Saturday, May 03, 2008 

Why Ken lost to Boris.

There's only one thing that's less attractive than gloating, and that's petulance and sulking. While some Tories are gloating, some on the left are throwing their toys out of the pram, and most of all, it comes back to two separate but connected ideas: that Boris is a joke and some of those who voted for him did so directly because of this; and secondly, that Boris will be a disaster. Watching Boris over the weeks leading up to the election proved that he is not a joke, a buffoon, or an idiot, if he ever was. He was not a match for Ken in my eyes, but well over a hundred thousand other individuals thought different. Moreover, those performances persuaded a huge number of voters that he would not be a disaster, and what's more, despite his stewardship of the Spectator through the more rough times, his constituency work shows that although the job of London Mayor is a huge step up, he ought to be a match for it. Pretending that he was otherwise was the first major mistake, and one that a lot are still making.

Apart from not taking Boris seriously, why else did Ken lose?

1) The 8 years factor. If 8 years is long enough for the US President, then it's enough for the London Mayor. It would be different if, like in the national election, you were voting for a party rather than an individual, but this was a battle primarily fought on personalities. Ken was always going to suffer from the "change" factor. Ken doesn't deserve any blame for trying for a third term, but it was always going to be a uphill struggle.

2) The assiduous work of Lynton Crosby in targeting the suburbs worked fantastically well, the turnout rising while Ken's constituencies were more apathetic. Ken's people worked extraordinarily hard, but in the end they just couldn't match it.

3) Genuine distaste for Ken. This went far beyond the cliched stereotypical few who hated him from the beginning -- his lack of humility up until he finally was beaten made it ever more difficult to sympathise with him. Calling a Jewish Evening Standard journalist a concentration camp guard and not apologising for it? Urging businessmen who weren't Iranian to take their chances with the Ayatollahs? Not dispatching Lee Jasper until the damage had been done, while alleging that all those who were questioning him were racist? His complete and utter, disgraceful defence of Ian Blair? All of these things hurt, and they added up over time.

4) The festering sore which was the Evening Standard's coverage. If this had been the equivalent of the Sun in 1992, then it wouldn't have made any difference. Instead this was the constant drip-drip-drip of real scandal, hyperbole and smear, going on over a number of months. As Toynbee said in one of her rare moments of clarity, those voting may not actually read the paper, but they do so the billboards all over London, and they get under the skin.

5) Lack of real difference with Boris over policy. Yes, Ken's policies on transport and housing were significantly different, but elsewhere Boris was forced over time as Sunny argues onto Livingstone's territory. This further forced the emphasis onto the personalities, and Johnson in contrast to Ken was fresh and worth a gamble on.

6) The monumental cock-up over the Olympics' cost. Londoners are going to be paying for this millstone around their necks for years to come, and while Livingstone was at least more honest about it than the obscurantist which is Tessa Jowell, he was still partly responsible.

7) Transport. As much as Ken had success on transport, for those without an Oyster card £4.00 for one trip on the Tube is obscene, while bendy buses, although seemingly an arcane issue for those of us outside London, also hurt, even if Johnson's numbers on Routemasters were ludicrous. Then we have those still angry about the congestion charge, not to mention the justified but obviously controversial £25 fee for the most polluting vehicles, then finally the low emissions zone.

8) Connection with Labour at large. Although Livingstone has always been separate from New Labour, he couldn't help but be lumped by some in with Brown and the polls in the local elections showed how this must have hurt him at least slightly.

9) Ken's friends. Sigh. Where to begin on this one? Al-Qaradawi, Jasper, Muslims 4 Ken, all must have put some voters off. The Guardian's article on the day by Zoe fucking Williams also didn't help.

10) Ken himself. At times during the campaign he looked utterly worn out. The allegations about his "drink problem" also must have had some impact.

11) And finally. Not courting second-preference votes persistently enough, or even explaining the system repeatedly and properly so that everyone realised how it works. The alliance with the Greens was a smart move, but the Left List vote collapsed so didn't help as much as it might have done. Not enough was done to court the Liberal Democrat voters' to go for Ken second, although Paddick's performance was poor in any case.

