Monday, December 31, 2007 

The year of the Madeleine.

You can't really say that 2007 was anything but eventful. At long last, we were freed from the tyranny of Blair and Blairism, only for it to be replaced by revolutionary Brownism - indistinguishable and just as incompetent. He started so well that even I was encouraged to begin with; then it all came crashing down. One party politics though has in actuality remained the defining ideology. Neither the Tories or the Liberal Democrats offer anything approaching a genuine alternative, let alone even an illusion of change. If anything, the Conservatives have shifted further to the right - emboldened by the inheritance tax cut pledge. The side is only held up by their opposition to the extension of detention without charge for "terrorist suspects", which provides the party with liberal credentials that it doesn't deserve. With Nick Clegg replacing the dignified but doomed Ming Campbell, the lack of difference is all too enveloping.

Little in reality has changed. We enter a new year with a Brown government that has been reacting, not leading to the various catastrophes, from the losing of the child benefit discs, Northern Rock, David Abrahams' donations, to the continuing prison overcrowding and refusal to compromise over ID cards or extended detention limits. In Iraq, the troops numbers may have come down slightly, but their continuing presence has no rhyme or reason behind it, while we leave the translators we owe a debt to to the mercies of the militias and bureaucrats deciding whether they potentially live or die. Afghanistan remains as intractable as before, with the Tories denouncing any attempt whatsoever to talk to the Taliban and bring the lunacy that there's a military solution to an end. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, however flawed she was, has plunged the region into further turmoil. The one silver lining is that the tension over Iran's nuclear programme has been alleviated thanks to the National Intelligence Estimate. There is no way now that Bush can lead an attack prior to his leaving office.

Iraq itself has been becalmed to an extent, but at what cost and for how long are questions without answers. The fall in violence has not been down to the surge, but to the
salvation council model which has spread across the country. Former Sunni militants have turned decisively away from the takfirists of the Islamic State of Iraq, isolating both them and the foreign recruits which overwhelmingly made up their numbers. Of real concern however is whether the fragile accord between the Sunni and Shia groups holds where it exists, as is whether the former insurgents now being armed by the US on the councils eventually turn their guns on the occupiers. Despite the fall in violence, the numbers of American dead, just short of 1,000, are the highest to date. At least 18,000 Iraqis have died in violence this year, and you'd imagine that is most certainly a fraction of the real number.

Back home, we faced the most inept terror attacks since Kate Nash took to a microphone. The laughable attempt to blow first a nightclub then Glasgow airport up using patio gas canisters with nails packed around them was mostly responded to in the manner it warranted: contempt. Only the Sun went overboard, unable to come up with an original or distinct way to respond,
resorting to facile flag-waving. Middle England was flooded, while northern working class England, similarly underwater previously, got ignored.

We'd be deluding ourselves if we thought that any of the above was the real story of the year. There was only one, and that occurred when Madeleine McCann vanished from the family apartment in Praia Da Luz back in May. That is the one indisputable fact that's been established, even 7 months later. Everything else has been pure conjecture. Where she went, whether she was murdered or abducted, and who was involved has been open to the public ever since. The coverage has never managed to strike the right note from the very beginning: first it was
vapid emotional pornography, faux concern and caring from journalists only interested in extracting the necessary pound of flesh for their masters. It couldn't have been exemplified more than by how Robert Murat was at first implicated by a Sunday Mirror journalist. When that got stale, the Portuguese investigation itself was turned on for its "incompetence", or in other words, failing to find Madeleine for the poor, devastated and distressed McCanns, brimming with casual xenophobia and prejudice. It's hard now looking back to see it as anything other than a reaction to how the police weren't providing the media with any solid information because of the Portuguese legal system. The third act, the announcement that the McCanns themselves were being made arguidos, and their subsequent flight back to the UK, with the media unable to decide whether they were guilty as hell or the victims of the most unbearably hurtful slur, was capped by their decision to hire an ex-journalist as their spin doctor/spokesman. Their stomach-churningly bad decision to make a tape at Christmas addressed to Madeleine was the icing on the cake for a couple that have never understood the very basics of how the media work. That's not their fault, but even they must be amazed at how 7 months later their daughter's disappearance is still front page news. If the Diana inquest hadn't resumed that beaten and battered dead horse, then she could be described as the new one.

2008 stretches only slightly less bleakly than 2007 did. Still, musn't grumble, right?

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Saturday, December 29, 2007 

25 best albums of 2007.

Before we get underway, here are some albums which are worthy mentions but didn't quite make the list:

Silversun Pickups - Carnavas (would have been high on my list if it wasn't technically released last year)
The Wombats - A Guide to Love, Loss and Desperation
Biffy Clyro - Puzzle
65daysofstatic - The Destruction of Small Ideas
Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
Fiery Furnaces - Widow City
GoodBooks - Control
Gravenhurst - The Western Lands
New Young Pony Club - Fantastic Playroom
Maximo Park - Our Earthly Pleasures
Oceansize - Frames
The Good, The Bad & The Queen - s/t
The Rumble Strips - Girls and Weather
White Stripes - Icky Thump
Thrice - Alchemy Index Vols I & II
Deerhoof - Friend Opportunity

and some I've either missed or haven't listened enough to yet:

Battles - Mirrored
Burial - Untrue
Maserati - Inventions for the New Season
PJ Harvey - White Chalk
Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of the Decline
Panda Bear - Person Pitch
Radiohead - In Rainbows
The National - Boxer

25. Interpol / Editors - Our Love to Admire / An End Has A Start

The cynical would argue that what both Interpol and Editors do amounts to little more than petty larceny. Both bands can hardly argue that they're not anything other than devotees to the back catalogue of Joy Division; Editors especially just strike one as taking the melodies, making them even more anthemic and radio friendly and writing the lyrics as an afterthought, as the line from "The Racing Rats" where the singer asks how big a hole would a plane make in the surface of the earth clearly demonstrates. What can't be denied is that they're very, very good at doing it. Previously, Interpol were far more subtle, and with Turn on the Bright Lights produced one of the best tributes to Ian Curtis which wasn't actually addressed to him. On this, their third album, they seem to be appearing to start to flag. Nonetheless, the singles, the Heinrich Maneuver and Mammoth, while not being anything quite on the level of Obstacle 1, are superior to almost all of the other trash released this year. How better for the bands then to share the same space?

Interpol - Wrecking Ball
Editors - An End Has A Start

24. Kubichek! - Not Enough Night

The wheels seem to have fallen off the Kubichek! wagon come the end of this year, with the lead guitarist and vocalist leaving to do his own thing. It's a great shame, as their spastic combination of math-rock and dancefloor friendly blistering post-punk was just the thing to blow away the cobwebs back in March. Its slight downfall might have been that it was released around the same time as two of the records in the worthy mention section and at least a couple featured lower down this list. Well worth seeking out, especially if you also like another band further down the list.

Kubichek! - Nightjoy

23. Shitdisco - Kingdom of Fear

In the year in which so-called "new rave" conquered all comers, Shitdisco found themselves somewhat left behind. Although they fit the description even less than the Klaxons, as they feature even less "old rave" sounds in their tunes, their ability to both rock and capture the dancefloor was not in doubt. From "I Know Kung Fu", their breakout hit, to "Reactor Party", "72 Virgins" and "OK", the disco was anything but shit.

Shitdisco - OK

22. Fields - Everything Last Winter

Perhaps like with Shitdisco, the name Fields chose may not have helped. This year alone there were records out from The Field and Field Music, and probably some others I've missed. Fields' influences of My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins aren't the most popular at the moment either, but that shouldn't detract from a thoroughly bold and at times even thrilling debut album which shows the band know how to build up to a crescendo without being predictable.

Fields - If You Fail, We All Fail

21. Good Shoes - Think Before You Speak

This is what the View and all the other Libertines followers should be attempting to sound like. While the "successful" ones have just rehashed their already rehashed sound and taken all the vitality out of the music as a result, Good Shoes are just on the right side of the post-Strokes post-Libertines spiky guitar band path. Rather than sounding like the lyrics and music have been especially rounded for a label's PR manager to shoot his load over, Good Shoes actually sound real: the standout, Morden, is hardly an original idea, moaning about the dinginess of a small town, but they manage to make it fresh. The banter between girlfriend and boyfriend on "We Are Not the Same", which emerges as shouts as the guitars attack is some of the best unashamed indie-pop of the year, as is the rest of their debut.

Good Shoes - Morden

20. The Rakes - Ten New Messages

The Rakes, along with Bloc Party were one of the great hopes of 2005: sharp indie without pretending to be about anything other than middle-class angst. While the Arctic Monkeys were chronicling the working class travails of clubbing and pubbing, the Rakes were worrying about their 22 Grand Job in the city. It's therefore completely understandable why the Rakes also on their second album went the Bloc Party route and attempted a sort of concept-album about a day in the life of living in London, even if they are nowhere near as successful. There are still some brilliant moments here, such as the opener, originally commissioned for a fashion show(!), the World Was a Mess But His Hair was Perfect, which effortlessly targets the hypocrisy of bourgeois hipsters and the facile anti-Americanism which exists, even while they continue to drink Budweiser and smoke hash, most likely while wearing Levis. Gobsmackingly good also is "Suspicious Eyes", which ought to win an Ivor Novello for its quite brilliant first person narrative from three different perspectives on a post 7/7 underground train. It slips slightly towards the conclusion, but the first half is remarkable.

The Rakes - Suspicious Eyes

19. Hadouken! - Not Here to Please You

Not technically an album, instead rather a "mixtape" released on USB stick only, Not Here to Please You showcases probably the most "now" act currently around. Mixing grime, hip-hop, new-rave and even metal guitars on occasions, Hadouken! ought to be rubbish and very quickly forgotten. Somehow, it works, and while like other bands of their nature casual misogyny seems to seep in on "Girls" and "Tuning In", you can't deny the urgency of "Liquid Lives", even if the Noisia remix is far better than the original. Leap of Faith, a download only single, shows where they intend to go from here, with its blistering pace which is far removed from their original material. Could such a band really be maturing already? Their debut album proper, out early next year, should provide the answer.

Hadouken! - Liquid Lives

18. Coheed and Cambria - No World for Tomorrow

Technically the second part to 2005's Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV, Volume One: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, if you manage to ignore the prog-rock wankery and fact that this is the final chapter of a story, with the first chapter the next album to be released, C & C do still manage to specialise in good old fashioned tunes. While the previous album marked a change from the post-hardcore emo of their first two albums towards an even more progressive outlook, No World for Tomorrow pays tribute more to 80s metal, especially on the squealing guitar solos of Gravemakers & Gunslingers. While there isn't anything here as magnificently urgent as "Welcome Home", which played homage to Kashmir, the melodies on the Running Free and Sanchez's harmonising are still top of the draw.

Coheed and Cambria - The Running Free

17. Dartz! - This is My Ship

Like Kubichek!, even sharing that essential exclamation mark, Dartz! created an album full of pogoing math-rock and the aptly named disco-punk, surpassing their soundlikes with quite some ease. The breakdowns, time signatures and shouting response lyrics are all in evidence, and on "A Simple Hypothetical" all is summed up by the chanting of the title followed by "we've got a job to do!", which they seem to have quite easily achieved. Single "Once, Twice, Again!" is quite rightly up there with some of the best of the year. You also can't help but warm to a band gently mocking their being nominated for the XFM Best New Music award, as the website puts it, alongside such luminaries as "Kate Nash and Enter Shikari".

Dartz! - A Simple Hypothetical

16. Marcus Intalex - Fabriclive 35

While most of the other so-called superclubs established at the start of the decade or just before have fell by the wayside, Fabric has if anything continued to grow in strength. Alongside the eclectic nights it puts on, its line of "Fabriclive" and Fabric" albums continue to surpass almost all the other DJ mixes and compilations put out by anyone else, this year alone releasing great sets from the likes of Spank Rock and LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. I'm sorry to admit that I hadn't heard of Marcus Intalex prior to this release, but he's certainly now up there with the very best that drum and bass has to offer. The current trend amongst most dnb DJs is to get as many tracks into their sets as humanly possible - the average CD having at least 25 or 30 crammed in. Intalex goes for the opposite route: still packing in 19 into an hour and 17 minutes, but letting the liquid funk he plays linger long enough for you to actually enjoy it. The smoothness of the mix is unequaled this year, so much so that this quite rightly deserves a place in any album of the year list.

15. Soulwax - Most of the Remixes

There are two ways to remix a track: you either beef it up or minimalise what you're given to work with, or you throw the whole lot out, start from the beginning and only include passing moments of the original. Soulwax know when to use the former and the latter: their still massive rejig of Gossip's Standing in the Way of the Control only really tightens the bass and ups the speed, while DJ Shadow's Six Days, a mournful slow original is given more urgency. Then there are their versions of Klaxons' Gravity's Rainbow, an already decent original, but their remix slows it down only to then up the ante with the guitar, and the unimaginable remake of the fat dancer from Take That's Lovelight, which takes a sow's ear and turns it into a silk purse, all sirens and beats. Add in excellent reimaginings of LCD Soundsystem, Justice and Daft Punk, finished off with a brilliant rework of Muse's Muscle Museum, and a second disc with some other remixes in the mix, and this is a fantastic value package.

Robbie Williams - Lovelight (Soulwax Ravelight Dub)

14. Manic Street Preachers - Send Away the Tigers

Who honestly thought that the Manics were capable of another great album? Every sign has been since Everything Must Go and Richey's disappearance before it that the Manics were in slow but inexorable decline. The decision following the failure of Lifeblood to pursue their own solo projects seemed to be the death-knell of the group; on the contrary, after returning from their personal exploits the band seems to have found a second wind. The reversing of the "Rs" in their name, like on their opus the Holy Bible was a statement of intent: as evidenced by their return to sloganising and politicking on "Rendition", to my knowledge the only song so far about the CIA's kidnapping and outsourced torturing of "terrorist suspects", and the rant against neo-colonalism of "Imperial Body Bags". Elsewhere, they produced their finest single in years in "Your Love Alone is Not Enough", featuring the singer from the Cardigans, and the one-two punch of "Indian Summer" and "The Second Great Depression". Ignoring slight misfires "Underdogs", a rather heavy-handed tribute to the fans, and "Autumnsong", with its awful lyrics, and SATT suggests there's still fire in the Manics' bellies.

Manic Street Preachers - Rendition

13. High Contrast - Tough Guys Don't Dance

No one else in drum and bass has been as consistent or as downright imaginative in recent years as Hospital Records' High Contrast, aka Lincoln Barrett. Providing the antidote to the finally dying down runaway train that was jump-up, HC's liquid funk continues to improve, with Tough Guys Don't Dance undoubtedly his finest album so far. Taking just as much influence from old film soundtracks as he does from the roots of d&b, the anthems If We Ever and Everything's Different only confirm his crossover appeal, now being requested to remix numerous other artists. The album closer, "Ghost of Jungle Past", manages to look both forward and backwards at the same time, an admirable feat.

High Contrast - Ghost of Jungle Past

12. Liars - Liars

Liars continue in their efforts to create a genre all of their own. Following from the brilliant, avant-garde and kraut-rock influenced Drum's Not Dead, their fourth album doesn't quite live up to its forerunner, but still has enough melt your face off riffs, especially in the form of single "Plaster Casts of Everything" and sheer mood of foreboding that runs throughout to earn itself another high place in this year's best albums lists.

Liars - Plaster Casts of Everything

11. Future of the Left - Curses!

Apart from having a great name, Future of the Left, made up of the remnants of Mclusky and Jarcrew carry on the tradition of making great critically acclaimed and fan-loved material whilst failing to break through into the mainstream. That's probably more than alright with them, but you can't help feeling they deserve better. Curses! simply rocks incredibly hard: in the words of Drowned in Sound, mixing ear-shredding punk and avant-garde rock squall, along with the same at times nonsensical lyrics and at other times hilarious sense of sardonic humour which perforated the Mclusky albums. How many other bands would write a song that involved the lyric "Mark Foley was right", or indeed, even know who Mark Foley is? Highlight is probably "Small Bones Small Bodies", with the title chanted incessantly over the grinding background.

Future of the Left - Small Bones, Small Bodies

10. iLiKETRAiNS - Elegies to Lessons Learnt

2007 perhaps showed that post-rock is on its last legs. Where once it was confined to the listening habits of college students and others in "the know", the success of Sigur Ros, even if not strictly a post-rock band, seems to have opened the floodgates to every television producer to use various pieces from post-rock albums to fill whichever emotional or cathartic scene that such a score is required for. It's one thing to use Hoppipolla for Planet Earth, quite another to hear one of Explosions in the Sky's tracks on a BBC trailer. EitS's own album this year was a definite disappointment, and although Stars of the Lid's album, again not strictly post-rock but more ambient has been very well received, staleness seems to have finally caught up with the genre.

Thankfully, iLiKETRAiNS, featured on last year's list with their EP Progress / Reform returned this year with their long-awaited full-length. On first listen you might be disappointed: their choice of recording venue, a church, seems to have taken the tautness of their EP and demos and turned it into aural sparseness, but after a few listens you can appreciate why they did it, and it becomes even more clear if you take the opportunity to see them live. Live, their tightness and power is all too overwhelming. The literary quality and historical first-person narratives continue here, so much so that the band have provided explanatory essays to accompany the songs. Even without them, the brilliance of "The Deception" and "Spencer Perceval", a close to 10 minute opus about the only British prime minister ever to be assassinated are incredibly special. Their only worry is how to follow it up without repeating themselves amid the genre's limitations.

iLiKETRAiNS - Joshua and Victress (from the Deception single)

9. !!! - Myth Takes

Following up 2004's Louden Up Now was always going to be a challenge for Chk Chk Chk. Coming at the height of dance-punk's short critical and commercial favour, its foul-mouthed funk and taut rhythms conquered all before it. Somehow, 3 years later, it's as if they had never been away. Dropping the swearing but only sharpening the beats, Myth Takes owes perhaps more to LCD Soundsystem than it does to the Rapture, but what isn't in doubt is the quality of the material. Nearly the whole album could have been released as singles, but those that were, especially "Must be the Moon", about casual sex and a man who fails to satisfy his partner, and "Heart of Hearts" alongside the extended freak-out of "Bend Over Beethoven" more than equaled their previous album.

!!! - Bend Over Beethoven

8. Justice - Cross

The French duo who led this year's dance music renaissance in actual fact put out the relatively weakest album. However huge "D.A.N.C.E." was, and backed as it is by "Phantom" and "Genesis", some of the other tracks are relative filler. Best of the rest is "Stress" and "The Party", which manages to make Uffie even sound good.

Justice - B.E.A.T. (from the D.A.N.C.E. single)

7. Simian Mobile Disco - Attack Decay Release Sustain

It's fitting that Justice and SMD came to everyone's attention when Justice remixed Simian's "Never Be Alone", transforming it into the massive "We Are Your Friends". Frustrated by Simian's lack of success, James Ford and James Shaw branched out into Simian Mobile Disco, remixing and DJing their way into notoriety, especially with the massive "Hustler". The album, featuring "It's The Beat", "I Believe" and "Tits and Acid" was frustrating not because of the quality of the material, but because of its relative shortness: only radio edits instead of original full length mixes were released. Despite that, the collaborations with other artists, SMD's continuing remixes and their DJ compliations such as the Bugged Out! mix and the latest Mixmag cover mount only suggest they continue to go from strength to strength.

Simian Mobile Disco - I Believe (SMD Space Dub) (from the I Believe single)

6. Digitalism - Idealism

Where Justice are signed to Ed Banger, Digitalism are signed to Kitsune, without doubt the two biggest breakthrough labels of the year, apart from perhaps Transgressive. Coming along much the same path, having remixed artists as varied as Test Icicles, the Futureheads, Klaxons and probably the group all the new-wave owe the most to, Daft Punk, Digitalism produced by far the most coherent and well-mixed album of the 3 breakthroughs. From the opening pulses of "Magnets", the single "Pogo", which as they say does exactly what it says on the tin through to the track that relates that it "was the biggest party ever", it's hard to disagree.

Digitalism - Digitalism in Cairo (Extended Mix) (from the Idealistic single)

5. Klaxons - Myths of the Near Future

Worthy winners of the Mercury or not, and overlooking their rather drunken statement that they were the "most forward-thinking band" nominated, Klaxons' Myths is still a massive and highly enjoyable record. The "new rave" stuff may have been overegged, and their cover of Grace's classic "It's Not Over Yet" may be pretty dire, but it's hard to resist the swagger and melody of "Golden Skans" or the bleeping and sirens of "Atlantis to Interzone". Their deriders might say that they're just playing the same songs as everyone else except twice as fast, and their live show did for a while leave a lot to be desired, but great things still seem to beckon.

Klaxons - Elektrickery (Erol Alkan produced, from the Gravity's Rainbow single)

4. Maps - We Can Create

This was the record that should of won the Mercury. Created and recorded almost entirely in James Chapman's bedroom, it just oozes with everything that makes you think a lot of bands ought to go back to basics. Lush soundscapes, breathy vocals, ample amounts of distortion, influenced heavily by Spiritualized, Low and My Bloody Valentine, it received the critical acclaim it deserves but fewer of the sales. If you missed it for some reason, for God's sake go out and buy it.

