Monday, October 31, 2005 

Loyalist Volunteer Force disbands, now for the rest.

The Loyalist Volunteer Force, one of the most reviled and unpredictable paramilitary groups thrown up by the Northern Ireland Troubles, last night ordered its military units to stand down.

The disbandment came hours after a truce was declared ending a murderous feud between the LVF and the Ulster Volunteer Force from which it broke away in 1996. Billy Wright, better known as "King Rat", founded the group after he and his associates were stood down by the UVF in 1996 following the sectarian murder of a Catholic taxi driver at the height of the Orange Order stand-off at Drumcree. Wright was shot dead in the Maze prison by republicans in December 1997.

In a six-week turf-war across north and east Belfast this summer, the UVF set out to "wipe out" the smaller splinter group, shooting dead four men it perceived to have LVF connections and attempting to murder 15 more. Many LVF members and supporters were forced from their homes.

While the group will claim that its order to military units to stand down, which took effect from midnight last night, was a response to the IRA's decision to disarm, it was under formidable pressure from other loyalists. The LVF, whose relatively small membership was centred around Portadown, Belfast and Antrim, was more a loose gang of criminals and drug dealers, which had been responsible for sectarian murders and violence.

In September 2001, it was behind the first murder of a journalist in Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Police are investigating possible LVF involvement in the murder of Lisa Dorrian, a 25-year-old shop assistant who disappeared from a caravan site in February.

It's now time for the other loyalist paramilitary groupings to follow suit. Sir Reg Empey, leader of the Ulster Unionists was the first mainstream loyalist politician to dare to suggest that the paramilitaries should disband now that the IRA has destroyed its weapons. You can imagine that Ian Paisley would rather kiss the pope than issue the same message. There is no longer any reason why these groups should be allowed to exist; they have and continue to terrorise some Catholic estates, as well as indulging in smuggling and drug dealing. The demonstrations of a couple of months ago, as well as the pettiness and political bankruptcy of the Democratic Unionists has shown that the loyalist community and the politicians that represent it are now the main obstacle to peace being achieved once and for all in Northern Ireland. It's about time that Peter Hain stepped in and stopped pussy-footing around Ian Paisley.

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Saturday, October 29, 2005 

What the hell is David Davis doing?

David Davis was originally felt a shoe-in for the leadership of the Conservative party. When Michael Howard announced his resignation within 24 hours of the Tories losing their third consecutive election, there was mutterings around of a campaign to stop him. Howard's final reshuffle, bringing in relatively little known MPs to shadow front bench positions, seemed to show his admiration of the so-called Notting Hill set. David Cameron, now Davis' rival in the membership vote, was moved to education spokesman, while George Osbourne, a good friend of Cameron, became shadow Chancellor. Liam Fox because shadow foreign secretary. All of this has turned out to be virtually unnecessary; Cameron has become the leader-in-waiting within barely a month.

How did this happen? It all started with Davis's disastrously monotonous and boring speech to the Tory party conference in Blackpool. While the day before Cameron and Kenneth Clarke had both given uplifting and humourous speeches, with Liam Fox delivering an unashamedly Eurosceptic and hard-right Tory speech in the morning, Davis's nervousness got the better of him as he sent many of the already sleepy Tories closer to the grave. The media mauled him, and Cameron as emerged as the new Tony Blair, despite having the Rothermere press attempt to smear him on drugs. Ever since Davis has been more and more woeful.

Up until now, that is. Davis has over the last two days revealed two new policies which he would bring in if he was Conservative leader. For a start, this is welcome. While we have heard plenty about personalities, we have so far heard very little about policies. In hindsight though, perhaps that was for the better. Both of Davis's policies are hard-right, and are playing to a gallery which no longer exists.

Davis plans to save the "average family" £1,200 a year by cutting taxes. As with the Tories promise at the election to cut taxes, with Howard's now infamous comments about lower taxes, cleaner hospitals etc, they don't seem to be very sure how about they are going to go about doing this. We are also meant to believe that this won't affect public services. Davis proposes cutting the amount going to them so that it rises just slightly above inflation, lower than what it does now. What will this add up to? The difference will be £38 billion by the election after next. This would be achieved either through cutting income tax by 8 pence, or by cutting income tax by 2p, reduce the main rate of corporation tax by 3p and scrap inheritance tax, stamp duty and capital gains tax entirely. So either he's going to cut taxes for the rich, or he's going to cut taxes for the fat cats and the rich. He has no proposals for reforming the tax system, just stay as it is and instead we'll go by the old trickle-down economic theory. If the rich are making more, instead of saving it they'll be encouraged to spend the difference, therefore the people lower down the chain will be getting more and so on. That this is crap doesn't really matter in the long; the rich are getting more money regardless.

So that's one policy that's not going to appeal much to the average Labour voter which Davis would need to attract. So then, on to Education. Davis today said he wants to create 20 new grammar schools. This he says, will create "equality" in education, which makes me wonder whether he has any grasp of the past or the present whatsoever. Grammar schools were mostly abolished because they were feeding inequality. The 11+ was biased towards middle class kids, and secondary moderns became the working class dumping ground. That some counties still operate grammar schools at all is an outrage that Labour hasn't stamped down on. Now Davis is proposing even more. This said, Cameron isn't any better. He's staying with the "choice" agenda of Blair, and perpetual reform which is breaking our schools and stopping them from improving.

So just who are these policies aimed at? They won't appeal to the Labour voter which switched from the Tories after the 92 election. The country now expects the public services to be properly funded. Davis seems to oppose that. He also wants to ghettoise the education system once again. He seems to be taking the same Tory position which both Hague and Howard did - the kneejerk ride to the right in the face of defeat.

Maybe I've read it all wrong. These policies may have been thought up to appeal to the dieheard hanging and flogging wing of the party. The question then is how many of then those exist. Even if he wins the leadership, if he sticks with such policies he faces taking the Tories to their fourth election defeat, with Gordon Brown laughing all the way. It seems that to him power is more important personally than for his party allegiance.

David Cameron is the best chance the Conservatives have, and is the leader Labour desperately need. If he wins the fight for the centre ground will be too crowded. Labour will have to turn back to the left or go further to the right. A further rightward move would leave the party without a base. Gordon, the only way is the left. Labour can win an election using leftist policies. If Gordon wanted to be even more radical, he could introduce proportional representation and make sure the Tories could never get back in by making parliament a true 3 party system, with the Lib Dems no longer being a wasted vote in many parts of the country. It's about time Labour recognised the huge chance that it has to shape this country for the 21st century, and it may well be brought about by the Tory party finally reinventing itself.

(The picture is of Davis and Cameron inexplicably presenting a somewhat frightened Billie Piper with her award for best actress at the tv awards.)

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Friday, October 28, 2005 

Libby indicted on obstruction of justice, false statements and perjury. Rove likely to be later.

Well, it's happened. After two years of Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, a grand jury had indicted Lewis 'Scooter' Libby on numerous charges, including lying (perjury). Karl Rove is not being indicted today, but remains under investigation.

Lawyers were reportedly told there still were matters to resolve before the prosecutor "decides what he is going to do, so Mr Rove will not be indicted today".

We shouldn't perhaps read to much into that, but it seems difficult to see how Rove can escape being indicted on either obstruction of justice or false statements, knowing what we do now. That Libby has been indicted may be the start of the breaking of the neo-conservative cabal which Colin Powell's ex-chief aide Lawrence Wilkerson admirably but much too late spoke out about. What is even more important about this indictment though is that will show the true nature of the Bush administration: nasty, vindictive and hostile to any criticism. Joseph Wilson was right to speak out about the blatant falsehoods which George Bush himself used in his speeches before the Iraq war. That his wife, a undercover CIA officer was exposed through the leaking to sympathetic journalists of her name, an exposure that began at the very top of the Bush administration with Cheney himself, should not disgrace this administration is bad enough. That they have spent the last two years lying and misleading jurors is even worse.

Again though, we should not get ahead of ourselves.. Some have compared this case to the David Kelly affair here on this septic isle. The Hutton inquiry, hyped up for months as to lead to stinging criticism or even the resignation of if not Blair, then definitely Geoff Hoon, turned out to be such a sloppy whitewash that the anger felt in the country was palpable. The BBC's director general and head of the board of governors were forced out for a report that was almost entirely correct. A year and a half on, although the Labour party itself seems moribund, the Blairite cabal is just as strong as before. As bad as it looks now, who is to say that Bush will yet emerge relatively unscathed from this? It does not directly affect him, although it does his confidant, Rove. To underestimate the power of regeneration of some politicians would be naive.

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Thursday, October 27, 2005 

George Best: kindly die already.

I've always been somewhat bemused about the appeal of George Best. A playboy footballer with a short but memorable career, he's since turned into a drunk wife-beating excuse for a man. Yet the tabloids remain obesessed with him and his antics. It now seems that the man may finally be entering the last days of his life. Let's certainly hope so. He had a liver transplant, when someone else could have benefited. How did he repay the doctors who stitched him back up? He started drinking again. There's enough oxygen thieves around, and the world certainly won't miss one who should have faded from the limelight a long time ago.

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It's too early to celebrate the demise of the Bush administration.

Many already seem to be waiting to celebrate the end of the reign of the neo-conservatives in the White House. It may yet be much too early. Now that Harriet Miers has extracted herself from humiliation in front of the Senate, along with expectation that Rove and Libby will indicted shortly, many seem to think that the Bush administration is now a lame duck. Haven't we seen this before?

Yes, we have.

In the summer of 2001 Bush was already considered to be heading for an exit. His government was unpopular, his measures were being defeated, and he was becoming known as the "holiday" President. The stealing of the election, backed by a majority of the supreme court, was well-known. We all know what happened next.

What followed was, despite a slow and shaky response to the terror attacks, the making of the war president. He was re-elected despite the war without end in Iraq, tax cuts for the super-rich, and "no child left behind". It was feared that he would in his second term reform social security and destroy the new deal for good.

Now things seem much different. The terrible mess of the response to Katrina, his botched nomination of Miers, Plamegate and now 2,000 military to deaths in Iraq appear to be his undoing. Right-wing Republicans are in revolt, and the party itself fears that it may be decimated in next year's midterms.

We shouldn't rejoice at the problems of the Bush administration. The worst thing would be for liberals to be seen to be celebrating, resulting in a backlash. We also should look at the pessimistic side of things. It's by no means certain that Rove or Libby will be indicted. Bush might well nominate a far-right ideological judge in place of Miers, winning back plaudits from the religious base he relies on. He would have problems getting him/her through the Senate, but may just manage it. The insurgency in Iraq may die down following elections in December, and the troops may be able to return. Iran may do even more stupid things than the President's yesterday silly remarks about "wiping Israel off the face of the Earth". If another terror attack took place, would the public rally behind Bush again, or instead search for the real reasons or blame the response to 9/11?

The opposite to all the above could happen. I've often thought that if the Democrats in America or the Conservatives in this country had started the disaster in Iraq, then the opposition would have destroyed them and won the next elections. Instead, Labour and the Republicans have been strong enough to shrug off what should have killed any government. This simple fact should remind us that nothing is certain is politics, and as ever, a week is a very long time.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005 

Constitution passed - war over? Of course not. reports that up to 30,000 Iraqi civilians have perished in the war so far.

Over 30 violent deaths are reported in Baghdad every day.

Baghdad is now almost certainly the most dangerous place on Earth.

2,000 US dead.

Approaching 100 UK soldiers dead.

All for a war which was justified on lie after lie, on disinformation and misinformation, on doublespeak, on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, on creating a democracy despite massive accusations and evidence of ballot rigging.

Just remember, we are winning the war on terror. That's all that matters.

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Education white paper: An opportunity turned into a disaster.

New Labour and Blair have finally reached fully circle. After 7 years of reform after reform in all areas of public service, constant revolution of which even Trotsky would disapprove of, Labour has decided to re-introduce failed Tory policies of old, namely grant-maintained schools and partial selection. Before we get ahead of ourselves, we should recognise that there are some decent and admirable policies in this white paper.

(Reports on the white paper are available here, here and here.)

• Teachers will be required to keep parents updated on progress at least three times a year.
• More one-to-one tutition for struggling pupils, intensive support for children who have problems with English and Maths.
• Free bus transport for children from low incomes to schools within six-mile radius
• Err...... that's it.

Yes, a whole three worthwhile and admirable proposals. Free bus transport should have be introduced a long while ago, but nonetheless is a very welcome reform. English and Maths help will maybe shut the cretins at the CBI up who bang on about failing standards, and compulsory updates will help children to improve with parent support.

So then, what about the other proposals which the government has come up with? Well, the banding proposal which Roy Hattersley wrote about and I was so enthusiastic about has predictably not been made compulsory. Schools only have to 'take note' of it. In other words, they'll ignore it completely. I should have known that Labour wouldn't take the likes of the Daily Mail on over such a measure that could truly transform education. Further making sure that this measure will be ignored is the proposals to more or less abolish Local Education Authorities, the only bodies which would have been able to enforce the banding measures. In fact, councils who run the authorities will now have to listen to every whim of every selfish parental demand, and the government has pledged that if councils refuse to listen that they'll pull them into line.

The whole paper is based around 2 major ideas. The first is that the new 'City Academy' schools are working and improving standards. There is no evidence that they are as yet, with some of them actually having worse results than the schools they replaced. Similar to the Academy system, where a business or organisation puts money into the school and has the right to say how it should be run or by whom, the new trust schools will be backed by business, "faith" groups, or parental organisations. GEMS, a group which already runs numerous private schools, has said it is interested, as is the United Learning Trust, a Christian group. This is a boon to them; they can impose their ethos and ideology on kids without having to charge them for the privilege. What's not to like for such groups?

