Call me Madame

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

A few days ago, I phoned to arrange a repair to my washing machine. Having got through to the relevant person – a young woman – who could arrange the appointment, I was asked, as question number one, whether I was Miss or Mrs. This question is of course a standard one in this country, where ‘Ms’ has failed to catch on, unlike the position in the United States. As someone who teaches Language and Gender, I am aware that the way you address someone not only reflects the prevalent social structures, but also shapes and perpetuates them. Classifying women from the outset by their marital status is an instance of ‘everyday sexism’, as a certain massively successful web forum is called. Honestly, why should I have to disclose whether I am married or not to someone I have never met and will never meet, just in order to arrange a washing machine repair?

So I gave my standard reply: ‘Ms’. The reply to that was that this was not a title that would allow the relevant form to be completed. Since my (then teenage) son once filled in his title from a drop-down menu as ‘the Right Reverend Monsignor’, it was not clear to me why this form could not offer this third option. Irritated, I said “In that case please use ‘Professor’ “. I don’t like using my ‘rank’ outside academia, but desperate measures were needed. Once again, computer said no. This was an academic title, and so no use on the form. My Chinese horoscope says I am a tree, and trees do not budge. For a few moments it appeared that the washing machine would just have to keep leaking.

To break the deadlock, I launched into my normal little lecture given in such circumstances, about how there was no need for anyone to know my marital status, how this would not be required if I were a man in such a context, and how this was, as another teenager once said, SO unfair. I added that the person taking my details also being a woman, she ought to understand the need for equal treatment.

“Well yes”, she replied, getting tired of this difficult customer, “but it’s been like that ever since ever, so it’s a bit late to change it now”. I pointed out that in other countries, such as France and Germany, they had managed to make the change, and that now in France for official purposes everyone was “Madame” and in Germany everyone was “Frau”, the terms for “Miss” having been abandoned in both countries. I should also have pointed out that the company she was working for, Siemens, was German. On hearing this, her tone changed from one of mild irritation to an interested purr: “Oooh”, she said. “I’d rather like to be called ‘Madame’!”

A mini-triumph for the tree?

Other blog posts by Professor Gardner-Chloros

Other blog posts about linguistics:

. Read all 2 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

The Imitation Game gets gay life in 40s and 50s Britain spot on

This post was written by Dr Andy Harvey – a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The Imitation Game has scooped up eight Oscar nominations this year, including the coveted Best Picture. Since its release in autumn 2014 the film has attracted widespread positive critical appraisal and commercial success.

Its story of British mathematical genius Alan Turing who broke the German Enigma codes in World War II is now widely known. Equally well-known, at least in Britain, is the fact that Turing was gay, a homosexual, to use the terminology of the day, and that he reputedly committed suicide in 1954 at the age of 41 after receiving hormone therapy as a result of a conviction in 1952 for gross indecency. He was posthumously pardoned for his “offence” – in 2013.

The film has also attracted criticism in some quarters for underplaying Turing’s homosexuality, and foregrounding a (non-sexual) relationship with fellow mathematician, Joan Clarke, played by British actress Keira Knightley. But besides such personal details, the film’s more general portrayal of homosexual life in the 1940s and 1950s does stand up to critical scrutiny.

Wartime liaisons

Blackout during wartime afforded opportunities for homosexual liaisons that many wouldn’t have experienced before. Men could find each other under the cover of complete darkness and, no doubt, because the authorities had more pressing matters to hand.

However, homosexuality remained illegal under the hated “Labouchère” amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act in 1885, which outlawed “gross indecency” between men. This was the law that sent Oscar Wilde to jail for two years of hard labour – and which was used to prosecute Turing. It was widely regarded as a blackmailer’s charter. And so although the scene in which Turing is blackmailed by the Russian spy John Cairncross may not be historically correct, it is certainly a good reflection on the times. In this sense the film captures the perpetual threat that homosexual men had to live with.

The war years may have been relatively kind to homosexual men but prosecutions for sexual crimes increased in the period immediately after the war, reaching a peak in 1961. Police tactics were often rebarbative and generated genuine fear. The police pursuit of Turing in The Imitation Game provides an insight into the importance the police gave to prosecuting homosexual “crimes”.

Men often went to great lengths to cover their tracks. A groundbreaking study by Michael Schofield, published in 1960, revealed the diversity of homosexual lives in the period and the myriad ways they negotiated through the undeniable difficulties they often faced. In his autobiography, London journalist Peter Wildeblood, who was another high profile victim of homophobic laws and police tactics, claimed it was necessary for him to watch every word he spoke, every gesture that he made. Turing’s sexual discreetness in The Imitation Game is an accurate representation of how most homosexual men had to behave.

Tolerance, conviction

There has been a growing appreciation in queer academia that there was often tolerance and acceptance of men leading homosexual lives at a domestic level, not just from immediate families and local communities, but also from landlords and landladies. There was widespread public disquiet at these draconian laws. Sympathy for another famous victim caught up in a police sting saw actor John Gielgud receive a standing ovation when he returned to the stage in Liverpool after his conviction for gross indecency in 1953 secured lurid headlines in the newspapers.

But while there may have been a certain degree of tolerance toward homosexuality, especially for those men who lived “respectable” and quiet lives, criminal proceedings remained a real threat for many. Patrick Higgins’s review of court cases in Heterosexual Dictatorships (1996) shows that homosexual lives continued to be led across the breadth of the country throughout the 1950s, albeit in the shadow of the law, and involved men from all walks of life. For example, the court records show a case from Rotherham, Yorkshire, where 17 unskilled and semi-skilled men pleaded guilty to 41 charges of homosexual acts. In the same year in Barnsley, 12 men confessed to homosexual acts. Prosecution was widespread.

