Saturday, December 30, 2006 

Scum-watch: Saddammed.

The Sun is utterly ecstatic with the death of Saddam Hussein. Following on from celebrating the deaths of other mass murderers, such as Harold Shipman (SHIP SHIP HOORAY was the following day's front page headline) the Sun printed a "3 AM NEWS SPECIAL" which screams "SADDAM HANGED - Iraq butcher sent to hell". Previous editions had used puns based around "OGRE" having used up "SADDAMMED TO HELL" when he was first sentenced.

The website meanwhile advertises the "Amazing" first picture from his execution. It's not amazing - the image instead conveys the banal, less than extraordinary reality of a man about to have his life taken from him. If anything, the video of his final moments is remarkable for its similarity to the tapes released by Zarqawi et al - the denouement may not be as brutal, bloody, sadistic or shocking, Saddam may have been convicted by a court of law - yet the rough edges and the general lack of humanity are still evident in both.

As could also be expected, the Sun leader does its best to justify the execution:

NO ONE should lose any sleep over Saddam going to the gallows.

A few bleeding hearts have managed to protest at his sentence — but without much conviction.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair has pointed out, this country stands against capital punishment anywhere.

But WE haven’t been under the heel of a murderous dictator for nearly three decades.

WE don’t know what it’s like to see members of our families disappear in the night.

Or witness tens of thousands of our fellow countrymen put to death.

The fate of Saddam was sensibly left in the hands of the Iraqis.

It’s no surprise they decided to put a noose round his neck.

It would be worth pointing out that we also weren't subjected to sanctions for 13 years that resulted in the deaths of a possible 500,000 children, a statistic which former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright said was worth it. Our houses also haven't been under threat for 16 years from the skies, with us not knowing whether the night might result in our families being vapourised by good-faith US/UK bombers, who have always only wanted to remove the Butcher of Baghdad and help the Iraqi people. One death should never justify another. As Stalin pointed out, one death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic.

Juan Cole and David Hirst, in his exemplary obituary of Saddam, have also pointed out examples of how we stood by and watched, only intervening when Saddam threatened "our" interests.

The Sun is right however in its main point that there should be no sleep lost for Saddam. I very much doubt there will be. I challenge anyone though not to admit to feeling at least uncomfortable watching the pictures of the man having the noose placed around his neck, even though we have been spared his dropping through the scaffold. Not to feel at least some pang of pity or another emotion is surely down either to comprehensive desensitisation or a general lack of humanity, whatever the person being executed is responsible for.

Elsewhere, the Sun yesterday continued its campaign of pointing out the foibles of "our Muslim community" which Osama Saeed excellently puts into context.

Happy new year!

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Friday, December 29, 2006 

Give him the respect he deserves?

I wonder who you think you are
You damn well think you're God or something
God give life, God taketh it away, not you
I think you are the Devil itself

Manic Street Preachers, Archives of Pain.

One of the finest and most controversial songs that Richey Edwards wrote for the Manic Street Preachers' Holy Bible album shortly before he disappeared, Archives of Pain, always comes into my thoughts when I consider the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. Although Edwards intended it as pro-capital punishment, whether those were his beliefs or not, the lyrics themselves are ambiguous enough for it to be taken either way, potentially an attack on those who believe in vengeance for its cleansing, wiping the slate clean nature, while also making a reasonably compelling case exactly for that. After all, wouldn't it have been so much easier for Myra Hindley and Ian Brady to have met their maker for their crimes instead of spending the next almost forty years in prison, respectively yearning to be released and to die? Does anyone truly pay full penance, let alone regret their crimes by spending decades in prison? At the same time, the belief that executing those who have killed somehow solves everything is both a false one, and one which potentially opens the state itself to accusations that it is no better than the murderer themselves.

I admit, despite all these conflicting arguments, to be an anti-capital punishment fundamentalist. It may be because I have never suffered any serious crime, or had one happen to my relatives that I see almost no merit in seeking physical revenge for any slight committed against me. Sure, I hold grudges. I enjoy schadenfreude as much as the next person. I would like nothing better than to see the likes of Fred Phelps, Richard Littlejohn or Mazher Mahmood for example, to get their deserved comeuppance for the hate, lies and fear they've expressed time and again. Yet for them to be killed or seriously injured, rather than just suffer mentally for a short while, or to see the other side of the story that they so ignore is something that I could never condone. I'd love to see Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden answer for their crimes and murderous preaching in a court of law. For them to be blown apart by a laser-guided missile would be poetic justice, but not the kind of justice I could agree with when they could have been captured instead.

So it is with Saddam Hussein. As rumours that his execution is due to take place within hours reach fever pitch, there's a feeling that everything would have been so much easier if the Iraqi people could have beaten him to death with their shoes just like they did his pictures and his statues when the resistance to the US/UK invasion collapsed. Instead, what we've been left with is a deeply flawed trial, which in the circumstances may well have been the best that could have expected, but has not helped Iraq either come together or entirely fall apart. The brutal fact is that life in Iraq now is so much less secure that the imminent demise of their former dictator is unlikely to affect anything at all in the long run; it will raise cheers in the Shia districts for sure, potentially further antagonise the remaining Ba'athists and remnants of the Sunni community which refuse to involve themselves in the governing of the country, but in the long run, nothing is going to be inexorably changed by his death.

Why then is his trip to the gallows so urgent, not counting the legal strictures that have been set down? Why could the other trials still going on or yet to be held not continue to take place? Saddam himself has showed little to no contrition; his apparent suggestion that he and only he should be held accountable for what happened in Dujali was the only thing that has come anywhere close to either an admittance of wrong-doing or an apology. As predicted, Saddam has also prepared the ground for his death to be seen as a martyrdom. Whether this will be accepted by those who opposed him while he was in power as a nationalist socialist is uncertain, but in years to come the nuances may yet fade and appeal to a youth growing up hating America and the West and looking to find someone as a potential hero who did die for the cause, bin Laden and his henchmen not being prepared to sacrifice themselves when they can send their followers instead.

It's not too late for the death sentence to be converted to life imprisonment. This would enable the other trials to finish, perhaps crouched in a more amenable way that adheres to international law, and for full justice for all those who died at the hands of his regime to be served. Who knows, perhaps a truly democratic and free Iraq, one not marred by sectarian bloodshed may yet one day emerge while he remains alive, the one thing that would show that his reign was an illegitimate and brutal aberration that will not be repeated, breaking the man himself. Idealistic and not crouched in realism this may be, but what's wrong with dreaming every once in a while?

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Thursday, December 28, 2006 

Joined-up government in two short bursts.

Just two weeks after the government was heavily criticised in rather sensationalist BBC reports for spending over £100 million on translation services, the government is due to announce that it is stopping the free language lessons it provides for asylum seekers whose claims have not yet been processed. Phil Woolas, who appeared on Newsnight to defend the government's position, instead decided to use the "even talking about this helps the BNP" card to evade answering any questions whatsoever, despite previously saying that Aishah Azmi should have been sacked for her refusal to the remove her niqab before the disciplinary panel had reached its verdict.

Elsewhere, the ghastly Blairite automaton Hazel Blears thought she'd earn some brownie points from someone other than the Dear Leader by joining protests in her constituency against the closure of maternity services. That she's a firm believer in the introduction of market forces into the NHS, the terrible wastage of money going to independent private treatment centres and into PFI schemes doesn't matter when the actual cuts are in her own backyard. She doesn't even have the excuse that John Reid came up with when he previously joined protests against proposed cuts in his constituency; even though he was health secretary, health matters are devolved to the Scottish parliament. She is the very worst of hypocrite, the kind so utterly shameless that they regard principles as a middle-class disease afflicting only limp-wristed liberals. Thankfully, when Brown ascends to become the next Dear Leader, she's likely to find herself without a job.

On other blogs, Blood and Treasure examines the conflict in Somalia then and now.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006 

The 30 best albums of 2006.

30. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

When you're quite possibly the most hyped band in the history of music, that you even manage to produce half an album of brilliant material is a decent achievement. For that is what the Monkeys' debut is - an album that undoubtedly has some of the finest songs of the year on, but which also has more than its share of terrible filler. What kind of person would honestly want to listen more than once to "Perhaps Vampires.." or "From The Ritz to the Rubble"? "Still Take You Home" contains the causal misogyny that afflicts many of the post-Libertines bands, and "Red Lights Indicates Doors..." has this line which would make even Lily Allen blush:
But this lad at the side drinking his Smirnoff Ice
Came and paid for her tropical reef
Thankfully, all this tosh is made up for by the debut single "I Bet...", the social comment of "Riot Van", the tender, affectionate "Mardy Bum", the sheer swagger of "When the Sun Goes Down" and the awareness of the true picture of Britain's streets on "A Certain Romance". That the Monkeys have since gone on to release an EP and a single that have vastly improved on some of the material found on "Whatever" makes their appearance here all the more worthy.

29. Cat Power - The Greatest

2006 was certainly the year of the cat. Chan Marshall, after spending years as a delicate, troubled woman, suddenly appeared to find the confidence that had been denied her. Helped undoubtedly at her live shows by the backing of the Memphis Rhythm Band, her previously erratic performances were transformed into fully-formed bodies of work. Released in the early months of 2006, the Greatest could undoubtedly be described as her most mature work so far. While it doesn't quite contain the emotions that littered 2003's "You Are Free", the Greatest perhaps holds the key to her new-found charisma. This is summed up by the song "Hate", where Marshall, backed only by piano, openly states her desire to die, while on tour the lyrics have been changed to "I don't hate myself and I don't want to die". She still has much to give.

28. Gossip - Standing in the Way of Control

You somehow can't imagine that Beth Ditto thought that 2006 would end with her being voted the coolest person on the face of the earth by the readers of NME. As you've doubtless read countless times already, fat tattooed feminist lesbians don't generally win such awards. Standing in the Way of Control, best described as an indie-soul-dance hybrid, however proves otherwise. Ditto's voice soars, while her band-mates provide the backing that has kicked the Gossip into the limelight. The title track has been the club hit of the year, ably remixed by Soulwax, but the original also holds all the successful elements. Short, sharp kicks to the throat are what the Gossip deal in, and this album contains 10 of them.

27. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

Show Your Bones wasn't anywhere near as well received as their debut, Fever to Tell, but there was a good reason for that. While Fever was an immediate hit, Bones was that impertinent reminder that sometimes good music has to grow on you. Releasing Gold Lion, one of the weakest tracks on the album as the first single probably also wasn't the smartest move. The guitar licks of Phenomena, the Maps-like Turn Into, and the simply awesome Cheated Hearts, which finds Karen O admitting to her own narcissism, with the line "sometimes I think I'm bigger than the sound" all contribute to what has been a bizarrely overlooked follow-up record.

26. Jeniferever - Choose A Bright Morning

At times, post-rock gets a bad press. Liked only by internet nerds and chin-stroking beardies, no one else cares about it. The likes of Jeniferever thankfully prove otherwise. Predictably compared to Sigur Ros, Jeniferever hail from the similar climate of Sweden, but go about things different Ros. While Ros have gone towards the commercial side of things following their move to EMI, Jeniferever have retained their desire to build slowly, their orchestral semi-ambient soundscapes at times going nowhere, yet still being enthralling. This, their first true album, has hidden depths. It can be both admired for its chill-out qualities, and also for the climaxes, which while never rivalling GY!BE, for instance, still charm and move.

25. Thom Yorke - The Eraser

The Eraser is far, far better than it had any right to be. Announced to general surprise, released within a couple of months, many assumed that it would be a filler record while Radiohead's numerous fans waited for their next album, due to be released this coming year.

Further exploring Yorke's experimental side, and mainly created entirely on laptop, the beats throb and Yorke's voice takes on a mainly hushed tone. The stand-out track and first single, Harrowdown Hill, is one of the songs of the year; describing the final moments of Dr David Kelly's life, Yorke manages to move and ask some awkward questions at the same time. While nothing else here comes close to it, the album further provides anticipation for the next Radiohead record proper.

24. The Futureheads - News and Tributes

The music industry continues to get harsher. Despite creating a more than decent follow-up to their self-titled debut, the Futureheads have found themselves dumped by 679 for failing to create sales, as opposed to praiseworthy music.

For sure, it's less immediate than their debut, and doesn't include any cover versions to excite the pop moguls, but this is a far more mature (yes, that word again) record, finding the band realise their own potential. The title track itself, which remembers the Munich air disaster, is poignant without descending into mawkishness. The singles, Skip to the End and Worry About it Later are fantastic, well-contained three minute indie-rock songs, while the opener, Yes / No, sets the store for the rest of the album. Expect this gem to become more popular in the years to come.

23. Morrissey - Ringleader of the Tormentors

2006 also saw the reappearance of a Morrissey that could honestly be compared to the one who lead the Smiths during the 80s. Dropping the pretence that many have about him, Ringleader is a surprisingly honest record, one that sees him coming to terms with his own limitations and his sexuality. Not only does he admit on "Dear God, Please Help Me" that he has explosive kegs between his legs, he also recognises that he's unlikely to be anyone's hero now. Instead, he's released an album filled with gems, such as the single "You Have Killed Me" and the album closer "At Last I Am Born". Ennio Morricone provides strings on one track, while the band themselves do their best to live up to their vocalist's own high. Not even the appearance of a children's choir, usually the death knell of lesser records, can destroy this one.

22. Howling Bells - Howling Bells

2006 additionally saw something of a renaissance in female indie vocalists. Previously the refuge of the skinny white boy, along with Karen O, Beth Ditto and Kate Jackson, Juanita Stein led the fightback. Despite the band name, her voice is more haunting than howling, being compared by many to PJ Harvey's. The record itself makes full use of her range, which alternates between being intimidating and sultry depending on the song. If there had been any justice, this record would have sold as well as it won critical praise, but it appears not to be.

21. Peter, Bjorn and John - Writer's Block

Another critical success that didn't fly off the shelves, Writer's Block was heralded by the magnificence of the single Young Folks, which featured Victoria Bergeman of the Concretes. The perfect summery indie-pop single, the album from which it came is full of similar catchy numbers. The title is wonderfully deceptive, as PB&J certainly aren't suffering from it; this is their third album, and by far their best.

20. Be Your Own Pet - Be Your Own Pet

With the record hardly begun, when Jemina Pearl Abegg starts snarling that she's an independent motherfucker, and she's here to steal your virginity, she sets the tone for the rest of the album. Be Your Own Pet aren't pretending to be anything they're not; they're a teenage band making songs for teenagers to dance around like idiots to. That they do so with such energy, creating the record that perhaps some Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans were hoping that Karen O's mob would, only bears out that you only get one chance to make an album like this. Be Your Own Pet thankfully have seized the mantle. Where they'll go from here is anyone's guess.

19. CSS - Cansei De Ser Sexy

CSS really shouldn't work. They ought to be in the same realm as the Scissor Sisters - over the top, daft and annoying. Instead, this may well be the best that electro-pop has ever sounded. Add to it foul-mouthed rants about Paris Hilton, tributes to Death from Above and the great "Music is my hot hot sex", which may well be the best description of how the best music really should be, and CSS have produced one of the funnest, most well lubricated albums of the year.

18. The Hot Puppies - Under the Crooked Moon

2006, ignoring the travesties committed against indie-pop by Lily Allen, has been one of the best years for it in a long time. Becky Newman shares with her peers an absolutely gorgeous voice, while the song-writing side is by the guitarist Luke Taylor. That he has produced such feminine sounding songs as Green Eyeliner, The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful and the soulful slow stomp of How Come You Don't Hold Me No More is more of a surprise. Consider this an almost female answer to the Arctic Monkeys male club worship.

17. Mono - You Are There

While everyone waits, hoping, praying that Godspeed You! Black Emperor do eventually reform and record at least one more record, Mono are doing their level best to keep the immense, moving, hugely powerful post-rock movement going. Recorded by Steve Albini, as was the last GY!BE record, this time Mono add strings to their previous reliance on just guitar, bass and drums. The album has three main movements, with two more "quiet" intermissions separating them. This is by far their finest album, kicks off the accusations that they were ripping off Mogwai, and puts them squarely in the premier league of post-rock artists, alongside Explosions in the Sky and Red Sparowes.

16. Hot Chip - The Warning

There were few albums from this year as genuinely joyous as the Warning is in places - Over and Over, in particular, with its sheer infective bounciness is special enough, but add to that the other single Colours, and Just Like We Breakdown, and Hot Chip have created a crossover hit. That they continue to do top notch remix work is an added bonus.

15. Milburn - Well Well Well

It may be potentially heretical, but Milburn's debut album is a far, far more polished and substantial offering that that of their related cousins the Arctic Monkeys. To clear up any confusion in the chicken and egg style conundrum, Milburn came first. Unlike the Monkeys, Milburn have expanded their horizons further than the club. There are songs here about awfulness of reality TV in Stockholm Syndrome, the local thug in Brewster, the oily lad who thinks he's everything that he isn't in Showroom and quite possibly the finest song of the year "What You Could've Won", about being rejected at the end of the night, but done without the histrionics you'd expect from less subtle bands. The expanded version released also features Billy Bragg adding his own touch to Brewster, which is well worth seeking out. Whether Milburn will last as long in the memory or ever touch the success which the Monkeys have grabbed is uncertain, but their debut deserves better than it has probably had so far.

14. The Blood Brothers - Young Machetes

Returning after their 2004 album Crimes, the Blood Brothers are less openly angry about the Iraq war and at times, even more laid back than some of the slower numbers on that album. While "Burn, Piano Island, Burn" may yet turn out to be their finest moment, there remains something to be said for the Brothers when they're not being so damned heavy. The old violent imagery that we know and love remains, with "John Lennon and the Rolling Stones breathing in plastic bags" being one of the more memorable lines from YM. Album closer "Giant Swan" contains the best moment, as in true Blood Brothers style everything goes mental, the guitars sawing and drums pounding, with Johnny Whitney sounding terrified, screaming "Who's at the door? What the fuck!". While they may be an acquired taste, Machetes is in places even more accessible than Crimes was, without losing any of their power to both shock and sonically astound.

13. Red Sparowes - Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun

Even by post-rock standards, the titles which Red Sparowes give to their songs, are, err, long. The second track from "Every..", for instance, is called "We Stood Transfixed in Blank Devotion as Our Leader Spoke to Us, Looking Down on Our Mute Faces With a Great, Raging and Unseeing Eye". The others are little shorter. While this practice is undoubtedly pretentious, the music itself is far from it. Following on from their previous album, At the Soundless Dawn, Every Red Heart is even heavier, yet without letting up on the seamless soundscapes, or sacrificing the riffs and melodies which are at the heart of the album. In the year in which Isis, who share a member with Red Sparowes, were widely regarded as producing their first disappointing album, the Sparowes immenseness is even more welcome.

