08 December 2012

Pragmatism 3

The second arena of socio-political battles is prostitution; I’m specifically thinking of prostitution in Scotland and N Ireland, and to a slightly more distant degree in the Republic. The battle is around the introduction of the “Swedish model”. There is a proposed law out for consultation in Scotland, and similar proposals have been seriously mooted in N Ireland, though the legal process is not so far advanced.

What is the “Swedish model”? Briefly, it makes it a criminal offence for a man to buy a sex from a woman. (A simplification, I know; I do realise, for example, that there are LGBT people out there, but they are a small, if vociferous, minority; and if I exclude them, it’s just to make things easier to understand.)

Under this Swedish model, it’s the man who is the criminal, not the woman. It’s already illegal for a man to buy sex from a trafficked woman in the UK; despite the hype, the evidence these women are a in a very small minority. Not that the evidence has ever stopped people with an agenda from believing and proselytising otherwise. Non-indigenous women are almost always independent agents, and are not controlled by pimps; they are not trafficked, even if a travel agent helped with their journey. Being assisted to travel as an economic migrant could classify them as “trafficked”. I’m specifically thinking of the free agent, the courtesan or escort.

Consensual sexual relations are those where the woman must consent, whether payment is included or not; they are legal throughout the UK. There are activities around prostitution, such as street walking, brothel keeping and living off “immoral” earnings which are already illegal. The Swedish model reverses the common, if incorrect, conception that prostitution is illegal. (In the US both selling and buying are criminalised.)

The Swedish model was introduced more than a decade ago, and has been hailed as a major success in reducing prostitution. It was an avowedly “feminist” initiative that got it established.

And with the word “feminist” I immediately run into difficulties. There are, as I understand it, first, second and third wave feminists; rad-fems and neo-feminists and even feminazis, and I do have real problems understanding their differing agendas, and how these ideologies developed, on what factual, rather than theoretical, basis they exist. At one extreme, some seem to blame men for all that is wrong with the world, and wouldn’t want to have anything to do with men; though others say things like “equality” while recognising that men and women aren’t equal, rather there is “equivalence”.

Be that as it may, and it’s my problem, it was the more extreme men-hating type of feminists that introduced the Swedish model. I’d argue that they did so in the face of all the evidence.

The pragmatic realist knows that prostitution has been around for as long as recorded history; it’s not called the “oldest profession” for nothing. There have even been “sacred” prostitutes at the temples in ancient Greece .

What is the imperative that “drives” women into prostitution? It’s usually poverty. A few become courtesans, improving their social position and rising to positions of influence, some seek independence from men, but for the majority it’s simply penury. It’s probably no coincidence that for most of recorded history that men have controlled women’s wealth and possessions.

And the imperative that drives men to prostitutes? This is probably a “biological” imperative, the hormonal and genetic influence that drives men to have sex with as many women as possible, to spread their seed as widely as possible. (Whereas, for women, the equivalent imperative is to have a “protector”, a man who will provide for her — but who may not be the best genetic fit for her, so that she “cheats” and allows a “good” man to raise the offspring of another man as his own.)

Be that as it may — and you might find the explanations disturbing — it’s very clear that there has always been a demand and a supply.

Then there are the moral arguments, that prostitution is a “bad” thing, that it is demeaning, that it’s more male abuse of women, and therefore, prostitution should be illegal. Well, there are plenty of things I don’t like, I might even find them “immoral” but that doesn’t mean they should be illegal.

Consider Starbucks. The coffee house has been in the news recently; they have paid no corporation tax on their earnings in the UK for many years, indeed they say that they run at a loss here. Except that they don’t run at a loss, rather they are able to transfer their profits to Holland where the rate of tax is lower than the UK. There is nothing at all illegal in this — and Starbucks are by no means the only company to do this — but there has been an outpouring of moral indignation about it. Years ago, a ruling by the then House of Lords said, in effect, that an individual could arrange his (her) tax affairs in any way to mitigate them (providing it wasn’t illegal). Starbucks is now to make a voluntary tax contribution, buckling under pressure.

And the “immoral” earnings, or the “living off the avails” in the US? Just who decided that such earnings were immoral, under what authority were they described as immoral? And why is this “immorality” enshrined in law? It’s strange that in  puritan America the earnings aren’t described as “immoral” but as the “avails”. If the “it’s illegal to perform an illegal abortion” has the unintended consequence of “it’s legal to perform a legal abortion”, can one then say that even though it is “illegal to live off immoral earnings” that it is “legal to live off moral earnings” and pitch an argument as to what exactly is legally “immoral” today? I expect this morality derives from Christian theology — not from Christianity, but from the theology, which you will recall was largely constructed by Sts Jerome, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, all of them misogynists to a greater or lesser degree. Not, it has to be said in fairness, that Calvin or John Knox seem to have been any more enlightened.

Then there’s this possible unintended consequence of the Swedish model; if I had a mistress (I wish — I don’t) and set her up in a flat — what the red tops would call a “love nest” — and gave her an allowance, am I to be criminalised? We both entered this arrangement voluntarily, I get her company, she gets “expenses”. Just why should this be illegal? (Whether you think it’s immoral is your problem, and you can keep your problem.) And that’s to say nothing of the marital home, where access to sex for the man might be dependant on purchases, necessities and gifts; and please don’t say that this doesn’t happen, of course it does, not universally, but it exists.

So, we have a supply and demand position, with willing participants — well, perhaps the women aren’t doing it altruistically or even for enjoyment, rather they are doing it for the money — in what way will the Swedish model, which aims to deprive them of their livelihood, improve their position? (It might frustrate men, but that of course is of no importance in this model.) Perhaps the women are expected to stack the shelves in a supermarket; morally superior perhaps, but not very financially rewarding.

Does the Swedish model actually work? Its proponents say yes, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? The reality seems more to be that is has driven prostitution “underground”; it hasn’t reduced the demand or the supply, but it might, just might, make the “figures” more tolerable.

There’s another problem in Scotland. There are currently eight Scottish police forces, and these are going to be combined into one. At present, they operate a policy of “tolerance” in Aberdeen; there are massage parlours in Edinburgh; but there is a zero tolerance (whatever that means) policy in Glasgow. What will be the policy in the combined force?

(A little off the main thrust, but prostitutes are people, with — you might like to think — the same rights as the rest of the population. A “zero tolerance” policy might well suggest that they won’t get the protection of the law to which they would otherwise be entitled. And you might well think that this policy is driven by “morality” rather than pragmatism or common humanity.)

We haven’t got quite so far in N Ireland, but there is certainly a move towards the Swedish model — unsurprisingly, this seems to be driven by “morality” rather than pragmatism, or any real, genuine concern for the “working girls”. It’s too soon to know what will develop. There is a single police force in N Ireland; and now that the “troubles” are largely behind us, they have turned to “real” crime. There are occasional prosecutions for pimping, trafficking and brothel keeping. (Incidentally, should an “escort” employ a live-in maid, secretary or even a “bouncer”, she’s now working in a brothel, and liable for prosecution. Curious that having help, having protection makes you a criminal.)

Pragmatism 2

There are a couple of areas of modern life where pragmatism meets entrenched attitudes, and the result is like trial by combat, a struggle to the end. Neither side wants to admit any of the other’s thinking as being in any way correct, and neither wants to yield an inch. I’m thinking of abortion and prostitution; both topics are current in Ireland*; and both sides seem to be wheeling out the “big guns”. And massaging the reality; and using hyperbole.

There’s a school of thought that says that abortion is a woman’s issue, and that men shouldn’t be involved. I’m not trying to favour one position over the other, though you might guess what I think; I’m trying to be the disinterested observer, a theoretical but non-existent creature.

Abortion is topical in the south because, firstly, of the death of Savita Halappanavar, when it was said that an “abortion” might have saved her life; and, secondly, because the European Court of Human Rights has told the government that the state’s legal position on abortion is untenable, and that the government must come up with something better.

So, we’re told, the south is one of the safest places for a woman to give birth and there is no abortion. Ireland is certainly a safe place, but not the safest; safest in the sense of the maternal death rate. The reported maternal death rate in Ireland is almost certainly wrong; the true rate is about twice the reported rate. (Inconveniently, the safest places do allow abortion.)

And no one has been able to explain why and how the absence of abortion makes childbirth safer. Well, it can’t be done, there is no causal connection between the two, even if this is inferred in the statement. Nothing better for reinforcing your agenda than to place a spurious connection in the minds of the credulous and those who wish it were true.

The second bit, about Ireland not having abortion, is only true in that it is illegal (bar very few exceptions) in the state; which is why several thousand women travel to England or further abroad to have an abortion. But this is a highly inconvenient fact, best brushed under the carpet: there is no abortion in Ireland.

And then there is a conclave of Irish (Catholic) Bishops (agéd, supposedly celibate “men in frocks”, if you want to be disparaging) reminding us of morality and the need to preserve life at almost any cost; they and the constitution say, in as many words, that an ovum from the point of insemination has the same civil rights as the mother in whose Fallopian tube this occurred. And don’t forget, it takes a referendum and a majority in Ireland to change the constitution; which is to say, when it was passed, a majority agreed with whatever they thought the sentiment was. And, although the Catholic Church has had a major fall from grace, power and influence in the last two decades, they will still have been in a position to teach (indoctrinate) much of the population of a “certain age” — remember the Jesuits and their motto about getting the kid at an early age so that they are theirs for life. Early indoctrination, they realised, is very difficult to change, to eradicate.

At an extreme, there are those who denounce all abortion as “murder”; in a (strange) way there is some justification in this, though the foetuses aborted at an early age cannot survive outside the womb, they cannot exist independently. And later abortions are often done because of abnormalities incompatible with independent life. So if “murder” is the wilful destruction of a life outside the womb, is abortion really “murder”. Or is this just a bit more semantics? (There is the curious paradox in the US where abortionists have been murdered by prohibitionists; I really can’t follow the reasoning behind this, beyond the “life for a life” idea. And the commandment against murder meant members of your tribe, not foreigners, didn’t it?)

Meanwhile the “pro-choice” campaign are advocating just that: a “choice”, even if it’s really a very liberal stance on abortion, extending to “on demand”.

