Politics as Usual

In a letter to the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has called for action to be taken against the Wolfe Tones, who played at this year’s Ardoyne Fleadh.

Allister’s letter, via the News Letter:

You will note that the band clearly lead the crowd in chanting support for a proscribed terrorist organisation. Given that a case is currently before the courts where a pastor has been accused of breaching the Communications Act for a sermon which was posted online in which he attacked Islam in comparatively mild language – there was certainly no suggestion in anything which he said that people should support terrorists who set out to kill Muslims – I write to inquire what action the PSNI intend to take against the Wolf Tones?”

Whether the purpose of this letter is to highlight the hypocrisy of the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS) in choosing to prosecute Pastor James McConnell for his politically incorrect sermon against Islam is unclear. By tempting criminal investigation, Allister nevertheless demonstrates the myopia afflicting too many Northern Irish politicians. Blinded by his own politics he is incapable of seeing the big picture, that in trying to silence the Wolfe Tones for their endorsement of the IRA he is actually arguing against McConnell’s right to use politically incorrect language during sermons.

In a democratic society that supposedly believes in freedom of speech, you don’t get to decide whose speech is worthy of prosecution and whose isn’t. Speech is either free, or it isn’t. That holds for the PPS. The same holds for Jim Allister and the TUV.

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The Streisand Effect: August Edition

Poor Barbra Streisand, who invites invocation every time some unwitting person attempts to scrub unwanted information about themselves from the public eye, having the unintended effect of further publicising said information. The reason we call this the Streisand effect refers to an incident from 2003 wherein Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman after he published an aerial photograph of her Malibu home to his website, Pictopia.com (defunct), as part of an environmental study of coastal erosion.

The lawsuit failed to have its desired effect; not only was Streisand’s complaint thrown out by judge Allen J. Goodman, in words sharp enough to puncture every self-inflating eco-conscious Hollywood ego, spurred by media coverage of the case the photograph accumulated some 420,000 views (compared to six downloads prior to Streisand filing the complaint, including two downloads by Streisand’s own lawyers) and is currently featured prominently on Wikipedia’s dedicated Streisand effect page.

This should serve as a cautionary tale to famous people on the virtue of practicing humility, not overestimating their star power or presuming they are able to micromanage their public image. Alas, time is a fickle friend, famous people don’t tend towards humility and those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it, helping explain the recent influx of Streisand-related tomfoolery. The victims/perpetrators: actor-turned-musician Jared Leto and extremely wealthy Irish businessman Denis O’Brien.

Up Lipstick Alley Without a Paddle

Paul Alan Levy, attorney for consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen, alerts us to this cease-and-desist letter, written on behalf of one Mr. Jared Leto.

From the office of Martin Singer, whom Levy describes as a “Hollywood mouthpiece” notorious for making bogus legal threats, the letter details its client’s objections to a number of user-contributed posts to Lipstick Alley, a gossip website that trades in scurrilous rumour (is there any other kind of rumour?) and speculation over the personal lives of Hollywood’s best and brightest.

The posts (viewable here and here), which date to 2013 and therefore beyond the statute of limitations, indulge Leto’s supposed affinity for rough sex, with particular focus on the size of a certain part of his anatomy. As a non-lawyer unqualified to speak with any authority about the size of Mr. Leto’s, ahem, anatomy I’ll assume Levy knows what he’s talking about.

One thing I’ll add is that Leto can hardly claim to discourage speculation as to which extracurricular activity he and his fans might enjoy within the parameters of his bedroom. In 2013, Leto’s band (the godawful Thirty Seconds to Mars) held a creepy competition called “The Sleepover,” in which one lucky winner, and I quote, “will spend the night at Jareds house IN Jared’s very own BED. WTF??? Yes, its true.” 

Take it away, Levy:

Having reviewed the posts that you have identified, I conclude that you do not have any non-frivolous defamation against any of the posters.

Some of the posts of which you object do not appear to me to be defamatory. Two of the posts simply mention claims found elsewhere in the Internet that your client has a large penis. It is hard to see how those statements would hurt your client’s reputation, even if they are false. It is, as I understand it, the accusation of having a small penis that is understood to be an insult.