12. iLiKETRAiNS - Progress / Reform

Apart from the name, iliketrains are far from your ordinary post-rock band. Emerging from the Leeds DanceToTheRadio scene, they not only use vocals, but make full use on this, their mini-album, of first person narratives. Terra Nova is from the perspective of Scott on his doomed mission to the Antarctic, A Rook House for Bobby examines the exasperation of the chess master Bobby Fischer in his isolation, while Stainless Steel is the story of the revenge of a wife on her adulterous husband. What completes it is the at times utterly peerless guitar work, especially on Stainless Steel, which ends with 3 minutes of Godspeed rivalling crescendos. If this is what they can produce with limited resources, then their eventual full-length is going to be eagerly awaited.

11. The Young Knives - Voices of Animals and Men

When we look back in years to come, we'll have Carl Barat and Pete Doherty to thank for the deluge of quite frankly shit bands who've plagued us to an extent in 2006. That the Libertines were never that great or doing anything new in the first place now seems besides the point: we've got the likes of the Rifles to deal with. While they are the worst of a semi-decent bunch that includes the Fratellis, the Holloways, the On-Offs, Larrikin Love and others I've probably forgotten, the Young Knives, who've been around since their 2002 EP ... Are Dead have been showing them how it should be done.

Never forgetting that wit and humour have just as much of a place in music as they have in everything else, the Knives debut is filled with the sort of infectious melodies and riffing that the Libertines followers have utterly missed. The singles, The Decision, She's Attracted To and Here Comes The Rumour Mill are joined by the insanely catchy chorus of Mystic Energy, the slow-burning In The Pink and the ode to dead towns that is Loughborough Suicide. That they're great live too is simply a bonus.

10. Mystery Jets - Making Dens

Released back in March, Making Dens seems to have been rather unfairly forgotten about. Drowned in Sound named it as one of the best 66 albums of the last 6 years, then didn't include it in their vote for the best 15 of the year. Best described as the most eclectic indie-prog outfit you'll probably ever find, they can change from the near instrumental rhythm of Zoo Time to the love song dynamics of Alas Agnes within moments. They've since rerecorded Diamonds in the Dark, done some b-sides with indie-dancefloor production superstar Erol Alkan, and are soon to release an acoustic EP. Making Dens suggests they'll be around for a long time yet.

9. Liars - Drum's Not Dead

Few would have suspected that when the Liars released their dance-punk debut "They Threw Us All In A Trench.." in 2001 that a few years on they would be producing avant-rock masterpieces, but that's the way the world has turned. Taking solace from their justified belief that their follow up, "They Were Wrong" was far far better than the critics said, they stuck at their game and produced this sort of concept album, based around two characters, Drum and Mt Heart Attack. The percussion is at times utterly hypnotic, while the distorted guitar drones echo and ebb and flow in much the same way. The closing song, "The Other Side of Mt. Heart Attack" sees the band turn full circle, as they produce the kind of lush ballad that their friends the Yeah Yeahs Yeah may at some point have tried to have produce. The album comes with a DVD featuring strange, weird film pieces by each band member, recreating the record in their visual perspective.

8. TV on the Radio - Return to Cookie Mountain

Return to Cookie Mountain is the record that the TV on the Radio's first few EPs suggested they could make. While their first album was well received, it never quite reached the heights that their "Staring at the Sun" intimated they could reach. Their second, thankfully, sees them returning to that sort of form.

Return is at turns, dense, harsh and disorienting, but also has more delicate moments, like the single Wolf Like Me. Listening to it all the way through, it sounds like an album of continuing ideas that don't let up, with there being few lulls and no gaps to speak of. Even the appearance of David Bowie, who provides backing vocals, can pass you by completely. Repeated listens though bring out the complexities of what Pitchfork describes as fairly conventional rock record; it's just not like anything anyone else is doing at the moment, and that is the beauty of it.

7. The Pipettes - We Are The Pipettes

Why didn't someone think of doing this before? The Pipettes are a creation just as much as the Spice Girls were, to be honest, formed by the eponymous "Monster Bobby" as a modern take on the Ronettes and Shangri-Las. Their singles, especially "Pull Shapes" though have been anything but the modern dreariness of manufactured pop, instead relying on sassiness and sheer charisma to win the day. While it's no longer an apparent sin to admit that you like the odd Girls Aloud song, the Pipettes have provided the indie-kid with the ability to maintain his full cred.

6. White Rose Movement - Kick

If there has been a better indie-dance hybrid this year, then I have yet to hear it. While the world awaits the so-called new rave wave's albums, WRM spent 2006 kicking back with the best pieces of the 80s, splicing the Joy Division and New Order in with the Human League, Soft Cell and Duran Duran, and coming up with an absolute winner. Produced by Paul Epworth, who worked the board on Bloc Party's debut, WRM come across as the Killers without the egos and shit lyrics, except more set on getting everyone to dance. OK, so they're not going to win any prices for theirs either, but the dancefloor destruction provided by Love is a Number, the contender for single of the year Girls in the Back and identity crisis of Testcard Girl more than make up for it. The assault against senseless violence provided in "Deborah Carne", named after the victim of a horrific crime in Essex around the time WRM formed adds additional flesh to their intellectual bones.

5. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife

It was always going to be difficult for the Decemberists to follow up Picaresque, an opus which will certainly feature in the top ten of the decade, but they could have done a lot worse than the Crane Wife. While Picaresque focused on individual tracks, Colin Meloy's troop here return in places to the form taken by their Tain EP, a seamless 20 minute track with movements. While not experimenting with their progressive side, Meloy duets with Laura Veirs on "Yankee Bayonet", a song which channels the souls of a husband and wife during the civil war to great effect, while the menacing lullaby "Shankhill Butchers is more like to terrify than soothe. "When The War Came", with its droning riff keeps things going nicely, while the Japanese myth of the Crane Wife ties everything together. There may not be anything here to rival "The Bagman's Gambit" or the "Mariner's Revenge..", but it at times comes mighty close.

4. Jarvis - Jarvis

In the year when those from his home town (or near it at least) have attempted to conquer his lyrical crown, it was fitting that the old man of British indie himself made a solo return, and a hugely impressive one it is too. His years spent away have not mellowed Cocker in the slightest, and both his anger and depression are voiced here. "Fat Children", by turns hilarious and horribly accurate, voices the anxiety of wondering if everything is going wrong, while the hidden track and download only single "Running The World" points the finger firmly and repeatedly in the strongest of terms. "I Will Kill Again" is the frustration of a man who sees those like him always getting the blame, while "From Auschwitz to Ipswich", which has acquired a tone to it which Cocker wouldn't have intended thanks to the events of the last couple of months, is the sound of desolation from someone who sees the insanity of the world at large. "Big Julie" is the song the Arctic Monkeys wish they could write: about a girl coming to terms with her sexuality and her teenage life. Let's hope he never stays away so long again.

3. The Long Blondes - Someone To Drive You Home

Without Kate Jackson, the Long Blondes probably wouldn't be sitting here at 3. Her presence and her voice are what drives Someone To Drive You Home. Best heard on "Once and Never Again", Jackson pleads with a 19-year-old girl that really, she doesn't need a boyfriend, and that she knows how it feels to be that age. Only being 27 herself, coming from someone else this might seem patronising, yet here it feels natural and makes for a swirling pop song. This theme is touched on again on "Heaven Help the New Girl", a song about being ditched, while the huge former single and soon to be released again "Giddy Stratospheres", with its glorious chorus features Jackson trying to tempt someone away from their partner herself. "Weekend Without Makeup" is the sort of song that only a female fronted band could do, although it follows that sort of chain of conciousness that Milburn and the Monkeys like to tap into. "Only Lovers Left Alive" though perhaps says it best; something will eventually have to give.

2. Guillemots - Through The Windowpane

This is the album that should have won the Mercury prize. Fyfe Dangerfield's groups record is however going to split opinions; for some it's overblown, trying to do too much all at once. One thing that can't be denied is the emotion that shines through throughout: especially on the almost vocals only "Blue Would Still Be Blue" where Dangerfield's voice soars with only basic occasional instrumentation for company. The real standouts are the two singles, "Made-up Love Song #43" and "Trains to Brazil", which has morphed from its initial beginnings into something of a tribute to Jean Charles de Menezes, and the closing "Sao Paolo", which clocks in at ten minutes, and is all the more enthralling for it.

1. ¡Forward, Russia! - Give Me A Wall

Is this the best album of the year? Perhaps not, but as well as the music the simple fact that FR have been successful outside the normal strictures of the music industry is something additionally worth recognising.

Despite having released singles on the bassist's label and charting highly for an indie-band using only their own promotion, no one was still prepared to give FR the benefit of the doubt and release their album. Saying fuck it, the band went away and self-released it instead. They've since gained a distribution deal in the US with Mute, and they're getting ready to record the follow up.

As for the album itself? It's best described as what you'd get if you threw Bloc Party and At-The Drive In in a blender. The post-punk is combined with the energy and furiousness of post-hardcore, while the nonsensical lyrics relate well to the latter comparison. Rather than name their songs properly, they're simply titled in the order in which they were written, although the band have since suggested this will change on the next album. Twelve and Nine, both singles, are a good reflection on the work as a whole, yet there are hidden depths, with Sixteen being slow to build before the drummer Katie's yelps combine with Tom's shrieks to form a massive breakdown. The last track, Eleven, ends with Tom pleading for us to "just don't forget". FR should be strong enough to ensure that's the case.


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Tuesday, December 26, 2006 

The worst music of 2006.

The Strokes - First Impressions of Earth

5 short years ago, the Strokes were hailed by the NME as the new saviours of music. 5 short years later, their third album should be cementing their position as one of the finest bands of the early stages of the 21st century. Instead, what we have is First Impressions of Earth. Julian Casablancas wasn't noted for his profound lyrics, but even by his standards this is a death rattle. Most of it based around Casablancas' apparent ennui of being in a hugely successful band, but that doesn't excuse this from the single Heart in a Cage:
See, I'm stuck in a city / But I belong in a field
Which unless Casablancas is projecting himself into the body of a cow in Mumbai is unforgivable. Sadly, it gets worse. On the Other Side is about as navel-gazing as it gets, relating how Casablancas hates everyone and hates himself for hating them. It's almost a relief when later on he starts warbling about how he has nothing to say; the first step is admitting that you have a problem. What makes it all the more aggravating is that the band themselves do sound tighter than ever: Juicebox especially is a punishingly angular attack. They've simply been let down by someone whose heart no longer seems in it. It's little wonder that Albert Hammond Jr has since escaped and launched his own solo side project - his album is far, far superior to this.

Tool - 10,000 Days

Could there be a less auspicious start than having the album information derided as fake by your own fans? Sure, Tool are well known for their trickery and jokes: a few years back Maynard announced to a fan site that he'd converted from being an affirmed atheist to Christianity. Some didn't notice it was April the 1st. Even so, for the first reviewer on Amazon to call "Rosetta Stoned" and "Lost Keys (Blame Hoffman)" obvious jokes didn't augur well. More embarrassing perhaps is the pages that follow of 5 star reviews. Far be it from me to suggest that Tool fans are deluding themselves, but 10,000 Days is by far their weakest record since their very first EP.

The opener, "Vicarious" is classic Tool: so much so that it sounds almost identical to previous tracks "Stinkfist" and "Schism". From there it's all downhill. There's nothing here that snarls as much as "Ticks & Leeches" or "Ænema", nothing as moving as "Reflection", and nothing as technical as the stomp of "Lateralus". It's the sound of mediocrity, of a band that has run short of ideas. When Maynard starts growling from the perspective of a hospital patient about "shitting the bed" it's an apt metaphor for what the band have in fact done: besmirched their own reputation by releasing an album that simply cannot compare to anything in their discography. That it took 5 years (although to be fair Maynard especially had been keeping busy in that period with A Perfect Circle) for this to take shape is all the more depressing.

The MySpace effect - Lily Allen / Sandi Thom

If you needed another reason to despise MySpace, look no further than Allen and Thom. Whether both really do owe their fame to the social networking site recently bought by Rupert Murdoch is open to question, especially in the case of Ms Thom, but it can't be denied that without the hype behind MySpace neither would probably be where they are now. Before you point fingers and say, hey, wait a minute, didn't those Monkeys emerge thanks to MySpace too, remember that their page there was never anything to do with them; rather set-up by fans themselves who then shared their demos. The same can't be said about our two female friends.

Both are products of the PR machine that many have duly accepted rather than protested against. How Allen, a product of numerous private schools, can somehow be considered "street" is a mystery, but it's one which has worked. In any case, the PR wouldn't matter if she was actually good, but Alright, Still proves otherwise. Allen, in case you haven't heard her, doesn't sing per-se, but rather speaks. This works fine when it comes to Eddie Argos of Art Brut, the irony being apparent, but here there is none: just a young woman pretending to be something she so obviously isn't. The single Smile, which reached number one, wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for the fingernails down the blackboard sound of Allen attempting to harmonise on the chorus: "and then I just SMIIIIIIILLLLE, I just SMMMMMMILLLLLLLLLEEEE". The follow-up, LDN, has quite possibly the worst lyrics ever written, this being the pick of the bunch:
She was struggling with bags from Tesco.
There were people from the city havin' lunch in the park,
I believe that is called 'al fresco'.
The whole song contains the sort of lines that make you want to repeatedly slam your head into your desk, desperately hoping for the sickening wet thump that will represent the shattering of your skull and the welcoming incoming perpetual darkness.

Compared to Thom however, Allen is a genius. Thom's single, I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair) is the deafening sound of the fast approaching musical apocalypse. Conflating the hippy and punk movements together, having no apparent insight or knowledge of either, Thom nonetheless sings about 69 and 77, trying to suggest that music from those eras genuinely meant something. The irony is that Thom's own recordings are so lacking in any individuality that her created tribute is in fact an insult, the equivalent of digging up Janis Joplin's corpse, pissing on it and then making her a permanent exhibit in Tate Modern. The only comfort is that Thom is now destined to fade into deserved obscurity; we may have to put up with Allen for years yet.

Fergie / Gwen Stefani

Not content with inflicting such masterpieces as "Shut Up", "My Humps" and "Hollaback Girl" on us respectively, 2006 saw the return of Fergie, freed from the restraints of her band mates in the Black Eyed Peas, and Stefani, freed from the apparent restraints of anyone who knows how to write an at least half-way decent song.

Despite probably having never been near London Bridge, Fergie's horrific take on a song about the structure will doubtless lead tourists to stay as far away as possible. Accompanied by a farting bassline, the lyrics could not possibly be any less vacuous, meaningless or unintelligible:
Grey goose got your girl feeling loose.
Now I’m wishin’ that I didn’t wear these shoes. (I hate heels)
It’s like everytime I get up on the dew,
Paparazzi put my business in the news.
Here is a clearly unconnected photograph of Fergie performing:

Stefani, deciding against the going down the Fergie route, instead samples yodeling. Yes, fucking yodeling. Wind it Up, the lead single and opening track, is so ghastly that it resembles the carnage at the end of Titus Andronicus, only converted to music form and played on the radio. The one thing that can be said in her favour as that when this decade's music is assessed, her onslaughts against the eardrums of the world will surely feature at the end of one chart, even if it is the worst.

Scissor Sisters - Ta-Dah

How? Why? Now? All questions that have to be asked about the utterly baffling success of the Scissor Sisters. Taking the worst excesses of 70s disco, adding to them the brain destroyingly bad influence of Elton John, with a liberal mixture of 80s glam, their music shouldn't work, and it doesn't. The Bee Gees sounded bad in their heyday, why the hell would anyone want to recreate it? Each member of the group has a stupid nickname, a trait that used to be confined to ridiculous over-the-top metallists and early punks. Add to this that one of them is called Ana Matronic, and has wires tattooed on her arm, and normally you'd have something that would be laughed about and sneered at. Something, sadly, has gone wrong in the machine. The terrifying single, "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'", with its faux-falsetto vocals and fizzing noises is enough to curdle the blood. The album itself, if it's possible, makes even "Candle in the Wind" look seminal.

Expect the best of 2006 tomorrow.


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Saturday, December 23, 2006 

War ain't over.

OK, I nicked this from Guido, and it's by Banksy, but it seems appropriate.

Oh, and I've been memed (ugh). I'll find a way of fitting that in when I do my masturbatory post on the best/worst music of the year in a couple of days. Until then, have a happy Christmas. I'm sure I won't.


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Friday, December 22, 2006 

Who will rid of us this meddlesome commissioner?

"Sir" Ian Blair really doesn't know when to shut up. When he's not making speeches urging 90 days detention for terrorist "suspects" be reintroduced, he's giving interviews in which he either lies through his teeth or exaggerates the "threat" without any regard for historical reality.

Defending the high security levels which have been maintained in London, Sir Ian said the threat of terrorism was "far graver" than those faced during World War II, the Cold War or the IRA.

It's not clear whether Blair is suggesting that the threat of terrorism now is worse than threat we faced during World War II, or whether he actually means that the threat of terrorism is worse now than it was in the past. If he's seriously trying to suggest that the threat we face now is worse than that from the Nazis in 1940-41, when close to 30,000 were killed in the Battle of Britain, or that from the Soviet Union, where our cities actually were potentially hours away from being vapourised, then he is a either a knave or a fool. Judging by his speech to the Urban Age summit in Berlin, he's not a fool. The only rational conclusion that can be reached is that his scaremongering is designed purely to further the police's demands for 90 days to be reintroduced, a demand that the attorney general and even Dr Demento himself have concluded there is no evidence to support.

Oh, and to add the icing on the cake:

However, he said there was "no specific intelligence" about an imminent attack but the threat was "ever present".

This really though is just a continuation of John Reid's previous remarks that there may be an attack before Christmas. We have no evidence that anyone is planning anything, but you know, you never really know with these exploding brown young men, do you?

Sir Ian said: "I'd say this: I, for my own part, I am quite confident that I will not face any kind of misconduct... in relation to Stockwell."

When questioned about his confidence, he added: "I'll just say that I'm confident, shall we leave it at that?"

Misconduct no. The fact that senior officers didn't want to "depress" their boss with bad news, or were involved in a cover-up not involving the commissioner though are two other distinct possibilities.

And he defended an anti-terror raid in Forest Gate claiming the shooting of a man during the raid was an accident.

Oh, that's all right then. The fact that the Koyair brothers were smeared relentlessly in the tabloid press while they were under arrest, most likely by those on "Sir" Ian Blair's force, with some even possibly involved in a elaborate plot to convict one of the brothers with possessing child pornography, which itself was leaked to the News of the Screws, obviously isn't worthy of a mention.

