Paris Attacks: The Smörgåsbord of Evil

Paris Peace Sign
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In a vain attempt to appear intellectual and justify my university education, I shall quote Ernest Hemingway on the process of writing. I know Hemingway said it for the Google told me so:

“Write drunk; edit sober.”

As a tribute to Hemingway, akin to drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa, I shall bastardise this phrase for my own usage:

“Write angry; edit rational.”

In the wake of the horrific murders committed in Paris, where 129 people were killed and over 99 injured in a series of co-ordinated gun and bomb attacks purportedly by the so-called ‘Islamic State’, I took to social media to vent my unadulterated rage. And then I stopped. Write drunk; edit sober. Write angry; edit rational. Instead I posted this holding message: “I find it wiser not to write posts in anger. Considered words on the horrific events in Paris can wait another day. Deeply, deeply saddened.”

In hindsight, Jason Manford should have employed the less-haste approach to his social media policy, after Facebook banned him for calling the Abrahamic god a “c**t”. Whilst the depictions of this deity are, well, cuntish, I find it somewhat difficult to think of him – certainly not a her as we would not be in half the trouble we’re in with a woman in charge of life, the universe and everything – as female genitalia because I simply do not believe he exists. Having said that, I think that Stephen Fry gets it absolutely spot on with this:

Time has passed. The red mist has lifted and in its place, philosophical musings on “what next?” After the slaughter in the French capital, US comedian Bill Maher posed the question: “Why do they hate us?”

The ‘they’ being the alleged attackers, ISIS. First and foremost, I will not give the delusional murderers the respect they lust for by naming them the ‘Islamic State’. For a while now, I have tried to conjure up a collective noun for these individuals. I toyed with “The Flamboyant Homosexuals” but I did not want to degrade the wonderful – and I daresay, fabulous – LGBT community; but I knew nothing would piss ISIS off more than being referred to as a bunch of queens.  Instead, I have opted for the powerful and the universal “The Cunts”. So if I need to refer to the artist formerly known as ISIL, much to my mother’s distaste I’m sure, they shall simply be called “The Cunts”.

Much soul-searching has occurred quite publicly on social media and otherwise. Solidarité has graciously been shown with an outpouring of grief and temporary Facebook profile pictures. Sadly, there has been opportunistic racism from the same people who are posting “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. That, Alanis Morissette, is ironic. Perhaps they should take note from that great Anglais philosopher, Rowling:

Harry Potter

Courtesy of The Best of Tumblr/Facebook

Amongst the fluctuation of French lexis – which I always considered a beautiful language with my favourite Gallic phrase oddly being “comme ci comme ça” – there were statements along the lines of “this has nothing to with religion”; which I consider, pardon the phrase, naïf.

The rise of The Cunts – which I understand sounds like a punk band record or Germaine Greer’s next book – is not solely the fault of religion, of course. I hasten to add that their version of Islam is utterly twisted and barbaric, and quite unknown to the vast majority of kind and loving Muslims in the world. The Cunts were formed (we really are going for the punk theme) due to the Smörgåsbord of Evil: the foreign policies of Western countries, mental health issues, psychopathic and narcissistic tendencies of the sexually deprived and, I’m sorry to say, a warped vision of radical Islam.

Religion is just one of many, many contributing factors. However, we cannot deny that it is one of our – to be unkind, out-of-date – ingredients on the Smörgåsbord of Evil.

I repeat: The Cunts do not represent the vast majority of Muslims who genuinely aspire to do some good in this world. However, following the equally sacred creed of Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is identifying the problem. When the feminism debate ensues, a few of my peers give the lame duck argument: “But Not All Men…” We are not accusing the entire gender of being sexist, harassing women and generally being dicks, but merely stating that some men are. Of course not all men are guilty of being misogynistic, but it is a cultural problem which encapsulates the gender that we must address. In the same way, I do not believe that all Christians are homophobes but due to the hateful nature of some, there is an ingrained homophobia that we must not be reluctant to deal with. We should not shy away from the theological and sociological debate about Islam (and indeed all Abrahamic religions).

Perhaps you are aware from my sceptical writings and my general smugness (mainly because I am not prohibited from the pleasurable things in life – I am, of course, talking about bacon) that I am an atheist.

Boo!

Hiss!

Down with this sort of thing!

Why do you want to ban religion?! (I don’t – although I fantasise about a world without it)

I would like to state on the record, Your Honour: I have absolutely no problem with faith – my problem is with religion. Faith can be a beautiful thing that inspires, unites and gives comfort to a great number of people. However, religion tends to accompany it like a drunken, bigoted uncle at a family function.

In January, I wrote a response to the freedom of speech debate surrounding the Charlie Hebdo murders for The SalfordianI almost asked for it to be deleted from the website as I made a rather crude and gross over-simplification as an argument: I said that I was Islamophobic – but certainly not Muslimophobic. I regret the clumsy execution of the argument, not the sentiment. Of course, I am not Islamophobic. I do not fear Islam – how utterly preposterous! The point I was attempting to make was I would engage in debates about religion. I would, however, not mock a person’s beliefs.

Faith plus religion can lead to a pick n mix of ideology. In reaction to the far right’s interpretation of Islam following the Paris attacks, where the poor little darlings seemingly confuse race and religion, a meme – an evolutionary term coined by Professor Richard Dawkins, ironically – showing Muhammad’s rules of warfare has done the rounds. Don’t kill prisoners: marvellous! Don’t kill children: fab! Don’t mutilate corpses: quite right, too! One does tend to think why there is an idiot’s guide to warfare in the first place – surely one should be promoting peace: just don’t kill anyone please, thank you very much.

I am not refuting there are some wonderful passages in the Qur’an, giving lovely advice on how to be a better human being. But for every lovely passage, there will be those that stick at the back of the throat. And this is true of all seemingly holy texts: the Bible, the Torah, Joseph Smith’s ‘Where’s the Wally?’ For every love thy neighbour, there’s Sodom and Gomorrah (ludicrous, ludicrous tales); for every do not kill innocents, there’s a step-by-step guide on how to crucify said innocents. To call oneself a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew is not to choose a pick n mix of ideology but to take responsibility of the entire sweet (and sickly) collection on offer.

For instance, if you were to attend the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones and live to tell the tale, you would not defend the wedding on the account of the pleasing music and hor d’oeuvres. To extend this further, when you choose to support a political party, you do so because you agree with their policies. As much as I was delighted with the legalisation of same sex marriage by the ConDem coalition, I certainly would not support their views on, well, basically everything else. Adolf Hitler as Chancellor did revive the German economy, but his foreign policy and human rights record left something to be desired.

For a god that is absolute, be it Abrahamic or otherwise, the Bible and the Qur’an cannot be a series of pros and cons. If a deity, and its institution, is infallible then, as the late and great Christopher Hitchens said, why can we not tell if these texts are a sign of god having a bad day?

Whilst we are discussing religion and politics, it seems the opportune moment to quote Douglas Adams:

“If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it.’”

Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar shared this drawing online:

Charlie Hebdo

Courtesy of Joann Sfar/Instagram

Upon sharing this image on my Facebook profile, there were some who liked the picture and some that did not. A friend of mine rightfully commented that if people didn’t kill for religion, they would kill for politics; zealousness is the problem, not faith. I find it hard to disagree with this. After President Hollande gave a speech after the attacks stating France would be “merciless”, I feared history would repeat itself. After 9/11, George Bush remarked unwisely that he would go on a “crusade”. That crusade is still feeling the effects. That crusade most likely resulting in the horrors seen on Friday. I knew, I just knew that France would retaliate and their airstrikes on the city of Raqqa in Syria sadly proved that if people didn’t kill for religion, they would kill for politics.