Maps - To The Sky

3. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver

It's really hard to know quite where to put the top 3 of this list, as all three are both interchangeable and undoubtedly are the albums of the year. LCD Soundsystem, aka James Murphy was simply head and shoulders above everyone else in his/their genre this year, creating an album as effusive, convincing and simply enjoyable as could be achieved. It's hard to pick a stand-out track, such is the quality, although the singles "North American Scum" and "All My Friends" are outstanding, while both the opener "Get Innocuous!" to closer "New York..." showcase Murphy's talent to be both upbeat and downbeat with equal skill. A complete joy.

LCD Soundsystem - Get Innocuous!

2. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare

Ignoring the hideous artwork and their new band logo, the Arctic Monkeys' debut, despite the incessant hype and huge sales, wasn't quite the triumph which most claimed it to be. As brilliant as "When The Sun Goes Down" and "A Certain Romance" were, the obsession with clubs and pubs was tedious and got more so on repeated listens. Thankfully, for FWN they chose both a undoubtedly in-form producer in SMD's James Ford, and to eschew their previous material to, dare I say it, mature. The racket of "Brianstorm" has to be one of the best tracks to hit the top 3 of the chart this year, while the tenderness and social comment of "Florescent Adolescent" is just as good as on the previous album's Mardy Bum. Heavier if anything than their debut, the attack of "Teddy Picker", "Balaclava" and "Do Me A Favour" is matched only by the whimiscal downbeat of "505". Not content with producing an album of 12 great tracks, each single has been backed by 3 b-sides, with some of the content, especially the Brianstorm EP matching or even bettering that on the album. Far, far better and likely to be more influential in the long-run than the Libertines? Please let it be so.

Arctic Monkeys - Temptation Greets You Like Your Naughty Friend (from the Brianstorm EP)

1. Bloc Party - A Weekend in the City

Some of those who had fallen in love with BP's debut, Silent Alarm, were turned off by the far more experimental and concept form of A Weekend in the City. It is undoubtedly lead singer and lyricist Kele's album, which is either a good thing or bad thing depending on your point of view. The opener, Song for Clay, with its lyrics inspired by Bret Easton Ellis's Less than Zero, is just one of the tracks to polarise opinion: although once the tune gets going it's an excellent song, the lyrics are close to impenetrable, even if expressing the vacuousness of the modern existence of someone with a permanent disposable income. Unsurpassed though was the stomp of first single "The Prayer", the regret of "I Still Remember", which has been easily misconstrued as Kele coming out, the attack on scaremongering over the terror threat of "Hunting for Witches", the authentic voice of the disposessed and insecure minorities on "Where is Home?" and the self-loathing centrepiece "Uniform". Only adding to the bravery was the release of "Flux", which reached for the synths instead of the guitar and came out just right, although the live version is infinitely better than the recorded one. Like with the Arctics, Bloc Party didn't seem content with producing just one album, with there being a virtual other one in b-sides, not to mention the numerous remixes. For sheer hard work and aspiration alone, with the band already either planning to record the next album or doing so, A Weekend in the City deserves to be album of the year.

Bloc Party - Rhododendrons (from the Hunting for Witches single)

Related posts:
Last year's best and worst lists.

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Friday, December 28, 2007 

The most disappointing and worst music of 2007.

2007 has turned out to be a somewhat paradoxical year where music is concerned. It has both shown signs of a revival in genuinely exciting, increasingly experimental indie-rock - Battles and Foals, for example - while "dance" music, derided as dead just a couple of years ago has re-emerged Lazarus like, energized by the likes of Justice, Digitalism, Simian Mobile Disco and Soulwax, with the Kitsune and Ed Banger labels leading the field.

Conversely, 2007 has also seen the musical apocalypse accelerating, such has been the success of so many either unbearably average or completely shit bands, with the View and Reverend and the Makers, both so breathtakingly, mind numbingly dull and insipid, careering up the charts, while Jam rip-offs the Enemy have been similarly bewilderingly welcomed. The shadow of the Libertines, the most overrated band since Nirvana, who released a best-of this year despite only producing two albums, still hangs heavy over the "indie" scene, if you can now perhaps call the genre of music which seems to be the opiate of teenagers across the country in any way independent.

Something is also seriously rotten at the very core of music when an album of cover versions of songs only released in the last two or so years is the 4th biggest selling of the year. Quite why anyone would want to hear Oh My God by the Kaiser Chiefs as much as once more, let alone covered by Lily fucking Allen, would pose an unanswerable conundrum to even Wittgenstein. Granted, Amy Winehouse's cover of the Zutons' Valerie isn't too bad, but one song does not an album make. Never before also has the money grubbing of formerly big bands or groups reforming been so apparent or shallow: Take That's return encouraging both the Spice Girls and All Saints to reform, even though no one wanted either. The only two bands that anyone would really like to see back together again - Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, both of whom have played one-off live shows in the last few years - are so riven with their petty hatreds that comeback tours are inconceivable.

Here then is both the most disappointing and very worst of 2007 in music.

The Coral - Roots and Echoes

Bursting through in 2002, the Coral showed signs of being the possibly greatest band to emerge from Liverpool since the La's, while some even went as far as imagining that their brilliant mixture of Captain Beefheart style psychedelica, folk and peerless indie-pop was comparable with a 21st century Beatles. Their self-titled debut is undoubtedly one of the records of the decade - so head and shoulders above everything else that when it didn't win the Mercury music prize it seemed fitting, as so many other great albums failed to win to what are now viewed as vastly inferior works. The follow-up, Magic and Medicine, while not a patch on the debut, was by no means bad; and ignoring the mini-album Nightfreak and the Sons of Becker, the Invisible Invasion was also a decent effort. Roots and Echoes however showcases either a band in terminal decline or one simply not trying - most of the tracks are lifeless, almost parodied images of their first attempts. The energy which was synonymous with the debut had completely decayed, and while the singles, Who's Gonna Find Me and Jacqueline are reminiscent of previous triumphs like In the Morning and Leizah, the rest is limp and pedestrian.

The reasons for the decline, which vary from acrimony between members of the group who had been friends since childhood to the copious amounts of drugs which they have infamously consumed, none still really explain why a group which oozed vitality has come so apparently far from their roots. Unlike other bands that stop innovating and ruin their best material as a result by keeping going, you have to hope the Coral split rather than take the Oasis route.

VA - Radio 1 Established 1967

How better then to celebrate 40 years of the greatest radio station on earth than to get today's best bands to cover songs from over the entire 40 years' of its existence? What could possibly go wrong?

From the Kaiser Chiefs, who only have one song and have recorded it now around 30 times, who cover the very first song played on Radio 1, The Move's Flowers in the Rain, the whole 2cd set doesn't just stink, it's the equivalent of rotten potatoes, onions and decomposing flesh all mixed together and then thrown at the Fratellis for so much as daring to cover All Along the Watchtower. The irony of covering a cover of a cover, in that they attempt to perform Jimi Hendrix's version, and fail in such a way that you truly wish they had never set eyes on a guitar is quite obviously completely lost on a band that also only have one song and it's one that is chanted on football terraces, a usually sign of creating a monster. Someone must have been laughing in a similar way when Razorlight were asked to cover Englishman in New York - a total twat singing a song written by a total twat. While few of the songs are as offensive as the above examples, there's something truly staggering about how the View were either asked or decided to cover Don't Look Back Into the Sun by the Libertines - that'll be a band that are an exact clone of them except even worse and whose best known song is based around how the singer has been wearing the same jeans for 4 days going completely through the motions.

Surely if you're going to do a cover version you might as well do something almost interesting with it - and most of the bands here that will have been completely forgotten in another 40 years don't even bother trying. It's an indictment of the vast majority of so-called "indie" bands featured that it's Girls Aloud doing Teenage Dirtbag and Corrine Bailey-Rae producing an inspired version of Steady As She Goes that come out with the most credit from the teeth-pullingly painful 2 hours plus length.

Mika - Life in Cartoon Motion

Just where do some of these people come from? Mika emerged from absolutely nowhere, with no hype, no MySpace fame, no apparent huge PR push to blanket radio airplay and to be one of the biggest selling artists of the year. If even a slight, tiny amount of that success was warranted, you might just accept it; as it is, with Mika being the bastard spawn of the Scissor Sisters and the Bee Gees, squealing like Aled Jones before his balls dropped, and dumping such pure shit on our heads as "Big Girls (You Are Beautiful)", a cynical ploy if there ever was one, you're inclined to demand to know where he was prior to the beginning of this year. Is he illegal? Is he an alien? Is he Satan himself? After suffering him, we deserve to be told.

Scouting for Girls - Scouting for Girls (Although, primarily, She's So Lovely)

Unlike with Mika, we do know where Scouting for Girls came from: namely, the wilds of MySpace. We were sold the internet as being great for learning, for removing the hierarchical access to knowledge which the privileged had exercised for decades. In practice, it's unleashed a cavalcade of hardcore pornography, allowed office workers to poke each other electronically on Facebook, let nerds have arguments in their own bedrooms about whether an image can be legally used or not on Wikipedia, and given the great unwashed access to all the terrible bands that previously would never have been noticed and quite rightly never got anywhere. Last year MySpace gave us the delights of Sandi Thom and Lily Allen; this year, Scouting for Girls were discovered. I could now spout some further venom about how SfG are the worst group to have ever decided that they could play instruments, or I could just paste the lyrics to She's So Lovely:

I love the way she fills her clothes
she looks just like them girls in Vogue
I love the way she plays it cool
I think that she is beautiful

She's so lovely (7x)

She's pretty
a fitty
she's got a boyfriend though
and that's a pity

She's flirty
turned thirty
aint that the age a girl gets really dirty

I don't know (3x)
how we'll make it through this

I don't know (3x)

I love the way she bites her lip
I love the way she shakes her hips
I love the way she makes me drool
I think that you are beautiful

She's so lovely (7x)

A stunner
I wonder
was she this fit
when she was 10 years younger?
come see me, discretely
she said she's got a trick or two
to teach me

I don't know (3x)
how we'll make it through this

I don't know (3x)

I think that you are lovely (7x)
I think that you are beautiful

She's so lovely (7x)

I don't know (3x)
how we'll make it through this

I don't know (3x)

Oh oh oh oh...

Kate Nash - Made of Bricks

Admit it: you knew this was coming. There are very, very few music artists that manage to put me in such a state of apoplexy that I consider it would be good therapy to go to one of their gigs and throw rotten fruit/bottles filled with piss/pint glasses/house bricks/grenades at them. Sandi Thom, with her conflation of punks and hippies was one. Kate Nash is another.

Unlike Mika, you can at least see why Nash has been successful. After Lily Allen's emergence last year, a whole legion of "mini-Allens" were identified who performed much the same interminable "aren't I street" act, all who had previous asshole boyfriends that they wrote songs about. Unlike with Allen however, who despite her famous father did have something slightly genuine about her, Nash was a middle-class chancer who'd been to the same drama school as the Kooks had. At least the Kooks didn't pretend to be anything other than middle-class kids who could come up with a half-decent melody; Nash, however, portrayed herself as anything but, calling herself a "chav" and reacting angrily to accusations she was anything other than "4 real". Again, this could have been excused if like Allen her songs were at least bouncy: my main complaint about Allen was her terrible lyrics. Nash however manages to combine being completely phony with dull as dishwater music, a fake accent and, you guessed it, terrible lyrics. The very worst of her output, from her biggest hit Foundations:

You said I must eat so many lemons
'cause i am so bitter.
I said
"I'd rather be with your friends mate 'cause they are much fitter."

Except, in Nash's patois, it isn't bitt-er and fitt-er; it's bitt-ah and fitt-ah. Ignoring that lemons aren't bitter, they're sour, which is a common misconception, there can be few lines that sum up the emptiness of teenage life so effectively: we don't care about it when it happens to our friends, and we sure as fuck don't want to hear about it in song form. She even sings

Oh, my gosh, I cannot be bothered with this

exactly like Catherine Tate's Lauren, and she doesn't seem to be paying homage.

Despite all this, the majority of the critics still didn't see through her, apart from the usual snobs on the internet review sites. The Grauniad's Alexis Petridis was about the only one who gave it a sour, sorry, I mean bitt-ah, review. Nash even went so far as to claim that the follow-up single Mouthwash was err, about the Iraq war:

“With ‘Mouthwash’ I read this play called Guardians about a female soldier who was pictured torturing Iraqis,” Nash explained to DiS.

“There’s a monologue from her and the one thing she says she couldn’t get out of her head was these women buy toothpaste, like they’re in a totally different world but they’re the same as her.

Perhaps not as ridiculous as some might first think, Nash explained:

“When you strip away everything from someone you have the same basic needs like brushing your teeth so this was saying don’t judge me... it’s a bit of a protest song really.”

The lyrics to which were:

This is my face, covered in freckles with an occasional spot and some veins.
This is my body, covered in skin, and not all of it you can see
And, this, is my mind, it goes over and over the same old lines
And, this, is my brain, it's torturous analytical thoughts make me go insane

And I use mouthwash
Sometimes I floss
I got a family
And I drink lots of tea

I've got nostalgic don't know
I've got familar faces
I've got a mixed-up memory
And I've got favourite places

And I'm sitting at home on a Friday night (2x)
And I'm sitting at home on a Friday night and I hope everything's going to be alright (2x)

This is my face, I've got a thousand opinions and not the time to explain
And this is my body, and no matter how you try and disable it, I'll still be
And, this, is my mind, and although you try to infringe you cannot confine
And, this, is my brain, and even if you try and hold me back there's nothing
that you can gain

Because I use mouthwash
Sometimes I floss
I got a family
And I drink lots of tea

I've got nostalgic don't know
I've got familar faces
I've got a mixed-up memory
And I've got favourite places

And I'm sitting at home on a Friday night (2x)
And I'm sitting at home on a Friday night and I hope everything's going to be alright (2x)

You can definitely see where she was coming from. This isn't to even mention other songs on her album, such as Dickhead:

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

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

or We Get On:

Saturday night
I watched channel five
I particularly liked CSI

If there was one person who you wouldn't shed any tears over if they were to be caught up in a suicide bombing, Ms Nash would be it.

To conclude with the words of John Brainlove:
I think the Iraq War was actually influenced by Kate Nash because she's so fucking brain splittingly awful in every possible way that she brings out the human genocidal impulse.

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Thursday, December 27, 2007 

A multiple tragedy, and potentially multiple deaths.

The first photo shows the exact moment of the suicide blast; the other two depict the aftermath.

The assassination of Benazir Bhutto is a multiple tragedy. On one level, it continues the personal family tradition of "martyrdom": her father, Zulfikar Ali, was both president and prime minister of Pakistan before he was executed in 1979, ostensibly on charges of conspiracy to murder, but seen more as politically motivated following one of a number of military coups in Pakistan's short independent history, led by Zia-ul-Haq. Haq himself died in a plane crash in 1988. While it is by no means an exact comparison, the Bhutto clan most closely resembles the Kennedys: they both offered and offer the least worst political ideology in their respective countries.

For all of Bhutto's failings, and she had many, varying from the allegations of corruption and murder to the established fact that she was complicit in the military intelligence funding of the Taliban, her return to Pakistan less than three months ago was still welcome. In the face of the blatant gerrymandering of the vote under Musharraf, she at the very least gave hope to her supporters that her presence would stop the military dictator from stealing yet another vote. While his announcement of a state of emergency removed even that, with the supreme court judges who had struck down his reelection as president purged and replaced with obsequious sycophants who overruled the original decision, the longest striptease in political history finally came to an end when Musharraf was forced to shed his army uniform, standing down as its head. Even though the suicide attacks that had increased exponentially since the siege of the Red Mosque and bin Laden's call for jihad against the army and government that helped justify the state of emergency had continued unabated, there was a still a chance that the parliamentary elections, set for early next month, would be somewhat free and fair.

Bhutto's murder has almost certainly destroyed any lingering possibility of that. Although it seems highly unlikely that Musharraf, his supporters or the army were involved in the shooting followed by suicide bombing, he has the most to gain. For all the talk from both Bush and Brown today of not letting terrorism destroy democracy, neither will find much to complain about should Musharraf reinstate the emergency or even declare martial law. Postponement of the elections, possibly permanently, is doubtlessly also on the agenda. It's therefore completely understandable why the initial anger, rather than being directed towards the radical Islamists that had previously so ruthlessly attacked Bhutto's vanity on the homecoming parade and took 140 lives with them in the process, is currently being directed the president's way. The rioting that is being reported in Karachi and in some other areas will gradually turn from reaction to mourning, but not before it too is used as justification for another twist in Pakistan's tortured recent history.

If not Musharraf then, who is most likely responsible? Suspicion will instantly turn towards either al-Qaida itself or the Taliban, who had threatened to assassinate Bhutto and who nearly succeeded previously. The other chief suspects will be independent but al-Qaida inspired militants who declared war after the siege of the Red Mosque, or possibly remnants of other Pakistani terrorist groups formerly more concerned with Kashmir but now also increasingly focused on events in their home country itself. If it is the work of al-Qaida, then it will be the first high profile assassination that they have successfully achieved: while Ayman al-Zahawiri's former organisation al-Jihad aka Islamic Jihad had attempted to kill the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and there have also been previous attempts on Musharraf himself which have only been narrowly thwarted and afterwards linked to al-Qaida, their style has usually been to slaughter innocents, not specifically target politicians. Ramzi Yousef's plans to kill either Bill Clinton or the Pope were not strictly ever the work of al-Qaida itself, despite his involvement with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: he was probably the closest takfirist terrorism has come to someone who just liked making bombs and killing people rather than caring about the religious motive, however spurious, behind it.

The rather hysterical claims that Pakistan now faces civil war or at the least the possibility of it are for the moment premature. The government has never really controlled the semi-autonomous, tribal regions of the east next to the Afghanistan border, and it's there that the real battle against those supportive of the Taliban will be decided, not in the cities, despite the suicide bombings which have mostly so far targeted either soldiers or military installations. What Bhutto's assassination has done is thrown even the semblance of normality in the country completely out of the window; how Musharraf responds will be crucial. A temporary harsh crackdown is likely unavoidable, and with the one remaining popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif declaring he will boycott the elections, there's little reason for him not to go even further and once again rule by decree, again possibly for as long as the West tolerates it.

Whoever was behind the attack, when they murdered Bhutto they were also attempting to kill an idea, an ideology, even hope itself. However the people and the government of Pakistan reacts to this latest atrocity, they should not lose sight of Bhutto's own dream of a secular, peaceful and democratic Pakistan, even if her own flaws and lust for power of that imaginary nation should have disqualified her from leading it. From even the most dreadful and despicable of acts, good can still be drawn. Mourn now and fight for that ambition another day.

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Monday, December 24, 2007 

Standing in the way of control.

It's Christmas Eve, so let's have a shooting fish in a barrel contest. Tony McNulty, the ghastly minister of state for security, counter terrorism, crime and policing writes into the Grauniad to defend control orders after Gareth Peirce, one of the lawyers acting for some of those under them savaged them last week:

Gareth Peirce's article (Britain's own Guantánamo, December 21) seriously exaggerates both the use of, and conditions for individuals on, control orders.

How then does McNulty defend control orders? By, err, exaggerating the safeguards, and being downright evasive and selective in regurgitating some of the facts.

The UK faces an unprecedented threat from terrorism and the government's top priority is to protect the public. There are certain individuals who we have strong suspicion are involved in terrorist activity but who we cannot prosecute or, if they are foreign nationals, deport.

This to begin with is nonsense. If the evidence held against the men was made admissible, most of which was obtained through phone-tapping, then they could almost certainly be tried. There is of course another suspicion as to why they haven't been prosecuted: that the intelligence is so thin that even if wiretapping was admissible it still wouldn't be enough for the CPS to authorise a prosecution. McNulty strangely doesn't mention that they are attempting to deport many "terrorist suspects" under "articles of understanding" to countries where torture is endemic, a piece of paper promising that such brutality won't be used against our returnees.

Peirce's claim that considerable numbers of people don't know the case against them is simply wrong. We use control orders only in a limited number of carefully selected cases. Fourteen people are currently subject to a control order and none of them is under house arrest. Control order obligations are tailored to the risk posed by the individual concerned.

I don't know about you, but I would describe a 16-hour home curfew, which is what most of those on control orders are under, where they are electronically tagged, have to report to a police station daily, are denied access to the internet or telephone, and are only allowed very select visitors who are authorised in advanced as little better than house arrest.

There are also strong safeguards to protect their rights. For example, where a controlled person cannot see the evidence against them for security reasons, an independent legal representative is appointed who can see the evidence and make representations on their behalf. And each control order is subject to mandatory review by the high court.

But that representative, who is appointed by the state, not the defendant, still cannot inform the person under the control order what the allegations against them are. To know what you are accused of has been a right since the dark ages, that's how far the Kafkaesque control order system has dragged us back. That each control order is subject to mandatory review makes little difference:
when Mr Justice Beatson quashed an order on a Tunisian and made clear that he felt he should be prosecuted, the former home secretary John Reid just imposed a slightly less restrictive order on him and completely ignored the judge's recommendation.

The House of Lords recently endorsed the principles of the control order regime, and the independent reviewer of counter-terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, concluded in his last annual report that control orders remained a necessary and proportionate response to the current threat.

