Saturday, 28 May 2011

Roy of the Rovers' legal own-goal

I HAVE always had the highest regard for Mr X as a footballer.
His only serious failing in that regard is his lamentable decision to play all his career for Melchester Rovers instead of for my team. And indeed, similarly, to represent another nation rather than England.
On the rare occasions when he speaks in public at all, he tends to speak reasonably well about football. Not about much else, but then why should he? He is, after all, a footballer.
Frankly, I don’t know much else about him. And indeed, why should we? What business, or interest, is it of ours?
It seems now, however, that as a human being he is… well… human.
He has, unremarkably enough, a sex life. One which now turns out to be a little less than straightforward. Which is also normal enough – and not just for footballers.
Few of us, I suspect, would want the details of our romantic activities to be widely known. I can sympathise with Mr X there.
On the other hand, being rich and famous has brought him huge privileges. The almost inevitable down side of which is a certain loss of privacy.
Had he been prepared to take the rough with the smooth, Mr X would have found his sex life made public months ago.
It would undoubtedly have been embarrassing. For a little while.
By now, his bedroom games would be long-discarded chip-wrapping. While his football game would continue to delight.
Mr X, however, has been badly advised. Perhaps by fellow footballers, perhaps by an agent or other interested party, maybe even by his wronged wife.
Possibly by m’learned friend, who is clearly the chief beneficiary.
Because Mr X was encouraged to use some of his great wealth to prevent disclosure of his private life to the public. And so he took out what has come to be known as a super-injunction.
Also known, more graphically, as a gagging order.
One of the curious effects of which has been that while I have known of the case for weeks, as a journalist I have not been allowed to mention it.
Frankly, if it were only Mr X’s love-life at issue I wouldn’t be interested anyway.
But his recourse to law, his attempt to use money to hush things up, is of much more vital concern.
His love-life is perhaps of passing interest to the public.
His privileged use of a bad piece of legislation should be more so. Indeed, breaking that law – not just transgressing it, but getting rid of it entirely – is most definitely in the public interest.
Which is why Mr X may ultimately, inadvertently, have done us all a favour.
After being exposed by thousands of Twitter users, and then more crucially in the House of Commons by MP John Hemming, Roy Race – yes, I can now name him! – has been the implement by which a coach and horses has been driven through that lousy law.
And why is it a lousy law?
Not because a number of overpaid sporting stars – yes, there are others! – have used it to try to conceal their away games.
Not merely because, like so much of the law, it serves only the interests of the rich.
But because among the 80-odd such injunctions still functioning there could be some that are more serious.
Take Sir Fred Goodwin. From 2001 to 2009 he was chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He presided over the bank’s rapid rise, and then its even more rapid fall.
In 2008 the bank lost a British record £24.1billion. While the British taxpayer picked up the tab – a substantial factor in the nation’s economic woes – Goodwin, then 50, rode off into the sunset with a pension of about £700,000 a year.
Meanwhile, he was allegedly having an affair with another of the bank’s senior staff. Something which may or may not have involved “a serious breach of corporate governance” at the now-nationalised bank.
He didn’t want us to know that. We only do because Lord Stoneham revealed it in the House of Lords, leading to the lifting of an injunction.
A bank source now says it is “slightly ludicrous” to suggest Sir Fred’s decision-making was impaired by any affair. Equally ludicrously, the same source likens the alleged dalliance to “holidays and hobbies”.
Following an investigation, the bank says: “We are satisfied the employee in question did not compromise the bank in any way.”
Maybe. But is the whole matter of interest?
More to the point, is it in the public interest to know about it?
You bet it is.
If not a multi-billion-pound bet, then at least a £700,000 one.
Meanwhile, how come we all now know about Roy Race but still can’t even name the other footballers, the manager, the TV star, the actor, the comedian, the world-famous athlete and the “rich public figure” who still have super-injunctions in force?
Maybe it’s time for Mr Hemmings or Lord Stoneham to get to their feet again. Or for Twitter to get busy once more.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Once upon a time there was a famous physicist called Stephen...