The Smörgåsbord of Evil has many, many ingredients and we must not be afraid of talking about each and every one of them. You may vehemently disagree with everything I have argued, and the marvellous thing is: you can. As I speak freely, you can also. In fact, I actively encourage it.

Let’s have a conversation. Freely, equally and together. Liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Paris Peace Sign

Lion Heart: “a clumsy combination of genres”

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HAVE you read anything so bad, you just want to keep on reading until the end?

You are enjoying the time and consideration it took to make this novel so inherently awful, you just have to finish it.

Justin Cartwright’s Lion Heart is literature’s equivalent of Blackpool: it’s so bad, it’s good.

Perhaps Cartwright is feeling fatigued. This is his 15th novel, after all.

Richard Cathar, son of hippy historian Alaric (with a name like that, how could he not be?), has just finished a relationship with creative writing student, Emily, following an argument about Richard III.

As you do.

When you usually go on the rebound, it involves copious amounts of alcohol, tissues (for crying and fierce masturbation), and getting off with that girl called Stacey from Preston.

Richard is not a normal guy. Instead, he has a staring contest with a fox whilst cooking sausages and embarks on a journey to Jerusalem to find the True Cross.

Obviously.

Dan Brown is an influence. Whilst the Robert Langdon series hardly feature the most eloquent use of etymology, it is entertaining and thrilling.

E L James is a terrible writer. GCSE English examiners deal with bards, compared to her Twilight spin-off porn-fest. But it caters to sexually frustrated housewives.

And Game of Thrones does contain deviance ad nauseam, but it is cleverly crafted.

The problem with Lion Heart – well, one of the many problems – is that it has not quite decided what it wants to be yet.

At times, it is a romance novel. Richie is smitten with the jack-of-all-trades Noor. He goes into great detail about her breasts and buttocks.

I needed a cold shower after Chapter 5.

And then it turns into a spy thriller, with covert meetings with secret agents and aliases (a certain Mr. MacDonald).

Suddenly, we are immersed – or at least, attempted to be – in a historical thriller. We travel back in time to the Third Crusade where King Richard I is launching war on Saladin in the name of God.

Richard Cathar is obsessed with sex. He has awkward sex with his ex-girlfriend. He has a nervous breakdown and ends up having sex with his doctor. He meets a French widow, and guess what? They are duvet dancing before you can say, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer”. If there is a film adaptation of this novel, I wonder if Lars Von Trier would be available.

And then he meets Noor.

A Canadian-Arab Christian journalist-cum-relief worker-cum-spy. After he has sex with her, involving dripping orange juice on her naked Canadian-Arab Christian journalist-cum-relief worker-cum-spy body, she gets kidnapped.

It’s terribly exciting.

Richard is so overcome with grief, he goes back to England and continues to look for the True Cross that tormented his medieval regal namesake. Whilst having sex with other women.

Thankfully, there are likeable characters along the way.

Noor’s guardian, her Auntie Haneen, feels like a Lancastrian Nan, inviting Richie in for a brew and a good old yarn. Yes, she is Palestinian, but it’s not hard to imagine she keeps the Gaza Strip’s version of a whippet in her backyard.

Although in today’s current state of affairs there probably wouldn’t be much of a whippet left…or a back yard.

There’s also the drunken, probably UKIP voting, yet still endearing Lord Huntingdon to whom Richie is employed as a speechwriter for a pointless but charming interlude. He serves absolutely no purpose to the story whatsoever; perhaps that’s why he is quite entertaining.

No matter how great the violinists were on the Titanic as it sank, you are always going to remember that’s there a bloomin’ big iceberg in the side of the ship. The double trills and excellent execution of pizzicato might distract you for a brief moment, but there is still no escaping the clumsy combination of genres and the obnoxiousness of the protagonists whom you are supposed to invest in.

 

The Psychopath Test: “the right sort of madness”

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I spend fifteen hours a week sat idly on a bus. Having been on this commute since September, I really ought to strike a conversation with my fellow passengers with whom I spend 32 days of my year on public transport.

But, I fear, after four awkward months on this commute, it would seem bizarre engaging in small talk now – especially when the first leg of the bus journey takes place at 6.15am earl-aye in the morning. And I feel like I would be considerably disappointed meeting them in real life, as I have already created nicknames and back stories for my fellow travellers on the bus to purgatory:

There’s creepy old man who once spent his entire journey watching videos of Britney Spears on his phone; ‘paint me like one of the French girls, Jack’, a gentleman who spreads himself across two seats to avoid human contact; and that one girl who always sits directly in front of me, even if I change seats.

So, I’ve decided to be more proactive on #dansbusjourney, instead of bitching about it on social media. In the year of our Lord (Rassilon) 2016, I have set myself a challenge: read a new book every week and cast my critical eye upon it. I took to Facebook and Twitter to ask you, the handsome and beautiful reader, what works I should source from the literary well; and bless you, you responded.

Thankfully there were no suggestions for Mein Kampf, which has sold out upon being made available in Germany again post-WW2.

Last week it was the academically interesting yet problematic The History Manifesto. This week, it’s Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.

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Admittedly, when this suggestion popped up on the Facebook survey from Nadia Fawcett, I was somewhat concerned. Did this person enjoy the book so much that they went out of their way to encourage others to participate in reading pleasure?

Or was this a subtle hint?

Indeed, halfway through reading The Psychopath Test, I did start to question whether I tick all the boxes on Bob Hare’s PCL-R Checklist. Thankfully as Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, remarked to Ronson:

“If you’re beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognise some of those traits in yourself, if you’re feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one.”

Phew.

I have always enjoyed Gonzo journalism, where the journalist directly involves himself in the story. From the pioneer Hunter S Thompson to the recent Louis Theroux, Gonzo brings a more human – and I daresay less psychopathic – approach to reporting.

This is where Jon Ronson excels. His charming anxiety and scepticism are evident in his words, but he never lets them get in the way of his interesting interviewees. He allows these eccentric characters – psychopathic or otherwise – room to breathe and gives them a platform to tell their fascinating tales.

Whilst it may have been easy to mock some of the larger than life players (Scientologists, conspiracy theorists, et al), Ronson is non-judgmental in his role and lets the reader form their own opinions; although on occasion, with tongue firmly in cheek.

From the genocidal Toto Constant to the CEO who mercilessly destroyed the American company Sunbeam (and thereby an entire town), Ronson presents an intriguing array of characters.

Throughout, we follow the narrative of Tony, an inmate at Broadmoor, where we find that psychopaths are not a simple case of black and white; supposedly, psychopaths do dream in black and white.

Like Ronson, you get carried away when learning about the simplicity of the Bob Hare test and start to over-diagnose the disorder. In his case, A. A. Gill. In my case, a particularly frightening primary school teacher.

Hare is a frequent contributor throughout the book and although not psychopathic, his insights are invaluable. For a fee. He’s made a lot of money from psychopaths. You do question whether Hare is too unsympathetic, too prejudice against those who are diagnosed through his test: he appears to be more concerned with the identification rather than the cure (sadly, there does not seem to be one).

