The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 4th, 2009

Glitterati throw their ugly halos around Roman Polanski

If Vanessa George, the nursery school paedophile convicted last week, were somehow to escape from justice here and stay safely in some other country for 30 or so years and turn during that time into a celebrated writer or film maker, lionised internationally for her talent and charm, I wonder what her glittering friends would say then, in 2040, about her terrible crimes of today. Would they insist that she is such an outstandingly gifted person and a delightful friend that no one should now hound her back to justice for what she did? Would they say that what she did, all things considered, was not so very bad? Would they protest with all the power of their celebrity that it is unfair to hold her to account now so much time has passed and now that the children in question want to avoid reliving in court the distress of what she did to them — although it probably wasn’t, ahem, quite so terrible as all that? Of course they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t dare. And this obvious point serves to prove another one that ought to be obvious but somehow isn’t: it is quite wrong for anyone to claim that Roman Polanski, the film director, ought, for any reason, to be let off legally or morally for his paedophile crime of more than 30 years ago. I accept that having unlawful sex with a child of 13, although entirely wrong, isn’t quite so monstrously unnatural and repugnant as sexually assaulting tiny children. All the same, what Polanski did to a young girl would strike most people, then and now, as truly vile. I wonder what all his showbiz friends would think if a middle-aged Polanski penetrated their unprotected little daughters, especially if it involved alcohol, sedatives, oral sex and buggery as well, as Polanski’s victim has always claimed. Actually, I don’t wonder. They would go insane with rage. They would use all their PR powers to make an example of him. So it is distinctly odd that, forgetting the innocence of their own darling daughters, they have rallied to Polanski’s defence. In response to his arrest last weekend in Switzerland, celebrities such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, Harvey Weinstein and Robert Harris called indignantly for him to be freed at once. So did Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland, and two French ministers. Whoopi Goldberg, the actress, actually claimed, in his defence, that she knew “it wasn’t rape-rape”. All this is difficult to understand, particularly when it comes largely from the world of artists — writers, actors, film makers and so on. What is supposed to distinguish artists — the claim they make for themselves — is a profound commitment to truth and feeling. In the name of truth and feeling they can usually be relied upon to rally together against the abuse of power and, indeed, pride themselves on their role as defenders of the weak and as moral arbiters. So why is it that the truth-tellers feel so passionately determined to protect a self-confessed child abuser? Admittedly, the truth may be a bit of a casualty here, partly because the American system of plea bargaining tends to muddy the moral waters. Polanski decided in 1977 to plead guilty to one crime in order to avoid facing many more and worse charges; it is hard to know, in such cases, what a man really is, or considers himself, guilty of since he is more concerned with a deal than with the truth — and so is the court. Charged at first with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy and a lewd and lascivious act (oral sex) upon a child under 14, and giving illegal drugs to a minor, he then, under the plea bargain, admitted to unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 14, but fled the United States before he was sentenced. The girl, now a woman who says she has forgiven him and doesn’t want him to be locked up for ever, still stands by her story that he’s guilty of all the original and horrifying charges. Polanski made her a large out-of-court settlement some time ago. All one can conclude is that whatever happened was bad. No mother or father would want anything like it done to their pubescent daughters. What would make it far worse is their little girl being put upon by a scuzzy old showbiz goat more than three times her age, who likes banging random chicks in glitzy showbiz pools and pads: Mulholland Drive, where it happened, was called “Bad Boys Drive” by Hollywood sophisticates. As even Goldberg said: “Would I want my 14-year-old having sex with somebody? Not necessarily, no.” So why the cries of outraged support from bohemia? There is a horrible irony in the way Polanski’s defenders talk of his family’s horrible suffering under the Nazis, as if his victimhood somehow excused his victimising someone else. And would those supporters argue that Nazi war criminals should also be allowed to put their crimes behind them, now so much time has passed, and live free from fear of prosecution and retributive justice, particularly if they are rather talented and charming? Of course not. What seems to be going on here is an overwhelmingly powerful loyalty between members of a narrow caste — the glitterati. What distinguishes this super-privileged clique is that most of its members made their way into it by their own talent and hard work, so they have a great sense of entitlement and — to judge from their attitudinising — a huge and unselfcritical sense of moral superiority. They are not restrained by colonial or class guilt, nor in many cases by a rigorous education: they feel that what people such as them want and like and think must be pretty much okay because of who they are — beautiful, talented, charming, successful and so on. Other people’s rules — different people’s rules — don’t necessarily apply. The instinctive solidarity within the super-successful castes is quite remarkable. You get exactly the same thing among bankers and masters of the universe, among top Eurocrats and probably among the few remaining Nazi criminals lurking in South America. How else can one explain the scandals of greed and corruption that Eurocrats tolerate among themselves but which they would denounce with genuine contempt among other people? The word hypocrisy is quite inadequate; this is an extreme form of cognitive dissonance — the state of believing mutually exclusive things at once without recognising it. Sociologists call this blindness to the flaws in one’s friends the halo effect, a rather unfortunate term in this case. But it’s no excuse for condoning paedophila in any of its forms.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 20th, 2009

