Exclusion Policy Action Team No.8 report on anti-social behaviour, which was published in 2000, for very clear evidence that New Labour policy on anti-social behaviour and gang management was developed very early in the Blair period, and includes all the elements that Blair now says were lacking, and which he wanted to introduce.  All the factors that lead people towards anti-social behaviour/gangs, which Blair claims to have just discovered, are clearly set out (see para .1.32 for the ‘Risk Factors’ table), and all the measures that Blair now claims would be a total innovation in policy are present and correct (summarised at para. 6.12) throughout the report – early intervention, a family-focused approach, the use of ASBOs, evicting perpetrators, it’s all there.

But I think there is more to Blair’s article than a simply attempt to cast himself in the best light possible.  I think Blair’s revisionist narrative tells us a lot about the New Labour approach to social policy in general.  Underlying Blair’s revisionist narrative is New Labour’s core managerialist assumption that if a problem has not been resolved, it is because the policy designed to resolve it was wrong, and a new policy is needed.  In most cases under New Labour, this new policy tended to be a shift towards the authoritarian right. 

What New Labour’s consistently failed to grasp was that policy as implemented is hardly ever the same as policy devised, and that the main reason top-down policies fail to deliver on their objectives is that policy implementation is mediated by frontline workers,through their engagement with (often reluctant) service users, though in many cases gaming of targets and results allowed objectives to be met on paper, though not in reality.  New Labour’s obsession with targets in particular stopped it from realising that the best way to develop effective policy is not to insist a bit harder that frontline workers should be strategic and focused (through the creation of an Implementation Unit reporting directly to Blair), but to trust frontline workers to do their jobs, and resource them appropriately. 

I have covered in some detail the effects of New Labour’s failure to understand the dynamics of policy implementation when it comes to Welfare Reform, showing how policy designed to include people from society was bound to exclude people instead.  I have also covered how New Labour’s policy centralised Children’s Centre policymaking was great in theory, but ended up alienating those who needed the service most in practice.  The failure of New Labour to deal effectively with anti-social behaviour, through the further stigmatization and alienation of a section of people, is just another example.

None of this, of course, provides an answer to how government should deal with anti-social behaviour and gang culture.  The issues are deep, the problems intractable, and there is no silver bullet, though I have suggested here that a part of the solution MUST be to recognise that the problems we face today were caused by deliberate government action is the 1960s and 1970s, and that only be taking responsibility for these mistakes will any future Labour government be in a position to give a whole generation of disaffected young people a fresh stake in mainstream society.  Such a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process will need to be in addition to the creation of a material environment  through decent quality jobs and a public environment which nurture mutual respect. 

But before all of that, Milibandian Labour needs to recognise, and reflect upon, some very straightforward truths about what New Labour got wrong, and which Blair continues to get wrong (and it is not even in the Tory hierarchy’s interests even to understand the concepts covered here).  Effective policymaking and implementation are not just about ideas on what might work and then announcing the grand plan;  they are about handing over the power to make it happen.  That should be a central plank of what makes Labour different from the Tories.

ONS gets a quiet word from the regulator

August 22, 2011 2 comments

Amidst all the dramatic events of the last week or so, this letter of 16th August, from the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority (the regulator) to the Director General of the Office for National Statistics, does not appear to have been picked up on in the blogosphere (though I may have missed coverage as I’ve been away).

The letter concerns the media controversy over the way in which the ONS reported on the Q2 GDP Statistical Bulletin, referring to several ‘special factors’ as reasons why the growth figures was only 0.2%.  The Bulletin went as far as to suggest that, without these special factors, growth “may” have been 0.7%, although an important caveat is added:

These estimates must be regarded as broad brush and illustrative. There can be no certainty as to the impact of the special events and there may be other factors at play.


The letter from the Chair of the Statistics Authority is carefully worded but, amidst the niceties, this section stands out:

There may be benefit in further developing the commentary so that it is fully understood by all commentators that a discussion of special factors will routinely be published regardless of whether the effects of those factors is to increase or decrease GDP. It may also be that any quantified estimate of the net effect of the special factors should only be published as part of a full analysis, if at all.