Despite, or rather because of the occasional high-profile trial and the number of less famous prosecutions, homosexuality was largely pushed into the dark recesses of society. Paradoxically, its very invisibility acted as a cloak for those seeking liaisons with other men. In practice no-one suspected other people of being homosexual. Again, the presumption that Turing could not possibly be gay comes across in the film if only as a minor sub-plot, but it strikes a true chord.

The Imitation Game may play fast and loose with a great deal of historical accuracy, as films are entitled to do. But the artistic portrayal speaks to a greater truth. In the light of what we know about homosexual life at the time, The Imitation Game mostly gets it right. The Conversation

Other blog posts by Dr Andy Harvey

. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

ICC drops its Kenyatta case, leaving culture of impunity intact

This article was contributed by Frederick Cowell of Birkbeck’s School of Law. It was originally published on The Conversation.

“One down, two to go,“ was how Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta reacted to the International Criminal Court’s decision to drop its case against him.

Kenyatta had faced charges of being an indirect co-perpetrator of crimes against humanity after post-election violence in Kenya. On 5 December, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, announced that she was discontinuing the case against him.

The cases against Kenyatta’s two Kenyan co-accused, including Vice President William Ruto, have not yet been dropped – but as his reaction showed, they now have reason to be hopeful.

This is a major blow to the ICC’s credibility, and it’s likely to have implications for its ability to prosecute political leaders.

To the Hague

The ICC became involved in Kenya in 2009 after political parties failed to reach an agreement on the establishment of a special domestic tribunal to deal with the 2007-2008 post-election violence. An independent commission set up by the Kenyan government passed on the names of individuals suspected of being responsible for its orchestration to the ICC. The move seemed popular, with the Kenyan media pushing the slogan “don’t be vague, let’s go to The Hague.”

In January 2012, after an independent investigation by the prosecutor’s office, charges against six individuals for Crimes Against Humanity were confirmed. The Court ultimately proceeded with cases against four individuals accused of responsibility for the violence, which claimed over 1000 lives. The charges against Kenyatta included responsibility for orchestrating rape, sexual violence, and murder during attacks on the supporters of his political opponents.

This did not stop Kenyatta running in the 2013 presidential election. The Kenyan government and the African Union (AU) had been lobbying for the prosecution to be delayed. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the UN Security Council has the power to defer prosecutions for up to a year, and it was argued that a deferral was necessary in order to allow the Kenyan government to co-ordinate the campaign against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. The UN Security Council refused, and the Kenyan government sided with the anti-ICC states at the AU who were denouncing the court as imperialist.

Hostility towards the court had being building in the AU since 2009 when the prosecutor issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. While some AU members still support the ICC, there is a strong sentiment in favour of total non-co-operation with the ICC.

Finally, in September 2013, the Kenyan Parliament voted to withdraw from the ICC – and while this could not stop the case against Kenyatta, it made it very difficult for the prosecutor to proceed.

Dropping the Kenyatta charges

On 3 December, the Trial Chamber at the ICC rejected a request made by the prosecutor for a further adjournment of proceedings. Over the course of 2014, the prosecutor’s office held a series of conferences with the Kenyan government aimed at gathering evidence, such as records of phone conversations held before the outbreak of violence in 2007 and information held by the Kenyan security and intelligence services.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. EPA/Michael Koor

The process faced endless delays, and although the judges noted the government’s lack of co-operation they said that in the interests of justice, they could not grant the extension that the prosecutor’s office was requesting. This resulted in the decision to drop the charges.

Kenyatta expressed excitement at the result; his British lawyer, Steven Kay QC, said that the prosecutor’s office owed him an apology for bringing the proceedings and for “impugning his [Kenyatta’s] integrity.”

For her part, Bensouda reiterated that the Kenyan government’s steadfast refusal to co-operate had posed “severe challenges” to the case. She also criticised the “relentless stream of false media reports” and widespread attempts at witness intimidation, which she said had led to her being forced to dismiss the charges. Crucially, the Court held that she could bring new charges at a later date should new evidence arise.

Impunity forever

The decision to cease Kenyatta’s prosecution almost certainly sends a signal that repeated failure to cooperate with the ICC can reap rewards.

The ICC still has outstanding arrest warrants for Bashir and two other individuals in Sudan who are who are charged with committing Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide in Darfur. Bashir has long resisted any attempt to prosecute him, and this recent decision will almost certainly give the Sudanese accused political ammunition against the ICC.

And while some states have co-operated with the ICC to ensure prosecutions of military leaders responsible for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, most notably Uganda, the mission of the ICC was always meant to be much more ambitious. At the court’s creation, many optimistically hoped it would end the “culture of impunity” surrounding political leaders, bringing old tyrants to justice and deterring new ones from committing crimes.

Even though ICC is prosecuting the deposed former president of Côte d’Ivoire, Laurent Gbagbo, the Kenyatta case sends the message that if a political leader can hang onto power, de facto immunity is still theirs.

The Conversation

Read other blogs posts by Frederick Cowell:

. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , , , , ,

Languages….what for?

Renata ArchanjoThis post was contributed by Dr Renata Archanjo, an Associate Research Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication and the Centre for Multilingual and Multicultural ResearchIn her research, she has worked on questions about multilingual education and language policies for the improvement of languages teaching and learning strategies. Dr Archanjo is also an Associate Professor of Foreign Language and Applied Linguistics at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN), Brazil.

If Brazil hopes to ensure the success of international educational exchange programmes and boost the internationalisation of economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives, it needs to develop comprehensive programmes to promote multilingualism.

In Europe, the acquisition of one or more foreign languages makes a lot of sense, especially if one considers all of the countries in the European Union (EU), and others in the process of integration. According to EU policy, the promotion of language learning is an objective to be fulfilled. The inclusion of regional, minority and sign languages into society, the promotion of early language learning and bilingual education are some more specific linguistic policies. The aim is to ensure that European citizens will be empowered by those linguistic tools to move, learn, and work freely within the EU, contributing to the region’s development and the improvement of living standards. I regard this as a good strategy.