The second major idea is that parents know what is best for their kids and that they are demanding further power. Any parent obviously wants the best for their child, and many middle class parents have shown how far they will go to get their offspring into the "right" school. This paper is made to appeal directly to them, but it will most likely fail both them and low-income families which Labour is supposed to be so obsessed with helping. Parents will be able to demand "new" schools, presumably without having to worry about the cost, to close "failing" schools and to demand the sacking of headteachers. "Failing" schools will have to drastically improve within a year, otherwise they will be taken over or shut down. This ignores the fact that the problem may not necessarily be with the teachers, but with the students themselves, but let's ignore that. Will the threat of closure and loss of jobs, with the stigma attached to it really encourage teachers and the governors to fight to keep the school open, or will it utterly demoralise them and result in a self-fulfilling prophecy? I have a funny feeling it may result in the latter. As well as parents being able to demand what they think is best for their little Johnny, once a trust school is set up they'll be able to join a council alongside the governors and influence policy on uniform and discipline. In other words, expect schools to become even more fascistic, with drones being pumped out all dressed the same, stripped of the individuality which such schools are meant to be promoting.

Popular schools will also be able to expand, or take over failing ones. Whether they actually will want to is again questionable. Why would a popular school want to risk losing its reputation by taking over a school with a bad one? Spreading itself too thickly may well lead to a loss of leadership at individual schools, and to failure all round.

In short, Labour has done a fantastic job. It's out-toried the Tories again. They've stolen their ideas. Schools will be more or less back at the secondary modern/grammar school stage. Little will change, as the middle class already swamp the best schools and the working will continue to go to bog-standard comprehensives where they'll fail. Except the bog-standard comprehensive will turn into the bog-standard trust school, run by a business or by a faith group, churning out clones headed straight for the check-outs of Tesco. The changes will allow the middle class parents to block out the attempts of ambitious working class parents to get their children the best education possible. They'll be able to keep out the oiks and the blacks, and they won't even have to pay for it.

Schools in the UK are not failing by any means. They can however improve greatly, and need to. Labour's policies up to the city academy plans have so far improved the education system. This though is a reform too far, as with the government's plans for hospitals. Headteachers are crying out for a stop to the reforms, to let them settle and for less bureaucracy, not more. This is the opposite to what they want. Instead Blair and Kelly will impose more bureaucracy, encourage the outspoken parents to interfere, and cause even more headaches. Despite all this, the Labour backbenches seem to have gone quiet and lost the zeal for rebelling that they had during the last parliament, whether they managed to defeat the government or not. This can be partially explained by more servile Blairites replacing some of the more rebellious lefties, and seats being lost to the Tories, and the fear of being responsible for defeating the government and encurring the wrath of the party. The backbenchers urgently need to forget that. This government has not lost its way as some are saying. The backbenches may have, but the cabinet and the Blairites have not. Blair is determined to impose his legacy now that his premiership is coming to an end. If he wants his legacy to be breaking schools and destroying the NHS, then the Labour MPs should vote for the government's numerous bills now going through parliament. If they want Blair to remembered for his policies on child poverty, introducing the minimum wage and the other good things that have been achieved, they'll vote against. Forget the war as well for a second, and remember the party itself. Labour must now allow itself to become the new Conservatives. At the moment, the clock hands are five to midnight. At midnight, the party will become blue. If the party awakens from its Blairite slumber, it can push the hands back and return red. It can start in the committee stages by making banding compulsory.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2005 

Two quick updates.

I'm still trying to sort things out from being away, so here's two quick news stories. They'll be something with more depth tomorrow.

Report ties Cheney to CIA leak investigation:

Pressure increased on the White House today as new claims emerged concerning the investigation into the leaking of a covert CIA agent's name.

The New York Times reported that documents held by the investigation show that Lewis "Scooter" Libby, chief of staff to the US vice president, Dick Cheney, learned the name of the agent from Mr Cheney himself.

If this is accurate, it would appear to differ from Mr Libby's evidence to a grand jury that he first heard the name of the agent, Valerie Plame, from journalists.

The idea that Mr Cheney was directly involved in the information flow would also, if correct, increase the political pressure facing the White House.

The New York Times described its sources for the claims about the previously undisclosed conversation in June 2003 as lawyers involved in the investigation who had seen Mr Libby's notes.

The criminal investigation into the leak, headed by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, draws to a close this week and prosecutions are possible. Mr Libby and Karl Rove, the chief adviser to the president, George Bush, are at the centre of the investigation.

Ms Plame was a covert CIA agent whose husband, the former ambassador Joseph Wilson, went on a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger in 2002 to investigate whether Iraq was seeking to buy uranium for nuclear weapons. On his return, Mr Wilson publicly accused the Bush administration of exaggerating the case for going to war.

In an effort to discredit Mr Wilson, White House officials allegedly revealed Ms Plame's identity by suggesting that she helped arrange her husband's trip. Mr Fitzgerald's investigation was triggered because it is illegal to publicly name a covert CIA agent.

The notes cited by the New York Times today contain no suggestion that Mr Cheney or Mr Libby knew at the time of their alleged conversation that Ms Plame had undercover status or that her identity was classified.

It would not be illegal for the two officials, who presumably have the highest security clearance, to discuss her name.

However, any effort by Mr Libby to steer investigators away from his conversation with Mr Cheney could be considered by Mr Fitzgerald to be an illegal effort to impede the inquiry.

In other words, if this is true, the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan. Libby lied to a jury. Cheney was the real source of Libby's briefing of journalists. It almost seems too good to be true for those who want to see the Bush administration fail or even fall. Juan Cole's analysis is as always excellent:

If both things are true, it makes perfect sense of our weird American news reporting. Cheney isn't just "a" journalist, he is The Journalist--who calls up Roger Ailes at Fox Cable News and tells him what to report and how. Why, Jimmy Olson and Clark Kent are pikers compared to super-Dick.

Or it could just be that Libby was lying, in which case he get's Martha Stewart's old cell.

I saw Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson say that she hoped Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald would not bring a charge like perjury, which would be a sign that he could not discover a real crime, or words to that effect. She was speaking off the current Republican Party talking points aimed at spinning this scandal.

So let's get this straight. The Republicans roiled the country for two years and impeached Clinton for lying about sex under oath, but now all of a sudden perjury is a minor crime not worth bothering about. Remember that 1998 was a period when Clinton needed to focus on the threat of al-Qaeda, but he was being distracted by the Republican bulldogs and everything he did about al-Qaeda was dismissed as "wag the dog." Vicious partisan politics was put before the benefit of the nation. (Many of the major Republican figures who impeached Clinton had themselves had affairs and covered them up, and besides, who cared or cares?)

But what Cheney, Libby and Rove did was not just a private impropriety. The leak of Valerie Plame Wilson's identity did enormous harm to US national security, since it blew the cover of the dummy corporation the Company was using to investigate weapons of mass destruction proliferation.

Although it was not illegal for Cheney to share classified information with Libby, since both had clearances, there is a question of whether the idea of leaking Valerie's name originated with Cheney. Even if that were not true, there is a question of propriety. Undercover CIA operatives' names should not be bandied about without some serious purpose. At a time of a War on Terror, when the nation's security is under assault by a sinister and determined terrorist organization, do we want a vice president in the White House who has the kind of loose lips that sink ships?

It makes a mockery of the Patriot act and continuing attacks on civil liberties in the US. Tying in nicely with the above, Reporters without Borders have released their Annual World Press Freedom Report. Coming top is Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands. The United Kingdom is down in 24th place, largely due to our repressive "Official Secrets Act" and libel laws, I would assume.

And to quote them:

Some Western democracies slipped down the Index. The United States (44th) fell more than 20 places, mainly because of the imprisonment of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and legal moves undermining the privacy of journalistic sources. Canada (21st) also dropped several places due to decisions that weakened the privacy of sources and sometimes turned journalists into “court auxiliaries.” France (30th) also slipped, largely because of searches of media offices, interrogations of journalists and introduction of new press offences.

The US ranks lower than Namibia, Benin, El Salvador, South Africa, Mali and Jamaica. Something to be proud of for all those who shove the constitution down the throats of those who don't have one.

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Monday, October 17, 2005 

Last entry for a few days.

I'm going away and will not have internet access until next Monday night. Updates will either resume then or on Tuesday. Have a good one.

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Clarke plans to privatise probation board services.

It almost makes you wonder if they'll eventually run out of things to privatise.

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, is to announce legislation this week to abolish local probation boards so he can take over their statutory powers and put their services supervising 200,000 offenders out to private tender.

The Guardian has learned that the plan could see private companies such as Group 4 managing dangerous offenders and advising the courts on whether to send offenders to prison and when they should be released. The decision to "market-test" probation services is believed to be the first time that an entire group of public sector professionals has been threatened with privatisation.

According to a letter from Mr Clarke to John Prescott leaked to the Guardian, the home secretary spells out that his plan to "market-test" the probation service means that the public probation service "could be left with no contracts and would therefore cease to exist" in some parts of the country.

In the letter dated September 30 2005 Mr Clarke told the deputy prime minister that he wants to "move towards a world where open contracts and tendering for all offender management services, including interventions and custody, are the norm". He says the decision to take over the probation boards' "exclusive duty to deliver probation services" will enable him to "contract directly for both prison and probation services with a range of providers from the private, not-for-profit and public sectors. This represents a radical change for the probation service."

The contracts will specify how the new providers should manage dangerous offenders, plan offenders' sentences, and engage in local partnership activity. They will also specify the level of qualifications and training of staff.

It is believed his plea to Mr Prescott, as chairman of the cabinet's domestic affairs committee, was successful in securing a slot in the parliamentary timetable for his legislation in early December. An announcement is expected to be made this week taking his management of offenders bill off the "reserve list" and getting it on to the statute book by next summer.

The move marks a speeding up of the development of the National Offender Management Service [NOMS], which has had a troubled birth in bringing together the prison and probation services.

Harry Fletcher, of the probation officers' union, Napo, said last night: "This is an extraordinary proposal which will lead to massive resistance and industrial action. If implemented it will mean privatisation of the probation service. We could have the absurd situation of Securicor or Group 4 writing court reports and recommending prison to boost numbers. It could also mean private companies advising the parole board on early release and indeed on sentencing matters."

The services run by the probation boards that would be offered to private correctional companies such as Group 4 GSL and Premier Prisons include:

· advising the courts on the most appropriate sentences for each offender and on parole decisions

· ensuring community punishments, such as community work orders, are carried out and offenders are supervised and rehabilitated

· supervising prisoners released on licence including sex offenders and those convicted of other serious violent crimes.

They also have statutory duties in relation to victims, children, local crime and youth offending teams.

Out of all the ludicrous privitastion fantasies of both Labour and the Tories, this has to rank pretty much right at the top. As Harry Fletcher says, we've already got private companies running both some prisons and delivering suspects and inmates both to court and then to prison, resulting in a few well-publicised cases of criminals both absconding and being released by mistake. This will no doubt intensify as such groups squeeze employees to gain greater profits out of the misery of others. Will such people be interested in rehabilitating those who are back out in society, as probation officials and boards do? Or will they be more interested in seeing them back in the jails that they also run, grabbing more money from the government?

Also worthy of note is that they such firms may well be able to influence the parole board and sentences. Wouldn't such companies like both longer sentences and then longer times on parole, with the offender tagged and under surveillance of the same company? You can almost imagine the likes of such security firms as Group 4 and Securicor smacking their lips in anticipation of such a situation. Private firms are also much more likely to acquiesce to public pressure over sex offenders or tougher sentences. While the government can make unpopular but right decisions and get away with it, private firms that have to engage fully with the public and with their shareholders are at a disadvantage which could lead to an even further clampdown on crime, even though most statistics show levels of burglaries at historic lows.

We cannot let the government continue to get away with privatising everything in sight. While we should never assume that the public sector is better for running everything, it needs to remembered that some government responsibilities need to handled in-house for the good of the country. Probation services and prisons are such departments that need to be in the hands of the public sector. As has often been noted, a country is not judged on how it treats its free, normal and wealthy citizens, but on how minorities, the imprisoned and impoverished are. On this basis, Britain is one country which still has a long way to go.

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Iranian bombs - oh sorry, we meant IRA bombs.

Remember Tony Blair accusing Iran of helping insurgents to attack British troops? Well, according to the Independent, he got the first three letters right.

Eight British soldiers killed during ambushes in Iraq were the victims of a highly sophisticated bomb first used by the IRA, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

The soldiers, who were targeted by insurgents as they travelled through the country, died after being attacked with bombs triggered by infra-red beams. The bombs were developed by the IRA using technology passed on by the security services in a botched "sting" operation more than a decade ago.

This contradicts the British government's claims that Iran's Revolutionary Guard is helping Shia insurgents to make the devices.

The Independent on Sunday can also reveal that the bombs and the firing devices used to kill the soldiers, as well as two private security guards, were initially created by the UK security services as part of a counter-terrorism strategy at the height of the troubles in the early 1990s.

According to security sources, the technology for the bombs used in the attacks, which were developed using technology from photographic flash units, was employed by the IRA some 15 years ago after Irish terrorists were given advice by British agents.

"We are seeing technology in Iraq today that it took the IRA 20 years to develop," said a military intelligence officer with experience in Northern Ireland.

He revealed that one trigger used in a recent Iraqi bombing was a three-way device, combining a command wire, a radio signal and an infra-red beam - a technique perfected by the IRA.

Britain claims that the bomb-making expertise now being used in southern Iraq was passed on by Iran's Revolutionary Guard through Hizbollah, the revolutionary Islamist group it sponsors in Lebanon.

But a former agent who infiltrated the IRA told The Independent on Sunday that the technology reached the Middle East through the IRA's co-operation with Palestinian groups. In turn, some of these groups used to be sponsored by Saddam Hussein and his Baath party.

