Monday, 30 May 2011

Goodbye nuclear, hello green energy

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German nuclear plant
In Germany, arguments are raging over the decision to close down all nuclear plants by 2022 following the tragic and avoidable meltdown of Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. Germany's Angela Merkel although pressed hard by electoral gains by the Greens, has still taken a brave decision. However, it will also cast a long shadow over the landscape as the solution seems to be to build 'mega masts' to move energy from the North's wind turbines to the South via power lines in the sky. 
Chancellor Merkel on flight over Baltic 1 wind farm, 2 May 11
Chancellor's Angel Merkel takes a brave step towards a non-nuclear future
Traversing the beautiful forests of Rennsteig, the high voltage cables on large pylons, will scar an idyllic piece of the countryside to provide the 'Energie Autobahn' that cities such as Munich and Stuttgart will need. This is a quick and lazy solution to the problem.  If the Government was willing, it could bury the lines or find other solutions to developing alternative energy sources for the South of Germany. 
Green demonstration in Schalkau, Germany
Local residents opposing the proposed pylons
The risks from nuclear energy and all the waste that accompanies it are well known but after a hiatus of the past ten years when nuclear energy seemed to grow in respectability, Fukushima blew away the veil of naivety to reveal a form of science that repeatedly causes  deadly consequences. Nuclear has received bad press over the years from a suspicious public and media seizing on any doomsday news to exploit fears and worries over its safety. By ignoring the massive waste problem and tinkering with the figures, the argument was that nuclear was cheap, safe and carbon neutral. 
Nuclear power stations operational around the world. Click image for full graphic. GRAPHIC NEWS
The belt of nuclear reactors around the earth's middle
But Fukushima once and for all ended the 'rational', 'green' argument that nuclear was needed in a world with self inflicted climate change. 
In this combination of photos, the Number one reactor of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, is seen before, left, and after an explosion that blew out the walls of the unit, in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. The photo at left was taken in October 2008, and the photo at right was released by the Tokyo Power Electric Co on 12 March, following the explosion (AP Photo/Kyodo News and Tokyo Power Electric Company)
Before and after the explosion at Fukushima
Japanese Self Defense Forces wearing anti-radiation gear search for evacuees in...
The explosion destroyed the hull of the building containing the reactor, the...
The world should detach itself from the reliance of nuclear energy and massively invest in sustainable energy sources; wind, solar and water power. For too long countries have given muted support to alternatives and failed to turn them into mainstream. This is not an easy solution and arguments rage over whether alternatives energy sources can meet the demand, especially with the massive increases in energy demand from developing nations such as China and India, but a way has to be found. No one ever said finding enough energy for the human race was an easy science, but the sooner we seriously start, the better. Germany has taken the first steps and the rest of the world should follow. Organisations such as the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) are blazing the trail to find 100% sustainable energy solutions.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Bring war criminals to justice

