Saturday, March 11, 2006 

John Profumo: The sad case of being born in the wrong era.

The death yesterday of John Profumo has elicited a huge amount of prose around scandals involving politicians (and now I'm going to add to it. Hurr). Probably the original real scandal involving a high-ranking cabinet minister, the Profumo case had it all: spies, call girls, suicide and the eventual fall of a government. Rather than focus on the now arcane events of the 60s, it's perhaps better to compare Profumo's tragedy with latter-day scandals.

The most obvious recent sex scandal (apart from Mark Oaten's, which I will come to (stop sniggering)) is that of dear old Dave Blunkett. A man who had married and divorced, he was sucked in by the charisma and personality of Kimberley Quinn, former publisher of the Spectator, a right-wing political weekly. Apparently on first meeting her, she wondered aloud what it was like making love to a blind man. What followed was to become an infatuation for Blunkett, but just seemingly another bit on the side for Quinn, who was also having sexual relationships with her husband, Stephen Quinn, the Guardian sketch writer/wine columnist for the Spectator, Simon Hoggart, and with an unknown man who fathered her most recent child. Other relationships may well have also taken place. Unlike Profumo, in 2004 when the relationship became common knowledge, Blunkett was not being called to resign, despite having an affair with a married woman. Indeed, what was once fodder for all the newspapers had become something of a pursuit for the tabloids, with both the Guardian and Independent not covering the story, saying that as it didn't affect Blunkett's work as Home Secretary that it wasn't in the public interest.

That changed in late 2004 when allegations arose of impropriety involving Quinn's nanny's visa, and that it had been fast-tracked. Denied by Blunkett, an investigation uncovered an email related to the visa which had among its contents "no special favours, .. but a bit quicker". Blunkett continued to deny any wrong-doing, but he resigned and the report found that it was likely even if he hadn't been involved in speeding up the process, then the fact it was related to him may well have led to it being processed quicker. At the same time Blunkett found himself in a battle with Quinn over her child, the relationship having ended. It was soon disclosed the Blunkett was indeed the father. Quinn at the time was pregnant again, although this child turned out to be neither Blunkett's nor her husband's. (Nor was it Simon Hoggart's, for the record.)

Blunkett, with Blair still claiming he had done no wrong, was swiftly returned as Works and Pensions minister following the Labour election victory in May. Yet he remained hounded by the press, and was likely the victim of a honeypot trap plot by the News of the World and Mail on Sunday, involving Max Clifford. What then emerged was his dodgy dealings with a company called DNA Bioscience, which he had briefly joined the board of and bought shares in. Claiming this was to help offset the court costs from his parental rights battle with Quinn, and that again, despite the company being involved with bidding for government contracts, and having failed to consult the committee for business appointments over his dealings, he said he had forgot and that he was again innocent. He resigned, although whether he was pushed by Blair or simply gave in to the pressure from the press and opposition MPs is not known for certain.

What is all this leading to? Well, Profumo's mistake was to lie to parliament. He more or less denied having a relationship with Christine Keeler, saying there was "no impropriety in their acquaintanceship". He was subsequently exposed with having a 4 month affair with the woman, behind the back of his actor wife Valerie Hobson. He resigned from both the government and parliament, and lived out the rest of his life working for Toynbee Hall, a charitable organisation.

Whether Profumo would have had to resign in the same circumstances today is uncertain. While lying to parliament is still a resignable offence, as it should be, it's uncertain whether the opposition parties or sections of the press would push for it seeing as it regarded a personal and private matter. Compared to Blunkett's travails, with Blair still claiming he has done nothing wrong, despite twice resigning having misled parliament involving government matters and business dealings, Profumo seems positively clean. What is Blunkett up to now? Why, he writes for the Sun as a happily paid up member of Murdoch's minions, and he still resides in his grace and favour home in Belgravia, provided by Mr T. Blair. (Update: Blunkett has now apparently finally moved out.)