Saints alive, all this religious tolerance has gone too far

St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower who died in 1897, has achieved a ghoulish immortality here on earth. Some bits of her long-dead body, carefully divided to share among the faithful, have been touring the world to popular acclaim for years, and now some pieces of her thigh and foot have arrived in this country, to a reception that an excited priest has understandably called “massive”. Beginning at St John’s Cathedral in Portsmouth last week, these bones will travel to 28 places in England and Wales, and if the first stop is anything to go by, they will get the rapturous welcome of a rock star. Thousands of the faithful descended on Portsmouth and queued patiently for their turn to touch the casket containing the bones, or rather to touch the glass that contains the casket. Touching is the point. One old man rubbed two angel figurines against the glass, saying: “I do believe in the power of objects like this.” Relics are magic. They are supposed to have magic powers. Many of the people visiting the relics of St Thérèse, if not all, visit them precisely because they are hoping for magic, in other words a miracle, conferred on them by touching a magic object. That is partly why relics are very good business. Many who visited Portsmouth were praying for miracles, especially for healing, and though many prominent Catholics speak guardedly of such things, the church does not discourage the idea — rather the reverse — that miracles and miraculous healing are possible. After all, St Thérèse could not have become a saint if she had not in the church’s eyes achieved a miracle or two — in her case miracles of healing, of which she is a patron saint. As Norman Price, deputy head steward of St John’s, said last week: “I believe if people’s faith is strong enough, miracles can happen. With her faith and guidance, then maybe, yes, things will happen.” And as the Bishop of Portsmouth said: “I think England has been sceptical about relics in the past. But perhaps not now.” To the agnostic all this seems pre-scientific mumbo jumbo, on a level with voodoo fetishes or the Buddha’s tooth in Sri Lanka. In primitive thought, objects do indeed have mana, as anthropologists call it — supernatural powers. One might say that it hardly matters; we all have our follies and if people here choose to believe that a statue in Southall of the Hindu elephant god really did suck up milk from votive saucers in 1995, they are and ought to be free to do so. It wasn’t so long ago that Europe was almost awash with gallons of the milk of the Virgin Mary, treasured by the faithful. And fellow citizens ought usually to be polite enough to keep their critical thoughts to themselves, in the name of courtesy and mutual tolerance. However, there is a difference in this case. The Catholic Church is actively encouraging people to hope for miracles of healing. These reliquary jamborees can only inflame irrational expectations in people who are suffering and suggestible. Surely it cannot be right to do so. Any face cream promising much lesser miracles — merely the disappearance of wrinkles — would soon fall foul of trading standards officers and have to be withdrawn, to protect the innocent public from being deluded by the false claims of charlatans. Why, then, have the media been so uncritical about this mass deception? Years ago I spent many months in the BBC trying to make television documentaries about supernatural healing, including Christian healing. After a great deal of research and countless visits, conversations and false trails, I had to accept that I could not find one single example of Christian healing (or any other supernatural healing). There were plenty of claims, but very little evidence, and certainly no evidence that would stand up in a documentary. What I did find was something that shocked me — the bamboozling of frightened, suffering, suggestible people by Christians who offered them the hope of a miraculous cure, if their faith were strong enough. Religious tolerance is difficult in such cases. The intolerant, triumphalist atheists have never appealed to me. I cannot see why it is so important to them to denounce other people’s religious beliefs so aggressively. I don’t know why people who pride themselves on their rationality can be so irrationally sure that they are right; absolute certainty is not a rational position. Besides, Catholics and Christians generally are very often a force for good; most of what’s best in our society is built upon Christian foundations. All the same, there comes a time when even a peaceable agnostic feels roused to indignation. For me it was last week, at the news that the Home Office has seen fit to let the bones of the Little Flower into Wormwood Scrubs prison. This almost defies belief. For, in allowing this, with all the due process and deliberation of bureaucracy, the government is conferring respectability on such relics. And in so doing, it opens wide the gates of reason to let into any public place any and every fetish or juju that any religious group claims is part of its spiritual life. The laws on equality and religious respect will require it. What the starry progress of the relics of the Little Flower has done for me is to remind me that we have in this country rather too much religious tolerance. The truth is that many religions — perhaps most — have certain doctrines and beliefs that are not merely irrational but sometimes dangerous and unacceptable. At this very moment there are religions, with countless adherents in this country, that teach that people can truly be possessed by demons, which must be exorcised, perhaps violently; that witches exist and must be punished or killed; that God has created women inferior and subject to men; that women are unclean and must be excluded from certain places and roles for that reason. These beliefs — held until recently by most of Christian Europe — are actually against the law in this country and contrary to the universal declaration of human rights. Yet the duty of religious tolerance persuades us to overlook this fact. It persuades us to ignore the truth that religions are not really equal, in the sense that they are not equally benign or harmless. Some religions do promote unacceptable things, while others peddle false hopes here on earth. I would not dream of suggesting that the government return to the ancient tradition of suppressing religious freedom. But I think we should insist that the Home Office does not lend any extra official respectability to religious hocus-pocus of any kind. Superstition, like St Thérèse, has a curious immortality on earth.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 13th, 2009

