Saturday, April 19, 2008 

Getting the freedom of speech balance right.

There's little doubt that Abu Izzadeen, also known by his rather less exotic moniker of Trevor Brooks is an odious, rabble-rousing racist determined to stir up trouble and hatred. In his involvement with al-Muhajiroun and its successor organisations, which have now become so disconnected from the original group that's it difficult to know exactly which is still active and which have been abandoned (its current incarnation might be Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah), there's little doubt that he's been involved in radicalising individuals that find such an all encompassing and explanatory ideology both attractive and easy to understand. His conviction for funding terrorism quite clearly shows that he cared little for the innocents, disparagingly referred to as the "kuffar" that are inevitably caught up in the attacks that take place in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which is presumably where the money was heading.

What I'm not convinced of is that his speeches at the Regent's Park mosque, apparently recorded and which extended to up to 5 hours, for which he was convicted of inciting terrorism, ought to have broken a free society's laws protecting freedom of speech. The excerpts which have been released and transcribed are inflammatory, condemnable, offensive and in some places laughable, but not in my personal view ones which should be considered so dangerous as to warrant over a four year sentence. While the jury would have seen everything unexpurgated, very little of what was said which we have been allowed to see is outside the norm of jihadist propaganda easily available on the web, and when compared to some of the anti-Muslim hate which far-right blogs and anti-jihadist sites carry, it even seems to be somewhat on the mild side. This is in no way to justify or apologise for what Izzadeen and others like Simon Keeler stand for or indeed argue for, but these are the sort of individuals who appear to be potentially more dangerous inside prisons, where it is next to impossible to suitably monitor their activities, than they are outside, especially when they, like many of the other hot-heads out there, have no intention of personally carrying out the threats which they find it so easy to make. They leave that to the others that are more easily moulded and whom don't enjoy the sound of their own voice as much, as the judge himself pointed out in Izzadeen's case.

That's why it's so difficult to take the manufactured level of outrage in the Sun over Brooks "only" getting four and a half years, not apparently noticing that he also received two years and three months for funding terrorism. Brooks' hatred was nowhere near on the levels of the speeches given by Abu Hamza, who received 7 years, which makes it all the more tedious for the paper to be making the point that he could have been imprisoned for "life", a sentence which in other circumstances it also sneers at. The ultimate risk from cracking down too hard on such rants is that it spills over into the grounds of prosecuting on the basis of offence rather than because the views expressed are dangerous; while that hasn't happened yet, it's a potential worry, especially when such sentences are condemned as being "soft".

I could well be wrong, and some will argue, with some justification, that not prosecuting those such as Brooks doesn't just leave all of us in danger, but that it especially leaves Muslims themselves open to reprisals, or to the claims of others that they're not doing enough to condemn the agitators in their midst. The one bright side is that there seem to be increasing numbers of those formerly involved in radical Islam turning against their past doctrines and going public, helping others also to mend their ways. Rachel reports that Attila Ahmet, one of those recently sentenced for soliciting murder and the self-styled "emir" of the "paintball jihad" group, has apparently renounced his radicalism in Belmarsh, and has been moved to the hospital wing as a result for his own protection. Anne Owers, the prisons inspector, recently praised the imams at Belmarsh for their work in countering radicalisation, the opposite of what some tabloids had been claiming was taking place. His example and that of others like Hassan Butt show the way forward, but imposing ridiculously harsh sentences for questionable rants, as well as further extending the detention limit for "terrorist suspects" will only make their good work all the more difficult.

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Friday, April 18, 2008 

Imagine... imagine... imagine a story....

It's difficult to even begin to imagine what was going through the mind of Angela Smith MP yesterday. Perhaps she was laying there in bed on Wednesday night, tossing and turning, thinking about the meetings she's had with her constituents, rereading the letters in her head from those who've previously loyally voted Labour that were not angry, but just bitterly disappointed with how they'd been betrayed by a supposedly socially democratic government over the removal of the 10p top rate of tax, feeling disillusioned with how her own party was taking from the lowest paid and giving to middle earners just as the economic weather has turned. Resigning would have been extreme, and damaged the government as a whole, but it would have been highly principled and could, just could force a change in the policy, unlikely, but vaguely possible. Most of her spineless colleagues would have thought this over, finally fell to sleep and then would have dismissed it in the morning, like most do those bizarre, foolish ideas that tend to plague you in the middle of the night and then instantly regret even thinking up. But no, she would be strong, and go through with it!

It's even more difficult to begin to imagine what was going through her mind when she suddenly decided that she wasn't then going to resign after all. It's easy to see government as an extended family, Smith as the disobedient child, having told Cooper, her furious, snarling, teeth-gnawing mother, the corners of her mouth already flecked with spit, that she was going to quit. "You better well phone up your father Gordon and tell him then!"

And so she did. Quite what Gordon, away in Washington on important business, told her that reassured is even more difficult to imagine. It certainly wasn't the news that they weren't going to go through with the tax rate change after all. The terse, through gritted teeth statement, so obviously spin doctor scripted, saying that Gordon had convinced her that the government's anti-poverty agenda remains unchanged even while 5.2 million will be losing out, just made an embarrassing situation even more mortifying. Perhaps the real reason she rowed back was because Gordon had threatened to have her sent to Siberia. It's more a convincing explanation than Brown winning her over with the sheer power of his argument. From standing up to her parents to making even Clare Short look dignified all within 24 hours, not even Armando Iannucci could have imagined it.

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Migrants stole my baby part three.

Unity attempts to get to the very bottom of the whole migrant crime statistics controversy, and while even by his standards it's lengthy, it's well worth reading in full just to realise how fraught and difficult it is to even begin to be able draw conclusions from the data currently available. The only solution to this is for the government and the police to bang heads together and come up with a proper, easy to understand system for identifying the origin of those charged with offences, not just arrested or connected with "crimes solved". We might be waiting a long time.

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Scum-watch: Septic isle betrays our heroes!

