Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Not in front of the children

A week or so ago I referred to the 'quasi-religious zeal' of David Southall's defenders in the wake of his being struck off by the GMC. What I meant by this was the impression they gave that only they saw the true scale and evil of child abuse and that those who disagreed with them were heretics and unbelievers.

This impression is reinforced by this article by paediatrician Nigel Speight in Sunday's Observer in which he claims that his fellow paedistricians are now 'worried about participating in child abuse cases'.

However, it isn't the emotive language of the article that bothers me, so much as the name of the organisation Dr Speight belongs to: Professionals Against Child Abuse (Paca). There is something quite sinister about a group of people adopting such a name. For there is a subliminal message being given here - we are those professionals who are against child abuse. Other professionals - those outside our organisation - are, by implication, professionals indifferent to, or professionals in favour of child abuse.

Southall's defenders believe that there is a conspiracy to deny the existence of child abuse, and in naming their organisation thus, appear to believe also that there are those who do accept that child abuse happens but who don't care and are happy for it to continue.

Of course the reality is rather different. I have never heard anyone, professional or otherwise, express the view that child abuse, in whatever form, either doesn't really happen or is basicially all right. Indeed for anyone to say so would break a major social taboo. Child abuse is widely and rightly recognised as a great social evil of our time, and I doubt whether there is any professional person or public figure who is not against it.

It seems to be that the anguish Dr Speight and Co. feel about being pursued through the GMC by aggrieved parents, is pretty much a mirror image of the pain parents must feel if wrongly accused of harming their children by a paediatrician or other child protection professional.

Child abuse is a deeply emotive subject. The idea of children being harmed by adults who are supposed to be caring for them is a horrific one that rightly stirs people's deepest anxieties. But for that very reason, it is important that cases of suspected child abuse are invesitated thoroughly but dispassionately, with the aim of getting at the truth not pursuing a wider agenda.

Dr Speight comments that:

Professionals against Child Abuse (Paca), may be reluctant to participate in the child death review panels being set up to scrutinise all cases of child deaths.

If so this may be a good thing. For parents involved in such tragic cases are likely to feel concerned about a Paca member taking part in such a review. They will fear that because Paca professionals are on a mission to expose child abuse and believe that others are in denial about its existence, they are likely to have it in for them.

Mutal antagonism between parents and professionals is clearly not good for child protection. If parents feel that they are constantly under suspicion from doctors and social workers, while child protection professionals fear vendettas from aggrieved parents for raising legitimate concerns, the welfare of the child will get lost amid the bickering.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Toynbee vigilante

Thanks (or 'hat-tip' as I gather we bloggers have to say) to Liberal England for drawing my attention to this post at Blood and Treasure
on the evils of Polly Toynbee.

As a health precaution I have had to give up buying the Guardian on days when Toynbee writes. While it is disappointing to learn that her column is still appearing, it is reassuring to know that somebody is keeping watch.

With vigilantes like 'Blood and Treasure' about we may yet foil Toynbee's dastardly plan to make the state employ nannies
for every member of Britain's adult population.

Without a hint of irony...

...I now offer by own bit of praise for the great and the good.

Whoever wins the Lib Dem leadership election will quickly have to appoint their new front bench team. In the last couple of weeks I hears some TV pundit (sorry can't remember who or when) say that Vince Cable might be moved from the Treasury brief to enable him to 'concentrate on being deputy leader'.

I hope neither of the leadership candidates is contemplating this course of action. Deputy leader of itself is essentially a non-job, indeed it is simply deputising for the leader in the House of Commons, it's not even a whole-party role.

It may be that it is expedient for the defeated leadership candidate to be deputy, in addition to holding a major shadown cabinet brief. But what is absolutely clear is that Vince Cable should remain as treasury spokesman.

Fawning on film

Many years ago when I first came across the word 'sycophant' in print, I assumed it was pronounced 'psycho-phant'. Of course as soon as I had mispronounced it thus a couple of times in conversation, I learned my mistake.

But I have always thought my original pronunciation better, capturing as it does the obsessive compulsion that some people appear to feel to fawn over and toady to their superiors.

To see an example of what I mean, watch this excuciating YouTube video by Watford's ultra-loyalist, first Blairite, now Brownite, Labour MP.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dick Taverne on GM food

I tuned into Sunday's Westminster Hour on Radio 4 to hear Richard Grayson's head-to-head with James Graham about the Lib Dem leadership. But interesting though that was, it wasn't the best item on the programme about a Lib Dem politician.