Now this is where the bullshit really starts to fly. The law lords most certainly did not endorse the "principles of the control order regime"; it was asked to rule on whether 18-hour curfews under control orders were in breach of Article 5 of the Human Rights Act, the right to liberty, which they duly found that they were. They did however rule that 12-hour curfews were permissible, and because Lord Brown in a dissenting opinion wrote that he thought 16-hour curfews were also potentially legal, the wonderful Jacqui Smith immediately pounced and in some cases made the orders more restrictive as a result. The law lords also ruled that those under the orders and their lawyers must be given access to some of the secret evidence currently held from them, although how this will work out in practice is still yet to be ascertained. As for Lord Carlile, he seems to have gone native.

I wish we did not need control orders. Sadly, given the threat we face and the activities certain individuals are undertaking to harm us, we do.

If the government really wanted to, it could easily prosecute all of those under the orders, some of whom have never even been questioned by the police. That it still refuses to and also seems to continue to refuse to make phone-tap evidence admissible shows up McNulty's closing remarks as utterly self-serving.

So, err, merry Winterval! Be back in a couple of days and I'll probably do a best of, best and worst music of the year and most likely some other tedious shite. Have a good one.

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Sunday, December 23, 2007 

The politics of pornography.

Marina Hyde writes convincingly on how pornography is shaping young men's expectations of sex:

The marvellous website touched on this theme recently, having identified an experiential trend among the staff's acquaintances. Several of these women had been on a first date, ended up sleeping with the guys, and the men had ejaculated on their face without asking.


Now, either these guys were just borderline rapists, or - way more likely and way more scarily - they simply didn't know any better.

I don't think it is either misogyny or, as Hyde puts it, borderline rape, but rather that pornography has changed, even from the early days when it was far more storyline-based and also erotic, into a series of perversions where women are sex objects rather than individuals whose sexual pleasure is just as important as that of the man's. The "studs" are there to have their every demand catered for by the "slut", whether it goes from the banal in pornographic terms of oral and "straight" sex, right up to the female performer having to rim or even felch the male, indulge in anal sex and then after all that, either take a "facial" or swallow his ejaculate. It's all about male power, and there are few more subjugating experiences for a woman than for the man to display his control over his lover than to come her on face. All of this though occurs in a controlled environment, in which the female performer has consented, most likely signed a contract which goes into exact details of what she's expected to do, probably received an enema and anesthetic if she's to "do anal", and then is handsomely paid for the privilege.

Unfortunately, young men especially don't see that pornography is fantasy, as Hyde points out. They expect women to be shaved or waxed, to perform blowjobs without any complaint and for them to be more than pleased when they come on their faces. After all, don't the women in porn at times beg for it, or even love it? Apart from that, there's also anecdotal evidence that teenagers especially are increasingly expecting their girlfriends to obligingly partake in anal, so commonplace has it become in pornography that they almost seem to imagine that the backside is self-lubricating, and that it's neither painful or messy. Anal sex is in fact even more about power, pain and force than "facials" are, for the simple reason that few women find it pleasurable without immense practice: they can't help that they don't have the prostate gland which is what becomes stimulated in homosexual male intercourse.

Pornography of course isn't going to go away, and this is also where sex education, which needs real reform, should be coming in and separating the myths from the reality. Pornography itself, despite some notable exceptions, is designed for male consumption: women don't get much of a look in. That needs to change, and it's that that's most likely to lead to a sea change in attitudes. In the meantime, a moderate, modern feminism, one that doesn't immediately dismiss all those involved in pornography as either victims or abusers, and which accepts that sex and the media are bound together but that they can be either toned down or that women themselves should be taking control, is sorely needed.

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Bear shits in woods.

In a shock move, Pope Benedict has renounced his Catholic faith and will be stepping down as God's messenger on Earth with immediate effect. Questioned why just before Christmas he was abandoning Jehovah, Joseph Ratzinger was brusque:

"It's that Tony Blair. I might have been the figurehead of a church which through its policies on abortion and contraception condemns many of the world's poor to further unnecessary misery, but to share the same faith as a war criminal responsible in part for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis was just too much of a burden to bear."

Obsolete did attempt to contact Mr Blair for comment, but was met only with a reply from his spin doctor, the archangel Gabriel, who said:

"We don't do war."

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British sex for British people!

Unbelievably vile cliches and prejudices from the News of the Screws, via PP and Parbury:

A GIRLFRIEND set to marry her fiancé flushed her relationship down the drain when she started having sex with their Polish plumber.

Besotted Lindsey Goodman, 26, has now left Philip Martin and moved in with new love Adam Stojak.

Randy Stojak—one of the millions of East Europeans over here accused of taking British jobs—admitted he had no qualms about stealing our women too.

Perhaps Gordon Brown/the BNP can take up the News of the Screws's clarion call and start demanding British sex for British people.

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Friday, December 21, 2007 

We need to talk.

I realise I'm very late to the party on this one, but in the last couple of weeks I finally got round to reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. I have a terrible habit of starting books, especially novels, and not finishing them: I must have at least 4 or 5 that I've recently began and either lost enthusiasm for or simply find myself picking up another when I go to grab one. It doesn't help that Age Concern have recently opened up a second hand charity bookshop in town, which proves too much of a temptation, especially when I find gems like Bakunin on Anarchy for less than a pound. (Even more rewarding was that inside was a cutting from the Guardian on the 100th anniversary of his death from 1976!)

I found Kevin though completely impossible to put down. Whilst I have read Shriver's articles in the Guardian, they don't in anyway prepare you for the sheer virtuosity of the prose: flowing, vivid and thrilling. The questions it asks which are never answered in the pages are put into a perspective which you never previously would have seen them from. The only real flaw is that if anything Kevin is just too benevolently vile, so much so that it justifies Eva's cruel unwillingness to really attempt to like him, yet alone love him, even from when he was first placed on her breast. While not wishing to give anything away for those who haven't read it, I didn't quite foresee the final explanation for why Eva is writing to her ex-husband, although I came very close to doing so. By most accounts Shriver's follow-up seems to have simply tried drawing her narrative out too far: Kevin is by contrast just the right length. Shriver's opus is the diametric opposite to Vernon God Little, also a fine recent novel on school shootings, although nowhere near as satisfying.

Next up, apart from the Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright and Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran for my non-fiction fix, I've got The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

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Suicide is painless.

"If these [findings] were true ... I would not only resign, I would go out and commit suicide."

Such were the words of Ronnie Flanagan, now Sir, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, when Nuala O'Loan delivered her report into the police handling of the Omagh bombing. Flanagan wasn't the only one who was critical: Peter Mandelson said that she had shown a "certain lack of experience and possibly gullibility".

O'Loan's findings have now been backed up by Mr Justice Weir, who found Sean Hoey not guilty of 29 murders. Low copy number DNA evidence has also been suspended as a result.

To come back to Flanagan: are you going to get the noose or are we, you fucking cowardly liar?

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Yet more on Manhunt 2.

The BBFC have found a judge willing to let their ridiculous argument against personal responsibility justify a judicial review:

British censors have won the right to fight the UK release of video game Manhunt 2 in the High Court.

A judge accepted the British Board of Film Classification's argument that the game had been approved for release on a misinterpretation of the law.


The BBFC said that the VAC had been guilty of "a very serious misdirection of law" on the question of harm.

The judge said: "I have taken into account the high public interest in the possibility of harm to children."

Mr Justice Wyn Williams ruled the Board had an arguable case that should go to a full hearing.

Both sides agreed that the game was not suitable for children, but the BBFC argued that if given a certificate for release, it could still end up in the hands of minors

Now this is interesting. The BBFC's original decision to reject Manhunt 2 made clear that

to issue a certificate to Manhunt 2, on either platform, would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks, to both adults and minors.

The BBFC seems now to have abandoned their specious argument that its content could harm adults, and fell back on the always persuasive but bankrupt claim that even if the game was released at 18, it could still get into the hands of children. This is the exact same argument as used at the time of the video nasty moral panic: Mary Whitehouse and co didn't want to stop adults from choosing what to watch, they only wanted to protect the children, but to do so would involve err, stopping anyone from being able to make that choice. The compromise measure was the Video Recordings Act, but by then some of the "nasties" had already been prosecuted under the fundamentally illiberal Obscene Publications Act, where the jury only had to find that whatever was brought before the court had the potential to "deprave and corrupt", and in James Ferman, there was a censor who was more than prepared to cut and ban the "trash", but who came out in defense of "art", such as Crash.

While the BBFC should always consider whether films and video games that are made for adults have the potential to "harm" children, it should never be used as a reason for banning either from adult consumption. We don't ban alcohol or cigarettes because they're especially damaging to children; we age restrict them, and it's up to the retailers and parents to ensure that they don't get into their hands, not the manufacturers or in this case, the BBFC's. The BBFC's final comment on refusing Manhunt 2 a certificate is still telling:

...and accordingly that its availability, even if statutorily confined to adults, would be unacceptable to the public.”

The BBFC has of course no evidence whatsoever to prove this would be the case. It instead took into account the reaction it
imagined that its certification would receive, especially considering the Daily Mail and certain politicians' opportunism following the Stefan Pakeerah murder. It would have never been so cowardly about almost any film: video games are however now subject to the same fallacious moral panic that horror films were in the early 80s.

There is one silver lining for Rockstar:

The BBFC said it would pay any damages that developer Rockstar might suffer as a result of the stay, if the Board loses its legal challenge.

I still can't see any other decision than one against the BBFC in an actual review; Rockstar still might yet get its revenge.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007 

Winning hearts and minds with our superior values.

(I'd already finished writing this once, went to post and my browser crashed and lost the whole thing. It doesn't seem anywhere near as good second time, so apologies.)

Famously, when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he replied that it would be a good idea.
Jamil el-Banna, after spending the last five years of his life experiencing the very worst that our superior values have to offer, would surely be loth to disagree with that sentiment.

His first mistake was to decline the kind offer of MI5 for him to inform on his friends, who included Abu Qutada, currently being held indefinitely pending potential deportation to Jordan, in exchange for his family being comfortably provided for in another country. His second mistake was to believe the MI5 agent who visited him who told him that if he had a valid travel document they would not stop him from leaving the country. Not only was he detained when he and Bisher al-Rawi attempted to leave for the Gambia, when they were finally allowed to leave MI5 sent to the CIA completely unfounded allegations that they were carrying with them bomb parts. The Gambian authorities detained them on arrival and the CIA then rendered them to Guantanamo. In the shameful whitewashing of MI5's involvement in the rendition programme produced by the parliamentary intelligence and security committee, the panel of MPs moved the goalposts so that their detainment without charge for 4 years was not an "extraordinary rendition" in that they had been rendered to a place where they were destined to be tortured by the CIA's lackeys or its above the law officers, but rather a "rendition to detention". The British security services were therefore cleared of any involvement by the committee in extraordinary rendition.

If el-Banna had been British and involved in any crime other than say, paedophilia or terrorism, he'd of been welcomed home, everyone would have been sympathetic or even outraged at his four years of detention without charge or trial, at one point being force-fed by his American military captors, and nothing more would have been said. Compare for instance the fanfare that Kenny Richey is deservedly receiving with the treatment that el-Banna has had. The little fact that the Americans even admitted that el-Banna was no threat to anyone and that he was cleared by the Combatant Status Review Tribunal as the case against him was so laughably thin, which has been almost completely ignored by the media, would have been trumpeted from every available rooftop. The case itself amounted to little more than he was an acquittance of Abu Qutada, with the previous Spanish indictment also held against him.

Instead he's been subjected to ridiculous questioning from the Tories about the "threat" he, Omar Deghayes and Abdennour Samuer might pose to "national security". "Dame" Pauline Neville-Jones, appointed the Tories' security minister by David Cameron, a career member of the "UK Diplomatic Service", or in other words, a spook, who had also formerly served as chairman of the joint intelligence committee, popped up and started demanding answers to the most asinine and inane questions she could think up, knowing full well that the government never comments on matters of national security anyway. Her pathetic, exasperating perfomance, slurring her sentences and ordering to be listened to in the way that only a lady of her stature and class can only exemplified how the establishment she belongs to had almost completely abandoned these men. As for the Scum, it informed everyone not to succumb to "anti-American sentiment" and that whether the men were a risk or not, they need to be watched for years to come, taking away surveillance teams from other vital work. In other words: welcome home, now fuck off and die so we can get back to watching the real terrorists.

First and foremost, all three of these men have been victims of the most shameful miscarriage of justice. Deghayes has lost the sight in one of his eyes as a result of his detention, while both he and el-Banna were force-fed after taking part in the hunger strikes organised after the beating of detainees, a backtrack on a promise to extend the rights of the detainees nearer to those within the Geneva convention and the desecration of Koran by guards on a number of occasions. Clive Stafford-Smith described the conditions in Cuba as the worst he had ever seen, despite his working on death row in America for 20 years. As a direct result, el-Banna, a man aged 45, could more easily pass for someone 20 years older, his hair prematurely grayed by his time spent at Guantanamo. Dress him up in a red suit and he'd look like a kindly Santa Claus, reunited with his children. To think he could be considered any kind of security risk is just as a much a fantasy as Father Christmas himself.

The attempt by Spain to extradite both el-Banna and Deghayes, which the British government must have known about and which they did nothing either to prevent or to inform the men's lawyers about is little short of disgraceful. The callous obtuseness of the government's abandoning them once again would be shocking if it wasn't so predictable. The Spanish request relies on the exact same evidence used by the Americans to justify their detention in Guantanamo in the first place. The Deghayes plea even involved the
comprehensively discredited claim that he was shown in a Chechen rebel video, similar to that used against the Tipton Three that was also proven to be false, with the man in the video identifed as Abu Walid, a well-known and now deceased Saudi mujahid. Even if the requests are eventually denied, they have been thrown once again into limbo for no good reason.

It is of course understandable that people are concerned about the three detainees' pasts, but the disquiet about their release is almost certainly down to the way that el-Banna especially ended up where he was. He is owed a debt by the government because of MI5's direct involvement in his detention, through a desire to be rid of him and al-Rawi, who had informed on Abu Qutada, which they thought they could get away with. Even though all the previous detainees returned to Britain to Guantanamo have never been charged with any crime and all have returned to their previous lives, still the chorus is of how this might be endangering our safety. The real threat has been and continues to be from the home-grown extremists which we don't know about, or at least MI5 pretends not to have known about as in the case of the 7/7 bombers. Increasingly, it will also come from the "university of terrorism" in Iraq, where those either finished with their involvement there, returning or traveling here with the intention of attacking foreign targets. To own up to this though would be for the government to acknowledge its own culpability in the worsening of the threat, and that's something which it has no intentions of doing, as shown by their treatment of el-Banna. Hearts and minds; superior values; so easy to discard and to deny to those judged to be our enemies.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007 

Bah, humbug.

Ah, the Sun. Like those England fans singing "Rule Britannia" when the team wasn't even winning against Croatia it will never surrender, especially not to the EU or to the "politically correct brigade". Joining one on and off campaign to another demanding fair treatment for our put upon troops, it earlier in the month announced that it was selling Christmas cards featuring all its columnists in the nativity scene, with the profits going to the "Help for Heroes" charity:

We’ve created the ultimate fun Christmas card that celebrates the pure joy of the Nativity story.

Our brilliant columnists have given their time FREE to recreate the scene 2,000 years ago in that lowly stable in Bethlehem.

They’ll love to see Lorraine Kelly as Mary, Fergus Shanahan as Joseph and Kelvin MacKenzie as their faithful donkey. Jeremy Clarkson, Ian Wright and Trevor Kavanagh are the three wise men.

The innkeeper is Jon Gaunt and his wife is played by Deidre Sanders. And the glad tidings are given to our four shepherds — David Blunkett, Terry Venables, Ally Ross and Chris Kamara — by the Angel of the Lord in the heavenly form of Jane Moore.

And David’s faithful guide dog Sadie is there to play the sheepdog.

It’s the perfect antidote to all those killjoys who try to downgrade Christmas by calling it Winterval, banning nativity plays or simply ban any mention of Christ at this holy time of the year.

These are no “season’s greetings”. The card proudly says Merry Christmas and inside: And a Happy New Year.

All in undoubtedly good taste and very wholesome. Except, as today's Private Eye reports, there was meant to be a DVD to go with the cards, until Rebekah Wade ordered that every copy of it be destroyed in an unprecedented act of killjoyishness from the Scum editor. She even warned that the DVD was so offensive that it would "sink the paper". To quote the Eye:

"A typical scene featured Sun executive editor Fergus Shanahan as Joseph, pretending to "shag" the Virgin Mary (Lorraine Kelly) while the donkey-suited Kelvin MacKenzie frolicked about on all fours, braying "If that's a story my prick's a bloater!"

Just what would those so disgusted by BBC Three's recasting of Mary and Joseph as asylum seekers think?

To blatantly steal another story from the Eye, it follows the emergence of the claims that the Healey Primary School in Rochdale had "banned Christmas cards" when they had in fact asked parents to send just one card to a whole class. A spokeswoman for the school added:

“The cost of so many cards is prohibitive for some families and we feel that children are often pressurised to act in the same way as their peers.”

Incredibly similar then to the story from last year about JobCentres in Tower Hamlets which had "banned" Christmas decorations when they had actually not put them up because they were concerned it might upset some of the families that weren't able to afford decorations themselves. A questionable decision perhaps, but not to avoid offending people of other faith as it was rapidly turned into. The Rochdale school hasn't banned the sending of cards, just gave a suggestion. The school is also putting on three Christmas productions and a carol service, so it's certainly nothing to do with political correctness either.

The Eye mentions how it was featured in the Express (which I can't find online) and in the Star which ignored all the facts with its front-page headline "Ban on Christmas cards in case they upset Muslims!", but the story was still working its way around Fleet Street up till yesterday, when the Daily Mail featured it alongside a quote from Nick Seaton, the chairman of "Campaign for a Real Education", whose pseudo-manifesto recommends that "Circle Time" (a more grown-up version of show and tell involving discussion, and completely harmless) shouldn't be allowed in schools and that drug and sex education, if provided at all, should aim at prevention, not harm reduction:

'I thing (sic) most sensible parents would be absolutely horrified by this decision.

"It strikes me as another attempt to remove Christmas from the classroom and the calendar altogether."

Even the Observer carried the story, proving that even the limp-wristed liberals can't turn away from a story based on very little facts whatsoever.

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When is a star not a star?

Tabloid editors across the land must have thought that Christmas had come early. After spending all day boozing at various locations, including a visit to a lap-dancing club, the Manchester United squad decamps to the Great John Street Hotel, where, according to "one male guest" courtesy of the Scum:

“I spoke to one stunner who had come up from London and another who had travelled from Newcastle.

“They were gorgeous — it was wall-to-wall babes. Most were aged between 18 and 30 and some were throwing themselves at the players."

It gets worse from there on in. In any case, at 4am the police were called over allegations of rape having taken place within the hotel.

Whenever something such as this happens, the first thing the tabloid editor does is think the worst. In Piers Moron's faux-diaries, he describes how after Concorde crashed that he was excitedly shouting and speculating about just who might have been on board. When his hacks informed him that it was mostly German tourists, he despaired coarsely and wondered how he was going to fill the pages he'd already ordered be set aside. His outburst was sent to Private Eye, which is probably the only reason the incident was included in the diaries at all.

A similar happening would have occurred in Wapping and everywhere else last night. Manchester United player arrested! Who could it be? Ronaldo? Rooney? Giggs? Even Tevez? Err, Jonny Evans. To which, the only cry would be "who he"? He's essentially a reserve team player, having featured in both the Carling Cup and in two of the Champions League games where the team played with a below full-strength side. He's also played for Northern Ireland. Not good enough for a huge splash to fill the glaringly empty pages just before Christmas, though.

It is of course still a big story, as would be any event involving footballers throwing both themselves and their money around. Shaun Wright-Phillips' birthday celebrations recently made the headlines after John Terry allegedly got so drunk that he urinated on the floor and then in a cup. Then again, it was in the News of the Screws, so it probably doesn't have even a grain of truth in it.

Both the Scum and Screws have to tread carefully over any such stories. Both papers have painful memories of having to pay Wayne Rooney £100,000 in damages after they alleged that he had slapped his girlfriend Colleen McCoughlin in front of the other Manchester United players and then told her to "fuck off home", while Frank Lampard, a teammate of Terry's, "writes" a column for the Screws. Private Eye noted that Lampard was described by the Screws' witness as being there but "he wasn't drunk or anything." Just to drum the message in, the photograph of Lampard has "QUIET NIGHT" plastered on it.

A similar non-story was Amy Winehouse's arrest, which had been pre-arranged and completely voluntary, presumably to answer questions about what she knew about her husband's alleged assault and perverting of the course of justice. Not even the Guardian consigned it to the "In Brief" slot it merited, going so far as to fall into the tabloid practice of describing her as troubled in the first word of the piece.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007 

The clunking Clegg.

It's Nick Clegg then. Or, probably more interestingly, it's Jacob Zuma. Perhaps if the Lib Dem leadership contest had been between a man acquitted of rape who had a shower after unprotected sex to ensure he didn't contract HIV and another who believes there is no connection between HIV and AIDS, the turnout might have gone up rather than down on the last contest, itself only conducted last January.

My own failure to raise any enthusiasm for the leadership contest seems to have been the default position even amongst most Liberal Democrats. Presented to them were two white men, one slightly younger and fresher faced than the other, both privately educated at err, the same school, both with much the same ideas as each other. Oh, Huhne tried to flush out Clegg's previous propensity towards more free-market ideology concerning the public services, and there were epithets of Calamity Clegg, but that was as far as it went. Their stupefying performances on both Newsnight and Question Time, apart from being soporific, only reinforced the notion that there was very little to nothing whatsoever to choose between them.