A chapter which struck a chord was ‘The Right Sort of Madness’: an analysis of how the media responds to mental health. It receives its name from Charlotte Scott, a former guest-booker at one of those daytime, Jeremy Kyle-esque programmes.

Ronson begins to wonder whether journalists have grasped that “sufferers of certain mental disorders make the most electrifying interviewees” and have devised our own Bob Hare test to identify them.

Charlotte confirms this. She recites her experience in developing her own Goldilocks Litmus test: not too mad, not too sane – just the right sort of madness.

As Ronson covers the potential psychopathy of Wall Street, it would have been interesting to see him explore whether it exists on Fleet Street – it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Psychopath Test is an entertaining and fascinating journey through madness, meeting eccentric characters with great tales to tell along the way. Ronson serves as an endearing curator of facts, anecdotes and wit.

He employs the right sort of madness and The Psychopath Test passes with flying colours.

The History Manifesto: “academically interesting yet problematic”

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“Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late!”

Somewhere in a dusty old library, an elderly gentleman has tutted at the unnecessary exclamatory sentence mood (A Level English there).

A Radio 4 listener has been rudely awoken by the sudden bastardisation of his beloved humanities.

A college tutor leaps with joy because someone has finally asked him: “So what do you really think about this?”

I don’t know about you but historians are usually the ones who report on the call to arms, not those who are commanding it. It was Pope Urban II who called for Christians to take the cross for the First Crusade, and ended up naked as they ran out of material to make the cruxes – so his garments was the second best thing. He was a central figure in Christendom, and the chroniclers were in the background snickering whilst they were scribbling down the events that occurred after the Council of Clermont.

When Anne Boleyn gave an impassioned speech to the crowd before her execution, a Tudor was trying to jot down the quote in the 16th Century version of shorthand.

Churchill’s infamous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech was by a politician, but broadcast by the modern day equivalent of a chronicler: a journalist.

Historians are the chroniclers, not the subject of the chronicles.

However, this is being tipped on its head by an Anglo-American collaboration, The History Manifesto. This new “special relationship” is a result of historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. Together, they are calling historians to take on the mantel as economists, politicians, sociologists and journalists.

And therein lies the problem.

The arguments are eloquently constructed, their points are articulate and valid, and their expertise is undisputed. However, to politicise history is a slippery slope. History books, trusted accounts by trusted academics, can soon turn into propaganda; which is just another name for PR adopted by vested interests.

Armitage argues that by offering their expertise, historians can help resolve economic inequality and climate change issues. I, not for one moment, doubt his sincerity. Whilst ordinary folk see, historians observe. The selfless role of the observer is to present data and information for the reader to gather their own conclusions, not to make it for them already.

Armitage and Guldi are not radical in every hypothesis they present. They call for the return of “long-term narratives in historical scholarship” using the theory of longue durée – “going forward by looking back”, as they name their first chapter. They also use a quote from Winston Churchill: “The longer you can look back the further you can look forward”. They call him a mid-twentieth master of political power who was also a prolific historian. They fail to mention that Churchill was notorious for suppressing news publications during WW2, with some going out of print thanks to the Prime Minister’s efforts.

The History Manifesto laments on how society is haunted by “the spectre of the short term” – their unfortunate use of the noun conjures up the image of the villainous organisation from the James Bond films.

They are quite right, though.

They argue that the shortage in long-term thinking has resulted in disasters such as the 2008 Financial Crisis and Global Warming. Thought processes now operate in five-year cycles as a result of election cycles and five-year business plans. Gloomily, they add:

“No one, it seems, from bureaucrats to board members, or voters or recipients of international aid, can escape the ever-present threat of short-termism.”

Armitage and Guldi propose that historical narratives instead concentrate on decades and centuries rather than months and years to inform society on alternative futures.

For pub quiz and QI lovers, this is going to be a terrible shame. To adopt this macro-history approach, you will lose micro-history gems like the First King of Jersualem’s death was caused by falling from a balcony where a dwarf then attempted to him – both were killed.

Or during William the Conqueror’s funeral, his body had become so bloated in later life when they tried to close the lid on his coffin, the cadaver exploded.

The gist of The History Manifesto is that historians should take on a more responsible role in society. Armitage and Guldi provide an eloquent and informed argument, but historians need to carry as observers and not enactors. Their view on macro-history is respectable, but must be provided to the society to come up with their own conclusions.

 

FOI: Are journalists people, too?

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The Freedom of Information Act is celebrating its tenth year, but former Prime Minister Tony Blair will not be the one blowing out the candles on the birthday cake.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) was given royal assent and passed into law in 2000. It took a further five years for the Act to be implemented, and it came into force on 1 January 2005. The White Paper, produced by Dr David Clark, to which Mr Blair provided the preface, is called “Your Right To Know”. The title of the White Paper sums up the Freedom of Information Act: it gives the citizen a right to know about its government’s actions.

Over 100,000 public bodies are held accountable by the Freedom of Information Act. From local to central government, health to education, the public bodies have 20 working days to respond to requests from the public: either by supplying the information or explaining why it cannot be supplied. Around 120,000 requests are made to these public bodies each year.

Tony Blair gave a scathing critique of the Act in his memoir, My Journey:

“Freedom of Information. Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head ’til it drops off. You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop.”

Whilst I find it difficult to dispute his self-assessment of calling himself a “nincompoop”, there are two claims Mr Blair makes on the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) that needs to be addressed:

  1. “We did it with care, but without foresight.”
  2. “The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists.
Courtesy of Chatham House, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Chatham House, via Wikimedia Commons

His first claim can be disproved within one sentence: freedom of information was a 23-year-old pledge from the Labour Party, appearing in six consecutive manifestos.

His second claim is a bit trickier. Journalists, if we are to follow the idealistic Fourth Estate watchdog status of the press, use FOI on behalf of the people, for the people. And surprisingly journalists are not the highest volume of requesters – they just have the biggest audience. The largest requester is actually the private individual (or “the people” as Mr Blair calls them). It is difficult to profile a requester, as the process ought to be anonymous, and figures change from study to study: James Morrison (the academic, not the singer) offers the figure of 60% whilst The Constitution Unit offers the figure of 39% for private individuals. But the common theme within these statistics provided is that the private individual sends out the highest volume of requests.

Since Mr Blair assesses journalists as ‘not-people’, the question arises: are journalists treated differently when using FOI? In 2005, Professor Alasdair Roberts warned the UK about the “amber-lighting procedure”, a bureaucratic maze used by Canadian authorities to thwart journalists.

The amber lighting procedure goes through five stages from its initial submission to its disclosure. The request is first sent to the relevant department. A ‘risk assessment officer’ then determines whether they should tread with caution. These ‘sensitive’ requests are then sent to the Minister’s Office for further scrutiny. The ‘amber-lighted’ request is answered by the relevant department who co-ordinate with the Office of Primary Interest, which helps develop a complete disclosure package: a combination of the documents requested and context in the form of press releases approved by the Minister’s Office.

To test whether this administrative Dante’s nine circles of Hell exists in the UK, two sets of ten FOI requests were sent out to the councils of Greater Manchester. The first set did not identify the purpose of the request, and the only description of the requester was a name and address (a gullible flatmate of mine to whom I owe a pint). The second set was quite candid in its intentions, clearly stating that it was from a journalist. This test was not necessarily to gain information, but to examine the quality of information from the councils.

