30 March 2004

End of term report

In theory, but certainly not in practice, the long procedure for electing a United States President is well-nigh perfect. From the most powerful country in the world it should produce a leader with intellect, experience and honesty. How has the present incumbent measured up?

There's an engaging simplicity in George W Bush's philosophy. How about: 'the past is behind us, the future lies ahead'? Some words acquire new meanings. 'We cannot allow terrorists and rogue nations to hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.'

At times he uses a vocabulary all of his own. 'A free and peaceful Iraq, a peaceance and freeance in the midst of the Middle East will have enormous historical impact.'

The gift of certainty can make a great leader. GWB has it all. 'Saddam Hussein possesses some of the world's deadliest weapons.' Well actually no. It's GWB who possesses virtually all the world's deadliest weapons.

As to honesty and experience, his personal military contribution, for one thing, has been raising some doubts. How did he jump the queue to get into the Texas Air National Guard for weekend duty, thus ensuring he would not have to go to Vietnam? Might his father, then a United States Congressman representing Texas, have exerted some slight influence?

While he has provided some photocopied sheets to establish his 'honourable discharge', military sources will say that the documentation proves little.

It's not that he went AWOL or deserted, as the Associated Press and Boston Globe have hinted, it's just that he – well – didn't always turn up. No military personnel have come forward to say he was actually serving in the period of his alleged absence. No sign-in sheets have been found. Internal Revenue Service returns for the period would certainly establish if he had served in the disputed period but requests to release these have been blocked.

And yet, despite his elusive military experience he now commands a force with the greatest killing power in history and with more weapons of mass destruction than all other nations put together. I suspect the American people will vote him in again – perhaps even with a real majority this time – because, in a perverse sort of way, he makes them feel safe.

'When we talk about war,' he has said, ' we're really talking about peace'.

That should deal with the doubters.

23 March 2004

Big brother

I am withholding names to protect the innocent – and even the guilty, though I don't know why.

I decided to upgrade my mobile phone and I thought I should give a local firm a try. They offered a super deal and an agreeable contract but the nice assistant phoned back and said that unfortunately my credit rating was poor.

When I had clambered down from the metaphorical roof I asked where she had got her information. She said another local company, which handles the rental finance, had issued the warning. She was not permitted to say who they were.

After threatening her boss with legal action I managed to identify the said local finance company and, again overcoming fearsome resistance, got talking to the boss. He was totally dismissive, explaining that the credit opinion had come from one of three national credit information repositories, whose information, and I quote, his company took at face value. I tracked them down. Under the Data Protection legislation I was able to discover, once I paid a fee, what was held on their computer.

Horror upon horror.

Not only myself, but other members of my family were branded, in the mistaken information that they lived at my address. Clearly my address was a hot-bed of payment default. I was however able to trace the source of the original accusation – a dodgy London mail-order firm with whom I had tangled eighteen months earlier (in the end, successfully) over the non-delivery of goods. In reprisal (and before going bust) they had passed totally false and mendacious information on to the national database.

Nobody along the line saw any need to apologise but the data holders did eventually send me a number of forms to complete for their consideration – they even had the temerity to ask for my wife's death certificate. The whole procedure took several weeks.

The moral of this sorry tale is obvious. Data Protection laws permit access to material held on file – only under limited circumstances. But where is the protection against libellous accusations being passed on to powerful nationally-based data institutions who then sell the libels on to others? So, if you are ever refused credit, and wonder why, it might be that you have a lot of false accusers out there whom the law cannot seem to touch.

Big Brother is not only watching you – he's making a fat profit telling lies about you as well.

16 March 2004

The patriot game

May we be magnanimous in victory. May we avoid (if at all practicable) any unseemly triumphalism. But wasn't Ireland's victory over the Old Enemy fantastic? And at jolly old 'Twickers', the most sacred acreage in upper-crust English rugby. For once, the Sweet Chariot was silent.

But enough of this unforgivably racist anti-English ranting as I reflect that allegiance and identity are more flexible than we imagine. Rugby has always been played internationally on an all-Ireland basis. And even if we see ourselves as British, and Dublin as the capital of a foreign (if friendly) foreign state, we are all Irish on the day of the match, proud to be part of a unique tricolour-waving nationhood.

Northern Presbyterians will wrap themselves safely in Irish green – ironically the full flag gives equal status to both orange and green traditions – and their fanatic support will match anything from the boldest of Fenian men from Limerick or Cork. Of course if England are struggling against Aussie cricketers (a common occurrence) their Northern hearts might be with the 'home team'. But then again, if Scotland or Wales are playing England at anything, need you ask where all our passions will reside?