That impression is hardly going to be changed by Clegg's acceptance speech, after winning the vote by only slightly more than 500 votes. It might be that we've gotten use to leadership changes in politics recently, but it all sounded so familiar. Change and ambition! Ambition and change! Renewed ambition for Britain! Change Britain! Ambition to change Britain! Britain to change ambition! Change to Britain ambition! And so forth. Interchangeable to a T, the only real difference to the other leaders of the main political parties was Clegg's similarly tedious repetition of just how liberal both he and Britain is. You don't get that impression reading the Mail and Sun forums, that's for sure.

After all, this ought to be so easy for the Liberal Democrats. Clegg rightly identifies that Labour and the Conservatives are mutating into each other, but he's wrong that left and right have broken down. They're still there, just, it's that Labour and the Conservatives haven't wanted to be constrained by those labels for all the wrong reasons. The sense that Labour is decaying is becoming ever more evident, while David Cameron is so opportunistic that he's claiming to be a progressive with which even the Greens can find common cause. Somehow you can't imagine John Redwood and Caroline Lucas belonging to the same party. Brown has blown his inheritance while the Tories offer absolutely nothing but more of the same but with a slightly nastier face.

Given the choice, you get the feeling that most of the membership would have settled for Vince Cable staying in the job. Few politicians have made such an impact as he has in two months, going from a man with a charisma bypass who didn't look much younger than poor old Ming himself to a clunking fist in record time, or to use his own analogy backwards, from Mr Bean to Stalin. Granted, as Charles Kennedy has pointed out, he's had the benefit of knowing that he hasn't got to do the job permanently and with few of the duties of an actual leader, but from his boycott of the Saudi royal visit to his authority over the Northern Rock debacle, he's both sounded and played the part with panache.

Clegg will pick up the mantle with difficulty. Despite the lack of real difference, I slightly favoured Huhne for the position, more because Clegg seems a Cameron clone, or rather a clone of a clone, considering Cameron's own impersonation of Blair. He has yet to convince on any subject, while Huhne has handled his environment shadow job well. Going by his current performance on Newsnight, where his response to Paxman's question on three things where he would be advancing the Liberal Democrats, he said they would be concentrating more on education, health and crime; in other words, just like the other parties. Things, it seems, can only get worse.

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Scumbags, maggots, cheap lousy faggots.

Bemusement seems to be the right word to describe Radio 1's original decision to censor, of all songs, the Pogues' seminal Fairytale of New York. I long ceased listening to the station with its terrible playlist mixture of shitty indie and the very worst that rap/hip-hop has to offer, combined with the most egregiously annoying DJs since the Hairy Cornflake was forced into hanging up his mike, with the ghastly Chris Moyles, airheaded calamity Edith Bowman and irritant Scott Mills. Mark and Lard's departure was the final straw. Not that Radio 2 or any other station is any better.

The decision to censor "faggot" and "slut", whether out of an attempt not to offend anyone or not, shows a complete ignorance of the song. It's about a rowing couple in the drunk tank on Christmas Eve for Christ sake - and the exchanging of insults is the high point of the song. It's been playing on the radio uncensored for years, with I suspect no one except the most meddlesome and easily disgusted complaining. The only person the BBC could find to defend the original decision was Peter Tatchell - a respectable activist, but not one to turn to whenever anything even in the slightest bit disrespectful of gays is up for discussion. It's not even as if it's aimed at someone as a gratuitous insult rather than as part of an argument, where you might at least be able to see their point.

Surely though it ought to have been seen as sacrilege to alter it in the first place. It's both critically and popularly the greatest Christmas song of all time, mainly because it isn't slushy, sentimental, by Cliff Richard or really about the actual event other than it takes place on the day. It also reflects the oldest Christmas tradition - the inevitable argument. It'd be nice if after this everyone attempted to get it to number one instead of the habitual, hackneyed and revolting crap from the X-Factor that'll be sitting there come the weekend, but that is probably beyond even the collective power of the "blogosphere".

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165,000 asylum seekers sitting on the wall...

There's nothing quite like some humbug at Christmas. Both the Daily Mail and the Express today serve up some healthy servings of finest apoplexy, garnished with lashings of outrage sauce. It could only be both papers leading on how "165,000" asylum seekers are going to get an "amnesty".

See, that's two layers of bullshit just contained in the front page Mail headline. Before getting fully into it, let's have a look at James Slack's article in finer detail. (Those who read FCC probably find that name familiar: he writes most of the Mail's articles on immigration, and tends to pepper them with distortions.)

As many as 165,000 asylum seekers are to be granted an "amnesty" to live in Britain, it was revealed.

The vast bulk of the migrants are failed refugees whose files were left lying in boxes by bungling Home Office staff.

They have now been living here so long that officials have ruled that it would be a breach of their human rights to kick them out.

As said, we'll get to the 165,000 figure in a minute. Notice already that "the human rights" bogeyman has been brought up. As usual, this has very little to do with the Human Rights Act. Let's turn to the Grauniad for a report not laced with the usual dog-whistles:

More than 19,000 asylum seekers, some of whose cases date back more than 10 years, have finally been told they can stay in the country, the Home Office said last night.

They are among the first tranche of 52,000 cases that have been looked at as part of a Home Office "legacy" drive to clear a backlog of between 400,000 and 450,000 files.

Ah, so the actual figure at the moment is 19,000. It takes three sentences and 66 words before the Mail actually gets to reporting what has happened so far rather than what might happen in the future, whereas the Grauniad article gets straight to the point. Back to the Mail:

Ministers admitted that the first 19,000 have already been granted leave to remain under what the Tories described as a "stealth amnesty".

All will now be free to bring their relatives to Britain - and claim the full range of benefits.

As the Guardian article goes on, all those now given leave to remain, that's leave to remain, not British citizenship, have found themselves in limbo, in some cases for as long as 13 years because of Home Office cock-ups involving the losing of files, files that were found following the foreign prisoner scandal last year. As Polly Toynbee writes, "failed" asylum seekers are given hardly any benefits whatsoever - no housing, no access to schools and if the government has its way, no access to GPs. Most are handed £35 worth of vouchers that can only be spent at one store, with no change given, once a week. This Shelter page outlines the support that failed asylum seekers can claim, and the reality is if you're able-bodied and have no family that you'll receive almost nothing.

It's therefore a nonsense that this is any sort of amnesty. If it was, then all those who have been in limbo for however many years thanks to the original losing or forgetting of their files would have given blanket leave to remain. On the contrary, of the 52,000 of the files processed so far, 33,000 have either resulted in the deportation of the original applicant or have been found to be duplicates or riddled with mistakes. It takes 414 words before the Mail gets to admitting this.

How then has the Mail reached this magic number of 165,000? It's taken the percentage so far granted leave to remain from the initial cleared backlog and applied it to the most pessimistic estimate of how many files there are to work through. This is a ridiculous way to predict the numbers likely to allowed to stay: all it does create a handy figure for those opposed to asylum in the first place to bandy about which creates a completely false impression of the current scale of asylum, numbers of which have been dropping now for years, with the government getting ever harsher and more punitive, leading to genuine refugees like Jahongir Sidikov being refused permission to stay. This latest fiasco will do nothing to help the situation. Even if 165,000 were given leave to remain, that's still around 35,000 less than those traveling here every year from the A8 EU ascension states, and also a similar number less than those emigrating every year (PDF).

As it is, commentators like the ubiquitous "Sir" Andrew Green have no idea how many of those in these files have been refused asylum and how many were lost inside the system - seeing as 16,000 have been deported, that would suggest those were the ones already refused, with the others likely to have either been lost or been inside the system so long that it would be unfair and perverse to deport them now granted leave to remain. The cost of deporting them is astronomical, despite all the demands for them to be frog-marched on to planes, as if it was that easy. Far better that they become taxpayers and contribute to the actual economy rather than the hidden one. Claiming that they're now free to bring their families here is also wholly disingenuous: those that didn't in the first place either tend to not have any or were the only ones threatened. Believe it or not, those already settled aren't likely to up sticks just because a relative has finally been officially recognised. Also, as the number of illegal immigrants working in the security industry has showed, there's a shadow economy where cash is in hand and anything goes, while also making clear that the vast majority of migrants tend not to be "spongers". The policy ought to be to regularise them and reimburse the taxpayer rather than spending yet more money deporting them.

Slack and the Mail though have identified the real culprit:

The major reason why so many of the claims will be approved is the Human Rights Act.

Those who have been in the country for many years can claim it is now their home and they no longer have links to their homeland.

The legislation, passed by Labour, also prevents the removal of asylum seekers to countries where they could face torture or persecution, which is likely to apply to thousands of cases in the backlog.

A Home Office document on how the scheme - known as the Legacy Exercise by the department - will operate says "each case will be evaluated on its individual merits, with an assessment of any human rights factors that may be relevant".

Of course the Home Office document says that - just as every government department now has to take into consideration the HRA. The Mail is referring to the considerations that have to be taken under Article 8 - the right to respect for private and family life. This doesn't affect those that have no dependents or who are on their own, which already rules out plenty of single asylum seekers. As for the protection against torture or persecution, this doesn't seem to both worth the paper it's written on when deportations to countries such as Uzbekistan, the Congo, Sudan and Iraq are going on. In any case, the government would have had to taken both factors into consideration prior to the HRA as they are in the European Convention of Human Rights, which I've got tired of saying is what the HRA is based on. All the HRA has done is brought it into British law, whereas those previously had to go to Strasbourg to get their appeal heard. As ever, the HRA becomes the handy whipping boy.

Also, to clear up one of the misconceptions prevalent in the Mail's comments, those being allowed to stay are not being given British citizenship and so cannot vote until they apply, for which you now have to jump through numerous numbers of hoops in order to obtain. It, amazingly, isn't all a conspiracy designed to keep Labour forever in power on the back of immigrant and asylum seeker votes.

Indicative of the comments, with one or two slight exceptions, is this:

Isn't it against OUR human rights to have people in this country using our services when they have not paid for them? Isn't it against OUR human rights for OUR children to be in classes with pupils who cannot speak English, so the teacher’s time is wasted by these incomers? Isn't it against OUR human rights that immigrants get housing which is badly needed by English couples? Isn't it against OUR human rights that our Island is now so crowded with people who neither care nor want to be part of our country, yet want all the benefits? I could go on and on but what's the point. This government doesn't care about OUR human rights.

- Jan, London,England

Where on earth do you even start?

The reality on the ground is that there are two choices: either we continue to try to deport all those who are failed asylum seekers and/or illegal immigrants, the numbers of which could be anything up to around 600,000 or more, which has huge costs and which at the current rate will take decades, or we can implement the kind of selective policy that has been introduced here. An actual amnesty is attractive, but the lessons from Spain and Italy, both of which have previously implemented amnesties, is that it does little more encourage more migrants to come, waiting for the next "amnesty" to come along. There needs to be a carrot and stick approach, involving a very juicy carrot and a great big stick: either you become "legal", or well, you can get out. Afterwards, the points system currently planned, for all its faults, is probably the best option, with those with needed skills allowed to come. We certainly continue to need immigration, and if anything will need it more as our "indigenous" population ages. Those so furious in the Mail's comments would soon be gasping for the immigrants to return when the crops rot in the fields, the pensions of their children become worthless and the NHS withers. Then again, with some in those comments calling for a coup, perhaps that sort of thing is innately attractive.

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Monday, December 17, 2007 

BBFC still gunning for Manhunt 2.

Going from one organisation clutching at straws to another, the BBFC is to seek a judicial review into the Video Appeals Committee's decision that Manhunt 2 should not have been banned:

The BBFC is applying for a judicial review of the decision by the Video Appeals Committee to overturn the Board’s rejection of the video game Manhunt 2. The Board’s challenge also seeks suspension of the Committee’s decision that the game should be classified.

The BBFC is contesting the VAC judgement because in the Board's view, it is based on an approach to harm which is an incorrect interpretation of the Video Recordings Act. The VAC judgement, if allowed to stand, would have fundamental implications with regard to all the Board’s decisions, including those turning upon questions of unacceptable levels of violence. If the VAC’s decision is suspended, then the game will not be classified before the outcome of the Judicial Review.

There is again the precedent set by the legalising of hardcore pornography. In that case the VAC decided that the BBFC should have awarded R18 certificates to 7 submitted works, with the BBFC applying for a judicial review. They lost, with the high court finding that the VAC's decision had been correct, resulting in the BBFC shaking up its guidelines for R18s and in effect legalising the sale of hardcore pornography over the counter, or at least in sex shops.

One suspects that the BBFC are now playing for time. Last week, when the VAC decision was announced, Rockstar were very optimistically hoping that the game still might be on shelves by Christmas. The BBFC's clutching at the "harm" issue is revealing in this regard: as far as I can tell, no film has been cut for its depiction of violence itself, as opposed to sexual violence at 18 since the BBFC published the landmark findings of its survey of public opinions back in 2000. The survey overwhelmingly found that at 18 more or less anything apart from sexual violence and things already legislated against, such as animal cruelty, was acceptable to the public. Pseudo-documentariesdepicting real violence have been banned, and there's also the case of the cutting of the "Hanging Song" from a Ren and Stimpy cartoon which rightly disturbed and vexed its fans, with the BBFC apparently saying that it would be cut even if it were to be classified at 18, but apart from I can't recall any such cuts which would fall under that definition. Seeing as the violence in Manhunt 2 is strictly physical rather than sexual, I can't see how they have any chance of winning the review.

This is in actual fact an old BBFC ploy. Back in the bad old days under James Ferman, the organisation often did its best to be as unwieldy as possible. If a certain distributor wanted to get a "challenging" film to be certified, i.e, one likely to fall victim to Ferman's scissors and editing technique, it would often accept any recommendations and slashes made after the first viewing rather than attempt to do things its own way, mainly due to how when it came to submit a more commercial venture, such as a family film for half-term, the BBFC would often delay issuing a certificate to ensure it missed the most profitable time. This old petulance seems to have been resurrected in the 21st century because of Rockstar's attitude towards the BBFC's ban, as evidenced by their contempt for the decision shown at the VAC appeal. Unlike films and DVDs, games tend to age quickly, especially one like Manhunt 2 which has already been criticised for its relatively poor graphics. By the time this new judicial review reaches its conclusion, most of those in this country who haven't already imported it from the continent are likely to have completely forgotten about its existence.

Manhunt 2 then may as well have remained banned. Anyone for, err, Manhunt 3?

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Charles Moore enters the Policy Exchange/Newsnight fray.

Firstly, apologies for not updating on Saturday. My phone line had until around 2 hours ago been borked since 2am on Friday night/Saturday morning. Thanks, Tiscali.

Secondly, this will hopefully be the last piece on the Policy Exchange/Newsnight confrontation unless something new comes up. Charles Moore, ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph, and Chairman of Policy Exchange just had to stick his nose in though and therefore deserves to be thoroughly fisked.

Skipping Moore's trite intro about Newsnight:

On a day when the world's central banks were combining to rescue the global banking system, and when Gordon Brown was trying to think of a way of signing away Britain's independence in Lisbon without cameras, there were big things for the programme to lead on.

Instead, it presented a huge, 17-minute package about Policy Exchange.

Seeing as the signing away didn't occur until Friday, there was little point going on about it until Thursday night, surely? Let's not even bother getting into the giving away of our birthrights that the Eurosceptics and tabloids have blustered over when they've preached bullshit and lies about Europe for so long. The 17-minute package was a thorough, intelligent and lucid piece of investigative journalism. It was something that doesn't grace our screens much anymore, and it was far better than a tedious report on the central banks having to bail out the other banks because of their economic ineptitude, unless the report went into how the free market had failed due to the greed of the City on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although Newsnight's portentousness was unjustified, the allegations did look serious. It should be said at once that they need proper investigation. But when you know the background, you come to see how very different this story is from the way Newsnight told it.

And does Charles Moore anywhere in this actual piece refute any of Newsnight's allegations and accusations? Of course he doesn't. This is the start of the obfuscation. The allegations need proper investigation, but in the mean time we're going to attack Newsnight for daring to investigate our potentially shoddy report.

This is what happened.

Over the summer, Policy Exchange produced the most comprehensive report so far on the extent to which extremist literature is available in British mosques and Islamic institutions. It is called The Hijacking of British Islam.

Muslim undercover researchers visited nearly 100 mosques. In 26 of them, they found extremist material - titles such as Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell (for answering their husbands back), virulent insults of Jews and homosexuals, puritanical attacks on moderate Muslims, calls for the complete rejection of Western society etc.

It was a big story, and as I shall make clear, none of Newsnight's claims this week has diminished its dimensions.

In 6 of those there are now, thanks to Newsnight, doubts about whether they did supply the material, meaning that extremist material was found in a fifth of such institutions, not a quarter. That's still unacceptable, but because of those doubts it also brings the entire report into disrepute. To continue to claim that Newsnight "hasn't diminished its dimensions" is to give in to a desire for personal myopia.

The report made the front page of many newspapers, including this one. It was extensively covered everywhere - everywhere except for the entire national output of the BBC.

This was because of Newsnight. Thinking that such a report was a serious public issue that could advance well under the "flagship's" full mast and sail, Policy Exchange had originally offered it to Newsnight exclusively.

Newsnight's people were enthusiastic, but on the late afternoon of the intended broadcast, they suddenly changed their tune.

Policy Exchange had offered them many of the receipts it had collected from mosques as evidence of purchase; now they said that they had shown the receipts to mosques and that there were doubts about the authenticity of one or two of them.

Given that the report was being published that night, the obvious thing for Newsnight to do was to broadcast Policy Exchange's findings at once, allowing the mosques to have their say about the receipts.

There was no need for Newsnight to claim "ownership" of the report. Instead, the editor, Peter Barron, decided to run nothing. His decision meant the Policy Exchange report was not touched by the BBC at all.

I'm sorry, is Moore meant to be getting at something here? Newsnight decides to actually check up on the veracity of PE's report, and when it discovers there are doubts, it decides to investigate more thoroughly, and this is something Newsnight is worthy of criticism over? One of the things modern day journalism suffers from in the 24-hour news climate is the desire to get the story out and for the facts, such as they are, to be established later. We've seen that happen this year with Madeleine McCann and in numerous other cases. They could have broadcast the report and said that the mosques disputed the findings and even the authenticity of the receipts, but would have been left with eggs on their faces and facing criticism if someone else had then done the investigation they decided to do themselves. Newsnight finds itself being damned if it does and damned if it doesn't. Moore is also wrong to say that the BBC didn't touch the report at all; as Osama Saeed has already explained, the Islamic Centre of Edinburgh had its "naming and shaming" in the report heavily covered on the BBC north of the border, and where again the findings have been disputed.

Mr Barron had already been in trouble for his editorial judgment.

In the summer, the BBC apologised for a Newsnight programme in which a reporter's encounters with Gordon Brown's press officer had been presented in reverse sequence, in order to make Mr Brown's team look intolerant.

Moore, like with Godson, has decide to turn on Peter Barron rather than reporting itself. It's true that Newsnight did apologise for that fortuitous editing, but it was the independent filmmaker's own work. Barron should have checked. Anyway, if we're to adopt the PE defense, the filmmaker can more than claim that despite his editing his report was still accurate, just not altogether the truth.

Mr Barron's judgment of the Policy Exchange report came under attack from colleagues: his flawed methodology - the original decision not to broadcast - had lost the entire corporation an important story.

Ah, failed methodology. Is this the new "flawed prospectus"?

Mr Barron decided to try to prove himself right. In the private sector, there is something called "vanity publishing", where people pay for their own works to be published.

Mr Barron's vanity broadcasting was, of course, at the expense of the licence-fee payer. He put the crew of the flagship on to investigating Policy Exchange's receipts. For six weeks, they turned on the staff of Policy Exchange, who had come to them in good faith in the first place, and treated them like criminals.

And, err, he rather has, hasn't he? Even if Moore's allegations are true, the licence-fee payer and the public interest have been served by Barron's decision to investigate. Apparently being asked some searching questions is now the equivalent of being banged up in police cells and raided at 6am in the morning.

The receipts that Policy Exchange had lent to them were impounded, and copies were distributed to others without permission.

They were subjected to complicated forensic tests. One of these, allegedly the most damning, was completed over a week before Wednesday's broadcast, but withheld from Policy Exchange.

Although there was no screaming news urgency about the item, a courier carrying the test results sat outside the offices of Policy Exchange's lawyers on Wednesday evening with the message that the think-tank could see the results only if it agreed, before seeing them, that it would go on air that night to answer Newsnight's charges.

Outside the lawyers' offices rather than Policy Exchange's? Could this possibly be because PE had already threatened legal action in the most alarming terms? Surely PE were going to appear on Newsnight anyway? Or were they going to, like the government, be unable to find anyone to appear despite a request? Newsnight presumably didn't hand back the originals because they rightly feared that PE wouldn't be gladly giving them back.

On the programme, Jeremy Paxman, who admitted off-air that he had not seen the film before it was broadcast, attacked Policy Exchange's research director, Dean Godson, for refusing to let Newsnight speak to the researchers who had collected the receipts. This was not so: Mr Barron himself had spoken to two of them.

This was dealt with in the previous posts: Barron only says he spoke to one and that was on the day when the original broadcast was meant to be in "an inconclusive conference call".

Poor Paxo, who these days has the air of a once-marvellous old Grand National horse who should no longer be entered for the race, had not been properly briefed.

