Saturday, December 02, 2006 

Stockholm syndrome.

"Nothing ever happens / So why are you watching?"
-- Stockholm Syndrome, Milburn
In a world of car bombings, endless suspicion and angst about sex offenders in our midst and poisoned ex-pat Russians, it may be a little self-indulgent to be more depressed about a television programme being recommissioned, but then not all television programmes are Big Brother.

It can be quite convincingly argued that writing angrily and contemptuously about something as banal and inconsequential as a television show only adds to what the producers want - an endless buzz about their labour of love - but as Marina Hyde writes today in the Grauniad, the TV revolution sparked into motion in the UK by Big Brother is infecting all of us, whether we want it to or not.

While Hyde's main concern is that treating young people as too stupid or apathetic to care about politics without introducing futile and patronising reality TV style contests or content, like, or Cameron's fated decision to find a candidate for London mayor through an X-Factor style voting competition, this ignores just how exploitative Big Brother actually is. While the X-Factor at least builds up self-esteem in those taking part who progress beyond the preliminary stages, even if it shames those who try and are then subjected to invective from Simon Cowell, Big Brother could accurately be described as a misanthropist's dream. It happily confirms all the prejudices of such enlightened commentators as Very Scary Spice, mad Melanie Philips, that society is going down the toilet. You don't need to be Darwin to notice that something seems to have gone very wrong in the evolutionary process; these people aren't just the scum of the earth, they seem to share the social skills of an amoeba while having the brainpower of a retarded, poisoned fly, spinning its last on its back. All human life is there, as long as human life only has a vocabulary that doesn't go much further than yes, no and fuck, women whose only ambition in life is to appear in the lads' mags once they leave the show, and men so sleazy that their skin seems to excrete snake oil.

The last series of the show, the worst yet, seemed to abandon all its previous pretences of being some kind of social experiment. The modus operandi seemed to be to throw together the most obnoxious group of people you could ever find together and see what happened. Of the women that took part, at least 5 of them have since appeared in lads' mags without their clothes, one of them had already starred in several pornographic features and one was already a model. The men either seemed to fit the stereotype of being highly sexed, incredibly stupid, vain or in Pete, the eventual winner's case, apparently normal apart from err, having Tourette's syndrome and cross-dressing. While many of those taking part can be dismissed as seeking fame for fame's sake, as well as the cash prize, some genuinely didn't seem to realise what they were getting into. Shahbaz, a clearly mentally unstable man, was bullied viciously by other contestants on his final day before leaving, while George also left 9 days into the show. The much vaunted sessions with psychologists prior to entering the house were left looking callow as a result.

This is where the exploitation directly comes into play. The prize money for winning the show is a relatively low £100,000. By comparison, according to Media Guardian, the show makes Channel 4 £50 million a year. Not only are the producers in effect exploiting those that watch and vote via phone, they're making huge sums while giving the stars of the show very little apart from short lived fame or infamy. The long-term mental effects to housemates, especially of the last couple of series' may not be known for years.

Natasha Walter, writing on Comment is Free earlier in the week, goes further into the genre and finds herself distressed by the conformist attitude that seems to permeate from it. This itself is something of a paradox; from a genre which is meant to give the viewer near to total control, those taking part are often entirely denied their own say. Fine, you might say, but all these people know what they're getting themselves into, they made their own free choice. While true, the attitudes that seem to be emerging from reality TV are certainly not encouraging. Far from proving that you can break free from your own restraints, some of it is more concerned with seeming to show you exactly what and where your place is. You vote, but it doesn't change anything. What does that remind you of?

As some of the respondents to Hyde's column have pointed out, this completely ignores the general attitude of the young towards politics. The imposition of the values of reality television onto the political system is not just patronising and ignorant, it's showing the complete lack of ideas which our current lot seemed to be blessed with. The vast majority that are interested feel turned off by being talked down to, while those who weren't interested in the first place aren't suddenly going to become enlightened thanks to gimmicks. It's events in the real world that open minds, great ideas that stimulate and genuine listening which enthuses people. By contrast, Labour's Big Conversations and the Tories' sort-it are the opposite of these things. We all know Labour only wants to listen to what it wants to, with its debates being nothing of the kind, while the Conservatives are so desperate to prove that they've changed that they'll try absolutely anything, even when it later turns out that like the "inner tosser", they've got huge debts to go along with their baggage from the past.

