2021×18, Monday: Your right to say it.

Three days ago, someone murdered David Amess. We were political poles apart; and yet he strove to be my representative. We owe it to him to remember these are not mutually exclusive.

Sir David Amess, painted by Madmanity at the skate park in Leigh-on-Sea which Sir David opened in 2008.

He was my MP.

And someone murdered him.

I can’t claim any special connection to Sir David Amess. I never voted for him. I didn’t agree with much of his politics, if any. I never met him. I was lucky enough never to need his help.

But he was my MP. And that’s important.

Because someone – honestly, it doesn’t matter who at this point – thought it was OK to stab him. To kill him. To take him away from his family. From his constituents.

I wish his family succour in their grief. I wish Sir David eternal rest and peace. He was a lifelong and dedicated Catholic, so I have no doubt that he had faith his end here on this Earth wouldn’t be the last word. And I pray that he was right.

But it’s his constituents I want to focus on. And only very slightly because I’m one of them. There are 650 MPs in the UK. And the majority of them aren’t ministers or shadow ministers. They might serve on a committee or two. But most see their first job as representing their constituency. Critically: most have it as an article of faith that they’re there not just to represent, but to serve, everyone in that constituency: those who voted for them, and those who never would, alike.

Everything I’ve heard says Sir David was just one such public servant. He seems never to have sought a government post, or to have been at all interested in one. Instead, everyone who’s encountered him – from local businesses and charities to people who needed his voice to speak for them when officialdom was flexing its muscles – seems to have found him absolutely committed to this place in which I live, and (perhaps more importantly) to each person in it.

(Reading this as I write, I recognise that “we can’t break the link with constituents” is an argument often deployed against moving away from first-past-the-post. And I agree: that link is critical. But pure FPTP isn’t the only way that link can be maintained. STV is one way. There are others. And the warping effect of FPTP, leaving many people near-permanently disenfranchised, may contribute to the despair about politics, and the encouragement of division between voters, which I’m abhorring here.) 

And that’s the point. Sir David didn’t engage in “othering” any of his constituents. I doubt – from what I’ve heard – that he would have done so to those with whom he strenuously disagreed politically either. I’m sure he had faults. But I suspect that wasn’t one of them.

But consider how many of his colleagues on all sides of politics don’t do that. Who talk of traitors. Enemies of the people. Scum. Who seek to embed and exploit division. Who look for scapegoats, a “them” whose fault it can be. Whatever “it” happens to be today.

This sets a tone. No-one’s responsible for Sir David’s death other than the person whose hand held the knife. But we’re all accountable for the context in which such atrocities happen. In which MPs routinely face multiple threats of death and violence each week – the more so if they’re anything other than a white male.

Don’t get me wrong. I want us to disagree. Strenuously. No kumbaya here, please. I want us to argue. To debate. To be able to say someone’s ideas are wrong, or harmful, or counterproductive. (And to make the case; not just to say “I’ve a right to my opinion” – because an opinion without a foundation is sometimes little more than a prejudice.) 

And on occasion – if (and only if) merited – to challenge the motivation behind the ideas as well. 

But rarely. Instead, play the ball. Not the person. Most of the time, if someone thinks differently from you, that says nothing about the content of their character. Don’t ever assume that without evidence.

Apparently Voltaire never actually said that while he disagreed with what someone said, he’d “defend to the death your right to say it”. It’s a misattribution – although many judge it an accurate distillation of Voltaire’s views.

I believe Sir David would have agreed with the sentiment. I believe the best honour we can pay him, a servant of the public to the end, is to strive to live by it.


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2021ix11, Saturday: 20 years.

Two decades on from a terrible day, I can’t help remembering – alongside the sick horror – a feeling of professional pride and challenge. Does that make me a monster? I don’t think so.

Oh, fuck.

Thinking back 20 years, to a sunny September afternoon in West London, I’m pretty sure that’s what I thought. And probably for the first and last time in my life, I was sharing a crystal clear thought, in a specific moment, with millions of others.

I was a BBC reporter. I’d been one for two months, working for what was then called BBC News Online – a wonderful little enclave of print hacks feeding copy into the BBC’s news website. I’d been hired following my insistence that there were business stories to be told about white collar crime. In practice, I’d had trouble getting a lot of interest, or traction. It was a little annoying.

And then there I was, sitting in front of one big CRT monitor (yes, it’s that long ago) and two tiny CRT TVs tuned to BBC News 24 and (probably) CNN.

I don’t think I was paying much attention when the first aircraft hit the first tower. I must have seen it. But I was busy. A passing empathetic thought for all those whose lives had been lost in what – I assumed, with so many others – to be an awful accident. (Remember: we were several years past the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Terrorism wasn’t front of mind. The bins may even have been back on the train platforms. What a sweet, brief time that was.) And then back to work.

