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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