Other posts about Leto’s allegedly rough and inconsiderate behavior during alleged sexual encounters with fans, and about the age of one of the fans, might well have been defamatory when originally posted, assuming that they are false. I recognize that your letter claims that the statements are false. I assume that you do not have personal knowledge about the size of Leto’s penis or about whether he is rough with sexual partners, and you do not cite any evidence supporting your claim of falsity.

Moreover, the mere fact that a denial comes in a demand letter from a lawyer at Lavely & Singer means that it has no probative value, considering the number of times your firm has sent demand letters claiming that Bill Cosby did not mistreat his fans by using drugs to facilitate sexual conquests. If you have in mind to proceed on the claims about Leto, you will need to file a lawsuit (subject to California’s anti-SLAPP statute, of course), and in support of a subpoena present an affidavit from Leto himself addressing the factual assertions in the posts. The affidavit will, no doubt, make for interesting reading. Moreover, none of the posters on Lipstick Alley claims to have personal knowledge about Leto’s conduct during sex with his fans (or about the size of his penis); some simply express their views about what they have read elsewhere, and some have reposted comments from other web sites that purport to reflect first-person descriptions of activities in which the original writers claim to have been involved.

Your demand letter mentions that at least one of the linked-to posts has been deleted from the original site, and you seem to suggest that the removal of various posts in response to demand letters from your client supports your assertion that the posts are false. But at most, it only shows that the individuals whom your client threatened decided that the issue was not worth litigating. Lipstick Alley, however, stands up for the First Amendment right of its users to comment on celebrities, and to make those comments anonymously, unless their statements have been proved false and defamatory. It does not remove posts simply because a wealthy actor is able to hire a law firm to send threatening letters.

The whole letter is worth your time, if you’re so inclined, or merely crave insight into the sue-first-ask-questions-later mindset of the rich and famous.

Denis O’Brien: Clinically Insane in a Parallel Universe

Waterford Whispers News is an Irish satirical news website. There’s no mistaking it, it says so right there in the description. On reading this description, no sane person could ever believe the information contained within comes anywhere close to approximating real life. Does this mean Denis O’Brien, Ireland’s richest native-born citizen and litigation-happy “megalomaniac,” is clinically insane? Yes it does – in a parallel universe.

I’m referring of course to this article, which appeared in Waterford Whispers News earlier this month with the following headline: “Denis O’Brien Receives 20 Year Jail Sentence for Mobile Phone Licence Bribe in Parallel Universe.” While the implication is that O’Brien bribed the State for a mobile phone licence, the website cleverly avoids making any factual claims in this direction by positing the existence of a parallel universe in which O’Brien has been found guilty of said crime. 

The real life circumstances of O’Brien’s victory over Persona Digital Telephony and Sigma Wireless Networks for the State’s second mobile phone license being long and complicated, I won’t bore you by repeating them here, except to say that allegations of bribery and corruption entered the public sphere many years ago, with legal proceedings against the State to begin in November. 

O’Brien obviously doesn’t have enough on his plate, taking it upon himself to issue this cease-and-desist letter demanding the removal of the article in question. Cut a little too close to the truth for comfort? Is that not what good satire is supposed to do? The letter itself is a wonder. With its deadpan delivery, Bizarro World references and complete misunderstanding of the function of satire, it’s also patently self-defeating.

Credit to Waterford Whispers News editor Colm Williamson, who went public via Twitter despite Meagher Solicitors (on behalf of Mr. O’Brien) insisting that the letter remain “private and confidential.”

Dear Sirs,

We act for Mr. Denis O’Brien and are writing to you as publishers of the website waterfordwhispers.com.

On your website you published an article entitled “Denis O’Brien Receives 20 Year Jail Sentence for Mobile Phone Licence Bribe in Parallel Universe”. This has also been posted on your Facebook and Twitter pages.

The article claims that in a “parallel universe”, which “operates the same as the one lived in by Ireland today, only the Director of Public Prosecutions more stridently pursues white collar crime”, our client has been found guilty of making two payments to Michael Lowry in connection with the award of the State’s second mobile phone licence to Esat Digiphone and that the “Moriarty Tribunal found [him] guilty” of bribery. The article features a photo-shopped picture of our client, super-imposed on the body of what appears to be notorious criminal John Gilligan, being led away in handcuffs by a member of the prison service.

