Friday, February 29, 2008 

Political correctness goes back to school.

You can always rely on the Sun to pick out the most important parts of the various documents it chooses to report on. "Kid flag ban by PC teachers" it screams, referring to a research document published by the government on Childhood Wellbeing.

It took me a while to track down the actual report, but I did finally find it on the dedicated research website for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (PDF). This is a 78 page document, presumably commissioned in the aftermath of the damning UNICEF report which found childhood wellbeing in the UK as the worst in Europe. The section where it discusses political correctness is on the key issues undermining a good/content childhood, and is the sixth out of eight entries. The entirety of the research is presented as is; exactly what the parents they interviewed said is provided, and it isn't questioned or investigated further to actually find whether it's true or not.

Hence the first half of the political correctness section is mainly on complaints that the latest group of immigrants are getting the most help, a familiar complaint and one that doesn't really have much evidence to support it. It also explains that claims of racism come from all sides, whether white or from established ethnic minority communities. They also seem united though in denouncing the latest to arrive, this being one of the choice quotes the document provides:

“If people from [a country cited] bring their fights here we’ve no hope. There was that story in the papers about someone from [one European country] stabbing someone from ... I think it was [another European country] (Mothers, 35-45, eldest child in KS 3/4, C2D(E), Worcester Pk)

Not that all of them do rely on the tabloids for their views, as the opening says that most who talked to them opened their conversations with the statement, "I don't want to sound like the front page of the Daily Mail but...". This is the part about the banning of the flag, which the Sun does quote reasonably accurately:

Many of the groups, both upmarket and downmarket, those who contained only white English, and those who contained BMEs, felt that it was not longer permitted to be proud to be English. There were many stories told of how their children had been sent home for wearing clothing containing the Cross of St George, or being reprimanded for having a English flag on their van. The general perception amongst respondents (parents and carers in particular) was that it was no longer acceptable to be proud to be English.

“[His employer] had a go at me and made me take it in, during the World Cup, I ask you. Every single other nation was proud to be flying their flag, and they made us take ours down. What does that tell you about England nowadays?” (Father, Family Depth, eldest child in KS3, Ripley)

It doesn't then suggest that the flag being "banned" had anything to do with political correctness on the part of teachers. Indeed, it's probably quite possible that those that were sent home for wearing the flag were because they were breaching the school's code on uniform, however unfair or stupid that seems when they're only supporting their country and national football competitions happen every 2 years. The quote the report uses isn't even about a school reprimanding someone for flying a flag from his van; it was his employer who objected, meaning the Sun's claim that schools were discipling children simply for being dropped off in vehicles flying the flag is utter nonsense.

As is often the case, the more interesting parts of the document are the ones that aren't instant hackle-raisers. The last part of the "political correctness" section deals with the complaints of parents whose children, for various reasons, had failed to excel in the academic subjects, but who felt their children were being held back because sports days had been reduced to non-competitive events and that drama, dance and music classes were ruined because everyone, regardless of ability, had to be involved. Not of all this is either down to political correctness or the familiar complaints of health 'n' safety, but this is of far more importance than whether your child can wear the England flag or not during the World Cup. This is children's lives, and their future, and it's ignored by a sensationalist press more interested in pressing the reactionary buttons. Similarly, the next section, neatly headlined 'It's our culture, we don't like children' is damning of how children are stigmatised and made to feel like second class citizens simply for existing, with families being dismissed also. Presumably the Sun didn't feel the need to mention this because of its constant demonisation of all youth as either yobs or potential yobs.

Fact is, these reports are used by all sides to confirm their own prejudices. Our children are being ruled over by politically correct lunatics! You can't be proud to be English any more! Our kids are the most materialistic ever! And so on. They can only be ever viewed as a snapshot, a simulacrum, and acted upon accordingly, but that makes no difference to the press with their file to copy and the editor screaming down their neck. It's getting the proper perspective that as ever remains so difficult.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008 

The BBFC murders Murder Set Pieces.

The British Board of Film Classification, after having remarkably reformed itself over the last few years from its bad old days under James Ferman, appears to have hit a wall constructed by the very same forces that initially sparked the moral panic over video nasties. First the video game Manhunt 2 was banned, ostensibly because of its "unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone" as well as its "casual sadism", but certainly not without a campaign in the press and allegations that the first Manhunt had prompted a murder, something denied by both the judge and the police, also being taken into consideration.

Now in the aftermath of a new furore over the BBFC giving an 18 certificate to the former video nasty SS Experiment Camp, something which the media only took 18 months to notice, as well as a private members bill being introduced by Tory MP Julian Brazier, a bill that would in effect introduce state censorship, the BBFC have banned the first major film ("documentaries" such as Bumfights and Traces of Death, DVD extras and BSDM porn have been banned more recently) since Women in Cellblock 9 was rejected back in 2004.

Murder Set Pieces, directed by Nick Palumbo and submitted to the BBFC by TLA Releasing is a fairly a-typical slasher cum serial-killer flick, made independently for around $2,000,000, and features a number of well-known horror veterans, including Tony Todd and Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface in the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre). While I haven't seen it, and most of the reviews of the film have been fairly critical, it seems little different from other films that have been passed uncut by the BBFC. Its main tone appears to be that it's unrelenting and highly misogynistic, with the major point of controversy that it features the killer pondering whether to murder a small child, who then releases her, with her going over and hugging her already dead mother.

Even so, it doesn't seem to have been the involvement of children in the film that so challenged the BBFC, but rather the level of the violence and what the depiction of it "portrays or encourages", something that since its 2000 consultation which established comprehensively that adults didn't want to be told what to watch at 18 outside of the concerns about sexual violence has previously not resulted in cuts, let alone a rejection.

The BBFC's long-winded justification is convoluted, difficult to understand and downright unclear:
MURDER SET PIECES is a US made feature focussing on the activities of a psychopathic sexual serial killer, who, throughout the film, is seen raping, torturing and murdering his victims. There is a clear focus on sex or sexual behaviour accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury and humiliation. Young children are among those terrorised and killed.

In making a decision as to whether a video work is suitable for classification, the Board applies the criteria set out in its current Classification Guidelines, published in 2005. These are the result of an extensive process of public consultation and research and reflect the balance of media effects research, the requirements of UK law and the attitudes of the UK public. The Board’s Guidelines clearly set out the Board’s serious concerns about the portrayal of violence, most especially when the violence is sexual or sexualised, but also when depictions portray or encourage: callousness towards victims, aggressive attitudes, or taking pleasure in pain or humiliation.

The Guidelines for the ‘18’ category requested for this video work state that such concerns 'will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment' but make clear that exceptions to this general rule may be made in certain areas, including 'where material or treatment appears to the Board to risk harm to individuals or, through their behaviour, to society – eg any detailed portrayal of violent or dangerous acts… [and that the Board] may intervene with portrayals of sexual violence which might, eg eroticise or endorse sexual assault'. Under the heading of 'Rejects', the Guidelines identify as of particular concern 'graphic rape or torture', 'portrayals of children in a sexualised or abusive context' and 'sex accompanied by non-consensual pain, injury or humiliation'.

The Board’s position that scenes of violence with the potential to trigger sexual arousal may encourage a harmful association between violence and sexual gratification is reflected in research and consistent with public opinion. It is the Board’s carefully considered view that to issue a certificate to MURDER-SET-PIECES, even if statutorily confined to adults, would involve risk of harm within the terms of the Video Recordings Act 1984, would be inconsistent with the Board’s Guidelines, and would be unacceptable to the public.

The Board considered whether the issue could be dealt with through cuts. However, given the unacceptable content features throughout, and that what remains is essentially preparatory and set-up material for the unacceptable scenes, cuts are not a viable option in this case and the work is therefore refused a classification.

They then therefore seem to be hedging their bets, mentioning everything against the guidelines and not making obvious what it is that so worried them about the film. Is it the sexual violence? Is it the overall tone? Is it worry over the callousness? Or is it violence that the BBFC thinks has the potential to trigger sexual arousal and therefore "harm"? Maybe it's all four; maybe it's none of the above and they're deeply worried about adding fuel to the fire of Brazier's bill, not to mention press reaction to the latest depraved and corrupt atrocity on DVD.
The BBFC's press release is little clearer; it emphasises the "sexual violence" and also says that due to the involvement of children states that if appealed the BBFC would have to consider whether it potentially breaches the Protection of Children Act, although seeing as the child appearing in the film's parents were in the room when it was filmed that seems doubtful.

The reason why this is so worrying is that it's the first film in a long while to be made recently to be banned, especially when you consider that it's a long while since any such "mainstream" film made recently was even cut; the last was
Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer, cut for sexual violence back in 2002. Murder Set Pieces, despite its independent origins, has been picked up for distribution in the United States by Lions Gate Films, although it was heavily cut by the MPAA to avoid a NC-17 rating. The majority of films outside of pornography now cut by the BBFC are generally 70s/80s exploitation and due to their sexual violence content.

It's also dubious because of how many other brutal and unrelenting films have been passed uncut recently: the Saw series for example after the original are little more than one long connected collection of gore sequences, with the deaths apparently worked out before the plot is; the recent remake of Halloween, a incredibly poor film, seriously ups the ante in terms of brutality and in its callous tone, while the
previous work by its director almost made heroes out of its murderers; other serial-killer flicks such as Henry and The Last Horror Movie work on similar terms to Murder Set Pieces, are far better films and have been passed uncut; and then there's even the latest addition to the Rambo series, which packs 269 kills into 90 minutes, working out at 2.59 people dying for every minute of screen time, all without the BBFC so much as batting an eyelid. Perhaps it's because they're worried Sly himself might storm into their offices.

I might of course be entirely wrong about the Brazier plan having any influence; the howls of outrage over SS Experiment Camp might have completely and rightly ignored; and the BBFC might not have taken into consideration the recent outcry about the series of horrifically violent murders by Wright, Dixie and Bellfield, as Murder Set Pieces was always likely to have trouble, and probably end up at least being cut. As with Manhunt 2 however, it increasingly appears that the BBFC is taking the cries of a few in the gutter press and in the unreconstructed wing of the Tory party (as well as the new head of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, who Brazier's bill would put in control of vetting the appointments of the BBFC's board) more seriously than it actually ever did. Even James Ferman, when attacked viciously in the Mail after he passed
Crash uncut, never gave in or directly pandered to newspaper opinion. He was vigorously independent to the extent that films he personally disliked remained banned for decades, but at least he could be held directly accountable for that, rather than the organisation as a whole or outside influences being responsible.

In an ideal world, the BBFC would lose its few remaining powers of censorship and instead act merely as a classifying body, but due to the history of this country that's about as likely as Jon Gaunt losing weight. The Brazier bill, which even though it doesn't have a chance of becoming law, still needs to be resisted with every breath. We've made great progress from the dark old days when something like 20% of 18 rated films were being cut, and for that to be brought to an end exactly when the internet is close to making organisations like the BBFC obsolete is far more obscene than anything contained in Murder Set Pieces. Adults simply have the right to chose what they watch - end of. The BBFC needs to increasingly recognise that is the mood of the public, not yet more futile acts of cutting and banning in order to "protect" either the vulnerable or children.

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Scum-watch: Maddieballs returns and so do the immigrants eating our swans.

Just when you think it's safe to look at a tabloid newspaper again, Maddieballs emerges from out of nowhere! This might well be the most pointless, potentially slanderous article to have appeared in the Scum for some time:

A TAXI driver claimed yesterday that Madeleine McCann was in his cab the night she vanished — with suspect Robert Murat.

Antonio Cardoso, 67, insisted he took the little girl and four adults on a short journey to a hotel where they all switched to a Jeep with foreign plates.

And he said of Murat, who was named by Portuguese police as the first suspect or “arguido” in the case: “I later recognised him on television. I am sure it was him."

Damning, isn't it? There's just one problem with this story:

Last night Maddie’s parents Kate and Gerry, both 39, were in shock over Cardoso’s claims but rejected them as “entirely wrong” because of timing inconsistencies.

Yep, that's right, it's complete and utter bullshit, as the taxi driver claims he had Murat and Madeleine in his cab before Madeleine had actually gone missing. For perhaps any other journalist or newspaper, this would have meant that there wasn't a story, that the guy is a crank and that it should never have gone before the first draft stage. Not in the Sun though, where the story continues for another 350 words, giving the space to the driver's story even though it's completely and utterly wrong. This story was featured on the front page - while Shannon Matthews is still missing and getting hardly any of the same attention still given to Madeleine.

Similar journalistic skill was involved in the headlining of the report of trial of Thomas Hughes for the murder of Krystal Hart. Hart just happened to be blonde, 22 and as the Scum headline says, "pretty". Presumably if she'd instead been 55 and slightly wrinkled the paper would have put that in the headline and also given it the same amount of space.

Meanwhile, the Sun has resurrected the most hoary of old tales, that of asylum seekers and immigrants cooking and eating our swans. While there have been a couple of cases that have reached court, the Sun on this occasion actually seems to have acquired something approaching "evidence" that swans have been eaten, or at least killed; the story features photographs of what certainly looks like a swan carcass, although this doesn't tally with the "piles of swan carcasses" the article describes, or "pile of swan wings piled" it also mentions. As both Enemies of Reason and 5cc point out, there's no evidence, despite the fact that there were individuals apparently camped out there that it was the work of immigrants, unless you're willing to jump straight to conclusions. The Sun leader column notably doesn't say it's the work of immigrants, merely "vagrants". It does however say this:

The Sun first revealed in 2003 how the graceful birds were being butchered and barbecued by migrants living rough.

This would presumably be the same story which the Sun had to clarify after an investigation showed that large parts of the story, if not all of it, were completely bogus.

Elsewhere, David Wilson, presumably the same David Wilson who wrote this tosh in the Grauniad last weekend on the murders in Ipswich, writes a suitably vague and lacking in any real insight whatsoever piece for the Sun today on Mark Dixie, Steve Wright and Levi Bellfield. Among his thoughts are:

The seemingly “normal” facts about their lives — that they could drive and hold down a job — are exactly the things that helped them to become successful killers.

The three men were all able to maintain sexual relationships with women and have children.

However, all three had multiple relationships.

Part of their anger at women seems to have come from the fact these came to an end.


You will often find that there is evidence of a minor sexual offence in the personal histories of serial killers.

If you wanted to be really cliched you could also say that they might have tortured or killed animals in their childhood, but no one seems to have looked that far back as yet.

Oh, and finally, there's yet another fake photograph of a UFO which various "experts" jizz over.

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Soldier goes to war shock caption competition!

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008 

How to lose the war on drugs.

On one level, you have to admire the ambition of New Labour. Not even communist China or Stalinist Russia attempted 10-year-plans; they were rank amateurs compared to the bureaucrats and civil servants behind the scenes given the horrendous task of drawing up 10-year-plans on such various areas of government as transport, children or today's latest on drugs.

Perhaps even Trotsky, the proponent of permanent revolution, would have balked at the prospect of a never-ending war, especially one on such a widely defined and ill-drawn category of substances as drugs. New Labour though, partly down to its now close to 11 years in power, has discovered the optimum way to ensure that you can continue with such a preposterous, ignorant and populist set of policies. Despite Blair's leaving of the scene, Brown and his press team have stolen his clothes superbly well. Blair learned that the best way to brief the press on what your latest policy wheeze is is to release the most draconian, ill-thought out and unworkable part of the plan, which will naturally appeal to the headbangers and suitably piss off the remaining soft rump of the Labour left, and then more quietly let the actual document itself, not usually as controversial and therefore not newsworthy, out a couple days of later.

Hence we've had the morning newspapers screaming at us of how those on benefits who refuse to attend treatment for their drug problems will have their state handouts taken away. This is nonsensical on a couple of levels: firstly, the average weekly payout to the individual on benefits will nowhere near cover the drug habit they likely have if they're addicted, meaning the government's claim that the taxpayer is "sustaining their drug habit" is ridiculous; secondly, it will only make it more likely that those that have no intention of giving up their habit (albeit these are a small minority) will simply lie to those in charge of the programme about their progress. The government's drug treatment and testing orders failed in a similar way exactly because of the level of compulsion involved in them, as well as how they were themselves built on a foundation of falsehood. You have to want to give up your habit; compulsion simply doesn't work, regardless of the political difficulties this entails. The other get tough measure, that suspected drug dealers will have their "bling" confiscated not when they're found guilty but when they're first arrested is just yet another astonishing step in the march towards the end of the presumption of being innocent until found guilty, bound to lead to a myriad of injustices. Jacqui Smith, who by the day seems to be doing her best to rival her three predecessors in sheer knuckle-headedness and illiberality, says that this is all right because if they're found "completely innocent" their property will be given back. What about if they're found innocent of dealing but do have some drugs for personal use then Jacqui? Will they still have their expensive consumer goods stolen by the police?

Much like the war on terror, the war on drugs is a misnomer built on a multitude of assumptions, prejudices and simple refusal to see something approaching sense. Just like you can't defeat al-Qaida and the takfirist jihadists through force alone, with all the signs being that it in fact only makes indoctrination and radicalisation more widespread and even harder to uproot, you also can't defeat drugs through prohibition. Indeed, one of the marvels of this latest 10-year-plan is that we've heard so very little of whether the previous one was a success or not. This might possibly be because rather than reducing the availability of illicit drugs at street level, one of the government's key objectives last time round, all the evidence suggests that the prevalence of Class A drug use has actually increased, especially among under 25s (PDF from Transform which contains much of the source material of this post and is also available on their excellent blog). Reported use of cocaine among 16 to 24-year-olds has gone from 3.1% in 1997 to 6.0% in 2006/07, while use of crack has gone up by 0.1% over the same period to 0.4%. Heroin use rose up until 2001, and has since stabilised, at the highest level across Europe, while Class A drug use by "vulnerable" young people increased by over 3.4% in the space of just one year.

The other suitably stupid way in which the government aims to control drug use is by supply side intervention, i.e. seizing drugs and shutting down the gangs that distribute them, and therefore raising the price as well making them less readily available, which is meant to make them less likely to be used. Quite apart from the fact that if drugs became scarcer and more expensive it would mean that users who fund their addiction through crime would became more desperate and have to commit more offences/robberies/burglaries/thefts in order to pay from them, the price of heroin and cocaine has actually almost halved over the last ten years, as the government itself admitted in an answer to a parliamentary question last week. If you wanted to really drive the skewer in, you could quite reasonably argue that the comprehensive failure in Afghanistan to either eradicate the poppy crop, persuade farmers to grow other crops or to buy it and use it for much needed painkillers is also attributable to government policy in the Middle East, considering the Taliban almost completely eradicated the crop to 2000. It now depends on it to fund the battle against coalition forces and the Afghan government.

The government's entire sheet of claims of success is questionable. It claims that "drug-related acquisitive crime" has fell by 20% over the last five years but the government doesn't even have any statistics on drug-related crime rather than acquisitive crime, as the minister Vernon Coaker admitted that crimes such as robberies are only recorded as robberies, not as a result of drugs or influenced by them! New Labour does have major form in this area.

As mentioned, the report isn't all bad. One of the few bright spots is that it recommends a rolling out of a programme of prescribing injectable heroin or methadone to addicts that don't respond to other forms of treatment. It's well established that methadone is in fact far more dangerous and insidious than heroin itself, which addicts tend to dislike and/or end up getting just as addicted to as they do heroin. "Pure" heroin in its prescribed form is relatively safe; it's the black market that cuts it with other substances that increases the dangers of using it. Providing safe injecting centres and prescribing heroin, with clean needles, battling the plague of Hepatitis C/HIV that goes hand-in-hand with sharing dirty and used needles is one way of massively reducing the cost to the NHS, not to mention that of the crime involved in funding a habit. The support for families, and an expansion in drug treatment programmes are also welcome, but whether the funding will actually be there, or whether effective drug treatment is possible in a prison setting, especially in such currently overcrowded jails is questionable.

The policies that would genuinely go some way towards tackling drugs are the exact ones that governments dismiss and the tabloid press are horrified by. Increasingly, chief constables and others within the police realise that they cannot possibly win the battle against drugs in the way it's currently being fought; it's almost a complete waste of time, raiding and destroying one supply chain only for another to immediately pop up in its place. When a few brave officers stick their head above the parapet and suggest that Class A drugs such as Ecstasy are relatively safe, the brickbats thrown at them are not just directed against the individual that made the comment, but also at any government that considers adopting a more measured approach. The biggest first step Labour could make towards ending the failure of prohibition would be to abandon the class system all together and instead institute something like the scale of harm posed by drugs such as that recently published in the Lancet. From there appropriate regulation of the substances could be defined and organised. Removing or destroying as much of the black market itself, not the supply, as possible is the key; without first adopting an evidence-based approach, we'll simply be stuck in the current mess for ever more.

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HMP Blunkett.

Blogging simply doesn't get any better than this.

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No further comment necessary.

Sometimes you still get gems like this on the letters page:

Like many "marriage phobic" couples (For whom the bells toll, G2, February 25), we only decided to marry when advised that we, on the premature death of one of us, would pay far more tax - to Margaret Thatcher's government - than we would if married. That decided us: after 17 years and two children we "did the deed". We "vowed", however, that when we had a Labour government we would divorce, because we wouldn't mind paying more tax for a decent government with better public services. We're still married.
Lucy Craig and Gordon Best,

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008 

The drugs can work.

Whenever there's a new major scientific study released, especially one that hits the front pages of most of the so-called qualities, it's always a good idea to see what the crew over on the Bad Science forum think, both of the report itself and of the subsequent summaries of that report in the press. Their verdict (Ben Goldacre's own is the last post on page 3), especially on the Guardian's report, isn't especially encouraging.

The Grauniad article opens with this statement:

Prozac, the bestselling antidepressant taken by 40 million people worldwide, does not work and nor do similar drugs in the same class, according to a major review released today.

Except the study, which is itself a meta-analysis of the 47 studies which the researchers obtained from the American Food and Drug Administration doesn't come to that conclusion at all. It instead finds that Prozac (fluoxetine, an SSRI), Seroxat (Paxil in the US, paroxetine, SSRI), Effexor (venlafaxine, an SNRI) and Serzone (Nefazodone, neither an SSRI, an SNRI, an MAOI or an older tricylic anti-depressant, and which is no longer prescribed in the US because of links with liver damage) actually do work, or at least up to a point. Compared to placebo, the study finds that the drugs do in fact have a slightly higher clinical effect, but for mild to moderate depression it's not significant enough under the NICE criteria for them to be considered cost effective (Endofphil has an MS Paint diagram example).

Where the drugs are considered effective and perform far better than placebo is on those with severe depression, and which in any case is what doctors are meant to only be prescribing them for. For mild to moderate depression doctors are pointed towards offering counselling or "talking therapy", up to cognitive behavioural therapy or interpersonal psychotherapy. This though is often unavailable in certain NHS trusts, and even if it is the waiting list tends to be a mile-long, leaving doctors with little option other than recommending the almost cliched exercise, talking to friends or getting out a bit more. Many people who feel they're at their wits' end go and see their GP and beg for anti-depressants, something that most will most give in to, even if they don't appear to be severely depressed. The figure banded about for anti-depressant prescriptions is 16 million written a year, but that of course includes repeats.

Seeing as I have something approaching "experience" in this area, my path towards getting help was roughly as follows. After summoning up the courage to see my GP, he referred me to a psychiatrist. By the time my appointment with him was coming up, my situation had declined considerably and I was taken to see the psychiatrist at the local A&E, whom prescribed me Lustral (sertraline, Zoloft in the US, an SSRI). I then saw the first psychiatrist whom also prescribed me an anti-psychotic (first Zyprexa, olanzapine, now Seroquel, quetiapine) and introduced me to the psychiatric nurse, who I've been seeing for almost roughly 5 years now every month or so. In between then I've been referred to various individuals, among them a psychologist, with whom I underwent interpersonal psychotherapy, a youth worker who I basically just poured my heart out to, a group on overcoming depression, which started off with around 10-12 people attending and at the finish with around 4 of us, and probably some others I've missed out. I certainly can't say the NHS hasn't bent over backwards to help me, that's for certain. Out of all these things, what I do think has helped the most? To get over the initial bad period, I have very little doubt that the drugs helped immensely; after which, I think the interpersonal psychotherapy was the most rewarding, challenging and effective.

The main problem with anti-depressants is that some have the impression that they're a panacea, and this isn't just down to being ill-informed, but rather because the drug companies, big pharma or whatever you want to call them lobby and advertise furiously that this is indeed the case (see above advert). Because of both the NHS, the advertising laws and otherwise, we don't have the drug companies directly advertising their wares to us in this country, or at least the ones that are prescription only. In America however they do, and they don't just recommend the SSRIs in them for depression, but also for a whole assortment of other mental disorders, some for which their efficacy has been uncertain at best. This is partly why this study is important: it contains reports submitted to the FDA but which weren't officially published, for the simple reason that the study didn't find the drug to have the beneficial effects the drugs company claim they do. This is publication bias, and it buries the results which don't chime with what the company funding the development of the drug wanted to hear.

The other problems with the SSRIs are well-documented. Since Prozac, the first SSRI to be mass-marketed arrived, there have been claims suggesting that in some cases the drugs have actually contributed to suicides or in some rare occurrences, homicides. As a result of further research on the use of SSRIs in those under 18, they were highly recommended not to be prescribed to the young as some, and the accusations against Seroxat were the loudest, were found to actually increase the risk of suicide. This could potentially not be down to the drug itself, which take around a month to six weeks to start to work in most people, but rather due to the depression not reaching its apex when the prescription was first written, although the decision is certainly sound. Getting on the drugs is usually fine: I was sick for a couple of days when first going on them and suffered from dry mouth for about a week, then both went away. It's the getting off them that's incredibly hard, as the withdrawal symptoms, which often ironically resemble the symptoms for why you went on the drug to begin with, can be incredibly severe. Effexor, which is also considered one of the most powerful and is apparently most used in mental hospitals, is especially notorious for its withdrawal symptoms, while GlaxoSmithKline, the makers of Seroxat have had class-action lawsuits brought against them in both the US and UK because of the withdrawal those on them have suffered. I can't say I'm looking forward to eventually getting off either of the drugs.

The above are exactly why anti-depressants shouldn't be available on demand. We're an increasingly hypochondriac society, and it doesn't just affect those that read the Daily Mail and one day are told something's good for them and the next day that it's bad, all via press release and competing studies where their funding is obtuse at best. Neither should the drugs be dismissed in the way that some of the reports today have done; it's well and good lauding CBT and the rest of it, but the very need for it has increased because of our increasingly fractured and atomised lives. We don't feel that we can take anyone into our confidence, and the friends that we do have and do think we can talk seriously to we then think don't want to be burdened down with our own personal misery, and in most cases we'd be right. At its core, the idea of the anti-depressant is one bound up in both consumerism and materialism; a magic pill that takes away the blues. Like consumerism and materialism, it's a myth and one perpetuated by the exact same forces. It can help, but that's all. It's only when we open up and are honest with ourselves and everyone else that we might directly help each other, and it well might be that goes most against the very nature of our modern living.

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It couldn't be snobbery, could it?

This (short) post is likely to ruffle a few feathers, but here goes.

It's been exactly a week since Shannon Matthews went missing, with no apparent sightings of her since whatsoever. It looks increasingly like she's either died and her body has yet to be found, or that she's been snatched, although of course I hope to be proved wrong on both of those points. The original view was likely that she had ran away, having made such comments to her friends and written something along those lines on the wall of her bedroom, about wanting to live with her father, which mitigated against the media response being over the top. Even so, all the elements that made the Madeleine case so compelling last year are here; the vanished daughter, albeit one older and not quite as photogenic; the tearful parent, begging her to come home or for anyone who has her to let her go; and the police with apparently no leads whatsoever. The disappearance has even happened in this country, meaning that there is something those in the surrounding area can actually do to help, whether keeping a look out, reporting anything they thought suspicious, or actively searching for her.

Why then has it not caught the public imagination in such a way? Could it possibly be because this is a distinctly working-class family, where the father and mother have split up, and where the mother is, not to put too fine a point on it, not as aesthetically sympathetic as Kate McCann was/is? Or that this has happened up in the sunny climate of Dewsbury, a classic Yorkshire town, which simply can't compare to the attractions of Praia da Luz for the travelling hacks?

It might simply be missing white girl fatigue, especially coming on top of the murder cases recently resolved. Either or neither way, if I was a relative, I think I'd be distinctly insulted by how Madeleine was thrust back onto the front pages last week by yet another tourist claiming to have spotted her, this time in France, while a little girl missing in this country is relegated to the far inside pages.

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A (former) US soldier writes...

When someone comments on a year-old post, it's either one of two things: spam or someone so rigidly opposed to what you wrote that the bile has risen so far up that they just have to let it out. Therefore, in the interests of balance, here's in full what Sergeant First Class Cheryl McElroy (RET) thinks of my Scum-watch: "Prophets are rarely honoured in their own land" post.