Not to come over all self-referential, but I can't help but be delighted by the headline the Sun's chosen for gor blimey merchant Jon Gaunt's latest column:

More than happy to oblige.

While we're here, we might as well deal with this blatant lie from Gaunt:

Do you remember when the illegals and the bogus asylum seekers set fire to their modern detention centres because Sky TV was turned off? Yes, you do.

But do you hear the liberty campaigners of this world moaning when our troops live in rat-infested barracks? Of course you don’t.

Yes, I do indeed remember when those "illegals and bogus asylum seekers" rioted when Sky was turned off; not because they were suddenly being deprived of Murdoch's wonderful programming, but because the report they were watching just happened to be on the conditions in, err, their detention centre. Anne Owers' report on the Harmondsworth detention centre found that it was:

being run with a regime that is as strict as any high security prison, with those facing deportation victimised by staff and some strip-searched and temporarily locked in solitary confinement, according to the chief inspector of prisons.

Anne Owers says that the privately-run removal centre, which holds 500 men facing deportation at any one time, has slipped into "a culture wholly at odds with its stated purpose" since a riot took place in 2004.

The prison inspection team says it had serious concerns over the way Harmondsworth was run by United Kingdom Detention Service, with 44% of detainees reporting they had been victimised by staff and 60% saying they felt unsafe in the centre.

More than 2,000 failed asylum seekers and illegal migrants pass through Harmondsworth each year and those interviewed by the prison inspectors described the custody officers as "aggressive", "intimidating", "rude" and "unhelpful", especially towards those who could not speak English.

The chief inspector says the centre is run "with a disproportionate emphasis on security" with a high use of force and with rules and systems that "would have been considered over-controlling in a prison, let alone a removal centre".

So forgive this liberty campaigner if he doesn't cry crocodile tears for the plight of our brave heroes who aren't being held against their will or treated in anywhere near such a fashion as those at Harmondsworth were.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008 

Migrants stole my baby part two.

You can tell just how much the Grauniad's report yesterday on how migrants have not brought a crime wave with them and how, unsurprisingly, they're not committing more offences than anyone else overall has wound up the Daily Mail and Express by the vehemence of their response today. Along with the recent immigration report by the Lords committee that, despite tabloid coverage, concluded migrants had on the whole not significantly benefited or been detrimental to the country, the crime angle is the one sure fire hit which they can rely upon to really fire minds against the current immigration policy, with their impact on public services and negligible use of benefits following closely behind. For it to blown apart just as they appeared to be getting the upper hand could not possibly be tolerated.

Hence why both have come out all guns blazing. The Express leads with "IMMIGRANTS BRING MORE CRIME", which is patently untrue as the report has already made clear, but more interesting is the Mail's account of how the Guardian report supposedly came to fruition.

The liberal Left had been right throughout, and the influx of one million eastern European migrants in less than four years - contrary to the claims of some chief constables - had created little pressure or trouble.

The source was good. A report by the Association of Chief Police Officers, prepared for the Home Secretary, had reached this firm conclusion.

Except it had done no such thing. The report itself, leaked in full yesterday, bore no relation to the BBC or Guardian headline claims.

"EU accession migrants are continuing to present challenges across a range of policing activity," reads one paragraph.

There are "notable changes in crime patterns, including extortion, 'dipping' [pick-pocketing], human trafficking and a growing sex trade", warns another.

Most curious of all, there is not a single mention of a migrant crimewave, let alone about one being "unfounded" or a "myth".

Did it really bear no relation to the BBC or Guardian headline claims? Let's go back to the Guardian's report:

The report says: "While overall this country has accommodated this huge influx with little rise in community tension, in some areas sheer numbers, resentment and misunderstanding, have created problems." It adds that the immigration from eastern Europe has been different to previous arrivals, because it happened much more quickly. The report says that new migrants may be more likely to commit certain types of offences. Polish people are linked to drink-driving, and problems have arisen in central London with some Romanian children being used by adults to commit petty robberies.

There are also problems with people trafficking and exploitation, but while these may be more likely in some migrant communities, other types of offences are less likely to occur.

Well that's strange then, isn't it? The Guardian report did mention nearly all those things that the Mail now reports, just in a different fashion, considering that the Guardian didn't have access to the full document which the Mail and Express now apparently have. The easy way to sort the whole mess out would be if us lower mortals could also get access to the full report, but it seems for now that it'll remain confidential. The Grauniad has also expanded slightly on its original points in today's follow-up:

Peter Fahy, chief constable of Cheshire, who co-authored the study, said: "Migration has had a significant impact on UK communities in past years, but while this has led to new demands made on the police service, the evidence does not support theories of a large-scale crime wave generated through migration.

"In fact, crime has been falling across the country over the past year. Cultural differences such as attitudes to offences like drink-driving may exist, but can be exaggerated.

"The influx of eastern Europeans has created pressures on forces in some areas, including local rumour and misunderstandings fuelling tensions which police have had to be proactive in resolving, and leading to significant increases in spending on interpreters, which can also make investigations more complex."

Back to James Slack's analysis of the original Grauniad report:

Even if accurate, the coverage would have begged several questions, not least who had claimed there was a migrant crimewave in the first place?

Hmm. I wonder who could have done such a thing?

The influx of Romanian migrants has led to an explosion in crime in this country, it emerged last night.

As recent members of the EU, Romanians have had free access to Britain only since January 1.

Yet in the first six months of this year, police say, they were responsible for 1,080 offences.

This is from the Daily Mail, 19th of September last year, written by.... James Slack. The Daily Express also claimed in January that "migrants send our crime rate soaring", which as Fahy points out, they haven't, as crime overall has dropped by 9%.

Cambridgeshire Chief Constable Julie Spence - whose intervention last year was the report's spur - had warned of pressure on her local force, and problems with sex trafficking and eastern Europeans drink driving.

Neither she nor any other respected critic had suggested the new arrivals were committing disproportionate levels of overall crime (indeed, it is widely accepted - not least by the Daily Mail - that the vast majority are here to work hard).

