Thursday, January 31, 2008 

Sussed out.

There is little more nauseating sight than politicians queueing up to attempt to outdo each other. If you were still harbouring the belief that New Labour under Gordon Brown were going to or had abandoned the policy making by headline way of governing, then yesterday's pathetic display by both Brown and the Conservatives ought to have been enough to shatter that impression once and for all.

The Grauniad's Alan Travis summed the day's events up succinctly, but it more or less came down to this. Cameron gives an exclusive interview to (who else?) the Scum, promising that police will be encouraged to use their powers to stop and search far more frequently, by abolishing the "foot-long" form they have to fill in when they make one and having to have the permission of an inspector or above to make random searches in a specific area. The government instantly replied that was exactly what it was about to do as well, using the Mirror, and more or less making clear that was what Ronnie Flanagan's report on cutting police bureaucracy is also going to conclude. This most pitiful battle royale continued at prime minister's questions, and ended in a similar stalemate.

Cameron's actual interview with the Scum is slightly more conciliatory than it appears at first sight, saying that he will consult with communities on the powers, although whether he'll agree if they come to the wrong predestined conclusion is doubtful. Cameron's argument though more or less amounts to this: I know what's best, and whether you like it or not, you're going to take the medicine.

This is not about race. It’s about stopping crime and reducing the number of victims of crime. The statistics are undeniable and it’s clear by carrying out more stops and searches it is the black and Asian communities who will benefit the most.

I know this is controversial but Britain has changed. We cannot solve a 2008 problem by looking at it through 1980s eyes. It’s a critical debate and one we have got to confront.

The statistics are indeed undeniable. Compared to whites, black and Asians are six times more likely to be stopped and searched. You can argue all you like about whether this is because there's more crime in areas with a higher "ethnic" population or otherwise. I also don't think anyone will deny that the police have changed to a certain extent, thanks partly to the Macpherson report and due to the institution of the IPCC, for example, and also natural wastage, with some of the older guard retiring, but you perhaps ought to ask the black and Asian men routinely stopped in certain areas simply because they're driving a "flash" car for their view on whether the police have changed. As the priest on Newsnight last night said, the first few times those who have been continuously stopped accept it or write it off as acceptable and understandable; when it gets to the fifth or above it's when they start getting angry.

Perhaps far more pertinent than the initial objections based on the proportion of how many black and Asians are stopped compared to whites is another simple fact bared out by statistics. Stopping and searching is about as blunt a weapon against crime as there is, which only very rarely results in charges being brought; what it offers is a deterrent, not anything even approaching a solution, and as a deterrent it's one that turns attitudes against the police that are often never won back again.

But this isn't just a race issue. It's a class issue, it's a youth issue, it goes to the very heart of the debate on the casual slide towards authoritarianism. It's surely not a coincidence that the least likely people to be stopped and searched are white, middle-aged and middle or upper-class, and they also just happen to be the overwhelming occupiers of the Westminster village and the upper echelons of the media. The most offensive thing is that Cameron thought that if he dressed up in the clothes of being concerned about the "black and Asian communities" that they would welcome the de facto reintroduction of the sus laws with open arms. Sure, come on in, shake us down, it's for the
children. This was by far his most laughable argument:

"This is a moment in our history when we have to wake up, sit up and have massive social, political and cultural change. We are never going to deal with it unless we free the police to do far more stopping and far more searching. I am quite clear the current rules have to go."

Every politician has to pretend that this latest outrage demands complete change, so we can't really object to that. What is objectionable is that he somehow imagines that it's the police or stop and searching that will bring about any change whatsoever, except for the worse. He says forget about the 80s, but he surely needs to do the opposite: he needs to learn the lessons from the 80s and realise that those days aren't gone by a long chalk. The clichéd quote is that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but that sums up what Cameron really ought to do.

Is it really too much to ask that instead of looking for short-term, self-serving solutions designed for political gain, that we invest in intelligence-led policing that targets the criminal rather than the poor sod who just happens to be walking down the street as the plod also happen to be? Today's report in the Guardian from Stockport provides something approaching a model, but it's one that doesn't allow for a soundbite to give to the Scum. That the Tories and the populist press are going for such measures is understandable, that Labour, faced with crime coming down is even contemplating the bringing back of open discriminatory police practices shows that they've abandoned any pretence of correcting the numerous Blairite failings.

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The heirs of Fagan, that, err, weren't.

They were ‘twenty-first century Artful Dodgers’, we were told, a gang of ‘Fagin’s children’ from Romania, who had been trafficked to Slough, England, in order to work like slaves in a ‘pickpocketing and begging crimewave’. The Metropolitan Police launched dawn raids on various ‘slavery dens’ in Slough last Friday; some of the police reportedly wore balaclavas and riot gear and were closely followed by film crews invited along to witness the moment the ‘child slaves’ were liberated. Footage of officers carrying kids from terraced houses was beamed across the news bulletins, as various newspapers declared: ‘Romanian child slaves freed in Slough.’ A Met officer said his team was committed to ‘dismantling crime networks’ and to the ‘rescue of [trafficked] children’ (1).

There was only one problem with this story: it was as fictional as the original Dickensian tale of artful dodgers. The Roma children were not child slaves; of the 10 kids ‘rescued’ in Slough on Friday (one of whom was less than a year old: hardly pickpocketing material), all but one were reunited with their natural parents or guardians the following day (2). No evidence has been discovered to show that the Roma adults in Slough were involved in a ‘criminal gang’ or a ‘child slave ring’ or any other form of serious criminality. Of the 24 adults arrested, 14 have been charged: nine with immigration offences, three with the theft of mobile phones, and two with handling stolen mobile phones… hardly the kind of crimes that require a heavy-handed, camera-flashing raid at five in the morning.

Who honestly would have thought it?

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A very hollow death.

The image posted along with the official statement confirming al-Libi's death on Al-Ekhlaas.

I'm sure that the millions of people watching the news tonight, after being informed that an al-Qaida leader they've never heard of has been killed, will be thoroughly nonplussed, as they in fact should be. The very nature of al-Qaida and takfirist militancy means that leaders, as important as they are, are dispensable and where one is taken down, another will spring up in his place as surely as the sun will rise again tomorrow, much like the many-headed hydra of Greek mythology. Even if both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were killed or captured tomorrow, it would likely be only a temporary setback that could, if anything, make the fight against the creed they espouse even more difficult. If the jihad launched against the Soviets in Afghanistan was the opening shot of modern Salafist militancy and 9/11 the event that destroyed the original base, then Iraq was the clarion call which has energised and mobilised a new generation.

As for Abu Laith al-Libi, his death apparently confirmed by al-Fajr media, an al-Qaida go-between, who was the leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group which allied itself with al-Qaida last year, as well as involved in the on-going insurgency in Warizistan and Afghanistan, he has now achieved his no doubt long lusted after "martyrdom". Hope you enjoy choking on all those cocks in hell, Abu.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008 

Not much intelligence from the Intelligence and Security Committee.

Continuing with the security theme, yesterday saw the release of the annual report from the Intelligence and Security Committee. The last report they issued was the gobsmacking whitewash on extraordinary rendition, which decided that MI5's involvement in the CIA kidnapping of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna because they'd changed the definition of what exactly an "extraordinary rendition" is. To quote from the toadying, ridiculously trusting report:

D.Those operations detailed above, involving UK Agencies’ knowledge or involvement, are “Renditions to Justice”, “Military Renditions”and “Renditions to “the Detention”. They are not “Extraordinary Renditions”, which we define as extra-judicial transfer of persons from one jurisdiction or State to another, for the purposes of detention and interrogation outside the normal legal system,where there is a real risk of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

The security services were therefore cleared of any complicit involvement in extraordinary rendition. Aren't our investigating parliamentary committees wonderful?

Just where do you go from issuing such a laughable written record of sycophancy and admiring disregard for anything other than a clean bill of health for our glorious saviours in MI5 and SIS? To an even more hilariously censored account (PDF) which manages to inform you of almost precisely nothing you didn't already know.

Richard Norton-Taylor on CiF has already said it best, but the whole report has to be read to be believed. There isn't a page that goes by that isn't affected in some way by material it's felt to sensitive for the public to read, and so is instead replaced with asterisks. Predictably, we aren't told how much the security services are either spending or being allocated in funding, but some of the removals just make the whole thing completely impossible to understand or make your marvel at just what the point of even bothering to issue a report was. There's this for example:

We are now engaged in a range of counter-terrorism work; direct pursuit of terrorists, ***, capacity-building with key [countries,] and – this is an absolutely vital point
– ***.
***. So put like that and defined like that, this takes up about 56 per cent of our effort… and it is rising.


SIS has improved its *** and its understanding of the factors that have the potential to affect radicalisation and extremism in the UK.

Its what? Its cookery? Its archery? Its performance? Its dick waving?

The media have focused on the fact that GCHQ suffered from flooding last year and the report's inquest into that, but far more interesting is the report's comments on media relations, the stopping of the SFO inquiry into the BAE slush fund and the possibility of intercept evidence being made admissible. These seem to be Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller's comments on the coverage of the Birmingham beheading plot raids:

We were very angry, but it is not clear who we should be angry with, that most of the story of the arrests in Op GAMBLE were in the media very, very fast. Indeed, before the arrests in Birmingham, the press were pre-positioned and before the police had picked up one of the plotters and the surveillance was still out looking for them, the story was in the press.

So the case was potentially jeopardised by the exposure of what the story was. My officers and the police were jeopardised by them being on operations when the story broke. The strategy of the police for interrogating those arrested was blown out of the water, and my staff felt pretty depressed about the fact that this had happened.

We've never got to the bottom of who was behind the leaking, mainly to the Scum, but most of the fingers were being pointed directly at the Home Office. Not that they're the only guilty parties; the Met, the security services themselves and other interested parties have all leaked stories for their own benefit in recent years. The solution to this though doesn't appear to be to ensure that accurate, non-sensationalist information is supplied by the police or others when arrests are made, transparently making the news available to all rather than just a few, but instead to tighten the screw on the media in its entirety, with again predictably the complaint being that "lives are at risk":

The current system for handling national security information through DA-Notices, and the Agencies’ relationships with the media more generally, is not working as effectively as it might and this is putting lives at risk. We recommend that the Government engage with the media to develop a new, effective system, with a view to protecting intelligence work, operations, sources and criminal prosecutions, whilst ensuring that the media continue to report on important matters of public interest.

The government engage with the media? Who is the committee kidding? Either it will put down more chilling legislation which rather than affecting the sensationalism in the aftermath of the foiling of a "plot" will instead stop legitimate reporting and investigation, or it'll do nothing.

The committee's unquestioning approach to the evidence given them by the security services is once again highlighted by their pitiful investigation into whether there really was a threat of the Saudis withdrawing intelligence cooperation if the SFO investigation into corruption continued:

106. We asked the Chief of SIS about the Saudi threat to withdraw co-operation:

There was some suggestion in some of the media coverage that there was no *** threat to our co-operation… that is not true. There were threats made to the existence of the co-operation [and] there was reason to take those threats seriously…

If the committee is well briefed, it would know that the intelligence between all the major western intelligence agencies is now pooled and shared. Even if the Saudis had withdrawn their cooperation with SIS, they would never dare remove their cooperation with the Americans, who in any case would then have submitted the same information to us. If John Scarlett was questioned about that, it sure isn't in the report.

U. The Committee is satisfied that, at the time, there were serious national security considerations which contributed to the Serious Fraud Ofice’s decision to halt the investigation into BAE Systems’ dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Even if there were, it was still the equivalent of giving into blackmail and letting a foreign country dictate to us what we could and could not do in relation to more than substantiated allegations of corruption. We would never give in to such demands from terrorists or the likes of Iran, so why with our supposed friends? The rule of law means nothing when it comes to continuing the arming of a country with one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East.

Onto intercept evidence. Surprise, surprise, the agencies are firmly against, and the committee certainly isn't convinced either:

113. The Agencies, however, are adamant that their intercept capabilities must not be disclosed in court. If they were, criminals and terrorists would quickly learn what the Agencies can and cannot do, and would emd means of avoiding detection, which would then damage their capability and coverage. Other countries, however, allow the use of intercept as evidence without any adverse impact on their security and intelligence capability, so what makes the UK different?

GCHQ points to a unique combination of factors in the UK:

The UK is the only country which has all three of the following things: an adversarial legal system, subordination to [the European Convention on Human Rights] and a strategic intercept and SIGINT capacity that is worth protecting.

The tabloids' aversion to the HRA seems to be contagious; even the security agencies are now making spurious allusions to the ECHR somehow making it obvious how intercept evidence can't possibly be made admissible. The next paragraph is completely open about how poor some of the intercept evidence is, rather than "strategic" and "worth protecting":

In practice, because of the UK’s adversarial legal system, the defence would be able to test the validity of evidence and thereby explore how it was obtained. As communications technology evolves (particularly internet protocol), we understand it may be dificult for the Agencies to be able to prove intercept to an evidential standard.

So there you are. Admittance that the evidence which currently means those on control orders can't be prosecuted is so flaky or unable to back-up that it would be unlikely to stand up in court. No wonder that the agencies are against it; the last thing they want to look is either stupid or for it to be shown that men innocent of any crime have been held under the equivalent of house arrest for years on their say so.

117. The Director of GCHQ summarised the test for allowing intercept:

… a change to allow intercept as evidence should be introduced only when doing so would have a net benfeit in securing the safety and the security of the UK. By that I mean not just convicting and imprisoning criminals, but also preventing crimes and terrorist actions.

Which just happens to be a test which you'll never be able to come to a definitive conclusion about. Best not to even try then; after all, who cares about those stuck in the eternal limbo of the control order regime, driven to severe depression like Cerie Bullivant, whose only crime seems to have been to have associated with relatives of the fertiliser bomb plotter Anthony Garcia, who had his order quashed yesterday by a judge who was heavily critical of the Home Office.

Its conclusion then:

V. Intercept is of crucial importance to the capability of the Agencies to protect the UK, its citizens and its interests overseas. Any move to permit the use of intercept evidence in court proceedings must be on a basis that does not jeopardise that capability.

In other words, more blackmail. Introduce this and we won't be able to do our jobs properly. Never mind that numerous other countries in Europe also signed up to the ECHR manage it, and that the security services are more than happy with the results of their bugging, crucial to the Crevice trial and now the beheading plot being made available as evidence, intercept would be a step too far. Just what are they so scared of?

The only real showing of teeth by the committee was being denied access to a document prepared for ministers about "an important matter", apparently related to a foreign operation, which the foreign secretary at the time was happy to be given them. The prime minister didn't agree, and the committee said that doesn't say much about his previous pledge to make the committee more transparent.

Indeed, Brown and this government's intentions of doing just that could not be more summed up than in the choice of who to replace Paul Murphy, previous chairman and now the Welsh secretary after Peter Hain's resignation. Margaret Beckett, whose previous performance in her last two jobs, as head of DEFRA and then foreign secretary were both execrable, could not be either more establishment or less likely to ask the pertinent questions needed of the security services. So much too for the independent investigator that the committee was promised. The only way the security services will ever be held properly to account will be if a watchdog similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission or the Information Commissioner were to be set-up. Why for instance should the head of MI5 be able to make doommongering statements about the terrorist threat in public and then refuse to give evidence to a parliamentary committee under the same scrutiny? Just how far the inroads into everyday life the security services are making were revealed in statistics released this week by Sir Paul Kennedy, which showed that more than 250,000 requests were made to monitor phone-calls, emails and post in just 9 months. The surveillance state is ever growing, yet there is not even the slightest attempt to provide accountability. That simply has to change.

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More on the al-Qaida in Britain hoax.

Despite all the evidence so far suggesting that the establishment of "Al-Qaida in Britain" is either the work of a prankster, a fantasist or both, the Times today continues the purveying of this nonsense in an article which doesn't really bother questioning the source of the posts on

Al-Qaeda has threatened a wave of suicide bombings in Britain unless all troops are withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and Islamist prisoners are freed from Belmarsh jail by the end of March.

The statement, which also includes specific assassination threats against Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, appeared earlier this week on, a recognised jihadi website.

The al-Qaeda statement added: "If the British government fails to respond to our demands within the last day of March 2008. . . then the martyrdom seekers of the Organisation of Al-Qaeda in Britain will target all the political leaders, especially Tony Blair and Gordan (sic) Brown."

Which really ought to give the game away. If there's one thing that al-Qaida's video releases and statements are, it's professional. They don't make such stupidly obvious mistakes. The article does at least make this clear:

The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi internet activity, said it was not possible to verify the authenticity of the statement. But it noted that it had been posted on an open section of the website and not one of the more secure closed forums normally used by al-Qaeda affiliates.

SITE considers the statement of such importance that it isn't currently featured on the front page of their site, nor is any release on the statement among their recent publications.

As for itself, its own view of the importance of the statements, in case their apparent swift deletion wasn't enough to tip anyone off about their authenticity, is more than clear from what it's currently highlighting on its open main page. Linked is the latest video from As-Sahab, "Winds of Paradise 2", featuring fighters "martyred" in Afghanistan, and also the latest video released by al-Furqan, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq's media organisation, featuring a fighter planting an IED underneath an American Stryker vehicle, which promptly explodes, but the video tellingly doesn't feature the aftermath showing what actual damage was done to it.

Whoever "Umar Rabie al-Khalaila" really is (this might be irrelevant, but a poster on a forum dedicated to jihadist propaganda I frequent is known as umar rabies bro, and claims to be British and in Iraq fighting for the ISI) he doesn't seem to be giving up: his latest effort at convincing everyone that he actually has any links to al-Qaida is to post a speech, currently being advertised with this far from professional gif. Doubtless the security services are keeping a close eye, lest there be the slightest chance that any of his guff is in fact more than grandstanding.

Slight update: Here's the response to the posting of the above banner on the aforementioned forum:

Case closed?

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008 

Getting to the bottom of the beheading plot.

The one disadvantage of the four men who formed the alleged "Birmingham beheading plot" being caught so bang to rights that they've pleaded guilty is that it's unlikely we're now going to learn in anywhere near in full just how far their plans went, and what links, if any, they had with other jihadists overseas.

For those who might have forgotten, the very day after the first arrests, the Daily Mail screamed "AL QAEDA WAS BEHIND PLOT TO BEHEAD SOLDIER". The Sun and Times, as per usual, were at the forefront of the speculation, with the Times claiming that the men arrested may have had a list of up to 25 possible targets, and that two of the men had attended a camp "directly linked to al-Qaida". One newspaper even claimed that two Muslim soldiers had been used as "bait", something that the police later made clear was completely untrue. Indeed, West Midlands police were so angered by the leaks to the press that they made it clear they had hampered their investigation, although it took another two months for Peter Clarke to make a speech saying the leaks might have put "lives at risk" for the Tories and Lib Dems to ask any questions whatsoever.

Although it's still very early days, none of the evidence disclosed today has even suggested that the men had found a target. Rather, Parviz Khan, the apparent ringleader, whose house had been bugged by MI5, was recorded talking of using drug dealers to target a soldier by getting them to approach him and offer cocaine, then grab him off the street once they'd piqued his interest. Why drug dealers would have cooperated with Khan isn't explained, or indeed how they would have managed to so successfully follow their target so as to get close enough to grab him also isn't identified. Basiru Gassama, who pleaded guilty to knowing about the plot but not informing the authorities, was according to the prosecution to have provided the details of the target, but never did. The only solid thing appears to be that they planned to behead a soldier, record it, and most likely distribute it through jihadist forums.

As for links to al-Qaida, Khan has also admitted to supplying equipment such as night-vision goggles, sleeping bags, walkie-talkies and waterproof map holders to his "terrorist contacts" in Pakistan. Whether this was intended for use in Afghanistan by the remnants of the Taliban and the others still fighting there is uncertain, although what use some of the material would have for use in the part of Pakistan affected by the earthquake there is certainly unclear.

Rather, what the opening of the trial appears to show is the continuation of a theme: that instead of having cast-iron links with terrorist groups overseas that are controlling the cells, the groups that have had their plots foiled up to now have almost all been acting entirely alone, coming up with their own ideas, often either overblown and too difficult to pull off, or incompetent, in the case of last year's failed attacks on the London nightclub and Glasgow airport. While it's reassuring somewhat that they're either pretentious or immature, what is more troubling is that they're home-grown, autonomous and fully acquainted with classic terror tactics. The beheading plot was nothing more in reality than a murder plot, but its political subtext would have been overwhelming.

Again, it shows the terror threat is real, but that it continues to be exaggerated for short-term political gain. Refusing to give in to demands for extending either the detention limit further or for a return to Musharraf's supposed plan for tackling radicalisation continue to be justified by the failures and weaknesses of the plots foiled, not to mention the civil liberties implications or the chilling effects on the Muslim community itself.

