Tuesday, April 15, 2014 

Anonymity in the criminal justice system must not be undermined.

Regardless of the natural empathy you must have for Nigel Evans, it's difficult not to feel a little discomfort at how his acquittal was responded to by some of his fellow MPs. Evans had it seemed been hung out to dry, no one seemingly willing to speak up for him prior to the trial, not even the usual "friends of" who so often brief the papers and are correspondingly often the person themselves. Come last Thursday and suddenly it was as though none of his contemporaries had doubted his innocence for a second. Much as one suspects the reaction is somewhat to do with general dislike for John Bercow and the role he played in the arrest of his deputy, as well as continuing disgruntlement over Plebgate, you can't help but detect something else just below the surface.

Why else would there continue to be calls for those accused of sexual assault and rape to have the same right to anonymity as those making the allegations when no one believes the same protection should be given to those charged with murder or manslaughter? The character of the accused is often traduced in the same way, and the stigma that follows can if anything be worse regardless of acquittal: Colin Stagg is just one such example. While there is no anonymity for murder victims for obvious reasons so there isn't a direct parallel, anonymity doesn't make giving evidence any easier for those often then aggressively interrogated by the defence: the suicide of Frances Andrade makes that clear.  In the past I've been suspicious of calls to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victim, and I don't think Keir Starmer's suggestion to consider a move away from the adversarial system is workable, but his helming of a review for Labour is certainly a step beyond Blair era tabloid pleasing efforts.

It certainly doesn't help the message to listen to those who come forward saying they were abused when MPs make it clear to one of their own that she should be examining her conscience.  Sarah Wollaston did absolutely nothing wrong in first making an appointment for two of the men accusing Evans to see John Bercow, and if anyone doubts that despite the failings of the wider prosecution case there were questions for Evans to answer, they should see the interview Newsnight conducted with one of them.

None of this is to deny that the CPS and the police do have questions to answer over its handling of the wider evidence.  Most of the men approached believed their brushes with Evans had not been abusive, and maintained that from the outset.  In this instance the attempt to create a picture of a wider pattern of abuse than just one or two alleged incidents completely undermined rather than strengthened the case.  Much the same has been apparent in the other recent trials of high profile figures, where defences have picked apart faded memories and juries have taken the word of the celebrity rather than their sometimes confused and uncertain accusers.  As Wollaston argues in her piece for the Telegraph though, there is a danger both in politicians criticising the CPS and in the wider emphasis on the questions surrounding anonymity.  In the case of Stuart Hall it was other victims coming forward after he was first arrested that almost certainly led to him pleading guilty.  As I also noted on Thursday, while Evans was understandably exciting much opinion at Westminster, the even more farcical evidence presented by the prosecution in the Nicky Jacobs trial went almost entirely ignored.

Coming after the Maria Miller storm, the last thing MPs ought to be seen as doing is special pleading.  Some never seem to get truly exercised about anything until it hits them personally, such as during the Damian Green case, or Plebgate, only then it occurring that if it can happen to them it can happen to anyone.  The fact is Evans' case is not unique, and the real irony is it's a change to legal aid by his government that looks set to mean the CPS won't be paying his costs.  Much as you don't want it to be the case, at times politicians give the impression some victims are more deserving than others.

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Monday, April 14, 2014 

How long before we need an inquiry into the inquiry?

Governments change, ministers come and go, but if there's something that doesn't alter in our modern political culture, it's there's always one inquiry or another stuck in the mire.  For a long time it was the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which took 12 years to report on the events of a single, if extraordinary, confused and controversial day.  More recently we had Sir Peter Gibson's cancelled inquiry into extraordinary rendition and the British state's alleged complicity in it.  Gibson's short report sat waiting to be published for 18 months, as arguments raged about whether a single, if crucial strand of correspondence within MI6 concerning the mistreatment at Bagraim air base could be declassified.  Not fully, it was decided, Gibson giving in.  Another inquiry now waits in the wings, due to conducted by those thoroughly decent chaps at the Intelligence and Security Committee.

