Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Journalistic License

Last Sunday, Andrew Marr's guest, Telegraph journalist Andrew Pierce, claimed his description of Neil Kinnock falling "headfirst" into the sea on Brighton's beach, was journalistic license. It was certainly an off the cuff remark, but what is journalistic license and how often is it used?

Colourful writing undoubtedly enhances a story, conjuring up strong images for our entertainment, but how does that marry with the facts of the matter? Does it tarnish the truth? Can we trust what we read?

This last question has an enormous impact on democracy. As does The Sun's claim to switch its support to the Conservatives today.

Interactive Democracy (ID) may employ various strategies for counteracting this:

  1. The ID Internet interface should allow voters to list the plus, minus and interesting points for each proposal, as an interactive document, supervised by the web master. More on this here.

  2. There could be a legal requirement for the news media and politicians to tell the truth, using a system similar to the Advertising Standards Authority. More on this here.

Party Power

The size of political parties and pressure groups gives them more power in Interactive Democracy, should the leadership be able to persuade their members to vote in unison. This may be accomplished quite powerfully by emailing their members to advise/persuade them on how to vote.
Is this a bad thing?
I don't think so. Party leaders have little real power over how their members vote, except by persuasion. (Votes are cast in secret, so the leadership should never know how individual members are voting.)
However, this poses a potential problem for the introduction of Interactive Democracy because those parties with smaller numbers of members, but many seats in the House of Commons, may use their political power to oppose it. That is to say, they may prefer to hold on to power rather than make democracy more democratic!
(The above graph is shown here, in an article about BNP membership.)

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Chanting "This is what democracy looks like"

On BBC's Panorama programme about policing protests there was a brief scene showing someone chanting "This is what democracy looks like". A quick search reveals the lyrics to this song by Sara Marlow (published here). It reveals an attitude, a confrontation and a power struggle in a better way than I can express:

"Now we are raging on the front lines, 50 000 strong this time
We've got a world to win
Struggled our whole lives against this
It's the fight we wouldn't dream of missing
So get off your seat and hit the streets, it's time to begin

This is what democracy looks like
This is what democracy looks like

Now they hide behind their barricades, uniforms and pepper spray
We know we got them scared
They hide behind the walls they made, but no fence can keep away our anger
And by any means we're going to make them hear us today

This is what democracy looks like
We're going to show them what democracy feels like

If you'd open up your eyes, you'd see why we're fighting
But you hide behind your lies, we're going to have to make you listen
Now IMF and WTO, you're going to see us everywhere you go
This is a promise we've made
SAPs and FTAA, we're not going to live that way
You can **** your fence, your tear gas and your pepper spray
Cause they're not what democracy looks like

We're going to show you what democracy looks like
If you'd open up your eyes, you'd see why we're fighting
But you hide behind your lies, we're going to have to make you listen
Now we're energised, electrified, found our power sis-by-side
So-so-solidarite dans la rue
Turtle kids and working class, together we can kick their asses
When we're fighting unified, there's no way we can lose

This is what democracy looks like
This is what democracy feels like

We're going to show them what democracy looks like
This is what democracy feels like"

This is what democracy looks like?
There's got to be a better way
Let's get Interactive Democracy today!

You can visit Sara Marlow's site here.

The Cost of Protests

According to this BBC report the week-long climate camp near Kingsnorth Power Station cost Kent Police about £5.9million pounds! 100 arrests were made and 29 complaints received!
I don't know if Interactive Democracy (ID) would make such protests irrelevant, and I would hate to see the right to lawful protest hindered in any way, but if those police resources were spent tackling burglaries or terrorism, I'd be happy. What ID would do is give protesters a legitimate democratic channel for pushing change, perhaps acting as a pressure release valve and preventing this sort of protest.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Scotland's Illegal Immigrant

While opposition politicians are clamouring for the resignation of Baroness Scotland it seems she is to keep her job and pay the £5000 fine for employing an illegal immigrant.
Chris Huhne declared "Law makers should not be law breakers" - well none of us should, but if we don't know what the law is, can we really be held accountable?
The coverage of this case is the first time I've heard that it is an employers duty to check the passport of prospective employees and that a National Insurance number is not sufficient evidence of a right to work. I never imagined that it would be my legal requirement to demand to see the passport of a window cleaner or gardener (Is it?). Yet it is a common tenant of law that "ignorance is no defence". Not that that defence would be feasible in Lady Scotland's case, as she was partly responsible for the creation of this very same law.
Perhaps it is the role of the police to apply the law with common sense; perhaps it is the role of the Judge to consider mitigating circumstances so that hard laws are implemented with wide consideration. That may work well. However, my objective in raising this here is to point out that if we were all involved in the development of laws through the Interactive Democracy system, then awareness of the issues, and of our responsibilities, would be so much greater amongst the population as a whole.