"We have learnt a lot from Forest Gate and you saw that in the way we handled the airline plot."

Yes, exaggerate wildly the true threat which those arrested posed, then quietly later release some without charge, while the authorities in Pakistan throw out terrorism charges against the alleged ringleader.

Back in March I suggested that we might be better with the devil we know, having Ian Blair as the Met's commissioner. I was wrong. There is not a snowflake's chance that anyone could be worse than this politicised, lying, mendacious shit. One Blair is bad enough, but two is hell itself.

Update: the Guardian's report on the interview is a lot more clear on what Blair actually said than the BBC report was. According to them:

"The level of threat is of an unparalleled nature and growing," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "In terms of civilians - you would have to go back to probably either the second world war or cold war for that threat.

"The IRA, with very few exceptions, did not want to carry out mass atrocities, they didn't want to die, they gave warnings and they were heavily penetrated by the intelligence services. None of those apply with al-Qaida and its affiliates."

This isn't necessarily true though either. The Madrid bombings were not suicide attacks although the bombers did later kill themselves when the net had closed in, and the main explosion in Bali in 2002 was from a car bomb, although a suicide attacker was involved in causing people to flee into the path of the larger explosion. These groups can be infiltrated, and the methods used by such Islamist groups will not always involve suicide, but whichever is deemed more appropriate. Adjusting to this new threat is going to take time, but for now vastly exaggerating the true threat to the public and politicising the debate over terrorism will only increase cynicism and disbelief. This is something the government and police have still yet to take heed of.

Speaking of which:

Sir Ian suggested the threat raised questions about the need to extend further the detention period for suspects.

And we're back to square one yet again.

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Thursday, December 21, 2006 

Scum and Express-watch: Veiled abuse.

Especially considering that Stephen Wright has now been charged with the murders of all five prostitutes, today's tabloid reporting on the man has been an absolute disgrace. As well as being linked to other alleged deaths, he's been accused of being a cross-dresser, and a ex-wife has jumped at the chance to grab some money from both the Sun and the Mirror. If this now doesn't cease, as you hope and expect that it will, then the attorney general should start looking into doing something other than simply kindly asking the editors to mind what they print, as they have up to now took no notice whatsoever.

It's the veil though that is once again causing "outrage" in both the Scum and Sexpress. There has been absolutely no evidence presented by anyone that
Mustaf Jama actually did manage to flee the country wearing the niqab, but as is as usual in the gutter press this doesn't matter one jot, as neither the Scum nor Express have even bothered reporting the statement from a police spokesman that Jama may have been wearing a pantomime horse costume for all they knew.

The Express front page also hints that the farce has continued, suggesting as it does that someone wearing the niqab was able to get on board a plane without first having her identity checked. They present no evidence of this, and clearly haven't tested whether someone wearing a niqab would now have their identity checked, presumably because this would a: cost money that Richard "Dirty" Desmond would rather be paying himself (having made £52 million last year) and b: it's easier just to pretend that the same old system is carrying on as normal, even though the adverse publicity would suggest that airlines would be extra vigilant as a result; and with the number of flights being canceled due to the fog enveloping many parts of Britain, staff not dealing with keeping passengers informed would be more free to make extra checks on the reduced number of those actually boarding flights.

Nonetheless, the Scum has decided to start up another of its usually incredibly successful campaigns:

THE Sun today launches a campaign to close the veil loophole making a mockery of Britain’s airport security.

We told yesterday how a member of the gang which killed WPC Sharon Beshenivsky sneaked out of Heathrow by donning a Muslim niqab, with just a slit for eyes.

Now we are calling on Home Secretary John Reid to turn passport control at every airport in the country into a veil-free zone.

MPs too are urging action after it emerged that hard-pressed staff carry out only RANDOM passport checks on passengers leaving Britain.

We want these checks to be COMPULSORY with veils lifted in a private area.

If more resources are needed they must be found. Otherwise criminals — and terrorists — are sure to exploit the weakness in future.

You mean exploit the weakness to flee the country? I thought you lot were all for deporting these people?

Seriously though, this is making a humongous mountain out of the tiniest of molehills. I can't find any figures even detailing the number of women who actually wear the niqab in Britain (if anyone has any then I'd appreciate seeing them) but I doubt it numbers more than the low-to-mid tens of thousands. The Express however, seems to have a different idea. In today's article it suggests that "dozens of veil wearers passed unchecked through ... airports", but of course doesn't provide any evidence to back up this claim. The numbers of niqab wearers which pass through airports every day has to be assumed to be extremely low. The suggestion that women would even have to lift their veils for their identity to be ascertained is ludicrous. Talking to them while examining their passport should be enough on its own to make sure the wearer of the niqab actually is female, and at the same time the colour of their eyes, the facial features that can be made out etc, could be checked. Only then if there are any doubts would it be necessary for the woman to actually lift her veil. Rather than every single niqab wearer having to lift her veil, taking up extra time, this would a much sensibler and more realistic scheme to follow. Whether we would want to check every niqab wearer entering the country rather than exiting is a different matter.

Both Mr Davis and Mr Malik called for an inquiry into how gang member Mustaf Jama, 26, an asylum seeker, fled disguised as a Muslim woman with a stolen passport.

And the reason there won't be one will be because the police are hardly likely to present their seemingly less than overwhelming evidence that he actually did. Better to blame an item of religious dress that's been in the news of late for all the wrong reasons, as well as airport staff, than to recognise their own failings in letting Jama get away in the first place.

Then we get down to the real reason that the newspapers are so angry about this. Sharon Beshenivsky's friends and relatives have been quite reasonably expressing their anger about the failure for Jama to be deported. Having come to Britain in 1993 as an asylum seeker from Somalia, Jama had been imprisoned for a number of crimes, but instead of being deported as is meant to be the case for someone here on a visa or otherwise from overseas, it has been determined, rightly in my view, that it's not safe for anyone to be forcibly deported back to Somalia.

Even the Sun hints at the anarchy which has ensued across the country since 1991, describing it in the campaign article as "war-torn" and "lawless". There are no such caveats though in the Scum's leader column, which is mainly an unwarranted attack on the Labour immigration minister:

Absurdly, they are allowed to stay because it would breach their human rights to send them home.

Well yes, generally sending someone back to a country which they fled from in fear of their lives, especially one which now appears to be close to total war, where according to the CIA factbook major infectious diseases are also listed as being of very high risk, could "absurdly" breach their right to life. The various elements of human rights law which can on occasion seem absurd have to be balanced against the benefits that they have also given us: such as protecting the right to protest, the right not to be held indefinitely without charge, and requiring the setting up of inquests into deaths where the authorities themselves may be implicated in the death. While no one may be happy about Jama not being deported, would we feel the same way if we knew that an asylum seeker who had committed a minor crime had been deported and ended up being tortured or killed in their home country? Would the Sun also deport asylum seekers convicted of crime or those here on visas/illegally under similar circumstances back to Zimbabwe, Iran or North Korea?

Meanwhile, over in the Express, the Tory MP David Davies (not David Davis, the shadow home secretary, although he has similar views) was more than happy to do the Express's dirty work for them in suggesting the right to wear the niqab should be curtailed:
Fellow Tory David Davies said the manner of Jama’s escape furthered his belief that the Government must begin examining ways to discourage or even outlaw the wearing of the full veil in public.

“Many European countries, and indeed Muslim countries, have taken steps to ban the wearing of the veil in public,” said the Monmouth MP.

“One example is Tunisia. They take the view that the wearing of the veil is not stipulated by the Koran, it is a political act.
Davies is echoing previous arguments made by the Express itself, but let's take them apart again anyway.

The only European country heading towards a total ban in public is the Netherlands, and whether it will ever actually pass is in doubt. France has a ban on the wearing of all religious symbols in state buildings; several municipalities in Belgium have banned the wearing of the niqab or burqa in public; a similar ban to the one in France exists in several German states. As for Tunisia, what's the government there like? Democracy is it? Err, no. A quick trip over to Wikipedia reveals:

Tunisia is a republic with a strong presidential system dominated by a single political party. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has been in office since 1987, the year he deposed Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup. The constitution has been changed twice to allow Ben Ali to remain in power: initially from two to three terms, then from three to five. The ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), was the sole legal party for 25 years, known previously as the Socialist Destourian Party (PSD). The RCD still dominates political life.

Facing virtually no opposition, the President is elected to 5-year terms. He appoints a Prime Minister and cabinet, who play a strong role in the execution of policy. Regional governors and local administrators also are appointed by the central government. Largely consultative mayors and municipal councils are elected. There is a unicameral legislative body, the Chamber of Deputies, which has 182 seats, 20% of which are reserved for the opposition parties. It plays a growing role as an arena for debate on national policy but never originates legislation. The Chamber virtually always passes bills presented by the executive with only one minor change. The judiciary is nominally independent but responds to executive direction, especially in political cases. The military is professional and does not play a role in politics.

Tunisia is noteworthy for its lack of public political discourse. Tunisia's precise political situation is hard to determine due to a strong level of silence and lack of transparency maintained by the government. There is compelling evidence that dissidents are routinely arrested, for crimes as minor as viewing banned web sites. There are currently six legal opposition parties all with their own newspapers. However, the Committee to Protect Journalists, in its 2005 country report on Tunisia, details a persistent record of harassment, persecution, imprisonment, and physical harm perpetrated on journalists critical of the government. Even Western journalists, when writing on Tunisian soil, are not spared this fate[1].

David Davies was also recently taken to task by Unity.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006 

Scum-watch: Can we get Wade arrested for this?

At 4:30pm on Tuesday this article was published on the Guardian's website:

Suffolk Constabulary has written to editors asking them not to identify any individuals involved in its investigation into the murder of five women in Ipswich, despite nearly every major news outlet naming the first arrested man.

The Suffolk chief constable, Alastair McWhirter, wrote to editors reminding them that legal proceedings were now active in its investigation.

"We would ask that the media do not publish any material that may hinder the investigation, especially where identification might be an issue, or may prejudice the right of anyone to a fair trial at a future date," he wrote.

"The editor who chooses to make public any material that prejudices the right of any potential defendant to a fair trial will carry a heavy burden, should that person be acquitted as a consequence of that prejudice.

"I put you on notice that Suffolk Constabulary will take all necessary legal steps to ensure the integrity of all future legal proceedings.

"We strongly advise you to take legal advice before naming any individual or individuals."

5 hours later, and this (I'm not going to reproduce the front page on this occasion) rolls off the presses at Wapping.

Now, the argument can convincingly be made, given the coverage of the arrest of the second man, that his partner and friends had already put his name into the public domain by giving interviews and making clear their belief in his innocence.

The Sun's front page today though is quite clearly out of order. Whether it potentially does make a conviction more or less likely is open to debate, but it's the kind of potentially prejudicial news reporting that ought to be much more carefully thought about before being published. The article itself is also a typically breathless Sun piece, with all the details seemingly being fed to them by a police source, with the details of the suspect from a ex-wife who has likely trousered a hefty cheque. It's worth noting that two of the journalists responsible, Julie Moult and Mike Sullivan, have been involved in previous Scum stories which have been thoroughly debunked. Moult was one of those that reported on the imaginary "Muslim yobs" which vandalised a house soldiers had looked into moving into, and never responded to an email from Unity to explain herself, while Sullivan wrote complete bollocks about the house of horrors that, err, wasn't and had a hand in the still uncorrected Rochelle Holness story, as well as other articles of dubious accuracy.

For comparison's sake, today's Mirror also publishes a photo of the suspect on its front page, but blocks out his face, which is more sensible, but do we really need to see a photograph of the man at all until he's charged? He was arrested without resisting, and was not a fugitive or wanted for questioning before he entered the police's inquiries, which would be the two defenses for publishing the photographs of those suspected of criminal activity. Most of the rest of the media has given the suspect's name, and I don't think there's much wrong with that, although the police request is reasonable and should be taken seriously by all.

Elsewhere, MySpace has been defending its decision to remove Tom Stephens profile:

"We have taken down the profile and preserved the data should it be useful for law enforcement in their investigation," said Hemanshu Nigam, chief security officer at MySpace.

"While we cannot go into detail about the case because it is an ongoing investigation, we can say that since the site's inception, MySpace has met with law enforcement officials around the globe to solicit their viewpoints on how we can enhance our cooperation with law enforcement and increase user security," Mr Nigam added.

"In this particular case, we have taken action to preserve the account for law enforcement purposes and in order to provide information to investigators through the appropriate legal channels."
This isn't exactly convincing. Only those who were on Stephens' friend list could have altered the page in any way, unless there was someone else who had access to Stephens' account. Considering that he lived alone, and that his house is being apparently taken apart by the police, no one was that likely to. Anyway, doesn't MySpace have caches of pages themselves? Mirrors of the page also exist in the Google archive, so there were plenty of potential other available copies for the police, should any of the information on the profile be of any relevance, which seems doubtful itself. Unless MySpace were directly asked by the police to remove the page, then the embarrassment factor still seems to be the most rational reason for why his profile was hastily removed.

Update: This blog has more on the MySpace aspect.

Elsewhere still, Not Saussure, BlairWatch and Five Chinese Crackers have all been examining the dubious claims that Mustaf Jamma, wanted for the murder of PC Sharon Beshenivsky, fled the country with his sister's passport while wearing the niqab. The police themselves aren't convinced:

Asked whether Mustaf Jama had used a full Muslim veil to evade checks, a spokesman for West Yorkshire police said: "It's a possibility. He could have been wearing a pantomime horse outfit as well. But until we get him, we won't know for sure."

No further comment necessary.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006 

Littlejohn-watch: They were whores and it's all the liberals fault...

Fisking Littlejohn is even less rigorous than taking on a Sun-article, but by God if today's piece isn't the most despicable little rant from a little man that I've read in a long time:

Let's get the caveat out of the way from the off. The five women murdered in Ipswich were tragic, lost souls who met a grisly end. I sincerely hope whoever killed them is caught, charged and convicted.

That's nice of you. Why is this so reminiscent of the infamous: I'm not a racist, BUT..

And I know this might sound frightfully callous in the current hysterical, emotional climate, but we're not all guilty.

We do not share in the responsibility for either their grubby little existences or their murders. Society isn't to blame.

It might not be fashionable, or even acceptable in some quarters, to say so, but in their chosen field of "work'=", death by strangulation is an occupational hazard.

That doesn't make it justifiable homicide, but in the scheme of things the deaths of these five women is no great loss.

In a sense, Littlejohn is right. For those of us who have never experienced drug addiction, or had to sell our bodies in order to obtain the money to feed that addiction, we can't even begin to enter into the mindset of those who do it every single day of the year. Instead, we block it out. These people aren't human. They don't exist. If the women had been murdered over a period of years, for instance, rather than in the space of one or two months, and in different ways than through apparent strangulation, then the national media wouldn't so much have touched the case. It might have merited a local TV news report, or the odd paragraph in the local paper. It's easier to pretend these things don't happen. As soon as the word "prostitute" is mentioned to describe the person who has gone missing, they're written off, especially when there are cases of young, attractive, white women who have been killed or gone missing to report instead, who might not so much have sucked a dick, let alone been paid to do so.

This is what Littlejohn is suggesting. Rather than every life being equal, the fact that these women were paying for their drug habits through sex work instantly lowers them below the tragedy of a "normal" person being killed by a serial killer. As some have suggested in recent days, it was only once Peter Sutcliffe had attacked "normal" women that the public really took notice. That this has changed is to be celebrated. Instead, comfortable right wing hacks like Littlejohn are given pages to try to turn back the tide.

They weren't going to discover a cure for cancer or embark on missionary work in Darfur. The only kind of missionary position they undertook was in the back seat of a car.

No, and neither are the vast, vast majority of the population of this country. Is Littlejohn suggesting that their deaths would also be "no great loss"? No, this is just a conceit so that he can get a crude joke in.

Of course their friends and families are grieving. That's what friends and families do. But they should also be asking themselves if there was anything they could have done to prevent what happened.

If you discovered your daughter had gone on the game to feed her heroin habit, wouldn't you move heaven and earth to get her off it?

Well, surprise surprise, Tania Nichol's parents didn't know she was working on the streets, so whether they knew that she was also on drugs is doubtful. Neither did Gemma Adams', and they had tried to help her, but apparently failed. Anneli Alderton had been on drug treatment programmes but failed in her attempts to get off. Paula Clennell's father didn't know she was "on the game". Annette Nichols' cousin had tried to get her off prostitution and drugs, but had also failed.

All of which underlines just the kind of place which street prostitutes find themselves in. They end up there because there usually is nowhere else for them. Their parents may have disowned them, or have similar problems themselves. They may have tried to help but failed. For Littlejohn to just dismissively complain that they should have done more is insulting. By their own nature, most prostitutes are ashamed of what they are reduced to. They often don't want the people who are closest to them, especially relatives, to know what they do.

Frankly, I'm tired of the lame excuses about how they all fell victim to ruthless pimps who plied them with drugs. These women were on the streets because they wanted to be.

We are all capable of free will. At any time, one or all of them could have sought help from the police, or the church, or a charity, or a government agency specifically established to deal with heroin addicts. They chose not to.

As noted above, it looks as if some of them did have help, or attempted to get some. Any person who has battled nicotine addiction will know how difficult it is to give up. Crack cocaine addiction is almost certainly far worse. In a study on monkeys, even when starving and with food in the cage, they would instead use the drug.

Littlejohn is right though that they were on the streets because they wanted to be. As interviews by the media have made clear, they have almost no alternative to doing so. The sad fact is that unless any of those organisations that he mentions had been willing to get any of them straight away onto programmes, then they would have just walked back out. The funding is simply not there, and waiting lists are long, as they are in the prisons as well. Unless treatment becomes as plentiful as the drugs are, the situation will remain the same.

The tortuous twistings of the sisterhood over the past week have been a joy to behold. The 30-yearold Spare Rib T-shirts have been brought out of mothballs and we've been treated to the All Men Are Bastards/Rapists/Murderers mantra from assorted Glendas who ought to be old enough to know better.

As opposed to the Taxi Driver/White Van Man stereotype that Littlejohn lives up to. Besides, at least one Glenda, Carole Malone, has already been out following the line of Littlejohn, rather than the "sisterhood". It also may be something to do with the fact that male commentators, such as AN Wilson, Simon Heffer and Leo McKinstry have already been out blaming the liberals and political correctness.

We've heard the well-rehearsed arguments for legalised and regulated prostitution, as if we were living under the Taliban. The fact is, we've already got de facto legal brothels on every High Street.