We are though forgetting the Chilcot inquiry, aka the umpteenth attempt to have a definitive inquiry into how we went to war with Iraq, which started hearing public evidence in November of 2009.  Almost five years on, and three years since it finished its public hearings, we're still waiting for the report to published.  First the suggestion was the "Maxwellisation" process of writing to those criticised was likely to begin by the middle of last year; then came the news there were disagreements between Chilcot and the Cabinet Office over the publication of documents and memorandums between Tony Blair and George Bush.  It wasn't clear and still isn't clear now whether this the result of complaints by Blair or the state refusing to declassify this higher level material, or whether the US may also have objected.  The Graun reported at the end of last year that a compromise had been reached and the inquiry was likely to reach a conclusion by mid-year; now the Independent says those stories were "mere optimism" and the negotiations are still deadlocked.  With the "Maxwellisation" process still to start, and indeed with the very conclusions apparently yet to be written, even if there's a deal during the summer recess it seems unlikely the report will be published until this time next year.

Complaining that this is ridiculous seems to miss the point.  Every inquiry dealing with "sensitive material" is always caught up in seemingly endless discussion about what can and can't be safely made public lest national security be affected.  After all, when the MoD decides to block publication of a book it first commissioned, it doesn't seem quite as ludicrous more care is taken over personal communications between world leaders.  It does however suggest delay is built into these inquiries, governments always believing the more time passes between a controversy and its final resolution the less chance that something beyond criticism of those responsible is taken. 

This remains the case regardless of changes in government, as exemplified by the cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood.  Without letting Blair or Gordon Brown for that matter off the hook, the delay seems to rest with the refusal of the Cabinet Office to countenance releasing anything in the wider public interest that is also secret.  Hence Heywood's visit to the Guardian to demand the return of the Snowden files, where he made clear the government will decide when debates on such subjects begin and end.  This would also tally with the news from Craig Murray that the government has lobbied the Americans on the release of the Senate Intelligence Report on rendition, lest it undermine their efforts to block legal action by Abdul Hakim Belhaj over his rendition to Libya.  It was after all the release by an American court of far more damning evidence of the torture of Binyam Mohamed that led the High Court here to release the "seven paragraphs".

The very least we deserve is to know precisely why publication continues to be delayed and by whom.  It's all very well for Nick Clegg to say the report should be published now, without giving any suggestion as to whether he has done anything practical to smooth or speed the process, but we need more.  With Blair continuing to defend the war, it's difficult to see how he could be trying to delay the inevitable: he is more than ready to brazen out whatever Chilcot chooses to throw at him.  Instead it once again seems to be the secret state acting as a block, always wanting to be in control, while refusing to take responsibility.  Once Clegg and his party would have promised to try and do something about that.

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Friday, April 11, 2014 

Baby face.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014 

PC Keith Blakelock: a question of conscience.

As they are wont to do when it comes to their own, various MPs have questioned the decision to prosecute former deputy speaker Nigel Evans following his acquittal today on charges of sexual abuse.  As the latest in a series of high profile figures to be found not guilty, it certainly does merit asking whether a jury is ever likely to favour the word of a member of the public over that of a celebrity when the alleged offence happened years previous, there were no other witnesses and also no forensic evidence.

Apart from local Tottenham MP David Lammy though, it seems no other politician commented on the acquittal yesterday of Nicky Jacobs on the charge of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the riots on Broadwater Farm in 1985.  This was despite the case against Jacobs being even more farcical and ridiculous than any so far brought against a figure in the public eye.

The evidence against Jacobs, if it can even be described as such, amounted to accounts by witnesses known to have lied in the past, and two pieces of circumstantial.  Dealing with the latter first, it was found Jacobs had written a poem/rap which celebrated Blakelock's murder at the time he was serving a prison sentence for affray.  While providing an insight into the fact Jacobs was not the most pleasant of men at the time, there is nothing in it to suggest he had any insider knowledge of the killing; indeed, it refers to "chop[ping] him on the leg" and "chopping him all over".  While Blakelock's injuries were extensive and the result of a frenzied, brutal attack by multiple individuals, he was not stabbed all over his body, as his uniform with applied tape showing the puncture wounds proves.  Similarly desperate was the evidence given by a police officer who told the court Jacobs had said on being arrested in 2000, "fuck off, I was one of them who killed PC Blakelock".  The officer did not at the time report this to any superior, only coming forward in 2012.