One year after the introduction of FOI, the success rate of responding to requests from journalists was dire. Recording a 53.3% rejection rate, Manchester Evening News sent out 15 freedom of information requests to public authorities – eight were refused.

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Before this test, Tom Rodgers, news editor of SalfordOnline.com, anticipated a similar rejection rate:

“(On whether he uses FOI) I can give you a short answer: not really.

“Salford City Council rarely respond to stories on time – if at all.

“In fact they’re under monitoring from the Information Commissioner, as it is currently responding to less than 65% of all of its FOI requests within the legal timeframe.”

Surprisingly, Salford City Council did respond to the request from the journalist in full, but chose not to respond to the request from the private individual within the 20 working days timeframe.

In fact, the majority of the councils showed a considerable improvement and even favouritism towards the requests from the journalists. Over ten years, the FOI success rate for journalists in Greater Manchester has rose from 53.3% to 80%. Only 40% of requests from the private individual were answered on time.

Former deputy editor of the Manchester Evening News, Ian Wood argues that press offices have moved on from declining information to instead proactively disclosing it:

“Smart press officers now hide their secrets in plain sight.

“Instead of putting it in a vault and hiding it, savvy press officers put it somewhere deep in a 30,000 gigabyte document.

“We are experiencing a tsunami of information, and although anyone can use the Act to gain information, journalists are required as specialists to decipher it.”

This proactive disclosure was evident in two of the responses to the journalist requests: Rochdale Council provided information from a larger time scale than requested, highlighting that the council had improved significantly over more recent years, and Wigan Council provided an additional press release alongside the request on their FOI improvement thanks to new measures. This additional context was not provided in the requests from the private individual, where both councils disclosed in full.

Councillor Terry Halliwell, cabinet member for customer transformation at Wigan Council, said:

“In the last four years, the number of FOIs has more than doubled, costing the local authority £100,000 in 2013 alone.

“We are working hard to deal with requests effectively and efficiently and I’m pleased that these measures are working.”

The favouritism shown to journalists by the ten councils contrasts to the behaviour of the Metropolitan Police down South. In February 2015, the Met Police Force banned the Press Gazette from sending FOI requests about the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The Met Police accused the Press Gazette of being “disruptive” and having a “disproportionate impact on a public authority”.

Even more worrying is the South Cluster Met Police press office telling journalists that it will no longer deal with “reactive media enquiries” such as local crimes and road traffic collisions. In its place, the local communications team will deal with “proactive” good news enquiries. Reactive media enquiries are instead being directed towards the central Met Police press team. This ban on negative stories and FOI requests is a serious prevention of journalistic scrutiny of public authorities.

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In a review of record keeping in local government, Elizabeth Shepherd argues that freedom of information legislation is only as good as the records kept. Poor record keeping undermines FOI. This was evident in the requests sent to the Greater Manchester councils: Salford, Stockport, Oldham, Bolton and Wigan did not disclose the requests in full since their records were not all electronic and they used Section 12 of the Act, exempting request exceeding an “appropriate limit” – currently £450 limit for local government and £600 for central government. Wigan Council even worked out the figure the request would cost: £1025. This also shows the subjective nature of exemptions as Bury Council said that the request cost £25 to complete. Responding two weeks after the deadline, Trafford Council rejected the request because they have only started to hold records relating to FOI from 2014, and the person who was in charge of this previously no longer works there.

Whilst not disclosing the journalist requests in full, Wigan and Rochdale councils in their disclosure packages explained that there are improving their record keeping for FOI. Trafford Council also stated that their record keeping improves from 2014 onwards. It could be speculated that FOI will become more relevant to journalists and other requesters as record keeping is improving therefore more information will be easily accessible.

Ian Wood calls FOI a “passport to information” but a more fitting analogy may be that FOI is an airport: you have to go through the rigmarole of checking-in, security and customs to finally reach your intended destination. If you are a journalist, you tend to get your bags checked twice along the way.

FOI has contributed to a culture change from “a need to know” to a “right to know”. However, the Act was oversold to journalists. Mirroring President Barack Obama’s admission that his campaign slogan should have been “Yes, we can – but…” after two years in office, FOI is arguably ‘Freedom of Information but…’ The name of the Act sounds all encompassing with its promise of freedom, but there are 36 exemptions to prohibit the requester from total freedom. Those amounts of let-outs are illustrated by the space they take up in the legislation: twenty-four lengthy sections plus an additional section outlining their general effect. Compare this to the measly few lines in one section outlining the general right of access to information.

Ian Wood, when discussing the relationship between journalists and press offices, observed that FOI is essentially “a thing used by people” – he argues that interpretation of the legislation is subjective. One man’s exemption may be another’s disclosure. In the eight councils out of ten that replied to the requests for this dissertation, 50% responded in full and 50% responded partially or not at all. FOI has no leverage over the behaviour of officials.

Although, just after the introduction of FOI in the UK, Wood does admit journalists used it rather sparingly.

He noted: “When we first started using FOI, we were like a child with a new toy.

“I remember there was talk of introducing an FOI Unit in the newsroom, whose sole purpose was to fish for stories.

“Instead, we have Data units now to analyse information that we already have – we are not fishing, we are reeling in.”

Since vexatious requests are open to interpretation by FOI officers and press offices, this begs the question: what is the difference between vexatious and investigative requests from journalists?

Section 14 of the lengthy exemptions listed in the Freedom of Information Act 2000 states that public authorities are not obliged to respond to requests if they are vexatious. However, it does not define what a vexatious request is. The Oxford Dictionary defines vexatious as: causing annoyance, frustration or worry. As well as defining what vexatious is, public authorities then have to interpret whether they personally find it annoying. This subjective decision is best highlighted by the responses to the FOIs for this dissertation: whilst Manchester, Bolton and Bury councils did not turn down any vexatious requests between 2011-2014, Rochdale turned down 7 whilst Salford simply said they turned down “a large number”.

And perhaps this is what Tony Blair was getting at in his evaluation of the Act. A request from a journalist may be considered annoying or a cause for worry, but whose fault is that? If the information reveals a wrongdoing, a wrongdoing was committed not by the journalist, but by the person in question. Relations between journalists and public authorities, in particular in Greater Manchester, are seemingly improving as both parties are getting used to FOI ten years on. It appears that the amber-lighting procedure, witnessed in Canada, has not travelled to these shores.

To end on a slogan used by Blair in his 1997 election campaign: things can only get better.

When Harry Met Salford

"Harry Houdini" by "Famous Players - Lasky Corporation.", US - The Library of Congress, McManus-Young Collection,
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In its heyday, Cross Lane in Salford buzzed with activity. Within half a mile, there were butchers, bakers, chemists, furniture shops, clothing shops, toy shops, two undertakers’ parlours, a railway station, two music halls, two cinemas, a drill hall, an open market, churches, and eighteen – yes, eighteen – pubs. Standing high on Cross Lane was the Regent Theatre – later known as the Palace.

Upon opening in 1895, theatrical magazine ERA – with the nickname “The Actor’s Bible” – noted “the vast experience of the architect could suggest has been done to make the building as complete and comfortable as possible”. Shaped as a horseshoe, the interior was brightly decorated in cream, lavender and gold. Entering the theatre, you would walk across grand mosaic tiled flooring to reach the 1700 capacity auditorium split into the pit and a lavish gallery. Local historian Tony Flynn, in his book The History of Salford Cinemas, calls the Regent Theatre a “magnificent building”.