Abortion has been around for at least two and a half millennia, from the time of Hippocrates and the pharaohs. The Hippocratic Oath tells physicians that they may not procure an abortion — at least that is the common understanding. There are several versions of the Oath; and it seems more likely than not that the physician was expected to get a common midwife or surgeon to perform an abortion; or possibly, there were some methods he should not use, but leave to the others.

Be that as it may, it’s clear that abortion has a long history. There have been all sorts of potions used, all sorts of “home remedies”, and the resort to the woman in the back street with the knitting needle. This woman, well intentioned no doubt, was the cause of infection, infertility and death. If there is a demand, those seeking an abortion will always find a way to achieve it; to ignore the “problem” does not mean that it will simply go away; to criminalise it won’t make it disappear. Whether you approve of abortion or not, you cannot deny that women through the millennia have sought it. And isn’t criminalising it no more than a form of control? I hesitate only slightly to say that it’s the patriarchy, because I think it is; so I have difficulty understanding why some women would wish to accept this control.

And yet the government in the south has studiously ignored abortion for over twenty years, recognising just what a hot potato it is while hoping it will disappear. Not this time, by the look of things.

The idealist would recognise that back-street abortions are dangerous, that there is a persisting demand, and would permit it, perhaps with some minor exclusions — such as literal “on demand” — though leaving enough slack for this to be accommodated. And the idealist would recognise that just because abortion is legal doesn’t mean that you have to have one; that the choice is yours. And that there will be people who refuse one. Betting shops are legal in the UK, but there is no compulsion or requirement to bet; I’ve no interest in betting on the horses, and have only ever been in a bookies once — and that was to collect a mobile phone.

Whether the refusers ought to influence those who wish one is a perennial difficulty; it’s a power struggle, the imposition of a will; in this case, a morality versus pragmatic reality, or “choice”. If you think something is “immoral”, should you strive to keep it “illegal”? If there is a “choice” doesn’t it imply that you don’t have to choose?

The pragmatist recognises that Ireland is a much more secular society than it once was, particularly in the Dublin conurbation, but that the rural homesteads remain traditional. And also recognises all the election promises that have been made — generally a “no abortion” stance — and the difficulty of squaring them with today’s conditions.

The pragmatic Irish politician has to sell ideas to two very different groups; the rural traditionalists and the urban secularists, while still hoping to retain some credibility with both of them. And doing nothing is no longer an option. It will be interesting to see what they come up with, because I don’t know how they can square this particular circle; but then, I’m not a politician; yet politics is the “art of the possible”.

Things haven’t got this far in the north; a private advisory clinic opened recently, and was subject to a protest. The protesters held placards with gruesome photos of dismembered foetuses. Now, it’s true that the (dead) foetus must sometimes be dismembered to allow its extraction; the fact that these are a tiny fraction of the whole hasn’t presented them as being somehow typical of all abortions. You might call this “scare tactics”. While the “law”on abortion has been clarified, it’s still very constrained by comparison to the rest of the UK. (Actually, just how the “law” came to allow medical abortions before nine weeks is a mystery to me.) It’s perhaps not surprising to find the ultra-evangelical wings and traditional Catholics in agreement, for once.

* Well, perhaps. The current problems in N Ireland are more about emblems and “flegs”, more a problem of the insecurity of of the unionist population.

04 December 2012


Harold Wilson, having told us so often about the “thirteen years of Tory misrule” that we almost came to believe it, announced that we could expect “100 days of gritty pragmatism” when he first entered 10 Downing Street. That’s how I remember it: mostly, the response was a dictionary search for “pragmatism”, gritty or vanilla. He was the author of other notorious sound bites, such as the “gnomes of Zurich” during a financial crisis, though it was the gnomes of the City of London who were short selling the pound, not their brethren in Switzerland.

Anyhow, Wilson is certainly remembered for his pragmatism, the understanding and acceptance of what is the reality, and working with it, rather than trying to force through policies based purely on theoretical political theory. I’m no fan of Harold Wilson, even if he was a consummate politician and founded the Open University.

Pragmatism doesn’t get a good press these days. Rather, we are expected to accept a political theory based on an espoused position — a theory based on on a “wished for” position. Economics is good at this; we hear about “perfect markets” where all have “perfect information”, yet it’s blatantly clear that all don’t have perfect information, otherwise there would be no markets. But then I’m not an economist. I try to live in the real world.

“Evidence based practice” is a modern theme in medicine; no longer is it enough to have an “opinion”. The results of experience were almost sacrosanct, but we learned that experience was a poor teacher, and there were better options. Of course, it isn’t possible to test everything, some areas had to be taken as read, using the best “opinion”. For instance, appendicectomy is the treatment for acute appendicitis, but could it be treated with antibiotics alone? Probably, but it would be a step too far to trial this.

So, even if we are trying to fully rationalise treatment, there are things which we can’t or shouldn’t test for now. We have to be sensible, to accept what’s there, use what evidence we have. We just don’t call it pragmatism.

Sometimes, it seems that we haven’t learnt that some things simply don’t work, and trying more of the same doesn’t work either. Think of Prohibition in the US; it didn’t work, yet we have a “war on drugs”, another prohibition. Just what is the evidence that such a war will work? Or is it just wishful thinking, another triumph of expectation over reality?

And then there’s the “war on terror”, used as a justification for the war in Iraq. That and the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist, but ought to have. And a war with no strategy for when it was won. What evidence is there that a “war” needed to be fought, that it ought to be fought? Rhetoric again, the need to be seen to be doing something “tough”?

Look at Greece: their entry to the Eurozone was a fiddle, their figures were massaged to get them in. And once in, they borrowed at low rates, until their borrowings were unsustainable. And the remedy? Austerity and more austerity, driving the country’s economy further into recession. Those who lent money seem to think that they have an overriding right to be repaid, no matter that the social fabric is destroyed. Those who lent can’t accept that they might just have been wrong; it’s very clear what their priority is. Will the Greeks ever be able to repay? Maybe the Greeks were profligate, but someone helped them to be profligate; how does economic destruction help this? The lesson from African debt: cancel the unpayable debts; the countries simply can’t repay. Isn’t it part of capitalism that sometimes companies go bust, and you loose your investment? Why should countries be treated differently?

But I’m not an economist, I just look at things.

I’m simplifying things, they say, the reality is far more complex. Well, the big picture might be big, but stand back a little and see the totality. And if you, an expert, can’t explain things in a way that the average person understands, then you don’t fully understand it either, and you don’t deserve the position you have. Even rocket science can be explained. And don’t try to hide behind arcane language.

Will we see a return to pragmatism? As they say, don’t hold your breath.

03 December 2012

Barriers (3 of 3)

The poor are always with us, it’s said. Said as if it was a necessity or something that could not be changed. An acceptance of defeatism, a reluctance to shake the status quo. And George Bernard Shaw said that the reasonable person would accept this, for it was only the unreasonable person that wanted change. It seems inevitable that there will be richer and poorer, but why the rich shouldn’t get richer at the expense of the poorer; and do the rich need to be so much richer?

If you are one of the 10% — or, more likely these days, the 1% — you are probably content to leave things alone. After all you control so much of the world’s wealth that you are impregnable, aren’t you? You can have anything you want, and anything disturbing can easily be airbrushed — photoshopped — out of your field of view. So, to you, everything looks rosy.

And even for the other 90 − 99%, things aren’t equal. It seems as if one group has the power, such as it is, and the other suffer under it. It was once like this for those at the top. I’m talking about the difference between men and women.

From the beginnings of recorded history, women have been inferior to men; recorded history in western countries, that is. There are places where women have a more equal role, but these are often categorised as “undeveloped” or “savage”; non-westernised, uncivilised — and ripe for colonial exploitation.

And the position of married women was, legally speaking, as if they barely existed. And yet for many women, the “protection” of marriage at least enabled them to endure life.

The modern, supposedly emancipated women, can certainly have a career, even if rising to the top is constrained by the glass ceiling — or “stained glass” ceiling. But she does this with one eye on her reproductive functions and “biological clock”. Curiously, for all the advantages that men would arrogate to themselves, reproduction isn’t one of them.

And so, for so many women, there is a double disadvantage; poverty and the patriarchy. So often, they are expected to do much of the work of providing for the family. You’ve probably seen the images of men sitting around, drinking — alcohol or coffee, depending on culture — and looking on while their women work.

One traditional way out of poverty for women has been prostitution. You may well have moral objections to this, but that is to ignore the fact that it has existed for as long as we have recorded history, and shows no signs of disappearing. Closing your eyes to it won’t make it go away, nor will exhortations or laws. If you think it’s exploitation, what then is working for the minimal wage shelf stacking in a supermarket? Hardly anyone’s idea of ambition.

And there are still places where education for women barely happens; it may have been common in Victorian Britain, but surely this quaint idea is long gone; except that it isn’t.

Education is the answer; easy to say, not so easy to do. Education needs teachers and facilities; but most of all it needs a major culture shift. And shifting entrenched opinions, cultures and fossilised minds also takes education, which, alas, is too often seen as inessential and thereby rejected. The “good enough for my grandfather” argument.

In the “land of the free” where the story is that anyone can drag themselves out of poverty through hard work, it turns out that this is just another myth: getting out of poverty is extremely difficult, so difficult as to be next to impossible.

All rather depressing; we can see what are (some of the) problems, we can see what would help; but achieving action is so difficult. And yet there are indications that change, long overdue, is slowly happening. Festina lente.

There’s something else to think about. It’s clear that in so many places inequality is increasing, with the 1% showing little regard for the rest, the “plebs”. History doesn’t repeat itself, but what does repeat is the inability to learn any lessons from history. The burden of taxation has weighed heavily on those least able to pay it in many places — and I’m not excluding present day Britain. Some classes — the Church and the nobility — didn’t even pay taxes, for taxes were for the “little people”. And the result, eventually? Think of the French revolution, the Russian revolution, what happened to the Ottoman Empire. Could this happen again?

