Saturday, November 17, 2007 

The clunking fist's return to control freakery.

David Miliband, in advance of making his first major speech on the European Union, lets his colleagues brief the media on what he's going to say. The Grauniad and Financial Times both run stories indicating that he was to suggest, along the lines of Nicolas Sarkozy's recent proposals, that the EU should expand its defence capabilities and also become a model global power. When Miliband makes the speech, the part about the defence was dropped entirely, and while the bit about being a model global power stayed in, he also said the following, via Nosemonkey:

“The EU is not and never will be a superpower. An EU of 27 nation states or more is never going to have the fleetness of foot or the fiscal base to dominate. In fact economically and demographically Europe will be less important in the world of 2050 that it was in the world of 1950.”

Hardly the optimistic, praising and strengthening speech that was set out in the briefings. So what happened? The Times ecstatically informs us (while the Scum has a similar article):

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, was humiliated by the Prime Minister yesterday when he was forced to remove pro-European passages from a speech and drop his policy initiative on European defence.

Gordon Brown’s intervention, hours before Mr Miliband was due to speak in Bruges, again demonstrated the willingness by the Prime Minister to overrule his ministers at short notice, as well as having a more cautious attitude towards Europe.

Mr Brown ordered Mr Miliband to drop explicit references to an “EU military capabilities charter”, which would have identified targets for investment, research and training.

In a reminder of what happened all too often during the Blair years, Brown was terrified of the reaction of the Murdoch press. Already under fire for failing to supply the referendum they demand, journos on the Murdoch papers, as Martin Kettle writes, demanded an explanation for Miliband daring to go "off message":

The story about changes to the Bruges speech had emerged from Thursday's regular lobby briefing at Westminster, at which the Downing Street press secretary Michael Ellam had been quizzed by the Sun about that morning's previews of the Miliband speech in the Guardian. That doesn't mean Ellam was wise to say what he did to the lobby about the speech. Nor does it rule out the possibility of further private anti-European briefings to the Murdoch papers from No 10. Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Yesterday's Sun editorial certainly made clear what it thought of Miliband. Since disappeared, it argued that Miliband's proposal endangered Nato, which I might paraphrase slightly from memory, "had ensured 60 years of peace and seen off the Soviet Union." Both of those claims are highly arguable, with the EU and its predecessor organisations having just as much a hand in keeping the peace as Nato, and the Soviet Union collapsed in on itself, not through the actions of any other individual, but both the Scum and the Times had sent a message to Brown that the infantile Euroscepticism they both espouse was not to be endangered in any way by the actions of such an inexperienced whippersnapper as Miliband.

While Brown was never going to fully abandon the incestuous relationship his predecessor had with the Murdoch press, even though it helped towards his downfall, his attempts to woo his friend Paul Dacre instead suggested that no longer would the Sun be the house journal of Downing Street. As with much else, Brown appears to have had to row back, stung by his current weakness, into returning to his all too well-known control freak ways. First he told Alan West to change his mind immediately on extending the pre-charge detention limit, another topic close to the Sun's heart, which was enraged by how West might have undermined the whole policy by his failure to be certain in his defense of the Sun's pet project, then he humiliates Miliband by briefing against him and making him look like a fool by ordering changes to his most important address so far. The lack of change from the man who was so certain of how it was needed for the country of large has never been so apparent.

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Neil Clark and blogging narcissism.

There are plenty of unpleasant creatures within the "blogosphere", most thankfully on the far-right in America, but Neil Clark is doing his level best to try to emulate their success in being both self-promoting while also having a disgustingly high opinion of themselves. Having won one of the numerous "best blog" awards there are, he calls on CiF for a blogging revolution, claiming that his views are the most in line with those of the general public.

Unity provides an excellent fisk, so I'll only go through some of his weaker arguments:

British political bloggers are overwhelmingly middle class and male, London-based and university educated. An extraordinary percentage of them seem to work, or have worked, in financial services. Genuinely working class voices do exist (see the blogs of The Exile, Martin Meenagh, Charlie Marks and Mick Hall) but there are all too few of them and as a consequence the issues which most concern ordinary working people - rising utilility and food bills, poor public transport, pitiful state pensions, worsening employment conditions and escalating street crime - are largely ignored.

I can't do much, like Unity, about being male, but I'm not middle class, not in or from London, and haven't been to university. Was going to, but didn't due to various reasons. I'd suggest the reason why most of the issues that Clark suggests are largely ignored are because they make, rightly or wrongly, for sterile political debate. Everyone's against rising bills, for better public transport and pensions, and concerned about street crime - and they're all concerns that bloggers themselves can't individually do much about. That's why blogs tend to focus more on the issues where there is great controversy and debate - immigration, foreign policy, law and order, civil liberties, etc. I'd also suggest that the reason why those issues are the ones that most occupy bloggers are because they're ones which large sections of the media also ignore, or have an almost uniform opinion on. The fact the bloggers obviously tend to be political anoraks or party wonks also adds into why those issues get much more discussion than the bread and butter issues tend to.

Also, I'm sure I'm not the only one who despairs when the likes of Hazel Blears come out with bullshit like all those on doors only talk about schools, the NHS and crime; as if those are the only things that politicians can do anything about, should be interested in, or as if that means most voters are completely inward-looking. While cynicism about politics might be at a new high, debate on the larger issues themselves has never been so vibrant.

