Monday, March 18, 2013

Watch out. Press censorship is here.

'Africa is giving nothing to anyone - apart from AIDS'. A rather nasty remark, and untrue. Africa gives us many things, including most of the world's gold and diamonds, and you can't blame a country for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, I'm not sure I would say that this remark, from the Irish journalist and commentator, Kevin Myers, in the Irish Independent in 2008 should actually be censored. But be in no doubt - it cannot be said again in Ireland. And nor can anything like it.

This was one of the earliest cases taken to the Irish Press Council, the system of press regulation Alex Salmond would like to see in Scotland. It was referred to the Irish press watchdog by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, and a number of NGOs, on the grounds that it breached four of the principles of the Council's Code of Practice for journalists. 1)Accuracy 2)Fairness 3)Respect for rights and 8)Incitement to Hatred. The Council accepted that it was "gratuitously offensive", and "was likely to cause grave offence to people throughout sub-Saharan Africa" It ruled that the article "did breach Principle 8 of the Code". Though confusingly it did not conclude that it was "likely to stir up hatred".

But the matter didn't end there. After the ruling, in 2009, the Irish Times ran a headline "Press Council upholds complaint against Myers article". Mr Myers then took the Irish Times to the Press Council on the grounds that this breached Principle 1)Accuracy, 3)Fairness and 4)Respect for Rights. The Times argued that its headline was accurate and fair since it was a direct quote from the Press Council itself. But the Press Council didn't agree and said that even though this is what it had said, the Irish Times headline was misleading and it "breached Principle 1 of the Code". However, just to make things even more confusing, it only partially upheld the complaint made by Mr Myers against the Irish Times.

I'm afraid this is what happens when you put a group of lawyers,ex- judges and professors in charge of regulating the press. The PC tried to apply these very broad an subjective criteria, like offensive and fair, to a piece of journalism that was neither. But they also realised that freedom of speech does require that sometimes offensive and unfair things are said. So, they tried to have it both ways - they upheld the complaint, and didn't uphold it at the same time.

But this has had one very clear outcome: censorship.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

The Pyrenees are just like the Highlands, only with people.

When the temperature fell below -11 even my Macbook froze. I didn't think they did that, but they do. When I finally thawed it out it had reset the date, for some reason, at 1st February 2008 and wouldn't open my email. But since the internet had stopped working, this was kind of academic.. The satellite dish on our roof had a beard of icicles hanging from it which presumably messed up its pointing system with the satellite.

Well, if you choose to holiday at 800metres in the Pyrenees in February, I suppose you shouldn't be surprised if it gets cold. But not like this. This has been the worst winter for 15 years, according to our neighbours in the commune of Alos, who've been struggling to keep their horses fed and free of frostbite. Normally, the people of the Pyrenees welcome snow to keep the ski resorts working – which have become an important part of the local economy.

And it's very rare for the roads to be blocked as many have been over the past week. This is because they have a highly effective snow-clearing and gritting operation. The big snow ploughs on the main roads tear around so fast they often leave a trail of sparks on the road behind them. Local farmers, it seems, can earn a bit by sticking a snow plough on the fronts of their four-by-fours and driving around the networks of small roads that keep the dispersed community going. And this is a dispersed community.

One of the reasons I love the Pyrenees is that it's what I imagine the Highlands of Scotland would have been like had the people not been cleared from the land to make way for sheep and deer. In the hills of the Ariege, there are lots of people, in hundreds of tiny, low densities communities or “hameau”, often illuminated by a solitary street light. When you look at the surrounding hills at night here they're dotted with what look like constellations of stars, but are actually the streetlights of these hamlets in the sky. I don't know how these hill farming communities have survived, with their tiny strips of pasture, their goats and kitchen gardens, but they do.

Friday, March 01, 2013

If we're printing money it should go to poor people who spend not bankers who hoard.

    Imagine being asked to pay your bank for the privilege of depositing your money in it. Most of us think that we are victims of reverse bank robbery already. But actually give them money to take our money? The Bank of England moved rapidly yesterday to insist that the policy of negative interest rates, floated by bank official, Paul Tucker, was “very blue sky thinking” and anyway wouldn't affect the deposit rate that is paid to ordinary savers, only big banks. Though, as we'll see, that isn't strictly true.

The main reason the Bank of England is talking about negative interest rates is to force the banks to lend to business. Much of that quantitative easing money that is being printed and handed, effectively, to the commercial banks is being redeposited with the Bank of England. Yes, the banks get electronic money from the Bank of England; then they deposit it back with the Bank of England to earn interest on the cash it has printed.

You might think that is the economics of the mad house, and you might well be right. But in the paradoxical world of high finance, this is considered a sound monetary policy.