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General Ratko Mladic
The news that Ratko Mladic has been found and arrested is a positive reminder of international justice working. Mladic was indicted for the slaughter of 7,500 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 and his day in court is long overdue. 
Cemetery at Srebrenica-Potocari
Just like the Nuremberg trials in 1945-46, it is very important to demonstrate that those who commit crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes are found and publicly tried.
Nuremberg Trials
I remember writing to the British Prime Minister, John Major demanding that something be done to end the massacre and receiving a typically bland reply and thinking that his weak, hand wringing was utterly unacceptable. I had grown up with the images of Jews being hunted and murdered by Nazi thugs and here on European soil was another genocide being practised. Major's letter to me was one of the galvanising forces that led me to throw my hat into the ring for the Labour candidacy a year or so later and led me to winning the seat of Shrewsbury and Atcham in 1997.
Slobodan Milosevic
In 2003 on the second anniversary of 9/11, I visited The Hague to see the trial of Milosevic and watched him behind the glass screen. He was brazen, confident and tried to impose his personality and will on the court. The judges were not impressed and would repeatedly correct his behaviour. The mistake was to allow the trial to drag on for more than five years and give the former President of Serbia so much air time. His early death of natural causes in custody robbed his victims of seeing him found guilty but at least he was forced to endure a trial and face his accusers in court.
Justice can still be done if proceedings are clearly given boundaries and a trial of even one year should have been enough. I was incredibly impressed meeting the legal team for the prosecution who were working with very limited budgets and having to fly witness around the world from for instance Sarajevo to Geneva to Paris and then The Hague so that the neighbours back home did not know they were appearing as witnesses against Milosevic. It took a huge amount of resource to make justice work and for it to be seen to be working.
But what remains in my mind is the terstimony of one witness who appeared cloaked behind a curtain. She was crying and whispered the story of how the Serbian soldiers had arrived in her village and picked out men and boys to kill. They then found two women hiding in a toilet block and casually tossed in two hand grenades. They walked away laughing to the screams of the women dying an awful death. 
Humans can be the most amazingly kind, generous protective creatures who can love and care for the vulnerable and the sick. Yet the same species can also be unspeakably cruel, devious and wicked. What happened in the Former Yugoslavia (on all sides) were acts of genocide and crimes against humanity. It is right and proper to hunt down those responsible. They can and will have a fair trial and the opportunity to defend themselves but that is the best way to deal with them.
Osama Bin Laden 
The killing of Osama Bin Laden was different. American Special Forces had split seconds to decide on foreign soil if they could take him alive and President Obama had made clear in his orders (no one could imagine President Bush seriously considering international law) that if possible he should be arrested. It was highly likely that given the risks involved the most likely outcome was that Bin Laden, a self confessed terrorist, would be shot and killed with the clock ticking down until all Hell let loose in Pakistan.
Front view of the ICTY.jpg
ICTY building in The Hague
Mladic will hopefully be handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) [corrected from original article that stated International Criminal Court] in The Hague peacefully, just like Milosevic was before him. There is time to carry out the indictment and time for justice to be smoothly practised. 
It has been a bumpy road but I trust that the trend towards indicting, arresting and putting on trial where-ever possible will continue for those who carry out atrocities. As democracy flourishes and grows the values of justice under the auspices of the United Nations, will push back the evil that humans do until one day I hope such acts will banished into the mists of time.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Super injunction absurdity

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After my Blog last Saturday, the cat was finally out of the bag yesterday when John Hemming MP mentioned in parliament the rich footballer as Ryan Giggs who had taken out a super injunction affecting Imogen Thomas about allegations that he had an affair with her. To date Giggs has apparently not denied it.
John Hemmings MP
At one point, there was the absurd situation with the Sunday Herald placing a huge photograph of Giggs wearing a Manchester United shirt, on their front page with a tiny blacked out strip across his eyes saying 'censored'. The Herald claimed they were unaffected by the super injunction in Scotland.
Cameron also finally began to wake up to the mess and ordered a committee to convene to look at potential solutions to the current debacle of judges making up censorship laws as they go along and Twitterers blatantly ignoring them.
Was it opportunistic of Hemming to mention Giggs and breach a court order knowing he was safe from prosecution under parliamentary privilege? Yes, of course, but frankly the surreal situation of thousands of people being criminalised by gossiping that Giggs may have taken out a super injunction was fast becoming untenable. Would the courts try to force Twitter to hand over user names and identify those who may have breached the order? 70,000 people could have ended up in court. It simply was not going to happen. The courts have better things to do with their time.
Sunday Herald front page
As I mentioned in my Blog on Saturday 21st May, there are rare circumstances when I think a private individual should have the right to take out a super injunction but those circumstances should be exceptional and not just for the super rich to protect them from gossip. My Blog hit the front page of searches over the weekend for people searching to find out who was the footballer at the centre of the controversy.
I sincerely hope Cameron's new committee will rapidly come up with a set of proposals so that parliament can vote on them in the Autumn and gain Royal Assent by the end of the year. This issue is not going to go away sometime soon. There could still be various criminal cases involving Imogen Thomas, Piers Morgan, Dom Joly, Boy George, Toby Young and many others accused of allegedly leaking the information on Twitter and possibly others (your truly may be?).

