Tag Archives: Politics society and law

My experience at Birkbeck as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor and its impact on my research

This post was contributed by Professor Michel Rosenfeld, a Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Birkbeck’s School of Law

As my semester at Birkbeck is all too soon about to come to a close, I briefly pause to take stock on how my experience has added up to a rich, rewarding and unique contribution in furtherance of my research. I have greatly benefited from exchanges with faculty and students at Birkbeck as well as at other UK universities where I made various presentations as part of my Leverhulme obligations.

For many years, my research has focused on how pluralist societies that are divided along religious, ideological, ethnic and cultural lines can live together in an institutional setting and under laws that they could all genuinely accept as legitimate. In the past, I have conducted separate inquiries within my various fields of expertise, namely legal and political philosophy, on the one hand, and American and comparative constitutional law, on the other. My work has always been interdisciplinary and comparative and I have elaborated a normative pluralist perspective that I have named “comprehensive pluralism”. In the past, I have explored the latter’s implications for each  of my separate fields of inquiry, and more recently, in conjunction with my Leverhulme award and my coming to Birkbeck, I have concentrated on integrating and harmonizing the insights and the learning that I had gathered from my separate areas of inquiry.

Three subjects present particularly difficult challenges to any attempt to balance unity and respect for a plurality of viewpoints and basic commitments within a constitutional democracy. The first of these is the handling of crises that threaten the physical or psychological well-being of the citizenry, such as in the case of global or international terrorism. The second subject is religion, particularly in view of its revival, re-politicization, the growth of fundamentalism, and diversification primarily through migration, which have been prevalent in the last few decades.  This has led to various clashes between secularism and religion as well as among diverse religions, and has raised questions about the viability and legitimacy of constitutional secularism which has long been deemed an essential prerequisite to the success of the modern democratic state. Finally, the third subject is the broad question of justice within a pluralist constitutional society in which people disagree over what the good life consists in and over what political society should require from, and provide to, each of its members.

I have had a chance to explore all of these subjects in my various Leverhulme interventions, starting with my Leverhulme lecture I at Birkbeck on October 31, 2014 on “Constitutionalism, Globalisation and Ethno-religious conflict” in which I addressed all three of the above subjects. At a faculty legal philosophy workshop at King’s College I focused on the subject of justice, and presented a paper entitled “Is Justice All-Encompassing or Subject to Moral Override?” in which I explore the role of justice in pluralist societies where there is wide disagreement about moral values and what should count as the good for all. At the University of Glasgow, I co-taught with Professor Adam Tomkins of that university an advanced seminar class that focused on comparing how the UK and the US have handled the international terrorist threat through legislation and judicial intervention. I addressed the constitutional problems posed by the increased politicization of religion at a faculty workshop at Westminster University where I had a political theorist, Professor Chantal Mouffe, as my principal interlocutor. A few days later, I had a further discussion of the new challenges posed by religion in front of a diverse, interdisciplinary audience at a Public Law Discussion Group meeting at the Oxford University Law School. Finally, in what has thus far proven the most enriching and rewarding experience in terms of my current research projects, on December 5, 2014, a full day workshop was held at Birkbeck in which eight scholars, including Professors Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schutz from Birkbeck, and various scholars from other UK universities and from France and Italy, provided invaluable comments, criticisms and suggestions on my paper entitled “Constitutional Theology?” in which I provide a very preliminary analysis of a major issue that I intend to make the subject of a book project:  in the context of the daunting new challenges posed by the revival of religion and post-modern critiques, should modern constitutionalism rooted in the Enlightenment be reconceived as elaborating a theology of its own–albeit one that does not appeal to the transcendent or the metaphysical–or as that which remains distinct from all theology and that may be reframed so as to preserve a its capacity to mediate among competing religious and non-religious ideologies?

I look forward to my last official intervention of this extraordinary semester that I have spent at Birkbeck, the Leverhulme II Lecture on “Post-Secular Constitutionalism“, which will take place on Friday 12 December 2014. In that lecture, I will address certain aspects of some of the subjects mentioned above, and in particular how secularism might best fare in view of the various religious and post-modern challenges it has encountered in the past couple decades. Would secularism fare better in the future by remaining firmly anchored in the institutional framework established by the constitution? Or would it be better off by being recast as one ideology among the many that are deserving of constitutional recognition and protection?