And then the second plane hit. That terrible sequence that anyone alive that day with access to a TV can instantly remember. I remember it in slow motion: probably the effect of too many playbacks overwriting what, in any case, would have been largely seen in my peripheral vision on those two tiny TVs.

And I, and millions of others, swore. Out loud. 

And then the newsroom – Room 4220 in TV Centre, the BBC’s main economics and business newsroom, normally embroiled in the racket of a hundred hacks on deadline – went silent. 

Only for a few seconds. But it was deathly quiet. 

And then, of course, it was uproar. 

Because I, and probably everyone else in the room, knew this wasn’t an accident any more. Someone had done this unthinkable deed. On purpose. And, as for every other reporter whose beat intersected even vaguely with the attack, I knew it was game on.

That this was the time when I found out whether, in fact, I was any good or not.


I read that now, and I feel slightly sick. More than 3,000 people died that day. Some through impact. Some were crushed. Some were burnt alive. Some (and here it’s the stills I remember) threw themselves from the windows dozens of stories up, because – appallingly – that may have seemed better than the alternative.

And here I am, talking about it like it was a test of professional pride.

Here’s the thing. There are some jobs where you spend your time up to the elbows in others’ trauma. Doctors. Coppers. And, of course hacks of both kinds, reporters and barristers. We see people at their worst and most vulnerable moments. The times when life has kicked them in the teeth, and the horrifying truth is dawning that it can still, somehow, get worse.

I don’t know what it says about me that I started my working life in one such trade, and now – after an 11-year detour through regulation and banking – I’ve ended up in another. 

But this I know. I don’t feel sick about what I just wrote because I was wrong. I wasn’t – either to write it now, or to feel it then. I feel sick because I recognise that for some people it will be the proof that these jobs (perhaps not the cops and quacks, but certainly the hacks) are indeed monsters. Preying on human frailty for profit.

And yes: some do. More the journalists than the barristers, I like to think. Still, some, of each, certainly. 

But not most of us. Police officers I’ve known sometimes talk about the core distinction between them and everyone without a warrant card is they run towards the scream, not away from it. Because it’s the job. Because you get your hands a bit grubby. Because someone has to. And if you’re a halfway decent person, better it’s you than some people you know. 

Same for us hacks, of both kinds (although thankfully, usually at least, without the intense physical risks). People get into trouble. Sometimes all by themselves; sometimes because someone’s done it to them. Ignoring it is a lovely privilege for many. 

But someone has to notice. To write about it. Or fight it out in the courts, if it gets there. To be their voice.

Not without heart, not without feeling. You have to have those. You have to empathise, or else you really are a monster.

But then you have to get on with the job. Work at it. Try to keep getting better.

And find out, again and again, if you’re really any good or not. Every day.

It’s a bloody privilege.

Might as well be me.


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2021ix9, Thursday: the truth behind the lie.

Anyone can lie with statistics. But buried in the numbers backing up the BS, the truth that rebuts it can often be found. And fashioning that into a compelling story can be shockingly effective.

One of the great things about numbers is not that they can be used to lie, although they can.

It’s that even when they’re (mis-)used that way, sometimes the truth still lurks within.

I’m no great mathematician, although my daughter tells me that I light up when I’m working through problems with her to help her study. And it’s a sadness that when I studied maths in school, we focused on mechanics at the expense of statistics and probability.

I’ve picked up a bit of each since, although I’m still very rule-of-thumb. And every so often something comes up that simply delights me.

Benford’s Law was one such. I encountered it as a counter-fraud tool many years ago. For large number sets, it observes, the leading digit – that is, the lefthand-most one, denoting (say) the thousands in a four-digit number or the millions in a seven-digit one – is rarely an even distribution. No: a leading “1” is by far the commonest number, with a sharp drop to “2” and then a logarithmic curve flattening thereafter all the way to “9”.

Why is this useful in counter-fraud? Well, to make a fraud work, you often need to cook the books – to alter financial records. What are financial records but numbers? And when you make up numbers, or generate them randomly, you may well fail to make the statistical distribution of those numbers look right.

So if you’re looking at a data-set whose leading digits are evenly distributed – instead of, as Benford’s Law predicts, having as much as 30% of them start with a “1” – you ought to start getting suspicious.

I mention this having been pointed (by the ever-wonderful Charles Arthur) to a recent takedown of a seminal piece of counter-fraud research. The research, from 2012, posited that a measurable decrease in dishonesty could result from a simple change in how people sign declarations of honesty in documents. You know how at the bottom of a tax return, or form providing details for (say) insurance, you sign to say you’ve given accurate information? The research suggested that simply by putting the declaration at the top – that is, before you provide the information instead of afterwards – people would be significantly more likely to tell the truth.

Classic “nudge” theory at work, you might think. 