The (inchoate?) thoughts in these three pieces were initiated by watching the BBC’s Why Poverty series. The individual programmes may be available on the iPlayer. There is more at www.bbc.co.uk/whypoverty and there are links there to further information from the Open University. Do look.

There’s also a BBC series called Inside Claridge’s or how the other 1% lives. Marvel at the oleaginous ego-polishing.

02 December 2012

Inequality (2 of 3)

Do we know what inequality today is? Do we know what it means? After all, not all of us are equal, some are more equal than others, so should we strive for it? What are the benefits?

You might think that equality is a moral imperative, and perhaps you are right; something that seems instinctively right. Yet there are advantages that, at first sight, aren’t so obvious.

Any yet, evidence from some major economies suggests that, even as they become richer, they also become more unequal; the rich get richer, the poor if they don’t get poorer, certainly aren’t any better off. And not just the rich, it’s usually the mega-rich, a tiny cadre of people who own and control much of any countries wealth.

How rich does any individual need to be? Above a fairly modest level, increasing riches certainly don’t make you happier, only richer. Why do people go to such lengths to vastly enrich themselves? Influence certainly, and power; yet we know that power corrupts — perhaps they’ve forgotten this, or think that what we learn from history can be ignored. Don’t think you can tax such people down to “reasonable” levels of income — they can afford the best accountants and lawyers to thwart you at every turn.

Am I exaggerating? Currently, the minimum wage in the UK is £6.19, and is recognised as not even a “living wage”. And whereas 20 years or so the difference between the workers’ average wage and the CEO’s salary was about 1:20, today it can be 1:230. Do managers work 10 times more than they did? I doubt it. Do managers deserve it? I doubt it.

Look a bit sideways; which are the happiest countries, the ones that are best to live in, not necessarily the richest ones? You’re probably not surprised to learn that they are Scandinavian, with Denmark usually the “best”.

And if you check, you will also find that Denmark has one of the least unequal societies. True, the Danes have high taxation, but they also have good social care for all ages, good schools and health care. It’s almost as if they put people and families first. And perhaps they do.

And if you look across a range of social measures such as rates of teenage pregnancy, drug use etc as proxies for the “health” of the country, you will find that these problems are worse in more unequal countries, and less in equal ones.

An association of course, not a causation. So, why do these countries have few social problems, and better outcomes for schooling and care? Something in the genes? Or is it more their culture, their mores?

There doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut answer to this. But the message is clear; if you want to be happy, be well looked after, move to Denmark. You won’t have a super yacht or a private jet, though; and the weather could be better. But then it can hardly be worse than in the northern half of the British Isles.

See also: The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, available here from amazon.

01 December 2012

Castrated at birth

Lord Justice Leveson recommended an independent regulator for the press which had “statutory underpinning”. That is, a body which would self-regulate the press but which had its foundation based in law, enshrining rights and responsibilities.

This is a very similar position to that of many professionals (such as lawyers and health care workers) in the UK.

Serving editors were to be excluded from the composition of the panel; and membership of the regulator was to be voluntary, but with sticks and carrots to try get all parties included.

However, the Prime Minister is against statutory underpinning, at least for the present, until the industry has been shown to be incapable of erecting a suitable and trustworthy body by itself. Remember, politicians were criticised for being too close to the press at times. Other politicians, perhaps those who weren’t so close to the press barons and editors, agree with Lord Leveson.

Drafting of legislation is in progress, but already the suspicion is that it will be produced in such a way as to make it unworkable, thus “proving” that legislation is not the answer.

Those against a statutory foundation talk of “statutory regulation” of the press, which Lord Leveson explicitly said was not what was intended. The regulation is “self-regulation” even if its foundation is based on law.

It’s quite clear that there are those who hope to avoid a statutory basis for their regulator through dissimulation, and to retain total control of the whole process.

Having previously failed to be properly (and pro-actively) self-regulating, the editors are now engaged in a scramble to try to invent an appropriate body, one which self-regulates them, but which they presumably also want to have quietly castrated at birth. It was clear to me from their evidence to the enquiry, that some editors and others in the press really wanted to continue as if nothing much had happened, but were willing to sign up to a process of veneering.

The campaigning organisation Hacked Off represents those many people who were at the wrong end of press coverage. They are organising a petition to support the victims of press abuses. Their website is here, from where you can sign the petition.

30 November 2012

Press Freedom: serving an Ace

Let’s say that something unpleasant was written about me in the press, and not just unpleasant but untrue. I don’t like it, and I sue the newspaper and win; I win financial compensation, and get some sort of printed apology (which is probably well hidden).

I’m financially compensated for my hurt; yet there is the lingering doubt in the public mind that the press wouldn’t have written about me unless there was something to go on, the “no smoke without fire” argument; and of course “mud sticks”.

And although I’m richer now, really, I’d prefer to have the perpetrators in the pillory and throw rotten eggs at them.

But this isn’t going to happen; to sue for libel you need to be rich, or have lawyers risk an action on a “no fee, no win” basis. I doubt if any would really want to help me, and I’m not rich, certainly not rich enough to risk loosing a suit. So, I’m effectively powerless.

Anyway, why should I have to chase the perpetrators? I haven’t done anything wrong, yet it’s up to me to take action. If I do nothing, they aren’t going to apologise, to retract or to pay compensation. The “ball is in my court”, but I didn’t ask for the serve, and I can’t return it: it’s an “ace”.
Yet the press does have a code of conduct, one which covers what they should do and what they should not; and it seems to be very sensible and reasonable. The problem is that it’s been ignored by those who think they can get away with it. It’s not the code that’s lacking, it’s the enforcement of it, the compliance.

An aside: the code wouldn’t approve of illegal methods of news gathering, or paying for stolen goods. Yet the MPs and their amazing expenses only came to light through the Daily Telegraph — not my choice of reading material — obtaining such stolen information by paying for it. I don’t know of any similar investigation where the results have depended on hacking phones or intercepting emails; an investigation turning over the murkier, perhaps criminal, aspects of life. But I could appreciate that in such a case, the ends could well justify the means. If it’s illegal to illegally hack phones and emails, there must be an implicit but unstated legal use of such activities. (Of course, hacking phones of “celebrities” and suchlike for purely salacious, lubricious ends is in no way comparable. Who doesn’t have feet of clay?)

If compliance is the real problem, how then is it to be enforced? Lord Justice Leveson favours self-regulation, which is “underpinned” by statute, and which seems to have a second regulator checking on the first. Unsurprisingly, this is being spun as an infringement on a “free” press, as government control of the press. He offers sticks and carrots to try to ensure that all newspapers will agree to it — but he recognises that membership cannot be enforced, however desirable; and he recommends that the “freedom of the press” be enshrined in legislation.


What would life for the press be under a “statutory regulator”? I can’t offer a very exact parallel, but I can suggest how it could work.

Before the Medical Act of 1858, medicine was an unregulated profession, attracting more than its fair share of charlatans, snake oil merchants and the like. The Act set up the General Medical Council which required doctors to be registered with it, and which had the power to censure doctors, and to strike them off. The GMC is an example of “self-regulation”, where its formation is statutory, but it’s actions are determined by itself.

The GMC’s remit has been updated through the years; medical Royal Colleges through their charters also have regulatory powers, though these are essentially devolved to the GMC.

The GMC is a “regulator” established by statute; its activities include publishing codes of conduct for doctors. But the government does not interfere with its work; the government’s activity is limited to introducing new legislation to “update” the GMCs functions.

Almost all doctors in the UK are employed in the NHS, in “Trusts” or general practitioner groups. These are not free agents; they are required, for example, to accede to “best practice”, as defined by NICE; and to be aware of financial pressures. Doctors in NHS practice are not “free agents”, they cannot offer whatever treatments they like — even if, in the past, this was the case. Yet most of them would accept the NICE guidelines, though financial pressures may require them to act to ration treatment, something that can be very difficult, yet is largely outside of “regulation”. Within the NHS there are various ways in which practice (or personal relationships) suspected of being substandard, ineffective or harmful can be investigated. This range of possibilities includes an informal visit from the “three wise men” to a formal, full scale enquiry.

These problems are not found in private practice, where the only regulation of the individual is through the GMC. (Of course, there are regulations around the safety of installations in much the same way as a printing press would be subject to Health & Safety regulations.)

There are two main, important ways in which this “statutory regulation” differs from that suggested for the press. Firstly, medical registration is compulsory; and secondly, it applies to individuals rather than to organisations.


It’s not a very good comparison, I freely admit, but it’s the best I can do. And while I’m at it, aren’t there similar “statutory underpinnings” to the self regulation of other professions such as lawyers? I don’t know if there is a “regulator” for judges, but then they don’t like being criticised, and any suggestion of criticism is likely to find you being sent down to cool your heels for a night or two.
However, I think that the scaremongering about the end of a “free press” is no more than puffery; we know that self-regulation hasn’t worked, and more of the same, slightly modified, isn’t going to change things. The difficulties are how to get the main players to sign up, and how to get them to follow a code of conduct.

As far as a code of conduct is concerned, periodic inspections might be a way; the encouragement of “whistleblowers”, and some form of sanctions that are actually effective.

But as for compulsory membership; I can immediately see difficulties. The regulation is aimed at major players, daily papers with large circulations; but how do you — should you — separate them from quite innocuous publications such as the Ambridge Gardening Gazette? If some papers opt out, well they come under the aegis of Ofcom according to Lord Leveson, and lose the “carrots”. Whether Ofcom actually wants — or is capable of — this activity isn’t certain. Perhaps the carrots will be a sufficient inducement.

There just might be another approach to this. The editor of the newspaper is, at least in theory, responsible for all the content of the paper. Why not make the editor the subject of the regulation, and let him or her implement the appropriate codes of conduct. No hiding behind any sort of “corporate responsibility”, if there is a problem the editor personally is responsible. Would this be too inhibitory? Would this transfer of responsibility from the organisation to a single, named individual work in practice, or is the work of an editor such that the extra work of ensuring compliance would be excessive. An editor could appoint a “compliance officer”, though this sounds excessively bureaucratic.