They're call saunas or massage parlours.

As I remarked when the Labour MP Joe Ashton was once caught in a Siamese "sauna" in Northampton, he must have been the only man in Britain ever to go to a massage parlour for a massage. It doesn't get much more glamorous than that.

All of this depends on the local police force and local council. Some inevitably turn a blind eye, while others are a lot more hardline. Besides Mr Littlejohn, how is it you know so much about this?

The arguments for regulating and legalising prostitution also go a lot deeper than this, as he well knows. The Observer at the weekend reported that Blair vetoed the attempts by Blunkett, in one of his only sane moves, to introduce regulated "red light zones", which have worked in the Netherlands and Germany. No prostitute has been killed in such zones which have been introduced overseas. Such regulated zones could also be useful in cracking down on human trafficking, meaning that modern day sex slavery could be almost entirely avoided. Littlejohn dismisses all these various suggestions and plans in one swipe of his pen, or tap on his keyboard.

These five women were on the streets because even the filthiest, most disreputable back-alley "sauna" above a kebab shop wouldn't give them house room.

Again, not necessarily. As the pictures of the women have also shown, none of them were the stereotype of a hard-faced, drug-battered old prostitute which so many have of street girls. Diane Taylor has also reported that the police attitude towards prostitutes in Ipswich was not among the most liberal. Really though, this is just Littlejohn attacking the women for being the lowest of the low, an attempt to make the reader feel contempt for them rather than sympathy. They weren't even good enough to work in a mangy brothel, don't you get it?

The men who used them were either too mean to fork out whatever a massage parlour charges, or simply weren't fussy. Some men are actually turned on by disgusting, drug-addled street whores. Where there's demand, there'll always be supply.

Or that some would rather go to an area where it's less likely they'll be caught by someone they know. Most "saunas" are now in areas of high-level CCTV. Down by Ipswich's Portman Road stadium there was none, as the police have found to their disadvantage. Men will always go where they know the working girls are. For some, sex is just sex. It doesn't matter what the woman looks like. Men can also get stung in massage parlours, some of which resemble places like those in Soho where the naive get trapped. Those working on the street are often more honest. As above, this is just another swipe at the women involved. Notice how the men are only insulted for being mean, while the women themselves are "disgusting".

This wasn't a case of women going on the game to put bread on the table, or to look after their "babies". That's what the welfare state is for. They did it for drugs.

No shit? I thought you were meant to tell it like it is, not state the obvious.

The gormless Guardianistas simply refuse to confront this blindingly obvious reality. They would rather deify celebrity druggies such as Kate Moss and Will Self than face the truth that hard drugs wreck lives.

Ah, now we get down to insulting the liberals. It's the gormless Guardianistas that are responsible for these women being on smack. The tabloids which Littlejohn has worked for never so much as cover the lives of celebrity smackheads like Pete Doherty, do they? Besides, this is a false argument. What kind of person looks up to Doherty for being a drug addict? They might for his music, not for the way he's killing himself. How many young people would have even heard of Will Self? "Drug chic", if it does actually exist, which is far from proved, is more evident amongst the celebrity mags and gutter press than it is among the the liberal Guardian and Independent readers. The chattering classes that read the Daily Mail and love their dinner parties are similarly likely to regard cocaine use as aspirational rather than something to look down upon.

Contrary to Littlejohn's liberal insults, as has been noticed, it's been the attitudes of the tabloids towards both tolerance zones and towards treatment programmes that mean they often don't see the light of day, so we don't know whether they would work or not. When Howard Roberts, deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire police earlier in the year suggested giving heroin to addicts, he was jumped on by the same people who have now jumped to blaming liberals. They want to blame and decry at the same time, without offering any solution themselves other than the current one which is so evidently failing.

What I find most objectionable about all this is the attempt to make us all feel responsible for the murders. There is a nasty whiff of Lady Di about the enforced mood of mourning, with even the Old Bill coming across like hand-wringing archbishops.

This is nothing to do though with the women themselves, or the "liberal" media; it's been the tabloids and TV that have been driving it, as they always have and always did. It's a case of great public interest, and when five young women have been killed, everyone wants the perpetrator to be found, and quickly. The police have learned their mistakes from their past, in the way they dealt with Peter Sutcliffe, and the tone struck by them has been just the right one. This is nothing like the huge, mindless gnashing of teeth that followed Diana's death, which was genuinely enforced mourning on a grand scale.

At Ipswich Town's home game on Saturday, there was a minute's silence. We were supposed to believe that this was a true reflection of the community's sympathy.

I don't buy it. Most people went along with it in the spirit of emotional correctness and through fear of getting their heads kicked in if they didn't.

I'd agree if it had been at football grounds across the land, but this was at Ipswich Town's stadium, very close to the area from where the women disappeared. I heard the minute's silence on the radio, preceded by a moving prayer from a local minister, and it was observed impeccably, with everyone applauding when it was over. The population of Ipswich might know their mood better than a gor blimey hack who probably only read about the silence, rather than heard it.

There was only one thing missing, but don't bet against it.

When Blair gets back from saving the Middle East, don't be surprised if he turns up at the funeral of one of these unfortunate women to deliver a lip-trembling, tear-stained eulogy: "She was the People's Prostitute".

There we go, the obligatory Blair insult. The cherry on the cake of an offensive, heartless piece, a true reflection on the writer himself.

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MySpace-watch: The disappearing profile mystery.

Tom Stephens MySpace page before it was deleted, taken from the Google archive.

The decision to remove the first man arrested in connection with the Suffolk murders MySpace page is curious, to say the least. While it remained up until at least late last night, it's since disappeared, to be replaced with MySpace's generic 404 page.

The Scum, which ought to know why it's gone missing, as both are a part of Murdoch's empire, suggests:

Stephens, a Tesco trolley attendant, kept a profile page on the website On it, he called himself The Bishop after a cartoon character and listed his interests as keep fit and 80s music. He said he was 5ft 11ins and athletic.

The page and his entry on Friends Reunited were last night deleted after hate messages poured in.

Which is disingenuous at best. As any fule no, you can only leave a message on someone's MySpace page if they've got you in their friend list. This wouldn't have stopped private messages from flooding in, obviously, but if MySpace knew this was happening, as it apparently did, it could have deleted them without deleting the actual page.

Stranger still is that MySpace doesn't even delete pages if the person who created it dies. has been chronicling those who have died for a while now. Most of the pages turn into tributes to the person, which is one reason why they aren't disposed of.

One can then only assume that MySpace/the Murdoch empire was embarrassed by the revelation that a suspect in the Suffolk prostitute murders inquiry had a profile on their site from hell, which doesn't bode well for the future independence of the site.

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Monday, December 18, 2006 

Cause and effects.

Despite some disdainful remarks towards the chances of Tony Blair's tour of the Middle East actually achieving anything, there in actuality could be no better time for him to visit the Palestinian people, in order to see the actual effects of his policies.

Making his journey as he is during the season of goodwill, the boycott imposed on the Palestinian people for making their legitimate democratic choice is close to reaching what is its only logical conclusion: civil war. Even if the situation in the occupied territories has not yet descended to its lowest point, then the people themselves are suffering almost as they never have before, and by Palestinian standards, that's quite something. 160,000 government workers have largely gone unpaid since March; two-thirds of the 4 million Palestinians are living below the poverty line; Gaza, despite the continuing ceasefire between those firing Qassams and Israel holding, remains the world's largest open-air prison, with the border checkpoints both into Israel and Egypt remaining closed for inordinate lengths of time, mostly justified on "security grounds", despite agreements previously agreed with the backing of the EU and the US.

Blair's comments at his press conference with Mahmoud Abbas were, as has become natural for him, willfully ignorant and blase:
"I hope we will be in a position over these coming weeks to put together an initiative that allows that support for reconstruction and development and to alleviate the plight and suffering of the Palestinian people and also, crucially, give a political framework to move forward to a two-state solution.

That it has been the boycott set-up in response to the election of Hamas, a decision made by a people fed up with the corruption and ineffectiveness of Fatah, that has grossly exacerbated the plight and suffering is completely glossed over. As long as the Palestinian people change their minds from a decision made only 12 months ago, then they will get the support for reconstruction. This is the carrot and stick approach taken to new extremes: we seem to be prepared to take the Palestinian people to the edge of the abyss, only to offer them salvation while pretending that we didn't push them to the precipice in the first place.

All this said, it's hard not to agree with Mahmoud Abbas's decision to call fresh elections. While Abu Mazen's move may well be illegal, it is not as some are suggesting a coup attempt. It would be easier to sympathise with Hamas's situation if its year of governing had not been such an unmitigated disaster. Its continued refusal to so much as share power with Fatah just to end the boycott has sentenced the people they are representing to a life few of us can imagine. They have every right to continue to not recognise Israel, but their alternatives, such as a period of hudna, are no alternative to a negotiated peace settlement, however far off that seems.

Likewise, Blair's moves for peace would be easier to be optimistic about, let alone support, if we knew that Israel felt the same way about proper negotiations. Olmert's few words are from a big enough shift to suggest that their is substance beneath them. Before the Palestinian elections in January, Mahmoud Abbas had for months been pleading for direct talks. Instead Sharon continued with his disengagement plans, thinking that leaving the Palestinians with a shell of a West Bank would somehow lead to peace. This summer's war with Hizbullah has showed that only a full settlement can even start to remove the hatred and grievances which have built up over the years; otherwise, you leave behind an embittered people waiting for their time to come. Israel's apologists will always claim that the Palestinians don't want peace, but the continued building of settlements and establishing of yet more checkpoints, designed to disrupt the lives of Palestinians as much as they possibly can, suggests that successive Israeli governments are not yet prepared to face up to the backlash from the extremist settlers which will come when it becomes clear that their outposts have to be removed for peace to have a chance of flourishing.

The overwhelming support that has been given to Abbas from both Blair and others is also naive in a region still smarting from the refusal of Britain to join the others in the EU in calling for an immediate ceasefire during the summer Lebanon war. While there may be good, clean motives behind doing so, it simply makes it even easier for Hamas to cry about western backed coups. Their apparent decision to boycott the polls seems unlikely to backfire, and if Abbas was simply aiming to get Hamas to return to negotiations over a national unity government, then he appears to have succeeded only in making Hamas even more recalcitrant.

As it is so often in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the only thing can be hoped for is that the worst doesn't happen. The ceasefire between Hamas and Fatah is likely to remain shaky, and there could be no bigger disaster than a civil war, even it only involves those with direct party affiliation rather the wider populace. Blair, the lame duck, would be better putting his energies into getting the boycott lifted or cut down to size, as its only effect so far has been to entrench Hamas's power, as well as sending them even further into the arms of Iran, unless that of course was the intention of Israel and the wider international community in the first place.

Related posts:
Lenin's Tomb - The politics of the Palestinian 'civil war'.
Mask of Anarchy - US backed groups force fresh elections in Palestine.

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More complete coincidences.

As other blogs have already noticed, another piece of news to be buried on Thursday was Eliza Manningham-Buller's decision to step down as head of MI5 earlier than expected, although they've since been keen to stress that Buller apparently made the decision prior to the 7/7 bombings. Strange how they forgot to make the announcement until last Thursday, eh?

Her announcement naturally also has nothing to do with what appears to be soon to emerge new information about those behind the bombings. The Sunday Times reports that they and other media are being blocked by court order from revealing the true scale of the intelligence that MI5 had on those who were previously described as "cleanskins", while the Daily Wail has further details, via Rachel:

Intelligence sources say the men were first seen in early 2004, nearly 18 months before the suicide attacks in London, which left 52 people dead on three Underground lines and a bus.

On one occasion, Khan was monitored driving his car with suspects in it and on another was recorded talking to them about training for jihad.

They also talked about carrying out financial frauds, which helped persuade MI5 that they were not interested in attacks in the UK.

All this is hard to square with the government's own continuing line that a full public inquiry into 7/7 would divert resources or tell us little that we don't already know. While the inquiry into the death of Diana probably isn't the best example and doesn't really compare to what a full investigation into 7/7 would be like, Lord Stevens' comprehensively demolished all the conspiracy theories, whether their proponents are conceding or not. As those of us who frequent blogs know all too well, there are still some people who think that 7/7 was an inside job. While an inquiry would be unlikely to convince the hardcore of fantasists, it would help destroy their arguments.

Along with the need for full closure, a proper and honest summary of what the intelligence services did and didn't know desperately needs to be made public. This doesn't need to be about blaming them, more showing us properly what we are up against. For the moment we're stuck with the hysterical mumblings of politicians who have done their utmost to make "the threat" a party issue; this undermines trust both in them and in the honesty of the spooks and police.

Instead, the government seems to be determined to leave us either entirely in the dark, or buying us off with occasional tidbit, which will only drive the hunger for a full inquiry in the long run.

As for Manningham-Bullshitter herself, she's off to live in the country with her alpacas. Whether she will "treat" us to her memoirs, as did Stella Rimington, who spent her time overseeing the infiltration of those dangerous subversives in CND and breaking the miners strike but actually wrote very little about those things because she was right and we're all wrong, remains to be seen.

P.S. You can sign the Downing Street petition for an inquiry here.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006 

The politics of lying.

There is an exemplary article in the Guardian today by David Leigh and Rob Evans, the two journalists who kick-started the Serious Farce Office's investigation, which debunks many of the myths surrounding the whole BAe corruption inquiry.

Elsewhere, can you possibly guess which newspaper wholeheartedly supports Blair 'n' Goldsmith's decision to drop the inquiry?

Good move

TONY BLAIR was right to scrap the Serious Fraud Office probe into BAE’s sale of Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia.

If the inquiry had gone ahead the Saudis would have pulled out and taken their business to France.

Highly unlikely. No one else has been stupid enough to buy France's jet fighters yet, and the Saudis weren't going to go alone over corruption allegations that affect BAe more than they do the absolute monarchy.

The cost to Britain: 50,000 lost jobs and terminal damage to swathes of our industry.

Lies. At most 5,000 jobs in the UK were "threatened", as a report on the benefits of the Eurofighter by York University's Centre of Defence Economics made clear. BAe themselves are major benefactors of York University, sponsoring the National Science Learning Centre there. It seems unlikely that they would therefore underestimate the amount of jobs that BAe's Eurofighter scheme would support.

That, presumably, would have pleased the left-wing trouble-makers who suspect BAE paid backhanders to the Saudi royal family to secure the sale.

Indeed, the SFO is made up entirely of left-wing trouble-makers. Like the head of the SFO, who rejected the idea that the probe would have led to nothing, and those left-wing trouble-makers at the Financial Times, who denounced the decision. As for suspecting, well, isn't it funny how the next two sentences of the Sun's leader are given over to defending bribes:

No one likes paying bribes. Give them to one customer and you may have to give them to all.

But in some parts of the world no business is done without handing over a few sweeteners.

That the Sun feels differently to "Sun readers' money" being used to bribe Saudi princes by paying for them to have sex with vice girls (through subsidies), as they describe the murdered sex worker Anneli Alderton on their front page, than it does to "wastes of taxpayers' money" and benefit cheats is worth noting for the next time they righteously start a campaign against either.

It would only be fair at this point to note that Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal al Saud has a 6-7% stake in News Corporation, News International, the Sun's publishers' parent company. This doubtless has no bearing on the Sun's dignified and respectful editorial stand whatsoever.

Similarly, the fact that Sacha Baron Cohen's film Borat was produced by Fox has obviously not attributed to the fact that there have been two puff pieces in the Sun in two days regarding its chances of clinching awards, one written by failed comedian Johnny Vaughan, who has in the past been accused of not watching the films he "reviews".

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Friday, December 15, 2006 

The death of Blair's essential values.

Lord Bell, described by the Guardian as an "arch-propagandist", who led the hysteria for the SFO investigation to be dropped.

December the 14th will go down in history as the day that the prime minister was questioned by police over the loans for peerages scandal, but the real outrage should be over two things: the shameless and overt attempts to overshadow the prime minister's questioning, and the decision to cancel the Serious Farce Office's investigation into corruption involving BAe Systems and Saudi Arabia's despotic monarchy.

The Grauniad reports that the Dear Leader hadn't informed other members of the cabinet that he was to be interviewed by Inspector Knacker yesterday, meaning that Alistair Darling, announcing the plans to close 2,500 post offices, and Douglas Alexander, publishing a report recommending new runways at Stanstead and Heathrow most likely had no inkling of how they were going to be pawns in Blair and 10 Downing Street's spin game. They had known for weeks that Lord Stevens was also going to be holding a press conference stating his findings from the inquiry into the death of Princess Diana. That meant that the tabloids were the following day bound to be heavily distracted in the least, and lo and behold, so it came to pass.

The broads and television news had to be additionally bought off, though. Enter stage left Lord Goldsmith, who decided to pick yesterday afternoon to inform the House of Lords that he was dropping the investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into allegations that BAe Systems was running a slush fund through which notable Saudis were getting such perks such as prostitutes, Rolls-Royces, and holidays in California.

His statement to the Lords is one of the most mendacious of recent times. He said:

"It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest. No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest.

The prime minister and the foreign and defence secretaries have expressed the clear view that continuation of the investigation would cause serious damage to UK/Saudi security, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation, which is likely to have seriously negative consequences for the UK public interest in terms of both national security and our highest priority foreign policy objectives in the Middle East."

The only conclusion that can be come to, other than the one that Lord Goldsmith is a fucking liar, is that the Saudis had threatened to withdraw from the intelligence pact which means that all "intelligence" is pooled between the security services. Rather than call their bluff and accuse the Saudis of blackmail, interfering with the right of another sovereign nation to investigate possible corruption, Blair and Goldsmith rolled over. The message seems to be that even if you're a despotic regime that practices torture, bans women from driving cars, and stands for pretty much everything that the Labour party has historically opposed, all you have to do is threaten to stop cooperation and our politicians will drop everything to make it right.

OK, let's face it, the above is a load of bollocks. Goldsmith is a fucking liar. We already know this from when Blair more or less told him, or to give it Lord Hutton's take on why Alastair Campbell sexed up the Iraq weapons dossier, subliminally inferred that he had to change his mind over the fact that it is was possible war would be illegal. The Saudis may have threatened to withdraw cooperation in the wider "war on terror", but it was an empty threat. There's no way that the Saudis would have stopped giving the same material to the CIA, and the CIA would have passed it on to MI5/6 as a matter of course. The reality is that the SFO, for once, was very close to getting to the bottom of the whole corrupt concealed payments and perks packages which have been wetting the Saudis' whistles for decades. They'd either got the Swiss to hand over the details about Swiss bank accounts, or were just about to. Potential charges for current/ex-BAe salesmen/board members/executives might not have been that far off (the SFA apparently had informed Goldsmith they would need another 18 months, but that they were certain a case could be put together), with all the bad publicity and revelations about just how the taxpayer has been paying through subsidies for Saudi princes to bang whores likely to come out in the midst of any trial. This was something that BAe and the Saudis could not allow at any cost.