We are all child abusers now – until we can prove otherwise

We have an incoherent attitude to freedom in this country. We imagine that we value freedom above almost everything else and yet at the same time we are neurotically averse to risk. Every time something terrible happens, such as the murder of a child, the public clamours for something to be done to ensure that such a thing never happens again. Such unspeakable suffering must not have been in vain; inquiries must be held and systems must be put in place; all such risks to children must be eliminated. Yet the harsh truth is that risk is the heavy price of freedom. That includes risks to children. The greater the freedom, the greater the risk. And, equally, the more the attempts to curtail the risk, the lesser the freedom. Last week produced a perfect example of this contradiction. There was uproar about an authoritarian plan to protect children from the risk of paedophile abuse. It emerged that rules will come into force next month under a vetting and barring scheme run by a new quango called the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA). All adults in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who work with children or vulnerable adults, either as an employee or as a volunteer, will from November 2010 have to apply to be vetted by this quango to prove there is no known reason they should not spend time with children. The minions of the ISA may withhold registration if they suspect an applicant might cause physical, emotional, sexual or financial harm to children or vulnerable adults. Failure to register and to get, in effect, a certification of innocence will be liable to criminal prosecution and a fine of £5,000. Of course it is reasonable to vet adults who work with children and vulnerable adults. Therefore, a great deal of vetting goes on under existing schemes affecting about 6m people. What’s new about this vetting and barring scheme is that it will affect many more people — about 11.3m adults — because volunteers are now to be included. That’s what so rightly causes outrage. Volunteers for these purposes are not just quasi-employees; they are all kinds of people, including you and me, in our attempts to do someone else a good turn. Informal arrangements between parents will not, supposedly, be covered but anyone else taking part in activities involving “frequent” or “intensive” contact with children or vulnerable adults — quangospeak for once a week, three times a month or overnight — must be registered with the ISA. It is no exaggeration to describe this astonishing development as treating all adults as potential criminals: we are no longer innocent until proved guilty but guilty until certified innocent by the state — and, worst of all, in our moments of trying to do good. Imagine what this will do to feelings of neighbourliness and trust. No one will know whether a communal garden committee or a regular visit to someone with learning disabilities will come under the rules. And what about that holy of all co-operative holies, the school run? From now on it will be awkward to ask for help and awkward to offer. Who will want to subject herself to the scrutiny of the vetting-and-barring workers and their arcane judgments and risk a rejection, since we don’t know quite what’s involved? What we do know, though, is that they can take police information and unproven allegations into consideration. Some of the unintended consequences of this new legislation became clear when Philip Pullman and other children’s writers discovered that soon they will be unable to give talks in schools and libraries without being registered with the ISA. Pullman will refuse to continue on that basis and he will not be alone in giving up something of huge value to others in protest at an intolerable, insulting intrusion; as he says, it is not only ludicrous but “dispiriting and sinister”. While we are assured that all this surveillance will not be directed at informal private arrangements, such as parents agreeing to give lifts to other people’s children, I for one don’t believe it. Delyth Morgan, the children’s minister, appeared on the Today programme to be quizzed on this very point by John Humphrys. He forced the Labour peer to admit that a well-meaning dad could easily fall under the ISA rules if he merely took a couple of local children a couple of times a month to matches at a nearby football club. The minister wriggled painfully on a pinhead of quango definition and insisted that if all the other parents concerned made private agreements with him, then he wouldn’t need to be registered. But she had to admit that if someone at the club happened to ask the dad if he would include someone else’s child on his regular run, then he would have to be investigated by the vetters and barrers. Anyone can see that there’s hardly any difference in practice. It is easy to see which way all this is drifting, especially as all concerned agree that the adults most likely to abuse children are people they already know well. So in an ideal world of total risk avoidance, by the logic of the vetters and barrers, it would make much more sense to investigate close family members as prime suspects. Why, the risk-averse might ask, are close family arrangements exempt when it’s there you’d expect the worst? I suspect they may well not remain exempt for long. How can the vetters and barrers be sure that grandma can be trusted with the neighbour’s toddlers? However, as the unlucky minister pointed out defensively, all this new surveillance is a response to public outrage following the Soham murders; it was recommended by the inquiry that followed and she is entirely right in thinking that if something like Soham happens again, the public will vent its outrage on the government for not preventing it. So the government is damned either way — both for exercising too little control and for exercising too much. Those who cannot accept great risk cannot clamour at the same time for great freedom, because the greater the freedom, the greater the risk. Sadly, this truism doesn’t work the other way round. It isn’t always true that the lesser the freedom, the lesser the risk. There was plenty of surveillance in place that could have kept tabs on Ian Huntley in Soham; it failed because of gross incompetence. The same is true of the deaths of Baby P and Victoria Climbié. Yet more surveillance and more intrusion by our over-mighty state will not control all of the guilty few: it will simply punish the innocent majority.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 6th, 2009

Forcing vile parents to have their babies adopted will stop this evil

What two very young boys did in April to two other little boys in a wood near Doncaster is unspeakable. It is difficult to talk or write about. Yet what those children did demands a response; in particular it demands an answer to the question of what, if anything, can be done to stop something so unspeakable ever happening again. There is a case to be made, unfeeling though it sounds, for saying there is nothing much that can be done. We already have an extensive network of social workers, health workers, mental health workers, probation officers, police officers, teachers, foster parents, government early years schemes, social care experiments, outreach projects, charitable endeavours and all the rest, designed especially to protect the vulnerable. All those agencies were supposedly in place specifically to protect children such as the Doncaster boys and their victims. The system failed terribly in this case and not for the first time. Doncaster social services knew the boys well, yet failed them and many other children at risk, seven of whom have died since 2004. The police ignored warnings from neighbours. But the truth is that all systems fail at times. Human error is always with us and there are always weak links in any chain. Even so, the system here is a comprehensive attempt to protect the vulnerable; there is little reason to believe that a lot more of it would work any better. Besides, any more state intervention might well begin to seem too much; at moments like this, it is easy to forget that the system has very considerable powers over our private lives already. And cases like the attack in the Edlington woods are extremely rare. Related Links * How to catch them before they go feral Such libertarian arguments usually tend to appeal to me. However, in this case they seem quite inadequate. For although such terrible behaviour is indeed rare, its underlying causes are not rare at all — causes which lead inevitably to countless lesser crimes and cruelties. The picture painted of the home life of the two Doncaster boys is seen in countless households across the country: a drunken, drugged-up mother who gives her children cannabis to keep them quiet, who doesn’t talk to them or feed them or clothe them, who allows the men in her life to beat them and terrify them, who makes her indifference to them quite plain and who begs social services to take the children off her. Not every child who suffers such neglect and abuse turns into a pre-teen torturer or murderer, but every single one will suffer irreparable damage, which in turn will be passed on to others. As Auden famously said: “Those to whom evil is done do evil in their turn.” And the reason is one that is only beginning to be understood: the neglect and abuse of babies and children damage them not just in some loose psychological way, as everyone has always assumed. It also damages them physically; it permanently affects the development of their brains, leaving them with cognitive and emotional impairments that will cause grave problems to themselves and others. There is a large body of academic literature on this subject: the fact that people’s minds, feelings, understanding of others and general ability can be permanently damaged is no longer controversial. Oddly enough, it seems not to be widely known, although the phrase “Romanian orphans” makes the point for many people. But this view is now widely accepted in social work circles here, following studies done for the past 15 or so years in America and elsewhere. “Our brains are sculpted by our early experiences,” one scientist wrote in 2000. “Maltreatment is a chisel that shapes a brain to contend with strife, but at the cost of deep, enduring wounds.” Sigmund Freud was right: the first three years (when major brain development occurs) are crucial. People tend to talk of children like the Doncaster boys as evil, or of bringing them to justice, or of giving them extended therapy. I believe this is irrelevant: because of increasing scientific understanding of the forces of both nature and nurture in determining our choices, our ideas of evil, blame, personal responsibility, treatment and punishment are increasingly out of date and inadequate. The Doncaster boys can hardly be blamed; they scarcely knew what they were doing or appreciate it now; they are not as others are. And while they should be locked up and kindly treated — perhaps for ever: the reoffending rate for outfits such as the ones they will go to, at £210,000 a year, is 78% — they may be beyond help. For the future, however, there is something that should be done, especially for the babies at obvious risk of permanent damage from disastrous mothers, although in a country with great traditions of freedom such as ours it is hard to feel very confident about it. Perhaps it might really be best if such babies were compulsorily taken away at birth and adopted. Had Baby Peter survived living with his mother, he might well have grown up to be something like the Doncaster boys, but if he’d been adopted at birth he might have grown up undamaged. Enforced adoption is a horrible idea. But the alternatives being considered seem to me unlikely to be of any more use than social services — patchy at best. Early intervention is the idea favoured by almost everybody at the moment and Iain Duncan Smith is hoping to get cross-party support for it; the government is already running Family Nurse partnership pilot schemes, copied from America, to intervene in problem families early enough to stop the damage. There are some obvious problems with this approach. The schemes depend on intensive support from dedicated health visitors. Yet there is a desperate shortage of such people and numbers are falling; 20% of them are over retirement age. And while their care is supposed to be intensive, in practice it involves either weekly or fortnightly visits. This is better than nothing, of course, but hardly likely to do more in extreme cases than ring alarm bells. And fostering for problem children has been notoriously unsuccessful. We could do something, if we as a society would accept some extreme intrusions into our personal freedom. And if we can’t tolerate such measures, then I think we have to accept there is indeed not much we can do to stop something like this happening again, or to stop other lesser evils going on all the time. What price freedom?