This isn't a time to be despondent. 4 years is a very long time in politics, and by then, with a different, fresh and representative candidate, the left could very well win the position back, especially if Johnson does turn out to be not up to the job. Ken's time had passed, and up against such a strong insurgency, he couldn't match up. This is the message to take, not that Londoners are morons, voting for an idiot and deserve everything they get. Don't despair; it's time to build again.

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Friday, May 02, 2008 

"We're all fucked. You're fucked. We're all completely fucked."

However much spin Labour loyalists and supporters put on last night's local elections results, and the very likely victory of Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral contest, whether it's Gordon Brown's "disappointing" to Hopi Sen's "pretty bad", none of them can surely really see this as anything other than the last gasp of Labour in power.

The threshold for a "bad" Labour night was to lose 200 councillors; they managed to beat that by another 131, losing control of 9 councils in total. Despite the Conservatives still offering very little in genuine difference to Labour except Blairism/neo-Brownism with even less pity and crocodile tears, they grabbed an astonishing 44% of the vote, Labour receiving their worst result since, appropriately, 1968. This isn't just the sort of result that would give the Tories a election victory, it would give them a landslide akin to New Labour's in 1997, the sort of result that no one, not even the most slavering sycophantic Conservative could claim that they would deserve.

Yesterday's vote also exposes another of the myths that has built up around the most ghastly of the Blairites. Those who argue for the ever more assiduous targeting of the so-called "super marginals", courting the "aspirational" voters especially in the south-east and elsewhere have just had their entire world turned upside down. Their whole plan rests on those in the Labour "heartlands" turning out whatever the weather, political or otherwise. Yesterday Labour lost 6 councils in Wales, were turned out in Southampton, and also took a battering in Nuneaton and Harlow, the voters either staying away or going elsewhere. These are the people that New Labour has taken for granted, in some cases perhaps stealthily helped, as La Toynbee often argues, but who have had the 10p rate show just how much Brown really cares for them when he needs a short-term political boost. Along with the fuel bills and food prices hitting at the same time, they were already being walloped, and then their pay slips came through. How could the doubtless hard-working activists persuade them to turn out or stay loyal? Labour can't win in the super-marginals anyway; to pursue such a policy now would be suicide. Sadly, don't rule out such madness when Brown has decided that the solution to all his problems is to get ever more PR advisers.

Prior to the vote, Labour were making all the usual noises about this being a disaster, hoping that like 2004 and last year that the results would actually turn out to not be as bad as they first briefed. This time round the results were even worse than they had predicted, yet they still went through with the plan, picking on the slightest good result, like almost taking back Liverpool, which they couldn't even manage despite an Audit Commission report which gave the Lib Dem-led council the worst rating for financial prudence in the country. It was painful watching a succession of both the worst and least worst in Labour trying to put on a brave face, from the egregious Tessa Jowell and Geoff Hoon through to the likeable and affable John Denham. The only two who spoke honestly were John McDonnell and Charles Clarke, one an actual leadership candidate and the other a rumoured possible one.

None of them however have any real idea where to go from here. The response is the same it has been over the last 3 years: that "we" will listen. Blair promised to listen after the last election; he instead went knowing for certain that he was doing the right thing and everyone else was wrong. Brown promised change and to listen; he has done neither and has no intention of doing either, except to those opposed to the very values he is meant to represent. Ruth Kelly is currently on Newsnight trumpeting how the great unwashed (i.e. the public) will come back to Labour because they'll find the Tories out for being nothing more than a marketing exercise with no policy behind it. How on earth does she expect anyone to be able to tell the difference?

Over on Justin's they've been discussing what might turn the tide. The truth is that nothing will now. While Labour's share of the vote couldn't possibly be as bad at a general election as it was yesterday, if the Tories don't at least get a workable majority then they might as well, to turn Tony Blair's comment on its head, get out of politics completely. The hope will have to remain that either Brown turns it around somewhat or that the Tories don't manage completely to convince, resulting in the almost mythical hung parliament that might finally force PR onto Westminster, the one thing that will help to re-engage and give a choice beyond the current staleness of two parties that have hardly a cigarette paper between them.

Similarly, Neal Lawson is convinced that this is the death of third way, for the same reasons I think it's the death of the fatal super-marginals thinking. He's wrong because he hasn't yet realised that the Conservatives under Cameron are the new third way, the inheritance of the same radical-centrist dead end, and that's why the likes of Simon Heffer so loathe what has gone on, striking out at Boris in lieu of going after the leadership itself. The only real difference between Cameron's third way and Blair's third way is that the Tories are going to do what Blair wished he could: raising the inheritance tax threshold, directly bribing the middle classes, further attacks on the trade unions, but all with the same kindly wet face that only a ex-PR man educated at Eton can provide.

