slaughter of the innocents – human shields or collateral damage?

By Huynh Cong Ut (also known as Nick Ut), image from Wikipedia

From the ‘Napalm Girl‘ in Vietnam, to Alan Kurdi’s body on a Turkish beach in 2015 and endless images of White Hat’s pulling children from the rubble in Aleppo, it is easy to become inured to the death of innocent children around the world.

In the church calendar, December 28th1 is the Feast of the Innocents or Childermas, a day to remember the children killed by King Herod as he sought the baby Jesus.

In Matthew’s Gospel we read:

 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under (Matt. 2:16, NIV).

However, for many it is the words in the Christmas carol, “Unto us a boy is born“, which is most familiar:

All the little boys he killed at Bethlehem in his fury.

Mary and Joseph had already fled, refugees to Egypt, so the babies were not simply slaughtered, but slaughtered in vain, an action missing its true target, like the bombs that killed Gaddaffi’s children and grandchildren in 1986 and 2011.

I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s “Timekeepers‘ (a Christmas gift).  Garfield describes a meeting with Nick Ut, the photographer of ‘Napalm Girl’2.  The common story is that the US attack on the village from which Phan Thi Kim Phuc was running was a mistake, but Ut describes how in the village there were many dead Viet Cong, so that the mistake was more likely inadequate intelligence that the villagers had fled (Timekeepers, p.168).

A few weeks ago a BBC reporter in Yemen was visiting a school, which Saudi air strikes had repeatedly hit.  This was one example of many such incidents targeting schools during this conflict3. The reporter talked of how the school kept on working and pupils kept attending, despite the damage and the danger.  However, the report also showed the Houthi rebel arms dump next to the school.  “Can’t you move the school away from this?”, asked the reporter. “They would simply move the dump to follow us”, replied the headmaster.

Again this is a story we have heard so many times before: missiles fired from hospital grounds in Gaza, Ukraine keeping its air corridors open whilst in the midst of its air campaign against separatists4, ISIS preventing civilian evacuation from Mosul, or the South Korean artillery firing into disputed areas from a populated island.

In some cases civilians are deliberately put in the way of danger (as with ISIS); in others fighting in built up areas makes civilian presence inevitable (Aleppo, Gaza).  In some cases terror is the main aim of an attack or the civilians are seen as legitimate targets (as with ISIS attacks in Europe); in others terror is a deliberate secondary war aim (as with Dresden or Nagasaki). In some cases attackers seem to show flagrant disregard for civilian life (as in Gaza), and in others all care is take, but (often substantial) civilian deaths are accepted as collateral damage (probably the case with US drone extrajudicial killings).

Whether you blame those on the ground for using human shields or those attacking for disregarding human like, often depends on which side you are on5.

In most conflicts the truth is complex, especially where there are mismatches of firepower: Hamas in Gaza, anti-Assad rebel groups in Syria, or ISIS in Iraq would all have been slaughtered if they fought in the open.  And for the attacking side, where does the responsibility lie between callous disregard for human life and justifiable retaliation?  How do we place the death of children by bombs against those of starvation and illness caused by displaced populations, siege or international sanctions?

If the events in Bethlehem were to happen today, how would we view Herod?

Was he despotic dictator killing his own people?

Was the baby Jesus a ‘clear and present danger’, to the stability the state and thus the children of Bethlehem merely collateral damage?

Or were Mary, Joseph and God to blame for using human shields, placing this infant of mass disruption in the midst of a small town?

It is worryingly easy to justify the slaughter of a child.


Some organisations that are making a difference:

  1. The date varies in different churches, it is 28th December in most Western churches, but 27th, 29th Dec, or 10th January elsewhere[back]
  2. The ‘Napalm Girl’ recent obtained fresh notoriety when Facebook temporarily censored it because it showed nudity.[back]
  3. Another BBC report,amongst many, “Yemen crisis: Saudi-led coalition ‘targeting’ schools” documents this.[back]
  4. Before MH17 was shot down a Ukrainian military transport and other military planes had been shot down, and the first messages following the destruction of MH17 suggest the rebels thought they had downed another military aircraft.  Instead of re-routing flights the flying ceiling was raised, but still within distance of ground-to-air missiles, and carriers made their own choices as to whether to overfly.  Some newspapers suggest that the motives were mainly financial both for Malaysian Airways, and for the Ukrainian government decisions, rather than Ukraine using civilian flights as a deliberate human shield.[back]
  5. Patrick Cockburn’s comparison of Aleppo and Mosul in The Independent argues this is the case for the current conflicts in Syrian and Iraq.[back]

the educational divide – do numbers matter?

If a news article is all about numbers, why is the media shy about providing the actual data?

On the BBC News website this morning James McIvor‘s article “Clash over ‘rich v poor’ university student numbers” describes differences between Scottish Government (SNP) and Scottish Labour in the wake of Professor Peter Scott appointment as commissioner for fair access to higher education in Scotland.

Scottish Labour claim that while access to university by the most deprived has increased, the educational divide is growing, with the most deprived increasing by 0.8% since 2014, but those in the least deprived (most well off) growing at nearly three times that figure.  In contrast, the Sottish Government claims that in 2006 those from the least deprived areas were 5.8 times more likely to enter university than those in the most deprived areas, whereas now the difference is only 3.9 times, a substantial decrease in educational inequality..