SHOCK story of the week: “Stephen Hawking says heaven’s just a fairy story for those who are afraid of the dark.”
Or, to put it another way: “Famous scientist states the bloomin’ obvious.”
Now, if the Pope, say, had made that statement it might have been news. Or if Hawking had claimed his debilitating motor neurone disease was a curse from the Devil.
Hawking has spent most of a brilliant life trying to discover the way things actually are, how we got here, the way things work.
The answers he and his fellow leading physicists have come up with so far may or may not be the right ones. The best anyone can say is that they’re the best answers we’ve got so far.
They have at least been arrived at by intelligent inquiry, scepticism and careful, repeated experiment. Not by either wishful thinking or taking old stories as gospel.
To Hawking, the question of whether there’s really a heaven, in the common religious sense, is surely an old chestnut long ago cracked and discarded.
I’d like to think that if I’d been interviewing him I’d have had more interesting questions to ask. If only I’d have had a chance of understanding – properly understanding – the answers.
And there, of course, lies at least part of the problem.
I know just about enough of both astral and quantum physics – the big picture and the little picture – to find them fascinating, compelling and a bit weird. But nowhere near enough to claim I really understand them.
I know that without some of the weirdness your telly, your computer, your mobile phone wouldn’t work. But if it comes to explaining HOW they work… Well, could you?
So much easier just to listen to the fairy stories. Especially if you’ve got that night-phobia thing.
But hang on. Whoever said it’s going to be dark when you die? You can’t experience darkness if you have no senses to perceive light.
The idea of eternal darkness is just as much a fairytale as winged harpists sitting on clouds, luscious damsels plying martyrs with intoxicating drinks – or evil-smelling demons torturing sinners forever with red-hot tongs.
They all assume, contrary to all verifiable evidence, that consciousness will somehow continue after your body is no more.
If you really want to know about the after-life, the person to ask isn’t Stephen Hawking. Unless by “after-life” you mean the projected future of the planets, stars and galaxies long after our species – all species – have ceased to exist.
If it’s visions of Paradise (or everlasting darkness) you’re after, the chap to consult is John Casey, author of the book After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory.
In which you will find, among other delightful titbits, that the ancient Egyptians’ idea of heaven was just like a better Egypt, with plenty of bread, pastry, beer and wine.
Unfortunately, at least in the early days, only the pharaoh and his family had any hope of getting there. The idea of an afterlife for all came later.
As for hell, with fire, brimstone and torments eternal, that came later still.
It was, in fact, essentially a medieval invention, contrived to frighten the populace into obedience.
Like so much of Christian tradition it owed little to Christ, or to the book upon which all was supposed to depend.
The Bible has 622 instances of the word “heaven” but only 13 of “hell” – all from the New Testament, all but two of them from the gospels, and more than half of them from the Book of Matthew.
But if there is a heaven, or a hell, where are they?
Attempting, in 1727, to reconcile old religious notions with new scientific ones, Tobias Swinden published An Enquiry Into the Nature and Place of Hell.
In which he took around 500 pages to conclude that hell must be in the sun – the only place with enough fire to last forever.
It would seem the idea of space travel, which Hawking is broadly in favour of, is not so new. Travelling to the sun, though? That would be hell.


NICK CLEGG was momentarily taken aback. The petition he’d just been handed came in a heavy box containing 385,747 names (including mine).
Addressed to the government, it said: “Our NHS is precious. We won’t forgive you if you ruin it.
“Don’t break up our health service and hand it to private healthcare companies.
“Listen to the real experts – doctors, nurses and patients – when they give warnings about these plans.”
Maybe the LibDem leader was in the mood to start distancing himself from the Tories anyway. Maybe he already had it in mind to stand up for the NHS against the grubby hands of free enterprise.
Or just maybe he was swayed by the clarity and strength of feeling shown in the petition and its presenters. In which case, perhaps there is hope for democracy.
And, if Clegg’s party is at last prepared to show some spine, hope for the survival of the NHS.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Dead reckoning that puts a cash price on your body