No system will prevent all errors; but a sensible system of regulation should prevent malicious defamation of the sort that we are only too familiar with. What we might think of as “honest” errors should be swiftly corrected. (And, whisper it quietly lest they hear, even judges make mistakes; if they didn’t there would be no need for the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.)

Disclosure: many, many years ago I was once part of a “three wise men” triumvirate.

28 November 2012

5% (part 1 of 3)

Martin Luther couldn’t have foreseen some of the effects of his 95 Theses. Mind you, it was Jean Calvin, in the “Protestant Rome” of Geneva who gets the credit (or perhaps that should be blame) for one of the most far-reaching.

Calvin believed in the value of hard work, as a route to salvation; and also believed that money as capital should work. Previously, “usury”, the lending of money for interest, was a sin; Calvin approved of it. In his time, usury didn’t have the connotation of extortionate or excessive interest.
Be that as it may, the question is “what is a reasonable rate of interest”? Calvin thought that 5% was reasonable, and in the 17th century in England the maximum allowable was 10%. You could extrapolate this to “what is a reasonable rate for my labour”.

Then there wouldn’t have been any income tax, and the idea of inflation wasn’t such a topic as it is today. Now, we expect to have to pay income tax on the interest, and we see the “real value” devalued; it can be hard to keep the value of the capital intact. Quite recently in the UK, unearned income carried an extra penalty of 15% above the top rate of tax, which itself was 83%; you might think that a tax rate of 98% was extortionate. And you wouldn’t be surprised that it made capital gains, which weren’t originally taxed, more popular.

Despite all this, a rate of 5% seems reasonable to me, even though it’s difficult to achieve today. My capital is, at least in theory, available to an entrepreneur or capitalist to use to make or produce “stuff” or to provide “services”, and to pay me interest periodically, often annually. And the capitalist has his/her costs of production, and will want to set aside “reserves” to allow future development, and to tide themselves through setbacks, recessions and trading anomalies. And capitalism is what ultimately, provides the wealth of a country, not the government, though governments may need to intervene to provide a stimulus.

For some, 5% simply isn’t enough; it will double your capital (ignoring taxes etc) in about 14 years, but this is just too slow. These people are in the “get rich quick” group of financiers, and not just “get rich quick” but also “get very, very rich”. And yet there are limits to the “natural growth” of an economy; getting very rich, very quickly can’t be done through conventional investments. One way to do it is through “trading”; originally, this market allowed companies to buy or sell “stuff” in advance of their needs, in an effort to smooth and regulate their cash flow. But “trading” became an end in itself; it was no more than gambling. And lest you think that this is a moral invective against gambling, it isn’t. But, remember, in gambling, nothing is produced, there is a single pot of capital, and “luck” decides who wins and who looses. And in real casinos, the odds are always in favour of the “bank”. So in “casino” trading, if you make a profit, someone else makes a loss — and some of the losses that have come before the courts are staggering.

There’s a name for this sort of activity: greed.

And I haven’t mentioned companies that shuffle their profits around, to minimise their tax exposure; or multi-national companies that trade amongst themselves, at prices to suit themselves; or why Switzerland is a major centre for coffee and copper trading when neither of these commodities enters or leaves the country. Nor have I mentioned those individuals who hide their assets from the tax man, using machinations that may well be illegal; nor the corruption which seems rife in developing countries whose elite’s main aim seems to be to enrich themselves; nor the vast increases in managerial salaries and perks when the workers’ pay remains static or even falls; or even the bonuses for managers when the company is failing.

And there’s more than just greed to all this: inequality. And inequality is far, far more than just a word. For starters, it breeds poverty.

24 November 2012


There’s another issue about the treatment of women in labour in Ireland, something that was largely hidden for decades. It’s in the open now, even if there are those who would be very happy if it simply went away, brushed under the carpet.

Briefly, there was a vogue for symphysiotomy in some hospitals in Ireland for several decades, at a time when the procedure was generally considered obsolete.

What is a symphysiotomy? What is a symphysis?

A symphysis is a type of joint or “articulation” between two bones. It’s not the sort of joint at the knee or knuckles; a symphysis has a layer of fibro-cartilage between the bones, as a “shock absorber”.

Here, we are concerned with the symphysis pubis, the symphysis between the pubic rami of the innominate bones of the pelvis. It’s at the front, directly in front of the bladder, and very near the clitoris and urethra. There is about 2mm of movement, and perhaps 1º of rotation normally. This does increase in pregnancy, under hormonal influence.

What’s a symphysiotomy? It is the division of the symphysis, to allow greater separation of the two pubic rami. It used to be done for “disproportion”, that is where the mother’s pelvis was too small to allow the foetal head to pass through during labour. This problem was often related to poor diet and rickets.

It’s important to note that a symphysiotomy was done during labour, to allow the labour to proceed; it was in no way a prophylactic procedure.

I checked in a gynaecological textbook*: it describes the increase in the diameters of the pelvis which can be expected from the operation, that is, how much bigger the pelvis becomes. It continues,

“The writer does not approve of or recommend the operation, on account of the danger of leaving the patient in a crippled condition after it”. The author, however, describes how to do it, then, “When delivery has been completed…” describes how to attempt to repair the symphysiotomy. He recommends in addition bed rest for four weeks, and then the use of a pelvic binder “for at least a year”. And,

“There are certain risks connected with the operation which greatly detract from its value. The urethra or bladder or both may be torn. There may be lacerations about the clitoris, which may give rise to troublesome haemorrhage. The sacro-iliac joints may be much damaged or even ruptured. The pelvic symphysis may fail to unite, and thus leave the woman unable to walk properly.” [My italics.]

What’s disturbing about the cases in Ireland is that:

  • The procedure was done as a prophylactic, to enable easier future deliveries. Contraception was not available at this time; the mores of the Catholic church prevailed.
  • It was done as an “alternative” to Caesarian section which was felt to be more dangerous, specially for repeated pregnancies; again, there was no contraception, and “grand multipara” were very common in Ireland.
  • The women were not told that the procedure had been done; their permission was not sought.
  • Even when it was done, it was outmoded, outdated. And there was no attempt at "after treatment", to allow the symphysis to heal.
  • And it took some women many decades to discover the truth, to discover why they couldn’t walk properly, why they were in pain.

A report has been commissioned, but not for the first time there is the feeling that the whole truth has not been exposed, and that the government is sitting on its hands.

You can read more of this truly awful story in the Irish Times at:


(and follow the associated links)

* Full declaration: I’m neither eminent nor a gynaecologist, but the author of the textbook was: my grandfather. His textbook was published in 1908. Yes, you read that correctly, the information is more than a century old: it was as correct then as it was during the 20th century.

"It is the law"

There’s a report in today’s Irish Times, giving a time-line of the events around Savita’s management and death.

If this is accurate, it describes a midwife missing a fully dilated cervix uteri.

A termination was refused — “this is the law” — yet it was appreciated that the pregnancy was doomed, and that a delivery was inevitable.

The comment about “the law” is at variance with guidance provided through the Irish Medical Council.

Read it here:


22 November 2012

What is an abortion?

Seems a simple question, doesn’t it? Everyone knows — or thinks they know — what an abortion is. Just ask the man in the street or the man on the Clapham omnibus. Today, though, it would be the person in the street or on the bus.

Well, it’s not quite as simple as you might think. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 doesn’t actually use the word abortion, it refers to “miscarriage”, but does not define what a “miscarriage” might be — and certainly not in terms of weeks of gestation. It also refers to procuring a miscarriage in a woman who isn’t pregnant; either a “catch all” clause, or just possibly a failure of understanding. (And, would you believe it, there was a successful prosecution against a medic for attempting to procure an abortion in a woman who wasn’t pregnant.)

Abortion and miscarriage are exactly synonymous in medical jargon, though miscarriage usually has the nuance or implication of “natural” and abortion is often taken to be “artificial”. It’s difficult to be certain, but it’s generally accepted that many pregnancies end in a “spontaneous miscarriage”, often without the woman realising that she was pregnant.

A dictionary definition of abortion is the premature termination of a pregnancy, but there is no mention of the period of gestation.

When the 1861 Act was formulated, the idea of “induction of labour” was unknown. Many women today have their labour induced, for whatever reason, by “ARM” — artificial rupture of the membranes — and through the use of pharmacological agents. Would the Victorians have considered this as an “abortion”?

The dictionary doesn’t include “destruction of the foetus” in its definition, even if this is what is commonly accepted today. And many would hold that a termination before 24 weeks is an abortion — after 24 weeks, the foetus is usually “viable”. Viable in the sense that it can survive, albeit with significant support.

If in practical terms we can say an abortion is the termination of pregnancy before 24 weeks, and destruction of the foetus; it’s quite possible that the law hasn’t caught up with this.

And we can also say that a full-term neonate is premature; not as paradoxical as it seems. The human baby can do nothing for itself for several years after birth. The offspring of “lower” animals can stand and search out the teat for themselves within a very short time. Human babies are born “prematurely”, it’s said, because of the size of the brain. The adult female pelvis simply won’t allow anything larger to pass; human prematurity is an evoutionary necessity. And the potential for disproportion between the foetal head and the pelvis explains a lot of the problem of labour, and, sadly, worldwide maternal mortality.

Inquiry II

It’s been a slow-motion catastrophe. An inquiry is announced, to be held in secret, with no names being named. Three participants were expected to be both witnesses and judges; they were then to be replaced.

The widower, through his solicitor said he wasn’t going to assist this inquiry; and the solicitor says that some of the medical notes appear to be missing.

The government resists calls for a thorough inquiry, a tribunal.

And then the President makes a thoughtful statement.

And now, the Irish Times reports, the Health Information and Quality Authority has been asked to initiate a statutory inquiry. The original inquiry still seems to be active.

Who would have foreseen this?

Edit 23 November: The HIQU will undertake an inquiry. But, the validity of its inquiry has been questioned, and it may not call witnesses under oath.

Meanwhile, Mr Halappanavar in considering an action at the European Court of Human Rights.

Don't hold your breath, this saga looks set to run and run.