What is true is that the migrants are as likely to be arrested by the police as a British citizen, but - when this happens - consume more resources by virtue of speaking little or no English.

Gosh, could that "the Daily Mail line" be anything to do with the Federation of Poles complaining about the Mail's coverage? Obviously Slack isn't including himself or the Express as respected critics, as both, as we have seen, claimed that new arrivals were committing disproportionate levels of overall crime, the Express claiming that crime by migrants had soared by 530%.

Rather than debunking the Guardian's original article, all Slack is doing is actually confirming that its story was accurate. He agrees that migrants are no more likely to commit crimes than the average British citizen, which was the Guardian report's main point. Where the Grauniad erred slightly was that it didn't put enough emphasis in how when arrested migrants obviously use more police resources, and translation costs therefore come into the equation, something that the report makes clear, but it can hardly be blamed for not doing so when it didn't have the full report in front of them, especially considering that their source was Peter Fahy, the co-author of the report, who should himself have communicated that robustly. In any case, today's follow-up contains a lengthy quote dealing with just that from Mail's favourite police officer, Cambridgeshire's Julie Spence. Its fears that the Guardian's report would affect the extra money the police were asking for from Jacqui Smith today when they met her were also unfounded; new funding was promised.

For the Daily Mail and especially James Slack to be moaning about the Guardian slightly misreporting an important study is the height of chutzpah. Such has been Slack's record in distorting figures and baiting and switching that you can't take a single article he's ever written seriously. This blog and others have on numerous occasions recorded the Mail and Express scaremongering, churning and in some cases downright lying about immigration. It ought to come down to trust; do you regard the Mail or Express to tell the truth or be more accurate about immigration, knowing their track record, or do you overall regard the Guardian, or any "broadsheet", or the BBC to do so? Opinion polls on trust on individuals and organisations in public life show that it's overwhelmingly the latter.

Speaking of lying, to bring it back to the Express, here's how it justifies its "IMMIGRANTS BRING MORE CRIME" super splash:

IMMIGRATION from Eastern Europe has led to a huge surge in crime, police chiefs will tell the Home Secretary today.

Oh, so the report doesn't say that then, there's no evidence whatsoever to back it up, but it must be true because "police chiefs" will say so. Then there's the blatant exaggerations of its content:

The damning report will be presented to Jacqui Smith in a key meeting, at which many chief constables will demand extra funds to cope with the effects of Labour’s open-door policy.

In an alarming message, the report warns: “EU migration has brought with it a huge surge in the exploitation of migrants and organised crime.”


The findings provide yet another devastating sign of the pressure Labour’s immigration policies have had on our towns and communities.

Which just goes to show that you really can make black into white and white into black.

Elsewhere, 5cc clarifies further the claim that 1 in 5 crimes in London are now committed by foreigners with figures from his own freedom of information request.

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Scum-watch: Cocaine? On my Facebook?

The social networking sites are a boon to lazy, sensationalist tabloid journalists. Want to find a group that advocates something your newspaper doesn't much like? A couple of taps on Farcebook and it's done. Feel the need to scare your readers senseless after a particularly gruesome or out of the ordinary case, such as that of Natasha Collins and Mark Speight? Why look, all your children are on a social networking site boasting about their Colombian marching powder intake! Won't someone please save the children?

TODAY The Sun exposes the potentially deadly Facebook groups that glamorise cocaine abuse.

Parts of the social networking website have effectively become a handbook that have pulled people into drug use.

Proof to back this up? The case studies of a whole two individuals who blame the site for their woes, even though they'd previously used cocaine or other drugs, the whole thing reading like a usual PR sting, asking for stories about cocaine use (with the promise of payment) they can then possibly mould, especially considering this is in the "Real Life" section. The churnalist behind this garbage, Samantha Wostear, then liberally chooses a few quotes from selected Facebook groups for her own evidence:

One dangerous entry declares: “This group is so funny!!! i like kate moss, and i LOVE coke!”

Dangerous? In the sense that whoever wrote it's stupidity is contagious? That's the only way it could possibly thought of as putting anyone other than the author at risk.

More young Britons have tried cocaine than those in any other European country.

Britain also has the second-highest level of active users in Europe, beaten only by Spain.

One in 25 British schoolchildren aged 15 to 16 admit to having taken cocaine at least once - double the average in Europe.

Ah yes, and this is clearly down to social networking sites rather than its availability and its attractiveness, right? Let's at least try and keep the moral panic at least somewhat sane.

And the cocaine craze sweeping the UK is at risk of being fuelled by the depraved groups that invite Facebook users to share their experiences of drug use and encourage others to experiment.

Graphic images of people snorting cocaine sit next to comments glorifying its use such as: “Nearly all my money goes on beak (cocaine), it’s f***in amazin and i’m helpin out poor little colombians by takin it, ha ha, plus if mossy (Kate Moss) can get away wid it why cant i?”

It was posted on the group If Kate Moss Does Cocaine, It Should Be Legal. This group alone boasts 716 members.

There are said to be 500 groups linked to cocaine appreciation, boasting hundreds of members.

Another group, Cocaine Is The Ruler Of The Brain, posts the message: “Nothing like that ‘high’ feeling to make a person feel goood-ddd and forget about ev-reee-thhhannnggg!!”

And another, Make Poverty History - Cheap Cocaine For Everyone!!!!!, states: “Prices are rocketing to all new highs so we all need to band together to stamp down the price and bring cocaine back to the masses.”

This sort of thing is hardly limited to Facebook - a quick Google search for "cocaine appreciation" pulls up a whole number of forum topics on similar subjects.

Of course, the fact that this article is in the Sun and deals solely with Facebook, which just happens to be MySpace's (prop. R. Murdoch) main rival has obviously nothing to do with the Sun's determination to expose these frightening groups for targeting our children. And, as you might expect, MySpace itself certainly hasn't got any similar groups, has it?

