ECHR ruling paves the way for “Marry Your Rapist” Laws in Europe

You’ve probably already read about the European Court of Human Rights ruling this week that the right to free expression does not include the right to defame the Prophet Mohammed.  The story has been reported in most national newspapers, and has provoked outrage on social media, with many people suggesting that the ruling effectively outlaws blasphemy – and, of course, demanding to know why yet again, Islam appears to be the only religion which cannot be criticised.

I have no desire to rehash arguments that have already been made as to why this ruling is such a regressive step.  But I would like to discuss the one element of the case which, for whatever reason, no other commentators appear to be discussing.

A brief background for those who may have missed this story.  The case involves an Austrian woman, found guilty in 2011 of incitement to religious hatred, for ‘defaming’ the Prophet Mohammed by referring to him as a paedophile.  She appealed the case to the high court in Austria and, after losing that appeal, referred it to the ECHR on the grounds that her conviction violated her right to free expression under section 10 of the Convention.  The ECHR, earlier this week, found in favour of the Austrian government.

But let’s look a bit more closely at the logic underlying her original conviction – which was reiterated in the recent ECHR judgement.  The charge of ‘defamation’ is generally understood in law to apply to statements that are untrue – so in order to find her guilty of defamation, the Austrian court had to maintain that her statement, that Mohammed was a paedophile, was untrue.

This they did.  But it’s the logic they used in order to make this finding, that is so preposterous – and deeply alarming.  For they accepted without question the evidence of the Islamic hadiths which stated that Mohammed married his wife Aisha when she was six years old and consummated the marriage when she was nine.  So there was no question whatsoever as to the veracity of the claim that he had sex with a nine year-old.

No – it turns out the court’s opinion was that a person can only be called a paedophile if their primary sexual interest is in children.  Mohammed, the court ruled, could not be proven to have been primarily interested in Aisha because of her tender age – particularly as the marriage continued into her adult years.   Moreover, the court ruled, as Mohammed had many wives, most of whom were adults and one of whom was even older than him, it simply could not be said that he was a paedophile.  The court further ruled that “even though criticizing child marriages was justifiable….. child marriages were not the same as paedophilia”.  It was on the basis of these arguments that the woman was found guilty.

She appealed to the Vienna Court of Appeal, specifically arguing against the contention that somebody who marries a child and maintains the marriage beyond the age at which the child reaches consent, cannot be called a paedophile.  The Court of Appeal upheld the regional court’s judgement.  And now, so has the ECHR.

So there we have it.  Under European law, it seems a paedophile can escape censure by simply marrying his victim and maintaining the marriage until the child reaches puberty.   Furthermore, many of the men who have recently been convicted of grooming and raping underage girls in towns and cities across the UK, cannot be called paedophiles as most of them have adult wives – therefore it cannot be said that their primary sexual interest is in children.

This is unbelievably regressive.   There are still many countries in the world where ‘Marry Your Rapist’ laws exist – in other words, laws in these countries allow rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims.   The inevitable result of such laws is that rape victims often find themselves pressurised into marriage with the man who has raped them.  Campaigns have been fought – and are still being fought – in all of these countries to try to get these regressive laws repealed.  Yet the Austrian courts appear to be paving the way for the introduction of such laws, and the ECHR – the one body that should be most vigilant about such moves – is simply turning a blind eye.

I will admit to knowing very little about the ECHR’s jurisdiction in individual cases. It may be that because the ECHR was asked to adjudicate specifically on the question of the applicant’s rights to free expression, it was forced to consider only this matter, and was not able to comment on the rights or wrongs of the wider case.  I truly hope that is the case, and that somewhere behind the scenes, somebody in the European Court is having a quiet word with the Austrian courts about their original ruling.   But sadly, I very much doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in grooming gangs, politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Great “Factfulness” Con

I was in South Africa earlier this year, visiting my dad, when I first read a review of Hans Rosling’s book “Factfulness”.  I remember excitedly reading some of the key points of the review to my dad, who expressed skepticism at what I was telling him. “According to this, Dad, 85% of the world lives in developed countries, while only 6% live in developing ones. And apparently, while most people believe that 59% of the world lives in low income countries, the real figure is only 9%”.   The facts and figures kept coming – oozing positivity and shattering many of my misconceptions about the state of the world.  Eventually, I handed my iPad over to my dad so he could read the review for himself – I wanted to share my excitement at what I had just read, and made a mental note to buy the book myself as soon as I got back to the UK.

Of course, I got sidetracked and so it’s taken me until now to actually buy and read the book.  And the disappointment, and sense of betrayal, is absolutely immense.  Because this book, and all the hype around it, strikes me as one of the biggest cons I’ve ever come across.

Bill Gates describes the book as “One of the most important books I’ve ever read – an indispensible guide to thinking clearly about the world”.

Barack Obama describes it as “A hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases”.

Danny Finkelstein, whose review in the Times prompted me to buy the book, described it as “An assault both on ignorance and pessimism”

And Jeremy Warner, of the Sunday Telegraph, wrote “We need more of this way of thinking, both in business and politics”

After reading reviews such as those, how could I possibly expect anything less than groundbreaking?

I really was willing to have my biases challenged.  I was excited about being bombarded with facts and information that would challenge my preconceptions about the world – and I tore through the introduction with enthusiasm, racing through the multiple-choice test questions that form the basis of the book’s thesis, that on average, due to our inherent biases and overall pessimism about the state of the world, a chimpanzee selecting answers at random has a better chance of picking the right answer about the state of the world, than even the most highly-educated human.  And of course I got many of the answers wrong – in each case, the true answer, whether related to the number of people living in poverty, the number of people who have access to electricity, or the number of years of education girls receive worldwide, always turned out to be far more positive than the answer I had selected.

This was great!  I couldn’t wait to read further, to understand more about the underlying data behind these questions and answers.  Was it really true, for example, that the majority of the world population lives in middle-income countries?