A classic example of this in occurred in the summer, when a group of allegedly "anti-war" bloggers decided that the most urgent priority of the day was not campaigning for an immediate withdrawal of British troops from Iraq - or trying to prevent potentially catastrophic US/UK strikes on Iran, but linking up with notorious pro-war hawks to try to gain asylum for Iraqi interpreters who had worked for the illegal occupying forces.

However anti-war or opposed to the Iraq disaster you are, it's simply wrong to say that the occupying forces are there illegally. They're both mandated by UN resolutions and the Iraqi government, although perhaps not the Iraqi people, still support their presence. Clark also relies on a false dichotomy; that somehow you can't want the troops out of Iraq immediately or oppose war with Iran whilst also calling for the Iraqi interpreters to be given refuge. Notoriously, Clark described those who risked their lives then because of their hope that regardless of how the war came about, it meant the removal of a vicious dictator and the chance of building a new Iraq quislings, and others who support his stance have also called them scabs, as if they were somehow breaking a strike against working with the occupiers. Perhaps Clark ought to read today's dispatch in the Guardian from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
in Basra. If he has any humanity, it might just prick his rhetorical bubble:

The assassins chat, eat kebabs and stroll around in small groups, discussing their sinister trade. They buy and sell names of collaborators, Iraqis who worked for the British, as well as journalists and uncooperative police officers, businessmen and the footsoldiers of other militias.

Depending on the nature of their perceived crime, the price on a collaborator's head can vary from couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand. The most valuable lives these days in Basra are those of the interpreters and contractors who were employed by the British before they withdrew from the city.

Clark would leave the "quislings" to their fate. Somehow I don't think that view would win him much support with either the working class he claims to have solidarity with or "the majority of ordinary people."

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Friday, November 16, 2007 

Scum-watch: The day in a life of the tabloid.

Occasionally, you can get a complete picture of the world view of a newspaper simply by reading just one issue of it. While with most, especially the broadsheets, you might broadly know what it's in favour of, to really understand its exact philosophy you'd have to study it over a number of days, if not longer. Today's Sun, in one sense, is a masterpiece of gutter journalism: it gets its message across, leaves no nuance, uses the most alarmist, provocative and brutal language, and when it needs to, or doesn't need to, it lies and systematically distorts.

The report on Lord Chief Justice Phillips' speech to the Howard League for Penal Reform is partially the result of the tabloid conundrum: how do you convert a speech running to 26 pages in a PDF into a minor article of just over 200 words? The answer is that you only focus on a tiny piece of the actual speech, that of Phillips quite reasonably saying that the prisons are full to bursting and that Labour is chiefly responsible for that fact. On that, the Sun would broadly agree; what it doesn't agree with is that Phillips dares to believe that there is a better option rather than that of building ever more prisons, something he goes into at length in the actual speech. All this adds up to in the Sun's reportage is that he compares the price of 30 years' imprisonment to how it could be spent on education or health, one of his weakest arguments, considering that only murderers or terrorists are ever sentenced to 30 years, while ignoring his more coherent and forceful points about prisons in general. Then examine the language: rather than those in prison being offenders or criminals, they are variously either "villains", a Victorian way of describing them if ever there was one, or "crooks".

To further make clear the Sun's own viewpoint, the same journalist who wrote the report also submits a short "comment" piece, on the same page. In his words, "a record 80,000 villains are off our streets and behind bars," and when making the distinction between prison and other punishments, he describes the alternative to prison as "fines and soft community sentences." The latter part of Phillips' speech is dedicated to community punishments, which the Sun deems soft, and how they can be strengthened, yet none of this is deemed important enough to be distilled to the reader, presumably because it just might undermine the journalist's quavering indignation about it all: "Once again, the Lord Chief Justice has shown how out of touch he is. Ordinary people WANT crooks to be banged up." Phillips is so out of touch that he himself went on a day's community punishment "undercover" to see what it was like, and he describes his experience during the speech, something that a Sun hack is never likely to do, except to expose how "useless" they are. The statement that ordinary people WANT crooks to be banged up is the Sun pretending to be speaking up for the commoner, when there is no evidence to show that the general public do want "crooks" to banged up. Indeed, a recent Grauniad poll found the country split down the middle on whether the solution was more prisons. The Sun does have previous on distorting Phillips' public utterances; this time, rather than coming out with it in the actual report, it does it by its side instead.

Next up, the Sun reports on our friend Robert Stewart who was caught having sex with his bicycle. Another lesson in tabloid language: like with the various adjectives for criminals, he's a perv, a weirdo and an oddball. He might quite possibly be all three, but whether he ought to be humiliated any more for what he did is another matter.

Following on from prison and sex, the Sun settles on another best-seller and a moral panic to boot: the kids are most certainly not all right. Taking the government's survey of 115,000 10-15 year olds (PDF), it selects only the most troubling data from it and leaves all the rest on the editing floor:

"BINGE drinking, drug use and smoking is RIFE among Britain’s schoolchildren, an alarming new survey reveals.

At least one in seven kids aged 12 to 15 has dabbled with illegal substances, it found."