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Express-watch: Soft touch journalists.

Once you're on a relative roll, why bother to stop? The four previous Daily Express front pages have all in some way focused on immigrants and migrants, each with their own lies and distortions, so they seem to have decided to at least bring the total up to 5.

Screaming "SOFT TOUCH BRITAIN", the Express claims that migrants are now claiming £21m in benefits for their children that are back in Poland. Thing is, I've looked for the statistics that the story is apparently based on, and I can't find any that have been released in the last couple of days that are relevant, unless I've missed them somewhere. There's none on the HM Revenue and Customs website, which the Express claims issued them, the National Statistics site, or the Treasury website, so I can't check on their accuracy.

This however isn't by any means a new story. It's been rehearsed twice before, back in September last year, then raised again in December, presumably when the last new statistics were released. The only difference is that the figures keep rising, again because the immigrants who have came over here are becoming more aware of their right if they're paying tax and making national insurance contributions to claim child benefit and also tax credits. Last time this was raised by the tabloids I emailed the child benefit office themselves, who despite taking two months to reply, explained that the EU rules governing such benefit payments mean that the state in which the claimant works in, whether they're a citizen or not, is responsible for providing the benefit. In other words, if you or I had children and left them here while we went to work in Poland, we'd be able to apply for their equivalent of child benefit, which the Express helpfully explains works out at roughly £10 a month. Our scheme, which is more generous for obvious reasons, works out at £18.10 for the first child a week, and another £12.10 for every other sibling. Doubtless the more rabid newspapers in Poland, if this were happening there, would be demanding immediate changes also.

Anyway, let's have a quick look through the more salient or dubious points of the article:

The huge drain on Treasury coffers provoked outrage, with warnings that the sum is bound to rocket even higher as the latest figures from HM Revenue and Customs do not include child tax credit.

To put this into perspective, around £90bn is spent each year on the NHS. £21m is hardly a drop in the ocean in government spending.

Senior Tory MP Andrew Selous, Shadow Minister for Family Welfare, said: “This shows there is a need for a serious reassessment of this aspect of the welfare state. “The Government still refuses to answer how much child tax credit is paid to migrant workers whose children live abroad. “It has shown no leadership or political will in trying to sort out this issue. We want this money spent on dealing with child poverty at home.”

The same thing the Tories said last time. I took the liberty of previously working out exactly how much the money would be worth to each child if it was directly redistributed to the number of children living in relative poverty. It would have amount to slightly less than £5. Even with the increase this time round, it's hardly going to change their lives.

The explosion in child benefit claims follows fresh evidence that the mass influx from Eastern Europe shows little sign of slowing down. A record 1.3 million Poles travelled to Britain last year, six times the figure before Poland joined the EU.

Err, except these figures are based on the tourist figures, not the immigration figures which detail those who have applied for a national insurance number so they can work here.

Polish official Agnieszka Zablocka, from Gdansk, told the BBC that Britain operates a “pay now, check later” welfare system.

Actually, the onus is on the Polish themselves to check that the children exist, under the EU rules, although applicants can be required to present the birth certificate of the child. Perhaps Zablocka ought to get on with those checks?

Little of the above really matters though. The article's job is already done. Rather than contributing to the economy, regardless of what they're taking out in benefits that any other taxpayer would also both demand and expect, with previous figures suggesting that 84% of migrant workers were not claiming any benefits whatsoever, with tiny numbers on unemployment benefit or income support, immigrants are variously raising the crime rate, taking money away from our children, training children to rob us so they can build palaces back in their own countries, and err, not spending enough when they come here on holiday. The only real question is what the Express would do if the government were decide tomorrow to shut the borders completely. Probably suffer a collective nervous breakdown.

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Monday, January 28, 2008 

Our shared dictators.

Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the death of another sadly missed anti-communist dictator, or as they're glibly known, some of Margaret Thatcher's closest friends.

Like Pinochet, who popped his clogs in late 2006 and never faced justice, Suharto has gone to his grave without having to so much as atone for a single drop of blood that was spilt during his reign of terror, which encompassed the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists (i.e. what our leaders referred to when talking of Saddam Hussein's mass killings, for example, as "his own people"), with a list of targets willingly supplied by the Central Intelligence Agency, while the people of East Timor were twice menaced by Indonesian troops. By "menaced" I mean butchered and annihilated to such an extent that out of a population of 700,000, somewhere in the region of 100,000 to 200,000 were killed.

All of this happily occurred while we turned a blind eye, oh, and sold Suharto a shedload of weapons courtesy of British Aerospace, now BAE Systems. To be fair to dear old Margaret, this happened under both Labour and Conservative governments, just as New Labour has continued to arm such darlings of democracy as Saudi Arabia, even allowing the princes of that most enlightened country to use the services of prostitutes out of BAE's slush fund. It does however bring it all into perspective though, doesn't it? After all, I don't recall the current leaders of Iran being complicit in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of their own people, or invading other countries and murdering up to around 25% of the population. Indeed, Iraq invaded Iran while we were selling Iraq what would later become known as the weapons of mass destruction, although the United States via funding the Contras in Nicaragua also funnelled money and weapons to the Iranians, despite the embarrassment of the overthrow of the Shah and the hostage situation at the American embassy which dragged on for over a year.

Confused? You should be. At least we know now who our friends are, that our values are shared, and that there won't be a return to the realpolitik and cold war diplomacy that now so scars our conscience concerning the three decades that preceded the "end of history". As for the enemy, well, we're still not exactly sure who they are either, although they too once might have been our friends. There is however a certain irony when you recall Marx's statement that history is repeated first as farce and then as tragedy, especially when examining the comments of the current American ambassador to Indonesia:

The US ambassador to Jakarta, Cameron Hume, hailed Suharto as a "historic figure" who "achieved remarkable economic development", while adding that there "may be some controversy over his legacy".

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Migrants send our crime rates plummeting! (And can't some of them kill Maxine Carr for us?)

Well, the title of this post is probably more accurate than the Express headline.

Another day, another despicable Daily Express front page, this one based on even less verifiable facts than usual. The entire premise of the front page claim that "migrants" are behind a 35% rise in violence (in Kent, not across the country) is a letter from the chief constable of Kent police, Mike Fuller, sent to the Home Office. The Express doesn't provide the letter unexpurgated, and if Fuller did provide figures on arrests or statistics that directly related the increase to the actions of immigrants, the paper certainly doesn't provide it. More than anything, it comes across as a plea for more funding, with Fuller depending on the argument of increased migration to back him up, even quoting that the predicted population rise in Kent over the next 20 years is estimated to be 20%, although what that has to do with the here and now neither he nor the Express explains. As we saw last week, crime, apart from that involving guns and drugs, has actually fell: that the country is experiencing a crimewave due to migration as the Express is claiming is simply not backed up by the statistics.

The other main story on the Express front page, ignoring the latest bollocks about Madeleine, is the manufactured outrage about Maxine Carr apparently being pregnant. What that fact has to do with anyone other than Carr and her partner on its own is questionable enough, but the Express has pulled out all the stops to create one of the most vile, hate-filled articles you're likely to read in a tabloid this year:

Last night the news sent shockwaves through the Cambridgeshire village where Ian Huntley murdered 10-year-old friends Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in the summer of 2002.

One said it was disgraceful that the taxpayer was subisiding Carr’s lifestyle, adding: “It’s outrageous that this woman keeps demanding money from ordinary people. Has she no shame for what she did?”

Err, Carr doesn't seem to be demanding money from anyone. She does however quite clearly require protection, as those who have been mistaken for her have discovered.

Her actions delayed his arrest for a fortnight, adding to the distress for Holly and Jessica’s families. She posed as somebody trying to help to find the girls – all the time knowing that he had already killed them.

This is completely untrue. Carr believed Huntley's lies that he had not had anything to do with their disappearance, and as he had twice before been accused of rape, on one of which occasions the claim was false, she provided an alibi. On the night of the murders she had been visiting her mother in Grimsby, and was not involved in any whatsoever in their deaths. Moreover, Carr displayed all the signs of being an abused partner: Huntley gravitated around women and girls that were impressionable and easily-manipulated, as his relationships with underage girls showed. Neighbours at their first home, before they moved to Soham reported that Huntley barked orders at Carr while he did nothing to help around the house; Carr apparently first realised that Huntley was possibly guilty when he washed a duvet, the first piece of housework he had ever done. She made clear while giving evidence during the trial that one of the reasons she gave an alibi was because she was scared of what he might do if she didn't.

Huntley, now 33, recently claimed he had wanted to confess, but that Carr had slapped him about the face and ordered him to pull himself together before telling him to burn their bodies.

Again, completely untrue. In Huntley's version of events, his "confession" was to involve what he told the trial: that he had accidentally killed the two schoolgirls, a notion he still hangs desperately onto. Huntley is far more of a fantasist and a liar than Carr ever was, and his reliability as a witness is obviously completely discredited.

Since her release four years ago, the British taxpayer has spent around £1million giving her round-the-clock protection from vigilantes. She has lived in 10 safe houses so far.

And just why does she need such protection? It couldn't be because the tabloids have whipped such hate up against her, could it, that completely innocent women have been threatened and thought their lives were in danger because they'd been misidentified as her? Carr was perfect as the next Myra Hindley figure to be brought out whenever it's a slow news day, someone who could have venom directed at her from everywhere because of her role, however slight, in the most heinous and notorious murders of recent times. 1984 had its two minutes of hate; modern-day Britain has its equivalent provided not by the state, directed against a rogue political figure, but rather at a defenceless woman by the press who now emit far more propaganda than any government could ever manage.

Yesterday Winnie Johnson, mother of Moors Murder victim Keith Bennett, said: “Carr was Huntley’s accomplice and she tried to cover up his awful crimes – she is evil too.

The thought of her being allowed to raise and care for a child is hideous. Imagine if Myra Hindley had a baby? Why should we be protecting Maxine Carr anyway?”

See, here's the attempt to build the connection with Hindley. Never mind that Hindley was directly involved in the child murders committed by Ian Brady while Carr could not possibly have been because she wasn't at home at the time, but let's raise the suggestion and then let it do its own work. Johnson deserves nothing but compassion for her plight, but what makes her especially eligible to comment on a completely different case? Why should we be protecting Maxine Carr anyway? I don't honestly know. Perhaps we can remove her anonymity and Channel 4 can base its latest reality show around her. Ten contestants, including 2 celebrities, battle to find Carr and kill her first. The winner gets £100,000 and the admiration of the nation. How about it?

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Taxpayers will be sickened that ordinary families are struggling to pay their taxes so money can be spent on monsters like Maxine Carr.

“It is time we got our priorities right – punishing the innocent with high taxes while subsidising criminals is very twisted logic.”

Speaking as a taxpayer, I'm more than happy that some of my taxes go towards protecting individuals such as Carr from being ripped to pieces by marauding mobs, just as it also goes to protecting anyone and everyone from being ripped to pieces by marauding mobs. I like to think it's what separates me from the degradation and savagery of inhumane cunts like Elliot. Never mind that Carr has long served her sentence and repaid her debt, she's still a criminal, and what's more, a monster. How can we punish the innocent with high taxes while monsters get free money?! It's insane! The second sentence has to be a non sequitur to end all non sequiturs, but then you couldn't ask for much more than from a spokesman for a Tory front that campaigns for a flat tax.

Next up, compare Carr to another murderer:

The most hated woman in Britain reportedly had a miscarriage in summer 2006, when she was at the same stage of pregnancy that she is now. She fears of a backlash against her, in a story that has many parallels with the case of female child-killer Mary Bell.

Again, never mind that Bell actually killed while Carr only provided an alibi, but obviously both are parallel cases because the tabloids wanted both to be exposed so that the vigilantes could do what the courts refused to. How very odd for a newspaper shrieking on its front page about a "rise" in violent crime to be so disgusted by a woman being protected from almost certain death at the hands of people who almost certainly wouldn't be migrants.

Coming from this blog, the next statement is likely to sound heretical, but it's certainly true. The Sun, despite being little more than a propaganda rag for Murdoch's interests which panders to the lowest common denominator, is now almost certainly a far more balanced, even liberal publication than the Express and possibly even than the Mail. Neither of the two aforementioned so-called mid-market papers bother to provide almost anything approaching an alternative voice to that spouted by its columnists and leader columns, as well as the nakedly politically motivated "news" articles. The Sun meanwhile gave space last week when reporting on the "extreme" mosques in Blackburn to both Ed Husain and Ibrahim Master, formerly chairman of the Blackburn council of mosques, both of whom gave different accounts to what you'd usually expect from the paper. (Incidentally, Iraq's deputy president has since clarified his original statement.) Today Richard Hawley comments on the Sun's "crusade" against yob violence, and condemns ASBOs and other punitive measures. That, more than anything else, is an indictment of just how bad things have got in the tabloid press.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008 

Aitken report: the rusty sword and shield of British fair play.

The Aitken report (PDF) on the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British forces is typical of almost all of the inquiries ordered by New Labour since it came to power, and especially those ordered post-the Iraq war. With the exception of the Hutton report, which was the most crude whitewash, most of the other reports have been critical of the government, but in their conclusions found that no one in particular was personally to blame.

So it continues here. Aitken finds that there were serious failings in army leadership, planning and training, but no one is personally responsible, and the Ministry of Defence are able to trump loudly that all the recommendations made by Aitken have either been implemented or that the lessons have been learned. After all, there have been no cases of ill-treatment reported since 2004, says the report on page 5, but that might because since then they haven't personally been involved in running prisons or detaining suspects.

The report makes much of how the soldiers had not been trained adequately in how to handle detainees prior to their deploy to Iraq, or how the rules and practices on interrogating detainees set out in the MoD's policy document still doesn't make unambiguously clear that the "five techniques" (wall-standing; hooding; subjection to noise; deprivation of sleep; deprivation of food and drink) are illegal under international law and proscribed by the Human Rights Act, but most astounding is this paragraph from page 13:

22. We need also to be clear about a different but related form of training, given to some members of the Army, in Conduct After Capture (CAC). CAC training simulates the sort of treatment that our people might receive from an enemy that does not comply with international humanitarian law, and therefore introduces participants to illegal I&TQ techniques; and in 2003, attendance on CAC training qualified an individual to conduct I&TQ. In 2005, the Army revised that policy, arguing that exposure to illegal I&TQ methods was not a sensible way to prepare an individual for conducting lawful I&TQ.

Really? What could have possibly made them come to such a conclusion? Oh, this:

Even considering the above, what still isn't explained by this report is how the "five techniques" and beyond became to be apparently authorised by the chain of command. Colonel Jorge Mendonca, one of those charged over the death of Baha Mousa, happened upon prisoners being "conditioned" by soldiers, and understandably concerned, checked with Major Anthony Royle that such practices had been authorised. Royle said they had been, and gave evidence at the court martial that it had been. Nothing in this report explains whether this is accurate or a lie by Royle. What we do know is that US commanders had criticised British forces in 2003 prior to Mousa's death because of the failure to "extract sufficient intelligence from detainees". Whether this lead to a change in the policy, which quickly resulted in the abuses we're now all too aware of or not is still unknown.

What is known, is that for whatever reason, soldiers took it upon themselves to mistreat Iraqi prisoners, whether they were looters or alleged looters in the case of those photographed at Camp Breadbasket, or alleged insurgents in the case of Baha Mousa. You don't need to be trained in interrogating or holding prisoners to know that almost any mistreatment of them is in breach of the Geneva convention - and the beatings administered to Mousa, resulting in 92 separate injuries, went far beyond mistreatment into out and out torture. His death cannot be put down to an understandable mistake in the fog of war; this was manslaughter at best, murder at worst, and the beating went on in front of the noses of all ranks and none. At the court martial it was even suggested that soldiers and officers from across the base came to witness Donald Payne, the only person convicted after pleading guilty, of "playing" the detainees, taking it in turns to beat them, relishing and mocking their cries. A video recording of Payne forcing the three into stress positions and shouting at them was shown to the court.

To add insult to manslaughter, almost all of those called to give evidence or asked for their account of what happened on that day claimed that they "couldn't remember", a term according to Payne's lawyer which was used over 600 times in total during the hearing. The judge was forced into clearing all the others charged down to what he called a "closing of ranks". Some of the ferocity of the soldiers' treatment of Mousa and the other two detainees can be put down to the belief that all three were insurgents and had been involved in the death of one of their popular comrades, something that was later found to be baseless on both counts.

Make no mistake though: imagine that this had been "yobs" in this country carrying out a similar crime where they beat a father to death and recorded some of it on their mobile phones, or the police trying to force a confession out of someone through violence that they had arrested who was entirely innocent. If it had been the former and only one person was ever convicted and then sentenced to only a year in prison, there would have been outrage. If it had involved the police, there would have been similar investigations to that of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, and probably someone actually being held to account, unlike in that particular case. Instead, as Jeremy Vine described when introducing the Panorama investigating Mousa's death, to go by some of the reporting of the court martial you would have thought that no one had died, that beatings had not taken place and that the soldiers involved, whether they were those who were tried or not, had been wrongly maligned. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet now the defence secretary Des Browne has stated that no one else is likely to be charged, and that the only thing Mousa's family can look to draw solace from will be an inquiry that will be set-up into his death. This was our Abu Ghraib, and while only the grunts in that scandal were ever convicted while the higher-ups that authorised the "Gitmoisation" got off scot-free, in our case, everyone may as well have escaped without almost a blemish on their character. This report has done nothing whatsoever to correct that.

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Scum-watch: Living in a parallel universe.

I sometimes wonder if I've gone to sleep at night and woken up the following morning in a parallel universe. Everything seems the same, just backwards. You can't help but get that feeling reading the latest Sun article on their campaign to GET TOUGH NOW. At the beginning of the week, there being little news over the weekend apart from Jacqui Smith's honest but naive comments about feeling unsafe walking the streets at night, the Scum splashed on its front page a letter from a teacher, one Dr Stuart Newton. It was a typical why oh why moan while offering no real solutions, but because the Sun doesn't very often get letters from teachers, or indeed doctors, it no doubt thought it a wonderful way to start their latest doomed and flawed attack.

Six days later, and Gordon Brown has already invited Newton into Downing Street to discuss his hopes and fears. This, it seems, is the way Britain works now. You don't need to be specially qualified to get a job: as long as you're on television, or featured in a newspaper just once, it seems that the government will bend over backwards to listen to you, as long as you're suitably on message and not likely to be overly critical. That would never do. Hence we have a psychologist who worked on a BBC3 programme on unruly children doing a review on the effects of television and the internet on those same said kiddie-winks; a job apparently offered to Fiona Phillips of GMTV fame because she was gushing of the easily charmed Gordo; and now anyone who writes to the Sun can be called up for a special chat with the supreme leader. Perhaps next we could have Rebekah Wade herself lead a review on domestic violence, or maybe Richard Littlejohn advising the prime minister on social cohesion.

Personally, the last lot of teachers I had used to mock those who read tabloids, or "comics", as they were habitually referred to, and this was at a bog-standard comprehensive. It gets even weirder when Newton pinpoints what he thinks is partly responsible for the rise in yobbery:

He claimed TV images of baying MPs in the House of Commons had helped foster a climate of yobbish behaviour.

Well, quite. When the average family from hell sits down in front of their television set, the first thing they switch to is prime minister's questions, or the news covering them.

“It’s the way we seem to run our country that worries me. We tend to think of bullying as something children do at school. But I see quite a lot of bullying in the House of Commons with the way MPs hector each other.

Newton maybe ought to take his concerns up with David Cameron instead - he was the one this week referring to Brown as "that strange man in Downing Street", while all week Tory MPs have been trying their best to promote the idea that he's a ditherer. Untrue as it, I recall the last prime minister wasn't a ditherer - and look where that got us.

He pointed the finger of blame at highly-paid FOOTBALLERS whose menacing behaviour towards referees has encouraged a culture of bullying.

Careful Dr Newton; those footballers became so highly-paid mainly down to Mr Murdoch and his stranglehold over the television rights. You don't want to upset Mr Murdoch, believe me.

To be fair to Newton, he's not a walking, talking Sun editorial in any sense. He hits the nail firmly on the head by saying that Brown only listed punitive measures, coincidentally exactly the same things the Sun always demands, while he thinks "we need a great deal more than punishments". He does also say though:

"I’m so pleased The Sun started a campaign. When The Sun sneezes, the politicians catch a cold.”

Yes. Except rather than a cold, it's the disease knee-jerkitis.

The hypocrisy of the Sun's praising of Newton's arguments is aptly illustrated by one of its most contrary leader columns of recent times:

So many Premiership footballers believe, like Ashley Cole, that they have a divine right to eye-popping wages and to behave just as they like.

Children watch as they scream abuse at referees on TV and get away with it.