The references to a ‘parallel universe’ are a sham. The clear meaning and innuendo of this article is that our client is a criminal who has managed to evade prosecution to date. This is a malicious and deliberate defamation of the most serious kind.

If you do not remove this article from your website, Facebook and Twitter pages and all other social and media platforms by 6pm this evening then we have instructions to take all necessary steps to vindicate our client’s good name and reputation.

Yours faithfully,

Meagher Solicitors

If there’s an upside to the downside of Leto’s and O’Brien’s shenanigans, it’s that they won’t be named the next time some other fool attempts to scrub unwanted information about themselves from the public eye. That honour must go to the one and only, Mrs. Barbra Streisand. Sorry, Babs.

News Media’s Unprincipled Stand

Not one to fuel the perpetual outrage machine, let me preface the following with an acknowledgement that yes, it is somewhat hypocritical to criticise someone for having the temerity to criticise someone else. I’ll add that there’s a world of difference between criticism made from a position of assured safety and criticism made under the threat of violence.

The former is the kind practiced by the Express when it encourages outrage towards a tasteless-to-be-sure-but-then-satire-is-satire-who-the-fuck-are-you-to-complain-anyway Charlie Hebdo cover depicting two severed arms clutching a pair of breasts* (the caption reads: “We’ve found a bit of the pilot and the air hostess”). The latter is the kind routinely practiced by Charlie Hebdo itself, whose entire editorial staff you might remember was brutally murdered by Islamic terrorists after publishing mocking cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

Tell me again, Selina Sykes of the Express, about the last time you put your neck on the line for something your newspaper published. Remind me, Jon Dean of the Mirror, of your upstanding career in gutter journalism. And be sure to let me know, Michael Kaplan of the International Business Times, where you got the nerve to open your article with this bullshit double entendre: “French magazine Charlie Hebdo has again come under fire.”

Have some integrity. Get your priorities straight. And quit slinging mud from the safety of your keyboards…jerks.

*A reference to the discovery of wreckage believed to belong to Malaysia Airlines plane MH370.

McConnell’s Principled Stand

Today marks the first day of Pastor James McConnell’s trial for, let’s see what it says here, “improper use of public electronic communications network” to send a “message or other matter that is grossly offensive,” meaning he streamed a video online some delicate soul found it worth the time to formally complain to his local police station about.

Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, under which McConnell is charged, pretends there is some sort of objective standard for what can be deemed “grossly offensive.” But as we know, “offence” cannot be given, only taken. The word is for all intents and purposes utterly meaningless, unless we wish to enforce laws based solely on people’s subjective experiences.

However, the decision to prosecute is discretionary, depending on whether there is a public interest. McConnell’s crime, then, is voicing an opinion unfortunate enough to run contrary to what is deemed appropriate in polite society. Writing in today’s Belfast Telegraph, Suzanne Breen absolutely nails this point.

Freedom of speech isn’t only for polite persons of mild disposition airing their views within Government-policed parameters. It’s about letting awkward, insulting, and even offensive voices be heard too.

Breen is one of the few journalists in Northern Ireland to take a principled stand on the prosecution of McConnell. On this she has been consistent, speaking truth to power in favour of McConnell’s right to freedom of speech, a right we should all be so inclined to defend, for it is ours to share.

How to account for the notable silence of some on the left? Breen has an answer, in words sharp enough to fatally skewer Northern Ireland’s liberal elite.

In Britain, the National Secular Society and liberal Islamic scholars have voiced their support for the pastor. World famous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins has also raised the case on social media. But in Northern Ireland there hasn’t been a squeak out of the liberal left.

Don’t expect them to join Christian protesters outside Belfast’s Laganside court today.

Their progressive pieties don’t extend to defending an evangelical preacher with unfashionable opinions.

Shame on them for either sitting on the fence or being on the wrong side of it. In any democracy worth its salt, freedom of speech isn’t a luxury for your friends, it’s a necessity for your enemies.