In this grand theatre, which cost £14,000 to build (around £1.5m in today’s terms), magician and escapologist Harry Houdini was lying in a coffin. He wasn’t dead. This was September 1904. It would be another twenty-two years before the artist, whose real name was Erik Weisz, would meet his fate after rupturing his appendix in a stunt gone wrong. The magician was performing his infamous finale, ‘Mysto’s Coffin Trick’.

Tony Flynn argues that the theatre always produced a series of firsts in Salford.

He said: “The Regent Theatre had established itself as Salford’s foremost place of entertainment. The theatre was the venue for Salford’s first moving picture show in 1901, courtesy of Thomas Edison’s Animated Picture Company.

“(When it became a cinema) The Salford Palace could claim to be the first cinema in Salford to show talking films. The Jazz Singer was screen there on September 2nd 1929.”

Created by John Heywood Ltd, Printers, Manchester - courtesy of the Library of Congress

Created by John Heywood Ltd, Printers, Manchester -The Magic Poster Collection (Library of Congress)

Hidden behind a curtain, Houdini was placed in a coffin with the lid screwed down and the screws were covered in sealing wax. He was free within two minutes. The sealing wax was miraculously unbroken. The great showman then dared his captive audience to perform the same trick for a fee of £300 if they achieved it. He produced the banknotes onstage. There were no takers.

Houdini had fared worse in another Lancastrian town forty miles away called Blackburn, two years earlier. Throughout Europe and the US, Houdini had earned the nickname of “The Handcuff King”, where he challenged audiences to bring forth a pair of any regulation handcuffs and he would break free from them. On October 24th 1902, the proprietor of the Blackburn School of Physical Culture, William Hope Hodgson produced a set of irons wrapped in twine and with the locks altered to a packed house at the Palace Theatre. Reluctantly, with many vocal protests, Houdini accepted the challenge.

After two hours of contortion and false starts, Houdini staggered from behind his curtain onto the stage with his shirt torn from the cuff to the shoulder, his wrists and biceps bleeding profusely, and barely able to stand. When asked two years later about several scars “as though some tiger had clawed him”, Houdini explained that he had simply been to Blackburn.

However, onstage at the Regent Theatre in Salford, Houdini was having an easy ride. After receiving no volunteers to take on Mysto’s Coffin Trick, he repeated the stunt in under a minute – half of the original time. But Houdini did something that made his act different from other copycats, he broke the ‘Magic Code’ and explained how the trick was done: the screws from the head of the coffin had been removed, which gave him time to escape and then replace them.

Magicians and clairvoyants are sometimes synonymous. They apply the same techniques, cater to the same audience and their entire craft relies on illusion. The distinguishment between a clairvoyant and a conjuror is: honesty.

At the start of his career, Houdini and his wife Bess were known as Professor and Mademoiselle Houdini, clairvoyants. However, he had a change of heart after he had a sudden realisation of the “seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed”. As well as being a magician, Houdini became a debunker – a tradition inherited by the likes of James Randi, Paul Zenon and Derren Brown.

"Harry Houdini" by "Famous Players - Lasky Corporation.", US - The Library of Congress, McManus-Young Collection,

“Harry Houdini” by “Famous Players – Lasky Corporation.”, US – The Library of Congress, McManus-Young Collection,

Harry Houdini was the ultimate PR man – he knew how to spin and sell tickets for his shows. Before his appearance at the Regent Theatre, the Handcuff King asked the Chief Constable, Mr J W Hallam, if he could be locked in the police cells in Bexley Square. Tony Flynn describes the incident in his Cross Lane book:

“Permission was reluctantly granted. Houdini was shown into a cell, his clothing was taken off him and the cell was locked. His clothes were locked in an adjacent cell. Within five minutes he escaped, broken into the cell, got dressed and informed the police he was free.”

Tony hypothesises that it was likely he had hidden a skeleton key in his mouth and picked the mouth. It is a good theory. Always accompanying Houdini was his wife Bess and his brother Theo. During a similar escape in the Kremlin, Houdini escaped a Siberian Transport Cell under the guard of the Russian Secret Police. Theo had assisted by sneaking in a skeleton key.

Lock picking was a relatively new skill for Houdini, as the Manchester Guardian reported in 1904. One day, his fellow boarders in a hotel “scoffed at him” one night as the infamous escapologist had to ask for a key from reception as he had lost his.

Tony Flynn calls the trick at Bexley Square a “unusual publicity stunt”, but it was trick Houdini employed to every town and city he played in. Again, to show the shrewdness of Houdini’s public relation skills, when Scotland Yard refused to allow Houdini to perform a similar stunt in London – and with dwindling ticket sales – all of a sudden, a Daily Mirror reporter challenged the magician to escape manacles created over five years, specifically for Houdini to escape from. After more than an hour onstage at the Hippodrome, he was free. The Daily Mirror representative presented a silver replica of the handcuffs as a reward, and all the English newspapers reported on it. His captive fan were unaware of Houdini’s cosy relationship with the Mirror, where he produced columns for them, and the fact that the replica pair had been created a year prior to the challenge.

The Regent Theatre where Harry Houdini ‘treaded the boards’ is sadly no more, after being demolished in 1963. Cross Lane is virtually unrecognisable. The eighteen pubs have been reduced to one, the cinemas are gone and the railway station no longer exists. But the memories still endure, where Harry Houdini joins the alumni of Cross Lane with the likes of Queen Elizabeth II, King Edward VII, W C Fields, David Lloyd George and Tommy Cooper all known to set foot in the once busy half a mile in Salford.

Courtesy of Craig Sunter, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Craig Sunter, via Wikimedia Commons

Don’t call me “love”, love!

Courtesy of Mark Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons
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I tend to shout at the radio. If I am in a public place, and BBC News is on a television screen, all that is missing from my recent tirade is a placard with “Jesus is coming” and an empty bottle of whisky hiding in a paper bag. My newspapers are saturated in spit from my latest exclamation.

You can imagine the decibels I reached when I picked up a copy of The Telegraph, and spotted a story on Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time. The comedian-cum-campaigner has come under fire for addressing communities minister Penny Mordaunt as “love”.

Is the Trews presenter being criticised for a dialect – a sociological language? Or is this detracting from a valid point raised about paying the pensions for the Fire service?

I am very Northern. I don’t own a whippet, nor do I smoke a pipe – but I occasionally wear a flatcap. I am in no control over my Lancastrian accent unless I put on my faux upper class elocution, which somehow transforms into an Australian twang. I miss the odd ‘h’ from a word; I sound harsher in my pronunciation of “mass-ta” over “mah-ster”; and I would be more at home on Coronation Street than Downton Abbey.

You can take the boy out of Blackburn – but can you take the Blackburn out of the boy? My ear has chosen the way I say words, but my brain chooses the words that leave my mouth.

Language evolves. If a word or a phrase has been deemed unacceptable, its use will dwindle and eventually expire. A Victorian term for the Devil was “Mr Spitfoot”, but is the mythological demon named with the title “mister” anymore? Satan, sure. Lucifer, maybe. Perhaps it shows the renowned Victorian respect and formality compared to the 21st Century colloquialisms.

Text speak developed as a result of advance of communication. “Soz” and “Lol” are bastardisations of longer phrases. I, in fact, pondered whether or not I could use the term “bastardisation”, which in itself contains the lexis of “bastard” – a synonym for an illegitimate son or a profanity; the same way that “bitch” is used to describe a female dog or an insult. An earlier form of text speak is “berk”, which is misinterpreted a tame way of calling someone an idiot. It is an abbreviation for the Cockney rhyming slang Berkley Hunt (I’ll let you figure that one out).