It's all a little reminiscent of Big Brother itself. It's interminable, goes on too long, thinks it's clever when it's not and promotes bullshit and exploitation. When our politicians have worked out that those of us who are already interested generally reject all of those things, maybe then they'll they be better placed to attract those who are alienated.

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Friday, December 01, 2006 

My legacy, my legacy, my legacy!

If there's one thing you can't accuse Tony Blair of, it's giving up. His last few months as Prime Minister are destined to be full of activity. On Monday, he's apparently to announce that we're going to waste billions of pounds on a new nuclear deterrent, for little other reason than to give BAe something to do, and because we couldn't let France be the only EU country with nukes. That would just be too horrible to imagine.

Yesterday however was a return to Blair's stated alleged first, second and third priorities on entering office, other than bombing, banning and bribing. Yes, it was time to go and wind up the teachers with his latest plans for reorganising the school system. As Blair prepares to leave office, the first and foremost thing on his mind, apart from when Inspector Knacker is going to come calling, is his legacy. We know it, he knows it, his advisers know, the media knows it. Every little detail is going to be scrutinised for how it might effect how history judges the 21st century's first prime minister, even though we all know the only thing that he's going to be remembered for is Iraq, unless Knacker steps in and arrests him. In short, unless the situation in Iraq improbably and unprecedentedly turns around, after a few hundred thousand more deaths or so, and Blair's reputation makes the biggest comeback since Lazarus as a result, he's royally screwed.

Making his speech at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference, this was Tony in full Pollyanna mode. Parents are just dying to get in the new academies, according to him, which instantly means that they're a huge success. This ignores how nearly all the new academies either have new buildings or have been extensively refurbished, not to mention how the first load have mainly replaced formerly failing comprehensives, which is going to magnetise parents towards them in the first place. As with the schools being sponsored, the buildings themselves are typically, if not always built under the private finance initiative, meaning that the money for the contractors is off Gordon Brown's books, but leaves the next generation of kids paying for the current generation's brand spanking new halls and computers.

The actual evidence on whether the new academies have improved standards or not is decidedly mixed. A study by Terry Wrigley, a senior academic at Edinburgh university suggested that the number of pupils gaining 5 A-C grades at GCSE compared with the schools the academies replaced had gone up by a whopping 0.2%, equivalent to three pupils per school, which seems like an outstandingly good result from the amount of money put in. By contrast, one academy in Brent in London was given a glowing review by Ofsted. All is also not well with the money given to the academies by the sponsors in exchange for having a major part in setting the curriculum and school ethos. A Guardian investigation showed that of those up and running, only four academies have actually received the full £2 million meant to be handed over. One suspects that business and other benefactors may also be put off by the loans for peerages scandal - any sort of donation which appears to help Labour and leads to an honour of some kind is now likely to be heavily scrutinised.

Then there's the fact that these academies are predictably attracting the attention of religious crazies laying down their own values and rules as part of their control over the school. The Trinity academy at Thorne near Doncaster, part of car dealer, friend of Blair and evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy's empire, suspended 148 students within its first six months - leaving parents suspecting that covert selection was taking place with free-thinking being cracked down upon. While Blair in his speech lauded the idea of giving pupils choice, that doesn't seem to extend to pupils challenging authority or deciding whether or not they should be taught creationism alongside evolution.

It's little surprise that Blair sees academies as reflecting his own image. They're new, shiny and pleasing to look at, but underneath they're still suffering with the same problems as before, except with new groups of governors running the show. Despite Blair's claims that 200 will be up and running by 2010, it's a promise that like the existence of God, should be believed when it's seen. Just to make it even more unreachable, at some point in the future Blair wants there to be 400. Where all the sponsors are going to come from isn't explained.