[Note: interested parties can still register for this free public lecture 6:00 – 8:30pm 12 December via Eventbrite]


The World Prison Brief: database of global imprisonment levels

This post was contributed by Roy Walmsley, Director of the International Centre for Prison Studies’ world-renowned World Prison Brief. In November ICPS was merged with the Institute for Criminal Policy Research in Birkbeck’s School of Law.

iStock_000012313253XLargeThe aim of the World Prison Brief (WPB) is to enable more well-informed discussion about appropriate levels of imprisonment and about issues such as the use of imprisonment for women, the use of pre-trial imprisonment and the problems of prison overcrowding; and to contribute to the making of sound evidence-based decisions by all who are endeavouring to improve prison systems worldwide.

The WPB was launched in September 2000. It contributes to the knowledge base on the use of imprisonment by giving details of prison population levels in over 220 independent countries and dependent territories. It shows the variations in practice in different countries, regions and continents and makes it possible to estimate the world prison population total (over 10 million). It also gives information on the proportion of pre-trial, female, juvenile and foreign prisoners in the total, as well as on the official capacity of each prison system and its occupancy rate, thus indicating the level of overcrowding. Recent trends in prison population levels are also shown.

The information comes from a variety of sources, principally the national prison administration, the Ministry responsible for the prison administration or the national statistical office. So these are official figures and they are obtained from publications by these bodies (including annual reports and data on official websites), direct communication with contacts in the prison administrations, responses of these bodies to international surveys etc. Sometimes information comes via a third party (e.g. an international body or a non-governmental organisation) and such material is used when the source is established as reliable and the data consistent with what is already known about prison population levels in the country concerned. Information is collected on an ongoing basis and the website is updated monthly with data obtained during the previous month.

It is essential that the information should be as reliable as possible. This is of course dependent first of all on the reliability of the data published by the official bodies in the countries concerned. In practice the main difficulty encountered – apart from the fact that so many countries do not publish prison population numbers, or do so only rarely – is incompleteness of data. This can result, for example, from the omission in some countries of figures for a part of their country that is separately administered and in other countries the omission of data on persons whose pre-trial detention occurs in police facilities instead of prisons. When this is known to be occurring the WPB draws attention to it alongside the official figures.

Ensuring the reliability of data also depends on validating it carefully. Newspaper reports quite often quote a prison department or Ministry official giving a figure that is obviously wrong. All new figures are compared with data previously recorded in order to minimise the chances of mistaken information appearing in the WPB.

The WPB is the only source of comparative data on prison systems worldwide and is regularly quoted in briefings by Governments, by inter-governmental bodies such as the OHCHR, UNESCO and OECD, by NGOs and pressure groups, in academic articles and journals and in the media.

Academics use  the data in the WPB to explore policies that lead to higher or lower rates of imprisonment  issue, and politicians, NGOs and think tanks use the data in arguments against the introduction of policies that will lead to a higher rate of imprisonment relative to comparable countries.

That the WPB is considered relevant in prison policy-making circles around the world is evident from the fact that the comparative figures appear in prison administration annual reports in many countries. There is widespread sensitivity to the ranking position in which a country is shown to be, particularly in comparison with its nearer neighbours.

Sometimes it is clear that national policy is quite directly being influenced; governments occasionally send up-to-date figures so as to demonstrate that their situation has improved – numbers have come down – since the figure that the WPB was showing. One government has developed a project to introduce reforms that are designed, in the words of their published report, ‘to eliminate their country from the 50 that are leading in terms of prison population’.

The WPB has, therefore, affected the discourse on the use of imprisonment among governments, academics, NGOs and think tanks. The ability to compare a country’s prison population level with that of its neighbours, the rest of its continent and the rest of the world has caused administrations to think more deeply about their own use of imprisonment.


Judicial Images

This post was contributed by Professor Leslie J Moran, of Birkbeck’s School of Law.

1st October 2009, the opening day of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.  Judges of the Supreme Court dressed in their gilded ceremonial robes of office negotiate their way through a group of pedestrians as they process from the Court to Westminster Abbey to attend the Judges Service to celebrate the opening of the new legal year. © Leslie J Moran 2014.