Absurd as the above is, it somehow gets even more so.  The irony in the case was that two of the witnesses, given the false names John Brown and Rhodes Levin, have both admitted they took part in the attack on Blakelock.  The Met however made the decision to only go after the "stabbers" rather than the "kickers", enlisting the latter and ensuring they had immunity from prosecution.  As understandable as this is, it brings into sharp relief the continued use of joint enterprise to prosecute those who were present at the time of a murder but otherwise had no involvement.  Their accounts were further undermined by how they were paid lump sums of £5,000 and £2,500 back in the 90s despite their evidence not being tested at the time.  As Stafford Scott also points out, in July of last year Levin was found to have 63 bags of cocaine and heroin in his possession.  Rather than a custodial sentence, he received 12 months community service.  Brown also did himself no favours when he said to police in 93 that he couldn't tell the difference between black men, a view he told the court he "more or less" still held.

Remarkably, it got still worse for the prosecution.  Brown's cousin, a man known only as Q, also gave evidence that Jacobs was one of those who stabbed Blakelock.  While none of the three could agree on the weapon used, the others at least gave a plausible version of events.  Q by comparison claimed that earlier on the day of Blakelock's murder there had been two Rolls-Royces on the estate, from which black men had passed what looked sawn-off shotguns, and also got the location of the murder wrong.  The jury were so flummoxed they asked the judge if Q could have Korsakoff's syndrome, a condition brought on by chronic alcohol abuse where sufferers invent false memories to fill the gaps.  A long term heroin addict as well as an alcoholic, it didn't seem any less plausible than Q's own evidence.

To no one's surprise, the jury took just four hours to find Jacobs not guilty.  He wasn't released yesterday however, as almost all those acquitted of the most serious offences are on the same day; the officers needed to fill out the paperwork had already gone home.  Cock-up or conspiracy, it just underlines how it seems different standards were in operation for this case.  The Crown Prosecution Service has given the OK to flimsy trials in the past, but this must rank as one of the weakest in recent times, such was the obvious unreliability of the witnesses and the clutching at straws of the rap/poem.  Often it can be said in the CPS's defence that there was just enough evidence for the case to be put before a jury and to let them decide, as there was for instance in the case of Ian Tomlinson, despite the CPS at first deciding not to prosecute PC Simon Harwood. In this instance it seems more likely that the pressure from the police to find someone, anyone guilty of a murder that has cast such a long shadow over both the Met and Tottenham was too great for them to refuse and say there just wasn't a reasonable chance of a jury convicting.

Failing new witnesses coming forward who aren't tainted by having lied in the past, it seems increasingly unlikely that Blakelock's murderers will now be brought to justice.  As relations between the Met and the community in Tottenham never fully recovered and have since been further damaged by the shooting of Mark Duggan, any chance of such a development must also be extremely low.  Quite apart from giving Keith Blakelock's family justice, the obvious reason as to why it would benefit all sides if new witnesses were found is it would help to put a traumatic event firmly in the past.  Blakelock's murder still hangs over Broadwater Farm, tainting the estate and the men who were caught up in the police investigation.  The only way to lift that stigma is for the real killer(s) to be found.  The Met won't manage it, so it's up to those with a conscience to do the right thing.  The sooner, the better. 

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Wednesday, April 09, 2014 

Miller in the Floss.

Off then goes Maria Miller, to spend more time with her converted barn in the paradise that is Basingstoke.  Often when politicians are forced to resign it can be written that events conspired against them; not in Miller's case it can't.  Miller clearly could have survived had she made a more fulsome apology than the now infamous non-sorry which only just managed to escape her lips, the kind of basic mistake a more adroit individual would have avoided.  If there's one thing you can't do enough of in modern politics, it's apologising, regardless of whether you mean it or not.  Do it, get it out of the way, reach for an onion if necessary, just don't give the impression you don't care about any mistakes in your expenses whatsoever.