Interestingly enough, a similar policy to what happens in the EU has recently been adopted in my home country, Brazil. It is just a beginning, but more is expected to happen in the near future. In Brazil, having “one country, one language” is believed to be a mark of national identity. This is a Portuguese-speaking country, surrounded by Spanish-speaking neighbouring countries. The setting is that of a poor, third-world country. Perhaps for this reason, for several decades, public policy priorities were centred more on social and economic issues and, with less diversity, mobility and intercultural interactions than in the European context, little attention was given to language policies.

All of this has changed. Today, Brazil is the 7th major economy in the World, one of the BRICS countries, an emergent force in the G20, the leading political and economic group of world nations. The country tries to boost its development in and outwards with economic, political, social, educational, and cultural initiatives in several domains. In the education domain, particularly in the higher education sector, internationalisation is at the forefront. In line with successful initiatives in Europe such as the international mobility programmes like Erasmus, Brazil launched the Science without Borders Programme (SwB), in 2011, targeting the consolidation and expansion of science, technology and innovation. Brazilian students and researchers are awarded grants in order to go to centres of excellence all over the world for a year of exchange study. Accordingly, the programme also grants substantial resources to allow students and researchers from abroad to go to Brazil.

As expected, language competence is here of major importance. Just as European language policies promote multilingualism, Brazil needs to implement policies to ensure a multilingual education. In my current research about the linguistic competencies of Brazilian undergraduate students attending the SwB Program, the first results indicate that a high percentage of students are sent abroad with a low level of proficiency in foreign language. The results also show the improvement in language skills for the majority of students at the end of the mobility programme – which is something to be expected when one is immersed in a foreign language environment. However, language is a means – not the objective – in the SwB programme, and it should be expected that students have a good foundation and language skills beforehand. So far, Brazil is rated very low regarding linguistic capability as perceived and recognized by specialised rankings such as the EF English Proficiency Index. The country appears here in the 38th position, in the range of countries with low proficiency in English. This is something that policy-makers should worry about.

Reacting to that, a good governmental initiative has been recently announced: the Languages without Borders Programme. Developed under the auspices of the Brazilian Ministry of Education, its main goal is to encourage the learning of foreign languages by ensuring an extensive and structural change in the national foreign language teaching system in universities. Like other nations in the world, Brazil appears to understand that the teaching and learning of foreign languages are of major importance, not only for personal achievements, but for the national economic and scientific development. In a country championing social and economic equality, any initiative to improve education, especially in the public system, is to be welcomed. Much more has yet to be done and not only in higher education, as the gap in the domain of languages (both first and foreign languages) starts at an early age.

The answer to the question ‘Languages… What for?’ is not a simple one. A language helps to shape an identity. Through language we give sense to the world. Linguistic knowledge might bring development. At least, it is a condition that must be fulfilled for development to occur. In this case, a multilingual education should be provided. More importantly, extra linguistic knowledge will boost general discernment, the lenses to see the world in a more comprehensive way. Here, again, a multilingual education is critical.

. Read all 3 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,

Business and Corporate Responsibility in Russia

Book coverThis post was contributed by Bill Bowring, Professor of Law in Birkbeck’s School of Law; and a practising barrister at Field Court Chambers, Gray’s Inn. His latest book is Law, Rights and Ideology in Russia: Landmarks in the Destiny of a Great Power (Routledge, 2013). This article was originally published on Who’s Who Legal.

 

“Despite privatisation policies and programmes since 1991, the Russian state still owns two-thirds of the market capitalisation in the Russian stock market.”

 

On 22 August 2012, after 18 years of negotiations, Russia became the 156th member of the World Trade Organization. As a BBC report pointed out, Russia is the EU’s third biggest trading partner, with member countries exporting €108 billion euros of goods to Russia, including €7 billion worth of cars and €6 billion of medicines. Russia also exports enormous quantities of oil and gas around the world. Despite complications arising from Russia’s actions in Ukraine – including EU and US sanctions on Russian financial and other interests, and Russian sanctions on imports from the EU – the Russian economy and its governance are of great importance to the rest of the world.

Does this important step mean that the Russian economy can be compared with those of Western Europe or North America?

There is one particularly striking difference. Despite privatisation policies and programmes since 1991, the Russian state still owns two-thirds of the market capitalisation in the Russian stock market. The state’s ownership is concentrated in four strategic sectors: energy (oil, gas and electricity), banks, defence industries and transport. There is little state ownership in most other sectors in the Russian economy, including consumer goods, non-defence manufacturing, agriculture, insurance and services. But it is precisely in the two-thirds of the economy which has remained in state hands, or been seized by the state (as in the expropriation of Yukos, according to the Hague Court of International Arbitration, and the arrest and imprisonment from 2003 to 2013 of its owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky) that the most senior government officials are in control. This includes Igor Sechin, head of the state oil company, Rosneft, which took over the former assets of Yukos. Many of these officials have become incredibly rich.

Accession to the WTO was not the first marker of Russia’s participation in the global economic order, especially where corporate social responsibility was concerned. On 10 April 2008 the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke at a Moscow meeting of more than 30 Russian business leaders, preparing to establish the Russian network of the UN’s Global Compact. Kofi Annan launched the Compact, which carries ten principles, on 26 July 2000. With over 12,000 corporate participants and other stakeholders from over 145 countries, it is the largest voluntary corporate responsibility initiative in the world. On 17 December 2008 the Russian network adopted its statutes.