The article is all about numbers, but the two parties seem to be saying contradictory things, one saying inequality is increasing, one saying it is decreasing!

Surely enough to make the average reader give up on experts, just like Michael Gove!

Of course, if you can read through the confusing array of leasts and mosts, the difference seems to be that the two parties are taking different base years: 2014 vs 2006, and that both can be true: a long term improvement with decreasing inequality, but a short term increase in inequality since 2014.  The former is good news, but the latter may be bad news, a change in direction that needs addressing, or simply ‘noise’ as we are taking about small changes on big numbers.

I looked in vain for a link to the data, web sites or reports n which this was based, after all this is an article where the numbers are the story, but there are none.

After a bit of digging, I found that the data that both are using is from the UCAS Undergraduate 2016 End of Cycle Report (the numerical data for this figure and links to CSV files are below).

Figure from UCAS 2016 End of Cycle Report

Looking at these it is clear that the university participation rate for the least deprived quintile (Q5, blue line at top) has stayed around 40% with odd ups and downs over the last ten years, whereas the participation of the most deprived quintile has been gradually increasing, again with year-by-year wiggles.  That is the ratio between least and most deprived used to be about 40:7 and now about 40:10, less inequality as the SNP say.

For some reason 2014 was a dip year for the Q5.  There is no real sign of a change in the long-term trend, but if you take 2014 to 2016, the increase in Q5 is larger than the increase in Q1, just as Scottish Labour say.  However, any other year would not give this picture.

In this case it looks like Scottish Labour either cherry picked a year that made the story they wanted, or simply accidentally chose it.

The issue for me though, is not so much who was right or wrong, but why the BBC didn’t present this data to make it possible to make this judgement?

I can understand the argument that people do not like, or understand numbers at all, but where, as in this case, the story is all about the numbers, why not at least present the raw data and ideally discuss why there is an apparent contradiction!

 

Numerical from figure 57 of UCAS  2016 End of Cycle Report

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Q1 7.21 7.58 7.09 7.95 8.47 8.14 8.91 9.52 10.10 9.72 10.90
Q2 13.20 12.80 13.20 14.30 15.70 14.40 14.80 15.90 16.10 17.40 18.00
Q3 21.10 20.60 20.70 21.30 23.60 21.10 22.10 22.50 22.30 24.00 24.10
Q4 29.40 29.10 30.20 30.70 31.50 29.10 29.70 29.20 28.70 30.30 31.10
Q5 42.00 39.80 41.40 42.80 41.70 40.80 41.20 40.90 39.70 41.10 42.30

UCAS provide the data in CSV form.  I converted this to the above tabular form and this is available in CSV or XLSX.

the rise of the new liberal facism

Across Europe the ultra-right wing raise again the ugly head of racism in scenes shockingly reminiscent of the late-1930s; while in America white supremacists throw stiff-armed salutes and shout “Heil Trump!”  It has become so common that reporters no longer even remark on the swastikas daubed as part of neo-Nazi graffiti.

Yet against this we are beginning to see a counter movement, spoken in the soft language of liberalism, often well  intentioned, but creating its own brand of facism.  The extremes of the right become the means to label whole classes of people as ‘deplorable’, too ignorant, stupid or evil to be taken seriously, in just the same way as the Paris terrorist attacks or Cologne sexual assaults were used by the ultra-right to label all Muslims and migrants.

Hilary Clinton quickly recanted her “basket of depolarables”.  However, it is shocking that this was said at all, especially by a politician who made a point of preparedness, in contrast to Trump’s off-the-cuff remarks.  In a speech, which will have been past Democrat PR experts as well as Clinton herself, to label half of Trump supporters, at that stage possibly 20% of the US electorate, as ‘deplorable’ says something about the common assumptions that are taken for granted, and worrying because of that.

My concern has been growing for a long time, but I’m prompted to write now having read  ‘s “Welcome to the age of anger” in the Guardian.  Mishra’s article builds on previous work including Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics and the growing discourse on post-truth politics.  He gives us a long and scholarly view from the Enlightenment, utopian visions of the 19th century, and models of economic self interest through to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of Islamic extremism and ultimately Brexit and Trump.

The toxicity of debate in both the British EU Referendum and US Presidential Election is beyond doubt.  In both debates both sides frequently showed a disregard for truth and taste, but there is little equivalence between the tenor of the Trump and Clinton campaign, and, in the UK, the Leave campaign’s flagrant disregard for fact made even Remain’s claims of imminent third world war seem tame.

Indeed, to call either debate a ‘debate’ is perhaps misleading as rancour, distrust and vitriol dominated both, so much so that Jo Cox viscous murder, even though the work of a single new-Nazi individual, was almost unsurprising in the growing paranoia.

Mishra tries to interpret the frightening tide of anger sweeping the world, which seems to stand in such sharp contrast to rational enlightened self-interest and the inevitable rise of western democracy, which was the dominant narrative of the second half of the 20th century.  It is well argued, well sourced, the epitome of the very rationalism that it sees fading in the world.

It is not the argument itself that worries me, which is both illuminating and informing, but the tacit assumptions that lie behind it: the “age of anger” in the title itself and the belief throughout that those who disagree must be driven by crude emotions: angry, subject to malign ‘ressentiment‘, irrational … or to quote Lord Kerr (who to be fair was referring to ‘native Britains’ in general) just too “bloody stupid“.