Courtesy of Mark Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Mark Freeman, via Wikimedia Commons

Did Russell Brand use the vocative address with unintended actions? If I were to call you “sweetheart”, irrespective of gender, I do not think that your heart would be a diabetics’ worst nightmare – I imagine it would taste quite bitter. If I were to call you “sunshine”, I do not think you are emitted light and heat radiation travelling to the planet from eight minutes ago. If I were to call you “pet”, I do not think you should be on a leash – although I am sure that tickles the fancy of others.

But words can have double meaning, and the delivery of the lexis can contribute to its interpretation. Pronouns were particularly powerful in Shakespearean plays – an address was essentially the same definition, but different etiquettes. If you were to address a superior in the Bard’s plays, it would always be “you”; if they were an equal or an inferior, it would be “thou”. Was Brand delivering “love” as a term of endearment or as a term of degradation? Indeed, he was cheesed off about the Conservative-Lib Dem government not paying the fire service’s pensions, but perhaps used it to disarm and demean.

I guffaw whenever the bank clerk calls me “sir” or “Mr McLaughlin” – and also when I check my account balance. But there would be something terribly amiss if this professional would start calling me “petal” or “honey”. Personal nicknames are just that: personal. In a professional environment, and one could argue that Question Time constitutes as this, formalities still count. Nick Robinson would never call the Prime Minister “Dave” (a relatively tame name), or David Dimbleby would call Nigel Farage “that purple faced casual racist who has far too much airtime on our channel”.

In February, the Speaker of the House wrote to the three main party leaders – David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg – asking them to stop their MPs engaging in “public school twittishness”. The Lib Dem leader called for Prime Minister’s Questions to be reformed, and during a Q&A session on Mumsnet, he said:

“It’s just ridiculous. You can’t even call people by their name. You can’t even address people like human beings.

“And so the whole thing is in a language which wasn’t used since 1867 and in a kind of highly aggressive, sort of, macho, chest‑beating, testosterone‑driven idiom which is deeply off‑putting to – to any normal person.”

Courtesy of Innotata, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Innotata, via Wikimedia Commons

This is when the formality dehumanises a political conversation. When robotic terms such as the “Right Honourable gentleman of…” are used in lieu of actual names, people transform to titles and not humans. It works both ways. There can be overfamiliarity and dehumanisation.

Language is subjective. It continues to change, diminish and grow. In his wonderful rant on language pedants, Stephen Fry argues that there are more pedants around; it seems, than those who used the evolving language to write stories, poems and love letters. He calls them “dense and deaf” to language development. New words are “ugly” to the pedants as Picasso, Eliot and Stravinksy were once thought ugly; the same goes for Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire.

The vocative address “love” is a term from yesteryear, as are many Estuary colloquialisms that come from Russell Brand’s vocal chords. Dialect is a tale as old as time, and it is worth preserving from a historical, curatorial point of view – but their interpretation has changed over time and appears out-dated. Should we ever condemn someone for choosing language that has been readily available for him or her from birth? That depends on the situation. If it were used as a weapon to diminish the female speaker, then that should not be accepted. The critics can be compared to the pedants who seethe at language development. Russell Brand remarked as soon as the vocative address was uttered that he was “working on the sexist language”. And perhaps we are all working on it, and it will evolve – but perhaps we should excuse some of the old guard whose intention was not to offend, but to communicate.

You can watch the full episode of Russell Brand’s appearance on Question Time here.

The Soapbox Presents… A Christmas Carol

The Soapbox Presents A Christmas Carol
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“Twas the night before Christmas, and Dan was feeling meek –

Another year gone by without getting Pick of the Week…”

 The Soapbox Presents A Christmas Carol

On Saturday 13th December, Shock Radio broadcast the Christmas special of The Soapbox, where Dan McLaughlin channeled the spirit of Scrooge (see what I did there?) as he was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (played by Taaliah Nazar), the Ghost of Christmas Present (played by Bradley Harris) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (played by…erm…Bradley Harris).

Also featured in The Soapbox Players production was Dan’s weekly visit to the station manager, this time appearing as the Grinch, a sketch entitled Meanwhile in Heaven where Jesus complains to his Father that no-one remembers his birthday at Christmas, and a festive sprinkling of Yuletide songs.

He had no further intercourse (behave – it’s a Dickens quote) with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

Ordsall: The Write Way

Part of the Ordsall Creative Writing Collection
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If you were to browse the treasure trove of literature contained within Ordsall Library, you would come across the usual prose of Dickens, Bronte and Wilde. Amongst the carefully catalogued books, computer screens and journals, hidden away is one particular shelf. This shelf is dedicated to, perhaps, lesser known writers. Stacked are the works of unfamiliars such as Scantlebury, Sharples and Thomason. The local library facilitates to local writers; and these authors live and reign from Ordsall.

But who are these neighbourhood wordsmiths? Well, you can ask them yourself – they’re only next door. Adjacent to the red-bricked, tidy library is a small hub of creativity. Creeping to the side of the biblotheque is a small room signposted as ‘Ordsall Creative Arts’. When venturing down the narrow path, it causes one to reminisce of secret childhood playhouses – kept secret from responsible grown ups and the mean kids who had a penchant for wedgies and eating glue in the classroom. Or even to the fantasy world of Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series. Maybe you need to utter to Maraunder’s Map “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good” to track this Room of Requirement.

Passing under a wooden arch, you reach the door; pondering whether or not it requires a password or a special knock. Instead, it opens and you are greeted by a friendly bearded gentleman called Mike Scantlebury.

Originally from Bristol, Mike moved to the North West in the 1970s and has stayed here since. Developing a love for Salford, Mike includes the city in his Amelia Hartliss series – using MediaCityUK and Ordsall as locations in his novels.

Certainly, Ordsall has its own charm. Singer Morrissey started his Smiths days at Salford Lads Club up the road, and Tony Warren used Ordsall’s Coronation Street as inspiration for his long-running ITV soap.

Courtesy of apasciuto, via Flickr

Courtesy of apasciuto, via Flickr

A few miles up the road is MediaCityUK: homing the likes to the BBC, ITV and studios hosting anything from the Jeremy Kyle Show to 8 out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. Stretching along the Salford Quays, in place of its industrial past are swanky, modern flats, trendy restaurants and bars, and the impressive sight of the Lowry Theatre.

“Ordsall has got a lot to be thankful for the BBC for”, Mike chimes.

In 2011, a producer from BBC Radio 4 came over to the area and set up a creative writing group. The idea was to encourage people to learn more about radio drama and even produce a radio play that might get on air. Three years on, the creative writing group is still going strong and they are here in the Ordsall Creative Arts room. Today, they are talking about weddings.

But first, I am introduced to Simon Pegg. Not the Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz star. He already knows how to write – at the end of the day, he’s been nominated for BAFTAs and British Comedy Awards. But a peg called Simon. A wooden clothes peg with the name ‘Simon’ scrolled on it with a marker pen. Other groups usually offer a cup of tea by means of an introduction. But this is not any other group, as Jonathan highlights by offering:

“The bride offered me her cheek to lick.”

Initially I thought he said “her teeth to lick”. But let’s be honest, neither are pleasant to think about.