Well, it turns out, it all depends on your definition of “middle income”.  Rosling uses four different income levels to illustrate his point.  Level 1 is extreme poverty – where the average citizen lives on less than $2 per day.  Level 4 is rich countries – where the average citizen lives on more than $32 per day. And EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN is what he terms “middle income”.  So essentially, when he says “The majority of the world lives in middle income countries” all he is actually saying, is that there are extremes of rich and poor and that most people live somewhere in between those extremes.  Now, had he phrased his question along those lines, I’m pretty sure 100% of people would have got the answer right.

Rosling's four income levels

Graphical depiction of billions of people living on different income levels. Note the logarithmic scale at the bottom – majority of people are at levels 1 and 2.

The majority of people in the world, in actual fact, live on the lower two levels (rather close to the 59% that most people believe live in lower-income countries).  And as the levels are represented as exponential growth, rather than linear, the reality is that the majority of people in the world are living on less than $8 per day.  Which I personally would define as being at the lower end of the income scale depicted – particularly as Rosling’s descriptions of the individual levels indicate that even those living on level 2, do not have water in the home, and any electricity they may have is generally unstable.  So it turns out what most people believe to be true, actually IS true, and Rosling is simply trying to spin the data to make us believe otherwise.

Let’s look at some of the other “facts” presented by the book.

FACT QUESTION 10

Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?”

  1. 9 years
  2. 6 years
  3. 3 years

The answer, of course, is 9 years.  But where is this data coming from?  Well, it turns out the underlying data set is made up of estimates of average educational attainment levels in 188 countries, from an organisation called the Global Health Data Exchange which is funded by – and here’s a surprise – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Suddenly the glowing reviews on the book’s cover, from Bill and Melinda Gates, seem less surprising.  And “school” includes primary, secondary and tertiary education. So the countries where children get less than 5 years’ education are counterbalanced by those getting 13 years and upwards.   But you have to actually look up the dataset on the internet to find this out.  It certainly isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book. Nor is there any comparison of, or even commentary on, the different standards of education across countries. For the purposes of this “fact”, 5 years’ education in a developing nation such as Cameroon, Rwanda or Eritrea is considered of equivalent value to 5 years’ education in any of the developed nations such as Japan, Germany or the United States.

Moving on – let’s look at another “fact”.

FACT QUESTION 12

How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

  1. 20 percent
  2. 50 percent
  3. 80 percent

You guessed it – the answer is 80 percent.  But where does this figure come from, and what does the underlying data actually say? Well, it turns out it’s from the World Bank, who collate data showing what percentage of each individual country’s population has access to electricity.  The 80% appears to be a rounded-down, simple average of each country’s percentages, which does not appear to take into account individual population size (population figures are not given, and no mention is made of any kind of population-weighting, so while I may be missing something, it appears as though the many countries where 100% of citizens have access to electricity have simply been averaged against those where less than 40%, or less than 30%, or even less than 10%, of the population have any access).

Rosling, in the appendix, also points out that “access to electricity” does not mean the supply is reliable.  A person experiencing 60 power outages per week, would still be considered to have access to electricity.   Suddenly that 80% access to electricity doesn’t seem quite so impressive.

I won’t go into any of the other “facts” in the book – none of them appear to be blatantly incorrect, though many, like those mentioned above, have been very carefully curated.  Most of them, in fact, are fairly non-contentious.  Overall, though, this is a book that oozes condescension, that continually ignores the advice of its own author – he cautions against getting too hung up on attention-grabbing simple ideas, while basing his entire book on exactly those.   He points out the ability of researchers and statisticians to skew our perspective on data by changing the scales on a graph – while doing exactly that with his catchy bubble diagrams that use a logarithmic scale to attempt to convince us that the majority of the world is living not at the lower end of the income spectrum, but happily in the middle.

Depressingly, with its emphasis on simple “facts” and catchy bubble graphs, this is a book for the internet age – the world of TED talks and YouTube, where a credulous audience can be convinced of just about anything with the right combination of catchy slides and fun facts.

Despite all this, the overall trend IS positive – huge improvements HAVE been made in the last few decades, in all the areas discussed in the book – and it is good to be reminded of just how much progress has been made.  It’s just a shame that so little time is spent actually looking into any of the “facts” in any detail – if you truly want to get a proper picture of what is happening in the world, you either need to buy a different book, or spend hours, as I have just done, obsessively looking up the underlying data in an attempt to draw your own conclusions.   Rather than leaving me with the warm glow of optimism that I expected, this book has left me furious and despondent that this is the level to which public debate appears to be descending, when a book that is so light on facts and analysis, and so heavy on spin and graphics, can receive such great acclaim.

I don’t doubt the authors’ intentions were honourable – Hans Rosling, the primary author, died in 2017 and the book was completed by his son and daughter-in-law, Ola and Anna Rosling – and I don’t believe they set out to deceive.  But with their carefully-curated “facts”, cunningly-worded questionnaires and catchy graphics that hide massive income discrepancies via logarithmic scales, they have produced a book that has no more substance than the original TED talk that inspired it.  If simplistic “facts” and engaging graphics are your thing, I’d suggest you watch one of Hans Rosling’s TED talks.  But if you actually want to delve deeper into any of the “facts” presented, you’ll need to buy a different book.

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A Star is (Loudly) Born

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Apologies to the small number of loyal readers who eagerly await the arrival of a new blog post – I’ve been going through one of those phases where so much, and yet so little, of interest seems to be happening in the world, that I just can’t summon up the enthusiasm to write about anything at all.  The news just seems to have been all Labour Party conference, and Tory Party conference, and the never ending Brexitshambles, and yet more revelations about the would-be assassins of Sergei Skripal, and now Turkey accusing Saudi Arabia of murdering one of its most well-known journalists, and more than a few times I’ve been tempted to write something about the whole Brett Kavanaugh debacle but really, what is there to say that hasn’t already been said?  My Libran tendency to see both sides of every situation means I simultaneously find Ford’s testimony very credible, while absolutely insisting that Kavanaugh is innocent until proven guilty.  And yes, I could say a great deal more, and fill an entire blog post, but to be honest I don’t particularly fancy the grief that would likely come my way from both sides of the debate if I were to do so.