Quite so. Strange then that one of those often at the forefront of screaming abuse at referees, Wayne Rooney, had his book serialised in the Sun and sold the paper his story after he signed with Manchester United, causing uproar in his home city of Liverpool, still stung by the paper's coverage of the Hillsborough disaster.

Even more hilariously, these are the first few lines of the first leader:

SUN reader Dr Stuart Newton tells the PM that Britain’s yob culture is little surprise when our own MPs behave like thugs.

Once again he speaks for us all.

Far too often Commons debates degenerate into childish bellowing and taunts.

These are our lawmakers, meant to set the country’s moral tone, braying like donkeys.

While these are choice extracts from the second:

WE’RE not sure which planet Hamid Karzai’s living on. Certainly not Earth.

The Afghan President’s claim that Helmand went downhill after Our Boys arrived is plain wrong.

As well as being offensive and ungrateful.

Karzai’s claims are a gross insult to the 87 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and the hundreds more wounded.

They have given their lives to drag his country out of the Dark Ages.

He should never forget it.

It seems it's not just MPs who indulge in childish bellowing, taunts and braying like donkeys.

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Friday, January 25, 2008 

Is anyone thinking anything at all?

The mid-market tabloids seem to be attempting to out-do themselves this week in the nastiness and disingenuousness stakes. You probably didn't hear about it, but yesterday saw the release of the latest police and British Crime Survey figures (PDF). After spending around the last couple of years stabilising after falling for the best part of a decade, both figures show that crime is once again down, and going down at an increasingly rapid rate. The police figures show a 9% drop in recorded crime, while the British Crime Survey found a 4% drop. More significantly, the BCS also showed that the chance of being a victim of crime had dropped by a further 1% compared to the year previously, down now to 23%, the lowest level since the survey began in 1981. The only real rises were in the police figures, which showed a 4% in gun crime, were they were used to threaten rather than harm, and in drug offences, up 21%, mainly down to cannabis being reclassified at Class C and officers issuing on-the-spot warnings and confiscation rather than arresting and prosecuting. Jacqui Smith might not feel safe walking around London at night, and nor may the general public, as the fear of crime is still high, but neither of the main indicators of crime suggest that we should be panicking by any means over the current level of offending.

Reading the front pages of the tabloids today you'd get a completely different story. Both the Mail and Express go with emotive and indeed startling arrests made yesterday by police in Slough and Berkshire, arresting 25 and taking 10 children care. The arrests were on the basis that gangs from Romania were using children to take part in street crime in London, mainly pickpocketing, opportunistic thefts from those using cashpoints and stealing mobile phones/iPods/etc. It is indeed a matter of concern, especially if the children are being kidnapped, although that doesn't seem to be the case.

It's not very often that the Express front page is less hysterical than the Daily Mail's, but it seems that the paper's subs were last night slacking off. It goes only with "Crime by migrants soars 530%". This is based on figures in the article towards the end:

Before the eastern European country joined the EU, its nationals were associated with 146 crimes over six months in Britain. A year after it joined – over a second six-month period – that figure leapt to 922, a 530 per cent rise.

Well, that's hardly a surprise, is it? Considering that up to 20,000 Romanians and Bulgarians were given permission to apply for work here last year, the crime rate was always going to go up. Rather more applicable figures to this case are provided by the Guardian:

Allen said that between April and December 2006, 12 Romanian nationals were arrested for theft. A year later that number was 214.

Which is also going to contain those who have been caught shoplifting for example, or stealing from work. Again, because of the rise of those given permission to come here to work, the rise seems both eminently explainable and hardly overwhelming.

The Express does however use the same figure of the numbers estimated to have been trafficked here as the Mail does in rather more expansive and sensationalistic terms. According to the Romanian authorities, up to 2,000 children might have been involved. The police don't agree though, if the Grauniad article is anything to go by:

Police say that since Romania joined the EU in 2007 there has been a sharp rise in children being brought to London by modern-day "Fagin's gangs". Up to 200 Romanian children have been forced into crime in London and can generate up to £20m a year for gangs controlling them.

The Express and Guardian also differ over how much this "crime wave" is worth to those behind it; the Express suggests £1bn, while the Guardian suggests up to £100,000 can be made by each child. Even if there were 2,000 children making such an amount in a year, that doesn't get close to £1bn. As for the Mail article, it seems to have disappeared into the ether, but there is a "revealed" article which claims that impoverished Romanian villages are being transformed into "palaces" thanks to the money swirling back. Oh, and it's all down to the Roma, or rather the "gipsies", who the Mail and other newspapers call what are more widely known as gypsies so they can't be accused of racism, instead of the organised criminal gangs which usually aren't anything to do with the Roma. Interestingly, the article is by Sue Reid, who you might remember was behind the Mail's attempt to prove that Polish migrants could drive around London without paying the congestion charge, which was going to involve paying a Polish couple to err, break the law.

All of which help enormously in putting the crime figures down the news agenda. The Mail's article on them doesn't so much as mention that the police figures show a 9% fall in crime, and instead focuses on the rise in drug offences because of its own agenda on cannabis, while saying only that crime in general has remained "stable" while it has in fact fallen, and also picks up on the statistically insignificant slight rise in burglaries, even though on the whole "household acquisitive" crime has fallen by 2%. The Express doesn't seem to even bothered printing an article, with the only piece on its site un-bylined and dated yesterday. This though has always been how they've operated, or at least have operated against the Labour government; if the statistics don't fit with their own prejudices of how things are, they're shoved down the news, distorted and helpfully replaced with something more fitting with their own views. It's the same approach they've used previously over the immigration figures. In a similar fashion, the Sun hasn't even seemingly bothered to report the figures at all, despite its demands at the beginning of the week to "get tough NOW", and yesterday's online report also only focused on the gun crime figures.

(Correction: the Sun did cover the figures here, and sexed it up somewhat by claiming that the figures mean there are now the equivalent of 30 crimes involving guns taking place a day. Remarkably, the Sun's report is probably the most accurate and honest of the three.)

Elsewhere, Richard Littlejohn comments on the goth couple that were not allowed on a bus in Dewsbury:

My Geordie mate, Black Mike, would take one look at her in her absurd "Goth" outfit and remark: "Gi' us a stick and I'll kill it."

Normally, ignoring Littlejohn is the best policy. For the most part, his rants tend to fisk themselves, so flimsy as they usually are to see through. This, however, is simply vile, as his views on why the bus driver was perfectly within his rights to not allow on them bus are:

Let's hope she's housetrained. But just as it's their prerogative to play One Man and His Dog, so the driver should have the right to decide whom he wants, and doesn't want, on his bus.

Presumably Littlejohn would agree if it was the bus driver's policy not to allow black, brown, or indeed, white people on his bus. Just as Littlejohn thinks it's perfectly OK for the bus driver to say "We don't let freaks and dogs like you on" to them, he'll not be offended if I ever meet him and get the opportunity to call him a fat, poisonous, bumptious, heartless cunt.

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Jahongir Sidikov granted asylum.

A rare piece of wonderful news, via Craig Murray:

I can't really afford it, but I have just bought and opened a bottle of the best bubbly I can find in Shepherds Bush. Jahongir Sidikov has phoned me to say that the Home Office has just granted him asylum. You will recall that Jahongir had to physically resist deportation from Harmondsworth Detention Centre to certain torture and near certain death in Uzbekistan.

Jahongir has no doubt, and nor do I, that the actions of readers of this blog were crucial in preventing this appalling proposed deportation. Special thanks go to the MPs you activated. Several deserve thanks, but Bob Marshall Andrews deserves a really special mention.

It is not yet clear whether the Home Office now accept as a matter of policy that it is not possible to deport dissidents into the hands of the evil Uzbek regime. That is a point you might wish to take up with your MPs.

But for now, thank you and bloody well done. I am going to get rat-arsed.

Even this government, which at times seems impervious to reason, can be forced into seeing sense on occasion.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008 

Indifferent to rhyme or reason.

Jacqui Smith must tonight be thankful that Peter Hain's falling on his sword didn't come a moment too soon. The fallout from his forever delayed but inevitable resignation has managed to firmly cover today's horlicks from both her and the government over the decision to continue to push for 42 days detention without charge for "terrorist suspects". Brown's promotion of James Purnell and Andy Burnham, both witless Blairites like Smith herself, the latter of which was responsible for this vacuous, impenetrable garbage in the Grauniad only a couple of weeks ago, only magnifies again that his real aversion was never to Blairism, but just the way Blair practised it.

Brown's hand is almost certainly also behind the continued execrable obsession with extending the detention limit. Smith's heart certainly isn't in it, to go by her performance on the Today programme:

If in the future, in exceptional circumstances, a case could be made that there is an operation, an investigation, a number of multiple plots, a really difficult situation in which the police and Director of Public Proscecutions want to be able to apply to a judge to decide whether or not they could hold somebody for longer, that we need to find a way to facilitate that in those circumstances.

To be fair to Smith, she's probably got fed up with making the same tedious points over and over again. I know I am, having argued against first 90 days, then the Brown government's ever decreasing numbers of 56 and now the magic, meaning of life affirming figure of 42. The number of individuals and newspapers that support it can be counted on one hand: Brown, Smith, Iain Blair, Lord Carlile and the Sun. That the police support it isn't a surprise: if it means they don't have to hurry themselves quite as much as they currently do, they'll quite happily go along with an extension. The only one who should know better is Carlile, who for a supposed independent reviewer of the terrorist laws seems to have become the government's chief individual supporter on both 42 days and against the introduction of intercept evidence. MI5 and others seem to have done a bang-up job in disseminating to him their most lurid intelligence.

As it is, the government's laughable attempts at reaching a consensus when it has no intention of actually doing so have created the worst possible, most vindictive law they could have come up with, so much so that you think it's deliberate. What better way to shaft those who wanted safeguards and who said it wasn't necessary, like Ken Macdonald, head of the DPP, than to force that person into authorising it when the police demand it? Could they really have thought up such a pitiful consultative measure for parliament which means that the vote on whether they agree with the extension being put into place is likely to take place after the 42 days has long gone accidentally? And indeed, what sort of MP would ever even contemplate voting down the decision to extend while the 42 days were still ongoing? The Sun and others would be campaigning for them to be thrown out at the next election for letting "terrorists" go free.

It would be difficult to turn in a more woeful argument than Jacqui Smith, but Tony McNulty, another minister who makes you wonder whether there's a lab located in the darkest depths of Sevenoaks where they create obstinate, fury-inducing, mentally challenged ignoramuses made to order, making his case to the Mirror somehow managed it. He talks of imagining the consequences of multiple attacks on the scale of 9/11 and 7/7, but doesn't seem to have gotten his thick skull around realising that 42 days wasn't needed after 7/7, or indeed, 9/11, because the perpertrators were dead. It's a little late to arrest what remains of them and lock them up for 42 days while the police gather a case against the viscera, although the way we're going I wouldn't put it past them. When you can't even scaremonger like a pathetic toad, you really know it's time to give up.

The thing is, just where is the government going to go when this gets defeated? Last time round Blair told us that he was right and everyone else was wrong and the Sun called everyone opposed traitors. Even so, once Blair was defeated for the first time in parliament and was only ever beaten once more, it was the beginning of the end. His invulnerability had gone, and unlike even on Iraq, he'd gone too far. While it's not quite as potentially chilling on civil liberties terms this time round, what it certainly does point towards is Brown's own inadequacies. Why is he trying to ram something through that will do him no favours yet looks to mean he'll have a humiliation on his record that Blair didn't have to face until 8 years into his tenure? The only explanation is that he's doing it to look tough, but the time for doing that has long gone. He just looks forlorn, opportunistic and most of all, completely indifferent to all reason.

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The Daily Express sweepstakes and three little rainbow pigs.

Partially thanks to this glorious government's liberalisation of the gambling laws, and also down to the ingenuity of bookmakers in devising yet more ways to separate those who enter their doors from their money, you can now more or less bet on absolutely anything. Want to put a bet on when the first throw takes place in a football game? Go ahead. Decide to back Ken Bloggs in the national tiddlywinks championship? You're more than welcome. Amy Winehouse to become prime minister AND die in the next year? Sure, we'll take your money sir.

With this in mind, surely there is now the opportunity to bet on the front pages of newspapers, or more significantly, that of the Daily Express. Under the helm of Richard Desmond the paper has declined from an embarrassment into an atrocity, to the level of such that there are now just a few distinct subjects which ever reach the front. These are, in no particular order, immigrants (today), Muslims (yesterday), the weather (Tuesday), Diana (last week), Madeleine and house prices. On a rare occasion there'll be a rant about tax or something else, but mostly the aforementioned are fair weather friends.

To extend the fun slightly, you could even wager on whether the story will be backed up by even the slightest of actual facts. Today the Express is itself playing the percentages: according to FCC, one of its previous lying front pages, claiming that migrants have taken "all" the new jobs in Britain, is under investigation by the Press Complaints Commission, and has been taken down as a result, and so it's being extra careful. Claiming that 1.3 million Poles arrived in Britain last year, the headline is accurate, but only in the strictest possible terms. The Office of National Statistics figures that the Express is basing its story around don't count immigrants: they count tourists and businessmen making visits here (PDF). Despite this, they've managed to get two separate different political figures to open their mouths and make different statements on how this simply must change. On the roll call of shame goes David Davis, yet again, and the increasingly deranged Frank Field, who seems to have let his hatred of Gordon Brown for ending his ministerial career develop to gargantuan levels. True, both could have been tricked by the Express into commenting on figures they thought were official levels of migration than visits, but that doesn't excuse them making their own checks. The article even claims that because Poles only spent £24 on average a day during their stay it means that they *must* have been looking for work. This is quite openly misleading their own readers, but then the paper doesn't seem to think they're intelligent enough to notice.

Yesterday was a similar case. The story, BRITAIN'S MUSLIMS ARE TOO EXTREME, was based on the comments of Iraq's vice-president after he had visited mosques in Blackburn. It wasn't what he saw actually going on there that made him deliver such comments, or what was being preached, but the literature itself that he said would have been banned in Iraq. Somehow, you get the feeling that Iraq in its current state has far more of a problem with extremism than we do, but what the hell do we know?

To go to another discredited source on extremism in British mosques, the Policy Exchange report
(PDF), they found what they defined as extremist material in two of the mosques in Blackburn, although in the case of the Islamic Educational Society, they seemed to have used one of the tricks used elsewhere in the report of attributing literature found in places not technically connected to the actual mosque, in this case, the Noor ul-Islam Mosque. The book found there, Islam: Beliefs and Teachings, is noted by the report for being one of the key introductory texts that set Ed Husain on his path to extremism. The other mosque in Blackburn which had alleged extremist literature is the Islamic Cultural Centre, featured on page 138 of the report.

The key thing as always has not been whether these texts are available in the mosques, but whether they are actually being preached and lauded as acceptable, or that their interpretation of Islam is admirable and the one that ought to be followed. There has long been no evidence to suggest that this is the case; indeed, the government's latest thinking on radicalisation and extremism has come to what many have been saying for a long time, that rather than the mosque being a hotbed of anti-Western sentiment, it's the personal research by the impressionable and interested rather than a fiery imam that has set many down the path. Organisations such as Hizb-ut-Tahir might be involved at some stage, but they do not personally condone any sort of violence, regardless of their oft anti-semitic rhetoric. We shouldn't be complacent, but we shouldn't be scaremongering about it all either.

Finally, in a story that might have made or even warranted a Daily Express frontpage, we have an educational, digital, updated version of the Three Little Pigs, entitled the Three Little Cowboy Builders, apparently being rejected for a major prize for the possibility of being offensive to Muslims, and err, builders. Via MediaWatchWatch, according to Merlin John online, some of the feedback provided by Becta involved these comments:

* “Is it true that all builders are cowboys, builders get their work blown down, and builders are like pigs?"

* "The subject matter is questionable for certain groups within the UK."

* "The idea of taking a traditional tale and retelling a story is fine, but it should not alienate parts of the workforce (building trade)."

* "Developers should make role models positive."

* "Although this may not be intended, it feels cynical and tongue in cheek."

* "Judges would not recommend this product to the Muslim community in particular."

* "Only an exceedingly creative teacher could find this innovative."

Which more than anything seems to suggest that those doing the judging were a bunch of cretins taking the whole thing rather more seriously than they should have been. Becta has issued a statement, which you can condense down to "In particular, the product was not sufficiently convincing on curriculum and innovation grounds to be shortlisted," and it does indeed appear that the makers have gone public with some of the reasons why it wasn't shortlisted out of hurt pride.

As regular readers might know, I don't think there is such a thing as "political correctness". What there usually is, and then distorted out of proportion for their own short-term gain, is generally well-meaning people going out of their way to be inclusive for decent reasons but only showing themselves up as ignorant and overly sensitive in the long-run. As could be expected, the Scum leaps on it, and before you know it, "the politically correct brigade" are it again, with the Telegraph even bringing up the non-existent rainbow sheep yet again, although it did bother to ask the Muslim Council of Britain for its views, that unsurprisingly said they weren't offended at all.

I've always been intrigued by this notion of the politically correct being part of a brigade, and the latest Viz has a fake advert about calling them out with Littlejohn praising the service. Thing is, just what vehicle do the politically correct brigade go about in? My vote is for a Robin Reliant: a car missing a wheel for all those one legged lesbian Muslims in niqabs to answer calls in.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008 

A truly broken society.

Doubtless the pouring of Gazans (Haaretz says 200,000 and that the UN estimates 350,000, which if accurate is probably over 20% of the population) over the border into Egypt to purchase supplies after the border crossing was blown apart in apparent desperation is a Hamas propaganda stunt. Just like how Hamas had apparently decided to turn the power off at the Gaza station and pretend they'd run out of fuel to make out that the blockade was worse than it was, even though the UN confirmed that things were indeed as bad as the Palestinians said they were.

Now that the border has been opened, we can take bets on how long it'll be until it's forcibly closed again. The really shameful thing is that it took direct action for the border to be breached, and that Egypt has long been so hand in glove with Israel over Gaza that it's been allowed to get away with being complicit in the systematic collective punishment of a people. If Israel seriously thinks that the blockade is going to turn the Gaza population against Hamas, when it has so far seemed to have the opposite effect and is now going to take credit for the removal of the barrier, even if they're not claiming responsibility, they appear to have deeply miscalculated.

Not that this changes things one iota. Olmert continues to say that Gaza cannot continue as "normal" as long as rockets continue to be fired into Sderot, although kind gentlemen that he is, the children will not go hungry and the sick will continue to get their medication. Everyone else, even as they continue to denounce the militants that they can do very little to control, can continue to live in penury. While the children of Sderot live in fear, the whole of Gaza, targeted by hellfire missiles and shells for years, can suffer.

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Scum and Mail-watch: "Cult" suicides and idiotic sensationalism.

Won't someone think of the children?

If there's ever a sign that the police are clutching at straws, it has to be in suggesting that the seven suicides that have occured in and around Bridgend in the last twelve months are somehow out of wanting to achieve "fame" on the internet by doing so. There are many reasons behind depression, and especially when it's at its most severe, wanting to die, but even when your thoughts are at their most twisted and self-defeating, I hazard to guess that gaining immortality on Bebo is not the foremost reason for ending your own life.

Of course, whether the police have suggested a link between the 7 suicides or not is up in the air: the Scum claims "cops" fear this could be the case, while on the BBC Tim Jones of the local police makes reasonably clear, unsurprisingly, that there's no link between all of them and no evidence of a suicide pact. Despite this, the Mail led this morning with the usual scaremongering garbage about "a suicide cult" and that "police have private concerns that youngsters may consider it fashionable to have an internet memorial site and are killing themselves for reasons of prestige." Teenagers on social networking sites might be fucking stupid, but they're not
that fucking stupid. Copycat attempts are one thing, especially if those involved were close, but to suggest that it's a cult on the basis of that and because they all used social networking is ignorant beyond belief.

At the bottom of this appears to a basic misunderstanding about the memorial pages which have been popping up on MySpace etc when the owner of the profile page dies. They are then often turned into pages of rememberance, tributes and in the case of some of these Bebo pages, apparently putting bricks into a wall of rememberance. Madeleine Moon, who could only be an MP, seems to think that these pages are romanticising suicide, rather than paying tribute to those who died. If these pages are anything like the forum threads I've often read when a member of an online community kills themselves, the very last thing they tend to do is promote suicide; quite the opposite is usually the case. Some tribute pages, especially set-up to those who become infamous online, such as Mitchell Henderson, have been specifically targeted by trolls. I could be horrendously wrong, but to me it seems that those left behind are looking for some kind of easy explanation as to why and not properly examining the real factors behind each individual case.

Typically however, none of the above has stopped the tabloids from starting an instant search for social networking profiles that "romanticise" or "encourage" suicide. The Sun really ought to know better, but it seems that the hacks are on orders to take every possible opportunity to put down social networking sites other than MurdochSpace. Hence we already have this unconciousable garbage on the Scum website's front page:

TODAY we can reveal the shocking way suicide among teens is glamourised on social networking sites like Bebo.