The Iraq war was a suicidal act?
Scuse me, sweetcakes, but Iraq is just one of the battlefields in the war on Islamofascism. We've beaten the Taliban and Al Qaeda into slushy pulp, which puts you lefties in a real funk.
In case you forgot, America was attacked by thugs supported throughout the Middle East, by Muslim zealots hellbent on a world Caliphate.
In case you don't get it, they want to kill us. They proved that on 9/11. What's the matter? Didn't the London bombings hit close enough to your own backyard?
Personally, I'd have leveled Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan (for starters)on 12 September 2001. But, I'm a former Soldier, not a pusillanimous apologist for Islam. Our policy should be simple: you attack us, we annihilate you, your supporters, your country, everything.
Hussein was a WMD-wielding megalomaniac who supported al Qaeda. He thumbed his nose at every resolution enacted by the U.N. including Res. 1441, which in conjunction with Congressional approval, gave us the authority to use military force. You ought to read it some time.

Hussein's terrorist connections:
The Mother of All Connections:

WMDs found:
1,500 gallons of chemicals believed destined for attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and civilians.

1.77 metric tons of enriched uranium and roughly 1000 highly radioactive sources.

Warheads loaded with Sarin,2933,124576,00.html
IEDs and artillery shells containing Sarin,2933,120137,00.html


We did not wait until Hussein had the ability and chance to use them on U.S. forces in the region. I was over there, and I'm damned glad we eradicated the son of a bitch and destroyed the WMDs we found.

Afghanistan, conspicuously absent from your complaint, was a major operating base for Al Qaeda. Lots of dead Taliban there, too. No body counts for them in your blog? Tsk, tsk.

Oh yeah, and your quote about the Iraqi dead being
"somewhere in the region of between 200,000 and up to 1 million Iraqis, the median being 650,000" is total bullshit.

First of all, the “sources” and the assertions made in the phoney Lancet study funded by leftwingnutbag George Soros, claiming the astronomical deaths, has been thoroughly debunked

and here:

Leftwingnuts have no shame for their blatant attempts at presenting fiction as fact.

There are brave Soldiers, American and British, who are putting their lives on the line so ingrates like you won't have to worry about being subjected to Sharia Law. At least act as if you're worth the sacrifice.

Sergeant First Class Cheryl McElroy

Slight update: Here's Cheryl's blog, linking to all the usual neo-con/anti-jihadist/Islamophobic crowd and it seems from a reply to another left-wing al-Qaida apologist who secretly wants Sharia law who dared to disagree with her that this was something of a stock response.

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Monday, February 25, 2008 

Scum-watch: A lesson in attempting to puncture its own emotional balloon.

It's interesting, these days, watching the Sun (No, please, come back!). Last year after the failed patio gas canister bombings it clearly didn't have the slightest idea how to respond to them: first with hackneyed blitz spirit type defiance; then scaremongering, and the resurrection of its demands to scrap the human rights act; and finally, resorting to patriotism, ordering everyone to fly the flag. This remember is the paper which over the 80s and up until recently was often considered the weathervane of the nation, or symbolic of how a majority of how it was responding, typified by how when it changed from supporting the Conservatives to New Labour that it was considered the final, death blow against John Major.

Since then of course we've had the online revolution; now the most visited UK newspaper website is the loony-left Guardian, closely followed by the Mail Online. Circulations continue to plunge, with the Sun recently slipping below the 3 million mark, only rising back above it because of price cutting. The real success story of today is the Daily Mail, and by far the most despicable, distorted press coverage of late, directed at asylum seekers and immigrants, has come not from the Sun but from the Express and Mail. Whether it's because the Sun's reflecting society at large or not, or that it's lost its way as the country has become more liberal and has tried but failed to follow, it no longer has the zest or vim that it had under Kelvin MacKenzie's editorship, as rabid as that was in places. The rot set in under David Yelland, the most memorable of his front pages one asking Tony Blair whether we were being run by a gay mafia, and Rebekah Wade, most notable beforehand for her "name and shame" campaign against paedophiles on the News of the World, has done little to change that.

Even so, it's surprising that it's been so surprised by the vehemence of the response to its call for a debate on capital punishment. For years it's been claiming without the slightest amount of evidence that judges are liberal loonies, that crime is getting worse while the figures suggest the opposite and that the criminal justice system is failing us all. The result of this campaign for "toughness", led not just by it but by the other right-wing tabloids also, is both obvious and apparent; our prisons are now so full that there is little to no room whatsoever left in them. Of late, the rallying cry has been against binge drinking and youth, or rather "yob" violence. This was crystallised by the death of Garry Newlove, a loving, caring father kicked to death by 3 teenagers who had drank large amounts of strong alcohol and smoked cannabis beforehand. It's one of those cases, like the murder of Rhys Jones, that pushes the press into a familiar period of soul-searching of how we've reached this lowest-collective ebb. The reality is of course that it's an aberration, a terrible crime that is thankfully very rare. Nonetheless, it gave the Sun and Newlove's loving widow, an opportunity: both want change, but for very different reasons. The Sun wants improved sales and to be able to crow about changing government policy, as well increasing its own influence; Newlove wants vengeance and for her husband's death to not be in vain. Newlove, along with a shopping list of other demands, clearly stated how she longed to be able to personally execute the 3 boys who killed her husband. Never mind that even in most American states it would have been highly unlikely they would have been sentenced to death because the crime wasn't premeditated, and that perhaps only in such freedom loving countries as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran would such a punishment have taken place, the Sun at the time didn't speak up and say that it was personally against capital punishment. It did all it could to encourage a grieving, deeply hurt woman to keep going.

Then, in quick succession, we've had other troubling murder cases, which due to their own individual circumstances have caught the public's attention, or at least certainly the media's. In Steve Wright's, because he murdered 5 prostitutes with no apparent motive, not even a sexual one, and was apparently not mentally ill; and Mark Dixie's, in that he stalked and killed a beautiful 18-year-old aspiring model, who had a whole string of portfolio photographs that the media could splash all over their pages. Today Levi Bellfield was convicted of the murders of two young women, and suspected, like the previous two, of having potentially killed before. While the relatives of Bellfield's victims haven't spoken out yet, it won't be much of a surprise if they too, like the next of kin of those killed by Wright and the mother of Sally Anne Bowman, Dixie's victim, suggest that they would also like to see the return of the ultimate penalty.

The Sun on Saturday then, presumably because of the response on its talkboards which are usually filled with individuals not always residing in this country demanding the restoration of capital punishment, set up an actual poll asking whether readers would like to see hanging back. The response seems on the surface to be overwhelming, and despite the Sun personally coming out against it. 99% of 95,000 wanted it brought back, according to their you the jury poll. The poll result is of course questionable; you can vote multiple times on the online poll, and doubtless can on the actual phone lines too. Even if you consider that it is a seemingly massive response, the Sun has over 3 million sales, which means that 3% of its readers' responded and want it back. The Sun also claims to have an actual readership of 8 million, meaning that the figure goes even lower when you factor that in.

Despite its past polls returning similar overwhelming results, the paper in this case genuinely seems taken aback by the response. The question has to be: why? Its attitude to crime has always been leading towards such a policy, even if it actually balks at the possibility. I very much doubt it's because polls that are representatively sampled suggest around 60% or lower (albeit from a few years' ago) are usually in favour of capital punishment being brought back, with even only 65% of Tory voters wanting hanging to return; rather, it's because it's greatly perturbed that its readers aren't hanging off their every editorial word. The Sun is, first and foremost, pure propaganda, and it expects its line to be swallowed. Secondly, it almost seems worried that it can't control what it's started off.

As Tim Ireland writes, it almost seems as if the paper is trying to control the mob it set in motion. Wade couldn't do it when she named and shamed paedophiles and a paediatrician ended up being hounded out; how on earth could she manage it now? In any case, she's making an attempt: as well as listing all the relatives of victims who want capital punishment back, the paper remarks on how Sara Payne, one of those whose line in criminal justice policy based purely on her own experience as a victim has been pushed relentlessly in the paper, doesn't want it back. It points out how Pierrepoint didn't believe that it was a deterrent (although Wikipedia asks whether this was just a selling tactic for his book), without mentioning how he, merciful and humane despite his role as executioner, was only interested in making sure that the end for the person being put to death was as painless and quick as possible, something at odds with many of those calling for its return, who clearly want those put to death to suffer. It even says that the hated Germans brought hanging to this country, almost as if wanting to put its readers off it by its pure heritage; the page 3 girl, the paper's purest piece of propaganda, asks for life to mean life rather than for capital punishment; and only two of the Sun's gor blimey commentators, both of them the loathsome talk radio hosts Jon Gaunt and Fergus Shanahan, want it back.

Today's leader column is extraordinary therefore for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because I agree with large parts of it, which is almost a first; secondly, because of its sheer flaming hypocrisy:

THE clamour for the death penalty is deafening.

Some 99 per cent of 100,000 voters in our poll demand its return.

Such an overwhelming response is no surprise after the killings of Garry Newlove, Sally Anne Bowman and the five Suffolk Strangler victims. Not to mention the anarchy that has erupted in some parts of Britain.

No one reading the heart-rending interviews with any of the victims’ families could fail to understand their desire for the ultimate revenge. Most of us share it.

But The Sun does not believe in capital punishment. It will not be brought back on a wave of public emotion, however much we sympathise with it.

Emotion cannot dictate a nation’s system of punishment

Yet that is exactly what it has wanted by giving over so much space to Helen Newlove and others. Helen Newlove claims in her own case for why it should be brought back that it isn't about revenge or vengeance - yet anyone reading her demands and frankly chilling account of how she'd like to execute her husband's killers couldn't fail to realise that was exactly the motive on which she was acting. Emotion or revenge cannot possibly even begin to be a part of any justice system which is going to attempt to be fair - yet by not pointing that out forcefully enough the Sun has failed those that it's given such succour to.

This is the Sun's main argument for what should take capital punishment's place - and it's just as flawed as capital punishment itself is:

Demands for capital punishment are only so strong because the justice system fails at every turn.

Too few police. Too few arrests. Too few offenders being locked away because there are too few jails and, scandalously, they were allowed to become too full.

Too few judges taking public safety seriously.

And far too many serious offenders whose “life” terms mean nothing of the kind.

Except we've got almost the most police ever. How can you possibly say too few offenders are locked away when there's currently 82,000 in prison and we are among the most heavy users of prison as punishment in Europe? Yes, the jails are too full, but that's not just the fault of the government but of the very same newspapers that have demanded ever tougher punishments, got them, and then demanded even harsher sentences. The very reason we're currently at bursting point is because when we have these sporadic bursts of draconian sentiment the judges are inclined to send those they might have previously fined or put on a community order to prison. They're reflecting what is apparently public opinion, even if polls now suggest that the country is split equally over whether more prisons are the answer. Judges are doing their very best in difficult circumstances; and "life" terms are usually about right. Learco Chindamo perhaps should have got more than 12 years, yet when the evidence suggests that he is a rare success story of prison actually working beyond just locking the dangerous away, he gets attacked, the victim of his crime is given centre stage to voice her disgust, and the demands for tougher sentences grow once again. Who could disagree with Dixie being sentenced to over 30 years, meaning he'll be 70 and a danger to no one if he is eventually to be released? Wright's sentence was also the right one, as was mostly the ones given to Newlove's killers. Life should only ever mean life where this is no chance whatsoever of redemption, or in the case of someone committing multiple murders. Despite common belief, life sentences have never meant life in this country, and the time served for a life sentence has actually continued to rise since the abolition of capital punishment. Believe it or not, and I'm sure I'm not the only person who thinks this, our current justice system model gets it about right. The occasional cases where it either gets it wrong, with both miscarriages of justice and with those who either get away with it or kill again needed to be taken into consideration, are relatively few.

The most true and again, also line which contains the most chutzpah on the Sun's behalf in this one:

Revenge is the real motivation behind the calls for the return of capital punishment. That’s not enough in a civilised society.

And who knows just how the average supporter of capital punishment will take to being spoken to in such a tone by the "reactionary" Sun newspaper?

Related post:
Impotent Fury - Tabloid legislation - why do we bother having a government?

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Blogging can be tedious - when you resort to the ad-hominem.

On Saturday, Unity posted a critique on Liberal Conspiracy of a post by Donal Blaney (the lawyer who Guido shacked up with in threatening Tim Ireland with legal action) attacking the BBC Asian Network. The title, "It’s not the BNP but it is the next best [worst] thing…" and the opening paragraph "[T]here is a fine line between making a legitimate critique of multiculturalism and using the semblance of such a critique as a means of pandering to racist attitudes and promoting a manifestly fascist vision of society..." are clear: Unity isn't calling Blaney a fascist, but suggesting he's pandering to those sort of views.

Blaney's response was thus. Firstly, to accuse Unity directly of calling him a "racist", "homophobic" (not sure where that came from) and a "fascist"; and secondly to throw a whole variety of insults at him. Here's my attempt at summarising them all. Unity and others who disagreed with Blaney were variously:

“stupid”, “venal”, “intellectually insecure”, “onanists”, “(accused of having) intellectual weakness”, “(of secretly being) deeply unhappy”, “insecure”, “lonely”, and “bitter”.

If I missed any, happily correct me in the comments. Blaney's overall point was that responding to others' criticisms of your views was tedious when they completely misrepresented them. That Unity didn't in any way whatsoever was besides the point. In any case, misrepresenting someone's views is one thing; resorting to ad-hominem attacks in such a pathetic, say, intellectually bankrupt way, is quite another.

Blogging is all about the discourse - you can scream, shout and swear at politicians and those you disagree with, and you'll get a decent audience, as long as the invective is inventive and humourous enough, hence the success of Mr Eugenides and Devil's Kitchen, although I personally much prefer the former over the latter. You can also, like Blaney and say Iain Dale are meant to, and which I aspire towards, argue with nuance, give the opposition's side of voice either a fair go or at least attempt to prove it wrong or the worst option, while also being witty, readable and engaging. Some say blogging needs rules and clear lines of what's acceptable and what's not, and I'm a glass half-empty person on that, but one thing ought to be if not verboten then at least unacceptable, and that's personally attacking the other person purely because you either feel like it or can't respond to their argument. Blaney, on those grounds, ought to at the least be disregarded for his petulant attempt at response. It diminishes all of us who blog, and only makes it less likely that we'll be listened to in the future.

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Break a leg - or don't, if you happen to be an Arsenal player.

I hardly ever post about football, mostly because it's covered so effusively elsewhere and usually well. Where I think it's fell down so spectacularly this time round is on one of the most fundamental points of the game - the right for players themselves not to have their legs broken, however accidental, mistimed or clumsy the tackle or whatever it is that does the damage.

The horrific injury which Eduardo suffered on Saturday (look on YouTube if you must see it) is one of the most shocking of recent times, except for perhaps the fractured skull suffered by Chelsea's Petr Cech, which I'll return to in a moment. What I object to is the attempt by a large section of the media to minimise what happened to Eduardo, or even to excuse it. David Platt (ex-Arsenal, for God's sake), for example, during Sky's coverage, claimed that the tackle that broke Eduardo's leg wasn't worthy of a red card, while Birmingham City's own Steven Kelly had the audacity to claim that Martin Taylor was only sent off because he had broken Eduardo's leg. For those who missed it, here's the defining photograph, just milliseconds before Taylor connected, that shows just how completely unacceptable and downright dangerous it was:

Mistimed, clumsy, accidental, however you describe it, that is simply a horrendous tackle, as Arsene Wenger originally rightly described it. Anyone who takes such a lunge at a player should be sent off, get a ban lengthier than the current 3 matches and hope above hope that they don't do permanent damage to the player they perform it on. Martin Taylor is said to be distraught with what happened, quite understandably, and the very last thing that should be performed is a witch-hunt against him. Wenger was wrong to originally say it was unforgivable - it was undoubtedly a mistake by Taylor, who is already paying penance beyond what should be expected of him - but by the reaction, both on talkboards, phone-ins and the media itself was almost as if Arsenal had been the villains of the piece.

Imagine if this tackle had broken Wayne Rooney's, Steven Gerrard's or even Ronaldo's leg. There would have been unanimous uproar, Alex Ferguson would undoubtedly have made a far stronger statement that Wenger did if it was the first or the last, and certainly have not retracted it within a matter of hours, and there would have been baying for blood for potentially destroying an England star's career. Most of the assaults or charges of hypocrisy are because of Arsenal's own disciplinary record, which although bad has to my knowledge never involved a player breaking another's bones (excepting Eboue's similarly mistimed challenge on John Terry, which didn't result in a sending off), or because of the reckless challenges in the Man Utd/Arsenal game last weekend. The accusations there sting the most - the way Arsenal players went for Nani after he somewhat showed off his skills, with one player flying in an appalling tackle, not on the scale of Taylor's but certainly nasty, and then Gallas kicking the back of Nani's legs, which was a tap rather than really malicious - all of which should be condemned, but were nowhere near on the scale of danger of that of Taylor's tackle. Wenger is certainly deliberately blind at times when questioned about contentious decisions in matches - but then so is Alex Ferguson, who receives none of the same opprobrium over it. Ferguson has on multiple occasions either defended or excused blatant dives in the penalty area by both Rooney and Ronaldo - yet because he's so tenacious, admired and petulant - he never talks to the BBC for some stupid reason, and does the same to other media if they perform some perceived slight, he gets completely away with it.

To come back to Petr Cech, everyone seems to have already forgotten how Chelsea responded to his fractured skull, the result of a purely accidental clash with Reading's Stephen Hunt. Not only did they continue to maintain that it was deliberate, right up to when the FA cleared Hunt of any responsibility, Jose Mourinho personally laid serious accusations at both Reading and the NHS's door when he said that they had taken their time in calling for an ambulance and then in the ambulance arriving. Chelsea's version of events was destroyed by the South Central NHS trust version, that showed that Chelsea's own doctor didn't consider the injury serious enough for an ambulance to be called until 25 minutes after he reached the dressing room - and the ambulance then arrived within 7 minutes. Chelsea never apologised for the slur on either the club or the NHS.

By that standard, Arsene Wenger's justified fury and emotion, after seeing one of his best player's legs potentially broken beyond repair was mild. That he realised he had got it wrong within a matter of hours and retracted his statements was a sign of how the moment had got the better of him, as I expect it would most of us. His other criticised statement, that teams set out to kick Arsenal in order to stop them playing is a contentious one, but if you look at recent games against Blackburn for example I challenge anyone to disagree with him.

The reports today on how long it will take Eduardo to recover - 9 months if he's very lucky, 12 months if he's merely lucky, never if he's unlucky - show the seriousness of the incident. Footballers are rightly disparaged for being spoilt and overpaid, but Eduardo at 25 faces the nightmare of potentially having his career and livelihood destroyed. The experience of David Busst, who broke his leg and had to retire as a result (in his case I think the pitch was covered in blood in the aftermath, something that thankfully didn't occur with Eduardo's injury), and which has been all over the press is a chastening one. It ought to show those that have downplayed Eduardo's injury what can happen, even as a result of a dreadful accident or mistimed tackle. Football is a contact sport, and long may it remain so, but such terrifying challenges need to be kicked out of the game. Those attacking Arsenal for their response ought to examine how they'd feel if it happened to a player in their team before they launch attacks on the most majestic footballing side in the country.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008 

A cheap holiday in someone else's misery.

Much risible finger-pointing and political point-scoring over the supposed "gaffe" by David Cameron of calling visits to Auschwitz a "gimmick". In actuality, the Tories, in a ham-fisted and similarly pathetic press release (PDF) attacking 26 supposed political gimmicks since Gordon Brown became prime minister, are criticising the fact that schools and colleges are still having to stump up £100 to fund the trips to Auschwitz, despite the £4.65 million of funding given towards it. Even this isn't clear: it's not apparent whether the schools would have to pay £100 for every sixth-former who wanted to go or even for just the two that the government are definitively providing funding for.

The Tories have hit back saying that they would provide funding in full for those who wanted to go (yeah, right), but the danger of linking "Auschwitz" to the word "gimmick" should have been plain to the most gormless of Conservative party workers doubtless employed to draw the document up. It was supposedly a response to a document released by Labour charting their top 50 "achievements", examined in detail by Lee Griffin here. The Tory document is just as dishonest as parts of that though: for instance, it attacks Brown for announcing a review of 24-hour drinking and for "his aides spinning" to the Mail that the policy would be scrapped, without providing evidence that was what actually occurred. That the review is presumed to find that the legislation is working well and therefore doesn't need to be changed is hardly gimmickry. It's on surer ground attacking Jacqui Smith over powers for confiscating alcohol from teenagers, powers the police already have, then blots its copy book over Jack Straw and titan prisons, which although an idiotic policy, has not been cancelled at all. It's similarly stupid over Caroline Flint's disgraceful plans on kicking social housing tenants out if they didn't find work, which was clearly being floated as an idea and not as actual policy. The charges of gimmickry over migrant charges and knife scanners are similarly unsubstantiated.

In any case, as Chris Paul points out, David Cameron is hardly one to talk about gimmicks when his whole reign has been one after the other. To bring this back to Auschwitz, I'm pretty sure that even the most feeble of teachers can express the horror of the extermination camps without actually needing to take students to see them at first hand. There's something eminently distasteful about places like Auschwitz and Belsen becoming almost tourist attractions; as powerful as I'm sure they are, and preserved as they should be, we really ought to be starting to make an effort to move on from the second world war, which still so dominates our thinking in a whole plethora of different ways. Believe it or not, there is history beyond Hitler, Stalin and the Holocaust. We must never forget, but nor should it constantly be on our minds.

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Say no to 24 hour thinking!

24-hour drinking fuels rise in crime, sighs the Telegraph. Nowhere in the article is the obvious pointed out: that because the change in the law has meant that the pubs/clubs now don't chuck out all at the same time, i.e. 11pm or 2am, it means that the police have been much better able to deal with offences that would have previously overwhelmed them.

As an actual police officer wrote on the Mailwatch blog:

The licensing act (24 hour) has also helped a great deal. Instead of kicking-out time for everywhere at 11pm, we’ve got slow dispersement into the night, so the police haven’t got a great mass of people all at once. Crime has ’shot up’ after the licensing Act because we CAN detect, arrest and deal with more people, rather than be swamped and therefore unable to arrest/detect any crime at all! This ‘crime-spike’ was intended by the Home Office and the police as a result of the above reason, but you won’t read that in the Daily Mail!

Nor in the Telegraph.

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Bizarro tabloid world.

There were calls last night for the abolition of calling for the abolition of the death penalty to be overturned after the latest horrific murder case to shock Britain reached its conclusion. As the killer of Sylvia Miller was sentenced to life imprisonment, her mother Edith Miller spoke out to reporters.

"Actually, I feel that justice has been done. It's unlikely that my daughter's killer will ever be released, and although I can never forgive or forget the immense pain he's caused to our family by taking away our beautiful daughter, I also don't see what putting him to death will achieve. I believe in justice, not vengeance, and I also don't believe that even if we had the death penalty it would have made him think twice before doing what he did."

In another surprise development, the police said that they were actually completely satisfied with the way the DNA database was currently working, and that they saw neither the need to extend it to encompass the entirety of Britain's population or to take samples from children as soon as they're pulled out of the womb. "Doing so would surely be one of the first steps towards a true police state, where you're presumed guilty until proved innocent," said PC Politically Correct, who then went off to inspect his recently delivered politically correct brigade new squad car. "Instead of being equipped with a loud, noisy siren, this new vehicle is instead fitted with an ice cream van's music player, which is intermittently interrupted with the word "police" whispered lightly so as not to disturb anyone," said the officer (cont. page 94)

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Friday, February 22, 2008 

A pointless exercise in clearing everyone and questioning no one.

Reading Sir Christopher Rose's report (PDF) into the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP while he visited Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison, you have to wonder what exactly the point of the whole exercise was. The findings may as well have been written by the police themselves; so unquestioning is Rose of the officers he interviewed who authorised the bugging, that he writes this in the 9th paragraph of the 18-page report:

I have borne in mind, in relation to all of those from whom I have obtained information, the possibility that serving some interest of their own might inspire a departure from candour and that none of them has been subject to the rigour of cross-examination such as a trial process would provide.

In other words they might have told me a complete cock and bull story, but nonetheless I've taken their comments in the spirit in which they were given. This is hardly the way to run any sort of investigation, let alone one into the bugging of an MP.

A good place for Rose to have started his inquiry might have been to talk to the
former detective sergeant Mark Kearney, now facing what appear to be highly trumped up charges for "aiding and abetting gross misconduct in a public office". This is related to how Kearney was a source for local Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer, but the police themselves admit that no money passed between their hands. The Citizen is so dirt poor that its journalists are currently out on strike over pay and conditions; it simply couldn't afford the cheque-book journalism of the nationals. Kearney was just the sort of source those local journalists who get out of their offices on occasion have always had. The charges are supposedly based on stories Kearney told Murrer about a drug dealer and a footballer, but that now seems like the excuse for getting rid of him after he objected to bugging an MP. Kearney has since suffered a nervous breakdown because of the charges, while Murrer, a respected journalist, had her phone bugged, her home raided and was strip-searched after being arrested.

It's therefore rather surprising to read that Rose, who refers to Kearney as "X" in the report, hasn't talked to him. His reasons are as follows:

With regard to the former police officer, identified in the media, awaiting Crown Court trial on serious charges, to whom I shall refer as X, I have taken into account a further factor in addition to those referred to in the last paragraph. He is entitled to a fair trial. It would be highly unfortunate if the conduct of my inquiry were to have, or could be claimed to have, an adverse impact on that right.

Seeing as he's not been charged in relation with the bugging of Khan, how could talking to him possibly have an adverse impact on his right to a fair trial?

I have a statement from the then Deputy Governor of Woodhill (Mr Robert Davis) to whose office X had regular access and with whom Prison Intelligence Officers from Thames Valley Police (TVP) including X, had daily contact. I am also aware that, representing TVP, between mid-2004 and January 2007, X attended a total of about 17 regular meetings, every two or three months, of the ACPO Prison Intelligence Working Group chaired by Commander Sawyer of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). Those meetings were attended by, among others of varying ranks from Detective Constable upwards, Detective Superintendent McKinney, Head of the Counter-Terrorism Prisons Intelligence Unit and Detective Superintendent Report of Investigation Deal, Head of the Prison Advisers Section. Furthermore, Detective Superintendent McKinney, in the course of reviewing technical capability at Woodhill Prison, met X and other officers from TVP Prison Intelligence Unit on 3 September 2006, which was only a few weeks after Mr Khan’s last visit to Babar Ahmad in late June. At none of the many meetings which I have identified did X express to anyone concerns of any kind as to how counter-terrorism surveillance in prison was being carried out by him or anyone else. Nor did X take the less formal opportunities of access to Mr Davis to express any such concerns. Nor did he express such concerns to either of his two colleagues in TVP Prison Intelligence Unit based at Woodhill. In the light of these matters, I concluded that it was neither necessary nor appropriate for me either to seek information from X at this time or to delay this report until the criminal proceedings against him have been completed.

Rose doesn't mention if there were minutes taken of any of these meetings, which would show whether Kearney actually had raised his concerns. Instead it seems that he's simply taken the words of the officers at face value that he didn't ask questions about the righteousness of bugging an MP. The latest Private Eye (No. 1204) suggests that a Special Branch detective superintendent specifically thanked Kearney at one of these meetings for bugging Khan. This would presumably be McKinney. Rose has therefore dismissed any need to talk to Kearney, either because it might prejudice his trial but also because his superiors would be in trouble if they admitted that they had knowingly bugged an MP, and they told him that Kearney hadn't said anything to them about it. Brilliant!

Khan, in his statement to the inquiry, has quite reasonably expressed his exasperation and anger that the those authorising the bugging of Ahmed didn't know who he was, stating "[I]t beggars belief that [the police and prison authorities] did not know who I was". This isn't just someone with an ego throwing their weight around when they're not recognised; as Khan states, he visited Ahmed in 2004 on a legal visit before he dropped his work as a solicitor and became the Labour parliamentary candidate for Tooting. Khan was well known to the Met especially: for one, he was the National Black Police Association's solicitor, while he performed the same role for detective superintendent Ali Dizaei, who "Sir" Ian Blair was found guilty of overseeing the bugging of. Since the bugging, the police have quite openly said they knew of Khan, even allegedly describing him as a "subversive", presumably because he worked for Liberty. That they hadn't followed his move from lawyer to member of parliament is hardly likely.