It starts by removing the 10 to 11 year olds from the equation so that the figures are even more potentially scare-worthy. The survey asks how many have taken an illegal substance in the past four weeks for example, with 80% saying they've never taken drugs, 7% saying they haven't in the last month, 9% that they've smoked cannabis, 3% solvents, 3% other drugs and 6% prefer not to say. Doesn't look so frightening then, does it? That's the thing with statistics, they can be incredibly easily manipulated, something that the Scum has accused the government of doing, but which it seems also more than prepared to do itself. It does this partially by converting the percentages into one in however many, which the average layman is less likely to easily understand, so that those who have taken a Class A drug becomes 1 in 30, which is almost meaningless unless you put it the context of it being the equivalent of around one child in the average class taking such a substance. It also doesn't make clear that the figures refer to in the last month, so it becomes "takes", giving the impression that they're regular users when that might not be the case at all.

Half of kids aged between ten and 15 admit to underage boozing and a fifth regularly get drunk. And more than one in five has smoked a cigarette.

Again, the question here was have you ever had an alcoholic drink, not just a sip. Unsurprisingly, 48% said yes. Most 10 to 15 year olds would have at some point in their life had a drink, and some parents might even encourage the continental approach of a glass of wine or similar with a meal, but the Sun converts innocent or supervised drinking into "underage boozing". More potentially worrying is that 40% of those over 13 admit to being drunk once in the last month, but the Sun strangely doesn't use that stat. 73% say they have never smoked a cigarette, which again, doesn't get an airing.

Tories last night claimed the figures were more proof of Britain’s “broken society” under Labour. Shadow children’s minister Tim Loughton said: “Gordon Brown is in denial about this problem, and his Government is unable to offer any solutions to it.

Finally then, we get the standard quote from the opposition political party capitalising on the more troubling parts of the survey. If anything, it actually provides plenty of evidence against the Tories' bullshit about the "broken society"; the biggest worry is exams, with 51% concerned by them, rather than bullying, which worries 25%. It certainly doesn't suggest that there has been a moral breakdown, or that today's children are any worst behaved than earlier generations. The best summings up are provided by the chief inspector of schools, and amazingly, Ed Balls:

"The survey presents much that is positive about life for children and young people today. However, it is also clear that more needs to be done to address children and young people’s worries and concerns about how safe they feel; about exams and tests; and about what would help them learn better and where they need to go for help when they have a problem."

"This survey shows that the majority of children and young people in England today feel happy, safe, enjoy life and are doing well at school. But the survey also shows challenges and pressures that we need to address with decisive action."

Right, so we've had crime and prisons; sexual perversion; kids on drugs and booze; what's left? Of course, immigration!

THE NUMBER of migrants coming to Britain has hit a record high – as officials admit underestimating figures AGAIN.

Some 591,000 arrived last year – up from 327,000 a decade ago.

Of the 400,000 leaving to go abroad, just over half were UK citizens – the first time that figure has gone above 200,000.

The figures were published as officials said the number of arrivals in 2004 and 2005 was 41,000 HIGHER than predicted.

Earlier this month ministers admitted 1.5million migrants had come to Britain since 1997 – TWICE their original estimate.

Here the Sun is hedging its bets ever so slightly. The number of migrants arriving here last year was a record - but only by 5,000 on 2004's figure. When you take into account that the net migration figure that year was 244,000, as compared to last year's 191,000, due to the rise in emigration, 2004, the year the A8 new European states joined, was in actual fact when the highest net number of migrants arrived. The Sun doesn't comment on the emigration figure, which includes just less than half of those who had already come here to work going back home, probably because that undermines the idea that all those who have migrated here have stayed. Figures for those who come here for less than a year then return home aren't kept; they're counted in, but not counted out, which also distorts the figures somewhat. Instead of pointing out how the figures of those migrating here have now dropped for two years, and that the emigrant figures suggest that we're now becoming a revolving door rather than a permanent stop for migrants, the Sun brings back up the mess up from earlier in the month, but gets it wrong. 1.5 million migrants have taken up new jobs since 1997, not have simply come here.

After all of that, we have the very voice of the Sun itself, just in case you can't detect it in any of the above. As the Sun often does, it returns to one of its very favourite themes - and lies about it. (Again, the article seems to have disappeared into the ether with it changing to tomorrow's leader rather than leaving a permanent entry, so you'll have to trust me on what it said.)

RABBLE-rousing Abu Hamza has used our liberal system of justice to get away with murder — almost literally.

Which is completely untrue to begin with. He hasn't got away with anything - as his current stay in a prison cell demonstrates. If the Sun's really so outraged by how long Hamza escaped justice for, it perhaps ought to take it up with the security services, who were more than aware of what Hamza was up to and might well have even had an agreement with him regarding how as long as he didn't advocate violence against the UK itself they left him alone.

Three of the four 7/7 Tube bombers were radicalised while attending the Finsbury Park mosque where he spouted his evil creed.

This is the real lie. There is no evidence whatsoever that the bombers were radicalised while visiting the Finsbury Park mosque; indeed, if they ever did attend it. The only source that has ever alleged that three of the bombers listened to Hamza was the Times, in just one story the day after Hamza was sentenced. No other newspapers have seen fit to investigate and follow up this potentially explosive revelation, which is usually the sure sign of it being untrue.

Convicted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and shoe-bomber Richard Reid were fans.

Established facts? In the Sun? Amazing!

