The trouble is, of course, that we can't roll back the years. We can't de-invent the nuclear bomb or some of the technological 'advances' that now create – according to the Law of Unintended Consequences – complex ethical dilemmas for us. We now live in the “we can, therefore we must” rather than the “you can't get an 'ought' from an 'is' generation.

This applies also to media. New social media bring particular challenges to an ordered society and this has been evidenced again by the killing of a soldier in Woolwich last week. The ubiquity and immediacy of social media and smart phones provide fantastic tools for social communication and democratising informant sharing. However, they also create other problems – for example, in relation to law, due process and our ability to sustain the assumptions upon which our legal system has been based for centuries.

I have just read a piece by solicitor, David Cook, that pushes this a little further. Concerned by the recording and broadcasting of one of the accused talking to camera, he asks if the media reality will, in the end, (a) make prosecution more difficult, and/or (b) force a change to law to remove the role of potential prejudice in a widely-reported case.

This is not an easy one. The 'rights' of the media to report (and of individuals to record and propagate) any incident that happens in the public square potentially clashes against a process in which even an apparently culpable suspect is due a fair trial. Compromise this notion of 'innocence until proven guilty' and we will encounter further 'unintended consequences in the future.

A soldier is attacked in Woolwich and brutally murdered. The men who did it seem determined to be caught. Seeing the footage, they look familiar – speaking with the same deluded dysfunctionality that is not uncommon in some inner-urban areas. Criminal.

But, why is this being deemed a terrorist attack? If someone did something similar whilst shouting about being Jesus, would it be seen as criminal or terrorist? And would the EDL response – to attack mosques – be paralleled by attacks on churches by angry atheists? And would anyone try to legitimise or explain it, rather than simply condemn it outright?

The labels we attach, the language we use and the framework within which we understand such phenomena are shaped by the unarticulated assumptions we bring. Does anyone seriously think these guys are motivated by Islam any more than the Provisional IRA or the UDA were motivated by a rational reading of the Gospels?

In a week framed by Muslims taking responsibility for crimes such as child sexual exploitation in their own communities and the appalling murder of this soldier in Woolwich, it might be worth pausing to examine the assumptions behind the language and the judgements of those politicians and reporters who are doing their best to articulate what this attack represents – and to question whether another narrative might be more appropriate. At a time such as this we need wisdom.

In the meantime, behind the horror, we pray for the family of the murdered soldier, the people who witnessed this dreadful, violent crime, and those now dealing with it both socially and politically.

Since returning from the big gig in Germany last week there hasn't been much time for blogging. Life is full and the days are demanding. But, Alex Ferguson has retired, so a new world beckons.

But, even this causes me a problem. David Moyes, Ferguson's successor as manager of Manchester United, is hugely impressive in every way – despite having spent over ten years with Everton. How can I now start dissing him just because he's going over to the Dark Side? I realise that there are more complex ethical issues, but this is a tough one for a Scousers like me.

Anyway, I haven't had time to recover from the exertions of the wonderful Kirchentag in Hamburg. Today, for example, I met with the police early in the morning. Then I went to a brilliant primary school and taught over 400 children a couple of songs in their assembly. Having toured the school with two children, I then went back into Bradford to be one of the speakers at the national launch of Community Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE). Back to this in a minute, but just to complete the diary stuff… I took a couple of excellent education people to lunch before meeting a vicar at home, doing diocesan finances with the Chair of the Diocesan Board of Finance, having a diary session with my secretary, writing a piece for the June edition of the Bradford Diocesan News, then joining the Sikh Forum for wonderful hospitality at their big Vaisakhi celebration.

The big news, however, was the launch of CAASE. This body has been founded by various bodies such as the Islamic Society of Britain and Hope not Hate. They reined in the police, local councillors, community leaders and me. Despite problems of communication and association in the planning of today's event, it marked an important development. And why is this significant?

The grooming of young girls for sexual exploitation is appalling and news is constantly breaking about such shocking predatory criminality. This is a human problem and a male problem (principally). Yet, there is always a particular cultural context to every instance of such abuse. In West Yorkshire the pattern is broadly that online grooming is a white phenomenon, whilst street grooming is almost entirely the domain of Asian men. And here we need to sound a loud note of caution.