Double negatives

The statue defining abortion throughout the British Isles is the Offences against the Person Act, 1861. It applies in the Republic of Ireland as that state “took over” pre-existing UK legislation when it was founded. The Abortion Act 1967 does not legalise abortion in England, Wales and Scotland; rather is provides a legal defence to a criminal charge. This Act does not apply to N Ireland.

The relevant parts of the 1861 Act are sections 58 and 59:

Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . .
Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . .

(The penalties available on conviction have changed since 1861.)

Both these sections are a bit hard to follow; I’ve added emphasis here:

Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . .

Whosoever shall unlawfully supply or procure any poison or other noxious thing, or any instrument or thing whatsoever, knowing that the same is intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . .

The word I’m concerned with is “unlawfully”, repeated several times in these sections. To paraphrase the Act, “it shall be unlawful to do an unlawful thing”. There is no mention of “lawful”.

The law was tested in the case of R v. Bourne in 1938. Aleck Bourne was a gynaecologist who performed an abortion on a 14 year old girl who had been raped by several soldiers. The judge apparently said that an abortion could be lawful to prevent the mother becoming a “mental and physical wreck”. The jury acquitted Bourne.

I’ve not found it in my researches, but I was told by someone who was a contemporary that part of the defence was based on “lawful”; that the Act described what was “unlawful”, but implied by omission that there could be circumstances that were “lawful”.

This “double negative” does provide a very minimal tolerance of abortion in N Ireland, where the mother’s health is compromised; but there is no allowance,for example, for the legal abortion of foetuses with abnormalities incompatible with life. (There have been other legal judgements, this is the gist.) Obviously, the Bourne judgement does not apply to Ireland.

20 November 2012

Patent leather shoes

There’s a report in the Irish Times today (20 November 2012) about the responses of the Irish Bishops to the death of Savita Halappanavar.

TheBishops say that the church “has never taught that the life of a child in the womb should be preferred to that of a mother”.

Well, I may be getting on, but I can remember clearly being told that when it came to a choice between the life of a child (or foetus) and the life of the mother, then the life of the child took precedence, the mother’s life should be sacrificed that her child might live. This was the “guidance” as obstetricians understood it.

The Catholic church’s position on abortion has changed over the centuries; earlier, the time of “ensoulment” was taken to be at quickening, so that abortion before this time was not homicide. The church’s present position is apparently based on the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas, who wrote:

the vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without (ie by God).

I really don’t understand how he could have derived this, but I’m not a theologian.

The church does have “form” as far as woman are concerned, particularly feminine sexuality. Sts Jerome and Augustine entertained ideas which today seem very strange — that celibacy was preferable to sex, because, of course, sex was bad and immoral, but if the flesh was weak, well so be it. Another set of ideas that I can’t fathom.

You might well think that the church has “sex on the brain”; you might think that male theologians are sexually repressed; you might well think that the church is keener on “control” than education.

You may have heard the urban myth that well brought up, convent educated, good catholic girls don’t wear patent leather shoes, for fear that boys would see the reflection of their knickers in them. I’ve never looked, but I find this idea improbable.

And I would have dismissed this as anti-catholic propaganda, had I not heard if from a well brought up, convent educated, catholic woman who was taught this. And it wasn’t a joke.

A flawed inquiry?

There is to be an inquiry into the death of Savita Halappanavar. It is to be headed by an external expert, a professor from one of the London teaching hospitals.

Three of the seven members of the panel are employed at the hospital where Savita died, though we are told that they were not involved in her management. They are a consultant in anaesthesia, a consultant in infectious diseases and the professor of obstetrics and gynaecology.

These three are to advise the panel on local procedures and policies. They are to be ‘excused’ from the questioning of those directly involved in Savita’s management.

Now, while it’s sensible for the panel to be informed on local policies, it does mean that these three people will also be evaluating their own policies and the policies and actions of their colleagues; they are to be both ‘witnesses’ and ‘judges’. You might well think that this gives rise to a significant conflict of interests. You could argue that such a duality will allow the inquiry to be much quicker than otherwise would be possible.

This is not to say that the three won’t discharge their duties to the best of their abilities. But it must make it hard for them to be impartial, to be disinterested; they will have to work with their colleagues in the future.

And that surely is the weakness of this inquiry; no matter what the report eventually shows and recommends, it will be hard to escape any charge of bias. And therefore there will be a call for a truly impartial inquiry.

Unsurprisingly, Savita’s widower, Praveen Halappanavar, is calling for a full public inquiry, with witnesses questioned and cross-questioned under oath.

Edit: the Irish Times reports (20 November, afternoon) that local staff have been removed from the inquiry.

19 November 2012

Further thoughts on abortion

Abortion in the UK and the Republic of Ireland ("the state") is illegal; both countries are subject to the same Offences Against the Person Act 1861. In Great Britain — but not in N Ireland — the Abortion Act 1967 did not make abortion in certain cases legal; rather, it provided a legal defence to any charge of procuring an (illegal) abortion. When the Republic was founded, is continued with the common law legal system, and kept pre-existing laws.

In the Republic there have been no legislative changes in relation to abortion. However, the Supreme Court gave a ruling in 1992, permitting an abortion in very limited circumstances, where the life of the mother was in danger. Not just her health, it had to be her life which was endangered. There is no law which confirms this. The Irish Constitution now recognises that life begins at conception; the value of the mother’s and the foetus’s lives are equal.

The 1992 ruling came about in relation to the case of ‘X’, a fourteen-year old child who had been repeatedly raped and had become pregnant. Before taking her to England for an abortion, the father asked of the Garda (police) whether the foetus’s DNA would be useful. X’s planned trip became known to the authorities, who applied to the High Court; and the Court banned X from leaving the state. (You read that correctly; X was banned from leaving Ireland.) An application to the Supreme Court overturned this, permitting X to travel, and, as X was suicidal, issuing its guidelines. You might well think that “hard cases make bad law”.

The present position is that the original act is still in force, very slightly modified by the Supreme Court, but without legislative weight; unsurprisingly, there is confusion about what can be done and what cannot be done. (No accurate data are collated, but it does seem that quite a few “abortions” are performed yearly in the state. I don’t know whether these are the result of applications to the High Court.)

As far as I know, there is no legal definition of what “abortion” is and what is not in Ireland. (A dictionary definition of abortion is the premature termination of a pregnancy, without indicating any time limits. Other definitions might be termination before, say, 24 weeks. After this stage any procedure presumably becomes an “induction of pregnancy”. More than just semantics?)

There are some quite depressing instances where perfectly sensible management cannot legally be offered.

Thus, there are occasional sad cases where the foetus dies in utero, but is not expelled as a ‘spontaneous miscarriage’ or ‘spontaneous abortion’. It is possible for the dead foetus to be retained for several weeks, or even a couple of months, during which the mother’s life is not immediately in danger, though potentially it is. It seems to be illegal to ‘abort’ this dead foetus in Ireland; the mother must travel to England, or the Netherlands, for what would otherwise be seen as the correct and appropriate management. Does a dead foetus have the same rights as a live one?

The foetus may show evidence of abnormalities incompatible with life on routine scanning, for example, anencephaly. In this condition, the brain does not develop. Does such a foetus have the same rights as a healthy one? Again, a mother confronted with such a problem cannot be managed legally in the state; she must travel abroad. Alternatively, exactly what are the benefits from allowing the pregnancy to continue to term?

Lest you think I’m inventing scenarios to make a case, there are occasional anecdotal reports of women with such problems being refused treatment, being told that appropriate management in the state would be illegal.

What of an ectopic pregnancy, one that develops in the Fallopian tube rather than in the uterus? Untreated, the pregnancy will grow, and burst the tube, with considerable bleeding, which if not arrested, can be fatal. A tubal pregnancy can be detected by scanning before it has reached a dangerous size; one method of management is pharmaceutical, causing the foetus to die and be expelled. (Alternatively, early operation may abort the pregnancy but salvage the tube.) The woman is saved the risks of rupture and the risks of emergency surgery. Is this legal?

If a woman becomes pregnant after rape, if her life in in danger — if she is suicidal — abortion is legal, or at least there is a Supreme Court judgement to comfort the surgeon. But if her life is not in danger, yet she wishes an abortion, the procedure cannot be legally performed in the state. She must go abroad. She is the victim of a crime, yet must carry the consequences of that crime; and for how long?

I’ve said nothing about abortion for ‘social’ reasons, about abortion ‘on demand’, and I don’t intend to, other than to indicate that what I’ve discussed above falls into a different category.

But I will comment on two other areas. Firstly, the widespread use of propaganda by both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” groups, rather than accurate facts; the use of “scare tactics”. This doesn’t help either side. Secondly, there is no male equivalent of abortion, no operation or procedure that is in any way comparable. And yet many of those who are most vocal are men. Men in the “pro-life” group seem to think, inter alia, that they still have control of women’s bodies; their thinking seems unchanged from the neolithic origins of the patriarchy, with its insistence on virginity and the rights of inheritance, though they are probably unaware of this, and would deny it. At least, that seems to be how they express some of their arguments.  And “pro-choice” men, who are perhaps a minority amongst men, what is their agenda? Most of the Irish legislature is male.

15 November 2012

Savita's legacy

The death of Savita Halappanavar was first reported on Tuesday, 13 November 2012, and was widely reported the following day in the Irish and UK press, and elsewhere; and the comment continues. Briefly, Savita was 17 weeks pregnant and was admitted to a hospital in Galway, Ireland. She was found to have a “dilated” cervix, from which amniotic fluid was leaking. It’s not entirely clear what treatment she was initially given; subsequently she developed a temperature with evidence of sepsis, and the pregnancy was “terminated” by delivery; soon afterwards she died. During her hospital stay she and her husband requested an “abortion” but were told that this was impossible and “illegal” as “this is a Catholic country”.

There are so many inconsistencies around this story, it’s hard to know where to begin. And,at this stage, the details of her management are incomplete. There are at least two on-going inquiries into her death.