In this, the real blame lies not with Brown, but with Blair. It was he and his acolytes that created this situation, and left Brown to pick up the pieces after he hung on for too long, Brown too cowardly and without courage to get rid of him when he should have done, far earlier. Brown has had a go, it worked for a couple of months, then it all went pear-shaped, the real Brown rather than the one the adoring Guardian columnists had created unable to pull it together. Now Blair's real heir is getting ready to take over. Labour can't say it hasn't had the chances to change. To paraphrase Richard Mottram, the party now really is completely fucked.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008 

How not to persuade people to vote Ken.

However much you dislike Boris, you can't help but warm to him slightly when the Grauniad of all papers decides to run such a pathetic hatchet job on him as they did today in G2. Perhaps they were intending to level the balance somewhat with the Evening Standard's blatant propagandising for Boris, but it instead comes across as a last ditch, desperate effort to try to prop up Ken's campaign, something that isn't even necessary in the first place. Handing the entire piece to the execrable Zoe Williams, who when she isn't blabbering witlessly about her new baby or editing Wikipedia is writing such bilge as this pointless piece on Miley Cyrus was a bad move, but surely not as bad as one as asking such distinguished Londoners as Vivienne Westwood, Will Self, Bonnie Greer, Arabella Weir, Inayat Bunglawala and Mark Ravenhill why Ken not winning would be unthinkable. Just to top things off, it then lists everything that Boris has ever said or written that might be construed as offensive, including the numerous quotes that have grown so tedious that they'd be enough to almost make you thing Boris might have had a point in the first place.

There's no doubt that Ken is the least worst candidate that can win, but making out it would be the end of the world if Boris won, as well as smearing him as a racist when he is clearly not will have done nothing to help Livingstone whatsoever. Sometimes you have to wonder if the Guardian is so self-loathing that it almost wants everyone else to hate it.

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State terrorism without a purpose.

Let's call a spade a spade. The United States has just carried out another act of state sponsored terrorism, launching 4 cruise missiles into the country recently described by the United Nations as suffering from the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the whole of Africa. The target, Aden Hashi Ayro, was killed, with between 10 and 30 others also most likely blown apart by the finest of American weaponry.

The motive behind the attack, much like the last time that the United States admitted to striking Somalia, was to kill an alleged leader of al-Qaida. This time this justification has even less credibility than then.

Aden Hashi Ayro was a leader in the Young Mujahideen Movement, a jihadist group that split from the Islamic Courts Union which briefly held the balance of power in Somalia's capital Mogadishu before being ousted by a coalition made up of the Somali transitional government and Ethiopian troops in December 2006. Although their methods were reminiscent of the Taliban, the ICU succeeded in bringing peace to the Somalian capital for the first time since 1992, removing the warlords that had control of various different sectors for years, and were for that reason at least somewhat popular with the majority of those still left. The last year has seen the ICU regrouping, with an insurgency subsequently raging resulting in human rights abuses on all sides.

The Young Mujahideen Movement and al-Shabaab appear to be one and the same organisation, but the YMM are the online face of the movement to the various jihadist forums. Like the various groups that emerged in Iraq, and also influenced by al-Qaida's media wing, As-Sahab, they've been releasing various videos of their "operations" since early 2007. Unlike the majority of the groups in Iraq who have eschewed suicide bombings, with the exception of the Islamic State of Iraq (formerly al-Qaida in Iraq), Ansar al-Islam and the Shield of Islam Brigades, all of whom share much the same aims, the YMM has released a number of videos of "martyrdom operations", including their most recent one targeting African Union peacekeepers.

There's little doubt then that the YMM and al-Shabaab share similar aims and methods to al-Qaida, although something they don't seem to have done as yet is target market places and general innocents as the ISI has on numerous occasions. Again though, as with most of the insurgent groupings in Iraq, the vast majority of the fighters are indigenous, with very few the much talked of foreign fighters. Put simply, whatever links that Aden Hashi Ayro might have formerly had with al-Qaida, with some claiming that he trained in Afghanistan, which in itself proves very little as there were numerous camps in Afghanistan prior to 9/11, not all of which were anything to do with al-Qaida itself, he would have had few to none now, and as for him being the supposed leader of al-Qaida in Somalia, that is simply a fantasy, much like the belief that al-Qaida had anything to do with the "Black Hawk Down" attacks, something that bin Laden boasted about but which were without foundation.

