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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