Banning the book simply pushed up sales 
The situation reminded me of the 'Spycatcher' affair. The book was banned in the UK and in the days before the Internet it was a lot harder to find a copy of it overseas.
Nevertheless, I tracked down a copy to a book store in the US and purchased it. After reading it, I did wonder what the fuss was all about. Likewise, I am sure that Ryan Giggs will wonder whether the hyper-speculation over many weeks and the final outing has propelled his private life ironically into the spotlight far more than if he had taken the hit many months ago and issued a short statement about the alleged affair.

Imogen Thomas
Imogen Thomas
It is interesting to draw an analogy between phone hacking and super injunctions. In 2006, the police refused to fully investigate obvious, serious breaches of privacy affecting hundreds of people when their phones were hacked on an 'industrial scale' and then covered up by Executives and senior managers in the News of the World and other newspapers.
Now the CPS and police are being ordered by the courts to rapidly bring cases to try and criminalise anyone who even passes a view on an injunction (and not even on the substance of the allegation) which are currently designed to hush up indiscretions of the rich and the famous. Sorry but clearly the law is an ass. Don't get me started on gung ho judges wanting to shut up democratically elected MPs....

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Privacy vs Public Interest - Ryan Giggs vs Imogen Thomas

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Arguments continue to rage about whether super-injunctions should be allowed to protect any form of reporting about certain issues (including the fact an injunction even exits). It seems that the debate is polarised and causes immense passion on both sides. Sometimes super injunctions are needed to protect people from the worst excesses of the media. On the other hand, some of those super injunctions are designed by the rich to buy them greater legal protection than is available to the vast majority and there is not a sufficient reason to justify imposing such sweeping censorship.
Imogen Thomas, PA
Imogen Thomas is unable to comment due to the court order
Lately,  Ryan Giggs has allegedly secured a super injunction to stop any mention of an affair with Imogen Thomas. Yet Twitter users have apparently ignored the injunction and made a mockery of the courts and the system of super injunctions by naming him. We will wait and see if Giggs denies the allegations. If he does, then his name has been badly smeared. The worry is that it is left to the users of social media to push back against over zealous courts in an erratic, unregulated manner. Jemima Khan was left furiously denying any affair with Jeremy Clarkson after being falsely named on Twitter.
Ryan Giggs
Ryan Giggs has allegedly secured a super injunction against Imogen Thomas
For those that argue that anyone in the public eye should be open to any form of press scrutiny, I can see the logic of their puritanical (if simplistic) argument but it would allow anyone even forced into the public domain, such as a rape victim, to have to put up with paparazzi photographs. That would be grotesque and outrageous. So after that simplistic argument, the question is where do you draw the line before you reach the other end of the spectrum with press censorship by the rich and the powerful?