The man who ultimately authorised the bugging of Khan was none other than our old friend the head of the Metropolitan police's counter-terrorism unit, Andy Hayman. He presided over the Forest Gate debacle, while he was also the officer severely reprimanded by the second IPCC report into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. He resigned last December after other allegations were made that he had ran up expenses of £15,000 on police credit cards, and taken a female officer on foreign trips with him. He denies both. Rose writes this of what the bugging of Khan actually contained:

I called for the product of the monitoring on 21 May 2005 and 24 June 2006. It is obvious from the product that the conversation monitored on 21 May contained material plainly showing that Mr Khan was an MP. The record of monitoring on 24 June contains an express reference to him being an MP. It follows that those officers who monitored the visits and reviewed the detail of the product later had knowledge of that fact. There is nothing to suggest that any of these officers believed at the time that this fact was of any significance in relation to the surveillance.

This is important, as Rose goes on to record

That authorisation, subject to monthly review and three monthly renewal, effectively remained in force until December 2006. It was reviewed on 7 June by Mr Fuller and on 14 June 2005 by Mr Hayman. The record of that review indicates that information had been gained that a recently elected Member of Parliament had offered Babar Ahmad help to fight extradition but there is no indication that the Member of Parliament in question was Mr Khan. In relation to 24 June 2006, the authorisation was reviewed on 7 June 2006 by another Detective Constable, recommended to ACPO rank by Detective Superintendent McKinney, agreed to by Deputy Governor Davis and continued by Mr Hayman on 9 June 2006.

Hayman and all the other officers involved in authorising the surveillance would have presumably had the transcript of the first visit from the year previous where it was made obvious that Khan was an MP. Did they actually read it? If they had, they would surely have realised that Khan was the recently elected MP who had offered help to Ahmed to fight his extradition. There are a couple of other possibilities: that they were dealing with so many of these requests to bug terrorist suspects and those convicted alike that they were effectively just rubber-stamping them; or that they knew full well that Khan was an MP, were complicit in the bugging, and lied to Rose that they didn't know who he was.

Khan had submitted his request to visit Ahmed under the Approved Visitors Scheme for Category A prisoners prior to becoming an MP. This entailed him being visited by a detective constable from Special Branch, where he made clear that he had given up being a solicitor and was the Labour parliamentary candidate for Tooting. The DC recorded that Khan was "very affable and forthcoming". The report seems to consider that he was at fault for not thereafter informing the prison service that he was now an MP, where he didn't need to use the scheme at all. It seems if anything that the police and prison service took advantage of Khan's mistake, rather than it being his fault for not announcing himself properly.

Rose is quite right in concluding that the officers actually doing the bugging shouldn't have been expected to either know that Khan was an MP or of the Wilson doctrine, but those who authorised it certainly should have done. What they're relying on, apart from their denials that they knew that Khan was an MP, is that bugging as such isn't covered by the Wilson doctrine, which only deals with intercepts. Therefore, seeing as it was all done legitimately, this has been blown out of all proportion and MPs have been getting out of their prams for no good reason. At least, that seems to be the impression that the government wants to convey and that also the police want to remain. Rose also, despite the notable report in the Telegraph just over a week ago, says that there have been no requests to monitor legal visits to prisoners since 2005. As Spy Blog asks, what about prior to 2005?

Seeing as Jacqui Smith has since said that the law and guidelines covering bugging will be reviewed and that all visits by MPs to constituents must be confidential, is that the end of the matter? Well, no. The report is simply inadequate. As David Davis said, Rose concluded that there was "no useful purpose" in explaining the series of police authorisations, which on the contrary would have opened up why junior officials knew that Khan was an MP yet those authorising it claimed not to. Not to interview Kearney is frankly astonishing. It was also completely beyond the inquiry's remit to ask exactly why it was necessary to bug Ahmed in the first place. He's never faced any charges in this country, but is continuing to bring a civil case against the Met, alleging he was assaulted during his original arrest; something attested to by photos showing his injuries, but the officers were cleared by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Was that the real reason why he was bugged, or was it at the request of the US? The report shows that almost 20 people, mostly with names of Middle Eastern origin were on his visitor list, but that hardly on its own justifies the continuing bugging of everyone who visits him on the grounds of "ascertaining the extent of Babar Ahmad’s terrorist activities and contacts within the United Kingdom." It also does nothing about the situation that Kearney himself and Murrer are still in; if every police officer were being charged purely for being a local newspaper journalist's source, there'd be even less on the streets than there currently are. If this isn't a whitewash, it's hardly got anywhere near to the bottom of just a small section of our fast expanding surveillance society.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008 

Rendition: the truth begins to seep out.

Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea. I do not think it would be justified.
Oral evidence given by Jack Straw to the Foreign Affairs committee on 13th of December 2005.

To those who lived there, it was a paradise. Living purely off the land, the islanders, despite having no modern amenities, had an incredibly tranquil existence. That was until their island was considered as the prime location to be leased to the US military for a naval base, as another island was considered unsuitable because it was home to the rare Aldabra tortoise. The deal was signed, and the Americans requested that the island be "depopulated" for security reasons. The 2,000 inhabitants of Diego Garcia had their island invaded, their dogs shot and then they themselves were finally rounded up and taken to Mauritius, where they were subsequently dumped. The compensation they were given, which amounted to £400 each, was paid directly to the Mauritius government for them to be re-settled. They instead pocketed the money and denied that they had any right to do so. Most still live in hovels and the most severe poverty as a result.

All of this occurred under a Labour government, and it is undoubtedly one of the most despicable and shameful scandals in British history. Even now, despite numerous court rulings, the government refuses to allow them to return to their home, which has been taken over by a monolithic American base from which planes bombed Iraq. They seem to be hoping that those originally displaced that didn't commit suicide in the first place will die, and then be able to claim their children have no right whatsoever to return.

It almost seems fitting that a second scandal, also involving a Labour government, has now also come along concerning Diego Garcia. In a pathetic statement to the House of Commons, David Miliband today admitted that despite all their furious denials, despite the abundant evidence that flights linked to the US rendition program had landed here to at the least refuel, despite MI6 being involved in the rendition of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna to Guantanamo Bay, that evidence has now emerged that rendition flights had indeed landed on UK territory without the US asking for prior permission. Two flights in 2002 refuelled on Diego Garcia, carrying two unfortunates who according to the CIA, who have not told the truth once about the rendition program without being forced to, were not part of the "CIA's high-value terrorist interrogation program" but who nonetheless were taken to Guantanamo Bay and to Morocco respectively. Presumably the one lucky enough to be taken to Morocco was flown there so he could sample the local culture and high quality hashish, and not so he could be tortured like Binyam Mohammed was in the luxury of Moroccan custody. (Newsnight alleges that the plane used to transfer the detainee to Morocco was N397P, a CIA jet that has landed at UK airports on numerous occasions.)

The CIA has denied that Diego Garcia has served as one of the "black sites" where those in the rendition program were taken to be tortured so that the CIA didn't personally get its hands dirty. This is despite Barry McCaffrey, a former four-star US general on a number of occasions stating that prisoners are being held on Diego Garcia, as well as in other five-star US hotels such as Bagram airbase and numerous sites in Iraq, not to mention Gitmo itself.

The Guardian reported last October that the foreign affairs committee was to investigate claims that Garcia had a black site prison, but the revelation today seems to have come about because of the dogged attempts by the all party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, led by the tenacious Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, who had used the freedom of information act to request the minutes of political military talks between the US and UK in September last, a claim denied by the government who said that to release such information "would prejudice the defence" of territory by "exposing plans to counter possible terrorist attacks". Instead, they and the US seem to have decided to try and buy the committee off by admitting that rendition flights did use Diego Garcia, but that the island itself is not being used to hold any detainees themselves.

All those involved then are either "sorry" or "regret" this "unfortunate" happening. Never mind that from the very beginning this government has either directly lied, misled or tried to move the debate on when questioned about rendition flights. Jack Straw tried to tell us it was all a conspiracy theory, and from then on they've feigned ignorance at every turn. Andrew Tyrie has described it as "obfuscation and cover-up", and that seems bang on. They've done the very bare minimum from the very beginning in trying to placate critics, refusing to hold anything approaching a proper inquiry, failing to engage with EU-led efforts to investigate the rendition program and not asking of the US even the slightest of searching questions about what the planes linked to the rendition program were doing stopping over at our airports. Miliband now states that he'll compile a list of all said flights concerns have been expressed over and ask the US whether they too have been conveniently forgotten about. It screams of a government being desperate to wait until the initial disquiet and questioning was over before releasing the unsavoury reality. The real question is why they didn't do that as soon as the allegations were raised, with there being no evidence whatsoever that the government even asked the US whether the flights were anything other than kosher. They simply accepted that the US would have asked first before doing so, something now proved to be of the greatest gullibility and naivete. It of course helps that today most of the media are going to be more interested in the conviction of Steve Wright, and then there's also the other whitewash of the day, the inquiry into the bugging of Sadiq Khan.

This is of course from a government that has repeatedly condemned Guantanamo in various terms, most memorably as "an affront to justice". This same government has been complicit in that affront to justice, complicit in the torture of the various individuals caught up in the rendition program, many of whom have never been found guilty of any offence, let alone the "terrorism" which they are accused of being involved in. Indeed, one of those who was rendered through Diego Garcia has now been released, presumably without any compensation and most likely scarred irrevocably by their experience, living in constant fear of their life and without the slightest idea whether they will ever be released, or even put before the "military tribunals" now being set-up to try the most notorious of those held as "enemy combatants". This, as I've written before, ought to be a front-page scandal. Ministers should have resigned. A full judicial inquiry ought to have been set-up to examine not just ministerial complicity, but also security service involvement. Instead we had the whitewash provided by the Intelligence and Security committee. How deeply sad that the Chaggosians, who were treated as more expendable than animals, now know that they were not the only ones to abused in such a way on their paradise home.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008 

The same old tune.

This government, for some truly bizarre and strange reason, is in love with contracts. Maybe it's because rather than seeing themselves as politicians, they like to believe that they're in fact managers, albeit managers who haven't got the slightest clue on how to handle the workers, except from handing down opinions and pieces of paper which set out in minute detail exactly what they must do in order to earn their pay at the end of the week/month.

It's impossible to tell where this obsession began, but it might have been purloined from schools whom, at the beginning of the year, make the kids sign a laughable contract on how they're meant to behave, respect each other, etc etc. It's signed, then it goes out the metaphorical window within ten minutes. This though gives the control freaks of New Labour, who adore to micro-manage down to the very last detail, the feeling of having huge power while actually having none whatsoever. It's self-aggrandisement that would be harmless if it didn't seem so pernicious towards those who actually have to sign the patronising things in the first place. From schools the idea spread to those who are a few offences off getting an ASBO, that other marvellous New Labour achievement. They and their parents have to promise to obey the laws that they should have been in the first place. Supposedly these have been something of a success: perhaps because it involves the parents and doesn't just affect the children solely. One of Blair's last great big ideas was that these contracts could be extended even further; meaning if you wanted a hip replacement you might have to sign a contract that mean you'd promise to keep your weight down. It was one of the most revoltingly authoritarian, condescending and revealing policies Blair had ever suggested. Being a good citizen, paying taxes and doing everything else wasn't enough for this government; they wanted more.

That plan hasn't been entirely abandoned under Brown, as the idea of the rights and responsibilities of the ordinary citizen as outlined by Jack Straw of late underlines. Perhaps the real forebear of such a scheme though is to be introduced for those unfortunate enough to want to become a British citizen, as unveiled today. Like with ID cards, shortly to become compulsory for foreign nationals, it seems the immigrants and newcomers are to be treated as unwilling guinea pigs for what the rest of us must also soon have to suffer. The Tories tried their most unpopular policies first - including the poll tax - out on a recalcitrant Scotland where they had nothing to lose. The closest thing Labour has now is the downtrodden and most vilified in society, who currently are either binge drinking teenagers, which tend to already be citizens, or migrants. They've plumped for the latter.

Today's proposal is somewhat based on a Fabian pamphlet from last year written by Liam Byrne and the then communities minister, Ruth Kelly. That proposed a separate points scheme for those wishing to become citizens, to run alongside the one for those who want to come here in the first place. In order to accrue the amount needed to become a citizen, they'd have to do most of what has been set out today, but would have had points deducted for committing minor offences. Today's scheme is instead based around the idea of a "probationary" period, which you have to love simply for its shameless nod to the idea of criminality, not to mention how you need to prove that you are actually here for your own well-being and not merely milking the country for all it's worth.

That frankly is the main rub. While none of the rhetoric from ministers today has approached the disgraceful sop to the tabloids John Reid made while Home Secretary, shouting wildly about migrants "stealing our benefits", you can't help but notice but it's almost certainly been designed with their demands in full mind. Liam Byrne, writing a piss-poor article for CiF, says that we're not a nation of Alf Garnetts, based on his consultations which are published in the green paper, but the leader writers and columnists on some newspapers are close to a modern-day equivalent. How else to explain the cranking up of the visa fees, which are to go directly to a "transitional impact" scheme to provide additional funds to local councils which have had an influx of migrants who are stretching their spending? As Diane Abbot has already said, this is asking the overwhelmingly black or Asian visa applicants to foot the bill for the east European migrants which the government failed to plan for. In any case, much of the moaning has been exaggerated, but this is what it leads to. Today's Sun leader:

GORDON Brown has been warned.

Brits are more worried by the effects of record immigration than anything else.

Who says so? His private polling guru AND one of his most able ministers, Pat McFadden.

Hard-working Brits rightly deserve NHS treatment, schools for their kids and decent roads.

They’ve paid their taxes and expect public services in return.

Yet our swelling population means schools and hospitals can no longer cope.

We want Jacqui Smith to unveil some proper measures to tackle this issue so that taxpayers get the services they deserve.

To say so is not racist.

It’s common sense.

Ignoring the straw man about somehow this argument being anything to do with race, I obviously can't account for hospitals across the land, but my grandmother's had a stay in one recently, and having made multiple visits to see her, the last thing I saw was the image of hospitals conjured up by the press coverage. It was clean, the staff were incredibly helpful and there was nothing to suggest that anyone was having any trouble coping, and I live in an area which has had a reasonably large influx of eastern European migrants. What I did notice however was that if the same tightened immigration rules had been in place when a decent number of those staff had came to live here, they might not have been able to make the same contribution as they subsequently have.

Byrne says that all those he spoke to didn't want those seeking citizenship to have to jump through endless hoops to gain it, but that seems exactly what the proposal he now presumably supports is designed to put in place. The time it takes will now be 6 years, rather than 5; there'll be more rigorous testing of the command of English, just as the government has cut the funding for the English as second language schemes that are vital for those who need those qualifications; and applicants will need to "prove" that they've made an attempt to integrate, with those who undertake voluntary work within the community having their applications potentially accelerated.

Most of the proposals aren't intrinsically questionable, but I think the biggest problem with it is the very fact that it's no longer enough for you to pay taxes, to not break the law and to generally keep yourself to yourself; if you weren't born here, you have to prove that you've not come only to sponge off the state and take advantage of our wonderfully free, fair, tolerant, diverse and shining happy country. It's surely not churlish to point out that if poor migrants in search of a better life have to go through such bureaucracy to prove their good intentions, that the non-doms which the government is so obsequious towards also do exactly the same, paying their fair share of tax at the very least. The corporations and businesses which do everything they can to pay as little tax as possible, whether through loopholes, tax havens or offshore trusts ought to placed under the same "rights and responsibilities".

Fact is, the government is as usual stuck between a rock and a hard place. It will never do enough to placate those who want the door shut completely; they'll instead gravitate towards the Tories' disingenuous call for a mythical annual limit or even further to the right. These proposals don't even touch the eastern Europeans who have moved in such large numbers since their countries joined the EU, even if the tide does now appear to be turning on that score. It will also naturally offend those who object to the apparent establishment of there being a two-tier citizenship programme. If you're already well off and white, you'll be welcomed with open arms; non-white and/or poor and you're suspicious. That it so apparently pleases Frank Field, who long lost any touch with the party he's meant to be a member of is perhaps its biggest indictment.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008 

Taking Fayed seriously.

Not to go back to Flat Earth News yet again, but as I wrote in the review, Davies doesn't believe there's any evidence that advertisers either directly or indirectly influence the editorial line taken by newspapers.

Perhaps there is at least one example of this. It's widely known that Mohamed Fayed moved the advertising for his various interests from the Mail to the Express, for whatever reason there was at the time, and as the Guardian reported back when the Telegraph was up for sale, Fayed and Richard Desmond, owner of the Express, held talks about launching a joint bid for the paper. It also suggests that Fayed and Desmond discuss "business" on a regular basis.

Whatever the truth of the matter, while all the rest of the press have mocked Fayed's performance in the witness box at the Diana inquest yesterday, both the Express and the Star have been either deadly serious or respectful in their reports, with the Express even printing this pathetically craven sentence:

But at other times Mr Al Fayed was highly emotional, at one point wiping away tears with a tissue, betraying how raw his grief at his son’s death still is, a decade on.

Of course, it might not be anything to do with Fayed's advertising in the paper at all, and rather be all to do with how the Express has milked the conspiracies surrounding Diana's death for all they're worth, and if that involves taking their chief architect deadly seriously, so be it. I don't think however it should be something to dismiss out of hand.

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Reporting suicide compassionately.

A few years ago, for a number of reasons, I became suicidally depressed. This wasn't just teenage angst on a grander scale; I was positively a danger to myself. I self-harmed; I hung from a railway bridge over a river and wanted, desperately, to let myself go, and when I pulled myself back up, I hated myself and my pathetic nature even more. For those who've never been depressed, let alone severely depressed, you simply can't know how a person ever thinks or feels when they're in that sort of a downward spiral. The gloom, the mood, whether you call it a black dog as Churchill so accurately described it, or something different, both inhabits and inhibits your every action. In every different person it manifests itself in a different way: I tried, as best I could, to hide it. I laughed, I joked, I tried to participate; then I went home and probably cried while I walked. In my case, I went to sleep praying that I wouldn't wake up in the morning, and then when I woke up I was even angrier and sadder that my wish hadn't come true. Your constant desire, if not always at the front of your mind then nowhere near the back, is to die, and as quickly as possible. At moments I was absolutely furious, both at myself and at the world at large; in the next I was so self-defeating that I would have accepted anything that anyone had wanted to do to me.

Thankfully, and with the help of both anti-depressants and a NHS mental health team that has bent over backwards, I've made something approaching a recovery. I can't pretend that the experience hasn't deeply affected me, and it's certainly changed my perspective on a whole host of things. It also I would hope have given me an insight into what it's like to be mentally ill, temporarily or permanently. That's why the coverage on the "Bridgend suicides" is now so concerning me.

The media at large are now reporting that the 17th suicide within the space around of a year has occurred. There's a problem with that very fact to begin with: it implies that there's a connection between them. As the police and the coroner have been at pains to point out throughout, they have completely failed to find any link between the suicides; no evidence of any pact; nothing to suggest that the teenagers had been encouraging each other to kill themselves; and certainly nothing even to support the contention that there's a cult linked to the online memorials to those who have killed themselves on social networking websites.

Instead, what there certainly is is a growing belief that the heightened media coverage is only exacerbating the problem. Wherever or whenever the suicides began, the pattern appeared to be that friends of those that had committed suicide were also making attempts on their lives. Doubtless the loss of their friends influenced their actions, but it would be naive to believe that was the only reason why they tried to kill themselves. Now it seems to increasingly be that those who had no dealings with the others are making what could be copycat attempts, although it's impossible to be certain. That hanging seems to have been the method chosen certainly suggests that's the case. Of course, this could also be to fall into the same trap as the media themselves have; we might be looking for patterns that aren't there, when we know that mental health problems will now affect 1 in 4 at some point during their lives.

The pressure and media move into Bridgend does however seem to have had anything but a positive effect. Very few of the organisations involved in reporting have taken any notice for example of the Samaritans' guide to reporting suicide. A number of its sections are worth quoting:

A fine line remains between sensitive, intelligent reporting by the media and sensationalising the issue. The focus should be on educating and informing the public. Copycat suicides account for about six percent of all suicides and the imitative behaviour can follow certain types of news reports and other portrayals of suicide.

Consider the timing.

The coincidental deaths by suicide of two or more people makes the story more topical and newsworthy, but additional care is required in the reporting of "another suicide, just days after…", which might imply a connection. There are 17 suicides every day, most of which go unreported.

One of the findings of a systematic review of research literature on suicide and the media concluded that "certain portrayals tend to increase the likelihood that imitative behaviour will occur", with prominent or repetitive news coverage of particular concern. When added in to how misguided and sensational some of the coverage, especially in the tabloids with the largest circulation and most likely to be read by the young has been, there's a high possibility that at the moment the media is doing more harm than good.

I'm not one of those who is completely opposed to suicide or any discussion of it whatsoever for fear that people will get ideas. I think that's an entirely wrong and simplistic message which people use to put all the blame on everyone other than themselves, especially when the young kill themselves. There are times when suicide should be accepted as something approaching honourable, or as the least worst way out, rather than as something to be dismissed as cowardly or as leaving others to pick up the pieces. Every case needs to be assessed on its merits.

I think we can all agree though that those who have killed themselves in Bridgend, especially the teenagers, have not experienced enough of life to be able to make any sort of decision on whether their life is worth living or not. Those who are mourning the death of their friends need space to be able to grieve and come to terms with what has happened; losing friends young is always incredibly difficult to accept or make sense of, and is especially likely to affect someone for the rest of their life. The media need to back off, leave Bridgend and at the very least adhere to the recommendations of the Samaritans. While the media should not be personally blamed for anything that has happened, as that itself would be to simplify and ignore the multiple reasons behind what has occurred, it needs to respect the requests of an increasing amount of those in Bridgend itself and at the very least stop its rampant speculation and lack of feeling for those caught up in what is nothing less than a continuing tragedy.

Then again, Madeleine Moon is currently on Newsnight blaming the media when she was the one scaremongering recklessly about social networking sites in the first place. Perhaps there really isn't any connection whatsoever to anything.

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The ghastly party.

Strange how things work out, isn't it? Yesterday Nadine Dorries wrote this delightful passage about our dear leader:

It is becoming scarier and scarier sitting so close to Gordon Brown. The fixed maniac-esque grin on his face is so un-natural and frankly his pallor was a really odd shade today.

I really would pull my children close to me if they were sat on the green benches. I have to resist the urge to lean over, and whisper into George’s ear “take care, don’t get too close now”; and I am ready to pounce and pull George back over the seats, should Gordon Brown lose control and come flying across the dispatch box, to try and eat him or something.

It seems she really didn't pull her children close enough, as this occurred shortly afterwards:

Today I was awoken by a policeman.

One moment I was in a warm, dark bed, tucked up in my dreams; next there were sirens screaming in my ears as background music to a man with an amazingly calm voice, telling me that my world may be about to tip upside down.

My daughter had in fact been upside down in a wrecked car, and was trapped in the foetal position, still in her seat belt.

Dorries' daughter is thankfully almost completely unharmed. I can't say I'm a believer in karma or fate, but the more superstituous amongst us might think of it as a warning.

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Scum-watch: Any evidence will do.

One of the rules of production Nick Davies outlines in Flat Earth News is to go with the moral panic. The Sun isn't just going with the moral panic with teenage binge drinking, it's determined to lead it. Here's today's leader on the subject:

BRITAIN is in the grip of an underage booze culture.

Teenagers have cash to spend like never before.

And they’re blowing it on frightening quantities of alcohol — against the law.

The Sun’s expose of a typical night out in two major cities is a disturbing read.

Let's take a look at the Scum's "disturbing read" then. In Leeds the first call-out is to a 40-year-old woman suffering a fit after drinking; the second is to a 19-year-old where her friends fear her drink has been spiked; the third is to a 16-year-old having a fit after drinking, but the call is cancelled before they get there; the fourth is to a 17-year-old, who's been drinking, but has got into difficulties because of the differences of temperature in the club he was in and then the cold after he left; and the last is to a pregnant 22-year-old, who promptly vomits in the back of the ambulance.

In London, they only make one call, and that's to a man in his 30s who's tripped and hurt himself after drinking 5 pints.

As I'm sure you'll agree, the evidence that teenage binge drinking is out of control is truly overwhelming.

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Monday, February 18, 2008 

Gotta go back in time.

When you walked out the door this morning, did anything feel, slightly different? A bit greyer, perhaps? Was Radio 1 rather than Radio 2 strangely playing Yes? Come to mention it, wasn't the car itself slightly older than you remember it being when you parked it there on Saturday? Was the previously colourful area where you live apparently transformed into a faintly sinister Stalinist architectural hell-hole, indicative of the lack of investment that public ownership practised by a socialist government inevitably brings? And, most horrifying of all, was that person really wearing a waistcoat and flares?

Yes, we've gone back to the 70s in the Tory time machine! Whether a result of the tardis twirling through time commanded by Dr "Dave Cameron" Who, or due to the De Lorean driven by George "Doc" Osborne, we're back in the bad old days of the 70s, where the unions are strong, the 3-day-week is still a recent memory, the comedians are racist without calling it ironic or post-modern, and where Margaret Thatcher was still a threat of what was to come rather than a legacy surrounding us. Oh, and where the gap between rich and poor had yet to stretch further than the distance to the moon.

Perhaps then Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling did wake up this morning asking themselves whether they were mad, in a coma or back in time, but then again, Brown probably does that every morning anyway. Or maybe it was just a befuddled haze from the night before: "Urgh, did I really nationalise Northern Rock? What was I thinking?"

As you can tell from this hackneyed post, when the government decides that the best course of action is to nationalise a private company that has been technically insolvent for almost six months, it brings out the caricatures like a cartoon exhibition. The Tories still haven't quite chanced upon the best adjective to describe the desperate measure of nationalising Northern Rock, but they're keen on both catastrophe and disaster, when they're not doing their level best to try and suggest that New Labour, the party that took selling off its assets to such an extreme that HM Revenue and Customs, the department of government meant to combat the use of offshore tax havens, sold some of its properties to a company based in Bermuda, has dragged us all back to the 1970s with their cack-handed attempts to first sell Northern Rock to a bunch of chancers you wouldn't trust running a jumble sale, then finally giving in and accepting that Vince Cable had been right all along.

This is of course a matter of great and fundamental importance, seeing as every single one of us unfortunate taxpayers now has the equivalent of £3,500 of our own money in keeping Northern Wreck afloat before it is eventually returned to the private sector, but I'm more interested in just how opportunist and shameless the Conservative party can be. With both its leader and shadow chancellor never having to have wanted for anything, and with Dave's wonderful record of having been involved behind the scenes of the Treasury on Black Wednesday, you wouldn't think they'd have the slightest clue what to have done with Northern Rock, and you'd be right. All they know is that nationalisation is a scandal and an outrage, and despite having the best part of six months to come up with a solid policy on what they'd do or have done if they'd been in power, that's as far as they've come. Their wheeze today, presumably written on the back of Cameron's fag packet, was that the Bank of England run Northern Crock down, but as the inestimable Mr Cable has pointed out, this is just nationalisation by another name. For a party that screams, moans and gurgles if Labour so much as shows the slightest sign that its decisions might be influenced by dogma, "old-thinking" or ideology, the Conservatives have relied on their most base prejudice, that being that state ownership is always wrong and unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. Their allegiance to the tenets of neoliberalism, however badly it's been singed by the huge fallout from the sub-prime crisis, is absolute. Just to be awkward, and despite initially supporting the government in more or less whatever it did, they'll also vote against the emergency legislation being hurried through parliament authorising the nationalisation. When in opposition you can of course be as opportunist and shameless as you like in your thinking, but if there was a clear sign that under Cameron the Tories still haven't got the first clue of being able to govern, this was it.

There are two legitimate and damning criticisms of the government's response to Northern Rock's collapse, and the first is that the Financial Services Authority was never given enough teeth or powers in order to regulate the banks and their unsustainable, founded on pure greed business models in the first place. The light touch scheme so beloved of the City, which nevertheless complains bitterly about the slightest amount of bureaucracy or checks and talks darkly of business moving overseas if any more is imposed comprehensively failed. Again, the Conservatives have no answer to this and can't make anything out of it because John Redwood in his economic policy paper had recommended removing all the current red tape from mortgages entirely. Second is that it even bothered looking for a private-sector solution when it was obvious from the beginning that only those with very deep pockets looking to make a cheap buck would be interested in taking the liability on in the short-term. While the government dithered, hedge funds bought huge quantities of Northern Rock shares at rock bottom price, and are now going to be the first at the front of the queue demanding compensation. They don't deserve and are not entitled to a single penny. The "saviours" that did emerge were the private equity firms that would have stripped the bank to the bone, employees along with it in record time and far quicker than the government will. Oh, and there was Beardie, the grinning Cheshire cat of the piece, with Gordon Brown prostituting himself to the eternal Virgin, ignoring his tax-dodging, use of offshore havens and numerous failures and lesser offer than that of Olivant, purely because, well, he's Richard Branson!