THERE are lots of reasons to be queasy about the death of Osama Bin Laden. The no-doubt grisly photos are not, as it happens, among them.
The apparent fact that they were taken is one thing. (I say “apparent”, because what of this whole grimy business can we really take as fact?) That no photos have been released to public view is another.
Not to be used as propaganda? What else was the whole mission if not a gigantic exercise in US propaganda?
Too unpleasant to be seen (even if a child was there to witness the event itself)?
And then there is the haste with which Bin Laden’s body was (apparently) disposed of.
If Muslim sensibilities were really the reason, then why at sea?
Is it entirely irrelevant that that makes any post-mortem impossible – or even an indisputable identification?
If the Americans wanted to provide material for another batch of conspiracy theories to match those spawned by 9/11 they could hardly have gone about it better.
I made it clear last week why I thought the killing was wrong. I don’t want to add now to the welter of theories, or even ethical concerns.
But rather like another historically ambiguous episode, this whole story has put an extraordinary focus on a corpse. More specifically, a missing corpse.
What is it about dead bodies that we find so revolting – and at the same time so fascinating?
In our society there is nothing we like to look at more than human bodies. It’s only when the life goes from them that we whisk them out of sight.
The idea of killing is constantly in the news, constantly part of our entertainment.
Shoot-em-up games have moved on from the cowboys-n-injuns of my primary school playground to the slick graphics of the latest computer simulations.
But real bodies, real human meat, remain as absent from our everyday lives as they were from The Lone Ranger or Space Invaders.
Not just since medieval or Tudor times, when the physicality of death was a known reality to all, but since the Second World War, death has been sanitised. Swept up. Cleaned away.
Like those photos of Bin Laden’s remains, dead flesh has become something we’re not supposed to see.
Which perhaps goes some way to accounting for the inflation of graphic nastiness in horror movies. And the increasing obsession in detective fiction, on the page and on screen, with forensics and pathology.
Maybe it’s time we treated the shivery obsession with a healthy dose of realism.
After all, there’s nothing so certain as death and taxes. And taxes haven’t always been around.
So let’s consider the reality of dead bodies. Not shot-up celebrity corpses like Bin Laden’s, just ordinary everyday cadavers such as yours and mine will be one day.
Reality, in this cash-conscious capitalist world, is most commonly measured in monetary units.
For some reason, we usually make an exception to this when it comes to dying. Unless you’re talking about the will of someone wealthy. And even then the deceased’s physical remains are seldom considered.
Yet looked at as a collection of reusable scrap parts, a human body can be worth a good deal of money. Which almost makes it perverse that most of us pay simply to have the thing disposed of.
A full set of heart valves in good nick is supposed to be worth about £16,000. The corneas in your eyes, undamaged and with proper legal provenance, could fetch £3,600. Your brain only has a market value of about £350 – but a whole head can be worth ten times that to the right buyer and with all the paperwork in order.
Then there’s the skin, the hair, the other organs. All with potentially good trade-in value. Unlike your cremated ashes, which are worth less than the battery from your old mobile phone.
It’s just as well, I suppose, that law and taboo should restrict trade in human parts. And of course there’s always the question of ownership.
But there are plenty of valid reasons – medical, educational and experimental – why those parts might be better used than as food for worms or fishes.
And if you baulk at the idea of someone selling your bits after your demise, bequeathing them to medical science is an excellent option.
This is all assuming, of course – as I do – that once deceased your body stops caring what happens to it. Or, indeed, about anything else.
That should apply even if you ascribe to a belief in an after-life. Which seems to me to be wishful thinking of the oddest kind. Odd and misplaced.
The time before our birth does not scare, or even mystify, us much – so why should the time after our death? In both we are equally non-conscious, non-existent.
I find this not only more plausible, but also a more comforting idea than any imagined afterlife.
As Woody Allen put it: “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Saturday, 7 May 2011