It was only after a campaign led by The Sun that he was locked away for inciting murder.

Ah yes, it was the Sun wot did it!

Some might balk at this post and wonder what the point of it is meant to be. After all, tabloids are meant to be provocative, entertaining, and strong, unrelenting voices: not all of us are going to want the staid tones of the Times or the Grauniad, or the pompous handed down opinions of the "commentariat"; that's why so many enjoy swearblogging and fisking, preferably with gratuitous insults. That's all more than fair, and I'm certainly not suggesting that they should be stopped from doing any of the above. It's also probably true that the tabloid press are not any worse than they've ever been; certainly, they have to now crouch pieces that would previously have been openly racist and bigoted in less certain terms, or cushion the blow through mealy-mouthed language which actually adds up to the same thing. It has to be remembered however that the Sun is still the highest selling newspaper in the country, shifting over 3 million copies. For some people, this newspaper is the main source of news, or the only source of news for those who aren't that interested. Through such openly biased, unfair and in some cases plain wrong reporting, a completely false image of this country comes across. As the quote at the top of this blog suggests, the very nature of the press affects the nature of politics, and who can argue that the Sun, or its owner, doesn't wield power that most politicians themselves would kill for? The examples in this post are just a small snapshot of how it sets about setting its own agenda on just one day. Isn't it time, rather than just blaming the politicians for the cynicism with which the public views politics, that we examine the fourth estate's role in furthering the disconnect that seems to be becoming ever more pronounced?

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Thursday, November 15, 2007 

Me and My Man Breasts over the correction of injustice.

The quashing of Barry George's conviction for the murder of Jill Dando will rightly be making headlines tonight and tomorrow, but another Barri also had his conviction for murder thrown out today and a retrial ordered.

Barri White was convicted of murder in 2002 for the death of Rachel Manning and jailed for life. Keith Hyatt was convicted of perverting the course of justice, helping White to transport Manning's body to a golf club where her body was subsequently found, and jailed for 5 years. Like with Barry George, the conviction of White hinged on questionable forensic evidence;
seven particulates found to be a match with that of the seat of Hyatt's van were found on Manning's skirt. The BBC's Rough Justice, which investigated the case, commissioned Dr Peter Bull to re-examine the evidence. He found that not only was there nothing whatsoever to link Hyatt's van to Manning's skirt, but also that the complete absence of mud particles meant there was nothing to link either White or Hyatt to where Manning's body was found. The "expert" who had done the initial examination admitted in the documentary that he had not done the work necessary to reach the conclusions that he did.

The Rough Justice documentary didn't just rely on Bull's testimony; the reporter, Mark Daly, who had previously went undercover in the Greater Manchester police and exposed the racist attitudes of some recruits in the Secret Policeman documentary, initially set out to prove his producer wrong over her belief that White and Hyatt were innocent. Daly attempted to recreate what the prosecution case put that White and Hyatt had done after Manning made her last phone-call to Hyatt's home for White to come and pick her up, a call made at a phone-box on a housing estate near to the club to where White and Manning had separated for the last time. He found that it would have been impossible for the pair to do what the prosecution case stated they had; there simply wasn't enough time. The full Rough Justice documentary can be watched on the website set-up to campaign for the release of White.

Despite Rough Justice's numerous successes in proving the innocence of those convicted in at least 15 different cases,
the BBC has now axed the programme as a direct result of the cuts outlined by the director general, Mark Thompson, affecting the current affairs output. Management points to how Panorama has also investigated miscarriages of justice, including those of Angela and Ian Gay, Angela Cannings and most recently Barry George. All though have involved high profile cases, completely unlike those involving men like Barri White and Keith Hyatt, which made little to no national impact, cases which Rough Justice focused upon. The BBC will however continue the funding of BBC3, costing roughly £92 million a year, which has brought such delights to our screens as Little Britain, Tittybangbang, Little Miss Jocelyn, Fuck Off ... I'm Fat, Me and My Man Breasts, Teens Addicted to Porn and Fat Men Can't Hunt.

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Great Grauniad articles and yet more on 28/56/58 days.

The Grauniad tends to go in fits and starts. It publishes the barrel-scrapings of Russell Brand, one of the latest wave of comedians that couldn't carry a laugh in a bucket, alongside such titans as Alan Carr and Jimmy Carr (no relation, apart from their inability to be humourous) which are enough to make you want to try and commit suicide using laxatives, then makes up for it by printing two wonderful comment pieces on the same day that follow a similar theme.

Timothy Garton Ash, who can come across as very much the Oxford liberal, but is always brilliantly readable, gets off the fence he often sits on and calls for the rolling back of the surveillance state, while the novelist Hari Kunzru considers the case of the "lyrical terrorist" and wonders if he too could shortly be raided by the police. Rachel also writes a typically lucid piece on how she believes the case for longer than 28-days detention hasn't been made on CiF.