Hence the hysterical campaign by BAe, taken up nobly by the Daily Mail and the Sun, as described here by Unity, that tens of thousands of jobs were at risk, with the Saudis threatening to go elsewhere. It was all bluster. There had been some negotiations with the French, but they hadn't got anywhere. Local constituency MPs, worried that anger would be directed at them, also took up the cause, as Lyndsay Hoyle continued to do today, showing that he didn't have the faintest clue what he was talking about:

"Quite rightly they were happy with the news," he said, adding that it was a boost to a wide range of companies including Rolls-Royce, which builds engines.

"Tens of thousands of jobs were put at risk by a 1980s issue."

He said that the investigation had been going on for too long and there was no evidence of any wrongdoing. "Jobs would have gone," he added.

On the contrary, documents seized from a warehouse in Hertfordshire and obtained by the Guardian back in 2004 showed that payments from the alleged slush fund had contained past the date when corrupt deals were made illegal in 2002. As for evidence of wrongdoing, there was plenty of circumstantial, and it was the possibility of the SFO getting access to Swiss bank accounts that resulted in BAe and the Saudis realising they were deadly serious.

Whether Goldsmith's announcement was brought forward once Blair and Downing Street realised that the amount of cover they had counted on hadn't done the job, or if it was just a happy coincidence, we probably will never know, although we all know about this government's record.

The lie still had to be decided upon though for cancelling the SFO investigation. Whether doing so on the basis of jobs and "saving" the deal was potentially against international law is uncertain, but was likely to cause further anger among those who wanted to see the SFO finish its probe. Instead, the government hid once again behind "national security" and "counter-terrorism", when its clear that it had absolutely nothing to do with it. This was a political decision taken from up high, with Goldsmith playing the fall-guy and our "strategic interest" providing the fig leaf. That the courts are also less likely to disagree with a decision in the "national interest" was also a factor. The lefties are pissed off, but the majority of the right agrees with the decision, and everything balances out.

The further explanation given today by Blair 'n' Goldsmith is laughable. How could they possibly know that if the investigation had been allowed to continue that it wouldn't have resulted in a successful prosecution anyway? The attorney general could have waited until it was finished, then decided that there wasn't a case to prosecute, as would be within his rights. Instead he's brought further shame on his supposedly independent position by discontinuing it before it was even finished.

In the midst of all this the death of the Labour party becomes apparent. Cozying up to brutal dictatorships, selling them weapons and allowing them to torture our citizens without them then being able to seek recompense is one thing, but interfering blatantly with the rule of law and the right of government agencies to investigate when a crime has believed to have been committed is quite another. It's effectively given the Saudi royal family the right to do whatever they want, as it obviously won't effect them because of the "strategic interest". We've made clear that they and BAe are entirely above the law. Last week the following passage made up a part of Blair's speech on multiculturalism:
But when it comes to our essential values - belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all

By Blair's essential values, he is no longer British, and no longer is the Labour party. It is now nothing more than a vessel used by those who are doing so for power, and for power's sake only. If yesterday isn't the beginning of the end for this government, then something really has gone wrong.

Related posts:
Chicken Yogurt - The Pariah Sketch
Nether-World - A Shameful Day for Blair and Britain

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Craig Murray on the falling apart of the "liquid bombs" plot.

A second and simultaneous development is even more compelling evidence that this massive scare was, as I said at the time, "More propaganda than plot". Thames Valley police have given up after five months scouring the woods near High Wycombe where the bomb materials were allegedly hidden. They told the Home Office on 12 December that they would only continue if the government were prepared to meet the costs; they wished to get back to devoting their resources to real crimes, like armed robbery and burglary.

Remember this was a plot described by the authorities as "Mass murder on an unimaginable scale" and "Bigger than 9/11". There have been instances in the UK of hundreds of police officers deployed for years to find an individual murderer. If the police really believed they were dealing with an effort at "Mass murder on an unimaginable scale", would they be calling off the search after five months? No.

Which brings us to the lies that have been told - one of which concerns this search. An anonymous police source tipped off the media early on that they had discovered a "Suitcase" containing "bomb-making materials". This has recently been described to me by a security service source as "A lot of rubbish from someone's garage dumped in the woods". You could indeed cannibalise bits of old wire, clocks and car parts to form part of a bomb - perhaps you could enclose it in the old suitcase. But have they found stuff that is exclusively concerned with causing explosions, like detonators, explosives or those famous liquid chemicals? No, they haven't found any.

Wycombe Woods, like the sands of Iraq, have failed to yield up the advertised WMD.


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Thursday, December 14, 2006 

Revealed: press buying and selling private information on a grand scale follow-up.

I intended to write so much today, but as usual the best laid plans are the ones that get binned.

While today has proved that this is the most disgusting, despicable and reprehensible government that this country has suffered since the last one, the overwhelming torrent of planned news to overshadow the prime minister's questioning by police has also obliterated the information commissioner's publishing of the report (PDF) into how the nation's newspapers (and magazines) are buying and selling personal and private information from government databases on a grand scale. As expected, his full listing was if anything more damning of the press in this country than the condensed one:

PublicationNumber of transactionsNumber of journalists / clients positively identified using services
Daily Mail95258
Sunday People80250
Daily Mirror681 45
Mail on Sunday266 33
News of the World18219
Sunday Mirror14325
Best Magazine13420
Evening Standard1301
The Observer1034
Daily Sport624
Sunday Times527
The People3719
Daily Express367
Weekend Magazine (Daily Mail)304
Sunday Express298
The Sun244
Closer Magazine225
Sunday Sport151
Night and Day (Mail on Sunday)92
Sunday Business News81
Daily Record72
Saturday (Express)71
Sunday Mirror Magazine61
Real Magazine41
Woman’s Own42
Daily Mirror Magazine32
Mail in Ireland31
Daily Star24
Marie Claire21
Personal Magazine11
Sunday World11
(Many thanks to Spy Blog for the table.)

The scale, through just this one private detective, is astounding. Best magazine, published by Hearst, had 20 different employees buying information from Stephen Whittamore, who himself was receiving the information from at least 3 others; one another private investigator, one a retired cop and the other an "civilian communications officer", whatever that is, who was based at Tooting police station. The information sold came at a price of at least £75 a time; if all of Best magazine's queries cost that amount, then they alone had provided Whittamore and his associates with £10,050. The Daily Mail's costs alone, not considering the other requests handled for other Rothermere publications, on that same equation, would have come to £71,400.

Best magazine, for those of you who like me had never heard of it, is according to the Grauniad aimed at middle-aged women. The only website I could find that's vaguely associated with it is this one here, which has the above logo with a link below to a survey which is no longer open. No doubt all of its transactions into investigating "real life", "diets" and "looks" were in the public interest. The next mag on the list not directly associated with a newspaper is Closer, a celebrity gossip piece of effluent owned by Emap. Next up is Real (published by "Essential Publishing", who have an absolutely hideous flash site here) which I had also never heard of. Real describes itself thusly:
Published fortnightly, REAL is unlike any other title in the UK magazine market. It is a magazine that is beautiful to look at yet relevant to women's lives. It combines the upmarket aspirations of the women's glossy monthlies with the "relevance" of the weekly titles. REAL deals with relationships and issues closest to women's hearts and events that could change their lives.
In other words, it's a celebrity gossip magazine which likes to think it's above the likes of Heat and Closer. How these relationships and issues that could change lives necessitated breaking the law is unclear. Woman's Own, who had two writers using Whittamore's talents, is the standard "housewives" magazine, owned by IPC Media, who are in turn owned by TimeWarner. Marie Claire, like Best owned by Hearst, had one lone hack paying Whittamore, while Personal, which I can't find from a quick search and can't be bothered to look deeper for, also had one journalist using the services provided once.

Most of these type of magazines only have a generally small staff of writers, often relying more on freelancers. For 20 different individuals from Best to then have used Whittamore is astonishing. Almost everyone there must have been in on what was going on, and just what sort of information were they buying that was needed for such a publication? It'll be no surprise then to learn that Best's current editor, Michelle Hather, made no comment when asked for one by the Grauniad.

It'll be of little surprise also to learn that not a single one of today's tabloids printed a single word about Thomas's publication of their nefarious dealings. The Daily Mail, who came top of the league, was defensive when asked about its journalists' use of Whittamore, but didn't take up the defense in print. Neither did the Sun or the Mirror. The Express's Paul Ashford was notably unhelpful when asked for a comment, and the Express and Star don't provide an archive or even properly searchable websites to see if they covered the story, so I think it's more than reasonable to assume they didn't.

As for the broads, or ex-broads, the Guardian was by far the most open, admitting that its journalists on its sister, the Observer, had used Whittamore, and Roger Alton, notorious for his foul mouth, managed to string a statement together without swearing. The Times did report the story, but coyly didn't print the table in full, so missing out the Sun's entry, and didn't comment on its sister publications' buying of information. The Telegraph covered it along with a report on a trial of a "blagger" earlier in the week, as it had already done online, while the Independent doesn't appear to have covered it, although I may be wrong.

This might be the necessary kick up the backside that'll show journalists they can't get away with such low-level skullduggery; as the Telegraph reports, one of those who was informed that his car number plate was searched for had simply been decorating the home of a lottery winner. Or it may just simply show them that they can get away it; their publications might get a slight amount of embarrassment, but only from those who read the broads or blogs and care about it. Their readers, the ones that are the ones most likely to have their privacy infringed, are instead in the dark. The sentences handed down to Whittamore and others, a 2 year discharge for data-mining police databases, was letting them get away with it, even if they also faced charges in a similar case. As stated in yesterday's post, this is only likely to get worse with the emergence of the NHS Spine and the ID card database, if it ever gets up and running.

By coincidence, today also had a ruling that Media Grauniad are describing as possibly the beginning of the end for gossip rags and the tabloids celebrity worship, as "the court ruled that someone's right to protect their private life outweighs someone else's freedom to tell their story, unless there is a "very real" public interest." It looks potentially chilling for the freedom to report scandals, almost certainly going too far if similar cases are now brought and succeed, and the fact that McKennitt's lawyers were Carter-Ruck, notorious for their stifling effect on Private Eye investigations, nicknamed Carter-Fuck as result, is also not a good sign. There is a balance to be struck, and it hasn't been found yet.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006 

All that's fizzy is not explosive...

The news that "terrorism" charges have been dropped against Rashid Rauf, the alleged ringleader of the August "liquid bombs" plot is curious to say the least. This was the man which Pakistan's interior minister said had given "many, many clues which link this plan with Afghanistan, especially the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden", so for the charges against him to be decided so flimsy (or badly collected, or presented) that they wouldn't even stand up in a Pakistani court must be a concern for the evidence collected against those accused over here.

Conspiracy theories will obviously abound. Newspapers in Pakistan were less than subtle about the circumstances surrounding Rauf's interrogation by the Pakistani authorities, describing him as being "broken". Whether the use of torture would have had any bearing on the judge's decision is unclear; Human Rights Watch recently described the use of coercive methods in Pakistan as "rampant" in a press release.

Also reported at the time of the arrest was the allegation that money had been funneled to Pakistan to terrorist groups operating in Kashmir, under the guise of aid for those caught up in the earthquake of October 2005. The possibility may be that in investigating Rauf, that Pakistani governmental officials or others had been implicated in the flow of funding to groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, which would have came out as a result of trying Rauf under intense media interest, when trials of terrorist suspects are usually brushed under the carpet or simply not carried out at all.

The reality may be much more mundane, however. The Daily Mail (Yes, I know) reported on the 19th of August that despite Pakistan's lack of reticence, little hard evidence had been found, other than the apparent "breaking" of the suspect.

Whether any of this will stop Rauf being deported from Pakistan is unclear. The British government is still apparently seeking his return, rumoured to be to do with the unsolved death of Rauf's uncle, although the police are helpfully refusing to comment on what murder case they actually what to question him about.

In other "terror" news, despite John Reid's scaremongering on Sunday over a potential attack before Christmas, the review headed by the home secretary now seems unlikely to demand 90 days straight away, although as Not Saussure wonders, this may be down to the opposition the measure would undoubtedly face. Another foiled plot however, and the mood might change. The report, according to the Guardian, is also unlikely to put forward the need for wire-tap/intercept evidence to be made admissible as evidence. It can thus be assumed that either the security services' bugging methods are incredibly insecure, which seems doubtful, or that they're so paranoid that the mere presenting of their snooping will put them at risk that they'll potentially limbo terrorist suspects on control orders for ever (Reid has give the go-ahead for 1 further man to be held under virtual house arrest, with 3 others still to be served theirs) which is depressingly the more likely reason.

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Revealed: press buying and selling private information on a grand scale.

From Iain Dale comes news of the newspapers caught out using the services of just one private detective, who, unfortunately for them, had been keeping meticulous records of who was paying him for his work, all seized when his house was raided:

1. Daily Mail - 952 incidents by 58 different journalists
2. Sunday People - 802 incidents by 50 different journalists
3. Daily Mirror - 681 incidents by 45 different journalists
4. Mail on Sunday - 266 incidents by 33 different journalists
5. News of the World - 182 different incidents by 19 different journalists

This information is from a report that the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, is to submit to parliament tomorrow. The leaked contents Iain Dale has published don't match the more vague details obtained by Lord Ashcroft via the Freedom of Information Act (PDF), which remember, Blair and Lord Falconer want to drastically curtail, so hopefully Thomas's report will provide the full details of all the newspapers involved tomorrow. Whether Thomas's report will also actually name the journalists who made use of the services provided by the private dick is unclear.

As Dale also points out, this is the information from only one private detective agency, which looks to be the one which was a favourite of the Rothermere press. One can only surmise that most of the business for News International was done elsewhere.

Unless this exposure and the hoo-hah over Clive Goodman brings about a step-change in journalistic conduct (snigger) then it's additionally worth recalling that our blessed government is creating the biggest database in the Western world for the ID card scheme, and another huge one, the NHS "Spine", both of which are likely to become a goldmine for tabloid hacks looking to perform hatchet jobs on celebs and those accused of crime. When it seems apparent that information is already being bought and sold from the Police National Computer, one can only imagine how the hacks are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of getting medical and personal information even easier than ever before.

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Scum-watch: So why isn't the tinsel up on MySpace?

Ah, Christmas. Family get-togethers, mass consumerism, parents getting into debt to buy presents for their little darlings, Christmas tree rash, Only Fools and Horses, people wearing tinsel and fucking stupid hats, horribly gaudy flashing lights on houses that make the Blackpool illuminations look sophisticated, and of course, the tabloids screaming that the whole event is being banned by politically correct idiots, despite all the evidence that suggests the event is constantly growing and lasts longer every year. The Sun has been no exception. Oliver Burkeman from the Grauniad has been eviscerating the numerous claims from the daily scandal sheets, but today's Sun claims that the Prime Minister supports their soporific campaign:

Sanity Claus

TONY Blair yesterday backed the Sun’s campaign for a Merry Christmas.

He blasted “misguided” jobsworths who want to ban Santa in case he offends Muslims.

And he took aim at killjoys for turning it into just another public holiday. Surrounded by twinkling lights and gaily decorated Christmas trees, he said: “I just think the whole thing’s daft.

“People of other faiths don’t in the least mind that Christians support and regard Christmas as a very important part of our year.”

Sour Scrooges should pipe down — and enjoy one of the few times of the year when the nation unites as a family.

Naturally, this isn't exactly what our Dear Leader said. He didn't back the Sun's predictable campaign, and he questioned whether the whole thing is being invented and vastly exaggerated. Here's the transcript from the 10 Downing Street website of his press conference:


Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and John Reid made it very clear last week that they are sick and tired of political correctness, they were particularly talking about Christmas. What is your message on that?

Prime Minister:

Well I am always amazed when I hear these stories about people saying that someone has gone and banned Christmas. I read something today in preparing for this that some vicar doesn't want to support Christmas or something. Look you never know whether these stories are true or not to be honest, because every time you look at them it turns out to be slightly less than it appears. But all I know is that as far as I understand it, people in Britain are very happy to support Christmas, that people of other faiths don't in the least mind that Christians support Christmas and regard Christmas as a very important part of our year, and I think that if there are misguided people out there who think there is something wrong with celebrating Christmas, certainly if you are of the Christian faith, then I don't think they should be taken as indicative of some great movement towards political correctness. I just think the whole thing is daft. And I tell you, if you look round this building I don't think I have ever seen so many Christmas trees as I have in this building, which is very good incidentally, he says quickly.

[party political content]

Blair in not agreeing with the Sun shock? Who would have thought it!

Elsewhere, it's time to plug MySpace, one of Mr Murdoch's recent acquistions:

MEET Tila Tequila, the bisexual former Playboy model who has become the quirky queen of MySpace.

The Hollywood 25-year-old was the first person to notch up a million mates on the hit social site earlier this year — now she has 1.6 million virtual friends.

She says: “I have been in the ‘top eight’ lists of Pamela Anderson, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and Snoop Dogg on their MySpace sites, which is cool.”

Yes, this is the breathtakingly pathetic news that sad lonely people on the internet add celebrities and bands as "friends" on the site from hell. And amazingly, people who post photographs of themselves in few clothes and talk "frankly" about their "sex lives" tend to attract a lot of attention. I can't imagine why.

It's also worth noting today's front page, which gets very excited over the amount of murdered sex workers. If whoever's responsible continues their killing spree, are they going to being updating the body count in the same clearly unsensational and completely non-tasteless way?

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Tuesday, December 12, 2006 

Scum-watch: How pathetic can you get?

When there's a probable serial killer on the loose, you'd think that the Sun would have other things on its mind than the way the BBC are describing those who've lost their lives. These days though, with Murdoch on an seemingly inexorable rise, any opportunity to bash the BBC is seized upon, as today's Sun leader column shows:

Final insult

THREE prostitutes have been murdered in Suffolk by what appears to be a terrifying serial killer.

Two more are missing.

The women who died had tragic personal histories. At least one was driven to sell her body by a craving for drugs.

The BBC exists in a politically correct world in which words like ‘prostitute’ are deemed offensive.

But they do nothing to dignify these poor victims by creepily describing them as ‘sex workers’ in every bulletin.