From Hitler to Haydock, it's all a Revelation

DID you know the Bible was written in code?
That all that stuff about the laws, legends and creation myths of a wandering long-ago Middle-Eastern tribe was just a cover for a lot of brilliant predictions about the world to come?
You didn’t? Well, it’s all there.
Hitler, the moon landings, the Kennedy assassination, the Bin Laden killing, the result of tomorrow’s 2.30 at Haydock.
Only trouble is, it only offers wisdom after the event. You have to know what already happened before you can find it.
Which makes it pretty useless as a racing tipster.
Still, find the right algorithm and pretty much everything is spelled out. You just need to know how and where to look.
And the really amazing thing is, it works not only on the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts – the magic survives translation into English. Even the flat, awful English of the New International Version!
If, as Michael Drosnin, author of The Bible Code, suggests, the Bible is literally the word of God, a couple of questions arise.
Such as: Why did He scramble His prophesies so thoroughly that they couldn’t be read until someone had invented a really powerful computer?
Why do His predictions only become clear after the events they describe?
And why on earth should the same power of prophesy apply to War And Peace, the Complete Works of Charles Dickens – or those of Richard Dawkins?
The answer to all these questions is that the magic has nothing to do with God and everything to do with numbers. That, and the amazing human capacity to find patterns in almost anything.
If a book is long enough, and the technique flexible enough, you can find anything encoded in pretty well any text. Anything you’re looking for. Anything you already know.
As scientist and author Simon Singh demonstrated delightfully at Ipswich Regent on Monday night when he revealed a mass of information about the death of Princess Diana “encoded” in Herman Melville’s big fat 19th-century novel Moby Dick.
Singh was one of the stars of the science show Uncaged Monkeys, which kept a near sell-out audience wrapt for almost three hours.
The other headline acts were Ben Goldacre and Brian Cox.
One or two of my friends accuse the cherubic Cox of dumbing down the presentation of science on TV. Which seems to me way off the mark for a man helping to make intelligence popular.
Of course his series The Wonders of the Universe aimed for a wide market. And if his enthusiasm helped spread the idea that scientific inquiry – and, yes, wonder – is fun, then that can only be good.
And it’s hard to imagine that without Cox’s telegenic charisma a large paying audience would have turned out to see what amounted to an evening of back-to-back short science lectures. Even one compered by the comedian Robin Ince, whose splendid idea all this was.
A highlight was Ipswich bor Adam Rutherford, whose whistle-stop presentation of the science of genetics told me nothing new, but did so highly entertainingly. And, incidentally, rubbished the wilful ignorance of the Daily Mail even more effectively than the frenetic Goldacre.
But the real success of the show wasn’t any one particular performer. It wasn’t even any one scientific revelation. And it certainly wasn’t any of Ince’s jokes, funny as many of them were.
It was simply the fact that a science show could fill the theatre.
And spread the word that it’s both fun and important to learn by scientific inquiry. Not just to take the word of “authority”.
Whether that’s the word of a journalist, a crackpot medic, or the cryptically encoded “word of God”.


SO Barack Obama apparently believes America, and the world, are safer for the murder of Osama Bin Laden.
And I used to think Obama was a clever – more than that, sensible – man.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the question of whether it can ever be morally right to set out to kill someone.
Let’s put aside our revulsion at the spectacle of thousands of people celebrating another person’s death. And our disgust at the idea of a national leader watching the slaying by live video link.
Let’s even accept that the intention was to bring Bin Laden to justice alive, to face an international court and the likelihood of a life – not a death – sentence.
Have Obama, David Cameron and all those others cheering the killing never heard of vengeance?
Or do they think Americans are the only people capable of carrying out missions of revenge and calling it justice?
I fear Bin Laden, vile as he undoubtedly was, is more dangerous as a martyr than he was as a man.
And that by killing him America has handed a huge propaganda boost to the Islamists just when the political future of the whole Arab world is up for grabs.