The government can't even make up its mind on the exact time limit; it now appears to be suggesting 58 days, while Lord Carlile, the man picked to review the terror laws, who seems to have gone native after the security services and police have doubtlessly plied him with their most voluminous doom-mongering intelligence on how the sky is dark and we're all going to die believes there will "one or two people" arrested over the next few years for whom longer than 28-days detention will be necessary. His sort of compromise is that there needs to "better judicial scrutiny," which is of little use, as has already been demonstrated. The police can say whatever they like to a judge to justify continuing detention, regardless of the facts, as they seem to have done in the past, having kept two men for 28-days only to then release them without charge. The other latest proposals are that more than 28-days would only be authorised when "multiple plots, or links with multiple countries, or exceptional levels of complexity" are involved." The police already argue that the cases they've had to deal with involved all or one or two of the above; whenever a "new" plot or otherwise is meant to have been foiled, all that would happen would be an instant appeal for the new powers to be implemented, regardless of whether they were really needed or not.

Carlile rightly argues against the use of the Civil Contingencies Act, which can provide another 30-days of detention without charge if invoked, as the equivalent of declaring a national emergency, but both the government's new and old proposals would do exactly the same thing. Putting through legislation that would allow for 56 or 58 days detention without charge would be the final move from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian one. As Timothy Garton Ash argues, we've moved from being the freest society in Europe to being the most watched, and with it, fearful. We may be tolerant, but beneath it we're increasingly anxious, even frightened, especially by the bloodcurdling speeches by the heads of MI5 and the ratcheting up of security which looks increasingly at odds with the actual threat from terrorism that is posed. Blocking and campaigning against any extension to the detention without charge limit ought to be the first move in the fightback.

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Scum-watch: Saying sorry to Ken.

One in a continuing series eyeballing the Scum's embarrassing apologies:

In Monday’s Sun we reported London Mayor Ken Livingstone had ‘accused the 7/7 bombers of killing the “the wrong people” and that “the right people” presumably were Tony Blair and his Cabinet’.

In fact no such comment was made by Ken Livingstone and we apologise to Mr Livingstone for the error.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007 

Bike fucks man.

What is this country coming to when you can't have sex with your bicycle in the privacy of your own bedroom?

To be serious, if it's possible in a case such as this, whose business is it that someone is performing a sex act with any inanimate object when it's in a room not normally accessible to the public? Would the two cleaners have reported the man to the hostel manager if they'd walked in on him simply masturbating? How on earth can his entry on the sex offenders register be justified when nothing and no one was hurt by what he was doing, except for his pride and self-worth? Seems like Robert Stewart was unfortunate enough to be burst in on by two prudes and subsequently dragged through the courts by police and others who should get a sense of humour and idea of what actually is a sexual offence.

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The illusion of safety.

We're saved!

Gordon Brown needs our help. Writing in today's Scum, the newspaper of choice when you want to reach out to the nation itself (one person in the comments demands the right to beat the **** out of any burglar, another condemns the notion of bringing back of those with British residency from Guantanamo Bay, while yet another has a shopping list which goes from stopping unjust wars, ending immigration, throwing out preachers of death and withdrawing from the EU) he urges commitment from every community and vigilance from every one of us. Just because you live on the island of Skye don't think that they're aren't bearded lunatics ready to blow themselves up at a moment's notice. Loose lips sink ships.

So commences yet another spasm of panic and doom-mongering on the terrorist threat. This one will involve "stepping up security" everywhere you could possibly think of where a suicidal lunatic with a backpack of explosives or patio gas canisters might consider blowing himself up/setting himself on fire. The government will be sending out advice to "to thousands of cinemas, theatres, restaurants, hotels, sporting venues and commercial centres, as well as all hospitals, schools and places of worship to advise them on how to keep visitors safe against terrorism." You might have thought the government would get its priorities right: shouldn't they be sending out advice to hospitals on how to stop patients from contracting infections while residing on the wards, the number of deaths from which each year vastly outnumber even the worst that the terrorists could throw at us? Bags at the most busy rail stations will now be checked, which will undoubtedly mean ethnic minorities getting repeatedly targeted, as it would be impossible to search anywhere near even a tenth of the numbers that flow through the system without causing enormous delays. Restrictions on baggage on flights will be lifted slightly, with passengers allowed to request permission to carry more than one item of hand luggage, while the ludicrous and idiotic bans on liquids and other large items will remain in place.

All these proposals and more are the result of a review by the ex-admiral "Sir" Alan West (Baron West of Spithead, which is what you should do if you come across him), elevated to the Lords so he could become security minister in Brown's government of no obvious talents, West being the response to Cameron giving a similar job to Lord Stevens, who you can expect to come up with suitably inclusive measures, given his past sectarian rants on how it's all the Muslims' faults. West though is nothing if not self-deprecating. Despite drawing up today's security review, he's in actual fact just "a simple sailor," and nothing more. West's contrition was based on how he told the Today programme, when questioned about the government's view on extending pre-charge detention beyond 28 days, that he himself was "not totally convinced" about the need to do so; two hours later, and after a swift Stalinist re-education at a pre-planning meeting with the Dear Leader, West came out and told everyone that an extension was "absolutely needed" and that he was, despite being not convinced before he entered the dacha, now "convinced that's the case."