After rejecting Mike Tomlinson's call for GCSEs and A-Levels to be replaced with a diploma, Blair's new wheeze is to expand the International Baccalaureate from being available at a few elite schools to err, being available at a few more elite schools. While some have suggested that academies and trust schools will lead to a two-tier school system, the availability of IB could do something very similar. With universities increasingly having to select from students with a whole ream of A grades in the required A-level subjects, the elite are bound to be more than receptive to those who get the opportunity to take the IB instead. Those privately educated and who are either lucky enough to be near a high performing school, or whom have moved in order to be so, will undoubtedly once again be crowding out the riff raff from the bog-standard comprehensives.

Concerns over A-levels though is perhaps missing the big picture. The proportion of students getting 5 A-C grades at GCSE is stubbornly remaining below 60%, meaning that 40% are still effectively failing. The sad fact of the matter is that by 14 it may already be too late; faced with carrying on in academic lessons that they wish they weren't in, that 40% may well have been better served by Tomlinson's diploma, which would have also have taken voluntary qualifications into considerations. Instead, Blair's new idea is to have an entirely separate diploma at 14, tied in with apprenticeships. It may turn out to be a good start, but it's probably too little. There's also increasing evidence that those at 14 who aren't performing "adequately" in academic subjects are being forced into GNVQs instead of GCSEs, which despite the government's claims aren't anywhere close to being as challenging, purely to help the school's place in the government league tables. The option of being either all academic or all vocational is far too stifling.

Still, what does it matter to Blair? He's tried, he's most likely failed, but at least he'll be remembered for starting off academies and the Tory-loved trust schools which they're itching to get their hands on. Won't he?

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Ghost Plane, Stephen Grey's book on rendition (which I have yet to read, but is certainly on my list) now has an accompanying website with a searchable database of flight logs from suspected CIA jets involved in the program. The site also has a statement from Abu Omar, the Islamist abducted by the CIA in Italy and flown to prison in Egypt. Among the "highlights" of his testimony are:

3) My feet hanged me from the ceiling and my head down, my hands tied to my back my feet tied up. I was subjected to electric shocks all over my body specially in my head, nipples, testicles, and penis. My testicles where also beaten with a stick and squeezed tightly if I refused to answer their questions or suspected of telling lies.

10) They sexually assaulted me and raped me. This was the worse thing that happened to me, physical torture can be overcome with times, but the psychological impact of rape and the feeling of humiliation stay for good. I was raped twice. My hands were tied to my back and naked face down, while someone lay on top of me attempting to rape me. I screamed so hard till I lost consciousness and I don’t know if he it was for real or just threats.

Well worth a visit.

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Thursday, November 30, 2006 

Screwed by Inspector Knacker.

Guess who?

2006 is shaping up to be the News of the Screws' annus horribilis. It would be churlish and egotistical to claim that this is down to the curse of Obsolete - after Mazher Mahmood failed miserably in his attempt to stop George Galloway and various blogs from publishing his old photographs - but I'm going to anyway. Ever since Mahmood and Farrer & Co's pathetic legal attempt to silence bloggers, everything has gone tits up. Mahmood's reputation was further tainted when the "red mercury" trial ended with all the accused being acquitted; Tommy Sheridan emerged victorious from his libel trial, only for the Screws to very conveniently get a tape from a former friend of Sheridan's which they claim proves Sheridan committed perjury; then Clive Goodman, the utterly piss-poor Screws' royal editor was arrested, and yesterday pleaded guilty to tapping into Prince William's voicemail.

As well as exposing the shadier, hidden side of tabloid journalism, Goodman's arrest is significant in that the information he obtained was so underwhelming, the kind of banal crap that fills tedious tabloid diaries every day of the week. One of Goodman's exclusives was that Prince William had pulled a tendon - hold the front page! More humourously, the Screws wasn't paying just once for such groundbreaking stories; they were also funding Goodman's accomplice, former footballer Glenn Mulcaire, who did the dirty work, i.e. utilising the well-known voice mail hack which lets anyone phoning in the line have a go at guessing the owner's pin. Most don't change it from the default, leaving their messages easy pickings for snooping hacks and private dicks.