The sad news that seven young people from Bridgend in South Wales killed themselves in an apparent “chain” of copycat suicides has led police to fear some hoped to gain "web fame".

Some of the dead - who all hanged themselves - had profile pages on Bebo, a popular site with school kids.

A quick internet search reveals one profile under the name Suicide Girls.

It carries a disturbing cartoon picture of a pink teddy bear hanging from a rope.

A line on the page says the site is, "For people who don't give a f*** and want a suicide lifestyle," adding it is "For Girls and Boys Who Love Tattoos, Piercings and Crazy Stuff."

In a discussion forum, user Amy Addiction posts, "For the people who keep asking what a suicide lifestyle is - well this is all to do with suicide girls, like the models, so yeah lifestyle like them ... glamorous, pretty etc."

Err, this wouldn't be a profile promoting Suicide Girls would it? The internet soft porn garbage site where anyone with suitably bad tattoos and piercings can become a model? Which isn't anything to do with suicide whatsoever but most certainly to do with making money out of women "outside" of the traditional model mainstream posing naked? This really is scraping the bottom of the barrel sensationalist journalism. And would you possibly believe that if you search Google for Suicide Girls that the second result is their MurdochSpace profile?

A spokesperson for charity PAPYRUS - which works to prevent suicide in young people - described the page as "extremely dangerous".

She added that the image of the teddy bear was "very disturbing".

Ah yes, Papyrus, the organisation that thinks banning any page about suicide other than their own or the Samaritans is a glorious idea. If she seriously thinks that page is "extremely dangerous" or that the teddy bear picture is "very disturbing", she needs to get out on the internet a bit more. Goatse to the left of me, 2girls1cup to the right, here we are, stuck in the middle with morons.

Elsewhere in the Scum, cross-promotion seems to be the order of the day. When Ross Kemp was married to Wade she made certain that all his television appearances were suitably puffed in the paper, but now with Wade off gallivanting with whoever, you'd of thought it would have come to an end. No such luck:

NEW series Ross Kemp In Afghanistan pulled in more than a MILLION viewers on Monday night.

The five-parter for Sky One, on Our Boys’ war with the Taliban, sees ex-EastEnder Ross, 43, train with the Royal Anglian Regiment then brave the frontline. A pal said: “It’s a brilliant start.”

One has to imagine that the key words there are "Sky" and "One".

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008 

No war but the class war.

In the meantime then, here's George Monbiot, back and as good as ever, and calling for a sort of class war. It doesn't get much better than that:

The system is protected by silence. Because private schools have been so effective in moulding a child's character, an attack on the school becomes an attack on all those who have passed through it. Its most abject victims become its fiercest defenders. How many times have I heard emotionally stunted people proclaim "it never did me any harm". In the Telegraph last year, Michael Henderson boasted of the delightful eccentricity of his boarding school. "Bad work got you an 'order mark'. One foolish fellow, Brown by name, was given a double order mark for taking too much custard at lunch. How can you not warm to a teacher who awards such punishment?" He continued: "Petty snobbery abounded, but only wets are put off by a bit of snobbery. So long as you pulled your socks up, and didn't let the side down, you wouldn't be for the high jump. Which is as it should be." A ruling class in a persistent state of repression is a very dangerous thing.

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Sporadic updates.

Updates are likely to be sporadic until I can work out/fix whatever it is that's wrong with this hopeless machine loosely known as a computer. I've battled with it suddenly deciding to crash for no apparent reason for the best part of six months, with there being no explanation in the events log, no blue screen (the only real clue being that the screen resolution drops and then locks while going black), and having run both memory tests and most recently SpinRite on the hard drive, nothing apparently wrong with either of them. The reboots over the last couple of days have increased from around once a day to every half an hour, and so I finally formatted to see if the problem was something conflicting within Windows itself. After spending the best part of today getting back up and running, the problem is if anything worse than before.

Going by a process of elimination, the next step is to replace the RAM, then the hard drive, then to throw the whole fucking thing out the window, all with money I don't have. Wish me something approaching luck.

Update: Well, fingers crossed, and uptime currently is only just crossed the 2 hour mark, but a change of RAM seems to have ended the previous almost guaranteed crashes from working with Firefox with a load of tabs open whilst also using foobar.

Update 2: Two crashes later (although I'm uncertain about the second one) and it seems it wasn't the RAM. I've unplugged everything, plugged it back in, cleaned out the dust the best I can, swapped over the IDE cables in case they're somehow responsible, have left the case off to see if it was overheating but I didn't think it was to begin with, and am now somewhat stumped, although it does seem to be running better for the moment. Short of taking it somewhere and being charged through the nose at least. If it continues crashing I might just be tempted to try ubuntu after all.

Update 3: I'm amazed, but the swapping of the IDE cables seems to have worked. No crashes this evening at all. It's just incredibly aggravating that it was something seemingly so simple all along.

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Monday, January 21, 2008 

The plight of Gaza.

The old maxim goes that a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable. Those imprisoned and at the mercy of the state are by definition the most at risk of ill-treatment.

By that definition, the enclave of Gaza is to all intents and purposes a prison, albeit an open air one patrolled from the air by helicopter gunships and remote-controlled drones. The two main exits from the strip, into Egypt and Israel respectively, are almost always shut, despite previous promises from Israel to keep them open, and even then exit is only possible through applications for visas, which are seldom issued. The irony is not lost on the people of Gaza that one of the few things guaranteed to get you out of the Strip is to be so seriously injured that the hospitals within the territory cannot cope with your injuries and so request a transfer to a hospital across the border.

For a number of months now Israel has been slowly but inexorably cutting the amount of power it allows into the Strip, ostensibly in response to the continuous fusillade of home-made rockets fired into Israel by the various militant groups, including Hamas, although strictly it is meant to be maintaining something approaching a ceasefire. Gaza's only power station, which was previously bombed by the Israelis during the 2006 incursion into Gaza which some argue prompted Hizbullah to launch its own raid into Israel, killing and capturing two soldiers, which in turn set-off the summer war between Hizbullah and Israel, cannot provide full power to the roughly 1.4 million Palestinians that live in the territory, and so the people partly depend on the supply into the Strip from Israel's own stations. Israel's move over the past week to an almost complete blockade meant that the station's dwindling supplies were almost down to nothing yesterday, and from being able to supply power for around 12 hours a day, those operating the station had no option but to plunge the territory into darkness. Combined with the economic blockade which has left farmers unable to sell their crops, the massive rise in unemployment and the relentless poverty that goes with it, Gazans are increasingly left to rely on food aid from charities and the UN.

Even this is now threatened by Israel's actions, which almost certainly constitute collective punishment, a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The sheer brazenness of Ehud Olmert, making clear that while live cannot go on as normal in the areas of Israel threatened by the sporadic, ineffective, impotent mortar fire, he'll make certain that life will also "not go on as usual" in Gaza, is the kind of bravado and belligerence which makes it incredibly difficult to believe that there's any chance of peace for years still yet to come. After all, what is exactly "usual" about life in Gaza? The only thing truly regular that we in the West see there is the protests and funerals; it's far too dangerous now for anyone other than local journalists to report on the territory, after Alan Johnson's kidnap last year, and so we hear very little about the crushing helplessness, the constant anger and fear, or the despair of a people that have long had all their hopes and dreams obliterated, of any kind of progress or improvement in their harsh lives.

But, says the neutral observer, wouldn't all this be ended and lifted if the Palestinians sorted themselves out and put a stop to the rocket fire? It would be lovely if things were so simple. The very firing of the Qassams is a sign of the weakness of the Gazans; they're the equivalent of a placebo, a weapon that makes those who fire them imagine that somehow it's resisting the Israelis, while all its doing is in fact contributing to the siege mentality. Even if Hamas decided to halt all the rocket fire tomorrow, the occupation itself would not be lifted, nor would the checkpoints be opened, or probably even the crops allowed through. The people would be back where they started, no better for anything that's occurred since the settlements were evacuated and the current policy of blockading the Strip was decided upon. Since Hamas seized the strip last year, the stranglehold has only tightened as Israel has tried to put pressure on the movement and dismally failed. Fatah's decision for its workers to strike in response only further put popular sentiment behind Hamas as the services disintegrated.

For the moment, Israel's casual inhumanity has been put checked somewhat by the international outcry, the only force which ever makes it so much as think twice,
with Ehud Barak agreeing that the curbs will be diluted tomorrow so that fuel, food aid and medicines can be delivered. Then it will doubtless be back to the same old, with Israel making certain that Gaza cannot sleep, work or just exist while Sderot is threatened by fireworks that occasionally injure or kill, but do cause significant psychological distress. The same fear and anxiety that Gazans live with their entire lives. As Israel continues to make their short existence as miserable as possible, there will never be a shortage of the young ready to take the places of those killed or arrested in their small acts of defiance. For a young country that is meant to feel existentially threatened from all sides, it is remarkably cavalier about those within that, without a settlement to satisfy them, will only continue to fight.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008 

Scum-watch: Vengeance, redemption and hypocrisy.

The Scum is in full hyper-ventilating rage about the beating administered to Susan Collins by Nicholas Hague, who the paper says was "freed early" but who had actually served the usual amount of time that someone jailed for 18 months does, due to the time he had spent on remand. The image of her in hospital is indeed sickening, and it seems that Hague is likely to serve far more time than the minimum of three and a half years that was recommended, as he was also given an indeterminate sentence.

The leader is typically brazen and sneering of "liberal values":

Liberals argue there is good in everyone. Well, good luck finding it in Nicholas Hague


There is no hope for such monsters, or the snivelling trio who murdered loving dad Garry Newlove only three miles away.

The Sun then condemns immature men to a permanent life sentence. Such sentiments reject and ensure that there is no chance of redemption or reform. Our urge for vengeance, because that's what it is, is strong, and is it also righteous; what is not however, is always right. If we decided there was no hope for such people, then there wouldn't be Erwin James, John Hirst or all the other countless men that have committed terrible crimes but whom have repented and then spent their lives either making amends or living peacefully. The three boys who killed Newlove have not yet reached twenty; who's to say that when they are released, in 15 to 20 years time if not longer by a rough estimate, that they won't have been completely changed by their experience? Nothing that we do to them will bring back Newlove, but why should more lives be abandoned and institutionalised through condemning them until the day they die?

I'm opposed to capital punishment on principle, but I sometimes think that you might as well put those sentenced to life imprisonment when it actually means life to death: when there's no hope for redemption, or any chance of freedom for them, why should they bother to seek it and why should we then in turn provide the funds that keep them fed and alive? It's a pointless exercise all round, and the reason why Ian Brady should have been allowed to die long ago and why Myra Hindley should have been released before she died in prison.

Of course, when someone actually does show signs of forgiveness and reform, the Sun declines to believe it, as the recent case of Learco Chindamo showed, with its attempt to smear him on the basis of the words of another ex-con. It's also selective of those cases of which to chose. Here's another picture of someone who was beaten, except this time to death:

However, when some of those charged in connection with his death were found not guilty, the Sun said that "common sense had prevailed," and also that the "every aspect of investigating so-called crimes had to be re-examined." Baha Mousa wasn't beaten to death by yobs but by British soldiers who had been torturing him, the same heroes that the Sun never has a bad word to say against. How hollow the last two sentences of the Sun's leader are once you're aware of such callousness:

It is important, though, that Britain does not become blasé about the inhuman violence meted out to Susan or Garry.

A society immune to such savagery will not be worth living in.

The Sun is though at the forefront of making sure that savagery and inhuman violence committed by British forces overseas
is treated in such a blasé manner.

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Friday, January 18, 2008 

Tackling extremism and radicalisation online.

You know that there's been a step-change in priorities in academic circles when organisations like the wordy mouthful that is the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence are being set-up and then holding two-day conferences that attract the home secretary. Alongside such alumni as Peter Bergen, former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove and everyone's favourite security correspondent, Frank Gardner, Jacqui Smith yesterday made her first speech on terrorism, focusing mainly on the threat from the internet and how to tackle it.

Of course, it would help greatly if any media organisation or indeed the ICSR had made available Smith's speech in full, but that seems to be beyond their capabilities. Perhaps it's deliberate: we don't want the nasty jihadis to be getting full wind of the government's plans, do we? Joking aside, it's impossible to comment thoroughly on exactly what she outlined when we have to make do with relatively short reports in the newspapers. Going by them, there's plenty of reasons to be concerned about this latest ploy at blocking out unpleasantness on the internet.

The most acute immediate problem with the rhetoric and reasoning coming from Smith is that she and the government seems to think that the ways in which child pornography is tackled is an appropriate model. As Frank Fisher sets out on CiF, this is an incredibly arbitrary way of going about it - the Internet Watch Foundation provides the sites to be blocked, and they are then blocked by the ISPs. No debate, no review, just a complete cutting off. Mostly, this does seem to work but there have been problems; in one case, the anonymous image posting board 4chan, which occasionally gets flooded with child pornography by trolls was blocked, but only seemingly by certain ISPs. Such blanket censorship with no genuine recourse is the kind imposed by totalitarian states, not supposed democracies.

Even more naive and also insulting is taking the internet predator model from those who surf chatrooms and social networking sites for prey and applying it to the online world of cyber-jihadism. That there are supposed "terror svengalis who work to seduce young people" is utter nonsense. The case of "Irhabi007" provides the reality: a Moroccan who arrived here with his father in 2001, he was radicalised not by someone "grooming" him but through his own research, as well as by images of atrocities committed in Iraq, such as the infamous video from a US bomber of a missile being dropped into a crowd of fleeing civilians in Fallujah, with the pilots laughing as it exploded. Newsnight then had the temerity to claim that the circumstances surrounding it had never been comprehensively established. Not every young person "radicalised" is going to go to the extremes that Younes Tsouli did, helping to distribute jihadist video releases and then to spreading presentations and videos on how to prepare bombs and attacks, mainly because now with sites such as Rapidshare, Megaupload and FileFlyer you don't need to hack other websites or use public FTPs to get the material around, but it does provide the example that as well as those willing to launch attacks there is an underbelly online that provides support to those thinking about doing so.

One of the other problems is just whether the material being distributed is actually illegal or not. Beheadings and murder which are sometimes depicted would fall foul of the Obscene Publications Act, but what about the numerous mortar attacks and IED videos which the various insurgent groups in Iraq for instance release? Most don't show anyone dying or being killed, but they are designed to provide succour to online supporters, and are also helpful propaganda showing the failure of coalition forces. Banning such material might make the government sleep slightly easier, but how they would manage it when as outlined above the distribution networks are now so autonomous and use other public download sites to do so? It's true that those that monitor online jihadis regularly report the material and get it removed, except from those sites that provide complete freedom of speech and expression, but is it even necessary? In any case, if the publicly available jihadist forums are blocked, those currently using them will just move to private, more secure sites, as the remnants of Al-Muhajiroun are now rumoured to have done.

Then there's the possibility that the very attempt to ban, censor and block could be counter-productive on more than one point. There's currently a burgeoning online movement dedicated to monitoring such sites which would fall on its face just at the moment when Smith herself admits that the government itself cannot be relied upon to do everything. (The main problem with the movement described here is its ideological background, which I may well expand upon in due course.) Moreover, as always when you ban something, you make it infinitely more attractive as well as shoving it into the undergrowth. Those who are already going to search out extremist ideas and think for themselves will find this material whether it's outlawed or not, and while it continues to be posted on sites like YouTube and LiveLeak, where the government most certainly can't restrict it but where it does get criticised, there's very little they can realistically do.

It's taken a while, but the government does thankfully seem to have finally realised that the way to tackle extremist Islam is not through force and condemnation, but through argument and tackling prejudice at the base source. Those who are seen as heroes or as admirable, as Justin writes, are often the most laughable and easy to mock figures. How for instance can anyone take Sayyid Qutb seriously when you know that he took a woman coming onto him in the United States as either a challenge from God or as being sent to corrupt him by the CIA? Battling Salafism, with its sentimental romanticism about an age of Islam that never really existed, ought to be based on modernism. Making clear that the takfiri ideology doesn't discriminate between any sort of Muslim and "kafir" is vital, as is that those with these views are not practising Islam but a perversion of it that Muhammad would certainly not recognise. All this could have been already achieved and helped significantly if we hadn't involved ourselves in the cowboy operation in Iraq, but it's too late to change that now. Nor will the imposition of 42 days without charge for "terrorist suspects", the hypocrisy of Smith's statement that victory will not be assumed through authoritarianism all too rank.

Again, as Fisher writes, if any of this is to go ahead there needs to be at the very least an established legal framework and footing for these measures, with full oversight and all the information surrounding it being placed in the public domain. That this government's record doesn't in the slightest inspire confidence that this will be forthcoming only amplifies the reasons for why this ought to be resisted until then.

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We'll build this rook house here for Bobby.

Bobby Fischer 1943 - 2008

Mr Eugenides on the genius, recluse and antisemitic loon.

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Scum-watch: Why Facebook is bad for you.

Ignoring the Scum's claims in its leader that Rhys Jones has been forgotten (he hasn't) and that he's already a "footnote to a catalogue of unforgivable street slaughter" when no subsequent case has by any means reached such a critical mass or led to an outbreak of soul-searching as prolonged as his murder did, the Scum is back to its old tricks of promoting the other parts of its empire by omission.

Why Facebook is bad for you is a generic piece written by a university don, and outlines all the usual reasons for why you shouldn't touch the social networking site with a ten-foot bargepole. What the article doesn't mention is that Facebook's main rival MySpace, is of course owned by err, the same person as the Sun is, nor is the site so much as mentioned as being just of much of a security risk as Facebook.

Tom Hodgkinson wrote a far better article for why to avoid Facebook on Monday in the Grauniad, naming 3 of the individuals involved in its creation as reason enough. The reasons to boycott MySpace are summed up in just one much more succinct name: Rupert Murdoch.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008 

The political tyranny of grief.

The tyranny of the tearful, grieving left behind seems to be an ever growing constant on both our TV screens and newspapers. The wife of the fallen soldier demands that the MoD and government do more to stop what happened to their partner happening again, even if it was an understandable accident; the parents of the missing child travel the globe warning of the dangers of strangers, even when they themselves have been by no means cleared of personal involvement; the parent of the murdered school-teacher urges the government to ban "extreme pornography"; and now we have the widow of the brave have-a-go hero setting out a list of everything that she thinks is wrong with society, and everyone is expected to ably nod along, wring their hands, comment that it really is appalling, or demand instant ever more draconian crackdowns, usually for their own short-term political gain.

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not impugning on the right of those dealt the harshest blow that life can throw at them from pouring out their hearts at the injustice of it all; in fact, I'd encourage it. Better to let it out than to bottle it up. You can't fail to be disgusted at Garry Newlove's death, a man who had survived cancer being taken from his family at the feet of the local hoodlums, who deserve everything that they have coming to them, hopefully a sentence that will mean they'll at least be middle-aged before they're released from prison. His wife's eloquent statement, even if I disagree with large parts of it, took courage to both write and read out in front of the country's media.

The best policies on crime and punishment, or indeed on everything are however reached in the cold light of day, not motivated by vengeance or to buy off campaigning newspapers or individuals. The very last thing that should be indulged is knee-jerk reactions that aim towards ever harsher penalties, but rather focus on what works; outrage and apoplexy, along with the momentum that a tragedy provides a person with, have worked to huge disadvantage in the past. You only have to examine the dangerous dogs legislation or the video nasties farce to see what moral panics bring about.

Such rationality however can never stand up to emotion. The Sun's headline to one of its reports is "Get this evil off our streets". Its leader, which I'll return to later, is at least not as demanding of change as it was in the aftermath of the murder of Rhys Jones last summer. Easy answers, such as David Davis's statement today for zero tolerance, which would not have stopped the murder of Newlove even if it had of been in operation, typically miss the point and would only further stigmatise those who get in trouble once and where the shock of being caught is enough to stop from them committing any further crimes. The Tories' complete lack of any real alternative, only claiming that there is a broken society which Thatcherism and its continuation under Blair have done the most to create, and their promotion of bribes through tax cuts which would only help already married middle-class couples show the continuing failure for the party to come to terms with modern Britain. How school discipline could possibly be blamed when all three of those convicted had already left is also a moot point.

Helen Newlove's analysis and diagnosis also shouldn't be above criticism. She says that "[youths] should not be allowed to congregate on street corners", but the only solution she offers is the army or boot camp. One would think the very last thing we wanted to do with bored violent young people is introduce them to an organisation where they're trained to be even more violent, but such logic seems to go out the window in such circumstances. The solution appears to be for the young to be seen and not heard, or out of sight and out of mind. As long as they're off the streets and not scaring the adults, who cares? She talks about the government needing to put "into place an effective deterrent", but just what sort of punishment will make a young person who has spent the whole day drinking think twice before attacking a man who's challenged his authority? There simply isn't one. What can the government do when someone over the legal drinking age is only exercising his right to purchase alcohol? It's their responsibility, not the person who sells it to them.