The former agent added: "The photographic flashgun unit was replaced with infra-red and then coded infra-red, but basically they were variations of the same device. The technology came from the security forces, but the IRA always shared its equipment and expertise with Farc guerrillas in Colombia, the Basque separatists, ETA and Palestinian groups. There is no doubt in my mind that the technology used to kill our troops in Basra is the same British technology from a decade ago."

Still, a little bit of debunking doesn't harm the story a week or so after the event. Just the original smear is enough for the tabloids to get on the case - especially when it affects "our boys" as British soldiers are often quaintly referred to. With Condoleeza Rice in Britain for talks with the Dear Leader over Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme, the rhetoric continued, with Jack Straw repeating the story that Iran was supplying insurgents with such technology.

Such insistence on blaming Iran doesn't hold up to any scrutiny, even if the bombs did not orignate from the British security services or the IRA. Hizbollah doesn't need Iran to pass on such weapons to the insurgents. It has to be remembered that many see the US and UK as doing dirty work for Israel in Iraq, removing a dictator who channeled funds to Palestinian groups. Iraq always has been a threat to Israel, the only Arab country in recent times to have dared to actually launch missiles at it. Hizbollah's hatred of Israel, and its success in forcing the IDF out of Lebanon means that insurgents in Iraq are likely to find willing allies within their ranks, whether the organisation is turning to politics or not. If the US and UK are slowly building up support for a similar piece of regime change in Iran, then such smears as this we all become all too frequent, as we saw before the Iraq war.

Update: Private Eye claims this story is bullshit and a myth sourced from a disgruntled former soldier. I'll leave this here for now, true or not.

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Joanna Lees - attractive brunette helps court case publicity.

DARWIN, Australia--
As the court case against Bradley Murdoch, accused of killing Peter Falconio, fiancee of Joanna Lees begins, newspapers and broadcasters across Britain were overjoyed at being able to put a highly attractive woman in their reports.

Said one hack, "No one really cares about what happened to this girl's boyfriend, but there's nothing that perks up the news desk like an excuse for putting a fruity brunette on the front page of the paper".

Paul Dacre is 69.

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Moss dross: It's OK everyone, Pirelli is keeping their contract!

Interesting to note that to illustrate this thrilling breaking news story they had to use a photo of Kate Moss in a state of near undress, but that's journalism for you.

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Saturday, October 15, 2005 

Judges end the madness of deporting failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe.

Another case of the judiciary restoring sanity and humanity to Britain:

Immigration judges delivered a scathing verdict yesterday on the decision of the home secretary Charles Clarke to resume the deportation of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, saying those sent back were handed straight over to security police.

The asylum and immigration tribunal ruled in a test case that an asylum seeker, who cannot be named, would be at risk if he was sent back to Harare. The three judges said they were alarmed at the Home Office's lack of interest in what happened to those sent back and sharply criticised an official British mission to Harare for failing to find any new facts.

The ruling will force the government to revise its decision in July to resume deportations to Zimbabwe on the grounds that it is a safe country. The decision triggered hunger strikes amongst the 140 Zimbabweans who were detained this summer pending their deportation. The Home Office refused to tell the court how many others faced removal but the judges said they believed the number to be large.

The tribunal heard that anyone who claimed asylum in Britain was considered in Harare to be a traitor, and deportations were regarded as "a cloak for an attempt to infiltrate Blair's spies into Zimbabwe".

The chairman, Mark Ockelton, said that the asylum seeker involved in the case had been fraudulent and dishonest in his dealings with the British authorities. He had claimed to be an active member of the opposition, MDC, but could not say what the initials stood for. But that did not alter the fact that he faced real risk of harm if he was returned to Zimbabwe. "He has become a refugee, entitled to all that that status carries, by making a false claim to be a refugee," the judges said.

Mr Ockelton said Home Office evidence showed that those who had been sent back since deportations resumed last November were escorted on to planes in London and their documents handed over to the air crew. "At that point it appears to us that the [home secretary] ceased to have any very clear interest in what happened. We find [his] lack of interest in the process by which individuals that he returns to Zimbabwe are received by the Zimbabwean authorities rather alarming."

The judges criticised a Foreign Office/ Home Office "field trip" to Zimbabwe, which was sent once the legal challenge had been launched.

It was made up of civil servants involved in policy rather than from the Home Office country information unit. "The way in which the investigation was conducted, and the way in which the results were presented to us, gives rise to the possibility - we say no more than that - that the investigators may have had existing policy in mind rather more than the discovery of new facts."

Tim Finch, the communications director of the Refugee Council, said the judges "could not have been more dismissive" of the way the government delegation had conducted its work in Zimbabwe.

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture said:"The judgment emphasises the absolute nature of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights that no one should be exposed to the risk of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment."

It really is depressing when even David Davis is saying that people should not be deported back to the disaster zone which is Zimbabwe. What he is wrong to say is that the situation there is a failure of British foreign policy. The likes of Davis would like us to transfer our "bomb it better" philosophy from Iraq. Doing such would just confirm the ridiculous claims of Mugabe of British imperialism being alive and well. It may be alive and well, but it isn't in Zimbabwe, neither should it be.

That the Home Office is so wedded to the deportation of failed asylum seekers to countries it considers "safe" is just a sign of our culture which cares nothing for the outsider and the dispossessed, an ideology led by the likes of the Daily Mail and the Sun. It's the same ideology which is driving the attempts to deport terrorist suspects back to countries such as Algeria. When we cannot face up to the problems of our own country and deal with them internally, instead of putting them out of sight and out of mind, something is badly wrong.

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Sun-watch: It's a celebrity story, get me out of here.

On a day that featured stories about David Cameron and the media's obsession with the possibility he may have taken drugs, the repercussions of the deadly bird flu strain being found in Turkey, Stephen Byers and the government winning their battle against Railtrack's former shareholders and the continuing tragedy in Pakistani Kashmir, the Sun decided all that was worthless, and instead went with this:

Who is Kerry, you may ask? Well, to give her full name she is Kerry Katona and here is the story of her life:

• Original member of manufactured pop group Atomic Kitten
• Poses naked while member for various lad mags
• Gets hideous lower back tattoo at some point, the true mark of a worthless cunt
• Marries some guy out of Westlife
• Leaves guy out of Westlife
• Wins "reality" ITV TV show "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!"
• Gets pregnant

I think that pretty much sums it up. I can see why the Sun thought it was a front page news story, and I'm sure you will too.

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Friday, October 14, 2005 

Thatcher at 80: still a bitch.

Born as I was in the 80s, I am one of Thatcher's children, even though I resent it. I should be selfish, and believe that there is no such thing as society. When it comes to one's 80th birthday party however, I'd like that to think that I wouldn't still be holding grudges from my better years. Unsurprisingly, Thatcher still is.

The list of those who attended her 80th celebration are a who's who of distasteful figures or dastardly people. The guests included: The Queen and Prince Philip, the reminder of the few remaining elements of medieval Britain. The Blairs, with Tony possibly the only Labour politician who would ever be invited or ever think of actually attending, apart from Frank Field. Jeremy Clarkson, a loud mouth idiot who disbelieves global warming and thinks it's ok to destroy moors with 4x4s. Joan Collins, a woman who supports the UK Independence party's lies and blatant bigotry. Jim Davidson, possibly the worst comedian in Britain. Charles Moore of the Daily Telegraph, who was editor during the debacle of the George Galloway smear and who revels in hunting with dogs. Rupert Murdoch, the less said about the better. John Redwood and Norman Tebbit, for which that also applies. Enoch "rivers of blood" Powell's wife was also in attendance.

She didn't see fit to invite Michael Heseltine, who she constantly schemed against as he shared Ken Clarke's pro-Europeanism. Ken also wasn't invited. Neither did Geoffrey Howe have the chance to RSVP, as his betrayal with his resignation speech led to her downfall. David Cameron didn't receive an envelope either, although he has the excuse of not knowing her, which instantly boosts him in my eyes.

What did Thatcher leave us with? A broken, humiliated and down-trodden society. While John Major's years will now be remembered for sleaze and for Black Wednesday, it was during his time in office that Britain began to rise again, down to him or not. The gloom didn't really hit again until the turn of the century and we started to realise what Blair stood for, or err, didn't. Still as many have pointed out, at least Thatcher knew what she wanted. Blair instead is craven to the tabloids, and makes policy on the back of the latest wheeze, focus group or panic. Thatcher also had an opposition, even if they also couldn't win elections. It almost makes you nostalgic, until you remember the 80s in more detail. If you ignore politics, it's impossible not to conclude that life is immeasurably better in 2005. Thatcher is a relic, and thankfully her influence is finally starting to ebb away.

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Kids, say no to drugs. You might become a politician.

The moralistic witch-hunt accelerates again as another target starts to come into view. ZOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM there's Kate Moss! VROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM there's Boy George! WRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRHH there's David Cameron!

David Cameron looks increasingly likely to become the next leader of the Conservative party. Young, fresh, charismatic, charming and there is very little dirt which can be dug up on him. Or is there? Well, it seems as if the Daily Mail is trying to find filth with all its might:
David Cameron's leadership election team fear that Associated Newspapers is out to destroy his campaign and determined to dig up dirt on him, his wider family and his supporters, mainly concerning allegations of cocaine taking.

Other campaign teams are predicting that Associated Newspapers, especially the Mail on Sunday, will damage Mr Cameron this weekend. Some appear to be close to abandoning hope of finding another means of preventing Mr Cameron reaching the runoff between two candidates among the membership. The first ballot of MPs is next Tuesday, with the second and final round next Thursday.

And as if to prove this morning's Guardian report:

On Friday, The London Evening Standard revealed Mr Cameron had been helping a relative who was receiving treatment for heroin addiction.

In a statement, Mr Cameron said: "Someone very close in my family has had a dreadful problem with drugs.

"They have come through it, been through rehabilitation, and I'm incredibly proud of them.

"Their life has nothing to do with my candidature for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Many families will have had a similar experience, and they and I know full well the damage drugs can do.

"I hope now that this person can be left alone. I won't comment further on this story."

The London Evening Standard is of course owned by Associated Newspapers. It's pretty sad that in searching for something to beat Cameron with that they've plunged into the depths of revealing that a relative of his has a problem with heroin, a very private and distressing matter.

Cameron is by no means someone who I would support at a general election. Brought up with a silver spoon in his mouth, he attended Eton and then Oxford. He went on to join a PR firm, and has recently left a place on the board of a company which operates a number of pub franchises. He became an MP at the 2001 election, meaning he only has 4 years experience. Compare that to Tony Blair, who at least became Labour leader in 1994, 11 years after he first entered parliament.

Despite all that, Cameron is now the man who could reposition the Tories and help to push Labour back to the left. He holds Tory orthodoxy on numerous points, as he demonstrated on last night's Question Time, including on prisons and economics. He lacks the pro-Europeanism of Kenneth Clarke. Instead of focusing on Conservative rhetoric, he makes it clear that he supports Labour's public spending plans. Instead of asking the Thatcherite and increasingly New Labourite question, how can we involve the private sector in this, he seems to have realised that there is much to be gained from targeting the less well-off and focusing on those with special needs. Rather different to the purile Tory campaign in the May elections. If the Tories decide to become a party of the centre again, abandoning its leap to the far-right after the recklessness of Thatcher, how will Labour respond? Will it keep with its drift further and further towards the right? That seems unlikely. Under Brown, the hope has to be that the party will push back towards its roots. With the help of David Cameron, that is something that may well become reality.

Back to the burning issue. Does it matter that David Cameron may well have indulged in substances of an illegal nature? As long as he is not taking them now, and is clean of them, free from hypocrisy if he is tough on drugs policy, then no, it does not matter one jot. According to the BBC's unfortunately named Nick Assinder, he has definitely sampled the green leaf. What some of the Tory party and the tabloids seem more interested in is whether he has dabbled with white powder, more so since the fake moral furore over Kate Moss. This seems to ignore some rather unpleasant truths that the so-called moralists of this nation are pretending not to remember. It was only a couple of years ago that Prince Harry was caught smoking cannabis, a person who is third in line to the throne, and another ex-Etonian. No one suggested that he shouldn't be King eventually. George Bush has a well known past as a consumer of vast quantities of alcohol, and there's numerous allegations that he was always a coke-fiend. Certainly didn't affect him becoming President.

This obsession with what politicians have done in the past is ridiculous. David Cameron was entitled to a private life before he became one, as we all are. Who cares if he snorted cocaine while at university? How many have gone to college and not tried an illegal drug at least once? I'm happy to admit that I've tried illegal drugs, although not Class A ones. Ken Clarke is director of British American Tobacco, a company which has admitted to smuggling its own products in Columbia, and which flogs fags to developing countries by the shipload. Isn't that rather more unpleasant than what David Cameron might have done, legal or not?

I think the main problem with Associated Newspapers is they fear that their agenda is slipping away. They detest Ken Clarke for his Europhilia, and Tony Blair for reasons unknown, despite his listening to their every whim. It comes as no surprise that they would therefore try to smear David Cameron also. He threatens their values of old Thatcherism, and of progress. They crave power, yet if David Davis or Liam Fox wins the Tory leadership battle, the Tory party is doomed to failure. Can Paul Dacre or Lord Rothermere not see that? Perhaps David Cameron is something they realise they should be: young, polite, willing to see other sides of the argument and to others, all qualities he displayed to my surprise on Question Time. His good humour when faced with question on drugs and other deserved attacks on the Conservative party was a revelation. It was how you would like Tony Blair to be. You still dislike most of what he stands for, but at least you know he's a decent person at heart. I get the feeling that is what is stirring the hatred and bitterness. What a shame that the heartland Tory newspapers and MPs cannot see a good thing when they have it. It will only lead to Labour consolidating its grips on this country, and as I said yesterday, the governing party is just getting worse and worse.