Here she is on the hypocrisy of appointing an ISIS sympathiser the chief witness for the prosecution.

The hypocrisy at the heart of this case is that the chief prosecution witness is Dr Raied Al-Wazzan, who is hardly the man to point the finger at anybody over controversial comments.

Last year Dr Al-Wazzan praised Islamic State, which has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, as a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq.

He later retracted the remarks after public outrage.

Given his own outburst, I don’t know how Dr Al-Wazzan has the nerve to denounce Pastor McConnell and demand that he be gagged.

He is certainly in no moral position to take the stand in court and give evidence against another cleric about airing extremist opinions.

The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) has some nerve in calling him.

The only other point I would make is that Breen’s view on this case, as with McConnell’s own defence, is indeed a principled one. For those bound to their principles, it is perhaps the only defence worth considering. However, it’s unlikely to do McConnell any favours when the time comes to render a verdict.

Unlike Breen, McConnell won’t be given the opportunity to highlight the hypocrisy of the prosecution’s choice of witness, nor will he be able to comment on the Qur’an (see: the Satanic Verses). These points are irrelevant to whether McConnell’s sermon might be interpreted as being “grossly offensive.” In other words, the objective truth of what he said is of no consequence.

Undoubtedly, McConnell knows what this means. Going by his statements to the press during his appearance at Laganside Courts today, it certainly sounds as if he’s preparing himself for martyrdom. Let’s just hope it doesn’t come to that.

The Right to Be Forgotten

Google has refused to recognise an order by French national data protection authority, the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL), to filter its worldwide search engine results in compliance with the European Court of Justice’s “right to be forgotten” ruling. The ruling, explained via the CNIL website:

In its decision of 13 May 2014, the Court of Justice of the European Union has recognized the right to delisting. The exercise of this right results from the application of European data protection law to search engines, including Google. In practical terms, any individual who wants to see removed one or more results displayed following a search made on the basis of his/her name can make a request to a search engine. The search engine then reviews the request and grants it if the legal conditions are met.

In case of refusal by the search engine to carry out the requested delisting, the individual can lodge a complaint with the data protection authority (in France, the CNIL), or the competent judicial authority in each Member State.

In other words, governmental bodies within the European Union are now presumed to have legal authority over how search engine providers control content online, which in theory means Google will be forced to honour individual requests for the removal of certain links from its results, based on searches using a person’s name. Why it is presumed that Google cares what the European Court of Justice says is Europe’s prerogative. In the meantime, here it is from the horse’s mouth.

…earlier this summer, France’s data protection regulator, the CNIL, sent us a formal notice ordering us to delist links not just from all European versions of Search but also from all versions globally. That means a removal request by an individual in France, if approved, would not only be removed from google.fr and other European versions of Google Search, but from all versions of Google Search around the world.

This is a troubling development that risks serious chilling effects on the web.

While the right to be forgotten may now be the law in Europe, it is not the law globally. Moreover, there are innumerable examples around the world where content that is declared illegal under the laws of one country, would be deemed legal in others: Thailand criminalizes some speech that is critical of its King, Turkey criminalizes some speech that is critical of Ataturk, and Russia outlaws some speech that is deemed to be “gay propaganda.”

If the CNIL’s proposed approach were to be embraced as the standard for Internet regulation, we would find ourselves in a race to the bottom. In the end, the Internet would only be as free as the world’s least free place.

We believe that no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access. We also believe this order is disproportionate and unnecessary, given that the overwhelming majority of French internet users—currently around 97%—access a European version of Google’s search engine like google.fr, rather than Google.com or any other version of Google.

As a matter of principle, therefore, we respectfully disagree with the CNIL’s assertion of global authority on this issue and we have asked the CNIL to withdraw its Formal Notice

Peter Fleischer, Global Privacy Counsel, Google

The Apology That Wasn’t

I missed this article, addressing the Guardian’s coverage of the Tim Hunt affair, when it appeared last month. For the uninitiated, here’s what’s meant by “the Tim Hunt affair.”