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 9th, 2009

Women aren’t equal to men – especially not the feminists

It is Harriet Harman’s misfortune that she is the sort of woman who gives feminism a bad name. Her intentions may be of the highest, her motives of the most disinterested, but when she holds forth from her political heights about rape, the superiority of her imaginary Lehman Sisters to Lehman Brothers and the impropriety of a mere man running the country without a woman at his side to restrain him, there are many who mutter to themselves that if this is feminism, it is barking. Harman’s agenda seems at times quite daft: must tiny children really be taught at school about daddies’ nasty way of hitting mummies? As the nation’s newspaper of record itself was prompted to ask, has feminism gone nuts? The simple and depressing answer is that feminism has always tended to go – if not nuts – then wildly astray, from one extreme to another. Feminism has been the most wonderful force for freedom and I (like millions of others of my sex) am hugely grateful to all those women who struggled to liberate us from outrageous injustices of the sort we still see in the rest of the world. I admit, too, that the battle isn’t over, even here: women still often earn less than men for the same work, or don’t get the same work, and are still often patronised, exploited and demoralised by men, although that boot is now often on the feminine foot instead. But somehow along the way feminism has lurched from silly excess to silly excess, so that no matter how much I have wanted to belong to the cause, I have had to dissociate myself from the wilder attitudinising of the sisterhood, from the monstrous regiment of women such as Harman. The bullying, censorious tone of the activists, their bossy, micromanaging intrusion into household, workplace and schoolyard, their attempts to colonise speech, their feminisation of certain industries and their demoralisation of boys and men have all combined to make women today opposed to feminism. This is a great pity. Women still need feminism and perhaps, given the profound differences between women and men, we always will. It will have to be different from the feminism of the past, though. So an important question is why feminism so far, for all its just cause, has gone so wrong. My view is that it’s because there are several important facts that feminists forget, or wilfully ignore, or just don’t know. The first such fact that feminists forget, or won’t accept, is that some things in life cannot be fixed. There is, for example, a tragic opposition between a woman’s desire and need to work and her baby’s desire and need for her, not to mention her love for her child. You can tinker around the edges of this problem – by subsidising nursery care, or giving mothers preferential treatment at work, which merely causes other problems in a free society – but you will not escape the serious problems of babies with attachment disorder; toddlers cognitively damaged by inexperienced carers; children unsocialised by their overworked mothers; schoolboys and girls with little encouragement in reading, writing and even simple conversation at home; and all the rest. Nor can ambitious women escape the problem that serious success can never, of its nature, be a part-time option: she must choose between home and work, just as successful men must do. The idea that a heart surgeon or a cabinet minister or a Lehman Sister could be home regularly for bath and story time and weekend bonding is nonsense. The world isn’t like that: while she is reading Winnie-the-Pooh, her competitors will be working or networking, and if not here, then in Shanghai or Mumbai. This, sadly for women, is something that cannot be fixed. No amount of social engineering, no matter how horribly illiberal, unjust and intrusive, can sort it out. The second, centrally important fact is that biology is destiny. I don’t mean that in the crude sense which women’s liberationists of 40 years ago resented so much. Having babies and suffering all the hormonal upheavals that female flesh is heir to does not in itself disqualify women from anything, except possibly from periods of heavy lifting. I mean biology in a sense that was wholly denied back then, and that is only beginning to be recognised. Men and women really are different. The findings of hard science – in endocrinology, brain structure and function and genetics, for instance – have forced rational feminists to admit that, statistically speaking, men and women have different aptitudes, interests and responses, little though this is yet understood. Such generalisations never apply to an individual, of course, and although – for instance – women are underrepresented at the extremes of intelligence and statistically are less good at higher maths, chess, musical composition and physics, any one woman might be brilliant at any or all of those things. Similarly, while women tend in general to be less aggressive and more conciliatory, there are plenty of ferocious females and Wodehouse aunts, and plenty of men who are shrinking violets – with obvious implications for their working lives. The point here, and it’s another centrally important fact, which feminists either don’t know or refuse to admit, is that you would not therefore necessarily expect men and women to be equally represented in any particular occupation. The fact that just two out of 25 top maths dons or bond traders or gangmasters are men, say, is not self-evidently due to discrimination against women mathematicians, bond traders or gangers (although it may be). And this underlies an obvious killer fact for the politics of equality: equality of opportunity is not the same thing as equality of outcome. It is a dangerous mistake doggedly to pursue equality of outcome and equal numbers of men and women in everything. The entire basis of the gender equality movement, equality by numbers, stems from an unquestioned and wrong assumption, taken as fact in defiance of the actual truth. The tragedy of feminism is that it has been dogged, or perhaps I should say bitched, by a lot of fixed ideas and unquestioned beliefs. Only when it becomes intellectually rigorous will feminism have some claim to intellectual respectability and then perhaps some claim to justice. It is a shame to my sex that the women’s movement has been brought low by muddled and emotional thinking – so often said by misogynists to be characteristic of the female mind and, I believe, a characteristic of Harman’s.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 19th, 2009

Maria Carmen del Bousada de Lara was a poor spinster of 66 who desperately wanted a baby. As a retired shop assistant she had little money, so she sold her house in Cadiz to buy some IVF treatment and donor eggs and sperm in California.