More here from the Guardian online.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Undermining Foreign Policy

Would discontented voters undermine government initiatives, especially foreign policy, by demanding changes through the Interactive Democracy (ID) process? Sure, people can protest today, but it may be difficult for foreign powers to easily understand the extent of British public opinion. Interactive Democracy votes are counted and can be found easily, on the web. Changes in the votes may be monitored as events unfold and may strengthen our enemies resolve!
On the other hand, supportive votes may have the opposite effect.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Ego Inertia

Those that seek to persuade others (salesmen) get locked into their point of view. This isn't just because they have a whole pile of products to sell, which have a cost that needs to be recovered, but because we would prefer that our psychological commitment to a point of view were not for nought. The Id (ego) wants us to be right.
In politics ideas are peddled with great effort and politicians seldom want to be perceived as being wrong. There is a political cost to their ideas, measured in terms of credibility. This means that controversial points of view may not be raised as the associated risks to credibility and ego are too great.
Interactive Democracy allows the general public to push controversial ideas forward. They have little to lose in terms of political credibility. Politicians can at first watch the debate from the sidelines without committing to one side or the other, only later becoming involved in Parliamentary debate. This dynamic, very different from today's political system, may lead to more creativity and diversity in the range of public policies from which we may choose.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


Free and fair debate is crucial to any type of effective democracy. Lies corrupt the very essence of this ideal and I think we should be considering how to use the law to combat lies in public life.
What is a lie? It is a statement, presented as fact, that is unsupported by evidence.
An un-truth is not a lie if the person communicating it believes it to be true and has evidence which in fact, turns out to be wrong. Plato wrote about this in Theaetetus (360BCE) and it is known to philosophers as the Tripartite Theory of Knowledge.
Could the law be used to punish liers? Or is the scale of the problem just too vast?
I don't think we should be punitive about off the cuff remarks, which, due to the sloppy nature of our spoken language, can cause misrepresentation. But perhaps we should be more demanding of prepared statements made by individuals in positions of authority and by organisations.
It may also be useful to split the issue into three areas:
  1. Politicians and public servants
  2. The Media
  3. The Internet
It seems to me logical that we should be stringent about the truth of statements prepared by politicians and public servants. This would include prepared statements made in the House of Commons or to the media and simple verbal statements of fact (Did you do that? Yes or No.)
We should also be careful about the power of the media to corrupt debate with falsehoods. This does not mean that they will necessarily have to reveal their anonymous sources, who may have a secret truth that it is in the public interest to reveal, but it does mean that they may have to qualify their statements with "According to several sources..."etc.
The Internet is perhaps the thorniest problem because individuals can so easily publish whatever they want and some of the written content may be very conversational in tone. It is also an international media and it may be unclear where an author resides and, therefore, which jurisdiction appertains. However, British organisations and authority figures could easily be held to account for their online communication.
Interestingly, the ease with which the Internet's wide range of sources can be searched is perhaps one of its saving graces, as evidence can be gathered quickly, using a search engine, that proves or disproves suspect statements. And news media organisations, publishing on the Internet, who are threatened by legal proceedings against their dishonest statements, will become more trusted sources of information than"Joe Blogs".
How would such a system work?
Perhaps it requires an "Authority" like the Advertising Standards Agency, who could take note of complaints, decide if a case is to be answered, demand a public apology and a re-statement of the culprits position and, if necessary, prepare a case for the civil courts. I'd hope that few cases were brought, but the deterrent would be strong.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Some would argue that the Party Political system of democracy that we have here today is a meritocracy: the best party members are promoted by their peers to become candidates, Members of Parliament, Members of Cabinet or even the Prime Minister. Even though budding Machiavellis, lady luck and human bias conspire to distort the ideal of meritocracy, Interactive Democracy (ID) does not prevent this time honoured process of appointing politicians. To this meritocracy of people, ID adds a meritocracy of ideas. Each one reviewed by the populace and parliament, promoted or declined, one at a time.

Monday, 14 September 2009


Many decisions in society require detailed knowledge and expertise and must be done by technocrats of one form or another. Consider the NICE committee that advises the NHS on the validity of new drugs (amongst many other things). Often senior doctors, they make decisions after analysing the clinical evidence and in light of the affordability of the treatment, using sophisticated metrics to compare the likelihood of providing quality of life years for patients. They make tough calls that can result in refusing patients with terminal illnesses the treatment that they need, because that money could be better spent elsewhere. The plight of these patients may tug at our heart strings.
Interactive Democracy may be used by campaigners demanding drugs that NICE have refused. They may garner much support through emotional appeals that ignore the hard hearted rational of the technocrats. Is this a bad thing?
In a democracy this should be a debate worth having. It may alter the rules that the technocrats employ to make their case by case decisions. But Interactive Democracy can not replace them; they are still an essential part of society. I don't believe that the public, through ID, could consider such complex decisions and vote frequently upon them.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Pressure Groups

Recently I heard one pundit on the BBC comment that No.10s ePetition system was a bit of an own goal, as it was dominated by pressure groups. I don't see this as a bad thing. After all, political party members can use it too. As can labour unions, charities, rail customers, cancer victims, super heroes or newspaper campaigns, to name but a few. Surely the essence of democracy is expressing your opinion to enhance the debate.
Sure, the ePetition system is more open to abuse than the proposed Interactive Democracy system, by people using aliases to boost the numbers of signatures (an address is required, but is it checked?). But I applaud No.10 for providing this service. It's an experiment that Interactive Democracy can learn from.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Bristol Vote on Graffiti