Unfortunately, the authors themselves tried and failed to replicate their findings in 2020. They found anomalies in one of their key data sets, which they attributed to a “randomisation failure”. 

No: as the new (and really smart and thoughtful) analysis says – conclusively, to my mind – the data in question was simply faked.

I won’t provide too much detail. The analysis is short, clear, and absolutely worth reading in full. To give just one example, it noted that the data (from a motor insurer) included two sets of mileage figures, both supposedly provided by drivers. But while the first set showed notable spikes in frequency for numbers ending either in “000” or “500” (that is: people roughly rounding their mileage to the nearest half-thousand, as you might well expect them to do), the second set was absolutely flat – as the graph reproduced below shows. 

In other words: the same people were rough-guessing their mileage first time round, but giving it accurate to a single mile thereafter. Consistently. Everyone. Every time.

You’ve met humans. You tell me how plausible that sounds.

If anything, the analysis gets still more fascinating thereafter.

To their credit, all four of the 2012 authors recognise the problem, and have now retracted the 2012 paper. There’s no reason to think any of them were party to what now appears to have been an essentially made-up data set. 

More importantly, they also agree with a core emergent finding of the writers of the new analysis. Research which doesn’t expose its underlying data (unless it’s absolutely impossible, say for personal privacy or safety purposes, to share it), isn’t to be trusted. Because it can’t be checked.

And given the reproducibility crisis, that just isn’t good enough.


I recognise that I seem to be straying a long way from the law, here – my usual stamping grounds.

But this is, to me, objectively interesting. There’s a beauty in the idea that those who lie with statistics may ultimately be found out by them too.

And I think there’s at least a small legal application – or at least a litigation one.

Numbers can be made to lie, sure. But equally, underneath the lying explanation there may be a true story begging to come out.

And – as we’ve discussed ad nauseam – advocacy is about story-telling. Don’t ignore the opportunity you have to use numbers to tell stories. If you can take a wall of impenetrable numbers, and – as the writers here have so lucidly done – use them to fashion a compelling, even shocking, narrative, which grabs the attention and answers the key questions, don’t waste it. 

Not all of us advocates are numerate. Not all of us “get” statistics and probability. Some of us even misuse them – by accident or by design. But more of us should get it, and get it right. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but the Inns of Court College of Advocates guide, created with the help of the Royal Statistical Society, is a pretty good way to start.


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2021viii19, Thursday: A failure of trust.

A brace of Court of Appeal cases highlight both some fascinating litigation points – and why charitable trustees need to trust themselves, and their friends, a little less.

Like many people who’ve spent time in counter-fraud, I have a firm but nuanced view of fraudsters.

Nuanced, because part of the classic fraud triangle is “rationalisation” – the fraudster’s ability to convince themselves that what they’re doing isn’t really wrong. Not really. Not when looked at from the right angle, in the right light. (Albeit possibly only at 4.13pm on the second wet Thursday in October.) And not often, but sometimes, there’s almost genuine pathos in that rationalisation – particularly when it’s linked to a necessity which is caused less by greed than by some personal or family disaster.

But firm, because when you get down to it fraudsters are still essentially stealing someone else’s stuff, usually by lying to them or otherwise betraying their trust. And screwing with the trust someone places in you is, to my mind, one of the worst betrayals there is.

I could go off on a long tangent here about fiduciary obligations – for the non-lawyers, the term for the duties which arise in special kinds of relationship where you’re obliged to put someone else’s interests before your own, and not simply balance yours against theirs. Directors to their companies. Trustees to their beneficiaries. Solicitors to their clients. And so on. The tangent is tempting, not least because of a long talk with a client recently which I spent trying to convince them why what had been done to them, while patently wrong and immoral, wasn’t a breach of a “fiduciary” duty; and that calling it that would hurt their case, rather than helping it.

(We play with words, we lawyers, and forget sometimes that – as with any jargon – legal cant can seem to be a touchstone to the uninitiated, rather than a vessel of specific meaning.)

But I won’t, because what I’m really interested in here is a particular kind of fiduciary obligation: that of a charitable trustee. 

Because more than once in my career, I’ve seen charitable organisations – or those which, while not actually a charity, are non-profit and trying to do good – get taken. Badly taken. And while my primary visceral hatred is directed at the crooks (and, I admit, occasionally fools) who took them, there’s a small pipette of bile reserved for the idiots who let them.

Yes. Let them.

One example? A religious charity – an independent pentecostal church – whose affairs I investigated a decade or so ago, after they entrusted their money (that is, the money gifted by the faithful) to a friend of the pastor, who said he could produced a 60% annual return.

The return was indeed about 60%. Minus 60%. More than half the money was lost. Because the trusted idiot – and I think he was a fool, rather than a crook – had convinced himself and the pastor that contracts for difference were the right way to gamble with the church’s money. And because he was the pastor’s mate, none of the church elders lifted much of a finger to stop it happening. 