In the first of a series of features called 'stop the world' which focus on people with maverick views that challenge the consensus, it included an interview with Dick Taverne about his support for genetic modification technology, especially GM food. You can listen to it again here (it's about 45 minutes into the programme).

Taverne has already set up a pressure group Sense about Science to campaign on this and other issues and published an excellent book last year, The March of Unreason, which deals not only with GM, but also subjects such as alternative medicine and organic food.

I have long puzzled over why hostility to GM shoud have become such a totemic cause for environmental groups. My political mentor, Robert Pritchard, who was for many years head of the internationally-renowned Genetics Department at Leicester University, always championed GM technology as having not only social and economic benefits, but also environmental benefits.

So I was surprised when environmental organisations, whose campaigns I usually agreed with, came out so strongly against GM. In many ways, because of its potential benefits in reducing use of artificial chemicals and also of feeding the third world, they should have been its foremost champions.

My hunch is that it was a question of marketing priorities trumping environmental policy. Scare stories about 'frankenstein foods', tampering with nature and playing God were just too good opportunities to miss in terms of gaining publicity and raising funds. It is also a message that plays well to different audiences - the conservative with a small 'c', countryside-loving middle classes as well as the usual supporters of 'green' causes.

Of course the Lib Dems have for some time been the most anti-GM party, although the subject has featured less on conference agendas since Donnachadh McCarthy left. For some years it was debated almost annually at autumn conference in some form or other, with a small but plucky band including Sharon Bowles MEP, Tim Farron MP and one or two others raising their head above the parapet in a losing cause to defend the benefits of GM technology.

For my own part, this issue has certainly changed the way I regard environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. I am inclined to regard their pronouncements with rather more scepticism than before. In many ways their cynical treatment of this issue mirrors that of the multinationals they are so keen to criticise.

I am proud that in Dick Taverne, we have at least one Lib Dem who is taking a stand on this issue.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Wise words on Dr Southall

A wise and well-argued post from David Boyle. Perhaps the moral of the story is that there needs to be more understanding from all who work in 'caring' professions of the harm that can be caused by the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions.

Beyond Rennardism: we need to win the battle of ideas, not just the fight for votes

Last weekend, I intended to write about Chris Rennard’s column in Liberal Democrat News, ‘Going beyond Rennard’, but real life intervened. James Graham’s post on the same subject reassures me that it’s not too late.

Having been a student at Leicester University in the mid-1980s when Chris was East Midlands Area Agent, I can claim to be an early disciple of and missionary for Rennardism. What I learned from Chris in Leicester about winning elections, I brought back to Watford and his techniques have been the basis of our success. Pretty much all the constituencies that have done well in the past two decades will owe him an immense debt.

But Chris’s genius is for electoral tactics and organisation, which is only part of a political party’s operation, and arguably should be subordinate to its wider political mission. If it has been the Lib Dems’ good fortune to have Chris’s immense election-winning skills, it has been our misfortune not to have someone of equivalent stature in charge of policy and political strategy. Mandelson and Co. remodelled the Labour party - not just its style of campaigning but its whole political approach. By contrast, Rennardism is about persuading people to ‘vote for us this time’, rather than to convert them to Liberalism.

As a result, at times it has seemed that the immediate needs of the next election campaign have driven our political narrative rather than the other way round. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that Scotland now has free care for the elderly and no tuition fees not because these are part of a distinctive Liberal approach to society, but because both made good subjects for target mailings and petitions.

The party has learned how to win votes, but needs to learn also how to win hearts and minds. It is noticeable that there are no national newspapers or serious magazines and journals that consistently support the Liberal Democrats. Indeed it is hard to imagine what a Lib-Dem supporting daily or weekly would look like, how it would differ from say The Guardian and the New Statesman (both of which tend to back Labour). It is hard to name a single public intellectual, serious broadsheet journalist or academic who is associated with the Lib Dems. It ought to be a source of shame that although decentralisation and localism are Liberal ideas, the best-known writers associated with the cause are Simon Jenkins, who far from supporting us recently called for the party to disband, and Tristram Hunt a wannabe Labour MP.