It is hard to read this as anything other than a slap on the wrist from the regulator, who is clearly concerned that ONS is being drawn into a defence of the Coalition, through the use of “quantified estimates” which are totally unbacked by any justifying rationale, but appear to have been plucked out of the air as a way of helping the Coalition explain away the poor growth.

The Director General of ONS has replied to the regulator with an equally carefully worded letter, in which he slips in what is effectively an admision of guilt, under the guise of an update about methodoligical review:

We will in the autumn be reviewing with the GSS Methodology Advisory Committee the approach we are taking on the estimation of the effects of special factors. I will ensure that review takes account of the points you have raised.

It’s good to see the National Statistics regulator on his toes, but I for one will be taking an interest in whether and how this methodological review is carried through. 

If the Coalition starts to think that it can get away not just with undue influence over the media, but also – however discreetly – over quintessential aspects of the country’s civil service machinery, trouble surely lies ahead.  




Categories: Terrible Tories

The remaking of the English Working Class

August 21, 2011 2 comments

As I sat in the holiday sun this week, far from the British State’s thuggish post-riot clampdown, I re-read EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class

The dynamics of an increasingly embittered population living on the margins of late eighteenth century ‘respectable’ society, creating its own legitimacy of action through the looting of consumer goods, seemed very relevant:

The distinction between the legal code and the unwritten popular code is a commonplace at any time. But rarely have the two codes been more sharply distinguished from each other than in the second half of the eighteenth century…..

In urban and rural communities alike, a consumer consciousness preceded other forms of political  or industrial antagonism…..

Such ‘riots’ were popularly regarded as acts of justice’…..Actions on such a scale indicate an extraordinarily deep-rooted pattern of behaviour and belief……

The final years of the eighteenth century [had seen] a last desperate effort by the people to reimpose the old moral economy as against the economy of the freenmarket….Thereafter the total breakdown of customary controls contributed much to popular bitterness against a Parliament of protectionist landlords and laissez faire commercial magnates.

And Thompson concludes:

In considering only this one form of ‘mob’ action we have come upon unsuspected complexities, for behind every such form of popular direction action some legitimizing notion of right is to be found.

Maybe there’s some more coherence in the young woman “getting her taxes back” than is being given credit.

Categories: Law, Socialism, Terrible Tories

Message to Richard Balfe – Isolate Plymouth City Council

August 17, 2011 6 comments

To modify an old saying, my journalism skills knows some bounds!

I just put down the phone to one Richard Balfe, David Cameron’s envoy to the Trade Unions. During my minute long conversation with him I asked him if he’d heard about Plymouth’s Conservative-run City Council’s decision to “de-recognise” the biggest public sector union Unison.

He hadn’t. In fact he has just come back from Brussels and has not had a chance to catch up. I informed him about the details, which have come from the Political Scrapbook website. He replied that he was not going to comment, before politely putting down his receiver.

I quickly emailed him thanking him for taking the call, signing off by saying if he did feel like commenting not to hesitate in contacting me. He soon emailed back explaining, again, about having just returned to the UK, and not being up to speed on this matter.

When Mr Balfe does manage to get himself up to speed on matters I look forward to seeing what he has to say, particularly as this could prove very interesting for him, the link he has to his party the Conservatives (after leaving, or rather being thrown out of, the Labour Party in 2002) and the Trade Union movement who he will want to remain largely on good terms with – especially now that militancy is back on the cards.

Instead of offering Mr Balfe my own words of wisdom, I should like to remind him of his own, from ConservativeHome earlier this year: “let us not demonise the Unions, but realise they are doing what their members pay them for – that is getting the best deal possible for their members.”

If Mr Balfe really thinks this holds true, then the decision by Plymouth Council to tell Unison reps to vacate their offices, after refusing to sign up to what they say are discriminatory changes to terms and conditions, is contrary to his own heartfelt sentiments.

On meeting with David Cameron in his role as envoy, after he has settled back home and glanced over the papers (which, admittedly, will include a great many articles about riots and looters), I hope he puts forward serious reservations about these events.

Again, in his own words: “I don’t think I could have joined the [Conservative] party under Thatcher.” Possibly because its loathing for unions is much like Plymouth’s now. Let’s hope an arrangement is settled soon, and Unison offices are re-opened again pronto.