So instead I’m going to write about Lady Gaga.  And Bradley Cooper.  Because wow.  If the pairing itself doesn’t seem bizarre enough – she of the mad hairdos, caked-on make-up and who can ever forget that meat dress? – he of the gorgeous blue eyes, stunning smile, overall general hunkiness – it turns out when you put the two of them together, showing both of them in as glamourless a light as possible (him as a fading alcoholic rockstar, her as a wannabe singer with a hidden talent for songwriting, working in a restaurant to pay the bills and occasionally giving late-night performances at the local drag club) – they are absolutely electrifying.

I never saw any of the previous versions of ‘A Star is Born’ so had absolutely no idea what to expect of the film – my mum wanted to see it, the reviews were outstanding and I thought “Huh – Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga – that could be interesting”.  So I agreed to go.  And in the first few minutes of the film, I was almost tempted to walk straight out because it was LOUD!  I mean seriously loud – a full-on assault on the eardrums as the film opens with Cooper’s character (Jackson Maine) on stage in front of a massive audience – the stereophonic whine of his guitar strings actually made my teeth ache.  Manchester University students who recently decided to use ‘jazz hands’ in place of clapping in order to be more inclusive to those who can’t stand the sound of loud applause, would be advised to steer well clear of this film.  Or at least the first few minutes.  Plus a couple of other scenes later on.   The revelation, in a subsequent scene, that Maine suffers from chronic tinnitus, comes as no great surprise.

At heart this is a love story – but not the simple “boy-meets-girl, few ups and downs before happily-ever-after” theme of so many Hollywood romances.   Rather this is a story of love blossoming between two people at opposite ends of their career trajectories – him on the way out, her waiting to be discovered – and the highs and lows experienced as they find their fortunes reversed, as she goes on to megastardom while he struggles to cope with his jealousy, all the while the pressures of the rockstar life ensuring that decisions are never theirs alone to make.

From their first meeting, in the drag bar he walks into, desperate for a drink, only to be mesmerised by her performance of ‘La Vie en Rose’ – the chemistry between them is undeniable.  Watching him rapidly falling in love with her (she is more reticent at first) is the stuff of most women’s fantasies – who among us wouldn’t want to be looked at by a man the way he looks at her on that first magical evening that they end up spending together?  Okay, so he’s clearly had a fair bit to drink, and his hair could do with a comb (let’s face it, after a couple of hours on stage he’s probably a bit whiffy, too) but he’s polite, and charming, and looking at her like she’s the most wondrous creature he’s ever laid eyes on, and you can almost see him thinking that finally, somebody has come along who can lift his soul in a way that it clearly hasn’t been lifted in far too long.  She, meanwhile, seems to be finding his obvious attraction to her a little bit hard to believe – it’s clear, when he eventually drops her off at home in the morning after they’ve spent the whole night sitting around chatting, that she doesn’t really expect to hear from him again.

But of course he does intend to see her again – and it’s no time at all before he’s sending his driver, and a private plane, to fetch her and bring her to the latest city in which he is playing.  And the true magic of the film is in the scene where he invites her onto the stage to sing one of her songs, ‘Shallow’ with him – the moment that first launches her into the spotlight.  Gaga, in this scene, is terrific – from her initial wide-eyed refusal, standing backstage as he announces to the audience that he’d like her to come out and sing with him, to the look in her eyes as he starts to sing the song that she wrote, to her eventual decision to walk onto the stage and join him, the panic and disbelief at what is happening is written all over her face.  But as with every scene in which she sings, the moment she opens her mouth to join in with the song, the music takes over – and while she continues to look fairly wide-eyed and disbelieving throughout, eventually she gives in and belts out the chorus, as he grins and looks at the crowd as if to say, “See?  Isn’t she amazing?” – and it is clear the crowd agrees.  It is in every way a pivotal moment – the moment at which the world becomes aware of who she is, the moment she truly gives in to her feelings and the event that sets in motion everything else that follows.

I won’t give any more spoilers – it’s a terrific film, with absolutely outstanding performances from both Gaga and Cooper, thoroughly recommended.  Just take some earplugs for that opening scene.

Posted in Hollywood, lifestyle, Stage and Screen | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Serena Williams cartoon was brilliant – but unnecessarily offensive

Serena Williams Herald Sun cartoon

Serena Williams cartoon – Herald Sun

A little like the story of the boy who cried wolf, many of us are so inured to hearing accusations of racism in response to virtually any criticism of a person of colour, that we now simply tune out.  So it was with the recent storm over the Serena Williams cartoon – the more its detractors have shouted about how racist it was, the more its defenders have simply shrugged off the accusations as the desperate claims of a small group of whiny social justice warriors uncomfortable with the idea of a black woman being held up to ridicule.   The fact that this particular black woman is one of the most successful tennis players of all time, rich beyond the wildest dreams of most ordinary citizens, surely renders ridiculous any accusations of “oppression”.  If Serena wants to be treated with the same respect as her white male contemporaries, surely she has to be willing to be held up to the same level of ridicule and criticism when her behaviour merits it?  If it’s okay for John McEnroe to be depicted as a screaming toddler spitting his dummy out on court, why should Serena Williams be given a free pass?

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I have to admit to having been flabbergasted when I first heard that the cartoon had been deemed racist.  To my untrained eye, the drawing was instantly recognisable as Serena Williams – from the frizzy ponytail to the tutu dress to the physique, it was clearly aimed solely at Serena and not any kind of commentary on “angry black women”. As to the accusations that her opponent was drawn as white – well those were pure fabrications, as even a cursory glance at the picture would confirm.  Blonde hair notwithstanding (as anybody who watched the match would know, Naomi Osaka did sport a blonde ponytail during the match) her skin tone far more closely matches that of Serena, than that of the umpire.  If we really are to get picky over skin tone, it is the umpire’s that is less true to life – Carlos Ramos is by no means the pale-skinned, pink-cheeked character depicted in the cartoon.

And yet. Occasionally Twitter can be a source of enlightenment – and so it was last night that one user was finally able to provide some insight into what all the fuss is all about.