To counter all the bad press, David Cameron should bite the bullet and admit what he has taken in the pass. It sets a bad precedent, but it should be done to show that he is being honest with the public. It will stops all the rumours, and then the Tory leadership race can continue in earnest. It may even help him win the support of grassroot Tory activists. Then we can get on with the more important issues of British politics, namely having an opposition that isn't opportunist and is willing to take on Labour on its most destructive and liberty-reducing policies. If the Tories aren't for keeping our freedom as so-called Conservatives, what are they for?

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Thursday, October 13, 2005 

Anti-terror bill: 7 years for daring to voice support for "armed" resistance.

Most of the attention on the latest anti-terrorism bill has focused on the 90 day detention for suspects, as well as the 'gloryifying' clause, which has now been more narrowly defined. However, hidden underneath the more eye-catching and draconian measures is one that inhibits free speech even more broadly than the gloryifying clause would have done.

As Seumas Milne writes,

In fact, under the terms of the bill, anyone who voices support for armed resistance to any state or occupation, however repressive or illegitimate, will be committing a criminal offence carrying a seven-year prison sentence - so long as members of the public might reasonably regard it as direct or indirect encouragement. Terrorism is not defined in the bill as, say, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, let alone an assault on civilian targets by states - but as any politically motivated violence against people, property or electronic systems anywhere in the world. This is not only an assault on freedom of speech and debate about the most contentious subject in global politics. It also makes a criminal offence out of a belief shared by almost every society, religion or philosophy throughout history: namely, that people have the right to take up arms against tyranny and foreign occupation. Clarke made clear on Tuesday that this was exactly his intention. He could not, he said, think of any situation in the world where "violence would be justified to bring about change".

In other words, it's possible you could be prosecuted for urging the people of Zimbabwe to rise up against Robert Mugabe by using violence against the violence of the young mobs of Zanu PF thugs. You could be imprisoned for supporting Palestinian attacks on IDF soldiers in the West Bank. Presumably if this law had been around in the 80s you would have been thrown in jail for expressing support for the Contras in Nicaragua, who were bank-rolled by the Reagan administration through sales of arms to Iran, let alone the support of muhjahedin fighters against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Except, of course, it wouldn't. Fighters and groups supported by the West will undoubtedly be exempt, as well as popular campaigns such as those against the military government in Burma. No, this has been drafted so that unpopular insurgencies, or ones which Britain does not like, cannot be supported. Israel has been apoplectic that Britain even held talks with Hamas before, even though the group is banned in the UK. This will no doubt go some way to appeasing them.

Back to the 3 months detention without charge, and Blair continues to become even more manic and seemingly deranged. His claim that the reasons behind the need for detention for 3 months are "compelling" is at odds with nearly everyone except the police and the most belligerent tabloids. If anything, the need for police to hold suspects for 3 months shows how incompetent and resource-deprived they are. Yes, decrypting computer hard drives, scanning CCTV and collecting other evidence takes time. However, it does not and should not take up to 3 months. That is a ridiculous timescale. At the very most, the evidence needed for a case should be able to be collated within a month. Those who would be arrested suspected of involvement in terrorism to start with are already likely to have been monitored by the police, Special Branch or MI5, meaning that they must already have something of a case against them. Then again, of 895 arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000 in the last five years, 500 have been released without charge, and of the rest less than 30 have been charged with terrorist offences. 3 month detentions will rightly remind people of internment in Northern Ireland - ending in hunger strikes and deaths. Why could suspects not be released on bail, but monitored and/or made to report to the station every day? The Liberal Democrat proposal that suspects could be charged on some other misdemanour then remanded in custody while the other evidence is collected is also worth investigating.

Writing the above pains me. I signed a petition at the beginning of the year calling for no more new terror laws. While I still feel the same way, and that the terrorist threat has been vastly exaggerated, there is now no way to stop more anti-terrorist legislation being passed. After all, according to Blair, the "rules of the game are changing". It now comes down to opposing the measures which must not become law, and the above should be opposed vigorously. As it stands, it seems unlikely the bill will be stopped in the Commons, although it may run into trouble in the Lords. If this then comes before the courts, we can only hope that a sensible judge will do the right thing, and not be cowed by an ever more repellent tabloid press, and a government which is getting more craven and egregious by the day.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005 

Christian Voice pledges to try to ban the Qur'an.

Yeah, who didn't see this one coming? It's long been said that the ridiculous incitement to religious hatred law will mainly be used by religious groups to attack each other.

A Protestant evangelical pressure group has warned that it will try to use the government's racial and religious hatred law to prosecute bookshops selling the Qur'an for inciting religious hatred.

Christian Voice, a fringe fundamentalist group which first came to public prominence this year when it campaigned against the BBC's broadcasting of Jerry Springer The Opera, was among the evangelical organisations taking part in a 1,000-strong demonstration against the bill outside parliament yesterday as the House of Lords held a second reading debate on the measure.

Its director, Stephen Green, said the organisation would consider taking out prosecutions against shops selling the Islamic holy book. He told the Guardian: "If the Qur'an is not hate speech, I don't know what is. We will report staff who sell it. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that unbelievers must be killed."

The sectarian organisation's tactics have regularly appalled other Christian groups. Its website proclaims its right to protect its own freedom of speech in attacking other religious groups: MPs "have no right to try to stifle our freedom to preach the gospel. It is not just Islam which is the problem. If a preacher is explaining the horrors of Hinduism ... a charge of stirring up religious hatred would be almost inevitable. Preaching against sin in general, or adultery or homosexuality in particular, may also land a preacher in court."

The bill has seen a wide range of Christian groups making common cause with secularists. Yesterday the Catholic church, while welcoming the measure in principle, expressed doubts about the drafting of the legislation, as have Church of England bishops. A Church of England spokesman said: "We regard the test of stirring up hatred to be a strong one which would be unlikely to penalise preachers or comedians going about their normal business. However, we wish to be reassured that the formulation of the offence will distinguish clearly between words and actions which incite hatred and expressions of opinion which are merely controversial or offensive."

During yesterday's Lords debate the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey said that it "threatens civil liberties".

"I am troubled by the bill before us and feel that rather than strengthening the social fabric of our society it would weaken it. It has the potential to drive a wedge between the Muslim community and the rest of us," he said.

It's also rather amusing that the Catholic and Anglician groups seem to think that it's been drafted too tightly and might stop comedians or satirists from criticising religion. The Catholic church had no problems with denouncing the piss-poor cartoon Popetown for making fun of the Vatican; it's also been highly critical of the Da Vinci Code, as well as Harry Potter.

Under the proposed new terrorist legislation, groups such as Hizb-u-Tahir may be banned. How about we try to get Christian Voice banned for preaching vile extremist Christian nonsense and for trying to stop performances of Jerry Springer the Opera? It makes just about as much sense, and will have the same effect of creating visible martyrs.

Still the best anaylsis and case against this freedom of speech limiting bill is Polly Toynbee's. It'd be nice to see her and Stephen Green face each other over it, mainly because I expect he'd face the same evisceration that befell him on Question Time a couple of weeks ago.

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New York subway threat was a 'hoax'.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

The alleged terror threat that sparked a big security alert on New York's trains and subway last week turned out to be a hoax concocted by an unreliable US informant in Iraq, it emerged yesterday.

Uniformed and undercover police descended on the city's subway system on Friday after what was described as a "specific threat" that a terror cell was planning to explode bombs concealed in pushchairs, suitcases and rucksacks. At one point a section of Penn Station was sealed off as security staff wearing chemical hazard suits investigated a "soupy green substance" found in a Pepsi bottle. It turned out be a cleaning substance.

But security sources yesterday told CNN that an informant in Iraq had admitted giving false information. Law enforcement officials said last week that the person who passed along the New York tip also gave information which led to the arrests of three al-Qaida suspects in Musayyib, south of Baghdad, said to have links to the alleged plot.

But yesterday government sources said the three men had been interviewed and two underwent lie detector tests showing they knew nothing about such a plan.

From the beginning some federal officials questioned the credibility of the plot, describing it as "specific yet non-credible". Some officials privately criticised the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, for overreacting to the alert, which came the day after George Bush claimed 10 big al-Qaida attacks had been thwarted since September 11 2001.

Law enforcement officials also told the New York Times yesterday that the investigation in Iraq had found no evidence that a plot was in motion or being actively contemplated. The officials said after taking the three men into custody last week they found no fake passports, no travel documents, no viable travel route to New York, and no apparent contact with people in New York. They said the informant had been right eight of the 15 times he gave information to his Defence Intelligence Agency handlers. He was right about information in Iraq and wrong mostly about actions elsewhere. "The process is not a clean one here. Ever," one official told the newspaper.

Mr Bloomberg said the extraordinary measures put in place last week, including police on every train, would be relaxed, but that the city would continue many of the safeguards it has taken to protect since the London bombings in July.

It reminded me of another threat that was used to great effect in the media in the run-up to the Iraq war. That too, it turned out, was from a single source. The threat? That the Iraqi army could launch chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order being made to use them. Also it was noted that it was possible that Iraqi missiles could hit Cyprus. Both sources turned out to be wrong, and added to the government's intelligence dossier at the last minute as Downing Street panicked about its pretty unconvincing case for war.

What made the 'threat' even more amusing was that even the Department of Homeland Security, not noted for its caution or political independence, said that they had no information of a threat, and doubted its credibility. As it stands, the whole thing was complete nonsense. Then again, coming the day after Bush's claim that 10 'al-Qaida' attacks had been stopped since 9/11, including some in Britain which the security services don't seem to know about, it was rather convenient coming in the week in which Bush was facing criticism over his supreme court nomination (according to the Washington Times (not the most credible source I realise) more than half of the Republican senators are unconvinced by Harriet Miers), Tom DeLay was indicted and had to resign from his post, and Judith Miller was released from prison as the net seemed to tighten around Karl Rove and Scooter Libby over the Plame affair. I'm not saying that this was an attempt to push bad news down the agenda; the above scandals have lasted longer than the New York threat, but it keeps up the impression that America is at war and that the terrorists are planning attacks, so be sure to vote Republican in next year's midterms!

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005 

Suicide, the media and control freakery.

After yesterday's sensationalist account of the same story in the Mirror, the Guardian has published a rather less outraged report, but one which still contains some factual errors:

Internet companies are being urged by the Home Office to make so-called suicide websites and chatrooms more difficult to access. The move comes after two strangers forged Britain's first internet suicide pact, dying side by side two days after making contact for the first time on a chatroom dedicated to discussions about suicide.

Following a spate of online suicide pacts in Japan and elsewhere, psychiatrists are warning that Britain may be about to witness a disturbing new trend, with young people in particular using the chatrooms to make contact with other depressed individuals.

Ministers have considered outlawing sites which appears to encourage suicide, but were warned that new legislation could also criminalise fictional depictions of suicide and hinder academics and counsellors writing about the subject.

Talks are taking place with a number of service providers, including Yahoo! and AOL, and search engine companies, in an attempt to reprioritise the results that are thrown up during a trawl on the internet. "When somebody keys in 'suicide' and 'UK', we would like them to be offered a link to the Samaritans long before they find a website showing them what they can do with a car exhaust and a hosepipe," one official said.

Yep, more New Labour control freakery. Not content with planning to ban "violent" pornography, they've considered outlawing sites which "appear" to encourage suicide. Instead they are now consulting ISPs to block access, and search engines to change results that show up. No doubt this would be similar to the system that is used to block access to known child pornography. However, I decided to test out the officials hypothesis that they like to see a link to the Samaritans before a site with access to methods. If you search and enter "Suicide and UK" exactly as the article suggests, you get this.
The fifth link is the Samaritans. I went through the first six pages, and there are no links to any method sites. Of course, if you were actually looking for ways to kill yourself, you'd be more likely to type in "ways to kill yourself" or "suicide methods" than that. Nevertheless, the official really should look into these things properly before commenting.

The drive for internet reform was given extra impetus by the deaths of Christopher Aston and Maria Williams, who killed themselves in a shopping centre car park near the millennium Dome in south-east London. They used a method which is highly unusual in the UK, but which is frequently discussed in suicide chatrooms.

Mr Aston, 25, was the elder of the two sons of a professional couple, and grew up in the street next to Penny Lane in Liverpool. A PhD student at the University of Manchester, he was researching the use of computers to analyse and categorise biological material.

Ms Williams, 42, was a former private detective and convicted fraudster who often used the name Marie Sanchez, and who lived alone on the sixth floor of a tower block on a council estate in Deptford, south-east London. All they had in common, before making contact on one of the most frequently-visited suicide chatrooms, was their interest in computers, and their history of depression.

The inquest into their deaths last month heard that Mr Aston was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and dyslexia as a child, with the result that he often felt isolated. "He had very good friends who cared for him but sometimes his perception of that was the opposite," his mother, Frances, told the hearing. He drank a bottle of medicine at the age of 12 and took an overdose four years ago.

Ms Williams was an outgoing and resilient woman who descended unexpectedly into mental illness following her fourth short spell in prison 10 years ago, relatives say.

She had fallen in love with a prison officer and, following the failure of that relationship, drove to Wigan, the officer's home town, where she attempted to commit suicide in a church.

A family member who did not wish to be identified said she had made two failed attempts to kill herself. "She said straight away that she was going to do it again."

Mr Aston and Ms Williams were found together in her red BMW, parked outside a branch of the TK Maxx store, a place which her family say she liked because she had used "dodgy credit cards" to shop there. She was sitting behind the driver's wheel, dressed in a white shroud with a friend's name and telephone number scrawled on her right shoulder. Mr Aston was curled in a foetal position on the back seat. Beside him was a scanner, which could have been used to listen for the radio messages of approaching police patrols or ambulance crews.

They had had very little contact before their deaths, police told the inquest, but an examination of their computers showed how they had made contact, and revealed that both had been reading internet suicide websites.