Even the carefully chosen images portray the Leave campaigner and Trump supporter as almost bestial, rather than, say, the images of exultant joy at the announcement of the first Leave success in Sunderland, or even in the article’s own Trump campaign image, if you look from the central emotion filled face to those around.

guardian-leaver  telegraph-sunderland-win
guardian-trump-1  guardian-trump-2

The article does not condemn those that follow the “venomous campaign for Brexit” or the “rancorous Twitter troll”, instead they are treated, if not compassionately, impassionately: studied as you would a colony of ants or herd of wildebeest.

If those we disagree with are lesser beings, we can ignore them, not address their real concerns.

We would not treat them with the accidental cruelty that Dickens describes in pre-revolutionary Paris, but rather the paternalistic regard for the lower orders of pre-War Britain, or even the kindness of the more benign slave owner; folk not fully human, but worthy of care as you would a favourite dog.

Once we see our enemy as animal, or the populous as cattle, then, however well intentioned, there are few limits.

The 1930s should have taught us that.

 

the internet laws of the jungle

firefox-copyright-1Where are the boundaries between freedom, license and exploitation, between fair use and theft?

I found myself getting increasingly angry today as Mozilla Foundation stepped firmly beyond those limits, and moreover with Trump-esque rhetoric attempts to dupe others into following them.

It all started with a small text add below the Firefox default screen search box:

firefox-copyright-2

Partly because of my ignorance of web-speak ‘TFW‘ (I know showing my age!), I clicked through to a petition page on Mozilla Foundation (PDF archive copy here).

It starts off fine, with stories of some of the silliness of current copyright law across Europe (can’t share photos of the Eiffel tower at night) and problems for use in education (which does in fact have quite a lot of copyright exemptions in many countries).  It offers a petition to sign.

This sounds all good, partly due to rapid change, partly due to knee jerk reactions, internet law does seem to be a bit of a mess.

If you blink you might miss one or two odd parts:

“This means that if you live in or visit a country like Italy or France, you’re not permitted to take pictures of certain buildings, cityscapes, graffiti, and art, and share them online through Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.”

Read this carefully, a tourist forbidden from photographing cityscapes – silly!  But a few words on “… and art” …  So if I visit an exhibition of an artist or maybe even photographer, and share a high definition (Nokia Lumia 1020 has 40 Mega pixel camera) is that OK? Perhaps a thumbnail in the background of a selfie, but does Mozilla object to any rules to prevent copying of artworks?

mozilla-dont-break-the-internet

However, it is at the end, in a section labelled “don’t break the internet”, the cyber fundamentalism really starts.

“A key part of what makes the internet awesome is the principle of innovation without permission — that anyone, anywhere, can create and reach an audience without anyone standing in the way.”

Again at first this sounds like a cry for self expression, except if you happen to be an artist or writer and would like to make a living from that self-expression?

Again, it is clear that current laws have not kept up with change and in areas are unreasonably restrictive.  We need to be ale to distinguish between a fair reference to something and seriously infringing its IP.  Likewise, we could distinguish the aspects of social media that are more like looking at holiday snaps over a coffee, compared to pirate copies for commercial profit.

However, in so many areas it is the other way round, our laws are struggling to restrict the excesses of the internet.

Just a few weeks ago a 14 year old girl was given permission to sue Facebook.  Multiple times over a 2 year period nude pictures of her were posted and reposted.  Facebook hides behind the argument that it is user content, it takes down the images when they are pointed out, and yet a massive technology company, which is able to recognise faces is not able to identify the same photo being repeatedly posted. Back to Mozilla: “anyone, anywhere, can create and reach an audience without anyone standing in the way” – really?

Of course this vision of the internet without boundaries is not just about self expression, but freedom of speech:

“We need to defend the principle of innovation without permission in copyright law. Abandoning it by holding platforms liable for everything that happens online would have an immense chilling effect on speech, and would take away one of the best parts of the internet — the ability to innovate and breathe new meaning into old content.”

Of course, the petition is signalling out EU law, which inconveniently includes various provisions to protect the privacy and rights of individuals, not dictatorships or centrally controlled countries.

So, who benefits from such an open and unlicensed world?  Clearly not the small artist or the victim of cyber-bullying.

Laissez-faire has always been an aim for big business, but without constraint it is the law of the jungle and always ends up benefiting the powerful.

In the 19th century it was child labour in the mills only curtailed after long battles.

In the age of the internet, it is the vast US social media giants who hold sway, and of course the search engines, who just happen to account for $300 million of revenue for Mozilla Foundation annually, 90% of its income.

 

If the light is on, they can hear (and now see) you

hello-barbie-matel-from-guardianFollowing Samsung’s warning that its television sets can listen into your conversations1, and Barbie’s, even more scary, doll that listens to children in their homes and broadcasts this to the internet2, the latest ‘advances’ make it possible to be seen even when the curtains are closed and you thought you were private.

For many years it has been possible for security services, or for that matter sophisticated industrial espionage, to pick up sounds based on incandescent light bulbs.

The technology itself is not that complicated, vibrations in the room are transmitted to the filament, which minutely changes its electrical characteristics. The only complication is extracting the high-frequency signal from the power line.

040426-N-7949W-007However, this is a fairly normal challenge for high-end listening devices. Years ago when I was working with submarine designers at Slingsby, we were using the magnetic signature of power running through undersea cables to detect where they were for repair. The magnetic signatures were up to 10,000 times weaker than the ‘noise’ from the Earth’s own magnetic field, but we were able to detect the cables with pin-point accuracy3. Military technology for this is far more advanced.