What has in fact always been the least worst move is now being portrayed as a complete and utter disaster. For this Labour has no one to blame for itself: Brown has been so desperate to avoid being portrayed by the Tories as the throwback to Old Labour that he has opened himself right up to their other similarly mostly idiotic charge, that he dithers. He certainly has dithered over Northern Rock, and for all the wrong reasons. The other truth of the matter is that New Labour has become so beholden to City that even the slightest move towards finally making it actually pay its dues have been watered down. £35,000 a year after seven years for non-doms who pay the same amount of tax as the cleaners of their buildings do? Scandalous! An 8% increase in capital gains tax even though Labour had cut it from 40% to 10% to begin with? A disaster for the aspirational! It's little wonder then that it spent so long looking for the private solution which was never to arrive. Anything less would have been unforgivable and an abuse of power. With it has gone any authority that Alistair Darling had as chancellor. If the previous chancellor was the most powerful and strongest in living memory, than Darling is certainly one of the weakest, but then whoever was given the job always had a poisoned chalice Whether Labour can recover its record for competence might depend on how quickly his services are dispensed with, pathetic Tory calls for his head or not.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008 

Book review: Flat Earth News by Nick Davies.

We want the airwaves back
We want the airwaves back

We don't just want airtime

We want all the time all of the time

-- Refused - Liberation Frequency

As Nick Davies writes in the prologue of Flat Earth News, he left university in 1974, the year that two men, armed only with notebooks, pens and although Davies doesn't mention it, an impeccable source, brought down the American president by exposing his corruption. The very idea of such journalism is therefore an incredibly noble one. The fact that, according to Davies, journalism has become corrupted to its very core is one that ought to make us just for a second sit up and take something approaching notice. If we judge Davies' book by whose resignations it brought about, or at the very least contributed to, then similarly it deserves much of the praise that it has already received, almost completely in the broadsheet press (The Daily Mail, which has its own chapter in the book, has mentioned it all of twice). Although it has been firmly denied by both men, it's rumoured that Davies' chapter on the Observer, where he exposes the behaviour of Roger Alton, a sub-editor without much of a clue on politics promoted to editor on one of the liberal-left's flag bearers, and Kamal Ahmed, chosen by Alton to be the paper's political editor despite having no contacts within Westminster and uncertain of its very traditions, with its tale of how both came to rely on Downing Street and Alastair Campbell, culminating in the paper's support for the Iraq war, led to both leaving the paper late last year. More conspiracy-theory minded hacks have postulated that the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, directly commissioned Davies' attack due to a spat between him and Alton, and it's true that Rusbridger gave his full support while Davies took a break from his freelance investigations for the Graun to write FEN.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the chapter on the Observer is actually one of the weakest in the book, but that's only because much of the rest of the content is little short of dynamite. Beginning with the tale of the millennium bug, probably the biggest indictment of our press until they comprehensively failed to challenge the WMD myth, the narrative that Davies weaves is one of a trade that has either reached its nadir, or will very shortly, unless urgent action is taken. For once, it's a call to arms that deserves to be answered.

Unlike how some critics have attempted to paint Davies' argument, he in fact makes clear that he doesn't believe there was some golden age in journalism, nor does he blame giant corporations out to make money for making their journalists tell lies. One of his first dismissals is of the two main schools of criticism on the press; that the firms that advertise in its pages have undue influence on the editorial line, for which he can find no evidence, and that the proprietors themselves routinely interfere with the papers they own. While he acknowledges Rupert Murdoch's tight-grip on his newspapers, he provides examples of how he uses politicians for his own ends, then dumps them when they have served their purpose. Hence having been the biggest believer in Thatcherism you could imagine, he nonetheless abandoned Major and turned to Blair's New Labour when he realised his interests would be served better by Blair and when Blair in return made clear he would not threaten his business interests. For all his views on freedom, Murdoch notoriously removed the BBC from his Star satellite service in China when the cadres complained. Murdoch is most of all a shameless opportunist and a megalomaniac; anything that gives him yet more control and more money is worthy of support. This, rather than real allegiance to either the Bush administration or Blair is what informed Murdoch's support of the Iraq war: he wanted the $20 barrel of oil at the end of it that would have so cut costs for his empire.

Instead, Davies' main thesis is that the "grocers", the new owners that bought the press from its family owners have imposed their business logic on a sector that cannot simply cope or it do its job properly under such conditions. Davies commissioned research by Cardiff University that chose two random weeks and analysed every single domestic news story put out by the Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph and Mail and then tried to identify what the sources for the reports were. Their findings were stark. 60% of the stories they analysed were consisted either wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material; 20% contained clear elements of wire copy and/or PR to which more or less other material had been added; 8% of the stories they were unsure of its source, leaving only 12% of stories which were entirely made up of material generated by the reporters themselves. Of the papers, the Times was the worst, with 69% of its stories consisting wholly or mainly of wire or PR material, with the Guardian best, with just over half of its stories containing the same material. Those at the real sharp end are those working on the local papers, who are so strained for their time that they hardly manage to leave the office, which is vital for building up sources and actually reporting anything accurately. A diary of one reporter's week is included which makes for shocking reading.

As Davies points out, there wouldn't be much of a problem with this if either the wire services which journalists rely on are accurate, or the PR industry was honest. Instead, the latter is a charlatan, while the former is under the very same constraints that the journalists themselves are. Where formerly there were numerous local agencies around the country which provided copy and local nous for both the local and national press, these have been stripped, thanks to the business logic of the grocers, to the very bare bones. Although the Press Association, the main UK wire service, refused to confirm Davies' figures collected from the staff themselves, vast areas such as Greater Manchester, Lancaster and Cumbria are now covered by just five reporters. Similar numbers cover other wide areas of the country, while the whole of Scotland for example has but fifteen reporters. They're not even all working at the same time, as they cover shifts. It's not just the rural areas that are suffering - the Houses of Parliament, 410 local councils, the whole national network of courts, police services and authorities and much much more (see page 76) is covered by just 69 reporters. He highlights the case of the "BNP bombers" that was only noted in the "blogosphere", almost certainly because of the lack of reporters that would have previously have covered it. The BBC has been subject to the same forces - and the demands placed on the reporters to get the story out are so onerous that it expects them to be able to write a suitable summary of the subject, check its sources and provide it for both the website and Ceefax within five minutes of it breaking. What happens is that accuracy and authority goes out the window. Davies provides examples from across the Atlantic to outline that this isn't just happening here, but globally.

These conditions have established "rules of production", unwritten values that now inhibit journalism's natural duty to provide the truth, and which are designed to help the grocers through cutting costs. The first is running cheap stories, which means abandoning the special investigations which take a lot of time, effort and money. The provided example is of AP discovering the details of a massacre during the Korean war by US troops, which AP was determined not to run because of the potential downfalls of such a story in terms of backlash. It was eventually ran, 16 months after it was first submitted, completely re-written and toned down, and it still won a Pulitzer, but the reporter responsible resigned after being sidelined despite his success. The second is to select safe facts, which are perhaps best described as Rumsfeld's known knowns, the things we know that we know, or at least think we know. Hence, the millennium bug is going to cause chaos. Iraq has WMD. Heroin is deadly. The MMR jab causes autism. Immigration is a bad thing. Skipping some, rule eight is give them what they want to believe in, which affects both tabloids and broadsheets alike. Nine is to go with the moral panic, which coming from this blog you don't need to be informed further of. Rule ten is ninja turtle syndrome, which is to publish stories regardless of whether they're merited, purely because elsewhere has covered them, like the Talibrum at the start of this week.

Davies next turns his fire on the PR firms directly, then on the secret state actors that have so infiltrated the news post 9/11 and provided so many stories which are either completely uncheckable or that are justified purely on the basis that a "security" source has provided them, regardless of their own personal motives. Davies' main case study is about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and how he became the most evil man in the world, dying multiple times, losing limbs and appearing in numerous places, linked to dozens of attacks, all of which were completely untrue or not backed up by the evidence subsequently unearthed. That he eventually did join up with bin Laden, despite previously wanting to run his own rival terror network was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy after the press had so often described him as a top al-Qaida terrorist.

The final part is Davies turning on the British press itself in detail, first exposing the "dark arts", where newspapers routinely break the law despite being the most vociferous on those outside Fleet Street, whether in the public or in parliament who do so. Steve Whittamore and the Information Commissioner's discovery of his meticulous records of the newspapers that had used his services to discover details about private individuals via his sources in the police and elsewhere is explored in detail, with a reporter formerly at the Mail boasting about how they bribed not just the police, but contacts in the civil service, giving them free access to all of their targets' personal details. The Times and Sunday Times are also heavy users of such arts, before Davies recounts the mostly amusing story of 'Benji the Binman', who discovered the papers that proved the Guardian's case against Jonathan Aitken, sifting through what had been dumped out by his solicitors. The Guardian's David Hencke helped him make contact with a freelance journalist who sold his findings with more aplomb than Benji himself had managed. Less amusing are Davies' revelations about someone called "Z" whose leaking of criminal investigations has tipped those targeted in them off, the celebrities threatened with violence and the bug discovered in a BT junction box near the home of Angus Deayton. Davies ends by suggesting that Whittamore's team is back working again, just without using the police national computer, which led to their prosecution being accessed this time. The next chapters deal with the dizzy heights of the Sunday Times's Insight team, from the highs of exposing the Thalidomide scandal and discovering that Kim Philby had been head of the anti-Soviet section of MI6, through to the lows of the sale to Murdoch and alleging that Michael Foot was KGB agent, all instructive of how profit pressures and cutting desperately affects a newspaper; the aforementioned expose on the Observer; and finally the hatchet jobs, racism and general viciousness of both the Daily Mail in print and within its offices. These chapters probably don't tell you anything you don't already know, especially if you're an avid reader of Private Eye or general watcher of media scandals, but are a good collection of just how vile and corrupt distinguished newspapers, not just the red-tops, can be.

As you would expect, there are problems with Davies' main thrust. As convincing as his points about the "grocers" are, it doesn't explain how or why, despite their business logic, that all four main broadsheet newspapers in this country currently lose money, from £50m in the case of the Guardian/Observer, up to £80m in the case of the Times. One of the few wounding parts of Paul Dacre's Cudlipp lecture from last year was that the "quality" press can't make a profit, and is subsided by the other parts of the companies that do. Hence the Guardian, although its website turns a profit, is subsidised by Auto Trader, while the Times is bailed out by other parts of the Murdoch empire which make silly amounts of money, including the Sun. That has always been Murdoch's trump card whenever anyone criticises him and his offerings in the UK; he could have closed the Times down, but instead keeps it going and losing him money for the 600,000 plus readers it has. That the paper offers him the prestige of owning one of the world's oldest, most famous and respected newspapers is never mentioned. Perhaps, seeing as we buy almost more "tabloid" newspapers than anywhere on the planet, we actually have the press we deserve.

Peter Preston, in his review of FEN, also says that the numbers of staff on the broadsheets has actually gone up rather than down, contrary to Davies' claims. He also overplays his card on the local press, who are and always have been distinct from the Fleet Street papers, despite them greatly helping them with first breaking stories they then follow up. In the digital age, it's almost certain that such newspapers are going to go fully online before very long, cutting their costs further, and after all, why do small towns or even some of the larger cities really need a daily newspaper anyway? Of course, whether the "grocers" then put more money back into cultivating young journalistic talent is the key question, when all the signs point towards them just lining their and their shareholders' pockets still further. Simon Jenkins is also right when he points out that the press, despite Davies considering it almost intrinsically corrupt and the journalists increasingly starved for time to check their facts or run investigations, still manages to expose the corruption of BAE Systems and the cash for honours scandal, although he's less convincing for his praise for the Mail in exposing Stephen Lawrence's killers. Many consider that to have been the final nail in the coffin of any chance of convicting them of the crime.

None of this however destroys Davies' main conclusion that the press in this country, and this is a press which is largely regarded as being one of the most ferocious and independent in the world, is if not completely compromised, coming close to being on life support. The press has never been a beacon of truth, but it's becoming dangerously close to offering the exact opposite: the downright lies and prejudices of the security services, the commercial interests of the corporate conglomerates and the PR industry, and the casual reiteration and assumption of facts which are not facts until they are checked, checked and then rechecked again are all directly offending against the media's first priority. Churnalism and Flat Earth News are not just a threat to our own knowledge and understanding of the world around us, they are a threat to democracy itself. The really sad thing is that I can't even see much hope in Davies' conclusion that the internet at least offers something approaching an alternative voice: it too, despite all the contempt for the "dead tree press" or the "MSM" routinely voiced, directly relies upon on it in order to survive. The BBC too is increasingly threatened, not just by the potential top-slicing of the licence fee or the end of it, but by the commercial pressures that affect everyone else and make director generals fund BBC3 rather than news and current affairs. When it comes down to a choice between Lily Allen and Friends and Dawn Goes Lesbian over Rough Justice and Newsnight, I'm increasingly pessimistic over which the public themselves really wants, and one of Davies' own rules of production is "give them what they want". "They" are always right, and everyone else is always wrong.

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Immigration wave over? Not if the Mail and Express have their way.

A wave of immigration that helped to fuel Britain’s early 21st century boom is over, as the Polish plumber and thousands like him go home.

The Times has established that, for the first time since they began arriving en masse four years ago, more UK-based Poles are returning to their homeland than are entering Britain.

Statistics show that only 38,680 Poles signed up to the Government’s register of migrant workers in the third quarter of 2007, a slump of 18 per cent from the previous year. Polish officials say that Poles leaving the country outnumber thoses coming in.

Hard statistics on the number of Poles leaving Britain do not exist. There are no embarkation controls on EU members so they are are not counted out. But Polish officials, British employment agencies and the Polish media all believe that the tide of immigration has turned. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, 274,065 Poles have signed up for work permits. They make up 66 per cent of all applications from Eastern European countries.

Oh, so you mean that 1.3 million Poles didn't arrive in the UK last year, that 860 migrants don't flood in every day, and that as some of us noted previously, the numbers peaked a while ago? Perhaps now a newspaper with slightly more authority than the Mail or Express has published something approaching reality on its front page we can something approaching a reasoned debate on immigration. Or, going by this, perhaps not:

I am urgently looking for anonymous horror stories of people who have employed Eastern European staff, only for them to steal from them, disappear, or have lied about their resident status. We can pay you £100 for taking part, and I promise it will be anonymous…

A personal plea from the Daily Mail's Diana Appleyard.

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Friday, February 15, 2008 

How churnalism works over the RUSI report, and other thoughts on it.

I keep trying not to return to Nick Davies' Flat Earth News (review tomorrow, hopefully) but another of its main accusations, that journalism is increasingly reliant on PR, is borne out by the rather hefty coverage given to an otherwise reasonably unremarkable essay in the Royal United Services Institute journal. Written by Gwyn Prins and Robert (formely Lord) Salisbury, it opens with the statement (PDF) "[T]he security of the United Kingdom is at risk and under threat" and continues on, tediously and with little sublety, to its conclusion. As I said, unremarkable. If it had been published without being presumably sent, either to the Press Association or to the newspapers themselves, only defence or security correspondents would have been likely to have noticed it, let alone reported it.

To be fair to Daniel Sherman, who appears to be RUSI's "media inquiries" person, or aka, most likely the PR head, the word "multiculturalism" doesn't appear in the press release. Neither does "soft touch". Both however, made the headline splash on the front page of the Daily Mail. Having been provided with the release, the Mail hack responsible likely sped-read through the essay, saw the word multiculturalism, with features only around three times and isn't one of the main points of the article, then soft-touch, which features once, and from there the front page loomed. It after all made a change from earlier in the week, when the tabloids almost as a whole have been going crazy about how our youth are going to hell in a handcart, Britain is binging itself to oblivion and how we're all going to die. That it's been half-term week, when kids themselves are more likely to be taking notice of the media makes this especially repellent.

This was then from one hardy perennial to another. As Davies in FEN writes, these sort of press releases and articles are perfect for the lazy journalist or the time-stretched hack alike. They enable them to use large amounts of copy and paste, add very little of any other real substance, and they don't have to bother to check any of the information. If they had, they might have noticed that the essay notes onerously about the threat posed by Russia, especially the "unprecedented 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia, in which state resources were apparently complicit." Sorry to break it to the Russiaphobes and pessimists scaremongering about a new cold war, but the attack on Estonia has been traced back to the almost cliched just out of teenage years man within Estonia itself, who commanded what must have been a huge botnet.

Debate has then revolved around the two things that the essay doesn't really dwell on. Yes, it talks about "the United Kingdom presenting itself as a target, as a fragmenting, post-Christian society" with that "fragmentation worsened by the firm self-image of those within it who refuse to integrate" with the problem worsened still "by the lack of leadership from the majority which in mis-placed deference to multiculturalism failed to lay down the line to immigrant communities" but this isn't within the section where the authors outline the threats to security as they see them. The simple reply to that in any case is that we are presenting ourselves as a target, not because we're a post-Christian society or a soft-touch, but because we've involved ourselves in wars where some blowback was inevitable. Even the most ardent of those warning about the extremism in our midst admit that certainly prior to 9/11 and even up until the Iraq war there was something approaching an unwritten article of understanding where we allowed "them" to get on with it as long as Britain itself was not the target. If 9/11 changed everything, then so did the Iraq war. It's not as if this extremism is contained only in countries where the multicultural approach is always in evidence; an increasing number of attacks have been foiled in both America and in Europe, mainly targeting American installations if the country itself isn't involved in the operations in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The underlying point of the essay is that we haven't beaten into the lousy immigrants that they can't do whatever the hell they like here, which is errant nonsense.

The essay also says that "[7/7] exposed the weakness of the ‘multi-cultural’ approach towards Islamists", but did it really? Sure, to those already opposed in principle to "multiculturalism", which is and has never been an actual policy but something that has occurred naturally over time, it enabled them to point the finger, but wasn't its real message that regardless of race, religion or any other signifer, if someone wants to commit an act of mass murder, for whatever ridiculous, disengenuous and despicable reason, they will do so? As under Brown the government has moved towards, the right approach is to remove whatever pretentious, vacuous title these men give themselves, in Mohammad Siddique Khan's case that he was a "solider", and instead make clear what they are: self-righteous criminals killing innocent civilians for their own selfish, qausi-religious reasons. Of course they're jihadists, but the bottom line isn't Islam, but rather pure hatred, whether it's of modernity or otherwise.

Here's the paragraph on how we're a "soft-touch":

The deep guarantee of real strength is our knowledge of who we are. Our loss of cultural self-confidence weakens our ability to develop new means to provide for our security in the face of new risks. Our uncertainty incubates the embryonic threats these risks represent. We look like a soft touch. We are indeed a soft touch, from within and without.

But there is again no real evidence to back this up. We've long been an apathetic nation; around the only time we ever reach consensus is when we reach the finals of a football tournament, and then it's on what round we'll reach before we lose on penalties. Even that one time that everyone harks back to, the Blitz, has been convienently sanitised, like the occasions when the Queen Mother, touring parts of the East End to offer her supposed morale support, was booed, hissed and even pelted with rubbish. Nationalism in England is dead and racist nationalism is approaching terminal illness, while in Scotland and Wales it's currently living a charmed life that seems unlikely to prosper in the long-term. A better way to describe our existence would be atomised, not fragmented; we're still patriotic, just not in the queasy way America is. Point is, do we want to become that sort of nation? I, for one, hope not (Jeremy Seabrook also expands on this on CiF). It's also ridiculous we're a soft touch on terrorism: the almost unabated battles over the threat to civil liberties posed by legalisation meant to tackle terrorism are testament to that.

What the antics of the press over the essay have somewhat obscured is that while it is on the side of fearmongering over the threats we face, its actual proposals for tackling, isolating and identifying them are reasonably sound. It calls for two parliamentary committes, once including ministers as members, and a joint one of both the Commons and Lords. These committees would

draw together all the threads of government relating to defence and security, whether at home or abroad. It would be ‘somewhere for anyone to go’ in raising concerns. It would draw all parts of government into strategy and planning, as required. Its key function would be strategic: assessing risks and threats, and our capabilities in addressing them, in order to make judgements as to the balance and proportions of policy across the full spectrum of government activity.

This is a both a sensible and welcome suggestion. It should at the least be considered.

Less welcome is one of the other underlying emphasises. It opens with a nod towards the five former chief of defence staffs in the Lords that condemned the government for not spending enough on the military, and references them at least once again. Indeed, one of those who contributed through the "private seminars" that helped to draw up the essay is none other than Lord Inge, also a member of the UK National Defence Assocation and one of those that cried loudly and longly about the behaviour of Gordon Brown especially. Most of the others at these seminars were either ex-spooks, ex-military men or academics. As Garry has identified, it does again all come down to the money. As well as the other interests I noted that members of the UK National Defence Assocation had at the time, Vice Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, one of those on the list at the end of the essay, was formely the UK president of EADS, "a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services," and is now a senior military adviser to the company. There's Sir Mark Allen, a retired member of the UK diplomatic service, which is usually code for having been a spook, who's a senior adviser to BP. Garry notes that Robert Salisbury, previously Viscount Cranborne, co-author of the report, "quit" the Lords because of the "onerous" rules on interests. Finally, Baroness Park of Monmouth, who at least admits to formely working for MI6, is the vice-patron of the Atlantic Council, which has this upcoming event advertised on its website:

On April 21st, at the Ritz Carlton, Washington DC, the Atlantic Council will present former British Prime Minister Tony Blair the Award for Distinguished International Leadership—and will also present awards to Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation and Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for Distinguished Business and Distinguished Military Leadership respectively.

Richly deserved, don't you think?

There's nothing wrong with calling for increased defence spending of course, especially when we continue to have such damning coroners' reports on those who've been killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. If you're going to though you ought to at least declare your interests, and those involved in both this and previously the UKNDA have hardly been upfront about it. It's also a handy coincidence that this report about Britian being a soft-touch was published on the same day that the threats made by both BAE and Saudi royals were exposed in court. The government plainly gave in to blackmail over the Serious Fraud Office slush fund investigation, something it would have never done to terrorists. The reality is that we're a soft-touch when it comes to the fabuously rich, the arms dealers and the Sharia-law enforcing Saudi royals, not to those who threaten us in our backyard.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008 

A victory for freedom of thought?

The decision by the court of appeal to clear Mohammed Irfan Raja and four others of their convictions under section 57 of the Terrorism Act 2000 is a complex one, but also one which underlines the difficulty of knowing when to intervene when there appears to be a potential crime about to be committed, of drawing up legalisation which has a potentially chilling effect on the free distribution of literature, extremist or otherwise, and also of relying on information exchanged on chat rooms, and especially of building criminal prosecutions around that supposed evidence.

The lawyers for the men have tried to claim that they were imprisoned for what was more or less a thought crime. There's a certain amount of truth in that argument, but there's quite reasonable doubt about what the men's intentions were, with the prosecution in the original case alleging, not only that the men were planning to travel to Pakistan to "train for terrorist purposes", but also that they were afterwards going to join the fighting in Afghanistan. This is what the first two parts of section 57 say:

(1) A person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.

(2) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that his possession of the article was not for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism.

The position of the defendants was always that they had the material in question, with some of them claiming that it was for their studies, others simply for educational purposes, but certainly not to be used to prepare or instigate terrorism with. For the most part what they had appears to be the usual jihadist material, alongside nasheeds (Islamic acapellas, in this case the kind that usually soundtrack jihadist releases with praise for the mujahideen). According to reports from the Times and Telegraph, they also had

The material included a US military guide to terrorism that gave instructions on how to make explosive devices and a suicide-bombing manual.
Also found were extracts from an al-Qa'eda training manual, including a list of the most popular types of explosive and diagrams of triggering devices. Other documents discovered included a "military guide to terrorism in the 21st century".

The latter report is misleading in that it doesn't make clear that the military guide is a US army training document, freely available online from a number of places. As I've commented in the past, much of these so-called al-Qaida training manuals are nonsense, more likely to kill the person attempting to do anything described in them than anybody else. If they were only lists of explosives and diagrams of triggering devices, they hardly had even the building blocks of how to make any sort of bomb.

The BBC has helpfully mirrored the ruling (PDF) in full. This part, where the judges considered the evidence presented during the initial trial from conversations held on MSN, is especially illuminating:

37. Was there evidence before the jury that left it open to them to conclude that the appellants possessed the drives and discs for the purpose of instigating acts of terrorism? Without considering in detail the extremist literature and the evidence given in relation to it and the MSN communications we are unable to answer this question with certainty. Mr Edis took us through those communications at some length. While they lent support to the prosecution case that the appellants had formed a plan to go to Pakistan to train and then to Afghanistan to fight, there was nothing that evidenced expressly the use, or intention to use, the extremist literature to incite each other to do this. We think it doubtful whether there was a case of infringement of section 57, as we have interpreted it, that could properly have been left to the jury.

The judges' conclusion was that they only lent support towards the prosecution case, not that it proved it beyond reasonable doubt, which is the measure by which juries are asked to convict. It's impossible to reach a full conclusion without knowing exactly what the communications on MSN were, and as they was only really reporting of the case once it had concluded and the verdict reached, we simply don't know. This is what is alluded to nearer the beginning of the judges' ruling:

8. Subsequent police enquiries led them to arrest and search the other appellants, which revealed that they too were in possession of radical Islamic material and other material such as a USA military manual downloaded from the internet. Further MSN communications were found. These included an MSN discussion between all four of the Bradford appellants and a cousin of Malik, Imran, who lived in Pakistan, on 1 March 2006. It was the prosecution case that Imran was a foreign based terrorist. In the course of that discussion Butt asked about how to travel without raising suspicion.

Going by this, the evidence hardly looks overwhelming. There are plenty of reasons why you want to travel without raising suspicion, and not all of them point towards doing so because you intend to attend a terrorist training camp. That this Imran is a relative of Malik also doesn't help; if it was someone they had only met over the internet then it might be different. Much of the rest of the evidence against them is hearsay; that they had tried to take over a meeting of Bradford University's Islamic society and that one of them had scrawled "jihad" on chalk in a wall.

The other main piece of evidence, despite how some of the media have tried to portray it, is also far from conclusive: the youngest member of the group convicted, Irfan Raja, had left a letter for his parents (see image at top) after he had apparently ran away to join the four men in Bradford, especially when you consider that he was said to be depressed and upset at the time. There are no references to jihad or going to fight, let alone to Pakistan or Afghanistan, instead telling his parents he will meet them "in paradise, god willing", that they shouldn't be sad, although he also says he knows they will be upset, but also not to blame anyone, instead to pray to Allah. He also says that "just in case you think I am going to something in this country, you can rest easy that I am not." You can read into it what you like, but on the surface it's nothing more than an immature young person deciding to run away and presumably leave the country, then having second thoughts. Whether he intended for those who he ran away to getting caught up in this mess after his parents contacted the police, whether he had got the wrong end of the stick somewhere along the line or otherwise, he doesn't seem to have deserved to have been sentenced to two years' detention at the end of making such a mistake.

Paragraph 45 of the ruling deals with why the judges felt that the jury should not have been allowed to rule on whether there was a breach of section 57 in the first place, concluding that the prosecution had not made the case for the appealants' using the material to incite each other to travel to Afghanistan to fight, rather than simply to travel to Pakistan to train, while paragraph 47 asks a very good question: why they hadn't been charged under section 59 of the act, which deals with inciting terrorism overseas. The respondent first agreed, then reflected with this statement:

“The prosecution position is that there are a few utterances on the MSN which were arguably capable of falling within section 59 but they did not reflect the totality of the conduct of the defendants. Not every defendant had made such an utterance. These utterances also do not focus on the particular crimes mentioned in section 59 but are of a general nature. There is an inference that there must have been other such utterances on occasions in the past, and a further inference that there would be others in the future which would be more and more proximate to an act of terrorism as time passed if the plan succeeded. The prosecution case was that the material was possessed for future use in inciting and so instigating acts of terrorism. In these circumstances charges under section 57 were preferred. The prosecution considered that the totality of the conduct of the defendants could not have been caught within charges brought under section 59. Otherwise, such charges would have been brought.”

In other words, the prosecution felt it more likely that they would be found guilty under section 57 than they would under section 59, regardless of the fact that neither 57 or 59 really adequately cover what the MSN conversations suggested that the group intended to do.

The whole prosecution was then fraught with maybes, possibilities, inferences and suggestions. There isn't much doubt that all 5 of them had accessed extremist literature and propaganda, and were reasonably radical in their views, especially considering that they photoshopped their faces onto a poster of the 19 9/11 hijackers, and that their MSN names were nom de guerres of suicide bombers. The big question should be and should have been whether they really were going to go to Pakistan, let alone Afghanistan, or act on the material. That never seems to have been proved, and if the four were anything like Irfan Raja, they would have been prone to reconsidering exactly what it was they were doing, or even thinking of doing. The case in my view was rightly thrown out, although I'm not as certain as some that this is a blow for free speech or free thinking.