The Guardian is not identifying the method which Mr Aston and Ms Williams used to take their lives, nor is it identifying the chatroom on which, relatives say, they first met.

So, two grown people, both who had a history of mental illness met and decided to end their lives together. We're not talking about teenagers who had just split with their boyfriend/girlfriend and did something incredibly silly. Both had attempted suicide in the past. Both would have been known to local mental health teams and psychiatrists. Both had no doubt been through the system, experienced counseling, and had probably been on anti-depressants. It seems that none of the above prevention methods had had much effect. Both were of sound mind, whether Mr Ashton had Asperger's syndrome or not. Had both come to the end of the line in their possible treatments? No. But that shouldn't affect our thinking that these two people, who were so fed up and ashamed of living had decided that they no longer had anything worth living for. That was their choice. If they hadn't met on the internet, it's likely they would have killed themselves at some point, whether now or years in the future. This isn't to say that they couldn't be "saved", but that maybe we should also respect their decision to end their lives.

On to the method and "chatroom" which is not being published by the Guardian. I would assume by the references to Japan throughout that they used a method which is gaining in popularity there and has become well-known as being a relatively reliable way to commit suicide, thanks to the internet. This is the method of a charcoal grill, lit in a car or enclosed space. This method negates the use of the engine being turned on and the telltale tube, meaning that anyone attempting this is less likely to be spotted, especially at night in an empty car-park. That Mr Ashton and Ms Williams most likely used this method shows how much they had researched and read on various methods. In other words, they had made their minds up, and to me there seems to be little which could have stopped them in any case.

The "chatroom" where they met is not a chatroom, although there was and still likely is an IRC room somewhere where some of the posters meet. It is a Usenet group which has become more and more notorious over the last few years, mainly because of the seeming number throughout the world who have used it to gain access to methods and other like-minded people who want to kill themselves. The group is called (wikipedia entry) and has its origins in the desperation a lot feel around the Christmas period, without friends and alone at a time of year when so many people are together. Since then the group has evolved into a place where suicidally depressed people have met and congregated, and generally expressed their feelings. The group has developed its own lingo, such as "catching the bus" meaning to commit suicide. The group view themselves as waiting for this "bus", talking about various things before deciding to either catch it or not. A FAQ on the newsgroup is available here.

The group now defines itself as being "pro-choice", that people should be allowed to commit suicide if they want to. Posts either discouraging or encouraging suicide are meant to be forbidden; but as a Usenet group, it is unmoderated and has the usual amount of spam, trolling and silliness as most of Usenet. This also isn't the first time that the group has become a news story. Wired carried a three-part series on the group at the beginning of 2003, with the main interviewee, a certain Douglas Wiser, who is not the most authoritative figure on the group by any means. He has got police and other organisations involved when some have posted that they intend to commit suicide, mainly young women. He has also been accused of various other misdemanours which aren't worth repeating.

At its inception, the website claimed to avoid anything to encourage suicide. However, it is understood to have been passed on to another host in Washington DC, who then handed it over to a man in California, who in turn passed it to its current host, Karin Spaink, a Dutch journalist. In its current guise, the website gives a direct link to the site of the suicide postings.

Ms Spaink argues that the website and chatroom do more good than harm. "I would rather have a place where people can discuss and investigate their anxiousness to commit suicide, rather than withdraw into an enclosed space where no other voices are heard," she says. "I would rather people talked about it, so they can investigate whether they do indeed want to die."

While acknowledging that some people have formed suicide pacts through this chatroom, Ms Spaink doubts whether many others will follow their lead.

In Japan, however, authorities have been alarmed by the number of people who have committed suicide after visiting suicide websites - 59 in the first four weeks of this year alone - and by the increasing number of internet pacts. In May, seven people, including a 14-year-old girl, killed themselves after striking an online agreement.

Writing in the British Medical Journal before the deaths of Mr Aston and Ms Williams, Sundararajan Rajagopal, a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital in London, warned that the internet could fuel a rise in such pacts.

He said the Japanese experience "might herald a new disturbing trend in suicide pacts, with more such incidents, involving strangers meeting over the internet, becoming increasingly common".

The Home Office says it considered amending the 1961 Suicide Act, which prohibits the aiding and abetting of suicide, but which could rarely be used to prosecute people posting chatroom messages. Eventually, a spokesman says, ministers and officials concluded that "we can't erase them from existence using legislation".

This decision is dismissed as "a cop-out" by Papyrus, a charity set up by bereaved British parents to reduce suicide among young people. Papyrus points to a number of cases in the UK in which suicide notes have revealed clearly "the pivotal role" of information from the internet.

In Australia, the federal authorities have drawn up legislation which will impose heavy fines on individuals or companies involved in the online promotion of suicide.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the voices in defence of suicide chatrooms yesterday was that of a close relative of Ms Williams, who believes that parental control may be needed, but not legislation.

"The web is there as a source of information for all of us, and it's better that these discussions aren't driven underground," he said. "Building high-rise blocks didn't increase the suicide rate, and I don't think the internet will either."

The close relative of Ms Williams makes the best point. If anything, the internet is also creating a place where many can get help without revealing their feelings to those around them or may become disturbed and do things which that person does not want. There are many more sites out there for those who want help and counseling than for those who are actively looking to kill themselves. The Papyrus group, formed of parents who failed to recognise warning signs in their children, or acted too late, ought to recognise that most teenagers grow out of their angsty period, and that those who do attempt suicide often do it not because they really want to die, but to gain attention. Groups such as those as are often composed of older people who have a history of mental disorders and feel they have come to the end of the line. Should we remove such a place which can relieve suffering from some, just because two who know what they were doing made a pact there?

The references to Japan are again not really applicable to the UK. Japan has a history of suicide being acceptable or even an honourable death. It is one of the main causes of death throughout the country across age groups. also doesn't exactly have a heavy Japanese presence. Different cultures have different approaches and taboos. Death and suicide is possibly the only remaining taboo here, as it is in the US, where the Bush administration is challenging an assisted suicide law in Oregon at the Supreme court, while here there is an assisted suicide bill for the terminally ill submitted in the Lords which has come in for heavy, if predictable criticism from bishops and the religious minority. This is despite one YouGov poll which suggested 87% of the public supported the right for the terminally ill to seek help in dying peacefully.

Sensationalism and control freakery will as usual solve little in such a delicate and nuanced case. Legislation is unnecessary, but better understanding and parental concern for their children's mental as well as physical health is. If we don't also recognise the cultural reasons for why depression and mental illness seems to be rising (rampant commercialism, materialist yearning, constant pressure to achieve ever greater "success", erosion of empathy and understanding, political cynicism) then the problem will only get worse.

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Monday, October 10, 2005 

Education for all?

Away from the destruction of major parts of Pakistani Kashmir, two important stories about education are out in the open today. The main one confirms what many have suspected for a while: that the middle class is doing everything in its power to get into the top schools, at the expense of the deprived who actually live in the catchment areas.

The country's leading state schools are being colonised by the middle classes, educating significantly fewer poor pupils than other schools and excluding less affluent children who live nearby, according to a study obtained by the Guardian.

In one of the most significant reports of its kind, the leading education charity the Sutton Trust used the latest GCSE results to identify the top 200 state schools and examined the number of poor children they taught.

The study, based on data provided by the National Foundation for Educational Research, found that the schools are using increasingly complicated admissions procedures, which include aptitude tests and interviewing parents, to covertly select middle-class children in the expectation that they will boost their league table rankings. The "colonisation" of these schools is being accelerated by wealthy parents who are spending thousands of pounds moving into the catchment areas of the most successful schools rather than pay private school fees.

Last night, MPs and union leaders accused the government of introducing "socially selective" education since it came to power in 1997, and warned that the report's findings undermined the notion of a comprehensive school system.

"Any secretary of state or any schools minister who reads this and does not take it very seriously is being extremely foolish," said Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education select committee. "This pinpoints what is happening in our leading state schools and how the more socially disadvantaged pupils are being dramatically short changed, even if they live close to a good school, by a system that favours affluent families."

The research found that the average proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals - the standard measure of deprivation - at the top state secondaries is just 3%, compared with a national average of more than 14%. It also revealed that the schools are failing to admit many of the disadvantaged children in their own neighbourhoods.

Last night Sir Peter Lampl, of the Sutton Trust, said: "The best state schools in the country are effectively closed to the majority of less well-off families. We've replaced an education system which selected on ability with one that is socially selective: the best comprehensives serve the relatively affluent, while the remaining grammar schools attract far too few able students from poor backgrounds."

Last month Tony Blair told the Labour party conference that his priority was to offer an excellent education to all pupils, regardless of their social background.

But critics say today's report reveals that the top state schools are using admissions policies to skew their intake in favour of middle-class pupils.

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "Parents' income as an indicator of how well a child will do in school has become even more pronounced now than under the Conservatives. Worse still, this study shows that Labour's false 'choice agenda' is being exploited by better-off parents and is widening that divide even further."

Last month, Sins of Admission, a report by Chris Waterman, executive director of The Confederation of Education & Children's Services Managers, which represents local education authority leaders, called on the government to stop "rogue" state schools admitting only the children of wealthier parents. He said the best-performing schools were using parental interviews, complicated procedures and specialist status to covertly select middle-class children. Yesterday, he said: "The Sutton Trust research proves there is a system of subtle selection going on in the leading state schools. We are seeing increasingly complicated admissions procedures which benefit middle-class parents who have the experience and wherewithal to play the system."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills insisted state schools were not socially selective, and said a high proportion of those in the study were grammar schools, which "select on the basis of high ability rather than ... a pupil's background".

Some may think that there's nothing wrong with the middle class getting the best education. After all, they pay the taxes, right? They deserve the best, and they should be able to do everything in their power to do it. Such a position is all very well, but it leaves many surface problems. It leaves certain schools underfunded and trapped in a cycle of constant failure, with no chance of getting better. They become marginalised, and so do the students in them. We are supposed to live, according to Mr Blair, in a meritocracy. How can those who have merit rise to what they deserve in such circumstances? This isn't even criticising meritocracy itself.

That grammar schools still exist is bad enough. That this government knows, and has done for a while that it's so-called comprehensives are becoming more and more selective, and has even encouraged it, beggars belief. Or does it? Blair himself sent his children to private schools. More recently, the Labour left winger Diane Abbott sent her son to a private school, supposedly because it was him that wanted to go. Others accused her, quite rightly, of champagne socialism. In other words, has what Labour itself experienced just repeating the cycle? John Prescott is perhaps one of the only main cabinet ministers who did attend a secondary modern. Has Labour forgotten about its past, or is it now so servile to the middle class that it can't do what it should?

Maybe it's just trying to remember. According to Roy Hattersley, Labour might be about to introduce at last a solution.

Believe it or not, there is a real possibility that the government is about to announce plans that - at least in one particular - will make English comprehensive schools more comprehensive. The 168 grammar schools will retain the role of positional goods - as much in demand for the status they confer as for the education they provide. They will remain proof of Tony Blair's emotional attachment to the suburban middle classes. The proposal that specialist schools and city academies should select 10% of their pupils - largely rejected and therefore one of the few pieces of legislation that ministers boast about being ignored - comes in the same political category. But at least there are steps afoot to ensure that secondary schools have an all-ability intake.

Although the claim stretches credulity to breaking point, there is no doubt that Sir Cyril Taylor - private education entrepreneur, sometime deputy leader of the Tories on the now defunct Greater London Council and special adviser to successive secretaries of state - is entitled to take credit for the new and improved admission system. If the BBC's series on comprehensive schools was correct, Sir Cyril joined the ranks of Blair's confidants as a result of a fortuitous train journey to Newcastle during which they "hit it off". Never mind the example of government by whim, the unaccountable chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust is offering the government welcome advice. Opponents of secondary selection must make sure that they take it.

Sir Cyril's plan requires all primary-school pupils to take a "non-verbal reasoning test", which he rightly described as "less biased by social, cultural and ethnic factors than other methods of assessment". The results will not be used to separate grammar-school sheep from secondary-modern goats. On the contrary. Having grouped 11-year-olds into nine "bands", local education authorities will be expected (perhaps even required) to allocate secondary-school places to pupils who represent the full range of ability within their area.

The idea of "banding" was pioneered by the ILEA during Sir Cyril's years in opposition. At the time it was derided as a futile socialist attempt to make non- selective secondary schools work. The new scheme goes far further than anything that the London Labour party ever dared to suggest. Banding, says Sir Cyril, should not be based on the various levels of ability to be found in one catchment area. That would result in schools in some districts being monopolised by middle-class parents and therefore being unrepresentative of society as a whole. Each school should be "banded" according to the ability pattern of a district wide enough to reflect a cross-section of a heterogeneous community.

The middle class would not like that. They would be even more opposed to Sir Cyril's idea for guarding the education system against exploitation by well-heeled families who manipulate the admissions policies of "good" schools by buying houses, at inflated prices, in their catchment areas. Perhaps, he says, the time has come to break down the rule of proximity by which over-subscribed schools admit those applicants who live nearest to their gates. He proposes two catchment areas - one immediately surrounding the school, to which half the places are allocated, and one further-flung to guarantee admission to students from different backgrounds.

Schemes to redistribute places in "good" schools are, by definition, based on the assumption that "bad schools" are always with us. Schools policy should be dynamic, not static. Bad schools should be made good. But until that happens, a policy that makes comprehensive schools more comprehensive is a matter for rejoicing. Let us hope that Sir Cyril's will prevails.

Fears that it may not were reinforced by an education department spokes- person whose comments on the scheme can best be described as dismissive. But doubts about its political acceptance have a more fundamental cause. A "banding" system diminishes prospects of parental choice. Even if there are empty places in a school, a pupil might be denied admission because a particular "band" is fully subscribed. Blair cannot honour his undertaking to extend choice and, at the same time, fulfil his pledge to promote comprehensive education. Let us hope that, for once, he breaks the right promise.