This kind of “we’re religious, so we should trust because our leaders say we should” is dangerous. It’s at the root of affinity fraud, the kind of fraud which rips through a community once the fraudster is inside the circle of trust, and which strikes religious groups particularly hard (but of course isn’t limited to them). And it’s particularly pernicious in the kind of religious groups with charismatic (small-c, I stress) leaders, tithing traditions, and few controls. Yes, ultimately it’s the fraudster’s fault, and yes, perhaps people should caveat the emptor just a bit. But in line with my core belief that certainty is not to be trusted, any leader who gives off a vibe that discourages his (usually his, rather than her) followers from doing their own due diligence is simply dangerous, unprincipled, arrogant and – put simply – in the wrong job.

That particular church case inspired me to put together a one-day course for pastors in training, as part of a ministerial training course run by a friend of mine. I only ran it once, but it centred on the vital importance of audit – and the idea that “trust, but verify” was the exact opposite of unfaithful.

Misplaced trust

All this was a long time ago, but I was reminded of it recently by a brace of Court of Appeal cases involving a genuine financial and legal tragedy. They involved a venerable law firm in Yorkshire, Dixon Coles & Gill, the Bishop and Diocese of Leeds, and four well-known national charities. 

And the former senior partner of the law firm, who over the course of a couple of decades stole millions – yes, millions – from the firm and its clients.

To tl;dr the background: the firm, DCG, had been around some 200 years. It was forced to close in 2016 after its two other partners discovered to their horror that Linda Box, their colleague, had systematically been bleeding funds not only from its client account but also from funds she personally held for several charities (including the Church). Unsurprisingly, the Church and the charities sued. Since the firm was an old-fashioned partnership instead of a more modern LLP, the two other partners – who, it should be said, were wholly innocent of deliberate wrongdoing – were in principle on the hook with unlimited liability.

In fact, the Court of Appeal allowed the remaining partners to benefit from the usual six-year limitation period, overturning a ruling in the High Court in Leeds that they should be found to have been “party or privy” to Mrs Box’s fraud under s21 of the Limitation Act 1980 – but it also dismissed an appeal from that same court’s ruling that the firm’s insurers were liable to pay out on all the claims (if the claimants were successful), rather than being able to limit total liability on the grounds that all the claims essentially arose from a single series of related acts.

They’re fascinating cases: in particular the first, for anyone interested in limitation (and that should include all lawyers involved in contentious litigation).

But I mention them in particular for a startling detail in the first-instance claim. At paragraphs 42 and 43, HHJ Saffman notes that the remaining partners suggest Mrs Box – in handling a substantial proportion of the Diocese’s money – was acting on a personal rather than professional basis. And he points to a 1995 letter where a past Bishop of Leeds seems to have allowed Mrs Box to have sole signing authority on a Church fund – a fund in relation to which he was (as Mrs Box wrote to him in 1995) “under no legal duty to divulge the accounts to anyone“.

I find this shocking, and frankly disgraceful. As some will know, I come from a Church background. My late father was a vicar, then a canon, then a bishop – retiring in 2011 after 15 years as Bishop of Winchester, one of the largest dioceses in the Church of England. I’ve met plenty of priests and bishops who took a pretty autocratic view of their rights, and of how they should be allowed to fulfil their obligations, although my dad – a believer in sunlight as the best guarantor of probity – wasn’t one of them. (Not for him the clergy equivalent of “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” although I’ve seen variants far too often.)

So I’m sure there are plenty of funds held by priests and bishops in the CofE with similarly – ah – opaque oversight structures. 

But to take such a fund, and give a single individual who isn’t even the office-holder the unaudited power invisibly to handle the cash? It’s insane. More than that: given that the funds are charitable, or at least the fruits of faithful labour by many hands and the generosity of many hearts. it’s simply immoral.

This simply shouldn’t be. No more should there be unaudited funds for charities and churches, than that churches should be able to mark their own homework when it comes to safeguarding. 

Not because churchpeople are uniquely bad. They’re not. Most are genuinely trying to do the right thing. 

But because they’re people. And in my view, it simply isn’t fair to put people in a position where – if they find themselves at risk of yielding to temptation – there’s nothing in place to hold them back.

Trust, but verify. It’s only sensible. But far more importantly, at least for people of faith like me: it’s un-Christian to do otherwise.


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2021viii10, Tuesday: When 1≠1.

A judge makes the point I’ve been dying for someone to make about bundle page numbering: make the numbers match. Or suffer the (cost) consequences.

Thank goodness.

There are many bundling crimes which we’ve now become tediously used to since, in March last year, the world caught up with those of us at the Bar who’d already gone paperless.

Now a judge in Manchester – may he be blessed! – has tackled one of the more aggravating ones head on.

It’s page numbering. Yes, I know. Boring. Pernickety. The usual head-of-pin barrister small-mindedness.