In 2009 a Report on Corporate Social Responsibility Practices in Russia was published by, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), together with the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) and the UN Global Compact Network in Russia. It highlighted the corporate social responsibility commitments of some of the largest Russian enterprises: Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova Group of Companies, employing more than 100,000 people in Russia; Oleg Deripaska’s UC Rusal, the world’s largest aluminium manufacturer; and Vladimir Yevtushenkov’s Sistema investment group. Ironically, Sistema has recently lost its investment in the oil producer Bashneft through court proceedings that have been seen by many as part of the Russian state’s strategy to consolidate its dominance of oil production. Mr Yevtushenkov himself was arrested.

The RSPP is headed by Vladimir Shokhin, formerly Russia’s deputy prime minister and minister of economics. It was founded in 1991 following the collapse of the former USSR, and is based on the foundations of the Scientific and Industrial Union (which launched in 1990). It has a membership base of over 120 regional alliances and industry associations representing key industries, including the fuel and energy, machine-building, investment banking, military industrial, construction, chemical and food industries. It has more than 328,000 members representing industrial, scientific, financial and commercial organisations and individual members in all Russian regions.

The RSPP is itself responsible for a series of initiatives in the field of social responsibility, including the Global Compact. It has its own Charter of Corporate and Business Ethics, established in 2002, and a Social Charter of Russian Business, adopted at its Congress in 2004 and amended in 2008. It covers 254 businesses and NGOs, and more than 6 million workers. On 20 September 2012, in Sochi, the RSPP promulgated its Anti-Corruption Charter of Russian Business in the presence of the current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Some highly influential Western companies promote corporate responsibility in Russia. For example, the Russian website of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) includes glossy report on the firm’s corporate responsibility programme. It is the market leader in professional services in Russia, with eight offices and over 2,000 staff. Its client base of 2,000 companies includes: every single on of the 10 largest financial services companies and banks; nine of the 10 largest oil and gas companies; seven of the 10 largest power industry companies; six of the 10 largest retail companies; five of the six largest telecommunications companies; four of the 10 largest mining companies; and five of the 10 largest ferrous metallurgy companies. The report states that PwC is a signatory to the UN Global Compact, and in 2009 signed the RSPP’s Social Charter of Russian Business: “a set of principles for businesses to follow that are the foundations of responsible business practices”.

PwC’s competitor Ernst & Young also publishes a report on corporate responsibility. It began work in Russia in 1989 and employs 3,000 staff in eight offices. Since 2012 it has had a corporate responsibility expert panel, which brings clients together with representatives of the educational and ecological sectors.

Baker & McKenzie was the first international law firm to open an office in Moscow in 1989, and employs more than 120 qualified lawyers in Moscow and St Petersburg combined, including 27 partners. This year it was voted Law Firm of the Year in Russia. Its report, “Doing Business in Russia (2014)”, describes the country’s legal and judicial systems in detail and presents a picture of a properly and normally functioning rule of law.

Yet a different perspective comes from Medvedev’s initiative, announced on 27 April 2012: the creation of a new business ombudsman. Mr Medvedev’s last day in office as Russia’s president was 7 May 2012 (he was sworn in as prime minister the following day). 7 May also marked the introduction by Vladimir Putin (who had just been elected president, after serving as prime minister for four years) of a national business ombudsman’s office by December 2012.

On 21 June 2012, in advance of the law, Putin appointed business lobby leader Boris Titov as the Ombudsman for Entrepreneurs’ Rights. According to a BBC report published in July 2012, Mr Titov claimed that in the last 10 years Russia has imprisoned nearly 3 million entrepreneurs, many unjustly. He added, “It is hard to find another social group persecuted on such a large scale.” How has this come about?

The answer is to be found in two of the most insidious problems of doing business in Russia. These are “criminal prosecutions to order” and “criminal corporate raiding”. In short, there have been complaints for many years that private and state businesses, and powerful individuals, have been able to frame commercial rivals by paying corrupt police officers and prosecutors to plant evidence and make arrests to order. The judicial system itself has been a willing participant in such activities.

Another reason for creation of the Ombudsman was the $84 billion in capital that left Russia in 2011: a record amount. Russians were investing overseas because they feared for the safety of their businesses at home. Indeed, many Russian entrepreneurs have fled the country for their own safety. London has even been dubbed “Londongrad” because of the many Russians who have taken up residence and carried out business in the city.

The author of this article, who first travelled to Russia in 1983 in the days of the USSR, has since 2003 been employed as an expert witness on Russian law and politics in several cases in the London and Cyprus courts. The cases fall into three categories.

First, there have been requests by the Russian Federation for the extradition of Russian citizens resident in the UK, on the basis of criminal charges. Many of these were activities connected with Yukos and Mr Khodorkovsky. In almost all of these cases the English judge found that the requests were politically motivated. In none of these cases has Russia been successful. Second, expert evidence has been given in appeals against refusal of refuge status. Third, there have been commercial disputes in which an important preliminary issue has been the potential for a fair trial in Russian courts, given the continued prevalence of “telephone justice” and the possibility of political interference or pressure from highly placed and wealthy individuals and interests.

In fact, prior to his arrest in late 2003 and the destruction of Yukos, Mr Khodorkovsky was the leading Russian exponent of good corporate governance and corporate social responsibility. After two trials and 10 years in prison (he was released in December 2013), he now leads a global campaign to transform Russia into a democracy with an independent judiciary, a viable opposition and free and fair elections.

. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , , ,

Language, identity and a political hot potato

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Blogs do not usually start with quotations from the Bible, but this one epitomizes the link between language, identity and danger that I want to discuss:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.

—Judges 12:5–6, NJB

Applied Linguistics, as distinct from more theoretical branches of the discipline, addresses real-life problems in which language plays an important role. As a linguist, I can attest that no day goes by without such an issue coming up in the press. I have several box files full of cuttings of articles which I use in my teaching, on topics ranging from the apparently inoffensive – e.g. the revival of ‘dead’ languages such as Manx or Cornish, to the highly political, such as the relationship between the use of minority languages, such as Catalan, and political separatism.