I can't say I remember properly whether the BBC were referring to the women killed as sex workers or not on any bulletins I've seen, but that's beside the point. It's quite obvious that if the BBC have been using it, they've been doing so as a synonym so that they aren't repeating the same word over and over again. The current leading reports on the BBC website don't make any use of the term "sex worker".

In any case, the Sun maybe ought to take the "creepy" description up with the trade union which has been established to support those who are involved in the sex industry, who call themselves the International Union of Sex Workers. Then again, seeing as the Sun isn't exactly the biggest fan of trade unions, they're most likely part of the global political correctness conspiracy too.

Back on the moral black hole which is the Sun website, online home of the clearly never creepy paper which happens to be running a competition encouraging readers to send in photographs of themselves at least semi-naked, the chaffing-at the bit hacks are pleading with those who knew the victims to ring in and give them salacious gossip that they can print and call news.

Personally, I find the description of the killer of at least two of the prostitutes found dead so far as the "Suffolk Ripper" is far more potentially offensive to the families and friends of those who have died (not that the Scum are the only ones doing it). The information given so far by the police suggests that the women have been strangled and not sexually assaulted. Both the original "Jack the Ripper" and Peter Sutcliffe, nicknamed the Yorkshire Ripper, viciously attacked and mortally wounded the majority of their victims, while Sutcliffe's crimes had a definite sexual element to them. Those who have been killed so far seem unlikely to have suffered to the extent that their victims did, although we obviously don't know the full details yet, which the Sun will doubtless anyway delight in printing, true or not.

Meanwhile, over on Sun News (sorry, Sky) are providing an image gallery of the dead women and those who have gone missing with the clearly inoffensive title "Red light girls", alongside another gallery of "Celebrity Mugs", showcasing "Stars on the wrong side of the law". The final insult it seems, will not be televised.

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Monday, December 11, 2006 

Manufacturing hysteria.

There's little worse than newspapers examining their navel, so bloggers would normally be well advised to avoid it at all costs. That said, the manufactured hysteria created by a couple of Tory bloggers (which Obsolete is not going to give the dignity of linking to), over a blacked-up image of David Cameron created by Unity over on the Ministry of Truth, and reposted by Bob Piper, deserves to be examined.

Unity himself has pretty much summed up all the arguments that could be used against his creation in a number of posts, but it's also worth remembering another recent "blacking-up", namely that of Kate Moss on the front of the Independent. Hannah Pool, who has been taken to task a number of times on Comment is Free for her more empty-headed ramblings, wasn't amused, but she didn't suggest that it was racist. Nor did Pickled Politics, which pointed out the pathetic failure to find a black model to play a similar role. It was an attempt to create potential controversy without making any wider point whatsoever; how does a blacked-up Kate Moss have anything to do with the day's side mission, that of raising money for Aids charities? Moss is a drug hoovering clothes-horse that ought to have been sent to the glue factory long ago. She was doubtless laughing all the way to the bank, as it's hard to imagine her waiving her fee.

By sharp contrast, Unity's portrait of David Cameron blacked-up was both meant to and has succeeded in causing controversy and raised legitimate wider points on a number of levels. On one level it's a clear parody of Cameron's wheeze - a patronising and condescending attempt to get down with the kids by err, calling their love of excessive spending the "inner tosser" tendency. On another it's an attack on Cameron's whole agenda of the last twelve months: be everything to every man. He's green, he's promoting the family, he's not fond of "isms", the whole caboodle of contradicting and hypocritical devices to avoid actually settling on any true policies. If Cameron thought that blacking up would help him appeal to someone or something, he'd do it. Then there's also Cameron's moves to try to make the hideously white party reflect society, while we all know full well that there's plenty of grassroots opposition to doing just that, although Unity denies that this was his thinking in making the image.

The outrage has however not descended on Unity, but on Bob Piper. This isn't anything to do with his mirroring of the image; this is purely about the fact that he mirrored the image while being a Labour councillor. Bob at first rightly refused to bow to the manufactured hysteria which a couple of Tory supporting bloggers exploited, but with the story being picked up the BBC, and jumped on by some Tory MPs, he has since removed it.

The issue is compared by the Evening Standard to the email sent on by Ellenor Bland, a Tory councillor. The important difference is that while Bland's email was also an attempt at humour, it was also clearly meant to be insulting to those whom it's targeted against. The only person Unity's image is insulting is David Cameron himself.

The real joke here isn't anything to do with Unity's potentially offensive image, though. It's that this is what politics has become - squabbling, simplistic little point scoring attempts by politically motivated self-styled internet warriors. Is there anything less threatening and laughable than the prospect of being reported to the Commission for Racial Equality? Rather than dealing with the issues that Unity's image brought up, it was instead used to attack a Labour party member who sits on the same council as a real life, Holocaust denying, Hitler-loving racist - Simon Smith of the British National Party, ironically exposed as such by Unity himself.

Blogging was meant to escape all that. If politicians themselves cannot engage in what those of us without party membership or any affiliation enjoy doing and reading, thanks to the politically motivated actions of others, then we will deserve the leaders and representatives that we get.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006 

Tolerance for some, not so much for others.

Blair's attempt at stringing together a somewhat coherent speech on multiculturalism and its benefits has predictably polarised opinion. Read in full, it's nowhere near as bad as Lenin and Tom on Blairwatch are suggesting, as some parts of it show that he's at least put some thought into the subject, and even may have been informed of the manifesto of the New Generation Network.

As you may expect however, other sections of it are designed purely to be quoted by the tabloids. It's far too long to fisk entirely (although reading this post now I've finished, it seems like I have), but here are some of its more choice moments:

The ethos of this country is completely different from thirty years ago. The courts recognise racial offences in a way that was inconceivable then. We have the most comprehensive panoply of anti-discrimination legislation in the world. We have tough laws outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion, race, gender and disability. The Human Rights Act provides basic protection to ethnic minorities and lays down some minimum standards. It is a matter of some pride to me that it has only been Labour governments that have introduced anti-discrimination legislation.

Ah yes, the hated Human Rights Act. Like most other Labour politicians, Blair occasionally points to the greater good they've done Britain by mentioning their enshrinement of the EU Convention on Human Rights, then within days he's blaming it for all the current ills of the Home Office. As the parliamentary committee on human rights pointed out, Blair is a hypocrite of the highest order, attacking the HRA over the ruling on the Afghan hijackers and over the failure to deport foreign criminals, when the HRA was in the right in the former and not to blame over the latter.

These murders were carried out by British-born suicide bombers who had lived and been brought up in this country, who had received all its many advantages and yet who ultimately took their own lives and the lives of the wholly innocent, in the name of an ideology alien to everything this country stands for. Everything the Olympic bid symbolised was everything they hated. Their emphasis was not on shared values but separate ones, values based on a warped distortion of the faith of Islam.

Much as this is true, it's worth pointing out here and now that nowhere in the speech does Blair mention foreign policy or its obvious impact on British society since 9/11. How could he? On Thursday he had been humiliated in front of the cameras by the utter boorishness of President Bush and his complete, wholly apparent state of denial. If there's one thing Blair isn't, he certainly isn't an idiot, nor is he stupid. He can be willfully idiotic or ignorant, yet many noticed the terror in Blair's eyes at Bush's horribly misjudged answer to the question put by Nick Robinson over the situation in Iraq. Blair may have sewn himself onto Bush's coattails ever since 9/11, for reasons known perhaps only to him, but he knows that even now in his twilight he can't let the cat out of the bag. To accept that foreign policy has played a role in the radicalisation of a tiny percentage of the Muslim community would be to acknowledge that his idolatry to American power and the righteousness of military intervention has destroyed him both ideologically and intellectually.

We like our diversity. But how do we react when that "difference" leads to separation and alienation from the values that define what we hold in common? For the first time in a generation there is an unease, an anxiety, even at points a resentment that our very openness, our willingness to welcome difference, our pride in being home to many cultures, is being used against us; abused, indeed, in order to harm us.

I always thought after 7/7 our first reaction would be very British: we stick together; but that our second reaction, in time, would also be very British: we're not going to be taken for a ride.

How odd that Blair describes accurately the reaction of both the political parties and the majority of the public to the 7/7 bombings, then takes his very own political decision as the public's second reaction. In the aftermath of 7/7, Charles Clarke, then home secretary pledged to work with his opposite numbers in the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over any new legislation that was needed. Both David Davis and Mark Oaten praised this cross-party conversation, only for it be ripped apart by Blair's "the rules of the game are changing" speech, given once Clarke had gone away on holiday, which led inexorably to the government's defeat over the proposed 90 day detention for those arrested under the terrorism act.

But this is, in truth, not what I mean when I talk of integration. Integration, in this context, is not about culture or lifestyle. It is about values. It is about integrating at the point of shared, common unifying British values. It isn't about what defines us as people, but as citizens, the rights and duties that go with being a member of our society.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other faiths have a perfect right to their own identity and religion, to practice their faith and to conform to their culture. This is what multicultural, multi-faith Britain is about. That is what is legitimately distinctive.

But when it comes to our essential values - belief in democracy, the rule of law, tolerance, equal treatment for all, respect for this country and its shared heritage - then that is where we come together, it is what we hold in common; it is what gives us the right to call ourselves British. At that point no distinctive culture or religion supercedes our duty to be part of an integrated United Kingdom.

These aren't "our" essential values; these are the supposed essential values of "New Labour". As we've learned over the years, New Labour itself doesn't treat them as gospel either; witness Ruth Kelly trying to water down discrimination legislation for her bigoted Christian friends and the abuse of the rule of law, when it comes to holding foreign terrorist suspects without charge and over control orders. Then there's the so far only-mooted plans to outlaw flag burning and the wear of masks on demonstrations, and even potentially criminalising certain chants. This isn't to mention the banning of protests within 1km of the houses of parliament without permission; Brian Haw once again faces prison later this week for his 24 hour/365 days a year protest. Then what about organisations such as the Communist Party, which are clearly not interested in preserving democracy, and which current ministers such as John Reid used to be part of? How do they fit into our values? Are we meant to outlaw everything that doesn't completely agree with the current belief in our democratic ideal? Blair's mooted values aren't everyone else's, and imposing them from above when holding those views doesn't hurt or affect anyone is just as tyrannical as those who claim to act in the name of Islam are.

Others warned me against putting the issue in the context of 7/7, of terrorism, of our Muslim community. After all, extremism is not confined to Muslims, as we know from Northern Ireland and fringe elements in many ethnic groups.

But actually what should give us optimism in dealing with this issue, is precisely that point. It is true there are extremists in other communities. But the reason we are having this debate is not generalised extremism. It is a new and virulent form of ideology associated with a minority of our Muslim community. It is not a problem with Britons of Hindu, Afro-Caribbean, Chinese or Polish origin. Nor is it a problem with the majority of the Muslim community. Most Muslims are proud to be British and Muslim and are thoroughly decent law-abiding citizens. But it is a problem with a minority of that community, particularly originating from certain countries. The reason I say that this is grounds for optimism, is that what the above proves, is that integrating people whilst preserving their distinctive cultures, is not impossible. It is the norm. The failure of one part of one community to do so, is not a function of a flawed theory of a multicultural society. It is a function of a particular ideology that arises within one religion at this one time.

I'm sure Blair isn't trying to be patronising and condescending when he says "our Muslim community", but that's what it comes across as. Blair mentions that extremism isn't confined to Muslims, and uses the example of Northern Ireland, yet he doesn't apply the Lord Stevens test, developed after his notorious hateful sectarian rant earlier in the year in the News of the Screws. If you replace Muslim with Irish or Catholic throughout the text, does the paragraph now comes across as simplistic, ignorant and offensive? If so, then it means that you're talking bollocks, and Blair here is certainly talking bollocks. Despite trying his hardest not to blame Muslims as a whole, it's exactly what he's doing. No one else is the problem, nothing we've done has made it worse, it's entirely your fault. Blair does at least feather the nest here by making clear that he still believes in multiculturalism, yet he still continues to apportion blame as if they're the only ones who can do anything about it.

Yet, because this challenge has arisen in this way, it is necessary to go back to what a multi-cultural Britain is all about. The whole point is that multicultural Britain was never supposed to be a celebration of division; but of diversity. The purpose was to allow people to live harmoniously together, despite their difference; not to make their difference an encouragement to discord. The values that nurtured it were those of solidarity, of coming together, of peaceful co-existence. The right to be in a multicultural society was always, always implicitly balanced by a duty to integrate, to be part of Britain, to be British and Asian, British and black, British and white.

And where is the evidence that this is not what is still happening now? In Blair's own words, this problem is apparently caused by a tiny percentage of an already small community. The press and government have decided to make a mountain out of a molehill. The notion that Islamic extremists somehow threaten the very fabric of our nation is farcical; it's only through overreacting to this threat, considerable as it is, that our values will become corrupted and that multiculturalism may fail. This is exactly what has been going on. Terrorism has been turned into a party political issue, entirely through the Blair governments attempts to paint the opposition as soft, egged on as they are by parts of the media. We're in danger of doing the damage to ourselves through our own inadequacies and general panic, rather than "they" are to "us".

So it is not that we need to dispense with multicultural Britain. On the contrary we should continue celebrating it. But we need - in the face of the challenge to our values - to re-assert also the duty to integrate, to stress what we hold in common and to say: these are the shared boundaries within which we all are obliged to live, precisely in order to preserve our right to our own different faiths, races and creeds.

We must respect both our right to differ and the duty to express any difference in a way fully consistent with the values that bind us together.

This is mostly stuff that deserves applauding. Blair is brave to come out and say that the naysayers which includes his own racial equality supremo, are wrong about multiculturalism not working. His argument however faces an inherent contradiction: Blair says we have to respect the right to differ, yet what if our differences collide with Blair's stated values? This is a conflict to which Blair's answer is the following:

Partly the answer lies in precisely defining our common values and making it clear that we expect all our citizens to conform to them. Obedience to the rule of law, to democratic decision-making about who governs us, to freedom from violence and discrimination are not optional for British citizens. They are what being British is about. Being British carries rights. It also carries duties. And those duties take clear precedence over any cultural or religious practice.

Conform. You must conform to our values. Perish the thought then that Britain might ever at some horrible point in the future vote in a fascist or similarly extreme government; to then object to that "democratic decision-making", if even the government itself subsequently breaks the rule of law will mean that you're breaking our common values and therefore you aren't British. If then the only way to overthrow that government was through armed insurrection, that would also mean you're not British. Blair's ideas about conforming seem to be a lot like patriotism. If you're not proud to be British, or consider yourself European rather than British, then you're not living up to our values. Consider yourself Asian-British, rather than British Asian? You're not conforming.

Conforming has ugly connotations. It's a demand, an insidious belief that you must be like us, otherwise you either aren't good enough or you're "different". Liking this country, enjoying its freedom, paying taxes and obeying the law is no longer enough; you have to love it and conform to its values as well to be truly integrated. Rather than wondering why some are alienated from British society, Blair only wants to talk of those who are in such a state of mind moving instantly from being disaffected to actively conforming, not how such a task is going to be achieved.

This talk of conforming has been lapped up by the Sun, for whom it was obviously targeted towards. For everyone else, it just comes across as posturing with nothing behind it. Blair does have six further elements of policy that he intends to implement alongside this order to conform:

First, we need to use the grants we give to community racial and religious groups to promote integration as well as help distinctive cultural identity. In a sense, very good intentions got the better of us. We wanted to be hospitable to new groups. We wanted, rightly, to extend a welcome and did so by offering public money to entrench their cultural presence. Money was too often freely awarded to groups that were tightly bonded around religious, racial or ethnic identities.

In the future, we will assess bids from groups of any ethnicity or any religious denomination, also against a test, where appropriate, of promoting community cohesion and integration.

This does to an extent tie in with the New Generation Network's plea for an end to communal politics. In practice, it instead comes across rather as disregarding the views of those who aren't compatible with New Labour's. Both major Muslim representative groups, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Association of Britain link the rise of extremism to foreign policy. Will both be punished for doing so? It's also worth wondering whether this will affect Christian groups as much as it possibly will those representing the other religions. Would Blair consider the teaching of creationism in academy schools run by Sir Peter Vardy as promoting "cohesion and integration", as well as their strident views on minor indiscipline? It seems highly unlikely.

One of the most common concerns that has been raised with me, when meeting women from the Muslim communities, is their frustration at being debarred even from entering certain mosques.

Those that exclude the voice of women need to look again at their practices. I am not suggesting altering the law. But we have asked the Equal Opportunities Commission to produce a report by the spring of next year on how these concerns could be practically addressed, whilst of course recognising that in many religions the treatment of women differs from that of men.

A worthy response, but will they actually listen and implement the reports' conclusions? Past evidence doesn't inspire confidence.

Fourth, there has been a lot of concern about a minority of visiting preachers. It would be preferable for British preachers to come out of the community rather than come in from abroad. Where they are recruited internationally, we will require entrants to have a proper command of English and meet the pre-entry qualification requirements.

The concern about "extremist" preachers is again out of all proportion. Much of the evidence from those who have become radicalised suggests that their beliefs have emerged not from being tutored by imams, but from individual research and the wealth of information available on the internet and in books. These ideas are still a decent response, however.

Fifth, we have a very established set of rights that constitute our citizenship. We should not be shy to teach them. That is why citizenship became part of the statutory national curriculum in secondary schools in 2002.

The national curriculum needs to stress integration rather than separation. The 1988 Education Reform Act states that religious education in all community schools should be broadly Christian in character but that it should include study of the other major religions. There is currently a voluntary agreement with faith schools on this basis. Faith schools also naturally give religious instruction in their own faith. It is important that in doing so, they teach tolerance and respect for other faiths and the Education Department will discuss with the faith groups how this is achieved and implemented, according to new national guidelines.

There is some merit to doing this, but the proposals earlier in the year from Alan Johnson would have done much more to promote inclusion rather than religious segregation in schools. Within days, the backlash, especially from "our Catholic community" had meant that the plans were dropped.

Sixth, we should share a common language. Equal opportunity for all groups requires that they be conversant in that common language. It is a matter both of cohesion and of justice that we should set the use of English as a condition of citizenship. In addition, for those who wish to take up residence permanently in the UK, we will include a requirement to pass an English test before such permanent residency is granted.

This would be great if there were actually full opportunities for those who want to learn English to get free courses to be able to do so.Instead, English as a second language courses are being cut back, and more and more are having to pay to learn.

Most of the rest of the speech is given over to talk of deprivation and religious similarities rather than differences. Blair can't resist squeezing in a bit of veil bashing, though:

But perhaps less well-known is the strength of the debate in Muslim countries. In Turkey, there has recently been a fierce controversy over the Muslim headdress of women. In Tunisia and Malaysia, the veil is barred in certain public places. I know it is not sensible to conduct this debate as if the only issue is the very hot and sensitive one of the veil. For one thing, the extremism we face is usually from men not women. But it is interesting to note that when Jack Straw made his comments, no less a person than the Mufti of the Arab Republic of Egypt made a strong approving statement; and it really is a matter of plain common sense that when it is an essential part of someone's work to communicate directly with people, being able to see their face is important. However, my point is this: we are not on our own in trying to find the right balance between integration and diversity.

It comes across as if Blair's been reading the Express's demands to "BAN IT!", which in their article mentioned Tunisia's ban on the veil in government buildings. While it was hard to agree with Aishah Azmi's case for discrimination, it's unlikely to be repeated now in a school-type setting. The case for banning the veil in government buildings entirely is much less compelling. It ought to be decided on a case-by-case basis. There was also this phenomenal piece of bollocks:

"I think it is great that in British politics today no mainstream party plays the race card. It is not conceivable, in my view, that this leader of the Conservative party would ... misuse the debate on immigration and that is both a tribute to him and to the common culture of tolerance we have established in this country today," Mr Blair said.

Err.... Almost the whole debate around the veil in the aftermath of Jack Straw's comments was playing the race card, except nearly everyone joined in. David Davis accused Muslims of voluntary apartheid. Phil Woolas, who had previous, as described by Peter Oborne, commented on Aishah Azmi's case when he had no business to. If he had done the same thing during a criminal case, the trial may well have collapsed and he would have been held in contempt of court.The Sun accused Muslims of vandalising a house which soldiers had considered moving into, and has not corrected the story or apologised for being proved wrong. The Express demanded that the veil be banned. Jonathan Freedland commented that if the hysteria had been directed against Jews rather than Muslims he would have been reaching for his passport. Blair finishes his speech with:

Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don't come here.

That's right. If you don't want to be bashed endlessly and used as a political football, you'd be best staying where you are.

Worth noting for their tolerance are readers of the Sun, who reacted thusly to the news that Blair in an exclusive interview with the Scum's token Muslim, Anila Baig, said that a Muslim may one day be Prime Minister:

If that happens then Britain will become a nation of Islam. Glad now i left.

If this happens then there goes England as we know it, Churchill would roll over in his grave if he saw the state that England is in right now, and if a muslim became PM of England.

Enoch Powell would turn in his grave. His comments have turned out to be prophecies more true than anything Nostradamus ever said. The day we get a Muslim PM is the day me and my family leave this mess of a Country.

This country is already being run by those not from it. The current government as always only gives a dam about themselves. So why not throw the country to the non-English and the muslims who already control this once (but no longer) great country via the back door by scaring the people of this country by means of the pathetic Brussels brigade and the non-common scence ruling of the human rights act.

Lets put the Great back in to Britain and give England back to the British.

might as well change the name of britain now to "BhunaLand" in readyness for the pc brigade and this idiot of a PM we have now, my grand dad will be churning the ground in which hes buried if he could see the sorry state of affairs this country (once great) has become. we bend over backwards for them, cant say a wrong word to them. no wonder they are talking over this world. pc has got us all by the conkers, and we are afraid to admit it.

“They said there would never be a woman Prime Minister, but there was."
that's because the population of England is around 50/50 male female.
but soon England will be 50/50 again with the immigration laws.
so many people leaving because the way England is and more people coming to get England ready for Muslim prime minister

Related posts:
Not Saussure - Blair on multi-culturalism
Sunny Hurndal - First define the problem

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Friday, December 08, 2006 

Unmistakable greed.

Yes, this post does provide an excuse to put a photograph of Melua up.

Somewhat buried beneath the less than thrilling contents of the pre-budget report was the release of the
Gowers report into intellectual property copyright. As you might expect, the majority of it (PDF) is so dry that if you put a match to it it'd probably take your face off with it, but in there are a few proposals which should have been implemented years ago, and at least one which has caused the bloated music companies and a few artists to rise up in the biggest fury since Bono had his hat stolen.

The law will be amended so that consumers can legitimately transfer music for their own use, for example from a CD they have bought to an MP3 player. The review also proposes exemptions to allow individuals to sample copyrighted work to create something new and that the law be liberalised and updated to take into account digital archiving and preservation by libraries and academic institutions.

Finally. Ever since the days of the industry claiming that "home-taping was killing music" it's been technically illegal in Britain to make a copy for personal use of a copyrighted product which you've bought, i.e. either a DVD or a CD. As iPods and their cousins have become ubiquitous, this is potentially criminalising around half of the population, as Gowers mentions in the report. Uncontroversial, right? Everyone does it, hardly anyone's rightly ever been prosecuted for doing so, makes sense. Well, to all but to those who claim to represent the artists in question, of course:

AIM, a trade body representing 900 independent labels, said: "We believe Gowers may well be opening the floodgates to uncontrolled and unstoppable private copying and sharing from person to person."

AIM then seems to be suggesting that buying a CD shouldn't give you the right to then copy the data from that CD onto another device for the express purpose of personally listening to it. AIM's solution seems to be that if you want to listen to the music from the CD you've just bought on your iPod or digital music player, you should buy it again from one of the wonderful online vendors of popular music, such as iTunes or Napster, both of which supply that music in horrendous quality, crippled with digital rights management protection, that means you can only play it using their software and hardware, unless you then decide to break another law which means that you can't remove the copy protection from those files whether you want to or not (The UK author of DVD Decrypter, until last year the best available DVD ripping program, was forced to stop updating after being threatened with legal action from Macrovision.). Not only would this double the price of a piece of music, it removes the ability to do what you want with something you have personally purchased, such as create an uncrippled copy at near lossless quality from the original.

There are a few sites which offer music without DRM and at decent quality, such as, but they tend to only offer a selection of artists, with nowhere near the choice available on places such as iTunes. Other sites with dubious legality, such as the Russian, which combines low prices with giving the user the choice of quality and format, are being threatened with lawsuits and closure. AIM's stance is nothing but sheer greed, pure and simple.

The record companies however realise they're fighting a losing battle over personal copying. Better to save their fire for other, slightly more contentious disputes, as we shall come to. Besides, Gowers has lined the report nicely, by giving in to demands for the potential punishment of pirates to be brought into line with the ridiculous American laws, which currently provide for repeat offenders to be imprisoned for up to 10 years and fined up to $1 million. Gowers proposes that 10 years be a possible punishment here too. Everyone agrees that the shady guy on eBay selling second-hand or new DVDs that turn out to be bad copies is a total shit, but a potential 10 year jail sentence for doing so is out of all proportion to the crime. This would affect the people who you know full well are selling copies as well, such as a Chinese guy who goes round all the shops near where I live and announces himself by walking in and saying "DEE VEE DEE?" "DEE VEE DEE?". You know what they sell, he knows what he's selling, and while it may not be a victimless crime, he isn't begging and he isn't robbing you at knife point either. The Gowers report additionally recommends a beefing up of Trading Standards, giving them the power to take the battle to copyright infringers, rather than it having to be reported to them first.

What's really got the industry and some artists riled up is the reports' recommendation that copyright protection should not be extended further than the current 50 years for which it applies. The devil here though is in the detail. 50 years applies to those who make the creative content, i.e. those who play the music. 70 years protection is given to those who actually wrote the song. This is why the music companies themselves are so opposed, as it means their income from the selling/playing of the recording will be taken away, whilst the actual writer will continue to be paid for another 20 years. Additionally, the "less talented" artists, i.e. those who just played while the others wrote, will be stripped of their assets.

It's of little surprise then that artists such as Cliff Richard and Katie Melua have signed an advertisement in the Financial Times opposing Gowers' recommendation. Some of Richard's early material will become public domain within two years, and as he didn't have a role in writing a decent proportion of it, he's going to be shortly out of pocket. As for Melua, it's well known that the vast majority of her insipid material is written by Mike Batt, notorious for getting his start in the music industry by providing the Wombles with their musical accompaniment. The album sleeve from her debut, Call off the Search (I, err, have a copy because of the free bonus DVD, owing to the fact I'm a sad sack of shit and rather fancy her) credits her with writing a whopping two songs on the entire thing, meaning that if things stay as they are by the time she's 72, she'll have lost pretty much all of any money still coming in. Paul McCartney and U2 are also signatories, both of whom despite earning and being worth millions, continue to launch lawsuits against various individuals/companies, in search of recompense for laughable "crimes" or for yet more royalties.

The industry and artists' proposal is that copyright be extended to 95 years. They therefore not only want to still be being paid for what they may have done at the age of 20, which could be no more than pluck a guitar string on a song which unaccountably becomes a huge hit for the length of their lives, they want their offspring to be able to profit from it as well, as the Guardian rightly argues. As a commenter on CiF from Revolver Records makes abundantly clear, this is less to do with any of the debates about what something that makes up a part of our collective culture is worth and for how long it should be worth something, than with competing with the Americans.

As with everything else in America, corporatism looms large. The appropriately nicknamed Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act or, if you prefer, the Mickey Mouse Protection Act from 1998 extended this to a whopping life plus 70 years for the author, and 95 years for everyone else involved. Disney was heavily involved in the lobbying, as you might expect, as was the MPAA and the ever litigious RIAA. Our equivalent of the RIAA, the British Phonographic Industry (not pornographic, note), is demanding that we also adopt 95 years. They recently commissioned a poll by those incorruptible people at YouGov, which amazingly found that 62% supported equal time as the American system gives. The BPI presented this as "British consumers demand fair play on copyright for British musicians".

Or rather, that the European Commission adopts 95 years, as the decision is down to them. Gowers was simply advising the government to support the status quo. In addition to the American argument, the BPI also relies on the dubious fall back that continuing the status quo would "damage the ability of the music industry to invest in new music and promote old recordings", which translated means that they wouldn't be able to continue to profit from getting shit new "bands" to record new versions of old classics, as they weren't involved in the writing of the song, and that they wouldn't be able to keep re-releasing Abba and Queen best of albums until the end of time, as they'd become public domain sooner or later.

In short then, capitalism continues to flourish only when you can rely on the works of others to keep the money pouring in. To hell with collective culture and not exploiting the same old stuff other and other again, money really does make the world go round.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006 

Get in or get out.

It's hard to countenance the apparent response by both Bush and Blair to the Iraq Study Group's findings. Here's an opportunity to more or less get out of Iraq - and get out soon - and still the sub-Churchillian posturing continues unabated. There's still talk of victory, talk of success, Blair thanking Bush for his clarity of vision, Bush saying that the violence is not a result of a lack of planning, all of which is insulting both to the Iraqis and to those who are genuinely reporting the reality on the ground.

The whole purpose of the Iraq Study Group was to find a way out of Iraq for the Republicans, not just Bush, which could be at the same time be supported by the Democrats, giving it the notion of bringing the two horribly split sides of America together. There's a reason why the theoretical withdrawal date sited by the report is by the first quarter of 2008 - just in time for campaigning to properly get under way for the Presidential election. The majority of troops would be out, some kind of victory would be able to be spun out of the all enveloping jaws of defeat, and whoever gets the Republican nomination would be able to start reasonably afresh.

Yet there they both stand, two lame ducks, two men who will forever be associated with this catastrophe, and nothing seems to have changed. Both are still grinning, both still hanging off each other's every word, seemingly oblivious to how their strategy has been torn to shreds, with an at least somewhat feasible alternative served up to them free of charge, and they refuse to take it. It was to be expected that the opportunity for talks with Iran would be rejected with the usual caveats that Iran must abandon its nuclear enrichment programme and stop supporting terrorism, and thanks to the assassination of Pierre Gemayel it was always going to be easier than expected to disregard the idea of engaging with Syria either, yet the blanket refusal to even consider such ideas continue to show the inherent phoniness which was of keeping all options open.

Despite all the talk of success and victory, it is apparent to everyone except Bush and Blair that we have failed, and failed horribly. How can the appearance, every day, almost without failure, of countless tortured bodies in Baghdad being anything other than a crushing hammer blow to everything that we have supposedly been trying to achieve? What now appears to be underway is a cynical and predictable shifting of the goalposts. What's happening in Iraq now, you see, isn't our fault. It's all down to the extremists and radicals and outside forces that don't want us to succeed; if necessary, as the Iraq Study Group suggests with its putting down of benchmarks to be reached by the Iraqi government, we'll even blame the politicians who have faced down assassination to represent their communities. We tried, but our efforts just weren't matched by the Iraqis. Gary Younge expanded on this a couple of weeks ago.

In the midst of all this, Blair's utter slavish nature to Bush continues. He has the clarity of vision, seemingly in the same sense that David Blunkett has the clarity of hearing. They stand shoulder to shoulder in complete denial. The Guardian again urged Blair to do the decent thing today - yet all the signs point to the fact that Blair both has no influence, and even if he did, his position has always been the same as that of Bush. When it comes down to it, despite MP's voting for war, the full blame for this tragedy will be purely on his shoulders. It was through his undying belief in his ability to communicate, to win over the public entirely through his shifting and evasive arguments that we are, to paraphrase John Kerry, stuck in Iraq.

The Iraq Study Group itself dismisses the idea of a quick withdrawal as it believes that it would be lead to increased sectarian bloodletting, yet there is no evidence that the current US/UK presence is actually helping to prevent the slaughter which is already out of control. It also rejects the possible splitting of Iraq into its three relative ethnic zones on a semi-autonomous nature similarly to that which the Kurdish area has enjoyed for over a decade, even though reports suggest that the nascent civil war is causing families who haven't already fled to seek the protection of their own in segregated neighbourhoods or areas of the country. Both deserved further consideration, especially as the second option may eventually become a reality thanks to the sectarian violence.

As Simon Jenkins argues though, the Iraq Study Group shouldn't really have any impact on the British involvement in the war. We were denied our own inquiry a couple of weeks ago, with the government and Sun newspaper using the specious argument that to order one would to be undermine our troops, a notion supported by cowardly Labour backbench MPs when it came to the vote. Whatever decision America makes for its own involvement, there is absolutely no credible reason for keeping British forces in Iraq. The only one which even starts to reach muster is that we should stay and continue to train the Iraqi army and police. With two regions already having been handed over to the Iraqis from British control, this justification is suitably weak. Whatever decision America comes to, and none of them are easy, we should and must get out of Iraq within the next few months. Prolonging the agony of our own soldiers is pointless and potentially counter-productive.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006 

Joy to the world.

Man your battlestations. The Christian backlash is coming:

CHANNEL 4 was blasted last night after revealing its Christmas Day message will be delivered by a British Muslim woman in a full veil.

She has been identified only as Khadija, a Zimbabwe-born lecturer in Islamic studies. It is understood she will speak about the growing influence of different faiths in Britain — and possibly about her views on the veil.

A C4 spokesman said: “This year has been dominated by issues of race and religious identity. We thought it was appropriate.” He added Khadija will wish viewers a Merry Christmas.

But the Christian Institute said: “This is just what you expect from Channel 4, which has shown contempt for Christianity and Christian values.”

For a start, the Queen's Christmas message rarely has anything to do with Christmas itself. It's more an opportunity for our blessed monarch to reminisce about the year in her interminable monotonous voice. It's a bit like the Great Escape; you know it's there, and if you're bored enough you might watch it. Caring about it is a lot harder.

To the Christian Institute website then, where it becomes apparent that they're less concerned about promoting Christianity, which is their supposed mission, and more devoted to maintaining the right to be bigoted, as a visit to their publications on what they call "homosexual rights" reveals:

Statement on Gay Marriage

Why gay and straight relationships should not be equal in the eyes of the law.

The Case for Keeping Section 28
January 2000

Looking specifically at Scotland, this report shows why the Scottish Executive should keep the law that bans local authorities from promoting homosexuality

Gay Pressure on the Young
January 1999

Looks at sexual pressures on young people in the light of plans to reduce the homosexual age of consent from 18 to 16.

Is the "gay pressure" on the young the same pressure which I witnessed at school where any potential sign of homosexuality was treated as something to be made fun of and hated? The same pressure which teachers are increasingly concerned about, with homophobic bullying being endemic within schools? It couldn't be.

Here's another newsflash to the Christian Institute. The word "alternative" ought to give you a clue to what the basis of the programme is built around. Were they objecting when that well-known Christian Sharon Obsourne gave the message? How about Ali G? Somehow I doubt it.

Channel 4 are doubtless attempting to be controversial, as they have been since the beginning, and getting a woman who wears a niqab to do their message when they could have got someone more notable and better informed to do the same thing is worthy of criticism. This though ignores what the message of Christmas is meant to be about. The day is supposedly about hope, about being optimistic for the future. In a year in which certain people have tried their hardest to drill up hate against Muslims, what could be more appropriate than a Muslim woman talking about different faiths on the day which most families come together, of faith or of not?

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Tuesday, December 05, 2006 

Bringing it home.

There's little surprise that the government has reacted so dismissively to an in-depth, well-worth reading in full report by the Demos think tank, which heavily criticises the government's attempts so far at "engaging" the Muslim community. Not only does it take on the government's mendacious two-faced nature, with its attempts at wooing organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain while in private and public briefing newspapers that Muslims need to do more to tackle extremism themselves and "spy on their kids", it also launches attacks on the wretched Very Scary Spice:

The government has also been cautious about being seen to be close to those groups that might have some understanding of al Qaida, fearful of the types of attacks mounted by commentators such as Melanie Phillips. These are groups that are radical and fundamental in their outlook (but not violent), whose religious roots are closest to those of al Qaida, and who therefore tend to come across recruiters and activists in their mosques and community centres. (p 27)

Demos' main six points for pushing forward are:
  • enhance the lives of Muslims by tackling poverty, low
    attainment and discrimination
  • strengthen community infrastructure
  • improve leadership, both by the government and within
    the Muslim community
  • open up the foreign policy-making process to greater
    scrutiny and provide opportunity for input from all parts
    of British communities
  • divert youth from extremism
  • put communities at the heart of counter-terrorist
    intervention and policing, as an integrated part rather
    than an add-on or an afterthought.

All of which should have been common sense and implemented in the first place. Instead since 7/7 we've had the government suggesting that multiculturalism isn't working, setting up panels which it then doesn't bother listening to, relying on turning the real terror threat into a party politicial issue, lecturing Muslim parents to spy on their kids for signs of brainwashing and government ministers commenting on issues such as a school-teacher suspended for wearing the veil when they should have kept their mouths shut. This isn't to mention Jack Straw's initial comments on the veil, which although perhaps well intentioned, led to 2 weeks of hysteria thanks to the way the tabloids jumped on Straw breaking the "taboo".

Rachel North points out how often the government had been warned that foreign policy was causing radicalisation. There were even more warnings than ones she has linked to. In October 2003 the Institute for Strategic Studies warned that the Iraq war had strengthened the ranks of al-Qaida and its sympathisers, as well as "galvanising" its will. In August of that same year the Foreign Affairs Committee said that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had not diminished the terrorist threat to Britain, even suggesting that war in Iraq may have impeded the fight against terrorism. Before and after the war, the well-informed Guardian security affairs editor, Richard Norton-Taylor wrote that MI5 and senior Whitehall officials were concerned that the threat would increase if Iraq was attacked.

Despite all of these reports and everything that has now taken place, the government still refuses to admit that the Iraq war has increased the threat not just to the UK, but also to the world. Phil Woolas, who did his best to inflame the row over the wearing of the veil, had the nerve to accuse Demos of sensationalising the issue. The rank hypocrisy and irony of such a comment, when this government has so sensationalised and ramped up the threat in order to force through draconian new legislation is insulting.

The combined efforts of the New Generation Network and Demos are providing a way forward. The government desperately needs to drop its contempt for any view over than its own prevailing one. The consequences of not doing so are huge.

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Never thought we'd be revolutionaries.


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Scum-watch: Bouncy abuse.

One of the Sun's well-known quirks is its reliance on referring to convicted sex offenders variously as "beasts", "perverts", "maniacs", and even occasionally as "evil". While those sentenced for their crimes can quite reasonably be described in most cases as such (although I balk at applying the term "evil" to anyone), the Sun's use of such emotive language is in sharp contrast to what justice should be: balanced, accountable and not pushed over into seeking retribution or revenge for the sake of it. Sentimentality and emotion, precious as they are, should not be allowed to reign supreme.

It's therefore worth comparing today's Sun's treatment of a woman convicted of indecently assaulting two under-age boys with that of the bile and outrage thrown the way of men convicted of similar offences:

'Bouncy' sex mum is caged

A MUM who had sex with two under-age virgins was jailed for 18 months yesterday.

Bouncy castle hire boss Yvonne Renton, 39, was given nine months for indecently assaulting the boys, aged 14 and 15.

And she got another nine months for making a death threat to the 15-year-old in a vain attempt to intimidate him into not giving evidence.

Twice-wed Renton, a mother of two, looked tearful as she was sent down at Maidstone Crown Court.

Judge Jeremy Carey told her she used the boys for her own sexual gratification. The lads were friends of her son and helped her put up the castles.

The 15-year-old, with whom she had sex at least 20 times, was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

Judge Carey said: “He became infatuated with you and his fragile mental state was stretched beyond breaking point.”

The judge showed some mercy by telling Renton she could serve half her sentence on licence. She was also put on the sex offenders register.

Notice that there are no ad-hominem insults, no statements of outrage about the relatively short sentence given or other additional comment which usually marks other similar articles in the Sun. While there are no directly comparable articles with a man indecently assaulting two girls, here are some which are close to the crimes committed by Renton from the Sun's archive:

Perv 'shopped' for victims

A SEX fiend who used his local Tesco to find teenage victims was jailed for five years yesterday.

Shaun Barnwell, 23, lured three girls into an alley near the store and sexually assaulted them. One of his victims was just 14 — and the others were aged 16 and 19.

Even after he was caught and granted bail at a hostel he subjected another woman to a similar attack, Gloucester Crown Court heard.

Prosecuter Mary Harley said Barnwell chatted up his victims in the Tesco at Tetbury, Gloucs, while pretending to be shopping.

He persuaded the 16-year-old girl to go for a walk with him last March. When she spurned his advances he indecently assaulted her.

His next victim was the girl of 14, whom he groped in an alleyway. The 19-year-old was kept prisoner during a terrifying ordeal in which he tried to molest her.

Barnwell pleaded guilty and also admitted indecently assaulting a woman in Leicester when he was on bail.

Putting him on the sex offenders’ list indefinitely, recorder Peter Blair told him: “These were appalling offences.”

Perv's loophole let-off

A SCHEMING pervert who had sex with two young girls will serve only ONE YEAR in jail — because he exploited a loophole in the law.

The victims of internet paedophile Michael Wheeler, 36, were only 13, a court heard yesterday.

The maximum sentence for sexual intercourse with a girl that age is two years — but it is LIFE if they are younger.

Wheeler snared the two virgins through web chat rooms when they were only 11 and 12, then he “groomed” them until they were 13.

Cops believe he deliberately waited before having sex with them — knowing he would get a lighter sentence if caught.

The computer expert had posed as a randy 16-year-old lad and bombarded the two girls with hours of disgusting messages.

After winning their trust he arranged secret dates with them.

Even though they realised his age when they met him he kept them under his spell, Norwich Crown Court was told.

He indecently assaulted them and had unlawful sex with them in his car, at his computer firm office and at his father’s house.

The girls were pals but Wheeler persuaded them not to tell each other they were having sex.

His first victim told cops: “My innocence has gone, my friends at school have fallen out with me. I do not relate to boys any more.”

Separated Wheeler, from Cambridge, was arrested when the girls’ parents found out he had been meeting the youngsters.

Police believe he was involved with up to seven girls in the same class at the same school. Cops said last night he had been “priming” a third for sex.

Wheeler, who admitted 11 offences, was jailed for three years and put on the sex offenders’ register for life.

But he could be free next summer, because of remission and time spent in custody.

Det Insp Neil Smith, who led the inquiry, said after the hearing: “I’ve no doubt he will re-offend. He is a very, very dangerous man.”

The Government is set to close the sentencing loophole this year.

Girl raped by 'gay' migrant

AN asylum seeker with HIV raped a girl of 17 and got another aged 14 pregnant — after winning permission to stay in Britain by claiming he was GAY.

Sex beast Gabriel Vengesai, 45, lied that he faced persecution as a homosexual in his native Zimbabwe, a jury heard.

But all along he had a GIRLFRIEND. After duping officials, he preyed on the 14-year-old daughter of a woman he knew.

Evil Vengesai never told the youngster he had HIV. She went on to have his child, although miraculously mother and baby both escaped infection.

Cops arrested the monster only for him to be freed on BAIL. He then lured the 17-year-old to his flat in Aldershot, Hants, and savagely raped her.

Yesterday the maniac was caged indefinitely after a judge branded him a “serious risk” to the public.

Judge Tom Longbotham ordered him to serve at least 6½ years, declaring: “Your continuing presence is detrimental to this country and this court recommends your deportation at the end of your sentence.”

The 17-year-old, who suffered internal injuries as Vengesai brutally attacked her, faced the ordeal of giving evidence against him still not knowing if she had HIV.

It was only after a jury convicted him of rape that she got the all-clear.

Vengesai, who came to Britain in 1996, was also found guilty of having sex with the younger girl.

Judge Longbotham said it was only luck that Vengesai’s victims escaped infection. A report read out at Winchester Crown Court said of the brute, who shunned condoms: “Vengesai thinks he is entitled to sex as a male, and women need sex.”

The 17-year-old’s mum said after the trial: “This man came to Britain on the pretext of being a practising homosexual, who on arrival in this country was diagnosed as HIV positive.

“Upon release we would expect the immigration office to act quickly and deport this hideous man so he can do no further damage to the young girls in our communities.”

Mooner, over on the Scum's Myspace-style community, seems to have noticed the difference too:


I don't know whether that entered the judge's mind, but I'm more than certain that's the reason that the Sun didn't attack Renton with the full force it usually reserves for sex offenders. I am not in any way defending those convicted of such damaging, horrific crimes, but standards ought to be the same. The difference is that one of main fantasies of young men is often to be "taken in hand" by an older woman; this view means that potentially mentally destructive offences are often brushed over or dismissed as being life-enhancing, when if it was a man taking advantage of a similar aged girl, the difference of reaction would be palpable, as shown by the above articles.

Keeping with the same theme, today's Sun continues with yet more police supplied speculation about the killer of Laila Rezk:

THE killer of glamorous mum-of-two Laila Rezk is a twisted sex beast, police believe.

Tests failed to find any evidence the 51-year-old was raped but the state of her clothes indicated a “sexual element” to the murder.

Laila may have been followed after getting off a bus before the savage attack at her £600,000 home in Kingston Vale, South West London.

She was found an hour later by her son Tamer, 20, and daughter Dina, 22, and died the next day.

Cops said the killer may have used his fists to pummel her.

In other words, the police are clutching at straws, have no idea who committed the crime and are potentially walking down completely wrong paths. Brilliant!

Finally, the Scum brings us "news" that its page 3 idol Keeley is apparently, the perfect woman:

PAGE 3 beauty Keeley Hazell is officially the perfect woman, according to a new study.

Keeley has all the attributes men desire including long brunette hair, sparkling eyes and full natural lips.

Our 20-year-old from Bromley, Kent, is their ideal height — around 5ft5ins — looks great in a floral dress and has good teeth and a friendly smile.

Thousands of men were quizzed for the poll in Grazia magazine. As well as their likes, fellas also revealed dislikes — moody, broody, bolshy or boozy girls.

Nine out of ten wanted women to be normal weight “with curves”. No wonder they’ve all gone head over Keel’s.

Translated, this means that the majority of men like girls they don't know, who get their big tits out for national newspapers, and like their women not to be independent, introverted or drunkards. Who would have thought it?

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Tried and failed.

Love him or loathe him, Roy Hattersley can still write a stinging comment piece. The march of time, it must be said, has been kind to Roy. He served the majority of his years in opposition, implacably opposed to the Militant Tendency which did so much to damage Labour during the 80s, whether self-inflicted pain or otherwise. Forever associated with being on the right of the old Labour party, he now attacks New Labour from the left. He hasn't moved, but Blair has moved the party, if not its supporters. Examining the layers of bullshit that cocoon the oxymoron that is our "independent nuclear deterrent", Hattersley contrasts his support for having nuclear weapons during the cold war with the justification for now keeping them. While his positioning then can be questioned and argued against, his stand now is exactly the right one.

It's clear that while there is a convincing argument for keeping Trident for now and waiting, say, at the least, 5 years, as Michael Meacher proposes, to see if any clear "threat" emerges from out of the middle of nowhere, there is no current justification whatsoever for the spending of at least £20bn and at the most £75bn on a weapons system that is currently "deterring" no one and which, unless we suddenly lose our minds in the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity to make September 11th look like a picnic, will never be used.

The arguments used by Tony Blair and set out in the white paper are wafer thin. He suggests that it would be "unwise and dangerous" to unilaterally give up our nuclear weapons system. Unwise, possibly. Dangerous, no. For the whole justification for keeping Trident now to look even half-way compelling, we have to forget both about the so-called "special relationship" with the United States and, also, about Nato. Are we meant to believe that our alliance with the United States would ever become so weak or fractured that if we were threatened by either a nuclear armed state, or nuclear armed terrorists (let's not even get into the debate about how unlikely that is), that they would not come to our aid, or threaten to strike back equally or more powerfully? Even if we decided to go our own ways on foreign policy, it seems highly unlikely that America would let Britain be menaced in such a way. Blair's argument also seems to be the final nail in the coffin of Nato; no longer does it seem that an attack on one is an attack on all, which was even hinted at in the aftermath of 9/11 by the head. It's preposterous that neither nuclear armed France or nuclear armed America wouldn't come to our aid.

Equally illogical are the two examples of North Korea and Iran which are liberally being banded about. North Korea claims to have up to six nuclear bombs, but judging by their pathetic test, their technology is about as far from perfect as it can get. We don't know whether they can attach their nuclear devices to any of the current missile systems; even if they can, as a recent test demonstrated, their missiles are similarly unreliable. They might, with the best luck in the world, be able to fire a missile with a warhead that could reach either Hawaii or Alaska. North Korea is therefore, and seems unlikely to be in any way a threat to us in the near future. She is China's, Korea's, Russia's, Japan's and the United States's problem.

Iran is even less advanced than North Korea. Current estimates still suggest that if Iran even is actively developing nuclear weapons, and that is still a big if, as it is only currently enriching uranium, that it would be at least 5 years away from a viable system. Even then, Iran's current longest range missile, the Shahab-3, has a maximum range of 2100km, which would be able to reach Israel. The nearest major British interest is the military bases in Cyprus, which were notoriously used and abused in the propaganda in the lead-up to the Iraq war, as screaming headlines then warned that "BRITS ARE 45 MINUTES FROM DOOM".

This is all assuming that nothing happens in the on-off diplomatic maneuvering surrounding Iran's nuclear ambitions, and that the country is left alone to get on with it, without there being either a bloodless solution, or at worst, an unilateral military strike by either Israel or the US on nuclear research plants. Iran is more of a threat to British interests through potentially sponsoring terrorism and extremists throughout the Middle East than through its weapons systems.

Which brings us neatly onto the threat posed by terrorists themselves. The closest a terrorist attack has come to using weapons of mass destruction was the Sarin gas atrocity on the Tokyo tube; horrifying, but far far less deadly than September the 11th was. The whole phony argument surrounding the chance of terrorists finding themselves somehow with a nuclear weapon falls apart when you consider how they're a: going to transport it, as they're obviously not going to be able to fire it normally; b: how they're going to transport it to where it's going to be exploded without them being detected and c: how they're going to explode it once they've achieved both of those things. In short, it's a non-starter. Far more horror and terror will always be achieved by suicide bombings from otherwise "normal" citizens than through the fiction which is getting hold of a nuclear weapon. Even if they managed to get a hold of a serious amount of a nuclear substance for a "dirty bomb", investigations and studies so far have suggested that the reality would be far less devastating than our leaders would like us to believe.

All of which ignores whether our nuclear weapons would actually deter any of the above from either attempting to acquire, or even using them once they have been comprehensively acquired. It seems highly unlikely that they would. Despite what everyone believes, MAD still does apply. If North Korea or Iran were to fire a nuclear missile, we all know full well that the United States and/or Israel would retaliate with full force. The mullahs are not mad enough to want Armageddon. Neither is Kim Jong-Il. As the white paper makes clear, the system is hilariously "not designed for military use during conflict," meaning that it is completely and utterly useless.

It is not impossible to imagine that some threat that may justify the retention of nuclear weapons may emerge in due course. While it is unlikely to do so in 5 years, that space of time would suggest whether such a threat is more or less likely. If a week is a long time in politics, then 5 years is an eternity. Instead, with the decision that the Prime Minister is now urging to be taken now, the real reasons why a new submarine fleet is being put forward are that BAE Systems, terrified that it may lose the Al-Yamamah deal over the Serious Farce Office's investigation into the Guardian-revealed slush funds, wants a multi-billion pound contract just in case. The other reason is that Blair, searching so desperately as he is for a legacy, wants another small line to be included in the history books after the pages and pages about Iraq.

Once again, this is ignoring the other counter-arguments, such as that replacing Trident would breach or make a laughing stock of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, as covered brilliantly and in-depth here by Curious Hamster, that the "independent nuclear deterrent" is nothing of the sort, or where the money spent on Trident could be better used. All we are left with is a promise of "a full debate", with our parliamentarians being offered a vote which has already been won thanks to David Cameron's brilliant efforts as opposition leader, further proving how he is the true successor to Blair in stifling any view other than the prevailing one. Taking everything in to account, we will never have a better time to either mothball or dismantle a weapons system we should not have acquired in the first place.

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Monday, December 04, 2006 

Scum-watch: Maniacs and hypocrisy.

The Sun is back to its old trick of speculating on and sensationalising serious crimes again today:

COPS are probing whether a deranged maniac may have used his BARE HANDS to batter tragic Laila Rezk to death.

Tests failed to show a weapon was used on the mum of two — suggesting the beast used his FISTS.

The actual meaning of "tests" in this article seems rather ambiguous, for later on the report makes clear:

Cops were sickened by the attack and assumed a weapon was used. But a search found nothing near the house in Kingston Vale, South West London.

Tests are being done to see if Egyptian-born Laila was sexually assaulted.

Presumably both tests would have been conducted at the same time, if they had taken place, although any forensic examiners are more than welcome to correct me if I'm wrong. Rather more probable is the fact that since the plod have failed to find a weapon, they've either briefed/been paid by the Scum that the murderer was unarmed. Seeing as both the Mail and Sun have referred to the murderer of Laila Rezk as "a deranged, stalking maniac," when it's unclear whether the actual assailant is any of those things, the leak that he used his fists is very helpful towards the story they've already weaved.

Elsewhere today in the Scum:

A WOMAN cop off sick with “stress” is topping up her salary as a soft porn photographer.

WPC Gillian Mooney, 49, took the saucy snap of professional model Emma.

Ho-hum, typical Scum story. Or so you think. Until...

The Sun booked Emma for a photo-shoot with Mooney.

Emma paid the £150 fee and posed for the WPC in a studio built into the living room of her semi. Emma was asked to sign a form allowing the snaps to be sold on.

Emma, 23, said: “I got the impression she wanted me to do some artistic nude shots. She did say most of her work was weddings and children.”

Right, so a WPC on the sick happens to be a part-time photographer as well. Big deal, plenty of police officers and firefighters do other jobs on the side. Obviously it raises the question of whether she is actually still stressed or not, but having a national newspaper splash on it is bound to do wonders for her nerves.

More interesting however is that the Sun describes what she does as soft pornography. The photograph from the shoot the Sun booked, but notice didn't pay for, so they can't be accused of adding to her bank balance (although I'd almost be prepared to wager a small sum that the Sun provided the money) is quite clearly a glamour shot, but not one containing nudity. According to "Emma", whose word we have to take at face value, she got the "impression" she wanted to do some artistic nude shots. Impression suggests that Mooney didn't actually infer that she could additionally do full glamour shots, if Emma so wanted.

All of which is beside the point however. If what Mooney is doing is soft pornography, then what, pray tell, is Page 3 Idol (warning: nudity) and Page 3 itself? Not only are those submitting their photographs not being paid for the privilege, they're competing for the wonderful prize of a whole £5,000. The Sun has always and continues to justify page 3 as a "bit of fun". What's the difference between Mooney's "soft porn" shoots and the Sun's bits of fun? Nothing, except for the Sun's contempt and disdain for its own readers. When it comes to smearing and booting people when they're down, ala "Lady Mucca", pornography is distasteful and even shameful, but when they're doing the same thing it's quite different. As I've stated before, I'm no puritan and certainly wouldn't ban page 3 given the chance; I just think it has no place in a publication that calls itself a "newspaper".

P.S. Just to be fair and balanced (® Fox News), here's David Cox on Comment is Free telling us why Murdoch is actually the greatest thing to ever happen to Britain.

P.P.S Here's Five Chinese Crackers taking apart another of today's Sun's stories, this one on the scandal of a school having a Carribbean theme Christmas.

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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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