The other big question it raises, apart from how to tackle the ideology they were accessing, is when to intervene. Do we let those that want to go and fight in either Afghanistan or Iraq go and do so, knowing that eventually they might return here and put their training to horrific effect? Do we make certain that if we do, that we make damn sure they don't get back in? Or do we intervene early as in this case, under new, clearer legislation, and potentially imprison the innocent that were all mouth online and no trousers in reality? From my perspective, regularly downloading jihadist propaganda and releases so that I can comment more accurately on exactly what's going through the average jihadist's mind, what's happening in the jihadi online world and how we can more effectively fight back to win the battle of hearts and minds, and also chatting online where I have been known to make inchoate or sarcastic statements that I would never in reality follow through on, this kind of case slightly frightens me, as does the latter suggestion. As often seems to be the case, all the options on the table look like equally bad ones.

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Scum-watch: Newlove makes more demands, while Putin gets attacked.

I realise we've been a bit heavy on Scum-watches this week, but I can't help that they keep printing such utter tripe.

Today sees Helen Newlove given yet more room to list her shopping list of WHAT MUST CHANGE, this time on alcohol and access to it:

THE brave widow of murdered Garry Newlove last night demanded LIFE BANS for pub bosses who sell booze to children.

Widow Helen said: “Unless binge drinking goes unchecked, our town centres will turn into battlefields.

“Any bar manager or pub chain boss selling alcohol to minors – deliberately or not – should be banned from the industry for life.”

And what would this achieve exactly? There are already hefty fines in place for those who sell alcohol to anyone under 18, and more or less everywhere now demands ID if you look under 21. This only inflicts collective punishment on those who are old enough but who refuse to have to carry ID everywhere with them in case they decide to buy age restricted products. Common sense ought to be the order of the day, but Newlove seems impervious to that sort of logic. In any case, is it really the underaged that are turning "town centres ...into battlefields"? No, it's those old enough to drink being irresponsible. As ought to be pointed out, of the group that killed her husband, Swellings was old enough to buy alcohol, and presumably was the one who did.

Helen, 46, also wants:

LESS boozing on TV soaps because it makes heavy drinking seem “cool and normal” to teenagers.

Hear that TV producers and writers? Despite the fact that you're meant to be reflecting British life, and who knows, perhaps even generating debate about our culture and where we're heading, you've now got to censor your output because Mrs Newlove thinks it makes our rebellious youth decide it's cool. Now, far be it from me to suggest that they don't need television to think that drinking, getting drunk and all that entails in general is a bit of a hoot and that they'll do all of that regardless of what the ham actors are doing on EastEnders or Hollyoaks, but I think that Newlove really might be talking out of her arse.

service for landlords if drink-fuelled violence starts outside their pub.

Right, so they'll be responsible if those they serve just happen to kick off outside. Sounds fair and proportionate.

STRICTER checks on ID at pubs, bars and clubs.

How many times does it have to be pointed out that the problems aren't happening because underage drinking is taking place in pubs etc? As Lee Griffin has pointed out, if anything the problem has been exacerbated because those who did used to drink in pubs have been shown the door due to the crackdowns. When once they would have behaved in the pub or been kicked out and barred, they now instead drink either at someone's house or out in the open, usually either with alcohol that has been bought by the parents themselves or by someone they've asked to get it for them. This is when the rowdiness and aggravation happens, not in pubs where if you behave like that you quickly get thrown out.

LAWS to stop companies from targeting kids with booze.

There are already such ones in place, and the Advertising Standards Authority's code explicitly bans anything that is seen as targeting children.

BANS on booze-filled sweet fizzy drinks such as alcopops.

This is yet another misnomer. The group that killed Newlove's husband had drank strong cider and lager, which is far cheaper than the so-called alcopops and therefore infinitely more attractive. Those who drink them tend to because they're not great fans of alcohol, not because they're intending to get drunk on them, as those Newlove wants to target do.

“Every time you turn on the TV you see a soap set in a bar or club. Coronation Street and EastEnders revolve around pubs. Hollyoaks constantly features boozing teenagers.

“The end result is that kids are totally acclimatised to alcohol. They can’t draw the line between TV and reality and so grow up thinking it’s cool and normal to get hammered.”

If you could distil nonsense down into a couple of paragraphs, I think you'd likely end up at the above.

Moving on to the Scum's leader:

ONCE again the murk of a suspected Moscow-approved assassination hangs over Britain.

Tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, living here in exile from Georgia, dies mysteriously at his Surrey mansion hours after striding around London in the spring sunshine.

Mr P had the misfortune to be the enemy of another Mr P.

The sinister Vladimir Putin, President of Russia.

The dead tycoon had opponents at home, where he was suspected of plotting a coup.

But he also crossed Putin — who has huge influence in Georgia — by making billions from Russian oil.

Mr Patarkatsishvili told police he feared he would be killed.

He hired 120 minders — but it was no good.

Perhaps he did die of natural causes.

Perhaps Mr Putin is a lovely chap with all the charm of a country vicar.

Perhaps pigs might fly.

Putin might have huge influence in Georgia, but he and the government in that country don't see eye to eye.

Still, it doesn't hurt to slander Putin some, does it? I mean, especially seeing the results of the initial post-mortem:

An exiled Georgian billionaire who had spoken of assassination fears died of natural causes, according to initial post-mortem tests, Surrey police said.

A Surrey Police spokeswoman said there was "no indication that the sudden death of Badri Patarkatsishvili was from anything other than natural causes".

She said: "Extensive toxicology testing is yet to be carried out. This will take a number of weeks."


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Nepotism? On a newspaper blog?

Max Gogarty, 19, is going on his gap year. Luckily for Max, he's been given the privilege of writing a blog on it for the Grauniad travel site while he jets around the planet getting drunk and chilling the fuck out. Sadly for Max and the Grauniad, within 2 hours of the blog being posted it's discovered that Max is the sprog of Paul Gogarty, who although not employed by the Graun, has written for the paper's err, travel section. Gogarty had even previously treated his offspring to the delights of Thaliand, and had written about it... for the Graun.

Mayhem and comedy ensues.

(via Bloggerheads.)

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008 


The destruction wreaked by the bomb that killed Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

Everyone loves a good game of whodunnit? It's especially fun when the media join in, speculating wildly as they currently are over the sudden death of Arkadi "Badri" Patarkatsishvili, linking it endlessly to Alexander Litvinenko. Never mind that Patarkatsishvili, or "the Georgian" as Jeremy Paxman amusingly had it a couple of hours ago when he failed to pronounce his name, doesn't seem to have any particular grudge against Putin or Russia (Update, slight correction: He had been charged with fraud in Russia and fell out with Putin, but nowhere near on the scale that others have, nor had he been making the kind of accusations against Putin that Litvinenko had) but rather against the Georgian state, which is currently still ruled by the distinctly cool towards Russia Mikheil Saakashvili, it's obviously all inter-linked and highly worrying. We'll know more in the morning, but the police seem to have only described the death as "suspicious" because it is as yet unexplained, not necessarily indicating any foul play. I could be proved horrendously wrong in a few hours, but the media itself ought to remember the general idiocy and assumptions made about Bob Woolmer's death.

In any case, a far more interesting and genuinely worrying case of whodunnit? is currently taking place in Syria. Just a day before the 3rd anniversary of the massive car bombing that killed the ex-prime minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri, largely blamed on Syria and which forced the exodus of much of Syria's security apparatus from the country, Imad Mughniyeh, accused of masterminding numerous kidnappings and bombings by Hizbullah, has been killed in a similar fashion.

Those instantly leaping to conclusions will be pointing the finger squarely at Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence service, with perhaps a side-dashing of the CIA. Hizbullah and Iran have both pointedly denounced the attack, directly accusing Israel of being the perpetrator. Israel has denied any involvement in a rather terse release from prime minister Olmert's office, stating "Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add," but Israel has a policy of never owning up to strikes on foreign territory.

It's the method that will naturally raise the most suspicions. A car bombing isn't the CIA's style of late; they prefer the Hellfire missile delivered by manless drone, used in both the recent strike that killed Abu Laith al-Libi, although it hasn't been confirmed whether it was the US or Pakistan itself that launched the attack, and the case of the strike which was meant to have targeted al-Zawahiri, and instead killed the depressingly familiar innocents who got in the way. Mossad certainly has used car bombings in the past, but because the nature of the conflict within Israel and the occupied territories, the Hellfire missile has again been the most favoured weapon, although this is technically by the Shin Bet, Israel's internal security agency. The most notable recent assassination not involving an air strike was the killing of Yahya Ayyash, known as the "Engineer", who was killed by a mobile phone rigged with explosives.

Assuming that it was the work of Mossad and not the result of internal bickering within Hizbullah, an attack that went horribly wrong, or the result of a breakdown in the relationship between Mughniyeh and Iran or Syrian operatives, the main problem as always with these assassinations is that they are first and foremost, regardless of whom they target, acts of state terrorism. If the target is missed, innocents are usually the victims, which it turn only exacerbates the hate and mistrust towards the country attempting the assassination in the first place. What then should be the options for dealing with pieces of work such as Mughniyeh? Kidnapping, or as we're now referring to it, rendition, is problematic not just because those recently rendered have been tortured and are now facing manifestly unfair trials, but it also encourages general lawlessness by states the world over. While we haven't been directly involved in most of the rendition cases that have been brought to light, excepting the case of al-Rawi and el-Banna where the CIA did the dirty work of MI5 for them, let's say that at some future point there's a terrorist attack masterminded from abroad and that we kidnap and transfer the accused to stand trial in this country without any involvement in that nation's extradition process. We would be in effect opening Pandora's box, and if you thought that Litvinenko's assassination was unpleasant, wait until you have FSB agents running around kidnapping Russian dissidents and oligarchs with the justification that we've done it to terrorists.

Of course, we can get into arguments of tit for tat. The targets chosen by Mugniyah were mostly what would be considered legitimate targets in times of war, embassies and barracks, excepting the 1994 AMIA bombing, although Hizbullah has never been conclusively linked to that attack, even if it was their usual modus operandi, and the TWA Flight 847 hijacking where a U.S. navy diver was murdered, although the rest of the passengers and crew were released unharmed. None of the events took place during war however, or at least without all the other options for legitimate, peaceful protest and non-violent resistance being exhausted, and innocents were killed. Does however such indiscriminate targeting justify the same in response? We could argue that Mugniyah's death was a targeted killing, although it appears to have killed a passer-by according to reports, but this is no different to when Israel launches Hellfires into Gaza and acts apologetically when innocent Gazans are killed along with the targeted militants. The only acceptable way of bringing Mugniyah to justice would have been, in these circumstances, to kidnap him, but even then could he have received a fair trial in Israel?

We shouldn't forget in all of this that Hamas and Hizbullah continue to hold Gilad Shalit and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev respectively, and little is known about their current state of health. All should be released immediately. The death of Mugniyah is however also unjustifiable. Quite apart from anything else, violence only breeds more violence, a truism which has never become a cliché, one which the United States, doing everything but celebrating openly his passing, ought to have learned by now. Hizbullah are already threatening revenge, and while a repeat of the 2006 war seems highly unlikely, the very last thing that Lebanon needs, let alone the Middle East as a whole, is more misery, bloodshed and instability.

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*We don't know, but we'll print any old crap!

Meanwhile, the Sun is now seemingly hassling anyone who decides to get a job after being convicted for possessing child pornography. A question: could this possibly be a completely invented quote? You decide!

A source said last night: “Luckman says he’s mended his ways but he’s dealing with all manner of people, including children.

“I wonder how many customers would be happy if they knew who their kids were being served by?

Previously they wouldn't have been any the wiser and therefore not in the slightest bit worried. Now no doubt even if he is eventually reinstated the customers will demand that he gets the sack.

Lastly, if you thought yesterday's leader on the Guantanamo six was pitiful, this plumbs new depths:

We are in the grip of a knife and gun epidemic. Feral teenagers are putting the fear of God into us all.

Are we in the grip of a knife and gun epidemic? We're certainly more aware of the former, and it seems to have increased, but no on the latter. Knives have definitely been used in more murders of late, and there's let's say been disagreements on how often knives are used in crime in general. Gun crime however has been shown to have roughly stabilised. Are we really scared of feral teenagers? Can't say I am. I'm slightly anxious about walking around in the dark; unless you're supremely self-confident my guess is that most people are. Such statements however do put the fear of God into people, make them fear the young more and make them more anxious about groups of them hanging around when they're probably not hurting anyone whatsoever. Self-fulfilling prophecies are a tabloid dream.

What then is the main problem?

Former top cop O’Connor and superhead Newton know what the problem is: we praise celebrities who binge on drink and drugs.

Ah yes, that's exactly it! This is of course the handed-down on high opinion of the same newspaper that ran this on its front page last week:

IT’S chest what we all wanted to see – AMY WINEHOUSE looking almost back to her best.

The star’s boobs were on full show for her meeting with the Embassy suits . . . well, I suppose it can’t do any harm.

The busty star has clearly had a crack at eating in the clinic – and looks much better for it.

Of course, the previous day it had printed photographs of Winehouse "looking thin, pale and unsteady" but who cares or noticed?

Anyway, where do you even start to begin? Apart from the Mail, the Scum is the biggest selling newspaper which prints the most garbage on celebrities and whatever it is they're getting up to. It thinks that Britney Spears's problems are a tremendous soap opera to played out on the inside pages. It's the same newspaper that idolised Wayne Rooney a couple of years back, serialising his piss-poor autobiography and his story in general when he moved to Manchester United. He also happens to be one of the most high profile footballers to routinely throw foul abuse at referees, one of the paper's other peeves. That it threw far more bile the way of Steve McClaren and Sven when they variously failed in the manager's job than most players will ever subject refs to is also completely forgotten.

And now we have athletics drugs cheat Dwain Chambers running in Great Britain colours again.

Our youngsters need good role models to idolise — it’s time for real stars to stand up and be counted.

Which is another great case of continuing to persecute someone after they've served the punishment. If he's now clean, what on earth does it matter? In short, if you're looking for an example of a role model completely free from hypocrisy, make certain that you aim to become a Sun journalist.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008 

File-sharing ignorance.

There can be only one word used to describe the general points of the leaked green paper reported in the Times this morning - ignorance.

We know all too well that the government or most politicians don't understand the internet, let alone new technologies, and it's all too apparent in the suggested "three-strikes and you're out" regime that illegal file-sharers would supposedly be accountable to from their ISPs. If supposedly the "big four" have been in talks with the major media companies for months or even the government over a voluntary scheme, have they not pointed out that this scheme is just about as unworkable as it's possible to be?

Perhaps that's the point; maybe it's meant to be. Even with the latest packet-sniffing software used by some ISPs to filter traffic, the one thing they can't know is exactly what it is you're downloading, unless you're directly downloading mp3 files or an XviD rip from a fileserver, which is more frequent than it used to be thanks to Rapidshare etc. BitTorrent, by far the most popular file-sharing protocol, now has clients that boast encryption that makes it even more difficult for ISPs to be able "shape" traffic or to know what is actually been sent between peers. Similarly, if you use FTPs or Usenet to download, they can know what site or group you're using, but not what it exactly is that you're transferring. They could of course make an educated guess; but this would never be sufficient under law for the cancelling of your contract with the ISP.

This is without even beginning to consider the logistics that would be involved in the policing of such a scheme. At the moment, a number of ISPs can't even begin to offer something approaching an adequate service which equates with that which they advertise. If they were asked to be watching for every user downloading a single illegal file and then following it up with the requisite warning, their staff would be spending the whole day doing just that, and more so. Let's imagine that the scheme wasn't implausible and that it actually could work in practice: the reality would be that ISPs would be disconnecting the vast majority of their customers in rapid order. The users would then switch to their rivals, and probably spend the rest of their lives transferring from ISP to ISP until they're barred from them all or until they're on the few that decide to resist the government's edict. Quite simply, the whole thing would mean that ISPs would be more or less committing economic suicide, like turkeys voting for Christmas.

The only way in which a possible scheme could work would be if they subjected sites that offer "illegal" downloads to that which they do child pornography. This would require ISPs blocking all the major torrent sites, vast swathes of Usenet and more or less every file-sharing service that exists completely, and probably most of the blogging sites as well, considering the number of mp3 blogs there are. Oh, and MySpace and other social-networking sites where users swap copyright protected files, or files that they aren't allowed to. In other words, the equivalent of China's firewall, except blocking more or less everything which China currently doesn't. This would probably make New Labour, the aforementioned industries and the ISPs around as popular as rabies. Even then it wouldn't cover those using proxy servers, or private sites that are well disguised.

It's instructive that document was leaked on the same day that the Grauniad finally won its freedom of information requests which confirmed the secret meetings between 10 Downing Street and the multi-national chairmen's group, which appear to have directly led to a softening of already flaccid plans for taxing pension pots. The government has fallen completely for every single argument made by the music and film industry; that they are suffering irreparable damage and unless action is taken then it'll mean the end of the entertainment world as we know it. You don't need to be told that this is errant nonsense: the same industry which complains of being stretched ever narrower by piracy has been stalling for months from paying writers their proper due, even while attendances at least at UK cinemas continue to rise to ever higher levels year on year. It isn't so much that neither are no longer making profits, it's that they're not as bulging as they once were. For all the hue and cry about piracy and digital downloads, sales of CDs still make up the overwhelming amount of the market. The sale of singles has moved almost completely online, but albums is a different story entirely.

If anything, the change in attitudes hasn't gone far enough yet. Still about the only real choice consumers are being offered online is iTunes, DRM-filled junk at low bitrates that can't even begin to compare with CD quality, a few sites that offer nothing even approaching a back-catalogue at reasonable quality, and the odd independent site, such as, which does offer high quality, DRM free mp3s and even FLAC downloads. The record industry is secretly laughing about this; previously they had the overheads of printing the CD inlays and manufacturing the discs, not to mention the shipping, which thanks to the online revolution is now much less hard on the profit margins, and they're offering a lower quality product at a slightly cheaper price. That's the stuff of dreams rather than nightmares. Yes, CD sales are down and downloads have yet to make up the discrepancy, but this was always going to happen sooner or later, and the quicker the industry adjusts to the change the less the pain will be. Movie piracy is not even beginning to approach the scale of music piracy yet, but the power of that industry and its cries of anguish are already becoming hard for any government to ignore.

The thing is, why are the industries so surprised by the sudden changes when they're only reflecting the nature of the executives themselves? Everyone wants a bit of a good thing, and they've been amongst the most profiteering from their parasitical practices. 2006 saw Lily Allen burst through as the Next Big Thing; 2007 brought her imitators in Kate Nash and Remi Nicole amongst others. Amy Winehouse meanwhile was the biggest success of last year, and so 2008 sees her successors take to the front, with Adele Adkins, who'd won a critics' Brit before she'd even released her debut single and now Duffy coming onto the scene. The so-called "indie" department has seen similar, with umpteen different bands aping the Libertines ever since they emerged. When so much crap is marketed as if it's the latest, greatest thing you'll ever hear, why do you think so many people listen to the leaks first? Before they start making demands of us, it's about time these organisations got their houses in order, paid their artists and workers a decent wage, and then decide that their customers need behave in kind. The government meanwhile ought to simply get a clue.

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Scum-watch: UFOs, even more Helen Newlove, bashing the bishop and Guantanamo myopia.

Continuing in a similar theme to the last post, this ought to be the standard by which any Sun story is judged. Can you believe in a single thing it publishes when it gives such space to as blatantly fake photographs of UFOs as this one? Believe it or not, this is currently the top story on the website at the moment.

Ignoring the paper descending to Daily Sport style-territory, I wondered if Helen Newlove's apparent silence yesterday after her husband's killers were sentenced had something to do with her previous exclusives with the paper. Imagine my surprise to find that she's given an exclusive video interview to the Sun, where she makes these comments:

Helen, who believes in capital punishment, added: “If this country still had the gallows, I’d be happy to sit back and watch as they were strung up.

“If we had the electric chair like in America, I’d watch them fry without the slightest feeling of sympathy. If I could push the button, if I could deliver the lethal injection, I would — I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s an eye for an eye in my book.”

In other words, Newlove feels that descending to the depths of inhumanity that her husband's killers did is an acceptable way for the state that condemns such barbarity to behave. That's perfectly reasonable, and she's fully entitled to her view; it just so happens that her view makes me think that she's a complete cunt.

Then there's whose account you want to believe on whether the three showed any remorse or not. According to other reports, Cunliffe wept as the sentences were read out, but according to Newlove he was only holding his head in his hands because of embarrassment. I'm also wary of these accounts of what they supposedly drunk before going on to beat Newlove to death; where did they come from, bravado from the three themselves? I'm at a loss as to how they could even stand-up after supposedly drinking nine or 10 bottles of wife-beater and 3 litres of strong cider; it stinks of hyperbole.

I don't think it's really worth even bothering to indulge Newlove's arguments about the "liberals running our justice system", but suffice to say, if she really thinks there's a deterrent provided in America or that they have a model that we should follow, she's more than welcome to go and live in a major city out there and reach her own conclusions. Scanning the comments, I tried to find a single one which disagreed with Newlove. This was the closest:

I'm not sure capital punishment is the way to go. I have always felt that a more productive solution would be lobotomisation for any serious crime - murder / rape / paedophilia - as then they won't ever harm again. They can be put into the fields to work and earn their keep and also would require considerably less looking after. Let's try to kill two birds with one stone, get them out of society and make them useful!

Moving on to the coverage of Williams at the synod, there's still no mention of the standing ovations, although it admits that he received warm applause:

but it could not disguise the hostility of many Anglicans.

Finally, there's the Scum leader on the charging of the six al-Qaida suspects held at Guantanamo. There's no mention of the allegations of torture, no suggestion that the trials will be anything but fair and no mention of Osama bin Laden and his continuing evading of capture. It does however say the trial will answer many critics of Gitmo (it doesn't in the slightest), that it's a vindication for Bush, when the top two in al-Qaida who authorised the attacks are free, and accepts every suggestion that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is indeed the master terrorist he wants to be known as. You really couldn't ask for a more myopic editorial in any newspaper.

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Flat Earth News and the Talibrum.

Both Garry and FCC have been pointing out how much yesterday's Sun front page splash about the "Talibrum" stinks to high heaven, and has all the markers of a piece of "Flat Earth News", planted in this case by the RAF, or a security source linked to them.

I agree completely. I think however that the story goes even deeper than being an obvious piece of unverifiable propaganda. Without wanting to get into conspiracy theories, there's a large number of reasons that suggest that even if the story is true, it's been planted for a particular reason.

Firstly, in order for it to get full exposure, it's been handed to the Scum over the weekend, most likely on the Sunday, for publication the following day. Newspapers are always at their lightest on Monday, making it more likely that such a story will either get top-billing or very close to it, as it did. Secondly, it comes after a week when both spying, bugging and listening in to others' conversations, whether they're those accused of crime or members of parliament has been at the very top of the news agenda. Not only that, but Afghanistan has been nearly a close second: a number of reports were released last week, all highly critical and little short of despairing of the situation on the ground, while Robert Gates was visiting European capitals in an attempt to humiliate Nato members into sending more combat troops into action. The backlash against the Afghanistan deployment is also reaching its highest point so far in this country: the opinion polls suggest that the public doesn't know what we're fighting for, or indeed why our troops are out there at all. They are of course quite entitled to feel that way: the defence secretary that ordered the rise in the numbers deployed suggested that the mission was going to be mainly reconstruction, and that he'd be happy if they returned "without firing a single shot". Instead the army has been facing what has been described as the most intense battles since the Korean war.

The report therefore hits all the right buttons in numerous ways. Just as questions are being asked about how far the routine surveillance of lawyers, MPs and those accused of crime is going, the Sun splashes with a report that lauds just how wonderful their listening in to the Taliban is. There's even this fantastic quote:

“Eavesdropping seldom has a good image.

“But let’s hope the perseverance and dedication of our listeners-in-the-sky continues to save the lives of our men and women.”

Could the subtext of such a remark being any less forceful? The inference is clear; whether it's listeners-in-the-sky or buggers in prisons, all of this is for one purpose, and that's to save lives. The Sun's leader last week on Sadiq Khan made almost the exact same point. No one should be above the law, especially not greedy MPs, and who could possibly object to such dangerous individuals as Babar Ahmed being listened in to?

The message is little different on Afghanistan instead. Just as the "mission" seems to be hitting massive problems, with everyone suggesting much more effort is needed if anything is to be achieved, the Sun is conveniently slipped information which gives the impression that even if everything isn't going well on the ground, then things are fantastic in the air. They can listen in to conversations to such an extent that they can tell that some of the fighters have Yorkshire or Birmingham accents! This is also a classic diversionary tactic: rather than the Taliban being faceless, brutal but indigenous fighters, which is itself a crass simplification of how individuals are being paid to fight, the battles between drug and war lords for control of the poppy crop, and the involvement of jihadists, they include traitorous Brits who are fighting against their countrymen. The loathing can therefore be much easier directed against such individuals, whose motives can be distilled much easier than those of the other fighters.

Garry makes the point that the Sun has now compromised this intelligence gathering method, but this is a minor inconvenience for whoever wanted the information out in the first place. In any case, Taliban fighters ought to be more than aware of how they're being monitored: one of the major reasons al-Qaida was so successfully broken up after 9/11 was because bin Laden and his cronies had only two major ways of getting in contact with the wider world. One was bin Laden's satellite phone, which he must have known was being listened in on, and the other the switchboard they directed all of their calls through in Yemen, which the FBI successfully found out about and enabled them to map the links of al-Qaida across the globe (source: the Looming Tower).

Nick Davies' other substantial point about how Flat Earth News gets started is also valid here. As soon as a report as unverifiable as this one comes out, even if it has the dirty fingerprints of security sources all over, the major news agencies are likely to follow it up, even if it can't be checked, mainly because they now don't want to be accused of missing something supposedly major. If other newspapers don't jump on the story, then the press agencies likely will, who are now serving ever more news services with ever tighter resources, which makes checking information even more difficult in the time frame they're allotted for getting stories written and out. A quick search on Google News suggests that the story has at least spread to the Metro, the Scotsman and the Bradford Telegraph. Because churnalism resembles Chinese whispers remarkably, the story is changed subtly and added to as it goes. For instance, the Daily Mail, while basically copying the whole of the story out from the Sun, adds these two similarly completely unverifiable statements:

The Taliban are thought to be recruiting an increasing number of fighters from Britain after RAF experts overheard secret transmissions from the Afghan frontline spoken in broad Midlands and Yorkshire accents.

The discovery indicates that a growing number of British-born Muslim are turning their backs on the West and moving to Afghanistan to be trained as fighters.

How can any journalist, let alone one on the Daily Mail, back up those two short sentences with anything approaching a reliable source? The simple fact is that the journalist doesn't know and can't know, but they add something to the story and help it on its way. As Davies sets out in the opening chapter, this was how the Millennium Bug panic got started, with those who had good intentions but didn't know how badly the changeover was going to affect computer programs going public with their concern, which was then hyped up by the journalists who didn't know themselves, then again by the initial experts who felt they had to go one better to keep the story in the public eye. It becomes a vicious circle, and that was before the end of the world crew got involved. Obviously this story is not going to become a new millennium bug style fiasco, but this is before the neo-con jihadist monitoring blogs get on the story, as one already has.

The source for the article has then had their job successfully done for them. Things aren't so bad in Afghanistan; we're listening into them from the air, to such an extent we can tell they're British. Spying in such a way is vital for our security; it saves the lives of our men and women, and don't let the civil liberties brigade tell you differently. As said above, the story might be true, it might not be. That however palls into significance into how it will affect minds, regardless of its authenticity. We don't need our government to control the media in order to deliver their propaganda: it's current incarnation and values make certain that it will get in regardless.

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Monday, February 11, 2008 

The last word (hopefully) on Williams.

If you want a prime example of how the hyperbole over Rowan Williams' speech has not just infected the tabloids, but also those we're meant to rely on to accurately and astutely comment and report the day's events, here's Matthew d'Ancona, editor of the Spectator in his Sunday Torygraph column providing a glaringly obvious comparison:

Forty years after Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech, the Archbishop of Canterbury has delivered its liberal mirror image: let us call it "rivers of blather". The lecture that Dr Rowan Williams gave in London on Thursday night, and specifically his remarks on sharia law, showed that even the mildest-mannered intellectual can become a bulldog in the social china shop, spraying daft ideas around with a recklessness that disgraced his office.