Perhaps more comparable then is the even more recent case of Mark Oaten, who never deceived parliament in any way, but who resigned as shadow home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats following the revelation in the News of the World that he had sex with a male prostitute. While it was probably best that he did resign, as it would have been a distraction during the Lib Dem leadership campaign, he has a right to feel aggrieved at a "newspaper" which has become nicknamed the News of the Screws thanks to its dedication to printing the tales of the sex lives of the rich and famous. Profumo also looks like an angel compared to the late Tory politician Alan Clark, who infamously had his way with both a mother and her two daughters, whom he nicknamed in his diaries "the covern". Clark also had a sexual relationship with at least one other women while his wife, referred to throughout his deliriously enjoyable diaries as "darling Janey", forever stuck by him.

What it comes down to then is that John Profumo was sadly born in the wrong era. The 1960s sexual revolution was only just beginning as he resigned, although both the pill and Lady Chatterley obscenity trial had been and gone. Profumo was cut down, and lived out the rest of his life devoted to charity, ashamed of his weakness to temptation. His legacy, as alluded to by the last paragraph in the Guardian obituary, may well be that he voted in 1940 against his own party, a vote which led to the downfall of Chamberlain and the arrival of Churchill as prime minister.

Profumo didn't deserve what happened to him. Perhaps the lesson from his resignation should be that while sexual indiscretion is none of anyone's business other than one's relatives and spouse, political manipulation should still be treated as harshly now as then, an idea that Tessa Jowell and Tony Blair have certainly not ascribed to.

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Friday, March 10, 2006 

The result of more "choice".

Government ministers, especially those in charge of the public services, have had only one thing on their mind of late: choice. Whether the idea started off in focus groups, came from industry or was dreamt up in-house isn't known; what is known that it isn't going at all smoothly.

Take today's report in the British Medical Journal - Angus Wallace, a professor of orthopaedic and accident surgery at Nottingham University writes that the NHS is having to correct dodgy work done by independent sector treatment centres (ISTCs):

"the number of patients we are seeing with problems resulting from poor surgery - incorrectly inserted prostheses, technical errors and infected joint replacements - is too great."

Many overseas surgeons, he says, "have been asked to carry out joint replacement operations that they have never seen or done before". Many of the centres have contracts to buy just one type of artificial joint - but sometimes it is one that the surgeon has no experience in using.

"It is quite clear that this has occurred with inadequate training of both the surgeons and the operating theatre staff and as a consequence there have been several serious errors - joint replacements put in without bone cement when bone cement was essential for that joint replacement, the use of the incorrect size heads (ball) for a hip joint replacement, etc," he writes.

It is hard to know how many operations are going wrong, Prof Wallace told the Guardian, but it is clear there are problems that ought to be investigated.

"We expect failures of hip replacements at approximately 1% a year and knees at about 1.5% a year. But we have got some of the ISTCs that are looking at 20% failure rates," he said.

The British Orthopaedic Association has submitted two dossiers of cases to the Department of Health, its president, Ian Leslie, told the Guardian. The first went to then deputy chief medical officer Aidan Halligan about 16 months ago and the second was submitted nine months ago.

"Although they investigated, it hasn't made much difference to our concerns," he said. "The difficulty is getting hold of the information from the ISTCs. We don't know how many patients are being done in the treatment centres."

But in two centres where the figures have been examined the failure rate was significantly higher than in NHS hospitals - at a diagnostic and treatment centre in Weston-super-Mare it was three times the NHS rate and in Cheltenham it was something like 10 times the rate, he said.

At an inquiry by the Commons health select committee yesterday, Royal College of Surgeons president Bernard Ribeiro said the government policy in establishing the treatment centres was "to win elections and to get waiting lists down".

Extra theatre time for hip and knee replacements had indeed been needed, he said. "The government gave us capacity through ISTC but somewhere down the line it lost the plot. In developing ISTC it is challenging the NHS."

These "independent" centres (jargon for private) were set-up with the idea that they could help take some of the workload off the NHS. While in some cases they have done that, the contracts that were drawn up had a specific number of operations that they were to perform. Since some patients have been suspicious (rightly, it seems) of these centres, not all of the operation numbers have been actually carried out. Despite this, the NHS has still paid the centres for the number originally agreed. So not only are these centres getting money for work they haven't done, but some of the work is having to be carried out again because it's been done badly the first time. This is without going into the realisation that doctors are still being poached from overseas to work at these centres - often from the developing world which is in dire need of its college graduates staying on.