Just as when the US strike against alleged al-Qaida targets proved al-Zawahiri right that the Americans were just waiting to get involved in a strictly internal affair, the attacks today, which could have been quite easily carried out by the Ethiopians and not by the Americans, will just further the hatred against the US for getting involved in a conflict in which they have no excuse for doing so, and exacerbate the already horrific humanitarian situation. The violence needs to end; the United States' action will only make that even less likely to happen.

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The magic of pixie dust churnalism.

One of the first things you ought to learn if you have even the slightest inclination towards becoming a journalist is that if a story seems too good to be true, it usually is. In the current media climate, there are two challenges to this general rule of thumb: churnalism and the pressures of time, and secondly, if the story is even vaguely scientific. Throw a science story towards a load of humanities graduates, and watch as they leave all their credulity at the door.

In this case both come into play. Is it really possible that a man could have regrew over half an inch (some reports say over an inch) of his finger using something non-ironically called "pixie dust"? Did no one twig that this was PR guff when the man's brother was the one who suggested that he not get a skin graft and instead use dried pig's bladder and collagen conveniently manufactured by his own company? Who cares, it's a great story!

This wasn't just the tabloids falling for it. Almost everyone did: the BBC (who seem to have started the ball rolling), the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian, who have now replaced their article with one rather more sceptical. All of the articles also share another trait of churnalism: none bothered to actually check the story with someone who might know rather more about the powers of healing than the hack themselves until the Grauniad spoke to Professor Simon Kay. It also might have had something to do with the Grauniad's own Bad Science columnist, Ben Goldacre, who posted on his own site around 2 hours before the Guardian's rewrite with his own notes on why Lee Spievack's claims were garbage. Dr Aust in the comments adds some even more pertinent information:

Yes, I smell a marketing gambit.

Dr Alan R Spievack MD (who someone further up the thread indicated was the patient’s brother) is a co-author of several papers with Dr Badylak (e.g. here). Spievack’s address is listed on the papers as a company called Acellhere, have anything on the market for humans just yet… but one suspects they are, erm, keen to drum up positive PR and investors to help them move their portfolio forward. Dr Badylak’s name appears frequently in the company’s listing of preclinical proof-if-principle work, so he seems to be their main academic connection. who make extracellular matrix products as scaffolds for tissue re-growth. They don’t, according to their website

As ever, the credulousness and lazy lack of fact-checking of multiple “churnalists” is at the botton of this. Plus the “eeew!” factor - it reminds me of those grisly photo-stories mags like Nuts occasionally run on “the man whose knob had to be sewn back on - full shocking pictures inside”

Seems this story is also rather old - it appeared in Esquire last September, complete with the photos.

I wonder what triggered the world-wide wave of media interest now? There is an interesting study to be written somewhere on how these “copycat” science story-waves get started and propagate across the media-sphere.

As already noted, you'd expect something like this from the cretins at the Daily Mail that give space to snake-oil salesman of all varieties, from those who advocate the use of magnetics to homoeopaths and everything in-between. There's something seriously wrong with both journalism and the journalists themselves that such blatant fantasy is able to fill the pages without anyone in the office calling bullshit.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008 

Gordon Brown, politics and courage.

There are two rules in modern politics. Whatever you do, don't admit that anything you've done or said has been a mistake, unless it becomes absolutely necessary. If you are forced into admitting you've got or done something wrong, make certain that the word "sorry" doesn't cross your lips, and also, under no circumstances whatsoever do you use the word "lie". Hence Hillary Clinton, who claimed she visited Bosnia under sniper fire, something proved to be utter horseshit, simply "misspoke".

Likewise, Gordon Brown, that most proud of men, never knowingly undersold like the nation's finest department stores, wasn't bandying about such namby pamby stuff as apologising or being sorry for the abolition of the 10p top rate of tax. Let's be charitable though: after all, just a few weeks ago he was refusing to believe that anyone whatsoever would be losing out, triggering the mother of all rebellions led by Frank Field, the man who cares about the hard-working low paid poor, but not so much about those who aren't working who ought to be ushered into the workhouse, although I might just be slightly exaggerating his views on the unemployed and current benefit system.