1st October 2009, the opening day of the new Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Judges of the Supreme Court dressed in their gilded ceremonial robes of office negotiate their way through a group of pedestrians as they process from the Court to Westminster Abbey to attend the Judges Service to celebrate the opening of the new legal year. © Leslie J Moran 2014.

How about drawing me a picture of a judge? Use your mind’s eye; make a mental picture. What is in your picture? What is the judge’s pose? How is the judge dressed? Are there any props? If so what are they? Now take a moment to reflect. What is being represented? If you showed the picture to a friend, colleague or fellow commuter and asked, ‘What does this represent?’ what would be the reply? What does your picture say about the qualities of a good judge? Or maybe you have produced a picture that portrays some of the common criticism of judges: ‘pale, male and stale’, remote, stuffy, out of touch, and out of date. Where did you get the ideas and images from? How accurate are they? I hope this exercise has given you a little food for thought.

It is an exercise that is intended to draw you into the heart of a new research initiative at Birkbeck entitled Judicial Images; image making, management and consumption. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the goal is to build a network of people who work in the media and culture industries, the judges and their media advisors who commission and manage them, together with scholars from a variety of disciplines, including art history, film and television studies, sociology and cultural studies, from the UK and beyond to study judicial images. It is a pioneering initiative that builds on my research into the judiciary. If the study of pictures sounds distinctly out of place when it comes to research on the judiciary the message of this initiative is, it’s time to think again.

The network will examine the power of visual images to communicate ideas about judges and the justice system past, present and future. The power of pictures is not a recent discovery here. Sculptures and painted portraits of judges have been produced and displayed since at least the 16th century. In the Victorian era small photographic portraits of judges were collected and arranged in albums with other celebrity figures of the day. Today it’s all about the moving image; film and television portraits in documentaries, news reports and courtroom dramas such as G.F. Newman’s highly acclaimed Judge John Deed.

This is a very timely initiative. As of October 2013, the English courts opened their doors to the television cameras. They are currently confined to the Court of Appeal. ‘Open justice’ and ‘public education’ jockey for position as arguments justifying calls for TV cameras in criminal trial courts. But TV is already awash with news stories and fictional accounts – courtroom dramas, that touch on the work of judges. But fictions are often cast as second best. Reality is the thing. The specter of declining standards of journalism and tabloid television and press reports that value sensationalism over accuracy haunts debates about better public access to news of what goes on in courts. Concerns continue to be expressed about the impact of media on popular misconceptions about the way courts work and the role of the judge. Pictures of judges dressed in gilded or scarlet robes wearing silk stockings, court shoes and 18th-century full-bottomed wigs regularly accompany news reports critical of judicial decisions, especially so called ‘lenient’ sentences. The worry is that they not only misrepresent today’s judges but that they feed and breed dissatisfaction with, and loss of confidence in, the judiciary.

But there has been little research exploring how these images are commissioned and made or how they are used. The network is designed to change that. Three workshops (the first in November 2014) will facilitate new encounters, open up new conversations, and expose participants to new perspectives. The workshops provide a unique opportunity for us to explore the complex processes that go into judicial image-making and image management. These events will be designed to encourage critical reflection about current images. What messages are being produced? What gets left out? How may these images be changed, improved? What can be done to enhance popular perceptions and understandings about the justice system and the role of the judge?

A dedicated website will support the whole project. In addition to providing information about the project events the website will also offer a bibliography of key sources for interested members of the public, policy makers, and budding researchers. It will also provide new educational resources.

The website also hosts an exhibition. This will be made up of a variety of pictures of judges, some of which I have made during the course of my judicial research (See image above). Others will be from important collections such as the National Portrait Gallery. We also hope to inspire people to make pictures, for example by using Instagram.

So don’t delay. Add the finishing touches to your picture. If it’s still a mental one, get out the paper and make a hard copy. If it’s already on paper turn it into a pdf or photograph it and send it in. My contact details are below.  A caption or accompanying commentary is optional. I can’t guarantee that it will make the exhibition. I’ll have to consult with my fellow researcher, Professor Linda Mulcahy once a colleague in the Law School at Birkbeck, now in the Department of Law at the London School of Economics. But I will do my best.