In June, Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt gave an impromptu speech to a room of female journalists at a science conference in South Korea. After the conference, a journalist named Connie St Louis posted a photo with text on Twitter, in which she quoted Hunt as saying he was in favour of single-sex labs. The tweet made headline news and Hunt became the subject of much media disapprobation.

Hunt apologised profusely, but insisted that his comments were taken out of context. Two days after making the offending remarks, Hunt resigned from his position at University College London (UCL). In statements to the press, he claimed the UCL had forced his hand. Hunt’s unfair treatment at the hands of his employer drew support from many in the scientific community and a petition to have him reinstated was started online (it was unsuccessful).

In response, St Louis doubled down. Writing for the Guardian, she maintained that Hunt’s words had not been taken out of context. Call it a case of bad timing; the following day, the transcript of Hunt’s speech was leaked to the Times. It provided some much-needed context, confirming Hunt’s version of events and revealing St Louis as having misrepresented what was said.

Which brings us to Chris Elliott’s article for the Guardian, intended as an apology to readers for the paper’s failure to provide proper editorial oversight in its coverage of the Tim Hunt affair. Of the numerous problems with Elliott’s article, first is his apparent willingness to repeat Hunt’s comments out of context. This was perhaps the most egregious aspect of St Louis’ original hatchet job, in which an innocuous joke, framed as a sexist diatribe, cast Hunt as the living embodiment of a male chauvinist pig.

Guardian coverage of remarks by Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel prize winner, to a group of women scientists about his “trouble with girls”, has been criticised by some readers. An editorial was one area of readers’ concerns. It was published three weeks after he made the remarks to a world conference of science journalists in South Korea that eventually led to his resignation from his honorary post at University College London.

Prof Hunt said at that conference: “Three things happen when [women] are in the lab … you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”

Second is his unwillingness to acknowledge the more substantial questions raised by the Guardian’s coverage of Tim Hunt, glossing over St Louis’ article altogether in favour of a lesser contribution by nobody in particular. The omission is glaring. No reference is made to the factual accuracy of St Louis’ anecdotal account, where she stated definitively that Hunt had not praised the role of women in science.

The aim of this column is to address the issues about coverage, not to express an opinion about Prof Hunt’s remarks. The problems with coverage came before the editorial was published, in an opinion piece by Connie St Louis, the senior science journalism lecturer who tweeted Prof Hunt’s remarks, igniting the controversy. She was responding in an online article published on 23 June to a number of leading scientists who had publicly defended Prof Hunt. However, an unedited version of her article was published in error, which was immediately spotted by readers. “Was it even subbed? It’s hard to believe the Guardian published it in its current form.”

Unfortunately we did but then edited it live, when the mistake was discovered. If basic style and grammar errors are spotted and corrected within hours of a piece being published, we would not usually add a footnote. However, on this occasion we should have done so as, such is the controversy surrounding the story, at least one commentator thought the absence of a footnote might be significant. It wasn’t.

Third is his obliviousness as to why intentionally misrepresenting Hunt’s comments might be considered unethical, framing the fallout as a mere difference of opinion. In a cowardly move to determine whether the paper might have acted less than honourably, his mea culpa comes in the form of a question.

Editorials are there to express the views of the newspaper, an opinion, but it should be a collective opinion. In that context I think it would have been reasonable to describe Prof Hunt as making a sexist remark – he admits it was wrong, even if it was meant to be ironic. But it is a stretch to say that he “shared his sexist opinion of female scientists”. Is it right to infer a man’s whole character from one remark?

Last but not least, this deeply disingenuous closing gambit, in which readers’ editor Chris Elliott, writing on behalf of the Guardian, pats himself on the back for helping to highlight the Issues Affecting Women in Science.

Where the Guardian had it right is in the heart of the leader, in the penultimate paragraph: “All the same, the surge of support shows how widely misunderstood the pressing need for feminist activism still is, particularly in science. According to the latest evidence, women occupy just 12% of jobs in science, technology and engineering. In research, women earn less, are less likely to be promoted, and win fewer awards to support their work. A third of PhD students are women, but only one in 10 professors. This is not a joking matter (although the #distractinglysexy hashtag did a good job of showing there could be a funny side).”

