Thursday, December 8, 2011

What’s sauce for the goose . . . the Guardian tries its hand at solving an ancient ethical conundrum. And one Vladimir Putin must decide: should he or shouldn’t he? But then he’s such a cutie at heart!

Well, well. Not only was the Guardian so thoroughly outraged by the News of the World hacking onto the mobile phones of various celebs and politicians that it launched an investigation into the whole scummy business, it also thought such hacking was such a good wheeze that it did a little itself. David Leigh, the paper’s assistant editor and head of investigations, has admitted that he, too, as hacked into voicemail messages in an, ultimately successful attempt to substantiate a story about a corrupt businessman.

Actually, the news is not quite as shocking as it might sound, and the Guardian isn’t shown up to by thoroughly hypocritical as my intro might have indicated. In fact, Leigh had already admitted in a piece for his paper in 2006 that he had also indulged in a spot of hacking and even admitted to feeling a ‘vicarious thrill’ while doing so, but his intention was to plead that there are exceptional circumstances in which such subterfuge is justified. And I seem to remember hearing on the radio yesterday that Leveson announced that when he makes his recommendations to as to what kind of journalistic practices he felt should be criminalised, he will also say that whatever laws are made should allow for exceptions. (I tried to find a link to press report on this but so far I haven’t been able to.)

So far, so good, although so far, so muddy. Because Leigh’s admission highlights a perpetial and perennial problem in - er - moral philosophy which is always best summed up in the question ‘does the end justify the means?’ Given what Leigh told Leveson’s inquiry and given Leveson’s subsequent comments on the matter, the answer would seem to be yes. But, as any keen sixth-form philosophy student will tell you, one can quickly think up any number of examples where the answer would seem to be an unequivocal no. For example, if a mother were told that the rest of her children would be saved if she year to murder her youngest, would that murder be justified? So, the answer to the question ‘does the end justify the means?’ would strictly become: sometimes. And that is worse than useless.

We are not dealing with dusty, theoretical philosophy here. The question of ‘when is immoral behaviour acceptable’ raised its ugly head several months ago when the Americans admitted they had resorted to the torture of Al Qaeda suspects. At the time, their response was ‘if a practice is acceptable, it is no longer immoral’, but in truth that is a pretty threadbare argument which merely shifts the burden of proof. A pound of flour is still a pound of floor whether it is weighed on an old-fashioned set a scales or a modern digital set.

Unusually, your resident loudmouth is not about to pronounce and suggest an answer. I’m merely going to take the easy way out and remark that it’s a tough one. I will add, though, that I am more inclined to play it safe and believe that, no, the ends don’t justify the means, for admitting that sometimes they might allows any number of thugs, such as one Joseph Stalin, for example, to justify themselves and their actions. But to point out just how tricky the question is: were the murders of occupying Germans committed by French Resistance more, less or equally as justified as the murders of U.S. and British troops in Afghanistan by the Taliban (or the murders of Soviet troops by the mujahideen)? Sticky, isn’t it?

. . .

If Vladimir Putin were a brand, his owners would be urgently considering a relaunch. If he were an ageing rock star, his managers would be urgently considering a comeback tour. As it is, he’s fucked and faces a huge dilemma: do the crackdowns on protesters in Moscow, St Petersburg and - somewhere called - Samara get heavier until they cease, or does he carry on with the ‘we’re all aspiring democrats now’ schtick and lose even more face? In all this, of course, I’m assuming that his position is safe within the ruling establishment, that he is not, perhaps, in part a placeman who could be replaced if and when those nominal folk pulling the strings decide. And that consideration takes us to an essential difference between the old Soviet regime and the new, it would seem quasi, dictatorship in Russia under Putin. At least the Soviets had the fiction of ‘the Communist Party’ and ‘the interests of the Party’ to fall back on and any reshuffle or internal realignment of power could be camouflaged. Putin has no such fig leaf, and it would seem he stands slap-bang in front of a dilemma.

A month ago I googled Putin’s biography as I realised I knew so little about him. The occasion was a curious story in the Daily Telegraph - you can find it here - about claims made by a former West German secret service agent that Putin used to beat his wife and had several affiars while he was working for the KGB and stationed in East Germany. The agent (whose codename as ‘Balcony’ - she had rather large breasts we are told, although I must be honest and say that is more a British than a German joke, or rather I have never heard it made by a German) had, in the course of her duties, managed to become a confidante of Mrs Putin, and Mrs Putin told her about her husband’s behaviour. Google took me to Wikipedia and, of course, I have the standard reservations about that site, but from what I read there it would seem to be that Putin was, initially, something of an accidental President. His biography doesn’t read as that of someone scheming to get his way to the top. Now he is there, of course, he most probably wants to stay there, but his initial appointment as a prime minister seems to have been something of a matter of chance. But there is now no doubt that he wants another two full terms in charge and will do a great deal to achieve it.

It would be misleading to claim that the people have other ideas. It would be more truthful to say that a number of liberal-minded, middle-class folk in Moscow, St Petersburg and Samara have other ideas, although the numbers who turned out to protest at what they regard were flawed elections can give us no indication at all as to whether there are a great many others in the whole of Russia who feel the same or just a few. (Incidentally, I have often wondered just how we British, or the French or the Germans, would react if the Russians announced they were sending monitors to our countries when an election is due to make sure it was all fair and above board. We might resort to crude language when telling them what to do with their election monitors.)

As that old roue Bill Clinton once remarked ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ when asked what made the voters tick, and the Russians will be no different. If things remain rather comfortable for a great many of them - and there is a great many of them - questions such as why are there no credible alternative candidates to Putin at the coming presidential election will remain unasked. If, on the other hand, the electorate’s standard of living does start to suffer badly, it could well be another matter. And in that case no amount of pictures of Putin strangling bears in the Urals, rolling around naked in Siberian snows, or fishing for shark in the waters of the Volga would soothe them. I have given a selection of Putin action man pictures below. And then, Lordy be!, I have also come across some pictures of Putin expressing his feminine side. He’s such a cutie!

On the lines of Putin PR stunts, one of the funnier videos I have recently seen was of Putin helping to promote a new Lada model. In he jumped to take the smart-looking car for a test drive and turned on the ignition. Sadly, the engine failed to spring to life for several minutes. I do hope he isn’t vain. Because he did look rather silly.

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