We can't though divorce Miller's forced resignation from the coverage she's received since last week.  This might be one of the first examples of newspapers not claiming to have been responsible for getting a minister sacked, such is the level of embarrassment at knowing full well much of this has been about Leveson and to a lesser extent gay marriage, a whole swathe of hacks pretending their work has been motivated by the levels of public outrage still with us since the expenses scandal was first uncovered.  Have voters really been jamming the phone lines on call-ins as they were back then, all but demanding heads on pikes and the immediate destruction of all duck houses?  If they have, I must have missed it.  True, it doesn't usually take a personal animus for newspapers to splash day after day on a certain minister's problems in an attempt to claim a scalp, as it's something that comes naturally; this though has been something else.  Why after all would Tory papers otherwise fairly happy with their party of late be the ones leading the way, instead of making excuses or saying nothing to see here as they so often have in the past?

Not that it was anything approaching a good idea for Miller's loyal to the end parliamentary private secretary to send a text to presumably sympathetic backbenchers making just this point.  If there was a defend Miller campaign being ran by Number 10, it must rank as one of the understated and incompetent of recent times.  No one seemed to be willing to stand up for her in public other than spokesmen and Boris Johnson, and that was in his usual not entirely serious manner.  Indeed, Esther McVey said she wouldn't have gone about it the way Miller had.  Again though, was no one from Downing Street advising Miller on how to deal with the standards commissioner?  Wasn't it obvious from when the Telegraph suddenly discovered in December of 2012 that there were questions marks over her expenses this was going to be a campaign?  Why then wasn't she told to be completely open, instead of threatening the commissioner and all but telling the Torygraph to leave it?  It suggests a lack of attention to detail, David Cameron not willing to let his sort-of supporters in Fleet Street determine his cabinet, while apparently not caring enough to tell his loyalists to get out there and make clear Miller wasn't going anywhere.

Much as it's been pointed out how ruthless Cameron was to those within his own party over their expenses when he wasn't prime minister, Miller could have been saved, as Hopi Sen argues.  They managed it with Jeremy Hunt, when Number 10 just rode it out and claimed it was all the fault of his PPS Adam Smith that News Corporation was getting information on the Ofcom bid in advance.  It raises the question of why once it was obvious Miller's non-apology hadn't been anything close to adequate she wasn't sent out to try again in front of the cameras, told to accept she had got it badly wrong and apologise for having done so. A clue is perhaps in Cameron's reply to Miller's resignation letter, where he all but agrees with her pleas of innocence, prompting Ed Miliband at PMQ's to ask why she then had to go.

It certainly isn't any clearer tonight. Most likely is a combination of the factors, knowing the press wasn't going to give up, the lack of support from her colleagues and the feared impact on an already tough European campaign. In a way, it's also a case of the Tories reaping what they have sown. This week was meant to be about yet more welfare crackdowns, requiring the unemployed to have a CV and be signed up on the Jobmatch website before they can claim JSA, as well as further restrictions on what EU migrants can claim and when. Instead it's been nothing but Miller and her own outrageous entitlements. Why shouldn't people be angry about MP's expenses when those claiming anything other than middle class benefits are attacked as scroungers, day in, day out?

Cameron as a result has finished up looking weak and indecisive. The only positives to be taken are it will be a passing frenzy, soon forgotten, and that anger over expenses affects politics as a whole rather than any particular party, hence why Ed Miliband prior to today hadn't called for Miller to go. If there is any further embarrassment, it's in how Miller's replacement as minister for women, Nicky Morgan, couldn't also taken on the equalities brief as she voted against gay marriage. It just underlines how few ministers, let alone backbenchers share Cameron's view of both society and the economy. Miller for all her faults did, and he can ill afford to lose many more such supporters.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014 

Scottish independence and "the forces of darkness".

