The uncertainties of independence

The Union Flag and Scottish Saltire flying in front of the Scottish Parliament building, EdinburghYesterday, all three of the main UK political parties came together in a rare show of consensus to indicate that Scotland would not be able to enter a formal currency union with the rest of the UK in the event of Scottish voters choosing independence in September’s referendum. That means if Scotland continued to use the pound, it would have no say in decisions affecting the currency such as interest rates.

Unsurprisingly, Alex Salmond has hit back and said that the UK government would soon change their tune once a “yes” vote had actually been achieved. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t.

The main point here isn’t so much that of the currency – important though that is – but rather the huge uncertainty that surrounds many of the SNP’s policies following a hypothetical referendum win. They present everything as a done deal: vote for independence, and this is how things will be in Scotland. Yet they are actually merely the SNP’s aspirations of how they would like things to be. In fact, nothing is certain other than that the UK government would respect the referendum result and Scotland would become an independent country.

The SNP have already decided to fix the date on which Scotland would become independent in March 2016, barely a year and a half after the vote. In that time they would have to successfully conclude negotiations not only with the UK, but with organisations such as the EU (and all the other EU countries) and NATO. Surely the knowledge that the deadline is fixed gives those other parties the upper hand? Salmond wants Scotland to enter a Eurozone-style currency union with the rest of the UK; to join the EU on the same terms as now; to join NATO but be resolutely opposed to nuclear weapons. There is a good chance some or all of those won’t be achievable. The chances would be improved if the date for independence was left open. They could take their time to find the best settlement for all parties. What’s the hurry? Scotland has been part of the UK for over 300 years. What’s wrong with waiting a few extra years, safe in a knowledge that independence is secured, if it means a better deal for the people of Scotland?

Perhaps the answer is that elections to the Scottish Parliament are due in May 2015. I don’t know if these would still take place following a “yes” vote, but maybe Salmond is afraid that if he left it too long, he might no longer be the First Minister, and it would be someone else’s name that would go down in history as the one leading the country to independence.

It’s clear that a vote for independence would mean a huge amount of uncertainty for the people of Scotland. No-one knows what the result of complex negotiations and legal arguments would be, and trying to finalise everything in 18 months makes it highly unlikely everything the SNP’s blueprint contains would come to fruition. It’s difficult to see why anyone apart from those with a strong ideological view of Scottish independence would vote “yes”.

No reason not to ban smoking in cars with children

Baby on board sticker in a car window - Photo by Steve and Sara Emry on Flickr, used under terms of a Creative Commons LicenceOver 700 health experts have urged MPs to vote in favour of a ban on smoking in cars where children are present. The debate is notable for the fact that everyone agrees that smoking in a car when accompanied by a child is wrong, and shouldn’t be done under any circumstances. Yet some people still argue that it shouldn’t be made illegal. One of the most prominent is Nick Clegg, a smoker, who takes exactly this line.

If something really is such a terrible thing to do, and people shouldn’t be thinking about doing it under any circumstances, why would they not want it banned by law? If decent, civil, law-abiding person would never carry out a particular activity, what’s wrong with making it illegal? The only people who would be disadvantaged by the new law are people who are irresponsible, reckless and intent on damaging a child’s health. The only reason I can see for opposing a ban is because the opponent – Nick Clegg, for example – would actually put the so-called “rights” of an adult smoker ahead of the health of a defenceless child. The argument that a ban is illiberal doesn’t hold water. If it’s something that no decent-minded person would do anyway, what rights or freedoms it is taking away? Otherwise, one may as well propose abolishing laws against murder on the grounds that murder is wrong and no-one should do it anyway.

The other argument is that the law shouldn’t be introduced because it can’t be enforced, and that education alone will suffice. It’s interesting to compare this proposed law to the law on wearing seatbelts, where enforcement has much the same challenges. It’s rare now for people in the UK to fail to wear a seatbelt, but that’s due both to public education campaigns and to laws mandating the wearing of seatbelts. No one with a driving licence should be in any doubt that they are responsible for ensuring any children in their car wear seatbelts as it’s clearly spelt out in the Highway Code. A reminder that they should prevent adults from smoking in their car would be useful too. Opponents of the law on banning smoking in cars should logically oppose the law on seatbelts too, but how many of them would actually do so? In the future, we’ll look back and wonder why smoking was ever allowed if a child was present in a vehicle, just as we would find it hard today to imagine the wearing of seatbelts not being compulsory.

Nobel prize for prestige not profit

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel

In recent months there have been reports that the Nobel Foundation, the body responsible for awarding the world famous Nobel prizes, has been concerned that the prize money they offer may begin to fall behind other prizes awarded in similar fields of science. They are concerned that this will reduce the importance of the Nobel prizes, and as a result are said to be considering accepting donations or sponsorship in order to increase the value of the prize fund.