If you think this, you’re wrong. Ask yourself how many hearings you’ve been through uttering the litany: “That’s page 47 on paper, my Lady, but page 54 in the PDF.” And waiting while someone, unerringly but understandably, goes to the wrong page. Over. And over. Again.

Thing is, it isn’t hard to get the numbering to match up. As long as there aren’t any last-minute additions, in fact it’s child’s play. In Adobe Acrobat, you can easily make (say) the index pages – and yes, the biggest single crime is forgetting to number the index pages as i-ii-iii, kicking off the actual substantive bundle at page 1. (Open the page thumbnails sidebar down the left hand side of the main window. Click on the menu icon just below the words “Page thumbnails”. Choose “Page labels…”. Pick your page range, select roman instead of arabic numerals, and you’re done.)

In PDF Expert, that isn’t an option – but instead, why not simply start page 1 with the first page of the index, instead of having it in a separate document? (On which subject: separate indexes are the spawn of Satan themselves. One document, please. Including the index. Just the one.)

I won’t go into online bundling services, but frankly if they don’t do this already, they should do. Pronto. (I’ve come to love Casedo, but its page number doesn’t have the option to include its own self-generated table of contents. It really should.)

Even adding pages isn’t too hard (eg “280a, 280b” etc). At least in Acrobat – you can do exactly the same thing. Add the extra pages. Then choose them in the range. Make the starting page the prefix (so “280” in this example). Choose “a, b, c…” from the dropdown. Away you go. Done.

So as HHJ Pearce says in Hodgson v Creation Consumer Finance Ltd, there really isn’t any excuse. The courts – from the Supreme Court down – have said for some time in guidance that this is how they want pagination to work. 

And yet I can’t offhand remember a single bundle I’ve been sent by an opposing party (I do my best to work with my solicitors to get it right) that has complied.

The next time, I might be tempted to take a point on it. Using the following from HHJ Pearce at [14]:

Whilst the Courts may have been willing to tolerate problems early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when solicitors were struggling with new challenges, including a lack of the traditional support from those who might assist with preparing bundles, as well as the sudden need to get to grips with the challenges of preparing electronic bundles in all cases, there has been plenty of opportunity by now to get to grips with those challenges. I repeat that most court users have done. Those who have not must realise that they are likely to be sanctioned for the problems caused by such failures.

Costs argument here I come. And I doubt I’ll be the only one.


I mentioned other electronic bundle crimes. 

The biggest, of course, is the failure to make the text searchable. ReadIris or Acrobat will usually solve that, but not always.

A close second is the delivery of documents in multiple emails, with further nested emails, instead of in a single PDF bundle: I’ve now taken to including time for putting that together into my fee estimates. 

There are myriad others. But honestly: as HHJ Pearce says, we’ve been at this a while now. If a single paper bundle was doable in the past, a single properly-prepared PDF bundle should be doable now. I don’t really think, for professional court users, that there are any excuses left.


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2021vii31, Saturday: Ours, theirs, and attribution.

Our minds play tricks on us. All the time. One trick is particularly pernicious – but recognising it can change the world.

I’ve just ordered another of these, for my room in Chambers. Everyone needs reminding. Lawyers perhaps more than most. Link in the paragraph below.

I’ve long been fascinated by cognitive biases and logical fallacies: the tricks our minds play on us, driven deep within our psyches like paths trodden across hillsides over centuries of traversing feet. I have posters on my home office wall listing many of the most common ones. And when I was at StanChart, I built them into a class for new graduate trainees.

In some ways, the fallacies are more fun, not least because some of the names are evocative as hell. The no true Scotsman fallacy. (“That lad in the paper who did the murder. Must’ve been English. No Scotsman would do that.” “No – says here he was from Falkirk.” “Ah – well, no true Scotsman would do that.”) The Texas sharpshooter fallacy. (Just because some set of data makes a neat group, don’t assume a connection. It’s possible the set may have been chosen – deliberately or unconsciously – to fit the hypothesis, like someone shooting at a wall and then drawing the target in afterwards to fit the grouping.) And one that us barristers may be particularly vulnerable to, the fallacy fallacy. (Don’t dismiss a claim just because it’s been poorly argued, or because the explanation for it includes a fallacy. In other words: the best skeleton argument, the best advocacy, is sometimes going to fail if the other side’s underlying case is – well – just better. Not always, thank goodness, otherwise we’d be out of a job. But sometimes.)

But the cognitive biases are more pernicious. And one in particular has a devastating effect – not only on us as individuals, but on us as groups. It’s the attribution effect. It was identified by a man named Lee Ross, many years ago. Ross died recently, and I was reminded of this critical bias by a thoughtful and thought-provoking piece of writing about him, about the error, but mostly about just how fundamental it is to understanding where we’re going wrong – and what we can, each of us, do about it.