All of us are identified – and often judged – on the basis of our language, dialect or accent. The gruesome ‘beheading’ videos recently released by members of Isis were doubly chilling for Londoners, because the executioners in black hoods had unmistakable London accents, and sounded like the young people you hear on the bus on the way to work.

I want to talk about another recent example which has been in the news, and which shows how language interacts with some very practical issues with serious human consequences.

No-one in the UK needs to be told that the issue of immigration has been in the news on a daily basis for the last few weeks or months. Oddly, this is not because of any drastic change in the situation, but principally because the issue has become a populist rallying cry for politicians who, though they might not put it that way, wish to convince British people that they are going to ringfence the country’s wealth for those same British people – and prevent undefined side-effects like ‘overcrowding’ in the process. This ‘promise’ has proved so popular that politicians from all the main parties have jumped on the bandwagon. Despite clear evidence that immigrants in fact contribute positively to the economy, nothing wins votes like telling people they will get a bigger slice of the cake.

The detailed arguments, and the distinctions between different categories of immigrants, become obscured in this rhetorical assault. This is not the place to rehearse them, but there is one category of (potential) immigrants who deserve some special attention: asylum seekers, i.e. people who come to this country because they claim to be in direct danger, or subject to persecution, in their country of origin. Basic humanity dictates that such cases are dealt with quickly and fairly, and that such people are distinguished from, say, economic migrants, who come for a better life but who are not actually in fear of their life.

But how do we decide whether the asylum seeker is to be believed or not? An important aspect of the decision involves finding out where they actually come from. Do they come from South Somalia, for example, in which case it is beyond question that they should be granted protection, or North Somalia, in which case protection is not automatic? Since such people rarely have any documentation when they arrive, linguistic agencies  are employed by the Government to judge their region of origin on the basis of an analysis of their speech. So far, you may think, all well and good – this could be an effective method.

Unfortunately it has now emerged that these agencies employ people who are not qualified to take these specialized decisions, and who in some cases are totally bogus. Amongst other problems, they ignore Lesson 1 in Sociolinguistics, which is that national and regional frontiers rarely coincide neatly with languages; Lesson 2, that in circumstances where they are being judged, people will speak the way they think they are expected to speak, not the way they speak naturally – so in this case, they may try to use a standard or a national language instead of their own dialect; and Lesson 3, which is that each individual has more than one way of speaking, in fact a ‘repertoire’ which may include different registers, different dialects, and different forms of mixed or intermediate varieties. In such a delicate matter, with life or death consequences hanging on the decision, a very high degree of linguistic expertise is required to do this job properly, and several other factors need to be taken into account apart from the linguistic analysis. Imagine the outcry if we employed food inspectors with bogus or insufficient qualifications to vet the food which we import.

If you would like to read more about these issues, the links below may be of interest. And next time you yourself are in some way judged by the way you speak, think of those who are being sent back to war zones, or to face FGM or worse, because a bogus or under-qualified linguistic ‘expert’ decided they did not come from the region they claimed.

Other blog posts by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros:

Other blog posts about linguistics:

. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,

Need for public enquiry into the death of Peter Connolly

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.

I don’t like the money spent on public enquiries. However, having just watched the documentary on the untold story surrounding the appalling death of Peter Connolly (‘Baby P: The Untold Story’), the public needs to understand just how brutal and manipulative are the attempts to scapegoat social workers for our endemic social problems.

In this case there was an orchestrated campaign by The Sun (under Rebecca Brooke) to target the social workers and locum doctor involved in the case, all quickly themselves becoming the tragic victims of a contemporary witch-hunt. The evil resulting from this is that the strain on all the services involved escapes attention, as those with a huge burden of work in the front-line of patching up society’s ills are punished rather than supported.

The performance of David Cameron making political capital out of the tragedy (at the time briefed by his ‘political advisor’ Andy Coulson) was hugely significant in this modern tragedy, as were the panicked reactions of Ed Balls and the rushed report of Ofsted on the matter. After this disgraceful farce of wrongful blame (the spokespeople for the police and NHS happy to tolerate if not encourage the misleading targeting of the social workers), still, all the right questions are being ignored.

How better to support our front-line social workers is the issue. Even as the brave and compassionate Sharon Shoesmith kept trying to talk about what was needed to protect children (and damaged mothers) last evening on Newsnight, Evan Davis continued with the lazy routine of personal blame. Given that there was never even an inquest into Peter’s death (despite his father calling for one) a public enquiry might at least make more people aware the evils of these bullying diversions, perhaps as well highlighting how much more vulnerable professional women are to being scapegoated than men in similar positions of responsibility. There are so many social, political and ethical issues here, which a public enquiry might begin to flush out.

Other blog posts by Professor Segal:

. Read all 2 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , ,

If history repeats itself, it’s time for the battle stations

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Sebastian Haffner book cover

As an applied linguist, multilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration and acculturation are central aspects of my research. This is by nature always political. My mission as an applied linguist is to defend diversity and promote tolerance – through my teaching and in my research. There are things I can observe here in the UK through my “Belgian eyes” that might not seem as immediately obvious for fellow Brits.

Reading Sebastian Haffner’s moving autobiography on his childhood and young adulthood in Germany between 1914 and 1933, I was struck by some striking similarities with the present day. In fact, “striking” is not the right word – “chilling” is more accurate.

Adolf Hitler was perceived by most Germans as a clown in the 1920s, and dismissed with a wave of the hand.

Hitler’s favourite public places in that period were beer halls where he gave impassioned speeches against Jews and Marxists: perfect scapegoats.  He presented himself as a “good German” who wanted the best for his country, pretended to value peace, but insisted on more national assertiveness.