The main problem is the raw computational power needed to process the mass of data coming from even a single lightbulb, but that has never been a barrier for GCHQ or the NSA, and indeed, with cheap RaspberryPi-based super-computers, now not far from the hobbyist’s budget4.

Using the fact that each lightbulb reacts slightly differently to sound, means that it is, in principle, possible to not only listen into conversations, but work out which house and room they come from by simply adding listening equipment at a neighbourhood sub-station.

The benefits of this to security services are obvious. Whereas planting bugs involves access to a building, and all other techniques involve at least some level of targeting, lightbulb-based monitoring could simply be installed, for example, in a neighbourhood known for extremist views and programmed to listen for key words such as ‘explosive’.

For a while, it seemed that the increasing popularity of LED lightbulbs might end this. This is not because LEDs do not have an electrical response to vibrations, but because of the 12V step down transformers between the light and the mains.

Of course, there are plenty of other ways to listen into someone in their home, from obvious bugs to laser-beams bounced of glass (you can even get plans to build one of your own at Instructables), or even, as MIT researchers recently demonstrated at SIGGRAPH, picking up the images of vibrations on video of a glass of water, a crisp packet, and even the leaves of a potted plant5. However, these are all much more active and involve having an explicit suspect.

Similarly blanket internet and telephone monitoring have applications, as was used for a period to track Osama bin Laden’s movements6, but net-savvy terrorists and criminals are able to use encryption or bypass the net entirely by exchanging USB sticks.

However, while the transformer attenuates the acoustic back-signal from LEDs, this only takes more sensitive listening equipment and more computation, a lot easier than a vibrating pot-plant on video!

So you might just think to turn up the radio, or talk in a whisper. Of course, as you’ve guessed by now, and, as with all these surveillance techniques, simply yet more computation.

Once the barriers of LEDs are overcome, they hold another surprise. Every LED not only emits light, but acts as a tiny, albeit inefficient, light detector (there’s even an Arduino project to use this principle).   The output of this is a small change in DC current, which is hard to localise, but ambient sound vibrations act as a modulator, allowing, again in principle, both remote detection and localisation of light.

220px-60_LED_3W_Spot_Light_eq_25WIf you have several LEDs, they can be used to make a rudimentary camera7. Each LED lightbulb uses a small array of LEDs to create a bright enough light. So, this effectively becomes a very-low-resolution video camera, a bit like a fly’s compound eye.

While each image is of very low quality, any movement, either of the light itself (hanging pendant lights are especially good), or of objects in the room, can improve the image. This is rather like the principle we used in FireFly display8, where text mapped onto a very low-resolution LED pixel display is unreadable when stationary, but absolutely clear when moving.

pix-11  pix-21
pix-12  pix-22
LEDs produce multiple very-low-resolution image views due to small vibrations and movement9.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Sufficient images and processing can recover an image.

So far MI5 has not commented on whether it uses, or plans to use this technology itself, nor whether it has benefited from information gathered using it by other agencies. Of course its usual response is to ‘neither confirm nor deny’ such things, so without another Edward Snowden, we will probably never know.

So, next time you sit with a coffee in your living room, be careful what you do, the light is watching you.

  1. Not in front of the telly: Warning over ‘listening’ TV. BBC News, 9 Feb 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31296188[back]
  2. Privacy fears over ‘smart’ Barbie that can listen to your kids. Samuel Gibbs, The Guardian, 13 March 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/13/smart-barbie-that-can-listen-to-your-kids-privacy-fears-mattel[back]
  3. “Three DSP tricks”, Alan Dix, 1998. http://alandix.com/academic/papers/DSP99/DSP99-full.html[back]
  4. “Raspberry Pi at Southampton: Steps to make a Raspberry Pi Supercomputer”, http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~sjc/raspberrypi/[back]
  5. A. Davis, M. Rubinstein, N. Wadhwa, G. Mysore, F. Durand and W. Freeman (2014). The Visual Microphone: Passive Recovery of Sound from Video. ACM Transactions on Graphics (Proc. SIGGRAPH), 33(4):79:1–79:10 http://people.csail.mit.edu/mrub/VisualMic/[back]
  6. Tracking Use of Bin Laden’s Satellite Phone, all Street Journal, Evan Perez, Wall Street Journal, 28th May, 2008. http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2008/05/28/tracking-use-of-bin-ladens-satellite-phone/[back]
  7. Blinkenlight, LED Camera. http://blog.blinkenlight.net/experiments/measurements/led-camera/[back]
  8. Angie Chandler, Joe Finney, Carl Lewis, and Alan Dix. 2009. Toward emergent technology for blended public displays. In Proceedings of the 11th international conference on Ubiquitous computing (UbiComp ’09). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 101-104. DOI=10.1145/1620545.1620562[back]
  9. Note using simulated images; getting some real ones may be my next Tiree Tech Wave project.[back]

lies, damned lies, and the BBC

I have become increasingly annoyed and distressed over the years at the way the media decides a narrative for various news stories and then selectively presents the facts to tell the story, ignoring or suppressing anything that suggests a more nuanced or less one-sided account.

BBC-news-headline-13-Feb-2015-croppedSometimes I agree with the overall narrative, sometimes I don’t.  Either way the B-movie Western accounts, which cannot recognise that the baddies can sometimes do good and the goodies may not be pristine, both distort the public’s view of the world and perhaps more damagingly weaken the critical eye that is so essential for democracy.