Such an idea would be a new dawn in British schooling. Not only would it help with the actual learning, it would introduce children to others from all different backgrounds. It's been shown that such schooling is the best way to make sure society becomes truly cohesive and integrated. It would help to tackle extremism and prejudice. Has this government finally found the necessary radicalism to carry out such a major reform? Let's hope so. If the government wanted to be even more radical, it would get rid of "faith" schools altogether. While that would be as likely as Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams dancing naked around a maypole, the first part would be the greatest change Labour could make in its third term.

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Moss dross: of earthquakes, Elton and tabloids.

Not a single one of this country's tabloid newspapers today led on their front page with the earthquake in Pakistan and India, which has killed at least 20,000 people.

They can possibly be excused for not leading on it yesterday, as the full scale was not known then; they have none whatsoever for today. The Mirror and Sun both at least had small items on their front pages. The Mail, Express and Star did not even mention it.
All the broadsheets (or quality papers, I suppose, seeing as the Telegraph is the only true remaining broadsheet) featured it on their front page in detail.

So what was it that was keeping the deaths of so many people off the front pages of the so-called popular papers of this country?

The Mail leads with an interesting and important story, but it's not one that's earth-shattering. Issues of maternity and paternity leave have been rising in political importance for a while. Somehow I consider the deaths of thousands of people rather more important, considering how many in this country have relatives in India and Pakistan. Oh, I forgot, I guess they must be the wrong colour.

The Express features an education story, or as it should be known, just another excuse to beat Labour with. Nearly every single front page of the Express is somehow an outraged attack on what Labour is doing wrong, so it's not surprising that they didn't change this despite a natural disaster in a far off land. Also of note is the incredible picture of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Anyone would think that they'd announced she was having a baby.

The Star, the most down-market and pathetic newspaper in the country bar the Sport, which isn't considered a newspaper, unsurprisingly doesn't have any mention of the earthquake. What it does have is a photo of Jennifer Ellison or whatever the fuck her name is in her underwear. An important news story, as I don't think she's done any such revealing shoots since she left Hollyoaks, apart from oh, at least 20. Other than that, there's the sensational story that Simon Cowell is apparently to leave the TV show the X-Factor. I won't be watching it anymore, that's for sure.

Next up we have the country's favourite, the soar-away Sun, which deserves credit for at least having the decency to have a short piece on the earthquake on its front page. Compared to the story opposite it however, about the tragedy of fans not being able to get World Cup tickets, and its huge puff piece for giving away a DVD, you would have thought that it deserved more space at the least. Still, what do I know about tabloid journalism and priorities?

Finally we have the Mirror, and the worst of the lot. I consider the Mirror to probably be the best tabloid, if only because it's broadly left wing and does takes its politics seriously. This makes the above even more depressing, as they continue with the Moss dross of the past few weeks, with Elton John saying that it's a good thing she was caught apparently being front page news. Again, there is a small piece on the earthquake, which demands a small amount of respect. It then ruins that respect by running an intro to a sensationalist account of two grown adults who dared to meet on the internet and then commit suicide together.

I admit, the only newspapers I actually went through today were the Mirror and Guardian. The tabloids could have in-depth coverage inside, which would negate the lack of focus on the front pages. However, if they are anything like the Mirror, then they won't have. The small piece on the front led to a single tabloid page of coverage, 15 pages inside. That was it. Compare this to the Guardian. It has a large piece on its front, continued on the second page. Pages 4 and 5 are then given over completely to the earthquake. Pages 16 and 17 is the daily Eyewitness, a photo given two whole pages. This is of Islamabad after the quake. Peter Preston then comments on the disaster on Page 24, and there is a leader on disasters on page 26.
Just a small difference, don't you think? Also worth remembering these are "Berliner" sized pages, midway between tabloid and broadsheet.

I'm willing to give some of the papers the benefit of the doubt, and they have the excuse that there has been so many cruel "acts of God" recently that some people may be disastered-out. But come on, this is on a pretty slow news day, in a country which governed India and Pakistan only 60 years ago. Many have emigrated and started lives here. What do the tabloids reward such people with? Stories about drugged-up celebrities and idiots who can't think of anything other than football for 5 seconds.
Is this what we deserve, or is tabloid journalism reaching its nadir of futility?

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Saturday, October 08, 2005 

Brunei envoy on BAE payroll, hilariously denies conflict of interest.

There's nothing that warms the cockles of my cyncial heart quite like a nice little tale of corruption. This is one of the best sleazy stories about Blair and his cronies in the arm industry to come out for a while:

Tony Blair is employing Charles Powell as his special envoy to Brunei, the Guardian can disclose, despite the fact that the businessman is on the payroll of BAE Systems. BAE is embroiled in a dispute with Brunei over the purchase of three warships.

The sultan of the small, oil-rich southeast Asian state, Hassanal Bolkiah, was persuaded to order the top-of-the-range vessels for his navy at a cost of £680m, but is now refusing to make the final payments to BAE and take delivery of the ships, which are marooned on the Clyde.

The three patrol boats were built and equipped with missiles at BAE's Scotstoun yard, and the first of them was launched by John Reid as Scottish secretary. The British taxpayer guaranteed the deal and may have to pick up a tab of more than £20m for any outstanding default.

Lord Powell denied yesterday that he had a conflict of interest by being a consultant for BAE while acting as the prime minister's special envoy to Brunei. Lord Powell's brother, Jonathan, is Mr Blair's chief of staff at No 10, and Lord Powell was previously Margaret Thatcher's foreign affairs adviser.

He told the Guardian: "There is no conflict of interest with BAE. Any consultation with BAE specifically rules out anything to do with Brunei." He said he had been acting in the unpaid role for three to four years. Asked how he got the job, Lord Powell said: "You do not advertise it and you do not apply." Asked how often he met the sultan, he said: "That is a matter between him and me."

The appointment of Mr Blair's friend and fundraiser Lord Levy as a special Middle East envoy angered some in the Foreign Office and there is also puzzlement over Lord Powell's new role. It is not clear what he will do that could not be done by the high commissioner to Brunei.

A Downing Street source said Lord Powell met the sultan, who owns the Dorchester Hotel, on his visits to London when Mr Blair was unable to see him. All discussions were on behalf of the British government, the source added.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Charles Powell is special representative to the Sultan of Brunei and, in that role, he discusses a wide range of bilateral issues and regional issues."

A team from BAE Systems, which has been threatening to bring arbitration proceedings in Paris against the sultan, is believed to have flown to Borneo in July in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve the patrol boats dispute. Brunei claims the vessels do not meet the required specifications, but BAE sources say there are no facilities at the local Muara naval base capable of running and maintaining such advanced ships. BAE said last night the quarrel was in arbitration and confidential.

Brunei, whose sultan is propped up by British Gurkhas, is regarded as a crucial arms sales target. The defence ministry lists Brunei as a "priority market" which may buy more than £500m of weaponry if the warships row is resolved.

Most humourous is Charles Powell's arrogant replies to the questions put to him. I'd say that the matter of how often he meets the Sultan when he's doing business with the government of my country is as much a matter of interest for myself as it is for him. Why is he needed when everything could be done by the high commisioner? Call me a conspiracy theorist, but it almost seems as if he's been appointed by the government as their own lobbyist for BAE. Coming shortly after the Guardian's other report that both Blair and John Reid have been trying to persuade the Saudis to buy £40bn worth of various arms and military equipment, it almost makes you wonder where BAE stops and the government itself starts.

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Shoot the messenger.

Reading the Grauniad on a Saturday, one of the few things you don't expect is an advert telling you to be aware of a new gun law in Florida. I personally wasn't planning on travelling to the "sunshine state", but maybe some of you were, so here's the advert:

Still seems strange that a small campaign group would decide to take out adverts warning people in a British newspaper when there's a lot more chance of actual Americans being unaware of the changes in the law. That said, I guess getting more attention on such a bad piece of legislation may well help it to be struck down or repealed. Also amusing on their site is a typical piece of Fox News distortion which they've corrected.

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Friday, October 07, 2005 

Ten al-Qaida plots stopped since 9/11 and other stories.

Various interesting stories out today about Bush, the war on terror and its malcontents. The first is that in an otherwise piss-poor speech about Iraq, Bush mentioned that 10 al-Qaida plots had been stopped since 9/11.

George Bush claimed yesterday that at least 10 al-Qaida attacks had been thwarted since September 11, including three inside the US, during an impassioned speech in which he defended the war in Iraq and the wider fight against terrorism.

The president also said the US had stopped five more attempts by terrorists to "case targets in the US or infiltrate operatives into the country".

Among the 10 plots cited by Mr Bush, and later released as a dossier after much criticism for the vagueness of his claims, were three involving UK targets. The White House referred to them as the UK urban target plot of 2004 "using explosives against a variety of sites", in the UK, but remaining unnamed; the 2003 Heathrow airport plot where "the US and several partners disrupted a plot to attack Heathrow airport using hijacked commercial airliners"; and a bombing campaign planned for spring last year said to be "large-scale". Again, the supposed targets were not specified.

I wonder if this 2003 Heathrow airport plot is related to the government's deployment of tanks outside at the time, which just happened to be in the week before the February 15th Stop the War March, which at least 1.5 million attended. We have been told little of why they were deployed, and nothing much has been spoken of it since. If it wasn't to provoke fear and to make us think that maybe war against Iraq was justified to protect us here at home, why has there been no official explanation?
It's also worth wondering whether any of those plans intercepted involve the so-called ricin gang, where only Kamel Bourgass was found guilty.

Apart from the claims of saving us from human bombs, Bush's speech went over very familiar ground. An excellent rebuttal has been written by Juan Cole, and is available here.

Of more curious interest is the press release for an upcoming BBC2 programme, which has managed to get the former Palestinian foreign minister Nabil Shaath to go on the record and reveal that Bush seems to have a rather personal relationship with God:

One of the delegates, Nabil Shaath, who was Palestinian foreign minister at the time, said: "President Bush said to all of us: 'I am driven with a mission from God'. God would tell me, 'George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan'. And I did. And then God would tell me 'George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq'. And I did."

Mr Bush went on: "And now, again, I feel God's words coming to me, 'Go get the Palestinians their state and get the Israelis their security, and get peace in the Middle East'. And, by God, I'm gonna do it."

More humourously, the article also mentions Blair and Bush supposedly praying together when they met at the Crawford ranch in 2002: something which Blair has strenuously denied. When asked by Jeremy Paxman in his main interview before the general election this year, Blair looked exasperated and angry that it had been brought up. It's true that Blair is a believer, despite Alastair Campbell's now famous remark that "we don't do God". Many have also speculated that Blair will eventually turn Catholic, away from his Anglican roots, mainly because Cherie was brought up as one.

On the Bush issue though, it's rather worrying that the leader of the free world seems to think that he is being spoken through by the Lord, or that he is carrying out God's will. While many have rightly pointed out that the atheist regimes of the 20th century were among the most brutal, you can't exactly forget the inquisition, crusades, or to be more modern, the Taliban in a hurry. Whether Bush genuinely does think that he is doing what God wants, it's always also been marketed squarely towards the religious right, the same right which has been angered this week by Bush's decision not to nominate an ideological conservative to the supreme court. Maybe this report won't do him any harm in their eyes. That said, it's worth remembering that it's the apocalyptic Baptists who believe in the reestablishment of Greater Israel, so that the second coming and armageddon will occur, that offer Bush their full support. They might not believe that it's the same God that's telling him to establish a Palestinian state.

In more heartening news, the Senate has voted to ban degrading treatment of anyone in US custody, wherever they are. However, don't expect it to be applied to Guantanamo, or to other various US outposts where terrorist suspects are being held, as the CIA has a waiver. The White House opposed it, saying it would "restrict the president's authority to protect Americans effectively from terrorist attack and bring terrorists to justice". Yep, torturing suspects and anyone you just happen to pick up off the street in Iraq helps to protect Americans. You heard it here first.

Finally, New York's subway system has been put on alert following the supposed most significant and specific threat since 9/11. This alert of course would have nothing to do with the various scandals which now appear to be engulfing the Republicans and the Bush administration, ranging from Tom DeLay, to the Valerie Plame inquiries implicating Scooter Libby and Karl Rove, up to the handling of Katrina and the Israeli spying trials. Maybe a dose of heightened awareness about the terrorist threat will make everyone forget about them.

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Hurricane who?

You'd be forgiven for not realising that a hurricane has been battering Central America with heavy rain for days now, as the coverage of the event has been non-existent. Maybe the media are all hurricaned out after both Katrina and Rita, but Stan is turning out to be much more deadly than the latter:

Rescuers are continuing their search for hundreds of people missing after mudslides caused by Tropical Storm Stan hit Central America and Mexico.

The death toll in Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and southern Mexico has reached 244 amid fears that it will rise further.

Reports from worst-hit Guatemala say hundreds are still missing. In one town alone, 40 died in a mudslide.

More rain, blocked roads and collapsed bridges are hampering rescue efforts.

Across the region, an unknown number of people remain trapped in their houses, correspondents say.

Entire villages have been completely wiped out by landslides and flash floods.

Some 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

Stan slammed ashore as a Category One hurricane in southern Mexico on Tuesday.

Despite being downgraded to a tropical depression by the end of the day, it triggered major flooding and landslides in the region.

Guatemala has so far recorded at least 146 dead.

The country's civil protection agency said 40 bodies were recovered from a town on the edge of Santiago Atitlan in the Mayan highlands, popular with Western visitors.

Reports in the local media say many people are still missing in the town.

"There are still a lot of people to be found, some 150 to 200," said Pedro Mendoza, a local taking part in rescue efforts.

"The landslide was on Wednesday but because the roads are blocked, no-one can get through to help us."