Hilariously, Obsolete's favourite national newspaper editor, Rebekah "Filth" Wade was apparently one of those who was targeted, one must assume by a rival newspaper, although the relationship between Andy Coulson, Screws editor and Wade is allegedly strained. It's often been suggested that Wade is not the sharpest tool in the shed, being ignorant of much outside her favourite topics - stringing up paedophiles and naming and shaming anyone who annoys her newspaper's sensibilities. Even by her standards though, this seems a schoolgirl error - Piers "Morgan" Moron mentions the voicemail trick in his diaries.

Not that anyone should feel any sympathy for Wade - for it seems to have been the voicemail trick which led to this year's earlier outting by force of Simon Hughes, which was accompanied by typically homophobic headlines and reports. Other victims are meant to have included Max Clifford, well known for his likeliness to the little packages left on the streets by dogs.

One can only hope that Goodman is handed a harsh sentence. There only seems to have been one case that could be argued was in the public interest - that of David Blunkett being exposed as having an affair with the Spectator publisher Kimberley Quinn, and even then only if it was affecting his ability to be Home Secretary, which is debatable, as it was after the break-up of the relationship that he in his words became clinically depressed. As the Guardian argues in its leader, what we have learned so far is likely only the tip of the iceberg. The tabloids especially are engaging in illegal methods in order to get background to their stories, whether it's from paying police, getting private detectives to do their dirty work, or blagging information from those with access to databases. Some of the smear jobs conducted on those arrested under terrorism laws seem incredibly likely to have been helped along by these factors. A custodial sentence might send a message that there are real consequences for those breaking privacy laws for less than noble causes. With the government's love for central sharing of information increasing, the situation can only get worse with time, especially as circulations continue to slump.

P.S. Would you believe that there is no mention of Goodman's guilty plea in today's Sun? The only mention of him found via the Sun's search engine is an online report that was put up yesterday, which presumably wasn't spiked as Wade doesn't have full editorial authority over the website.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006 

Rendition: Those liars and their lies in full.

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.

-- Oral evidence given by Jack Straw to the Foreign Affairs committee on 13th of December 2005.

I, I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here at all, and I'm not going to start ordering inquires into this, that and the next thing when I've got no evidence to show whether this is right or not - and I honestly, and you know, it's like all this stuff about camps in Europe or something - I don't know, I've never heard of such a thing.
I can't tell you whether such a thing exists - because, er - I don't know.

-- Tony Blair speaking at his press conference on the 21st of December 2005.

We already knew that those camps that Tony Blair had "never heard of" existed, as George Bush was forced into admitting they did. Don't worry though, everyone in them was treated humanely, and they certainly weren't tortured.

The most curious thing about the whole rendition scandal is that the same government which didn't know anything about the CIA's fleet of planes and the ghost prisons across the globe, and hence, you would think, has then got nothing to hide, has been so determined to push the debate forward, as outlined in the leaked New Statesman memo. For a government that always dismisses civil liberties concerns with the old adage that "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear", it's odd that government ministers and advisers have been so thoroughly uncooperative with the EU investigation into rendition. If they didn't know anything, why would they do everything they possible could to obstruct and filibuster the Europe-wide inquiry?

The reason, as you've already guessed, is that the government is actually up to its neck in the scandal, as the draft EU report makes clear. Not only have there been another 100 flights linked conclusively to the rendition program which landed in the UK, but the report, drawn up by the Italian socialist MEP Giovanni Claudio Fava, who has received death threats for his trouble, also finds that the government did in fact know full well about the visits by our friends in the CIA. As well as lying about this, they then set out to do everything they could to both play down and ignore the questions asked of them by the committee set up by the EU.

Geoff Hoon, the hapless and hopeless Europe minister, is singled out for the strongest criticism after he adopted the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" approach when questioned by the committee. Sir Michael Wood, legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who you might remember from the Craig Murray documents, repeated the same assertion he made there, that information obtained through torture, as long as there was no "direct" involvement in the torture involved, was not illegal under international law. The "information" discussed in those documents was from the Uzbek security services, who among other methods, have been known to rape men and women with glass bottles in order to obtain confessions. The US State Department website page on Uzbekistan admits that "the police force and the intelligence service use torture as a routine investigation technique." That gives an insight into the mindset of those drawing up their considered legal opinions; they know full well how the information they receive is gotten, yet when it comes for them to give evidence to committees set up to investigate the kidnapping of European citizens, who are then taking to "black holes" and tortured, they refuse to even justify their opinions to them.

