Posts Tagged ‘Sam Fowles’

In defence of porn (or at least, sensible public policy)

26/07/2013, 03:27:12 PM

by Sam Fowles

“Opting in” to porn is a band aid for a cancer. If our leaders truly care about the next generation they must forget about ineffectual pseudo censorship and tackle the underlying issues: a dearth of proper sex education and a public discourse that treats women as little more than wax models.

Conservatives are migrating home for the summer, or at least returning to political home ground. David Cameron’s “war on porn” is, from this perspective, a PR coup. Convincing his more swivel eyed party members, aghast at the imminent prospect of gay marriage, that he’s just as rooted in the social values of the 1950s as he is the economic values of the 1930s.

But, as so often happens in public policy, in all the cacophony of (male) politicians and (male) tabloid editors reminding us all that they don’t like porn, two important questions have been ignored: What is the problem we’re trying to solve? And: Will our proposed solution be effective?

Unfortunately it seems like the answers are respectively: “Not sure” and “probably not”. There is a problem with sexual morality in this country. One in three girls report inappropriate sexual touching at school, 750 000 children per year witness domestic violence and a third of teenage girls have experienced sexual violence by a partner. However, it’s unclear whether the PM actually wants to tackle this incredibly significant issue or whether he just thinks porn is a bit icky. If it is the latter then he’s about to perpetrate a fairly serious affront to civil liberties in the name of a morality that Elizabeth Bennet would find constricting. If it is the former then his proposed solution just won’t work.

In terms of the practical aspects of how internet filters will actually work, Alex Hern gives a thorough overview of the problems in the New Statesman. In essence, the generation that this measure aims to prevent accessing porn highly internet literate. It’s virtually inevitable that a way around the filters will spread throughout the country in a matter of days.

In addition a significant amount of porn is user generated. This has a more insidious social effect than the stereotypical badly lit, excruciatingly scripted, commercially made porn. While one may make women feel like they must objectify and demean themselves in order to satisfy or get attention from men and men feel like they must demean and objectify the women in their lives in order to “be a man”, the other is the manifestation of that actually happening. Yet an “opt in” porn filter will have absolutely no effect on the social media sites through which this content is shared. Unless David Cameron wants to ban Facebook, Tumblr and Snapchat (in which case he can probably wave a merry goodbye to the Generation Y vote) an “opt in” mechanism for is essentially useless.


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The response to the Snowden revelations must be more government, not less

11/07/2013, 02:13:30 PM

by Sam Fowles

I wasn’t that bothered when I read that GCHQ could basically have seen everything I do on the internet. Unless they’re concerned that I might be receiving secret messages from Ayman al-Zawahiri encoded in cat videos or decide to prosecute me for using a friend’s username on Lexis Nexus at law school, I can’t think of much that would interest them.

But I was wrong. Edward Snowden’s revelations should terrify. They should terrify because, with more crimes in statute and case law than even the most eminent criminal lawyer can learn (and this is before one even gets into torts), most of us would probably be guilty of something if someone was prepared to keep us under surveillance for long enough.

But they should also terrify because they will contribute to a growing distrust in “government”. Not “the government” as in the one which we have at any one time, but “government” as a concept. They should terrify because losing faith in “government” translates all too easily into losing faith in democracy.

More and more people don’t trust government whoever is running it. Apparently all politicians are liars, all public institutions are corrupt, the state is only ever out to get you.

The irony is that the left, traditionally the side of the political divide most associated with “big government” has most reason to fear it. For the last two years the Guardian has painstakingly revealed the scale to which the British state has spied on left wing political groups. The focus has been on the impact on individuals, the affairs between undercover officers and the activists they betrayed, the children conceived in relationships based on lies, the dead infants whose identities were stolen.

What hasn’t been mentioned nearly enough is that the state used undercover agents to spy on activists who were simply exercising their democratic right to disagree with those in power. These operations didn’t result in high profile prosecutions and they had absolutely nothing to do with protecting us from dangerous criminals.

This wasn’t Al Qaeda or the IRA or even the National Front. The worst that groups of this type have ever been convicted of is occupying a big chimney for a bit.

For this, five received conditional discharges and the rest got 18 months community. Hardly the stuff to threaten the peace of the kingdom. Yet someone in government felt it was necessary to embed multiple agents for up to twenty years. We’ve all agreed this is bad. Someone needs to ask why it was done.

These weren’t isolated incidents either. Along with Snowden’s revelations came the news that the police embedded undercover agents in order to smear the Lawrences.

That bears repeating: the Metropolitan police went to the expense of a full undercover operation. the target: an aging black couple who’s son had just been murdered. Their crime: criticising the Metropolitan Police. It was just a few years earlier that South Yorkshire police had mounted a campaign of defamation (including 95 prosecutions, all of which failed) after they brutally attacked picketing minors at Orgreave.

What unites these victims of the unfettered aggression of a shadow state? They expressed left wing views. Where were the infiltrations of the National Front, the BNP the EDL or even the fox hunting lobby?

All of these groups actively expressed plans to break the law. Some still do. It turns out that dissent is permitted in this country, even violent dissent. So long as it’s dissent of the right kind.


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A progressive case for intervention in Syria

20/06/2013, 10:38:05 AM

by Sam Fowles

Few enough things unite the left of British politics. Indeed, much of our internal debate makes the Gallagher brothers look positively fraternal. But you can’t get a cigarette paper between us on Syria: Keep out. In this we’re joined by the Lib Dems, Tory backbenchers and, of course, Boris. A motley coalition to be sure, but certainly a wide ranging one.