I’ve read various arguments that the overall depiction – the great hulking figure, the frizzy hair, the massive mouth – is “Sambo-like”.  And I was genuinely mystified as to what was meant by this. I recall a children’s story called “The Story of Little Black Sambo” (bear with me here), about a young black boy of Indian heritage, who gets into an altercation with a number of tigers.  Sambo is very finely turned out in bright trousers and shirt, carrying a bright umbrella, and ends up having to give up his fine clothes and umbrella to the tigers, who threaten to eat him otherwise.  But he has the last laugh in the end as the tigers end up chasing each other by the tails, fighting over which of them looks the finest, until eventually they dissolve into a pool of “ghee” which Sambo’s mother then uses to make pancakes.  Sambo, being particularly hungry after his adventurous day, eats 169 pancakes!  Aged 4, being read the story in nursery school, I remember our class being delighted at Sambo’s adventures – enjoying the tale so much that we demanded it be read to us every day at “nap-time”  – until eventually our teachers told us that there had been a break-in at the school over the weekend and that the book had been stolen, so we would have to have a different story in future. Whether they did that because they were just sick of reading the same story over and over again, or because of dawning realisation that many people found the name “Little Black Sambo” deeply offensive, I do not know.  But either way, that was the end of the Story of Little Black Sambo.

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Still – how, I wondered, could people possibly argue that the depiction of Serena Williams was “Sambo-like”?   Setting aside the story, the broader term “Sambo” tends to simply refer to a person of African or African-American heritage, and even looking at pictures of “Sambo dolls” with their stripy trousers, big bow-ties and massive grins, I could see no resemblance whatsoever to the depiction of Serena Williams.

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It was the below image, sent to me by another Twitter user, that finally pointed me to what people meant by “Sambo-like” and why they found it so offensive.

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Now, I’ll admit I had to Google “Jim Crow”.  Which probably goes a long way to explaining why I didn’t immediately understand why the cartoon is seen as racist.  In fact I would go so far as to say that the distinction between those who see the cartoon as racist, and those who don’t, can probably be very closely linked to those who understand Jim Crow and those who don’t.

According to the website of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University,

Jim Crow was the name of the racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states, between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws. It was a way of life. Under Jim Crow, African Americans were relegated to the status of second class citizens. Jim Crow represented the legitimization of anti-black racism. Many Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the Chosen people, blacks were cursed to be servants, and God supported racial segregation. Craniologists, eugenicists, phrenologists, and Social Darwinists, at every educational level, buttressed the belief that blacks were innately intellectually and culturally inferior to whites. Pro-segregation politicians gave eloquent speeches on the great danger of integration: the mongrelization of the white race. Newspaper and magazine writers routinely referred to blacks as niggers, coons, and darkies; and worse, their articles reinforced anti-black stereotypes. Even children’s games portrayed blacks as inferior beings … All major societal institutions reflected and supported the oppression of blacks.”

The original “Jim Crow” was a fictional clumsy, dimwitted slave, the subject of minstrel routines performed by a white actor named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice.

As my Twitter interlocutor explained to me, it’s all in the lips and the mouth. Serena Williams does not have particularly big lips – yet the cartoon depicts her lips and mouth as taking up more than half of her face.  And the bright pink texture of her lips is particularly reminiscent of the Jim Crow-era depictions of black people.

Still I couldn’t quite see it.  As I pointed out, the Jim Crow-era lips tend to be big, fat, smiling mouths – whereas in my view, the most prominent thing about Serena’s mouth is its wide-openness and the visibility of her tongue, both indicators simply of the tantrum she is throwing.  A clear caricature of her mouth in the photo below.

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Even now, when I look at that cartoon, I do not see Jim Crow lips.  But I can understand why many people, who have lived their entire lives in the shadow of historical depictions of black people as “Jim Crows”, would.

I do not know whether the cartoonist is familiar with the Jim Crow era – and if he is, whether he deliberately tried to court controversy by drawing Serena’s mouth in a way that could so easily be interpreted as reminiscent of that era, or whether no such thought entered his head.  But just a brief glance at caricatures of John McEnroe confirms that nobody ever drew his mouth or lips in any way similar to how Serena’s were drawn. It would have been very easy for the Serena cartoon to be drawn in such a way as to be equally effective, while steering well clear of any similarities to Jim Crow.  It may well be that those who see Jim Crow lips when they look at that cartoon, are being oversensitive – seeing offence where none is intended. But it could equally be argued that those of us who refuse to even acknowledge any similarity, are being insensitive.

Neither Serena Williams, nor any other person, should be immune to criticism or ridicule.   But while ignorance of the historical significance of drawing her mouth in the way it was drawn, may be an excuse, indifference is another matter.  There may be no need for the Herald Sun to apologise for the image – but it really wouldn’t kill them to try to learn something from the furore and endeavour to avoid such imagery in future.  If they want everyone to focus on the real point of the cartoon – Serena Williams’ brattish behaviour – then the best way to do that is to avoid using iconography that so unnecessarily causes offence, and distracts from the overall message.

 

Posted in identity politics, politics | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Forget crime – it’s investigating non-crime that pays dividends

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In a truly creative interpretation of the role of the police, South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner went on national radio earlier this week to explain why the police force he oversees, despite being too short of resources to investigate actual crime, is now encouraging the public to report “non-crime hate incidents”.

That’s right.  Dr Alan Billings, clearly recognising he has not a snowball’s chance in hell of being able to improve South Yorkshire Police’s record on investigation of actual crime, has decided that a better use of both his and the force’s time, is to focus on incidents that are not criminal, but that may have resulted in “distress” to their victims. His explanation for this bizarre stance, is that “a non-crime incident… may well develop into a criminal incident” and that non-crime incidents cause tension within communities, which then lead to issues for policing within those communities.