This isn't defeatist, but does anyone really have an answer to how we can prevent the above without intervening in society in such ways that are neither necessary or likely to even have that much of an effect? Some of the suggestions are the equivalent of stating that we either need a policeman on every corner or a CCTV camera equivalent that recognises offenders and is ready to bark out orders; how else are we supposed to keep tabs on every single person that's out on bail that just might go on to kick someone to death? How are we supposed to change a drinking culture of getting smashed with all the side-effects that entails when that's exactly what the structure of the working week and phony individualism encourages? Why should we surprised that the young feel embittered and disenfranchised when the illusion of meritocracy which New Labour bases itself on is so exposed in the schools they often leave with such low aspirations?

In fact, this whole case leaves the typical blanket recommendations floundering. One of those convicted, Stephen Sorton, had nine GCSEs and was at college studying mechanics. It defies both casual prejudices and the typical assumptions, which is precisely why it's completely wrong to turn to them out of either type or comfort. Even so, it's still apparent that the young need somewhere to go more than ever, but at the same time also want to be left alone. Youth clubs and organisations are one thing, but they've never going to stop them from congregating and potentially intimidating others even if they don't mean any harm. Labour's anti-social behaviour legislation has given the police just the powers to move them on even if they're not doing anything wrong, just the sort of thing that makes teenagers respect their elders. Again, when cases such as these emerge and get blanket coverage, all of those who think they're in a similar boat feel threatened, and the constant scaremongering about "yobs" or "hoodies" only encourages fear and mutual mistrust.

Also typically missing the point is to blame those who are only attempting to do their jobs, as the Sun leader does:

Garry, a devoted husband and father, had repeatedly called on police to act against local vandals and hooligans.

They failed to do their job.

I'd say that they did everything they could: you can't do much more than arrest one of them and charge them with assault, and confiscating their alcohol. Unless they're in a special "no-drinking zone" and aren't disorderly, what else are they supposed to do?

So did the judge who set free killer cop Gary Weddell.

Having hanged his wife, Weddell last week blasted her mother and himself to death.

Surely just as much blame has to lie with his brother, who put up £200,000 bail and then failed to keep the tabs on him that he promised he would. That Weddell was a police officer and had a motive for murdering his wife (who had been having an affair and told him she wanted a divorce) and therefore didn't appear to be a threat to anyone else must also be considered.

A common theme can be found in all three cases — a reluctance to put dangerous people behind bars.

Prisons and police cells are so full of violent criminals that known villains are allowed bail.

And innocent members of the public are paying for that with their lives.

There lies the inherent contradiction - the prisons aren't full of violent criminals, they're full of the mentally ill and those who shouldn't be there, as well as the violent. The Sun's constant hardline is partially responsible for just that, and yet it now in effect demands all those charged with assault are kept in custody when such a policy would be complete lunacy and cost an extortionate amount for such a small possible benefit. Besides, those charged with assault have never been kept in custody regardless of the prison spaces available; it's just the Scum as usual conflating something with its own prejudices.

Put simply, we are never going to prevent every such tragic murder. There always have and always will be hotheaded young out of their heads and suitably inclined to beat up an easy target. Without taking a step back when such strong emotions and feelings inevitably manifest themselves in the aftermath, we'll be forever putting right the mistakes from the last knee-jerk. Reacting to each one as if it must be the latest to change us irrevocably is not just daft, it's dangerous.

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A swing and a miss.

Rebekah Wade tends not to do public events. The last time she gave evidence to a parliamentary committee she accidentally blabbed that the Scum "sometimes" paid police officers for stories, which quickly resulted in News International "clarifying" the matter by saying they never paid such sources. Then there was the time she got drunk and in the yobbish fashion that she condemns in her newspaper smacked her now ex-husband, resulting in a night in the cells.

To go by yesterday's appearance before the Lords communications committee, she'd been prepping herself for a long time. Not that she should of bothered: the committee was completely hopeless at drawing blood from such an easy target. Despite the abundance of evidence, including Wade's own comment that Murdoch is "a very hands-on proprietor", they failed completely in provoking her into providing examples of such interference. Anyone who's read Piers Morgan's faux diaries of his time whilst editing the News of the World will note that Murdoch doesn't need to expressly ask his editor to either spike a piece, go with a certain viewpoint or cover a different story entirely; he just casts doubt on his editor's decision. Moreover, all Murdoch's editors are expressly picked precisely because they can be trusted to not deviate from his own views: they all know full well the consequences for going dangerously off course. It's in this way in which he controls both his tabloids and up-market papers: there could be no greater example of his influence than the fact that every single one of his newspapers worldwide supported the Iraq war.

The closest the committee came to anything like a revelation was that Murdoch himself doesn't much like the overbearing celebrity coverage, now headed by Gordon Smart, the worst editor of the "Bizarre" pages since the last one. The only thing both he and Wade agreed upon on that front was on Pop Idol, which just so happens to be broadcast on the Fox network in the US.

There were so many possibilities to put Wade on the ropes that it's remarkable that the committee didn't even attempt to show its fangs. They could have asked Wade why the paper was so supportive of Blair, to the extent that the paper became known as the Downing Street Echo, but seem to have missed even that. They could of capitalised on the paper's numerous mistakes and apologies after the past year, from the inflammatory claim that "Muslim yobs" had vandalised homes that soldiers were to move into, which it got completely wrong, the smearing of the Kamal family that was caught up in the Forest Gate terror raid, the apology to Janet Hossain's family for claiming that she was found dead in bondage gear when she was wearing normal clothes and hadn't been involved in any sort of sexual activities prior to her death, or even resurrected the Rochelle Holness scandal, where the paper claimed she had been cut up while alive, with the bereaved family condemning the newspaper for being just as heartless as her murderer. The article is still up on the website and no apology has ever been made. They could have attacked Wade's ridiculous campaign for "Sarah's law" and the numerous lies the paper printed about the EU reform treaty, both of which were accompanied by petitions that were flagrantly misleading, or how the Scum continues to demand even harsher law and order policies, despite the prison system being full to bursting point precisely because of it and other newspapers' outlandish demands, such as for prison ships. The paper's facile and disgraceful attempts to smear the Human Rights Act as a terrorists' charter could have been brought up and exposed.

Instead we have to make do with a half-hearted complaint from a bishop and Lady Thornton about page 3. Both could have gone far further and pointed out the far more vile nature of page 3 idol, and how the paper is encouraging young women to involve themselves in leering lads' competitions, all for the benefit of its already rich proprietor, who pays out a paltry £5,000 prize to the eventual winner. Wade just brushed it off in the usual fashion by attacking Clare Short. That the "MySun" online community also encourages young women, whose age is isn't easily verifiable to involve themselves in similar escapades could have been brought up as well.

As ever, it turned out to be a complete missed opportunity. Complete freedom of the press is only in the interests of everyone in society when it's regulated in a robust fashion. The toothless PCC fails to provide that, and now the supposed attack dogs in both houses of parliament have failed as well. It's little wonder therefore that the tabloid press in this country continues to sink to levels so low that even a world-record holding limbo dancer would have difficulty in reaching them.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008 

Newsnight gets hoaxed over "al-Qaida in Britain".

The Mujahideen Shura Council's (now the Islamic State of Iraq) logo.

Oh dear. Generally, Newsnight is on the ball when it comes to most things,
but it fell far short last night in the bullshit meter stakes.

In typically breathless tones,
reporter Richard Watson reported that on the 2nd of January a posting appeared on the jihadist forum announcing the creation of "al-Qaida in Britain". The message included threats against both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, urged Muslims to join them, and generally prepare for battle. Sajjan Gohal made a lot of vapid assertions and cast no light on the subject whatsoever, then "ex-spook" Dame Pauline Neville-Jones was invited on to talk about battling an ideology while saying we had to take the message "very seriously".

You can understand why Newsnight got excited. Over the past year especially, and since Zarqawi's group in Iraq professed allegiance to Osama bin Laden (now the self-proclaimed "Islamic State of Iraq"), various terrorist groups the world over have taken on the "al-Qaida" brand. The Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat became al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, while the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group has also more recently joined up, even if the ties were already long established. There was also the announcement of the establishment of al-Qaida in the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, etc), although whether such a group actually exists in any operative state is certainly open to question. Closer to home, and also questionable, a group calling itself "al-Qaida in Europe" has claimed responsibility for the 7/7 attacks, but rather undermined its credibility when it also claimed that it was behind the blackouts in America that were most certainly not their doing.

It's undoubtedly true that if a group calling itself "al-Qaida in Britain" had openly announced its formation and said it was planning attacks that it would be a significant ratcheting up of the audacity, if not the competency or potency of takfirist jihadists within these shores. What it doesn't mean is that the group has necessarily any material links with al-Qaida as it currently exists, if indeed it really does exist any more except as an idea. Previously, all those who weren't publicity whores or hotheads have kept their heads well below the parapet for good reason - even though Omar Bakri Mohammad continues to preach and spread his reactionary crap via Paltalk or somewhere else since he was expelled to the Lebanon - if they don't or didn't have some sort of understanding with MI6, they were rapidly put under surveillance and are now prosecuted in a similar fashion.

The reasons for why it's highly unlikely this was anything other than either a prankster or a fantasist are manifold. For starters, alekhlass is just one of the innumerable number of jihadist forums now proliferating across the web, and until recently was by no means one of the most prominent. Recently, some of the most infamous have been taken down, prompting flight to far more secure, genuinely private sites that don't have any sort of open presence, and to replacements like alekhlass. It'd be unprecedented if that site was chosen out of all the others for such a major announcement. Secondly, if this was a genuine announcement that was taken seriously amongst cyber-jihadists themselves, it would have spread like wildfire across all of them; instead it was deleted almost as soon as it was put up. Indeed, if this had come from al-Qaida themselves it would have distributed to all of them as their
As-Sahab releases are. One would have expected that such a major happening would have been accompanied like the Libyan allegiance statement was, with al-Zawahiri probably praising it in a audio or video message. It's possible they could want to get this out with a lower profile, as most are going to doubt that there is any real coherent group at work in this country under the al-Qaida moniker rather a rag-tag bunch in autonomous cells, but it still seems highly doubtful. Thirdly, the major jihadist monitoring organisations such as the SITE Intelligence Group and the NEFA Foundation have nothing on this whatsoever, when you'd expect they'd have been all over it, nor have any of the major blogs obsessed with jihadists.

Most of all though, there's no need for al-Qaida to announce that there's a latest franchise operating in this country. We already know there is; the media reminds of that fact as many times as it possibly can. Why do they need to be so blatant and unsubtle in their methods when they have such flagrant scaremongering garbage in the press courtesy of "security sources"?
The Scotsman claimed at the weekend that there was an equivalent of a "white army" of terrorists made up of converts to Islam, with 1,500 mooted as the figure. Why bother announcing your establishment when they're doubtlessly only waiting for the command to slip into our bedrooms at night to slit our throats? To be more serious, it's also never been their style in the west: those such as Mohammad Atta and Siddique Khan are far too dedicated to their cause to wave their dicks around online and put a target right above their heads. Supposedly, prior to the patio gas canister jihad there were postings on forums about "London getting bombed tonight." Perhaps if they'd concentrated more on the bombs than self-aggrandising they might have achieved something other than setting themselves on fire.

This isn't to dispute that takfirists aren't operating in this country; just that those that are truly dangerous are the ones that don't draw attention to themselves. Announcing they've arrived would be doing just that. The threat exists, but it continues to be wildly overstated by those whose interest it is in to do so. Sorry Newsnight, you just got hoaxed.

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Time for a Diana-free zone.

With perhaps the exception of the campaign against apartheid South Africa, boycotts tend not to work, and the one I'm proposing here (somewhat prompted by this post by Roy Greenslade) most certainly won't. I've made a number of posts in the past about the undead princess, and the extraordinary press relationship which is now still going strong after ten years, but this week's latest non-revelations at the inquest into her death seem to have at long last turned a corner in some quarters.

As the Guardian leader points out, just what does the fact that Diana's mother called her a whore have to do with her daughter's death? That she is now also dead, and probably still insulting her child for going around with "effin Muslim men" in a distant corner of hell while hopefully being sodomised with a ladle makes it even less relevant. The latest supposed amazing piece of new information that has emerged is that the police didn't bother to investigate a complaint from Diana that she feared being bumped off. That they most likely already had contingency plans for protecting her and treated it with the contempt that such narcissistic paranoia deserved isn't worthy of a mention.

It's time therefore in my view that we initiate a complete boycott of any mentions of Diana or the inquest from now on - and completely ignore the farce continuing at immense cost for the benefit only of Mohamed Al-Fayed and the tabloid press which plagued her until her dying day. The Grauniad ought to practice what it preaches and cease any coverage, although it deserves to be congratulated for its far from serious or sincere reporting of what has been going on by Stephen Bates. Al-Fayed's other main reason for demanding this circus, apart from his vendetta against the establishment for refusing him a passport is his endless lust for publicity; without it his ignorant and insulting conspiracy theories would never have reached such a wide audience, even if most rightly reject them and are similarly disgusted by the continuing almost necrophilia-like obsession of the popular press. Stopping perpetuating it in any way, including even mocking it, is more likely to bring this tasteless, morbid and revolting spectacle to an end than anything else.

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"Amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards."

This is just how bat-shit crazy Mike Huckabee is:

He isn't going to win the Republican nomination, thankfully, although who is has been cast into further doubt by Mitt Romney's victory in the Michigan primary, but he did have the advantage of originating from the state and that his father was a former popular governor. It's also true that Huckabee is playing to his gallery. The most frightening thing though is that it's these same men who feel so threatened by the rise of extremist Islam and have been ridiculously belligerent over Iran, which as Juan Cole points out, has a constitution much like the one Huckabee appears to be endorsing.

According to Jay Cole, a Baptist minister associated with Huckabee for over twenty years, he's also not just an evangelical but a believer that we are fast approaching the end times:

Huckabee has connected with voters--specifically, evangelical voters--not simply because he is a charismatic speaker, but also because he shares their apocalyptic world view. As Cole told me, "To date there's well over 139 prophecies that have come to pass exactly as the Lord says. Mike believes those things. Anyone with any Bible knowledge would have to say that this looks like the time. We're so close to the Lord's return."

To draw another comparison with Iran, Mahmoud Amadinejhad is known to be a believer that the return/appearance of the "Hidden Imam" is close at hand, going so far as to make preparations for it. You'd like to think that the two of them could meet up, reconcile their religious differences, and then keep the fuck away from all the rest of us.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008 

From organ donation to the right to die.

The "blogosphere" is again ablaze with indignation, partly with Gordon Brown for daring to specify a preference for your organs to be used after you die unless you opt-out, partly with Justin for writing, in the words of the ever reliable Dizzy, an "intellectually vapid piece".

My position on this is simple. I couldn't care less what you do with my body when I'm dead - burn it, piss on it, extract my eyeballs and use them as marbles - it's up to you. If my organs might be of use to someone who needs a bit of me in them - first time for everything - then go ahead and take it; I won't be needing it. I don't need them, they're of no use to me. To go with a sentiment from a song - you can't turn off that you're dead; you just deal with it. I'm sure I'll be more concerned at the time when it happens that I'm dying than I will be about getting eviscerated afterwards.

One of the few objections which seems to be on the money is that many won't think about it until it comes to the moment when it happens - upon which it will be too late or relatives will be grieving and too upset to make a decision or one in accordance with the deceased's wishes. To turn the argument on its head, this is why an opt-out scheme would be a good idea, meaning that everyone would be aware of what's going to happen and have plenty of time to make their own personal decision clear.

As Justin points out, there are far more pressing issues concerning those close to death. This might be an attempt to change the subject, but a more important topic to debate would be the right to die: the numbers who are currently either condemned to a painful end, or one where all dignity has long been taken away from the dying, even when they're begging either doctors or relatives to put them out of their misery is ever increasing. Perhaps the two things are connected: one gets the feeling that much the same forces are opposed to both, and again, there appears to be massive public support for reform. Whether we are being held back or not is open to your own interpretation.

Related post:
Griffindor - Taking your organs

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Scum-watch: Friendly fire and America.

The Scum is thoroughly disgusted by the latest "friendly fire incident":

ONCE again, our troops come under fire — not from the enemy, but from our friends, the Americans.

Once again, we cannot blame the Fog of War. Battlefield calls for help were answered by both British and US helicopters.

Our Apache went straight for the Taliban position flashed to them by squaddies on the ground — and gave them hell. The US crew inexplicably ignored the co-ordinates and opened fire on Our Boys.

Guardsman Matthew Lyne-Pirkis was lucky to survive shrapnel wounds inches from a major artery.

And, once again, the newspaper is not prepared to face up to the reality on the ground that its incessant warmongering will deliver whatever the situation. It was most likely a tragic mistake, and such things unfortunately happen, especially when forces under completely separate chains of command are working in the same area. You could understand the paper's mock outrage if it really cared either about the troops or about bringing those responsible to some sort of account, but the paper's slavish allegiance to America and especially to the so-called "war on terror", or whatever it's being called now is clearly what more concerns the paper. The more of these incidents that happen and the more that it looks as if what our forces are being asked to do is little more than supplying back-up to an American foreign policy, the more likely it is that the average Sun reader will question both the paper's positioning and our stance in general towards the "special relationship".

Hence this:

America is our greatest friend and ally. And we are loathe (sic) to accuse them of being trigger-happy.

But this latest shocking incident must be fully investigated by the US and lessons learned so no more British troops are maimed. Or killed.

About as weak as a demand as the paper could possibly make. This is the same newspaper remember that recently proposed bringing back of a form of hard labour for prisoners, and that informed its readers that the only thing worse than another war was Iran obtaining nukes, then when the American intelligence agencies made public their belief that Iran had stopped its weapons programme in 2003, it didn't bother to print so much as a word on the subject.

This has always been the cliched elephant in the room in the Sun's offices. As someone on Question Time recently observed, it's shrilly nationalistic on almost everything other than on the subject of media ownership. Around the only arena in which the United States can ever do anything wrong in its eyes is when it accidentally kills British troops, and even then as we've seen it's more worried about the implications for the relations between the two than it is about the lives that needn't have been lost. It demands that we never surrender to diktat from Brussels while the subject of our attachment to America is most certainly not open to discussion. To their credit, most of those who advocate our withdrawal from Europe are more concerned about complete independence, rather than wanting to our attach ourselves ever more ardently to America, as the Sun and Murdoch so dream of. We can't be reminded enough that Murdoch himself, as if he needed any prompting, was most effusive about the Iraq war not because it would mean the overthrow of a vicious, tyrannical dictator, and the establishment of a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, or whatever other pipe dreams that the neo-cons had about achieving at the back of their minds after getting their hands on Iraq's natural resources, he rather said that its biggest benefit would be oil at $20 a barrel. It's recently hit five times that figure, and the disaster that Iraq has become doesn't need to be gone over once again.

Just what would Murdoch or Wade say to those who have lost loved ones in Iraq if they were ever faced them, knowing that their propaganda and constant support has been a major factor in our involvement in the war? I sometimes wonder whether the sycophancy towards "Our Boys", who mostly loathe the paper, if ARRSE is anything to go by, is their way of apologising; then I realise it's just the paper's way of trying to outdo all its rivals on the phony patriotism front.

It'd also be nice to think that the paper's declining circulation, which has finally fell below the 3 million mark, despite selling it some areas for 20p, is a sign that the public is falling out of love with the publication after so long. Rather, I imagine it's more to do with the effects of the internet and the rise of the "free" papers; it really must hurt to be losing sales to such awful, cobbled together crap as Metro and London Lite, or indeed, News International's own TheLondonPaper. One day the Sun's bluff will be called, but it hasn't happened yet.

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Monday, January 14, 2008 

Prosecuting rape correctly.

As high-principled and well-meaning as the Guardian's sort of campaign for an increase in rape convictions is, you can't help that feel with their highlighting of the plight of Beth Ellis (a pseudonym) they haven't exactly chosen one of the easiest cases to prosecute.

Whether you can even really put it down as rape or not is one matter, as most would consider it continuous child molestation within the family. As harrowing as Ellis's account of her time after making the complaint to the police is, you have to look at it from the other point of view. They're being asked to investigate crimes that took place the best part of 10 to 20 years ago in a family setting, with Ellis and her mother's accounts of what happened on the one side, with her sister detailing physical instead of sexual abuse, with the denials and countering argument of the her stepfather (the accused) and his son that they had a happy family. There's no forensic evidence; just the testimony of Ellis, and she had the added help of being provided with a QC by the Guardian and a criminologist who said that her flashbacks and panic attacks were consistent with the aftereffects of being abused as a child.