What I can guarantee is that the exercise will have made you think about one of society’s most important institutions. It will also have made you think about the importance of visual media in shaping your understanding of the judiciary.

Leslie J Moran is a Professor in the Law School at Birkbeck. You can contact him for more information about the project or to send your pictures via his email address: l.moran@bbk.ac.uk. Follow the Judicial Images project on Twitter.


‘All they want is my money’; a relationship in crisis

This post was written by Dr Bruna Seu, from Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies and Dr Shani Orgad from the LSE.

Donating Money To Charity‘All they want is my money.’ This is the most common rejoinder from participants in a UK nationwide study carried out between 2011 and 2014 by Birkbeck and LSE on public attitudes towards humanitarian and international development issues and responses to humanitarian communications.

The study found that we, the UK public, are emotionally responsive to humanitarian problems but we are also fatigued and disillusioned. Although people give generously to one-off appeals in response to natural disasters, they struggle with maintaining an on-going and meaningful connectedness with humanitarian and international development issues. This is a big problem for NGOs long-term work. Part of the problem is how humanitarian and international development crises are communicated to the public by NGOs. Financial pressure and increased competition within the field means that NGOs’ communications have become increasingly geared towards raising funds from the public via methods derived from advertisers and commercial retailers. Yet data shows that as soon as humanitarian communications are perceived as advertising the public switches off.

This predominantly fundraising-driven approach is proving detrimental. With the exception of humanitarian emergencies, the public is expressing widespread fatigue and resentment to being targeted solely as monetary donors. They resist engaging with the communications because they believe that ‘all they want is my money’. The public expect to and accept feeling sad and upset by humanitarian communications but too often they believe that NGOs manipulate their emotions in order to make them donate. We become desensitised and resentful towards NGOs, which leads us to further distance ourselves from humanitarian issues.

In order to decide what action we should take when faced with a humanitarian crisis of almost incomprehensible scale, such as the Syrian civil war, floods in the Philippines or the earthquake in Haiti, we need to be able to understand and contextualise the human suffering that they cause. NGOs can help us to do this by providing concise information which clearly sets out how our support can improve the lives of others. Rather than evoking an extreme emotional reaction, this information can be processed, managed and then used to consider what social responsibility we have towards these distant sufferers , as well as the humanitarian imperative to help and care for them.

Although the UK public respond overwhelmingly with compassion and empathy to the suffering of those affected by humanitarian crises, several factors prevent this emotional responsiveness from turning into action. When talking about helping distant sufferers, people think and respond as if the world were a small village and apply principles and practices of care they are familiar with. They want a relationship with those they are helping that is more ‘human’, close and embodied. They believe that sufferers ‘need more than money’, and overall doubt that their monetary donation will make any difference, particularly in the long term.

However, there is a clear discrepancy between the model offered by NGOs, and the one wished for by the public. This increases a sense of alienation between the public and distant sufferers as well as between the public and NGOs.

NGO communications and fundraising professionals in humanitarian and international development believe that the UK public trust them and view their work as valuable, but the Birkbeck/LSE study found that the public overall distrust and resent NGOs for behaving as a business.

If NGOs want a more sustainable relationship with the public, it is essential that they revisit their view of the public, to one predicated on understanding of and respect for the psychosocial complexities of the public’s responses – how we understand, process and emotionally respond to humanitarian causes, and what moral principles govern our responses.

It is urgent that both governmental and non-governmental organisations reflect on their current practices and make a concerted effort to foster and sustain public’s connectedness with humanitarian issues if they wish to create a civil society, where the public feels connected to and globally responsible to others. NGOS need to invest in rebuilding trust with the UK public, by complementing the interest and efforts geared at making the public donate, with a better understanding of how to evoke and enable appropriate emotions, foster understanding by providing manageable information, and offer possible actions which correspond with practices of care the public is familiar with.

NGOs can support connectedness between the public and humanitarian causes which is sustainable over time but it will require a reassessment of how they conceive of, interact with, and communicate to the public.

The findings from the project were discussed at the ‘Caring in crisis?’ colloquium, held at Birkbeck on 7 June 2014. Listen to the podcasts of the colloquium.