Suddenly it’s all clear where this came from.  This is the sort of idea that comes out of one of those awful brainstorming sessions, in which somebody stands at the front of a room insisting that “no idea is too crazy to discuss” and everybody sits in silence, thinking about what to have for lunch and sneaking glances at the clock, willing somebody else to come up with a good idea with which everybody else can agree.  Eventually someone pipes up “Well, I was thinking about how prevention is better than cure…” and somebody else shouts out, “Yes!  Brilliant idea!  If we can prevent crime from even happening we can cut off the problem at the source!” Most of the room joins in to enthusiastically echo agreement – maybe we will get out early after all – drowning out the objections of the lone dissenter in the corner trying to point out that the public still expect the police to investigate crime that actually has happened.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this is where we’ve ended up.  Just look at how quickly the #MeToo movement morphed from encouraging women to speak up about sexual assault, to politicians and celebrities being hounded over incidents as trivial as a hand on a knee, a flirty text message or a bad first date.  We even had calls for wolf-whistling to be made a crime, on the basis that “while wolf-whistling itself is not criminal, it makes women feel uncomfortable and encourages predatory behaviour, which in turn may lead to sexual assault”.  The intense focus on what a behaviour “may” lead to, rather than what it actually is, has become a national obsession.

We see it, too, in newspaper articles which try to convince us that the far-right is a greater threat to western democracy than Islamic extremism.  Angry and abusive tweets, graffiti, and aggressive and insulting words, we are told, are a far greater threat than actually being blown up, run over or stabbed while on a night out with friends, or crossing a bridge to get to work.

To those tasked with preventing and solving crime, it must be a comforting approach, to be able to treat crime that has already happened as “in the past” and therefore of lesser importance than the far greater number of crimes that potentially could happen, if one just uses one’s imagination.   Just imagine Dr Billings, reporting back to the Minister on his progress in office – “Well, as you can see from this chart here, we had 100 unsolved burglaries in South Yorkshire last month, but as a result of our quick action in dealing with an offensive tweet, we prevented it from escalating into a community riot which could have caused untold damage to property and persons, and potentially even could have led to an incident of right-wing terrorism”.

Credit where it’s due – the man knows how to play the system.  Just please don’t let him anywhere near the NHS, or our doctors’ surgeries will be filled with people encouraged to visit their doctors as soon as they feel a little below par, while those with life-threatening illnesses languish on endless waiting lists for appointments.   While waiting times continue to rise, doctors can congratulate themselves on their ability to prevent the “worried well” from getting ill in the first place.  Until the next policy meeting, when somebody pipes up “What was that saying about an apple a day?”.

 

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In the gutter, with no view of the stars

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde – “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”

In what bizarre social imaginings, would it be acceptable for somebody to make a wildly libellous accusation, and then demand that the accused provide them with sensitive private documents in order to enable them to attempt to prove the accusation?

Well it turns out, if you’re attempting to return to work after a career break or period of unemployment, it’s actually pretty common.

Picture the situation.  Having got through the process of having to update your CV and attempting to put a positive spin on the fact that you’ve been unemployed, caring for relatives, bringing up young children or simply lazing about at home contemplating your navel for the last few months or years – you finally manage to secure an interview. So you put on your best suit, smile, shake hands firmly, make lots of eye contact, talk confidently about your experience and your interest in the job on offer, discuss the reasons for your recent gap in employment while the interviewer nods and smiles understandingly, and then go home to wait nervously by the phone before finally getting the call offering you the job.

And then the company hands your file over to the massive agency to whom they’ve outsourced their HR department, and you get an email from a cheerful young 20-something, asking you to please provide your bank statements for the period that you were not working, to enable them to attempt to prove that you were not, in fact, doing what you claim to have been doing in recent months or years, but instead are trying to hide the existence of a job from which you were fired.

I wrote recently about my outrage at this process, with its presumption of “guilty until proven innocent”.  At the time, I was under the impression that this practice was unique to large corporate entities, particularly banks and other financial institutions, notorious for their deeply suspicious attitudes towards staff and customers.   A long-running source of amusement among banking contractors is the irony, in our post-financial crisis world, of banks insisting on carrying out credit checks on contractors prior to offering them a contract.  It is the contractor, after all, not the bank, who faces the risk of non-payment of invoices if the bank should fail.  But having consented to a credit check, and a criminal records check, I still fail to see the argument for any bank – or their HR agency – having the right to interrogate my personal bank statements prior to offering me a job.

But it turns out the practice of delving into potential employees’ or contractors’ private lives, is not limited to the corporate world.  A brief internet search revealed a long thread on Mumsnet started by a woman planning to return to work as a nurse for the NHS, after a couple of years at home with her young children.  She, too, was expected to provide bank statements to prove that she was not hiding some kind of illicit employment.

In fact, a brief glance at the websites of a few of the various agencies involved in finding and placing candidates at positions across many industries, reveals the fairly common boast of being able to detect “hidden employment” among potential candidates.   Far from being embarrassed at the intrusive nature of the checks they are carrying out, these agencies are actually proud of their ability to poke into the income and spending habits of their candidates.

This, they argue, is their job – to check the references of candidates, including academic and work history, and the verification of employment gap activity. There are, of course, instances in which bank statements can be used as evidence of activity – such as where a person has been travelling and the bank statements show cash withdrawals and spending in other countries.  But trawling through bank statements looking not for evidence of activity, but for absence of evidence, is just a straight-up invasion of privacy.  And if you object to being asked to hand over your bank statements, the answer is a simple “If you don’t give us your bank statements, we can’t issue your contract”.

Even the much–publicised GDPR regulations don’t appear to offer any protection. Ask for your bank statements to be destroyed once they have been checked – as is supposedly your right under GDPR – and you will be told that unfortunately, because you signed a form consenting to the agency and the client using your personal information for the duration of your assignment, not only will the statements not be destroyed, but they will be held by the agency, and the client, for the duration.

Pointing out the fact that the information shown on the statements is being used by the agency in a way that is entirely inappropriate to the supposed purpose, in direct contravention of GDPR, elicits barely a raised eyebrow.  “We have very good lawyers – they would tell us if we were doing anything illegal” is the standard response.  To which my response is “How sure are you?  Do your lawyers actually know you’re doing this?”

That’s the trouble with large organisations – often the left hand has no idea what the right hand is up to.

Why is this not a national scandal?  I can understand how many people would be unaware of this, as it only affects those who have taken a career break and now wish to return to work.  But this is something that will overwhelmingly affect women more than men, given women are far more likely than men to take career breaks either to have and raise children, or to look after elderly relatives. So why are feminists not up in arms about it?