OK. That was a bit cheeky there, using the word “fundamental”. Because when Ross first identified this, he called it the “fundamental attribution error”. As originally formulated, it referred to our tendency to look at others’ conduct and take it as arising from their character, not their situation. “So that woman over there who didn’t let me into slow-moving traffic? She must be SO selfish. Dread to think what it’d be like to work with her.”

Yes, I know, that’s a simplistic example. But it’s enough to shine a light on what I’m talking about. How often do we look at others, see a snapshot of their behaviour, and take it as a synecdoche of who they really are? And how often do we consider that it might instead just be a moment of thoughtlessness or inattention brought on by a really bad day? A sick relative? An angry boss? An unexpected bill?

Then there’s the flip side, which we customarily apply to ourselves. So we snapped at a waiter. But that’s not us. That’s because he took too long to bring the bill. Or because we have to work this weekend. Or because of that blasted woman who made us late to the restaurant because she wouldn’t let us into traffic.

(There’s another similar bias, the self-serving bias: the tendency to see our errors as down to circumstance or dumb mischance and our successes as entirely down to our own greatness and hard work. I’m sure none of us recognise that one. No. Of course not…)

In psychological terms, this is the difference between dispositional attribution – something that arises from who we are – and situational attribution, which is driven by external circumstance.

I imagine we all recognise it now. It probably feels like just one of those things that make us human. So why am I saying it’s so important, and so pernicious?

Because in a world which seems more and more divided into us and them, in-group and out-group (for me, this will always be the Japanese terms “uchi” and “soto”, which carry huge emotional resonance for any Japanophile), attribution is deadly. We see it all the time: the easy justification of what “our” people do as necessary, external forced upon us by the times, by the circumstances… or of by course the other lot. Whose actions are driven by malice, or by political beliefs which are selfish or evil or at best just plain incomprehensible to real people (however defined). Real people like us.

Meaning that whatever we do, we do reluctantly and in good faith, and with the best of intentions. And whatever they do, they do because they’re just that kind of awful people.

Tell me you don’t see it. Every day. Now tell me you don’t do it. I wish I could. I can’t.

For students of cognitive bias, there are some clear crossovers here, indicating that an uchi/soto split seems to drive large chunks of our psychic plumbing. There’s the halo and horns effect, which means things done by those who’ve made a good impression on you in the past will seem good, whereas things done by those you’ve had reason (perhaps?) to despise will seem bad – irrespective of what either is actually doing. There’s the availability heuristic, where things that are recent, close or present seem more relevant to decision-making, more prevalent, than more distant things – and, of course, those in your immediate group as as close as it gets. And then there’s the old favourite, confirmation bias, where you overweight evidence that confirms your existing beliefs and downgrade evidence that opposes it.

So maybe we’re hardwired to attribution when it comes to our group and theirs. Not surprising, perhaps. But as the writer of the piece I linked to points out, as we atomise more and more, this tendency will burrow deep and destroy us – unless, as with all cognitive biases, we do our best to see it happening in ourselves, rather than just letting it rip.

This is one reason I have so little patience with dog-whistle labels and straw-manning, from whichever side of the political spectrum they arise. The label triggers the attribution: I can stop thinking about that lot, it says, seductively. I know their sort. And I know their motives. Not like us righteous types over here.

Can we stop ourselves doing this? Of course we can’t. Can we strive to mitigate it? Yes. Should we? You’ll need your own answer to that. I know mine.


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2021vii26, Monday: now read this.

Not my stuff, obviously. But the piece I’m linking to – entitled “I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say” – is breathtaking. Do yourself a favour. Please.

Someone is so, so right on the internet: Another short one. I’d say I’m making up for lost time, but that would sound – given the content of this scribble – as though I was trying to be ironic. And I’m really not.

Someone I love has recently had the kind of diagnosis which can fill you with despair. Make you scream at the universe for its uncaring cruelty. Stage 4 cancer. Damnation.

And yet, I won’t scream or gesticulate. I refuse to. Because they’re not. They’re marvelling at the blessing of a life well lived, that they’re still living well, and refusing to take this as anything but a thing that happens.

It helps that they have faith. That they’re sure, quietly but firmly, that it’s not the end of the road. Only the end of this one.

But that aside, the resolute acceptance, and the ongoing love for all those around them, is an example before which I’m humbled. I’ll honour it by reflecting it as best I can.

I mention this not for sympathy (I don’t need it, since this person doesn’t), but as a lead-in to a truly breathtaking piece of journalism to which John Naughton (bless the man) linked in his daily newsletter this morning. (He got it via Helen Lewis, whose newsletter is also a blessing.)

John called it his “Long Read, not just of the Day, or even the Year, but perhaps of a lifetime”.

I might not go that far. But I’m close. It’s stellar.

