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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