To digress, Brown admitted that both those earning under £18,000 a year and who aren't eligible for tax credits "weren't covered as well as they should [have been]" and that 60 to 64-year-olds without higher pensioner tax allowance also suffered. This, as the removal of the 10p rate always was without shifting the burden from the poorest to those more than able to pay, is to not see the wood for the trees. As attractive and helpful as the tax credit scheme has been for the lowest-paid, all it has done is to lance the boil, while simultaneously and ironically leaving those who are meant to be working for themselves and not for the state dependent upon it almost as much as they would be if they were out of work. It's the classic example of giving with one hand whilst taking away with the other. Instead of risking the ire of the CBI and small businesses by raising the minimum wage to one upon which it would possible to live on alone, while simultaneously raising the tax threshold so that the poorest pay very little to no tax at all, Brown's final budget as chancellor was the most regressive of his tenure. He and his advisers must have realised this: if they didn't, then both he and they were either incompetent, grasping for a good headline or both. It was spotted almost immediately by the anoraks and those who actually cared, but for almost everyone else it wasn't until the first pay cheques under the changes were sent out that Brown's whacking of the poorest became the scandal it ought to have been from the beginning.

As certain female columnists have spent years banging into us, Brown is for nothing if he isn't for abolishing child poverty and helping the poorest. Even after the supposed u-turn, it seems uncertain whether all those losing out will be in any way compensated, Field and the Treasury coming out with different interpretations of how the help would be dished out. In any event, the bottom line itself is not up for discussion: the 10p rate, a manifesto pledge in 97, has gone and isn't coming back, and neither is the bureaucratic nightmare which is the tax credits scheme. If you're too proud or to confused to claim tax credits, then, well buddy, you can sit and spin. The inequity of this situation is stark: just as the credit crunch bites, a situation created by both bankers and governments living on the never-never and in complete hock to neoliberal dogma, the faceless cleaner that mops up the sweat and tears from the floor of the concrete conurbation in the centre of London pays a higher proportion of a tax than the testestorone fuelled junkies they wipe up after.

Chris at Stumbling and Mumbling offers a solution to the whole sorry mess: raising the personal tax allowance by £1,200, while putting 7 pence on the highest tax rate. It is though, like almost all the worthy proposals which deserve to be policy but are likely never in our lifetime to be, a fantasy. The right-wing press would howl, the CBI would bleat, the Financial Times would scream, and the Tories would, along with the tabloids,soon have everyone convinced that they would be the ones being clobbered, just as apparently many now fear that they were about to be/would have been hit by the 10p rate abolition. Like with so much else that Labour could have done had it been led by someone truly radical instead of just a radical centrist, the time to have done so was back in 97, when the original pledge on the 10p rate was made. It would also require courage, something that Gordon Brown can write about, but which it seems he doesn't actually himself have. Actually, that's unfair: Gordon does have courage, but it's the courage to ignore the opinion of those who actually know what they're talking about, and to instead give in to the most hysterical moralist campaigners in the land; it's the courage to shaft those cushy prisoners from getting an extra pittance this year; and it's the courage to try and buy off Grauniad readers with a "listening" scheme that will be just as centrally controlled as all the previous ones were, a day before the local elections. When it comes to having genuine courage, the magnanimous sort which allows an individual to admit they were wrong and also that they are sorry for being wrong, Gordon simply doesn't have it.

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Scum-watch: Diverting the blame.

Everyone knows by now that the reason Rupert Murdoch and every single one of his newspapers the world over supported the Iraq war was not because he had even the slightest feeling for the suffering of the Iraqi people, or because he felt that Saddam and his "weapons of mass destruction" were a threat, but because he, like some others at the top of the Bush administration, had been sold the lie that the stealing of Iraq's oil would result in a massive drop in the market price. This was always going to be a fallacy, but few predicted that five years on, rather than the price of oil being $20 a barrel as Murdoch hoped, that it would be six times that.