The analogy is ludicrous because no one needed to distort or misinterpret Powell's speech - it was a disgrace then and it's just of much as a disgrace now. Powell talked of "piccaninnies", language which Boris Johnson thought was amusing to use not so long back, of the black man holding the whip over the white man, of a woman who wanted a rates reduction because she was the only remaining white person in a street of "blacks" and wouldn't put up immigrants which had previously boosted her earnings, of the " horror on the other side of the Atlantic", i.e., African-Americans being given the same rights as the white population. There was more, much more.

Rowan Williams, unlike Powell, who gave his speech to an audience of the Conservative Political Centre, which was never likely to disagree with him, gave his instead to a room full of lawyers, who one could imagine could and probably were picking numerous holes in it as he went along, if they weren't falling asleep under the torrent of his convoluted ramblings. Perhaps both shared a slight amount of naivete; Powell asked journalists the following morning whether he'd really caused such a furore, while Williams seems to have been depressed and aghast that his speech caused such a storm. Around the most inflammatory thing that Williams voiced was that he viewed some sort of conflict between state loyalty and religious loyalty as unavoidable unless elements of Sharia, were recognised. As it so happens, Williams doesn't really need to worry: as Alexander Goldberg explains on CiF, the Beth Din courts operate under the arbitration act, which allows for "foreign law" to take precedence over English law (there is no such thing as British law, as both politicians and newspapers have stated, as Scottish law is entirely separate) where two people can sign agreements subjecting themselves to the eventual binding ruling. This is what the Sharia courts also operate under.

The Sun's coverage of Williams' performance in front of the Synod is a prime example of how the press creates a situation and then only uses the information which is useful towards its already preordained stance. The unacceptable reality - that Williams was given a standing ovation as he entered the chamber and had to ask them to sit and stop applauding, with only one or two exceptions, something repeated once he had finished speaking - isn't so much as mentioned. Instead, the Sun describes his defence of his speech, where he said that he took responsibility for the "unclarity" of his remarks and acknowledged that they might have been expressed "clumsily", mentioning the reporting of his speech but not directly criticising the way it was distorted, as "desperate", and then despite the show of support given today, goes on to claim that "his flock" had turned against him yesterday. The main complaint of those interview by the Sun outside Kent cathedral seems to have been that he was considering Islam at all, especially seeing as this is a "Christian" country, and ought to be outside of his remit, rather than directly angry about his comments on Sharia.

Along with Justin and Anton Vowl, one of the most bizarre things about this whole tedious charade has been that atheists, in which I include myself, seem to have been among those who have most defended the Archbishop. It certainly hasn't been out of any sympathy towards religions or the religious, let alone their personally perverse systems of law which they adhere to over others that are fairer and more enlightened that I've defended him, but rather because of that other enlightenment value that some who've been attacking Williams have seem to have forgotten: that freedom of speech is and must be an absolute. To take it back to d'Ancona's spurious Powell equivocation, if a shadow secretary of state as he was, was now to make a similar, updated version of the Rivers of Blood speech, I'd be among the first to vigorously attack him for his message, but I wouldn't be calling for his resignation, just as I think I wouldn't if I'd be around in Powell's own day. Not only is it not for me to decide whether he should remain in his job because of his views, your personal views, unless they are in direct contradiction with that job itself, should never be a basis for someone losing it.

What is increasingly clear, especially from Williams' clarification in front of the Synod, is that he thinks of himself not just as the representative of the Church of England, but as someone who can also comment on issues affecting other religious issues. It's this, perhaps more than his actual views on them that is likely to trouble his own constituency in the long run, not to mention those in the other communities that would rather he'd keep his mouth shut. This is directly because the Church of England especially is in something approaching a crisis: its lack of relevance isn't only continuing to reverberate, it's fast accelerating. Williams might not admit to it, but he probably sees the rise in attendance in Catholic churches, mainly off the back of migration from eastern Europe, which continues to buck the general Western trend off godlessness, and also the increasing hubbub, if not power surrounding Islam, and wishes that he could have a bit of that. Why then shouldn't he attempt to articulate an issue which concerns some Muslims, but which doesn't have a leader powerful enough or visible enough to make the sort of impact that he could?

Apart from the general uncertainty and questioning about Muslims and Islam which has underlined the response to his lecture, the other thing has certainly been that which he most fears; that Britain, far from being the Christian country which those opposed to him espouse, is in fact a secular nation and increasingly becoming more so. We're not just objecting to Islamic religious law, we're objecting to the tyranny of any religious law. The biggest problem affecting Williams is that he's between a rock and a hard place; he's not liberal enough or agnostic enough for those who are opposed to religion generally, and he's not godly enough or hard enough on the queers for those of the evangelical or "traditional" bent who seem to increasingly make up the remaining brunt of those who practice rather than just think there might be a God. One suspects that the very least of his worries are the obscurantists on the Scum who would be laughed at for suggesting he was giving a victory to terrorism if it wasn't so serious.

Leaving aside the internal religious politics, the comment over the weekend which was most pertinent on Williams' argument was on the way Sharia views women inherently as inferior, giving their evidence only half of the weight to which it gives to men's. While I don't claim to know whether this is the same under all the different varying interpretations of Sharia, this is reason enough why it should never be given the same recognition under law as our common law is, as if the European Court of Human Rights ruling was not enough on its own, as Daniel Davies pointed out, for why it would never be allowed onto the statute books. The other side though is eloquently expressed by Ayesha Khan, who reported on Divorce: Sharia Style, who writes of the Muslim women who despite the inequity of the system are still determined to use it. Who are we to condemn them for doing so, which has largely been the undercurrent of the coverage since Thursday?

Williams was always going to survive this controversy, regardless of the best efforts of the most egregious in the Street of Shame to force otherwise. The question is whether he's been irrevocably damaged because of it, and again the answer seems to be negative. Regardless of his real intentions behind the speech, he was fully entitled to put across his message: he just happened, like many of us often are, to be wrong. River of blather or not, the very last thing he is is a modern-day Powell.

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Prison bloodbaths and an Express hack bullshits every 4 minutes.

Tabloid stories really don't get much more pathetic than this:

PRISON chiefs sparked outrage last night for letting lags stage a production of violent musical Sweeney Todd.

Cast members, likely to include murderers, will use cardboard knives to act out the tale of the killer barber, currently a hit film starring Johnny Depp.

Or perhaps they were more inspired by the BBC drama a few years' back which starred Jessica Stevenson presiding over a production of Sweeney Todd in a... maximum security prison. Naturally, the Sun has found an appropriate person to give their view on how disgraceful this is:

But Sam Salmons, whose stepdaughter was murdered, said: “It’s awful, they’ll probably have a murderer playing a murderer.

“Sweeney Todd is a bad choice — what’s wrong with Grease or the Sound of Music?”

Ah yes, I can just see a prisoner deciding that he's the one that wants to channel Julie Andrews, or indeed Olivia Newton-John. You're the one that I want - ooh ooh ooh! Here are a few of my favourite things - cold showers, early lock-up and shitting in buckets?

They could of course go for a entirely different sort of play and decide on Shakespeare. There's the Scottish play - no bloodbath in that; Othello, which ends happily with the Moor and his white wife overcoming all the racial obstacles in their way and dying in old age; or Titus Andronicus, where well, you get the picture. Fact is, Sweeney Todd is probably one of the few plays that prisoners are most likely to either enjoy, or at least somewhat relate to. Sam Salmons is fully entitled to try her own hand and get those sentenced to life to put on a production centred around working-class late 1950s high school kids, but she'll probably need to be Mary Poppins to get anything out of them.

Slight P.S. I try to refrain from making glib statements such as "doing the BNP's work for them" but I really can't see any other motive behind the Express front page today, which, as usual, is full of mendacious distortion. As FCC writes, the number of migrants arrested, which is itself based on a estimate from only half of the police forces, amounts to only 7% of the actual total. That'll be 93% of number arrested NOT migrants then. If a migrant is therefore arrested every four minutes, how many of our "indigenous" population are arrested every second?

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Saturday, February 09, 2008 

Bashing the bishop while the police laugh.

Hamza/Williams: what's the difference?

The first sentence of the Daily Mail's leader is dripping with contempt at the Archbishop of Canterbury's justified complaint that what he said has been misconstrued:

The beleaguered Archbishop of Canterbury resorted yesterday to the oldest stand-by in the book - "I have been misinterpreted".

Just to illustrate how the Daily Mail has most certainly not misinterpreted or distorted Williams' speech, here's its poll where it asks who is more dangerous, Abu Hamza or Rowan Williams:

The Archbishop of Canterbury caused consternation yesterday by calling for Islamic law to be recognised in Britain. He declared that Sharia and Parliamentary law should be given equal legal status so the people could choose which governs their lives.

Clearly, the Archbishop is clutching at straws and and richly deserves the opprobrium he's received. The vote, incidentally, currently has Williams as the most dangerous by 63%. That's the head of one of the more liberal churches of the world, considered more insidious than a man who spent years preaching hatred of women, Jews and "kafirs" in general, and who provided moral and spiritual, if not monetary or physical support to the Taliban, al-Qaida and the most extreme elements of the Salafist school of Islam. Little wonder that the Bishop of Hulme described some of the treatment he's received since his speech as a "shame on our nation" and "quite disgraceful".

Compared to the Sun's coverage, the Mail's has been a totem of respectability. There's a whole column on how he's a living in the lap of luxury (presumably he should be housed in a hovel and have to wear sackcloth and ashes in penitence for his crime), which also mentions he repeatedly opposed the Iraq war, along with err, pretty much every other major religious leader, and that he's "enraged" Christians with liberal views on gays, which translated means the last rump of evangelicals and most of the primates from Africa. If anything, he hasn't been harsh enough on both groups. The main article claims that senior MPs have called for his resignation, which is news to me, while so far around only two bishops have called for his resignation, while others have notably rallied to his defence, none of whom are mentioned in the article.

Brian Fuller, 46, of Luton, said: “This is the guy who leads our country’s religion and it sounds like he’s given up.

“He’ll soon be asking us all to face Mecca when we say our prayers.”

I'm not so sure Mr Fuller - anyway, how will you be able to tell which way Mecca is when your head is so clearly stuck up your rear passage?

The Sun bus visited the Archbishop’s Lambeth Palace residence in South London with Page 3 girls Mel and Peta — and blasted out Rule Britannia.

What a wheeze! That'll show the hairy leftie!

Just as pathetic has been the Sun's sharply set up campaign to get Williams sacked. Their print-out simplification has the reasons why he should be disciplined is that "he has destroyed his authority and credibility as leader of the Church of England", which is completely untrue, and secondly that he has "given heart to Muslim terrorists". As said yesterday, it's a good thing that the Sun knows just what makes jihadists tick and gives them heart, as most of the rest of us, including those tasked with tackling radicalisation are still struggling with it. Linking what the Archbishop said with terrorism is not just insulting and absurd, it's designed to shut down the debate and make it impossible to support him, as no one wants the terrorists to win, do they?

The Scum's leader is just as cavalier with the truth:

The whole nation is appalled, outraged and incredulous that Rowan Williams should come out with such dangerous claptrap.

Some are also appalled, outraged and incredulous that the media have blown this up into a matter where making a sensitive scholarly speech is considered grounds for someone to be sacked.

It is hard to see how Williams can cling on to his job.

It is hard, too, to see why he wants it since he feels such sympathy for Islam.

Just as a comparison, the same Sun newspaper declined to join in the chorus for Sir Ian Blair to resign after he presided over a force which killed an innocent Brazilian after a systemic failure at all levels. Blair himself didn't know what happened until the following day, despite even his secretary being aware an innocent man was dead, because no one bothered to inform him. The same Sun newspaper provided constant support for the previous prime minister, who told lie after lie while his office distorted the intelligence that took us to war in Iraq. The result has been at the very least the deaths of 150,000 Iraqis, not to mention our own troops. Williams however, whose only offence is to make a misjudged speech, must go.

The heart of this issue is not religion. It is law.

To say that the Archbishop is wrong is not to attack Islam. It is to say that allowing Sharia law encourages Muslim fundamentalists who don’t want to integrate with us.

Oh, so in other words, every Muslim who is sympathetic towards Sharia law is therefore a fundamentalist. Better tell that to the banks offering accounts with no interest designed for Muslims, or those who buy halal meat. Buying from a halal butchers must be encouraging fundamentalists who don't want to integrate with us because they don't agree with meat not slaughtered according to their religious doctrines. That he never said that he was in support of allowing it but rather suggested that it might unavoidable, nor that he only suggested it might help cohesion if on civil matters Sharia was recognised under the law, as the Beth Din courts are, doesn't enter into it. It isn't enough to disagree with him because it isn't necessary or even wanted, but because it encourages the evil people in our midst who want to destroy us.

The Archbishop of Canterbury declares Muslims should be allowed to follow a law of their own.

That is totally unacceptable.

And that is why he has to go.

Perhaps then the writer of this leader ought to go for completely misleading the readers with statements that he never made. That's unacceptable, but when the newspaper does the same or similar every day of the year it becomes ingrained, routine and predictable, as the reaction of the Sun has most definitely been.

Apart from the hysterical attacks on Williams himself, the other obvious reaction of the press was always going to be to go out and find these Sharia courts, and regardless of what they were doing, make out that it's a threat to us all. The Evening Standard was first out of the traps, with the Mail and Express reprinting the story, and they're shocked, shocked, to find that some Somali clans have settled a couple of violent disputes internally rather than turning to the police, with little emphasis again on how both sides were agreed on doing so. That this is the way that such tribal or clan-based disputes have always been sorted, and that it has very little to do with either Sharia or Islam isn't mentioned or is toned suitably down. Just as we won't turn to the police to sort out every little disturbance that occurs in neighbourhoods and instead settle it informally, or even for some larger offences where we choose not to turn to the police, they're doing more or less the same. Once a moral panic is brewing however, it's any port in a storm.

The Mail's leader is more than happy to use this spurious evidence as proof that Williams is loony:

And far from Dr Williams's fluffy idea that they merely arbitrate on civil, marital and business disputes, some are trying to replace criminal courts, passing judgment on offences from criminal damage to grievous bodily harm.

They're not replacing or trying to replace anything; as one of the members describes, they're doing the same as they did in the 10th century when it would have happened under a tree, whereas now it happens in a restaurant or a cafe. Then it has the audacity to say this:

While the Beth Din operates openly and within the law, this is alternative justice outside the law, and the Archbishop's endorsement will only serve to enhance its legitimacy and power.

But that was Williams' very point: that recognising some aspects of Sharia where both agree to it could help with cohesion and regulate it. I disagree with it, but he was more than welcome to suggest it, and instead he has calls for his resignation and a vilification campaign.

This though was what was always going to happen. Regardless of the merit of his argument, Williams has been attacked, those who have most to lose from his argument are likely to be further stigmatised and abused, and the notion that Islam and democracy are incompatible is once again the foremost in people's minds. He was naive, but I know who I blame more. That this has happened on a weekend where the far more serious revelation that the police are routinely bugging conversations between defendants and their lawyers has emerged, which is a genuine threat to the rule of law and shows how far the surveillance state is going, not to mention how it could threaten convictions, means that a far more deserving story has been knocked down the agenda, which might well help the government to avoid an inquiry. That's not to mention the latest knee-jerking over violent video games and calls to filter the internet into a two-tier system to protect the kiddies, currently being considered by the government. A press committed to holding a government to account would be going fiercely over both matters; instead we're likely have the bash the bishop campaign continuing for a while. The press is again failing in its basic duties, first to tell the truth and then to protect the public and their readers' interests.

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Friday, February 08, 2008 

Bearded extremist must die! (or resign, whichever comes first)

(Slight warning: this post clocks in at just less than 2,000 words, excluding the large amounts of quoted text.)

I'll admit: I was hasty and went slightly over the top in the post I made yesterday on Rowan Williams' speech on the possibility of Sharia law being legally recognised by the state. I actually rather like Beardie; he's probably the closest that any religion will get to having an acceptable, kind and intellectual face. I'm also more than happy to make clear that I already favour the disestablishment of the Church of England. It's surely ridiculous in this day and age that the prime minister chooses the head of the "state religion"; even the Catholic Church's college of cardinals vote for the supposed messenger of God on earth.

Let's make no bones about it though: he is first and foremost not just a speaker for the CoE, but also for religion as a whole, or he at least thinks he is. Like when the Rabbi Jonathan Sacks a few years ago dared to suggest that there was a a degree of truth in all three of the main Abrahamic religions and found himself being lambasted by conservative Jews for not making clear that Judaism is the only true faith, despite them all worshipping what is to all intents and purposes the same God, Williams likes to reach out across faith backgrounds. This was obvious in his other recent speech, also widely criticised, where he considered the possible abolition of the blasphemy laws and proposed, according to some reports, laws against thoughtless or cruel words. Unity tackled it here, and found much to disagree with.

The main question then has to be this: did Williams really know what he was about to unleash? Sure, Sharia and virtually all the questions surrounding whether Muslims can be both British while retaining their religious identity are incredibly contentious and controversial, but this was the Archbishop, making an incredibly academic, lengthy and considered speech, which ordinarily would have been completely and utterly ignored, except by perhaps the religious affairs correspondents on the broadsheets. If he hadn't approached the World at One, and made a somewhat less articulate summary of his speech (The Wardman Wire has an excellent commentary and transcript of the interview), that would have been most likely what would have happened. That was where the emphasis on how some part of Sharia law being adopted was "unavoidable" came from. If though anyone had listened further than the opening exchanges, they would have realised that the very last thing that Williams was advocating was for Sharia to be used to resolve and pass judgement on individuals where the law itself had been broken.

Even if Williams is genuinely surprised and dismayed by the reaction to his speech, it has to be based on a rather less than intellectual naviety. You mention Sharia and the instant, instinctive image it conjures up is limb chopping, flogging and beheadings. This was always what was going to occupy the tabloids' mindset, and they have had an absolute field day. I haven't even bothered to look at either the Express and Mail, but the Sun's coverage is, to say the least, little sort of sickening in its distortion and use of images that are almost designed to encourage Islamophobia. The Scum naturally decided that the most appropriate image for its front page was the woman in the niqab flashing a v-sign, without any attempt to provide the context in which it was originally taken: when the police raided those who have now pleaded guilty to the beheading plot. They were entitled to feel aggrieved by how the media had descended upon their home and were at the time recklessly scaremongering as usual.

Almost unbelievably, the Sun's headline for its current online, updated piece is "Williams: victory for terrorism". To consider his speech to be any sort of victory for terrorism would require a rhetorical leap that even Melanie Phillips would blanch at, but the Sun is more than happy to link Sharia law with terrorism. This is the second paragraph:

In an explosive outburst Dr Rowan Williams, the country’s top Anglican, said there should be one set of rules for Muslims — and another for everyone else.

No he didn't - what he was clearly articulating was that Muslims could be given the choice, in certain matters of civil law, to use Sharia courts to resolve disputes. Nothing more and nothing less. I completely disagree with him, but he was perfectly entitled to make the argument, and the last thing he was suggesting was completely different systems of laws for those of different religions.

He maintained it was WRONG for followers of Islam to be forced to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Here's the full sentence that quote is taken from:

It is uncomfortably true that this introduces into our thinking about law what some would see as a 'market' element, a competition for loyalty as Shachar admits. But if what we want socially is a pattern of relations in which a plurality of divers and overlapping affiliations work for a common good, and in which groups of serious and profound conviction are not systematically faced with the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty, it seems unavoidable.

Williams is clearly going out of his way to try and be as inclusive as possible, all in the aid of what he considers the common good. He knows full well that the vast majority of Muslims are perfectly happy with what the British state offers them, but that some do prefer through their own interpretation of their faith to conduct such matters in accordance with Sharia. This already happens, and will continue to happen. He's suggesting that the state recognise this, which is one argument, and it happens to be wrong. But if both parties are perfectly happy to go along with it, and aren't being forced into it, who are we to say that isn't acceptable?

This is another of the problems that Williams has rather unfortunately highlighted: when the loyalty of any citizen to the country at large is brought into question, the right-wing press launches the equivalent of a verbal scud missile at them. Last week it was outraged that a review of the possibility of teaching patriotism was rejected because it would require the balance of also teaching that not everything Britain has ever done has been a roaring success. The main problem I had was that you simply can't preach patriotism; it's either something you instinctively feel or you don't. That Muslims might decide that our system of civil law isn't good enough for them is obviously a similar insult to everything that this country has ever stood for; that the right-wing press would never question the loyalty of some of the orthodox Jews who use the Beth Din courts for their civil affairs shows the abject hypocrisy on the matter. It would be different if what Williams or even those of the tiny minority in favour of Sharia were proposing that it be used for all criminal offences, but they're not. Consideration must be taken of the prejudices within Sharia, but are there not similar prejudices within Beth Din? I don't know, and the tabloids sure as fuck don't know either. They do however know that Sharia will mean the end of British life as we know it.

Dr Williams’ extraordinary claim is a huge propaganda coup for extremists plotting to end centuries of the British way of life.

How? The extremists want full Sharia law to be the only law, and to apply to everyone, not just Muslims, along with Britain to be part of the caliphate, even though the caliphate only ever spread as far as Spain. Williams hasn't given even the slightest succour to such an idea; the tabloids and their response however has sent a huge message to those who are separatist, where they'll be able to point at the response and hatred directed against Muslims as a whole when such a moderate idea has been suggested, making clear that Islam will never be accepted in any way, shape, or form. Now that's dangerous and guaranteed to breed resentment.

To prove the Sun's specious point, it contacted some of those who survived the 7/7 attacks for their views:

Paul Dadge, famously pictured helping masked 7/7 victim Davina Turrell, 24, was left stunned.

The 31-year-old former fireman, of Cannock, Staffs, said: “The Archbishop’s remarks are unhelpful. I am proud to be British and find the idea that Sharia law would ever become part of British law incredible.”

Mary Burke, 50 — who survived the King’s Cross bomb on July 7 2005 — said: “Britain is a Christian country and should stay a Christian country. I don’t want Islamic law here and I believe most of the British public agree with me.”

The very last thing the ABC would be suggesting is that Britain move from being a Christian country. If he had, the synod really would be calling for his resignation. Neither of those asked to comment likely heard the ABC on either the World at One or had read his speech; they were either told what was said by the Scum's reporters or heard the generally woeful reporting of it. As a result, to ask them to comment was downright misleading and superfluous.

Muslim Labour MP Khalid Mahmood was outraged.

He said: “This is the sort of woolly thinking that gets people into trouble. This sort of talk makes people think Muslims want to separate themselves from the rest of the community and be treated differently. The truth is most Muslims do not want Sharia law.”

Which will of course be ably helped by the tabloid reaction. It's only now right down at the bottom of the article that there's even the slightest clarification of what Williams actually said:

Dr Williams spoke out in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

He did stress he opposed the extreme elements of Islamic law — including stoning and whipping — but went on: “There is a place for finding what would be a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law as we already do with aspects of other kinds of religious law.”

Which is handily vague enough to make the average reader imagine that other elements of Sharia would be acceptable, not just where two individuals agree to a Sharia court arbitration.

The Scum's leader is inevitably even worse. Its headline could also be hardly less descriptive of Williams' speech. How it could possibly be a rant or dangerous is a mystery only the leader writer could answer.

IT’S easy to dismiss Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as a silly old goat.

In fact he’s a dangerous threat to our nation. He says the adoption in Britain of parts of Islamic Sharia law is “unavoidable”. If he believes that, he is unfit for his job.

How does offering an opinion make him unsuitable for his job? How could he possibly be a threat to the nation when the Scum is always scaremongering about the few who are a genuine threat, who are nothing like Williams?

Williams says the idea of “one law for all” is “a bit of a danger”.

With that one sentence he destroys his authority and credibility as leader of the Church of England.

Except of course that wasn't even a large proportion of his entire sentence. This is where the Scum has taken that quote from:

I think at the moment there’s a great deal of confusion about this; a lot of what’s been written whether it was about the Catholic church adoptions agencies last year, sometimes what’s written about Jewish or Muslim communities; a lot of what’s written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there’s one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that, so an approach to law which simply said, ‘There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts’. I think that’s a bit of a danger.

I completely disagree with him, but it isn't dangerous, nor does it destroy his authority or credibility. He's approaching a problem and thinking out loud about it; criticise him all you want, but don't say that he should be sacked or resign for it. That's quite clearly an attempt at suffocating freedom of speech.

He also gives heart to Muslim terrorists plotting our destruction.

They will see his foolish ramblings as a sign that our resolve against extremism is weakening.

The Sun seems to know a lot about how "Muslim terrorists" think. Perhaps they ought to be instructing the government on how to tackle radicalisation, seeing as they know their exact mindset. Jihadists don't care what politicians, let alone what other religious figures think; they only know that they're absolutely right.

Our legal system revolves around the principle of one law for all.

Williams, our religious leader, has a duty to uphold that principle.

And he has, as he's suggesting that our law recognise Sharia courts in civil matters. That would be still mean that there would be one law for all. The Sun is being wilfully blind.

Yet he wants Muslims to have a choice over which law they follow.

Williams says Muslims should be able to ignore British divorce laws.

Another nail in the coffin of Muslim women's rights.

No he isn't. They'd only be able to "ignore" British divorce laws if they hadn't married under the civil system in the first place. This is also to accept that Sharia instantly means that women are at a disadvantage, which is patently untrue, as Sharia is interpreted in a myriad of different ways. If that was the case, any woman, Islamic or not, wouldn't agree to have the arbitration done under a Sharia court, which is the base requirement for both parties to agree in the first place.

Why doesn’t he condemn “honour” killings and forced marriages?

What does that have to do with Sharia? Honour killings and forced marriages are almost always due to tradition and tribal circumstances, not religious differences, although there are a minority of cases where it has been a factor.

Why is our Archbishop promoting a law under which women are stoned to death and shoplifters barbarically dismembered?

Except he directly criticised the "inhumanity" of such punishments. The very last thing he was doing was promoting them. This, incidentally, is the same Sun which last week published Helen Newlove's suggestion that the birch be brought back, and today prints Jamelia's call for the reintroduction of capital punishment. Stoning is especially barbaric, but so are all the current methods of execution, regardless of the law broken by the individual sentenced to death.

As Williams was cosying up to Islam yesterday, one of his bishops — Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester — was being protected by police.

He has received death threats from Muslims for warning of Islamic no-go areas in Britain.

What has Williams said in support of the Bishop? Nothing.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is in the wrong church.

Ah yes, they were certainly Muslims. Never mind that those who jumped on the Bishop's comments, of which there was no evidence to back up, to prove that Islam was inherently dangerous and separatist have plenty to gain from such threats. Besides, he was questioned directly on the World at One about Nazir-Ali's comments and this was his lengthy response:

CL This comes in the context of very fraught debates about community cohesion. How is it achieved that Britain might move forward in that respect? How concerned are you about the state of that debate at the moment and how much do you agree with the statements by Bishop Nazir Ali about ‘no go areas’?

ABC We have got a fragmented society at the moment, internally fragmented, socially fragmented in our cities and fragmented between communities of different allegiance. Now I think that there would be a way of talking about the law being more positive about supporting religious communities that might be seen as deepening or worsening that fragmentation. I don’t want to see that. I do want to see a proper way of talking about shared citizenship and that is a major theme of what I am saying in this lecture. Shared citizenship, whatever we say about religious allegiance we have to have that common ground and know what belongs there and I think when people have talked about mutual isolation of communities, about the ’silo’ model of people as it were living together, sadly there are some communities where it looks as it is true. I think it is not at all the case that we have absolute mutual exclusion. I don’t think it’s the case that we have areas where the law of the land doesn’t run, that would be completely a misleading way of looking at it. I’ve noted in the lecture that we are dealing usually with very law-abiding communities, but we have a lot of social suspicion, a lot of distance, a lot of cultural – not just religious – distance between communities and we just need to go on looking at how that shared citizenship comes through. Now, I think there are ways of doing that. For example in relation to our education system, ways of doing that in connection with local federations and networks of different communities working together for common objectives; like better bus services - as simple as that sometimes. Better infrastructure, addressing issues of common concern about security, about families and so on. Many ways in which that active citizenship can be promoted. So I don’t think that recognising the integrity or independence - the depth of the reality of religious communities - is to ghettoize our future.

CL Was the talk of ‘no go areas’ unhelpful you think in the context of this debate?

ABC I think the phrase, because it echoed of the Northern Irish situation – places where the police couldn’t go – that was what it triggered in many peoples’ minds. I don’t think that was at all what was intended. I don’t think it was meant to point to what I call the ’silo’ problem. The sense of communities not communicating with each other and that is a two way issue as well. As I said a couple of weeks ago many Muslims say that they feel bits of British society are ‘no go’ areas for them places that they can’t go.

Clearly, the Sun is rightly placed to decide who and who isn't in the "wrong church".