The actor, not the peg. (Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

The actor, not the peg. (Courtesy of Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, weddings. The group are discussing wedding photos and videos. Salix Homes, as part of a pilot scheme, have distributed funding to various local groups: St Clement’s Church, the Community Café, the Health Improvement Team and Creative Writing. Over five sessions, the group discuss anything matrimonial related: dresses, memories, receptions and ceremonies.

Sitting around a long table, as though they are King Arthur’s knights albeit in a room covered in a hideous shade of yellow in Salford, the group partake in activities such as research, discussion and – well – writing; it would be terribly disappointed if a creative writing didn’t write.

Mike leads the group on a writing exercise that involves them using their senses other than sight to describe a church ceremony. As a journalist, it is my role to be an impartial observer but with the welcoming smiles and the gentle encouragement from the group, this session involves my creative writing debut. But my debut is less important and interesting than the contributions from the group. Whilst I meekly suggested the smell of incense from the priest, Jonathan suggests licking the bride and one cynic gave the remark “bring me more wine”.

Courtesy of rosarion94, via Flickr

Courtesy of rosarion94, via Flickr

“It’s very important to be in a group of writers,” advises Mike, “They know what it is like to write. No offense to your mothers, sisters, brothers or next-door neighbours, but they can’t sympathise like a writer can.”

Indeed, whilst your fellow writers may encourage you with constructive criticism, your next-door neighbour might send for the authorities. One critique from the group was “the three-legged dog was a nice touch”.

“The worst thing you can do is talk to someone who does not know what you are experiencing. To be able to talk people and say, you’ve missed a day or you are having trouble with plotting, characterisation or dialogue not being believable, is just brilliant.”

The feeling around the room is not one of standing in front of the X Factor judges whilst they humiliatingly deconstruct your work; it is a discussion. The discussion does, however, tend to veer off course.

The group are now researching traditional and non-traditional weddings. A projector and screen that I have not seen since primary school ten years ago is pulled up, and the display is of the most academic and revered routine of research: Google.

There is a dog in the Pixar film Up which has a translator broadcasting his every thought. It will start to have a long discussion and half way through will break off with the cry of “Squirrel!” This is somewhat fitting for the way the group operates. During the session, they embark on a discussion over weddings featuring druids at Stonehenge and suddenly they are talking about the allusive ‘10k’ group who received more funding. When talking about wedding photography, they decide to look at funny wedding videos on YouTube.

But this attitude is not irritating – it is rather charming. Work is achieved, but so is play. The term ‘community’ is used far too loosely nowadays but it seems very befitting to this creative writing group. These sessions could have been easily held over the kitchen table at Madge’s or in the back garden of Sylvia. And that perhaps purports to its success: it’s not threatening, it’s friendly. Whilst you might ask to borrow sugar from Jonathan, you could ask advice over a few paragraphs written that morning.

Writing is a personal process and the group facilitates that intimacy through shared anecdotes, jokes and tall tales. Whether it is the story of Mike’s brother’s wedding with a special cameo from flared trousers or the time when the photographer somehow over-exposed the film and lost all the photos so the guests had to re-stage the wedding at a later date for the captured memories.

This brings the group’s focus to a modern context. Replacing the flares are equally silly clothing as the Googled bridal dresses show. You would not have the same problem with wedding photos as smartphones capture your every movement.

Ordsall Creative Writing group are also prepared to embrace 21st Century communications. They have their very own Facebook page (“2 new people have liked it today!”) and Twitter account.

As the cups of tea are supped and the madness chronicled, the group turn to the micro-blogging site and think how to condense this session into 140 characters; I’ve struggled with 1300 words. They decide on:

“Weddings discussion: the sound of the bride farting, the sight of wedding cake falling, the touch of bride’s teeth, sweet smell of… #threeleggeddog”

And there is no better way to encapsulate Ordsall Creative Writing.

Part of the Ordsall Creative Writing Collection

Part of the Ordsall Creative Writing Collection

You can follow the group on Twitter via @OrdsallTrust. They meet every Wednesday at 10am, at Ordsall Creative Arts near the library.

FOI: Is Information Really Free?

freedom-of-information
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In 1997, Britain elected a new government. Everything was ‘new’ about them: they called themselves New Labour – the clue was in the title. This New Labour government brought in a “package of constitutional reforms” : devolution, incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights, reform of the electoral system used for European Parliament elections, and Freedom of Information.

This 23-year-old manifesto pledge from the party was an attempt to distance itself from the previous government who – as the minister responsible for the Act, David Clark argued – was a “secretive” administration. Former editor of the Mirror, Kevin Maguire called it a “terrible culture of secrecy that worked against the public” . When David Clark delivered the White Paper Your Right To Know in 1997, it seemed that the culture of secrecy was now over.

It was certainly a long time coming. James Morrison argues that although “blinkered constitutional historians” try to convince us that Britain is the seat of democracy, it is worth noting that the earliest known ‘open record’ was passed in Sweden as far back as 1766 – due to the Freedom of Press Act. Freedom of Information acts had been introduced in the USA in 1967, France in 1978 and even in our own Commonwealth in Australia, in 1982. Britain was amongst those trailing in the race for open record – narrowly beating the notoriously secret China who introduced their Freedom of Information Act in 2008. It was no wonder that the Government in the UK is regarded as “one of the most secretive among all liberal democracies” .

Although called The Freedom of Information Act 2000, the Act did not come into force until 1st January 2005 – the delay being the result of government departments preparing for its consequences. A man who said that he was not prepared for its effect was Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister who included Freedom of Information (FOI) in his winning manifesto. He wrote in his autobiography A Journey: “We did it with care, but without foresight” . However, it could be argued that he had plenty of foresight: a 23-year-old pledge and a further four-year delay.

Furthermore, whilst his critics may agree with Mr Blair’s self-assessment as a “naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop”, it is perhaps fair to disagree with his argument that the Act “isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’” but by journalists. According to James Morrison, around 120,000 FOI requests are made each year – six out of ten by members of the public, one-fifth by businesses and just 10% by journalists . Supporting the argument of a public majority, and contradicting Mr Blair’s claims, is a study evaluating the Act, Freedom of Information: Three Years On, which states that around seven in ten (71%) of requests are made by members of the public.

WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM ANNUAL MEETING 2009 - Tony Blair.jpg

Tony Blair (courtesy of World Economic Forum, via Flickr)

Nearly a decade on from the Act coming into force, this could be the opportunity to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of Freedom of Information, and put forward suggestions to improve upon its turbulent ten years of enforcement.

It is interesting that Mr Blair criticises journalists for using the Act as a “weapon” . Indeed, the Act does not allow public bodies to distinguish between media requests and requests from members of the public. However, this has simply not been the case. The public authorities to whom the Act covers have been known to be “officious”, “self-serving” and “brusquely unhelpful” to thwart requests for information. This is evident in the case of the Home Office and Ministry of Justice vs. The Information Commissioner in 2009 when the Home Office admitted that a request from a journalist was treated differently to a similar request from someone else. The problem, it seems, is not the Act itself but the attitude towards the Act by the public authorities since under the Act, the motive of the requester should not play any part in the decision.

The textbook used by journalists when consulting media law advises its reader to consider whether to say you are a journalist, as the request made may be treated differently .