What is a shabhead, you say? It's another term for speed freak, methhead

Amphetamines, Speed; Dex; Adderall; Dexamphetamine; Bennies; Dexies; Black Beauty; Jollies.. simpler te

choking bitches and doing cocaine

Sugar Sniffers (Public Group)
in this little group we are addicted to sugar, sweets, candy of any kind, as much as we are to cocaine. nuff said, si?

chemicals are fun! (Public Group)
well this is for everyone who like anything from a ciggerette to crack cocaine... shit why not!>. well as i wish safe usage feel free to bend the bar or reality a bit when u please. and when u do.

cocaine cult (Public Group)
we do Ka-Ka-Ka-heroin

Cocaine Fiends (Public Group)

Cocaine Cunts (Private Group)
Whore Group

Will someone do me the honours of introducing the pot to the kettle?

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008 

The Evening Standard and the London Mayoral election.

Not living inside London, I hadn't quite realised just how nasty, bitter or personal the Mayoral election, or as it would be more accurately described, the Mayoral battle, had become. I'd read a few accounts of how the Evening Standard seems to have turned itself into little more than a propaganda sheet for Boris Johnson in the past few weeks but didn't quite believe that it could be all that bad.

Taking a short trip on the train to the next town (I went to see the Long Blondes, who were excellent. Their lead, Kate Jackson, came out afterwards and was letting everyone take photographs with her, which is always nice to see) means you can always pick up the discarded detritus left behind by the commuters, varying from those wastes of paper which are the free celebrity scandal sheets (Metro, London Lite, TheLondonPaper) to if you're lucky a decent broadsheet. As well as an Independent, I picked up an Evening Standard. Today's headline? SUICIDE BOMB BACKER RUNS KEN'S CAMPAIGN.

Score one for being misleading, as a suicide bomb backer is not running Ken Livingstone's actual re-election campaign, as many would doubtless think the story implies. Instead, the report relates how an "Evening Standard investigation" has discovered a group calling itself "Muslims 4 Ken". Again, the Standard's main problem is not with "Muslims 4 Ken", which has been set-up by Anas Altikriti, but rather with one of M4K's backers, who happens to be none other than Azzam Tamimi, the Hamas apologist who has suggested on a number of occasions that he's willing to become a suicide bomber in Israel/Palestine and also said that "[F]or us Muslims martyrdom is not the end of things, but the beginning of the most wonderful of things".

Again, fair enough you might think. Tamimi's another of those brand of Islamist gobshites that are all mouth and no actual action, justifying murder and apologising for Hamas while failing to attempt to build for a lasting peace in the Middle East, but this is hardly new information. Despite their attempt to build links between Livingstone and the Muslims 4 Ken organisation, the connections are tenuous at best. What's more, the list of those who signed the Muslims 4 Ken original declaration were posted up on Comment is Free back in January, and it seems with little apparent acknowledgement back then. Salma Yaqoob, the Respect councillor in Birmingham and one of the signatories, is also one of those mentioned in the article, declaring the 7/7 attacks were "reprisal events". Much as I disagreed with Respect's failed attempt at communalism with Muslim organisations on the political right, something that was always doomed, Yaqoob has been a forceful campaigner and to smear her in such a fashion is wholly unfair. It seems to be even further clutching at straws by connecting the "Islamophobia Watch" blog into the campaign. IW, ran by Martin Sullivan, who may or may not be aka Bob Pitt, according to Johann Hari, and described by Indigo Jo as either a Marxist who runs the "What's Left" journal, or a Labour party member (Martin Sullivan appears as a contributor to What's Left, which hardly helps clear up the confusion), is more an aggregator of which mainstream media article MS (or BP) decides are Islamophobic or err, not, as he also links to articles which are friendly towards Islam. The Evening Standard also links Anas Altikriti to the Muslim Association of Britain, and while I'm not going to dispute that entirely, it seems more likely he's associated with the British Muslim Initiative, both of which are alleged by the Harry's Place crew to be "clerical fascist" offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Perhaps more pertinent to the publication of the article today is something mentioned right back in the opening paragraph:

A year-long strategy to mobilise the Muslim vote for Ken moves into overdrive this week, accompanied by a campaign of vilification aimed at Boris.

Happily, today was also the day that Soumaya Ghannoushi, the world's worst commenter on Islam, blessed the Grauniad with this flimsy to say the least article attacking dear old Boris, linking him directly with the BNP after they advised their voters to give him their second preference, right in line with the Evening Standard's claims of a coming campaign:

Given Johnson's record on minorities, his endorsement by the far right as a second-preference candidate seems understandable, shocking though it may be. This signifies a worrying precedent in the history of the BNP - notwithstanding Johnson's claim that he has no wish "to receive a single second-preference vote from a BNP supporter". Never before has the BNP felt sufficiently fond of a mainstream mayoral candidate to lend him or her its support.

Ghannoushi, just in case you didn't notice, was a signatory of the CiF piece back in January. Her article today is nonsense of course, as has much of the campaigning against Boris been on the basis of his ill-advised and clearly racist, if not intended maliciously remarks about "piccaninnies" with "watermelon smiles", which Boris must surely know is almost a direct quotation from Enoch Powell's notorious "rivers of blood" speech, and indeed, it seems likely he was alluding to it, even if he was writing about those meeting the Queen during a visit to Africa. In any event, he's apologised for any offence caused, something that Ken Livingstone failed on numerous occasions to do when he compared Oliver Finegold to a concentration camp guard, even if he was drunk and being doorstepped after a friend's party.

Just for a moment, let's take the Muslims 4 Ken group seriously, or rather the Evening Standard seriously in their suggestion that they could help up to 200,000 Muslims vote for Livingstone. Even if we give them credit in persuading just a quarter of them to vote for Ken, the British National Party vote in 2004's election was 58,000 strong, and if anything seems likely to increase this time round. Instead, we ought to take the Muslims 4 Ken group as something approaching an embarrassment, as David T from Harry's Place does in this typical piece of Decent Left demanding that others condemn a group whose support they didn't ask for in the first place. He writes:

This endorsement by the MAB/Muslim Brotherhood is utterly worthless. This group has little traction in this country, and few voters, if any, will be influenced by their support.