For the newspapers, we know that they have an editorial stance and I expect a different view of David Cameron’s welfare policy in The Guardian compared with The Telegraph. Indeed, I often prefer to read a newspaper I disagree with as it is easier to see the distortions when they clash with one’s own preconceptions.  One of the joys of the British broadsheet press is that whatever the persuasion, the underlying facts are usually there, albeit deeply buried towards the end of a long article.

However, maybe unfairly, I have higher expectations of the BBC, which are sadly and persistently dashed.  Here it seems not so much explicit editorial policy (although one hears that they do get leant upon by government occasionally), more that they believe a simplistic narrative is more acceptable to the viewer … and maybe they just begin to believe there own stories.

A typical (in the sense of terrifyingly bad) example of this appeared this morning.

After the wonderful news of a peace agreement in Ukraine yesterday, this morning the report read:

Ukraine crisis: Shelling follows Minsk peace summit

The ceasefire is due to start on Sunday, so one can only hope this is a last violent outburst, although to what avail as the borders are already set by the Minsk agreement.

The first few lines of the article read as follows:

New shelling has been reported in the rebel-held east Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, a day after a peace deal was reached in Minsk.

There are no confirmed reports of casualties. Both cities are near the front line where the pro-Russian rebels face government forces.

The ceasefire agreed in the Belarusian capital is to begin in eastern Ukraine after midnight (22:00 GMT) on Saturday.

The EU has warned Russia of additional sanctions if the deal is not respected.

If you have kept abreast of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and can remember your geography, then you will know that this means the Ukrainian Army was shelling rebel-held cities.  However, if you are less aware, this is not the immediate impression of the article.

First notice the passive wording of the title.  Imagine if this had been Syria, the headline would have surely been “Assad’s forces bombard Syrian cities” or “Syrian Army shell civilian areas“.  While the BBC may want to avoid flamboyant titles (although do not demure elsewhere) the article itself is no better.

The opening paragraphs mention ‘shelling’, ‘rebels’ and the EU warning Russians to clean up their act.  The emotional and rhetorical impact is that in some way Russians are to blame for the shelling of cities, and indeed when I read the words to Fiona this was precisely what she assumed.

That is, while the facts are there, they are presented in such a way that the casual reader takes away precisely the opposite of the truth.  In other words, the BBC reporting, whether intentionally or unintentionally, systematically misleads the public.

To be fair, in the earliest version of the article its later parts report first Ukrainian army deaths and then civilian casualties in rebel-held areas:

On Friday morning, a military spokesman in Kiev said eight members of Ukraine’s military had been killed in fighting against separatists in the past 24 hours.

The rebels said shelling killed three civilians in Luhansk, reported AFP news agency.

(Although the second sentence is removed from later versions of the article.)

BBC-news-early-13-Feb-2015-cropped BBC-news-later-13-Feb-2015-cropped
early and later version of same BBC story

The early versions of the article also included an image of a wall in Kiev commemorating Ukrainian army deaths, but not the graphic images of civilian casualties that would be used in other conflicts1. This was later changed to a refugee departing on a bus to Russia ((Later still the image of an armoured vehicle was also added.  I’d not realised before just how much these news stories are post-edited)), which better reflects the facet behind the article.

Of course, this is not a one-sided conflict, and later reports from the region during he day include rebel shelling of government held areas as well as government shelling.  Both sides need to be reported, but the reporting practice seems to be to deliberately obfuscate the far more prevalent Ukrainian army attacks on civilian areas.

If this were just a single news item, it could be just the way things turn out, and other news items might be biased in other directions, but the misreporting is systematic and long term.  Many of BBCs online news items include a short potted history of the conflict, which always says that the current conflict started with Russian annexing of Crimea, conveniently ignoring the violent overthrow of the elected government which led to this.  Similarly the BBC timeline for Ukraine starts in 1991 with the Ukrainian referendum to separate from the USSR, conveniently ignoring the similar overwhelming referendum in Crimea earlier in 1991 to separate from Ukraine2.

To be fair on the journalists on the ground, it is frequently clear that their own raw accounts have a different flavour to the commentary added when footage is edited back in London.

In some way Ukraine could be seen as a special case, the Russians are the bogey men of the today, just like Germany was 100 years ago and France was 100 years previously, it is hard for a journalist to say, “actually in this case they have a point“.

Yet, sadly, the above account could be repeated with different details, but the same underlying message in so many conflicts in frequent times.  Will the media, and the BBC, ever trust the public with the truth, or will ‘news’ always be a B movie?

  1. Maybe this is just deemed too horrifying; a recent Times report of Donetsk morgue includes graphic accounts of shrapnel torn babies, but does not include the Getty images of the morgue preferring an image of an unexploded rocket.[back]
  2. While ignoring the history of Crimea. which does seem germane to the current conflict, the BBC timeline is overall relatively fair; for example, making clear that Yanukovych’s election was “judged free and fair by observers“.[back]

I want to pay more tax too

Some of the ‘super rich’ in the US are beginning to ask publicly why it is they pay so little tax.  For those of us less rich, but still with above average salaries, perhaps we should be asking the same.  In the UK the effective rate of tax is 32% for those on average pay and 40% for those on high pay, hardly a progressive system.  Yes government, please tax the super rich more, but tax me properly too.

