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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