He accused Policy Exchange itself, which the Newsnight report had not done, of fabricating receipts. Strange the mixture of fierce accusation and casual sloppiness.

Now we're down to the personal insults and more obfuscation. Pray tell, if PE or the researchers employed by PE didn't fabricate the receipts, who did?

Newsnight was very excited about the results of a study of receipts by a forensic document analyst that seemed to suggest forgery.

It did not tell viewers that its expert wrote: "The relatively limited amount of writing available for comparison has prevented me from expressing any definite opinion." She did not study any of the writing in Arabic, though it appeared on two of the three receipts she investigated.

Strange then that she was apparently convinced in Newsnight's actual report. Newsnight was hardly able to ask the researchers to provide some longhand to compare with the receipts, was it?

Of course, any allegations about receipts are, in principle, a serious matter for a think-tank.

Policy Exchange bases its work on evidence, and so its evidence must be sound. The BBC did not give the think-tank the chance to investigate its complicated allegations properly. Policy Exchange will now do so.

Oh, for Christ's sake. Only now are the allegations to be investigated properly. Had PE been suitably rigourous in the first place it would have found the mistakes and discrepancies that Newsnight did before the report had got anywhere near publication. It had six weeks during the BBC's own investigation to do its own digging. Froth and chaff.

But the real oddity of all this is that the actual contents of the report have been validated.

Extremist literature was available in the mosques, and in some cases still is. The mosques could not dissociate themselves from the literature and, in most cases, did not even try to: they jumped on the receipts instead.

Well, a few of them did, and justifiably so one would imagine when in one case it seems to have been fabricated with the office round the corner being wrongly identified as a mosque. The Newsnight investigation found two of the books mentioned in the report in two of the mosques; hardly validating it when its complete findings have been put into doubt due to the apparent making up of the receipts.

One mosque insisted that the next-door bookshop selling extreme stuff had nothing to do with it, yet the extremist books in question which the shop sells are by a former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia (author of a famous essay in which he literally asserted that the Earth is flat) who was a founding sponsor of the mosque!

And one would expect, with the writer being a former Grand Mufti of Saudi that his books would be reasonably widespread.

I don't blame Newsnight for reporting questions about receipts, though I deplore their methods. I do blame them for trying to kill the much, much bigger story about the hate that is being preached in our country.

Moore than seems to deplore the methods of investigative journalism. Not surprising seeing that the stitching up of Galloway from the "documents" in Iraq took place under his watch. If the BBC was trying to kill the "bigger story", it's done a poor job of it, considering how it's contributed to that story itself considerably over the last year.

Policy Exchange researches all sorts of public policy - police reform, school choice, housing, as well as on Islamist extremism. Next week comes its big report on improving philanthropy. I find it repellent that the might of the BBC is deployed to threaten and bully a charity in this way.

Most of which is complete bollocks. The latest publication on prison reform recommends selling off some of the prison estate that is dilapidated, pocketing the money and then spending it on building new prisons. Nowhere is it explained just where the prisoners currently occupying the prisons to be sold off would be housed in the meantime. To claim that the BBC is "threatening and bullying" Policy Exchange is absurd: PE, with its legal threats before the BBC investigation had even been shown, was the one which was bullying while the BBC was daring to look behind the facade. Policy Exchange seems to have two obsessions: the police and Islam. Since July 2006, when it published Martin Bright's series of articles on the relationship between the government and "Islamist reactionaries" abroad in a pamphlet, it's published three other studies on Islam, including the one now under suspicion. Seeing as it was co-founded by the ghastly Michael Gove, a noted devotee to neo-conservatism who had his tome "Celsius 7/7" described by William a confused epic of simplistic incomprehension, riddled with more factual errors and misconceptions than any other text I have come across in two decades of reviewing books on this subject", it's not much of a surprise.

More important, however, is the fate of Muslims in this country.

It is not often realised that the British citizens most persecuted by Islamist extremism are Muslims themselves.

The researchers that Policy Exchange used to find the extreme literature were all Muslims - no one else could pass unnoticed in a potentially hostile environment.

Because their safety was and is threatened, the think-tank protects their anonymity. On air, Newsnight revealed where some of them were.

Yesterday an Islamist website repeated this and called for supporters to help hunt them down. The BBC has unintentionally exposed them to the risk of harm.

Oh yes, they're currently in Mauritania, a country the size of Egypt. Seeing as no one knows who or where they are, those Islamists might just have a considerable task on their hands in tracking them down. Moore would of course know about the pitfalls of offending some Muslims: he wrote a reasonably infamous article prior to the religious hatred law going through which opened with "Was the prophet Mohammed a paedophile?" He continued:

To me, it seems anachronistic to describe Mohammed as a child-molester. The marriage rules of his age and society were much more tribal and dynastic than our own, and women were treated more as property and less as autonomous beings. Aisha was the daughter of Mohammed's right-hand man, and eventual successor (caliph), Abu Bakr. No doubt he and his family were very proud of the match. I raise the question, though, because it seems to me that people are perfectly entitled - rude and mistaken though they may be - to say that Mohammed was a paedophile, but if David Blunkett gets his way, they may not be able to.

Some pointed out that not every source agrees that one of Mohammad's wives was 9 when he married her; others pointed out that she was also described as 19. Calling Mohammad a paedophile is a common insult when mocking Islam, but Moore, a notable believer, would be outraged if Jesus was described in similar terms, as he goes on to relate when describing Paul Abbott's attitudes towards Christmas. After all, there is no account of what he spent his time doing between his teenage years and when he was baptised, aged 30: he could have conceivably spent it banging every goat in sight, although it's unlikely. Thing is, I agree with Moore over his wider point; I just wouldn't have decided to be needlessly inflammatory to make it. To digress, Policy Exchange could have refused to tell Newsnight where they were at all; provided with the information, what did they expect Newsnight to do with it?

What these brave Muslims undeniably found was evidence of widespread, obnoxious material that is a risk to decent Muslims and to British social order.

Really? The written word in the form of impenetrable, archaic religious texts and books by reactionary gobshites is now so dangerous as to threaten the mores of "decent Muslims" and risk British social order itself? If so, then reports which are based upon fabricated evidence must also conceivably threaten, in that horrible new phrase, "community cohesion".

The BBC chose, in effect, to side with their extreme opponents and to cover up the report, because of an obsession about a few pieces of paper.

The few pieces of paper which just happened to underlie the entire report. Congratulations Charles Moore, your attempt at "moving the debate on" has succeeded admirably.

Update: Brilliant wider look at the entire report by Abdurahman Jafar on CiF.

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Friday, December 14, 2007 

Policy Exchange vs Newsnight: Ding ding, round two!

Policy Exchange have issued a second press release on the Newsnight investigation into their report:

Policy Exchange regards the allegations made in BBC Newsnight’s programme of 12th December as libellous and perverse. We stand by our report The Hijacking of British Islam. Policy Exchange investigated nearly 100 mosques and other Islamic institutions of which 26 were found to harbour extremist literature. Of these, Newsnight alleges discrepancies in respect of the receipts obtained for the literature in 6 cases. In 5 of those 6 cases, irrespective of the allegations about receipts, a clear connection to extremism has been identified. In the sixth case, the mosque has publicly admitted it has a problem with rogue traders operating on its premises.

OK then, let's have a closer look at both the Newsnight allegations (video) and the description of the mosques in question in the Policy Exchange report (PDF).

The first mosque featured in Newsnight's investigation was the London Cultural Heritage Centre. The only link to extremism which the Policy Exchange report mentions (page 31) is that Ramzi Mohamed, one of the failed 21/7 bombers, was alleged by the Evening Standard and Sunday Times to have worshipped at the mosque, something the mosque itself denied. The report also doesn't mention that the books featured in the report were allegedly purchased from a stall in the mosque during a book fair, which is certainly different than them being provided by the mosque itself. Secondly, the date on the invoice allegedly provided by the seller is on a Friday during Ramadan, when there most certainly wasn't according to the mosque's spokesman even enough room for such a fair to have taken place. PE retorts that the mosque has had by its own admission problems with rogue sellers but again that hardly warrants the report "naming and shaming" the mosque as selling/providing extremist literature. If the LCHC was suitably inclined it could probably consult lawyers about its own possibilities for action over the inaccurate allegations.

The second mosque featured by Newsnight was the North London Central Mosque, or, aka, Abu Hamza's former haunt, usually known as the Finsbury Park Mosque. Policy Exchange explains in its report that it was taken over in 2005 by the Muslim Association of Britain, with five members of MAB made the trustees of the institution. One of these men is Azzam Tamimi, who is noted for his relationship with Hamas, and has in the past made inflammatory remarks about martyrdom. The mosque is also sympathetic towards the Islamist philosopher Mawdudi, who formed the Jamaat-e-Islami Islamic political party. Despite this, the mosque itself has denied supplying the books featured in the PE report, on page 77.

The third and potentially most serious allegations against Policy Exchange concern the "Euston Mosque". Policy Exchange's report claims that the mosque is headquarters of the United Kingdom Islamic Mission, an organisation linked by Martin Bright in the New Statesman to the aforementioned Jamaat-e-Islami party, something which JEI collaborates on its website. The UKIM was also featured in the Undercover Mosque programme.

All of which would be well and good, but for one small detail. The actual Euston Mosque, as the Newsnight investigation found, is around the corner at 204a North Gower Street, rather than 202 as PE states. The mosque and UKIM have no relationship with each other, and the receipt provided for the books is completely different to the ones which the mosque issues. Policy Exchange claims that the UKIM must have a prayer room that is used and subsequently known as the Euston Mosque, but the outside of the building certainly doesn't make any claims for what seems like the headquarters of UKIM to be anything other than an office. UKIM also completely denies issuing the books featured in the report on page 68 and giving the receipt supplied to Newsnight by PE. The Euston Mosque would it seem on this evidence to have a good case for suing Policy Exchange for libel.

The fourth featured mosque is the Tauheed Mosque and Islamic Centre in Leyton in London. The Newsnight report describes it as a "Salafi" mosque, and according to PE it was founded with a donation by Abdul ‘Aziz ‘Abdullah bin Baz, whose writings are featured in the PE report as extremist literature, and has maintained close links with Saudi Arabia ever since. The address given by PE is again wrong, as it actually corresponds to the Islamic bookshop next door. The mosque and the bookshop deny any connection with each other, and the spokesman for the mosque in the report says that they have considered legal action as a result. Policy Exchange says that their researcher was taken from the mosque into the bookshop and told that the books they purchased and used in the report were sanctioned by the mosque.

It again doesn't end there. Newsnight itself noticed similarities between the handwriting on the receipt for the books with the handwriting on the receipt from the London Cultural Heritage Centre. Karen Barr, the expert enlisted by the programme to look into the authenticity of the invoices said that in her opinion there was strong evidence that they were written by the same person.

The final mosques featured, the Al-Muntada in Parsons Green in London (page 59), and the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe (page 145) don't appear to have denied as such that the books featured in the report didn't come from them, with Newsnight's reporter finding one of the books on the shelves in the MEC shop. What is denied is that the receipt from the MEC is genuine; the spokesman for the MEC mosque showed the completely different invoices they use in Newsnight's report. Karen Barr performed the "Esta/Esther(sp)" test on the two invoices, and found that one was resting on top of the other when it had been written. This could of course be entirely innocent: the researcher might have took invoices out of his pocket looking for money when he was purchasing the books and the seller ended up writing the invoice on top of it, for instance. It could also be more sinister, suggesting that the invoices were fabricated at the same time at a later date.

There is then some persuasive evidence then that at least some of the invoices for the purchases were fabricated at a later date. Policy Exchange has however not gone with the explanation that the books were purchased and the invoices made up later after the researchers didn't get such prima facie evidence at the time, which, however devious, would at least be somewhat acceptable. Instead, it's not directly rebutted the claim that the invoices were fabricated, instead pointing out that the mosques have been linked in their report to extremism. Being linked with extremism and providing extremist literature is hardly the same thing, and in the "Euston Mosque" case at least their evidence is directly misleading and false. The mosques in question are always likely to, in an echo of Mandy Rice-Davies, say that as in deny it, but PE itself has provided no real explanation for the discrepancies between the receipts.

The statement goes on to continue to attack Newsnight:

At all times, Policy Exchange acted in good faith, voluntarily providing to Newsnight’s team a number of the receipts obtained in the course of our research. Newsnight commissioned a forensic investigation of around 20 receipts; in 6 cases concerns have been raised. Prior to 12th December, having been made aware of some of Newsnight’s allegations, Policy Exchange conducted its own investigation into the research methodology and found no evidence to back up Newsnight’s claims. Only on 12th December, in spite of repeated requests, did Newsnight return the receipts to us. Furthermore, they only supplied us with the reports of their forensic expert two hours before broadcast. At that stage, a new allegation was raised in respect of one of the mosques and we have not had time to investigate this allegation.

Policy Exchange's real complaint seems to have been that Newsnight even bothered to look into the authenticity of the receipts instead of just blindly reporting what the report itself stated like everyone else did. PE's statement that it conducted an investigation into the report's methodology is also misleading: Newsnight has never questioned the actual methodology, what it has questioned is the veracity of the evidence to back up its findings. It all seems to be a bit of sour grapes: why didn't PE make carbon copies of the receipts, and in any case, hadn't it already checked them as Dean Godson claimed they had? How come Newsnight saw through the discrepancies and PE didn't? As for the time given to respond, Godson mentioned the leaks about the Newsnight investigation in his confrontation with Paxman; they well knew something was coming and had plenty of time to organise a convincing defense. They simply haven't done so. The time given to respond is also broadly in line with that which newspapers give to those they're investigating: many of the PE "experts" are former hacks, including Godson himself and PE's director, Anthony Browne.

This is just one example of a catalogue of bad faith on the part of Newsnight’s editor, Peter Barron. Contrary to what was alleged by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight’s programme (having admitted he had not seen Newsnight’s own film before transmission) Policy Exchange has facilitated interviews between our Muslim researchers and the Newsnight team, including one with the programme’s editor. Mr Barron must explain why he chose to make a 17-minute lead package about receipts, not about the abundant evidence of the availability of extremist literature within a minority of Islamic places of worship in the UK.

Why then did Richard Watson deny that any had been made available to him? Barron has already stated that he had a conversation with one during a conference call, which was in his words "inconclusive". When else were the researchers provided to Newsnight? It's quite obvious why, as Paxman stated to Godson that Barron chose to make a "17-minute lead package about the receipts" instead of a film on the report; because the receipts' lack of authenticity undermines the entire report's conclusions and asks questions about the ethics of the researchers themselves.

Policy Exchange gave the receipts to Newsnight merely to emphasise the thoroughness of our methodology. The receipts are not, however, mentioned in the report and the substance of the report is unaffected by Newsnight’s allegations about a small minority of the receipts. The report is about extremist literature and all the literature obtained in the course of our research is in Policy Exchange’s possession. As a respected evidence-based thinktank, Policy Exchange takes the integrity and authority of our research very seriously. Accordingly, we shall investigate any outstanding allegations very carefully. It is a pity that Newsnight did not approach this matter with the professionalism one would expect from the BBC.

That the receipts are not mentioned is neither here nor there. Without their existence there would be no report because there would be no evidence to back up the books had ever been supplied by whom PE have said they were. The substance of the report may not be affected, but the report in its entirety has been brought into repute because of Newsnight's allegations. Anyone would expect PE to be defending their report, but their threats of legal action when they don't seem to have properly checked the receipts in the first place suggests that it's PE's professionalism which is in question, not the BBC's, which went through that tiresome journalistic process of checking the evidence.

Policy Exchange is in legal consultations about action in this matter.

And so too might be the mosques slandered in the report on the basis of apparently fabricated sources.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007 

Policy Exchange rumbled by Newsnight.

Last night's Newsnight was one of those increasingly rare TV events that are genuinely unmissable - except that hardly anyone other than the usual obsessives would have been watching or even known about it. (You can watch the report by Richard Watson here and the confrontation between Jeremy Paxman and Policy Exchange's Dean Godson here.)

The story began with Newsnight and the right-wing thinktank Policy Exchange doing a deal that would have seen the programme have exclusive access to their latest report - the hijacking of British Islam (PDF), an alleged expose which claimed that out of 100 mosques visited across the country, in a quarter literature judged to be extremist was found - and ended with Policy Exchange threatening legal action while not really rebutting the central allegations made by Newsnight against the source of 5 of those books.

Instead of simply repeating what the Policy Exchange report had found and debating it, Newsnight requested the receipts from PE to check that everything was in order, perhaps considering the fallout from the then unresolved police complaints over Channel 4's Undercover Mosque. According to Peter Barron, Newsnight's editor, who was ferociously denounced by PE's Dean Godson, everything was set to go ahead as scheduled until the reporter Richard Watson raised his concerns over discrepancies he'd found in one of the invoices. Further investigation found another 4 irregularities with the receipts; one had the wrong address, one was from a mosque which didn't have a bookshop, one had the date on it from a day during Ramadan on a Friday when there most certainly wouldn't have been a book fair at the mosque in question, although it admitted it had a problem with rogue sellers; then there was the evidence from a forensic specialist, who found that one of the invoices had been written on top of the other, while the handwriting on two was in her opinion the same person's.

Faced with this evidence, Godson, instead of holding his hands up and admitting that his researchers might have well have purchased the books but then later embellished the receipts, or even attempting to come up with any real explanation, decided to take on Jeremy Paxman at his own game, out shouting, out gesticulating and out foaming at the mouth with indignation. It almost paid off, with Paxman at times looking distinctly uncomfortable at being assailed when that's his job, and especially when Godson claimed that they had in fact provided the researchers to talk to Barron despite Paxman's denial. (Barron contends that he only ever talked to one of them as he had claimed in an inconclusive conference phone conversation on the day the original report was meant to be broadcast.) His attacks on Barron if anything let him down the most, when the editor had no one way of defending himself. Then when questioned about why the researchers themselves hadn't been provided and were apparently all away on a jolly holiday in, err, Mauritania, he said the name "Salman Rushdie", as though what they had done were the equivalent of insulting the prophet Muhammad as Rushdie was accused of doing, and most perplexingly, claimed that even if the receipts were inaccurate it didn't affect the report.

Policy Exchange is still saying the exactly the same thing today, forced to issue a statement which again offers no real explanation for the doubts raised over the receipts:

The receipts are not, however, mentioned in the report and the report’s findings do not rely upon their existence.

That they are not mentioned in the report is neither here nor there, nor does it matter that the findings do not rely on their existence: their existence undermines the conclusions because it brings those conclusions into major doubt. If we can't trust the researchers to have properly sourced the material upon which the report is based, then the entire thing is worthless, something which even the notably sceptical Harry's Place has described as gilding the lily.

Even before the Newsnight report, Osama Saeed and a blogger called Dr Marranci had called into question some parts of it and its methodology. Osama questioned just where the material alleged to have originated from Edinburgh Central Mosque had actually came from, as they denied that it was anything they had ever stocked, while the mosque itself has a reputation for its moderation. A couple of weeks later the exact extremist literature featured in the report was apparently dumped in the doorway. The questions from Dr Marranci were met by Denis MacEoin, the report's main author, with little more than contempt. This sentence was the most revealing:

The point is that telling Muslims to hate all non-Muslims, to avoid contact with them as far as possible, tobelieve (sic) Jews are the cause of all the world’s degradation, and so on and on — this is deeply offensive to the host society

In other words, MacEoin considers that at the moment Muslims are just guests in "our" society, and not citizens just as much as we are. I don't wish to turn this into an ad hominem attack on MacEoin or Policy Exchange as a whole, but MacEoin is notable for his pro-Israeli views, also writing this passage previously:

I don’t like to speak in terms of historic moments or symbolic conflicts, but I’m afraid that, as this struggle intensifies, I am bound to do so.

Civilization itself is at stake. The values of democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and the open society are as much or more at risk today than in the decades when we confronted, first German fascism and then Soviet communism.

He's also not immune from irrational belief himself, as he recently wrote on CiF defending homeopathy, accusing Ben Goldacre of being ignorant and unscientific, without deeming to mention that his wife, is err, a homeopath.

As for Policy Exchange's accusations that Newsnight's behaviour shows an "agenda" at work, nothing could be more laughable. Newsnight had already given top-billing to a similar report on the extremist Islamist literature available in Tower Hamlets' libraries by a rival thinktank, the Centre of Social Cohesion, and has throughout the year run a series of reports on Hizb-ut-Tahrir, also by the reporter Richard Watson, not to mention the numerous times it's featured Ed Husain, and a couple of other defectors from HuT. As Osama Saeed also mentions, Newsnight Scotland featured the accusations the report made against the Edinburgh mosque, not showing the same scrutiny as the below the border version did. The programme itself could doubtless come up with other examples of its focus on Islam in Britain.

MacEoin is certainly right in one thing - we should and must condemn those mosques that did have such extremist literature for sale on their shelves. They can't use the defence that shops and libraries stock the same stuff, or that evangelical Christian groups have some rather unpleasant ideas which they express through pamphlets too; if such material as "women who deserve to go to hell" is on sale inside mosques, it's quite clearly unacceptable, even on debate within the faith grounds. We should however also though denounce thinktanks or media organisations which broadcast or release such information without properly checking, as Policy Exchange apparently didn't, that everything was in order. Their report and reputation has been tarnished by the Newsnight accusations, and resorting to legal action when it appears that unlike Channel 4, they've been found bang to rights, will only make matters even worse for them.

