Suspicion after Soham, New Labour and the BBC and others

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Liberty in danger from a climate of suspicion after Soham

Liberty in danger from a climate of suspicion after Soham

Sir: Steve Richards ("The Home Secretary, the police chief, and the question of who runs the country", 29 June) entirely misses the critical issue emerging from the Bichard report, which principally revolves around the collection of personal data by the state, how it is distributed and how, once distributed, it can be used.

Ian Huntley did not have any criminal record, but a series of accusations were made against him to Humberside Police. None of these accusations was proved in a court of law and thus the data Humberside Police held about him had no legal weighting. Even if Cambridgeshire Police had been aware of Huntley's suspected criminal activity, they probably wouldn't have been able to use the information for any constructive purpose. It seems certain they would not have been able to inform any potential employers about unsubstantiated suspicions Humberside Police may have held. If they had, any lawyer would have advised Huntley to sue Cambridgeshire Police for breaching his human rights.

There is a perfectly valid argument for developing a system that would allow police forces to share data about potentially dangerous individuals, as Bichard recommends. However, alongside such systems there must be a legal power for the apparatus of the state to use the information, even when it impinges on an individual's human rights, and even when the information has not been proved in court. In adopting such a system, the use of data in this way would be a punitive tool against an individual who was legally innocent. It may be valid to use the information, given the need to protect society from these individuals, but it would mark a major turning point in the ethical framework of our legal system and indeed our society. Courts would be defunct, accusations would be evidence of guilt and the state would seize another huge slice of individual liberty.

The arguments in favour of such a system may be strong, but should not be adopted without careful consideration of practicality, misuse and liberty.

London SE4

Don't let New Labour wreck the BBC

Sir: Anthony Sampson is wrong in his argument that news is the "chief justification for the licence fee" (Opinion, 25 June). The BBC is not just a news organisation (although a mighty one). It is the chief commissioner and patron of arts, culture and popular science in the UK, Europe and perhaps the world. And it provides us with high-quality, home-produced entertainment.

At present this can only be done through the licence fee. UK advertising budgets are not even big enough to keep ITV in the style to which it has become accustomed. A subscription system, at least for the time being, is technically unfeasible.

The BBC maintains and develops the culture and unique atmosphere of the UK. No doubt it could do more in terms of original drama, serious music, current affairs analysis and other areas, and we hope that in the debate over Charter renewal it will pledge itself to do so. No doubt it could eschew the more toxic wastelands of "reality TV". But doesn't Sampson realise that without the spread and quality of BBC programming, we would soon see commercial terrestrial, satellite and cable descending into US-style lowest-common-denominator TV wallpaper?

Others criticise the BBC for exceeding its remit by enthusiastically adopting new media.But the BBC website is one of the most popular and trusted in the world - putting the UK Government website to shame, as well as those of most commercial media organisations.

By all means let us ask more and better from the BBC. But we should acknowledge that the BBC is almost the only remaining aspect of British life that binds us together at home and earns us admiration overseas. How typical of New Labour Britain it would be to take the one fine thing we have left and smash it at the behest of commercial interests. I didn't expect Anthony Sampson to contribute to this process.

General Secretary
Writers' Guild of Great Britain
London WC1

Sir: Anthony Sampson, in his article on the BBC's news values, fails to meet the standard of "unbiased and intelligent reporting" that he, quite rightly, demands of the BBC. It is simply not true that Greg Dyke's appointment as Director General was "fixed" by me and John Birt.

It is no secret that John Birt opposed the appointment of Greg Dyke, although his views failed to persuade the BBC Governors. And as Michael Grade (also a member of the "cabal of graduates of London Weekend Television") will understand, the BBC's Governors are far from the creatures of the Chairman, but thoroughly, and often inconveniently, independent.

Greg Dyke was appointed after a lengthy and thorough process because a majority of the Governors thought he was the best man for the job and would energise and inspire the BBC and guard its journalistic independence fiercely. I believe we were right.

London SW1
The writer was Chairman, BBC Board of Governors, 1996-2001

Sir: The question posed in the title of Anthony Sampson's article "If the BBC is just another entertainment channel, why should we pay a licence fee?" is easily answered, at least for me. I am happy to pay the licence fee because it means I do not have to suffer the advertisements which would otherwise interrupt all the programmes.

However, I would be much less happy if the BBC interpreted its mandate to inform educate and entertain to mean that it should transmit more opera and art programmes, in which I have no interest. This is another case of the establishment pleading for the entertainment they like to be subsidised in the name of high culture. If Mr Sampson wants to see more art or opera he can always visit an art gallery or the Royal Opera House, both of which already enjoy very substantial subsidies paid from his (and my) taxes.

Hildenborough, Kent

Definitions of torture

Sir: The Americans are not the only people to have had problems obtaining "intelligence", as described by Andreas Whittam Smith (28 June). When I was a National Service medical officer in Cyprus in the late 1950s it was accepted that when the security forces caught a member of EOKA they had alternative possible ways of proceeding. They could "interrogate" him, or they could charge him in court. If they had interrogated him it would have been embarrassing to discuss it in court, so if they wanted to see a conviction they had to refrain from "interrogating" him.

I saw them in action once. One morning a pleasant-looking young Cypriot was brought to us with a nasty burn down the outside of one thigh where a detonator had gone off in his pocket. All we could do was put a dressing on it and recommend he be taken to the local hospital. In the evening I met the officer concerned and asked how they had got on at the hospital. I was told that he was talking so freely that they had not yet got round to taking him there. Is such "intelligence" worth it?