Due to performance of stock markets in the last few years, the Foundation’s investment fund now has a value in real terms of only 1.8 times that originally bequeathed by Alfred Nobel at the end of the 19th century. In 1999, the fund stood at 3 times its original value. Because of this, the Foundation had to reduce the value of the Nobel prizes this year from 10 million to 8 million Swedish kronor (£750,000). This is in the face of new prizes set up in recent years offering large prizes, for example the Fundamental Physics Prize, which offers a prize of $3 million (£1.8 m).

But does it really matter if the monetary value of a Nobel prize falls, or that there are other prizes offering more cash? I think not. The Nobel prize is the only one that the man on the street is likely to have heard of, yet the public would have no idea what its financial value was, or even that it was accompanied by a large amount of money. Likewise, scientists do not choose their field with the aim of becoming rich. If that was their concern, they would choose a different career. It is the prestige that makes the Nobel prizes special. Academic institutions are sometimes ranked by the number of Nobel laureates they have produced. The pinnacle of a famous scientist’s career is receiving the Nobel prize. That isn’t going to change just becasue the value of the prize is slightly lower.

The last thing the Nobel Foundation should do is go down the sponsorship route. That would be most inappropriate, and lead to the sort of situation that saw a prize for women’s fiction become the Baileys Prize this year. That would destroy the true value of the prize far more than any loss in financial value. Besides, there is something enigmatic about a 19th century chemist and businessman, the inventor of dynamite, leaving a large amount of money with the instruction that it be used to award prizes across a wide range of fields. The Nobel prizes will always stand apart from any others that may be introduced, and the way they are awarded and funded should be left as Alfred Nobel wished.

Casting light on life sentences

Old Bailey, from photo by Adam Dimmick, Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licenceThere is nothing like the comment section of a news site to demonstrate public ignorance of the facts behind a particular story. However, the situation isn’t helped when the news outlets themselves use confusing or inaccurate terms in their articles, or are simply sloppy with their reporting. A good example this week is the discussion of life prison sentences.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that whole-life prison sentences without any possibility of review are a breach of prisoners’ human rights. It is clear that the public generally do not understand what a life sentence is, and the BBC further muddied the water in its reporting by claiming, for example, that murderer Ian McLoughlin “was given a 40-year sentence in October” after the ECHR ruling made judges wary of imposing a whole-life tariff. The BBC’s wording is incorrect. McLoughlin was sentenced to life in prison, as is mandatory for anyone found guilty of murder. The difference is that the judge set a 40-year minimum tariff as opposed to a whole-life tariff. More on this in a moment.

Unfortunately, in the comments section both on the BBC and elsewhere, the public demonstrates its collective ignorance with claims such as that murderers are released after serving half their “sentence”, that they are released early, that dangerous people are released back onto the street and so on. Inevitably, some of them conclude that prison sentences aren’t good enough, and that we should go back to having the death penalty.

How do prison sentences actually work? I’m no lawyer, but this is my understanding of the situation in England and Wales hopefully expressed simply enough for anyone to understand. When someone receives a ordinary prison sentence for a crime, let’s say two years’ imprisonment for a robbery, they are eligible for release after they have served half of that sentence in prison. They then serve the remainder of that sentence on licence. If they breach the terms of their licence, maybe by going to places they are banned from or associating with certain people, or if they commit further crimes, they can be recalled immediately to prison.

When someone is sentenced to life imprisonment, there is clearly no halfway point to the sentence. Instead, the trial judge sets a minimum term which the convict must spend behind bars, which is determined by consideration of aggravating and mitigating factors. Only after this minimum period has expired can the prisoner be considered for parole. Note that even then it is far from automatic. The Parole Board review each case carefully, and the prisoner will only be released if they have shown remorse and are not considered a danger to the public. They may still be kept inside for much longer than the minimum term, maybe for their whole life – after all, it is a life sentence. If the prisoner is eventually released, it is on life licence. They would be in contact with the probation service for the rest of their life, and could be sent straight back to prison for any sort of transgression.

Ironically, the controversial whole-life tariff was only introduced in its present form as a result of a previous ECHR ruling. In the past, the Home Secretary decided the minimum term to be served by those sentenced to life. The ECHR ruled that it was a breach of human rights to have a politician decide a criminal’s sentence. Responsibility for minimum terms was passed to judges, and the new guidelines included the provision for whole-life tariffs.