Related posts:
Osama Saeed - Newsnight rips apart mosque extremism report
Ministry of Truth - Can I get a receipt for that?
Sticks and Carrots - Predetermined Outcomes Part 2

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Ipswich - a year after, women are no safer.

From Socialist Unity - The English Collective of Prostitutes on why what happened in Ipswich last December hasn't changed anything.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007 

Something positive for a change?

It's not often that this blog (or indeed, many others) praise government policy or legislation, so let's break a habit and give Ed Balls' 10 year children's plan a cautious welcome. Some of it, inevitably, is old measures being re-announced and given a lick of new paint, and some of the reviews seem to be happening just for the sake of it, but for the most part the new initiatives proposed for example on money for new playgrounds and youth centres are long overdue.

The SATs testing regime, which over the years has become vastly more important than they really should be, and attracted the ire of teachers as a result, is to be looked into if a pilot of flexible testing that has shown favourable results so far reports in the affirmative. More important, and understandably overlooked has been the development of teaching to the test, which becomes much more of an issue post 14, where almost everything not likely to be on the exam paper is discarded and simply not taught. Far from being based around learning, lessons are being turned into endless repetitions of facts, and in some cases subjects are no longer even resembling what they once were supposed to be teaching. It seems unlikely this will be changed when such ambitious and most likely unachievable targets as 90% of students getting 5 A-Cs at GCSEs by 2020 are still being considered.

More favourable are the well-rehearsed recommendations for schools to become centres of the local community, with social workers, police, libraries and sports hall all being available in one location making good sense. The insistence sadly on the continuation of the academy program, the results from which have so far been less than conclusive, with Lord Rothermere and even BAE Systems considering sponsoring such schools, but not any Oxbridge institutions as the government hoped, undermines it somewhat. Also yet to be explained is how this will function in reality, with the funding necessary for such err, centralisation, yet to be forthcoming.

Also promising are the proposals on parental involvement and on one to one tutoring, which are vital if underachievers are to be focused on and given the help when they need it most. Teachers can no longer be relied upon to do everything - parental attachment and interest into what their children are doing is often stifled simply by how kids hating talking about what they do at school, or at least how some do. The policy on reintroducing foreign languages at an early age, rather than starting them at some point in the middle of schooling is also a sound one. Trying to interest a class of 28 14-year-olds in speaking French or German is a little like attempting to teach a fish to ride a bicycle - pointless and cruel. The whole reason why those in continental Europe have been so successful in teaching English is that they start early, while with our advantage of speaking it in the first place we imagine ourselves to be superior and not needing to bother with other languages when it's a skill that's as vital as ever.

Some of this might be undermined if the government doesn't drop its ideation about schooling being compulsory until 18, or at least until it properly sorts out secondary education from its current woes over the divide between the academic and vocational routes. Tomlinson's recent report might have achieved it, and the introduction of the new diplomas might also, but I'm not holding my breath over that. Of all the things the tabloids decided to pick up upon from the report, the one they did was that "yobs" who said sorry would get off scot free, or something similar to that effect. The report actually suggests "restorative justice" to deal with first-time offenders, getting them to meet with those who they offended against, i.e. supermarket managers or similar if they shoplifted, the owners of the house they damaged if it was vandalism etc, schemes which have already been operating in some areas for a while and which have been on the whole a success. It's not going to apply to those who assault people or otherwise, who'll still get charged. As always, reporting some scandalous new insult to justice comes above the actual reality.

On the whole though it was a decent package which with minor changes would have been a lot better, such as the abandonment of the child database, ContactPoint. It was certainly far more authoritative than anything the Conservatives have come up within years, whose main policy up until Blair left was supporting whatever he did, but then the most annoying MP in the Commons in the form of Michael Gove was never going to say anything that might be considered complimentary. Ed Balls it seems is a lot better at putting policies together than actually advising Brown on what to do in the here and now.

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What about our human rights?!

Police officers are never likely to be the public sector workers that most of the public will sympathise with, especially when compared to nurses, teachers or even the fire brigade, as the strikes a few years back showed. They're likely to show even less empathy when they learn that, far from threatening to strike over a pay raise they've been denied, they're in actual fact whining about the rise not being backdated to September, making a 2.5% rise into something more like a 1.9% one, or in real terms, meaning that the average officer will be around £150 worse off.

According to Jan Berry of the police federation:

"I don't remember such a call by the Police Federation being made previously but I also don't remember a home secretary who has betrayed the police service in the way that this home secretary has."

And if that's not enough hyperbole for you, she then added this rejoinder:

"It is alien to police officers to want to go on strike, but they feel they have been pushed into a corner where their human rights have been withdrawn from them."

Ah yes, the police, those arbiters of whom to remove human rights from are now whimpering that because they're £150 down on the deal they've been similarly violated as say, someone wrongly arrested and never apologised to.

To look at it from the other way, this is a quite clear case of government parsimony for no good reason. Backdating the rise to September would cost around £40,000,000 which is a pittance, especially when you consider that £30bn or more has just been sunk into Northern Rock. Gordon Brown's argument at today's PMQs, that doing so could cause run-away inflation would be laughable if it wasn't so ridiculous.

Both sides would be helped if they weren't hyping this up to being the end of the world as we know if they don't get £150 each or spend £40,000,000 more now. Compared to some civil servants, such as those who are next year to get no real pay rise at all, the police are both well paid and treated far better than many others on the public payroll, and very few of even the most militant unions call for the resignation of the minister responsible in such disparaging terms as the Police Federation has. Not content with considering its members above other mere mortals, demanding as it does the death penalty for officers killed in the line of duty, it seems to regard what are trifling sums of money to them but not to many others struggling to keep their heads above water, as something worth manning the barricades for. A compromise should be easy to reach, but not before the Federation has thrown its toys most firmly out of the pram.

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The home secretarial legacy and Jack Straw's myopia.

It was decreed after the reign of Michael Howard as home secretary that from then all those who took up the job had to have just one defining quality above all others: they had to be stark raving bonkers. Jack Straw tried his best to sound and look sane, but still managed to introduce ASBOs and now attempts to defend Labour's record on civil liberties by completely ignoring all the ways that the government he's a minister of has diluted or removed them, more on which later. David Blunkett's shtick was insulting the judiciary and shagging the Spectator's publisher. Charles Clarke talked rubbish and insulted Rachel North's father. John Reid was a pathological moron who counted ethnic cleansers among his former friends while desperately trying to find ways to get rid of the Human Rights Act, as well as making clear that those opposed to just that "didn't get it".

Alarm bells started ringing as soon as Brown surprisingly announced that Jacqui Smith would be his home secretary, albeit, with the establishment of the Ministry of Justice, that some of her former concerns were hived off to Jack Straw. Smith was a firm Blairite, so much so that she had been chief whip, and had performed so wretchedly on Question Time when questioned about Iraq that it was obvious she was just as deluded as the former prime minister. Against all odds, her initial performance, especially in the aftermath of the patio gas canister jihad, was assured, calm and encouraging. The only thing held against her was that she had dared to show a little too much cleavage in the Commons.

Unfortunately, it wasn't too last. Just like with previous occupants, it's taken an alarmingly short time for the pressures of the office to turn her into a swivel-eyed banshee, sounding off to the Grauniad which was remarkably keen to listen to her talk such complete and utter nonsense. According to Smith, David Davis's position on 42 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects

"contains no policy logic. The only logic is Davis has reverted to political opportunism, and he is not interested in an agreement."

Davis's position is the direct opposite. It's a principled stand against a government recklessly and deliberately diluting hard won but easily lost rights when there is no evidence whatsoever to support its own policy. Davis and the Conservatives are right not to be interested in an agreement because there should be no compromise over such a fundamental measure: 28 days is more than enough time to gather a case against a suspect. It's the highest such comparable detention limit in the Western world, and the numbers of those supporting it can be counted on one hand whilst those against are numerous. The new "safeguards" proposed amount to a chief constable and the director of the public prosecutions having to agree more time is needed, which the DPP is hardly going to object to when it might mean a potential terrorist would be freed, and also seems a deliberate and immediate revenge upon Ken Macdonald for daring to say he didn't think more time was needed, and then parliament having to vote on whether the temporary extension, quite probably after the person held for up to 42 days has either been released or charged, should continue to be in operation.

It's also similarly rubbish that Smith has tried to move towards the Conservatives' position on using the civil contingencies act. If she had, they wouldn't be bothering with any new legislation at all, and in any case, it was Liberty that originally suggested it. In my view, neither are viable, as declaring a temporary emergency after a plot has either been foiled or taken place is playing in to the terrorists' hands when the life of the nation is clearly not threatened.

There doesn't seem there'll be any movement on intercept evidence, either:

The requirements for full disclosure would "mean a very different way of working in terms of intercept. The need to transcribe the evidence would also have very big resource implications for the intelligence services, and then you would have to ask whether it is worth it."

A government review of the use of intercept evidence in control order cases showed it would have had no impact in bringing prosecutions, she disclosed.

In other words, she's fallen completely behind the security services' specious arguments which are actually a cover for their refusal to be in any way publicly accountable. Numerous other countries make such evidence available, but we can't here because it might reveal their methods and it'll cost a lot. If a review has also showed that intercept evidence would have no impact on control order cases, then it either means two things. One, that the report is deliberately disingenuous and toadying towards the security services, or two, that the intelligence on those currently under the orders is so weak that it wouldn't stand up in court. If either is the case then those under control orders are even more caught up in a Kafkaesque system than we already thought.

Smith's supposed trump card is that "he's [Davis] ignored personal assurances by "senior police officers" that more than 28 days is needed". It's little surprise that police officers are in favour of more time: there's never been a reform that gives them more power that they've turned their nose up at. We know that in some of the previous cases that they haven't bothered even starting to interview some of those held after a week and a half: they need more resources to translate and access the material which is sometimes encrypted on computer discs sooner, not more time in which to do it in. All this is of course from the woman who was described in last week's Private Eye as greeting Davis at one of the much trumped "consultation sessions" with, "So, you're still a 28-day denier, are you?". It's little wonder that Davis hasn't taken kindly to the government's ramping up of pressure over such irredeemable measures.

From one illiberal government minister talking bollocks to another. The Grauniad (again) asked Jack Straw to contribute to their Liberty and the state series. He claims:

This period has seen a greater improvement in our democracy and people's sense of rights than any time since the development of the franchise between 1832 and 1928.

He does this without mentioning ID cards and the database behind them, the ban on protests within 1km of parliament without prior permission, section 44 of the Terrorism Act, the indefinite detention of foreign "terrorist suspects" before the law lords struck it down, control orders and the attempts to introduce 90 day detention without charge, although he does say, with considerable chutzpah

We are all acutely aware, as Jacqui Smith has spelt out, of the care that has to be taken - for example over any extension of 28 days

which when defeated in the Commons only resulted in Blair saying that he was right. Henry Porter has a more comprehensive list. The only thing that can be said in Straw's defense in terms of balance is that he's mostly right in what he writes - the Human Rights Act was a vital reform that the Tories would never have introduced, nor the Freedom of Information Act or perhaps section 28, although what the last two have to do with civil liberties is anyone's guess. That hasn't however stopped Labour from wishing it had never introduced the HRA after the tabloids have done such a brilliant job in portraying it as a criminals and terrorists' charter, instead of defending it, or from wanting to cut the FOI down to size after it had embarrassed them on a number of occasions, which Brown finally ruled out in the initial stage of the "age of change".

Things have slightly improved since Brown took over, but only slightly. Fact is, what many detect behind the push for 42 days is the clunking fist himself: he wants to put one over on Blair by proving he can do something Blair couldn't, and that matters far more than small things like holding "terrorist suspects" for 6 weeks without charge. Civil liberties, as always, are only an afterthought.

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Scum-watch: We've won an award!

Believe it or not, the Scum yesterday won the best national newspaper at the Plain English Campaign awards.

“It was time to honour its hard-hitting, frank and plain-speaking journalism.

“It can be difficult to deliver political news without resorting to jargon but The Sun’s writers and subeditors are skilled at copy which informs rather than condescends.”

There's plain English, and then there's referring to every "sex offender" as a pervert, everyone who's ever served a prison sentence as a "villain" or a "crook", and every child that so much as speaks out of turn as a "yob". Accordingly, in the Sun's parlance, Colin Stagg is an "oddball", babies are "tots" and British soldiers are "Our Boys". Anyone who thinks the way it's written isn't out of date, patronising and in some cases offensive hasn't read a whole copy.

To take a lesson from the Plain English Campaign, the Sun's award is fucking bollocks.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007 

The footballer, deportation and the dilution of asylum rights.

If there were to be a case that's likely to highlight the inherent unfairness at the centre of this country's asylum system while also one bound to be covered by the tabloids, then you might well have to rely on a footballer facing deportation. That today has happened after Al Bangura, a player with Watford who sought refuge here from Sierra Leone four years ago had his bid to stay rejected.

It would be difficult to come up with a more convincing argument for why someone like Bangura should be allowed to stay. Not only has he most certainly contributed to the community that originally offered him asylum, he's since established a family, with his first child being born only this month, is in paid employment and has helped Watford towards an immediate return to the Premier League after being relegated last season, as the club currently sits at the top of the Championship. Bangura, who was originally trafficked here and sexually assaulted on his arrival, also fears that if returned he could face persecution at the hands of the Soko tribe, formely led by his late father.

Common sense seems to be an alien concept both to the asylum and immigration service in its current form and to the ministers concerned only with inexorably lowering the numbers claiming refuge. While the case of Jahongir Sidikov and deportations to Uzbekistan have become more widely known thanks to Craig Murray's intervention, other disturbing cases, such as that of Maud Lennard, an opponent of Robert Mugabe who sought asylum here only to be racially abused and beaten by guards trying to return her to Malawi, and Meltem Avcil, a 14-year-old girl held for 3 months in Yarl's Wood detention centre where she became suicidally depressed are all too widespread, and many of them receive no coverage whatsoever. The Home Office was so determined to get rid of Meltem and her mother that it apparently attempted to charter a private jet, at no doubt huge cost.

Perhaps the case of Bangura will help to draw attention towards those such as Sidikov that face the prospect of torture if deported to their home countries. The real danger is that as the political climate turns increasingly towards "tough" limits on migration in general that asylum seekers themselves become stigmatised and tarred with the same brush. The latest proposed removal of rights from "failed" asylum seekers, that of access to GP surgeries, does nothing to dissuade from that view. Apart from not affecting their access to accident and emergency departments, it's a fundamental declaration that a class of people, who in most cases have fled genuine oppression, are in effect unpersons and will be treated as such until they decide to leave or are forcibly deported. We earnestly fight against any increase in the detention without charge limit, while such vulnerable people are often forgotten or held for even longer than 42 days. All the signs are that life is about to get even more harsh for those daring to dream of a better life, and never have the aspirations of a few trampled over so many others.

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The war against Christmas rears its ugly head once again.

For a while I thought we were going to get through the festive period without too much of the perennial "Christmas is being banned by politically correct jobsworths and idiots" spiel, but as seems to happen every year, pages in newspapers need to be filled and right-wing egos need to be massaged.

It's certainly not helped when useful idiots like Trevor Phillips, instead of pointing out that nearly every one of these stories has no actual foundation in fact (although he does state that some have a "silly season" vibe), feels that he has to reach out to other religious leaders and urge them to say it's OK to celebrate Christmas, as if any of them, or indeed any of their constituents had said that it wasn't. FCC has more. The impression I get, one of Christmas lasting longer and with more decorations and lights being hung with each year that passes, even if they look hideous, especially in villages and towns where previously there would have been none, is easy to brush under the carpet when a newspaper even gets the whiff of a "tradition" being broken or "killjoys" flexing their muscles.

Hence today's Sun, which has a "killjoys’ guide to Nativity play perils". Meant to be humourous, it's anything but, and instead just reads like a cynical curmudgeon bemoaning the state of the nation at large. Viz is usually best as pricking the pomposity of some liberals, with the strips Millie Tant and the Modern Parents amongst a couple of others, but the Sun and whoever wrote this certainly aren't subscribers. Most hypocritical is the typical reference to paedophiles who might be lurking in the audience, when it's the Sun and its infamous editor which have done the most to scaremonger about "the scourge of modern life". Trevor Phillips adds his two-pence at the bottom of the article, and helps along the grievance by suggesting that an "agenda" might even exist.

All this garbage about nativity plays was started by the Sunday Telegraph, which came up with a figure that suggested 80% of schools wouldn't be having a traditional nativity play this year. Only problem with that was, as so often, that it simply wasn't true. The UKPollingReport blog digged a little deeper and in fact found the survey actually said that 64% of schools would be having some sort of a nativity play, just not necessarily one that could be classed as "traditional". This was seized upon by the Tory MP Mark Pritchard, who then blamed the "politically correct" brigade. Far more realistic is that, quite simply, nativity plays are both old-hat and get stale year after year. Some schools put on pantomimes instead, to begin with. I remember one year at middle school we had an "Australian Christmas" show, which if it had got out might just have raised the ire of some who seem to find anything other than an exact replica of the nativity scene to be sacrilege. As Rhetorically Speaking also asks, just how many schools have ever bothered to put on nativity plays? All make a difference towards such potentially misleading figures.

In one way, Trevor Phillips is almost right. It is a concern that these stories about Christmas being banned could lead to community tension. It's hardly ever religious minorities themselves though that are blamed for whatever it is that's supposedly being banned; it's either health and safety fascists or "politically correct liberals" who
think that minorities might be offended. As has so often been proved however, it's not the supposed "bannings" that enrage opinion, but the newspaper articles that have little basis in fact that do so and then exercise the usual suspects into their peals of appall. The newspapers themselves though don't have any wider responsibility towards such communities, despite the effect that such journalism can have; it's left to the community leaders themselves to react to that which they shouldn't have had to in the first place.

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Monday, December 10, 2007 

The witch hunt over Manhunt is over. For now.

Some very welcome news which seems to have slipped completely under the radar:

The Video Appeals Committee (VAC) announced today the outcome of the appeal by Rockstar against the BBFC’s decision to reject a modified version of the video game, Manhunt 2. The appeal has been successful with the VAC deciding four votes to three in favour of Rockstar.

For those late to the party, the BBFC previously rejected, i.e. banned, Manhunt 2, where you play as a character who escapes from an insane asylum and are able to choose how to "execute" your victims. If you want to read the whole typically convoluted storyline, it's on the Wikipedia page.

As unpleasant a game as Manhunt 2 seems (although hardly any of those actually killed in the games are "innocents", as opposed to how you can slaughter wantonly in Grand Theft Auto for example, even if it attracts the attention of the police), the decision to ban it outright more than smacked of an organisation fearing the wrath of both politicians and the Daily Mail more than out of any real justifiable concerns about its content and effects on those playing it. The original Manhunt was blamed, both by the Mail and by the mother of Stefan Pakeerah for her son's death at the hands of Warren Leblanc, despite a complete failure on the behalf of either to come with up even circumstantial evidence which would suggest he was influenced by the game. On the contrary, the actual evidence presented at his trial suggested that Leblanc's only motive was robbery, with both the police and judge in agreement. To make matters just that little bit more shambolic and laughable, the game itself was found in Pakeerah's bedroom, not Leblanc's, although Pakeerah's mother argued Leblanc had lent it to him, but that still rather undermined her argument for restricting games from adults when she couldn't control what her own son was playing. When some stores subsequently removed it from the shelves, the sales elsewhere predictably went up.

The decision to refuse the game a certificate has also came at a time when exceptionally gory horror films have once again been in the ascendancy, without any of them being subjected to even cuts, and quite rightly so. The argument against the games is made that in films you aren't controlling the person doing the slaying, while in games that you are, although even this has become blurred when films like the Devil's Rejects feature serial-killers as anti-heroes, but the very research recently commissioned by the BBFC found that gamers almost unanimously rejected any link between games and real-life violence, with all of them getting involved in the game role and finding film violence to be far removed from that which takes place in games, even with the huge graphical advances in recent years.

More than anything, the BBFC's own guidelines declare that at 18 "concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to chose their own entertainment." The original Manhunt and the entire series of Grand Theft Auto games have all been passed at 18 without any cuts. The simple fact ought to be that when a game or film is rated as an 18 the concerns about the effects on children, although they should be considered, ought to be a more minor factor than that of the chilling effects of cutting some of its content or banning it outright. It shouldn't be the responsibility of the BBFC or indeed the makers of the game if it gets into the hands of children; the retailers and parents themselves, who are often badgered into buying age restricted games by their children in the first place, are the ones who ought to be held accountable.

It should also be remembered that the reform of the BBFC in the 80s was down to the moral panic over video nasties, a debacle which is now rightly looked back upon with dismay and bemusement. It took almost two decades before the censorship regime in this country finally came into line with our more enlightened European and American cousins, although countries such as Germany are still cautious, while the American MPAA
has rightly came in for trenchant criticism, especially over the NC-17 certificate and how most theatres won't show films that receive that classification. Films there can however be released "unrated" on DVD without any need for them to be classified. Even now hardcore pornography, despite being available in abundance on the internet, is still shut off behind the closed, dimly lit windows of sex shops, whilst it is often cut to ribbons by the BBFC over some of its more dubious content.