Demands for Travel as Pleasure – My blog for Frost Magazine

August 17, 2011 3 comments

“House prices in London are stupid, and so, too, are rent prices. The average wage in London is approximately £24k per annum, but to afford somewhere half decent in most places you’re looking at paying at the very least a quarter of your monthly income on rent alone (nearer half depending on how below average you earn), excluding bills, internet, cider from a Samuel Smith bar on a Friday and the countless amount of birthday pots you have to fill in the office – not to mention your round of “Friday treats”.”


In what way is society ill? A criminological perspective

August 15, 2011 2 comments

Ed Miliband, during some very wise soundbites on last week’s riotous events, today said:

There is an easy and predictable path for politicians.

It might even be the more popular in the short term – and I heard some people demand it on the streets.

It puts the riots down to “criminality” pure and simple. And stops there.

It says that to explain is to excuse.

If others wish to tread this path, that is a matter for them.

But it’s not the one for me.

It is not strength but an absolute abdication of responsibility to the victims, our communities and the country.

Because if we follow that approach, we run the risk of disturbances happening again. (My emphasis)

Nobody outside of the far right, epistemically closed, populist, fear-whipping press should be happy with the conclusion that riots were down to pure criminality. Especially not elected parliamentarians, and certainly not a Prime Minister.

In Criminological fields, the riots may look something like the routine activity theory (where crime arises out of an opportunity with three key ingrediants: a motivated criminal, a suitable target, and a lack of guardian, control or policing – basically what Clapham Junction looked like, with criminals targeting shops selling high-value purchases like phones or branded trainers, and with no police to stop them) and subcultural theory (where youths assume that given the current economic climate it is more profitable to engage in criminal activity than to try and enter mainstream society – where they may be absent from).

But on the question of criminality itself, I would see fit to utilise a theory that dates back a little further.

In Plato’s Republic, on the subject of the Ring of Gyges, Socrates discusses whether a typical person would be moral if he did not have to fear the consequences of his actions. A common example used today is whether one would hand back money if the cash machine they were using pumped out double that was being requested, in full knowledge that they could take the money and run and not be caught.

The problem (or shortfall) of the routine activity theory is that it provides no assumptions on what motivates a criminal, but the assumption I’d be willing to make is most of us would be motivated to commit something considered to be a crime if a) we didn’t fear the consequences (getting caught) and b) we could sufficiently absent the referent in our heads (remove the propensity towards guilt by assuring ourselves that what we’ve stolen is just a drop in the ocean for whoever or whatever faceless unknown owns it).

In this sense it is not just the lower class who are likely to cause acts of criminality, it is anyone who commits a crime they believe they won’t get caught doing – and judging by ad campaigns against crime that’s a lot of us (the advert that comes to mind is the one against illegal downloading which starts by saying “you wouldn’t steal a car” – the assumption being that downloading stuff from the internet does not carry the same amount of fear of consequences or guilt as stealing a car).

This is what made the expenses scandal so worrying – not that MPs were doing wrong (chance will be a fine thing), but that they had removed from their minds the people they were stealing from; us!

Many have been very quick to blame pure criminality, but there is a wider worry at play here, namely we live in a society that doesn’t offer enough to be respected in itself, we live in a society which only tries to disincentivise crime by making us fear the consequences. What stops a larger proportion of society than we’d care to admit from looting constantly in hard times is not full appreciation of right and wrong, but fear of getting caught. And that to me is not a happy society.

In a way society is ill, but not in a way David Cameron fully understands – and to be sure, this notion of pure criminality is a trivial sideshow.

What is black culture?

August 15, 2011 7 comments

Tony Sewell, in his defence of David Starkey, notes:

Where I believe Dr Starkey is right is that it is now just as likely to be a white or Asian teenager posing on the internet in baggy designer clothes and dripping in gold chains, either waving a weapon of some kind or pointing their fingers at the camera in a grotesque parody of a shooting.

If this is what Starkey means by a type of black culture that Enoch Powell was supposedly years ahead for criticising, then it’s no surprise to me that white or Asian teenagers partake in it – namely because it is not black culture at all.

Gang culture is a sub-culture, not a racial trait, any more than Goth culture is a racially white trait. To suppose gang culture is a specifically black thing, though seemingly true quantitatively (i.e. the perception of gangs may invoke images of black people, mirrored by the manufactured hip hop image of black struggle or excess and gang culture), is not true qualitatively because nothing sub-cultural can ever be identified alone by racial categories.

