Notes From a Small Planet

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Rough justice

There are few things more damaging for a politician in a democratic society that the perception that they are soft on crime.

That's surely the main reason why capital punishment is unlikely to be abolished in the United States, despite the opinion polls that show the majority there in favour of judicial killing steadily falling, and the fact that most of the rest of the world looks at the American way of legal homicide with a mixture of incredulity and horror. There must be many US politicians who instinctively recoil from the grotesque rituals of the death chamber, but dare not say so because it would be career suicide.

The British judicial system thankfully does not poison or burn people to death, but that isn't to say that our politicians aren't similarly prone to tough posturing. Home Secretary David Blunkett has taken a lot of criticism over the UK government's plans to relax the British laws on cannabis. He's also been under pressure to have less people sent to jail, simply because Britain's prisons are overcrowded and the government doesn't want to spend money on building more of them.

So, what is a poor Home Secretary to do to avoid that dreaded 'soft on crime' slur? Why, of course, bring in a few half-baked 'tough' measures that will play well in the conservative press. And so Mr Blunkett has wheeled out a host of proposals that rightly alarm civil libertarians. The most startling and headline-grabbing is the plan to abolish what has been a basic principle in British law for 800 years: the 'double jeopardy' rule, under which once you're acquitted of a crime, you can never be tried for it again.

This seems to me to be a very well-founded principle: one that prevents the authorities from repeatedly pressing a charge until they get the 'right' result. Blunkett claims that second prosecutions for one offence will only be used in rare cases, where compelling new evidence links acquitted defendants to serious crimes like murder and rape. But once the 'double jeopardy' rule has been abolished for some crimes, there's sure to be calls for it to be abolished for other offences, if not for all of them.

It's also rather ominous that the reports on these changes keep focusing on high-profile cases where trials have resulted in acquittals, such as the notorious racially-motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence. In the past, when infamous miscarriages of justice have taken place in Britain, they've often been in cases where a crime has been committed that was sufficiently notorious for the police to be under great pressure to deliver someone to stand trial, so that something can be seen to have been done about an offence that has shocked the nation. The case of the Birmingham Six, wrongly convicted following a horrific terrorist bombing, is a good example. I can't help suspecting that in future, the authorities will be particularly inclined to try again for a conviction in similarly high-profile cases.

Worse still, though, is the proposal to allow juries to be told of a defendant's previous convictions. The fact that this is to be left to judges' discretion hardly helps. It's likely to make it almost impossible for anyone who does have their past misdeeds revealed in court to have a fair trial. In such cases, the very fact of the defendant's record being revealed will surely push juries towards the thought that 'If the judge thinks we should know about his record, he's obviously a particularly bad guy. Better convict him just to be on the safe side.'

When Blunkett announced his plans in the House of Commons this week, one MP protested that judges might be tempted to throw in the defendant's history when the prosecution's case is weak, in order to improve the chances of a conviction. I can only agree with that objection. I also have to agree with the pro-civil liberty pressure group Liberty, who have said that the government is '... blaming fair trial protections for crime rates'. It'll be an outrageous crime if Blunkett and the Blair administration are allowed to get away with stealing those necessary protections.

Terry's triumph

Speaking of injustices, a long-standing one was partially corrected at the weekend when Terry Pratchett finally won a major literary award.

His novel The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents won the Carnegie Medal, a 66-year-old award previously presented to such distinguished wordsmiths as CS Lewis, Eleanor Farjeon, Arthur Ransome and Philip Pullman, after being picked from a short list of six chosen by Britain's librarians. Presumably, none of those librarians happened to be an orang-utan, like the one in Pratchett's Discworld books.

Recognition for the literary merit of Pratchett's work is long overdue. The fact that it's taken so long suggests prejudice on the part of a literary establishment unwilling to accept that an author can be as funny and as popular as Pratchett, and yet still be creating work with real depth.

But Pratchett does exactly that. All of human life is in his Discworld books, even if it's sometimes being played out by wizards, witches, trolls or vampires. The folly of humanity is examined with a kindly but astute wit. Racism, for example, is reflected through the Discworld looking-glass as the ancient hatred between the trolls and the dwarves, which leads them to call each other 'rocks' and 'lawn ornaments'. Yet, as Pratchett said in his acceptance speech last week, '...put in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer'.

It was that word 'fantasy' that prevented me from discovering Pratchett's greatness for far too long. I'd tried Tolkien and been bored. Fantasy literature was, I thought, the preserve of dope-addled hippies who liked dreadful progressive rock bands. Then I suddenly found myself with enough time on my hands to visit public libraries, took a chance on one Pratchett book, and went on to read all the 23 Discworld novels that existed at the time in a matter of months. Nowhere in literature have I found a character I can identify with more strongly than Pratchett's Captain Samuel Vimes, a man who sometimes manages to do good things despite a drink problem and a deep-seated cynicism that battles against sincere idealism.

Pratchett obviously shares my impatience with Tolkien. In his acceptance speech, he commented: 'You can tell that Maurice is a fantasy because it looks like one. It has rats that are intelligent. But it seems to me even more fantastic that in the book there are humans that are intelligent as well.

'Far more beguiling to me than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive costume jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that peace between nations can be maintained by careful diplomacy.'

Pretty down-to-earth for someone who's supposedly off in fantasy-land, wouldn't you say? Long may this wonderfully wise and witty man continue to be profoundly hilarious.

Dreck Trek track

In the various incarnations of Star Trek, our Starfleet heroes have faced all manner of terrifying threats, from the (pre-peace treaty) Klingons to the Borg. However, when Enterprise finally made it on to British terrestrial TV this week, I was shocked to find the latest Trek crew up against what is arguably the most horrifying entity ever to enter the Trek universe.

I refer, of course, to that adult-oriented rock atrocity of a theme song. It was called 'Faith Of The Heart' when it was recorded by that perennial stranger to good taste, Rod Stewart. It has been re-titled 'Where My Heart Will Take Me' for Trek purposes, perhaps in a bid to escape the Stewart stigma, and re-recorded by a British singer named Russell Watson. And it is a truly execrable bombastic ballad that sounds like Bryan Adams - only worse, because not even Adams could pack that many clich├ęs into a lyric.

Interestingly, the official Star Trek website is already insisting: 'For those who worry that the song may be replaced due to negative reaction by some Trek fans, rest assured that the producers (Rick Berman and Brannon Braga) have indicated that they have no intention of changing the opening theme.' This reassures me that many of my fellow Trek fans have good taste, and that there is probably a very good chance of the song being transported into well-deserved oblivion, because otherwise they wouldn't be bothering to deny it.

So Trekkers of the universe unite! Set your verbal phasers to 'kill'! Pour enough scorn on that truly terrible theme, and we can surely stop AOR from being permanently assimilated into Star Trek. Make it so!

With that, I must bid you goodbye for a couple of weeks, because I'm off on a seaside holiday next week. I plan to go on a lot of very silly white-knuckle fairground rides. If I don't fall off any of them, I should see you in a fortnight.


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