The Better Together campaign against Scottish independence hasn't had a great time of it recently. Ever since the Graun quoted an unnamed minister apparently due to be involved in the negotiations should there be a yes vote as saying a currency union would be possible in exchange for Scotland continuing to host nuclear weapons at Faslane it's seemed more on the backfoot than usual. They must know "Project Fear" isn't working, but as yet they still haven't come up with an alternative. Last week instead saw a step-up in the complaints about online nationalists supposedly abusing their opponents, the internet equivalent of taking your ball and going home.

Lord Robertson wasn't speaking on behalf of Better Together at his Brookings Institution speech, although that won't stop everyone, myself included, from linking his ridiculous scaremongering to the No campaign's overall message.  As a paragon of the substrata of the political and military establishment seemingly unable to address any matter without seeing it through a prism of what's good for NATO is good for the world, he naturally thinks the United Kingdom breaking up would be the second great victory for dictators and annexers of the year. What's more, it will encourage all the other separatists in Europe, could undermine peace in Northern Ireland and also prepare the ground for the four horsemen of the apocalypse. To call it unhinged doesn't quite do it justice; the idea Scottish independence "could ... impact on the stability of the world" is only slightly less absurd than suggesting Colonel Gaddafi could rise from his grave and come back to power in Libya.

It doesn't even begin to make the slightest sense.  You could understand it more if Scotland were, as some would like, not intending to rejoin NATO or the European Union immediately, except that's precisely what the SNP is proposing.  Despite some on the no side comparing the SNP to the UKIPs, the differences couldn't be more stark: the SNP if anything wants to play more of a role in the EU than the UK currently does, and also favours immigration.  They might be similar in the way both insist that any problems with becoming independent/leaving the EU will be overcome as soon as the decision has been made, and in the personality cult surrounding their respective leaders, but that's about as far as it goes.

Robertson's argument is all the more mystifying for coming at the precise moment when such pleading to think about the consequences for everyone else appears to have lost the impact it once had.  Nigel Farage's man love for Putin is revealing for a supposed libertarian, and his claim that the EU has blood on its hands over Ukraine the most specious nonsense, yet one of his most telling blows against Clegg in the second debate was his attack on the deputy prime minister for being "hell-bent" on bombing Syria.  As exemplified by the coalition not crowing about what should be one of its crowning achievements, having now reached the point where 0.7% of gross national income is spent on international aid, going out of our way to "help" other nations is not currently in fashion.  While there's a world of difference between going beyond the bare minimum in helping developing countries and bombing those said countries, or at least there should be, the fact is the political class is no longer trusted when it comes to either.

This poses a problem when so much of the establishment still earnestly believes in interventionism.  We've just had the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, from which the notion of the responsibility to protect emerged, despite how peacekeepers were on the ground both there and in Serbia at the time of Srebrencia.  The same human rights organisations opposed to the Iraq war were practically cheerleading for an attack on Syria last year, with those of my generation who were in favour of removing Saddam Hussein now ensconced in positions of power in both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch.  Despite the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, there isn't the slightest indication that any lessons have been learned from the mistakes, hardly surprising when the Western media en masse celebrated Afghans "defying" the Taliban to vote last weekend, as though that was their main reason for casting their ballots, nor have any reflected on whether those interventions might just have influenced Russia's annexing of Crimea.  Instead we have Tony Blair (who we shouldn't be calling a war criminal apparently) once again given the time and space to say we will regret not acting on Syria, as though that isn't precisely what we've been covertly doing now for over 2 years.

Much as I loathe the moaning about the metropolitan elite, much of which ironically comes from those who are, err, a part of the metropolitan elite, they've started to have a point when it comes to foreign policy.  If we're to believe Seymour Hersh's latest report for the London Review of Books, the real reason Obama pulled back at the last minute from attacking Syria is it was discovered the sarin supposedly used by Assad's forces in Ghouta didn't match with the batches in Syrian government possession, and was instead part of a false flag attempt to force just such an attack by the Turkish government.  As incredible as that seems, there is evidence of other Turkish skulduggery in Syria, notably the conversation posted on YouTube, prompting the site's shortlived ban in the country, and which seemed to be between government figures discussing staging an attack the Turks could then use to justify intervening more widely themselves.  If the international community can come so close to being so spectacularly fooled, not to mention shown up over Crimea,  it takes a hell of a lot of chutzpah to then lecture ordinary Scots on what they should consider before they cast their vote come the referendum.