I have just have read Stephen King fantastic article “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!1 where he joins Warren Buffett in questioning why he, as part of the super rich, does not pay more tax.  He does give to charity, but argues that that this is not the same as paying tax, which is crucially abut citizenary.  This all falls out from statistics that show the richest in the US end up paying a far smaller percentage of their income than the average citizen.  Effectively King argues that the issue here is not about entitlement or rights, but responsibility.

King is talking about the super rich in the US and similar statistics in the UK show the richest 10% paying only marginally more taxes than the poorest 10%, and certainly less than the average tax payer.

However, the same arguments also apply to those who are not super rich, but on the better end of the income scale —  including me.

In recent years I have cut my income substantially by choosing to work part-time in order to (try to!) do more personal research, still some of my income falls into ‘higher rate’ tax — so by that measure I am well off2.

You might think that being in the higher tax threshold means you pay a lot more tax; after all the basic rate tax in the UK is 20% and the higher rate is 40%.  You might think that, but think again!  Even without tax avoidance measures used by the very rich or the fact that the poor tend to end up paying more indirect taxes such as VAT (purchase tax) and duty (on alcohol and fuel), still my marginal rate is only slightly higher than that of basic income.  I pay an effective marginal rate of 40%, but those on lower income in reality pay 32%, not the 20% that it says ‘on the tin’.

The reason for this is National Insurance.  For those not on the UK, this is an additional tax, started in 1911 and expanded in the 1940s to pay for health, pension and other welfare provision — just as you might take out a private health insurance, or pension, national insurance was intended to be a sort of pooled insurance arranged by government.  However unlike private insurance, it has always been redistributive — the rich pay more, but do not get proportionally higher benefits.

In the UK since the Thatcher years, but continued by subsequent Labour governments, there has been a gradual shift from ‘in your face’ income tax, to less visible taxes, notably National Insurance and VAT.  In 1978 National Insurance was at 6.75% (on income over a lower threshold) and the standard rate of VAT, paid on most basic goods and services you bought in shops, was 8%3.  Currently the equivalent figures are 12% for National Insurance and 20% for VAT.  That is the combined effect of these less visible taxes has more than doubled from 14.75% in 1978 to 32% today4.  Because these are flat rate taxes, they hit the poor as much as the rich.

However, it is worse than this first appears.  National Insurance has a maximum cut off point.  Above a certain point, you pay no more National Insurance … and crucially this point cuts in just before higher rate tax starts.  This means that in one’s pay cheque if you are earning an average wage you pay 32% of every additional pound in tax, whereas if your income is higher, over £40,000 or so, you pay 40%.

I’ll say this again, as it always seems unbelievable — in the UK, without any additional measures to reduce tax liability, the real difference between basic rate and higher tax is just 8%.

If then the person earning £15,000 buys a basketful of ordinary VAT goods, out of the 68p they have left they pay over 13p VAT, whereas the person with £50,000 income out the 60p in the pound they have left pay an additional 12p.  Adding the effect of VAT that makes the effective total rates of tax on an ordinary shopping basket at 45.6% for basic rate tax payers vs 52% for those on higher income.  In fact, even this is a little of a simplification, as some goods are zero rated (principally food) and some have additional duties (principally alcohol and fuel), but in fact this tends to make things worse as typically richer households have spending patterns that have a lower proportion of VAT and duty.

Like the US, the UK system is not progressive; so with Stephen King I say, “I want to pay more tax5.

In particular, take the lid of National Insurance, make me pay full National insurance on all my income.  At a conservative estimate this would be equivalent to the revenue of 5% VAT6 — if we all paid full NI, then either spending cuts could be less draconian, or the VAT rate could be cut by 5%, either of which would have a dramatic effect on those at the bottom of society for whom the pressing problem is not getting the best offshore tax break, but finding the next meal.

  1. Which he wrote in April, so I am a bit behind![back]
  2. Although you do have to be careful in using higher rate threshold as meaning ‘well off’, as the UK system is incredibly family-unfriendly.  Because tax is on an individual not household basis, if a couple earn £20,000 each they pay very little tax, but if one is not working — in particular if engaged in full-time child care — and one is earning £40,000, then that is heavily taxed.  This anomaly became apparent recently when the government proposed removing child-benefit, one of the few universal benefits, from those where one of the parents is paying higher rate tax. Strangely, when it comes to welfare benefits households become the unit! [back]
  3. See UK Tax History for historical rates of National Insurance and VAT.[back]
  4. See HM Revenue & Customs site for current NI and VAT rates.[back]
  5. And yes, I know that I can give to charity and indeed do tithe through Charities Aid Foundation and make other payments, but, as King argues, that is NOT the same as paying taxes.[back]
  6. I recall doing the calculations for this when the new government put up VAT some years ago, it was hard to get detailed figures for higher rate tax earnings, but made this estimate based on lower bounds of various brackets.[back]

open data: for all or the few?

On Twitter Jeni Tennison asked:

Question: aside from personally identifiable data, is there any data that *should not* be open?  @JenT 11:19 AM – 14 Jul 12

This sparked a Twitter discussion about limits to openness: exposure of undercover agents, information about critical services that could be exploited by terrorists, etc.   My own answer was:

maybe all data should be open when all have equal ability to use it & those who can (e.g. Google) make *all* processed data open too   @alanjohndix 11:34 AM – 14 Jul 12

That is, it is not clear that just because data is open to all, it can be used equally by everyone.  In particular it will tend to be the powerful (governments and global companies) who have the computational facilities and expertise to exploit openly available data.