Maria Carmen del Bousada de Lara was a poor spinster of 66 who desperately wanted a baby. As a retired shop assistant she had little money, so she sold her house in Cadiz to buy some IVF treatment and donor eggs and sperm in California. Without telling her family, she flew to the Pacific Fertility Centre in Los Angeles, and before long her wish came true. She gave birth to twin baby boys, who are now two years old, and was photographed with them in a youthful leopard-print outfit. People said she was too old but she didn’t care. She said she thought she’d live to be 101. But last week at the age of 69 she died of ovarian cancer. She believed the powerful drugs she took during her IVF treatment hastened the spread of the cancer. IVF treatment has many risks and, besides, nobody really knows how an aged body will respond to the strain of pregnancy. The consequence was that Bousada left behind her two little boys with no mother, no father and no money, to the care of a disapproving and angry family and to the kindness of strangers. And the world said, as it usually does these days, that it should never have been allowed. The world, as so often, is wrong. Of course this wretched woman was unforgivably irresponsible, self-centred and unimaginative. Of course it was daft of her to think that a woman on her own, past retirement age and of modest means, could possibly hope to look after any child properly, still less twin boys. Perhaps she was unhinged. But, wrong though she was, it is also wrong to think she should have been stopped. Stopping people having babies is a serious matter. It is, for one thing, impossible unless you have compulsory abortions, as in China, or compulsory sterilisations, as in Indira Gandhi’s India. And although it is quite clear that some people would be, or are, unfit parents – such as poor, misguided Bousada – nobody who loves freedom can possibly want the state to get involved with stopping people having babies. Most of all, no one who loves freedom can want the state to have any part in deciding who is or is not fit for parenthood. That way lies totalitarianism. The state can, of course, justifiably say that it won’t use public money to pay to help people to have babies and it can say that it won’t allow clinics and doctors to help them to do so. I think the state should go further in this country in refusing to pay taxpayers’ money for IVF treatment for single parents. But the state cannot, in a country with any pretensions at all to freedom, stop people resorting to their own money, to the turkey baster or to cut-rate flights to clinics in countries where they do things differently. It is true that the victims in all this are the children who are produced for and acquired by highly unsuitable people, such as Michael Jackson. But if one is not prepared to assert a legal right to stop unsuitable people having babies in the natural way, how could one reasonably assert such a right over those resorting to privately paid-for unnatural methods? Besides, in the case of the Bousada twins, they can at least hope for a rather younger and more sensible parent than the one they have just lost – or, with any luck, two. And there may be some money for their upbringing: one of their uncles has signed a story deal with a Spanish television channel to provide for the boys, and who is to say he will not use the money for that purpose? The strange truth about Bousada is that she has unintentionally provided the world with a powerful cautionary tale. By exercising her freedom to buy babies when she was pushing 70 and perhaps killing herself in the process she has, by example, done far more to show the world what is wrong in all this – and to stop other people doing the same thing – than any amount of state interference could ever do. Everyone will now know of her shocking story and everyone remotely interested in late motherhood will now understand clearly how risky IVF treatment is and how wrong it is to think of a baby as a must-have. What’s more, people won’t just know this, as they could have done already – given the amount of information there is around on the subject. They will also now have the greater awareness of knowledge combined with feeling – the feeling that this cautionary tale arouses – and that kind of awareness is not something that always comes with rational argument. Sensational stories usually have more power than sober information. Anyone who believes strongly in freedom, as I do, faces a problem with individuals who, like Bousada, abuse it. Such obvious abuse invites state intervention. So those who love freedom will value any reasonable checks on the abuse of freedom that have nothing to do with the state and that therefore cut the state out, so to speak. One of them, as my hero John Stuart Mill pointed out in his essay On Liberty, is public disapprobation. We are all free, for instance, to burp loudly at concerts and funerals, but the thing that stops most of us is disapproval. I’ve always felt that this disapprobation of Mill’s was risky; when powerful enough it surely might amount to something that he feared – the tyranny of the majority. But these days there is so little disapprobation about anything that some genuine public disapproval might be a very good thing; at least it is better than the heavy hand of the state. For years and years there has been a sense in this country that disapproval is wrong. It is judgmental; it is discriminatory. Perhaps a case like Bousada’s, in which disapproval is so obviously the only response, will make us all feel a little more free and inclined to show our disapproval of selfish, antisocial behaviour. It is high time. When, decades ago, people were extremely judgmental about illegitimate babies, harsh though that often was, there were many fewer such babies and many fewer chaotic families. When eating in the street was strongly condemned, there was far less obesity, drunkenness and litter. It is true that what the neighbours say can be nasty and repressive, but it is not half so nasty and dangerous as the repression by an intrusive state such as ours, which finds an excuse to curtail our freedoms in our abuse of them. Let’s not have more political control over fertility or anything else; let’s have more moral judgment and the freedom to express it.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 14th, 2009