The choice agenda so far hasn't had the effect the government thought it would have on the general public - they imagined it would be embraced, and as a result of patients going to other hospitals than their local, drive up standards. Instead patients are opting to stay local, which is what the unions said from when the plans were first mooted. People don't seem to want to travel even longer distances to receive essential treatment; they want it nearby. What the choice agenda may instead achieve is actually the closure of hospitals that don't manage to improve. The trusts which are slipping into debt, thanks to both overspending and PFI deals are likely to get hit even harder as a result of the government's reform plans.

The sacking this week of the chief executive Nigel Crisp, who was subsequently rewarded with a life peerage courtesy of Mr Blair, most likely to shut him up, was because of the failure both by himself and ministers to stem the huge shortfalls. The debts haven't stopped Patricia Hewitt's plans to keep introducing her reform plans at breakneck speed, despite indications that they are also part of the problem and are demoralising staff. She has already said that there will be no new cash to bail out the failing trusts, which are now planning to make deep cuts in order to balance the books. While only a quarter are in debt and those are mostly in the wealthier south, the real terror is if it starts happening in the North, in Labour's heartlands.

The whole current running of the NHS, and contracting out of operations to the private sector, as well as the PFI initiative in building new hospitals needs urgently to be rethought to stop that from happening.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006 

What's next? Having to be a member of Labour to stand for parliament?

You have to hand it to New Labour, they really have turned out to the best party ever at managing to dilute the influence of parliament, or well, at least having a go at trying. Not content with the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, which may well give ministers the power to amend any act of parliament they feel like without boring old parliament having to approve it, now Geoff "Buff" Hoon is trying to stop MPs from asking so many damn questions.

We of course know why the government wants to able to limit the amount of annoying questions from some MPs'. An obvious example is the incredibly belated acknowledgment that CIA jets have indeed landed in this country, despite the government denying that any such thing had ever happened since the first reports last September. Add to this the questions which lead to uncomfortable statistics being laid bare, and even the familiar answer that answering the given question could only be done at "disproportionate cost", the equivalent of a Glaswegian kiss, which is after all, embarrassing.

At a time when the Power commission reported that the centralising of power is turning people off politics the country over, only a truly arrogant government would continue to move in exactly the opposite direction to that which was recommended. New Labour, under Blair, and most likely even under Brown, ticks all those boxes.

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de Menezes: Is Ian Blair being set up as the fall guy?

Today's report in the Guardian further deepens the whole culture of secrecy which has surrounded the inquiry into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. On the surface, the point being made seems simple enough: that Sir Ian Blair did indeed know more earlier than he has ever let on about the man's death.

An official inquiry into the Stockwell tube station shooting has received evidence from senior police officers raising questions about Sir Ian Blair's account of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes and its aftermath, the Guardian has learned.

The commissioner of the Metropolitan police has repeatedly said that he was unaware that the victim was not a suicide bomber until 24 hours after the Brazilian was shot on July 22 2005, a day after several attempted attacks on the London transport system by terrorists. But several witnesses have told the Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry that senior officers feared within hours of the shooting that the wrong man had been killed after being mistaken for a terrorist.

The witnesses, who were inside Scotland Yard's headquarters on July 22, have told the IPCC that on the day of the shooting planning and discussion took place based on the assumption that an innocent man had been killed.

Mr de Menezes was killed on a tube train at around 10am on Friday, July 22, by officers who believed that he was a terrorist who had tried to attack London's transport system the day before. But one senior police source told the IPCC that by that afternoon, top officers were working on the assumption that "we got the wrong person ... we better plan around this being a mistake." Another source inside the Met's headquarters that day said every senior officer he spoke to believed that Mr de Menezes was not a terrorist: "I don't know how Ian could not have known."

The IPCC will now assess if the accounts from the witnesses are accurate and can be reconciled with Sir Ian's assertions and any evidence backing him.

Around midday on July 22, Sir Ian tried to block the IPCC investigation, writing to the Home Office to say that he feared an inquiry would hamper the hunt for the bombers. Just after 3.30pm that day, Sir Ian addressed a press conference and told reporters: "This operation was directly linked to the ongoing terrorist investigation ... the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions."