Quite so. The same goes for the entire Muslims 4 Ken group. Condemning them is an utter waste of time; they're simply not worth the bother, while condemning the BNP certainly is, although banning them from advertising does nothing whatsoever to help a genuine democratic process.

This sniping and personal targeting of both Boris and Ken is a result of two factors: firstly, that regardless of what the candidates say and all their clever, shiny manifestos on what they'll do on crime etc, their powers are comparatively slight; and, because of this, the contest has instead moved on to personalities. Ken is at a disadvantage because of his period in office, which according to your various predilections, has either been a triumph or an absolute disaster. The one policy which resonates out from his two terms is the congestion charge, which again can be either celebrated or dismissed according to your personal preference. Everything else tends to blur: hence why his gaffes, or ill-thought through or stupid decisions that have amounted to incitement, like his invitation of the vile Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is moderate in the Azzam Tamimi sense that he denounces terrorism against the West while justifying and even providing fatwas allowing Palestinian terrorism, at least while he's not also supporting the murder of homosexuals or female genital mutilation, and his wholesale support for Iain Blair and apologia for the Met's execution of Jean Charles de Menezes, are so uppermost when deciding who to plump for.

Johnson's various faux pas' have been equally played up accordingly, but his biggest advantage or disadvantage is just that, his bumbling, upper-class foppish persona. How much of it is an act has always been difficult to say, but it's obvious that if he was as genuinely haywire as he seems when he appears in public that he wouldn't have risen to edit the Spectator, or even become an MP. I might seem reasonably gregarious and self-aware writing here, but meet me in real life and you'd probably find that I'm a shy, introverted, monosyllabic moron, because I err, am. This is why attacking him for just that has always been so dangerous: Michael Portillo called on him to either be a comedian or a politician, but that's a false dichotomy; without the charm Boris wouldn't be Boris, and no one would be interested, yet that's exactly what he doubtless is like when he actually gets in the editing chair or in the Mayor's office itself. If behind the clown or comedian's mask there's actually someone crying or desperate for help, then Boris is no different.

Considering the only other issue constantly raised is the seemingly arcane debate over bendy buses or Routemasters, it's little wonder that the debate has turned to personalities. Despite all the other candidates, the fight is between two disguised clowns, with a straight man in the shape of a former police officer also resorting to nasty personal attacks trying to battle his way into the fray. If I had a vote I'd be tempted to say sod the lot of them and waste it entirely by voting Green and Left List or vice versa, despite my misgivings over both of those as well. The lesser of two evils, despite all his failings, does appear to be Ken, but the noise reverberating especially from the Evening Standard makes it even more difficult to tell. As Michael White writes, the ES has published some excellent journalism investigating Livingstone and his funding of suspicious organisations, not to mention Lee Jasper, but it's also carried some utter nonsense, like today's article seemingly out of a vendetta or obsession to get rid of him. This wouldn't make much difference if the London media market was more open, but it isn't; the ES is the only paper distributed across the capital with a solid political message and agenda. The result itself will go down to the wire, but politics in the capital as a whole looks increasingly grubby.

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Migrants stole my baby.

It turns out then that migrants only commit a level of crime proportionate to that of every other citizen, in an amazing report by the Association of Chief Police Officers themselves. This at the same time as other sections of the press have been trying to claim that 1 in 5 crimes in London are now committed by foreigners, or at least those of foreign origin. Except, as Unity explains, those figures are bogus also, although Laban Tall in the comments disputes this to an extent. It would be nice if we could argue about the current levels of immigration, something quite rightly at the centre of many voters' concerns without febrile scaremongering taking over, but that seems to be increasingly difficult.

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Scum-watch: Osborne takes up the challenge and the "Cameron sneeze boy" becomes a yob.

As soon as I write yesterday's purgatorial excretion on all things Sun, George Osborne takes up the Sun's challenge and writes an article for them on what he/the Tories would do. Shame that 75% is the same policies they've already decided upon which will make next to no difference or in fact make things worse, especially their promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to the ludicrously high £1m, alongside the laughable claim that they'd reserve the 10p tax rate abolition.

Elsewhere, we have this incredibly over-the-top report on the 15-year-old who pretended to sneeze and then wiped his hand down Dave's shoulder, which I and probably the majority of the country thought amusing rather than summing all that's wrong with Broken Britain:

A TEENAGE yob was arrested for wiping SNOT on David Cameron’s back as the Tory leader made a public appearance in a town centre this afternoon.

The 15-year-old lad was given a police caution - complete with a slip which worded the reason for the caution as “Wiping snot down David Cameron’s back” - in the town centre of Hastings, East Sussex, at around 3pm.

The lad had sneezed into his hand, ran up to Cameron then stuck the mess on to the politician’s back.

Mr Cameron was doing a walkabout to rouse support for the Conservatives at the upcoming local elections.

An onlooker said: “It was unbelievably cheeky. The snot went all over Cameron’s smart black suit.”

This is only bylined currently as by a "Staff Reporter", so the error over him actually only pretending to do so might well have been on the wire, but that quote is an obvious fabrication and one of the worst examples of tabloid churnalism. Quite why the boy is fit for being labelled as a "yob" is perhaps a question for a newspaper which isn't averse to puerile, not especially funny political gestures itself, such as getting men in chicken suits or similar to follow certain individuals around, or dumping phony oil barrels outside George Galloway's house, as I recall it did a few years back.

Compared to what's in the user comments the Sun's brief story is mild:

Labour has broken British society as well as its economy.

Absolutely disgusting, the police should have charged the boy

Just another example of the seemingly endless lineup of idiotic youths.

Another classic example of the broken society caused by the Labour Government.
Utter disagraceful behaviour yet not uncommon sadly

Makes you proud to be British doesn't it.

A product of Labours single mother benefit scrounging yobbo society!

Some of them are doubtless excised further than they otherwise would have been had they known the teenager had only pretended to do so, but even so, it seems the sort of prank which politicians used or ought to be accustomed to, as Cameron himself acknowledged by regarding it as "a joy of the job". In fact, let's accentuate the positive: at least the teenager recognised who Cameron was, when by the impression some of the media give you'd be forgiven for thinking the youth of today are only fit for masturbating and breaking rocks.