Hugh Grant has taken a tough stance against press intrusion
Hugh Grant takes a view that if his job requires certain publicity such as attending a film premiere that should not give the automatic right to the press to be able to route through his bins and lie in wait outside his house or when he goes shopping. That sounds reasonable. Likewise, just because someone walks down the street and is photographed with their children, does not mean that they have necessarily invited the photographers to come and take their photo (although some celebrities and their agents apparently tip off the press on their whereabouts specifically so they can appear in magazines such as OK! and Hello).
John Terry took out a super injunction in 2010
However, the use of super injunctions does cause real concern. There is little doubt that only those who are rich and famous can afford to go to court and seek such overbearing and prescriptive orders. The argument that they are the only kinds of people who need them and Mrs Smith from Burnley who is a clerk in an office would never need one, is not the point. Mrs Smith should not be told that some parts of the law are off limits and that she had better pray that she doesn’t need to get a super injunction because she can’t afford one, is a dangerous precedent for a law that should be blind to who you are and the size of your wallet or purse. No, it would be better that parliament set the rules on privacy vs public interest rather than judges listening to super rich lawyers earning six figure salaries on behalf of rich people earning seven or eight figure salaries.
Yet, Lord Neuberger's recent report on this issue seems to conclude that parliamentarians should be gagged by taking away their privilege to report any such injunction in parliament. That is a scary statement from a senior judge who is Master of the Rolls. MPs rarely use such privilege and understand the responsibility of using it. However, the fact a judge wishes to stop MPs openly challenging the courts demonstrates that it is the courts that need to be reminded that it is parliament who is the sovereign body in this country and not judges.
An unprecedented attack on Parliamentary privilege: Lord Neuberger would gag MPs and peers
Lord Neuberger wants to gag MPs in parliament
Some will argue that there should be no right to telling the press what they can and cannot print given that sometimes individuals invite the press into their private lives and then five minutes later complain bitterly that they do not want to be photographed or door stepped. Well frankly, why not? Just because I agree to shop in Sainsbury’s one week should not force me to go next week. My ‘contract’ is in fact a freedom to choose who I do business with. Therefore, there should be a respect for when it is agreeable for the press to arrive to take photographs and when they are not welcome.
Andrew Marr
The BBC's Andrew Marr was embarrassed by taking out an injunction
I have suffered first hand from a journalist screaming abuse at my young son through my letterbox threatening to print a story if he didn’t go and persuade his daddy to come to the door. I have seen the belligerent tactics of a press who have not a care in the world for family members. As an MP, I even had one heated conversation with a regional newspaper editor who said, “your wife is public property and I’ll print what I like about her”. A charming man. On other occasions I have endured a journalist from the News of the World repeatedly ringing a family member posing as a policeman from “Belgravia Police Station” and saying I was involved in a car accident and he urgently needed my address. Of course, I had not been involved in any accident and the 'policeman' upon checking, did not exist. Another time a journalist posed as my sister and rang up the hospital where a family member was seriously ill, to try and get medical information. Fortunately, a sharp minded nurse gave the woman short shrift.
There are some members of the press who know no bounds of living in the gutter to get any information that they can use. They will twist around information to talk up to sound like a thriller story that will grip readers, regardless of facts. The trail of havoc though that they lead behind them, lasts forever. Would I have taken out a super injunction to protect my family in those circumstances and I had the money? Yes, in a heartbeat. But the injunction would be based on stopping photographs of my children appearing in the press, untrue liaisons with other women or medical details of my family. The problem lies in the way the press will gossip, smear and use innuendo which is not in the public interest. The rules are grey and unenforceable and every case is unique. That is where clarification is needed to cut through to say, "Is this story really in the public interest?".
For those in the public eye being scrutinised under genuine public interest (and not because it is interesting to the public) then the rules are different. If a politician has defrauded the taxpayer then it is reasonable to investigate them and ask them for comment and take their photograph. If an actor stars as a policeman on TV and makes his name and fortune in a role that is demonstrating he is a law enforcer, then it seems perfectly reasonable to highlight the fact he was caught speeding in a car. If a footballer who makes money from his family image and pretends to be happily married and yet has a six month affair, then yes it is right the press explains to the public that he is misleading them.
However, in each of those cases, I fear for the impact on the families of those individuals who are innocent victims. They will pay for the rest of their lives for the mistakes of the individuals and perhaps the tenacity of the media.
For the record, I think most journalists in the UK are respectable, reputable professionals who are a true asset to our democracy. Unfortunately there is a small minority who are truly undesirable individuals who need to be reined in.
The problem is that some in the media sometimes don’t just push against the boundaries of decent behaviour or slightly bend the rules in pursuit of a public interest agenda, they sometimes utterly disregard them and have no problem in wreaking people’s lives in order to get a story that will improve ratings on TV or sell more newspapers. It is the recklessness that some wish to curtail and given the repeated number of times some in the media over step the mark, a voluntary system of enforcement is worthless.
David Cameron needs to come up with new legislation on the boundaries for protecting privacy
The Government should look at now designing a sensible system of legislation that gets the balance right. Otherwise, more injunctions will be taken out by the rich and they will be able to protect more than their privacy and no doubt use the legal tactics to prevent the public finding out wrong doing. The leaking and breaches of court injunctions seem the only defence against the onerous court orders and yet it should be the responsibility of parliament to take action rather than those using social media. With rich footballers now hounding Twitter to reveal user information to pursue individuals that breach injunctions, this argument will continue to rage until the Government stops ducking the issue and takes action. The current situation is an utter mess and it will only spiral further out of control with even more zealous courts and social media users determined to name and shame regardless of the consequences. David Cameron needs to get off the sidelines and bring forward new legislation that sets out the red lines of where privacy should be protected.