Hitler loved to brandish the weakness of German democracy and of his political opponents, who were being forced to accommodate each other, while his own message was clear and uncompromising.

While the National Socialists (NSDAP) did poorly in the elections in 1928 (gaining less than 3% of the vote), they grew steadily, gaining 18% of all votes in 1930.  More importantly, their political agenda strongly influenced the programme of the main democratic parties.

Leaders of democratic parties did not stand up to Hitler, did not organize mass demonstrations against the NSDAP but tried to placate Hitler by offering him prominent positions in the government, which he rejected. He came second in the presidential elections in 1932, with 35% of the vote. Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in 1933.  After the Reichstag fire, Hitler forced Hindenburg to suspend basic rights and allow detention without trial. At new elections in March 1933, the NSDAP obtained 44% of the vote. The boycott of the Jews started in April 1933. No mass protests happened in reaction to this measure.

Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933. When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler became head of state and head of government and the ‘Hitler myth’ grew.

Now, what was it that David Cameron called UKIP supporters again: “A bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”? It does not seem to have done the UKIP any harm. What is Nigel Farage’s favourite posture? Holding a pint of beer in an English pub with a disarming smile, and claiming to represent true Britishness. His message?  Simplistic but unambiguous: no more compromising, more assertiveness, exit the European Union, and stop immigration into the UK. What is the reaction of the Conservatives and Labour? Hardening their stances on immigration and drifting towards more and more Europhobia. Add to that Conservative plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (on the spurious argument that prisoners can’t be allowed to vote) and claiming that a vote for UKIP would benefit the other major party.

Now, just imagine a scenario where UKIP evolves as the NSDAP did in Germany in the 1930s. As they became more powerful, they could become more radical in their agenda – or simply disclose what might still be under wraps. Being outside the EU and outside the reach of the European court in Strasbourg, they could start forcing the other parties in government to implement a more radical anti-immigration policy, and declare a state of emergency (see Sampson’s Dominion for an idea of what this would look like in the streets of London). Having stopped the foreign influx, and gained the political upper hand, they would have to turn on the immigrants inside the UK, using the full force of the law, starting “gently” and turning on the screw: limit and cut their benefits, their salaries, their role in British society. At what point, I wonder, would the British realize that their cherished democracy was being transformed into a fascist state? Because this is the main point of Haffner: why did nobody stand up to the NSDAP? How could they force a whole nation to become complicit in a world war and a genocide?

You might think at this point, “this can’t happen to us, we’re a civilized people”, and this is the 21st century after all. Haffner points out that this was exactly what the Germans had been thinking of themselves in the 1920s, watching the rise of fascism with “calm, superior indifference”. And what happened to the majority who had not voted for the NSDAP in the 1933 elections? Once the Nazis had grabbed the power, it became nigh impossible to voice dissent without risking one’s life.

We cannot let history repeat itself. Urgent mobilization is needed against the gangrene that UKIP ideology represents. As Haffner says: “Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals”. We need to urge politicians from mainstream parties not be infected by UKIP’s isolationist and anti-immigration agenda. They need to stand up for our human rights, our European union, our democracy. It’s time for the battle stations – or at least the ballot box – to keep UKIP out of power. Nationalism leads to war, and we want peace!

Other posts by Professor Dewaele:

Other blogs about linguistics:

. Read all 15 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , ,

Transparency, what transparency?

Justin SchlosbergThis post was written by Justin Schlosberg, Lecturer in journalism and media, in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

In 2011, as the phone-hacking scandal unfolded, Prime Minister David Cameron pledged a new era of transparency in the government’s dealings with the media. All meetings between senior government and media figures were to be recorded and published on a quarterly basis and a major public inquiry was launched – partly with a focus on the relationship between press and politicians.

The Leveson hearings that followed cast an unprecedented spotlight on the intimacy of these relations complete with gossip, threats, family get-togethers and texts signed off with ‘lots of love’ and kisses. It had very little to do with the day-to-day interactions between politicians and journalists – both on and off the record – which are an intrinsic part of the political newsgathering process. It revealed instead something over and above those interactions – an exclusive club at the heart of the establishment that seemed to undermine the very fabric of British democracy, and underline the growing public mistrust of both politicians and the media.

Within this dynamic, Leveson was pre-occupied with the flow of influence from media owners to politicians. The founding premise of his inquiry was that press power was out of control, undermining the integrity of government, parliament and the police, whilst severely infringing on the privacy rights of individual citizens. Leveson’s detractors, on the other hand, perceived the gravest threat to democracy as operating in the other direction. It was creeping state control of the press – supposedly heralded by his reform proposals – which threatened to fatally undermine the independence of the fourth estate. In the intense debate that followed, a fundamental truth was obscured: media and political elites are not rivals but partners in a relationship that works ultimately to promote the shared interests of power. This was vividly demonstrated when Rebecca Brooks – former editor of the News of the World – told Leveson that the Prime Minister had sent her a consoling text during the height of the scandal, apologising for not being able to be more ‘loyal’ to her in public.

And as the spotlight began to fade, business as usual resumed – behind closed doors – and the hollow rhetoric of transparency was laid bare. For a start, it soon became clear from published data that the government had no intention of divulging any meaningful details about its meetings with media bosses. Whilst the nature and purpose of other external meetings are often specified, when it comes to newspaper editors or execs, we rarely get anything beyond ‘general discussion’.

Of course, this spectacle of transparency is nothing new. After taking office in 2010, Cameron renewed the commitment to openness that is typical of incoming governments, promising to pour light into the darkest corners of policymaking. In a nutshell: ministers would be ‘transparent about what [they] do and how [they] do it’ and ‘above improper influence’.