As usually happens in this cases, it's not the original speech or comment which starts off the trouble, although as in Jack Straw's comments on the veil both should have known what they were about to unleash, but instead the response and backlash which they cause, usually from those twisting it for their own ends. Williams is wrong, but it was an opinion which he was perfectly entitled to broadcast, and he should be able to do so without newspapers demanding he resign. It's the contempt that the Sun and others have for freedom of speech and most of all, for the truth, which seems to me to be the real danger to our democracy in the long term.

Slight update, with the Guardian getting it right as usual:

Refracted through the twin lenses of media and politics, his words have only served to stir up the sort of fears that could make Muslims more vulnerable to abuse than ever.


Related posts:
Big Sticks and Small Carrots - We're all for tolerance but...
Blairwatch - Death Comes for the Archbishop and Bashing the Bishop update
LC - Contra Canterbury
Enemies of Reason - Get Beardie

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Thursday, February 07, 2008 

Boozing this holiday? The police want a round.

If the government is trying to look like a puritanical, reactionary, authoritarian load of killjoys, then it's certainly been remarkably successful of late. What else to make of the latest knee-jerk plans from Jacqui Smith and the Home Office?

The majority of Britain's 13-year-olds have drunk alcohol, marking a worrying "tipping point" for underage drinking, the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, warned yesterday as she promised to step up enforcement action.

I didn't realise that alcohol had suddenly turned into the devil weed where a single sip is enough to turn you into a drunken yob liable to kick someone's husband to death. Smith does realise a decent proportion of those 13-year-olds would have only have drank with parental supervision and not binged, right? I thought the whole point of relaxing the licensing laws was, apart from greatly enriching the alcohol industry and clubs and pubs, to attempt to introduce a continental culture where they don't drink just to get smashed and get smashed only. It's either failed, or Smith's forgotten it in a blaze of attempting to react to tabloid apoplexy.

Smith used a Home Office conference on alcohol enforcement in north London to warn of the dangers of underage drinking and confirmed that she was prepared to tighten 10-year-old police powers to confiscate alcoholic drinks from under-18s in public places if changes were needed: "I will listen to the police and give them extra powers to make it illegal for under-18s to drink alcohol in public so that they don't have to prove reasonable suspicion, if needed," she said.

She announced that from next week a new £875,000 enforcement campaign will get under way over half-term to confiscate alcohol from under-18s drinking in public places. A similar campaign which ran in 23 local police divisions last autumn led to 3,700 litres of alcohol being confiscated - 6,500 pints - and this year the campaign, which will run from February 9 to 24, will take place in 175 local police divisions across England and Wales.

In other words, people who are breaking no laws as long as public drinking isn't specifically prohibited, as it is in certain areas, and in most cases will also be drinking perfectly responsibly without bothering anyone else will be threatened by the police for no specific purpose other than for Smith's political advantage. It won't just affect those who are underage who are drinking in public, but also those that are over 18 but who aren't carrying ID and unable to prove their age. It's the perfect kind of action for which the police will be completely unaccountable that's bound to cause more problems than it solves, angering those who've committed no crime and punishing them in the pocket. Labour hates being accused of nanny statism and the wagging finger mentality, then it comes up with this sort of illiberal nonsense. Leaving the kids alone has never been more out of vogue.

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Opening your mind so much that your brain falls out.

Well, Rowan Williams has managed one thing spectacularly well with his speech on Sharia law and the potential for it to be given "official status" under UK law. Everyone from across the political spectrum, apart from some of the Muslim organisations, have come out against him.

Before we all get carried away, it really ought to pointed out that Williams, in his scholarly speech which ran to somewhere in the region of 5,500 words, is not suggesting installing Sharia as an alternative to common law. Instead, his plea was for it be recognised in a similar way to which some orthodox Jews have their interpretation of Talmudic law recognised; only for marriages and divorces, mostly (The MCB mention inheritance and custody also), and where the two participants are in agreement that it should be used. This isn't really law though, it's more accurately described as arbitration. As others have been pointing out, this is already going on in some places, has been for some time, and there's not much point intervening in such cases where those individuals agree to it, unless you want to be seen as being especially discriminatory.

So no, we're not going to have hands being cut off for stealing, beheadings for apostasy or genital mutilation being endorsed by men with beards in kangaroo courts, all recognised under British law. In any case, the European Court of Human Rights, when asked to rule on the dissolving of the Turkish Refah party, one of whose policies was the introduction of Sharia, came to the conclusion that "it was incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy" and found that the dissolving of the party did not breach the ECHR. A similar decision if the idea of somehow recognising Sharia law under common law was taken would be incredibly likely.

The simplest argument against Williams' points is that under British law everyone is equal and treated equally. Sharia on the other hand, whether just involving marriages and divorces, is discriminatory, and even if reformed as Williams and some reformist Muslims would like, would remain that way. To start introducing different law systems that are recognised for each religious minority which demands them would be divisive, damaging and serve the interests of the religious themselves rather than justice. Even more powerful is of course that Sharia is the legal face of Islam, while the British state is secular, with church and state rightly separated. Williams has if anything just provided his enemies with the greatest reason yet for why the Church of England should be disestablished, and quite frankly, the day couldn't come soon enough.

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Propaganda, children and war in Iraq.

Children can often be the most visible and silent of the victims of war. Visible in that when they are killed, the outrage and mourning is all the more apparent, the young cut down in their prime and before they had even so much as experienced life as adults will; silent in that the mental scars conflict leaves behind are beyond ordinary perception, and only later manifest themselves fully, creating damaged individuals that often never recover.

The effects then that videos such as those captured by the US and Iraqi forces that apparently showchildren between around 10 and 12 years old running around with guns and rocket propelled grenades while masked, conducting mock hostage taking and practicing raiding houses then is manifold. One is that they're being corrupted, making adult decisions before their time. Another is shock: that adults are apparently prepared to use children in such a way, anathema to our proud Western values. Then there's the realisation that when children are involved in such actions, it's intuitive to think that a new low has been reached, or that those training the children are themselves resorting to desperate measures.

All of the above is probably to some extent true in this case. It still pays however to pay closer detail to actually what has been filmed, what's been presented and the agenda of both sides, those who originally recorded it, and those who are releasing it now that it's been captured.

On one point, the video certainly does look numerous productions released by various jihadist/nationalist insurgent groups in Iraq, except with the adult fighters featured in those replaced by children. Because it's been captured in its raw form before it was cleaned up, edited and presented with the relevant logo of the group behind it, it's impossible to know exactly who did film it. The US army has naturally said that it's the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, or as the group is now known, the Islamic State of Iraq, but there's nothing in the video to suggest this is most definitely the case. The flag which the children are standing in front of at one point is not the Islamic State's standard; rather a simple black flag. They might have decided not to have used it, or didn't have one to hand, but most of the groups when using their flag at least have some sort of Arabic script on them that identifies them. The one image released that certainly does show evidence of the involvement of the ISI is an apparently separate image (shown above) that clearly shows the al-Furqan logo, ISI's media production arm. That image is apparently taken from one of their major releases from last year, "The Astray Arrow", which did feature children, although not in the way that these captured tapes do.

Indeed, this is hardly really anything new, although there hasn't been much on the scale of this previously released to my knowledge. Children have been featured a number of insurgent videos, not just by the Sunni jihadist/nationalist groupings, but also by the main Sufi armed group in the country. There have been allegations made in the past that the Shiite Mahdi army, helmed by Moqtada al-Sadr, but also to a degree autonomous of his command, has made use of children as young as 13.

The propaganda agenda of the video, and of both who made it and the US decision to release it to the media at large are obvious. While the army claims that it was designed at attracting new recruits, that seems highly unlikely. Rather, whoever or whomever made the video's main point was to say that even if you kill all of us adults, the children themselves, whether now or later, will continue to fight. The US army's point is also clear: that it both shows the desperation of al-Qaida and the moral depths to which the movement is willing to plunge, as if massacring Shias in markets with suicide attacks wasn't low enough.

Intelligence officials, loud-mouthed bloggers and some politicians often speak alarmingly of how we're losing the propaganda war, and on the evidence of this they might have a point, not because the video is especially effective, but because the US's argument is so weak. To begin with, the footage was shot in the summer of last year, not now when the Americans and others are daring to start to crow again that the insurgency has been broken and that the surge has worked, with last week's suicide attacks allegedly carried out by women with Down's Syndrome the mark of how desperate they were. We still haven't had confirmation that was in actual fact the case, with conflicting coverage since. If you can stomach it, footage supposedly showing the severed head of one of the bombers has been leaked onto the net, and it's as inconclusive as the reports were.

Secondly, we don't know what these children themselves have been through. The Guardian reported at the beginning of last year of how so many were showing signs of major psychological stress, and that of the others many had a favourite game: playing out mock executions, splitting off into groups and taking on the roles of al-Qaida and the Mahdi army, Sunni and Shia, reliving their own experiences of the sectarian warfare which was dominating and dividing their country. These children might have lost their parents, or had older siblings who had joined the insurgency killed, or even been killed accidentally by coalition forces; to pretend that they're definitely being manipulated by al-Qaida or even being used as anything other than pawns in a game is to make a series of assumptions based on your own prejudices. The same is the case when women carry out suicide bombings; they're not regarded as usually those most susceptible to join jihadists or kill in such a way. This ignores how the overwhelming number of suicide attacks by women have taken part in Chechnya and Russia, where they were members of a special brigade called the Black Widows. All had their husbands or relatives killed by Russian forces, and even if they had been manipulated, driven by their grief or just simply thirsty for revenge, you can at least understand why, if not even start to accept the reasoning behind what they did.

It goes without saying that use of child soldiers, which isn't potentially what was depicted here, is abhorrent and illegal under international law. It's hardly a new occurrence though: their use across Africa has been endemic, while some others have pointed to how the Hitler Youth were conscripted in the dying days of Nazi Germany to pretend the fatherland from the marauding and fast encroaching Soviets, but this also seems to be influenced by those who want to believe that the war in Iraq, if not over, is reaching some sort of conclusion, and that the insurgents are getting desperate. They might have been beaten back to their strongholds, but we all know what happened with Fallujah: those who wanted to fight stayed behind and mostly died, while everyone else got out and dispersed across the country. History could certainly yet repeat. Moreover, the Americans have the Awakening councils, mostly made out of the tribes and insurgents which previously welcomed and worked alongside al-Qaida before they decided that the Americans were the lesser of the two evils, to thank more than anything else. They themselves are fragile coalitions, and they've been armed and paid by the Americans. What happens if they break apart, or if they later again decide to turn on the Shia? The ceasefire the Mahdi army has been observing over the last six months, which has also helped bring down the violence levels, is also weak. The passing of the very limited reversal of the de-Ba'athification laws originally signed by Viceroy Bremer is also only the start of the efforts towards reconciliation that Washington has demanded be acceded to. As sad as it is, the disaster that we set in motion is still going to be playing out for years to come, and the children of Iraq are unlikely once they reach adulthood to thank us for the intervention that only the most optimistic believed would result in a quickly established beacon of democracy in a region we've been manipulating for decades.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008 

Just fancy that!

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has backed the limited use of intercept evidence in court, after an independent review.

The Chilcot report says phone tap evidence was needed in some cases in England and Wales for security reasons.

But it says material should not be used against the wishes of the agencies collecting it - or if it could have been gained in another way.

Seeing as MI5, MI6 and GCHQ all pathologically oppose any intercept evidence being made admissible, this is the best possible conclusion that both the review and Brown could have reached. Justice will always come second to "national security considerations."

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Tabloid-watch: Reporting sensational crime details, blatant stupidity and empty smears.

Today was undoubtedly another glorious day for the country's tabloids. If there's one thing apart from a missing white blonde girl that's always going to fill the front pages, it's a murdered white blonde young woman, especially if said white blonde young woman was an aspiring model who left behind a handy cache of material of her posing in a range of different clothing. Add to that how the trial of the man accused of the murder has heard that he admits to having sex with Sally Anne Bowman's corpse, which he just happened to come upon by chance, and you're guaranteed that it's going to be the story of number one interest on the day in question.

What you don't have to do is then rub everyone's face in it. That, however, was the modus operandi of the Daily Star. The PCC code on reporting on cases intruding into grief is suitably vague, but it does say the following:

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.

Here then is the Daily Star's front page:

It's the sort of headline you'd expect from a sex scandal where the person in question is boasting about what he's done and given an interview to that effect. Why bother being sensitive to others' feelings however when you can instead use a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

Without wanting to get into a debate on whether if something similar had happened to a middle-aged non-photogenic woman it would be making the news in such a fashion, there was this further smirk inducing evidence given to the trial:

When Dixie was arrested, nine months after the murder, police found a digital camera among his possessions. On it, they found a video file showing a pornographic film being played on a television, while a man records himself masturbating over a copy of the Daily Mail bearing a photograph of Bowman.

Police later discovered a copy of the Daily Mail of March 22 2006 which had a "sticky substance" on the front page featuring Bowman.

It's true then: the accusation that the use of photographs of "pretty young dead girls" is intended to boost the one-handed sale seems to be based in something approaching fact. How then did the Daily Mail itself report this free and rather impressive plug for its journalistic content?

Police raided several properties in Horley, Surrey, and Croydon where he had been staying.

They recovered a video of Dixie performing a lewd sex act on the six-month anniversary of the model's death, the court heard.

Well, I don't suppose "the Daily Mail: the newspaper of choice for masturbating necrophiliacs" would quite hit their target market. That report incidentally only contained the one photograph of Bowman. Among the other coverage was one which had two, and this one, which went for a whole three.

Moving on, the Express splashed on how there'd been yet another suicide in the supposed cursed town of Bridgend. I think Merk from Daily Mail Watch can take the reins from here:

BBC: Death ‘not connected’ to suicides.

icWales: …police today stressed the death was not connected to the spate of suicides

Times: did not appear to be linked to the seven suicides.

Telegraph: The death is not linked to other recent sudden deaths in the area.

Daily Mail (heh): police have ruled out that the latest death is linked to the previous incidents.

Express : There were renewed fears last night of an internet death cult in the town after it emerged that Miss Fuller had visited a social networking website just hours before she died.

See where I’m going with this? Now are you ready for the revelation about the ‘Internet Cult’ from the Express? Here goes:

The teenager, the second girl to die in the spate of suicides, was a member of Bebo and Facebook. Many of the previous victims had posted profiles on such sites.

This, my friends is the self acclaimed ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper’.

I rest my case.

Finally then to the Scum, which has an amazing exclusive on the bugging of Sadiq Khan, the headline shouting "MP first probed by MI5 over 9/11":

BUGGING scandal MP Sadiq Khan was first probed by security services over his association with a 9/11 terrorist, The Sun can reveal.

And just what was this association?

Security sources told yesterday how 9/11 plotter Zacarias Moussaoui asked lawyer Mr Khan to represent him after being accused of being the ‘20th hijacker’.

Oh. It gets better though:

The Labour whip was not allowed to see Moussaoui and was barred from seeing court papers in the run-up to the trial.

Yet by the tone of the article it feels like you're supposed to think that Khan is somehow tarred or condemned for so much as thinking of being Moussaoui's legal representative.

Human rights lawyer Mr Khan, 37, who says he loathes terror groups, was the only practising Muslim on Moussaoui’s team. It brought him to the attention of MI5 and MI6.

One security source said last night: “It is hardly surprising he came to the attention of security services in view of the people he was associated with.”

Who says, eh? Must be a traitor. It's quite right too. Dare to consider legally defending a "terrorist suspect" and you too will find yourself being bugged by MI5, although his supposed labelling as a "subversive" by Scotland Yard might be because he represented and defended black and Asian officers in discrimination cases, as well as bringing actions against the police. Still, so much for even the thought of confidentiality between a lawyer and his client; that's been thrown out of the window now that the sky's dark.

Last year it was revealed that five members of his family belonged to fundamental group Hizb ut-Tahrir.

It's not entirely clear here whether they're referring to Khan or to Babar Ahmed, but I can't find any articles from a relatively quick search that back up this especially lurid allegation. Indeed, Khan has spoken out against Hizb ut-Tahrir on a number of occasions, the following, in a Fabian speech, particularly strong:
Let me be quite clear. Hizb-ut-Tahrir quite deliberately have the same effect on race relations as their mirror image, the BNP. They encourage hatred and their preaching is used by the BNP to foster fear of Islam.

Calling your family racists doesn't appear to be the number one way to keep good relations with them.

Mr Straw is believed to have told officials that he thought someone was trying to “smear” Mr Khan.

Well, the Sun's certainly decided that if others are going to have a go, it may as well join in.

As Private Eye points out today, surely of even more interest than the fact that the police are now bugging MPs daring to visit childhood friends in prison, is that Ahmed has now been held without charge in jail in this country for three and a half years, awaiting deportation, even while his alleged accomplices in America have been released without charge., the site that Ahmed allegedly ran, and which can be accessed via the Wayback Machine was certainly radical: its sub-title was for "jihad and the mujahideen", but whether he broke any applicable laws while the site was still up in this country is most certainly questionable. That injustice however is of little consequence to a newspaper determined to defend the police and the security services over almost anything, however how troubling.

Slightly related: PDF attacks the puritan spin machine.

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Biting Newsnight in Private Eye.

Private Eye is generally one of the few remaining shining beacons of investigative and fearless journalism in this country. It can also however be pompous, smug and on occasion, downright wrong.

In this case, it isn't quite the latter, but it's almost as close to it as it could possibly be. Despite nearly a month of no new dispatches from either Newsnight or Policy Exchange, who've had a considerable amount of time to conduct their own investigations, which they said they were going to, or to launch a legal action, as they implied they might do, "Ratbiter" is today given nearly half a page in the Eye (1203, page 8) on the fracas between the two over Policy Exchange's "Hijacking of British Islam report".

Ratbiter brings only one new thing to the table, and more on that at the end. Apart from that, it's as if he'd been hired by Policy Exchange themselves to defend their report. According to his piece, which implies that because Newsnight sat on the report and that rather than reporting its findings it doesn't believe there's any problems with Islam in this country, something hardly borne out by Richard Watson's repeated investigations over the past year into Hizb-ut-Tahrir, other Islamist organisations and similar allegations to PE's in Tower Hamlets' libraries, "the evidence that Policy Exchange was basically right about the extremist literature available is overwhelming". Indeed it is, as long as you as selectively decide which "evidence" to include in your piece as Ratbiter has.

The only two mosques which Ratbiter mentions are the Muslim Education Centre in High Wycombe, where Newsnight openly broadcast that it had one of the books bought from it on the shelves, but that the shop had a completely different invoice to the one which backed up PE's research, one that Newsnight alleged was a forgery, and the Al-Muntada mosque in west London, where again the invoice was considered dodgy, but also never convincingly claimed that the books didn't come from there. As Ratbiter points out, one of the books apparently bought from there is still available on its website. Well, according to when the Eye went to press it was, but looking at their website now the shop link only provides a phone number and a couple of paragraphs on what's available there.

If Newsnight's evidence had relied on just those two mosques, then it would indeed have been ridiculous for it to have broadcast its lengthy report on the PE publication. Instead, as Ratbiter doesn't acknowledge at any point, the programme featured another four mosques, as my post giving a comprehensive run-down of all the accusations makes clear, one of which looks like a prima facie case of forgery that libels the mosque accused of selling the literature. Since then, allegations about material found at the Edinburgh mosque featured in the report and at a least a couple of others has been called into question.

As with the other PE operatives who defended the report at the time, rather than being angry about the allegations made by Newsnight, Ratbiter appears to be most miffed that Newsnight bothered to double-check the information in the report, and also the invoices which PE supplied to back it up. I'm currently reading Nick Davies' Flat Earth News (expect a review once I'm done), serialised in the Eye in the last issue, and one of the main points he makes in it when defining "churnalism" is that most journalists now, whether working for the Press Association, local newspapers, the big national players or indeed the BBC, simply don't have adequate time to check the sources of their material to ensure that what they're writing and providing as fact is actually true, which ought after all to be the number one service that a journalist should provide. As Ratbiter himself acknowledges, most of the rest of the media ran with it, without even bothering one would assume to so much as check that what the PE report said was accurate. That, after all, was their job, and would have prevented the journos involved from bashing out the other stories they're expected to. In other words, Newsnight provided the very base service that journalists ought to, which is to check for bullshit, and because it did, it's been hammered for it. What a sad state of affairs British journalism really is in for this to be more important than accuracy itself.

Ratbiter's main rhetorical flourish is that the researchers themselves fear for their lives as a result of threats from the extremists that Newsnight pretended didn't exist. Ratbiter's main backing for this is that the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, whose site comes off as almost a Muslim Daily Mail, but who can be hardly described as extremists, allegations about anti-semitism and funding of David Irving by one of its founders aside, put on its website while describing the researchers as "zio-con frauds", that "if you know who they are - please write in and we will expose these men and women for all the Muslim community to see." Thing is, those extremists within the community have now been enormously helped by, err, Ratbiter. Before his piece, we neither knew where the researchers currently were, or how many of them there were, with Newsnight told they were on a jaunt in Mauritania. He/she informs us that there are 8 of them, and that they are currently "somewhere in London". Doubtless those self-same researchers that have been put in danger by Newsnight's refusal to cooperate with the slide to "churnalism" will greatly thank their latest defender for narrowing the search down that little bit more.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008 

This is Flint, Caroline.

Politicians and statesmen often get attributed statements that they never actually made. It's unlikely that Queen Victoria said "We are not amused." Lenin didn't directly use the term "useful idiot". Callaghan never said "Crisis? What crisis?" Norman Tebbit never actually said for the unemployed to get on their bikes and look for work, but along with the Spitting Image puppet of him and cartoon depiction as an undead, skeletal figure (he has never fully recovered from being injured in the IRA Brighton bomb of 1984) attempting to sell the poll tax, it entered the lexicon. Caroline Flint has come up with nothing quite as catchy, but the message is almost certainly the same, and the Guardian's headline will do the job for both her and her party. Labour: if you want a council house, find a job.

As with most headlines, it doesn't really cover the full effect of what she said or the position she's apparently taken. The gist of it is, either you look for work and sign a contract to say that you will, or you won't get a council house. Flint repeated much the same message at a speech to the Fabian society today. (The Fabian society? Have supposedly social democratic organisations in this country really sunk so low?) This approach was apparently sparked by the revelation to Flint that half of those living in social housing are without paid work, which is twice the national average. When it comes to those under 25, it rises to three quarters.

On the face of it, there is an apparent problem that does in some way require fixing. The figures quoted though may not tell the full story. Are we talking about those who are the actual tenants, paying rent to the council, or just those who live in the house as well as the tenants? If so, it might go some way towards explaining why the numbers are larger. I don't have any figures to hand, but one would estimate that more people tend to live in an individual council home than they do in "private" accommodation. Indeed, we're informed that more and more households now consist of just the one person, younger singletons and the older retired generation alike. That may go some way to explaining the disparity.

Otherwise, it seems a typical New Labour solution right down to a t. As with those accused of anti-social behaviour, schoolchildren and parents with schools, and who knows, maybe even all of us once the government gets round to deciding exactly what our "rights and responsibilities" are, those who are on the waiting list for a council house (and it's usually a long wait) will be required to sign a contract stating that if they aren't in work they'll be expected to seek it, as well as undergoing a "skills audit", which probably sounds more threatening that in would be in reality. The government appears to be obsessed with either belittling or infantilising everyone; call it the sweets equation, or the Santa threat. The parent tells the child to behave or they won't get any sweets, or alternatively, that if they aren't a good little boy or girl, that Santa won't come. The difference is that they tend to be empty threats, especially the latter. With New Labour, you can bet that it won't be anything of the sort.

Flint has been accused of stigmatising council estates and those who live in them, and it's difficult to disagree with that conclusion. Certainly, the quotes she's given in the Guardian show both a lack of understanding of council housing works and how the system has been evolving, or rather been privatising as of late:

"It would be a big change of culture from the time when the council handed someone the keys and forgot about them for 30 years."

If there was one thing that councils don't tend to do, it's forget about those living in their housing. If they did, there wouldn't be buses going round where I live with the pre-festive message (I might paraphrase slightly) of "Looking forward to Christmas/buying presents? Pay your rent first. We do evict!" Nor have they forgotten about them when it comes to proposals of whether to selling the housing to a private landlord, or to stay under local government control, as Defend Council Housing have been campaigning for.

Then there's this:

"If you are in a family, an estate or a neighbourhood where nobody works that impacts on your own aspiration. It is a form of peer pressure."

What utter rubbish. I'm sure some are defeatist about it, but for every person that is there's another 3 or 4 that want to get out of the cycle of not working. The key word there is of course "aspiration"; both Labour and the Tories deeply care about the aspirations of the upwardly-mobile lower and middle-classes, who demand less tax and policies tailored directly to them as they make up the all important swing voters, but for those on the council estates who make up the bulk of Labour's vote, they can be played off, stigmatised and chastised for their fecklessness and welfare dependency, which is naturally all their own fault. It certainly also helps that the Mail and Scum lap up such rhetoric.

Less prominent but no less questionable was Flint's proposal for jobcentres to moved onto the estates themselves. Reasonable enough, and I'm sure they'll fit in just fine alongside the Ladbrokes, Coral, BetFred and others that have prospered under New Labour's relaxation of the gambling laws and which now seem to make up the majority of the shops on such estates. More typical was that the private sector will of course be given more of a role, as after all, you can't trust the public sector to be tough enough, especially when you get investment bankers called Freud to do the appropriate reviews.

It has surely come to something though when it's the Conservatives that appear more moderate on such a matter, although Grant Shapps didn't exactly shoot it down, just instead that it was political kite-flying and that it was unworkable. That isn't the point though; for all Flint's pleading that this wouldn't affect the fact that council housing is a safety net, it suggests where government thinking is going, and that's away from further building of social housing, despite how badly it's needed. Quite simply, it costs too much while those who live in it aren't giving enough back. You'd expect that sort of argument to be made by the Tories, but not from Labour, even New Labour. Flint and the prime minister's spokesman have since backtracked slightly, saying that the intention was starting a debate, even a provocative debate in Flint's case, but that seems to only suggest that they weren't expecting such a fierce backlash, or at least the intensity of it. Whether it really has changed minds or not is something entirely different.

Coming after last weekend though, when Progress said that Labour could no longer rely on portraying the Conservatives as the "nasty party", it suggests something else. That Labour seems to be more than happy to try and earn that sobriquet for itself.

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MMR and autism link dismissed yet again.

When she isn't fulminating against the treason of intellectuals or how we're slouching towards dhimmocracy, Melanie Phillips likes to spend her time ranting against the evils of the MMR vaccine. Study after study has been unable to replicate the results of Andrew Wakefield's discredited 1998 report that linked the triple-jab with autism, so it's always fit in nicely with Phillips' persecuted middle-class conspiracy theory mindset.

The latest study, involving 250 children, has similarly found no link between the immunisation programme and autism. Strangely, Phillips has yet to post on how this is the latest report that can't be trusted. The Daily Mail, the second-in-command in the scaremongering about MMR stakes, does though still continue a thoroughly disingenuous approach, starting with the headline itself, which puts disproves MMR jab link to autism in inverted commas, then quotes the usual suspects who'll never be convinced. Thankfully, Science Blogs also cover it, as does the Bad Science crew.

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Scum-watch: Language not fit for a family newspaper.

The Sun was outraged last week when Greg Mulholland of the Liberal Democrats allegedly called health minister Ivan Lewis an "arsehole" while in the Commons, saying in a leader it was language not fit for reprinting in a "family newspaper". That on its own brings to mind the old notion that you can see tits on the third page of the newspaper, but not actually in print, where it'll likely be censored to "t*ts". The Scum's currently piss-poor editor of Bizarre, Gordon Smart, has taken to referring to what you and I know as breasts as "bangers".

Imagine my surprise then when this morning's front page screams "A LOAD OF PRIX" referring to those in the crowd in Spain at the weekend who racially abused Lewis Hamilton. I wonder how many parents had to explain what that meant to their inquisitive younger children this morning.

Elsewhere, ignoring the Scum's expected supporting of the bugging of MPs, especially when it also involves "terror suspects", it's rather proving itself amazingly hypocritical on verbal abuse itself. A couple of weeks ago the leader column tut-tutted at MPs' debating skills:

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.

You won't note any of the above qualities in the following dignified rebuke directed at "millionaires hunting bears in Russia":

RUSSIA is fast gaining an image as a nation of swaggering bullies.

Hard-eyed President Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB officer, loves throwing his weight around.

Newly-rich Russian tourists are becoming even less popular than the Germans.

Today’s Sun carries shocking pictures of a cowardly “hunter” after gunning down a hibernating bear asleep in its den.

Hundreds more of these wonderful animals are slaughtered as gory trophies by bloodthirsty millionaires.

Russians used to be known as thoughtful, poetry-loving, chess playing intellectuals.

