A new programme, and how to mend it

The list of Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech is tired and uninspiring. Much has been promised before and the question must be why it has taken so long. My concern though is where some of these measures could go awry, and whether they should be neutered or tipped into the long grass.

The Online Safety Bill is a revival of one which has been discussed here before. They could get it right, but so far it has been all wrong. This is a pity, because a good, limited law could be a benefit to vulnerable people, in particular teenage girls and flaky young men, of which there are many.

The Bill is meant to have a mechanism by which consumers may challenge an online forum which blocks them, though it is always open to a platform to set its own rules:  you would not expect for example a forum for vegetarians to allow me on there to promote the health benefits of beef.  However there are competition issues, and these should be a matter for government concern:  if a social media platform wants to limit discussion on any issue, it may do so as a private company, and the consumer’s remedy is to go off to another platform, but if all the main players adopt a common position, that is a restrictive trade practice.  This is a real risk: Twitter could legitimately block Donald Trump when they chose, but when other media companies blocked the operation of an alternative forum that he used, that was a restrictive practice. The sorts of things said by vengeful ex-presidents may turn the stomach but there cartels may not build a wall to prevent legal expression. Can the Online Safety Bill or the Media Bill deal with these competition issues? They should do.

My attention was drawn recently to action by the British Board of Film Classification imposing an ‘Adult Content’ filter on a website (conservativewoman.co.uk) – a site too much given, I must say, to irresponsible vaccine conspiracy ideas, but ‘Adult Content’? Surely not. It may be the section in the Board’s rules on ‘discrimination’, which is wide open for activists to abuse. Mobile companies en masse use the BBFC blacklist, and if such a cartel is tolerated then it must again be subject to rules to prevent anti-competitive practice.

The Renters Bill has been looming for years, and I have discussed its ideas before.  They are bad ideas, which will hurt the very people they are intended to benefit. If tenants cannot be removed, landlords will get out for the game, there will be fewer flat available and rents will rocket. Furthermore, a landlord will be unable to empty his property to improve it and get a better rent, so the quality of homes will decline.  Only slum landlord’s with thugs ready to enforce their word will thrive.

There is also the benevolent promise of an ombudsman for disputes. This position will fall to institutional capture by activists.

On the other hand, the bill, we are told, will “reform possession grounds for landlords” – maybe the right to remove tenants to improve the property can be retained.

Whatever the government have in mind, they must cast out the demon whispering in their ear – Shelter, an organisation which once did good and is now, regrettably a fake charity pushing a malevolent political agenda.

The Bill of Rights would take a series of articles on its own. The Grauniad has condemned it unseen as a tyrant’s charter, as it would: the Grauniad‘s enmity is generally a promise of a good thing. We shall see.

A programme of increasing individual freedom might have been expected as a reward for sitting out the intolerable lockdowns, but there is little sign of it here, yet.  There may be ways to mould these bare titles and proposals so that we end up more free.

 

Closing the web – 2

The Online Safety Bill causes more despair as I plough through it. The thing is, I actually want to see a workable law against online harms; but this is not it. It means well and it tries, but whoever wrote it was not up to the task.

I wrote before that the Bill is badly written tortuous, self-contradictory, tautologous and recursive. If this were resolved, it might become legible and so be considered properly. (This could be done by handing it to a half-decent commercial lawyer: they produce water-tight documents that are more complicated in concept every day.)

It cannot even agree with itself on what that key concept, “harm” means: at one point it is “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress” (Clause 150, about a new offence of “Harmful communications”) and at another it is “physical or psychological harm”, followed by a tangle of subjective provisos (Clause 187).

Part 3 and 4 contain duties of care, which are not actually too bad – impossible day to day for anyone but a major company, but that is whom it is aimed at, and it cuts two ways – protecting vulnerable users, but also protecting free, democratic engagement, and user empowerment. That will be interesting.

The proposed offence of “harmful communication” in Clause 150 should be struck out at once.  Nadine Dorries has expressed repeatedly her opposition to the cancel culture and wokeist attacks on free speech, but she is now giving them a perfect weapon. It will make a criminal of anyone who says online anything another person seriously does not want to hear: if a man has built his whole outlook on life through the filter of socialist preconceptions, showing him the folly of those ideas will destroy him, so that will be a crime. Those who built their lives on more personal fantasies, quite fashionable these days, are never reticent about how “harmful” it is to be challenged or doubted.

An important principal is contravened by this Clause:  no criminal offence should have indeterminable boundaries based on criteria entirely subjective to the whim of a magistrate or civil servant. No one can then know if he or she is a criminal.

I have more sympathy with the “fake news” offence in Clause 151. It will make  crime of many party political materials, but perhaps that is for the best.

The real problems, for all the positives, come from the incoherence and incomprehensibility of the Bill, and how open it is to abuse in the detail of the delegated powers.  A real, probable risk is that service providers faced with the illegible duties will ban and bar as a default in order not to be caught. Crippling fines for allowing “harm”, where there is no fine for banning the innocuous, must lead to a supercharging of online cancel culture.