Personally I have found the whole process so off-putting that I’ve ended up turning down the job, preferring to focus my energies on finding work with a smaller company that I hope will show a bit more respect for me as an individual. I wonder how many other women would similarly find, after a period out of work and away from the usual demands of corporate life, that they no longer wish to work for a company that treats them from the outset with such a degree of suspicion, simply because they chose to prioritise their family for a period of time? Isn’t this something that the Equal Pay champions should be all over?

Short of illegal activity, which a criminal records check would pick up, it is not up to any company to question the word of a potential employee who claims to have been unemployed or not working for personal reasons.    Reference checking should be about verifying that a person is not exaggerating their qualifications or experience – not about making a person account, in excruciating detail, for what they were doing while out of work.   HR agencies would do well to remember that – and leave the slander and voyeurism to the gutter, where it belongs.

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Want to hire talented individuals? Then stop treating them like criminals.

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I’ve just registered a formal complaint with my agency about the intrusive nature of the background checks for a contract position at a major investment bank.

Having had two years out of work, I have been asked to provide personal bank statements to prove that I was not, in fact, working and am not now attempting to hide a period of employment that may have ended in me being fired.

Any other contractors out there, reading this, will be familiar with this practice. Most large corporations use the same agencies and resource providers, all of whom carry out the same stringent background checks.  And periods of unemployment greater than a few months in length always require evidence.

But the fact that it’s standard practice, doesn’t make it right.  And having spent the best part of the last 20 years working in IT and business change environments, I find it impossible to simply shrug it off and accept that “it’s just the way it is”.  This is a process that is crying out to be changed – because it is intrusive, stressful, dehumanising and, ultimately, likely to deter some candidates from pursuing jobs for which they may otherwise be perfectly suited.  It is certainly making me seriously question how much I actually want this job, and I am on the verge of walking away.

I did not intend to be out of work for two years.  I intended to take a few months off, to spend time with my uncle, who was dying.  But his eventual death, and dealing with the probate of his estate, kept me occupied way beyond the few months I had originally envisaged.  My subsequent decision to relocate to the Lake District, to be closer to my mother and to manage the renovation of my late uncle’s house, which I now own, brought me to this point where, two years later, I am now looking for work and being asked to account for my actions over the intervening period.

But having worked for this particular bank previously, as well as for numerous other banks where plenty of former colleagues and managers would be able to vouch for my character and experience, it is deeply insulting to be treated from the outset with a degree of suspicion that assumes I must be lying about my activities.

And so what if I was?  So what if I had briefly been employed, in a job which had no relevance whatsoever to the job for which I am now applying?  Why shouldn’t I be allowed to simply not mention that job?  We all know recruiters and clients often don’t look beyond the most recent job on a CV – if a contractor wishes to draw the client’s attention to the job prior to that, if that is the job that is most relevant to the role they are applying for, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so, by simply leaving off the most recent role?

Similarly, if a contractor has left a previous role due to a clash of personalities with a manager, or issues of harassment that may not have been dealt with properly by the company in question, or simply because the role turned out to be completely different from what was advertised – how is that any business of a future client?

There could be myriad personal reasons why a job doesn’t work out, and no candidate should be forced to disclose, or talk about, such matters if they do not wish to do so.  This desire to discover details about a candidate’s personal or professional history that they may prefer to keep private and that have no bearing on the job in question, borders on a type of voyeurism that I find quite distasteful.

Recruitment should be about finding the person most suited to perform a role.  It should be about assessing the candidate’s experience and personality, and deciding whether they will be a good fit for the company and the team.    It should never be about digging into every detail of the candidate’s personal life – particularly when the person doing the digging is invariably somebody who has never even met the candidate.   I am not, by nature, a secretive person – the very fact that I write this blog is a pretty clear indication of my willingness to make my thoughts and experiences public – but the thought of somebody I have never met, trawling through my bank statements in the hopes of catching me in a lie, makes me deeply uncomfortable.

I can understand the need to get as detailed a picture as possible of a candidate’s character prior to hiring them.  Particularly when the job involved is a permanent position, or places the candidate in a position of seniority.   But when the job involved is a six month contract, with the client having the option to terminate that contract at any time during the six month period – and when the candidate is already known to the client, having worked for them previously – there is no justification whatsoever for such intrusive checks.  Criminal records and credit checks should suffice.

Why is it that the word “human” so often gets forgotten in the term “human resources”? A one-size-fits-all approach to background screening, that ignores the candidate’s experience, history, personal circumstances and existing or prior relationship with the client, completely fails to take into account any human element whatsoever.  Companies wishing to attract bright, talented individuals who are capable of free thought and who have the necessary drive to effect change within the organisation, would do well to think about what impression they are making on candidates when they submit them to such rigidly-enforced processes.   When “do you want this job or not?” is the standard response to any complaint about violation of privacy, there does come a point at which the answer is “not”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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ISIS ‘Beatles’ deserve not one second of our consideration

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I might have known that within hours of the media reporting that Sajid Javid has dropped his objection to the death penalty for the two captured ISIS terrorists from the “Beatles” terror cell, we would be hearing about the fierce criticism his decision has attracted from other government ministers.

Of course it was too much to ask that just this once, we could all just celebrate the fact that these two men, responsible for the beheading of British and American aid workers and journalists, will never again set foot on British soil, and leave our American friends to deal with them in whichever way they see fit.

Instead we’re expected to be outraged at the idea that our Home Secretary is abandoning Britain’s traditional policy of not allowing prisoners to be extradited to countries where they will face the death penalty.  We’re expected to remember that we have a higher moral code than those who feel death is a suitable form of retribution.   “An eye for an eye makes the world blind” – so the saying goes.

Well, I for one am not outraged.  To those who loudly proclaim on social media, “Not in my name”, my response is “Okay, do it in mine”.

I see no reason why the British taxpayer should pay for these men to try to defend their actions in court.  Nor why we should pay for them to be kept in prison for the rest of their miserable lives. Nor why we should fund their inevitable appeals against such life sentences.  In particular, I see no reason why these men should be given any chance to be put into contact with other violent offenders in prison, and to pass on their murderous ideology.