A tax on junk food will help offset those looming NHS cuts

Debt means cuts. There is no way around this obvious fact of life. If you have run up serious debt on jam yesterday, there will be no jam today nor any jam tomorrow, for many tomorrows to come. You will have to spend more of your income on debt and less (if any at all) on jam. Vast public debt such as ours means huge public-services cuts. Yet most politicians seem either unwilling or unable to talk about it like responsible adults. There will, for instance, have to be cuts in the National Health Service, no matter what they pretend. Last week the NHS Confederation predicted an enormous shortfall in NHS funding starting in 2011 – the equivalent of a cut of £8-£10 billion. The government is trying to get out of admitting this, but failing. The Tories have admitted something of the sort but are backtracking. All that’s clear is that the golden years of NHS spending are over. Yet at a timely conference about the NHS run by the think tank Reform, Mike O’Brien, the health minister, made an asinine remark: “The future of the NHS has never been brighter.” Perhaps one should not blame him: he was standing in at short notice for Ben Bradshaw, who had just been shuffled – in itself something that’s wrong with the NHS: new people constantly stepping in at the last moment and in a hurry. Since Labour came to power there have been no fewer than five health secretaries, all serving only two years or less (apart from Alan Milburn, who served about four), and now we suddenly have a sixth. It is daft. The NHS is the fourth-largest organisation in the world, after the Russian army, Indian railways and Wal-Mart. The idea that anyone at the top can begin in two years to understand what should and shouldn’t be done, let alone do something, is madness. For secretaries of state to skip at speed from post to post, using each ministry as a stepping stone in their career or as a way to prop up a self-serving prime minister, is not government; it is musical chairs. Under Labour, spending on the NHS has nearly tripled while productivity actually fell by 4.3% between 1998 and 2007. Last week the Office for National Statistics issued a truly frightening report outlining the failure in productivity across the public services, despite huge spending increases. From 1998 to 2007, public-sector spending went up by 75% while productivity fell by 3.2%. At the Reform conference, well-qualified people proposed all kinds of ways in which the NHS could achieve more for less, many of which we’d heard before. The most important were cultural – shifting mindsets, decentralising money, responsibility and information, empowering the patient, persuading people to abandon layers of bureaucracy, stopping national pay bargaining, renegotiating daft contracts with GPs and consultants that pay them more to do less, removing perverse incentives and introducing good ones and so on. Admirable though much of this was, many people were pessimistic: cultural change inevitably takes time. I think what’s needed now is a quick fix or two – something simple and fast-working, something even a health secretary with attention deficit disorder can understand. The most obvious, I realise, has to do with preventing chronic illness in the first place. Until last week I had always thought this fell into the category of bossy government intrusion – wasting squillions on telling people how many potatoes to eat and on useless quangos. To me the phrase “public health” had come to mean “public nuisance”. However, my mind was changed by Christine Hancock, a former senior nurse and NHS manager and now European director of the Oxford Health Alliance, an international public health charity. She began by saying – and who can disagree – that she was exhausted by NHS reform. The service is obsessed by structures and finance, to the detriment of primary care. Yet the main burden upon the NHS comes from chronic diseases – cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes and cancers – which, apart from causing drawn-out suffering and death, are hugely expensive to treat. All these conditions are often caused or made worse by smoking, inactivity and a bad diet. Everyone knows that, but few people seem to care. The acute hospital ward where I spent three weeks as a visitor recently was full of people almost too big for their beds, and certainly too heavy to lift, regularly visited by their outsize relations: people of normal weight were in a minority, except among the nurses and doctors. Our streets and shops are full of people who are not just fat but obese, waddling from groaning sweetie counter to busy burger bar, eating food that is in effect poison. Sugar is full of calories that make you fat and sick and it’s addictive. And it can give children serious mood swings. Most fizzy drinks are bottled disease. There are about 550 calories in a Big Mac, which by itself is well over a quarter of a woman’s or a child’s daily energy needs. Yummy thingies and treatlets and biccies are swimming in invisible fat to fuzz up your arteries. To give such things to children is nothing short of child abuse. As for good food, according to Hancock, only 25% of the population eat five portions of fruit or vegetables a day, and 50% of children – an astonishing figure – eat no fruit or veg at all in the week. I am sick of people talking about health education and “lifestyle choices”. What’s clearly needed, contrary to everything I’ve always thought, is a little compulsion. Our NHS and our economy cannot take the consequences of poor lifestyle choices. First, all schools should make healthy meals compulsory and should offer pupils one meal only – no choice – and make them eat it. (Allowances would be made for religious taboos and ill health.) Second, the polluter must pay, as the Greens always say. The polluters who manufacture junk food of all kinds should be forced to label it, like cigarette packets, with simple information about calories. And the food itself, the pollutant, should be made extremely expensive, by high taxes, so that those who are polluting their own bodies would have a powerful incentive to stop. Admittedly this is hard on the poorest, who eat the most junk food, but bad diets are not only bad for them. They are also expensive for the NHS and us. Healthier diets will not provide a quick fix, but the taxes from junk food could go straight to the coffers of the local NHS organisations, and that would do something fast to ease the pain of the inevitable cuts to come.