In India statistics about the use of their own open government data1 showed that the majority of access to the data was by well-off males over the age of 50 (oops that may include me!) – hardly a cross section of society.  At  a global scale Google makes extensive use of open data (and in some cases such as orphaned works or screen-scraped sites seeks to make non-open works open), but, quite understandably for a profit-making company, Google regards the amalgamated resources as commercially sensitive, definitely not open.

Open data has great potential to empower communities and individuals and serve to strengthen democracy2.  However, we need to ensure that this potential is realised, to develop the tools and education that truly make this resource available to all3.  If not then open data, like unregulated open markets, will simply serve to strengthen the powerful and dis-empower the weak.

  1. I had a reference to this at one point, but can’t locate it, does anyone else have the source for this.[back]
  2. For example, see my post last year “Private schools and open data” about the way Rob Cowen @bobbiecowman used UK government data to refute the government’s own education claims.[back]
  3. In fact there are a variety of projects and activities that work in this area: hackathons, data analysis and visualisation websites such as IBM Many Eyes, data journalism such as Guardian Datablog and some government and international agencies go beyond simply publishing data and offer tools to help users interpret it (I recall Enrico Bertini, worked on this with one of the UN bodies some years go). Indeed there will be some interesting data for mashing at the next Tiree Tech Wave in the autumn.[back]

Gordon’s example to us all

Last night I read a BBC article on Gordon Brown’s earnings since he stopped being Prime Minister a few years ago.  I felt a lump coming to my throat as I read the story.  Ex-PMs typically have lucrative post-government careers with lecture tours and the like.  Gordon Brown has similarly earned 1.4 million pounds in lecture fees and book royalties, but then given it all away.

In the run up to the General Election in 2010 I wrote how I gradually warmed to Gordon Brown during the campaign as it became increasingly clear that he was a man of true integrity.  This is another indication of that integrity, and utterly amazing to see in the modern world.

Of course he was not pretty like David Cameron or Nick Clegg, nor could he control his irritation when faced with objectionable, if popular, views.  In short, not a showman, nor a celebrity, not slick, not ‘political – just a genuinely good man.

It is sad that that is not sufficient to impress the 21st-century voter.

Lies vs. facts: the 26k benefits ceiling

In the UK the government is proposing a ceiling on benefits of £26,000. This sounds a large figure, indeed it is the median income, so seems reasonable that someone out of work should not receive more than the average working person. The press is, of course, polarised on the issue, as is the Church of England.

I was particularly interested in the coverage in last Wednesday’s Daily Mail, partly as this was where the former Archbishop of Canterbury chose to issue a statement about the issue, and partly because I was on a BA flight and it is one of the free newspapers! This issue of the Mail contained an article, “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”1, detailing the circumstances of three different working and tax-paying households living below or close to the proposed £26,000 limit, who can’t understand why they are working and paying taxes to support others to live on more than them.

I wondered about the truth behind these stories.  As you might imagine, the Mail’s stories were, to be generous, disingenuous, and most probably misleading, both to their readers and those they interviewed. When you work out the actual figures and facts behind the stories, things turn out rather differently then they were projected.

The issue of the proposed £26,000 benefits ceiling was particularly hot in the news after the House of Lords made radical amendments to the bill. The opposition in the Lords to proposed benefits reforms comes not just from the Labour benches, but includes some LibDems and Conservatives, and, vocally, several Church of England bishops2.

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, weighed into this debate chastising his fellow bishops in the Lords, on the grounds that the weight that the national debt lays on our children is a major moral issue and the runaway benefits bill is a crucial part of controlling this.

There are of course differing views on how fast and how radically we should be attempting to cut national debt and how this should be accomplished. What is notable is that Carey chose to make this statement in the Daily Mail. My guess is he chose the Mail, rather than, say, the Times or the Telegraph (let alone the Independent or Guardian, who might have published it alongside contrary views), is that the Mail is much more a paper for ordinary Middle England folk, the ‘squeezed middle’, who feel they are paying the bulk of the taxes that fund the burgeoning benefits budget.

Whilst the ‘quality’ newspapers push their own particular viewpoint, they do follow a certain journalistic ethic, and normally within their articles you find the full facts, as they know them. Now, this is sometimes very deeply buried, to the point of disinformation, but is at least present; the careful reader can see the counter arguments through the opinion.

The Mail has no such scruples; it is unashamedly a newspaper of persuasion not information.

Given this, however much the Mail is targeting a particular demographic, Carey’s choice seemed misguided or naive.

In particular, in the same copy as Carey’s statement, there was the article describing the three households, all in tight economic circumstances, but who are working, paying tax to fund benefits, but not on benefits themselves. This is, in fact, excellent journalism, cold figures are hard to comprehend, real examples can convey the truth better than abstractions.

One household was a single woman, Rachel, living on her own; the second, Lauren and David, an engaged couple with a baby living with one of their parents; and the third, Emma and Darren, a married couple with two small twins, living in a rented house. They all had net incomes below or close to the proposed £26,000 benefits cap, and in each case the description ends with a personal statement, which expresses their frustration that, while they manage to cope on their income, why should people need £26,000 when not in work:

I don’t understand why people would need to claim more than £26,000 in benefits if I can live comfortably on this“, Rachel

It’s crazy that people say they can’t live of £26,000. People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have.“, Lauren

“It makes us very angry that my husband works so hard and pays tax on his income, which goes to pay the benefits bills of all those people who don’t work and who receive more money than us.“, Emma

What the Mail reporters clearly failed to tell any of these families is what they would be receiving on benefits if they were suddenly made redundant and out of work.