These men chose to leave the United Kingdom, to go over to Syria and to murder people in the name of an ideology.  They were adults when they made that choice, and nobody forced them into it.  And in making that choice, they turned their backs on Great Britain and its values, and renounced any claim to protection under British laws.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not calling for the death penalty to be reintroduced to the United Kingdom.  Nor am I arguing against Britain’s usual policy of not extraditing criminals to countries that would seek to impose the death penalty.  But for too long, we in the United Kingdom have allowed our determination to hold ourselves to a higher moral standard, to be exploited by those whose morals are on a completely different spectrum.  There is no victory to be found in smugly congratulating ourselves on our high moral code, while these animals slaughter our journalists and our aid workers abroad, and our citizens, our tourists and our children at home.

This is not bloodlust.  I do not take grim pleasure in the thought of these men facing a firing squad, or a noose, or a needle.  I wish, above all, never to think of these men again.  I would like their names to be erased from history, and for no further time to be wasted on arguing about their fate.  And I wish for any would-be jihadi reading about this case, to understand that anyone who holds our values and our way of life in such contempt, deserves not one second of our consideration.

Let them rot in a cell or let them die.  Just don’t let them anywhere near the United Kingdom.

 

 

 

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Divisions over strategy risk derailing Brexit

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A disheartening argument yesterday on Twitter, with a fellow Brexiteer.

It started when I pointed out to her that I don’t think Mrs May’s Chequers plan is quite the disaster that many are portraying it as, to which she responded, with an air of condescension, that I clearly wasn’t aware that David Davis had put forward an “alternate” white paper, sending me the first section of it, to read.

I duly responded that I had already read it, explaining that I had also read many of the remaining 23 sections, as well as the official white paper and various analyses.  I then – because, of course, what self-publicising blogger worth her salt can resist the opportunity – sent her a copy of the blog that I had written giving my thoughts on all of them.

Her response?  “Your blog doesn’t say much, it just whinges a lot”

With the greatest of difficulty, I resisted the mental urge to reach into the computer monitor, through the ether separating us, and throttle her.  I erased the angry response I had started to type out, and forced myself to consider the fact that maybe – just maybe – I need to be a bit more open to criticism.  Just because I believe my blogs are wonderfully written, well-researched and well-argued, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everybody else agrees.

So my eventual response was simply “Wow.  Okay.  Well, it wasn’t intended as a whinge; it was a serious attempt to get to the bottom of what is being proposed”.  I then pointed out that I voted for Brexit, still want it to go ahead and so was disappointed that she, as a fellow Brexiteer, was so keen to just dismiss my opinion.  Especially as – get this! – her Twitter bio states “If you want to debate Brexit, fine, but engage – don’t just dismiss what you don’t like”.

I politely suggested she may want to follow her own advice.

Somewhat surprisingly, the discussion then continued in fairly civilised tones, with a bit of back-and-forth about the relative difference between Davis’ proposals and those put forward by Mrs May.  Unsurprisingly, we were actually in agreement on many points but small areas of disagreement and misunderstanding kept cropping up.

And then came the big reveal.  Suddenly she admitted that she’d assumed I was a Remainer.  That she read my blog with that assumption in mind, and couldn’t really recall what it said that confirmed her suspicion but she remembered it talked about no economic benefits of leaving!

I pointed out that I hadn’t written anything about there not being any economic benefits of leaving – that I actually believe there are huge economic benefits to leaving.  What I had expressed in the blog, was my frustration at the fact that the various white papers had made no attempt to quantify those benefits!

And at that point – whether out of embarrassment or just the usual rudeness that Twitter somehow provokes in people – she declared that much though my blog may be of great interest to me, she had only skim-read it and had better things to do with her time than to continue arguing with me, bidding me a curt “Bye” at the end of her tweet.

Now, I’m no Twitter snowflake.  I can handle robust debate and I am certainly just as guilty as the next person, of making incorrect assumptions about the person I’m debating with and then trying to cover up my embarrassment at getting the wrong end of the stick.  We all do it.  All the time.

But the reason I found the whole thing a bit disheartening was because that little petulant exchange, sadly, is a pretty accurate representation of the deeper divisions at the heart of the Brexit vote.  And a very poor indictment of the state of our public debate.

I’ve written about this topic before – not specifically in the context of Brexit, but the wider context of political discussion, and the tribalism that lately seems to overtake every debate, and every analysis.

No longer do we listen to, or read, a point of view with an open mind – hearing, or reading, every part of it before making up our minds about how to respond. Nowadays, it seems, too often, the first thing we ask ourselves is “Who is putting forward this opinion?  To what political tribe do they belong? “   And we use the answer to those questions, to decide whether or not to give the opinion any credence.

My Twitter opponent had come to the incorrect conclusion, right from the start, that I am a Remainer.  Her responses to me were therefore hostile from the start.  Once she realised I had voted for Brexit, she calmed down and discussed the matter a bit more rationally – but then went off the boil again when I pulled her up on her incorrect assumptions.

The problem is, it’s no longer even a binary divide.  It’s not just Remainers vs Leavers.  It’s hard-core Remainers who will stop at nothing in their attempts to reverse Brexit, to moderate Remainers who really don’t want Brexit to happen but accept that actively trying to stop it is anti-democratic, to fence-sitters who voted for Remain because they were convinced by Project Fear, but are now starting to wonder if they should have voted Leave, to those teetering on the other side of the fence who voted Leave but can no longer really remember why and are wondering if they made a mistake, to moderate Leavers who just want the government to get on with negotiating our exit on the most favourable terms possible, to die-hard Leavers who are fed-up with having to try to negotiate anything, think the 48% of the country who didn’t vote to leave are just cowards and sore losers, and think we should just walk away right now without a deal, and damn the consequences.   And various other camps in between.

And is it any wonder we’re so divided?  Those still fighting for us to remain in the EU, love to point out the fact that not everybody who voted to leave, voted for the same thing.  There was no clear manifesto that set out what a leave vote would mean.  Yes, we were constantly told by the Remain campaign that a vote to leave would mean leaving the single market, and leaving the customs union – but we were also told by almost everybody on the Leave side, that leaving the EU would not mean losing our access to the single market, that it is just as much in the interests of the EU to give us a free trade deal as it is in our interests to want one.