This isn't the first time the Sun's overreacted to youthful exuberance: when the hooded teenager on a Manchester estate pretended to shoot Cameron with his, err, loaded fingers, it decided that he was glorifying gun crime. This latest miscreant was similarly presumably glorifying poor personal hygiene.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008 

Quote of the decade revisited.

'We are pleased that the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal has agreed with our view and found that conditions in Iraq are such that an ordinary individual Iraqi civilian is not at serious risk from indiscriminate violence,' a spokesman for the Home Office said.

More than 70 people have been killed in blasts at three cities in Iraq, in one of the deadliest days there for weeks.

At least 53 died and another 90 were injured when explosives packed in a bus detonated outside a restaurant near a court in Baquba, north of the capital.

And 13 more were killed in a suicide bombing at a kebab restaurant where policemen were eating in Ramadi, which had seen a sharp decline in violence.

Three people were also killed in Mosul in the north, and another in Baghdad.

This isn't to mention the at least 28 that were killed yesterday. I toyed with the idea on Saturday when I posted just the quote of adding that if the Home Office was so certain of how safe Iraq is for the average civilian, perhaps Jacqui Smith would be brave enough to go for her kebab run not on the streets of Peckham, but the sectarian ghettoes of Baghdad. My guesstimate of how long she'd last has now been accordingly shortened.

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The Sun, tabloid journalism and Cameron's Conservatives.

If there's one thing that Gordon Brown can perhaps cling to when everything else appears to be falling apart, it's that Rupert Murdoch is clearly no nearer to making a leap of faith with the Conservatives. Today's Sun leader is hardly enthusiastic about George Osborne's speech yesterday, billed as the Tory bid to seize the initiative, but which seems to have been lost in the maelstrom:

Tell us, George

SHADOW Chancellor George Osborne is a clever politician who talks a good game, but where are the promises?

He tore into Gordon Brown yesterday, claiming the PM’s economic record had collapsed in a “heap of rubble”.

He blamed Labour for hammering hard-working families, fuelling inflation and turning its back on the poor. Rattled ministers know there is some truth in his charges.

Taxes are too high. Spending is out of control. Borrowing is excessive.

It is the Opposition’s job to attack the Government when it gets things wrong.

But if the polls are accurate and the Tories are heading for power, we want to hear precisely what they intend to do about it.

By that "we" you can detect the quivering hand of Murdoch himself.

It can be far too easy though to give Murdoch more power and influence than he actually has, and also to not notice his cautiousness in deciding whom to back. Despite it's self-promotion, it wasn't the Sun "wot won it" in 1992, and its decision to back Blair in 1997 was taken when it was already more than certain that Labour were going to triumph by a landslide. We're still very far from that happening in reverse whenever we next go to the polls, and Murdoch is hardly going to humiliate himself by making his decision too early.

Even with all of that in mind, it has to be remembered that it was Alastair Campbell himself who made clear that it was the image of Neil Kinnock in a light bulb on the Sun's front page that made him and those around him determined to ensure that history would not repeat itself. It's by no means clear yet who Murdoch is going to plump for in the US election, having previously held a fund-raiser for Clinton, even while his Fox News network continues to skewer the Democrats wholesale. It again might be because as yet, with the Democratic contender not yet decided, the whole election is far, far too close to call. McCain doesn't offer anything other than more of the same, but Murdoch has hardly been concerned by the previous 8 years of the Bush administration and its myriad failings, meaning it would be foolish to write off any of them as of yet.

Unlike Blair and also Brown, who not so long ago appeared alongside Murdoch on the same panel in Davos, the Cameroons have yet to put any specific feelers out towards the Murdoch camp. Indeed, when you'd expect them to be aiming to capitalise on Labour's problems and deficiencies, it's not Dave or Osbourne that are appearing in print in the Sun with their policies outlined, but rather Brown himself on the worthy but not especially relevant to the average Sun reader topic of combating malaria. The closest they've perhaps come to hitting the Sun's buttons was Cameron's appearance alongside Helen Newlove, and even that didn't come to close to a promise that the Tories would adopt her and the Sun's agenda for fixing "Broken Britain".

Perhaps this can itself be linked to the Sun's increasing crisis of identity. In its Thatcherite heyday under Kelvin MacKenzie, you certainly knew where it stood, just as you know now where the Daily Mail stands. It employs the crude talk radio hosts Fergus Shanahan and Jon Gaunt as columnists, but its distance from their stance was highlighted during the recent debate over capital punishment, where both supported its reinstatement while the leader line opposed it, despite "99%" of its readers also expressing their enthusiasm for the old black cap. It increasingly seems more at home decrying the latest hate figure from the world of celebrity, whether it be Heather Mills or Paul Burrell than it does attacking a political adversary. Its campaigns against paedophiles, the Human Rights Act and "Broken Britain" aside, the whole paper seems less confrontational and even whisper it, liberal. This is undoubtedly down partly to changing attitudes, and the Sun is nothing if not a barometer of its readers, but the increasing turn away from open propaganda is still surprising to note. The one remaining area where this does remain is in its unwavering support for foreign military adventures, regardless of the costs that the war in Iraq especially has inflicted. The laughable claim when the British army withdrew from Basra that the Mahdi army had been fought into ceasefire has since been proved to be a fantasy, but it didn't stop Tom Newton Dunn, the Sun's defence editor from scooping reporter of the year at the British Press Awards.

Whether the Sun as a brand is in terminal decline is far more difficult to measure. It's increasingly clear that it's only its price cutting in Scotland, London and the south-east that is keeping it above the 3 million sales mark, and its website, despite its attempt to draw in users with its MySun social network, is well behind the Mail's in the ABCe rankings. Rebekah Wade may be a piss-poor editor, but there doesn't seem to be anyone angling her for place, and Murdoch despite embarrassments over her past performance both in and out of the chair doesn't seem worried in the slightest about the paper's overall placing. After all, it continues to deliver a healthy profit, something other papers are increasingly finding difficult to achieve.