Today they are seen as corrupt, vodka-swigging thugs with more money than brains.

Quite so. After all, no one in America, Rupert Murdoch's adopted country, goes hunting or slaughters animals for fun. Or at least, when they try to, they tend to shoot each other, and then only talk to err, Fox News.

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Monday, February 04, 2008 

We still need the Wilson doctrine.

In light of the revelations that the Labour MP Sadiq Khan was bugged (claims in the Daily Mail tomorrow and on Newsnight right now that he's been bugged for years and while he was working for Liberty, supposedly considered a "subversive" by some within Scotland Yard) while visiting his constituent and friend Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison, some are asking why the Wilson doctrine is still in place, with MPs considered above us mere mortals, especially with the report released last week that showed 250,000 requests for various intercepts within a 9-month period.

While some have pointed out that there's a reason why it's known as the Wilson doctrine
, due to his own paranoia (somewhat justified) that the security services were out to get him, the number one reason why it should stay in place is that it protects both radical and maverick MPs from the attention of those so often and historically opposed to them. Of course, in this day and age radical and MP when put together seem to be an oxymoron, but we also ought to be aware that under an even less scrupulous government than this one, collaboration between politicians and security services would certainly not rule out spying on the opposition.

If the Wilson doctrine were to be even slightly modified or abandoned, there needs to judicial oversight, as Unity eloquently outlines. That this is still left to either politicians or a police officer is archaic and and clearly in need of urgent reform.

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Changing the language of "terror".

Doubtless the allegations of political correctness and dhimmification will be loudly levelled at the Home Office by the usual suspects after a new counter-terrorism phrasebook emphasising the language to use when discussing and debating extremist Islamist terrorism has been leaked to the Granuiad.

As is usual whenever allegations of political correctness are thrown about, even slightly valid or not, there's almost always a good reason for it in the first place. The reasons for it in this case don't come much more compelling or challenging: ever since 9/11, the Muslim community as a whole has increasingly seen it come under ever more enduring scrutiny, with ever harsher and looser language used against it, and as a result has turned itself off, has dismissed legitimate concerns, and indulged in conspiracy theories, when it is naturally the first port of call in tackling the extremists in its midst.

If the above reads unlike what you'll usually find on this blog, it's because both sides in this debate are wrong. Only some within the Muslim community have reacted in such a way, just as an even tinier number within it is enthralled and involved in extremism. The difficulty has been that the organisations meant to represent Muslims, such as the Muslim Council of Britain, have themselves refused to recognise that there is a problem, or indeed that they are nowhere near as representative as they claim to be. Since Abdul Bari took over from Iqbal Sacranie there seems to have a reforming agenda that wasn't recognisable before, and the organisation, including the previously bin Laden admiring Inayat Bunglawala have seemingly mellowed, and over the Sudan teddy affair for instance, were very effective in damning the decisions overseas. There doesn't seem to have been much change from the position held though that foreign policy was chiefly responsible for the 7/7 attacks and the plots foiled since, and that radicalisation, however atomised, is the main cause. However much role the illegal invasion and consequent occupation of Iraq have had upon certain individuals becoming radicalised, it's naive and myopic to believe it's the sole or even chief motivation for the blowing up of innocent civilians, even if it is the main excuse.

Just as it is for the Home Office to apparently think that by merely changing the language used that it'll engage the Muslim community more in the challenge/threat (the Home Office endorsed way to describe what has previously been called the "war on terror", which was always an idiotic way to define the al-Qaida/Salafist/takfirist mentality). The phrasebook diplomacy section of the Grauniad article doesn't seem to have been reproduced online, but it shows the difficulties of trying to substitute certain phrases for others which seem if anything to be worse. For instance, "radicalisation" is supposedly heard by the Muslim community as "Terrorism is a product of Islam" (not easily understood or translated into Urdu/Arabic). Is it really, or indeed, are the suggested alternatives, "brainwashing" or "indoctrination" better? We might be quibbling over synonyms, but radicalisation is a far better description of what happens than brainwashing or indoctrination is, especially as there is very little evidence that either are actively going on; quite the opposite, if anything, with personal research or already friendly groups being the most often ways that an individual becomes "radicalised". Similarly, "jihadi/fundamentalist" is according to the HO research heard as "there is an explicit link between Islam and terrorism", with criminal/murderer/thug the suggested replacements. While all of the latter are accurate descriptions of those who are convicted of terrorism offences, how are we meant to be able to describe those who are jihadists, or my preferred term, takfirist jihadists, who haven't actually broken any laws, but who do provide material support or at least believe in the righteousness of the extremist, al-Qaida interpretation of Wahhabist/Salafist Islam if we don't in effect call a spade a spade?

Being careful over the use of language is of course important, and it's completely true that to talk of a clash of cultures, civilisations, or a war against an abstract noun is preposterous. It's also entirely wrong to attack the Muslim community as a whole for sheltering extremists, or to put the onus on it to do the work of exposing those within that are radicalised. All breed mistrust, and risk the response that they're being unfairly stigmatised, which would again be true. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is what the Home Office appears to be doing, it's "what is being heard" that has to be tackled, not the language itself. Why are some within the Muslim community convinced that they are personally to blame? Could it be because of some of the disingenuous and dangerous media coverage, such as that surrounding Jack Straw's comments on the veil, the leaking over alleged plots and the ridiculous allegations from the likes of Policy Exchange and reports that "a sect linked to the Taliban" has control over a large proportion of British mosques? The first thing that could be sorted is that there is no such thing as moderates and extremists. There is everyone of us, then there are the extremists. Likewise, we have to acknowledge that talking about the Muslim community as if it was a homogenuous block is ridiculous. It makes for convenient shorthand, but little more. There are Sufis, Shiites and Sunnis out there, even if the latter are the majority, just as there are former Muslims. It's little wonder some are so exasperated at the labelling when they are entirely removed from what is being discussed.

Perhaps more insulting than any of the above is the impression given, especially by the talk of brainwashing and indoctrination, is that Muslims can't think for themselves. This view is given credence by the likes of Martin Amis and others who contend that Islam provides an all encompassing ideology which itself cannot be altered or challenged, let alone reformed. This is clearly nonsense, as so many Muslim thinkers, past and present have aptly demonstrated. Over the last couple of years we've had John Reid, the head of MI5 and Jacqui Smith all commenting on how Muslim children are being "brainwashed" or "groomed" as if they were the victims of a predatory paedophile, all without providing a single scrap of evidence that this is happening. That's what breeds mistrust and cynicism. Stop insulting peoples' intelligence and understand why "they" think the way they do, then change the language used. Only then might we start getting somewhere.

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Scum-watch: Potential breach of PCC code, gloating over Kevin Greening and more Helen Newlove.

Some of those with a tendency for remembering tedious nuggets of information about the media and its personalities might well recall that the News of the Screws under Piers Moron was heavily criticised for publishing photographs of Earl Spencer's then wife leaving a detoxification clinic. The Press Complaints Commission's code of practice quite clearly states that

ii) It is unacceptable to photograph individuals in private places without their consent.

Note - Private places are public or private property where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Someone with a rather short memory then on the Scum has sailed close to the wind in publishing a photograph of Amy Winehouse not leaving the clinic she's undergoing drug treatment at, but apparently walking between buildings of the complex. It might of course be that the two buildings are in the line of sight of the general public, where the Sun can claim that there wouldn't be a reasonable expectation of privacy, but it might also be quite the opposite, as the snap is publicised as being taken by a paparazzi agency. The Scum could also argue that it's well known that La Winehouse has entered rehab, which mitigates against any claim that she has a reasonable expectation of privacy, but they seem to still be chancing their arm. The dog might yet snap it off. I certainly won't be weeping if it does.

Elsewhere, the Scum's been given another familiar, disgustingly prurient exclusive about Kevin Greening, details of which I'm not going to reproduce here. Last time it suggested someone had died in similar circumstances it was forced into giving an apology after it turned that the allegations were completely untrue.

Finally, Helen Newlove is given yet more space to talk about her anguish. Snipping out most of the personal, melodramatic crap:

MURDERED dad Garry Newlove’s widow Helen told yesterday how she contemplated suicide after vicious teen yobs beat him to death.

She sank desperately low, but has vowed to stay strong for their daughters Danielle, 18, Zoe, 15, and Amy, 13 — AND to campaign to drive thugs off our streets.

She said: “I’m going to do all I can to rid the streets of yobs. I don’t want anyone else to go through the hell we’re facing. The charter and the girls keep me from going under.”

As she's doomed to inevitable failure, one has to wonder whether she's either bullshitting or being thoroughly naive. Either way, the very last thing we need is her ludicrous charter.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008 

Built to last.

Now that Sarkozy's finally married his schoolboyish crush (yes, I realise I'm a horrible horrible hypocrite), can everyone shut the fuck up about it?


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10 years of not much.

Yesterday was the periodic time when the few remaining Blairites that haven't been told to go forth and multiply attempted to yet again move the "debate" their way. Reports the Grauniad:

Labour modernisers, with the support of a group of cabinet ministers, will today press Gordon Brown to offer a radical reform programme, warning Labour is now engaged in a serious fight for the centre ground with a new, more socially liberal Tory party.


A statement drawn up by the Progress thinktank goes on to address one of the key questions for Labour since Brown took over, that of the legacy of Tony Blair. It urges "a future agenda which is post-Blair, not anti-Blair; building on the achievements of the past decade, not running away from them".
It warns the party it cannot win the next election based on its previous tactics, because the Tory party has changed. "The public no longer view the Conservatives as the 'nasty party' of the 1990s. We are now engaged in a serious fight for the centre ground with a party which is socially more liberal and constantly engaging in counter-intuitive positioning."

This is naturally supported by the most delightful of the Blairite clique: Hazel Blears, Tessa Jowell, James Purnell, Alan Milburn and Ed Miliband.

As ever, they've got the wrong end of the stick. It's not that Tory party has changed; you only have to read the rantings of some of them on certain blogs, or the report which John Redwood helmed to realise that. Instead, the Conservatives have simply decided that they'd like to win again. This has involved dressing themselves up in New Labour's not centrist, but centre-right clothes. When the Tories have gone occasionally further towards the right, Labour has then said, oh, that's just what we were about to do! Inheritance tax? Terrible thing, having to pay it when you die after paying it all your life as well, we'll raise the threshold too. Easier stop and search powers for the police? Why, that's just what our former copper doing a review is going to suggest!

The other main reason that the polls have turned is that New Labour is obsessed more than anything else with winning the next election and forgetting they're actually meant to be governing before that happens. If there's one thing that has screamed more loudly since Brown took over, it's been incompetence in department after department, whether it's the fault of the minister in charge or not. 25 million families' details going missing was just the straw that broke the camel's back and brought it completely into the open.

Moreover, when there has been an opportunity to move leftwards and where the public would certainly support it, they've decided it would be too dangerous. Everyone and their mother told them to nationalise Northern Rock, including the Economist and the Financial Times for God's sake, while the Conservatives hadn't got a clue what to do, let alone a policy. Instead Brown and Darling asked Goldman Sachs to come up with a solution, and amazingly, it involves the taxpayer keeping all the liabilities while the City will reap any of the eventual benefits. It took the Tories to propose a tax on non-doms before Labour did anything, then it backed down over the capital gains tax rise, instead of excluding those who were selling their businesses, which would have brought down the entrepreneur ire. Martin Kettle in his companion piece says that no one is talking about further crime crackdowns. Where on earth has he been this week?

We need to provide a stronger narrative about the overall purpose of a Labour government and the direction it wishes to take the country in.

But doesn't that just say it all? After 10 years, what has been the purpose of a Labour government? Or, what has been the point of a Labour government that contains such deadwood and flotsam as Hazel Blears, who doesn't seem intelligent enough to even have joined the Conservatives, or Tessa Jowell, who didn't know about her husband and the mortgages on her house but is the Olympics minister in control of however many billions being spent on a 2-week long sports day? The best thing Alan Milburn ever did was decide to spend more time with his family. When these were the people responsible for bringing the party to its current state, why do they think that they have the solution, or that we should listen to them? It used to be enough to frighten the voters with "think what will happen if the Tories get in!", but the obvious reply to that now is, how would we know the difference?

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The legal kind of stalking.

If you thought that the paparazzi and the media that employs/supports them reached their collective nadir on the 31st of August 1997, then the latest obsession with and stalking of Britney Spears must be reaching or even surpassing that level of fixation and disgrace.

According to one of the pack that has changed sides in disgust at the current situation, there have been up to 20 or 30 cars with photographers chasing her at times across Los Angeles, with the result that when she was the equivalent of sectioned on Thursday the scrum trailing the police escort stretched longer than a football field. This was despite the police trying every tactic to throw the paparazzi off the scent, setting up roadblocks, guarding the house where she was staying from a possible invasion, and blacking out the windows of the ambulance, all at a staggering cost of an estimated £12,000. It's impossible not to be reminded of the echoes of the incident alluded to above, especially given some of the evidence given at the inquest still on-going.

The debate about celebrity, and how much those who become famous are both selling themselves and also putting the media up to some of what they do can be as complicated as the most in-depth philosophical discussion. You only have to walk into any newsagent, look at the increasingly packed shelf of magazines dedicated to the generally talentless and worthless clique to know that most of the guff included in them is with the implicit consent of the person being talked about or interviewed. It's also true that they often make chilling demands to the interviewer about what can and cannot be discussed, some even only giving their OK for the article to be run once its been given the once over by their PR consultant or themselves. Even the likes of Richard and Judy have been accused of this in the past. When Jordan's disabled son was recently mocked by Heat magazine in a sticker give-away, it was hard to feel too much sympathy when she has so assiduously courted her fame, previously referred to her other children as the "normal ones" and is so completely ghastly in almost every way. It's an argument that tabloids themselves often rely upon, but if you can give it and experience the hype, you should expect to be able to take it and weather a backlash if it comes.

We must surely however have passed that stage now in much of the behaviour exhibited by the media and paparazzi in gathering the photographs that fill the comics of a morning and the aforementioned magazines. It's blindingly obvious that some stars cannot now go anywhere without having a camera thrust into their face, whether it be by a member of the public armed with a phone or an actual person employed to do just that. While it can be questioned why some of these people actually do go outside at all when they know what's going to happen if they do, it can't be denied that the constant following and harassment which goes hand in hand with dealing with photographers is now exacerbating the apparent mental breakdowns some in the public eye are experiencing. Amy Winehouse was pictured in such apparent distress, half-naked in the street in the early morning not so long ago, but it wasn't questioned just what those who captured those moments had done in order to frame them, or indeed, what they were doing following her around in the middle of the night in the first place.

The celebrity culture has accelerated and expanded at such an extent even since the death of Diana that it now more than ever resembles a real life, pornographic, soap-opera. Will Britney get the "help" she needs? Will she get her children back? We don't know, but you can give your own unwanted opinion in our forum, and in the meantime, here's some photographs of her not wearing a bra and going about without knickers, which we only know about because the paparazzi now shoot directly at the crotch of all female celebrities getting in and out of vehicles because they get such huge amounts of money for capturing them commando. You have to keep the one-handed hordes online happy, after all. Where once this garbage would have been left in the gutter press, increasingly the broadsheets are featuring the latest updates alongside the news that one of Osama bin Laden's has been killed, along with piecemeal debate about whether they should be covering it or tut-tutting about the whole escapade. It's little wonder that the charge often directed against the West about its decadence is one of the few of the jihadists' claims that rings anywhere near true.

It does however remain the tabloids that cover ever more of this emotional trash. Despite Rebekah Wade promising the her paper would be more sensitive about mental ill-health after it splashed "BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP" on an early edition some years back, yesterday's Scum, featuring a suitably deranged picture of Britney headlined it "Britney's 60 crazy hours", having already headlined a piece where she sang at a bar "LOONEY TUNES", while it asked readers on MyScum whether "psychotic" Britney was beyond help. The Mail asked Oliver James and others, who luckily had a book to plug, to hand out advice, which amounted to "Please do not despair... with the right therapy, I am sure your life will come together again." He was hardly going to tell her to do a Budd Dwyer, was he? Perhaps more spiteful and vile has been the way they've reported the split between Cheryl and Ashley Cole (I'm not going to bother providing links to this crap). Having printed the allegations that he had an affair (followed up by the usual scavengers all claiming that they too had a piece or he wanted to), the Sun has spent the past week pretending to sympathise with her, at the same time as reporting that she supposedly hasn't eaten for a week. Then there's today's splash about Lily Allen splitting from her boyfriend. Was there seriously not any more important news yesterday than one non-entity separating from another?

I can't even begin to come up with any sort of solution to trying to bring an end to this nonsense. I'd suggest a boycott, or a letter writing campaign, but sad as it is, there's probably a million of those who buy the Scum out of the 3 million that do really want to read the latest gossip. If you could somehow fence the whole thing off, that would be pleasant enough, as one letter in the Guardian today advocates a separate section for news on the American presidential candidates so it can be dispossessed of on the way back from the newsagents. Thing is, if you tried doing that with the tabloids or, god forbid, the terrible free press, you'd have about 10 sheets, 6 of them on sport, left. Perhaps if you started fencing it in the way that you buy this shit, you're partially responsible, we might get somewhere. As misleading and plain wrong as it, the tabloids claim they're only responding to demand. You could even say it'll take a death for it to change, but we probably already had as close to that as you could get, and nothing evolved whatsoever. The sad thing is that we probably at the moment have the press we deserve.

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Gun crime? What about being press ganged?

THERE seems to be a sense that it is no longer safe to walk the streets, and that anyone who pops out at night for a tasty kebab is going to come home spouting arterial blood from a bullet wound to the neck.

David Cameron, however, is undaunted. He made a speech in which he said that gun crime is spiralling out of control.

He brought up the tragic story of Garry Newlove who was kicked to death on his own doorstep and little Rhys Jones who was shot dead in a car park on his way back from football training.

Well, there’s one. And I suppose if I scoured the internet for half a day, I could come up with maybe five more people who’ve recently been gunned down by a gang of savage teenagers in hooded tops.

<This means, then, that so far this year 59,999,994 people in Britain have sustained no bullet wounds at all.

More people, and this is true, are killed by their trousers.

Yes, I’m sure that it would be very scary for a concave-chested little man to walk through certain parts of Liverpool at night while carrying a gold ingot.

But be assured, it was also dangerous to be on Brighton beach in 1965 when the Mods and the Rockers were throwing motorcycles at one another.

It was dangerous in the 19th Century because you’d pop out for a pint of milk and end up in the Navy. And I assure you that it was extremely dangerous on the streets of Doncaster in 1977.

On many occasions, burly miners would offer to “glass” me and when I tried to explain “glass” is a noun, not a verb and therefore couldn’t be conjugated, it seemed to make things worse.

The truth, then, is this: The vast majority of the country is completely safe. The vast majority of the people who live here do not want to murder you. And it is still extremely difficult to buy a gun.

Which politically correct, blind, ignorant and complacent moron wrote this then? Err, Jeremy Clarkson. Can some of our politicians perhaps follow his example and give his message more credence than Helen Newlove's?

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Friday, February 01, 2008 

Here is my grief, tell me yours.

After reading out her list of grievances at the conclusion of the trial of the teenagers charged with her husband's murder, Helen Newlove's back, this time with a more expanded one, and all give ample space in the Scum.

The main article, headlined "Mourning mum could be YOU", has to be one of the most hackneyed and pathetic attempts for sympathy that a newspaper could conjure up.

Mum-of-three Helen, 45, fought back tears as she made her first heartbreaking return to the spot where her loving husband of 21 years was brutally murdered by a pack of teenage savages.


Helen moved away from the family home with daughters Amy, 13, Danielle, 15, and Zoe, 18.

But the grief-stricken family summoned up the courage to return there in front of our cameras in order to press home their call for action.

Or, in other words, to get a photograph of Helen crying so she can express just how much she means it, and how badly her demands must be acceded to by the politicians the Sun spends so much time decrying.

Arm-in-arm, heads bowed to hide the pain and sorrow etched on their faces, mum and daughters approached the spot where Garry was found dying 100 yards from his front door.

Once there, they knelt to place flowers and said a silent prayer to their fallen hero, a miracle dad who had beaten cancer 15 years previously.

Carrying a photo of her beloved husband – and clutching his favourite cuddly toy, Leo the lion – Helen said: “It’s traumatic just to be here. It’s still so raw and so painful but we had to come. Leo the lion stands for courage. We gave him to Garry to give him courage when he was in hospital fighting cancer. We brought him along today to give us that same courage. Leo goes everywhere with us now.”

Turning to hug her tearful girls, Helen added: “This is so much harder for them. But if people witness the pain we’re going through, they might just sit up and take notice.

Or they might just think that you're milking your understandable grief and anger to make a political point that politicians are incapable of disagreeing with for fear of being called heartless, cold and indifferent to those who are victims of crime. That's exactly what you're doing, and it's unfair both to all the other parents that have lost children or families that have lost parents to thugs but who haven't decided that it demands that something must be done, and that sad as it seems, it unfortunately happens, and will continue to happen regardless of any campaign. More than anything, it's deeply cynical.

What then, are Newlove's demands? Would you believe that they tie in almost directly with the Sun's own viewpoints?

Sentences that fit crime

THERE are decent, sensible judges in this country, but too often their hands are tied by barmy guidelines and nonsense about human rights.

To stem yob violence we need real deterrents before it’s too late.

We have a mandatory life sentence for murder, but I fear Garry’s killers will escape with as little as ten years each behind bars.

That’s not justice. They will be out on the streets at half his age. For me, life should mean life, and at the very least 25 years. Surely it is time to re-open the debate about bringing back the death penalty — or at least the birch? These people deal in pain - it’s the only commodity they understand.

If Garry’s killers were put to death I would feel absolutely nothing for them. Why should I? They knew full well they were committing the most heinous of all crimes.

Ignoring the jibe about human rights, in actual fact, judges under the last Criminal Justice Act to come into effect have been given far more power over the sentences they can hand down. Life should only ever mean life in the case of multiple murders, or where the offender poses a distinct, special threat to the public, and judges can also now opt for an "indeterminate" sentence if they feel that's the case. The few in prison that are on effective life sentences - Ian Huntley, Ian Brady, Peter Sutcliffe, etc - are those that do genuinely deserve them. It should also always be the judge and not a politician that decides on what requires a life sentence that means life, for obvious reasons. As for bringing back the capital punishment or the birch, apart from the fact that the former doesn't work as anything approaching a deterrent as America aptly demonstrates, it brings us down to the level of those who commit the crimes themselves. A yob beats someone up, so we give him a good state-sanctioned thrashing in return? A wonderful example, to be sure. I also doubt that when they beat her husband up that they had the intention of killing him, whatever despicable bravado they've since displayed.

YOU rarely meet a cop these days, if you do they are often overweight.

This is because most of them drive around instead of being where people need them — on the streets.

Really? I think it's a long time since I've seen an overweight police officer, but then what do I know? I haven't had my husband killed.

We’re entitled to a proper response to every 999 call. CCTV and community support officers are no substitute for a bobby on the beat.

A proper copper knows his beat. He can sense trouble and intervene before it’s too late. And officers need to be fit and strong.

And I'm sure that the Sun will be delighted with the rise in taxes necessary for every community, street, or estate to have its own individual set of police officers, as will those that have no need for them. We already have around 140,000 police officers, and over 15,000 community support officers. Exactly how many more are needed, or necessary? A far better idea would be genuine community policing, not necessarily involving the law itself but active citizenry and groups working together to nip problems in the bud themselves. That though might make too much sense, or involve trying to rebuild a sense of community that has vanished through the rise of ruthless individualism.

I’VE worked in courts and seen the justice system from both sides.

All too often the victim’s family are made to feel like second-rate citizens. Their rights come second to the rights of perpetrators.

Or as they're also known until convicted, the accused.

When Garry’s killers stood trial, the defendants came to the dock smiling and laughing. They were staring at us as if we were scum.

Nobody told them to pack it in. We were the ones told not to show emotion or call out in case it swayed the jury. Why wasn’t there a place for us to watch proceedings free from the menacing glares of yobs?

Why didn't you make a stand and ignore the advice? If you can do this now, why not then? Besides, the layout of most courts often means that those in the dock have to turn right around to stare at those in the public gallery. We could put closed off sections into courts or curtains, but why when most of the time they wouldn't be used? She perhaps does have something a point when they could watch proceedings in a side room via CCTV, but surely most also want to be in there and experience what's going on as well as watch?

I’m so angry at the way these kids play the system. The law says children of ten know what’s right and wrong — so why do we treat teenage killers like babies? They can have their mums sit with them and get refreshment breaks. No wonder court holds no fear for these kids.

Possibly because children mature at different ages, especially as we don't consider them adults until either 16 or 18. Again, they're not killers until they're convicted, and it's worth pointing out that not all of those tried for Newlove's murder were convicted. That's been conveniently forgotten.

BAD parenting is at the heart of Britain’s demise.

We live surrounded by incredible technology — yet some kids behave as if it was the dark ages.

When are lazy parents going to realise life is not a soap opera or a PlayStation game? I’ll tell you — when we strip their benefits, fine them heavily and shame them in the papers.

All of which has been shown to work so effectively in the past.

Parents need to instil respect in kids and teach them right from wrong. If kids run wild their parents should be hauled into court alongside them. And if kids get community service, the parents should have to join them.

Courts come down hard on pensioners who don’t pay council tax. So why pussyfoot around parents who don’t give a damn? And I’m sick of women playing the single mum card.

But this also risks punishing parents when they've tried their hardest. How many youths commit the odd offence, mostly receive a caution and never do anything like it again? You can imagine the parents becoming embittered if also having to attend community service meant them losing their jobs. How would impoverishing families impress upon them the need to bring their children up right, or indeed enable them to do so? It might be reasonable for repeat offences, but not in all cases. The council tax example is also ludicrous: perhaps one or two get sent to prison a year for refusing to pay, if that.

... When a head expels a violent pupil I want him or her to decide without having to explain it over and over or fill out endless forms. A head should be judge and jury without having his authority questioned. Teachers should also be free to intervene if they see a fight without the fear of losing their job.

Except the appeals process has time and again shown that decisions over expulsions are often made hastily and without thinking out the consequences. As for teachers intervening in fights, in all my years at school I never saw them being in the slightest bit afraid of breaking them up or cracking down hard on those who did.

And they should have the right to search pupils for drugs or weapons - a child who has nothing to hide won’t mind.

There's no better way to earn the respect of someone than to spend every morning either frisking them for something they haven't got or peering into their pockets using x-ray machines or metal detectors. There's a lyric that seems to sum this up: "And our schools look like prisons / and our prisons look like malls."

Finally, there's the Sun's leader:

ONE minute, Gordon Brown claims crime has fallen under Labour. The next we learn gun and knife deaths have spiralled by a chilling 20 per cent in one year.

There's nothing like selectively relying on the figures. Overall, homicides were down last year, and gun crime was also down. The quarterly figures showed a rise from 49 deaths involving guns to 59, but then the annual figures to September last year showed them falling back down to 49. Deaths involving knives were up from 219 to 258, which perhaps shows a change in weaponry or the force used, or even failings in hospitals. It's difficult to tell.

Yesterday, Justice supremo Jack Straw promised new prisons — but don’t hold your breath.

Today we discover 3,000 violent offenders are being released early because jails are full.

By a whole 18 days, and those that have re-offended have done so on a surprisingly low level. The Sun and others' demands led to the overcrowding crisis, yet all they want now is.. more prisons and ever harsher crackdowns. Just where does it all end?

Ministers seem hopelessly adrift.

But as murder victim Garry Newlove’s devastated widow Helen points out today, there is a simple remedy.

More bobbies on the beat, tough action at home, discipline in schools and real justice in court.

It comes to something when a bereaved wife and mum can come up with a better cure for crime than our cops and politicians.

Except it's the same cure that's been tried for over a decade and which in their opinion has so egregiously failed.

Where is the liberal response to this sabre-rattling? Where is the politician brave enough to stand up and say, yes, there are problems in certain areas, just as there always has been and always doubtless will be but that we'll try as hard as possible to try to change? That the the police, good as they are and as hard as they work, cannot be everywhere at once? Where despite populists and opportunists claiming that Britain is either broken or a failing society, by most accounts we're doing quite well, and up until recently, the middle classes, unlike the poor and vulnerable, have never had it so good? Or indeed, to end all taboos and stand up to a bereaved person and tell them that grief or anger is never a good motive for change and that their solutions are not necessarily the best ones? The Liberal Democrats have said they'll oppose any return to the "sus laws", but where are they or indeed anyone else with different solutions or suggestions that don't involve either the military, the birch, a "rebalancing" of the criminal justice system or ever more prison spaces? It's time that the narrative was changed and that the needle was taken off the broken record.

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Hey Guido!

Stop being unutterably pathetic.


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