Brown, remember, wants to reach a consensus decision over pre-charge detention. It's nothing to do with wanting to prove he can force a measure through that Blair couldn't, no way. In reality, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are opposed to an extension, as is the Telegraph, the Independent and the Grauniad; only the tabloids (I'm unsure over the Mirror's views) and the Times, no doubt similarly instructed by Murdoch as West was by Brown, support the measure. This consensus is so important that the home secretary can conveniently forget just how long is really necessary when questioned about it, as long as she supports the measure, while West's views are quickly corrected when he wonders aloud about the implications for civil liberties. "Liberty" Brown can talk a good game, as evidenced by his speech on liberty, yet when it comes to the existential threat to the nation from takfirists, all such concern goes out the window. Less concern about the undermining of liberty as a whole, more armed police and bag searches at railway stations; the head of MI5 can issue his dire warnings about the kids getting brainwashed by Islamists in public to newspaper editors, but when it comes to giving evidence on whether the pre-charge needs to be extended it has to be done behind closed doors. At least that's a step-up from Manningham-Bullshitter's refusal to even go before the parliamentary human rights committee.

No doubt linked to Jonathan Evans's warning over children being radicalised, Brown will also being setting up a headteachers' forum to protect pupils from "extremist propaganda", despite there being no evidence whatsoever that any radicalisation has been taking place in schools. The British National Party have recently been handing out free CDs at the gates of some schools in the north and Midlands, but that probably won't feature on the itinerary of discussions. The problem of religious schools ghettoising pupils will be miraculously solved by the twinning of different faith schools, and there doesn't seem to be any problem that can't be solved a new body or forum; even outdoor activity sports centres and facilities are going to be advised on how to look for suspicious activity, lest any other wannabe mujahideen play paintball jihad on their premises.

Naturally, nowhere in Brown's statement is there the acknowledgment that government policies might well have heightened the terrorist threat we now face, or that it itself might share some of the blame. Why on earth would they do that when they can present plans for how new buildings can be blast resistant? Anywhere could now apparently be a potential target for a suicide car bomber, so such changes are vital. From some of the proposals you'd almost get the impression that we were facing an Iraq-style insurgency, or if not now, then possibly in the future. If you wanted to be kind, you could say that the government's preparing for the worst and that if the worst doesn't happen, well, at least their heart was in the right place and, after all, as Brown writes in the Scum, protecting the public is the government's number one priority. If you wanted to be realistic, you'd say that the government seems intent on causing unnecessary hassle, coming up with unrealistic and alarmist plans, and at the very worst, doing the the terrorists' jobs for them by continually reducing liberty while making traveling around the country even more stressful than it already is. Why target the transport system or public buildings when you can just go down Oxford Street or in the vicinity of any big football stadium at the weekend and blow yourself up in a crowd where no amount of security will ever stop such a thing from happening? To that, the government simply doesn't have an answer, but the illusion of safety is still a powerful thing.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007 

No easy answers, but Cameron tries anyway.

If you were a politician and had to pick a crime to give a 20-minute speech about while launching a sort of new policy on it, you'd be hard pressed to find one more welcoming and with less potential pitfalls than that of rape. Rape isn't quite murder, which poses an unique moral dilemma for all political parties (Bring back capital punishment? Life imprisonment that means life? Can you forgive a murderer, and can they rejoin society without being forever tainted?) but a crime of a similar magnitude where you can propose changes with few people likely to disagree with you because of the horrendous impact that rape undoubtedly has. Add into this how the government itself has over the last couple of years been freely wondering out loud how it can bring the conviction rate up, and Cameron was left with something of an open goal.

and Rhetorically Speaking have gone into Cameron's speech in depth, Unity especially on the figures front, while Channel 4 News's FactCheck section looked into the statistics behind the claim that Britain has the lowest conviction rate in the EU, and found that while on the surface it looks accurate, with us sharing the ignominy with Sweden, if you go by number of convictions per head of population, we're about in the middle. It also discovered that we partially have such a low conviction rate because we also recorded the 4th most rape offences in the EU. The whole study underlines how difficult it is compare statistics on rape, both thanks to the differences in law systems, but also down to what the very definition of rape is.

Cameron's example of the tragedy of Lindsay Armstrong is also an especially extreme case. Armstrong killed herself after being cross-examined by the defence counsel, on two occasions having to hold up the underwear she had on on the night she was raped. The defence counsel was able to do this as Scotland had yet to implement the rules allowed in force in England and Wales which stopped the alleged perpetrator from cross-examinging the alleged victim, which also made clear that lawyers for the defence would only be able to bring up the past of sexual history of the victim if they could prove it was relevant. Armstrong's parents say that Lindsay was a virgin, but that she liked wearing skimpy underwear, which the defence moved in on. Cameron is right to say that we should never forget cases such as Armstrong's, but the changes in the way courts deal with rape cases make any larger point almost moot.

No one will argue with Cameron's calls for more funding for centres that deal with rape, which is timely, but infinitely more questionable is his call for "cultural change". Despite polls that often suggest that some individuals put a certain amount of blame on women who either "dress provocatively" or who are raped while inebriated or consuming alcohol, Cameron quoting one by Amnesty International (PDF), which as Unity points out, suggests that such views are more widespread in the older age groups than the youth of today, I find it hard to believe that rape is not already viewed as one of the most horrific, if not the most damaging crime which can be inflicted upon someone. This is simple common knowledge; like with Cameron's suggestion that sex education should emphasize that "no means no", it's almost suggesting that society doesn't understand the impact of the crime, or that because children aren't taught about consent that somehow in any way explains the low conviction rate. You don't need to be taught that no means no, it ought be already more than clear, especially at the age at which secondary sex education takes place. "Ignorance" has never been an excuse. He's on slightly surer ground when he mentions the increasing sexualisation of society, yet his claim that the low rate of conviction is somehow a moral failure, linked naturally with his rhetoric on the broken society is insulting: it's not for lack of trying, and it has nothing to do with a sudden descent in morals. Rape, like with prostitution, has always been with us and always will be with us.