In Quezaltenango, the second most important city, people are still trapped in what remains of their homes as flood waters have reached up to two metres (6ft) high, correspondents say.

Guatemalan President Oscar Berger has asked Congress to declare a state of emergency.

In El Salvador, at least 65 people are known to have died. Officials said nearly 54,000 others had been evacuated to 370 shelters throughout the country, despite difficulties in travelling along many of the country's roads.

"The ground is saturated and we could have more tragedies," warned Salvadoran Red Cross spokesman Carlos Lopez Mendoza.

Mexico was also struck by the weather system, which has killed at least 17 people and caused at least 30 rivers to burst their banks.

The country is sending aid to El Salvador after a personal plea by Salvadoran President Tony Saca.

Mexican officials said the air force was preparing to deliver 200 metric tons of food and 30 metric tons of emergency supplies.

If over 200 had died in Rita, the coverage would have gone on for days rather than the few hours after its arrival, once it was realised that it was a lot less destructive than previously predicted. To paraphrase Kanye West, the media doesn't care about brown people.

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Thursday, October 06, 2005 

Iran supposedly supplying Iraqi insurgents with sophisticated roadside bombs.

It's that time of the month again when it's time to rattle the sabre against one of the Middle Eastern countries bordering Iraq. This month it's the turn of Iran, already in the west's black books for daring to have a nuclear programme, despite their right to have one under the nuclear proliferation treaty.

Yesterday it was a "senior British official" who claimed that the Iranians had been supplying Iraqi insurgents in the south of Iraq with infra-red roadside bombs, against which the British forces have little defence. Today it was the turn of the Dear Leader, who was giving a press conference in the company of the current Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani.

Today, Mr Blair - who admitted it was not certain that there was an Iranian connection - said he had been anxious about new kinds of explosives being used by insurgents "for some time".

"What is clear is that there have been new explosive devices used - not just against British troops but elsewhere in Iraq," he said.

"The particular nature of those devices leads us either to Iranian elements or to Hizbullah [the Tehran-backed guerilla group based in Lebanon]."

Mr Blair told Tehran not to interfere in Iraq, saying British troops were in the country with the support of the UN to help in the development of a "sovereign, democratic government".

He argued it could be the case that the "country next door" to Iraq was anxious about having a democratic neighbour, saying: "What's it going to be like if you have a free Iraq ... run by the rule of law, with a free press ... run by the will of the people?"

Not certain, but we'll blurt out that we think it's the Iranians anyway. Also of note:

There are differing views within the British intelligence community as to the level of Tehran's involvement. British military sources insisted last night there was no hard evidence that the explosives technology came from Iran. Defence sources suggested that blaming the IRGC for supplying the explosives technology was going too far. Other military officials said there was "so much expertise in Iraq" the bombs could have been made by former members of Saddam Hussein's security forces.

The difference in opinion may reflect concern on the part of the military that a sharpening confrontation with Iran could increase the chances of further attacks on British troops.

It's pretty easy to blame someone else for the troubles that you're having, as the US has demonstrated repeatedly by blaming Syria for various misdeeds. As the second report suggests, it's by no means proven that Iran has anything to do with the supplying of "insurgents" with such advanced weaponry. Iran has benefited measurably by the current situation in Iraq, and it's unlikely they would do much to alter it. As it stands, if the new constitution is passed, the Shia south will become autonomous to the same degree as the Kurdish north, leaving the Sunni triangle without oil and little else of value. The Iranian backed grouping the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is also favourite to win a majority in the south in the elections in December, if they go ahead. Why would Iran risk this happening by supplying Sunni militants? What is more likely is that the insurgency is getting more members from previous conflicts, such as in Lebanon, or they are receiving training from those veterans. Of course, it's easier to blame a country than admit that you are in danger of losing a battle.

Also worth mentioning is Blair's rather patronising comments about Iran being anxious about having a democratic neighbour. While Iran is far from having completely free and fair elections, it's also the most democratic nation in the Middle East, only challenged for that title by Palestine, who are only allowed elections when the Israelis let them.

Britain's comments on Iran also have tones of anger over the situation to do with Iran's nuclear programme, following the new president Mahmoud Ahmadinejaid's rather combatant speech at the UN. While the IAEA has referred Iran's stance to the UN Security Council, the most which will happen is that Iran will again be warned. Both China and Russia are the main recipients of Iranian oil and gas, and it's hard to expect them backing sanctions which could damage such business dealings. At the moment then, it looks like stalemate. That Israel, India and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons but neglected to sign the non-proliferation treaty doesn't matter; Iran's always been the US's enemy since the revolution of 79 which overthrew the Shah. Even if they abandoned their nuclear programme, the current administration would be not be satisfied.

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Moss dross: will it ever stop?

Once again the Sun today provided us with latest up to the minute news on Kate Moss's fascinating chemical experimentation, revealing that she's now to be arrested. Hot stuff!

Again though the Sun changed between early and late editions. Rather than the above picture, they did lead originally with the Moss story, while later editions were the above, angry no doubt that the Mirror beat them to the punch and had it as their front page splash. Only question now is whether Tom Cruise's baby turns out to be a reincarnation of Xenu.

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Wednesday, October 05, 2005 

Prisons being used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill.

Nine out of 10 male prisoners have a mental disorder, the Zahid Mubarek inquiry was told today, on the last day of hearings.

The Zito Trust, which campaigns for better care for mentally ill people, told the inquiry that "prisons have become psychiatric asylums by default".

The trust's director, Michael Howlett, said in written evidence to an inquiry seminar today on the treatment of mentally disordered prisoners, that prisons are accommodating an increasing number of people with mental disorders.

He said: "Some 90% of the current male prison population is said to be suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder."

Mr Howlett blamed the shrinking number of psychiatric beds in the NHS, leaving treatment for people with mental problems or disorders to be attempted in prisons.

"We are now trying to rectify this by implementing NHS-style strategies in institutions which are not only over-crowded, but also culturally not necessarily sympathetic or receptive," he said.

Mr Howlett said a joint report from the Home Office and the Department of Health published in 1992 had said offenders with mental disorders should be treated by health and social services, not prison.

He also said that if Zahid Mubarek's murderer, Robert Stewart, had been given therapeutic help at an early age he may not have developed a "full-blown" psychopathic personality disorder.

Stewart was given life after bludgeoning Mr Mubarek to death in the cell they shared at Feltham young offenders institution in 2000.

The inquiry chairman, Mr Justice Keith, criticised the Prison Service's failure to ensure people with mental disorders were kept in segregated wings.

He said: "The increasing size of the prison population and the prevalence of offenders with mental disorders - whether mental illnesses or personality disorders - means that the overwhelming majority of prisoners with mental disorders are kept on ordinary location."

Mr Justice Keith is now hoping to complete his inquiry report by February when it will be submitted to ministers for their consideration.

Compare to this to what was said by the leading candidate for the Tory leadership:

Mr Davis received his loudest round of applause for the declaration: "We must take back control of our own borders."

He also echoed Michael Howard's famous declaration that "prison works" and ranged over his home affairs brief to attack the government on binge drinking and the downgrading of cannabis.

Like the other would-be leaders, he attacked Gordon Brown rather than Tony Blair. Joking that the chancellor was "not the sunniest character in British politics", he claimed that Mr Brown was "driven by a socialism that is out of date, out of time and out of place in today's world".

Promising not to "blow with every gust" or "junk policies" for the sake of convenience, Mr Davis declared: "I've set a course. It's a course that can unite all sections of this party. And I also believe it's the right course for Britain."

Oh yeah, prison works. It works as a place to put the mentally ill out of sight of the general public's eye, where they're forgotten about. It's handy for a government which is only interested in improving waiting lists and prescribing SSRIs to the depressed, rather than setting up counselling centres and building new pyschiatric wards, instead of closing down the few that are remaining.

The former weekend soldier also called the decision to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug (an unarrestable offence, cautioned for first offence if openly smoking it in public) "stupid, dangerous and wrong". Yes, it was a stupid and wrong decision. It should have been decriminalised. With such men as Davis going to lead the Conservative party, Blair must be laughing. Unless the party decides to go with David Cameron (a young Etonian who wants to be the next Blair) or Kenneth Clarke (a veteran minister who if likeable and to the left of most Tories has some very dodgy business associates) then the Conservatives won't stand a chance in the 2013 election, let alone 2009.

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Media and police distortions of a brothel raid.

Remember last Friday? The main news story on the Ten O'Clock news was a raid on a massage parlour in Birmingham, where we were told that up to 20 trafficked women were being held against their will, selling their bodies for the brothel's owners. The doors were locked and there was an electric fence at the back. Shocking details, indeed. There was also the usual amount of hand-wringing, as well as demands that more be done to protect Eastern European women being brought here for sex slavery.

Just a slight problem. Turns out that 13 of those women actually had leave to remain here, and told the police they were voluntarily working in the sex industry. Of the remaining, the rest have so far said nothing of being brought here to work in the sex industry illegally, nor have they protested at being returned to their own country. Whether this is due to them being traumatised at their experience and afraid to talk to the police is an issue, however. They should be allowed to remain for now and receive support, as well as counselling.

This also raises issues of police and home office communication. The home office contends that it was police-led and not an anti-trafficking operation. If so, why did the police invite the media along to see them battering down the door of the brothel and leading the clearly frightened women out? Raiding a brothel isn't exactly an instant national news story. Was their information simply wrong and they've been too embarrassed to admit so? While the owners of the brothel have been charged for having firearms on the premises and running the place, they have as yet not been charged with anything related to trafficking. In effect, the media had made up its mind what happened before the truth was known. They believed the police and reported almost exactly what was told them. At a time when disbelief and questions clearly need to be voiced, the last thing we need is for the BBC to start believing every word they are told, whether it's by someone in a uniform or not.

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Former UDA leader murdered.

Detectives investigating the murder of former loyalist leader Jim Gray have arrested six people, police have said.

Detective Superintendent George Hamilton said the arrests followed a number of searches.

He said that the involvement of the Ulster Defence Association was a "major line of inquiry" in the investigation.

Gray, 47, the flamboyant former leader of the UDA in east Belfast, was shot outside his father's house on the Clarawood estate in the city.

Gray was expelled from the illegal organisation last March.

He was recently released on bail on charges of money laundering, and was living at his father's home in Knockwood Park while awaiting his court appearance.

He was shot behind a car parked outside the house on Tuesday night at about 2000 BST.

DS Hamilton said Gray had been warned that he was under threat since his release on bail.

Yeah, another man murdered in the loyalist feud which has been consuming Belfast for at least 2 months now. Again, expect mostly a silence from the Unionist leadership on the problems within its own community, while they'll still be happy to condemn the IRA for a "cover-up" over their arms decommisioning.

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Tuesday, October 04, 2005 

Bush picks completely unknown quantity for supreme court.

Bush seems to have picked a blinder for the newly available seat on the US supreme court, left open following Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement. Harriet Miers is unknown to almost everyone in America apart from the minority of politics nerds. She's been with Bush for over 20 years, first as his lawyer and then as a lottery chief. It follows the pattern of him picking buddies and old acquaintances for various jobs in government. Most of all though, no one properly knows what her politics are.

While Harriet Miers has obviously worked for Bush and is said to be solidly conservative, there is very little to go on as to know what her views on such litmus issues as state powers, abortion and affirmative action are. She has donated money to both the Republicans and Democrats, including to the Al Gore 2000 campaign. The only slight blot she has is that she supported a call for a referendum in the American Bar Association to reconsider its view on abortion rights. Apart from that, she's almost entirely clean.

She has already though stirred controversy on both left and right. The left are rather critical that she has never served as judge, although William Rehnquist also had not served as a judge before being appointed to the supreme court. That doesn't really allay their concerns though, as Rehnquist himself was thought to be a centrist who moved sharply to the far right. The right wanted an ideological conservative which would have swayed the balance of the court. They don't seem to realise that the Democrats would have done everything in their power to stop such a divisive appointment, and would likely have succeeded. Instead, Bush has rather cleverly chosen a candidate who will get through the hearings and be appointed unopposed. She can say whatever crap she likes in front of the Senate; there's not much they can do once she's on the supreme court. This isn't to say that Harriet Miers is definitely right wing. Such a pick would cause an already split nation another round of culture wars. We'll see what happens, but the best thing to hope for is that Bush has made the right decision in keeping the supreme court balanced, as the United States itself is.

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UK approaches Libya over deportation agreements.

Another day, another country with a poor human rights record is cosied up to by Labour so that alleged terrorist suspects can be deported from this septic isle:

The Guardian has established that Britain and the Gadafy regime have begun talks to reach an agreement which would allow Libyans deemed by the UK to be a terrorist threat to be returned there.

Libya has been accused by Amnesty International of having a poor human rights record, including using torture and the death penalty, and Britain will not officially confirm that the talks are taking place. Friends of the Libyan man arrested yesterday say that he is an opponent of the Gadafy regime and fears ill-treatment if deported to Libya.

Diplomatic sources said the negotiations began in August and that it was the UK that approached Libya to reach a memorandum of understanding.

Yesterday's raids were led by immigration officers supported by the police, and was the third such round-up of suspects since August. One man was arrested in London, another in Cardiff and three in the West Midlands. Anti-terrorism officers later executed search warrants at the addresses the men were arrested at.

The foreign nationals were detained using the home secretary's powers to deport those whose presence in Britain is deemed "not conducive to the public good".

A source described all five as being of "Middle Eastern" origin, and they were being held while the government tries to find a way of deporting them. It is understood that some were being held at Long Lartin prison, the same jail where some Algerians arrested under similar powers last month are being held.

The Foreign Office would not say whether it was negotiating with Libya. It recently reached an agreement allowing Britain to deport a Jordanian national suspected of terrorism, despite concerns about Jordan's human rights record. Under the agreement Jordan promised not to ill-treat anyone returned under the terms of the memorandum.