Perhaps most shocking, or perversely, actually predictably discomforting, is that the denial and no comment policy was adopted across the whole of the EU, making the whole organisation complicit. Nato's chief executive refused to give evidence. The EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana was also criticised for his lack of cooperation with the committee. The only conclusion that conceivably be came to is that the governments and their security services honestly thought that they would get away with it. One of the justifications used by Condoleezza Rice was that the United States had been "rendering" prisoners for decades, which is true, but not on anywhere near the scale as in the last five years, and neither had they then been tortured with the help of friendly foreign security services.

Whether the government's arrogance was down to the belief that anything can now be justified in the war on terror, or simply due to the belief that the CIA had covered their trails well enough doesn't really matter. After the system was exposed, instead of admitting to their role in allowing those kidnapped to be rendered, with CIA planes refueling in Britain, they instead denied all knowledge, and continue to deny all knowledge. Rather than condemning a practice that is clearly contrary to international law, they've simply said that they don't approve of it. Instead of investigations, we've had lies. This ought to be a front page reaching scandal. Ministers should be resigning. The sad fact is that in five short years, Britain has moved from laughably championing the benefits of an "ethical foreign policy" to turning a blind eye while men such as Binyam Mohammad endured "horrific torture" by proxy, with our own security services supplying information to "help". While those accused of being terrorists rot in Guantanamo Bay, the head of MI5 makes speeches about the terrorist threat that we've helped create, and like her colleagues refuses to give evidence to investigatory committees. Worst of all, we're letting them get away it.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006 

Scum-watch: Forgiveness? What's that?

For all its disgust and anger at crime, one of the contradictions at the heart of the Sun is just how much it depends on the misery of others, especially those who have experienced tragedies, to sell newspapers. Naturally, all media organisations can be accused of this, and to an extent, they're giving the public what they want.

The Sun though has often taken this to extremes not normally seen in the institutionally uninhibited British press. Hillsborough is a case in point. While other newspapers made similar allegations to the Sun, none did so in the hysterical manner which infected that day's front page. They also quickly retracted the claims when it became clear that they were not true. It took Kelvin MacKenzie until 1993 to personally apologise, when in front of a parliamentary committee. The Sun itself didn't issue an unreserved apology until 2004 - and only then because Wayne Rooney had made the mistake of taking Murdoch's money for his non-existent life story.

More recently, the Sun's sensationalist accounts of serious crimes has again came under scrutiny. Reporting the case of Rochelle Holness, who was murdered by John McGrady, it alleged that McGrady had strapped Rochelle to a table and dismembered her with an electric saw while she was still alive. Holness had in fact been dead for 15 hours before she was dismembered, as a post-mortem established (the story was published before one had even been carried out) and there were no blood stains on the ceiling or walls of McGrady's flat. Their story was not only wrong and deeply hurtful, causing more pain to Holness's family, but the newspaper has so far failed to clarify the story. The article remains, uncorrected, on the Scum's website. Holness's family have apparently complained to the supine and servile Press Complaints Commission, but the case appears yet to be adjudicated. Another similarly disgusting report made the front page a couple of weeks ago, not to mention this summer's fiasco involving the "House of Horrors" which turned out to be nothing of the sort.

It's with all this in mind that we should approach today's Sun leader on the sentencing of the two teenagers found guilty of murdering Tom ap Rhys Pryce, the young lawyer who died only metres away from his house in west London.


Tom’s brave mum and dad are devout Christians.

After the murder, they somehow found it in their hearts to say they felt sorry for his killers who started off as decent kids but took a terribly wrong turn.

Their forgiveness is as awesome as it is humbling. But that must not stop the judge doing his job.

He must sentence the killers to life, with the longest possible minimum term before they can be released.

The public must know these thugs will never have another chance to treat life with such callous contempt.

In other words, they should be thrown away and forgotten about. If the Sun had its way, they would most likely spend the rest of their lives in prison. It's a sharp contrast even with the statement of ap Rhys Pryce's girlfriend, Adele Eastman, which is completely heartbreaking:
I very much doubt that as children, any of the hopes and aspirations they held for their future included killing a man, and yet here they stand convicted of that heinous crime. What happened along the way for them to become so cruel and hateful towards others, and at such a young age? What a huge waste of life - not just of Tom's but also of their own - years in prison for an Oyster card and a mobile telephone. How, on any level, could it have been worth it for them?