Then you start wondering about the whole thing. I find it very difficult to believe that the officers who shot de Menezes didn't know within minutes, let alone hours, that they had killed an innocent man. No doubt they would have quickly relayed their concerns to the higher-ups, mostly likely Cressida Dick to begin with. Why else would the witnesses on the day give such wrong accounts of what happened to the media, unless they were either Met plants or paid off by the police? This seems even more likely when you consider witness statements to the actual IPCC report, which were a lot more accurate when it came to what actually happened.

While Sir Ian Blair's response to the shooting was to try to stop any inquiry, there is no indication as of yet that he did so in anything but good faith, honestly believing that the hunt for the failed bombers would be much more important than an inquiry into the shooting of what he then, according to his own account, believed was one of the bombers. We can argue about the merits of doing so, but there's nothing to suggested that he was doing so to stop the truth from coming out. Why else would he have gone out at 3:30, 3 and a half hours later, if he already knew that an innocent man has been killed? Even if efforts by other sections of the police were taking place to cover up the shooting, as evidenced by the "witnesses" and Special Branch forging of the record of what happened, there is nothing other than the words of these sources to show that Ian Blair lied.

So why would Sir Ian Blair be set up as the fall guy for the mistakes of the officers lower down his command? Even before his recent gaffe over the Soham girls, when he said no one could understand why they had received such coverage, there had been reports that a lot of officers within the Met felt he was a politically correct idiot. While the former Met commissioner John Stevens was not a man of old school, his News of the Screws column (calling for capital punishment for police killers and for tougher sentences for burglars, especially after one went through his wife's underwear draw) shows that he was by no means a liberal. There seems to be a fair amount of people within Scotland Yard who want him out, and they may well have seen the IPCC report into his own behaviour as a possibility to fulfill their plan.

This isn't to say that Ian Blair is innocent in all of this. It seems officers below him knew quite well that an innocent man had been murdered well before he apparently did. Either they weren't keeping him informed and he is outside the chain of direct command, or he knew and has been lying from the very beginning. I find the latter difficult to believe, especially when it seems that he's a lot smarter than to be involved in a hasty cover-up which would be unraveled within 24 hours. He is still responsible for the Met not correcting the witness reports to the media, and for the Met's own original mistakes in saying that the man had refused to obey police instructions. As the head, he is still also responsible for the whole process, as described by one source as a "complete and utter fuck-up". This doesn't necessarily mean that he should resign because of those colossal errors, which must now be learned from. It seems to me that the lower chains of command are those that made the most hideous and heinous mistakes, and may well yet be exposed for making the decision to kill someone who turned out to be an innocent man as a message to the tabloids that the police really were taking action.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006 

de Menezes: "Complete and utter fuck-up" policy doesn't need to be changed.

Occasionally, there are decisions made by public bodies which seem so out of step with both public opinion and common sense that you wonder whether the board is actually trying to be deliberately provocative. The Association of Chief Police Officers have decided that Operation Kratos, the shoot-to-kill policy which led to the murder of an innocent man, doesn't need to be substantially changed or even abolished; rather the police just simply have to give the public a clearer explanation of such tactics.

The policy of shooting-to-kill was never discussed in parliament, nor were the public made aware of it until it was actually used. It came about after intelligence training, in which the Met visited both Israel and Russia, both countries which have had to deal with suicide bombers. Since then Israeli spokesmen have repudiated the apparent British approach. They have said that de Menezes would never have been shot in Israel in the circumstances in which he was at Stockwell; before any force is discharged the police have to be next to certain that they are dealing with a bomber. Moreover, ever since the death of Menezes police have continuously said that a suspected bomber has to be shot in the head, as a shot elsewhere may either trigger the explosives or still allow the bomber to do so. The Israelis do not carry out such a policy - they are more concerned with disarming the bomber than making sure that the bomber receives a kill shot.

But none of this even really matters to the de Menezes case. The fact of the matter is that just before the shots were repeatedly fired into his head, de Menezes had been tackled and his hands were behind his back. There was no way he could have triggered any explosives. Despite this, the CO19 officer still fired 11 shots, 7 of which hit him in the head, while at least 1 hit his shoulder.