Nonetheless, as fas as I can discover at this stage, she complained of severe back pain, and had a fully dilated cervix,  with evidence of ruptured membranes. This combination of features is an “inevitable abortion”, one in which no matter what treatment may be tried, the pregnancy cannot continue towards a full-term delivery. The management is the delivery of the foetus; this prevents, as far as possible, sepsis and septicaemia; it is an acceptance of the “inevitable”. The presence of a foetal heartbeat is irrelevant; the foetus is doomed — at 17 weeks, a foetus cannot survive outside the womb. Nothing can be gained by delay. Terminating the pregnancy is not an “abortion”, rather is a delivery, the ending of a process which has already begun. Whether “abortion” is illegal, whether Ireland is “a Catholic country” is irrelevant.

I cannot understand why the standard management of an “inevitable abortion” was not followed here. Even if the cervix wasn’t fully dilated initially, the fact that it was “open” means that the miscarriage will become “inevitable”. I don’t understand why the foetal heartbeat had to disappear before she could be delivered; not do I understand why she had to develop signs of septic shock before she was delivered. Despite the presence of a heartbeat, it’s likely that dead tissue and blood clot were present — perfect breeding grounds for infection. And it’s quite possible to have a heartbeat but to be brain dead.

The risks of delay are infection, akin to puerperal sepsis, and DIC — disseminated intravascular coagulation. These combine to produce multi-organ failure, which seems to have been the proximate cause of Savita’s death.

Savita suffered a “mid-trimester” miscarriage or abortion. These are not spontaneous; they do not occur for no reason. For example, there may be chromosomal defects; placental abruption — where the placenta becomes detached from the uterus, or infection, though this is not a comprehensive list. In a way, you could think of a mid-trimester abortion (and a first-trimester abortion) as the body recognising that there is a problem with the foetus, and seeking to manage the problem by expulsion of the foetus. (In a “threatened” abortion, there is vaginal bleeding, but the cervix is closed; such a pregnancy can certainly continue to full-term.)

An “abortion” is the premature termination of a pregnancy; it may be “natural”, or be caused artificially. The word “miscarriage” is usually applied to a “natural” event; but the two words are really exactly synonymous, even if there is a belief that “abortion” is artificial. While it’s difficult to be certain, it’s suggested that about a third of all pregnancies spontaneously abort. In the first trimester, the woman may notice nothing more than a somewhat delayed and heavier than usual “period”.

There are at least four broad indications for an (artificial) abortion:
1. As a method of contraception — this is what is commonly meant by “abortion”.
2. When there is a major foetal abnormality, which is incompatible with life — such as anencephaly.
3. When the foetus has died in utero, but the body has made no effort at expulsion or delivery.
4. Where the mother’s life is endangered if the pregnancy continues. The danger might be mental — suicide, or physical — such as in eclampsia (a complex condition, with very high blood pressure, the risk of stroke or organ failure, etc.)

All and any abortion is illegal in Ireland. When the State was founded, it took over laws passed in the UK parliament beforehand, including the Offences against the Person Act of 1861, which made procuring any artificial abortion illegal.

However, following the case of “X” in 1992, the Irish Supreme Court offered some guidance; that abortion could be permissible if the mother’s life was in danger; not just if her health was endangered, but her life. There is no legislation, however, only guidance from the Irish Medical Council, based on this ruling.

“X” was a 14 year old child who had been repeatedly raped by a neighbour, and became pregnant. Before going to England for an abortion, her parents enquired of the Guarda (police) whether foetal tissue would help to prosecute her rapist. The facts of her case ascended to ministerial level, and mindful of the necessity of conserving the sanctity of the state, an application was made to the High Court, who passed an order preventing X’s removal from the state for the purposes of an abortion. (You read that correctly; X was banned from leaving the State.) This was overturned on appeal to the Supreme Court; and X either had an abortion in England, or suffered a miscarriage, depending on the version of the story you read. Note that the sanctity of the State was held, by the minister, to be above the welfare of the child: X was, unsurprisingly, suicidal.

(Abortion remains illegal in the UK; the Abortion Act of 1967 did not legalise abortion, but provided a form of legal defence to a charge of performing or procuring an illegal abortion — a legal nicety.)
So, even if you think that Savita should have had an “abortion” — rather than having the miscarriage completed by delivery — there are grounds for thinking that there would be a legal defence were there to be a challenge.

And as for the “Catholic country” argument; I’ve always understood that Catholic dogma required any doctor, when faced with the dilemma of whether to save the mother or the foetus, to strive to save the foetus, even if this meant that the mother died*. I’m not sure if this is still the case; but I did read one of the very few clerical responses to Savita’s case, that a “termination” would have been acceptable to the Church. (Savita was not a Catholic.)

There has been a lot of emotional reaction to Savita’s death, and the lack of abortion provision in Ireland. And there have been some comments trying to muddy the waters. For example, I’ve seen comments like: “Ireland is one of the safest countries for pregnant women, we have a very low rate of maternal death. There is no abortion in Ireland”. Both of these statements are correct — though there are countries with better maternal death rates. Irish women seeking an abortion go to England or the Netherlands. But there is no connection between maternal death rates and the availability of abortion — indeed, there are countries with lower maternal death rates which do have legal abortion. And the attempt to conjoin these two statements as a “post hoc, propter hoc” argument is nothing short of disingenuous and immoral; it says more about the lengths that some people will go to to support their point of view, the fragility of their position; their wilful blindness to the reality.

The Irish government has sat on its hands for the last 20 years, almost hoping that the abortion problem would quietly disappear. But they have received a report on the provision of abortion in Ireland within the last week, and are due to respond to the EC in Brussels by the end of the month.
For many people, the Hippocratic Oath from around 400BC prevents a doctor from performing an abortion. There are several versions of the oath, all with similar provisos. However, the intent behind the Oath seems to be either (1) that the physician should leave an abortion to a surgeon, or (2) that the physician should leave certain methods of abortion to a midwife, while retaining the right to perform others himself. In a nutshell: the Oath does not absolutely prohibit an physician from performing an abortion. Many choose to take the provisions of the Oath literally — well some of them; not performing abortions, yet charging fees to brother physicians and their families.

So, to return to Savita, where does all this leave her? The medical management of an inevitable abortion (miscarriage) is well established; there are safeguards, if only a matter of legal interpretation, were she to have had an “abortion”; yet she died.

I suspect that “a Catholic country” must bear much of the responsibility. There is no special place in the State’s constitution for the Catholic church, it is in no way an “established” religion. Yet almost all children in the State will have been educated in a catholic school, and have been subject from an early age to the teachings of the Church. And the Church’s orthodoxy, based on the ideas of St Jerome, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas amongst others, are quite remarkably — virulently — anti-women. In brief: the church has a major problem with sex, sexuality and with women. Just do a quick Google search.

Doctors don’t work in isolation in hospitals; there are lots of others who have an input into decisions, none more important than nurses. The english nomenclature of “Sister so-and-so” when referring to a nurse harks back to when all nurses were nuns. And nuns are still an important group of nurses in Ireland today. Further, while many nurses are intelligent and open-minded, many, alas, have a very narrow view of things, their views being based as much on religious teaching as on medical fact. And don’t forget the Magdalene laundries, and what nuns did to girls there.

It’s not easy to present a dispassionate, disinterested view about abortion; it is a very emotional issue. And if you have been brought up in a country saturated with Catholic teaching — even if the church has lost almost all moral authority in the last twenty years, with homosexual and child abuse “scandals” — it’s next to impossible to put this behind you, particularly if you are, despite everything, a person of faith. So your Weltanschauung is intrinsically biased; and it’s very difficult to conceive of other, equally or more valid, views.

And the Irish governments? It’s a very divisive  issue there — and it won’t surprise you that the Dáil (parliament) is predominantly male, nor that the present Taoiseach (Prime Minister) is a “devout” catholic, nor that there are “party positions”.

The physicist Max Planck’s quantum theory was ridiculed when first presented. It gradually gained currency. When asked, twenty years after he had advanced it, why it had come to be accepted, Planck answered, “They all died”. He realised that it’s impossible to change some peoples’ minds, that change has to await the next generation.

Let’s hope that Savita’s legacy is that the next generation is here.

* Edit: I've seen this confirmed in the Sunday Times of 25 November. The reason for preferring the foetus over the mother is that the mother has been baptised, while the foetus hasn't -- and should be given this chance.

23 July 2012

How to Blog anonymously

I don't usually do this; this is a reblog from Brooke Magenti's "The Sex Myth" about how to try to stay safe on line, how to be as anonymous as you can. But there are those who don't appreciate what she writes and would wish this piece removed. The story behind this is here:


and the full text follows the original article.

The original is here (or at least it was):


Thursday, 10 May 2012

How To Blog Anonymously (and how not to)

Further to yesterday's post, this is a list of thoughts prompted by a request from Linkmachinego on the topic of being an anonymous writer and blogger. Maybe not exactly a how-to (since the outcome is not guaranteed) as a post on things I did, things I should have done, and things I learned.

It's not up to me to decide if you "deserve" to be anonymous. My feeling is, if you're starting out as a writer and do not yet feel comfortable writing under your own name, that is your business and not mine. I also think sex workers should consider starting from a position of anonymity and decide later if they want to be out, please don't be naive. Statistics I made up right now show 99 out of 100 people who claim 'if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear' are talking out of their arses.

The items in the list fall into three general categories: internet-based, legal and real-world tips, and interpersonal. Many straddle more than one of these categories. All three are important.

This is written for a general audience because most people who blog now do not have extensive technical knowledge, they just want to write and be read. That's a good thing by the way. If you already know all of this, then great, but many people won't. Don't be sneery about their lack of prior knowledge. Bringing everyone up to speed on the technology is not the goal: clear steps you can use to help protect your identity from being discovered are.

Disclaimer: I'm no longer anonymous so these steps are clearly not airtight. Also there are other sources of information on the Web, some of which are more comprehensive and more current than my advice. I accept no responsibility for any outcome of following this advice. Please don't use it to do illegal or highly sensitive things. Also please don't use pseudonyms to be a dick.
This is also a work in progress. As I remember things or particular details, I'll amend this post. If you have suggestions of things that should be added, let me know.

1. Don't use Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail et al. for your mail.

You will need an email address to do things like register for blog accounts, Facebook, Twitter, and more. This email will have to be something entirely separate from your "real" email addresses. There are a lot of free options out there, but be aware that sending an email from many of them also sends information in the headers that could help identify you.