Sadistic Sonnex is the face of Labour’s greatest disgrace

When punishment comes – such is the arbitrary nature of things – it is often for the wrong offence. Gordon Brown and new Labour are being most terribly punished at the moment, but not for the crimes of omission and commission of which they are most guilty. Expenses fiddling and cabinet squabbling, low though it all is, seem to me rather trivial in comparison with Labour’s incompetence since 1997. Why, for instance, huff and puff about hog-swilling and backstabbing when this government’s incompetence led to the slaughter of the two French students Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez? Last week the government had to face the fury of the bereaved parents, who are understandably threatening to sue. The unspeakable deaths of these two young men could almost certainly have been avoided: they died in agony because the system that should have protected them has collapsed. That is why Brown and his colleagues deserve to be thrown out in disgrace. Dano Sonnex, one of the two murderers, was quite clearly an extremely dangerous and disturbed young man from a violent and criminal family. Again and again he came to the attention of people who knew that or ought to have known it or worked it out and done something about it, but who again and again failed in their responsibilities. Time after time Sonnex fell through – or was allowed to escape through – the holes in the net that is supposed to keep us safe from people like him. When he and Nigel Farmer stabbed the two Frenchmen to death, he should have been in jail. Instead he was on probation, under the low-level supervision of a lowly paid, newly qualified, inexperienced young case officer in a tough part of London, who had to deal with 126 other cases. Does this sound familiar? Before being put in her charge, this psychopathic young man had been passed from person to person, from agency to agency, in a way that seems almost random, even though it is in fact the way the system “works”. Does this remind you of anything or anyone? In 2004, while serving an eight-year sentence for a stabbing and for four knifepoint robberies, Sonnex told a prison doctor that he felt his anger meant he could kill, but this information, although filed, was never passed on to prison or probation officers. While in prison he got into official trouble 40 times for drugs, violence and setting fire to his cell – something that ought to have led someone to wonder about his state of mind and consult his file. Nonetheless, probation officers assessed Sonnex as a medium risk to the public, rather than a high risk, which meant he was placed on a “Level 1 multi-agency public protection arrangement” – the phrase multi-agency itself suggests some of the institutional problems – without even a proper assessment meeting taking place. Upon release this violent criminal was handed over to the unlucky young probation officer in Lewisham. She was able to see him only for about 20 minutes a week because her caseload was so huge. The vast increase in the probation services budget has been accompanied by a yet vaster increase in their duties. Even when Sonnex tied up a pregnant woman and her boyfriend and menaced them at knifepoint, only three days after his release, and even though the police knew a lot about the extreme violence and crime within his extended family, and even though he should have gone straight back to jail from probation, and even though he did go back briefly for something different, magistrates let him out on bail and he was able to torture and kill. This is not just one of those rare concatenations of accidental mistakes. It is all too familiar. It’s institutional, or perhaps one should say multi-institutional. It’s just like the story of Victoria Climbié. Like her, Sonnex was passed from one agency to another, dragged from one professional to another – one busy, one on an away day, one from an agency, one a temp, one blind to her injuries, another unable to get through to a social worker in an emergency, and no one in all this multi-agency nightmare able or willing to grasp responsibility, other than the unlucky person least qualified to do so, upon whom it was dumped. “Multi-agency” and “interface” and “joined-up government” – those watchwords – have come, despite Labour’s promises, to mean their own absence or opposite. It means promising everything, attempting too much and achieving all too little. The Brown and Blair governments have no excuse; they were warned of these systemic problems from the first, yet they succeeded only in making them worse. Jack Straw, who as justice secretary apologised so inadequately last week to the parents of the murdered Frenchmen, was the very man who as home secretary nearly 10 years ago called for an investigation into Victoria Climbié’s death. Precisely this same “multi-agency” failure was revealed in exhaustive detail back then, in Lord Laming’s magisterial report of 2001. Yet Laming’s warnings fell on stony ground. They did not prevent the horribly similar death of Baby P in 2007. Nor did the wider lessons prevent the all too similar murders of Bonomo and Ferez. It’s like seeing the same horror movie run over and over again. The name Sonnex will now stand with Baby P for the real disgrace of new Labour. There is a lot to be said about why all these different agencies failed. First, one should not hurry to blame the individual social worker or probation officer. Second, whatever the long-standing failings of such services, they have since 1997 been overwhelmed by new policies, new demands, new increased workloads and demoralising micromanagement brought on by Labour initiativitis. Admittedly the government is trying, with its new social work taskforce (brought together after Laming’s report on the death of Baby P), to think radically about such matters. But how late it is, how late. Actually it is too late. It is too late to talk, as politicians usually do on such occasions, of learning lessons. In 12 years of office Labour has failed to learn the most important lessons, even when they have been clearly spelt out. Brown should acknowledge that Labour governments have failed in a Labour government’s primary purpose – to protect the most vulnerable and to keep the public safe from the most avoidable harm – and resign primarily because of that.

No privacy and no power – there’s no way I’d be an MP

On the day of her well-deserved downfall last week, the MP Julie Kirkbride published an article attempting to explain herself and her expenses. It reminded me of Cherie Blair’s unfortunate comment to the cameras, when tearfully apologising for the episode of the Bristol flats and the conman, saying she had too many mumsy balls in the air to get everything right. Kirkbride, according to her own account, has a vast number of mumsy balls in the air, which explains her high-maintenance requirements, and she is now worried about the millions of working mothers who, like her, might aspire to political office. “What effect,” she asks, “will stories like mine have on mothers who aspire to be MPs?” A very good question. I am sorry to say that some cynics around me have suggested her story is likely to draw mothers into parliament in droves – most of us had not the slightest idea until now that there were such rich pickings for MPs. And we women can count for the time being on tremendous discrimination in our favour. Although it is not likely that a woman MP will any longer be able to get away with such flamboyant expenses claims as Kirkbride’s, all the reforming proposals discussed so far suggest that the Commons is likely to continue to be a nice little earner for a working mother. However, and less cynically, Kirkbride’s question reminded me of one I’ve been asking myself for 20 years – do I want to stand for parliament? Many people have encouraged me to try, including readers; I will add myself to the list of columnists who make this boast. Did I – do I – want to follow in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher and Betty Boothroyd? There are so many things in public life that I would like to see done and undone. My work has given me countless opportunities to learn and think about such things. But my answer is always, regretfully, no. The first and unfailing reason has to do with privacy, and Kirkbride’s story very much strengthens this reason. It has always been true that MPs must accept a high risk of the loss of privacy. Their private lives are regularly exposed for public entertainment, not necessarily in the public interest. I have the same low tabloid tastes as anyone else and have loved scurrilous stories about honourable members in dishonourable dramas. But it isn’t right to break into people’s private lives without good reason. I’ve always hated the idea of giving up my privacy so much that I’ve had to put aside any political ambitions. It is not that I have many secrets or am particularly consumed with guilt and shame. In fact I rather wish my life had been more outrageous. But everybody has secrets, and not just her own but also the secrets of those close to her – father, mother, cousins, siblings, husband – and secrets that might cause pain. Everybody is entitled to keep secrets within the law until she or he stands for public office. Traditionally in this country there has been some, if not much, respect for the private lives of politicians: now, after the expenses scandal, I suspect there will not. While our frenzied interest in lavatory seats, moats, moles and dirty videos throughout this scandal has been entirely justified, I am afraid it is creating an almost total contempt for privacy that would deter me from standing. The Rev Joanna Jepson, an antiabortion campaigner, demanded last week that the Department of Health reveal information about details of certain late-term abortions, citing the expenses scandal as a justification for this extraordinary breach of privacy. This, I am afraid, will be the first of many justifications to make anything and everything public, for the inspection of the people. We are about to see the deliberate abandonment of privacy in a tragic overreaction to the current scandal. What sensible, sensitive woman, with a couple of innocent secrets, would provoke the interest of the angry masses by contesting a seat? However, even if I weren’t troubled by the loss of privacy, I’ve become increasingly convinced that there is little point in standing for parliament, woman or man, unless one had a good chance of becoming a senior minister – perhaps not even then. Having heard all the fascinating snippets about how MPs spend their time in their constituencies, I am beginning to think they are wasting most of it. What I think an MP should most importantly do – what I would like to do – is to help change the law so that citizens get better government and a great deal less of it. It would mean trying to return to the people freedom and power taken from them, without leaving the needy in need. To do that would mean having a broad and deep understanding of all kinds of complex matters – disability, unemployment, education, health. It means struggling against great opposition to understand the mindsets, prejudices and covert intentions of the various establishments that are actually in charge of these things and how they work. I know as a journalist that this takes years. It is a full-time job in itself and this kind of commitment is necessary to scrutinise legislation, sit on select committees and propose radical reform. MPs simply do not have the time to do it, even if they had the will, the ability and the power. Nor do ministers – for a different reason: they rarely stay in the post for long enough to have any understanding of their subject or ministry. MPs are consumed with parish-pump stuff, helping constituents with local and personal concerns, which other people could and should be doing. Of course constituents ought to bring their concerns to their MPs, but the MP should get involved only when there is some genuine political issue, some serious wrong or something of national interest. Sorting out a squabble with neighbours or getting involved in local ethnic minority disputes is not proper work for MPs. There is also the inbuilt conflict of interest for MPs, between what constituents want (a rescue for the car industry, say) and the national interest. Even if all this were miraculously solved and I, the aspiring Margaret or Betty, were in parliament, there would still be little point in bothering, or in neglecting my children as ferociously as women MPs must. The truth is that the great majority of legislation is not decided in Westminster, anyway. It’s decided in Brussels. Now there’s a thought. And it would be a much nicer little earner, too, with no questions asked.