The article itself goes into the details of how the prosecutor didn't speak to her, didn't take evidence on her trauma symptoms and also dismissed the evidence of her mother, who had an affair whilst married to the man in question, because of her "sexual history", out of hand, but even if the case had gone to court, would a jury have convicted the man under such circumstances? Usually when teachers or others in positions of power have been prosecuted for molesting children years after the fact, there's been a number of those who were abused whose testimony was overwhelming as a result. Here it was just Ellis's word and that of her mother's against the man: would it have been enough on its own to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt?

The possibility of introducing evidence obtained by the women themselves via text messages or phone calls, potentially entrapping the perpetrator into incriminating himself looks attractive, but it also runs the risk of being too vague and being used maliciously, even if it's a minor concern. That has to be considered when the figures themselves show that 8% of cases which don't result in a charge are a result of false allegations. The Guardian leader is circumspect enough, suggesting an introduction of a two-tier offence of "aggravated" rape, so that juries could convict without the possibility of the offender being given a life sentence, but that also risks suggesting that some rapes are somehow less serious than others, which when battling misconceptions and prejudice about rape is hardly the message to be sending. All options do have to be looked at, but the starting point has to be changing attitudes in the CPS, especially those highlighted by the case of Beth Ellis.

Reading her diary it's impossible for your heart not to bleed at the pain and suffering she's lived with after a childhood destroyed by abuse. Would she have gained closure though from a successful prosecution? The very last thing you want is for women not to come forward with accusations, but was she perhaps naive in thinking that almost any system would have not delivered the same crushing blow as that when the CPS decided not to prosecute? Would failure in court have hurt even more? It is of course incredibly easy for me to sit here in judgment and ask glib questions, especially when, as a young man, I'm probably the least likely demographic to be the victim of sexual assault and also probably the most likely to commit one, and I don't want to seem in any way cold-hearted, but in a case as difficult as hers, is there any way we can make conviction or even trial more likely without also opening up major possibilities for miscarriages of justice? Once again, it's a question we're not likely to find an answer to.

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2 million migrant homes, knives and the DNA database.

It's Monday, it's the Express, it must mean it's time for a Diana "exclusive", a Madeleine non-story or a rant against immigrants. How about all three? You lucky, lucky people!

Before we get carried away, the main Express story is based entirely on a MigrationWatch report prepared for a parliamentary committee. Now, I could of course read the entire thing, dissect it and make my mind up about whether it's bollocks, or I could just dismiss it out of hand. After all, their last report, claiming that migrants contributed only 4 pence a week in benefit to the country was completely and utterly wrong. This latest one, which claims we'll have to build 2 million houses just for immigrant workers (not that we are, as the headline misleadingly implies), I'm willing to hazard is also complete and utter crap. I think we'll go with the latter.

On then, to the Sun. The scaremongering stories of today are "Girls age (sic) three hitting puberty", which is based off today's Tonight with Trevor McDonut, and relies on the stories of a whole two girls, while Al-Qaeda 'to blow up Paris' is more concerned about British tourists in the Scum's parochial way than the French, who you would think would be more in the line of fire.

The Sun's latest big "exclusive" is that it's wrangled an interview with Gordon Brown, which must mean his polls are down again. His main promise is a "huge crackdown on Britain's knife crime epidemic", which is the biggest surprise since the last one. As ever, rather than attempting to understand why everyone and their mother seems to carrying a knife, the immediate solution is that anyone caught carrying one must be prosecuted rather than simply cautioned. Seeing as there have previously been suggestions that those carrying knives should get an automatic prison sentence of around three years, and the figures accompanying the report state that 8,500 of those caught with knives only received a caution, the implication is that we're going to be sending to prison thousands of youngsters, if this is to be vigorously implemented. Considering we simply don't have the prison places to do that, and also that doing that it well be far worse than giving a caution would, introducing them to the world of criminality by way of the slamming of a cell door, you get the feeling that we won't be hearing much about this until the next time someone impossibly young gets stabbed. Added into the mix is Brown's laughable if they weren't sinister remarks about how he's worried about "video and computer games" and the other reflex, the banning of "hunting" knives if they don't have a "practical" use.

The Scum Says column is slightly sharper (ho ho) than usual today on the matter:

AT last, the knife crackdown The Sun has been calling for.

But why was it so long coming? And why isn’t it tougher?

Last year 9,000 thugs escaped with meaningless cautions for carrying a blade. Meanwhile dozens of kids died on our anarchic streets.

It doesn’t take a genius to link those two facts.

If anything, it suggests that whatever the punishment is meant to be, and remember that the whole of last year was given over to demands for ever tougher penalties for those carrying knives, it seems that the hardcore will pack them regardless. I don't see how anyone can change that just through threats, however harsh the sentence is.

So only the fear of punishment can deter people from bringing them on to the streets.

Which, as the PM rightly says, means prosecutions, not cautions.

What he should have promised was automatic jail terms — but he’s hamstrung by our prisons being full.

Is the Sun really suggesting that we imprison 9,000 people a year simply for carrying a knife? It might give a false sense of security, but then we're back to the problem once they're released of young, probably angrier men, embittered at their lot, possibly thrown into the cycle of crime for a long time to come. There has to be another answer - and whether that involves community work, mentoring, fines or other punishments, such as the delaying of driving licences if they're of below that age, there has to be a better one than imprisonment.

Is that also why this crackdown, while obviously welcome, is limited to 12 crime “hot-spots”?

No one needs to walk around with a blade any bigger than a penknife.

So ban them from being carried in public EVERYWHERE.

It’s not exactly “zero tolerance” otherwise, is it?

Err, it is illegal to walk around with a knife EVERYWHERE. Just that in those so-called "hot-spots" those caught won't be cautioned.

Moving on:

BRITAIN’S DNA database has grown into a vital weapon against criminals.

It holds the details of four million arrested people. Last year it solved 45,000 crimes, among them hundreds of rapes and murders.

Now it’s under threat from . . . guess who? Yes, the European Court of Human Rights. Its judges are ready to rule that our database be purged of the details of anyone not convicted after their arrest.

Hundreds of rapes and murders? Really? Would the Sun like to present some evidence to back up that claim? Dozens maybe, hundreds I don't believe for a second.

Back here on planet reality, it isn't of course anything to do with the judges from the European Court of Human Rights intervening on their own, but rather, as the Scum's article admits, they're being asked to rule on the legality of the matter by err, two Britons who wanted their DNA removed from the database after they were cleared of the crimes they were accused of. The case is more about how fingerprints and a DNA sample are now taken from everyone arrested, rather than just those charged or even convicted. While it would be nice to demand that no one not charged or cleared should have their data entered into the database, a compromise would be in the interests of everyone, including delayed justice. Those who aren't charged should have their data removed after say, two years, which is plenty of time for those working on cold cases to keep searching the database for matches to their own forensic data to come through.

The real issue has long been about creating such a database by stealth. If politicians wanted to be honest with us, rather than gradually building the database through arrests, everyone should have their details entered onto it over a period of time. This though would be hugely unpopular and have massive civil liberties implications, especially raising the possibility for miscarriages of justice. The newspapers and politicians that inform us that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear would quickly blanch at such a plan, but they have no problem with the current situation which is manifestly unfair. One would like to think that my above suggestion was workable, or indeed, that it would be followed through on, but the loss of data scandals and the police's previous lies about removing information from the database only makes you realise how intractable the current policy is.

The Sun continues:

We understand the arguments about a Big Brother state. But Britain is in the grip of an all-out war against rising crime.

DNA fingerprinting is the greatest weapon detectives have been handed in a century.

It would be appalling if it was undermined by meddlers in Brussels.

Except that crime is either stable or falling, and has been now for a decade. All the advances in forensic evidence, CCTV and state surveillance haven't made any change to the feeling of insecurity which manifests itself everywhere, and the removal of such records from the database, whether down to the ECHR or otherwise, which might feasibly stop justice being done in major cases around 100 times a year at a rough guess, will similarly do nothing to either tackle or give rise to everyday fear of the outside world and crime.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008 

Scum-watch: Almost the world's worst newspaper.

All newspapers like to wave their dicks about and like to pretend that they're best, usually in the country, but some such as the Express and now the Sun instead claim that they're the greatest on the planet. Let's take a look at their amazing week of "exclusives" which led to their boast:

YOUR super Sun has always brought you the very best stories.

And 2008 is no different with a series of cracking exclusives every day this week leaving our rivals in the shade. Here’s how we did it . . .

Last SATURDAY: We exclusively revealed that pop star Britney Spears, who was rushed to hospital tied to a stretcher, is hooked on a powerful drug given to HORSES.

As I have no interest whatsoever in Britney Spears, I don't care enough to know whether she's addicted to what I assume is Ketamine (just checking the story now it appears to be Clenbuterol, which just shows how easy it is to be wrong about things when the newspaper treats its readers like morons and isn't specific) but what I do know is that, err, she wasn't on any drugs when she was carried out of her house, as the tests proved negative, despite what the Scum said.

MONDAY: We uncovered the secrets of Britney’s bizarre relationship with a British snapper.

Incredible. The news the whole world was waiting for. Oh, and just to be thorough, the picture agency that the "British snapper" works for denies that Britney is taking any drugs.

TUESDAY: We printed exclusive pictures of Liverpool star Jamie Carragher in an astonishing FA Cup rant at Luton fans.

Astonishing in its banality.

WEDNESDAY: We exclusively revealed that Bill actor Jeff Stewart had made an astonishing cry for help by slashing his wrists at the studio.

The country reels as someone they've never heard of attempts suicide.

THURSDAY: The nation was appalled as The Sun exposed the dirty blood scandal leaving our wounded war heroes at risk of deadly infection. The Government has now pledged to act.

The only genuine news story of the week, and the Sun only got this because the paper is so far up the arse of the armed forces that it could scratch their collective nose for them by sticking their hands up the throat and out of the mouth. It could also be a panic over nothing, as the blood is only uncertified, not definitively tainted.

FRIDAY: We exposed the sick talent agency hoping to make millions by offering a Maddie McCann lookalike.

Quite right too. How dare someone else try to make money out of Madeleine McCann's disappearance? That's our job!

On top of that we’ve launched our sensational £9.50 reader holidays at 178 terrific parks AND unveiled the Page 3 Idol finalists.

A cheap week at the caravan park from hell of your choice, and while you're there you can admire the latest pathetic women to degrade themselves for the promise of £5,000 from Uncle Rupe!

All the more reason to keep buying the world’s greatest newspaper.

All the more reason to imitate Jeff Stewart. Up and not across, kids!

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Friday, January 11, 2008 

No credibility, but what about dignity?

Oh how he wishes he could.

Extraordinary and incredible are overused adjectives, but they are surely more than valid terms to describe Peter Hain's startling failure to declare more than £100,000 of donations given to his campaign for the Labour deputy leadership. Hain's explanation, that he was in effect too busy to be drawn into such logistical matters as informing the electoral commission of the huge sums given to him by his backers, both in the private sector and unions, is both not a excuse while being a insight into New Labour as a whole. Time and again it has treated with contempt the rules that the rest of us take for granted. It informs us that as well as having rights, we also have responsibilities. How very New Labour that those same responsibilities never seem to apply to them, whether it's waging illegal wars, undermining the very rule of law itself over the SFA investigation into BAE's Saudi slush fund, or detaining foreign "terror suspects" indefinitely without charge.

Like with the Abrahams debacle, as the hours have gone by since the Grauniad broke the sum that Hain had forgotten about on Tuesday, the whole story has only grown murkier and murkier. We now know that some of the money was not given to Hain directly but to a thinktank called the Progressive Policy Forum. This is a thinktank which seems to have done absolutely no thinking whatsoever; it has no website, and one of its trustees, David Underwood, was directly involved in the Hain campaign. It looks incredibly like being a front organisation, the sort which tax evaders set up to direct their profits through a haven. The BBC is now reporting that two of the donors to the thinktank did not know that their money was in fact being used to fund Hain's campaign, although neither has any problem with it being used for that purpose. It looks increasingly likely that this was not any case of forgetting or being distracted, but that if it hadn't been for the Abrahams then this would never have came to light. Why else would a separate organisation have been used to funnel the money through to Hain except to hide its source in case it was found out? As it's turned out, Hain has had to declare those who donated in any case, with it taking over a month for Hain to break the bad news to his benefactors.

You could perhaps accept such largess if Hain had won the contest: in the event, he came second last, just ahead of the ghastly Blairite automaton Hazel Blears. Most of the cash was apparently spent on adverts in the Daily Mirror, and on a mail out to Labour and union members. The message was apparently so inspiring that the majority threw the unsolicited junk straight in the bin and vowed not to vote for the perma-tanned minister who long ago abandoned his previously impeccable credentials. In the eventuality, any who might have thought about voting for Hain instead plumped for Jon Cruddas, who despite voting for the Iraq war was far and away the best candidate, the only one who might just have tempted the otherwise long abandoned belief that Labour might again think about the many and not just the few.

Instead, Hain's "forgetfulness" has just brought the whole dampening down mess over funding back to the fore. Like the Labour party with Abrahams, his campaign seems to have thought it would get away with covering up where the money really came from, although for now none of those who have donated have been so apparently happy to make things worse by contradicting what the Labour party originally said. While the downfall of John Major's government can be linked directly back to Black Wednesday, the sleaze scandals of Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton were final nails in the coffin. Again, at least both of them were out to personally profit from their actions, not just to carry debts which Hain's campaign never needed to have had in the first place. The irony is that Hain is now the head of the department of works and pensions: if someone on benefits, or especially tax credits is overpaid, they don't get off by saying they accidentally spent it by mistake; they're forced into poverty if necessary in paying it back.

Hain has lost any credibility he had left. If he has any dignity remaining, he'll go back on his word and resign as well.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008 

Counting and recounting the bodies.

How much is a life worth is a question that is impossible to answer. We can however debate the numbers of deaths themselves, and to re-utter an almost cliched quote, one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.

The latest attempt to get close to an accurate number of those killed since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, this time by the World Health Organisation and the Iraqi health ministry, comes to the conclusion that the most likely figure is 151,000, although it could be anything from 104,000 and 223,000. This is a considerable reduction on the numbers cited by the previous Lancet study, which found more than 600,000 deaths assignable to violence. The Lancet study has since been expanded upon and attempted to be kept up to date by organisations like Just Foreign Policy, which using the Iraq Body Count figures extrapolates that the toll may now be as high as 1,165,204. This latest study only calculates deaths between the invasion and June 2006, just around when the violence in the country was reaching its height before declining last year thanks to the establishment of the "Awakening councils" and to a lesser extent to the "surge", as well as the blocking off of communities on sectarian lines.

Les Gilbert, one of the academics involved in the Lancet study has submitted his immediate criticisms of the WHO estimate, and he rather predictably thinks that the study underestimates the number of deaths, due in part to how this study uses government employees which those visited in the samples would not necessarily want to admit deaths to, and also wasn't able to survey 10.6% of the households planned because of the security situation. These houses were in the Anbar province and in Baghdad, two of the most insecure and restive areas of the country. The figures from those were instead calibrated using Iraq Body Count, which itself admits is a underestimate of the number of deaths based on media reports.

If we go for a median figure between the two to address the discrepancies, we still have a figure of around 325,000 deaths attributable directly to the US/UK invasion. Some will point towards the sectarian violence as the main factor rather than military action itself, but when you get the US army boasting of dropping 40,000lb of explosives on "al-Qaida targets" just today, with civilians bound to be caught up in such blase assaults, you can't help but conclude that there is simply no way to be able to assign the huge of numbers of deaths to their definitive cause. In any case, all of these deaths are occurring under a continuing occupation and under a situation which would not have taken place had it not been for an invasion and war classed as illegal by the ex-UN secretary general.

The fact is we were sold or attempted to be sold this war under both humanitarian grounds and on the basis that the death toll would be minute, especially compared to those killed under Saddam's tyrannical reign. Almost 5 years on, the death toll from while the country was under his yoke, widely argued over but which is likely to be around 300,000 if you exclude the death toll from the Iraq/Iranian war, and that figure is likely to have already been equaled. That is the biggest indictment of this disaster that will haunt us for decades to come.

Related posts:
Lenin's Tomb - Iraq mortality studies
Juan Cole - 250,000 Civilians Dead in Bush's War?

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Nuclear power - no apology.

I might write more on this tomorrow, but Paul Linford couldn't have been more right on the reverse ferret over nuclear power.

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No change is big news.

Quite why the BBC is hyping up President Bush's statement while in Israel on the peace talks is unclear. Despite claiming that it's his strongest statement pressing Israel to give up land that it's settled since 1967, he's in actual fact said absolutely nothing that he hasn't before.

The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear. There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish a Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people.

These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent.

The only thing he says about the Israeli settlements is that their expansion should be ended. Nothing whatsoever about their dismantlement back to the 1967 lines, which is the only way that a "viable, contiguous, sovereign and independent" Palestine will be established. Bush is instead quite clearly giving his backing to the building of the "security wall", which cuts deep into the West Bank and slashes off all the major settlements on the Israeli side. That such a state established along those lines could never be viable is unmentionable.

The only really new thing that Bush mentions is the idea of compensating the refugees that were dispersed upon the creation of Israel in 1948. This is probably the only way to resolve the issue now, without going from a two-state solution to a one-state solution. This should be the main point of compromise: the Palestinians have to accept that the refugees aren't going to be able to return, and the Israelis for their part accept that settlements in the West Bank and the security barrier have to go. East Jerusalem would then be the only major sticking point.

One last thing:

Security is fundamental. No agreement and no Palestinian state will be born of terror. I reaffirm America's steadfast commitment to Israel's security.

For those who argue that Israel itself was born of terror, the irony will long continue to be bitter.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008 

Churnalism, getting it wrong and the US primaries.

Hillary was understated in her criticism of the media coverage.

Have a morning's newspapers ever looked so fantastically out of date as they did today? All the tabloids apart from the Mirror went in various guises with the Madeleine McCann film story, which to be fair to them was not denied in any way, shape or form by the McCanns' spin doctor, Clarence Mitchell. Even so, by last night the McCanns themselves had completely denied that there was any truth to it, and quite where some came up with figures such as £10 million as to how much the rights were worth is why people are so cynical about the British press in general.

We expect the tabloids to be filled with such irredeemable bollocks, however. The broadsheets had no such excuses for riding the hype wave generated by Barack Obama's campaign, giving him the win in the New Hampshire primary before the counting had even begun, the Guardian even reporting that Hillary Clinton was poised to sack some of her strategists and go to plan B (an article which seems to have disappeared from the Guardian's online archive). Call it churnalism, as it has been dubbed by Nick Davies, the 24-hour media atmosphere where every new development has to be the biggest and most important ever, or plain hacks getting carried away with themselves, there ought to have been some rather large mea culpas on websites this morning. About the only person to own up and not go through the motions of "Oh! This is so unexpected, amazing!" was Martin Kettle, who's decamped to the States for a nice holiday the occasion. The Times' US editor Gerard Baker goes in the complete opposite direction and tries to pretend that absolutely everyone believed that Obama was going to triumph by double-digits.

The only real signs that pointed towards an Obama victory were the huge numbers going to his meetings, especially among the young, which as anyone could have pointed out was just as much to do with seeing him in person without necessarily going on to vote for him, and the opinion polls, which had turned his way post-Iowa. The primary opinion polls are known for being notoriously fickle and only a guide rather than an exact science, but it seems Obama's victory speech in Iowa was enough to convince everyone that they were looking at the next president of the United States.

Having got it so spectacularly wrong, the media have been looking for answers as to where the tide was turned, and Clinton herself has been more than happy to oblige, pointing towards the moment where her emotions almost got the better of her, showing a side that she hasn't displayed much of previously. She's always been the tough, stoic wife and the harsh, ambitious and forceful senator. Whether it was that, or simply that Clinton had always been in a far better position in a conservative state which prefers tradition and where it seems that despite the high turnout, it was overwhelmingly the middle-aged and retired that voted for her, is now close to impossible to tell. There's also a smidgen of truth in the accusation coming mainly from Clinton supporters that it might have been part of a backlash against a media which had written off Clinton and in some cases even written her obituary. There are also shouts of misogyny, but that's laughable. Clinton is simply a highly unsympathetic figure; as someone already said, America's prepared to vote for a woman [for president], just not a completely ghastly woman. That might have been proved wrong by the NH primary, but it's little wonder that most of the comment towards her is at times less than kind.