Less than one year later, then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt was at pains to reiterate this commitment in respect of News Corp’s aborted take-over of BSkyB. He stressed the unprecedented openness of the bid process both before and after he waived it through (only to then be withdrawn by News Corp amidst the fall-out from the phone hacking scandal). But the folly of Hunt’s assurances was exposed after he told Parliament in 2012 that he had no unofficial contact with News Corp lobbyist Fred Michel during the bid process. A series of texts disclosed shortly afterward suggested otherwise, with cringe-inducing awkwardness.

Perhaps not surprisingly in the wake of phone hacking, the Prime Minister appears to be steadily curtailing his personal contact with senior media figures, based on data released by the government for 2011-13. Interestingly though, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood is more than picking up the slack, with ten recorded meetings with the media in 2012 and fourteen in 2013. In contrast, Jeremy Heywood’s predecessor Gus O’Donnell had just two meetings with the media in 2011, one of which was a ‘reception’ hosted by the Financial Times.  This raises the possibility that some of the business of media management by the government (or vice versa) is increasingly being conducted through the civil service, perhaps in an effort to remain under the radar. In any case, given that Leveson’s focus was elsewhere, the spike in contact between the Cabinet Secretary and the media warrants scrutiny.

The first thing to note is that like his ministerial colleagues, the Cabinet Secretary’s contact with the media is overwhelmingly concentrated in the national press: of the twenty four meetings in 2012-13, just three were with broadcasters (BBC and ITN). This could be because of a received wisdom in government that the national press remain leaders of the wider news agenda. Or it could be because newspaper editors and proprietors are more active than broadcasters in lobbying the government for influence and/or ‘scoops’. Or it could also be because the government is conscious of the broadcasters’ regulated impartiality, whereas newspapers may be seen as more malleable targets in agenda building strategies.

In any case, the imbalance illustrates how much newspapers still matter to Whitehall, for all the talk of their demise. But it is not just newspaper bosses in general who occupy a disproportionate amount of the Cabinet Secretary’s time. Again, in line with ministerial colleagues, a significant majority of the meetings were with representatives of the right wing press. Of the ten meetings Jeremy Heywood had with the media in 2012, seven were with the Times, Telegraph, Mail and Spectator, all openly aligned with the Conservative party; two were with non-partisan outlets (the Economist and ITN) and one with the left-leaning Guardian newspaper.

This may simply reflect the market dominance of the right-wing press in Britain. It is perhaps understandable that if the Cabinet Secretary is going to meet regularly with the press, he would want to prioritise those titles that have the biggest audience reach, regardless of their political colours. But it doesn’t explain why most of his meetings are with the elite press – broadsheets and periodicals – with very limited exposure compared to the mid-market and tabloid titles. Again, there are a number of plausible explanations here. It could be that mid-market and tabloid editors and executives aren’t very interested in talking to government bureaucrats. It could be because the ‘serious’ news sector is particularly valued in Whitehall for its opinion-leading reputation and its elite audience capture. Or it could just be because these titles have the capacity to cover political issues with greater depth and complexity than their lower brow competitors.

Whatever the reason, the opacity of these meetings appeared to take something of a sinister turn in 2013. After the Guardian began publishing details of mass surveillance by the security services in June 2012, revealed by NSA whistleblower Ed Snowden, the Cabinet Secretary unusually held two meetings in short succession at the Guardian’s offices. A Freedom of Information request for details of these and other meetings with the senior newspaper figures has recently been refused and is currently under review by the Information Commissioner. According to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in an interview with the author, he was explicitly threatened with legal injunctions during his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, unless he agreed to destroy hard drives of the leaked material. The only account we have from the government is the notes recorded in the meeting data. The first meeting was described simply as a ‘discussion about handling information’ whilst the follow-up apparently moved on to ‘discussion about international issues’.

In the end, the newspaper acceded to the government’s demands, confident that destruction of the hard drives would not curtail reporting. Copies of the material lodged with US publishing partners would apparently ensure the story’s endurance. Glen Greenwald, former lead journalist on the story for the Guardian and now with the Intercept, recently claimed that the biggest story relating to the leaks is yet to be published. But he made no mention of what or when, and we are left wondering whether the government’s actions had really been as futile as Rusbridger suggested.

Rusbridger himself opted initially not to make public the threatening nature of his meetings with the Cabinet Secretary, or indeed the unprecedented event that followed, with security service personnel entering the Guardian’s offices to oversee destruction of the offending hard drives. A month later the Guardian despatched David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner, to meet Laura Poitras (another Snowden confidante and co-architect of the story) in Germany, perhaps in an effort to get around the loss of direct access to the material.  According to Rusbridger, the rise in international travel was due to the necessity of face to face meetings as ‘we assumed everything was being at that point intercepted’.  But on his return to Brazil, Miranda was arrested and detained at Heathrow Airport under anti-terror laws, prompting Rusbridger to publicise the extraordinary lengths the government was going to in order to restrain the coverage.

But what about the other meetings that took place around the same time between the Cabinet Secretary and the national press? Apparently, the purpose, nature and outcome of these meetings are also exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act, partly in order to protect policymaking. But the use of this exemption (under Section 35 of the Act) raises more questions than it answers, perhaps the most obvious of which is what policy exactly do these meetings concern? In apparently typical fashion, the Cabinet Office made no attempt to explain why exemptions under Section 35 were engaged, or provide any detail as to the public interest test that is required under law.

It is fundamental to a functioning democracy that the media are seen to be free from undue influence or interference by the state and, conversely, that government and policymaking is free from undue influence or interference by the media. Over the last two years, these twin and sometimes conflicting concerns have become matters of acute public interest, fuelled by Leveson and Snowden alike. But the government’s refusal to disclose information about these meetings speaks to a wider problem. It exposes the gap between transparency rhetoric and substance which ensures that the real workings of power remain off limits to public scrutiny. It is a gap now so wide that official talk of transparency in media policymaking is tantamount to double-speak.