There are no more tomorrows here for me and Tom, and all of our hopes and dreams have been brutally torn away. I just hope that there is something better for us on the other side. In the meantime, just as hate and bitterness had no place in Tom's life, neither will they in his memory. I am determined to ensure, along with many others, that as much good as possible comes out of this horrific tragedy, so that I can say to Tom when I see him again, as I believe I will, "That was the most agonising experience of my life, but everything that you worked so hard to achieve, and everything of you that you left behind was cherished and built upon to touch the lives of others in the way you would have wanted - and it was all done out of our great love for you."

Fine words, but also followed up by fine actions, for Ms Eastman, ap Rhys Pryce's parents and Linklater's, Pryce's employers, have set up a memorial trust dedicated to helping disadvantaged children.

The judge, rather than giving in to the whims of the persecutors in chief at the top of the Sun, gave an appropriate sentence in the circumstances. Both men have been sentenced to life in prison, with Brown ordered to serve at least 17 years, with Carty serve 21. Whether either will even be released then is anybody's guess. While neither of the men appear to have shown any true remorse, they now have almost the same length of time as they've already been alive to dwell on their crimes. In line with the families' belief in forgiveness, they will most likely at some point be given another chance to prove their worth to society. A harsher sentence, as demanded by the Sun, would have meant that neither would have had to face up to their crime in order to be released. Instead, it would have left them with little hope of ever being set free, and so with no reason to bother to change their ways. While the Sun cannot forgive, the humanity of those who actually experience crime instead of just profiting from it shows through.

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Monday, November 27, 2006 

It's the most miserable time of the year...

Spotted tonight: the first Christmas tree actually set-up in a house, with lights on.

Someone fucking shoot me.

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Sleepwalking into the arms of busybodies.

I try not to stray into hyperbole, or scaremonger for no good reason. That's their job. As you might expect, there is now a huge but coming. But, you have to wonder if in years to come they'll look back and decide if 2006 was the tipping point when Britain became a true surveillance state. Let's face it, when that friend of authoritarians everywhere, David Blunkett, starts speaking out, something has to be wrong.

POLICE and councils are considering monitoring conversations in the street using high-powered microphones attached to CCTV cameras, write Steven Swinford and Nicola Smith.

The microphones can detect conversations 100 yards away and record aggressive exchanges before they become violent.

The devices are used at 300 sites in Holland and police, councils and transport officials in London have shown an interest in installing them before the 2012 Olympics.

Right. In the best possible circumstances then, police might be able to get to the scene of a fight slightly quicker. They're unlikely to be able to break it up before it starts. While the first thought for why they're thinking of installing them prior to 2012 must be in case a jihadist decides to discuss his martyrdom with his fellow bombers before they proceed to explode with extreme prejudice, it also occurs that they might be interested in them for other reasons. Like making sure that those unsightly inhabitants of any big city, beggars, the homeless and prostitutes, are tucked away out of sight and out of mind, away from the shining regenerated smiling happy new East End of London. Not that properly regulated women of the night will necessarily be prohibited;
Athens did exactly that prior to their games. The article continues:

Derek van der Vorst, director of Sound Intelligence, the company that created the technology, said: “It is technically capable of being live 24 hours a day and recording 24 hours a day. It really depends on the privacy laws in a particular country.”

The possibilities are endless for snoopers. It also has depressing echoes of 1984, when O'Brien plays back tapes of Winston and Julia making love out in the countryside, where they thought they were safe.
Thank God then for possibly the least likely knight in shining armour in the country sticking his oar in:

But the former home secretary David Blunkett called publicly on the government to block the scheme.

He told BBC Radio Five Live's Weekend News programme that the suggestion was "simply unacceptable", and smacked of the "surveillance state".

"As you walk down the street you expect to be able to have a private conversation," he said.

"If you can't guarantee that - and here is someone speaking who has been pretty tough in terms of what should be available to protect society - I believe we have slipped over the edge."