Blogging of course is just as much of the "churnalism" cycle as the news channels themselves are. We've gotten all too used to demanding instant opinion and supposed expert comment, when the very best of it usually takes the best part of a day or longer to emerge. Quite why anyone does "live-blogging" of such events, especially primaries is beyond me; election nights maybe, not for last night. We don't expect to know the immediate details of a news event the second it happens, so why do we want the "commentariat" to provide exactly that, when they're probably the least best to provide it? This isn't to be Luddite about it in the way that some resisting online publishing do, but to acknowledge that journalists ought to be above making instant judgments based as Martin Kettle writes, on assumptions and prejudices. I realise writing this as a blogger is the height of hypocrisy, but there's a difference between being narcissistic to a few readers and broadcasting it to the nation at large.

As attractive as a clean sweep by Obama would have been through the primaries, Clinton's resurgence will if anything make the whole process so much the better. Despite all the debates and speeches, meet and greets, we still don't really know just what Obama offers beyond hope and change, those watchwords of any optimistic political campaign, while Clinton constantly plays up her experience and belief in both herself and America. A prolonged contest will mean that both will have to change their messages, further flesh out their policies beyond the platitudes, and show exactly what it is that makes them the one that should end the nightmare of the last 8 years. That has still yet to occur.

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Official secrets and not so official secrets.

It's great to see that Derek Pasquill has been cleared of breaching the draconian Official Secrets Act through his leaking of memos and documents to the Observer and New Statesman. It's thanks to Pasquill that we know just how clueless and mendacious the government was over extraordinary rendition, at turns not knowing how many flights had gone through our airspace while trying to "move the debate on" to get itself out of a sticky patch. The end result was the whitewash produced by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which altered the definitions of exactly what an "extraordinary rendition" was in order to clear MI5 of being involved in the kidnapping by the CIA of Jamil el-Banna and Bisher al-Rawi, both now back in Britain after being held at Guantanamo Bay.

Why he was ever considered for prosecution itself is a mystery. The Foreign Office quite openly admitted, despite the embarrassment especially over the rendition leaks, that his actions had not materially harmed it and had indeed changed policy for the better, especially over how the government now doesn't treat the Muslim Council of Britain as completely representative of British Muslims or the first port of call in a storm. It was this reluctant admittance by the prosecutors that some of the evidence they were to present in the case in actuality undermined their very argument that led to the prosecution being dropped.

Unlike some others that have quickly heralded this as a great victory for investigative journalism, as encouraging as it is, it doesn't alter the verdict in the far more pernicious prosecution last year of David Keogh and Leo O'Connor. They were the men who attempted to leak the al-Jazeera memo, where it's widely alleged that President Bush advocated the bombing of its headquarters in Qatar, and had to be talked down by Blair. If the public don't have a right to know when their leaders propose carrying out war crimes, ironically in this case in response to al-Jazeera's reporting of the US attack on the city of Fallujah, where alleged war crimes were taking place and where we know that weapons such as white phosphorus were used, then we might as well accept that the government of the day should be allowed to do whatever the hell it likes in secret, with no fear of whistleblowers exposing their actions. Both Nigel Sheinwald and the judge in his sentencing statement laughably claimed that the release of the memo could have "put lives at risk", when the only lives that were at risk were those of the al-Jazeera journalists doing their jobs.

The only real difference was that in the case of Keogh and O'Connor the officials who wanted the prosecution were prepared to testify, as was the prime minister's foreign policy advisor. With Pasquill, the embarrassment and vindictive nature of the trial was simply too much. It's also not the only trial upcoming under the OSA: Thomas Lund-Lack, who leaked a Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre report to the Sunday Times is also facing similar charges. The line between where investigative journalism and the public interest ends and justified government secrecy lies is an incredibly fine one, and it's not going to be decided through cases like this but through a review of the OSA itself, something that is long overdue.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008 

Blame the poor, blame the uneducated, blame the sick.

I sometimes wonder why I write a politics blog when I'm so disgusted and often turned off by the minutiae of the policies espoused by all of the political parties. I'm directly referring in this instance to the Tory proposals on welfare reform, more on which in a moment.

First though, it's the return of politics after the season where we mostly concern ourselves with the internal family equivalent. Old Gordie Brown has been having a thorough think during Winterval, as though he doesn't do that intensively every moment of the day anyway, and he decided that his prime ministership needed a relaunching after the accumulation of disasters that left him about as feted at the end of the year as Chris Langham crossed with the McCanns. (Speaking of which, perhaps he can relaunch his career by playing Robert Murat in the Maddie movie.) If there's one thing Brown knows about, it's tradition, so this relaunch looked much the same as his original charm offensive. Off he went to the Andrew Marr programme, talking of "fiscal arithmetic", promising to clamp-down on inflationary pay demands, whether they be from MPs themselves, the police or the angels, and how he's going to transform the NHS into a bastion of prevention from bad health rather than the source of it as it is now. It culminated with a similar interview in the Observer where he set out his stall on how he's going to save us from ourselves in this "dangerous" year. The solutions are 42 days, even though he's determined to find a compromise when there isn't one on such a fundamental matter of civil liberties, and ID cards, which despite the child benefit database debacle, won't be "compulsory", despite the legislation which has passed through the Commons confirming that they err, will be just that.

Next step in the fightback was the finding of a proper spin doctor. Served badly by his advisers from his days in the Treasury and by his cabal of "Young Turks" centred around Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband, he's called on the services of Stephen Carter, who just happens to be the chief executive of a PR firm. So much for all the jibes at Cameron about being in a similar but lower down position at the ITV regional broadcaster Carlton; now Brown needs just that sort of experience in his cabinet. Carter should in any case be used to being in charge of such a dysfunctional outfit as 10 Downing Street under Brown; he was head of NTL when it was nicknamed "NTHell" by its long-suffering customers, now under the yolk of Richard Branson in the similarly revamped Virgin Media. Most hilarious though were the remarks from the Tory Caroline Spelman about Brown bringing in another spin doctor rather than getting on with the job. That would be the same Conservative party that employs as its chief spin doctor the former editor of the News of the Screws, a man with about as much political knowledge as a fruit bat.

Spelman does have something of a wider point: this was the same Gordon Brown who standing in Downing Street last year faced by the world media talked of change as much as Lionheart talks about how evil Muslims are. For as long as he went on unscathed, regardless of attacks by patio gas canister jihadists, floods or foot and mouth, the status quo was acceptable. It was only once he departed for an opportunistic visit to Basra at the start of the Tory conference that everything started to fall apart. After all, while everything's going well, you don't need someone to distort the reality of what's happening for you. That was why the Labour reliance on Alastair Campbell and news management was so perplexing: when the majority of the media was so favourable to you, why did you need to be practicing the dark arts? Campbell's blithe explanation that he never wanted to see a Labour prime minister on the Sun front page on election day in a light bulb again is an excuse, not a reason. You can at least respect Brown's decision to employ one now, even if you can't accept it.

Brown's maneuvering on the NHS and with Carter though is nothing to the latest populist measures from the Tories dressed up in their compassionate clothing. The illusion under David Cameron has been that this is a changed party, one that isn't going to come out with reactionary nonsense about asylum islands again or ask whether we're thinking what they're thinking. Even while headbangers like David Davis remain in position but at least sensibly oppose extended detention for terrorist suspects, and they propose inheritance tax cuts while bribing the married middle classes, the emphasis has been on the touchy-feely environmental promises and just what a thoroughly nice bloke Dave is. This has worked when Labour has been woeful, but while Brown looked fresh in the summer it briefly fell apart. The support for the Tories isn't because they're trusted or look like they're ready to form a government, it's because they're not New Labour.

Whether their welfare reform proposals published today will change any minds remain to be seen. What is clear is that just like in the past, what first goes in the United States eventually winds its way over here. Quite where they're inspired from is contentious: some say Wisconsin, others say New York state. Whichever it is, neither can be a direct comparison with the benefit system currently in operation here, where our population vastly outnumbers that of both. As Chris points out, when you get down to the actual figures involved, despite them initially looking huge, they're far smaller than you're probably being led to believe.

First up is a reassessing of every single person on incapacity benefit, of which there are 2.64 million current claimants, by a doctor. As Labour has argued, this would be hugely expensive, incredibly time-consuming, a waste of resources and probably do next to nothing to actually bring the figure down. It has to be remembered that some of those on incapacity benefit have not worked for nigh on 20 years: the unlucky who found themselves out of work during the glorious Thatcherite revolution, shoved onto IB to bring down the unemployment figures. They're simply not going to work again, full stop, however uncomfortable that is for any political party but especially the Tories to admit. As has been pointed out, incapacity benefit is now in actual fact incredibly difficult to get on: a relative of mine who at one point was only given a few years' to live and has chronic back pain was refused. Those on it are overwhelmingly genuinely sick or unemployable; getting them off IB and onto jobseekers' allowance or even into employment will save the state either a whopping £22 a week or £200 a week. It sounds a lot, but in the scheme of things will make next to no difference to the Treasury coffers.

The changes to JA itself are no better. Those on it for 2 years will be expected to carry out "community work"; for which almost certainly read the removal of graffiti, picking up rubbish, maybe setting plants or general cleaning up. The Conservatives haven't explained how those already employed to do just that, or indeed those carrying out "community service" which often also involves just those things are going to be affected. When not cleaning up the trash, there'll be expected to be at "back-to-work" centres, where they'll be able to do everything apart from seemingly the training that politicians of all stripes think will be needed in the "knowledge" economy. These centres, to be run by the private or voluntary firms so en vogue with the Tories, will also be paid according to how many they either get back into work or off benefits when they refuse an "reasonable" job offer. As with much else of the plans, what a "reasonable" job offer will be isn't defined. Those who do so though will be more or less destitute or dependent on others, as they will first lose benefits for a month, then three months, then three years. Whether some will accept job offers then quit immediately or get themselves sacked so as not to lose benefit and how they will be dealt with also isn't considered.

The main reasons behind all of this are again explained well by Chris. Like him, I also think the biggest motivation behind it is the get tough strategy. So prevalent is the view that those on benefits are either skivers or scrounging, repeated endlessly in the tabloid press, that if you're told a lie enough you'll often start to believe. As with so much else, there are some who could work but who don't simply because they can. For the majority though, who desperately would like to work but who can't for a whole spectrum of different reasons, making their lives even more miserable seems to be a Conservative priority. David Cameron asks where the dignity is "in sitting at home, dependent on the state, not having a job?", but where also is the respect for those that can't? It takes something to make New Labour look humane and liberal, but the Tories have somehow managed it.

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Diana: She's still being buggered.

The Diana inquest has hardly gone to plan for Mohammed al-Fayed in his crusade against the British state for refusing him a passport, masked by the futile and pathetic attempts to prove that the death of his son and his contemporary girlfriend was a security services inspired conspiracy. The paparazzi have been proved to have been acting with the predictable contempt they have for those whose lives they try to ruin; al-Fayed's driver Henri Paul, in spite of some conflicting evidence, has been described as being drunk and having drank alcohol while also on prescription drugs; there has been no evidence presented whatsoever to substantiate claims she was pregnant; and the Duke of Edinburgh, who supposedly loathed Diana, has been shown through letters exchanged between the two to have been both sympathetic and affectionate towards her, with Diana even addressing him as "Dearest Pa".

There has been absolutely nothing to warrant or justify the huge cost of staging such an inquest into her death when previous reports by both the French themselves and latterly by Lord Stevens have considered all the available evidence and concluded that her death was the result of a tragic, ordinary car accident, nothing more. Despite this, it's provided the tabloids, especially the mid-market ones which for some reason have always been more besotted with Diana than the red-tops, with plenty of front-page leads with news which is years' old.

Both the Mail and the Express splash today on the evidence given yesterday by Grahame Harding that he found a suspected bugging device in the wall in Diana's bedroom in her Kensington Palace apartment two years' after her split from Charles, although he never actually extracted it and the "signal" from it disappeared within the day. Even if we immediately accept on face value that it was put there by MI5, it's hardly surprising, is it? Diana was quite possibly the most famous woman in Britain at the time, as well as a former royal; she would have been and was a target for every nutball in the country. As we now know, far less famous and laughably smalltime members of Trotskyist and communist groups were under constant surveillance by the state, their groups infiltrated and their every movement logged, whether they were the slightest threat to anything whatsoever or not. Even if this was scaled down after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it's only recently that the focus of MI5 has switched from political extremists of left and right and Irish paramilitaries towards Islamist radicals. There were doubtless contingency plans in place in case Diana found herself kidnapped or even, whisper it, an attempt was made on her life. Whether such surveillance is/was justifiable is one thing; that it took place and continues to do so is surely quite another.

Then there is of course the other possibility about who could have planted the bug. Have we forgotten so soon about Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire and their dilettantish efforts at "bugging" Prince William? What about "Squidgygate" and "Camillagate", where the source of the recordings of both has never been confirmed? The tabloids themselves had more than enough reasons to attempt to bug Diana: the sort of stuff that could be recorded in her bedroom would have been beyond their most wild liquid-soaked dreams. They'll never admit that they have used and will continue to use such subterfuge to get stories; the lack of coverage they gave to the revelations by the information commissioner last year after a raid on a private detective agency only confirms that.

Diana then continues to bugged or buggered, whichever you prefer, even in death by those who slandered her one day and made literate love to her the next.

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Monday, January 07, 2008 

It's the bishop! (of Rochester)

I didn't particularly want to write about the Bishop of Rochester and his "no-go areas". If you're writing for a national newspaper and make lurid claims that are bound to be controversial, the onus has to be on you to provide the proof which backs them up. He has absolutely none, at least none for his specific claim that it's Islamic extremism that is creating the "no-go areas" for those of a different faith or race. His main complaint, apart from attacking multiculturalism, is that some mosques are broadcasting the "Adhan", the call to prayer; in reality, as Inayat Bunglawala writes, the (very few) mosques which are doing so have to apply to the local council for permission and agree on the volume levels, and it's only taking place in areas where there are a large volume of local Muslims. Complaints are bound to made over such things, whether they involve church bells or the Adhan, and they're for the local communities to sort out.

No, rather what
Michael Nazir-Ali is really concerned about, quite apart from Islamic extremism, is the promoting of Christianity. It would be daft if he wasn't; it is after all his job. He's concerned, as others have been, that the supposed Christian base of the country has changed into a multi-faith one, as if this somehow happened by government edict, when it has actually occurred because of the apathetic relationship the majority in this country have with religion and the natural demographic changes of a capitalist nation state. We nominally describe ourselves as Christian, but hardly any of us actually partake in worship, or probably even really believe in God. We are Christian by tradition only, not by practice. In Nazir-Ali's view, both this and the arrival of immigrants bringing their own religions with them are an equal threat: he claims that the secularist approach is not "neutral", without explaining how or why. His major beef is with how "chapels and chaplaincies in places such as hospitals, prisons and institutions of further and higher education is in jeopardy either because of financial cuts or because the authorities want "multifaith" provision" without realising that it might not be anything to do with the authorities but actually the people themselves who want a representative of their own faith, and that the authorities are responding to that demand. Nazir-Ali's answer is that "Christian chaplains can arrange for people of other faiths to have access to their own spiritual leaders without compromising the Christian basis of their own ministry" which is just the sort of wishy-washy half-way measure which he condemns multiculturalism for being. He swings at the government's "agenda for integration and cohesion" for its lack of a "moral and spiritual vision." Why on earth would anything the government does have or need to have a "spiritual" vision?

As some have already identified, Nazir-Ali's complaint when stripped down isn't really religious but racial. If he had identified this as the problem rather than Islamic extremism then he might have been on to something. There are undoubtedly tensions and problems with communities becoming cut-off or "ghettoised", but this happens under all races, all religions and those of neither. It's only been a few years since the riots in the north where polarised communities were identified as the main factor; due to the various reasons when they first emigrated here, the first-wave of immigrants overwhelmingly chose to live together, whether in Leicester or Bradford for example, out of both protection and fear of the unknown, primary human emotions and completely understandable, which has continued since. Communities such as these become insulated, and some will of course argue that consecutive government policy has done little to nothing to alter this, but if anyone can identify when multiculturalism was adopted as actual doctrine instead of coming about spontaneously and evolving other time with the various needs, they're welcome to try. These communities overwhelmingly did not come together because of their shared faith, but because of their shared ethnicity. Religion came along with them at the same time, but was certainly not anywhere near as influential in their decision-making as common similarity was.

Some of these communities may indeed now be potential "no-go" areas for those not of the same background; there's anecdotal evidence turning up on legions of blogs and forums about low-level intimidation and unfriendliness, but this occurs in all communities and to all outsiders. Women might be insulted for not wearing the hijab in some areas, just as some are no doubt mocked and hurled abuse at in others for wearing one. Unfortunately, casual abuse on the street for looking "different" is a fact of life. Rachel wrote a post I remember from last year where she described how when wearing a headscarf the youths that had previously made lewd comments at her said nothing as she went by. Most of all though, we build our own barriers around certain places, based only on innuendo and reputation. In every city or large town there's a "rough" area which you're supposed to avoid at all costs. Most likely, if you walked through it on an average day you'd probably meet next to nobody and wonder what the fuss was about. We also know all too well about how town or city centres are meant to be "no-go" areas at weekends or in the evenings, either because of anti-social behaviour or binge drinking, or a mixture of the two. It's mostly media hype, but most will avoid them like the plague simply because of the impression they have of what it'll be like. In some cases, they might be right. In others, breathtakingly wrong.

The Bishop of Rochester is then undoubtedly scaremongering, and he was right to pulled up on it. His article is a partisan, even sectarian reaching for the supposed past glory that is as illusionary as ever. 30 years ago it would have been about race rather than religion, it's only in these days of universal terror threats, and concern about all those of brown skin who might just attend mosque about what they're being preached to, what they watch, and what they're planning to do that Islamic extremism is brought up as the latest bogeyman. There are undoubted problems with integration in some communities, and with the lack of belonging that the latest generation especially are experiencing. Some have turned to a perversion of politicised Islam, just like previous generations have turned to similar all-explaining ideologies. We were too lax on the extremist preachers that many suspect of having links with the security services, a nod and a wink that allowed them to do what they liked as long as Britain itself was not the target. Those days are thankfully over.

The reason I didn't particularly want to write this post was because I didn't think that Nazir-Ali didn't need any more of a response, or if there was any need to provide much of one in the first place. His article is, to be brutally honest, complete bollocks. When someone spouts complete bollocks, you can either attack it viciously or let it lie in its own filth. Nazir-Ali's claims ought to have been left to lie in their own feculence, but they came at a time where there isn't much news to come by, at the start of the new political season, and because they're inflammatory it means that the tabloids now have an excuse to jump in with their own prejudices. Like when Jack Straw opened his mouth about the niqab, which was a perfectly decent subject for debate, what has to be remembered is that much of the press doesn't abide by those same rules of contact. What happened was open season on Muslims in general, with the Express demanding that the veil be banned in the most visibly hostile move. Hence today we have the resurrection of that now infamous picture of the woman in the niqab flashing a v-sign, without the explanation that it was taken during last year's arrests over the "beheading" of a British soldier plot, when the community was quite entitled to feel under siege (how flashing a v-sign is anything other than quintessentially British is also laughable). The article it illustrates claims that the "reaction from the politically-correct establishment is an indicator of the weight of his case." On the contrary, the fact that the only person who endorsed his article was David Davis was an indicator of how wrong he was. The government itself failed to make any comment on the matter until today, when Hazel Blears, the minister you'd least want to respond put her head above the parapet. That she has no knowledge of any no-go areas isn't surprising; only last week there was a Grauniad article about how a man was forced from his home in her constituency because he had the temerity to accept Poles as lodgers. William Hague showed Tory disunity on the matter by disagreeing with David Davis and saying he didn't recognise the description either. The Scum only amplified the lack of any argument whatsoever behind its endorsing of Nazir-Ali's comments by saying that he's "no scaremonger". Or a fishmonger one would imagine.

The one disappointing thing about the response was that we still can't have a debate without immediate calls for someone to resign simply for expressing their opinion, even if it only appears to have come from the Ramadhan Foundation. It has to be remembered that the same Muslim leaders that have quite rightly disagreed with Nazir-Ali are still incredibly slow to condemn those within their own community, such as those featured on Undercover Mosque, when they express their own far more inflammatory views. That has to change, instead of finding excuses and other reasons to skirt around the real issue. When organisations such as Policy Exchange appear to embellish evidence they need to vigorously challenged, but so do those who were found to be propagating extremist material. We all need to get the balance right, and as yet, all sides have been unable to find it.

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Hands off Lionheart.

Both Tim and Anorak News link to Lionheart, a blogger threatened with stirring up racial hatred, presumably although not explained to him because of the highly anti-Muslim tone and rhetoric of his posting.

The slightest glance at his site will show that he and I don't exactly share the same views. Despite that, there is nothing on his site that should be in way deemed to be illegal; it's fairly run of the mill anti-jihadi anti-Muslim sentiment, with a local flavour based on happenings in and around Luton. If we can tolerate behaviour like that in the Dispatches Undercover Mosque documentary, we can quite easily deal with the other end of the scale. He is in any case only to be interviewed over the matter, has not yet been charged, nor is there any suggestion that he will be.