It was in fact the appeal to the Video Appeals Committee by two distributors of hardcore back in 1999 which finally led to its legalisation after the committee found in their favour. Their decision this time round in favour of Manhunt 2 is to be applauded, and although the BBFC is "considering its position", it seems that it will have to allow the modified, "censored" version to be sold with an 18 certificate. The backlash, which will doubtless come once the decision has been noticed, will most likely be fierce, but the VAC has undoubtedly today struck a blow against both censorship and the last rump of the "moral majority".

The biggest losers might be gamers themselves caught up in the hype. The reviews have been mostly mixed, with one being particularly withering:

The kills are censored. The graphics are five years old. The story sucks. The gameplay is full of glitches, and there is no payoff in the endings, just an excuse to make a sequel. Why did we care about this game again?

The BBFC didn't even martyr a good game, which the Grand Theft Autos unanimously are.

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Shake the bottle, wake the taste!

You have to pity the Guardian readers' editor, Siobhain Butterworth, having to deal with complaints from homeopaths about Ben Goldacre's recent complete deconstruction of layer after layer of bullshit following Jeanette Winterson's attempt at defending the practice of treating people with what is to all intents and purposes, water.

This sums up the quackery and delusions nicely:

One complainant says: "Goldacre seems to think that homeopathic remedies are prepared by diluting substances. He omits the critical component of shaking ('succussion') between serial dilutions without which they would, indeed, be merely water rather than potentised substances."

Ah, now that explains it. Homeopathic remedies are like Orangina. You have to shake it to wake it.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007 

The doctrine of pseudo-strength.

It was most certainly get tough week in Whitehall, or at least, get tough on everything other than party funding. One of the very first things that Brown promised, perhaps not in so many words, but in actions, was that there would be an end to the habit of the Blair government of announcing things to anywhere other than to parliament itself. When you're getting assailed from some many different angles, it's always the "little" things that get broken first, hence Jacqui Smith, the third home secretary in a row attempting to convince the public at large that the terrorist threat is so severe that anything shorter than a month detention without charge is insane and potentially cataclysmic liberalism, forgoing the tedious ritual of presenting the latest twist to parliament, choosing elsewhere to proclaim the latest number of days to be pulled out of the Home Office policy hat.

42, it seems then is no longer not just the meaning of life but also the magic number that terrorists need to be held to. The seeking a consensus sessions, which according to Private Eye amounted to the swivel-eyed Smith haranguing David Davis for daring to be a "28 day-denier" have been abruptly canceled, and so has any possibility of dialogue with the Home Affairs Select Committee, a leak of whom's report Smith seemed to be responding to. The committee had come to the not unreasonable conclusion that there was no evidence whatsoever to support any further extension, having only heard support for such a measure from the suitably plied Lord Carlile, butcher of the yard "Sir" Ian Blair and from Smith herself, who previously didn't know how many more days were needed. As for Ken Macdonald, who had so dared to give evidence to the committee that in his capacity as head of the director for public prosecutions he didn't see the need for more time, his treachery was such that Smith's new plans require him to sign off his agreement in any instance where longer than 28 days is needed. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold. Shami Chakrabati has denounced Smith's plans as constitutionally illiterate, in that although parliament is required to vote on the continuation of the extra time, it doesn't need to do so until err, after the extra time has itself expired. The safeguards add up to Smith agreeing and the same as before, a judge having to reauthorise the continued detention every seven days. What kind of judge would have the balls to free someone after the police had demanded extra time and the home secretary had agreed is not an easy question to answer.

Almost any other government than this current one would be embarrassed by how ridiculous they look, continually having to dilute their plans little by little, without realising (or perhaps they do, they're just that stubborn and petty) that they simply cannot get this through in any form. The obsession with extra time, one kept only by hopeless police officers that can't fuck off when they know they're no longer wanted and by politicians determined to look endlessly tough and at the same time attempt to make the Tories haplessly weak would be easier to take if anyone other than the Scum, the Express and Melanie Phillips was falling for it, but they're not. The opposition against is almost everyone except the Labour front bench and the most vile of the press. I personally hope it does come to a vote - just so that the government can be thrashed again and the Sun can call all the rest of us traitors.

Similar thinking has been going on over prisons. The most disingenuous moment of the week has to have been over the need for "titan jails" - not because they're better than smaller ones, quite the contrary, but rather as Lord Carter openly admits in his report, they can than be referred straight to the secretary of state for planning permission, negating to go into such needless debates over consultation. After all, look where that's got them over the above. They're also a developers' dream, almost certain to be built under the private finance initiative, and then also likely to be ran by private security firms, meaning even more cash to be milked off from the public purse to the unscrupulous who'll then either demand even more or sell on their interest for a huge profit, as has occurred numerous times before. The job's a good 'un - except for those who'll find themselves behind the bars. Jack Straw has tried to sweeten the deal slightly by also investigating the possibility of linking sentences to the capacity available, but expect that to be dropped once the clamour from the Mail and the Sun grows too loud. The statistics for the prison population growth show that we can't build ourselves out of the overcrowding crisis, but by God Labour will try anyway. You can't have the tabloids screaming about soft sentences and the streets being full of drug addicts, the mentally ill and baby molesters; that will never do leading up to an election.

So it also is on immigration, where the points based system will ensure that the unskilled darkies will be kept out while the unskilled from the EU will still be able to come as they are. Add in some clearly unworkable and prejudiced thinking on whether or not to allow in spouses who can't speak English, and then also cut back on translation while not increasing and eventually cutting the funding for those who want to learn and you have a potent mixture to add to the hubris and carelessness which has led to Brown being in the same situation as before Blair had even left.

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There be gold in them thar canoes...

I might just be the only person on the planet not to give two shits about the vanishing canoeist and his subsequent reappearance while his wife went to live in Panama, but what is intriguing is just what sort of deal the Daily Mirror and Mail have done in order to get Anne Darwin's exclusive story.

The toothless Press Complaints Commission has been so concerned that it apparently sought meetings with both the Mail and Mirror in order to ascertain whether Darwin has been paid - something that may potentially breach the PCC's code if Darwin is subsequently charged, as her husband now has been. The PCC seems to have been satisfied that no money has changed hands between the two papers and Darwin, but the Grauniad reported this morning that the legwork in tracking down Darwin was by the Splash news agency, with the Mail and Mirror just behind, subsequently doing a deal to share the scoop. Whether Splash, not bound by the PCC's code, has paid Darwin is another matter entirely, and as the Mail and Mirror have relied on Splash one is entitled to wonder whether the cash has been funneled through.

In any case, the Mirror and Mail's scoop has already led its first inevitable conclusion: the Scum running a less than flattering front page "story" describing Darwin as a witch. The Sun's failure to get the story has also likely enraged Rebekah Wade, who earlier in the year went on the warpath after Pete Doherty gave an exclusive interview to the Mirror following his split from Kate Moss, lambasting her hacks as "having all lost any journalistic ability you ever had". With Les Hinton gone to the Wall Street Journal, having previously acted as her shield from unpleasantness over her own split from Ross Kemp, Wade herself is looking increasingly isolated.

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Friday, December 07, 2007 


No, he doesn't look sinister at all.

It is of course terribly easy to look on in horror at the various political vagaries surrounding the American presidential campaign, but that doesn't stop it from being similarly amusing. As long as those it involves then don't become president.

What then are Mitt Romney's, emerging as a Republican front-runner alongside Rudy Giuliani, favourite books?

“What’s your favorite novel?” is a perennial campaign question, the answer to which presumably gives insight into leadership.

When asked his favorite novel in an interview shown yesterday on the Fox News Channel, Mitt Romney pointed to “Battlefield Earth,” a novel by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. That book was turned into a film by John Travolta, a Scientologist.

A spokesman said later it was one of Mr. Romney’s favorite novels.
Asked about his favorite book, Mr. Romney cited the Bible.

That would be Romney, a Mormon, selecting as his favourite novel a book by the founder of Scientology and general fraud L. Ron Hubbard, he who formed his own religion in order to get stinkingly rich. Still, that's at least more honest than Joseph Smith and his "visitations" by the Angel Moroni, which just happened to lead to him being able to keep more than one wife. He also seems to be somewhat hedging his bets in selecting the good book as his favourite work of strictly non-fiction, over the less inspired Book of Mormon. Even if you were being charitable towards the more lucid moments of say, Job or Revelation, and decided to ignore that Job is essentially an almost meaningless parable which just showcases how useless belief in God essentially is, and that Revelation has some stunning imagery and elements of allegory as long as you dismiss the interpretations of it as any sort of prophecy, you'd be hard pressed to consider it as any great work of literature. It is however a masterpiece compared to Battlefield Earth, or indeed any of dear L Ron's output.

As well as choice of books, Romney made a lacklustre attempt to channel the spirit of JFK in delivering a speech on how his faith would in no way influence his decisions were he to be elected, the irony being that he was forced into making it because of the Christian right's views on Mormonism. In doing so he actually inferred that the current interpretation of the division of church and state was too rigid, which in a nation where politicised religion has never been more powerful ought to start alarm bells ringing. It also gave birth to this staggering quote:

"Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom."

Even if we accept that some of our ideals or norms and values originate in Christian theology, it is laughable to claim that freedom requires faith to continue, while it is willfully blind to ignore the tyrannies which have been imposed through the ages of the basis of religion. The current ones might be more associated with Islam, but even the briefest knowledge of history gives examples of the past atrocities carried out in the name of Christianity.

Speaking of which, it's not much of a surprise to learn that the CIA decided to disobey orders to hand over all related evidence to the 9/11 commission, instead deciding to destroy two taped sessions of state-sanctioned torture:

"The tapes posed a serious security risk," the CIA's director, Michael Hayden, told agency employees in a statement yesterday. "Were they ever to leak, they would permit identification of your CIA colleagues who had served in the programme, exposing them and their families to retaliation from al-Qaida and its sympathisers."

And not of course allow for prima facie evidence of the legally questionable practice of water-boarding to emerge, nor for the men responsible to be brought to account, who have now been helpfully pardoned and given protection from prosecution. The United States remember, does not torture. It just doesn't get caught doing it, or it lets its sub-ordinates do it instead. Whilst all the Democrat presidential candidates have condemned the use of torture in the "war on terror", the only Republican front-runner to do so is John McCain, who was himself tortured during his captivity in Vietnam. Two others with no chance of winning, the libertarian Ron Paul who has strongly denounced it, and Alan Keyes, who has tied himself in rhetorical knots, have been the others to join him. Our friendly Bible thumper Mitt Romney, meanwhile, called instead for Guantanamo to be doubled in size.

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Not a relinquishing of control.

Nick Robinson surmises that today's game of musical chairs in the Murdoch empire means even more bad news for poor old Gordon. According to Robinson, son of the Dirty Digger James doesn't hold the same level of apathy towards Cameron as his father does, meaning that with his ascension it becomes ever more likely that the 40% of the newspaper market that News International controls will be supporting the Tories.

Not so. Anyone who believes that Murdoch's standing aside means that he's taking himself out of the situation entirely in favour of his son hasn't been paying much attention to how Murdoch runs his newspapers. For decades his stance has long been to stay in the shadows, claiming that he doesn't interfere, while doing just that and also levering such control over his editors that they don't have to be corrected: they know instinctively what their boss expects. Installing James Murdoch as the new head of News Corp in Europe and Asia is a logical move by Murdoch as he seeks to swiftly impose his values upon the Wall Street Journal, which is why his most trusted lieutenants in the shape of Times editor Robert Thomson and executive chairman of News International Les Hinton are going with him, to ensure that the resistance shown by some of the hacks on the American paper will be swiftly crushed. The only real surprise is that he hasn't gone even further with his nepotism and swiftly promoted his gorgeous pouting wife Wendi Deng, currently head of MySpace China, to head News Corp in Asia, instead conservatively giving James both jobs.

Murdoch's concentration on America certainly won't stop him from personally deciding who to support at the next election. In the words of Andrew Neil, who knows a thing or two about how Murdoch operates, all that he's done is change the monkey. The organ grinder is still firmly in place.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007 

Scum-watch: Glorious hypocrisy over Maxine Carr.

The opening word of the second paragraph of today's Scum article on 3 women who were accused of being Maxine Carr is "evil". Rather than the mobs of people who have targeted the women being the ones in the wrong, the tone of the article makes it quite clear that it isn't their fault, nor is it the responsibility of the tabloids who whipped up hate against Carr, of which the Sun was at the forefront, but Carr herself. It's her lies, and her lies only, which have led to the campaigns of hate against the innocent women.

The Sun of course doesn't give the whole background of what Carr was found guilty of or the circumstances surrounding it. The court found her guilty of perverting the course of justice because she gave a false alibi for Huntley, not of the more serious charge of assisting an offender, which she was cleared of. The jury accepted that Carr had been in an abusive relationship, frightened of Huntley and that she had twice provided previous alibis for Huntley because in at least one of those cases he was later found to be innocent. She lied out of self-preservation.

Back in March of this year, the Sun published the contents of a audio cassette featuring Huntley making various claims, including that Carr had far more of a role in the cover-up than the court heard. These claims were nothing new: they were first featured in the News of the Screws in August last year. The Scum however unlike the Screws ran a editorial on it, lambasting Carr and claiming that Huntley had "destroyed any lingering suggestion that girlfriend Maxine Carr was an innocent bystander," and that "Carr will eventually join him there," the there being hell. This was despite the tape also featuring Huntley's continuing fantasy that the deaths of the girls was an accident, never mind that Huntley has been proved to have lied on far more occasions than Carr ever has.

Every time that such claims are made against Carr, those like the three women featured in the Sun's article find themselves under further suspicion and abuse. The irony is that the article will probably do nothing to help them, while if the Sun and others had not printed such vile accusations against Carr and attempted to turn her into the neo-Myra Hindley, they would likely never have to had endure such treatment. Such is the British media. Such is the sheer tabloid chutzpah. Such is the complete refusal to accept they might in some way have a case to answer themselves. If one were being glib, the real evil might be more associated with the press than with the women caught in a continuing tragedy.

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From lyrical to physical.

The already infamous "lyrical terrorist" has quite sensibly been given a relatively light sentence of nine months suspended. Some might see that as lenient, but considering the ridiculous sentences given to some, such as Atif Siddique who received 8 years whilst Abu Hamza got 7, she appears to be lucky to have been tried in the court of a judge who justifiably described her as an "enigma".

On the face of it, especially if you consider some parts of the prosecution case, that Malik was arrested after it was found she had been in contact with Sohail Qureshi (not apparently the man of Canadian descent also linked to terrorism), a man who it seems was preparing to travel to Pakistan with nefarious intentions, that she had been a member of "Jihad Way" an online group dedicated to spreading the word about the glorious nature of holy war and that she had in her possession a number of manuals, one called the "The Mujaheddin (sic) Poisoner's Handbook", as well as the "Encyclopaedia Jihad", you'd come to the conclusion that the way she's been defended by some is, like she might well be, naive.

Some of the reporting certainly has been. Despite the Grauniad report, Malik was not convicted on the basis of her doggerel, although that was a major part of the prosecution case which attempted to show she was, in the prosecution's words, "a committed Islamic extremist", but on her possession of the above mentioned manuals. She was convicted under section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, for possessing material "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism".

All well and good you might think. When though does simply possessing something which cannot in itself be used to commit an act of terrorism become a criminal offence? Does simply searching Google for the documents, as I just have, suggest that I'm looking for something that might be useful if I so wish to commit an act of terrorism? Does it matter if the documents themselves are laughable in the extreme, as these collated works often are? The Mujahideen Poisons Handbook, for instance, to give it its proper name, takes its recipes from the Poisoner's Handbook, and as Dick Destiny describes, that particular book was published in the 80s and originates from the neo-Nazi right in America, where many of the other bomb and poison recipes now available in "jihad" manuals first came from. The Encyclopedia Jihad, presuming the one Malik had was the manual and not the scholary text, is in Arabic and has as far as I can see, not been translated into English, except in brief excerpts by writers on jihad by Evan Kohlmann and the SITE Institute. How she was supposed to use it when she couldn't understand it doesn't seem to have been questioned. As for two of the other manuals she had, such as how to win in hand to hand combat, there's been nothing to suggest that isn't just a bone-headed general document rather than one about taking part in holy war, although I did find this useful guide to how to kill zombies when your only weapons are your fists, while How to Make Bombs is a similarly general term and could be related to numerous laughable tomes. According to this one article, that phrase is one of the most popular search terms in New Zealand, not known for its Islamic zealots. Other things she may have had possession of were a manual on how to operate a rifle, which should be handy when you don't have one, and the text of the bin Laden "fatwa" declaring war on the Americans in Saudi Arabia, also freely available as well as for sale in a collection of his pronouncements.

What we're left with after all that is Malik's verse about the infidels, her declaration on a social networking site that she wanted to help the "mujahideen" in every way she could, and that she watched the taped executions carried out in Iraq. There doesn't seem to have been any actual videos found on her computer, otherwise they would have been mentioned, but to go by her verse on beheading it seems likely she probably has seen them. Then again, so have I, as have doubtless hundreds of thousands of others on the internet who have an interest in the gruesome or who are just inquisitive. Malik was found not guilty of possessing the material she had with the intention of personally carrying out a terrorist act, and she was never accused of inciting terrorism itself.

In my view she is, as the judge described her, an enigma. Was she genuinely involved and in contact with those were interested in jihad? It seems likely. Was she though despite this a Walter Mitty character, a fantasist who despite working at WHSmiths in Heathrow was just writing out her thoughts on the back of receipts while bored, influenced by a passing craze? The court heard that she had previously written poetry about American rappers, showing she had gone from one extreme to the other, the all encompassing celebration of materialism and wealth to the almost nihilistic hatred espoused by the knife-wielding beheaders of Iraq. Had she simply found somewhere she thought that she belonged, never likely to act out what some of those she may have had contact with were themselves considering? We simply don't know.

I do however think that the sentence given to her is the best of all worlds. A lengthy prison sentence for simply possessing documents, whatever happens to be written in them, is an insult to both liberalism and liberty. It's not far from there to the burning of books themselves. Malik has instead been caught, has shown apparent remorse, and will now likely be strictly monitored in what she does. The overwhelming impression of her is of an immature woman, easily influenced, who searched for something to help define herself. She chose extremist Islam, and has been rebuked for it. David T from Harry's Place has played the card that if she had been white and interested in neo-Nazism or child pornography we wouldn't be tying ourselves in knots defending her, but I'd like to think that most of those who have, excepting the Muslim Council of Britain, would have done. Holding extremist views and writing about them is not a crime, even if you have documents that just might be useful to terrorists. Acting on them is. Losing sight of that is the sign of a shift from a liberal democracy to an authoritarian one.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007 

Scum-watch: More thieving migrants and an eulogy for Andy Hayman.

It's been a few months since the last figures showed that immigrants from eastern Europe were supposedly bleeding the exchequer dry with benefit claims, so it must surely be time to resurrect them once again. After all, the Sun has to find non-news stories to fill the paper when it can't be bothered to report on small things like Iran being declared not to have a nuclear weapons program:

MIGRANTS claim £1.4million a month in child benefit for kids living ABROAD, shocking new figures show.

The cash is given to 18,000 workers from new EU countries, without any checks on if the children actually exist. The number of East Europeans pocketing the handout soared by almost a third in just three months, the latest figures show.

Happily, when the Sun last flagged up this heinous outrage, I emailed the child benefit office and despite them taking the best part of two months to reply, I did finally get a very helpful explanatory response. Here it is in full:

Thank you for your e-mail of 17 September about Child Benefit. Your e-mail has been forwarded to HM Revenue & Customs and I have been asked to reply. I apologise for the delay in doing so.

You ask if foreign workers are entitled to claim Child Benefit for their children, even if they do not reside with them in this country.

The main purpose of Child Benefit is to support families living in the United Kingdom. In this regard, the general rules for this benefit do not provide for them to be paid in respect of children who reside outside the United Kingdom. However, these general rules are supplemented by the co-ordinating rules in European Community Regulations which the United Kingdom has applied since it joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1973.

The Regulations protect the acquired social security rights of European Economic Area (EEA) workers and their families moving within the Community.
The Regulations have detailed rules that determine which social security scheme a worker should contribute to, and which State has responsibility for the payment of family benefits. In general, it provides that the worker pays into the social security scheme where the work takes place and that State is responsible for the payment of family benefits. If entitlement to family benefits arises in more than one Member State, the Regulations contain priority rules to determine who has responsibility for paying. More detailed information relating to these Community rules can be found in leaflet SA 29 “Your social security insurance, benefits and healthcare rights in the European Economic Area”, published by the Department for Work and Pensions and available from its website at Similarly, the thousands of UK nationals who live in another EEA country also benefit from these rules in a wide number of areas.

The vast majority of Eastern European migrants, who were the subject of recent media publications, are in employment, paying UK taxes and National Insurance contributions and in many cases in hard-to-fill jobs in sectors with high levels of vacancies.

When a claim is made under the EC Regulations, there are long-standing checks in place to prevent fraud. For example, the relevant authorities in the family’s country of residence are required to confirm the identity and address of the children in the claim. In addition, the person claiming can be required to provide the original birth or adoption certificate of the child in support of their claim.

I hope that you will find this helpful.

This immediately demolishes the Scum's spurious claim that there are no checks that the children actually exist. Secondly, it makes clear that anyone living in any current EU member state while their children live in their "home" country can claim that country's equivalent of child benefit on the exact same basis, similarly without the children actually being present.

