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Date: 26/06/11

Self-Righteousness 1st...

This is a slightly tricky subject, one which it is difficult to discuss without falling foul of the tendencies of our terminally-misled society to damn people for all eternity for one mis-step added to a propensity for media-induced prurience, but there is what Valentine Michael Smith would call 'a wrongness' about something here, so I must raise it.

It concerns a young Scottish football player called Craig Thomson. Earlier this month, he was found guilty of indecent behaviour towards two under-age girls over the internet. He was fined £4 000 and ordered to be placed on the sex offenders' register.

His employer, Heart Of Midlothian FC, having investigated the matter further and discussed it with Thomson (who has issued a public apology for his conduct), have decided to allow him to continue to play for the club.

So far, so legal, so reasonable.

But this has not been enough for an organisation calling itself Children 1st. In a radio interview, they have called for Thomson to be sacked as well.

I do not for one moment condone what Thomson did; he has behaved like a prick, and seems to have acknowledged the fact. But what more do Children 1st actually want? Consider that Thomson:

and yet despite all this, Children 1st want him to lose his job in addition to the punishments already handed to him by a properly-constituted court of law after a trial which - we must assume - was fair.

Let's consider what would happen if they got their way. By dint of the criminal record (and the type of offence he committed), Thomson would find it very difficult to find employment elsewhere. Not just as a footballer, but in any sphere of employment. After all, it's not as if there are employers in every town in the Realm who think, "Well, it doesn't matter if he's a convicted nonce; of course we'll take him.", is it?

Similarly, if he wanted to try to continue his chosen career elsewhere, he would find it all but impossible, as no other country would be likely to let him in even to visit (the only place which might allow the import of perverts - the Vatican - doesn't have a football team).

So, if Hearts sacked him, he would - at least for some considerable time to come - be practically unemployable.

Perhaps Children 1st would like to explain whether this would make Thomson (even assuming that he would be a risk of repeat offending, which is a substantial 'if' without any supporting evidence) less of a risk to underage girls or more of one? Especially given that he might be excused for thinking that there was nothing much more that could be done to him, so he might as well be as bad as he could be. How many times do you get to kick someone when he's down, and what purpose - other than serving your own sense of self-righteousness and rectitude - would such a course of action serve?

There's a broader point to this than the fate of just one ball-kicking numpty, however. We now seem to be a land full of people setting themselves up as groups advocating this and that, or on behalf of some group or another (even if the group being advocated on behalf of - is that grammatical? - doesn't necessarily want them to do so).

The nature of these groups can vary.

At one end of the scale you have the likes of the thoroughly risible Taxpayers' Alliance (which claims to speak for all downtrodden taxpayers but which, when you see what they come out with, is clearly in favour of slashing expenditure on public services so that the wealthy can continue to entertain themselves in the style to which they have become all too accustomed in recent times, and whose calls for 'transparency' in others are somewhat weakened by their own deep-seated coyness about the sources of their own funding).

At the other end, you have no end of campaigning organisations who think that 'something should be done' about whatever it is they believe is wrong. Many of these groups have aims which are, at least, laudable in themselves; better treatment for people with mental illnesses, for example, or stronger action against the mutilation of the genitals of infants for reasons of mere cultural conformity. However what tends to happen with these and all the others is that their Great Cause provokes them into a stridency, shrillness and unwillingness to reason which in the end actually damages the cause they claim to be so concerned about.

(It also helps if you have a snappy name for your organisation, by the way. I checked out Children 1st earlier on. It turns out to be what used to be called the Royal Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children; this obviously was not 'dynamic' enough, and so they were 're-branded').

This might not matter so much if we still had something worthy of being called 'journalism' in this country. But we don't anymore. In place of the old practice of newspapers and the broadcast news media which basically ran, "Find the story, investigate the story, confirm the story, print/broadcast the story and be damned", the vast majority of those who call themselves 'journalists' today are little more than stenographers, either repeating what those in positions of political and economic power want the public to know or think, or mindlessly doing Ctrl+C > Ctrl+V from the outpourings of any organisation sufficiently sharp to have someone capable of creating an effective press release. And this without doing anything which could remotely be called 'research', something which is surely easier now (if not necessarily more reliable) than at any previous time in human history.

It is this latter tendency which is the more dangerous, simply because it means that the most appalling bollocks gets disseminated as if it were the truth because no critical filters have been applied to it beforehand as a sort of veracity quality control. And so, in the case of the Taxpayers' Alliance, for example, it means that their mouthpieces get invited onto television and radio programmes to spout their fake-outrage twaddling as if they really were speaking on behalf of the vast majority of the population rather than just for a very small and already well-favoured section of it. And in the case of other organisations, it means that those who shout the loudest, or can twang what the media perceive are the heart-strings of the Great British Public, can always rely on getting a hearing out of all proportion to the significance - or even the integrity - of what they have to say.

So it is that, for example, the self-appointed moral watchdogs of our time such as the ludicrous Mediawatch (one mad, wife-beating fundamentalist in Carmarthenshire) are taken with undue seriousness by today's media compared to their precursors such as Mary Whitehouse in what we are supposed now to consider to have been less enlightened times. So it is also that groups created ostensbly to help, say, the victims of crime are given disproportionate coverage and influence in the media and poltical agendas.

What this all does is not merely to skew the public debate, often twisting it into forms which have no recognisable relation to reality, but all too often it serves totally to shut down that debate. All you have to do is to cry something like, "Won't someone fink of duh kiddies?", and no further discussion is possible, because to seek to argue against the points made by such groups - however cogent your argument, however baseless or batshit the other side may be - immediately categorises you in the eyes of the masses as being in favour of, for example, child rape. This was the way in which massive public opposition to the Blair régime's illegal war on Iraq could be negated by portraying all those of us who opposed that murderous agenda as being fellow-travellers of Saddam Hussein (Nick Cohen in The Observer is still doing this eight or nine years on).

So calm, rational debate on matters of import becomes less and less possible because you have to compete against lobbying groups which are often well-equipped and invariably very loud. This means that the campaigning groups get what amounts to a free pass to channel opinions which - if not outright barmy - are singularly ill-thought-out, not least because it is very difficult to challenge them without being misrepresented oneself.

What it also means is that organisations which do try to do things calmly and engage in something which could be called a proper debate fare very badly, because the wells of discourse have been poisoned by the shouters and screamers in such a way that you cannot get your point heard unless you resort to the same tactics yourself. This is an extreme and damaging corrosion of the body politic which harms all of us.

And that is why organisations such as Children 1st can call for a young man who has already been punished to the proper extent of the law to have his current (and future) employment prospects removed from him without anyone being able to tell them that they are talking nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that.

As ever, the key question to ask oneself when you hear anyone with an axe sedulously grinding it in public is the old standby: Cui bono?  An arrow to click on to take you to a follow-up item