Except, of course, as we are discovering, allowing us to leave its institutions while granting us a free trade deal, is not in the EU’s interests.  Perversely, politics trumps economics as far as the EU Commission are concerned – we are not dealing with reasoned negotiators, but with ideologically-driven careerists who would sooner bankrupt their member countries than give away any concessions that could be seen to damage their overall political project.   The great irony is that the very reason many of us voted to leave the EU, is the exact thing that is making it so hard for us to do so.

Theresa May, as we all know, has never been a great believer in Brexit.  And maybe, had David Davis been given free reign in negotiations, we would be in a better position than we are now.  But I’m not convinced about that.  Given the divisions within her own cabinet, with many MPs actively fighting to block any of her efforts, and an EU that is completely intractable in negotiations, I quite frankly find it fairly incredible that she has managed to make any progress whatsoever.  And while it’s tempting to agree with hard-core Brexiteers who say that we should simply walk away without a deal, do we really want to push such a strategy when we know that not only the 48% who voted Remain, but also a significant proportion of those who voted Leave, would not support doing so?

Calls for a second referendum on the final deal are, understandably, mounting.  It’s all very well David Davis and Steve Baker talking about the “alternate” white paper that they had been working on, with its focus on “mutual recognition” of standards rather than a “common rulebook”. But unless they are prepared to force a vote of no confidence in Theresa May – and win – and put their proposals to the EU – and expect them to be accepted by the EU – then all they are doing is creating unnecessary noise and division.  Divisions which the Remainers will be more than happy to exploit.

If we have any hope of Brexit going ahead, we need a unified strategy from those who are – and have been – its most high-profile cheerleaders.  That means Boris Johnson, David Davis, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Gisela Stuart, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks all need to get their heads together and start singing from the same hymn sheet.  Sadly I fear that for too many of them, individual ambition will continue to outweigh any chances for collaboration.   And the divisions within Parliament – and the country at large – will simply deepen.

 

 

 

 

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Will Tommy Robinson Supporters Denounce This?

A video has been circulated on Twitter, showing a Tommy Robinson supporter verbally abusing a journalist from Al Jazeera, at last weekend’s “Free Tommy” march in London.

The video, filmed by Sonia Gallego and posted by her on Twitter, shows only the face of the supporter, who is looking straight into her camera as he addresses her.  The beginning of the interaction is clearly missing but the clip shows the following exchange:

Gallego’s colleague, off-camera: “We’re doing a job, innit… nothing else”

Supporter: “Yeah, I know… I’m asking a question, and if you don’t…. you’re not answering the question.”

Gallego: “You came very aggressively at me…”

Supporter: “No, I asked who you were with”.

Gallego: Yes….

Supporter: Yeah, well you ain’t got it on camera … I’m asking you who you’re with, are you with Tommy Robinson or against him?”

Gallego: “I…we’re not… we’re journalists”

Supporter: “So I’m asking you who you’re with?  What is your organization?”

Gallego: “We’re journalists.  We’re with Al Jazeera…”

Supporter: “Oh okay…

Gallego: “..and we do not have any sides of anything”

Supporter: “Oh right… so you’re Muslim-backed then, ain’t ya. Muslim-backed”

Gallego: “What does that mean?”

Supporter: “Are you fucking stupid?  Are you thick?”

Gallego: “No, well explain to me, ‘cos you’re so intelligent apparently…”

Other supporter, off-camera: “She’s sucking you in, I’d walk away.  She’s sucking you in….”

Supporter (to his friend): “Yeah I know.”  (Turning back to Gallego): “You know what – you’re a slag!”  He then, sensibly, walks away.

Now, despite the eager calling of many people on Twitter for the man’s details to be passed to the police – his face is, after all, absolutely clear in the video – I sincerely hope the police do not see this as a matter for their attention. Besides an aggressive tone and a couple of insults, the man does not appear to have physically threatened or come close to assaulting her in any way.  As a journalist, I would expect she has a fairly tough skin and has probably been called worse things in the past.   And I expect our police have better things to do with their time than arrest anybody who is a bit unpleasant towards another person.

But the video does warrant comment from the organisers of the march.  Were he not in prison, it would warrant comment from Robinson himself.

The supporter’s implication is clear.  In his mind, anybody attending the march must be either with Tommy Robinson, or against him. And in his mind, the fact that she is working for a “Muslim-backed” organization gives a clear indication of which side she is on.

Robinson, and his supporters, constantly complain that they are mischaracterized by the press as “far-right” and “racist”.  They constantly argue that their marches are not about a hatred of Muslims but about wanting to challenge an ideology that they feel is responsible for the recent terrorist incidents in London and Manchester, as well as the overly politically correct mindset that saw police and social services turn a blind eye to the mass rape of underage girls in towns across the country.

They constantly, and quite justifiably, express outrage when our politicians churn out lines about the latest terrorist atrocity being “nothing to do with Islam” despite the terrorist using the words “Allah-u-Akhbar”.  And they constantly point out that when the terrorists themselves are claiming to be acting in the name of Islam, then it is up to followers of Islam to denounce those acts.

They should understand, then, that when a supporter goes to a “Free Tommy” march and makes it clear, on camera, that in his mind, anybody working for a Muslim-backed organization must be “against Tommy”, that sends a clear message that the supporter, at least, believes the march to be an anti-Muslim event.  It is not sufficient for Tommy or the organisers of the march to simply churn out the same old arguments about not being able to control who attends their marches, and the press always showing only the badly-behaved protesters, rather than the tens of thousands of peaceful ones.

If Tommy Robinson’s supporters wish not to be branded as racist, and wish their grievances to be taken seriously, they have to publicly denounce the man’s words – to publicly state that their marches are not anti-Muslim, that they don’t endorse such attitudes, and that anyone turning up to their marches with a grievance against Muslims, or any other group, is not welcome.   If Muslim leaders are expected to denounce every crackpot jihadi who purports to commit atrocities in the name of Islam, then it’s only right and fair that Tommy Robinson and the organisers of events in his name, should denounce every crackpot idiot who claims to be “with Tommy” while misrepresenting his cause.  Unless, of course, the man’s interpretation was entirely accurate.

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