We still do not properly know what happened in full detail on the 22nd of July, as the Crown Prosecution Service is still deciding whether any officers will be charged for their actions, and even then, the IPCC report is unlikely to be released until the end of any trial. The ACPO report then is both premature, likely to be used to quash any debate surrounding the policy and has been released, rather suspiciously on the day in which a BBC Panorama programme is to be screened investigating both the events of the day and the decisions behind Operation Kratos. It seems like yet another surrender to the tabloids, one of which has even suggested that all police officers should have immunity from prosecution when they use their weapons under any circumstances. Then again, when in the case of Harry Stanley, two firearms officers got off scot-free for shooting a man in the back when he was holding a chair-leg in a plastic bag, maybe the police already have it.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006 

Rendition: Compare and contrast.

The government last night admitted for the first time that aircraft suspected of being used by the CIA to transport detainees to secret interrogation centres had landed at British military airfields.

After months of refusing to answer questions from MPs or the media, it disclosed that two aircraft known to have been chartered by the CIA landed 14 times at RAF Northholt, west London, and RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire between October 2003 and May 2004.

One aircraft, a Boeing 737, was registered N313P, the other, a Gulfstream, was initially registered N379P and later as N8068V.

The flights were disclosed by Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, in a letter to Sir Menzies Campbell, newly elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. Last week, the Liberal Democrats threatened to report the minister to the parliamentary ombudsman if he continued to refuse to answer detailed questions about flights suspected of being used for "extraordinary rendition" - the practice of sending detainees to camps where they were at risk of being tortured.

Sir Menzies was among a number of MPs of all parties, including Andrew Tyrie - the Conservative MP for Chichester who has set up a special parliamentary committee to investigate the flights - who have tabled questions about the flights since the Guardian published details of them last September.

In their replies, ministers have said that they either have no record of CIA flights since 1998, when they received four requests from the Clinton administration, or that records it might once have had had since been destroyed.

In his letter last night, Mr Ingram did not say the aircraft were used by the CIA, but the government has never denied they were. Mr Ingram also did not describe the purpose of the flights.

He insisted his disclosure was not "at odds with the foreign secretary's statements on the subject". Jack Straw has said that the government is "unaware" of any CIA flights landing in Britain or using UK airspace since 1998 and transporting terrorist suspects.

JACK STRAW : ...Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea. I do not think it would be justified. While we are on this point, Chairman, can I say this? Some of the reports which are given credibility, including one this morning on the Today programme, are in the realms of the fantastic.

Both the N313P and N8068V were named as visiting those RAF bases last December in the Guardian:

Seems strange that it has since then taken 3 months for the government to admit to that simple fact. Neither plane has been directly linked to known rendition flights, but both are known CIA jets. It's quite possible that there is an innocent explanation for their visits to those RAF bases, but if so, why has the government refused to admit to them visiting for so long? Has the government not been able to establish the purpose of the flights, or if it has, why has it not given the additional information which would clear them from being involved in rendition?

If we are not and have not been involved in rendition, full stop, as Jack Straw angrily told the foreign affairs committee, why has the government been so slow in giving any information at all about flights that have been identified by numerous sources now as landing in this country, whether simply for refueling or otherwise? Until the government is honest with us, it seems prudent to give "conspiracy theories" a thorough examination.

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Sun-watch: Yet more Moss dross.

On a day when you would have thought that the Sun would go with the much more tabloid-friendly story of the 11-year-old girl being raped in a supermarket, we are instead for the second day running treated to a front-page story about publicity starved Kate Moss. According to the Scum, she smuggled a "date-rape" drug inside a Faberge egg. They don't explain how or why this is front page news, but that's to be expected. The amount of coverage which this worthless woman has had over the last 6 months makes me wonder whether it really all is a Max Clifford inspired conspiracy. If I never see the woman or hear about her again it'll be too soon.

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Monday, March 06, 2006 

Sun-watch: Moss dross never ends.

Congratulations then to Rebekah Wade on her extraordinary scoop that Kate Moss used to take cocaine. Only oh, god knows how many months since the Mirror revealed that astounding fact, the Sun has finally managed to get its own pictures of Kate with cocaine in the same frame. I wonder how much that photograph cost it, and I wonder what Murdoch will say of a story that is clearly not in any way at all news? The Sun - first with all the news of last year!

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