Of course, some will argue that such things don’t matter: ‘Eggheads are overrated, they only have one vote each like the rest of us and few people really decide which party to vote for on the basis of broadsheet op-ed pieces, let alone obscure academic monographs and the like’. Such a view is fine if we are simply in the business of coming up with the catchiest, most appealing sales pitch to persuade people to vote for the yellow team not the red or blue equivalent next time.

Our purpose has to be more than that. The Liberal Democrats should be about better public services, more responsive to people, locally accountable. We should be defending citizens from an overweening, bullying state. We should strive to show that it is possible to defend our citizens without jettisoning civil liberties. More contentiously, perhaps, our aim should be to show that it is possible to have progressive, but not nannyish government. To achieve these things, we have to create an intellectual climate where there is a critical mass of support for a distinctively Liberal Democrat approach.

Chris concluded his article by saying that ‘we have to inspire the country with our vision’, but then emphasises that ‘our message must be explained in terms of the tangible benefits of our policies to the people whose votes we seek’. To my mind this both misses the point about the criticisms that are made of his approach and attempts to re-fight an argument that is already won.

We are already pretty good at the latter. I think that pretty much everyone involved in Lib Dem campaigning anywhere that we are serious about winning understands that we have to make our campaigning persuasive to our potential voters, that long tracts about constitutional reform are a no-no in election addresses. The point is that we are rather less good at explaining and inspiring people with our vision, and we need to spend more time doing so. For the Liberal Democrats in a future government to make a real difference we need to win the battle for ideas as well as the fight for votes.

The voice of a true conservative

Writing in this week's New Statesman the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton (he writes the wine column, the Staggers hasn't been taken over by Tories) refers to Christmas as a time when:

the house is awash with plastic rubbish from the appalling new China - it combines capitalist consumerism, communist dictatorship and ecological vandalism in a unique synthesis of the worst aspects of modernity.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Quasi-religious zeal of Southall's defenders will make children and parents suffer

David Southall’s absence of remorse and continued faith in his own rightness in the wake of being struck off by the GMC is an example of ‘noble cause corruption’. Indeed I detect a quasi-religious faith at work in the way David Southall defends his approach to child protection. Interviewed on yesterday’s Today programme, he seemed unwilling and unable to engage with the evidence against him or the arguments of his critics.

The impression I got from the interview was reinforced by the letter in his defence from 38 paediatricians that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian. The authors state that:

There is a determined campaign to deny the existence and reality of child abuse in all its forms, led by a small group, aided and abetted by some journalists and politicians.

This claim by the letter’s signatories seems to me wrong in itself and sinister in its attempt to smear anyone who disagrees with their view of child protection.

I can’t claim any expertise in child protection. But having a passing interest in miscarriages of justice and having read the work of at least some of those who write about such issues, I have never come across anybody who denies that child abuse happens and indeed is a serious problem in modern society.

Authors and journalists such as Richard Webster and Bob Woffinden, and politicians such as John Hemming and Claire Curtis-Thomas, campaign on behalf of those who they believe have been wrongly accused of child abuse. Often they are at pains to stress that child abuse itself is very real and even point out that false accusations are likely to make it harder in the long run to tackle genuine instances of abuse.

So why do the authors of the Guardian letter make the accusation? After all, no one would accuse those who are campaigning on behalf of Barry George in the Jill Dando case of ‘denying the existence of murder’ or being apologists for murderers.

It seems to me that through a combination of professional and moral hubris, David Southall and his defenders have made their own views about child abuse a matter of faith rather than evidence. They believe that they are dealing an evil so widespread that it requires them to act with missionary zeal to proclaim what they believe about the prevalence of harm done by parents to their children. In this worldview evidence counts for very little. It is a battle between true believers and heretics or ‘deniers’.

If the views of the 38 paediatricians are typical of the profession, then from beginning of children’s lives, parents and doctors, whose care is essential to their wellbeing, are working in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. The dangers of this are obvious: that families will be destroyed through false allegations (something that itself has devastating consequences for children’s wellbeing); that innocent parents of sick children will not seek medical help for fear of being accused of harming them; and that with resources wasted on harassing the innocent, the genuinely guilty will not be discovered in time.

It is worth remarking at this point that in the last couple of weeks, new evidence has emerged questioning the murder conviction of one childminder, while another has been convicted of manslaughter, despite protesting her innocence, and a ‘Sally Clark’-style campaign is already under way on her behalf. In each case expert witnesses were key to the conviction.