The match wasn't the only event that Saturday to stir my soul. I had spent the first half of that ever-memorable day at a conference of youth leaders, many of whom were young volunteers. Some were trapped in those sad tracts of Northern Ireland where allegiance to one narrow identity is wholly destructive and where flags and emblems and aggressive slogans paper over deep fissures of uncertainty.

Flag-waving is the best of crack for a few hours every other weekend – if you can afford the fare and the ticket. But then, we are literally only playing games. It's different when every gable, lamp-post and kerbstone in your neighbourhood is a weapon in a more deadly contest. There's never any true joy in victory for the home team. Togetherness is simply another form of poverty. Worst of all, keeping out the perceived enemy means keeping out investment and discouraging the sort of outside interest that might help with regeneration.

Yet these young people at their meeting, trainer-shod and baseball-capped, were willing to spend an entire day sharing and confronting their common dilemmas, with candour, with goodwill and with more than a touch of humour.

They too deserve a standing ovation.

09 March 2004

Disabled logic

I suffer from a rare 'motor sensory neuropathy' – that's a bit of medical Greek – which, increasingly, affects my mobility. No flowers please. I am coping nicely thank you, and, as they say, I think it will see me out.

But for years past I have earned a disabled drivers' label for which I am truly grateful. I am certainly not as badly off as many others. But walking is nevertheless a slow, difficult, often painful business and particularly hazardous in wet weather. When there's frost about I stay at home.

So when shocking figures were recently published about those who use disabled parking facilities illegally I was interested, but not in the least surprised. Nor am I surprised that the situation is worst in Northern Ireland. It's another of our very own little 'worsts'.

My own brief surveys would show that around half of all disabled parking spaces at superstores, public buildings, especially hospitals, are occupied by the fit and healthy. It gets worse in bad weather, when disabled needs are greatest. Six spaces at one particular DIY superstore are occupied by staff. My local SPAR has only two spaces, one frequently taken by the shop's van.

On occasions I confront the illegal occupants but run the risk of a torrent of abuse. The non-abusive say they're only there for a minute, or they didn't see the notice – that's the big big one on the post right beside your bumper madam.

I spoke to a nice lady with young family returning to her car in an all-ticket park where the disabled have reserved spaces near the lift. Her ticket showed she had been parked for two hours. Her excuse was that she'd only been there a few minutes – her children gave her a mummy-is-telling-fibs look at that point – and anyway, she said, there's plenty of other spaces for the disabled to park in.

Not greatly impressed by her logic, I noticed a 'Jesus Saves' sticker on her rear window. I know I shouldn't have done it, but I did inquire whether she believed that particular beneficence extended to parking spaces. She exploded with rage – a new category of road rage perhaps – and I get the general impression that I shall suffer a life of eternal torment, post mortem.

After all, it's just what disabled people, standing up for their rights, deserve.

02 March 2004

Inquiries into inquiries

The Hutton Inquiry was set up "to conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr Kelly." It did so with great care yet it may only be remembered for its castigation of the BBC and its total exoneration of the Government.

Even before it was published, another inquiry was mooted to investigate how one newspaper was able to jump the gun. And yes, there is now a third, behind-closed-doors, inquiry under Lord Butler into whether the Intelligence Services got the whole WMD thing wrong.

Every dog in the street thinks he knows the answer already but, like Hutton, Butler will not be free to examine why we went to war, the very thing we all want to know.

The Government's widely-discredited dossier expanded from 46 pages to 59 to include persuasive material of dubious authenticity to the point where the Prime Minister actually misunderstood his own "45 minute" warning. Scientists of the calibre of Dr Kelly had serious misgivings yet Kelly was dismissed as a mere middle-ranking officer, even a "Walter Mitty".

And then that shameful game of Russian roulette to expose him – except that every chamber had a bullet – when the Press were allowed to make as many pot-shot guesses as they liked.

The BBC's complacent handling of the affair in its early stages compounded the problem. A flagship programme had got it badly wrong but that lapse must be seen in the context of its 17 hours of live broadcasting per week.

During the inquiry the BBC's case seemed to be running into trouble, though the final judgement took the BBC, and even many of its critics, completely by surprise. The ultimate blow to BBC staff was the grovelling apology from its stand-in Chairman Lord Ryder, which Alastair Campbell received with notable lack of grace.

Unattributable input from well-informed sources is the stuff of serious journalism. Governments play the game to their advantage. When it doesn't go their way there are cries of injured innocence.

Quality broadcasting is not simply about reporting. It's also about investigating, probing, challenging, revealing and exposing. It's about presenting a balance of relevant opinion and the many versions of perceived truth. It follows, in all logic, that falsehoods will be transmitted. But broadcasting is also constrained by the law of libel and, had the BBC's actions been tested before judge and jury, the conclusions might have been very different.