Court Gavel (courtesy of Jonathunder, via Wikimedia Commons)

Court Gavel (courtesy of Jonathunder, via Wikimedia Commons)

The attitude towards the Act and its requesters needs to change. Inspiration could be taken from our American cousins who encourage their journalists to use their act. Members of the American media are granted a fee waiver under its Freedom of Information act . Whilst this may not be feasible for the UK act, the attitude and encouragement of the US should be taken into consideration.

Defamation should be considered, as journalists are not granted any special protection under FOI against libel law; it does not confer to statutory qualified privilege. Nor is copyright covered, either. Images and maps may be subject to copyright laws. The Information Commissioner advises to consult with the appropriate public authority on the status of information; copyright may be waived or information could be licensed for re-use . This is a positive to come out of the Act: under section 16, authorities are told to provide “advice and assistance” to those seeking it.

Certainly, this does not happen all the time. It most definitely was not provided during a time what we now know as the MP’s expenses scandal in 2009. Investigative journalist and Freedom of Information campaigner Heather Brooke led an investigation into what public money is used and how for MP’s expenses. When Brooke initially put in the FOI request for this relevant information, it should have been a shining example into the effectiveness and openness of this Freedom of Information Act. Tony Blair called FOI a “quite extraordinary offer by a government to open itself and Parliament to scrutiny” but it proved otherwise. The culture of secrecy was not dead – it had taken on a different name: exemption.

Palace of Westminster.jpg

Palace of Westminster (courtesy of Tony Moorey via Flickr)

Freedom of Information, sadly, does not live up to its title, as the information is not necessarily free. The White Paper should have been called: Your Right To Know…except 36 other things. There are 36 exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act, categorised as ‘absolute’ and ‘qualified’: absolute exemptions are, well, absolute – they must not be disclosed under any circumstances whilst qualified can be disclosed if the public interest argument defeats the argument of keeping it secret. England, once again, cannot purport to be this righteous seat of democracy when it has 36 exemptions to its open record policy, compared to Scotland’s 6 and Northern Ireland’s 4 .

Under Section 14 of the Act , public authorities are not obliged to comply with a request that they deem “vexatious”. What the act does not define is what it means by vexatious: it is quite a broad definition. During The One Show’s take on FOI, Giles Brandreth presents a segment on “wide access and wacky requests” by reading FOI requests such as:

• How much toilet roll does Downing Street use?

• The amount of Ferrero Rocher chocolates used by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

• The number of eligible bachelors in Hampshire Police.

These are indeed strange requests, but they are not solely what is deemed as ‘vexatious’. If one were to send multiple requests to the public authority, this obsessive nature would be deemed as vexatious. Heather Brooke questions the line between ‘obsessive’ and ‘investigative’. She argues that the exemption targets the media, and those trying to do serious investigation . It is worth noting that the silly requests are not as prominent as supposed. Brooke, in an appearance on Newsnight, revealed that she made a FOI request to the Ministry of Justice about the number of vexatious requests it had received. It was 2 . To improve upon the FOI act, it needs to make clear what is defined as ‘vexatious’.

Heather Brooke May 12.jpg

Heather Brooke (courtesy of Paul Clarke, via Wikimedia Commons)

Under the FOI Act, investigative journalism is a long and arduous process as Brooke found in her battle for MP’s expenses data. The problem faced with FOI is not the law itself, but the interpretation of law. This comes under debate with Section 40 of the FOI Act: personal information. FOI does not override data protection law, but the Information Commissioner (the successor to the Data Protection Commissioner) advises authorities that when considering the release of the data, there should be a distinction between ‘professional personal information’ and ‘private personal information’ . In this case, the expenses data was very much professional personal information. This is a strength of the FOI Act: the Information Commissioner is the interpreter of the law, when there is confusion.

Since Section 40 was not particularly helpful to the MPs, the qualified exemption of section 36 could have been – or at least, they tried to use it. It covers the prejudice of effective conduct of public affairs. Tony Blair argued that governments need to be able to debate, discuss and decide issues with a “reasonable amount of confidentiality” .

Members of the current government have attempted to debate with this amount of confidentiality, at risk of breaching transparency rules in the Act. In 2011, Education Minister Michael Gove used private e-mails to discuss government business with advisors. This incident, known as ‘Govegate’, is part of “the unexpected ramifications” of the Act, according to Ben Worthy. He highlights ‘the chilling effect’, in which members of the public authorities are attempting to undermine FOI through keeping fewer records from meetings and discussions. For FOI to work, this covert behaviour simply needs to stop.

FOI is manipulated by those with vested interests, and needs to strengthen. It could take influence from its European cousin: Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (or EIR). EIR is a stronger legislation than FOI by its influence. Brought in through EU law, EIR covers a wider remit than FOI including private organisations. Whilst EIR follows similar procedure to FOI with its 20-day maximum response and correspondence through post and e-mail, requests can also be lodged verbally. For FOI to improve its remit does need extending – even to public/private hybrids such as academies and utility services it does not cover currently.

However, EIR does charge the requester. This is something that FOI needs to avoid. FOI can charge if the request exceeds a limit of £600 for national government and £450 for other public authorities. Cost is estimated by the cost of staff time used to deal with the request. Staff time is deemed to cost £25 an hour.

Aclu-v-ashcroft-redacted

Redacted Statement (via Wikimedia Commons)

MPs attempted to use the costs as a means to delay the publishing of data, argues Heather Brooke. In the Government’s response to the Justice Committee’s Report, it stated:

“Take into account some or all of the time spent on considering and redacting when calculating whether the costs limit has been exceeded.”

This was the excuse, Brooke argues, that parliamentary officials used not to publish the data by the specified deadline of October 2008. She also calls redactments as a means of “censoring” information.

The full extent to the MPs expenses scandal would not have been known if these redactments had been complete. The full data – sans redactments – was leaked to The Telegraph. If only the official disclosures were available, it would not be in the public knowledge about MPs’ second homes.

The official disclosures might not have surfaced, if Jack Straw had anything to do with it. He had already used his authority to veto the release of the Iraqi war logs through FOI, and he attempted to use this veto against the MPs expenses data. If FOI is calling itself truly an open record, this right of veto needs to be removed as it is “potentially undermining the very purpose of the Act” . Countries such as the USA and Canada do not allow executive veto, and nor should the UK.

After ten years of enforcement, the Freedom of Information Act has had a bumpy ride. It has faced a bashing from the very people whom created it. Although it is bruised and battered, it needs to persevere and come back stronger. Journalists should be encouraged to use FOI, not dissuaded. One of its strongest supports Heather Brooke calls it “an effective chisel against government secrecy and corruption” , and it needs to keep chiselling – avoiding a blunting by its opponents.

School of News Press Conference (courtesy of Tom Williams)

School of News Press Conference (courtesy of Tom Williams)

Bibliography

Banks, D. and Hannah, M. 2009. McNae’s essential law for journalists. 20th ed. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Blair, T. 2011. A Journey. 2nd ed. Arrow Books: London.

Brooke, H. 2012. Government changes would kill FOI in Britain. Sunday Times.

Continental Research. 2007. Freedom of Information Act: Three Years On.

Daily Politics. 10 March 2011. BBC.

Morrison, J. 2009. Public affairs for journalists. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Newsnight. April 9 2012. BBC.

Simpson, M. 2006. Freedom of Information – Worth the Wait? Politics Review. (February 2006).

The One Show. 3 March 2009. BBC.

Worthy, B. 2011. Freedom of Information (podcast). Available at: https://historyspot.org.uk/podcasts/archives-and-society/freedom-information (Accessed 2 May 2014)