Just to see I put each of these people’s circumstances into the government benefits calculator and a housing benefit calculator3.

Rachel, lives alone with £16,000 gross income and £13,000 net income. She describes rent (£500) and bills taking up most of her income, but leaving her with £250 a month for “recreational and leisure activities“, allowing her to “live comfortably“. If she lost her job her benefits including housing benefit to contribute to rent would total £9,774 per annum (£53.45 job seekers allowance, £19.38 council tax rebate4, £115.30 housing benefit). That is just what she describes as her basic bills with none of her recreation or leisure. I’m sure if asked whether she would be happy to live on this, her answer would be different.

Lauren and David fare worst; they have a gross salary of £33,000, with a net income of £27,560 (including child benefit and child tax credits). If they were both to lose their job, they would take home a total of £200.61 a week, around £10,500 per annum5. It was Lauren who said, “People need to make sacrifices like the rest of us have“. If the Mail reporter had explained to her that she would have to cope on 2/5 of their current take-home money would she feel the same?

It is the last family however, that does appear to highlight anomalies in the benefits system. Darren works in public transport and has a gross pay of precisely £26,000, leaving Emma and Darren with a take home pay of £21,608 (including child benefit). If Darren lost his job (or found himself unable to work as he has a medical condition) and both of them registered as job seekers (although Emma is currently looking after the children at home) then they would receive a total of £24,295 a year (just over £15,000 of this is basic benefit, the rest council tax relief6 and housing benefit), more than their current take home pay.

The reason for this disparity is that Emma and Darren do not attempt to claim benefits: “We are proud that we’re not on benefits, although sometimes it can be really hard“. In fact they would be eligible for substantial housing benefits7, which would presumably make all the difference for them and their children.

The shame of being on welfare runs deep, and, assuming Emma and Darren are Mail readers, no doubt fanned by the constant stories of welfare scroungers and the ‘feckless’. They quite rightly want to instil an ethic of hard work into their children, but do not feel able to claim benefits, which they will have contributed to through tax and national insurance throughout their previous working lives, in order to help as they bring up those same children now.

Interestingly, they are happy to accept child benefit (and I assume child tax credit, although not explicitly mentioned), and when the children are of school age will not send them to a fee-paying school, but happy to send them to a state school, effectively an educational ‘benefit’ of around £16,000 a year, let alone insist on paying for hospital and doctors fees for delivery of the twins and subsequent medical care.

The difference is that these benefits, allowances, and services are universal, and so seen as ‘rights’ as a taxpayer, even if, as in the case of this family, you are a net beneficiary.

This very much strengthens the case for maintaining child benefit as a non-means tested benefit. In general, many benefits are not claimed, whether through pride, principles or ignorance. The one exception is child benefit, which is both universally accepted and well targeted8.

Maybe if appraised of the full facts each of the people interviewed by the Mail might still feel the same, particularly Emma and Darren. Maybe too Mail readers would feel the same if presented with the truth. But clearly the Mail does not trust its readers to make up their own minds if given the full facts, and sadly Lord Carey has leant his weight behind this deliberate disinformation; unintentionally, but very persuasively helping to mislead the public.

  1. “The hard workers who are proud not to claim”, Daily Mail, Wednesday, January 25, 2012, p. 7.[back]
  2. Whether they should be in the second house in the first place is another issue![back]
  3. I used the Tonbridge & Malling Bourough Council’s web site as this has an online housing benefit calculator.  While currently housing benefit is similar across the country, this may change in the future with government plans for ‘localising support‘, the potential impact of which has been under-reported.[back]
  4. For Rachel on a one bedroom flat I estimated a council tax bill of £1000.[back]
  5. This figure is particularly low as  they live with parents.  While the government makes strong statements about family values, there are equally strong disincentives to support close family.  If Lauren and David were out of work, but with friends rather than parents, they would be able to pay rent to contribute to household costs, which they could then claim against housing benefit.  Furthermore, if a grown-up child receives cash support from parents, it is regarded as income for the calculation of benefits.[back]
  6. For Emma and Darren I estimated an annual council tax bill of £1500.[back]
  7. Housing benefit is perhaps the greatest cause of anomalies in the systems. Even Boris Johnson was against a cap in housing benefit, as the proposed, albeit apparently high, limit would still make large areas of London (not just the fancy bits!) no go areas for anyone on an average wage including nurses, transport workers, etc.. The situation gets even more complicated with those with a mortgage, as mortgage interest is deemed a cost for benefits calculation when you are out of work, but not when you have a job.[back]
  8. More broadly there is a minority suggestion (I believe only the Green Party in the UK support this) to replace all tax allowances and basic benefits, with a universal wage or ‘basic income‘, effectively an amount for every adult and child, deemed high enough for basic survival (probably close to current basic benefit levels). Indeed the amount you gain through the personal tax allowance, the amount you can earn without paying tax, is very close to a single person’s job seekers allowance, so this is very nearly a ‘zero sum’ for tax payers without children.[back]