Meanwhile, Tim Hunt is out of a job and science is one Nobel prize-winner short. Never mind, the work of raising awareness is sure to pay-off at some (as of now) undetermined point in the near future. Three cheers for social justice.

PETA’s House of Pain

Anthropomorphism means the attributing of human characteristics to animals and inanimate objects. We say that the blobfish has a frowny face and that the dolphin has a smiley face. We are human; this is the lens through which we view the world, our way of comprehending that which is beyond our range of comprehension, of empathising with that which is beyond our scope of empathy.

Late last month, the concern of the western world was drawn to the plight of “Cecil,” a Zimbabwean lion that was killed and decapitated by Walter Palmer, an American trophy hunter. The Telegraph had the scoop.

EXCLUSIVE: A Minnesota father of two is discovered to be the hunter who shot dead Cecil – one of Zimbabwe’s most loved lions.

Cecil the lion – the most famous creature in one of Zimbabwe’s national parks – was killed by an American hunter who has boasted about shooting a menagerie of animals with his bow and arrow, The Telegraph can reveal.

Walter James Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, is believed to have paid £35,000 to shoot and kill the much-loved lion with a bow and arrow. 

The animal was shot on July 1 in Hwange National Park. Two independent sources have confirmed the hunter’s identity to the paper, which has also seen a copy of the relevant hunting permit.

Walter Palmer is the villain of the week, the most hated man in the world. Does it matter if he was misled into believing the hunt was legal? Or that dozens of lions are hunted for sport and trophy in Africa every year?

And what of Zimbabwe’s ongoing violation of human rights under dictator Robert Mugabe, most recently the abduction of journalist Itai Dzamara by authorities in May? No tears will be shed for Dzamara. For Cecil was not just any old lion, he was rare, black-maned lion. He had a name. He was beloved, a national icon. His death was an outrage.

A court in Zimbabwe has since deemed Cecil’s unlawful death worthy of prosecution, which has done nothing to assuage the collective outrage of the western world. International anti-poaching laws failing to sufficiently validate our feelings, we demand nothing less than a head on a plate.

Thankfully, we can always rely on PETA to inject some sane, objective analysis.

Hunting is a coward’s pastime. If, as has been reported, this dentist and his guides lured Cecil out of the park with food so as to shoot him on private property, because shooting him in the park would have been illegal, he needs to be extradited, charged, and, preferably, hanged. To get a thrill at the cost of a life, this man gunned down a beloved lion, Cecil with a high-powered weapon. All wild animals are beloved by their own mates and infants, but to hunters like this overblown, over-privileged little man, who lack empathy, understanding, and respect for living creatures, they are merely targets to kill, decapitate, and hang up on a wall as a trophy. The photograph of this dentist, smiling over the corpse of another animal, who, like Cecil, wanted only to be left in peace, will disgust every caring soul in the world.

– PETA President Ingrid Newkirk

Lest you think Newkirk’s call to hang this “Minnesotan father of two” is just her manner of rhetorical flourish, try considering her view of the rights of man.

There’s no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.

Her view of humankind in general.

Humans have grown like a cancer. We’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth.

The eradication of human life is a fate from which she does not spare herself.

I am not a morose person, but I would rather not be here. I don’t have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves. I would rather see a blank space where I am. This will sound like fruitcake stuff again but at least I wouldn’t be harming anything.”

Newkirk’s worldview is a sick and unnecessary perversion of animal rights, in which human beings, as perpetrators of violence and death against animals, are unworthy of life. So long as we co-exist, euthanasia is the preferred option for our animals and pets.* Mankind is evil. Life is cruel. Death is the only out.

The topic of illegal poaching of lions in South Africa is ripe for outrage, and justifiably so. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, a lion is no more a boy than a rat, a pig or a dog. In our rush to empathise with our animal friends, it’s important not to lose sight of this fact, or we risk losing touch with our own humanity.

*PETA’s Virginia shelter has an abnormally high euthanasia rate, at 86%. In 2006 and 2009, it rose as high as 97%.


Recommended Reading

• Black Lives Matter More than Cecil the Lion by Matt Brown