And it’s strange. I was sure I cleaned my glasses last night. Yet they’re all misty again.


Update: Nigel Morris-Cotterill, one of the foremost experts around on money laundering, shared his experiences with losing his father on LinkedIn after reading this. He wrote a book after his father’s death, entitled “Ten Things You Need to Know about Dealing with Death” (Amazon page hereNigel’s piece on LinkedIn about it here). I’ve only skimmed the list of the ten things, rather than the book itself, but I agree with them all. 


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2021vii25, Sunday: Take me home.

I spent my Saturday lost in music. Oh sweet Jesus. It was… wonderful.

I’ll make this brief.

Go to the cinema. Watch Summer of Soul. Soon as you can.


For those without the privilege to have encountered this superlative movie, the short version: in the summer of 1969, as hippies and drop-outs were converging on Woodstock in upstate New York, tens of thousands of New York’s Black folk were gathering in Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now Marcus Garvey Park) for the Harlem Cultural Festival. Six days, over six weekends, of the best of soul, jazz and gospel music. It was filmed. No-one wanted to use the footage. And it languished in a basement for half a century – until Questlove, from The Roots, rescued it and cut the best bits together into a documentary.

And oh, sweet Lord, it’s stunning. Sure, it was lovely to be back in the Barbican cinema to see it – a favourite place of our family, where we haven’t set foot in the best part of two years. But the true glory was to be lifted up by music that filled us all with joy wholly unconfined.

Now, soul music per se may mean nothing to you. (Although I just can’t imagine how that could be. Lord, what a life…)

But live footage, at the height of their powers, of Sly and the Family Stone? Stevie Wonder? Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln? Mahalia Jackson? Mavis Staples? (Hearing Sister Mahalia take the mic from Mavis and let raw emotion ride in Dr King’s favourite hymn, Precious Lord, Take Me Home… wow.) The Fifth Dimension? Gladys Knight and the Pips? Ray Barretto? Mongo Santamaria? And – with a performance of Backlash Blues that practically raised the roof of the cinema – Miss Nina Simone herself? All of this put in the context of 1969, at the end of the decade which saw so many lives taken, famous (think Dr King, Malcolm, the Kennedy brothers) and unknown alike – and Black Power find its voice?

Come on, people. It’s beyond glorious. If music does anything to you, if it even remotely has that trick of showing you parts of your heart that just don’t come out any other way, be kind to yourself. See this.

We’re already planning to see it again.

(Update: it’s on Disney+. Glory be. The big screen is best, but this is great news too.)

The only thing that hurt was thinking of all the hours of other footage still unseen. Just imagine if it could be digitised, put online. Oh my. What a dream that would be…


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2021vii8, Thursday: Passive, aggressive.

Apologies for the long gap. I may be pedantic, but some words have old meanings that carry genuine value – the more so because of the state we’re in.

I’m torn when it comes to language. 

On the one hand, I’m absolutely alongside the idea of seeing linguistic evolution on a prescriptive rather than normative basis. Language changes with usage. It always has. And one of the joys of English is how – generally – receptive it’s been to incoming influence. 

On the other, there are some usages that are on my “die in a ditch for this, even if it’s a hopeless cause” list.*

I know. These two stances are potentially mutually contradictory. But there’s sense in it, I think, so long as one limits the second stance to a few areas where there’s a genuine, practical justification. 

So, for example, I limit my reaction to “literally” meaning “figuratively” to a mild internal flinch, although I flatly refuse to use it that way myself.

But “disinterested” used in place of “uninterested”? Hell, no. Particularly in our polarised world ([cough]Hancock and others in government giving jobs to their mates [/cough]), the secondary meaning of “interested” – that is, not something which fascinates you, but something you have a stake in – is more important than ever. Finding someone genuinely disinterested – that is, someone who can stand apart from a dispute and see it dispassionately (another great word), or at least someone with sufficient humility and wisdom to seek that position – has huge value. I don’t know another word which captures it quite as effectively. “Neutral”? “Objective”? “Unbiased”? Nope. They don’t mean the same. 

So yes: that one I’ll keep fighting for.

Slightly differently, but on a similar note, misplaced passives drive me nuts. This isn’t just parroting the Strunk & White-style simplism (ooh, that’s another word to defend) that actives are better than passives – not least because of the number of times things that aren’t actually the passive mood are quoted in defence of the position. Grrr. Not least because sometimes a passive is right: when you want to place the stress on the victim of an action, the passive can help keep the focus where it belongs. 

But far too often, there’s the “mistakes were made, lessons were learned” usage: what I call the “institutional passive aggressive mood”. The usage that obscures the fact that people did things that were wrong. That people need to learn and change. And that accountability, as opposed to blame, is important. And, if anything, makes it look like it’s your fault, not theirs, if you’ve got any further problem with them.