Dufftown, Moray

Sir: Does a dictionary definition matter (editorial, 24 June) to the individual whose life is destroyed, either literally or figuratively, by abuse, mistreatment or by "torture", the word the Bush administration is loath to use?

I am well aware of the long-lasting effects that "tough but humane" measures can have. My father imposed a strict rule on us all: no lights on in the sitting room even on the darkest winter night. Candles and TV were OK, but definitely not an electric light. After my constant complaints, he finally gave his reasons. In the Second World War, as a member of the Polish resistance, he had been caught and incarcerated in a Soviet concentration camp. Prisoners were sleep-deprived and intimidated by packing them like sardines into small rooms and forcing them to sleep in a squatting position in the full glare of electric lights.

Nothing much has changed.

Alresford, Hampshire

Ban on Russian pop

Sir: I am writing to express my displeasure with Andrew Osborn's article "Ukrainian nationalists battle to get Russian pop hits off buses" (21 June). The author goes so far as to call the ban on Russian pop songs on minibuses "cultural and linguistic fascism". Mr Osborn fails to mention how offensive this Russian "pop" is - the most popular themes of such songs are life in prison and lawlessness, and the songs often contain foul language.

True, Ukraine has a large Russian minority whose rights, including linguistic rights, have to be protected, and they are. As Mr Osborn admits, Russian is very dominant in the Ukrainian media and everyday life, and there are Russian schools in almost every city.

There is a large Ukrainian minority in Russia. Are they able to exercise their rights equally freely?


Nanny health service

Sir: What a ghastly judgemental health service Anna Coote would inflict upon us all ("The NHS could do more than patch us up", 28 June). We are autonomous adults and should be respected as such even if our habits do not match up to those required for optimum health.

Not only is her vision inexcusably bossy, it is also a potential massive waste of effort. No patient will give up smoking or take up exercise until she herself wants to do so. All this idea would accomplish would be to take the doctor away from her proper job of providing effective and non-judgemental healthcare at the point of need and instead waste loads of time with the resentful well who would rather be somewhere else. Most people want an appointment on the day they request one, not yet another pressure on their already too precious time.

By all means provide cheaper and more accessible gyms, swimming pools and sports facilities. When somebody wants to give up smoking, programmes should be available, as should programmes for alcohol and other drugs. Invest in school cookery lessons and high-quality school meals. However leave the doctors alone. It is vital that everyone should feel able to avail themselves of medical services when they need them without fearing another ineffectual lecture.

Bridgwater, Somerset

Chelsea tractors

Sir: Does Professor Begg, the Government's "most senior adviser on transport", have the faintest idea about the truly awful effect of two-tonne 4x4 vehicles in the countryside ("Urban 4x4 drivers should pay more tax, says transport chief", 28 June)? Battered but trusty old working Land Rovers filled with hay bales and beady-eyed working dogs can be seen in their thousands off-road in rural Britain, and good luck to them. But £20,000-plus 4x4s? Don't be ridiculous!

These "Chelsea tractors" are far more of a menace in the narrow, overgrown and ill-founded lanes of rural England than on the robust two-lane highways of the town. Out in the sticks rural potholes abound; these mobile tanks crush them into gaping caverns capable of swallowing whole pedestrians, and even light vehicles. Where smaller, more nimble cars stop to avoid wildlife, these mobile crushers sweep majestically through the lanes obliterating all before them. They are apparently built without reverse gear, and their expensive paintwork is protected by vast steel bull-bars. Meeting one of these behemoths on a dark night is like running head-on into a triceratops, and equally startling.

Don't banish these ridiculous vehicles to our country lanes - we already have far more than we can cope with. Just make it compulsory for them to be driven only off-road. After all, with all that redundant farm land we could have an entire new network of dirtways where these would-be off-roaders could drive their fatuous status-boxes where they were designed to go - off the damned roads!

Brompton Regis, Somerset

No robbery in Portugal

Sir: Warmest congratulations to your three football reporters of the England-Portugal match. None cast doubts on the impartiality or judgement of the referee, and none asserted that "we wuz robbed". How sadly different was the BBC coverage of the Campbell "goal".

Malvern Wells, Worcestershire

Rhodesia rebuke

Sir: History may be bunk but that is no reason to rewrite it. In your "A history of handovers (and their hangovers)", (28 June) you declared that "the British colony of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was heading for independence, under black majority rule, when the whites of Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence" in 1965. The ill-starred federation had broken up into its component parts before that: Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) had become independent in 1964.

London SW8

Left off the list

Sir: The Q list of the 100 most powerful people in music (29 June) goes to prove the dumb romanticism of the music press. Out of the entire 100, not one lawyer, accountant, agent or plugger. Anyone with the tiniest knowledge of the music industry knows that, like it or not, these are the guys who actually run it.

London W2

Feeding frenzy

Sir: It's good news that more of us are feeding the wild birds in Britain (28 June). With a 40 per cent oil content in the favoured black sunflower seeds, how long will it be before we have a new concern about obese birds?

Long Buckby, Northamptonshire

Take no notice

Sir: On my last visit to Whipsnade Zoo there was a notice attached to the outside of the Brown Bear enclosure - "Bear Talks at 1500hrs" which I thought was pretty impressive. Needless to say we were disappointed.

Adderbury, Oxfordshire