Not that the government will take the word of one authoritarian over another - if John Reid wants it, no doubt we'll get it.

Then there's the police themselves to worry about. With the politics of terrorism increasingly becoming a party political issue, thanks partly to the government and partly to the screams of the tabloids, demands that once would have been dismissed out of hand suddenly become attractive to a home secretary determined to make the opposition look soft due to their stance.
We've seen Ian Blair time and again demand 90 day detention without trial, even when the Attorney General himself has said that he's seen no evidence to back up such a lengthy time period, and that's a year after the government first attempted to ram it through parliament.

According to the Grauniad, the ever reactionary plod have even more radical and draconian plans than yet seen. Tarique Ghaffur, assistant Met commissioner,
who has already recommended that flag burning and the wearing of masks be banned, has drawn up his own wish list for Lord Goldsmith to cast his eye over.

Police are to demand new powers to arrest protesters for causing offence through the words they chant and the slogans on their placards and even headbands.

Great. And what's the justification for such a chilling imposition on freedom of expression?

Mr Ghaffur has previously advocated banning flag burning. But this document would take the police a lot further. Mr Ghaffur says there is a "growing national and international perception" that the police have been too soft on extremist protesters, which has led to rising anger across the country. "The result has been to create an imbalance in public perception that is manifesting itself in passionate responses from elements of the community not traditionally given to publicly protesting. What we are seeing in effect is a rise in the politicisation of middle England and the emergence of a significant challenge for capital city policing."

The entire basis for potentially criminalising what are harmless and typical chants on protests is the chestnut the police have come to adore, the extremists. There have been a maximum of 3 protests which have caused widespread publicity this year by well-known extremists: the first, in February, in the aftermath of the controversy of the Danish Mohammad cartoons, involving less than 500 people, where protesters clearly incited murder, with the result of one man being convicted; the second, when
Anjem Choudary and other usual suspects, numbering less than 100, protested outside a Catholic church shortly after the Pope's quoting of a Byzantine emperor, with Choudary suggesting that the pontiff could be subject to capital punishment, although he did not say he should be executed; and the third, when a similar number of protesters made their feelings known outside the Old Bailey during the trial of Mizanur Rahman.

The protests have caused offense, the first one rightly so, and the second one predictably. The hole in Mr Ghaffur's argument is that one of those on the February protest has been successfully prosecuted under current laws; others are likely to follow. As Not Saussure also argues, this isn't about "Middle England" being politicised, it's about the Sun screaming about the "faces of evil" who dare to use their right to protest. The media's focusing and reliance on getting the views of extremists, who represent absolutely no one within the wider Muslim community, has to share part of the blame for the rising levels of Islamophobia.

The police want powers to tackle a "grey area" in the array of public order laws. At present, causing offence by itself is not a criminal offence.

God, causing offence hasn't been criminalised yet? New Labour have been slacking off. Criminalising causing offence in any way whatsoever is a recipe for absolute disaster. How can you justify criminalising extremist groups' banners and chants, without at the same time cracking down on the BNP? How can you legislate without at the same time potentially limiting the right of comedians to free speech? Many people find the stand-up routines of Roy "Chubby" Brown and Bernard Manning offensive. Creating an offence of causing offence would be a meddlesome busybodies dream. It could also be used both ways; the Sun might rejoice that the tiny bunch of extremists are stopped from covering their faces and saying that the Pope could theoretically be executed, but somehow I get the feeling it might feel the opposite if "politically correct killjoys" started targeting page 3 for offending women.

The document continues: "Is the sand shifting in our collective viewpoint around what constitutes 'causing offence'? Equally, we need to have a clearer determination of current community perceptions around what 'public offence' actually means. We also need to think more laterally around how we police public demonstrations where 'offence' could be caused, while still respecting the British position around freedom of speech."

The document, entitled "The widening agenda of public demonstrations and radicalisation", says Islamic extremists have learned how to cause offence without breaking the law. It also reveals that the government has yet to implement the bill outlawing religious hatred which received royal assent in February. It says that the law may prove useless against extremists: "Virtually all activity by protesters could constitute insulting or abusive language, behaviour or banners towards particular religions, but
would fall outside the remit of inciting religious hatred."

