Showdown in the air between elected politicians and the media

BBC NEWS | Politics | Guardian ‘could support Lib Dems’

So, the Guardian could support the Liberal-Democrats. The Guardian! Actually, I always had the impression that the Guardian tried not to sell its soul to any party. Never mind. This of course follows the (to newish Labour) rather more alarming prospect of the Express switching back to the Tories. BBC NEWS | Politics | Express switches after Euro shift.

It’s a well-known – or at least, frequently asserted – fact that it was the Sun (and friends) wot won it for New Labour in 1997 and 2001. In 1997 The Guardian, The Mirror, the Sun, the Independent and the Daily Star all supported New Labour. Only The Daily Express, the Telegraph and the Times stood against them. By 2001 both the Times and the Express had climbed into Labour’s bed.

But another perspective is that Labour was going to win in 1997 and 2001 anyway, and the papers were savvy enough to go with the winner.

Which leaves us with the question, how powerful are the media really when it comes to influencing elections? We are still facing the repurcussions of Mohammed Karzai’s media-propelled victory in Afghanistan. Are we really in the same position with the print media in Britain?

Let’s hope not. But perhaps this time we will actually find out.

Why tinkering with justice should alarm us all

BBC NEWS | UK | Juries learn sex offenders’ past

An election is coming up. By all accounts it will be on May 5 2005. So we now face the cyclical clamour of the Tories and nearly-new Labour trying to prove that they are tougher on crime and kinder on health. Usually this comes down to promises for building more prisons, giving more money to the police, short, sharp shocks, and other repackagings of the same old solutions.

But this time one-careful-owner Labour has surpassed itself. Juries in trials for theft and for child sex abuse will soon be told of the offender’s previous convictions.

Mm. Interesting choice, that. Theft and Child Sex Abuse. Why not Car-jacking and Internet Scamming? There’s a strong whiff of which crimes the public is most cross about in this policy decision. More government by polling, but we will let it pass.

We will let it pass, because the core of my complaint against this particular popularity stunt is not that it is a typical second-hand Labour random act of policy, but that it is tinkering with the core of justice itself.

Figure it any way you like. If you’ve been fingered before, the police will already have you marked as a potential suspect. Fine. This is necessary for proper investigation. ‘Form’ as the coppers say. But when juries are told as well, your past convictions are, as it were, fed into the system twice.

If there is genuinely reasonable doubt about the evidence presented in a trial, the accused should go free. This is fundamental to justice. Can the quality of the evidence be improved by providing details of previous convictions? Surely not. But the jury’s mind might be swayed. Suddenly we are looking at a system where other considerations are influencing the jury’s mind about a question of fact.

And suddenly we are staring at the face of a completely different kind of justice.

It’s democracy, but is it freedom?

BBC NEWS | World | South Asia | Early results show Karzai victory

It looks fairly certain that Mohammed Karzai will win the first elections in Afghanistan since – well, since for ever. In the wake of the Iraq debacle it’s easy to forget how much has changed in Afghanistan. Remarkably, the widely trailered Taleban violence never really materialised. By Sunday night Karzai had secured 4,219,569 votes – more than the 50% he needs for a straight win, and of course therefore a much better mandate than those enjoyed by Messrs Blair and Bush.

George W, of course, famously told the world that ‘they hate us because we love freedom’. Well done, George. You have a talent for stating the blindingly obvious and still getting it completely wrong. But is freedom what Afghanistan really got? The process of democratic election seems to have worked, which bodes well for Iraq. But looking more closely, it was the closest ally of the USA who won. And, what’s more, there were widespread protests that he got the lion’s share of coverage in the media. In addition, of course, to the advantage that the incumbent always has in a many-horse race.

All this sounds eerily close to the situation in the ’70s and ’80s in South America. Nicaragua and El Salvador should not be forgotten. When governments friendly to Western interests were fairly elected, all was well. When the result seemed to be at risk, US advisers to their allies magically appeared. When the result actually went the wrong way, things turned nasty.

The test for the nascent democracies which the coalition is trying to plant in the Islamic world will come when local populations attempt to elect governments hostile to US interests.

What price, then, freedom?

Caught between Kerry and Buttiglione?

This week the European Parliament is split over the prospect of Rocco Buttiglione taking on the role of Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security after his remarks about homosexuals and single mothers. Everyone except Buttiglione seems to agree that he should never have said what he did, but the answer to the underlying question is more troublesome. At the same time, theologians are discussing the position of another Roman Catholic who is running for a rather higher office. John Kerry’s position on abortion has caused some scratching of the head in Vatican circles. During the presidential campaign, both Bush and Kerry have pushed their Christian credentials. Meanwhile, in the UK, Tony Blair, a man who has also made a lot of his faith (although he has denied rumours that he is about to become a Roman Catholic), is preparing a new set of gambling laws which have been denounced by many church leaders.

Let me say that I’m not a Roman Catholic. But as a committed Christian, the issues do concern me.

In apologising to European Commission president Barroso, Buttiglione closed by saying: “The only thing I cannot do is to change my principles against my conscience for political convenience.” The Italian press do not share his conviction. Rome’s right wing Il Messaggero said: “It is a mistake to mix religion and politics. Europe does not want to hear about this mixture of State and Church, which is part of our history.”

At the same time, across the wide water, Kerry is under fire for failing to adequately combine his faith with his politics.

In the Spring I took part in a debate with Evan Harris MP on the subject: “Does faith belong in politics?” Evan, a dedicated secularist, of course put forward the case that it does not. I took the opposite view.

It seems to me that the dilemma caused by trying to separate faith from politics is greater than that of trying to combine them. In fact, fundamentally I believe that that dilemma is irresolvable. Separating them means the institutionalising of a kind of hypocrisy – a politician may appeal to his faith when standing for election, but cannot be held to it when making policy. The dilemma is no less resolvable for someone who arrives in public life with a secular philosophy.

Which is a long way from saying that I have much sympathy with Buttiglione.

When I first heard about his remarks I was forcibly reminded of the words of Jesus: “Judge not, that you be not judged.”

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | European press review: “Buttiglione”

Martin Turner is Chair of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum

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