One TV channel and three radio stations, that’s all the BBC needs

Few things in life are simple. That’s partly because humans are not just problem-solving but also problem-seeking creatures. We seem to be driven to make mountains out of molehills. However, there is one thing in our national life that is extremely simple, and that is what to do about the BBC. Last week, after lengthy and worthy debate, MPs rejected by two votes to one a Conservative proposal to freeze the TV licence fee for a year. David Cameron had suggested this in March, saying the BBC and other public bodies must in these hard times try to do more with less. The BBC itself was naturally opposed to any such self-denying ordinance, calling it a “recipe for curbing the BBC’s editorial independence”; though it is difficult to see quite how such a disaster could be brought on by such a modest suggestion. And in the Commons, the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, warned that “ripping up the licence fee settlement” would undermine the BBC and “take away its creativity and stability”. So our MPs voted in favour of the licence fee rise as planned in the current six-year settlement, in line with inflation. All this is nonsense. Both sides are quite wrong. The BBC should not have its licence fee put up at all, in line with inflation or with anything else. On the contrary, the licence fee should be savagely cut back, permanently. I am not saying this because I resent or dislike the BBC. On the contrary, I trained there, worked there for several years, watch it regularly and regard it, for all its glaring faults, as a national treasure. It does many important things superbly well. You could almost say the BBC is, or was and could again be, a light unto the nations. The BBC is, however, far too big and it does far too much, in a pointless and vastly expensive frenzy of misguided activity. It fills the airwaves almost round the clock with programmes it should not be making and it fills its corridors with people it should not employ. It wastes millions on layers of management and on unnecessary salaries, initiatives, away days and jollies. All this should stop. Leave it all to commercial media producers, if they can make money out of it or want to waste their own money on it. What the BBC should do is what commercial producers don’t do, can’t do, can’t do equally well or won’t do properly, and only that. For that it deserves protection from the rough winds of commerce and competition, and only for that. Everyone knows what the jewels in the BBC crown are. Audience numbers don’t matter; the BBC should be aiming at the highest quality in everything it does, from news, science and drama to education, arts and minority programming. There is no reason a public subsidy should be used to make low-level chat shows, populist lifestyle programmes, asinine breakfast-time witterings, dumbed-down pop music channels, undistinguished cooking and travel shows and all the rest. Other producers can do these undemanding shows just as well, or better, and the BBC shouldn’t waste its resources on something that has strayed so far from its Reithian ideal and its national-treasure status. The problem, of course, is not just that the BBC is wasting our money on programmes we can see elsewhere and on programmes that aren’t much good. It is not just that in its misguided attempts to compete with the commercial sector for mass audiences the BBC has consistently dumbed down what it has always done best, often for smaller audiences – viewers of the BBC’s more serious political programmes must agree that many of these have gone down noticeably in quality. The really important problem is that it’s both daft and wrong in principle to pay a public institution public money to compete directly with the private commercial sector. It is illogical and unfair. The more the BBC tries to compete with commercial producers, the more illogical and unfair it is being, to them and to us, the licence-fee payers. As with all principles, there can be exceptions. The BBC’s website is a glaring exception: its established existence and its dazzling superiority make it difficult for other media organisations to develop in this hugely important market of the future. In this the BBC is doing exactly what commercial competitors are desperately trying to do and must do successfully to survive. Yet I believe it is in the national interest to have this website, because it is both wholly independent editorially and wholly accountable to the British public. So, too, it is essential to have truly independent news-gathering of the sort the BBC can and mostly does provide – something hugely expensive to do and so tempting to abuse that the protection of the fee-paying public must be a public good. There are other public goods the BBC has always provided. One is its excellent training. Film and video editors, lighting and set designers, make-up and costume artists, floor and studio managers, special-effects experts, IT wizards and technicians of every kind have been trained by the BBC and sent out all over the world: the commercial sector depends on this tradition. Another public good is the World Service, which is so good that BBC supremos are constantly tempted to cut it. Yet another is the great benefit of watching programmes without the mental damage done by constant advertising. And it is quite reasonable to expect the public to pay, one way or another, for a great public good; the advantage of cutting back the BBC is that we would get this national treasure for a lot less. This simple and glaringly obvious idea is not new. Antony Jay, creator with Jonathan Lynn of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, and author of Corporation Man, one of the best management books I’ve read, has thought so for some time. Last year he wrote a pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies, suggesting the BBC should reduce itself to one national television channel and one speech radio channel: judging by the cost, then, of BBC1 and Radio 4 combined, this would reduce its annual budget by about 65%, a saving of around £2.7 billion a year of our money, or 80% of our licence fee. I don’t think such a scheme is unreasonable, though I’d hang on to Radio 3 and the World Service as well. Nor do I think it would damage the BBC: harsh and radical pruning leads to re-invigorated new growth – another simple idea that could well be considered by other public institutions in these hard times.