All the statistics show that "stranger rape", the kind most feared, is still thankfully rare. Far more prevalent is rape as a means of control: whether from an abusive spouse or otherwise. It could be argued that it's attitudes to domestic violence, both within the police, the courts and wider society that still need to change. While rape conviction rates are still low, Cameron might have been better targeting that rather than going for the easier target.

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The only thing worse than more war is Iran getting nukes.

That, in a nutshell, is the argument of today's Scum leader. Doubtless intended as a prod to Brown after last night's dismally familiar and sterile speech on foreign policy at Mansion House, Murdoch makes clear how he considers yet more death, destruction, insecurity and a worldwide wave of terrorism in revenge preferable to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Predictably, it resorts to a number of half-truths and deceptions in order to do so:

THERE is only one thing worse than military action to stop Iran acquiring nukes.

And that is Iran with nukes.

Anyone who believes this oil-rich nation wants nuclear power for peaceful purposes is hopelessly deluded.

Despite Iran's oil-wealth, it earlier this year temporarily enforced fuel rationing because of the huge cost of importing petrol, due to Iran's own lack of refining capacity. The Grauniad today also reports that Iran was seriously considering the recent approach from Russia for the uranium needed for their nuclear plants to be enriched there, only for the talks to be abandoned when the US imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran's revolutionary guard.

Sometimes we have to judge a person — or a nation — by what they say.

Iran’s President Ahmadinejad says he wants to “wipe Israel off the face of the map”.

Sigh. How many times have we got to go through this? Ahmadinejad did not say that he wanted to "wipe Israel off the face of the map" or that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. Because of the difficulties of translating from the Persian into English, Ahmadinejad's statement, which was in fact a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini, was something along the lines of "this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e eshghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)." Ahmadinejad was speaking in the context of the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein's Iraq having collapsed; he was not calling for the destruction of Israel, or that he personally wanted Israel as in the country to disappear. MEMRI, hardly sympathetic towards Iran, translated his speech similarly. How can you possibly judge someone when you're not informed correctly of what they actually said?

He says the holocaust which claimed 6million Jewish lives, never happened.

This is more clear-cut. Ahmadinejad has certainly dabbled in holocaust denial, something which only an idiot, which Ahmadinejad certainly is, would deny took place. Denying the holocaust is moronic and intellectually bankrupt, but it most certainly does not help towards justifying military strikes when all the intelligence suggests the Iran is still years away from a nuclear weapon.

And he says he wants to impose extreme Islam on the world.

Really? I shouldn't rely on Wikipedia, but there's no mention of this anywhere in the rather copious entries on both himself and the controversies surrounding him, and I can't recall any such statement. In any case, just how would Iran impose extreme Islam on the Middle East, let alone the world? It can't even effectively do it within Iran itself, continuing to crackdown on supposed western influence, crimes such as women wearing make-up and showing hair under their hijab. Saudi Arabia has been far more successful in imposing extreme Islam and spreading Wahhabist doctrine than Iran has been in propagating its own interpretation of Shia Islam.

As Gordon Brown says, the West cannot afford to wait and see if he really means it.

According to the Sun then, 650,000 deaths in Iraq just isn't enough. It wants even more wars, more blood to be spilled to ensure that Iran doesn't even come close to acquiring nuclear weapons. To hell with mutually assured destruction, the fact that if Iran did attack Israel it would be at the same time destroying Palestine, and the inevitable revenge from Iran's proxies, we cannot afford to wait and make sure another Middle East madman actually has WMD before letting lose the cruise missiles. If Iraq is a disaster, attacking Iran would open the gates of hell.

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Monday, November 12, 2007 

If I...

hear the words, "from the award-winning Stephen Poliakoff" one more time, I'm going to put my fucking foot through something.

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Liberty, 56 days and all that.

I've been racking my brains, and the only organisation/group that I can honestly think I'm a member of is Liberty, which I joined prior to Blair's attempt to force through 90 day detention without charge. It gives me something erring on pride to know that I might have in some small way contributed to the research behind the study (PDF, summary PDF here) published today by the organisation, and splashed on the front page by the Grauniad, making clear that despite the differences in legal systems, the current 28 day pre-charge detention limit is already by far the longest in any comparable democracy.

The one thing it makes clear is that to extend the current limit in any way, let alone doubling it, which is what most think the government is likely to attempt, would be the equivalent of declaring a permanent state of emergency. Judicial oversight or not, which itself is little use when the police can convincingly claim that if a suspect were to be released he/she would commit a terrorist act, or cover their tracks, and the Magna Carta is often wrongly and inaccurately invoked, but in this case it's more than valid to suggest that if this gets through parliament, we'd be throwing away nearly 800 years of progress, enlightenment and justice, not to mention the moral high ground.