You know what? Don’t just listen to me on this. Go to this link, where the near-unparalleled US satirical website McSweeney’s (second only to The Onion, which published the best story in the world on Steve Jobs’ death a decade ago) does a bang-up job putting this very special linguistic usage precisely in the context it demands, with some nice animation to boot. Read it. Enjoy it. Make sure you get to the end. And see how you feel about the institutional passive aggressive then.

*As for whoever wrote the advert on the side of a double-decker bus I saw earlier this week, which used the American spelling “labeled”: well, I’m not the one who should be dying in a ditch for that.


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2021vi28, Monday: Interest.

Accountability starts with keeping track of conflicts of interest. Fail to do that, and corruption comes next. As the Matt Hancock saga shows all too clearly.

Back in my banking days, part of my job – frankly, one of the less fun parts – was to help people understand not only what restrictions and controls applied to what they did, but why.

This was always, to my mind, critical. People might not agree with the “why”. Often, they didn’t. But you owe it to them to explain them. There’s a reason why “Because those are the rules” is on a list of “Things never to say to anyone, ever” in one of the most helpful books on interpersonal communication I ever read.* 

Often I could understand people’s questions. Not least because banking systems and controls frequently appeared to be designed by people who’d never, actually, met people before. Which broke Scott-Joynt’s First Rule of Policies and Procedures: don’t ever expect human beings not to behave like human beings; so design your systems with the grain of how people tick.

(The second rule, of course, is that policies are either written for people to use, or written to cover the organisation’s backside. Those written for the first purpose can often also achieve the second. Those written for the second, usually by lawyers like me, can never achieve the first. This is also the difference between focusing on risk and focusing on compliance; but that’s another discussion.)

But one set of questions always baffled me: those about conflicts of interest, and why they needed to be declared. Banker after angry banker would wave the form at me demanding why on earth the bank needed to know about the relationships they had and the businesses they were connected to. “None of this is relevant,” they’d grouch. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”

They were probably right. And it didn’t matter. Because the whole point of conflicts checks and declarations – whether general ones, or requirements to declare an interest if you’re involved in a decision which could benefit someone or something close to you – is preventative, not detective. It’s to put transparency in place before it’s needed, so that conflicts never actually arise. Which is why the broad declarations are needed: to avoid situations where there might appear to be a conflict, and thus the risk – yes, you guessed it – of corruption.

It doesn’t work that way, of course. People don’t declare. Often it’s relatively innocent, in a way: people think they’re not the kind of person who’d act improperly, to act partially, so therefore they don’t need to declare anything. Only dishonest people need to do that. And they’re not.

Balderdash. Most of us have immense blind spots when it comes to favouring those in our circle. Because we’re human. Because that’s how humans tick. So it’s not a matter of trusting honesty. It’s a matter of building in solutions where problems might arise, shining a great big spotlight on them, verifying connections, and thus obviating the problem as far as possible.

Why has this sprung to mind? It’s fairly obvious, I think: the Hancock Half-Hour of shame. The embarrassing clinch and the shameful do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do in re social distancing regulations and guidance is bad enough. Certainly enough reason for anyone with the slightest integrity to have resigned instantly, or (when it comes to his boss) to have sacked him on the spot. As is the hypocrisy of having demanded the head of Neil Ferguson, and then going on to do even worse yourself. 

But the conflicts are to my mind far more serious. There’s the obvious one, and the less obvious one. 

  • The first: the fact that Hancock appears to have given a job to a woman he was having an affair with, in secret, as well as sending work to members of her family. All while – so it’s reported – keeping comms relevant to this kind of thing out of government systems and on a private Gmail account. When the job or the contract came up, the only ethical thing to do would have been to declare an interest. He didn’t. Draw your own conclusions. 
  • The second: the fact that the only person with the power to decide whether his actions were acceptable or not is the PM. Someone not only with ethics that make Hancock look honourable, but with an immense vested interest in the outcome. 

Conflicts matter. Because being accountable matters. (Not just paper accountability; real accountability, in the sense of submission to those whose interests are not aligned with yours, and who have authority separate from your own.) Because transparency matters. And without it, you have corruption, self-dealing and disgrace.

Always. 

*The book’s called “Verbal Judo”. Setting aside the unfortunate fact that the co-(ghost?) writer seems to be the bloke who later co-wrote the ghastly “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic cod-Christian guff, it’s excellent. Written from a police officer’s point of view, but with much wider application. If I mention that other phrases on that list include “you always/you never”, “come here”, “be reasonable”, and my personal favourite, “calm down”, I hope you’ll agree there’s some smart and thoughtful stuff there.


Note: what with the family stuff that’s going on, I’m going to experiment with just having a single item for each post. That should (a) allow me to post more regularly, by not feeling obliged to have multiple things each day and thus ending up not getting stuff out; (b) make it easier to link to specific pieces. Hope that’s OK. If not, let me know.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)