As noted previously on this blog, what is increasingly clear is that the most vituperative, slanted, invasive, judgemental and downright unpleasant "journalism" no longer comes from the paper of "Gotcha!" and "THE TRUTH" fame but instead from the supposedly more mild-mannered mid-markets Mail and Express, both of whom seem to attempt to outdo each other in which can demonise immigrants more, invade the privacy of both celebrity and "commoner" alike and state that black is in fact white. Both also coincidentally, despite Brown's wooing of Dacre, are right behind the Conservatives under Cameron, with the Express front page today more or less blaming the fact that it gets dark at night on the Supreme Leader. By those calculations, the Conservatives, despite recruiting ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson as their spin supremo, are not yet worried by the Sun's failure to come on side. They might start panicking more when the time has further ebbed away, but for now it seems the Conservatives are happy not to be assiduously courting Uncle Rupe and his super soaraway flagship.

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Monday, April 14, 2008 

The state of play.

There's nothing quite like a good media feeding frenzy over the apparent imminent demise of the Labour government as we know it. Cabinet ministers are literally at each other's throats, with the Telegraph alleging in an article which was later mysteriously pulled that Jack Straw and Ed Balls had almost come to blows over who was responsible for youth crime, while the former is apparently greatly perturbed by the continuing obsession with extending the detention limit for "terrorist suspects"; there's a potential civil war breaking out between "old" and "new" Brownites over their master's newly installed spin doctors; and all while the man himself is according to some briefings by nameless individuals sinking into "clinical depression", breaking three mobile phones a week in fits of pique, and possibly even faced by a potential leadership challenge.

The one that will probably hurt the most is that article in the Mail, his wooing and friendship with Paul Dacre apparently unable to stop such wounding old jibes as being "psychologically flawed" from re-appearing alongside newer even less flattering accusations. The most dispiriting recent criticism however though will be the one from Rory Bremner, because it passes the Homer Simpson challenge of being funny and true: "[I]t's a bit like having an uncle who's been building something in the shed at the bottom of the garden for the past 10 years, and you go down to see what he's up to, and you look through the window - and there's nothing there." Even Pollyanna Toynbee expanded on this point, writing on Friday that "[T]he Wizard of Oz stands exposed, the emperor has no clothes, the box of secrets is empty." When even the most nominally loyal of Brown nosers seems to be having recurring doubts over her past man in shining armour, it might well be time for the panic stations to be manned.

Or is it? It's easily forgotten, but Blair had numerous weekends of bad publicity, albeit not as early into his reign as Brown currently is. Often there were rumours that this was the week, when Blair was going to be challenged strongly, and where it was all falling apart, all for it have blown over completely by Tuesday. Typically, on those weekends it was often the highly sympathetic to Blair Martin Kettle who was one of the few fighting in the opposite direction, whereas on Saturday he was alongside most of the others with the knives, sticking them into Gordon's shoulder blades. Although there are accounts among the briefings that it's not the familiar bleating Blairites who are doing the blade-sharpening, the journalists doing the talking, such as Kettle and John Rentoul certainly are Blairite sympathisers, while Charles Clarke, although not a Blairite but certainly on the "modernising" wing of the party, is the one supposedly collecting names towards a challenge.

To suggest this is some sort of highly delayed Blair-influenced coup though would be completely over-the-top. Those most aggrieved by Brown's performance are undoubtedly the backbenchers themselves, more than sensitive towards the dismal polls which suggest that the Tories are moving beyond the numbers needed to get a firm majority, even if only so far backed up by the often erratic and wrong YouGuv survey. That by most accounts Brown was dismissive or even in denial during the recent meeting with backbenchers, where the main grievances were the abolition of the 10p top rate of tax, targeting those both most likely to turn out and vote Labour, as well as the closing of local post offices, impressed on some that perhaps the whispers that Gordon wasn't up to the job might have been right all along.

How much of this is media frenzy is difficult precisely to judge. There are two obvious main points however that mitigate against some, if not most of it. Firstly, that it would be absolute madness for there to be an attempt to depose Brown, especially as the economic gloom continues to deepen. That really would be the end for Labour in government, to be conducting open warfare while also still pretending to be feeling the pain, even if that's what appears to be going on now behind closed doors. Secondly, that there is no one at all waiting in the wings in Labour to take over. Clarke's bid is clearly not completely serious in its aims, but it does sum up his continuing loathing of Brown for whatever reason. Others have mentioned David Miliband, who rejected the attempts to become a stop Brown candidate previously and isn't ready in any case, and Alan Johnson, who'd just be a genial stop gap with a sympathetic background, but can anyone seriously imagine any of them, or indeed almost anyone in the cabinet or the wider party that would stand a better chance against Cameron? Some who might fancy their chances in a leadership campaign were Labour to lose the next election and Gordon to resign simply currently don't have the necessary profile or backing to make any attempt now.

The main case against Brown currently is as Jackie Ashley set out this morning, that rather being a disaster, Brown has been a disappointment. I would add that the disappointment has been on the scale of being crushing. Few had real hopes for Brown, rather the early enthusiasm was that Blair had finally gone. Even by those standards Brown has failed to live up to his billing, as the difference between him and Blair has proved, as some always argued it would be, to be so slight as to be inconsequential. Despite a decent start we're back seemingly in the old vacuum, where huge paychecks are celebrated as the poor get stuffed, where the private is always better than the public regardless of the cost, and where basic rights are something to be ignored or thrust aside at the first excuse. The Guardian at the weekend offered three things that Brown could do which might help turn the tide, all eminently sensible: full immediate withdrawal from Iraq; ditch ID cards; and radical constitutional change, perhaps even the alternative vote before the next election. It's hard to disagree with any of those, except perhaps the latter on the grounds that it would be seen now, probably quite fairly, as being an attempt to keep the Tories out as they look to be about to regain power, but Brown doing any of them is a flight of complete fantasy.