In any case, solidarity.

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Stacking up the bodies.

The Grauniad writes in a leader about nuclear disarmament:

Henry Kissinger is among those in America calling for a nuclear-free world. The planet was lucky nuclear weapons were not used in the cold war, he says.

Perhaps he's more concerned about how a nuclear exchange could affect the tally of deaths in the responsibility stakes. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed around 200,000; his involvement in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile and no doubt other wars brings his tally, even if indirectly, to around 5.2 million at the lowest estimate.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008 

Nothing left - Iraqis resort to selling children.

Abu Muhammad, a Baghdad resident, found it difficult to let go of his daughter's hand but he had already convinced himself that selling her to a family outside Iraq would provide her with a better future.

"The war disgraced my family. I lost relatives including my wife among thousands of victims of sectarian violence and was forced to sell my daughter to give my other children something to eat," he told Al Jazeera.


Omar Khalif, vice-president of the Iraqi Families Association, (IFA), a NGO established in 2004 to register cases of those missing and trafficked, said that at least two children are sold by their parents every week.

Another four are reported missing every week.

He said: "[The] Numbers are alarming. There is an increase of 20 per cent in the reported cases of missing children compared to last year."

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Friday, January 04, 2008 

The darkening of democracy.

Even before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the apparent stealing of the Kenyan elections by Mwai Kibaki, resulting in violence which has left 300 dead and displaced 180,000, the omens for democracy in 2008 were looking ominous. Time magazine, never the most astute judge of character, having previously chosen Hitler, Stalin, the American soldier (perhaps would have been justified post-WW2; not after Korea or Iraq) and "you", as in the individual in the information age as the person of the year, bizarrely decided that Vladimir Putin, having started the year belligerently fusillading against the west as if the cold war hadn't ended while finishing it by interfering in elections which he would have won anyway was worthy of the title. Elections in Nigeria and Uzbekistan were similarly denounced as flawed and rigged, while only the shock, marginal defeat of Hugo Chavez's proposed constitutional reforms in Venezuela emphasised the power and justice of the least worst system of government of the lot.

Pakistan and Kenya's problems seem on one level to be intertwined. The elections in Pakistan were postponed to February the 18th on the back of the torching of electoral lists and facilities that would have been used in the vote, although one is also mindful of the Pakistani states' interest in hoping that the sympathy towards Bhutto likely to manifest itself in support for her Pakistan's Peoples Party will evaporate over time; in Kenya meanwhile, independent recounts and confirmation of the vote have been made impossible by the rioting which included the destruction of polling stations which still contained the ballot papers. A week after the vote, only now is Kibaki apparently offering a re-run of the election, and even then only if a court orders it, something which would never have been necessary had he and his party not so contemptuously ordered the election co-ordinator to announce the results before he was even certain of them, and then swiftly had themselves sworn back in. Both countries are also frayed on ethnic and tribal lines, Bhutto's supporters from the Sindh denouncing the Punjab at her funeral, while the faults in Kenya have become only too apparent in the aftermath of the burning of the Pentecostal church in Eldoret, carried out by members of the Kalenjin tribe, supporters of the opposition leader Raila Odinga, against the Kikuyu, the tribe to whom Kibaki belongs.

It is however far too easy to slip into hyperbole and exaggeration about the situation in both countries. The BBC's coverage of the fallout following the elections in Kenya, for some reason sending Ben Brown to present short segments from Nairobi, pieces more than saturated with the notion of making the worst out of what has happened so far, seems out of all proportion with what has actually occurred. When the politicians themselves are talking about genocide and ethnic cleansing with all seriousness, when what has actually took place so far have been random acts of savagery committed by those who are always looking to take advantage of such short crises, it encourages the fear and paranoia that has apparently left 500,000 needing immediate help. Before even the torching of the church had took place newscasters were breathlessly murmuring the magic terms, "civil war", just as they had just after Bhutto was murdered, despite her death only leading to understandable rioting and little more. Even less realistic has been the doom-mongering emanating from America about the possibility of the mullahs getting their hands within reach of Pakistan's nuclear trigger, despite the Islamist parties never previously receiving more than 10% of the vote and the conflict in the Afghan border region showing no signs of no spreading, the odd suicide bombing usually targeting the military or not.

The current dip of faith in democracy worldwide can't be written off as one of those blips that occur from time to time. While subverting the vote goes all the way back to the rotten borough, it was the hanging chads of 2000 that showed you can steal an election and get away with it. After all, if you can do it in the greatest democracy in the world, who the hell's going to care when the brutal dictator of a former Soviet state quite clearly breaks every rule going? While Simon Jenkins flails about a little in why we can't ourselves say much, it's an indictment of both own politics when only 22% of the electorate vote for a party which then gets a 60-seat plus majority on such a meagre share of the vote. The irony of the Bush administration's original rhaspodising about the very democracy that had favoured its opponents was only followed by hypocrisy when the wrong people won in the elections forced in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood candidates, although standing as independents, gaining a large number of seats, whilst in the occupied territories Hamas surged to a huge victory over the corrupt Fatah, earning them a boycott still in place for their refusal to compromise with the demands of the international community which says nothing about Israel's continued breaching of UN resolutions and building of settlements in the West Bank, even if Ehud Olmert pays lip service to the road map. The quiet abandoning of the democracy project afterwards was inevitable.

Some solipsists claim that democracy is vital because they don't tend to go to war, or go to war against one another. The west though has only ever been supportive of democracy when it gives a result which is to its liking; from Chile in 1973 to Palestine in 2006, and now Pakistan and Kenya, with America's plans ruined with Bhutto's assassination, and its original welcoming of the result in Kenya, likely because of its support for the "war on terror", only to later embarrassingly withdraw it, democracy is only ever a means to an end. While to those on the ground who find themselves in the thick of it, where it really can be a matter of life and death, we haven't far moved on from the days of putting up with a son of a bitch as long as he was our son of a bitch. Whether this century goes towards Putin's model of managed, illusionary, autocratic democracy or back to its true, localised and liberating form isn't likely in our hands, but in those who still wield the ultimate power of deciding what is righteous and what is against our interests.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008 

And so it begins.

If there's a counter-argument to fixed-term parliaments, as proposed across the political spectrum after Gordon Brown's outbreak of Grand Old Duke of York syndrome, it has to be how a second-term president in the United States oscillates between the two pillars of being free to do whatever he wants or becoming a lame duck. While George Bush's decline in power, if not support has been grossly exaggerated, the re-election of the sitting president now looks to be creating a four-year presidential candidate campaign cycle. That wouldn't be so bad if either the Democrat or Republican campaigns had shown signs of flickering into life, but neither have. The initial excitement around Barack Obama has subsided, while the only Republican to generate genuine fervoured support has been Ron Paul. To quote Dave Barry:

It was a year that strode boldly into the stall of human events and took a wide stance astride the porcelain bowl of history. It was a year in which roughly 17,000 leading presidential contenders, plus, of course, Dennis Kucinich, held roughly 63,000 debates, during which they spewed out roughly 153 trillion words; and yet the only truly memorable phrase emitted in any political context was, "Don't tase me, bro!"

It's hard to disagree with that. The Iowan caucus, taking place tonight, means at least a temporary halt to the debates and also the end of the phony war for some of the candidates who fail to get into the top three places.

The Republican race is the one that is still most certainly undecided. While there are only three realistic Democratic candidates, the Republican base in Iowa, 60% of which is estimated to be of the evangelical Christian variety, has a veritable pizza menu of choice, as long as you like an entirely male field, all of whom profess to believe in God and deny evolution, are opposed to a woman's right to choose and feel similarly about gay marriage, although some are favourable towards our civil union type model. You expect that from the likes of Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher who has described abortion as a "holocaust", supports insanely right-wing craziness like the oxymoronic FairTax and denied Medicaid to a 15-year-old with learning difficulties raped by her stepfather; Mitt Romney, a Mormon who in an attempt to woo the Christian right made clear he had a problem with those who don't believe in God; the laughing stock that is Fred Thompson and the opportunist policy shifter Rudy Guilani.

You don't however from the suppoused libertarian Ron Paul, whose noisy supporters have been clogging up message boards and irritating everyone else now for months. His only real quality is his opposition to "war on terror" as it's currently being fought, as one of the only Republicans to have opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. He then takes his non-interventionist policy to ludicrous extremes: advocating US withdrawal from the UN, for example. His supporters' talk of how he's the only candidate espousing freedom; what Paul actually supports is fundamentalist, selfish individualism, which is something completely different. An actual libertarian would defend to the death a woman's right to choose and gay marriage, both of which are examples of the state interfering with a person's personal freedom where they're not harming anyone else. Instead, Paul supports the exact opposite: allowing the concealed carrying of guns for self-defense. He doesn't despite such over the top devotion have a chance, likely to come fifth or lower in today's caucus, but it'll be interesting to see if he runs as either an independent or the Libertarian candidate, where he'd have the potential to do a Ralph Nader and split the Republican vote.

John McCain is the only other Republican candidate that anyone on the left would even consider supporting if it came to it, in spite of his number of reactionary positions such as the above. He's the only one other than Paul to oppose to torture in all its guises, even if he blots his copy book with his hawkish views on both Iraq and Iran. His recent co-sponsoring of the bill on illegal immigration, probably the most heated issue enveloping the Republican campaign, shows his refusal to conform either to the ideological Republican base or to the prejudices of the right, and his significant ability to reach out to the Democratic leaning voter. If the worst came to the worst, McCain couldn't possibly be any worse than Bush.

The Democrat campaign, as disappointing as it has been, has at least attempted to deal with the primary concerns of ordinary Americans: health care and the Iraq war. All of the top three, Clinton, Obama and John Edwards support some kind of universal system, the first time that mainstream politicians have come to recognise that the insurance system with Medicaid for the desperately poor is a scar on the nation's conscience. Naturally, none is suggesting an American NHS: "socialised" medicine is almost as dirty as a concept as socialism itself, but it's the first sign that the United States is looking towards Europe or Canada rather than continuing to stare at its navel.

Iraq is and has been far more tricky. Hillary Clinton, as Michael Moore has wrote, has not just supported the Iraq war from the very beginning, she's done everything that's been asked of her when it's come to funding or otherwise. Her continuing belligerence towards Iran, despite the NIE report and her polarising manner ought to rule her out as the presidential candidate altogether. Does anyone really want the most powerful position in the world to begin to resemble a dynasty instead? Please spare us from a 20 year long reign of Bushes and Clintons.

That leaves us with Barack Obama and John Edwards. As inspirational as Obama originally was, and as charismatic as he continues to be, it's difficult to know either whether he has enough experience, or, sadly, whether America is ready for a black man to be president. He has to his credit always opposed the Iraq war, although he was only elected to Congress in 2004 and so didn't vote on the matter, which would have been the ultimate question of his position. He would be the break in convention and perhaps with the past that America desperately needs, even if it doesn't recognise it at the moment. Whether he would be up to that job is also uncertain.

John Edwards, leaving aside his $400 haircuts, has dared to tread in places where those before him would have quailed. He's not only not accepted corporate money towards his campaign, he's also made clear that he is willing to take on poverty and support the emasculated US unions, fighting those same corporate interests if it demands it. Again, the main question is whether he means it: his past record suggests he does, but as the third candidate in the Democratic nomination he's had to look for a different, defining message. The case against is that as a lawyer he's acted for those same hedge funds currently gobbling up so many companies in private equity deals. On Iraq, he's the only candidate to say that within a year of taking office that the troops would be withdrawn; a highly ambitious target.

Whether Democrats should unite around Obama or Edwards will becoming clearer after tonight. The opinion polls suggest that all three are neck-and-neck; victory for Obama or Edwards will be an immense boost. The dream-ticket might be the eventual winner with runner-up as the vice-presidential candidate. Never before have the 2.9 million population of a tiny American state had so much potential influence over something that will undoubtedly change the way the next five years pan out the world over.

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Scum-watch: Gormless idiocy over Network Rail.

Startlingly fact free garbage in today's Scum says:

Brutish Rail

WHEN John Prescott renationalised the railways, he promised a superb new integrated transport service. We assumed he meant clean, affordable, punctual trains.

What on earth is the Sun talking about? The railways have most certainly not been "renationalised"; only Railtrack, which owned the lines and the stations, not the trains, was taken back "in house" with the creation of Network Rail. Secondly, it was also nothing to do with John Prescott: it was the work of Stephen Byers, then transport secretary.

Billions of pounds later, passengers travel in shabby squalor, plagued by delays and cancellations or are left high and dry as networks close down for days at a stretch.

And to add insult to injury, we are paying through the nose for the privilege in ever higher fares.

The former of which is the work of the private franchisees, not Network Rail. The government only has control over how much the saver tickets can be raised by, not the peak-time singles.

Thanks again, John.

Thanks again to the Tories and the insanity of privatising the railways in the first place. If I was conspiratorially minded, I wonder if the Scum is blaming John Prescott rather than Byers because of its sympathy towards his Blairite politics. I'm more inclined to believe however that whichever idiot wrote this leader column simply doesn't have a clue.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008 

The most idiotic newspaper in Britain.

Some of us are more inclined to believe the most idiotic police chief in Britain is the delusional murderer in charge of the Met.

January the 2nd. The day the nation returns to work and the gloom descends for an inordinate amount of time. For the tabloid newspapers, with there being little actual news to report from New Year's Day, there's always easy stories to cover: the Scum going for the obvious in covering the fallout from the night before last; the Express moralising in a similar fashion about "Binge Britain's night of shame", while illustrating the event with a photograph of a number of women wearing white shorts and little else. God forbid that anyone go out and attempt to enjoy themselves once a year.

The Mail meanwhile had another target in its sights: Richard Brunstrom, chief constable of north Wales police, denounced as the head of the "traffic Taliban" and a known critic of the failures of drug prohibition had been on the Today programme and been making his views clear. From this, the Mail has conjured up "outrage" and is demanding his head on a platter.

Notorious chief constable Richard Brunstrom is facing demands to resign after publicly claiming that the illegal rave drug ecstasy is safer than aspirin.

In his latest bizarre proclamation, he insisted that the drug - which claims almost 50 lives a year - was a "remarkably safe substance".

And he went on to dismiss what he called "scaremongering" over the dangers, while predicting that all drugs would be legalised within ten years.

In the Mail's parlance, a bizarre proclamation appears to be repeating an established fact. Despite the 90s moral panic, led by the Mail about the dangers of ecstasy, MDMA itself is indeed remarkably safe. The main dangers of taking MDMA are not from the drug itself but what the individual does during/after taking it. The majority of deaths after someone has taken MDMA are caused either by dehydration and overheating, by not taking on enough fluids while dancing, or by the exact opposite, by drinking too much water, which can lead to hyponatremia or water intoxication. Water intoxication is what killed Leah Betts, the most well known "Ecstasy victim", not the MDMA which she consumed.

The other major safety concern about Ecstasy is its purity. The tablets are routinely "cut" with other substances, and while only very rarely have these other substances been innately dangerous, they can contain other stimulants, which have their own effects and dangers. The biggest question about the safety of MDMA is not its immediate effects, but the side-effects in the long term. Because MDMA only came into wide mainstream use in the late 1980s, these are still relatively unknown, but studies have raised concerns about depression, especially due to how MDMA affects serotonin levels, and memory loss.

Where Brunstorm has exaggerated and stretched the facts is in comparing the drug to aspirin. It's not a good comparison for the simple reason that aspirin isn't a recreational drug, unless you're permanently popping painkillers. While aspirin can be used in suicide attempts, it's still not a good comparison because so can almost anything else. He is however quite right that research has found that MDMA is safer in terms of potential harm than both alcohol and tobacco. While he might not be quite right in stating that government research has found MDMA to be safer than both, where he appears to be referring to the findings of the Science and Technology committee report in 2006 (PDF, page 176) the recent attempt by a number of drug experts to create a rational scale to assess the harm posed by the misuse of drugs ranked MDMA as 18th most dangerous of the 20 substances examined, with only alkyl nitrates and khat below it. Heroin was the most dangerous, while cocaine, which isn't ranked in terms of crack and powder, was second, with barbiturates third. Alcohol was 5th and tobacco 9th. Cannabis was 11th.

The Daily Mail however has never been a newspaper to let the facts get in the way of its apoplexy. It got straight on the blower to the bereaved in order to get them to condemn the most idiotic policeman in Britain:

Des Delaney, whose 18-year-old daughter Siobhan was killed by a single pill at a nightclub two years ago, said Mr Brunstrom "should go and stand by my daughter's grave every week and see how he feels".

Mr Delaney appears to be projecting his grief and maybe even his guilt. How Brunstrom's comments affect his daughter's death in any way appears to be unclear: are the police meant to have stopped her from purchasing the tablet which apparently killed her? How is Brunstrom, arguing as he is for an end to prohibition, doing anything other than giving his own point of view?

Recent figures show that between 1999 and 2004, UK deaths from ecstasy, a Class A illegal drug, rose from 26 to 48 per year - putting them roughly on a par with fatalities from cocaine.

Cocaine though, unlike MDMA, is a highly addictive drug, and while it is mostly only dangerous in the short-term through the strain it places on the heart, the long-term side effects are legion and well-documented.

And campaigners said his comparison was "absurd", since aspirin is taken for medical reasons and also saves countless lives, whereas ecstasy is illegal and is taken for kicks.

What does MDMA's illegality have to do with it? That gives an insight into the campaigners the Mail has contacted to comment, who are concerned only with prohibition and not examining what works and what doesn't.

Mary Brett, UK spokesman for the Europe Against Drugs campaign group, said: "This was an extremely stupid and irresponsible comment. Aspirin is taken as medication to help people get better. Ecstasy is taken to upset the chemical balance of the brain deliberately.

Ah yes, that's exactly what those taking MDMA are doing. "Have you got any E's mate, I'm looking to upset the chemical balance of my brain deliberately so as to get a proper buzz on?" Europe Against Drugs is currently campaigning for magic mushrooms, an incredibly safe hallucinogen not even featured on the Lancet's harm graph to be banned in the Netherlands, which ought to tell you all you need to know about their positioning.

Richard Brunstrom is supposed to be a figure of authority and responsibility, respected by young people, and he's sending out a very dangerous message.

Indeed. The young have always respected the police.

Peter Stoker of the National Drugs Prevention Alliance said: "Mr Brunstrom should resign. His comments are increasingly incompatible with his position.

"Danger from an illegal drug isn't just a question of how poisonous it is in the short term - although any dose of ecstasy can kill - it includes the damaging behaviour which people are sucked into, and the harm it does to those around them, particularly their families."

Now this is dangerous and irresponsible commenting. MDMA itself very rarely if ever kills, it's the other actions that kill. Stoker is also trying to suggest that MDMA causes damaging behaviour, and unless you include overfriendliness and gurning to be damaging, this is clearly nonsense. MDMA is not heroin or crack, and trying to suggest it is or even that it's an stepping-stone to "harder" drugs is specious reasoning.

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "If you strike the attitudes taken by this particular chief constable, if you thoughtlessly downgrade cannabis, if you treat dangerous drugs as 'no worse than aspirin', you make a gift to the drug dealers and criminals who are destroying the lives of so many young people."

David Davis really doesn't get it, does he? Brunstrom's very reasoning is that prohibition has failed because of those very same drug dealers and criminals "who are destroying the lives of so many young people". Their illegality does nothing to stop their spread whilst also criminalising those who find themselves sucked into cycles of addiction and dependence. The continued prescribing of methadone when prescribing heroin itself is both safer and found to be more effective in helping addicts quit, which Brunstrom has also argued for, is similarly based on such reasoning. Davis and the Conservatives have railed against the reclassification of cannabis at Class C yet have completely ignored the evidence which suggests that consumption has dropped as a result.

Both the Mail's and the Conservatives' position is based around the doctrine that the best prevention is blanket prohibition, which is also in their eyes morally justifiable. Both refuse to so much as countenance the view that drugs need to be measured by the harm they do cause rather than the harm they can cause, as the paper published in the Lancet set out to do. After all, who better to talk about the dangers of drugs than journalists for the middle-classes, both known for their copious intake of Colombian marching powder or wanker fuel, while the Tories are lead by a man who refuses to talk about his past drug taking as a private matter, with a shadow chancellor notorious for his past snorting habit. At least Labour ministers admitted to having sampled cannabis, even if they then told today's youth not to give into the temptations they did. Through the manufactured newspaper outrage and the political opportunism based on prejudices rather evidence and research, drug policy in this country remains trapped in the same rut since the passing of the Misuse of Drugs Act. That in itself will lead to more deaths and damage over time than MDMA ever will.

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