See also

Waiting for the Barbarians

This morning, C. P. Cavarty, translated by Edmund Keeley, reproduced here in blatant disregard for the copyright of both, to those who are directionless now we are free from the lockdown at last:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Books

I’d Do Anything for Boris (But I Won’t Do That)

People try to understand Boris but what I have found is that what you see is what you get.  He’s no man of steel – he’s where our rock and roll dreams come through. Replacing him then with Liz Truss though? Give me the future of a modern girl….

When he fell ill with COVID there was not a dry eye in the House. Now at the slight provocation one paper MP has fled like a bat out of Hell, into the arms of the demonic enemy. Is nothing scared? (Britain favourite backbencher, Lee Anderson had some choice words for his former colleague in private, which I will not repeat, but you took the words right out of my mouth, Lee: couldn’t have said it better.)

The thing is, you have to take Boris as you find him: achieving, forthright, reliable – well, two out of three ain’t bad.

The man and his qualities are the same, but now the party is going nowhere fast. The polling numbers are dire – read ’em and weep. He won’t want to look back at who’s approaching but objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are.

I seriously doubted him once (did I say that? It’s all coming back to me now.) It’s not too late, Boris, but your future is on a razor’s edger. You can’t drive away forever, trying to find paradise by the dashboard light; it’s midnight at the lost and found, lost souls in the hunting ground.

Remember the good work you did for the Telegraph, in Europe ’82; you can do it, if you really want to.

 

Spies, lies and mince pies

I will not weep for all the junior staffers who this time next week will be serving tables at Spadulike: they are the least casualties of a weird few weeks. Chinese spies subverting the state? Barely a column inch. A mince pie after work? Page upon page.

The public anger at the drinks-after-work is genuine and raging. Logically it makes no sense:  it involved each time people who had been packed together in offices working hard (for the public good, let’s not forget), then being allowed to relax informally. How that constitutes a virus risk when being crushed together in an office was not, defies reason. Using the word ‘party’ too makes it sound like a raucous riot, which is far from what has been described. Public anger is not amenable to logical though, and voting in a few years’ time will not be logical either.

Then we discovered that someone named a few years ago as a Chinese agent of influence had implanted an agent in the office of a senior Shadow Cabinet member. That member had spoken in support of the regime in Peking. That should have been an earth-shattering outrage., but it barely registered. It is just normal business it seems to have a hostile and genocidal foreign power in control of the offices of members of Parliament.

Now, if the spy had stepped into a garden after work, that would have been a major scandal, apparently.

However we got here, we are here. Let us not forget though that the decline in Boris’s fortunes started before someone snitched on sipping a glass after work. The Chesham and Amersham By-Election was in June, and Boris’s magic touch has been teetering every since. We have wearied of endless lockdown, petty restrictions and the way local bullies use them to batter their neighbours, and when the grocery bill comes in, prices have risen when pay has not, and taxes are at Labour levels, which makes us all wonder whom we have elected.

In the voter’s house, there is less on the plate these days. At the same time, the government has allowed left-wing quangocrats to live on the high hog still, pushing us about on our own money. Forget the ‘parties’: Boris has been laughing at us for taking our votes and doing nothing he promised except the one big thing, Brexit.

Maybe the Downing Street culture has gone rotten.  It looks like it from outside  SpAds are still a novel thing: there were none until Tony Blair invented them: it was considered outrageous at the time, but in retrospect a sensible innovation if done properly. Even so, teams of loud youth pumped with hormones thinking themselves omnipotent and harassing elder civil servants is asking for disaster. In this, Boris has not commanded but appeared as just their benevolent uncle; a figurehead.

If there is a strong Number 10 machine, the PM needs to command it. If there is collegiate government devolved to ministries, which is more Boris’s style, then the Number 10 machine must shrink.

What can he do?  Firstly, throw out the spads who keep getting him into trouble. Hire better ones maybe, but they whisper memento mori in their ears. Then get back on course, convincingly this time. We are promised some meat there, but until that meat is on the table, filling up the depleted plates of the voters, the voters may remain cynical.

Also, deal with Chinese Government agents of influence; neutralise their spending power and expose their networks.  That is the real scandal, even if the press choose the salacious gossip about office arrangements instead of exposing a threat at the nation’s heart.

Then Boris has either of two roads to take. He might sit at the top of the table and work hard doing the job he is paid for, to implement the manifesto and get taxes down, giving his personal authority to ministers to defeat the inertia in their departments. Alternatively, he could step aside from the Cabinet Table, leave his day-to-day duties and salary behind him, and walk abroad in the land, reconnecting with it and with the ordinary people who once adored and trusted him, finding out what their doorstep concerns are, their worries, their aspirations, their petty jealousies, finding out what it was that once made him an icon of hope.

We all lost connections over the lockdown. We need to rebuild them.

See also

Books

By Boris Johnson: