Friday, August 31, 2007 

10 years of turning in the grave.

As tempting as it is to ignore the whole sorry spectacle of today's ostentatious yet banal processions of manufactured grief and remembrance, or dismiss it with a post like "10 years on: Diana still dead", it's hard not to conclude that Diana's death really did change Britain, although not in the way that either the tabloids or most of the more serious pontificating hacks have tried to claim.

Like a decade ago, it's Private Eye's front cover that's provided an alternative narrative to the more mainstream one. Then it punctured the lachrymose, sanctimonious and overbearing mood which most of the press were attempting to enforce on the nation, pointing out the most base hypocrisy of a media which had spent most of its time criticising the Princess, sometimes in the most strident of terms, only then to beatify her once she can no longer actually respond to it, so much so that it was temporarily removed from some shops for daring to speak up for those alienated and appalled by the turn of events. This week it's again both poked fun at and pointed the finger at the media, having exploited her image for their own ill-gotten gains for the last 10 years, with Diana saying she hopes that they haven't just used one of her well-worn photographs to sell more copies.

While it's just a coincidence, it's also intuitive that the latest series of that other tedious behemoth, Big Brother, comes to a close tonight. Just as some celebrate the notion that Diana's death brought us together, made us more comfortable with expressing our emotions and established a new era of understanding and openness which has resurfaced recently with the desperate cases of Madeleine McCann and Rhys Jones, she also did more than anyone else, or rather the media's endless pursuit of her did, to establish the cult of celebrity. While Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships, it was Diana that has helped launch thousands of magazines, books and other paraphernalia, an avalanche of low culture which even now shows no signs of abating.

Whether you ascribe to the theory that the media "killed" Diana or not, whether through the paparazzi who chased her through the Paris streets into that fateful tunnel, or just the editors' who demanded the never ending stream of photographs which meant she was followed wherever she went, it's not that far a leap from the cameras stalking one woman to the cameras watching contestants out for a fast buck, both being used as cash cows while pretending to care for their wellbeing. Diana was a real-life soap opera, her Panorama interview the most cathartic episode in its history, only to be overshadowed by a killing off that some doom-mongers may have predicted but was never expected to actually happen. What else is reality television if not the controlled chaos of throwing numerous incompatible people together and seeing what happens? Doom-mongers like myself have long been predicting that this most unethical and distasteful of junk programming will eventually end in a preventable tragedy; while it is yet to happen, judging by how this latest series of BB has been denounced as both the worst and most boring yet, you almost imagine that the producers would actually have liked something similar to happen. They only have themselves to blame: what do you expect when you throw photogenic but completely empty and self-absorbed, mostly young individuals together? Then again, who else would want to go on such shows? It's like flies trying to stop themselves from sitting on shit.

At the very least, Diana occasionally had something of interest to say, or a cause to support that others in her position wouldn't have touched with a bargepole. The very fact that she was far from perfect, a flawed person just like all the rest of us, made her both great friends and great enemies. When her death brought about the biggest reverse ferret in tabloid history, it showed how if there's one thing that riles up the gutter press, it's someone who doesn't always get things right. They hated her because while she indulged them, she also knew when to draw the line, as well as the fact that she was more popular than they could ever possibly be. Only in death could they truly love her, as only then was every little detail about her profitable: while she could object, answer back or tell her side, they couldn't get away with printing the crap they've spent the last ten years selling and producing.

Rather than learning from this model though, today's celebrities have gone the other way entirely; doing everything they possibly can to suck up to the media, even though it holds the key to both their success and their potential destruction. Without Diana, there could have been no Jordan or Kerry Katona, or all the other hideous, talentless morons that have filled the vacuum of the last ten years. Does it saying something about us or about our popular culture that a former glamour model with expandable on command breasts could be worth millions, producing a perfume, lingerie, "writing" novels and have cameras follow her everywhere without anyone suggesting that this is the most facile, vapid, ridiculous and obnoxious of insults to collective intelligence yet seen?

In actuality, the last decade has seen the media learn how to both exploit and even engineer breakdowns and personal problems. While some of this is cynically produced by the women's gossip magazines who are in cahoots with the celebrities themselves, flagging up every slight wobble in a relationship, some of it is voyeurism bordering on the morbid. The recent obsession with Amy Winehouse, a young, somewhat talented woman obviously addicted both to drugs and her husband, with the paparazzi following her every movement, from alleged fights to the beach, has surely been reminiscent how Diana was chased around during her last summer. That some have made reference to "Sid and Nancy" almost makes you wonder whether they'd actually like history to repeat itself so that they can sell some more newspapers and say "I told you so". Something similar has gone on with Pete Doherty and Kate Moss, although both are far less sympathetic figures. Rebekah Wade's blast against her hacks for their failure to get an interview with Doherty, saying that they had "lost any journalistic ability they had ever had" was indicative of just what has happened to tabloid journalism: no longer for the people, but for the rich to tell their sob stories to.

We shouldn't be surprised then that the Daily Express, on today of all days, can't even hold back from splashing its bottomless barrel of conspiracy theories on its front page, while the Daily Mail had a guide to today's service, which if the Grauniad is to be believed, had a hand in making Camilla decide not to attend, having read a "devastating" article by Diana's "close friend" Rosa Monckton in the Mail on Sunday. Monckton was no doubt in attendance today, although Paul Burrell, having apparently offended everyone with his money making through his books wasn't invited. If that same principle had been extended to the press, Monckton herself, who has wrote a children's book associated with Diana, and countless others, no one would have been there. Everyone with as much as a passing acquittance with her has filled their boots, and why not, when that great example the Daily Mail abandoned its pledge to never buy paparazzi pictures again with a matter of days? Quite why both the BBC and ITV had to show the "service of thanksgiving", a classic example of the aristocracy pretending that it cares while still doing its best to stick two fingers up to everyone with a difference of opinion, shows how the broadcasters can't cope with the loss of ratings even on a Friday morning in August.

If there is to be anything gained from bringing up this whole regrettable torrent of sentimentality, it ought to be that from now on we let the poor woman rest in peace. If the media continue to bombard us with her image, if writers continue to produce sordid memoirs revealing nothing new except their abject lack of originality and desire to earn some quick cash and if Mohamed Al-Fayed and friends continue to spout their debunked and discredited theories, all deserve to have mass boycotts imposed upon them. We shouldn't let a media at least partly responsible for her death continue to profit from it, without demanding that they reform themselves so something similar never occurs again. That all of this is a pipe dream, an impossibility, doesn't mean that it isn't true or necessary. After all, who's responsible? You (we) fucking are.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007 

The state of Iraq.

As the long-awaited September 15th report to Congress by General Petraeus on the progress of the so-called "surge" gets ever closer, likely to be somewhat optimistic over a slight drop in sectarian violence but highly critical over the Iraqi government's failure to meet the goals set down to it, the rhetoric, propaganda and downright lies of the Bush administration have been ratcheted up accordingly.

Last week saw the quite incredible sight of a man who did everything he could to avoid going to Vietnam using the blood spilled on both sides of that disastrous war to justify the continued presence of US troops in Iraq. Even Christoper Hitchens was moved to condemn it. This mangled, ahistorical account of events, in effect claiming that the US withdrawal led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when in fact the spreading of the war into Cambodia through mass-bombing raids was almost certainly the trigger for the overthrow of the government as those targeted joined Pol Pot's insurgency, ought to have been expected from an administration that doesn't just misunderstand history, but has from the beginning wanted to create its own reality. As the unnamed Bush administration aide told Ron Suskind, "we're an empire now". Four years on, thousands of dead American servicemen later, the administration in its desperation continues to try to make its own unreality, only to be brought down by its own imperial hubris.

When fatuous, intellectually bankrupt allusions to past horrors fail to enthuse the American public and the "Defeatocrats" continue to call for a withdrawal as quickly as possible, it was inevitable that the next bogeyman had to be pulled out of the president's battered hat. To accuse Iran, although no innocent party in Iraq of "murderous activities" may just be ever so slightly rich coming from the man personally responsible for the disaster that has led, directly or indirectly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Iran probably has supplied some of the Shia militias with weapons; it'd be more surprising if they'd stood idly by and watched as their neighbour and once most feared enemy was removed, especially as thousands of jihadists, some of whom have denounced the Shia as "kuffar", and a result just as much a threat to Iran as to America, moved into the vacuum of power. Why on earth though would the Sunni insurgent groups want the help of the hated mullahs of Iran when they can just buy the weapons supplied to the Iraqi army and police by the US on the black-market, almost 190,000 of them? Besides, Saddam and his army, handily disbanded by Paul Bremer, had also left behind vast stockpiles of both explosives and weaponry in caches across the country, giving the insurgents more than enough to be going on with, at least up until recently.

For all the claims, both from the Bush administration, General Petraeus and some sections of the media that the surge has worked or at least been working, the security situation outside of Baghdad, where most of the extra troops have deployed, has deteriorated accordingly. Call it the Fallujah effect: like how the majority of the insurgents moved out of the city on both occasions when it was laid surge to by American forces, the fighters get out of an area about to be specifically targeted and move elsewhere, leaving pockets of resistance behind which fight on. Where the insurgency was once strongest in Anbar province and Baghdad, it's moved now to Diyala and up towards Mosul, regrouping and reconstituting. The barbaric slaughter of the Yezidis in multiple suicide bombings, killing over 500, almost certainly carried out by the "Islamic State of Iraq", was only the most visible statement of their ability to attack anywhere and nearly anyone. Despite the surge, June saw the highest average number of daily attacks on US troops since the beginning of the war, reaching 177. As Juan Cole has pointed out, this has happened during the stifling heat of the summer months, when it becomes almost too hot to do anything during the day.

Keeping cool in temperatures approaching 120F has in fact got even worse. The power in Baghdad is now barely on for more than an hour a day, sometimes for 2 if they're lucky. The near collapse of the power grid doesn't just affect the obvious, it's also making the sewage situation in the Iraqi cities even worse, and the news that cholera has broken out in northern regions of Iraq is only surprising in that it's occurred there and not further south. The queues for fuel are just as bad as ever, if not worse, according to IraqSlogger, sadly soon to go subscription only.

Despite encouraging signs that al-Qaida in Iraq (now the self-proclaimed "Islamic State of Iraq") was increasingly being turned on, both by local populations formerly supportive, in the form of the Anbar Salvation Council for one, and also by other insurgent groupings sickened by the repeated attacks on innocent civilians, leading to the formation of the "Reform and Jihad Front", led mainly by the Islamic Army in Iraq, there appears to be little sign of the organisation losing its ability both to attract jihadis from overseas and willing suicide bombers, or its ability to launch deadly attacks. The animosity between the IAI and the ISI may well have been overstated by both reporters and the US for obvious reasons: there was a reported truce (there have been others, only for them also to quickly break down), only to be followed by a suicide bombing apparently targeting the local IAI leadership in Fallujah. As almost all the suicide bombings are carried out by the ISI (Ansar-al Sunnah and the newly formed and little known "Shield of Islam" have carried out others), it's highly likely to have been the latest, and quite possibly the most serious fratricidal attack between two of the Sunni insurgent groups so far. Evan F. Kohlmann has produced a vital, highly in-depth report on the state of the Sunni insurgency, well worth reading, which is available here (PDF).

While it's obvious that a full withdrawal may well temporarily cause casualties to escalate, the presence of the US is only now making the security situation worse, and the longer they stay the longer it will take for the Iraqi army and police to stand up on their own. While much of the insurgency is being kept going only by the presence of US troops, it's also certain that the Islamic State of Iraq, links to the actual leadership of al-Qaida or not, is going to continue its guerrilla war against whoever is nominally in power. The removal of the US from the equation may actually galvanise the groups opposed to al-Qaida into fully facing up to its distortion both of Islam and of humanity; while the US cannot destroy it, the Iraqis themselves certainly can. Whether the US leaves next year, in 5 years or 10 years, the re-awakened tensions between Sunni and Shia are also going to play out regardless, and the drop in sectarian violence, rather than being down to American pressure, might be more due to both factions gradually coming to their senses. As for the British presence, we need to get out, and now. It's that simple.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007 

Scum-watch: Keeping the explicit images at bay.

Incredible news over on the Sun's website, where the paper is pretending to be outraged over Jonathan Yeo's collage of George Bush made out of over 100 top-shelf magazines. Before you get out the hand lotion, the Sun has kindly put up a disclaimer:

The Sun has obscured the most explicit images in the piece.

Quite right too, as you never know when younger readers might be browsing the website. Strange then that the paper's sidebar navigation provides links to plenty of other places where you can get your rocks off. Clicking on virals, the Sun happily presents the avid masturbator with that oft-presented online sight, women covered in body paint, although at least the lady on the left has had her nipples obscured by some well-placed stars. Next down is slideshows, almost entirely dedicated to a collection of images of various celebrities, some in states of undress. Then there's Ibiza Exposed, with yet more scantily-clad young ladies, although many of these seem to breaking the Sun's usual stance on the consumption of recreational drugs. Finally, how could we possibly forgot, where two clicks will provide you with today's latest gorgeous pouting glamour girl, along with videos from the Scum's less classy nationwide wet t-shirt competition, from the exotic locations of Watford and Chelmsford amongst others.

Then again, we could have just looked at the front page itself, where just above the story on Yeo's collage the newspaper aptly illustrates a silly season study that British women are more likely to have cosmetic surgery to please partners than their counterparts in the US with a typically pneumatic woman in a bikini top. Alongside the main story, we're informed that Kate (who she?) has a great carear (geddit?!). Finally, beanpole cocaine hoover Tara Palmer-Tompkinson and Sharon Marshall (who she?) provide advice on how to be "very, very naughty":

BEING a sexy, single and naughty girl is the most fun you’ll ever have. But only if you get out there and enjoy it. If you go out less often than the Olympic Flame then you haven’t made the most of it.

Even if your flat is a lovely, peaceful, shiny and fluffy pussycat-filled heaven, we want you out of it sometimes. At least twice a week. In high heels and (gusset-free) hosiery, please.

Men have broken our hearts. Sharon got so fat from sulking she ended up doing a TV dieting show (Celebrity Fit Club).

Tara got so thin, the paparazzi needed magnifying glasses to find her. We’ve each been at our lowest ebb. But it was time to pull up our stockings.

Forget the 12 steps to recovery, we’ve gone straight to step 13 – the naughty step. Bye bye Miss Goody Two-Shoes, hello Miss Sh*g Me Shoes And Stockings.

Thank God they censored shag; someone might otherwise have been offended.

Elsewhere, the Sun is poised to carry out a totally unique piece of investigative journalism, but first they need your help:

IF your name is KATIE PRICE we need you!

We are planning a feature and need to speak to women all around the country who share their name with glamour model Katie Price, AKA Jordan.

WHATEVER your age we need your help and will pay you for your time if you agree to take part in this amazing Sun feature.

If you are not called Katie Price but you know someone who is, whether it be your grandma or granddaughter, tell them to get in touch before they miss out on this exciting opportunity.

Find out more by calling 0207 782 4344 or email NOW

Through my contacts I've been able to obtain a copy of the questionnaire that the Sun's hacks will be using to interview all those who get in contact. Keep this under your hats folks:

1. Is your name Katie Price?
2. What are your vital statistics?
3. Will you let us take photographs of your breasts for a comparison feature in Britain's number one newspaper?

A Pulitzer prize is no doubt on its way.

P.S. The Sun is succeeding in establishing a culture of suspicion in its readers' when it comes to the evil of child pornography. From a comment on the George Bush story:

Ok so the creator of this insult has a sick mind and is a porn junkie, has the image been checked for child porn images?

You can never be too careful.

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The Daily Moolah.

Despite the Daily Mail's new found concern about how the gap between the ultra-rich and the poor might lead to riots, Paul Dacre's decision to go after the feckless rich has unsurprisingly not spread to the boardroom. According to the Guardian's pay survey of the FTSE 100 companies, Padraic M Fallon, one of the Daily Mail and General Trust plc's executive directors received a cash bonus of £2,006,000 last year, placing him tenth in the top ten employees' cash bonuses chart. The Viscount Rothermere also makes the top ten chairmen chart, taking home a cool £827,284. Futhermore, Paul Dacre himself, the new scourge of the fat cats and champion of the downtrodden middle classes, according to Private Eye earned a salary and bonuses totalling £1.23 million. While many of the readers of his newspaper might find themselves with little in their pension pot, Mr Dacre himself has no such worries, as the Guardian puts him in a very select club of people who will be able to call upon a yearly fund of up to £500,000 following his retirement. Not bad work for scaring your customers senseless every day of the week.

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Comedy moment of the day.

Irony continues to smother everything, even an impromptu prison officers strike:

Affected prisons include:

Cardiff prison where inmates locked in their cells have taunted a picket line in the car park with shouts of "You're breaking the law"

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007 

Scrabbling over the bodies for political gain.

If you wanted an example of just how polarised Britain is over crime, you need look no further than today's poll in the Grauniad. 49% now believe that prison doesn't work, an astounding figure when you take into account the overwhelming view of the media is directly the opposite. Accordingly, 51% think that building prisons is the wrong way to go, and that an alternative has to be found to punish criminals and deter crime. 46% believe that the answer is to build yet more. Even so, 77% still want judges to pass ever tougher sentences, a finding that only adds to the thinking that the public in general wants to have its cake and eat it.

Perhaps if the Guardian's poll had been published at the weekend, it might have given the Tories some pause for thought before outlining yet another package for tackling what they're calling "Britian's Crime Crisis" (PDF). More a hodge podge bringing together all their recent thinking on how crime has to be tackled than any radically new thinking, it's clear that the Tories have decided that there's the equivalent of political money to be made out of the blood recently spilt on Britain's streets.

That would be unpleasant enough on its own, but it's also apparent that this is Cameron's attempt to turn the death of Rhys Jones into his own "Bulger" moment. While James Bulger's murder was a horrifying anomaly, the death of Jones does at its root have much to say about modern life in Britain in 2007. Even so, it by no means proves that we're living in a broken society, no more than Bulger's death back in 1993 said that we were a sick society. His death was however though the excuse or cue needed for political opportunism on all sides, leading directly to Michael Howard's "prison works!" speech to his party's conference, Blair's "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", which was actually Gordon Brown's soundbite, and Lib Dem David Alton's thankfully failed attempt to ban all films with a certificate higher than 12 from being released on video. Appropriately, you can find elements of all three knee-jerk reactions in Cameron's own knee-jerk response to Labour's knee-jerking over the last 10 years.

The document opens with an introduction by none other than David Cameron himself, which means we can directly accuse him of scrabbling over the dead for his own political gain. "Deaths by fists, knives and guns are becoming a regular feature of British news" - they haven't always been? "It is simply unacceptable -- a moral reproach to our country -- that someone should have the opportunity and inclination to kill an 11-year-old child with a handgun" - seeing as we don't know whether Jones was the target of the shooting yet or not, hadn't we ought to concentrate on the facts rather than start issuing blanket statements on the state of the nation before anyone has even been charged, yet alone tried? Next he tries to accuse Labour of failing to understand the problem, quoting Blair when he said that it was a "specific problem within a specific criminal culture", without bothering to mention the fact he was talking about gun crime and not violent crime in general, and most likely also trying to blame it all on black youths, as he subsequently did later in the year. Then comes the selective use of statistics that back up what the Tories are saying: that violent crime has doubled in ten years, without acknowledging that the British Crime Survey, regarded as more authoritative, says the opposite; that gun-violence has increased four-fold, dealt with by Unity here; and that knife crime has doubled in the last two years alone, without mentioning that this is robberies involving knives and that it's on disputed figures when the actual research hasn't even been released yet. Then we get the American "example" shoved down our throats yet again, also involving either some faulty quoting of statistics or a deliberate mistake: the murder rate did indeed fall between the years 1990 and 98, but it was from 2,246 to 924, not 2,245 to 633. The most recent figures recorded 874 murders in New York in 2005, which is still more than in both England and Wales as a whole. The least said about the ridiculous "Social Covenant" that Cameron's come up with, a patronising document more familiar to school children than responsible adults the better.

What then are then Cameron's great new ideas to solve our crime crisis? The actions with supposed immediate effect are thus: firstly, he wants to abolish the police stop form, which has to be filled out whenever a police officer stops someone, although one gets the feeling that this is hardly followed to the letter. More controversially is the extending of stop and search, even though some police officers have already raised concerns that the powers they already have are being abused. This would give ordinary constables the power to seal off any area where they believed that someone was carrying or hiding firearms for up to 48 hours. Seeing as black and Asian men are already those most likely stopped under stop and search, you can imagine where this will most end up getting used. The Tories want a review that would examine what restrictions would be necessary to prevent excessive use or abuse of such power, but one hardly expects that it would come up with much. Next up is "permanent police visibility", which as we know is no panacea and can increase the fear of crime rather than necessarily reassure, but it's a simple and popular measure. They also want to reform the police, but don't exactly overburden us with details on either how or why. Penultimately they bring up last week's suggestion that magistrates remove or suspend the right to a driving license, which is unlikely to affect the average gang-member who doesn't have the money to either learn or own a car, and besides, if they're really that involved in such low-level crime, why should they care either about bothering to get a license or getting their own car when there's others out there to steal? Last is the idiotic scrapping of the early release scheme, even though there's no extra prison places which can be used or brought on stream quickly. The suggestion that prison ships or camps should be used is an example of the Tories stealing John Reid's most Sun-pleasing and ridiculous policies, which he realised he couldn't actually achieve once they were looked into. Still, what does that matter to a Tory party that's still in opposition and doesn't actually have to be good to its word? Cameron's speech on the matter also showed his own personal ignorance: he suggested that cells should be used by two inmates rather than one, even though that's exactly what is happening right now. The very reason the early release scheme was brought in was because the prisons chief executive rejected the idea of putting three inmates into a cell meant for one, knowing it was a recipe for riots and even more violence and suicides.

The actions with medium-term effect aren't much better. Enforcing school discipline is easier said than done, and naturally, the Tories' suggest making home-school contracts enforceable. Us lucky adults get a social covenant, the kids get a junior version which if disobeyed can lead directly to their exclusion. Lastly, the ever popular voluntary and independent sector has to have a hand in helping those expelled. Next to come under fire is alcohol licensing, even though the real effect of the introduction of the changes in November 2005 has yet to be properly established in any real fashion. The problem with alcohol isn't when or how it's available, it's down to how the people themselves consume it, which is predictably forgotten because that is something that will take a lot longer to tackle. Local control over policing might be the only worthwhile suggestion out of this whole sorry lot, although local people really want yet another election for a local "Crime Commissioner" (which is an Orwellian term if there ever was one), who would hold the local chief constable to public account is another matter. The Tories claim they'll restore honesty to sentencing, which seems to amount to ordering judges to hand down both a minimum and a maximum sentence, just to confuse things even further, with no one released on parole before the end of the minimum. Considering the way the tabloids etc responded to the minimum sentences handed down to Learco Chindamo, Craig Sweeney et al, this might not be the cure all the Tories think it will be. Magistrates will be given the power to send someone down for a year, also announced last week. They also promise to build more prison places, while also "ensuring appropriate provision for the mentally ill and offenders with drug problems", something that Labour has been promising for years and has spectacularly failed to follow up on. There's no reason to think the Tories will fare any better. Finally, the Tories will introduce that wonderful border police force we're all crying out for, and rip up the "hated" Human Rights Act, for no other reason than it'll please the Daily Mail and Sun while destroying some of Churchill's legacy. How times change.

The long-term actions are just as underwhelming. The Tories will discriminate in favour of families, bribing the middle classes while sticking one up to the single mother in standard fashion, while also introducing flexible working for those with children, which should please the CBI no end. Cameron's favoured bugbear, hip hop and rap music, will apparently be tackled by the party having a "regular process of consultation" with music producers. Considering that most of the music he's so disgusted by is American in origin, no doubt there'll be regular trips across the Atlantic, presumably on a boat so as not to affect his carbon footprint. Also coming under fire, in a direct parallel to Bulger's death are films and video games, even though the BBFC is still one of the strictest censorship bodies in the western world, as the banning of Manhunt 2 has shown. The problem isn't with films/games getting more violent, it's with the parents that are buying them for their darling children despite the certificates they've been given. As ever, children are used as a justification to stop adults from making their own decisions about what they want to watch or play. Lastly, the Tories will reform welfare by, you've guessed it, handing it over to the independent, voluntary and commercial organisations to sort out the feckless jobless. Nothing about tackling inequality or poverty, but just what did you expect?

Just then as the public comes to the realisation that prison really doesn't work, that the endless crackdowns and knee-jerk responses have failed, the Tories outline their own detailed, badly thought out and highly discriminatory reflex to end all reflexes. Our society is broken, but don't worry, the Tories have come up with the quickest sticking plaster "solution" of all time. Whether the families of those killed will be receptive to the Tories' use of their dead relatives for their own political benefit remains to be seen.

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Monday, August 27, 2007 

When a picture says more than thousands of words.

Out of the thousands of words that have been expelled (including by myself) on the murder of Rhys Jones, it's perhaps fitting that it's a cartoon that's come closest to saying the most while using the least amount of syllables.

Whether we blame the parents, gang culture, the search for (and lack of) respect, educational failure, crushing poverty, braggadocio, the police, Thatcherism, Blairism, violence in popular culture, little green men, political correctness, alienation, single mothers, the Cheeky Girls, all or none of these things, or even the person who fired the gun, I think we can all agree that Jones' parents shouldn't keep subjecting themselves to going in front of the camera, trying to shame the perpetrator into coming forward or not. They need to go and grieve in peace, and the media has to let them.

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Utterly shameless.

How then did the Daily Express respond to Gerry McCann's request for the media to stop bombarding the general public with images of his daughter and to scale down the coverage of the search for her? By reproducing yet more unsubstantiated reports from the Portuguese press on the front page, while somehow pretending to be outraged by their very existence, naturally.

Just how much longer is this going to go on for? In a decade's time, is the Express still going to be screaming about supposed new revelations about her disappearance? Is it going to be informing us for the umpteenth time that she really was pregnant when she went missing, honest? Or that the Duke of Edinburgh, allied with MI6, conspired to kidnap her from her bed because she was about to bring down the monarchy through a roll of film stuffed inside her cuddle cat that proved Diana was murdered? I spend most of the time here wittering endlessly and complaining about the stranglehold that the Murdoch press has over both the public and political mood in this country, but not even the Scum is so disgustingly blatant in its futile attempts to boost its circulation through lies, conjecture and downright abuse of those unlucky enough to either have died or gone missing in suspicious circumstances. It's worth remembering that Dirty Desmond was helped along in his purchase of the Express/Star titles through donating £100,000 to the Labour party, meaning we have this government to partially thank for the excuse for journalism which adorns the newsagent shelves every morning.

Speaking of disgustingly futile attempts to boost circulation, something suddenly hit me earlier, and for a change it wasn't someone who had randomly abused me for having the temerity to walk down the same side of the street as them.

POSTERS about The Sun’s £100,000 reward for information that helps catch Rhys’s killer have gone up around Liverpool.

Really? In the same city where the Sun has never been forgiven, nor will it ever be forgiven for its appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster? Where the unofficial boycott of the paper has never been lifted? Am I being far too cynical when I think that the Sun's offering of such a reward might be more than just a selfless gesture in response to a shocking crime? If Wikipedia is to be believed, then circulation of the Scum in Liverpool was at around 12,000 in 2004, a fall from 200,000 prior to Hillsborough. The newspaper it seems has plenty to gain and little to lose from offering such a reward. After all, who would ever accuse it of having anything other than the very best motives at heart?

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Saturday, August 25, 2007 

More reasons to love Jeremy Paxman.

Earlier in the year we were treated to a semi-coherent rant by the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in the form of the Cudlipp lecture, where he attacked the "subsidariat", i.e. the Guardian, Independent, Times and BBC for their various crimes, mainly not being right-wing enough and as a result treating the general public who as we know are naturally conservative with contempt. It's worth comparing his abortion with yesterday's excellent MacTaggart lecture by Jeremy Paxman, where he effortlessly identified the real problems with the current state of the fourth estate.

Taking his cue in part from Tony Blair's own valedictory speech on the state of the media, Paxman rightly notes that despite the amount of hypocrisy involved in Blair's comments and his laughable example of the Independent, his message was partly right but delivered by the wrong person.

The basic charge sheet against us from Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell is as follows. Firstly, that we behave like a herd. Secondly that we have a trivial and collective judgement. Thirdly, that we prefer sensation to understanding. I’m sorry to say, but I think there’s something in all of these arguments.

You only have to see re-examine the coverage of Rhy Jones' tragic death over the last few days to see just how the herd operates. It's been almost an exact mirror of when Madeleine McCann went missing - the news media has decamped to Liverpool, the newspapers have offered rewards for information, we've had the same intrusion into the parents' private grief, and we've had interviews with any teenager who so much as looks like he might be in a gang, none of which have told us anything to new.

Take the Guardian's interview
this morning with a "Nogadog", a disgusting litany of boasts, bravado and shallow willy-waving that tells us absolutely nothing that we didn't already know about gang culture, but it sure makes for good copy and introduces the general public to local slang for the police. That the little prick behind the interview is now probably a hero along his friends for getting into the posh Grauniad with his senseless, immature mumblings despite being too afraid to show his face like the frightened shit he is ought to have told the journalist that this was gutter journalism rather than investigative reporting and getting the story behind the story. Did the television and newspaper photographers also have to film and snap Jones' parents looking at the tributes to their son, showing his mother crying again, even after they'd given an emotional press conference? It was tawdry voyeurism of the worst kind, emotional pornography that intruded on their private grief. That some of the tabloids (and indeed, the Telegraph) put it on their front page ought to tell us how much they really care: and does the Mirror's front page happen to remind anyone of one of the Sun's early efforts to "empathise" with Kate McCann?

It's perhaps fitting that Gerry McCann himself has now criticised some of the coverage of his daughter's disappearance. Some will rightly suggest that it takes some chutzpah on his behalf to condemn the "bombard(ing) [of] people on a daily basis" with Madeleine's image after that was what his wife and he set out to do in the first few weeks, but the continuing of just that has become truly revolting, with the Daily Express making up stories every day now for weeks because it's decided its a circulation booster. This is the very worst of the media's behaviour, acting both like a herd and preferring sensation to absolutely any understanding. Every reported act must be met with a reaction - Jones' death demands zero tolerance; Madeleine's disappearance has to lead to more co-operation Europe wide on paedophiles; immigration figures are not anaylsed for exactly what they mean, but are distorted, used as a political football and then by single-interest groups to prove how right they are (see Five Chinese Crackers all this week); and the decision not to deport Learco Chindamo must result in the ripping up of the Human Rights Act - and all of this in just one week, in the supposed silly season. When it's not pure sensationalism, we instead get irresponsible fearmongering: just look at the Sun's idiotic, designed to cause panic coverage of the floods, claiming there were going to be mass outbreaks of water borne diseases and that yobs were going round pissing in and smashing up bowsers, which the BBC, the Sun's natural enemy had to correct.

Paxman rightly points out just how money, ratings and the digital age have all had a hand to play in both the scandals concerning the faking of competitions, the defrauding of the vulnerable who enter premium-rate phone line quizzes, and the gradual drop in trust all round. Big Brother is but the biggest example - a witless, unethical exploitation both of those who involve themselves in it and those who itch to vote the contestants out, but which Channel 4 relies on as its banker. You could argue that Big Brother pays for Channel 4 News, Dispatches, Peep Show etc, but why should a channel providing a public service have to stoop so low in order to also bring the "highbrow"? Shouldn't we be outraged that Newsnight, an institution that usually gets less than a million viewers that if were to disappear would leave a gaping hole in political coverage on television, is getting even further cutback while programmes that are an insult to viewers' intelligence like "GrownUps", "Tittybangbang" and "Little Miss Jocelyn" are still being produced and mass advertised? Why should we be surprised that people are turning off and losing faith when such dreck keeps getting renewed?

We need to treat our viewers with respect, to be frank with them about how and why programmes were made, to be transparent. We need, in short, to rediscover a sense of purpose.

This ought to be, to quote one of the most abused terms of the week, "common sense". That it isn't suggests how far the media has moved from being the supposed voice of the people to deciding that it knows what the people want - and how wrong it often is.

Slight update: Tory MP John Whittingdale and Panorama's John Sweeney have come up with the obvious solution to Newsnight's woes: close BBC Three. Considering about the only decent programme it's managed to produce in four years has been Monkey Dust, it ought to be a no brainer. The other reasonably popular dramas it's produced, such as Torchwood, Bodies, etc would be just at home on BBC Two as they are on the BBC's feeble attempt at a "yoof" channel.

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Friday, August 24, 2007 

More thoughts on crime and why we don't need zero tolerance.

(This is mostly going to be a tedious post based around the premise that despite all the claims that zero tolerance has worked in New York and Los Angeles, the cities are in fact more dangerous than London is. If you don't want to read me ranting about overreactions to one heinous crime, skip it.)

Which side are you on? Is this what it comes down to? Must we be polarised between the Sun's call for the murder of Rhys Jones to "change us as a nation" and the Grauniad's that this is not a country "beset by universal violence or disorder, or even, in most parts of the country, by rising levels of criminality"? The answer, as usual, is somewhat in-between. It's incredibly easy to pick major holes in almost every Sun leader, as regular readers will know, so I'm not going to bother doing that today, although I will say that I at least agree with its sentiments on education, although it doesn't so much as mention poverty, both in terms of wealth and ambition, especially when these gangs see the alternative ways of earning respect as the way to make up for both. Community solidarity, which it does at least mention, although it doesn't look at the reasons why it's broken down, is also vital.

While most on the left side of the political fence will nod along with the lack of urgency and appeal for calm which emanates from the Guardian leader, the very last thing we should be is complacent. For too long Labour and much of the left has taken the poor for granted, regarding their votes as already earned and ignoring the very real problems which have emerged on the so-called "sink estates". Labour's answer, instead of really listening, both to those caught in the crossfire as it were and to both the victims and the perpetrators has been to dish out ASBOs and legislate, rather than examine why things are as they are, or in fact afraid to find out what they are. As Justin points out, for too long we've allowed idiots to rule the roost in some of these communities while everyone else has suffered in silence, either out of want of a quiet life or fear, when what's really needed is for them to be ridiculed as the little men they are. If this involves a certain amount of humiliation, so be it. At the same time, we should also recognise that some of the lower-level trouble is just a teenage stage, which in some children is a lot more serious than it is with others. Not every teenage occasional hooligan or "yob" turns into an adult with those same tendencies.

The key to tackling it though is in intervening early, in firm parenting rather than the blaming of everything and everyone else that some indulge in, and understanding the desperation that often underpins such an existence. In our little world of pseudo-individualism, where capitalism is the solution to everything, and we only need to send in the voluntary organisations and the entrepreneurs for all to be made right, we have to accept that the concept of wage slavery, which a lot of those involved in low-level yobbery will have the rest of their lives to look forward to is not much of a fairytale existence. There is no simple solution, but the much mocked SureStart centres deserve both more funding and more time to make a difference, local government and accountability have to be strengthened, and most of all, we shouldn't knee-jerk into yet another punitive, draconian crackdown.

Which, naturally, is just what the Sun is saying must happen. Like two days again when David Cameron brought up New York, the paper is calling for zero tolerance, like that introduced by the police chief Bill Bratton in that city and now in Los Angeles. He's even talked to the paper saying that it's exactly what's needed here.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, Bratton's experiment has not just involved pumping in police and implementing ridiculously harsh punishments in some cases, but also the COMPSTAT system, used to break down where crime has occurred over the past week so that task forces, more patrols and further measures can be brought into those areas. This is all very well for a city force, but to do it across a whole country, especially when a decent amount of areas of it have no such problems and crime is something the residents read about in the paper, is not just untested, it's the old cliche of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Secondly, we have to examine the actual figures to see just how safe Los Angeles and New York are. It's impossible to compare either to England and Wales entirely due to the vast difference in overall population, but we can reasonably well apply the crime levels in both to that in London. The Sun produces a load of figures showing how crime has dropped in both under Bratton's watch, but by just how much in comparison to our own major city?

On the face of it, the LA figures (PDF) do indeed look good. In all areas, apart from homicide, where LA had 481 last year and London (PDF) had 165, it looks as if LA has less rapes, less robbery and much fewer burglaries. The only problem with all that is that LA, according to the COMPSTAT weekly figures (PDF), has a population of just over 4 million. London, however, has a metropolitan population of between 12 and 14 million, which means we're going to have to multiply the LA figures by three to make them applicable. LA then has just under 600 more rapes than in London, 2,709 to 2,094, robberies are around the same with 42,975 in LA to 43,971 London, burglaries similarly go to 60,060 in LA to 59,285 in London. LA counts theft from vehicles and vehicle theft separately, so when added together and multiplied by 3 hits 163,494 compared to London's vehicle crime figure of 125,234.

New York, with a population of around 19 million, is more broadly comparable with London's, so I'm just going to do them side by side, but if you're anal enough you can ratchet the London figures up accordingly. New York had 874 murders in 2005; London had 165 last year. Rapes in NY were at 3,636, London at 2,094, NY experienced 35,179 robberies, while London had 43,971, and NY had 68,034 burglaries whilst London had 59,285. There are no instantly comparable figures on aggravated assaults, but for comparisons sake lists 46,150, while London records 4,810 instances of grievous bodily harm.

Does this actually tell us anything? Well, when it comes down to what most occupies the media, the murders and rape, both New York and Los Angeles are on this data far more dangerous places to live. Indeed, both have more murders than England and Wales have as a whole (There were 765 in 2005, including the 52 victims of 7/7). On the other instances of more minor crime, the figures are broadly comparable. While New York and Los Angeles have had zero tolerance, the numbers in London have been falling without any such heavy-handed intervention.

This isn't to deny that it's possible that zero tolerance here could bring crime down further than it already is. Both the BCS and the police figures have shown a major drop in most crime, with the chances of being a victim the lowest for a generation. They've also broadly either stayed static or dropped for the past 10 years. Whether you want to link this to New Labour's crackdown is up to you. What it doesn't show however is that there is a major need for the zero tolerance approach. If we were to go down that road, it would require a major step change in our current thinking on the criminal justice system. More prisons would need to be built, we would have to accept much harsher sentences for what we now regard as "minor" crime, and we would also have to reconsider the role of rehabilitation as a whole. The reality is that we should be making policy on what works, not on what's either liberal or punitive respectably, and if there's one thing we do know, it's that prison doesn't work. The time for zero tolerance has not yet come, if it ever will.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007 

Tory hell and failing to understand youth crime.

Whichever way you look at it, the Conservatives are having hell of a week. Dear old Dave returns from holiday on Monday, finds himself 10 points behind the polls, a Labour lead not seen since prior to the Iraq war, and quite understandably, panics. Cue a quick re-emphasis on one of the few areas where the Tories, much to the chagrin of Labour, had made some headway on: the NHS. Promising a "bare knuckle fight" over hospital closures, the Tories launch a list of what they claim is either going to be shut down, or at least reconstituted in some way. They might have expected that some of the hospital trusts would reply that their claims were nonsense; they didn't expect that one of their own MPs would, who was quickly brought in for some Cameroonian re-education in not making the leader look like an idiot.

Clearly thinking they were on to far more of a winner with the tabloid outrage over Chindamo's successful appeal against deportation, Team Cameron comes out and blames the Human Rights Act, demands that it be repealed and that common sense must prevail, hence we must have a "British" Bill or Rights. 24 hours later they have egg on their face again, as it turns out it was an EU directive and not the "hated" act itself which was to blame, but Cameron goes on demanding it must go nevertheless, despite numerous bloggers pointing out the HRA is as much a legacy of the Conservative party and Britain as it is anything to do with Europe, let alone the EU.

Finally then, Cameron makes a speech on the other pressing issue of the week, youth crime, yob culture, anti-social behaviour, whatever you want to call it. It's a little known fact that New Labour invented anti-social behaviour: before Blair came to power and started warbling on about it, little attention had been paid towards it. All that changed as the media latched onto the idea, and soon those unlucky enough to be young, dumb and bored while standing around on street corners became the enemy within. All this remember against a background where the chance of becoming a victim of crime is at the lowest point in a generation, when attacks involving knives peaked in 1995, but where the fear of it rather than the actuality has become ever present. Along with the fear of terrorism, Labour used this as a potent weapon to trim civil liberties down to size, introducing ASBOs, creating 3,000 new criminal offences, and filling the prisons to breaking point.

How then does the Tory party possibly react to some of the most draconian crime and punishment policies seen in decades? First, Cameron attempted to "hug a hoodie", as his speech on showing children more love will forever more be known. While it certainly had some merits, everyone just remembers the soundbite and not what he actually said. This time round it would all be different.

And so it proved. The motto of the day was "common sense", a phrase he used 3 times during the speech. Common sense, unfortunately, is subjective: according to Cameron, it's common sense to hit teenagers where it hurts, which doesn't mean that you punch hormonal youngsters in the region of their developing sexual organs, but that you give courts the power to delay them obtaining a driver's license. His examples for this perhaps weren't the best he could have come up with, as he suggested that a youngster caught buying alcohol twice could have it delayed, which seems like a recipe for embittering and further alienating those caught. In any case, most of the evidence suggests that few 15-year-olds are buying drink, rather getting others to buy it or stealing it from their parents. How many of those most likely to be the source of anti-social behaviour are even in a position to learn to drive and have a vehicle once they turn 17? Learning to drive and getting a car young tends to be a middle-class pursuit, especially due to the costs involved.

Cameron's other main criminal justice proposal was to give magistrates greater power over sentencing, extending the length they can hand down to 12 months, as well as scrapping the early release scheme. Tabloid pleasing gestures, but ones that will put further pressure on the prison system which is already bursting at the seams. The early release scheme has actually done nothing to bring down the population, with it hitting 80,000 again, and scrapping it would only make things worse. Cameron doesn't say whether he's going to build more prisons, but to keep his promise he would have to.

Not that little things like that get in the way of Cameron's rhetoric. He says that violent crime has doubled over the last ten years: the British Crime Survey (PDF) says it has fallen over 41% since 1995, and that 49% of violent incidents reported to the survey do not involve any injury, while the police figures over the year showed no statistical difference. He quotes the Centre for Crime and Justice Study figures on knife crime which the Home Office disputed, and which the centre itself still hasn't put online (nor have they replied to my email) (Update: Richard Garside writes to the Grauniad saying the review is based on the best information the HO has available and that the report will be released next month). He mentions New York as an example of how crime can be tackled, through zero tolerance: when the Sun raised that earlier in the year, I pointed out New York is in fact more dangerous than the whole of Britain combined:

A quick look at the crime statistics, especially the number of murders, shows there were 889 in New York in 2004. By comparison, London had 221. Even taking into account the population difference, with New York having 19 million and London having around 13 million, that's a huge difference. The 889 figure is in fact higher than the number for the whole of Britain in 2004 - the British Crime Survey reporting there were 820.

Much of Cameron's speech rests on familiar arguments, such as cutting down on police red-tape and paperwork and even on the statistic collecting mentioned by Peter Fahy: perhaps because the statistics tell the story that things aren't as bad as either the media or politicians are making out. This isn't to suggest that they're worthless suggestions, as sometimes the most common response does hold a well-known truth, but why should we expect the Tories would be any better than Labour at sorting it out?

Finally, he rounds on the social aspect, bringing up the old new proposals on tax benefits for getting married, designed to soak the middle classes, attacking single mums by saying it's work rather than benefits that's the best path, as if they didn't know, and lastly lauding all those independent organisations that are really making a difference. The Labour response? To accuse them of lurching to the right, which is just about as pot and kettle as you can get, then promoting and extending the ABC behaviour contracts program, which it has to be said is a better suggestion than increasing sentencing.

Unsurprisingly, there's little to no mention in any of this of the actual reasons behind either anti-social behaviour, youth crime, or even gang culture. We've forgotten the causes. Anyone who saw the feature on Newsnight on the "Niets", the 16-24 year-olds not in education, training or work saw the desperation, alienation, humiliation and pessimism that came from their helplessness as a result of their educational failures, family background and endemic poverty that had blighted their lives. They didn't want to be on benefits, they just didn't see any way off of them. Tackling this is just as important as deciding what the latest punishment has to be. Iain Duncan Smith came close to realising this in his report but relied upon the same old solutions which have failed before. It's come to something when it's a man in his 60s, Ming Campbell, who's come the closest to actually getting it.

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Scum-watch: First things first, smear the enemy.

Generally, when you think that you're on the moral high ground, you don't resort to cheap dirty tricks to further prove your point. When you're the Sun newspaper however, or indeed, any part of the Murdoch empire, the first not the last resort is to smear, slander and lie about today's common enemy.

Before the news came through of the shooting of Rhys Jones, the Sun's front page had a banner headline reading "KILLER'S VILE BOASTS". Even after the story has been confined to the inside pages, it still contains the same highly questionable content that's all too familiar of a hatchet job.

THE thug who murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence JOKED about the brutal stabbing, a man who served prison time with him revealed last night.

Learco Chindamo BOASTED of his wicked crime and swaggered around jail with a gang of fellow killers, handing out beatings to other cons.

Ex-thief Mark Brunger said: “He didn’t give a toss about killing Philip Lawrence, he used to laugh about it with everybody.”

Mark, 28, hit out after a tribunal blocked Chindamo’s deportation on his release — despite Home Office warnings that he is still a threat.

Oh, so this happened in prison did it? Err, no:

Mark, who met Chindamo at Swinfen Hall Young Offenders Institution in Lichfield, Staffs, said: “To say he is reformed is a joke.

“He is a violent, dangerous man. He would kill again.”

Just for a second, let's accept Brunger's account of events at face value. Swinfen Hall caters for young adult prisoners between the ages of 18 and 25. Seeing as Brunger is now 28 and Chindamo is 26, Chindamo's swaggering, boasts and beatings must have occurred between either 3 and 8 years ago. The Sun naturally doesn't mention when this actually took place - and the leader only refers to it occurring in the recent past. Without wishing to turn into an internet detective, a quick MurdochSpace (someone with a Facebook/Bebo account could do searches there if they so wished) search for Mark Brunger turns up just one entry in the UK, a 28-year-old currently living in Bristol. In his about me section:


Someone with more guts than me might want to ring that number and ask him whether he's one and the same as the Sun's source. He also has what seem to be a couple of Friends Reunited accounts, both of which list the same school as the MySpace page, one of which suggests he's just started a university degree in counselling.

Even if we decide that Brunger is telling the truth, we have the word of a fellow ex-prisoner, one who could be talking about an event up to 8 years ago, to put against the testimony not just of a deputy governor of Ford open prison, but also that of an unnamed female officer at the jail that had helped to prepare Chindamo for day release. According to today's Independent, the Home Office attempted to suppress their evidence which contradicted its own, only allowing them to submit it once the governor of Ford had himself intervened, and even then they weren't allowed to give their account of Chindamo's rehabilitation in person, where their arguments could have been cross-examined in detail. To quote from their panel's judgment:

"Of particular significance was what was said by Mr Hughes, the deputy governor of Ford Prison, in his letter to the appellant's solicitors of 8 March 2007. He had been in the Prison Service for 30 years and had dealt with numerous offences. There were only a small minority who had demonstrated a change for the better and gone on to lead lawful and purposeful lives and he strongly believed that the appellant was a changed person who had realised the gravity of his index offence and if given a chance would prove himself worthy of trust. All the reports on him had been very positive and the parole board had been very impressed."

It's little wonder then that the Sun has set out to do everything in its power to try and prove that Chindamo is still a brutal, evil thug, especially when his ruling means it can further attack both the EU and the "hated" human rights act. Taking its cue directly from Mark Brunger's helpful intervention:

Forever evil

LEARCO Chindamo should not be deported. But only because he should not be released.

The idea that the savage, cold-blooded killer of headmaster Philip Lawrence is a reformed character is a joke.

A joke to a newspaper that doesn't believe in forgiveness, it's true. Not however to prison staff themselves, who are not very often bleeding heart liberals.

We now learn that this “model prisoner” swaggered around in jail boasting of his appalling crime while leading a ruthless gang of other young killers who ruled E-wing through violence.

This was in the recent past. And the Home Office still considers him “a genuine and present risk” to us.

Quite true, but the Asylum and Immigration Panel rejected that conclusion, and the Home Office's argument was purely on the basis that the press coverage of his release might make him difficult to settle in a particular part of the country. The Scum has been more than happy to make that observation a self-fulfilling prophecy, as its readers' comments continue to show:

Let´s hope someone is waiting for him when he gets out.

Posted_by: mrcrocker

His face should be shown in British Papers and TV News every day from now on. Like this, when he gets out, everybody will recognize him in the street and turn his life into hell!! He will then be the one eager to leave the country!!! Posted_by: joh123

Chindamo told other inmates he expected to serve at least 18 years. When he comes up for parole next year, the board must ensure that prediction comes true.

Instead of swallowing any claptrap about him being a changed man.

Considering the reverse midas touch that the Sun has recently had when it's previously intervened in judicial decisions, it perhaps ought to have known better than to order the parole board around. No such luck. One can only hope its bad luck continues.

For those fascinated by the Sun's front page splash on "OUR KEELEY PUTS BOOT INTO PUTIN!" (geddit?!) it's another example of the Sun putting its own thoughts into the mouths of its page 3 girls, something that Rebekah Wade instituted when she became editor. Gorgeous pouting Keeley, who previously bawled when an explicit sex tape of hers was leaked onto the internet, despite getting her tits out for numerous publications (probably something to do with not getting paid for it), says:

“They have a ruddy cheek spying on us from these monster planes. It’s just a pathetic signal that they are investing in their armed forces again. So what, our RAF heroes will see them off every time.”

For those not so interested in Russia's attempt to regain its superpower status and create a multipolar rather than a unipolar world once again, the Sun asks its readers whether Keeley's sacks of fat are better than Russian Kristina's, apparently the top page three girl of Russian daily "Tvoi Den". Yes, it's official, the disease is spreading.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007 

Rehabilitation can never win against the demands for a pound of flesh.

Just how wrong were the original reports about the reasons for why Learco Chindamo couldn't be deported then? Despite nearly every news organisation blaming the decision almost instantly on the Human Rights Act, from the BBC to the Guardian, from the Mail to the Sun, the actual decision was taken not under Article 8 of the HRA, as we were told, but rather on the 2004 EU directive on citizenship, which gives those who have spent over 10 years in one nation state protection from summary deportation to another. It was only if this directive had not applied in Chindamo's case that Article 8 could then then have come into play; as such, it was a secondary factor in the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal's ruling that he should stay in Britain.

Not that this has stopped even the Times from splashing on the "threat" posed by Chindamo. This supposed threat, taken from the Home Office's submission to the panel on why Chindamo should be deported, was so far from being conclusive, as well as downright disengenuous, that the panel rightly dismissed it. The relevant part of the letter is reproduced by Unity, and ought to be compared to the coverage in the Times, Sun and Mail:

In the revised reasons for deportation letter it is noted that it is unlikely that the appellant will reoffend, and that he accepts his responsibility for his offences and has undertaken courses for anger management. It notes however that his current behaviour and actions and day-to-day life are very closely monitored. There is reference there to one escorted visit, though we accept that the evidence is in fact that he has been on two escorted visits and three unescorted visits. The point is also made in the refusal letter that the court has deemed that the appellant’s crime is of such severity that he will always continue to be a threat to the community such that his release on licence would be on the basis that he might be recalled to prison at any moment for any breach of his conditions. The point is made that he has been assessed and that he is subject to the highest level of multi-agency public protection arrangements (Mappa) (Level 3). In this regard though we must bear in mind the point to which we were referred by Mr Scannell that that assessment was not made on account of the appellant being a threat to the public but because of the likelihood of media scrutiny and/or public interest. The letter does note that risk factors might increase because of media and public scrutiny that the appellant might receive. It also comments that the OAsys report notes that there are occasions where the appellant has overacted to situations and there are severe concerns with finding him appropriate accommodation on release if allowed to remain in the United Kingdom. He would need to be excluded from certain parts of the country, community integration would be a problem on release and he might suffer a backlash. The letter states that the appellant’s notoriety might make him feel excluded from society as he had been before and there was a significant risk that his previous disregard for authority and the law might resurface and result in him coming to adverse attention. As a consequence it was considered that he posed a continuing risk to the public and that his offences were so serious that he represents a genuine and present and sufficiently serious threat to the public in principle such as to justify his deportation.

In other words, the only justification that the Home Office could come up with for his deportation was that because of the adverse press coverage likely around his time of release, it'd be better for him if he was removed from the country entirely. Never mind that he was no longer considered a threat, that he had completed anger management courses, as well as 3 GCSEs and a NVQ, despite not being able to write his address when he entered prison, and that he had shown genuine remorse for his crime, all of that was secondary to the government's concern that it was likely to get it in the neck whether he was deported or not. Their last laughable argument was that he had overreacted on a couple of occasions to certain situations. I think all of us might overreact if we too had been kept in the constant uncertainty and insecurity of prison for twelve years.

What the Times additionally doesn't mention, for reasons to be explained shortly, was that the governor of Ford open prison had made a submission for the tribunal to be held behind closed doors because of the previous reaction of the press to Chindamo being allowed out on day release to visit his family. To quote the relevant paragraph from the ruling (DOC):

In particular he referred to the memo from Ms Radford, the Governor of HM Prison Ford, dated 25 April 2006, to be found at pages 63 and 64 of Mr Scannell’s bundle. Among others things she referred to the fact that on day release in February 2006 the appellant had been pursued by members of the press and an article appeared in the Sun newspaper three days later. There were further follow-up articles in the Sun, the Daily Express and the Brighton Argus. Ms Radford expressed her deep concern that they were ‘managing offenders by media’ and spending more time playing down risk than explaining their offender management strategies and how those more effectively protected the public than hysterical misinformed articles in the gutter press.

And we really are talking about the gutter press here. The Scum splashed Chindamo's release on the front page, calling it an "outrage":

THE killer of headmaster Philip Lawrence has been let out of jail early — despite an emotional warning it would “destroy” his victim’s family twice.

Former teenage gangster Learco Chindamo, now 25, was allowed an unsupervised day outing from Ford Open Prison in West Sussex.

Yep, that's right, Chindamo, like all over prisoners coming towards the end of a long prison sentence, had been allowed out for a whole day on his own as part of the general program towards preparing him for his eventual release. The article also willfully misquotes Mrs Lawrence: she had made the warning after Chindamo had appealed against the length of his sentence, an appeal that was denied. It was nothing to do with his day release. The Sun additionally published what its readers' felt should have been done with Chindamo to start with:

He should have got a suspended sentence - suspended from the end of a rope.


The next day Mrs Lawrence was herself in print, condemning what she thought was "a jolly day out" and thanking the Sun for bringing it to her attention. Most likely as a result of the Scum's coverage, Chindamo was as a result moved back to a closed jail, despite what the governor of Ford open prison described as his measured reaction to being followed by members of the press. The Sun subsequently referred to Chindamo as "evil" in its leader condemning the situation, saying he should be behind bars for life. The newspaper ought to have taken that up with the judge who gave the twelve year sentence, and not with the person who had been trying his hardest to rehabilitate himself, only to be vilified again in the tabloids because of a decision made by the prison service.

Mrs Lawrence herself has also now been making nonsense statements that seem to owe more to the Sun's line in rhetoric than the more dignified, understanding approach she had favoured on the previous day.

“It takes away our human rights and gives it to them — and that is wrong.”

“In a way I am glad this ruling has brought the whole human rights debate to the fore. Something has to be done to balance things. At the moment the criminal is the only one getting the rights. I felt I had to come forward and speak up for my husband.”

It only looks as if the criminal is getting the rights because the press never report on the other cases and the government is too spineless to defend the act. As I wrote yesterday, the families of murder victims have used it to obtain inquiries into their deaths, while Katie Ghose outlines 3 cases in which the right to a family life has been used to defend individuals wrongly taken away or banned from seeing their relatives. These are the ordinary people being protected, but their stories are boring compared to the latest instance of human rights madness. The Sun also completely misunderstands the act in its entirety, claiming that judges give more weight to Article 8 than to the right to life, which is not just patently absurd, but also completely untrue. It also refers to bits of it being politically correct; would that a reference to the right to freedom of expression, which the Sun so obviously loathes when it gets pulled up on its lies?

As Justin argues, Chindamo ought to be a model for how prison can work. Coming in illiterate, his success in gaining qualifications, counselling other inmates, accepting his guilt and showing remorse mark him out as one of the success stories of how prisoners can be rehabilitated, given the right circumstances, facilities and the necessary resources. Instead, all of that has now been dismissed out of hand, rejected without a thought by the press and reactionaries who want a pound of flesh rather than the evidence that "bad people" can indeed change. The Sun says that his lawyer and Jack Straw should hang their heads in shame; how bitterly hypocritical of a newspaper that today prints the following:

NEVER mind deportation — what’s he doing being let out of prison if he killed a headmaster in cold blood? I hope this evil killer is hounded by the press and vigilante mobs until he dies.

The government it seems would like that: maybe then it'll convince the appeal panel Chindamo really does have to be deported, disgracefully for his own safety.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007 

The rights and wrongs of deportation.

In trying to respond to the at times irrational prejudices and misconceptions adopted by the tabloid press, the biggest obstacles to arguing the point of the other side is just how powerful emotion and anger can be in defending if not the indefensible, then certainly the highly questionable.

So it is in trying to work out a coherent riposte to the points made both by Frances Lawrence, widow of the murdered headteacher Philip Lawrence, and to the arguments additionally made by the newspapers backing her up, regarding the decision by the Asylum and Immigration tribunal not to deport Learco Chindamo back to his country of origin, Italy. Unlike some of those who have lambasted the Human Rights Act in the past, often erroneously, Mrs Lawrence makes highly articulate points regarding the on the face of it deeply hurtful decision that it breaches his right to a family life protected under Article 8 for the deportation to go ahead. Still clearly grieving and traumatised by how the life of her husband was snatched away in such a pointless and meaningless fashion, it's difficult not to be moved by the position she finds herself in, almost 12 years' after his death. Having presumed that his removal from this country would be automatic or at the very least go through without such a struggle, all the hurt she most likely thought was over has been brought to the surface again. Her argument, that she has always supported the Human Rights Act, but that she feels that there has to be some kind of responsibility attached to it which takes into account how those who appeal under its usage have themselves acted, is one that's likely to strike a chord with many that believe that the the criminal justice system has bent over backwards for too long to protect the rights of the criminal rather than those of the victim.

All of which makes it all the more difficult to respectfully disagree with Mrs Lawrence without drifting into condescension or ridiculing her arguments. She quite clearly doesn't deserve to have all this brought up again. Firstly, the facts have to be set out as we know them. Chindamo was brought here at either the age of 5 or 6, as reports differ. Born to a Filipino mother and fathered by a Italian man linked to the mafia, he has had no contact with his dad since 1986, when his mother moved here to get away from her violent husband. He speaks no Italian, and most likely has few solid memories of life before he was brought to Britain. The only things that still link him to Italy are his passport and his parentage. He was sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison for the murder of Philip Lawrence, who died after being stabbed outside his school when he stepped in to stop a younger, 13-year-old boy from being attacked by the gang Chindamo belonged to, subsequently linked to at least two other violent crimes, although he had no involvement in either. According to his lawyers, his time in prison has changed him irrevocably, now counselling other inmates on how they themselves have ended up in jail, trying to persuade them to change their own ways. He's completed a NVQ in health and social care and plans, if and when released, to start a career in nursing. On the face of it, if his lawyers can be believed, Chindamo has been a model prisoner.

Secondly, as alluded to by other experts, and now apparently confirmed by the Guardian, the decision that he should not be deported was not just taken under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, but also as a result of recent EU legislation which governs the transfer of EU citizens between member states. Under such law, those sent home must be judged to pose a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat" to society as a whole, a definition that excludes nearly everyone except terrorist suspects. Chindamo may have posed such a threat at the time of Lawrence's murder, but the tribunal decided that he does not now. In addition to this, the fact that Chindamo was brought up here, that he has no real ties to Italy and cannot speak the language would mean that his right to a family life would be breached if he were to be deported.

This it seems to me is a difficult but correct decision. It differs from the cases of most of the other foreign prisoners because of how old he was when he was brought here; while they moved here for economic or other reasons once they had reached adulthood, Chindamo had no personal choice where he was taken to or lived. That he committed his crime after spending around ten years in this country, a far longer proportion of his life than he spent elsewhere, also makes him our responsibility rather than Italy's. To deport him now would be to punish him twice, forcing him to start his life over yet again. There's also no guarantee that Chindamo will even be released yet, as his minimum sentence doesn't end until next year, and he will then subject to a parole panel review. As he was sentenced to life, he will subject to recall to prison if he breaks the conditions of his parole or commits any other offence. The minimum length of his sentence should perhaps be as open to question as the tribunal decision is. Is twelve years of imprisonment a sufficient punishment for taking a life, even if committed while still a minor in the eyes of the law? We can equally argue that Chindamo has rightly had the best years of his life taken from him for his crime, but if released he will still be either 26 or 27, with most of his life still ahead of him.

According to the Sun, Mrs Lawrence has also now said the following:

“In Article 2 of the Human Rights Act my husband had the right to life.

“Chindamo destroyed that right yet he has used the legal process to enable him to live as described in Article 8.

"The Act works in his best interest. It is ill-equipped to work in my family or for people in my situation. That seems to me a major conundrum.”

It's worth pointing out that the act has not just worked in "his" best interest, but rather in the interests of anyone who feels that they have been the victim of an injustice. Just last week the the 7/7 survivors and associated families informed the government of their intention to seek a full independent inquiry, as provided under Article 2, as Mrs Lawrence refers to. Vera Bryant, whose daughter was murdered by a man released from prison, also successfully applied under Article 2 for an inquest into her death which the government had denied. As Unity also points out, although the Human Rights Act was not signed into law until 1998, after Mr Lawrence's death, justice was served, with his killer caught and imprisoned. His rights were properly served. Mrs Lawrence has said that although she has not forgiven Chindamo, she has never wished him ill, and Chindamo himself has apparently offered his sympathies to her, hoping that the decision would not cause her any additional grief. How much either of them actually mean such comments is open to question, but at least both sides seem able to forget if not forgive, something often lacking in similar cases.

It may well be that the government itself did little to prepare Mrs Lawrence for the possibility that Chindamo would not be deported, as it surely knew that there was more than a chance that such an appeal would be successful. She also raises the legitimate point that such laws don't take into account the views and appeals of those most affected by the subsequent rulings they lead to, ignoring the voices of the ordinary people they are meant to both protect and deal with. The question has to be how far though we allow the at times retributive and vengeful views of victims and those wronged interfere with justice rightly being blind; we've seen statements from the families of murder victims introduced into the courts before sentencing, do we also let the families get involved in the hearings of such appeal tribunals? Or do we have to rely that the judges' in those cases already take into account fully how they are going to be affected by their decisions?

None of this though is an argument for the repealing of the Human Rights Act itself, as Mrs Lawrence herself doesn't seem to be suggesting, although the newspapers taking up her cause, especially the Mail, are most certainly calling for exactly that, as is the Sun. The Tories, whose own plans for a "British" bill of rights which would almost certainly look more or less the same as the HRA have already been aired and dismissed by Ken Clarke as "xenophobic legal nonsense", have jumped on the case, with David Cameron already taking the rhetoric of the Sun straight on board, claiming that there is now "anarchy" in some parts of the UK, and that this is "a shining example of what is going wrong in our country". Some might argue that it's a shining example of our belief in tolerance and justice for all, in that disproportionate punishment has no more place in our society than murder itself does. David Davis, who ought to know better, also said that it was a "demonstration of clumsy incompetence" that Chindamo couldn't be sent back to his "own country". Can Italy really be called his home country when he has spent the vast majority of his life here, regardless of his crime?

However painful it is for Mrs Lawrence, for Chindamo to be treated differently simply because of the fact he has an Italian passport and committed a well publicised, heinous crime would be an injustice in itself. At times, such decisions do seem outrageous, beyond comprehension and downright wrong, ignoring the voices of those they hurt the most, but they are never taken without all the options being considered, insult to common sense as they are denounced or not. It might seem condescending to say so, but hopefully she will come to terms with the decision and respect it in the time to come, however illegitimate she thinks it is. As for the tabloids, their minds were already made up about the act, and trying to defend it time and again after all their lies, smears and distortions becomes an ever more dispiriting and difficult task. That they should take advantage once again only shows how low and dishonourable their motives are.

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Monday, August 20, 2007 

Anarchy in the UK?

How then was your weekend? Did you go anywhere, or just stay in and reminisce on how your life's slowly slipping away while watching box sets of the X-Files like I did? If you went out, was anything unusual, out of place or just seem different? Was there more vomit than usual in the gutter, had the police been strung up from the nearest lamppost, were gangs of marauding youngsters engaged in bloody battles for survival and who had control of the conch? Or was everything pretty much as well, normal?

For satire and parody to work best, there has to be an incredibly fine line between the truth and the embellishment of it. Sometimes, even the best of us slip into self-parody, often without realising it. Does this occur because we're dubious of our own pretensions and doubtful about what it is we're talking about? Or is it completely subconscious, happening for reasons beyond our own control that we might not recognise for a time to come?

I ask all of this because of today's Sun front page, which claims that Britain is now a country under siege, anarchy finally emerging in the UK, as yobs rule the streets and knife crime soars. The Mirror also joins in, with its own survey which finds that 42% don't feel safe in the streets of their neighbourhood at night. Is it true? Has the inevitable really happened?

Rather, Britain seems to have had a pretty typical weekend. The Sun bases its anarchy claim on the fact that a police station was besieged by a mob, that a man and a teenage boy were murdered in separate incidents, and that paramedics were attacked while providing aid to a man and a boy. Actually, the Sun didn't put it anywhere near as calmly as that. Here, dear reader, is a trip in to the world of Sun journalism, which even by its standards seems to have descended into the realms of unreasonable hysteria or even self-parody:

BRITAIN is on the brink of ANARCHY after a weekend of yob violence, campaigners said last night.

As figures revealed knife crime had DOUBLED in two years, a string of incidents left law-abiding citizens living in terror.

A mob BESIEGED a police station.

A man and a teenage boy were MURDERED in separate incidents and paramedics were ATTACKED as they tended a father and son.

In one county, 999 callers were told there were only THREE police on duty in a town of 22,000 people.

If we first consider the murders from a statistical basis, 2 in a weekend is actually lower than the average. The official police figures recorded 755 homicides last year. Do the math: that's 14 a week and 2 every day, which when you consider there's a population of around 60 million is low, and is by the standards of most other countries.

The knife crime statistics, produced by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies do on the face of it look rather shocking. The figures both Sun and Guardian articles refer to aren't available online yet, so I can't see how they were reached (I've emailed them asking for a copy), but is it really possible there are 175 robberies every day involving a knife, meaning that the number of muggings involving a blade have doubled from 25,500 to 64,000 within 2 years? According to the British Crime Survey
(PDF), the risk of being a victim of violent crime is 3.6%, although this rises to 13.8% if you're male and between the age of 16 and 24. The police recorded robbery statistics increased by three percent over the last year, but this was still 16% down on the last real peak in robbery which was in 2001/02. The Mirror article also dabbles in suggesting its YouGuv poll says something it doesn't: the opening paragraph says 42% are too scared to leave their homes at night, but the poll only suggests 42% don't feel safe in their neighbourhood at night, not that they don't leave their house because of it. How many people honestly do feel safe walking around anywhere on their own at night? I sure I'm not alone in suggesting it makes me apprehensive at the very least.

Naturally, spouting statistics does nothing to bring back those who have died or others who have had their mobile phones or mp3 players unceremoniously stolen, and it's certainly no match to such articles which attempt to set out what some do indeed see as the reality on the streets. The question has to be though on just how much influence such constant scaremongering, both in the press and on the TV has on the public mood and perception of how safe they feel and how safe their town or local area is.

Perhaps it just happens to be a coincidence that this latest crisis of lawlessness has apparently happened during the silly season, where over the weekend news was increasingly difficult to come by, what with the Heathrow protesters deciding not to storm the runways after all, after the press informing everyone they were going to be leaving hoax suspect packages everywhere. As the old maxim goes, no news is a great excuse to make it up. This isn't to deny that these are indeed genuine fears felt by a large number of people, especially in the inner cities, but is this really anywhere near anarchy?

Even if we accept the scale of the problem is near what the tabloids are suggesting, what's the solution? Ever since the murder of James Bulger the rhetoric has gotten tougher, the punishments harsher and according to both the police and the BCS the chance of being a victim of crime is at its lowest in a generation, but still we have the same never relenting demands for even more draconian action. Peter Fahy, after making some daft comments about taking children into care for being drunk at the weekend, was more thoughtful in comments recorded by the Grauniad: suggesting a rebalancing of the criminal justice system, not in favour of the victim as Blair and co preached, but in favour of rehabilitation and then sanctions rather than punishment. The most obvious problem with this though is manifest: despite the early release scheme, which the Sun and the Tories predicted would result in 25,000 prisoners getting out early, the prison population is actually back at the 80,000 level, meaning police cells are having to be used yet again. Rehabilitation in overcrowded jails is made much more difficult, if not nigh on impossible. The Sun's simplistic solution, to put ever more police officers on the streets, even though we have the highest number of police ever, can also have the opposite effect: it increases the fear that crime is more rampant than it actually is, and the actual deterrent effect it's meant to have has never actually been demonstrated.

Whether this latest panic dies down again once some other news comes along or not, the resulting underlying mood doesn't go away. Some are scared, and the news they read and see only increases their worries. Perhaps the best way to illustrate how some of this journalism influences the public is in one of the comments on the Sun's website itself:

this is how dirty,disgusting Britain is nowadays, i absolutely hate the country with all its yobs,paedophiles,rapists,murderers,criminals, WAGS, cheap girls,shallow girls. there is absolutely NOTHING good about this country...even the food chain is contaminated on every advice is to get out of this disgusting low level country with its politicians with mental issues and the so called "Lords" who makes the most outrageous laws in the world.

Either that, or even online newspapers continue to attract those who used to write in green ink.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007 

W.F Deedes 1913-2007.

Shome mishtake shurely? I was meant to be immortal!

Elsewhere, Harry Haddock sticks the boot in to Peter Fahy. Then gouges his eyes out.

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Friday, August 17, 2007 

A less than glorious Tory inheritance.

In a way, it's almost encouraging to see the Tories finally producing something resembling a policy, or at least one that the press and people in general will be able to latch onto. It's too bad that rather than supposedly moving on, Cameron is still just as obsessed as his predecessors at bribing the middle classes, rather than improving the lot of the majority.

Of course, we shouldn't be surprised. Despite Cameron declaring himself a liberal conservative, desperate to consign the image of the nasty party to history, he's made the strange decision of ordering two of the most important policy reviews of his premiership to be conducted by yesterday's men. First we had Iain Duncan Smith, the disastrous former leader with his recommendations on how to mend Britain's "broken society". His solutions were all too familiar: get the single mother back into work as soon as possible, regardless of the effect on her own family, offer tax breaks to married couples and clamp down ever harder on those noxious illegal substances. Today we're treated to John Redwood's report, titled "Freeing Britain to compete", and it follows more or less the same lines; while its length doesn't quite touch Duncan Smith's 6 volumes, it still fills up 211 pages.

The attention grabbing recommendations then come as little more than a damp squib. For years we've witnessed the Daily Express and Mail complaining about the inequity of inheritance tax, nicknamed the "death" tax. In recent years they have started to have something more of a point: with the housing market getting more and more out of control, ever more estates have started to fall under the £300,000 threshold, which itself was raised recently. This though has never been an argument for the complete abolition of the tax, it's been one for redirecting it once again at those it was meant to fall upon: the ultra-rich and the handing down of the vast amounts of cash and property which their children have often done very little to either earn or deserve. While Labour is meant to be raising the threshold within the next year to £350,000 and according to official figures it still only touches 6% of estates, the best way to counteract the calls for complete abolition is to raise it to at the very least £500,000 and maybe to even £750,000. While this may encourage even more of those it's likely to hit to evade it, this would still lift the grievance held by some in middle England, and make it harder for journalists with their own well-off parents to make their readers' feel sorry for the awful plight, one of the main factors behind the calls for its end.

The other pledge aimed directly at the middle classes is the proposed raising of the 40% higher rate of income tax, which currently kicks in at £34,600. There again might be a case for raising it slightly, but it's worth remembering that the average yearly wage remains mostly static at around £22,000. This is why the case for a higher top rate of tax for those earning £100,000 a year or more has always been so persuasive, some would say easy to support, but there is of course nothing in this report at all suggesting that the ultra-rich are getting away with it, with the poor paying disproportionately more in tax those at the very top of society. Indeed, the report also recommends that those hard-done by large businesses getting an even further cut in corporation tax, already announced by Brown to be cut from 30p to 28p, with Redwood suggesting a 25p rate.

Perhaps the report's main prerogative is set out in the "Our vision" section, one full of holes apart from its typically Tory rhetoric :

A more enterprising Britain will be a more caring Britain: as incomes rise, so tax revenues rise and charitable giving flourishes.

But this is a fallacy based on the trickle down theory: in the last 20 years we've seen the rich get richer while the poor have remained poor. Rather than Britain becoming more caring in that time, we've almost certainly seen it become crueler, and you don't have to just point to the rise in deception and unethical behaviour in popular culture to reach that conclusion. Besides, should we really take advice from a committee that comes up with such laughable solutions to the problems of the rail network, when it was the Conservatives themselves that brought it to its knees through privatisation? Maybe we really did need that reminder from the BBC of one of John Redwood's previous most notable achievements.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007 

Moving on up.

It comes round every year, as predictable, regular and tedious as Big Brother. It features the same fresh-faced young things, joyful and excited at first, only to later sink into the black pit of misery of realising that your care-free days are almost over. It could only be the perennial argument about whether A-Levels, GCSEs, SATs, etc are getting easier.

It's also something of a schizophrenic argument. While we worry that A-Levels are getting too easy, we also find ourselves questioning whether our 14-year-olds are thick; with a third still failing to reach level 5 in English, Maths and Science. They can't both be right, can they?

Well, no. Neither exam is getting easier, and the reasons for the fast increasing number of A grades collected by 18-year-olds and the failure of 14-year-olds to get to the right key stage level are in fact highly similar.

Firstly, the reason for the increasing amount of awarded top grades at A-Level is mainly down to phenomenon of teaching to the test. Out the window has gone any real attempt at look at the background to the subject in question, or anything else that doesn't actually feature in the exam, and in has came the constant repetition of the "key facts", and the writings of essays around topics and subjects which have previously come up. This is all very well for getting the certificate stating how brilliant you are, but it takes all the joy out of learning, and makes for quick forgetting of everything you thought had been drilled into your brain. The private and grammar schools have got especially good at doing this, hence their hegemony over the A grades their pupils have.

Secondly, by the time most teenagers reach the sixth form, those who have lost interest in learning or who are doing more vocational rather than academic subjects have moved on, leaving behind the more aspirational who actually do want to achieve something. This is why the plans by Alan Johnson to extend the compulsory leaving age to 18 are so wrongheaded: while it may have good intentions, it's unlikely to improve results and may even have an effect on bringing them down. This is also partly the reason why the SATs results still look comparatively poor: the teaching to the test has yet to have been perfected for them yet, and there are far more of those who are disruptive and or simply disinterested to care. This is not to blame them, or suggest they're a lost cause, rather that the system of testing and targets has comprehensively failed.

This is where Tomlinson's report into the reform of the 14-19 system should have came in. It would have brought together the opportunity to take both the vocational and academic route, rather than having to done one or the other as is more or less the case now. It would have also have vastly cut down the numbers of exams, helping to reduce stress while if anything increasing the knowledge that universities and employers would have had about those requesting places or jobs. Labour, naturally, rejected it.

Teenagers then aren't getting dafter or smarter, they're both taking and losing an respective advantage at the same time.

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Scum-watch: Another day, another bash at the BBC.

The old cliched saying is that those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. The Sun, no matter how many smashed panes it has, just can't help itself.

THE BBC can’t even get its apologies right.

It admits it was wrong to screen old footage of John Redwood singing the Welsh anthem.

But it uses weasel words to deny political bias, brushing aside its crass conduct as “wrong in retrospect”.

That won’t wash. News is not satire and this wasn’t a silly mistake. It was arrogant — and biased — journalism.

This is based on BBC director of news Helen Boaden's blog post where she apologised for the use of a clip of John Redwood failing to remember the words to the Welsh anthem, which took up approximately 5 seconds of the beginning of the report. As Steffan pointed out, it's been such a while since we were treated to glimpses of the Vulcan on our screens, it's quite easy to imagine that non-politicos would have long forgotten who he was. It wasn't the best clip to have chosen, it could indeed prompt accusations of bias, but only from those who recognised the clip, and the BBC has now apologised. Case closed.

One has to wonder if the fact that the rest of Boaden's post, where she sets out exactly how the BBC did examine Redwood's proposals, which incidentally the Sun doesn't even bother to mention, might have something to do with its non-acceptance of the apology. While some might think that the Labour reaction was too prominent in some of the bulletins, it was the BBC trying to put impartiality into a story where all they more or less knew was that some of Redwood's ideas had been leaked and discussed. With news being hard to come by, what do the Tories expect the BBC to do in the circumstances? Present them exactly as the party would want? Not report what Labour said about them? Not report his proposals at all until they're released in full?

The BBC can in fact be its own worst enemy. A quick read of the comments following Boaden's post shows them overwhelmingly filled with those highly critical of the corporation. If the BBC were so biased, unaccountable and Stalinist, would it even allow them raise their concerns? It's a similar situation at times over at Comment is Free: huge amounts of criticism, which on other places such as the Sun, Mail or even the Times or the Telegraph would soon be removed. The more accountable you attempt to be, the more vitriol you usually get chucked at you.

Speaking of the use of weasel words in apologies, it's hard not to be reminded of the Sun's own feeble non-apology on the non-existent Muslim yobs in Windsor:

Barrack attack correction

Following our report ‘Hounded out’ about a soldier's home in Datchet, Berks, being vandalised by Muslims, we have been asked to point out no threatening calls were logged at Combermere Barracks from Muslims and police have been unable to establish if any faith or religious group was responsible for the incident.

We are happy to make this clear.

Their story wasn't wrong then, it was simply "inaccurate". No apology for such a misleading, inflammatory report, just the weakest possible correction it could make.

The Scum continues:

The Beeb has developed a built-in sneer towards those it disdains.

That includes all Tories except pro-EU fanatics like Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine — to whom it fawns — and virtually everyone in the American administration.

How completely unlike the Sun! During the Labour deputy leadership contest, the paper tried its best to smear all of the candidates as "left-wing dinosaurs", even that noted socialist Hazel Blears, and it quoted George Osbourne as saying:

“Labour is retreating into its left-wing comfort zone. We are seeing Labour lurch to the left and abandon the centre ground.”

Perfectly OK when the Tories do it, beyond the pale when the BBC does something similar.

Such accusations are in any case errant nonsense: Question Time especially often features the rants of Peter Hitchens on the EU, while members of Open Europe, which wants a referendum on the the EU reform treaty have popped out across the BBC's news bulletins, both on BBC1 and on Newsnight. The American administration, or at least ex-members of it have also found themselves being given increasing leverage on Newsnight, with John Bolton featuring almost once a week if not more.

The BBC is supposed to be an impartial public service broadcaster. There is no room in its news coverage for infantile student posturing.

Quite. After all, that's the Sun's job.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007 

A sickening wave of revenge.

(This post contains links to videos which contain disturbing and graphic violence. While the post itself is work safe, the links are not.)

Some reporters have apparently been confused as to why the Kurdish Yezidi sect was chosen as the target for some of the most brutal, if not the worst suicide attacks to have hit Iraq since the invasion. The slightest amount of research would quickly turn up just why at least two groups of Salafi takfirists had promised revenge against the members of the sect. Indeed, it's a story that can be told through videos posted on the internet, all of them providing a chilling view of today's Iraq, four years on from the invasion.

While the Yezidis living in the Kurdish north are felt to be "devil worshippers" by some of the Muslims living in Iraq, their separation and distance from the nearest city of Mosul has mainly meant that they've been left well alone, at least until now. Some reports have mentioned that they were supportive of the Iraq war, and while that may be true, there's nothing to suggest this was why they were targeted, nor that they were non-Islamic. Yesterday's attack was undoubtedly the end result of a horrific honour killing which took place in the town of Bashika in April.

Du'a Khalil Aswad, a 17-year-old Yezidi, had made the mistake of daring to fall in love with a Sunni Muslim. The reports on her death and why she was murdered are understandably confused and contradictory; some say she was to be married to him, others that she had converted to Islam, others simply that she had in fact been absent from her home for one night. Also confused is whether she was tricked into returning to the town, or whether she was given refuge by a Yezidi tribal leader only for the mob to capture her and drive her out into the town. What is certain is that she was murdered in broad daylight by a large group of men, stoned to death, while security forces stood by and did nothing to help her. Some sources allege that they in fact delivered her to the mob. The killing was recorded by a number of the men on mobile phones, and subsequently posted on the internet.

Unsurprisingly, the video quickly spread, and came to the attention of both Ansar al-Sunnah and the Islamic State of Iraq, both of which promised revenge in communiques to the usual jihadist forums. ISI went one step further, proclaiming her as a martyr, in a post I saw on a site which is now offline.

The inevitable first part of the revenge took place on the 23rd of April, when fighters from the ISI hijacked a bus carrying workers in Mosul, checked the ID cards of those on it, ordered the Christians and Muslims off and then drove the 23 Yezidis on board to the eastern part of the city. Once there, they were ordered to lay on their fronts against a wall. The men were then all sprayed with bullets, presumably with AK-47s from a distance, before 3 of the gunmen move in and fire further barrages into the bodies from a few feet away. The video of the massacre was subsequently distributed by the Mosul section of the ISI's media branch, not the al-Furqan section which usually produces the rest of the group's propaganda from elsewhere in Iraq.

Yesterday's attack is almost certainly also the work of the Islamic State. While Ansar al-Sunnah is one of the other insurgent groups to have carried out suicide bombings in Iraq, the attack carries all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida in Iraq operation, the multiple bombings, the use of trucks and the soft, defenceless target. It won't be a surprise if a video of the "operation" subsequently turns up online, continuing the cycle of depravity likely to shock even the most hardened, cynical and desensitised of the watchers of the jihadist media available on the web.


Screengrabs from the video.

The methods of the insurgents in Iraq appear to have influenced fascists in Russia. A group calling itself the "National Socialist Party of Russia" had a video distributed, initally on LiveJournal among Russian far-right nationalists, which shows the beheading of one man and the shooting dead of another. The video claims that they're "colonists" from Dagestan and Tajikistan. A statement sent to a Chechen news agency, purportedly from the group, called for the expulsion from Russian territory of all Asians and people from the Caucasus, the independence of Chechnya and the resignation of President Vladimir Putin. A man has since come forward and admitted to helping to distribute the recording.

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The kids aren't alright.

Death, outraged reaction, draconian solution suggested, draconian solution rejected/forgotten, cycle repeats. It's all too familiar, too rehearsed, too tedious. Add in the factor that it's the silly season and the whole thing is taken up another couple of notches, resulting in editorials claiming that every street is full to the brim with drunken teenagers while the police are handcuffed to their desks filling in paperwork. It's beyond silly and inaccurate, it's exacerbating the already out of control stereotype that the youth of today spend all their time drinking cheap strong booze while smashing up the local playground equipment, and it does absolutely nothing to even begin to sort out the existing problem that there actually is.

Peter Fahy's suggestions on what has to be done to tackle the "yob culture" and youth binge drinking are discriminatory, downright daft and completely wrongheaded. The tragic death of Garry Newlove, the inquiry into which Fahy is meant to be heading, which occurred when he tackled a group of teenagers alleged to have vandalised a small digger he had hired, has not been linked in any way to whether the group had been drinking or not, but that doesn't seem to have gotten in the way of Fahy's arguments on what must be done.

How raising the legal age to purchasing alcohol to 21 will help such avoidable and pointless deaths from happening is not explained, most likely because it will most likely only make the existing situation worse. Nearly all supermarkets and off-licences, which are currently erroneously getting it in the neck for selling to those who are underage, have almost all instituted schemes across the board which require staff to request ID from anyone who looks under 21 before selling them any age restricted product. This already means that those above the legal age but unfortunately don't look it are required to carry around ID lest they decided they'd like to buy a beer. The same is true in pubs and clubs; there may be the odd store which doesn't care, but the fines are now so heavy and strict that it isn't worth the risk. This points towards the fact the most alcohol is being bought by adults, either at the request of teenagers who congregate outside shops and ask them to buy it for them, or by their parents, who either don't care or have it stolen from under their noses. Raising the price of alcohol will also only do so much: it completely ignores why both children and adults are increasingly turning to mass booze binges, while penalising them for wanting to escape from their own humdrum lives for a few hours.

Banning public drinking might remove the odd clusters of youths that do in some places get together, drink and start getting rowdy and harassing people, but again it will only take the problem off the streets, making it more likely that the same will just occur either in private houses or in other places not considered "public". It takes it out of public sight without changing the practice itself. That's all well and good for the police, who aren't called out to deal with it, and for the residents of places where groups have previously suffered, but it just moves it on to somewhere else.

The lessons that the Unicef report on wellbeing ought to have taught have similarly been completely forgotten. It showed that the relationships that are vital in cultivating happiness are just not there - whether it's with their own peers, or with their "elders" themselves, who are by turns either disconnected from their children and young adults, or as the case seems to be with those outside of a family circle, completely uninterested or even hostile towards other children. This is down not to a broken society, as the Tories claim, but to an erosion of empathy, the cult of the self and the mantra of false individualism. When such relationships are missing or stilted, it's little surprise that the things that do bring people together - booze, drugs and sex - are all being increasingly abused by those younger and younger.

What's needed is a complete reapprasial of what it means to both be a child and a teenager in Britain today. Rather than it all being the fault of political correctness and a failure to intervene as the tabloids preach, we've become so scared of our children because of how beastly and violent they're meant to be that we've forgotten that they are us - just even more confused, apprehensive and frightened than we are. Cameron was mocked for suggesting that teenagers needed a lot more love, dubbed by the press and Labour as "hug a hoodie", but he more or less had it right. Despite all the obstacles, we need to both talk and listen. At the moment, the Victorian cliche of being seen and not heard is half right - we see them all too often, but we ignore them.

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Legal challenge to refusal to hold an independent inquiry into 7/7.

It's great to see that rather than giving up, getting disillusioned and waiting for the next tragedy to unfold, the families of those who were murdered on 7/7, along with a number of survivors, have informed the Home Office of their intention to take legal action in order to force the government into setting up an independent inquiry into just what was known of the bombers prior to the events of that fateful day.

Rachel rightly points out just how inadequate the "investigation" by the Intelligence and Security Committee was, a parliamentary group which takes everything it's told by the security services at face value, even when it becomes obvious that they've lied to them on numerous previous occasions. Even when supplied with prima facie evidence of the wrongdoing of those they're meant to be monitoring, the committee likes to shift the goalposts, as showed by their report into extraordinary rendition, which cleared MI5/6 of any involvement in the conspiracy after it decided to change the definition of just what exactly constitutes ER.

The other thing worth mentioning is that the legal challenge, if it goes ahead, will be using the provisions under article 2 of the human rights act which provide for an inquiry into the death of someone if the right to life is ruled to have been breached. It would be nice if the tabloids which have demonised the act now reported that far from being a terrorists' charter, the act also provides the right for those murdered by them to find out whether the state failed to adequately protect those killed. I'm not holding my breath.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007 

Now is not the time for liberal thought.

Are these the end times? The tabloids, infected with silly season pessimism, seem to think so. COULD BRITAIN BE HEADING FOR A NEW GREAT DEPRESSION? screams the Express. BRITAIN'S GONE MAD yells the Sun, followed up by an editorial which takes the decision by the Thames Valley police to train two 16-year-olds as community support officers to mean that the policy is not only supported by Downing Street, but that the streets are soon to be full of spotty urchins tackling the misbehaviour of other spotty urchins. Battle Royale here we come.

(Not to mention yet another BBC bashing editorial which follows it, claiming that they'd brought out a clip of Redwood failing to sing the Welsh national anthem to mock him. Perhaps they'd like to point out which bulletins that was on, as I watched the news on BBC1 on Sunday at around 6 and then again at 10, both of which had reports on Redwood's bureaucracy cutting proposals and neither featured it (Update: see comments for clarification, apparently it was featured for a whole 5 seconds at the beginning of the report). It also again claims that the BBC's "own watchdogs" had described it as "institutionally biased" when they have done no such thing. The Sunday Times said the "safeguarding impartiality report in the 21st century" was going to come to that conclusion; the phrase, predictably, doesn't feature anywhere in it. The less said about Redwood's actual plans and the Sun's claim he's one of the few to get it the better.)

It isn't that there aren't plenty of things to depressed about. While the tabloids preach doom and gloom on a daily basis about violent crime, yobs and moronic parents with too much money getting their fat, spoilt little princes and princesses' school uniforms lined with Kevlar in case they get stabbed, the great depression which is our meaningless, work-filled and selfish lives continue. As the middle classes go off on their holidays to spread their own omnipresent misery to the inhabitants of countries unlucky enough to be tourist destinations, those worrying that this unstoppable orthodoxy of ever increasing consumption and growth is unsustainable are finding that this brilliant democracy of ours suddenly starts losing its sheen when you so much as attempt to raise awareness by camping near an airport.

Even by the surreal standards of journalism during the month of August, last night's Newsnight discussion between George Monbiot and the Labour MP Khalid Mahmood, with Mahmood demanding that Monbiot condemn anyone who decides to climb on the fence at Heathrow was indicative of the madness that seems to descend when the lack of news combines itself with the authoritarian, repressive and draconian excesses of both this government and the businesses that have done so very well out of Labour's crackdown on civil liberties. Would a company before the rise of New Labour really have had the guts to go to the high court and request such a wide-ranging and badly-drafted injunction as that one BAA did to try to stop legitimate protest from taking place in the vicinity of Heathrow? While the judge stood her ground and cut it down to naming just one small group and three individuals, it set the tone for the whole reporting saga, with the press swiftly switching sides from supporting the rights of National Trust and RSPB members to be able to go to the airport if they so wished to scaremongering wildly about just what the less savory, younger and scruffy direct action types might do.

It was almost as if BAA had been taking lessons from Tony Blair's government: not only was the spin that they hadn't been trying to ban up to 5 million people so patently see through that the spokesman might as well have been a ghost, but the raising of the spectre of the terrorist threat was the most ridiculously insulting and absurd argument against protesters doing anything other than standing in a field while being surrounded by the police since Frank Field implied that the police can't handle both the cash for honours inquiry and the security of the nation at the same time. Even if some of the more radical members did decide to get onto the runway, despite the 1800 police which the Met have decided are necessary to secure a site which at the moment has less than 500 hundred actual campers on it (according to the Grauniad, journalists themselves currently outnumber protesters by about 2 to 1), just how are they going to hide the weaponry necessary to bring down an aircraft? As the black maskers scale or cut the fence, someone carrying a rocket launcher in a holdall just might look slightly out of place, and anyway, they don't make bongs
that big.

For those of us lucky enough to be dismissed as the "civil liberties brigade", it's good to know that some of our utmost opponents would in fact like the Human Rights Act to be extended ever so slightly further. According to Mike Ambrose, if environmental campaigners attempt to force their views on those who want to travel, they'll be acting against the principles of civilised society, and their actions could prove to be an abuse of the democratic right to protest. Never mind that BAA attempted to stop any protest whatsoever: there needs to be a new human right, and it's the right to go on holiday. Not that Ambrose and his ilk of obscurantists even needed to say anything; they could have instead relied on the Evening Standard to print smears and embellishments to rival anything the Scum could have come up with, claiming that protesters were planning to leave "hoax suspect packages" in order to cause disruption. The Sun gleefully picked up the same ball and ran with it this morning. The police themselves have been making mass use of section 44 of the Terrorism Act, previously used to keep Walter Wolfgang from re-entering the Labour conference and to harass absolutely everyone other those likely to even have the slightest involvement in terrorism, and also have taken to taking photographs and recording everyone that so much as goes near the camp, all just for their own records, obviously.

Systematically but slowly, the right to protest, to express the slightest criticism of almost any business within the vicinity of their premises and to actually act like an individual rather than indulge in "individualism" is being eroded, mocked and criminalised. It's little wonder the young themselves, at least according to the gutter press, are becoming more violent, angry, insolent and feckless. They're the children of the baby boomers after all, who enjoyed all the trappings of the welfare state, free higher education and ideological struggles of the 60s and 70s only to rip all of those things up when they themselves gained power. Selfishness and greed inevitably begats the same, and only now do they not like the results.


This pretty much sums it all up.

I'll seriously disrupt the nose of anyone who get's (sic) in the way of my family holiday this year.

- Mark, Welwyn, Hertfordshire

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Monday, August 13, 2007 

Scum-watch: Calling for the continuation of systematic injustice.

Just how does one become a Sun journalist? Is it nature or nuture? Were they too once idealistic young men and women who dreamed of becoming investigative hacks, exposing the corrupt, the injustices, the lies and scandalous behaviour of the most powerful in our society? Did they imagine that one day they'd be called a cunt by a flame-haired editor because they hadn't got the latest scoop on the relationship drama between a crack-head and sometime model? Do they believe the bile they have to write up, or is it purely out of the love of the pay cheque?

Why am I asking these daft rhetorical questions? Well, here's one more for good measure: just how do some of them sleep at night? Andrew Porter today delivers an abject lesson in how to write an almost typical tabloid scare story:

FIVE men set to be returned to Britain from Guantanamo Bay will cost a staggering £7.5million a year to monitor, security sources revealed last night.

First thing to note is that this comes from a "security" source. Seeing as their job involves lying to everyone around them, regardless of the reason for doing so, anything they say and most especially provide to a Sun hack has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Is it really true that monitoring one man for a year will cost £1.5 million? Are the other former Guantanamo detainees under such surveillance? Almost certainly not - not only have none of them been charged with any crime upon repatriation, some of whom had almost identical or more serious allegations made against them, but apart from Moazzam Begg and the "Tipton Three" they've completely dropped off the radar, apparently no threat to anyone.

Let's not pretend that these men are necessarily completely innocent of some of what might be alleged against them. One of the "Tipton Three" has since confessed that he entered Afghanistan and did spend time at a training camp, where he learned how to use an AK-47, somewhat different to the rosy account in the Road to Guantanamo, where their reasons for visiting Afghanistan were because of the err, huge naans, and little else. Even so, objectionable and criminal as that was, potential ill-treatment and the nightmare of indefinite detention without charge which they faced in Guantanamo was, as Lord Falconer previously called it, a "shocking affront to the principles of democracy."

Keeping this in mind, the Scum goes on to tell us of just what it's alleged two of the five Britons who either had indefinite leave to remain or refugee status in this country were up to:

Shaker Aamer, 38, a Saudi, is accused of being an interpreter for Osama Bin Laden. Jordanian Jamil el-Banna, 44, is alleged to have known Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was in charge of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Those two, along with three others, have been been held in Cuba since 2002.

An interpreter for bin Laden? Really? Aamer is an interesting case: according to Reprieve, he was abducted in Pakistan and sold to US authorities for $5,000, a different account to that given on Wikipedia, which contends that he was captured in Afghanistan, working for a charity which is now banned by the United Nations as a front for al-Qaida. After 5 years of keeping stum on exactly what he's meant to have done, he's now become a interpreter and translator for bin Laden, which you would have thought they just might have mentioned before now. Aamer, apparently a master terrorist, is meant to have lived with Zacarias Moussaoui, the supposed 20th 9/11 hijacker in London in the late 90s, and also have met with Richard Reid, the idiot shoe bomber. Not only that, but he's also alleged to be trained in the use of surface to air missiles and explosives.

One has to wonder if these allegations have anything to do with Aamer's reputation, both with the guards and fellow detainees at Guantanamo. Speaking English, articulate and charismatic, he became a natural leader: he negotiated an end to one of the first mass hunger strikes, in return for the guards setting up a grievance committee and agreeing to abide by the Geneva conventions. The military authorities quickly disbanded the committee, and Aamer was subsequently put in solitary confinement, of which he has now been in for 2 years. Reprieve claims that this has had a "substantial" effect on his mental health. If released, Aamer most certainly has a story to tell, and with his acknowledged communication skills he could quite easily follow in the same footsteps as Moazzam Begg.

The new allegation against al-Banna is that as well as having links with Abu Qutada, who he knew through Bisher al-Rawi, since released after it was revealed that he had helped MI5 keep tabs on him, (al-Banna was also offered the opportunity to help MI5 but declined) he also had a "long-term association" with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. While al-Banna and Zarqawi shared Jordanian nationality, it's unclear just how long-term this association could have been. al-Zarqawi turned up in Afghanistan right at the end of the jihad against the Soviets, meeting the filmmaker Richard Stanley amongst others. Between 1989 and 1992, when Zarqawi was imprisoned in Jordan, he is reported to have traveled to Europe. This doesn't give much time for al-Banna to have a "long-term association" with him, as he came to Britain in 1994. Was the association prior to Zarqawi's jihadi days? Was it a "long-term association" conducted over the telephone? Or is it, as the lawyer for both men Clive Stafford Smith says, "a blatant attempt to smear [his] clients"?

The argument about Guantanamo has never been about what the men imprisoned there are accused of doing, although when we know now that vast numbers of them have been completely innocent of any actionable offence that does begin to enter into it, but about the moving of prisoners outside of any legal authority, the failure to allow any organisation other than the Red Cross to visit the detainees, and the indecent, beneath contempt treatment with which they have dealt with since the camp was first opened. Amnesty International called it the gulag of our times, which was heavily criticised by some, but while the detainees are not worked to death, most of those in the gulag at least knew how long they were meant to be there; to jail someone indefinitely is one thing, but to do it without a trial is to remove all hope entirely.

The Sun, despite having a "justice" sub-page mostly dedicated to fighting the scourge of nonces, has no such qualms about silly concerns like the right to a fair trial and habeas corpus. Its leader is titled, erroneously, "Kick 'em out":

GORDON Brown’s efforts to bring back five UK residents from Guantanamo Bay are ever more bewildering.

Tony Blair made no effort to help them and with good reason.

Yeah, because he was a hypocritical bastard who let his ministers call in effect for its closure while doing nothing to help those still there who we have a responsibility towards.

The Pentagon claims they are “extremely dangerous individuals”.

After two years in solitary confinement? After being force-fed? After losing all hope that they would ever be released, caught in limbo between two countries that have disowned them? Even if there were once dangerous, something itself very much open to question, to pretend they are now is a joke.

The Pentagon warns they are a real risk to Britain. Yet Foreign Secretary David Miliband has unaccountably bent over backwards to secure their release.

Unaccountably bent over backwards as in told the United States that they'd like it if they were returned. Considering the Americans had been making noises about wanting to close the place down, you'd expect that they'd be more than happy for them to be taken off their hands. The Guardian had also previously reported that the US had offered to repatriate them but that the Blair government had refused to accept them. Instead they've realised after making them spend 4 years or more in good old fashioned American hospitality that they might just have some uncomfortable things to say, like Bisher al-Rawi and the others before him have. Releasing prisoners to the Middle East or elsewhere is one thing, where they're unlikely to have the media chasing them: doing it in Britain is another.

To add insult to injury, taxpayers will have to shell out £7.5million a year to monitor them.

These men aren’t even British. They merely have residency status.

And you know what else? They're not even white!

So revoke it. If the Pentagon’s right, they’re the last people to give a home to.

It might be slightly glib to remind everyone, but this was the same Pentagon which told everyone that there was weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, something the Sun was also more than happy to believe. It lied about two prominent soldiers dying not "heroic" deaths, but in friendly fire incidents. It couldn't run a piss-up in a brewery, but it sure can destroy a country if you give it a few months and a budget of hundreds of billions. The Scum really couldn't be doing much more to earn its nickname.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007 

The grief industry.

In today's Guardian, Ian Jack recalls the end of summer 10 years ago:

It is worth recalling that first week of September 10 years ago, when 10,000 tonnes of flowers were dumped outside the royal palaces and Gordon Brown was said to be seriously considering a proposal to rename August bank holiday "Diana Day". I knew few people who felt as the crowds did, but this minority (or perhaps majority) largely remained silent and invisible to the media: in the climate of those days, to be sceptical was to be labelled unfeeling. A few brave people wrote to the newspapers to say they were disturbed by the dominant mood. Later in September, writing a piece for Granta on reactions to the Diana's death, I tracked down and interviewed eight or nine of them. Ten years later, what they said bears repeating. Peter Ghosh, an Oxford historian: "We kept being told that the country was united, which it was in the sense that we were all watching the same television programme. But in any other sense - that divisions of class and race were being healed, for example - well, it's crap, obviously."

Maggie Winkworth, a psychologist in Chiswick: "I'd call it mass hysteria, a kind of mania. You saw the power of the crowd. To me, those pictures of mounds of flowers were quite repulsive ... It seemed a kind of floral fascism ... a country controlled by the grief police." How many people felt like this? I suspect many millions more than were apparent at the time.

Jack doesn't mention whether some of those who questioned the mass-mourning which occurred then came under the same opprobrium which poured down upon the head of Professor Anthony O'Hear when the Social Affairs Unit published a book which contained an essay of his on the public reaction to the death of Diana, but it's probably safe to assume that they were replied to voluminously in the press.

O'Hear's essay, which also considered the sentimentality and general mawkishness exhibited at the time, was in fact far less of an aggressive critique than that offered by Winkworth. As Francis Wheen noted at the time (reproduced in Hoo-Hahs and Passing Frenzies, pp 68-70) O'Hear only went so far as to suggest that the grieving had lacked a sense of proportion. Nevertheless, this didn't stop the Mirror from calling him a "rat-faced little loser" and Tony Blair describing him as an "old-fashioned snob." Even a Guardian editorial suggested that the Social Affairs Unit as a whole was a "slightly fogeyish bunch."

Even if the events of this week have suggested something of a backlash against the McCanns, you get the same sort of feeling reading today's press coverage of the 100th day since Madeleine has disappeared. After 3 months of an unending media campaign, it has come to precisely naught. The only thing we still know for certain is that Madeleine, on the evening of May the 3rd, disappeared from the McCanns' apartment of the Mark Warner Ocean Club complex in the Portuguese resort of
Praia da Luz. Everything else is still conjecture.

Not that this has stopped the press here at home pointing the finger variously at paedophiles and then the only declared suspect, Robert Murat, with gradually decreasing credibility. The Portuguese press, for its own part, has spent much of the last week speculating, along with police leaks reminiscent of those to the Sun in similar cases, that either the McCanns themselves or friends of theirs on holiday with them were now under suspicion. No one seems to have been able to strike the right balance; the British press and media being utterly craven, for which see this hagiographic account of the last 100 days in today's Sun, papers running front page splashes condemning a German reporter who dared to question whether the McCanns themselves might have been involved in some way, while the Portuguese press have been apparently happy to publish innuendo which appears to have absolutely no foundation. Even those sections of the media we usually depend upon to rise above the clamour and shrieks of the gutter press don't seem to have been immune to the image of a pretty missing white girl: the Grauniad running an interview with the McCanns which tells you absolutely nothing, and today's Telegraph, featuring another interview with the two.

It started with the equivalent of emotional pornography, coverage by turns both mawkish and pointless, urging the public to pray for "Maddie" and then to wear yellow, as if either could in any way possibly do anything to help the investigation, a display of fake empathy, or even possibly real, with hardened hacks going native in their refusal to even examine any alternative possibilities. The results of such coverage were displayed in comments on the Sun's own website: if they're to be believed, some seemed closer to a complete breakdown than the McCanns themselves have. After a couple of weeks, it mutated into something much more familiar: coverage for the sake of coverage, designed purely to try to boost sales, without offering any real support, while still indignant about anything negative directed towards the sainted couple. The Express, which was has probably featured Diana on the front page more since she died than before (see Daily Mail Watch), changed from the Diana Express into the Daily Maddie, the cynicism behind such blanket splashes being only too visible. Today's coverage has then come full circle: back to the Scum opening up "books of support" rather than books of condolence.

The main difference between the atmosphere of then and now is that in 1997 there was hardly no one who dared to raise their head above the parapet and suggest that this was all a little over the top. Private Eye's front cover jibe about the press coverage being revolting resulted in WHSmith temporarily removing it from their shelves. Major mass usage of the internet was also still in its infancy; while Usenet quickly started to buzz with conspiracy theories, debate and resistance to the rolling coverage was still mostly absent. This time round it's been very different: forums have been full of threads either critical of the McCanns or even suggesting that they have the most questions to answer. Whereas those nonplussed by Diana's untimely death and the reaction to it were underrepresented in the media then, with 44% apparently feeling alienated by the BBC's coverage of it according to their own research, the internet has now allowed those with a very different opinion to that dominating the mainstream to raise their own flags. It's not surprising that this change has left some of mainstream media both confused and angry by their failure to monopolise public opinion: the Sun describes the McCanns today as the victims of a "vicious smear campaign", something it ought to know about considering the number of ones that it itself has run in the past.

Responding back in April 1998 to O'Hear's essay, the Sun not only described grief as "a vital safety valve", it also told readers it was perfectly OK to "keep grieving". It shouldn't surprise you that the paper's leader now is full of similar sentiments, ending with:

As another day of torment passes, Sun readers will hope and pray for a new landmark. When Maddie is back with her loving parents.

It seems unlikely that the grief industry will be slowing down its production, online opposition or not, any time soon.

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Friday, August 10, 2007 

Another petition.

Via Justin and Tim W:
“I will boycott any company that wins a contract to deliver the National ID card but only if 500 other people will do the same.”

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The inhumanity of one "anti-imperialist".

I began this week by writing a piece about the ructions on the pro-war left, linked in with Johann Hari's attack on Nick Cohen's polemic on the failures of the left and Oliver Kamm's article on the same day claiming that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki shouldn't be viewed as a crime. I'd never of imagined (although I perhaps should have) that by the end of this week I'd be writing about how one anti-war supposed leftist seems to have been trying his best to be as inhumane as those who cheered on the "shock and awe" in the first place.

It's well known that Neil Clark, rather than being an anti-imperialist as he describes himself, has a tendency to be apologetic towards such human rights defenders as Slobodan Milosevic, but even by his low-grade of rhetorical standards today's piece on Comment is Free scrapes the very bottom of the reactionary, unpleasant, nauseating barrel. Titled "Keep these quislings out", it's the first, and probably will be the only article to attack the growing campaign for Iraqi employees of the British armed forces to be given refuge here.

The entire basis of the article seems to be based on the mind-numbing, idiotic belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Despite the fact that the blogging campaign for the Iraqi employees' plight to be recognised was started by Dan Hardie, who opposed the war and opposes the continuing presence of British troops in Iraq, and that the vast majority who have wrote about it were all anti-war, the simple fact that some of those who supported the war are also now supporting the campaign has been enough for Mr Clark to aim his limp arrows against the translators in their entirety. There's nothing wrong with chucking vitriol at Harry's Placers or that fat turd Stephen Pollard, but doing so for the purpose of denying those with the threat of murder hanging over their heads is the moral equivalent of refusing to even piss on someone who's on fire because you don't like them.

Clark then compounds the insult by referring to those who have worked with the British forces as both "quislings" and "collaborators". It's quite clear what Clark's pointing towards: that those who dared to believe they could rebuild Iraq, regardless of how Saddam was overthrown, are the modern equivalent of the fascist apologists and enablers of the 1940s. This is all the more hypocritical because of a recent posting on Clark's own blog, entitled "There was only one Nazi Germany", where he agrees with Jonathan Cook that it's impossible to paint Iran as a modern-day fascist state. It seems it's fine to bring up the inescapable Nazis after all, as long as they help along your own twisted argument. Perhaps Clark ought to have read the accounts of three interpreters who were interviewed in yesterday's Guardian, especially the first:

I chose to work for the British because I love their democracy and passion for human rights and I want to see it in Iraq.

And who could possibly disagree with those sentiments, even if you disagree with the method which brought the British into Iraq? Iraq is a hellhole now, and it's a hellhole of our own making, but what kind of inhumane bastard would deny the Iraqis the opportunity to rebuild their country in our image purely because of who supported the war in the first place, or as the case is, their escape from murderers who share none of the democratic sentiments they do? It's also not as if Clark has only recently taken to throwing the "quisling" tag around: back in 2003, he wrote a comment piece on the murder of the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, calling him the quisling of Belgrade.

Clark ends his flatulence with this especially noxious, illogical blast of wind:

If that means some [the Iraqi employees] of them may lose their lives, then the responsibility lies with those who planned and supported this wicked, deceitful and catastrophic war, and not those of us who tried all we could to stop it.

But this is a false dichotomy. The responsibility doesn't just lie with the warmongers, it also lies with the murderers executing those they see as collaborators, a view that Clark himself seems to share. It's up to those of us who tried to stop it to now redirect our efforts to ensure that as few more people die as a result of what was done in our name as possible. Clark instead would prefer that more blood is spilt rather than giving "self-centred mercenaries who betrayed their fellow countrymen and women for financial gain out of Britain" the opportunity of a life away from the constant threat of death purely because of the job they chose. As Jamie points out, if you don't oppose cold-blooded murder, how can you oppose war? Or is it, to come back again to the quisling charge, that Clark views such men and women as untermensch?

As others have suggested, maybe it's a good thing that such a disgusting, despicable piece of writing appeared on CiF. If this doesn't motivate more people to sign the petition and write to their MPs on behalf of those we've abandoned to a unimaginable future, then very little else will.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007 

Preaching hate and dealing with it part 2.

Who then, to trust out of the dispiriting choice of Channel 4 and the police/crown prosecution service? The original Dispatches documentary, Undercover Mosque, which I didn't see but read the available transcript of, was certainly an eye-opener, and made many who saw it reconsider just how far radical Wahhabism had succeeded in infiltrating mosques over here. It also attracted the usual amount of naysayers, as well as those in denial about just what was being preached in some mosques.

That the police and the CPS, having acquired the unexpurgated footage of the undercover recording with a view to possibly prosecuting the preachers with inciting racial hatred, were not only to come to the conclusion that there was no chance of any such prosecutions succeeding, but then to turn the tables and accuse Channel 4 of "completely distorting" what they had said in the first place is truly extraordinary. The transcript, full of references to the "kuffar" and why not to trust them, and in at least one case praising those who killed a British Muslim soldier in Afghanistan, seems so authoritative and in-context that it's difficult to see how seeing their speeches in full would change the meaning of what they said. With the possible exception of some of the references to jihad, which might possibly refer to it in its spiritual meaning, this seemed irrefutable.

Let's not pretend however that either the police or the CPS have suddenly become, as the neo-cons like to refer to people who don't see the threat from Islamic extremism, dhimmis. We also shouldn't forget that this is the same Channel 4 which was exposed as hiding footage from Celebrity Big Brother which proved that overt racism had indeed occurred during the show in January. Those taking part in the infamous Danish embassy protest have been jailed for up to six years for shouting slogans and carrying placards which were not that far removed from some of the content featured in Undercover Mosque. The idea that the police have criticised Channel 4 rather than the preachers themselves because of fear over the possibility of unrest in Birmingham itself is just as ridiculous. Why would they have simply not announced that no changes were due to brought due to insufficient evidence, even if such a decision was likely to come under criticism?

There's a simple way for this to be resolved, and it's up to each side to decide on how much they believe their position is the right one. If Channel 4 is so certain of defending what indeed was an important piece of investigative journalism, why doesn't it release the footage in full or transcripts? Equally, if the police/CPS are so certain that what the preachers said was misconstrued, they can do the same, having acquired access to the apparent 56 hours of footage which was edited down into a programme of less than an hour when you take adverts into account.

Missing from this debate has been the point that even if the preachers were misquoted or had their remarks taken out of context, what they said still needs to be condemned. The explanation that they were outlining how things would work in "an ideal Islamic society" in line with some of their comments simply doesn't wash. It also underlined how the fundamentalist Islam funded and spread by Saudi Arabia, one of our main allies in the "war on terror" is by far the most insidious and rejectionist. While we arm them to the teeth with every weaponry they could ever lust after, they in return are personally responsible for most of the indoctrination which goes in the mainstream mosques. We shouldn't get ahead of ourselves and blame them for everything, as all the evidence suggests that those who have gone on to commit terrorist attacks have not been "brainwashed" by the local imam, but rather have done their own research online, met like-minded people as a result, or travelled to see notorious clerics out of their own volition. Such extremist preaching such as that seen in the documentary however may well turn out to be the initial spark that sets off the interest. The programme also reminds us that it's the sale of DVDs and CDs of such speeches and lectures is also just as important as personally attending them.

The very last thing we must do is start believing that every mosque is a hotbed of such radicalism, or that imams, as the Sun puts it, "are trying to stir up murderous feelings by turning gullible young Muslims into killing machines", making it sound as if they're too stupid to realise what's happening, when all the evidence suggests that it's the more intelligent and inquisitive with a good education that are far more likely to be involved in such sympathising and even support. The police or Channel 4 now have to prove their respective cases.

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Tales made of Straw.

Lucrative contracts worth up to £500m each have been put out to tender today for the government's controversial identity card scheme.

Five firms will be chosen to supply computer equipment and manage the application and issuing of ID cards.

So much then for those highly optimistic planted stories about how Brown and Straw were going to at the very least implement a review of the hated scheme.

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Genocidal tyrant says it's all so unfair.

Rupert Murdoch has complained that his victorious three-month battle to buy the Wall Street Journal involved fending off criticism bearing a degree of vitriol usually reserved for "genocidal tyrants".

Diddums! It's a bugger when you can't always control what journalists write about you, isn't it? Murdoch has got so used to being able to either respond to criticism through tit-for-tat attacks in his own papers, or as the recent spiking by the Grauniad of a profile of his wife Wendi Deng showed, being able to stop publication through pure fear of what his own minions might do in return that for a long time he's been almost immune from any personal criticism whatsoever.

Why though is he so surprised that he should come in for such vitriol? While he may not personally be a tyrant, although hacks within News International may think different, he's certainly had plenty of experience in kow-towing to them when it comes to advancing both his business interests and personal fortune, especially in China. As for genocidal, as a direct response of every single one of his newspapers supporting the Iraq war, with the New York Post and The Sun especially involved in cheerleading for it and smearing its opponents, he has a fair share of the blood of 650,000 Iraqis on his hands. Was it worth it for that $20 barrel of oil? Oh, wait...

P.S. Would you believe there's no mention in today's Scum of the fact that their great white shark exclusive ripped out of a local newspaper has been exposed as a hoax? What was all that about the journalists on the BBC being "crooks and liars" again?

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007 

Can I get some of what Neal Lawson's been smoking?

Has someone been spiking Neal Lawson's cheerios? I honestly can't think of any other explanation for why he's chosen now, after 10 years of Labour government, to suddenly have an absurd epiphany about the possibilities of a "seismic" shift towards the left.

The skilfully engineered bounce witnessed in the first days of Gordon Brown's premiership could be turned into something more: a political earthquake. The time is ripe not just for a better Labour government but for a shift in the centre of gravity of politics decisively to the left. Brown could be the first Labour leader since Clement Attlee to recast British society - not by taking small steps but giant leaps. This is why.

Even if this was slightly plausible, is Gordon Brown the man to do it? The same Brown who didn't just take on the left and win crushingly, but instead patronisingly rose to the leadership unchallenged while insulting those who had dared to suggest there might be some within the party with different views? This isn't to suggest that John McDonnell was the man to lead Labour; none of us who supported his candidacy even dreamed that he could win. It was about the exchange and debate of ideas - of which there was none because of the way that Brown's clique crushed any opposition.

Secondly, to think that now is the time for a shift is ridiculous. The opportunity to shift the centre of political gravity radically towards the left was in 1997 - with the Tories destroyed and moribund. The last 10 years, while not entirely wasted, have just been one long missed chance.

Once in every generation a political revolution takes place in which thinking and behaviour shifts not just by degrees but qualitatively. It happened in 1945 under Labour, as the experience of the war and the economic depression before it heralded the centralised welfare state. It happened again 30 years later under Thatcher as the free market counter-revolution swept all before it. Greed became good.

All of this is true. What though makes 2007 a better year for another dramatic shift than 1997 was? The Brown bounce is just that - a bounce. The Tories might currently be in a kind of disarray, and they've panicked at the very first serious challenge since Cameron became leader, but to believe that they'll stay this way long is naive. They've got the whole of the summer to regroup before their conference, and it still looks highly unlikely that Brown will risk a snap election in October. The opinion poll leads are likely to diminish swiftly once everyone forgets the joy of Blair being gone and realise that the same tired Labour government is still lording it up.

Today the free market is not the solution, it is the problem. Every pressing issue we face demands a collective response - climate change and flooding, terrorism, the housing crisis, insecurity at work, immigration and the ageing population. Neoliberalism promised a utopia but has failed to deliver. Britain has become a hideously unequal society. The poor are not treading water but sinking beneath the rising tide of the rich. But the middle classes are struggling, too. Insecurity and anxiety abound. Working harder to keep up on the treadmill of the learn-to-earn consumer society is deepening our social recession. We are at a tipping point.

As much as I agree with most of what Lawson writes, to think that the apparent rise of the super-rich at the expense of the middle classes is a tipping point is a joke. They're not really struggling, they're just moaning even more than usual while almost never having it so good. The Mail might be getting steaming about the fat cats, but the tide certainly hasn't turned yet. If a change comes, it will likely be because of rising interest rates, and those feeling the pinch aren't going to suddenly take to the streets waving red flags, they're going to be blaming Labour. Hardly the optimum moment for a seismic shift towards the left.

At these moments of rupture, the rules of electoral politics can be ripped up because parties are no longer required to win from the centre. Instead, majorities can be formed by offering reassurance from quite radical positions. Thatcherism's electoral success was not built on the soggy consensus of the centre but through a decisive break with the postwar settlement. Reassurance was offered by unleashing market forces in a way that seemed impossible just a few years before.

People want reassurance once more, but this time it's that globalisation can be tamed, climate change averted and social cohesion created. This demands new forms of collective action.

What does all of this even mean? Exactly what sort of "collective action" are we talking about? Are we all going to start wearing "Make Thatcherism History" wristbands and hope that's enough? This seems like bollocks aimed at filling space.

It is this new social mood that is causing the Conservatives such trouble. David Cameron has failed to make a breakthrough in the polls and his party is starting to rebel against his modernising agenda because the times are against them. It is a moment for democratic state-building in the knowledge that we only flourish as individuals in strong societies, not more watered-down Thatcherism. As Cameron's bubble finally bursts, the Mail and Murdoch are left without a negotiating card in their battle to influence Brown. At last we can stop pandering to their reactionary agenda as it increasingly looks as if they have nowhere else to go.

Yet this completely ignores what the past 10 years has taught us. The Mail and Murdoch were without anyone to get behind up until around 2003, but it didn't make any difference. Was this because Blair was too timid and too right-wing himself or because the Mail and Murdoch are so powerful that they themselves can be the opposition? The evidence points towards the latter. All Murdoch has to do is whistle and world leaders, whoever they are, come running. Brown is no different, as the wooing lunches with Wade and sharing of a platform with the man himself showed. The time for rejecting them both was 1997, but it needed a leader with both the courage and the political belief to do so. Even if Brown wanted to stop pandering to them, the Tories would squeal about a shift back to the left, and the papers would likely this time go with it. If there's one thing more likely to get the tabloids in a lather than Muslims/asylum seekers/the eating of swans, it's any suggestion that they might be about to get snubbed.

Looked at in this light, New Labour's 1997 election victory becomes a false dawn, not a new one. A moment still mired in the possessive individualism of the 1980s. Instead of being the fag-end of New Labour, Brown becomes potentially the premier to oversee the transformation of British society. A totally new and exciting narrative opens up in which reassurance comes from the left, not the right, for the first time since the postwar settlement was founded.

1997 was a false dawn, not because it wasn't the opportunity, but because it was. All the changes Brown has instigated so far have been almost purely cosmetic. Sure, we've had a change of tone over the response to terror, a return to consensus government and Brown has been mostly assured since he became leader, but dig beneath the surface and all the same policies are there, just buried because of the leadership change.

Skipping a quoting of Gramsci and a load of rhetorical questions:

The doom-mongers are right to highlight the private finance initiative, flexible labour markets and Iraq. But unlike Blair, with Brown we can agree to disagree on the basis that there might be a set of shared underlying principles. While the jury is out, the democratic left should do everything in its power to influence the verdict.

Well yes, but Brown completely refused to listen during the nomination process. Why would he do so now he's successfully installed?

In one sense Brown has already laid out the route map - he calls it the progressive consensus. It's a belief that the left must build beyond Labour and reach out to social movement such as unions, NGOs, charities, progressive academics and, crucially, a revived Labour party capable of campaigning for change in every community in the country.

All of which is very noble, but isn't this the same Brown that has just stiffed the unions, not only by refusing to sign the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, but also by appointing a true cunt of capitalism in Digby Jones as trade minister? Would a Brown really interested in campaigning for change in ever community have appointed the ghastly Blairite automaton Hazel Blears as the minister for them? She might be enthusiastic, but she rubs everyone other than those like her up the wrong way. The so-called "Big Conversation", which was in reality a conversation where one of those taking part it in had cotton wool stuffed in their ears, isn't exactly a good omen of Labour listening to people and learning. Besides, as someone recently pointed out, what does progressive even mean? When someone like Hillary Clinton can describe herself as such, does it really describe the true Labour grassroots? Or is it another of these meaningless words loved by the likes of Peter Mandelson because it means they can pretend that they too are "one of us"?

The job of the pragmatic left is to pick the issues on which to build such a consensus and to go further and faster than Brown now dares. Take one possible example, the promise to match state school spending to that of private education. We must show how this can be achieved and build pressure and support for its enactment. We could start by focusing on English and maths or targeting poorer children with free school meals and make a breakthrough that would build public support for extra redistribution. Brown says he has a moral compass; we must hold him to it.

Or you know, we could perhaps reconsider our currently destructive foreign policy, retreat and rectify the attacks on civil liberties, call a moratorium on private sector involvement in the public services, especially the hugely wasteful PFI, emphasise the need for more council housing, and think about the best way to reduce increasing inequality. Education is important, but for God's sake, let's point out where Labour has gone disastrously wrong.

We don't have to buy into Brown or simply wait to yell "sell out". Every government is a balance sheet of good and bad. Brown's will be no different. What matters, though, are the strategic decisions that build the forces and ideas to seize this potentially historic political moment. This is a difficult balancing act; neither cheerleaders nor oppositionalists, but walking the tightrope of constructive criticism.

Why does this remind me of a Blair speech, or of Hazel Blears and her vacuous, disingenuous nonsense about there being no more Blairites and Brownites?

A different world starts with a better world. The forward march of Labour may not have resumed, but this could be the moment to get it kickstarted. To quote Gramsci once more: "The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions, without becoming disillusioned."

It's a good quote, but it's just that. 1997 was the year, and the best we can hope for is that Brown's decent start continues. Pessimistic maybe, but also realistic.

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Making up your own insults.

This is most likely the perfect Daily Express front page. It combines the former People's Princess and her memory with the new People's Missing Child: Our Angel and Missing Guiding Light. One thoroughly beaten dead horse (in more than one sense) and another shortly to become a dead horse, together as one. Forever.

What then is this new, improved, all purpose, biggest ever, longest lasting insult to the People's Princesses memory? Has someone dug up her corpse, fucked it, fed it to the swine on a nearby farm, then reburied the coffin with the body of an asylum seeker who was wearing a niqab in it as the replacement? Did a small child run up to Prince Harry while he was out drinking, shout "Your mum's dead!", laugh and then run away? Did Gerry McCann say that Madeleine was bigger than that dead phony bitch? Was Gordon Brown heard to say that "Tony went a little over-the-top when Diana died"? Or was it that Diana is now remembered not for her good work, but rather the fact that Mohammad Al-Fayed has used her death to pursue his own campaign against the establishment in this country because he's never been given a passport? How about that her memory is now a laughing stock because "THE WORLD'S GREATEST NEWSPAPER" has been using her for years as a convenient front page story when there aren't any Muslims to bash or house prices to crow/panic about?

Sadly, it's none of these things. Apparently the biggest ever insult to her memory is that Camilla Parker-Bowles will be attending the memorial service (yes, another one) on August the 31st. Excuse me if I don't suddenly storm out onto the streets and start screaming about the injustice of it all.

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Scum-watch: Could you possibly believe it?

Remember last week's amazing Scum exclusive that a great white shark really had been sighted off the shores of Cornwall, and that it had the picture to prove it? Having nicked the story from the Newquay Guardian, which ran it on its front page, it opened its account of this dramatic personal experience thusly:

GREAT White shark fever gripped the West Country last night — amid claims that ANOTHER of the maneaters has been sighted.

Whoops! As I commented at the time, it seemed ever so slightly convenient that Kevin Kebble, having supposedly taken the photograph two weeks earlier, only took it upon himself to contact one of his local papers' with the news that he'd snapped a shot of one of these terrifying sea creatures once the Scum had been spreading the idiocy across the nation nation. Today he confessed to the Newquay Grauniad's rival, the Voice:

"I took the picture while I was on a fishing trip in Cape Town and just sent it in as a joke," Kevin Keeble told the Newquay Voice newspaper. "I didn't expect anyone to take be daft enough to take it seriously.

"I can't believe the story went so big in the first place. I didn't even get any money out of it. If I'd have made a few quid then maybe I could have gone on another fishing trip to South Africa."

Oh dear. Coming so shortly after its rants against the perfidious BBC and its faking of competitions, it's little wonder that the newspaper declined to comment.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007 

Oh, the irony.

The US is considering a request from the British Foreign Office to release five former UK residents from Guantanamo Bay detention centre.

A senior US official said Washington would seek guarantees that the men would be treated humanely and would not be allowed to pose a security threat.

Welcome as this news is, the overwhelming urge to punch whichever smart arse US official thought it would be funny to seek a guarantee that the five prisoners would be treated humanely after spending years in a modern gulag with in some cases the detainees being force-fed after going on hunger strike can't be overstated. Whatever these men are alleged to have done, we have always had a responsibility towards them that we shamefully declined to act upon. That's it taken this long and a change of prime ministers for it to come about has blackened our name further. It's also doubtful, especially now, that they pose any kind of security threat. All the former British detainees held at Guantanamo were released without any charge, and have attempted to rebuild their lives, much as these five are now likely to do.

The government now has to do the similarly decent thing and provide refuge to any Iraqis who have worked with the British forces, endangering themselves and their families in the process. Anything less is just as much a betrayal.

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Silly season continues.

Today's Daily Mail has taken the opportunity to resurrect another of those hoary old mythical stories, this time about supposed eastern European migrants eating all our blessed swans. FCC takes them to task in usual style with two top posts. The closest these repetitive stories have ever come to being true was when a Muslim man supposedly hungry after his Ramadan fast stabbed a swan. The rest have all been hokum.

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Scum-watch: 1 compared to 29,000.

Remember how the Scum comprehensively failed to report on the news that MySpace (prop. R Murdoch) was found to be teeming with sex offenders, with 29,000 having their profiles deleted? Well, it finally got round today to reporting on how one man had used a social networking site for his perverted needs:

A SEX beast was jailed indefinitely yesterday for abusing two girls he met on the Facebook website.

Jonathan Percy, 29, posed as a 15-year-old to groom the girls, aged 12 and 13, then plied them with alcopops and took them to a wood for sex.

Percy, of Mannington, Dorset — jailed in 2003 for a similar offence — pleaded guilty at Bournemouth Crown Court.

He must serve at least three years before he is eligible for parole, and was banned from using a computer.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that this also didn't involve MySpace. Surprising, huh? The article itself is followed by the usual array of user comments about castration involving two bricks, etc, and about the length of the sentence, even though Percy has been jailed under an IPP. Judging by how the prison system currently can't cope with the number being given the new indeterminate sentences, with the courses that those sentenced under them have to complete before even being considered for release being hopelessly oversubscribed, with those unable to get on them likely to have to stay inside long after their tariff has passed, it seems unlikely that he'll be out within 3 years, even if he's no longer considered a danger to the public, something also doubtful, as it's his second offence.

Elsewhere, the Scum is having yet another go at Malloch Brown, Brown's appointment as foreign minister, who you might remember as being the man who gave Fox News a tongue-lashing and as result is person non grata in the Murdoch press:

TROUBLESOME foreign minister Mark Malloch-Brown wants Brussels to take Britain’s seat at the UN top table — and the sooner the better.

Downing Street insists this is a personal viewpoint, not policy.

But Malloch-Brown is no junior upstart who has not learned to guard his tongue.

He is one of Gordon Brown’s closest friends whose pungent views were known before he was catapulted into the Lords and ministerial rank.

He is a vain and arrogant man, accustomed to speaking as if he were in charge of British policy, not Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

Just one problem with all this: Malloch-Brown's comments on the EU taking a permanent security council seat were made last October, while he was still deputy security-general. Are he and Brown really so close? Not according to this Grauniad profile, which doesn't even mention his relationship to the new prime minister. Notice how the Scum leader also makes it look as though Malloch-Brown had made his comments now, rather than nearly over a year ago.

So while we condemn Malloch-Brown’s outburst, we must thank him for blowing the gaffe.

Gordon Brown is now exposed as the fervent pro-European it seems he has always been. Indeed there is not a sceptical bone in his Government’s body.

Please stop! It hurts! Could this fervent pro-European Brown be the same one that stopped Blair from taking the UK into the Euro with the five economic tests? The same one that went on the warpath when Blair acquiesced with Sarkozy's apparent attempt to water down the free-market aspects of the reform treaty? The same Brown that holidayed every summer in the United States, and had by far the most links with other politicos in that country? The same Brown that Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European commission last year challenged to set out his true priorities over Europe, because he and others feared that Brown was a natural Atlanticist because he rarely bothered turning up for EU meetings? The same Brown with a reputation for being highly suspicious towards Europe? The Scum isn't usually either this disingenuous or obtuse when it comes to politics, making one wonder whether the usual leader writer is away. Either way, the conclusion is the same as usual:

That, more than anything else, makes it essential for him to deliver the referendum he promised.

And give ALL sides the chance to add their voices to this crucial debate.


Finally, deport 'em all:

FOURTEEN foreign criminals are still loose after breaking out of a centre where they were “awaiting deportation”.

Why were they waiting?

Having abused our hospitality by committing serious crimes, they should have had their bags packed as they completed their sentences.

The most "serious crime" any of them had committed was robbery
. As other reports suggested that some of those being held at the centre were in limbo, with at least one having spent a year at the detention centre, it's hard not to fault them for taking the opportunity to leg it once it had arose.

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Stating the obvious.

From today's Grauniad letters page:

Facebook should immediately terminate all BNP-related pages and groups from its site, which is used by millions of young people of all backgrounds (Firms pull Facebook ads, August 3). The pages are in clear breach of the Facebook users' terms and conditions, as they contain racist and Islamophobic material. We welcome the action by Vodafone, First Direct and other advertisers which pulled their advertising from Facebook.
Gemma Tumelty

National Union of Students

Denis Fernando

Unite Against Fascism

Milena Buyum

National Assembly Against Racism

Lee Billingham

Love Music Hate Racism

Christ, the BNP page contains racist and Islamophobic material? There I was thinking that it would be promoting how all of us can live together in harmony without resorting to basing our prejudices on the colour of each other's skin. Whatever next? celebrating the unique festival where participants compete to see who can ejaculate the most, rather than showcasing this week's video where another naive, misguided teenager gets paid for debasing both herself and those who've paid to watch it? giving advice on what to do if you suffer an anal prolapse rather than just presenting a photograph of a man demonstrating exactly what happens?

Has it ever possibly occurred to the idiots in charge of these decent if at times counter-productive groups that the very fact that the British National Party has such material on its Facebook page is likely to make those who visit it without much knowledge of the party come to their own conclusions? They'd rather reach straight for the ban hammer instead of exposing that information for what it is, a pack of knuckle-dragging lies. The not getting it just doesn't seem to end.

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Tonight the streets are ours.

Encouraging news from the United States, where Lily Allen has had her work visa revoked after the unfortunate incident where she was cautioned for common assault earlier this year in London.

Is there any reason why we can't take similar action against Allen and her sort of partner in musical crime, Amy Winehouse? If we can deport suspected terrorists for "not being conducive to the public good", I'm sure we can apply the same standards to Allen. After all, what is her oeuvre if not an musical assault against the ears, aimed at terrorising the average listener into smashing their radio whenever her insipid, overrated jarring compositions, complete with hilariously awful lyrics start floating across the airwaves? Additionally, her body of work has succeeded in brainwashing both record company executives and hopefuls themselves into thinking that they can emulate her unwarranted success, unsurprisingly resulting in the arrival of even less talented knock-offs, such as Kate Nash. Her most inspired, profound, life-affirming lyric?

Why you being a dickhead for? Stop being a dickhead Why you being a dickhead for? You're just fucking up situations

If that's not quite your cup of tea, how about her other crack at conquering the poetic brilliance of our most acclaimed songwriters? Behold the "Shit Song":

Darling don't give me shit Cos I know that you're full of it (you're full of shit, you're full of shit) Darling don't give me shit Cos I know that you're full of it (you're full of it, you're full of it)

Quite clearly, thanks to the actions of Lily 'n' Amy, we're facing an epidemic of worthless, tuneless morons taking over. If their music is not glorifying terrorism against the ear lobes, what is?

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Monday, August 06, 2007 

Gerry's blog/diary.

I'm probably late to the party on this one, but shocked's viciously funny parody of Gerry McCann's diary on (now complete with Bryan Adams song as soon as you load it up) is almost Craig Brown-esque.

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Iraq, Hiroshima and the pro-war left.

It's interesting to note that just a day after another high-profile Iraq war supporter has took to wearing sackcloth and ashes, one of the few remaining defenders of the war has moved on from justifying the on-going disaster there to even greater rhetorical flights of fancy, taking the opportunity that the anniversary of the dropping of the first atom bomb provides to reappraise the long-prevailing view that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were crimes. Just as Oliver Kamm has never convinced anyone other than himself that he's right, his piece for the Grauniad isn't likely to change any minds.

At least with Hiroshima and Nagasaki we have the benefit of historical hindsight, the numerous sources that the last 60 years have provided us with and the on-going suffering still continuing from which to make a judgment as to its righteousness. However much we debate whether the hundreds of thousands sacrificed in the two blasts were preferable to the possibility of millions more deaths on both sides, or indeed the similarly horrific firebombing of both Japanese and German cities, such as the March the 9th 1945 attack on Tokyo which quite possibly killed more than the numbers who died at Hiroshima, it nearly always comes down to a war of numbers, as the CiF debate shows; mention the atomic bombs, and you get Nanking and the entire brutal invasion of China back in return. It has to be said they have a point: while Germany has been exemplary in coming to terms with those twelve years of fascism, some in Japan continue to engage in denial and apologism over the numerous crimes committed by the military. It isn't too much to perhaps link the unashamed slaughter, torture and atrocities committed in China, meticulously documented and photographed, summary beheadings and all, with the new vogue for both the grunts working at Abu Ghraib and the insurgents to record and revel in their own depravity. War and crimes do of course go together like love and marriage, and the second world war, with the Holocaust, the Wehrmacht's assault on Russia and the eventual Soviet revenge after the hell of Stalingrad was only what many would argue was the inevitable conclusion of both a total war footing and the dehumanising ever-present propaganda, but this was on a scale never before reached and will hopefully never be reached again.

Kamm's article on Hiroshima is only part of the malaise currently afflicting those referred to as the pro-war left, the "muscular liberals" and many other less than complimentary epithets. Johann Hari, formerly a proud member of the squad has in the last few weeks been causing major ructions after he reviewed Nick Cohen's book-length polemic on the failings of the left, and treated it with a disdain that few would have thought he previously would have shown. A flurry of replies from others sympathetic to the cause followed, with Harry's Place, the online home of the pro-war left removing a post after the possible involvement of Suue, Grabbit and Runne was invoked. Hari himself was one of the first of the gang to recant his support; as he points out in his opening, others such as David Aaronovitch and Norman Geras have also reluctantly admitted that they were wrong. Only Christopher Hitchens, Kamm and Cohen himself are among those sticking to their initial guns.

I suspect many of us who were anti-war would never have been opposed to the conflict if we had believed that the intentions of the "coalition of the willing" had been as pure as the pro-war left either decided they were. The thing was, the history both of Iraq, of occupations, the region and of total displays of power all pointed towards a potential for the situation now on the ground. Everyone could agree that Saddam was a mass-murderer who needed to be overthrown; where we differed was over how and when it could be achieved. The pro-war left never cared much for the weapons of mass destruction argument, except in the same way as both the US and UK cared for it, as a fig-leaf. While the motives behind the invasion are still not much clearer now, the passion displayed behind the pro-war intellectual argument was, as Hari writes, down to the suffering of the Iraqi people and Saddam's "fascism". Never mind that much of this was down, not to Saddam and his torture chambers, but instead to the crippling sanctions that impoverished most of those outside of Saddam's favoured circle, and the in-effect non-stop war from the sky, which cruelly but successfully contained his aspirations, this was the liberal interventionism which Blair had preached from his pulpit in Chicago, and to some it did indeed for a while become a sort of religion. While much of it has petered out as the blood has been spilt in Iraq, you can still see the embers of it burning in the demands for action on Darfur.

Even if the pro-war left had ignored the previous 12 years of policy on Iraq, they still ought to have seen, both in the US boasts about how "shock and awe" was about to descend on Baghdad, and in the vigour and vulgarity of the media support in the States for war, with pro-war protests organised by media companies just how this was going to end. Hari points out how every misdemanour committed by Saddam and then apologised for or minimised by the anti-war movement was seized upon by the muscular liberals, yet when these same atrocities or offences were committed either by the United States, in using chemical weapons in Fallujah and in the widespread use of torture, the pro-war lobby was either silent, or just as apologetic themselves. The nadir came when rather than recognising that the between 1 and 2 million that marched in London on Feburary 15th were a mass movement which represented the whole of British society, they instead continued to bleat about how the left was prostituting itself either to the Muslim organisations which shared none of their values which were signed up to the Stop the War coalition, or to either the unreformed communists or Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers' Party which also made up the bulk of those behind the coalition. They have always been more comfortable in attacking the left for its supposed dalliances and mistakes rather than extracting the hefty rafters from their own eyes. Even Hari himself can't pass up the opportunity to have a dig at Lenin's Tomb, with a spectacularly disingenuous and ill-informed attack.

Despite all the venom that has passed between the commentators who consider themselves on the left who supported the war and those against, I don't think many of us ever doubted the purity of their motives in doing so. Like with the politicians who pushed it through themselves, it was their methods of doing so that have rankled most. Again, like the politicians, those who did support it have also found themselves majorly discredited, Hitchens perhaps becoming the worst off. What was once a brilliant mind has become ever more sodden with the booze and fags, with his latest rant against religion, although a throwback to his younger days, still a very pale imitation of his former self. Cohen, once considered one of the best left-wing writers on where New Labour had gone wrong, finds himself increasingly detested and according to Private Eye had his column half swiped and given over to an ex-Express hack when he refused to give over some of it to writing about celebrities. Not that he's used the space left any better: he recently declared that the likes of Abu Qutada must be deported back to their home countries regardless of any conditions about the possibility of torture and ill-treatment. Kamm of course has always been a joke, a founder of a hedge fund obsessed with Noam Chomsky, pretending to be left-wing while writing most for the Murdoch press, yet even he seems to be descending into self-parody.

Will we in 56 years' time be having the same debate about Iraq that we're now having about Hiroshima? Most of those mentioned above will very likely by then be dead, and I'm not holding out any hopes that I'll be here either. How that debate will then be framed very much still matters now on what happens next. The war, both on ideological and military terms, is still far from over.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007 

(sort of) Quote of the week.

But engineers insisted yesterday that the relatively low death toll vindicated the bridge design.

I'm sure that'll be a great comfort to those who lost their loved ones.

At least those caught up in the Minnesota bridge collapse can be glad they got some media coverage. Last night's 10 O'Clock News on BBC1 had a report lasting a full 30 seconds on the floods
on the Indian subcontinent which have killed at least 1,100 and forced 19 million people to flee their homes. Immediately following it was the report on the bridge collapse, which occupied a slot at least 3 minutes long.

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Friday, August 03, 2007 

de Menezes: The backlash commences.

The day after the IPCC report ought to have destroyed Andy Hayman's police career, it would have been expected that sections of the gutter press would have set out to attack the man (the IPCC) and not the ball as it were, but for the Guardian to join in is something that shows just how deep the apologism for the police's actions on that day has infected the media.

More on that further on in the piece, but first to the Scum, the police's eternal friend, so long as they're not investigating Tony Blair, which has some of the most disgraceful coverage of the aftermath of the report in quite some time:

One senior Met source blasted the inquiry, saying: “This has been a 21-month witch hunt that was determined to find a scapegoat.

“The shooting is something the Met profoundly regrets but what the IPCC never took into account was that on that day we were fighting a war. It feels like being left on the battlefield wounded. Scavengers, watching from the sidelines, have come along afterwards and stabbed the injured.”

Except the IPCC hasn't managed to even find a scapegoat, has it? Hayman, as the Scum article presents, despite being a liar personally responsible for the smearing of de Menezes, has been supported by Ian Blair, Jacqui Smith and Ken Livingstone, the latter of whom really should know better, but because of his personal admiration for Blair and his "reforms" has chosen to blot all the unpleasantness surrounding the shooting out of his memory.

To try and pretend that the IPCC never took the situation the police were facing that day into account is a joke. The report itself makes this clear in its very introduction. It's rather fitting that the "source" has chosen to put what was happening on the 22nd of July into the context of a war, as the Scum leader also does. Through this prism, you can either see de Menezes as a victim of friendly fire or as collateral damage, depending on your view. The point is that when fighting a war, you do everything you possibly can to avoid killing either those on your own side or innocents, something which the Met abjectly failed to do. When the police themselves think that they were fighting "a war" rather than trying to catch 4 attempted murders as quickly as was possible, it's little surprise that de Menezes' death was treated as something regrettable (collateral damage will always happen) rather than as a result of systemic failure. He was just another unfortunate who got in the way, rather than a living breathing person in the wrong place at the wrong time. To compare the IPCC to scavengers stabbing the injured is just as laughable. The two officers who shot de Menezes were back on duty before it was even decided if disciplinary action was necessary. Andy Hayman, responsible not just for the lies on that day, but also for the handling of the Forest Gate raid, was handed a CBE. Cressida Dick, who gave the order that resulted in de Menezes' death, was promoted.

Former Met Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alan Given, in charge of firearms operations during the July 2005 bombings, also defended AC Hayman.

He said: “The IPCC has come up with a few criticisms based on the language that was used in communications. It seems a long time and a lot of public money to have achieved that.”

Which proves that Given hasn't even bothered to read the report.

To the Scum's leader:

ANDY HAYMAN’S brilliant leadership in the fight against terrorism has saved dozens of lives.

He is admired by his men just as he is feared by the terrorist scum determined to destroy our way of life.

And also resulted in the end of at least one and in the destruction of others. Still, that's OK, because he's saved dozens of lives of innocents, not people like de Menezes or the Kamal family. I doubt any of the "terrorist scum" even know he is, let alone fear him. As defined by their very act, suicide bombers are generally without much fear or morals, as both tend to get in the way of ending your own life by the method of explosive backpack.

The Queen awarded him a CBE for his handling of the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings which tore the life from 52 innocent commuters in London two years ago.

Yet the Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner had his name dragged through mud yesterday after an inquiry by the academics and do-gooders of the Independent Police Complaints Committee.

His crime? He was late in telling his boss, Met Commissioner Sir Ian Blair, a man shot dead at Stockwell Tube station was not one of a group of madmen who tried to repeat the 7/7 carnage a fortnight later.

It's a commission, not a committee. Secondly, just a couple of weeks ago the Scum was in hysterics
after the BBC owned up to misleading the public over phone-in competitions. Hayman not only didn't inform Blair, he, to quote the IPCC report:

AC Hayman either misled the public when he briefed the CRA that the deceased was not one of the four or when he allowed the 18:44hrs 22 July press release to state that it was not known if the deceased was one of the four. He could not have believed both inconsistent statements were true.

When the BBC does it, there needs to be root and branch reform. When a top-ranking police office lies to the public, his name gets dragged through the mud for no good reason.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone was right yesterday when he ridiculed the idea that Assistant Commissioner Hayman was responsible for some “catastrophic error of judgment”.

He hit the nail on the head when he said it was all very well for the complaints panel to criticise while sitting safely in their office but “you try doing it when you’re waiting for the next bomb to go off.”

He wasn't responsible for a catastrophic error of judgment, he was personally responsible for misleading not just those around him, but for lying to the public when the probabilities suggested the man shot dead was innocent. Either you don't give a running commentary to the press, or you make damn sure that what you tell them is right to the best of your knowledge at that time. He comprehensively failed to do this, resulting in the continuing belief right down to this day that de Menezes ran from the officers when he did no such thing, as shown in the comments on the Scum's article.

And that is what those who make a living from the civil rights lobby would like us to forget.

That when the unfortunate Jean Charles de Menezes was shot by police, four would-be bombers were on the loose and London faced another disaster.

The cops who shot Mr de Menezes were in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation where a moment’s hesitation could have led to a repeat mass murder.

"Unfortunate", rather than tragic. The cops were not in any sort of damned if they do situation; de Menezes was being held down on the ground with his arms behind his back when he was shot, meaning he would have been completely unable to trigger any explosive even if he had been carrying one. That there was four bombers on the loose is no excuse for the numerous failures of that day which led to his death.

The IPCC spent £300,000 on this investigation into one small aspect of what happened on July 22, 2005.

All they managed to do was make a mountain out of a molehill.

One small aspect? This goes to the very heart of what happened and what went wrong: that the Met was responsible for lying statements and for attacks on Menezes' own character, which were only corrected when an outraged IPCC worker leaked them to ITV News. We wouldn't have known the truth for possibly over a year if she hadn't done so; her reward was having her door broken down at dawn.

It is time we let Andy Hayman get on with hunting our enemies.

Further raking over of this sad incident would lead to the charge of wasting police time.

And giving comfort to the enemy.

I agree with the second statement. If Hayman won't resign, he should be fired. The police's actions on that day were the only comfort to the "enemy"; if they fail to kill anyone, they can at least rely on the police to do their job for them.

The Guardian's leader, while at least acknowledging that mistakes were made, fails to even mention Andy Hayman, concentrating instead on Ian Blair. After attempting to excuse the police in the same manner as the Sun does because of the "context" of what was going on that day, it then instead turns its fire squarely on the IPCC:

However, yesterday also poses questions about the IPCC itself. Its report examines inconsistencies in the way the police processed information during a frantic 36 hours, at the end of which the Met got the essential facts right and owned up to them in public - and it has never subsequently wavered from them.

This is patently untrue, as examined above. The Met continued to maintain its own version of events until the evidence which exposed the reality were leaked.

Yesterday's report is long and detailed. It comes more than two years after the events it examines. It cost at least £300,000. The public is entitled to ask if this is proportionate to the problem, and whether it could have been done more quickly and less expensively. Independent police complaints procedures are important and necessary. But this has not been the finest hour of the police, nor of those who watch over them.

The IPCC then, having done all the hard work of getting to the very bottom of what happened, having been sued by officers for daring to even think of criticising them, gets just as much blame as the Met itself. It's little wonder that the police thought themselves so above this that those in charge on that day were promoted: even the Guardian won't dare to raise its voice loud enough against them.

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The Facebook fascists and those adverts.

Reading the news stories about major firms pulling their advertising from Facebook because it happens to appear on the British National Party's profile, just as it does on everyone else's, I was instantly reminded of Oliver Burkeman's amusing piece on silly season stories in yesterday's Grauniad:

August 18

New website is latest online sensation

A brightly coloured new website has become enormously popular with teenagers because it allows them to perform a fairly mundane aspect of their lives - such as discussing music, or shouting abuse at others - via the internet. The website has 230 million members in Britain alone, but some critics are worried that it could be used by bad people. It was designed by some Americans, and is estimated to be worth approximately £1bn. Celebrity members include David Miliband.

It really is a complete non-story and a typical overreaction by advertising firms/companies scared shitless that somehow the fact that their annoying banner ads appear on a profile advocating a legitimate if despicable political party will make the average idiot browsing Facebook think that they support them. It's condescending and ignorant by all measures - assuming that you can't work out that the ads are across the site rather than on just one page, and imbecilic on the behalf of the companies themselves - surely they realised that like on all of these sites that dip into the nether region of hell which is the human psyche, there are some profiles that are bound to be offensive or distasteful to some individual somewhere?

In fact, to be fair to them, it isn't entirely their fault. This is one of the only regions where the allegations of political correctness could possibly be considered plausible, based on the activities of a good number of the organisations opposed to the likes of the BNP. Rather than wanting to engage, challenge them and expose their lies, they instead try to institute a sort of boycott, denying them the right to both speak and be heard, in some cases almost pretending that they don't even exist. This is just the sort of contempt for the "average" person that the BNP loves to focus on; like some of those who support the actions of the takfiri jihadis, they thrive on a sense of false victimhood, claiming their right to freedom of expression is being denied by the liberal elite. It's complete and utter nonsense, as reading almost any tabloid will quickly expose you to just the sort of hate and misinformation which the BNP preaches, but it also has a ring of truth to it. The perfect example of how not to go about tackling the BNP was made by those who decided to protest outside the theatre where the "BNP ballerina" Simone Clarke performed back in January, when she hadn't done anything whatsoever to promote the party other than defending herself in an interview after she was exposed as a member. Shouting empty slogans against a misguided woman's political beliefs was little short of cowardly, not to say counter-productive.

Advertisers and companies are notoriously fickle when it comes to any possibility that their precious little brand might be affected by a controversy, and Vodafone may have a point when they say they don't want to support any political party, but it's still grandstanding over something incredibly petty. If I could be bothered enough to sign up to Facebook, I could probably find profiles representing things far more potentially offensive than a racist political party in a matter of minutes, doubtless with the same adverts appearing on those pages as on those of the profiles of middle class young people and aging politicos desperate to get down with the kids that infest the site.

In any case, do people really still browse the internet without an ad blocker? The other day mine stopped working for some reason and the sheer offensiveness of the deluge of ads which swamp you upon visiting almost any site is enough to make you want to extract your own teeth with a pair of rusty pliers than have to put up with them for more than a matter of seconds. If you're using Firefox and don't have an adblocking extension, go and install Adblock Plus and then subscribe to the EasyList and EasyElement filter sets, and you'll be unlikely to see the vast majority of ads ever again.

As for the British National Party, doubtless they'll again be delighted with getting yet more publicity because their views are regarded as beyond the pale. They indeed are, but you don't fight back against them by acting as if everyone who thinks they might have a point is an idiot. The more people think they are being victimised purely because of their political views, the more they'll be able to recruit from the similarly disaffected.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007 

de Menezes: The most comprehensive account, but still no comfort.

As I mentioned when the 21st of July bombers were sentenced, the only casualty of their chappati flour and hydrogen peroxide mix was a man who had the misfortune of living close to where some of the suspects had taken up residence. While it took a length of time for the death of Jean Charles de Menezes to be almost forgotten, few reports on the bombers mentioned that the only victim of that day's events was killed the next day, and not by them, but by bungling police officers.

Reading the second IPCC report (PDF), investigating what senior officers knew and when they knew it in conjunction with the statements put out by the Metropolitan Police Authority which were subsequently discovered to be strewn with inaccuracies which effectively smeared de Menezes, you quickly understand why one police officer subsequently described the events of that day as "a complete and utter fuck-up". The main abiding image is not one of collusion, or deception, although that does certainly occur, but of confusion and general incompetence.

While we are still likely some way of from acquiring a copy of the first IPCC report into exactly what happened and what went wrong that led to the shooting of de Menezes in the first place, this second report provides us with the most comprehensive summary of what happened and when yet released. Within minutes, as you would expect, it was discovered that de Menezes was not carrying any sort of explosives, yet this in itself was never made clear in the subsequent press releases by the MPA. At 11:22 hrs, just over an hour and fifteen minutes after police officers had initially informed Scotland Yard that a man had been shot dead, D/Supt. Kavanagh, working under assistant commissioner Brown, who was responsible for the strategic response to the previous day's attempted attacks, informed D/Supt Levett, who had been appointed to investigate the shooting that a lone "Pakistani male" had been shot; that he had not been carrying a bomb; and that he was in possession of a mobile phone.

Rather than basing the identification of de Menezes on his skin colour, which ought to have told anyone with more than six braincells that he was almost certainly not of Pakistani descent, it seems that this initial identification was based on the fact that de Menezes had been carrying a Pakistani business card. This was despite the fact that de Menezes had also been carrying both a wallet containing identification which confirmed he was of Brazilian origin and a mobile phone which had a photograph of himself on it, as well as other numbers which ought to have punctured the Pakistani connection fairly quickly. In any case, none of the four bombers were Pakistani in origin; all were of African descent. The fact that de Menezes, brutally shot 7 times in the head and once (correction 3/08/07: once, not 3 times as originally stated) in the shoulder with dum-dum bullets, was left with such substantial injuries (one would imagine there was little left of his head) made it more difficult to make a quick identification, but this is little excuse for mistaking him for Pakistani.

It was not until 14:47, more than 5 hours after de Menezes had been killed that the wallet, put on a seat in the tube train (we're not informed whether it was browsed before this time) was finally removed. This delay is put down to the need for both the area to be declared free of explosives and also secured and forensically analysed. Regardless, by then the news channels had been running interviews with witnesses, who made understandable mistakes about what had happened, in some cases mistaking the officers running to intercept de Menezes as the bomber himself, which is where the jumping the barrier myth came from. The police, if they had wanted, could have quickly corrected these mistakes, but did not do so and indeed, included them in their press releases, describing de Menezes as having behaved suspiciously and not obeyed a warning to stop, one which he was never given. Even with the wallet finally removed from the scene, which made it obvious that the man who had been shot dead was most likely of Latin American origin, Kavanagh still bizarrely informed AC Brown that he appeared to be of Eastern European ethnicity.

By 16:00, AC Brown was chairing a meeting to consider the community impact of the shooting, with the knowledge that the man was likely a Brazilian, although this had not yet been confirmed.

It's only now that those accused of misconduct come into view. Assistant Commissioner Hayman was due to address the Crime Reporters Association with what had occurred that morning. According to multiple accounts of those present, he informed the CRA that the man shot dead was not one of the four being sought. Strangely, when interviewed by the IPCC, Hayman couldn't remember what he had briefed the CRA.

The real, most egregious deception occurred next. At 17:00 hours the Management Board held a sub-meeting, at which, according to notes made by Ms Murdoch, the commissioner's chief of staff, AC Hayman made the following comments about what should be presented to the media regarding the shooting:

AC HAYMAN: There is press running that the person shot is not one of the four bombers. We need to present this that he is believed to be. This is different to confirming that he is. On the balance of probabilities, it isn’t. To have this for offer would be low risk.

Keep in mind that this is the same man that had already briefed the CRA that the man shot dead was not one of the four bombers; he had started the rumour, which he was now going to try to shut down. Knowing full well that it was unlikely that de Menezes had been connected in any way, not just that he was most definitely not one of the bombers, he and those at the meeting agreed that he should continue to be presented as having been one of the four, even though "the balance of probabilities" suggested he wasn't. As for the offer being low risk, if there is now any justice, Hayman must resign for failing both to inform Ian Blair of what had occurred, and for continuing to inform the media that the man was one of the bombers when on the balance of probabilities he wasn't. Nor was either of the meetings which took place at this time informed of the recovery of de Menezes' wallet, his mobile or his quickly emerging identity.

Where then was Sir Ian Blair in all of this? The report comes to the conclusion that as he has always stated, he had no idea that an innocent man had been shot dead until the next day, the 23rd of July. Indeed, the IPCC found no direct evidence that he even knew about the emerging identify of de Menezes, the recovery of any of the items from his body, and the likelihood that he was not involved in any way with the attacks of the previous day. As Blood and Treasure notes, it seems that everyone other than Blair within the higher ranks of the MPA knew that the man was most likely not one of the suicide bombers by the end of the 22nd of July, and most certainly did by 9am the following day. The only contradictory evidence is that of Brian Paddick, who came forward after Blair gave an interview with the News of the Screws in which he claimed he didn't know. Quoting from the report:

16.14.3 On 22 August 2005, DAC Paddick went to the Commissioner’s office and told him that he had had been concerned since he had heard him (the Commissioner) state at the press conference that the deceased was directly linked to the anti-terrorist operation. He explained to the Commissioner that he had been in the Commissioner’s Staff Officer’s office when the Commissioner had walked past on his way to the press conference and that he had been told by the Commissioner’s Staff Officer and Chief of Staff that the MPS had shot a Brazilian tourist (DAC Paddick does not suggest that the Commissioner was party to or even heard this conversation). He states that the Commissioner disputed this and said he had checked with Ms Murdoch and it was about 19:00hrs when he knew the deceased was Brazilian. DAC Paddick states that the Commissioner told him that the fact that the deceased was Brazilian did not mean that he could not have been a terrorist. He states the Commissioner cited the case of an Argentinean who had been found with a hand grenade at Gatwick Airport.

Blair, in his interview with the IPCC, disputes this and claims that he only knew that the dead man was Brazilian when briefed by AC Brown on the 23rd of July between 10:15 and 10:30. In its findings, the IPCC states:

The evidence of DAC Paddick and the Commissioner in relation to their meeting on the 22 August 2005 cannot be reconciled. DAC Paddick maintains that the Commissioner told him that he knew by 19:00hrs on 22 July that the deceased was Brazilian and the Commissioner maintains that he did not. DAC Paddick is supported by the notes that he made of the meeting and the Commissioner is supported by Ms Murdoch who states that she does not recollect ever concluding with the Commissioner that he knew of Mr de Menezes’ nationality by 19:00hrs. The weight of evidence supports that the Commissioner did not know anything of the emerging identity by the time he left NSY.

When it comes down to it, it doesn't really make much difference whether he knew the man shot dead was Brazilian or not. The real point is that he was either out of the loop, not informed by his staff of their suspicions which were increasing by the hour, or not paying proper attention, as the evidence of the Management Board sub-meeting suggests, when none of those present disagreed with Hayman's gambit that the balance of probabilities suggested the man shot dead was not one of the suicide bombings and that it needed to be presented to the press that he in fact was. Despite apparently not lying, Blair needs to explain why he was held in either such apparent contempt or feared by those around him that they didn't bother to inform him of their concerns. The previous attempt at doing so, that Blair tended to take bad news badly, most certainly does not cut it.

Despite all of this, the de Menezes family still has no closure. Their son, shot dead in the most distressing circumstances imaginable by a body of the state that felt it was perfectly acceptable to subsequently smear the man they killed in cold blood when there was not even any need to have done so, has still not received justice. The original report on what went wrong remains inaccessible, its findings and conclusions ignored and ridiculed by the police on the grounds that the situation on the 22nd of July justified the decision to shoot to kill, regardless of the innumerable mistakes made. The Health and Safety prosecution is a joke doomed to fail, while those responsible have all so far got off without so much as a slap on the wrist. The exposing of Hayman's lies and deception is no comfort whatsoever.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007 

Arms around Iran.

All hail the return of realpolitik. After the most cynical exercise in promoting democracy in the Middle East imaginable turned rather sour, with Hamas being elected in Palestine and dozens of Muslim Brotherhood candidates running as independents gaining seats in Egypt, the United States has quite understandably decided that demanding even piecemeal reform before handing over the bombs is like so 2003.

By far the most tyrannical regime in the region, which also happens to be the home to wealthy individuals who keep the various jihadist battles ticking over with their private funding, Saudi Arabia therefore receives a cool $20m arms package. This would be the country floating on a sea of oil which finds it no difficulty to pay for the laughable Eurofighter and other weaponry provided by our very own BAe Systems, as long as they sweeten the deal with the odd $1bn bung here and there. The very same regime which is so chauvinistic that it doesn't even allow women to drive is being provided with a massive amount of armory by the country that pretended that women's rights was one of the reasons why the Taliban must be defeated at all costs. Egypt gets $13bn, while Israel, already subsidised up its ears with American handouts, gets $30bn.

What then is the existential threat which requires such vast sums to be paid out to the regimes that remain friendly to American power regardless of their failures to institute political reform? It must be al-Qaida, right? After all, President Bush recently mentioned the group 95 times in a speech on why failure in Iraq will mean the inevitability of carnage returning to US streets. Only on Monday Bush declared that Gordon Brown understands the war that the US is waging against al-Qaida and everything that it stands for.

Well, it isn't. The reason why the Saudis and friends need even more cash to spend on the United States' finest weapon manufacturers is Iran. According to Condoleeza Rice:

There isn't a doubt that Iran constitutes the single most important single-country strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see.

Not a failed Iraqi state which becomes a new haven for jihadis already doing their respective degrees in car bombing, IED planting and the preparation of explosives, or indeed Pakistan, the newest concern for the neo-cons, but rather Iran, the only regime outside of the Palestinian territories which has even a semblance of democracy. Iran, the nation meant to be arming not just the Shia militias involved in the sectarian conflict within Iraq, but also, according to both the US and the insurgent groupings diametrically opposed to al-Qaida, the terrorist organisation that has declared that Shia are "kuffar", as well as the Taliban, the very movement which Iran co-operated with the US in overthrowing originally.

Let's not pretend that Iran is something that it isn't. Despite its "Islamic democracy", the real power lies with the supreme leader, who most certainly isn't going to be going before the country's people any time soon. Its human rights record is still appalling, as epitomised by the recent arrest and detention of Iranian-Americans accused of spying and espionage. In 2006 it was the second highest user of capital punishment after China, even executing those accused of adultery, and also continues to practice stoning. Social repression has increased as Ahmadinejad's other political failings have been exposed. It continues to defy UN resolutions on enriching uranium, which it claims is for purely peaceful purposes despite not having any nuclear power plants. It's the main source of funds to Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia militant organisation that committed war crimes during last year's war with Israel.

Despite all this, it still remains the main bulwark in the region against the Salafism of Sunni fundamentalists, resulting recently in the "Islamic State of Iraq" directly threatening Iran with an insurgency of its own. A meeting last week between US and Iranian officials in Iraq recognised the threat posed to all three nations, with Iran holding the potential olive branch of increased co-operation, possibly in exchange for the five Iranians the US has held in Iraq since January. At the very bottom of the whole issue is that Iran has greatly benefited from the US invasion, something else which Rumsfeld and co either forgot or simply didn't bother to plan for. Iran in 2003 was a place where it seemed possible that the liberal reformists were in the ascendancy: removing Saddam was a dream come true for conservatives, as has been the rise of the long repressed Shia majority in Iraq once their tormentor was removed. At the same time, the resulting encirclement of the country by the US has also enabled the hardliners to play the Great Satan card.

No one is pretending that both the United States and Iran are about to end over 20 years of animosity and bury the hatchet. Both though already recognise the common threats they face. It takes some chutzpah on the behalf of the United States to claim that it's Iran destablising the region, but it's only the crazies that are still thinking that Iran's nuclear programme necessitates a pre-emptive strike. This latest round of sabre-rattling and pork barrel politics only highlights the political bankruptcy of both countries' foreign policy, and how the continuing rise of irrationality shows no signs of even beginning to falter.

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The paper that cried shark.

Suddenly, it all becomes apparent why the Scum is yet again leading with its spurious nonsense on sharks, with quite possibly the least amusing front page of the year (source: it sent Steve Wright and friends on Radio 2 into hysterics this afternoon). It's a great excuse to print a photo of two gorgeous young, pouting damsels in distress! (Not reproduced here you filthy perverts.) Thank the black baby Jesus that "hero" Joe Miller (26) saved Hannah (student, 23) and her sister Freya (20) from certain death at the hands (surely fins? Ed.) of err, most likely a basking shark. Freya informs us:

“I was shocked and scared. But at the same time it was quite exciting.”

She added: “I hope it hasn’t put me off swimming — but next time I’m not going too far from the beach.”

Which hopefully the Sun can capture and print on tomorrow's front page. Incidentally, all this happened off the err, Plymouth coast, nowhere near to where the Scum's phony "great white" has been sighted.

But fear not! The Scum just might have managed to find someone who really has sighted and photographed a great white! Only problem being that err, this shark, identified by Doug Herdson (who does actually appear to be an expert this time) as having the markings consistent with a great white was sighted off Newquay, which again, is not St. Ives. Whether we should believe Keeble's story about taking it two weeks ago and only now presenting it after all the Scum's hype is another matter. The Newquay Guardian doesn't seem to have an online entity, although this appears to be their story.

Elsewhere, the Scum does indeed deserve some credit for reporting on Robert Cottage's sentence, complete with photographs of his stockpile and weaponry, even if it is written in tabloidese. It's the comments that you could have predicted:

10 years ago I would have said he was potty but today I think he's got a point.

Your not wrong england7777 the government should be in the dock for treason

For letting illegal immigrants into the country, or not shooting Tony Blair? I report, you decide.

Fly87 has it in a nutshell.

Come back Mr powell the country needs you...

And so forth.

Meanwhile, over in Daily Mail land, Sue Turton, the Channel 4 News reporter goosed live on air is presented in the spot usually given over to the fruity unfortunately dead young woman. Just to prove that the Mail, despite having the largest female reader base of any newspaper is in no way misogynistic or demeaning to those who suffer the indignity of being either abused or mauled in public by the opposite sex, she's described as a "newsgirl". Not a female reporter, newslady or newswoman then.

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