It’s with some trepidation then, that I’m going to say: they’re all wrong (and David Cameron is right – I’m currently bracing myself for the inevitable implications on the British summer as hell freezes over).

The left should back intervention in Syria, even if this only means arming the opposition, for both practical and moral reasons. Practically, it’s the best way to limit the influence of al-Qaeda and bring the sides to the negotiating table. Morally, the West, and more particularly the left, needs to decide what we stand for and, and then protect those who are oppressed for standing up for the same thing.

The practical case against intervention is founded on “what ifs”; “What if it escalates?” “What if al-Qaeda get hold of the weapons?” Good policy makers must always consider the repercussions. But they must also take into account the situation as it stands. The fact is that the conflict has already escalated, al-Qaeda are already gaining a foothold and this is because of our failure to intervene, not in spite of it.

The death toll in Syria is estimated at 93 000. It’s no longer a matter of keeping the lid on the powder keg, it’s about what we do now that lid has been quite dramatically blown off. Introducing more powerful weapons into the conflict initially may have caused escalation but that’s already happened. Russia and Iran have already given Assad’s forces powerful weapons and the conflict has escalated accordingly, mostly at the expense of innocent civilians or opposition fighters.


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Labour is losing the fight for the political narrative

12/06/2013, 04:38:45 PM

by Sam Fowles

Ed Miliband’s “party of work” rhetoric may have stuck an important blow in the battle with the Conservatives but he’s lost a march in the war.

At first glance last weeks economic policy speeches from the Eds (Balls and Miliband)  set out sensible policy and may even go some way to helping Labour win back our lost “credibility” on the economy. But only at first glance. While the desire to remove Cameron and co from office at the earliest possible opportunity (and by any means short of a military coup) is understandable, it’s mistaken. Miliband’s speech was an attempt to gain economic credibility on Tory terms. And, as any good general knows, you never fight a war on the ground your enemy chooses. Ask anyone who’s invaded Russia.

By buying into the Conservative’s narrative Miliband risks creating a situation where economic credibility only ever means one thing. And, worse, leaving the Conservatives to decide what that thing is. He’s surrendered control of the narrative and that is political suicide, perhaps not for himself, but certainly for his party.

This Conservative party has pursued two distinct and important narratives.

The first is that economic credibility means cutting in the short term. It doesn’t matter that this policy has actually failed in its stated goal of bringing down the deficit, what matters is the electorate believes that cuts = responsibility.

The second narrative is a classic tale of the “internal enemy”. In this case there are two: the unemployed and immigrants. Again, it doesn’t matter if either of these actually are a threat to the “hard working people of Britain”. What matters is that the electorate believes they are and thus turns to their friendly neighborhood Tories for protection. Putting immigrants aside for the moment (and how I wish the press would), by trailing their economic policy by telling us what they’d cut and defining themselves against those “who refuse to work” the Eds have indirectly bolstered both of those Tory narratives.

And the thing about a Tory narrative is: it’s always going to make the Tories look best.

Allowing one side of the political spectrum to dominate the narrative means the political debate becomes about perception rather than truth. Margaret Thatcher is talked of as a model of fiscal responsibility by both the left and right. Yet she squandered billions in North Sea oil revenues on a short term tax cut rather than securing the long term economic strength of the country by investing it.

Why is she not ridiculed for so dramatically putting ideology before country? Because her party told us that cutting spending equals fiscal responsibility and she cut spending. Then they kept telling us the same thing in the face of all contrary evidence and eventually Labour stopped arguing.

The internal enemy narrative is a classic ploy for right wing parties. When we feel threatened by forces within our own community we look to protect ourselves and our families in the short term and thus turn to conservative parties.


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In defence of Student Unions

04/02/2013, 07:00:54 AM

by Sam Fowles

Reading Jack Rivlin’s recent blog for the Telegraph I thought, from the vitriol spewed upon his unfortunate subjects, he must be writing about something truly repulsive. An international trollers collective perhaps, or at least the Liberal Democrats. But he wasn’t. He was writing about student unions or, as the charming Mr Rivlin describes them, “sandal wearing prigs” (why is footwear so offensive to him?) who “while away a 35 hour week reading the Leveson report and ordering personalised fleeces”. As a former sabbatical officer at St Andrews students’ union I feel somewhat obliged to stick up for my former colleagues.

Mr Rivlin claims that students unions are unrepresentative because their officers are elected by only a tiny proportion of the student body. This is a common criticism and one I found often used against me. However, this was almost always by  those busy closing down academic departments or pricing the poor out of higher education. The fact is: it’s just not true. While Mr Rivlin makes hay of the 8% turnout at UEA, he neglects to mention any other examples. At Imperial the turnout in 2012 was 32%, at Huddersfield it regularly hits over 20% and at my own St Andrews our most recent turnout was 51%.

To put this in context, the turnout for the London Mayoral election was 37.8% and Police and Crime Commissioners only managed to pull out 15% (The X-factor final reached 28%). I agree we have a problem with apathy but its neither confined to nor most prevalent in student elections.

But the main point of Mr Rivlin’s article is that students’ unions do joyless and pointless things such as (his chosen example) UEA banning the six nations from their bar because it’s sponsored by RBS. You know it’s his main point because he works up to it with apoplexy worthy of the Daily Mail. Now let’s be honest, it’s a ludicrous decision and, as the sort of student who was eating all three meals a day in the union bar during the 2007 rugby world cup (not during my term as a sabbatical officer), I would have been one of the first to protest.


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