Much reporting of sex grooming is loose with the language. 'Asian' is a broad term and many Asians are fed up with being lumped in with criminal cultural behaviour from other parts of the continent. Secondly, to confuse religion (Islam) with ethnicity (Pakistani Kashmiri Mirpuri, for example) is not only a category error, but can lead to serious misrepresentation and misunderstanding. When using language in such circumstances we must be clear and precise.

My contribution was simply to commend the Asians and Muslims who have had the courage to grasp this difficult nettle. Demonstrating maturity and courage, bodies such as the Bradford Council for Mosques, the Bradford Muslim Women's Council and the Bradford Imams Forum have refused – against pressure from some who find it too hard to face the reality of such shameful criminality in their midst – to hide from their responsibility. When it comes to the particular forms of exploitation carried out by Asian men, then it is the Asian and Muslim communities that need to take the lead in addressing it.

This is not my line; rather, it is the line given to me by Asian Muslims. I will stand by them and support them, but they have to take the lead here. And they have recognised that if they don't shape how they handle this phenomenon, they will always be reacting defensively to the lead taken by those who wish to make political points out of the situation.

Yes, sexual grooming is not an 'Asian' issue; but, there is an Asian issue with grooming here in West Yorkshire and elsewhere. The particular must be addressed and not hidden behind the general. (Something the church knows a good deal about…)

Facing this challenge here in West Yorkshire requires mature and confident leadership – and we are seeing this emerge. It also raises challenges for patriarchy and the treatment of women by men generally. Cultural behaviours that diminish women must be challenged. In fact, we heard from a Muslim woman that although their girls are taught about spotting the seductions of potential exploitative approaches and relationships, the boys are not. Models of patriarchal mysogeny are perpetuated.

Here in Bradford there is a really encouraging waking up to the realities that need to be tackled here. This offers immense hope for the future and I end the day encouraged.

 

There was an interesting discussion on the Today programme this morning about the visibility (or otherwise) of policing in the UK.

Am I the only one who gets fed up with the Daily Mail-type bleatings about poor policing when this rhetoric wilfully ignores reality? Those who cry out for citizens to take responsibility for their actions must surely also adopt a responsible approach to matters of public import. I’ll explain briefly where I am coming from.

Several years ago I invited the Chief Constable of Leicestershire to address a meeting in the parish where I was the Vicar. It was a bit sexist: it was a monthly men’s group that brought together (that night) around 60 blokes in the pub. The police chief told me later he had assumed he would face hostility and tried to preempt that by explaining his job. He didn’t face hostility, but he did explain his job.

Even then, over a decade ago, he was having to work harder with less. What most people hadn’t realised was that the total number of officers at his disposal had to be divided up into three shifts, also allowing for sickness and holidays. It was not hard to work out then why there could only be two officers at work during a particular night covering a huge area of Leicestershire. It was a bit of an eye-opener.

The second element is that most policing these days is technical, behind the scenes and complex. Anti-terrorism, serious organised crime (in all its forms), internet crime (including sex and finance) and all the other essential long-term detective work is – by definition – unseen by the populace.

So, when people (fired up by the media) complain about the lack of police on the beat or the apparent lack of attention given to ‘small’ crime, they need to ask themselves the following questions:

1. How much in extra tax are they willing to pay in order to recruit, train and retain good police officers?

2. If we wish the police to be more visible and to attend to ‘small’ crime – within current financial limitations – which other areas of hidden police work do we wish them to give up?

3. Do we only trust what we can see or are we adult enough to trust that the police are doing their best with the resources we give them?

4. If we really are serious in wanting police to be on the beat chasing burglars and preventing pickpockets, which element of hidden policing should be sacrificed – and will we then understand when (for example) my identity gets stolen and nothing can be done other than giving me a crime number?

This is all about choices. We rightly demand accountability from the police, but don’t always take responsibility for the constraints we impose upon them. The police don’t always get everything right; they sometimes get a lot wrong. But they can only do what they do with the resources we give them. The call for a serious and comprehensive review of policing is timely: the world has changed and crime has changed with it, but police structures still create expectations that belong to a bygone age.