More shocking is the sheer thinness of the case for further extension. The only real remaining justifications are of the complexity of the plots which the police are having to unravel, involving forces around the world, which in other words means they're having to wait for the lazy foreigners to do some of the leg work for them, and the sheer amount of data they're having to sift through. Douglas Murray was holding this up to the audience on last week's Question Time, attempting to blind the public with talks about thousands of gigabytes of data on hard drives, hundreds of CDs and DVDs and all the other assorted related devices. This is one of those helpfully blinding rhetorical flourishes which depends on most of the public not knowing what you're talking about; even mention gigabytes to half of them and they'll go glassy-eyed. Decoded, it means that some of the officers have the excruciating job of going through the arrested guy's DVD collection lest there be any hidden documents on them. They're tricksy, these al-Qaida folk you see, as they tend to hide the damning evidence where the police can't easily find it. The fact they have the best part of a month to do this means even that doesn't hold up to even a modest amount of scrutiny. The other favoured argument is that when they do find it, it tends to be encrypted, but the police have now long had the power to demand the keys to break in, which if refused is itself a chargeable offence. With the post-charge questioning for terrorist suspects likely to go through much easier than any extension of the limit, this would enable the police to forgo the whole charade entirely if they so wanted, which brings up its own worries about abuse of power and the potential for miscarriages of justice.

Let's not pretend then that the primary argument, deployed by all those lobbying for the extension, is anything other than pure fear. Just think of what
might happen if they get to 28 days and someone has to be released; imagine the horror and outrage if in the aftermath of an attack the police can't round up those connected to it due to the inadequacy of the limit; look at how many of these mouth breathers are involved in this business, and how they're multiplying and brainwashing our kids; etc, etc.

To quote Melanie Phillips might perhaps be similar to breaking Godwin's law, but in her recent piece on the Spectator website justifying up to 90 days' detention, she lets the cat out of the bag. In her view, the current "threat" does indeed constitute a public emergency. Let that sink in for a second. To declare a state of emergency currently, there has to be a serious threat to the life of the nation. Even Melanie would have problems claiming that the current threat posed to this country by jihadists is so severe that it could destroy the country as we know it. Her flourish at the end of the article, claiming that those who oppose an extension are in effect saying they're prepared to the risk the lives of "untold numbers of innocents", apart from being completely spurious, is as far as the level of threat goes. In the worst case scenario, let's say there are multiple suicide bombings in multiple cities on the same day. If 7/7 was repeated across four cities, with the same number of fatalities, 208 people would be dead. Would such an event constitute a direct threat to the life of the nation? An outrageous shedding of innocent blood by those without an ounce of humanity, but the end of Britain? Surely not.

The other argument, made by police and commentators alike, that we're facing a completely different threat where the terrorists give no warning and want to kill as many as possible is also not as clear cut. We're often told of how the IRA gave warnings, but they certainly didn't give one when they almost succeeded in killing Thatcher in Brighton in 1984. The difficulty in arguing against an extension to the limit is because of the way the debate is framed as in traditional values of liberty against the right not to be blown apart; this is a false dichotomy not just because once someone has been blown apart it's already too late, but also because we all knew too well that the police, if pushed right to the limit, could almost certainly if not always manage to press other more minor charges. In that case, which is more unacceptable? The threat of terrorism potentially forever changing our standards of treatment of those accused of a crime, but not yet charged, or that someone might get a lesser sentence than they actually deserve? It's worth pointing out that also put forward now are new measures to monitor those found guilty of terrorism offences once they are released from prison, which further limit the potential for an outrage after imprisonment.

Finally, there's the embarrassment factor. Can we really say the threat we face from terrorism is so severe we need 56 days when Russia, fast becoming an autocracy, gets by on 5 and has dealt with Islamic extremism from Chechnya for the last 14 or so years? Mel dismisses Shami Chakrabati's suggestion that we can hardly condemn Zimbabwe or Burma when we have such a limit, and has a certain amount of merit to her argument, when the idea of sending a message should not in any way impugn on our own security, but then blots her copy book by laughably comparing the situation now to that during the second world war. Oh, and then there's that one other thing: when we need 56 days to question those arrested and unravel a terrorist plot, I'll happily eat my underwear.

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A massacre, courtesy of Hamas.

Another massacre in the Middle East, with a twist:

At least six people were killed today after Hamas security forces opened fire on Palestinians commemorating the death of Yasser Arafat.

Hamas security officials said they fired toward protesters who threw stones at security compounds.

It used to be the IDF that shot at Palestinian children who threw stones at them. Hamas appear to want to even further plumb the depths.

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Via Rhetorically Speaking, the Daily Mail, the paper which aims to keep its readers in a perpetual state of anger and fear, runs an article by Christopher Booker and Richard North promoting their book on scare stories. This could go down in the OED as the new definition of chutzpah. One suspects that the Mail might not have published it had the writers focused on the Mail's vilification of the MMR vaccine, numerous fearmongering articles on immigration, or on Christmas being banned. As it is, the fact that the authors dispute climate change may also have something to do with it finding favour in the Mail editorial room.

Elsewhere in tabloid hell, the Sun picks up on the latest scare story regarding social networking sites. Despite the research applying to all the various social networking sites, can you guess what the Sun chose as the headline? That's right, Facebook ID fraudster fear. MySpace is mentioned in the text, but as usual, there is no qualifier in the text pointing out that the Sun and MurdochSpace share an owner.

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