The police then want to have their cake and eat it. They recognise that virtually all demonstrations could be considered insulting and abusive, but Ghaffur seemingly wants to bring in a new law anyway. Their real reasoning might actually be that they want to remove all nuances; after all, it's really difficult to tell the difference between inciting murder and calling someone a murderer. Rule of thumb for all plods: calling Blair, for example, a murderer, is perfectly ok. Calling for Blair to be murdered, especially if he is to be beheaded, or killed in a suicide bombing, is not ok.

To give Ghaffur his due, his heart and motives may be in the right place. His concern could be that letting the current situation continue, with extremists causing outrage among those who don't much respect the right to protest in the first place, could well lead to more mosques and hijab-wearing women being attacked as a result by knuckledragging idiots.

The consequences of such a ban though would be multiple.
As Not Saussure again points out, we've already had a young woman wearing a "Bollocks to Blair" t-shirt arrested, as was another young man for suggesting that a police horse was gay. Protests normally involve robust denunciations of politicians, suggesting that they're the real terrorists, for example. Companies are oft accused of having blood on their hands. Both could be under threat for causing offence. If such a law was put in place, you may as well ban all protests throughout the country without prior permission, as is the current situation within a mile of parliament. This might make Ghaffur happy; those planning to attend could in advance tell the police what they intend to chant or show on placards, which the police could then check before giving the ok. Nanny knows best.

As ever, the best argument against such a potential ban is that every additional power given to the police is inevitably abused. Section 44 of the Terrorism Act has become notorious after Walter Wolfgang was refused re-entry to the Labour party conference. Stalking laws have been used against repeat protesters. If the police want to do something, they'll find a law they can justify it under.

OK, you might be saying, but parliament wouldn't let such potentially draconian laws be passed. The answer to that is that we sadly and simply can't rely on that being the case. The recent vote on the setting up of an inquiry into the Iraq war was a case in point:
the government got off the hook through sheer cowardice, by attacking the nationalists who got the debate in the first place. Voting with them would be betrayal, they said, along with potentially undermining the troops, a disgustingly mendacious argument when inquiries have on numerous occasions in the past been set-up during times of war.
Even with Labour MPs being the most rebellious ever, some will always abstain rather than face the wrath of the whips or their colleagues for helping defeat the government.

Such potential legislation then needs to be vigorously opposed before it even gets near the House of Commons. Write to your MP, write to your local council, write to your local newspaper, write to members of the House of Lords. Better yet, join Liberty. It's better to be unnecessarily concerned and do something about it than wait until it's too late.

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I got a bone to pick...

Walking through the glorious cornucopia which is the local shopping mall at this time of year, it's impossible to avoid the hawking calendar stalls, filled with the glossy machinations of whichever page 3 girl or hot-bodied celebrity the public most wishes to jump. What you don't generally expect to find is the err, "official" Che Guevara 2007 calendar:

This bizarre creation is produced by those nice people over at Pyramid Posters, who as well as printing calendars featuring a Marxist revolutionary, also make a pretty penny from selling posters, badges, stickers, keychains, postcards and prints all featuring the familiar cliched but iconic pose of the man.

Over on the licensing page, Pyramid explains it all:

We take our brands and license responsibilities very seriously. Pyramid Posters are one of the founder members of TRAP (Trademarks and Rights holders Against Piracy) and are also a member of LIMA (Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association).

Whether Che would have approved is uncertain. In 2000, Alberto Korda, who took the photograph, went to court against Smirnoff to stop them using Che's image in an advertisement. Korda, who died the following year, most likely left the image rights to his sons. Korda said at the time:
"As a supporter of the ideals for which Che Guevara died, I am not averse to its reproduction by those who wish to propagate his memory and the cause of social justice throughout the world, but I am categorically against the exploitation of Che's image for the promotion of products such as alcohol, or for any purpose that denigrates the reputation of Che"

When your photograph is sitting next to a calendar of Jordan, I'd say that capitalism hasn't so much turned your image into a commodity, as metaphorically dug up your corpse, rooted it, gave a number of bones to a passing dog, then buried it unmarked.

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