What should be done in response to the ECHR’s latest ruling? Perhaps we should consider what the purpose of a whole-life tariff is. I doubt it is really a deterrent, as the types of murders where it applies are the most extreme and depraved. The sort of people who commit such crimes are clearly not right in the head and are unlikely to be thinking about sentences they might receive at the time they carry them out. As for public protection, as explained above, murderers aren’t released if they present a danger, irrespective of their minimum term. The real reason for such sentences is to satisfy the public, who demand tough sentences for serious crimes. I don’t think introducing American-style sentences of 100s of years is a good idea. The US also has a reputation for letting its prisoners out on parole after a short period of time compared to the original sentence – indeed, I expect many of the British public’s ideas about early release are influenced by American films and dramas. Introducing such sentences here won’t satisfy the public, and besides, it just isn’t the British way of going about things.

I believe they could scrap the whole-life tariff, and it wouldn’t make any difference to any prisoners. Those guilty of the worst crimes would still spend the rest of their lives behind bars becasue they won’t show remorse and will be considered dangerous. However, there would be a process in place so that prisoners’ cases were reviewed by the Parole Board, which would satisfy the human rights lawyers. To ensure the public are still satisfied with life sentences, the media need to play their part and report them properly. The fact that it’s a life sentence should be emphasised, and the minimum terms most definitely not described as the “sentence”. Perhaps the terminology should be changed officially, and “minimum terms” renamed “initial sentence review date” or similar. It would then be clear that a criminal was being sent to prison for life, and that his sentence wouldn’t be reviewed for 40 years. The media could also publicise the parole hearing much more. If it were explained that someone who had committed a heinous crime had spent 40 years in prison and had now been denied parole, and that the next review date would be in 10 years’ time, the public would possibly have more faith in the justice system, and would certainly have a better understanding of it.

TV stations don’t take online TV seriously

Coming soon? Viewers attempting to watch Downton Abbey via ITV Player on Sunday night  were in for a disappointment

Coming soon? Viewers attempting to watch Downton Abbey via ITV Player on Sunday night were in for a disappointment

Imagine if the Sunday evening broadcast of one of the top drama series on TV failed to go ahead without explanation, with viewers left to stare at a static image for an hour. Pretty unthinkable, isn’t it? In fact, that’s exactly what happened yesterday evening. Of course, it didn’t happen on over-the-air broadcast TV. It happened on ITV’s catch-up TV offering, ITV Player. Viewers hoping to watch Downton Abbey through the online service saw only a message saying, “Coming Soon. Programmes are available 1–2 hours after broadcast.”

Usually, series such as Downton Abbey are available almost as soon as the live broadcast has ended on TV. Across the country, many people sat down intending to watch the programme shortly after 10:05pm only to find it wasn’t there. Many took to Twitter to air their views:

  • @MattyRobinson56: slightly distraught Downton Abbey hasn’t been uploaded onto itvplayer yet
  • @HollyMarshall94: Madly refreshing ITVPlayer to try and watch Downton Abbey. Technology I hate you! why can you not upload it online straight after it’s over.
  • @jenridings: whyyyyy is Downton Abbey not on itv player yet #fuming
  • @RebeccaGillie: PUT DOWNTON ON ITVPLAYER, YA B***ARDS! Spent all my weekend at work, and as Alma Cogan memorably said, little things mean a lot. #earnedthis

Some tweets asked the ITV Player team when it would go online, although it seemed they had already gone home for the night. And despite the message suggesting that programmes go online one to two hours after broadcast, Downton Abbey was not online until the following morning.

Such a thing would simply not happen in broadcast TV. If there was a problem, technicians at ITV would work swiftly to resolve the issue, and a message on screen would keep viewers up to date. The fact that ITV can think it doesn’t matter if a show isn’t on ITV Player as expected shows that they still don’t take catch-up TV or online viewing seriously. It’s still considered a novelty, a toy, a little extra where they can take it or leave it.

Some people would argue that online viewers are getting their TV for free. After all, they don’t need to pay for a TV licence. Quite apart from the fact that many people will have a TV licence, and are simply watching through one of the methods advertised as being available, ITV doesn’t actually receive any money from the licence fee. Their revenue comes from advertising, and ITV Player users still see adverts. In fact, I suspect a large proportion of people watching the live broadcast on ITV1 will actually do so via their PVRs, and skip through the commercials. ITV Player users don’t have this option as the fast forward button is disabled during the ads.

TV companies should be trying to move viewers online. Broadcast TV has had its day. There’s no reason people should still be tied into watching shows broadcast over the airways at a particular time. However, it’s already difficult to persuade many people to throw away their TV guides and reach for the catchup GUI instead, and if the broadcasters treat their catchup offerings as not even second best – as something with no service level guarantee, that can become unavailable without warning at their whim – they are never going to convince people that online is a viable way to catch their favourite shows.