You can find links to the correspondence between the author and FOI authorities in the following places:

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/First-Reply-to-FOI-request-on-Cabinet-meetings-with-media.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/alumni/documents/Appeal-on-FOI-319677—request-for-internal-review.pdf

http://www.lse.ac.uk//media@lse/documents/MPP/Response-to-appeal-on-FOI319677-for-Cabinet-meetings-with-Media.pdf

More blog posts by Justin Schlosberg:

. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , , ,

The lessons of Clacton and Heywood: why UKIP will damage the Tories in 2015 but may ultimately harm Labour

EricKaufmann400This article was contributed by Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck’s Department of Politics.

National attention focused on the Clacton and Heywood and Middleton byelections because UKIP support rose substantially in both contests over its level in 2010. The media and some commentators have spun the story as a tale of dispossessed voters from forgotten constituencies striking a blow against the political elite. On this view, both the main parties will suffer at the hands of the Faragists.

Yet the data does not support the contention that the economically and politically disadvantaged of all political stripes are in revolt. Instead, the by-elections, and the rise of UKIP more broadly, reflects cultural anxieties and status resentments which loom largest among middle income people who lack degrees. UKIP damages the Conservatives more than other parties and is set to tilt the electoral terrain in Labour’s favour in 2015 and beyond. This means we need to entertain the possibility the Tories may enter the political wilderness, much as the Canadian Tories did between 1993 and 2006 when the populist Reform Party split the right-wing vote.

In Clacton, Douglas Carswell, a high-profile defector from the Tories, carried the seat easily, winning 60% of the vote in a constituency UKIP did not contest in 2010. Popular in Clacton, Carswell carried wide support across a range of social and voter groups. In Heywood and Middleton, UKIP candidate John Bickley won 39%, increasing UKIP’s share by a whopping 36 points over 2010. It was an impressive UKIP tally, but the seat was held by Labour, winning 41% of the poll. Here we have two strong UKIP performances, resulting in a Tory loss in one instance, and a Labour win, albeit narrow, in the other. The constituencies are not typical of the country, but the results are indicative of what may happen in 2015. Why?

First, consider that in both by-elections, Ashcroft polls show the Tories lost a larger share of their vote to UKIP than Labour. These results are corroborated in the admittedly small sample of some 70 British Election Study (BES) internet panel respondents from these seats interviewed in early and mid-2014 about their 2015 voting intentions.

The British Election Study provides data on over 34,000 people, interviewed in both early and mid 2014. Looking at the second wave reveals a stunning pattern: 47 percent of those who voted UKIP in the 2014 European elections said they voted Tory in 2010 compared to just 13 percent from Labour. When it comes to intended vote in the General Election, it’s much the same story: 44 percent of those intending to support UKIP are ex-Tories while just 10 percent said they voted in Labour in 2010.

Kaufmann image

In terms of current party identification, while 38 percent of those intending to vote UKIP in 2015 identify their party as UKIP, 24 percent say they identify as Conservative, compared to just 10 percent of UKIP vote intenders who currently identify with the Labour party. These data rely on respondents reported retrospective vote. However, the Understanding Society longitudinal survey just compares what people said in the previous wave with what they say in the current wave. These actual results, between 2009 and 2012, confirm the self-reported results from the BES: between 2 and 5 times as many people switched allegiance from Conservative to UKIP as moved from Labour to UKIP.

Some suggest Tory defections are in safe Conservative constituencies where they are unlikely to affect the Cameron-Miliband contest. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, there is no evidence for this. The figure below shows the predicted probability that an individual in the BES will vote UKIP in 2015, on the vertical axis, against the Labour share of the vote in his or her constituency in 2010, on the horizontal. The blue line represents those who voted Tory in 2010, the red line those who voted for parties other than the Conservatives in 2010. This is a multivariate model where we also control for a host of other predictors of UKIP voting, such as age, education, ethnicity and so forth. The cross-hatch lines represent confidence intervals, which are longer at the extremes of Labour share because sample sizes are smaller there.

Kaufmann fig 3

Two things jump out of this chart. First, UKIP will hit the Tories harder than other parties by 6-8 points across all types of constituency. There is no reluctance among 2010 Tory voters to desert the party for UKIP in marginal seats. Nor are UKIP defectors concentrated among Tory voters in Labour strongholds. Where votes averaged 30% Labour in 2010, often indicating a tight contest, a 2010 Conservative voter has a 21 percent chance of voting UKIP, which falls to just 15 percent among their Labour counterparts. UKIP support is holding steady in the polls, and if this continues, UKIP will pose a threat to Cameron.

Instead of fixating on the Clactons and Heywoods where UKIP is strong, pundits should focus on marginals where even a small shift to UKIP could tilt things Miliband’s way. We could see upsets not only in UKIP strongholds like Thurrock, but in middle class spots such as Cambridge or Hendon, often in  the South of England, where Miliband may pull off an upset. The plot below shows seats the Tories won in 2010 with less than a six percent margin over Labour. These, and more, may be vulnerable.

kaufmann fig 4

If UKIP hands victory to Labour, this raises a whole series of important questions. Can the Conservatives strike a deal with UKIP, as with the ‘unite the right’ initiative between the populist Reform party and more elite Progressive Conservatives in Canada?  Should Labour rejoice, or should they look to the reinvigorated Canadian Conservatives as a warning that the rise of the populist right can shift a nation’s political culture against them in the long run? Matthew Goodwin and Rob Ford’s excellent book on UKIP warns that the party, with its working-class support base, threatens Labour as well as the Tories. My work suggests working-class Tories rather than Labour traditionalists are most likely to defect to UKIP, but their overall point holds: this is not a movement Labour can afford to ignore.

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,