Bristol, the home city of Bansky, the elusive and acclaimed artist, is allowing its residents to vote on the removal of graffiti. This democratic process will be a stand against crime for some and a vote for freedom for others.
Shouldn't property owners have the first and final say on graffiti on their buildings? But assuming that that hurdle is cleared, perhaps because the wall is publicly owned, there are other complications. As each piece of graffiti may have its own merits, not just because of its creative content but in relation to the surface it was painted on, whether it is a bland concrete fence or Georgian facade, surely votes should be cast on each work - an administrative nightmare for a conventional ballot. Interactive Democracy could help streamline this, especially if a photo file was attached to each ballot. It could also automatically favour votes by residents of the area, the immediate postcode, ahead of the wider population of the city, who may only be given half a vote each!?

More from The Guardian here.

Making the Media Interactive

I hope that the media, especially the press, radio and TV news, would see the merit of publishing details of ePetitions and Public Ballots. These could include new ePetitions, the top 10 by number of signatures and all upcoming Public Ballots. I think it would add immeasurably to the success of Interactive Democracy and to the content of their services. It may even attract more readers, listeners and viewers and therefore more advertisers.
This will provide endless topics for their opinion leaders and political analysts.
Perhaps because of political bias, the media may not agree with this. In which case the government may consider to wield its power and legislate that news media must publish or broadcast these details. Or they may demand that it is only mandatory for the BBC.

Monday, 7 September 2009

You Don't Have To Be An Expert To Start A Petition

Inevitably, Interactive Democracy will be inundated by half baked ideas from amateurs. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because off-the-wall suggestions may inspire others to write their own, better informed, Petitions. In this way the ePetition system may act like an enormous brainstorming system. (One of the rules of brainstorming is that any idea should be recorded without criticism, as it may inspire other, better ideas.)
Crazy ideas are unlikely to garner sufficient support to be put before parliament, but even if they were, our elected politicians must debate them, look at the counter arguments and associated issues, and form realistic and workable choices to put before voters.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Votes from Abroad

Nationals who are working or living abroad will still be able to vote using an Internet based Interactive Democracy (ID) system in the same way that we can access our Internet bank accounts. Perhaps a more difficult challenge would be to ensure that military personnel on active service have sufficient access to the Internet.
Several aspects of the system will help to facilitate votes even though access to the voting system may be infrequent:

  • Votes may be cast well before the ballot ends, perhaps months in advance
  • Liquid Democracy can be used to delegate votes on certain subjects to respected individuals
  • You may allow your spouse or a trusted friend to access your ID account (by giving them your user name and password) and cast the vote on your behalf. Perhaps you would direct them by telephone.

The ID system would simplify the administration of General, EU and Council Elections for those working abroad and could provide substantial cost savings compared to the present system.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Perceptual Contrast

Whenever there is a choice between two solutions we should be aware of the Perceptual Contrast Effect. Humans automatically compare similar things and find it very difficult to compare those choices with a third, separate standard.
This may be used by any sales person to steer a decision in the "right" direction. It could be used by Members of Parliament to bias the outcome of a referendum if they offered an obviously contentious option instead of a more moderate alternative to a proposal that they favoured.
In the Interactive Democracy system, the electorate may want to wield their power against the politicians responsible for such deception.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Halos and Horns

The Halo Effect describes how we assume that people who are successful in one field may be successful in another. It may manifest itself in many ways and encourages us to support our leaders.
The Horns effect may be considered as the opposite. We dismiss the opinions of those we don't respect.
Neither the Halo or Horns effects may be valid as success or failure in one area does not mean that an individual will perform well or poorly on a different issue. So maybe we should be more skeptical of our leaders and more open to ideas from the average person. Interactive Democracy facilitates this point of view.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Cabinet's Commitment

It is understood that the Cabinet has specific roles:
  • Share information about government departments and the progress of policies
  • Coordinate between departments
  • Resolve conflicts of policy
  • Confirm government policy
Individual freedom of expression is required for effective debate but cabinet members are expected to present a united front to the outside world.
The Prime Minister (PM) has sole responsibility for appointing cabinet members and (s)he may expect their loyalty. The PM has the authority to set the agenda and chair cabinet meetings.
With Interactive Democracy I would expect the cabinet system to continue to exist in its present form. However, the agenda may be influenced by the demands of the public, expressed through Interactive Democracy, and ministers may have to take into account a much more powerful electorate.

Improving the Quality of Parliamentary Debate

Could it be that Interactive Democracy could apply pressure to improve the quality of Parliamentary debate?
Within Interactive Democracy, Parliament should present all the arguments, effects and interesting observations about any issue that is about to go to a national ballot. This should represent all the points of view of every Member of Parliament and may be written as a secure wiki type document. It may be constructed on-line before and after the debate in the Commons. The format may be De Bono's PMI (plus, minus and interesting points), perhaps as a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) or any other "thinking tool". Because this analysis would be presented to every voter when they come to cast their vote, it would put pressure on Parliament to do a good job; the electorate would be in a position to appoint or dismiss MPs as they do today.