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Monday, April 07, 2014 

Miller time.

Ah, Maria Miller.  Every so often a politician does something that just sums up the way an increasing number of people think their elected representatives operate.  Before doubt was thrown on almost the entire altercation, we had Plebgate, which seemed to show the contempt and arrogance of the political class to everyone they saw as below them.  Now we have Maria Miller, with her 34 second non-apology.  You have to presume that Miller simply didn't think the media would pay attention, normally a reasonable assumption considering the current lack of "action" in parliament, and how only the broadsheets bother to so much as have a daily politics blog dealing with Westminster, if that.

Except, err, Miller is the goddamn culture secretary, in charge of the hated royal charter on the regulation of the press.  It doesn't matter that the majority of the old media has completely ignored the charter and instead got on with setting up yet another "independent" regulator, did she really not think the Telegraph at least would take an interest?  As it turns out, her "statement" wasn't so much the equivalent of a red rag to a bull as Miller covering herself from head to toe in crimson body paint, whispering in the animal's ear that its mother was of easy virtue and then for good measure grabbing hold of its ball sack and yanking, hard.

After all, in the I don't give two figs for your rules stakes, no one can quite match Nadine Dorries, who managed to "apologise" to the Commons in even less time than it took Miller after her decision to go and eat dingo anus to increase her bank balance.  It's just no one took any notice, and well, Dorries is Dorries.  Miller is a mere amateur compared, but then no one would trust Dorries with an office of state, unless the office in question was the one for Narnia.

Some of the coverage has then been over-the-top and in contradiction of the findings by the parliamentary standards commissioner, precisely you suspect because of the Leveson/press charter situation.  The reason the amount Miller was ordered to pay back was wrote down from £45,000 to £5,300 is she produced documentation proving she hadn't overclaimed by the amount first estimated by the commissioner.  Indeed, it seems she probably overclaimed by less than the amount she's paid back, and the commissioner herself is happy with the £5,300 arrived at.  Also nonsense is the Telegraph claiming Miller's adviser Jo Hindley threatened the paper with Leveson if they kept up their investigation. As the Telegraph's own transcript of the conversation shows, and hamfisted as it was, Hindley was complaining more about the Torygraph intruding on Miller's father when he had just had an operation than really laying out something serious, and the journalist takes it that way rather than as something more menacing.

This isn't to let Miller off the hook by any means.  When compared though say to David Laws, who did claim over £40,000 he wasn't entitled to and was welcomed back into the cabinet with open arms, while other MPs went to prison for less egregious breaches of the rules, it's almost small time.  It's more that Miller has almost no discernible talents whatsoever, beyond being loyal to Dave and helping him combat the allegation he has a problem with those of the non-male gender.  The Tory backbenches have moved so far to the right it's getting increasingly difficult to find anyone who's ready for elevation to something approaching a position of influence who won't then embarrass the leadership or speak out of turn.  Miller knows absolutely nothing about the arts except she knows what she likes, as demonstrated by her speech urging the chattering classes to sell Britain to the world, which is precisely what Cameron wants in a culture secretary.  Replacing her would be a pain, and besides, sacking her when he didn't sack Jeremy Hunt for trying his darnedest to get the News Corp takeover of Sky past Ofcom would look really bad.

One suspects then Miller will survive, if only because as bad as it is, it could still be worse.  Treating people like idiots, threatening an independent investigator for daring to do their job and wrongly claiming an amount that would get those on benefits into very serious trouble with the law isn't good for the public perception of politics and politicians, it's true, but giving another scalp to the Cameron disliking if still Tory press just can't be countenanced, especially over expenses which have now been thoroughly reformed.  Us proles can but dream of such leniency.

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