As with other areas of life (such as wanting Scandinavian-level social care at British-level tax costs), we should either pay more tax or shut up. We simply can’t have what we won’t pay for.

Despite appearing to be quite different, two stories in today’s media raise important and connected questions.

First, the (reported) imminent release ‘on compassionate grounds’ of the jailed Lockerbie bomber who is now dying of prostate cancer. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is serving life for murdering 270 people when Pan Am flight 103 exploded in 1988. I remember it well because I was watching telly while babysitting my young children in Kendal when the screen went blank and appeals to emergency services started to come across the screen. The plane had flown over Kendal just a few minutes before it exploded. yet, despite the conviction and the loss of his subsequent appeals, there are widely acknowledged doubts about the justice of his conviction – most articulately from Jim Swire, father of one of the victims and for many years leader of the group campaigning for justice for the victims and their families.

The BBC’s Daniel Sandford in Washington said “broadly” families in the UK were concerned about the conviction, whereas US relatives were convinced of his guilt.

The second related story is the report issued today by Barnardo’s in which it maintains that too many British young people are being locked up (rather than given community sentences) and that the sentencing of many of these young people (some as young as 12) does nothing other than increase the potential for further criminalisation. The BBC report says:

The law specifically states that children aged 14 and under should not be locked up unless they have committed a grave offence or have committed a serious offence and are deemed to be a persistent offender. But the Barnardo’s report found more than a third of 12 to 14-year-olds locked up did not meet the conditions. Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey: “I’ve been shocked at the number of very young children we lock up.”

Barnardo’s surveyed around half of all children who were put in young offender institutions in 2007. More than a fifth were locked up for breaching an Anti-social Behaviour Order or similar punishment, half were victims of abuse and more than a third were living with an adult criminal.

Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey said that until 1998 it would have been illegal to imprison these young people unless they had committed one of the so-called “grave offences”. “Now we do this, every year, to more than 400 children aged 12, 13 and 14. “This is a tragedy for the young people themselves, it’s a shocking waste of money and, in terms of reducing their offending and doing anything to protect victims, it is almost invariably ineffective.”

And there’s the rub – precisely where these two stories collide. What is the purpose of custodial sentences? If the penal system exists simply to punish offenders and make everybody else feel safer, then it is clearly not very effective. It might reassure those who see punishment as ‘justice done and seen to be done’. But the offenders will come out and, if criminalised by their experience, be a further or worse problem than they were before. ‘deterrence’ does not seem to work – especially when young people return to the communities and dysfunctional families/friendships that allowed or encouraged them to get into trouble in the first place.

In other words, justice is not served simply by inflicting deserved punishment; there must be some serious work at both rehabilitation and restitution if offenders are to change their ways and, therefore, come out of their criminal sentence better able to live without offending. That way society benefits and it is less expensive. The problem is that pouring resources into stuff that is hard to measure (slow/gradual attitude or behavioural change) is not attractive to the great avenging public.

So, what place does or should compassion have in a penal system? To what extent is justice served by keeping the Lockerbie bomber in prison while he dies – especially given the doubts about his conviction and the lack of prosecution of anybody else? Is justice served – or just vengeance? And isn’t the mark of a democratic, civilised society that it can go beyond justice to show compassion – rather than mimic the societies that thirst for blood-vengeance at the slightest provocation?

I guess I want to explore the value of a pragmatic approach to compassion that will not be welcomed by the Daily Mail brigade. Keeping people locked up might make some of us feel better, but it might be ineffective, expensive and self-defeating. Yes, of course, some people need to be locked up for a very long time, if not for the whole of their life. I have done prison chaplaincy and worked with offenders and am not naive. But, there must be room for an intelligent debate in this country about what we think ‘justice’ is, how it is to be achieved and how it should be mediated effectively.

I might want to see young offenders locked up and kept out of the way and suffering for their crimes. But if we do nothing to help them to change, then we are burying our heads in the sand of self-righteousness and simply sowing the seeds of further crime in the future. This is a problem for the whole of our society – not just for the criminal justice system. I can’t complain if a young offender comes out hardened and commits further crimes against me or my community if I have done nothing to understand them and help provide an alternative way of life in their future.

And I bet this will be called ‘wet liberalism’.