When I started blogging, I set up an email address for the blog with Hotmail. Don't do this. Someone quickly pointed out the headers revealed where I worked (a very large place with lots of people and even more computers, but still more information than I was comfortable with). They suggested I use Hushmail instead, which I still use. Hushmail has a free option (though the inbox allocation is modest), strips out headers, and worked for me.

A caveat with this: if you are, say, a sex worker working in a place where that is not legal and using Hushmail, you could be vulnerable to them handing over your details to a third party investigating crimes. If you're handling information some governments might consider embarrassing or sensitive, same. Google some alternatives: you're looking for something secure and encrypted.

There are a few common-sense tips you can follow to make it even safer. If you have to bring people you know in real life in on the secret, don't use this email address for communicating with them even if only about matters related to your secret (and don't use your existing addresses for that either). Example: I have one address for press and general interactions, one for things related to my accountant and money, and one for communicating with my agent, publisher, and solicitor. I've also closed and opened new accounts over the years when it seems "too many" people are getting hold of a particular address. Use different passwords for each, don't make these passwords related to your personal information, and so on.

I unwisely left the Hotmail address going, and while I did not use it to send mail, I continued to read things that arrived there. That led to this failed attempt by the Sunday Times to out me. It was an easily dodged attempt but something I would have preferred to avoid.

Over the years I have had about two email account changes every year and have changed my mobile number five times (eventually, I just stopped having one). If you change email addresses it's a good idea to send people you need to stay in contact with a mail from the old and the new address so they know it's not someone else trying to impersonate you. And to have a password so you know the response is from the right person - a password you did not exchange via an email conversation, of course. Example: you might send an email to your editor from old_address@somedomain.com and from new_address@somedomain.com at the same time, and the one from new_address contains Codeword1. They respond with Codeword2, indicating they acknowledge the change.

It sounds silly, but people can and do scam personal info all the time. Often they do so by pretending to be in on a secret so someone reveals something they did not mean to say. Play it safe. It can feel a stupidly cloak-and-dagger at first, but you soon get over it.

You can register internet domains while staying anonymous but I never did. Some people registered domains for me (people I didn't know in person). This led to a couple of instances of them receiving harassment when the press suspected they were me. In particular Ian Shircore got a bit of unwanted attention this way.

Because all I was ever doing was a straight-up blog, not having a registered domain that I had control over was fine. Your needs may be different. I am not a good source for advice on how to do that. But just in case you might be thinking "who would bother looking there?" read about how faux escort Alexa DiCarlo was unmasked. This is what happens when you don't cover your tracks.

2. Don't use a home internet connection, work internet connection, etc.

Email won't be the only way you might want to communicate with people. You may also want to leave comments on other blogs and so forth. Doing this and other ways of using the Web potentially exposes your IP address, which could be unique and be used to locate you.

Even if you don't leave comments just visiting a site can leave traces behind. Tim Ireland recently used a simple method to confirm his suspicion of who the "Tabloid Troll" twitter account belonged to. By comparing the IP address of someone who clicked on to a link going to the Bloggerheads site with the IP address of an email Dennis Rice sent, a link was made. If you go to the trouble of not using your own connection, also make sure you're not using the same connection for different identities just minutes apart. Don't mix the streams.

The timing of everything as it happened was key to why the papers did not immediately find out who I was. The old blog started in 2003, when most press still had to explain to their audience what a blog actually was. It took a while for people to notice the writing, so the mistakes I made early on (blogging from home and work, using Hotmail) had long been corrected by the time the press became interested.

Today, no writer who aims to stay anonymous should ever assume a grace period like that. It also helped that once the press did become interested, they were so convinced not only that Belle was not really a hooker but also that she was one of their own - a previously published author or even journalist - that they never looked in the right place. If they'd just gone to a London blogmeet and asked a few questions about who had pissed off a lot of people and was fairly promiscuous, they'd have had a plausible shortlist in minutes.

After I moved from Kilburn to Putney, I was no longer using a home internet connection - something I should have done right from the beginning. I started to use internet cafes for posting and other activities as Belle. This offers some security... but be wary of using these places too often if there is a reason to think someone is actively looking for you. It's not perfect.

Also be wary if you are using a laptop or other machine provided by your workplace, or use your own laptop to log in to work servers ("work remotely"). I've not been in that situation and am not in any way an expert on VPNs, but you may want to start reading about it here and do some googling for starters. As a general principle, it's probably wise not to do anything on a work laptop that could get you fired, and don't do anything that could get you fired while also connected to work remotely on your own machine.

3. There is software available that can mask your IP address. There are helpful add-ons that can block tracking software.

I didn't use this when I was anonymous, but if I was starting as an anonymous blogger now, I would download Tor and browse the Web and check email through their tools.

If you do use Tor or other software to mask your IP address, don't then go on tweeting about where your IP address is coming from today! I've seen people do this. Discretion fail.

I also use Ghostery now to block certain tracking scripts from web pages. You will want to look into something similar. Also useful are Adblocker, pop-up blockers, things like that. They are simple to download and use and you might like to use them anyway even if you're not an anonymous blogger. A lot of sites track your movements and you clearly don't want that.

4. Take the usual at-home precautions.

Is your computer password-protected with a password only you know? Do you clear your browser history regularly? Use different passwords for different accounts? Threats to anonymity can come from people close to you. Log out of your blog and email accounts when you're finished using them, every time. Have a secure and remote backup of your writing. Buy a shredder and use it. Standard stuff.

Sometimes the files you send can reveal things about yourself, your computer, and so on. When sending manuscripts to my agent and editor, they were usually sent chapter by chapter as flat text files - not Word documents - with identifying data stripped. The usual method I used to get things to them was to upload to a free service that didn't require a login, such as Sendspace. When writing articles for magaznes and papers, the text was typically appended straight into the body of the email, again avoiding attachments with potentially identifying information. This can be a little irritating... having to archive your writing separately, not altogether convenient to work on. But for the way I worked, usually not sharing content with editors until it was close to the final draft, it was fine.

When exchanging emails with my agent and editor, we never talked about actual meeting times and locations and threw a few decoy statements in, just in case. Since it has been recently revealed that Times journalists were trying to hack bloggers' email addresses after all, in retrospect, this seems to have been a good thing.

Another thing I would do is install a keystroke logger on your own machine. By doing this I found out in 2004 that someone close to me was spying on me when they were left alone with my computer. In retrospect what I did about it was not the right approach. See also item 7.

5. Be careful what you post.

Are you posting photos? Exif data can tell people, among other things, where and when a picture was taken, what it was taken with, and more. I never had call to use it because I never posted photos or sound, but am told there are loads of tools that can wipe this Exif data from your pictures (here's one).

The content of what you post can be a giveaway as well. Are you linking to people you know in real life? Are you making in-jokes or references to things only a small group of people will know about? Don't do that.

If possible, cover your tracks. Do you have a previous blog under a known name? Are you a contributor to forums where your preferred content and writing style are well-known? Can you edit or delete these things? Good, do that.

Personally, I did not delete everything. Partly this was because the world of British weblogging was so small at the time - a few hundred popular users, maybe a couple thousand people blogging tops? - that I thought the sudden disappearance of my old blog coinciding with the appearance of an unrelated new one might be too much of a coincidence. But I did let the old site go quiet for a bit before deleting it, and edited archived entries.

Keep in mind however that The Wayback Machine means everything you have written on the web that has been indexed still exists. And it's searchable. Someone who already has half an idea where to start looking for you won't have too much trouble finding your writing history. (UPDATE: someone alerted me that it's possible to get your own sites off Wayback by altering the robots.txt file - and even prevent them appearing there in the first place - and to make a formal request for removal using reasons listed here. This does not seem to apply to sites you personally have no control over unless copyright issues are involved.) If you can put one more step between them and you... do it.

6. Resist temptation to let too many people in.

If your writing goes well, people may want to meet you. They could want to buy you drinks, give you free tickets to an opening. Don't say yes. While most people are honest in their intentions, some are not. And even the ones who are may not have taken the security you have to keep your details safe. Remember, no one is as interested in protecting your anonymity as you will be.

Friends and family were almost all unaware of my secret - both the sex work and the writing. Even my best friend (A4 from the books) didn't know. 

I met very few people "as" Belle. There were some who had to meet me: agent, accountant, editor. I never went to the Orion offices until after my identity became known. I met Billie Piper, Lucy Prebble, and a couple of writers during the pre-production of Secret Diary at someone's house, but met almost no one else involved with the show. Paul Duane and Avril MacRory met me and were absolutely discreet. I went to the agent's office a few times but never made an appointment as Belle or in my real name. Most of the staff there had no idea who I was. Of these people who did meet me almost none knew my real name, where I lived, where I was from, my occupation. Only one (the accountant) knew all of that - explained below under point 9. And if I could have gotten away with him never seeing a copy of my passport, I damn well would have done.

The idea was that if people don't know anything they can't inadvertently give it away. I know that all of the people listed above were absolutely trustworthy. I still didn't tell them anything a journalist would have considered useful.

When I started blogging someone once commented that my blog was a "missed opportunity" because it didn't link to an agency website or any way of booking my services. Well, duh. I didn't want clients to meet me through the blog! If you are a sex worker who wants to preserve a level of pseudonymity and link your public profile to your work, Amanda Brooks has the advice you need. Not me.

Other sources like JJ Luna write about how to do things like get and use credit cards not tied to your name and address. I've heard Entropay offer 'virtual' credit cards that are not tied to your credit history, although they can't be used with any system that requires address verification. This could be useful even for people who are not involved in sex work.

Resisting temptation sometimes means turning down something you'd really like to do. The short-term gain of giving up details for a writing prize or some immediate work may not be worth the long-term loss of privacy. I heard about one formerly anonymous blogger who was outed after giving their full name and address to a journalist who asked for it when they entered a competition. File under: how not to stay anonymous.

7. Trust your intuition.

I have to be careful what I say here. In short, my identity became known to a tabloid paper and someone whom I had good reason not to trust (see item 4) gave them a lot of information about me.