There's no solace either in the idea that Labour can afford to lose the next election in order to reinvigorate itself out of office. Those coming through the ranks are not the radicals needed but a careerist clique that increasingly don't seem to have had any job other than either being a politician or in PR, the City or marketing. Party politics as we know it is moribund, but no one is interested in the one thing that would shake it up, which is the aforementioned constitutional change, not least the Tories that have always loathed the idea while the current system still works for them. It might well come down to how Cameron and his similarly unimpressive colleagues who also offer no real change other than the same politics with a slightly harsher face govern that determines just where the real opposition and left alternative emerges from.

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This is how an MP's mind fails to work.

You really would have thought that an MP would understand something as basic as the separation of powers, but it seems that Denis MacShane seems to have skipped that constitutional lesson. In fact, let's be fair here for just a moment: MacShane knows quite well the difference between the judiciary and parliament and why they're independent from one another, it's just that a little thing like that would get in the way of his argument. After all, just what sort of person who believes in democracy and not the obvious usurpation of power by unelected judges indulging in activism could fail to be angered by the three decisions of last week where the government's decision to stop the SFO inquiry into corruption in the Saudi-BAE al-Yamamah deal was torn to shreds, with the added embarrassments of not being able to deport Abu Qatada and soldiers being protected by the HRA adding to the beetroot-like pall of ministers' faces?

Let's for half a second then indulge MacShane's argument, or as it could be more accurately painted, obscurantism. His flourishing finish is thus:

I am no defender of ministers or of any untrammelled right to government to interpret the law in a way which may be illegal. But am I alone in wanting parliament to decide our law, elected politicians not unelected judges to execute them, and when judges are called upon to interpret the law an obligation that they listen to the will of parliament, not the passions and prejudices which they like all of us are not immune to?

Surely if MacShane had put slightly more thought into this he would have realised the very first sticky problem with his plea. The SFO inquiry into the BAE slush fund was not stopped by an elected politician; it was halted after the head of the SFO gave into the demands of Lord Goldsmith, the very much unelected attorney general, who himself was heavily lent on by the prime minister, who most certainly has no right whatsoever to decide which investigations should be continued and which should not, regardless of his being elected. Perhaps further evidence of MacShane's disconnection with reality is provided in this previous statement:

Thus when a British prime minister says he believes that national security may be threatened if a political-judicial process continues why must he be disbelieved?

It's difficult to know which metaphor to adopt in response to how easily it would be to mock this. Taking candy from a baby? Shooting fish in a barrel? Putting six past Derby County? It would of course be wonderful to be able to believe that a prime minister would be honest with us over such a matter, but when such a prime minister has such a dismal record of just that, and when the government as a whole has a reputation for using the security argument to justify almost anything, it makes it all the more difficult. It would have been easier to believe also if the person who delivered the threat wasn't the self-same man alleged to have been the one to have received £1bn in payments from the company being investigated. Then again, perhaps we're all just being shockingly cynical.

This is the closest MacShane presents to the will of parliament being involved in the SFO decision:

Parliament has endlessly discussed and debated the Saudi deal since it was first negotiated on the basis of mammoth commissions paid to Saudi princes back in the 1980s. Sir Ming Campbell has brought up the issue regularly in the Commons. The Commons has listened to him with respect as a QC who defends the primacy of lawyers and judges but have not agreed that an elected government does not have the right to decide that a prosecution should not proceed.

The government or indeed parliament though would never dare to interfere with criminal investigations and the decision to proceed in those cases if it involved a member of parliament, regardless of the severity of the crime. This is half the reason why the concessions over 42 days are so feeble - parliament has no business to be deciding whether someone should continue to be held beyond 28 days when they're still in custody. Parliament makes the law - it does not then decide whether or not that law should be applied. When faced with such an obvious conflict of interest with the Saudis and BAE both demanding that the investigation be called off, the government ought to have told both to get their tanks off their law and said that they simply couldn't interfere with the course of justice, as the judges' themselves said in their ruling. Instead they gave in to open blackmail, setting a terrible precedent.

MacShane's argument is equally threadbare on the other two cases. As he admits, the HRA is to be openly interpreted by judges as they see fit. Indeed, they're the best possibly placed to make such a decision, having heard all the relevant evidence and weighed up the opposing arguments, as well as the precedents set by other rulings. You can't have it both ways: you can't set the law and then demand it solely be interpreted in the way you demand, or in your best interests at the relevant point of time; some complain that the HRA and the ECHR are ambiguous, but almost all such documents are. Even the fabled American constitution, the one which set the standard for all that have followed, is being debated and argued about right down to now over exactly what the Second Amendment means and provides for.

Besides, even if all of the above were put to a vote, if MacShane would presumably prefer, how is he so sure that the position he sides with and advocates would be the winning one? The SFO inquiry would probably be stopped if put before the houses, or at least the Commons, as the Conservatives would support the government. On the other two though it's most uncertain: both David Davis and Chris Huhne called for Qatada to be tried in this country rather than deported, and both Lib Dems and Conservatives supported the decision over the soldiers' equipment. With backbench Labour support hardly to be solid on either, the government might well face defeat. It might be easier to take MacShane's point if Labour had been elected by something approaching a majority of the electorate, but it wasn't: only 22% voted for the current government, something that it ought to remember in everything that it does. Instead it continues to hardly govern by MacShane's own high-minded principles, forcing through such unpopular measures as 42 days while continuing to big up the terror threat.

The well-used, moth-eared, almost cliched quote by Orwell is that in times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. Would it be too much to request that this government, its ministers and clingers-on actually propose doing the "decent" thing rather than blaming the judiciary and moaning about how parliament is being ignored and emasculated? How about putting Qatada on trial, equipping soldiers properly when you send them out on such unpopular missions, and not giving in to blackmail from those who have grown rich and fat on the money provided by the taxpayer and British companies involved in corrupt practices? Would that really be so difficult? For MacShane and much of New Labour, it seems easier to just blame everyone other than themselves.

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