2011 a year to remember?

January 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

The festive period has traditionally been one for looking back at the year past and looking forward to the new year with resolutions. This year very clearly the emphasis is on looking forward.

Sitting here on the first day of 2011 it feels like the year a head is full of possibilities and full of dangers. Domestically there are concerns about unemployment and the economy. TheEuro zone too appears ripe for problems.

A Western-centric perception of events has perhaps masked our view of changes happening in the World. 2011 could be the year when the promise of the BRIC countries become undeniable.

For me a prime reason why we start the year looking forward to the next 12 months more than ever is the pace of change is such that technological revolutions than once would have taken place over years now take place within a year. Think of how long CDs took to replace LPs in the 80s or DVDs to replace video tape in the 90s and the point is clear.

By contrast last year saw new tech have an immediate impact as the public proved that they are eager to accept change where change is to their advantage. It is these technological changes that will be the subject of a future blog.

suffocating democracy

December 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Two major stories unfolding this past week at first sight bore little in common. England’sfailed World Cup bid is not obviously related to the new deluge of wikileaks. The link, to my mind, was created when the 2018 bid chief executive Andy Anson attacked the BBC as ‘unpatriotic’.

The BBC’s unpatriotic crime? Telling the truth. The investigative Panorama aired the documentary “FIFA’s Dirty Secrets” last week. Anson branded the programme as ‘sensationalist’ – despite not having seen it.

Wikileaks has also been subject to enormous pressure to not go public. As with the Panorama programme the veracity of the information released is not in question.

The question put to the panel in this weeks Question Time was “is wikileaks good for democracy”. Despite the audience majority vote of ‘no’, I wonder if like the panel they lost sight of the original question.

The democracy imperative is beyond question but what constitutes democracy is a question less frequently asked and even less frequently answered. I’m sure the Question Time audience would agree that free and fair elections are essential to democracy. But for the vote to mean anything the decision of who to vote for must be made with sufficient good information for the voter to make the right decision. To put it another way, if the voter would have made a different voting decision if he/she had more information then that information is important to the democratic process.

Mrs Thatcher once created a small cottage industry for actors dubbing their voices over Gerry Adams’ public utterances  because she wished to deny Sinn Fein, to coin Mrs T’s memorable phrase, “the oxygen of publicity”. This bizarre practice proved ineffective and the ban was lifted.

I would humbly suggest that Mrs T would have been better served to reword her phrase to “information is the oxygen of democracy”. Without sufficient good information democracy suffocates. For this reason it is possible that wikileaks can serve democracy and Panorama should be free to make accurate and informative documentary programmes.

the rise of the unsupported assertion

November 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

As I turned on the TV the American interviewee was being asked about waterboarding saving lives in London. It was a question prompted by George Bush’s defence, the same week, of the practice of waterboarding suspected terrorists; he claimed that waterboarding saved British lives.

“Anyone who says that waterboarding didn’t save lives isn’t telling the truth” came the reply.  … and that was it. I expected him to expand on this claim, to provide some reasoning that might persuade the viewer that waterboarding has worked. But my wait for him to support his assertion was in vein. It’s not that I expected incontrovertible  proof, I just though that if you make an assertion it is usual to offer some support for it. Especially on such a controversial issue.

Bush himself was on the receiving end of an unsupported claim five years ago following the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Rapper Kanye West said that Bush “doesn’t care about black people”. Bush’s tardy response to the disaster may have been neglectful, it may have been a dereliction of his presidential duties, it may have been deeply suspicious, but it was not in itself proof of racism.

Bush’s response last week was to say “I resent it, it’s not true.” Now, I would usually say that it is up to the accuser to make a case that warrants a defence – which Kayne West clearly failed to do. However, given that Kayne West voiced what many others were saying, and that Bush himself was the one to resurrect the issue after all this time, it is disappointing that Bush didn’t offer a stronger reply given that he’s had five years to prepare one. If Bush could point to government programmes to support equality, or statistical measures to show that the well-being of black people had improved, or he appointed several black people to positions of influence then his claim that West’s assertion was “not true” would been easier to accept.

One thing that surprised me about the interviewer who asked the waterboarding question referred to in the opening paragraph is that he didn’t press the interviewee for justification of his claim. It seems that the rise of the unsupported assertion has reached a level that it is simply accepted.

Fortunately,living  in the information age, we don’t have to simply accept it and can look for proof – or disproof – of these assertions. Those taking the opposing view include Kim Howells the former chair of the Commons intelligence and security committee and David Davies  the former shadow secretary¹ former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald of River Glaven and Prime minister David Cameron². Perhaps most convincing is U.S. Army interrogator Eric Maddox’s explanation of why waterboarding does not work:

“Why would I do something to an individual where first of all they think they are going to die and second you don’t follow through on the threat. I mean once you pull them up they are not dead, everything the interrogator does is a farce from then on….I am not trying to make the guy like me…But he has to believe me.”

The strength of Maddox’s words come not from his authority as the man who spearheaded the hunt for Saddam Hussein but that his an assertion supported by clear reasoning drawing on first hand experience.

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