The Sun article accordingly doesn't deign to mention that only those paying national insurance are entitled to claim child benefit. They're contributing to the economy and are just as entitled to claim the benefits available to "us" as anyone else. The simple fact they're foreign automatically means this is "shocking".

Last time round the Sun introduced the notion that the fact that 200,000 more British children are living in poverty is somehow related in any way whatsoever to the fact that 14,000 migrants are claiming child benefit, with the disingenuous Tory Philip Hammond following up. This time Hammond just jumps straight in:

Shadow Treasury Chief Secretary Philip Hammond said: “About 3.8million British children are living in poverty yet Gordon Brown is siphoning off more than £320,000 per week to children abroad.”

Shall we do some elementary maths? £320,000 x 52 weeks = £16,640,000. Divide £16,640,000 by 3,800,000 and you get 4.3789473684210526315789473684211. In other words, if we took all the money back from the Poles which they are legitimately claiming, and redistributed it between those children, each could look forward to having an early Christmas present of £4.37p. Don't spend it all at once kids!

Going on:

HM Revenues and Customs said: “Under EU rules, an EU national working and paying compulsory contributions in one EU country can claim child benefits for their family resident in another.”

Which is a more concise and dumbed-down version for the Sun readership of the email I received.

Naturally, the good burghers of MyScum are enraged by this insult to the English working man, although one or two do dare to suggest that this is actually only fair. JanJud is representative:

It's an absolute disgrace, the working man is being taxed to death to pay for children that have no right to anything from the British Taxpayer. This Government are totally incompetent & corrupt, this throwing money down the drain must stop. British families can't even get housing, yet immigrants can!!!!!

And where does JanJud hail from? Err, South Africa.

I read a far more interesting fact in one of today's Grauniad articles on the Nimrod crash. The cost of operations in Iraq, despite the draw down in troops, is estimated to come to £995m, a rise of 2%. You decide which is more of a burden on the humble British taxpayer.

Elsewhere, the Sun is mourning the loss of Andy Hayman. Says crime editor Mike Sullivan, previously featured here, here and here:

THE resignation of Andy Hayman is a sad day for British policing.


Unlike others, Hayman fell on his sword and for that he must be praised.

I obviously cannot condone any wrong doing but he was respected and admired by grassroots police officers.

Andy Hayman was one of the good guys and our police force is a weaker force without him.

One has to wonder if Sullivan's sadness might be related to the "unique" relationship between the Sun and the police. Rebekah Wade has previously admitted to paying officers for information, while the stories which were so horribly wrong about Rochelle Holness and Janet Hossain were likely sourced on information from the police. Last week, when Harry Redknapp was arrested, the photographers from a certain newspaper had turned up at the same time as the police did, which might just suggest the two were in cahoots. The newspaper? The Sun.

Finally, this. Fucking this:

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007 

No nukes? Oh, time to invade then.

Fwwippp, followed by an almighty crash. Heard that sequence of sounds? It's been echoing around the globe, ever since the combined work of the 16(!) American intelligence agencies in the form of the national intelligence estimate was declassified and published yesterday. That fwwippp was the noise of a thousand rugs being pulled from under the feet of a thousand different people, politicians, commentators, bloggers, saloon bar bores, all made to look like fools at best and warmongering loons at worst. Iran not only isn't pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, it hasn't been doing so for four years.

Those who found themselves in a heap on the floor have come up with different ways of adjusting to the new, we're a bunch of liars and chumps, world. For the Sun, which recently informed us that the only thing worse than Iran getting nukes was another cakewalk with 650,000 dead and that anyone who believed Iran wanted nuclear power for peaceful purposes was "hopelessly deluded", the easiest thing to do is to stick your fingers in your ears and pretend nothing has changed, helped along by not reporting on the NIE assessment at all. If you're Oliver Kamm, and the unfortunate author of a piece for the Grauniad which calls for "concerted diplomatic pressure, sanctions and luck" when dealing with Iran published on the same night as the report, then you quickly rehash your bullshit and present it to the hordes on CiF as if it was fresh roast beef, rather than warmed up vomit. If you're Melanie Phillips, then this "this report provokes a high degree of scepticism". Scepticism which Mel naturally didn't show towards the intelligence claims that Saddam was going to murder us all in our beds within 45 minutes, or indeed, towards the claims by one Dave Gaubatz that Iraq's WMD was transported post-war from Iraq to Syria with the help of the Russians. Incredibly, President Bush has been the most magnanimous since the report was unveiled: he's gone from talking of nuclear holocaust and world war three to saying little more than Iran remains "dangerous".

Mad Mel does though have something of a point. We should indeed be sceptical. Why should we believe the intelligence services which got it so completely wrong over Iraq that Iran has abandoned any plans for a nuclear weapons? It's perfectly rational to be concerned over the motives of those delivering the intelligence this time round: they found themselves manipulated and used on both sides of the Atlantic to make the case for a war which has proved to be far more disastrous than their worst predictions suggested. We don't know how much of an impact this has had on their thinking and briefings; intelligence has always been nuanced and uncertain, things which Blair and Bush had no time for. Who's to say that they haven't tried to stop this happening again by being even more timid and diplomatic when considering what they know or even a pre-emptive attempt to stop in Marx's famous quote history being repeated for a second time as a farce after the tragedy of Iraq?

With Iraq however there always were informed voices that struggled to make themselves heard that more or less got it right, such as Scott Ritter, the former weapons inspector who was convinced Iraq had been 90-95% disarmed. He was 5% out. Robin Cook, who had been party to the intelligence as foreign secretary, stated in his resignation speech that he didn't believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction as in those that could be quickly used in a military situation. Although intelligence agencies the world over were convinced that Iraq had some WMD, contrary to popular belief most didn't believe that it was an imminent, let alone an existential threat. As Richard Dearlove wrote, the "intelligence and facts were fixed around the policy". The ravings of men like "Curveball" were believed.

With Iran, it's different. As Oliver Kamm admits, Iran is not a totalitarian society, even if it is an autocratic and repressive one. Juan Cole speculates over whether the new information about Iran's nuclear program has come from a recent defector, having changed its mind from 2005 when the NIE estimated Iran was pursuing weapons, with now, two years' later, more convinced than before that it isn't and hasn't been for four years.

Wherever it's come from, it has already and will only do one thing: stop, or at least postpone any attack at least for some time to come. It also highlights the irony and inequity of the UN Security Council imposing sanctions on Iran for doing only, according to this latest assessment, what it is entitled to do under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The UN has been breaking international law, not Iran. This shouldn't negate from the fact that Iran has as yet no reactor where the uranium it has been enriching can be used for such purposes; but there is also nothing now to suggest, apart from the predictable and expected dissension from Israel, that the fuel, only being enriched to fuel grade, is for anything other than an energy program.

It also shouldn't stop the search for a complete solution. Still worth pursuing is the deal Russia has offered, where it would enrich the fuel while providing Iran with the reactors, taking away any reason for doubt. More intriguing still will be where this leaves Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself: he has been hiding behind Iran's nuclear program to negate from the criticism he has faced over the rising cost of living and his broken promise to redistribute Iran's oil wealth. With the nuclear shield taken away, and faced with accusations of endangering the nation for no good reason, his short reign could be brought to an end at the first opportunity. Those also facing defenestration should be those who have so recklessly scaremongered and demanded action: Mad Mel and her second Holocaust have never looked so laughable.

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One down, one to go.

Good riddance then to Andy Hayman, the man who in the Sun's words "is feared by the terrorist scum determined to destroy our way of life." I'm sure that those willing to "martyr" themselves were terrified of him, while anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way of the anti-terrorist operations he was responsible for had plenty of reasons to be frightened, as the death of Jean Charles de Menezes and the Forest Gate fiasco more than demonstrated.

Like Ian Blair, Hayman should have resigned after the second IPCC report into the Met's operation on the 22nd of July found that he had failed to inform Blair that an innocent man had been shot dead. According to multiple accounts, Hayman informed the Crime Reporters Association that an innocent man had been shot dead at around 4pm. When questioned about what he told the CRA by the IPCC, he said he couldn't remember what he had. At 5pm he attended a sub-meeting of the Met's management board, where he said the following:

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.

Having started the press running that the man shot was not one of the four bombers, he then commenced the squall of lies and smears which wouldn't be fully corrected until the IPCC's preliminary investigatory findings were leaked.

Rather than going with something approaching dignity, Hayman has now "retired" after allegations were made that he had ran up credit card expenses of £15,000 and that he took a female officer on foreign trips with him, which he has described as "unfounded accusations". Accurate or not, it's difficult not to see them as poetic justice.

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Monday, December 03, 2007 

Hubris, carelessness and the second death.

Depending on who you believe, Alastair Campbell had a formula concerning the life of a scandal and whether those embroiled within it could survive in their jobs. Again, depending on who you believe, Campbell decided that most could carry on if by either the tenth or fourteenth day since it was first exposed the coverage had almost disappeared. We're now a week and a day into the Abrahams funding scandal, and it shows no signs whatsoever of being about to drop off the front pages.

The Brown camp must have been dreading the Sundays, where the weekly hacks had far more time than their daily counterparts to uncover further intricacies of Labour's dubious funding over the past few years. Things could have been a lot worse, one would think, even though the Mail on Sunday splashed on how Mahmoud Khayami donated to the party a whole day after he been entered on the electoral register, and Abrahams, who seems to be doing his best to be mischievous, noted that there are more senior figures within the party who knew that he was the source of the money coming from at least four different fronts. The situation has also been helped slightly by the whole Gillian Gibbons affair, although the embarrassment that David Miliband himself wasn't able to garner her early release while two Lords were able to might yet bite too. If politics hadn't become so separated in Scotland and England, the scandal which has also engulfed Wendy Alexander, the Scottish Labour leader, best summed up by Mr Eugenides, would also have hit far harder than it has south of the border.

The one thing that is still beyond belief is that Labour had the best part of two whole days to get its entire story about what happened completely straight, yet it failed comprehensively. The first they heard of what was going to be in the Mail on Sunday was on Saturday evening, and according to Patrick Wintour's Grauniad account it wasn't seen as too serious, but the involvement and resignation of Peter Watt still should have brought home just how damaging the fallout from the latest breach of party funding law was going to be. Yet even by Brown's press conference on Tuesday morning the full account of what occurred had not been constructed, nor has it even been now. To best disarm the ensuing storm, what should have been put into the public domain was a narrative of what had happened, how the party had got it wrong and how it was going to be put right. At the very best it can be said that Labour was leaving the details out so that Lord Whitty could establish them, while at worst the party was and is being blatantly dishonest, a view I more than lean towards.

For instance, how did a man such as Peter Hain just completely forget to register a donation (or indeed, most of his donations, as it now turns out) from none other than Jon Mendelsohn towards his deputy leadership campaign? The inference must be that it was a very convenient transgression. This itself distracts from the real question, which ought to by why and how some of the candidates thought it was necessary to raise such vast sums, in Hain's case £77,000, for what was an internal leadership campaign. Even more startling is that Harriet Harman, the eventual winner, was to hold a Christmas party a final fundraiser this Wednesday to cover the full costs of her campaign, having overspent by a huge margin, despite being told to go begging to Janet Kidd, one of Abrahams' fronts by Chris Leslie, the man who had rejected a donation from the very same Kidd in his role as Brown's leadership campaign co-ordinator.

Brown's last resort to try to regain the initiative has been to dangle the carrot to the Tories of severing the link with the unions once and for all. Perhaps the only major surprise is that it has taken both this long to happen and that the unions have put up with Labour for so many years, through so many broken promises whilst still funding the party up to the hilt. The details of how the political levy will be made "transparent" in Brown's words are unclear: will this mean a limit of £50,000 a year or every member being required to OK the money donated by the union? If it's the former, it will mark the final, full transition of Labour from the party representing the ordinary worker to that of one totally funded by the same corporate, rich individuals as the Tories. This occurred long ago in policy, but the death of Labour in spirit in exchange for the dishonesty of its apparatchiks is fitting, if only as a reminder of the last ten years.

As both Dave and Chris have said, this wasn't supposed to happen, but this can't purely be blamed on the Blair era. Brown might not have known about the donations, but he did appoint Mendelsohn who will famously be known for being "concerned" about Abrahams' funding, but not enough to do anything about it prior to the story being exposed. He has completely failed to make good on his promise for "change" while the mendacity of Blair was never punctured. We do need as Chris argues the resurrection of mass politics, but who with? Labour has never been more of a busted flush. Do we help build the Greens or go somewhere else? Fact is, we simply don't know, and what's more, we won't. Being disaffected is much easier than starting again.

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Tabloid-watch: Intruding on distress and failing to own up to their own role in the lack of self-esteem.

I'm of the opinion that most celebrities and the press attitude towards them is usually reciprocal - they sell their souls, the media has the power to either crush them or beatify them, and decides on which according to their whims - and although the tabloids often overstep the mark, they usually don't do so in such a manner as to become a matter of open concern. It's only in the rare cases, such of that of Heather Mills, who has certainly brought some of it upon herself but certainly doesn't deserve the vitriol heaped upon her daily, not to mention the numerous lies told about her, even if she has ideas that make Melanie Phillips look sane by comparison. Being called "Mucca" for doing glamour modeling 20 years ago, especially by the Scum, currently encouraging women across the nation to "whip 'em out" for a cash prize of £5,000 is clearly vile. Also completely unacceptable is the similarly disgusting Heat magazine printing stickers making fun of a disabled child - even if that child was unfortunate enough to be born to Jordan.

Today's front pages of both the Mirror and the Scum featuring a photograph of Amy Winehouse in a obvious state of both distress and undress are, by the same yardstick, intrusive, voyeuristic, demeaning and motivated by a state of clear faux-concern, as shown by the Sun's article on the matter. It also raises questions - just what is an apparent paparazzi photographer doing in a street in London at 5:40 except stalking a woman in the hope of getting such a shot which he/she will able to sell for more than most of us will likely make in a year? I'm no fan of Winehouse and the spawn which she and Lily Allen have given succour to over the last year, but to put such photographs on the front page of a newspaper must rank as far lower behaviour than that which she recently displayed at a gig where she was booed for her poor peformance. If the editors of the respective newspapers were photographed in a similar tearful, upset state, they would move heaven and earth to ensure that such pictures were not replicated in rival publications. In fact, the no-aggression pact between most editors in Fleet Street would mean that most newspapers would never even dream of printing them at all, let alone on the front page. Rebekah Wade for instance, had her divorce from Ross Kemp almost entirely concealed from view due to frantic ringing-round by Les Hinton. Amy Winehouse, to whom being described as "troubled" has almost become a reflex reaction, has no such protection.

There are also no protections in the Press Complaints Commission code against such invasive photographers, and that's for the reason that editors are rightly expected to exercise discretion over what they publish. In a world in which the newspapers are now competing with online gossip columns and celebrity magazines which clearly have almost no qualms about what they print, however, to miss such an opportunity is now seen as to pass it on to your rivals. As always, journalists ought to put themselves into the position of the person they're covering: how would they feel to see themselves on the front page of the two biggest selling red top tabloids in such a state? Is the use of the photographs more likely to cause the person to seek help if they need it, or cause them further unnecessary distress? In this case, it seems more likely to me to be the latter. If Winehouse was now to be found dead, or to be admitted to hospital after an act of self-harm or attempted suicide, the media would rightly stand accused of documenting a descent while only profiting from it. It's something that will eventually happen, but until it does newspapers will continue to push the boundaries of what is seen as fair game.

Elsewhere in the Scum, the leader is concerned about a poll showing that girls as young as 6 are worried about their appearance, yet as usual identifies every other suspect for why that is except for themselves:

GIRLS are dangerously obsessed with their image.

A survey says nearly half of girls aged between six and 12 hate the way they look.

It’s shocking — and wrong — that girls as young as six care so much.

They should be enjoying themselves in innocent play at that age.


Parents, teachers and the fashion industry all have a role to play.

Easily-manipulated kids must not be targeted by advertisers.

It’s dangerously simple to hook a girl for life with worries about her looks.

It’s their health and happiness that counts.

Unlike most Sun editorials, there's little there to disagree with. The media itself, however, rather than just advertisers, has just as big a role to play. As alluded to above, the Sun is currently running page 3 idol, the very sort of competition where the "male fantasy" image of a woman as being something to aspire to is inherently promoted. It's run endless articles on cosmetic surgery, especially breast augmentations, and is as mired in the celebrity culture, where looks are everything, as any of the weeklies. This is partly the reason the paper targets the working class male above everyone else, but when you're the biggest selling newspaper other responsibilities undoubtedly come with that.

Another worry is surely the lack of role models, especially for young girls - am I the only one depressed by the survey's findings that only one percent less than those who aspire to becoming a teacher are satisfied in the hope of becoming a hairdresser or a beautician? Some might say that's being realistic, but it's also aiming incredibly low. The paucity of young female role models who aren't either Big Brother contestants or soap stars that after leaving their respective original role spend the rest of their days in the little boy wank mags with their plastic breasts on display, at least when not showcasing their lack of intelligence on other reality shows, is shocking. Radical feminism is rightly dead, but the more moderate variety is also gasping for breath in an age where the unchallenged cynicism of men's magazines and sexism is still rife. The marketisation of life itself though certainly has the most to answer for, and even fewer are willing to stand up to that. Only when true individuality is encouraged, rather than adopting a phony version to be sold, will self-esteem and happiness with and within the own body start to become something natural.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007 

Scum-watch: Prison ship obsession rises again.

Doesn't it look just so inviting?

If the Sun were a person, its turn on and offs would be intriguing. Tits would obviously be at the very zenith of its sexual fantasies, while evil paedophiles, the scourge of modern life, would be something the person would focus their hatred on, even while secretly glancing at photographs of a 12-year-old model wearing only a bikini. Less conventionally, one of our imaginary Sun person's greatest desires, resulting in numerous rushes of blood to the head, so to speak, is for villains to be caged aboard floating fortresses. It's a continuing obsession, and one which the Scum is again cheering about today:

A PRISON ship is set to ease overcrowding in Britain’s jails in the New Year in a victory for The Sun.

The move comes as the prison population this week soared to 81,455 - leaving just NINE places in our cells.

Justice Secretary Jack Straw is in talks with the Dutch government to secure one of their floating prisons.

Officials have been sent to the Netherlands to get a high-security vessel that can hold up to 200 lags.

In actuality, a prison ship will do nothing whatsoever to ease overcrowding, especially one that can only cater for 200 "lags". As the current prison population statistics show, 177 prisoners are currently being held in police cells. Even with 200 extra places, that would mean that courts could sentence 23 extra to imprisonment on top of the expected daily churn in and out of the prison system before it would again be thoroughly overloaded. The current level of overcrowding is quite simply unsustainable, as politicians not playing to galleries more than know. None of them however have the courage to raise their head above the parapet and say openly that less people need to be sent to prison: the level of opprobrium would be far too great, despite the fact that overcrowding only makes rehabilitation even more difficult, leading to the recidivism rate increasing exponentially, to further tabloid outrage. It's a vicious circle which no politician is prepared to break, through pure cowardice. It's also worth pointing out that the Sun also breathlessly announced back at the end of September that Straw was deciding which of three vessels to chose as the new prison ship, and surprise surprise, nothing more was heard of it until up to this latest wheeze.

All of this is despite the government's early release scheme, which the Sun also covers. Despite 11,000 "crooks" being released up to 18 days early, the prison system is now currently only 9 places away from complete capacity. The Tories said that it would mean 25,000 being released early this year, while also opposing it completely, which if they had been in power and had done might well have led to even the extra police cells being filled, but being in opposition means you can get away with such disingenuous playing to the crowd. The numbers that have apparently re-offended after being released early are surprisingly low, if anything, especially considering that those released were given £45 on being freed that in some cases was expected to last a month, while some were given nothing at all.

The Sun's leader is almost orgasmic at the news that a boat has been found to stow criminals on:

SHIP, ship hooray!

The last time this combination of words was used in the Scum it was on the front page, overjoyed at the suicide of Harold Shipman. How very appropriate.

Finally, Gordon Brown and Jack Straw have found us a prison ship.

It can’t sail into harbour soon enough.

Our prisons are bursting at the seams.

Which of course has nothing to do with the Sun's demands for an end to "soft" sentences and for never ending crackdowns against yobs, gangs and almost every offence and grouping you can think of. The leader but one above this is advocating such a campaign against "underage boozing" which names everyone responsible except for parents. Overage boozing where the editor of a tabloid newspaper gets drunk and smacks her husband (now ex) is curiously not worthy of crusading against.

Rapists, killers and paedophiles have been freed early to make space.

Really? Is that why, err, the Sun's own report on the 11,000 released early only mentions 4 sex offenders who've been let out 18 days early and nothing about any murderers whatsoever? This wouldn't be another huge lie in a Sun editorial, surely not.

Now it seems a 200-cell Dutch barge is heading our way.

It’s a good start, Mr Brown.

But it’s only a start.

Well yes. If things get any worse, he'll be needing to make sure there are cells ready to take him and most of the cabinet. One already seems to have Peter Watt's name on it.

The irony of the Sun's unhinged joy at a prison ship being found is that the leader above it is on Gillian Gibbons "suffering in captivity", and few if any would disagree with that. There is no such sympathy for the mentally ill and drug addicted that will find themselves making up the population of the new prison ship. If it's anything like the old one, then the inmates can look forward to it being "unacceptably cramped and claustrophobic", with "no access to fresh air", "poor healthcare facilities" and with jobs "very limited". Still, they're all villains, aren't they?

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