When your intuition tells you not to trust someone, LISTEN TO IT. The best security in the world fails if someone props open a door, leaves a letter on the table, or mentally overrides the concern that someone who betrayed you before could do so again. People you don't trust should be ejected from your life firmly and without compromise. A "let them down easy" approach only prolongs any revenge they might carry out and probably makes it worse. The irony is that as a call girl I relied on intuition and having strong personal boundaries all the time... but failed to carry that ability over into my private life. If there is one thing in my life I regret, the failure to act on my intuition is it.

As an aside if you have not read The Gift of Fear already, get it and read it.

See also point 9: if and when you need people to help you keep the secret don't make it people already involved in your private life. Relationships can cloud good judgement in business decisions.

There is a very droll saying "Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead." It's not wrong. I know, I know. Paranoid. Hard not to be when journos a few years later are digging through the rubbish of folks who met you exactly once when you were sixteen. Them's the breaks.

8. Consider the consequences of success.

If you find yourself being offered book deals or similar, think it through. Simply by publishing anonymously you will become a target. Some people assume all anonymous writers "want" to be found, and the media in particular will jump through some very interesting hurdles to "prove" anything they write about you is in the public interest.

In particular, if you are a sex worker, and especially if you are a sex worker who is visible/bookable through your site, please give careful consideration to moving out of that sphere. Even where sex for money is legal it is still a very stigmatised activity. There are a number of people who do not seem to have realised this, and the loss of a career when they left the "sex-pos" bubble was probably something of a shock. I'm not saying don't do it - but please think long and hard about the potential this has to change your life and whether you are fully prepared to be identified this way forever. For every Diablo Cody there are probably dozens of Melissa Petros. For every Melissa Petro there are probably hundreds more people with a sex industry past who get quietly fired and we don't ever hear from them.

If I knew going in to the first book deal what would happen, I probably would have said no. I'm glad I didn't by the way - but realistically, my life was stressful enough at that point and I did not fully understand what publishing would add to that. Not many bloggers had mainstream books at that point (arguably none in the UK) so I didn't have anyone else's experience to rely on. I really had no idea about what was going to happen. The things people wrote about me then were mainly untrue and usually horrendous. Not a lot has changed even now. I'd be lying if I said that didn't have an emotional effect.

Writing anonymously and being outed has happened often enough that people going into it should consider the consequences. I'm not saying don't do it if you risk something, but be honest with yourself about the worst possible outcome and whether you would be okay with that.

9.  Enlist professional help to get paid and sign contracts.

Having decided to write a book, I needed an agent. The irony of being anonymous was that while I let as few people in on it as possible, at some point I was going to have to take a leap of faith and let in more. Mil Millington emailed me to recommend Patrick Walsh, saying he was one of the few people in London who can be trusted. Mil was right.

Patrick put me on to my accountant (who had experience of clients with, shall we say, unusual sources of income). From there we cooked up a plan so that contracts could be signed without my name ever gracing a piece of paper. Asking someone to keep a secret when there's a paper trail sounds like it should be possible but rarely is. Don't kid yourself, there is no such thing as a unbreakable confidentiality agreement. Asking journalists and reviewers to sign one about your book is like waving a red rag to a bull. What we needed was a few buffers between me and the press.

With Patrick and Michael acting as directors, a company was set up - Bizrealm. I was not on the paperwork as a director so my name never went on file with Companies House. Rather, with the others acting as directors, signing necessary paperwork, etc., Patrick held a share in trust for me off of which dividends were drawn and this is how I got paid. I may have got some of these details wrong, by the way - keep in mind, I don't deal with Bizrealm's day-to-day at all.

There are drawbacks to doing things this way: you pay for someone's time, in this case the accountant, to create and administer the company. You can not avoid tax and lots of it. (Granted, drawing dividends is more tax-efficient, but still.) You have to trust a couple of people ABSOLUTELY. I'd underline this a thousand times if I could. Michael for instance is the one person who always knew, and continues to know, everything about my financial and personal affairs. Even Patrick doesn't know everything.

There are benefits though, as well. Because the money stays mainly in the company and is not paid to me, it gets eked out over time, making tax bills manageable, investment more constant, and keeping me from the temptation to go mad and spend it.

I can't stress enough that you might trust your friends and family to the ends of the earth, but they should not be the people who do this for you. Firstly, because they can be traced to you (they know you in a non-professional way). Secondly, because this is a very stressful setup and you need the people handling it to be on the ball. As great as friends and family are that is probably not the kind of stress you want to add to your relationship. I have heard far too many stories of sex workers and others being betrayed by ex-partners who knew the details of their business dealings to ever think that's a good idea.

So how do you know you can trust these people? We've all heard stories of musicians and other artists getting ripped off by management, right? All I can say is instinct. It would not have been in Patrick's interest to grass me, since as my agent he took a portion of my earnings anyway, and therefore had financial as well as personal interest in protecting that. If he betrayed me he would also have suffered a loss of reputation that potentially outweighed any gain. Also, as most people who know him will agree, he's a really nice and sane human being. Same with Michael.

If this setup sounds weirdly paranoid, let me assure you that journalists absolutely did go to Michael's office and ask to see the Bizrealm paperwork, and Patrick absolutely did have people going through his bins, trying to infiltrate his office as interns, and so on. Without the protection of being a silent partner in the company those attempts to uncover me might have worked.

I communicate with some writers and would-be writers who do not seem to have agents. If you are serious about writing, and if you are serious about staying anonymous, get an agent. Shop around, follow your instinct, and make sure it's someone you can trust. Don't be afraid to dump an agent, lawyer, or anyone else if you don't trust them utterly. They're professionals and shouldn't take it personally.

10. Don't break the (tax) law.

Journalists being interested in your identity is one thing. What you really don't want is the police or worse, the tax man, after you. Pay your taxes and try not to break the law if it can be helped. If you're a sex worker blogging about it, get an accountant who has worked with sex workers before - this is applicable even if you live somewhere sex work is not strictly legal. Remember, Al Capone went down for tax evasion. Don't be like Al. If you are a non-sex-work blogger who is earning money from clickthroughs and affiliates on your site, declare this income.

In summer 2010 the HMRC started a serious fraud investigation of me. It has been almost two years and is only just wrapping up, with the Revenue finally satisfied that not only did I declare (and possibly overdeclare) my income as a call girl, but that there were no other sources of income hidden from them. They have turned my life and financial history upside down to discover next to nothing new about me. This has been an expensive and tedious process. I can't even imagine what it would have been like had I not filed the relevant forms, paid the appropriate taxes, and most of all had an accountant to deal with them!

Bottom line, you may be smart - I'm pretty good with numbers myself - but people whose job it is to know about tax law, negotiating contracts, and so on will be better at that than you are. Let them do it. They are worth every penny.

11. Do interviews with care.

Early interviews were all conducted one of two ways: over email (encrypted) or over an IRC chatroom from an anonymising server (I used xs4all). This was not ideal from their point of view, and I had to coach a lot of people in IRC which most of them had never heard of. But again, it's worth it, since no one in the press will be as interested in protecting your identity as you are. I hope it goes without saying, don't give out your phone number.

12. Know when les jeux sont faits.

In November 2009 - 6 years after I first started blogging anonymously - my identity was revealed.

As has been documented elsewhere, I had a few heads-ups that something was coming, that it was not going to be nice, and that it was not going to go away. We did what we could to put off the inevitable but it became clear I only had one of two choices: let the Mail on Sunday have first crack at running their sordid little tales, or pre-empt them.

While going to the Sunday Times - the same paper that had forcibly outed Zoe Margolis a few years earlier, tried to get my details through that old Hotmail address, and incorrectly fingered Sarah Champion as me - was perhaps not the most sensitive choice, it was for me the right move. Patrick recommended that we contact an interviewer who had not been a Belle-believer: if things were going to be hard, best get that out of the way up front.

So that is that. It's a bit odd how quickly things have changed. When I started blogging I little imagined I would be writing books, much less something like this. Being a kind of elder statesman of blogging (or cantankerous old grump if you prefer) is not an entirely comfortable position and one that is still new to me. But it is also interesting to note how little has changed: things that worked in the early 2000s have value today. The field expanded rapidly but the technology has not yet changed all that much.

As before, these ideas do not constitute a foolproof way to protect your identity. All writers - whether writing under their own names or not - should be aware of the risks they may incur by hitting 'publish'. I hope this post at least goes some way to making people think about how they might be identified, and starts them on a path of taking necessary (and in many cases straightforward) precautions, should they choose to be anonymous.


This post explains the "backstory":


This morning I signed in to Blogger to find a popup notifying me that a DMCA claim had been filed regarding a particular entry - the one about blogging anonymously.

Blogger have not emailed me the details of the claim (including, for instance, who filed it) and I have yet to see it appear on Chilling Effects. So I reinstated the post from 'Draft' to published. However I'm also aware that by doing this and not changing the content, there may be more in this episode yet to come.

At this point I can only speculate about who and why the claim was made. I've been over it time and again to try to see what, if anything, violates copyright and I'm stumped. It's all my own original writing, no images or audio are included, and I try to cite and link throughout to all the people who also have good advice and tools out there.

So for now and until there's word otherwise I'm going to assume this is by some crank who does not like what I have to say generally. Well, too bad. By the end of the week this blog and its content will have migrated to a UK-based service and will no longer be subject to US copyright bullshit. I'll be tweeting the relevant addresses when that happens.

In the meantime, I've asked if people could please reblog the full content of the post to keep the information out there. The fact that it's the single most popular post of all time on this blog says a lot about the need for this information to be public.

Here is a list of reblogs so far:



Chris of Arabia


If you would also like to reblog the content of the original post, please do. A credit is appreciated of course but more important to me is that the resources are widely cited for the writers who want or need to use them.


The reference to Spartacus is to the film, when the slaves were asked to give up Spartacus, they all replied "I am Spartacus". It was also used as a hashtag (octothorpe) on Twitter when the original post that lead to the #TwitterJokeTrial was reposted. (Disclaimer: I've met Paul J Chambers, the poster of the notorious tweet. I've not met Dr Magnanti.)