Yesterday's raids are part of a government crackdown on alleged Islamic extremists after the July 7 attacks on London. Ten people were detained for deportation in August, and a fortnight ago seven more people were detained. They included four Algerians cleared of involvement in a plot to use ricin poison.

Amnesty International said torture was "widely reported during incommunicado detention" in Libya last year and "security forces detain people arbitrarily for political reasons, holding them incommunicado for long periods without charge. Prisoners of conscience are also held."

For years the Gadafy regime was ostracised by the west. Relations between Libya and Britain improved after Tripoli allowed its nationals to stand trial for the Lockerbie bombing.

Yep, Britain wants to send back foreign nationals from here to the country run by the Mad Dog, as Ronald Reagan memorably described Colonel Gadafy. Libya has experienced something of a thaw in relations with the US and UK since they gave up their "weapons of mass destruction" programs at the end of 2003. Libya also agreed to pay compensation to victims of the Lockerbie bombing, despite many, including the late Paul Foot, who argued that Libya had nothing to do with it.

Despite all that, Libya is still undoubtedly practicing torture and carries out routine crackdowns on dissidents. For Britain to keep opening up contacts with countries such as these to get rid of suspects who could be tried here if they could be bothered to adjust the law is really scraping the bottom of the barrel. Will we next be sending dissidents back to Saudi Arabia, as part of a deal for the Saudis to buy £40 billion worth of armaments from us? Oh wait, we're probably about to do that too.

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Sun-watch: allegations of celebrity worship.

I'll admit, today isn't the biggest news day ever. Yesterday though had talks on Turkey being admitted to the EU and a nurse winning the right to a breast cancer treatment costing £20,000 a year on the NHS. It was also the start of the Conservative party conference, which this year is little more than an excuse to tell each other how crap they are while deciding who to pick to lead them to defeat at the next general election. Overseas George Bush picked a personal aide who has never been a judge as his pick to replace Sandra Day O'Connor. This is not to forget the continuing anguish and searching for those responsible for the bombings in Bali.

So, out of all those stories, what did the leading tabloid newspaper in this country decide to have as its front page?

Yep, that's right. It chose to have Jade Goody, a contestant from the third series of Big Brother who didn't even win, being falsely arrested for shoplifting from a supermarket. I'm assuming that was an earlier edition front page though once it realised that Jade was in the clear, as the front page on their site is the below:

Yep, instead of Jade they then decided to go with George Best, a permanently drunk idiot ex-footballer who has once again been admitted to hospital. A great replacement.

The stupidity isn't confined to the front pages though; the Sun appears to be supporting Liam Fox as the Tory party leader, the one furthest to the right who seems to want to follow neo-conservative ideology to the letter. Whether this is a ploy by Murdoch to support the most unelectable candidate so that his pal Tony can step down as prime minister on a high note isn't known.

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Monday, October 03, 2005 


The image of the bombers severed heads is here.

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Moss dross continues in advert form.

A big thanks to Sky television (Prop. R. Murdoch) for taking out numerous full page adverts in newspapers today for their no doubt exciting and thrilling programme on what substance is currently inside Kate Moss's nose. Here's the one from the back page of the Grauniad:

Unfortunately I don't receive Sky One, but I bet those of you who do will be tuning in post haste.

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Five more foreign nationals held as "not conducive to public good".

Five foreign men were today facing expulsion from Britain after being detained in the latest operation aimed at people deemed to be a threat to national security.

The men were held in dawn raids led by the Immigration Service and backed by police this morning in London, the West Midlands and south Wales.

They are being held under the home secretary's powers, under the Immigration Act 1971, to deport individuals whose presence in the UK is not "conducive to the public good".

The latest operation brings the total number of men who have been detained under the act in recent months to 30. Seven men were detained under the same powers on September 15 and another 10 were detained on August 11.

The home secretary, Charles Clarke, has said that he will use his powers to expel foreign-born "preachers of hate" and other individuals considered dangerous to national security.

The operations are part of a government crackdown on extremists following the July 7 bombings in London by Islamist militants, which killed 56 people.

Some human rights lawyers have expressed fears that some of the men face being deported to countries with poor human rights records. The government says it is working on securing memorandums of understanding with countries where the men are from so that they can be returned safely.

After today's raids, the Home Office refused to disclose the names of the men who were held.

A Home Office spokesman said: "The Immigration Act 1971 gives powers to deport individuals, and to detain them pending deportation. The Immigration Service has detained the five foreign nationals on this basis."

The spokesman said the men would be held in secure prison service accommodation.

If these men are such a threat to society that they need to be deported, it would be nice if the Home Office at least informed us who they are. How many more is No Trousers Charlie thinking of locking up? It also has still not been explained why these men cannot be tried in this country, or why what they are accused of doing cannot be disclosed. Not conducive to the public good is not an explanation, it's an excuse.

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Stop treating us like morons.

A team of doctors will today accuse Hollywood of irresponsibility over its portrayal of sex and drugs after a review of some of the biggest blockbusters from the last 20 years showed that only one movie made reference to a condom.

None of the top 200 films promoted safe sex, and nobody ended up with an unwanted pregnancy or any infection.

The doctors, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, say filmmakers should reflect the real consequences of unsafe sex and illicit drug use in their work.

"The movie industry influences the perception of billions of people around the world," said Hasantha Gunasekera from the school of public health at Sydney University. "With globalisation and the growth of home-based media technologies, movies are more accessible to a wider audience and there is convincing evidence that the entertainment media influences behaviour."

Dr Gunasekera and his two co-authors, Simon Chapman and Sharon Campbell, studied the top 200 movies of all time, as listed on the Internet Movie Database in March 2004. The researchers excluded any movie filmed before 1983, the pre-HIV era. They also excluded animated features, those not about humans and any films rated acceptable for children. That left 87 films, in which there were 53 episodes of sex. Only once in those sex scenes did a condom feature, and that was a reference to birth control, they say. In 98% of sexual episodes, which could have resulted in pregnancy, no form of birth control was used or suggested.

"The study showed there were no references to important consequences of unsafe sex such as HIV transmission, spread of STDs or unwanted pregnancy," said Dr Gunasekera. "The social norm being presented in movies is concerning, given the HIV and illicit drug pandemics in developing and industrialised countries.

"The motion picture industry should be encouraged to depict safer sex practices and the real consequences of unprotected sex and illicit drug use."

The paper points out that 40 million people in the world are living with HIV/Aids, according to the World Health Organisation. "Addressing this problem in part requires population behaviour change relating to unsafe sexual practices and injected drug use," it says. "Observation of influential role models and the consequences of their actions affects our behaviour."

Bottom of the league came Basic Instinct (1992), American Pie (2001) and the Bond film Die Another Day (2002). Basic Instinct has six episodes of sex with no condoms used, no birth control and no public health consequences. American Pie has seven sex scenes, all involving new partners with no condoms or birth control measures. The "only consequences were social embarrassment", the report says. Die Another Day has three sex episodes, all with new partners, "no condoms, no birth control, no consequences at all".

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I thought that cinema was there as a form of escapism from the reality of everyday life. This condescending report by doctors seems to forget this entirely and wags the finger at everyone involved, as well as those of us who watch. As well as not using condoms when having sex, most characters in films also don't use the toilet and can smoke without getting cancer, to name just two.

The study and warning would carry more weight if it was addressed at films concering children, but it isn't. Of the three films mentioned, Basic Instinct has an 18 certificate, American Pie a 15 and Die Another Day a 12. By coincedence all three of the films are also crap, but I don't suppose that matters. If my memory serves correctly, the opening scene of Basic Instinct involves Sharon Stone's character killing a sexual partner while in the act with a knife. Not sure how that fits on their safe sex scale. Perhaps we should be warned not to have sex with Sharon Stone with any sharp objects in the vicinity.

By the time you're an adult or at least 15 you should know full well the dangers of unsafe sex and drugs, mainly because you should have been educated about them at school, let alone by your parents. For a group of doctors to then assume that the majority of population are idiots who believe everything that happens in films is real or risk free is rather patronising. That said, the amount of people who seem to believe that the Da Vinci Code is the gospel truth must disapprove my reasoning a little. Still, it's about time those who think they know better kept their nose out of what adults watched and let us get on with it. Treating people like idiots doesn't achieve anything.

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Saturday, October 01, 2005 

Bali bombing kills at least 22.

2 days after I post saying that no major "al-Qaida" targets have been hit twice, Bali has become the scene of another terrorist attack. Next time I'll keep my mouth shut. Condolences and sympathy to those injured and the relatives of the dead:

Bomb attacks on two busy tourist areas on the Indonesian resort island of Bali have killed at least 22 people.

About 50 others were injured in at least three blasts which took place just before 2000 local time (1200 GMT).

Two blasts occurred at Jimbaran - a seaside area packed with restaurants. Another was at Kuta beach, the area most popular with Western tourists.

In October 2002, bomb attacks blamed on Islamic extremists killed 202 people in Kuta, among them many foreign tourists.

Local TV has been showing pictures of people with terrible injuries and collapsed buildings.

A hospital official told Reuters news agency that at least 35 wounded foreigners had been taken to the island's main hospital.

Local media said the police had found a number of other unexploded devices.

The exact number of blasts, which happened almost simultaneously, was not clear. Some witnesses said they heard at least two explosions at each location.

A British tourist who was in a building next door to a restaurant that was hit in Kuta said there was a "thunderous boom" that caused all the shop's windows to blow out.

"It was just chaos," Daniel Martin told the BBC.

He said there were people lying in the streets with serious injuries, with everyone pitching in to help.

Journalist Maris Bakkalupulo went to the scene of the Kuta blast, and saw a noodle shop that had been badly damaged.

"It's completely gutted," she told the BBC. "Everything has been blasted out of the building, which is very mangled."

Another tourist in Bali, Anthony Brearley from Australia, said he heard two explosions in Kuta.

"I think the locals still think it's a gas explosion. I think they genuinely think it couldn't happen again," he told the BBC News website.

"All the Australian people automatically thought 'bombs', and they were gone.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has said at least one Australian was killed and three injured.

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has condemned the blasts.

"These are clearly terrorist attacks because the targets were random and public places," he said.

"We will hunt down the perpetrators and bring them to justice."


The blasts come less than two weeks before the third anniversary of bomb attacks that killed 202 people - many of them foreigners holidaying in Bali.

The 12 October 2002 bombings have been blamed on Jemaah Islamiah (JI), - a south-east Asian militant group which is said to have links with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network.

JI is also suspected of being behind a suicide bombing at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 11 people in 2003, and a suicide bombing at the Australian embassy last September in which eight people were killed.

The BBC's Tim Johnston in Jakarta says the authorities had warned that militants had been planning further attacks on Western targets in Indonesia, although there had been no particular alerts over the past few days.

It's also worth mentioning here that at least 150 have died in Iraq over the past few days. I doubt they'll get the a similar amount of coverage to what this will.

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"Scandal" over lottery rapist.

Tabloid hysteria has been building for a while over the case of the unfortunately named Iorworth Hoare, who purchased a winning lottery ticket while he was on day release from prison, serving a sentence for attempted rape. He also had previous convictions for sex crimes. He won 7 million pounds. As soon as news of this came to light, there were predictable calls for him to not receive the money, and less unfair calls for him to donate at least part of it to charity, a move which would have been a gesture to show he was ashamed of his crimes and had repented. As far as I'm aware no donation was made. He should be forced to donate some, at least compensating his victims if they were not.

The Sun, favourite newspaper of this blog, managed to finally gain a scoop yesterday when it published details of where the man is now living having been released, as well as the revelation that apparently the cost of keeping him under surveillance and housing him is costing £10,000 a month. In addition they printed photos of his house and of the man himself walking around in the town centre.

That it is costing the taxpayer £10,000 a month to house him is undoubtedly in the public interest. What is not in the public interest is publishing photographs of his house or revealing where he lives to the country as a whole. The man has now already been moved following the Sun's story, using taxpayers money, such as my own. Thanks Rebekah Wade, I appreciate it. As this BBC story shows, Hoare would have visited by probation officers regularly, monitored and local schools and employers would have been made aware. In short, he was happily being contained in the community. Thanks to the Sun, this has all been put under threat.

Iorworth Hoare should be paying for the protection and services which he receiving, especially seeing as it is rumoured he is making £30,000 a month just in interest on his winnings. Once again though the Sun has gone beyond the realm of responsible journalism, not only putting a man who has served his time, whatever crimes he has committed in danger, but also costing the public more money thanks to the unnecessary intervention. They could have simply published the story saying that he was costing the public £10,000 a month without revealing where he lived. They chose not to.

Also worthy of criticism is "Women in Need" director Clare Philipson, who said she was delighted the Hoare's identity had been revealed. Perhaps she should take into consideration the recent panic in Northampton, with police warning that there were a gang of African rapists who had abducted and attempted to rape at least two young women. It now turns out that one of the women has been charged with wasting police time, and another is likely to be. Not only did these women waste police time, they worried thousands of women, who as a result were extra vigilant, scared or stayed home, and no doubt also stoked racial tension.

Clare Philipson also said that "Too often the criminal justice system protects the offenders and I do not believe that is what the public wants." Thanks for telling us what the public wants Clare. If we believed everyone who said they know what the public wants, then the News of the World would still be printing the photographs of alleged paedophiles on its front page, as it did under the editorship of Rebekah Wade, which led to a paediatrician being savagely beaten in a case of mistaken identity. Presumably Clare also wants all rapists to be castrated or hung up by the bollocks. Rape is a horrific crime which can lead to victims wishing they had actually been murdered. The conviction and reporting rate in this country is appalling, and needs to be drastically improved. Many offenders are without doubt getting away with it. However, those who are convicted need to rebuild their lives once they have paid the punishment for their crime, and revealing their identities and where they live in a national newspaper is not the way to go about doing that.

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