In other words if Starkey hates gang culture, then this alone is what his beef must be with. When questioned towards the end of the Newsnight section whether he felt black culture was a problem he replied “No, well…” before qualifying that a certain section of it should be condemned (this was precisely what led Toby Young to defend Starkey’s characteristically ambiguous usage of Enoch Powell’s language).

Cultural hegemony and the memetic qualities of certain cultural traits are only trivialised by adding reference to race, and come dangerously close to what Stephen Jay Gould called the “deterministic view of human society and human action”.

Righties say the stupidest things

August 11, 2011 22 comments

In an almost mirror image message of the one I blogged about recently, Aditya Chakrabortty recently put it like this: “the political classes see what they want to see.”

While the causes of the recent spate of riots will undoubtedly have mixed reasons, some overtly political, some purely loutish, others opportunistic and a symptom of poverty and neglect – members of the right wing chatterati have seen fit to diagnose the problem thus: liberal/left society.

All the buzzwords have been floated in their column inches, relevant or not – and while social exclusion and poverty have been floated as possible causes, one can tell that these moaning so-called conservative pundits, with their kneejerk why-oh-why’s, will be the ones to dominate the political message for weeks to come.

Melanie “Mad Mel” Phillips, in her inimitable frothing, today had these words of tepid wisdom to say:

The violent anarchy that has taken hold of British cities is the all-too-predictable outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value.

She continues:

What has been fuelling all this is not poverty, as has so predictably been claimed, but moral collapse.

Remember that she knows this, by the way. It’s worth repeating that there are 54 applicants for every job in Tottenham, while 10,000 are benefit claimants. Job Seekers Allowance for a single person, under the age of 25, is £67.50 per week, and Britain is less equal in wages, wealth and life chances than any time since the 1920s. But in spite of this, Phillips can tell you for sure that what fuelled the riots was a wilful lack of morals.

She may well be right, to a certain degree, but she doesn’t know that – it just suits her narrative.

But she has it otherwise. As she points out:

The causes of this sickness are many and complex. But three things can be said with certainty: every one of them is the fault of the liberal intelligentsia; every one of them was instituted or exacerbated by the Labour government; and at the very heart of these problems lies the breakdown of the family. (My emphasis)

Max Hastings was equally appalled, but just as happy to assert where he felt the blame was. In a slightly crass comparison he noted:

Their behaviour on the streets resembled that of the polar bear which attacked a Norwegian tourist camp last week. They were doing what came naturally and, unlike the bear, no one even shot them for it.


So who is to blame? The breakdown of families, the pernicious promotion of single motherhood as a desirable state, the decline of domestic life so that even shared meals are a rarity, have all contributed importantly to the condition of the young underclass.

When reading this stuff one should stop to remind themselves that none of this is proven, or based on any fact, it is sheer speculation, using the images on the telly as an ink blot test for which tabloid hacks apply their own historiography of the decline of Britain.

Richard Littlejohn’s theory was even more tenuous:

The roots of the burning and looting in North London at the weekend can be traced back not to Broadwater Farm 1985 but to the Great Ikea Riot of 2005.

Edmonton is a couple of miles north of Tottenham as the Molotov Cocktail flies, so it was no surprise when the looting spread there on Sunday.

He only narrowly avoids dubbing the events as an homage to lost riots. But my favourite piece of constructed reasoning, in lieu of any chance in knowing exactly what the causes are, past the fact that this is not the product of a happy, fulfilled society, came from Desmond Morris, the Zoologist, after being asked by the Daily Mail to comment:

Mankind is programmed to live in villages, not in sprawling, noisy cities, where the noise and lack of space create a permanent tension. Did you ever hear of a riot in a village?

Quite. The only reason why the Cotswolds didn’t kick off was because of our genetic disposition towards fox-hunting, tweed and inbreeding.

I guess if the last point were true, then steps towards mending “broken Britain” are pointless, and the big community clean up a myth, helped along the way by BBC special effects. But indeed I don’t think it true, and find it as pointless and ideologically motivated as most of the kneejerk moralism that I’ve heard from the epistemically closed press.


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