It would be nice therefore if Murdoch's newspapers took some responsibility for why petrol is now around £1.10 a litre or more, the cost of diesel hovering around £1.20. It was their belligerent and still unrelenting support for the war and also for Tony Blair that helped seal our involvement in it; making it impossible for them to blame the war and the consequent instability in the region for the current all-time high.

Naturally then, the government gets all the blame:

Meanwhile, oil companies — AND the Government — are awash with cash as billions in windfall profits and VAT swamp their coffers.

To make matters worse, Chancellor Alistair Darling wants to turn the screw with yet ANOTHER 2p a litre increase in October.

The taxman stings us for 66p in VAT and fuel duty for every litre costing £1.08 — already a fading memory.

That’s highway robbery.

The Government now faces a re-run of the fuel protests which struck terror into the hearts of ministers eight years ago.

If Mr Darling has any sense, he will stop torturing voters.

As the Sun more than knows, the government is not awash with cash. At the same time, if the Treasury moved to impose a windfall tax on the likes of BP and Shell and their unprecedented first-quarter profits, the Sun and the Murdoch press would be among the first to be squealing at such shocking intervention and injustice. Then again, the Sun was hardly going to hold its hands up and say to its readers, "we're sorry, we're part of the reason why you're suffering so much", was it? Far better then to throw all the blame on the government, and not the speculators, the war or those notoriously easily offended Saudis.

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Minor blogging transgressions.

Interesting to note tonight that one of Paul "Guido Fawkes" Staines' seen elsewhere links is to a Labour candidate arrested for possession and distribution of child pornography. Strangely, he's found no space to report on his own transgressions:

Off to the rack with him! The waspish Westminster blogger "Guido Fawkes", who is devoted to making life uncomfortable for political trough-guzzlers, joins his historical namesake in finding himself at the sharp end of the legal system.

Lobbyists, aides and parliamentarians from all sides of the Houses – particularly those with something to hide – will be delighted to learn that the famously thirsty troublemaker, real name Paul Staines, was up before the beak at Tower Bridge Magistrates Court last Thursday.

He admitted driving while under the influence and without insurance after being stopped by the Plod in the small hours of 17 April, driving his wife's Volkswagen fast and swerving across lanes in south London. He was breathalysed and found to be almost twice the legal limit. Asked by District Judge Timothy Stone whether he had an alcohol problem, Staines said: "Possibly."

Sentencing is on 15 May. It is his fourth alcohol-related offence and second drink-driving reprimand – he was banned for 12 months in 2002 – requiring the judge to consider a jail sentence.

Seems to be little chance of this also being mentioned in his comment sections - which are most assuredly on moderation. Still, at least it seems unlikely he'll have to worry about this for much longer.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008 

Political biographies and Lord Levy.

In a world in which ever more thoughts are expelled, and the written to the read ratio drops accordingly, it's curious how the book publishers continue to inflict ever greater crimes against literature on the public at large, even when it seems apparent that it will be simply impossible to recur the original outlay in sealing the deal and providing the advance when the contents are likely to be of interest to only the dullest, most anal and self-hating of individuals.

My point could be about the cross-spectrum of banality provided by sports stars, the cacophony of crying from the misery memoir writers, the vacuousness of self-absorbed celebrities who describe themselves as journalists for writing a column about being a professional clothes horse and beach-dweller, but at least the aforementioned three are guaranteed to sell more than a couple of copies. The same can't be said for the political memoir, no longer confined to those who reach the very top and stay there, and just might have something to contribute towards history, but to the increasing number of acolytes that also make the grade. In recent weeks we've been treated to John Prescott admitting that he was putting his hand down more than the one orifice we've already been alerted to and Jonathan Powell, one of Blair's chief adviser's reminiscing over the Northern Ireland peace talks, a worthy subject for sure but not one which really told us anything new.

The collective nadir appeared to have been reached with the self-indulgent diaries of David Blunkett, who had nothing whatsoever to say but decided instead to wallow in his own misery. There's nothing especially wrong with doing that, but his justifications and blaming of all his woes on everyone other than himself, especially when he played the media for all it was worth and continues to do so rightly rankled, and the book was the biggest and most deserving of flops.

With the memory of that in mind, it's hard to fathom exactly what Simon and Schuster were thinking in giving Michael Levy, aka Lord Levy, the chance to write his autobiography and, more pertinently, his own account of the "cash for peerages" scandal. Never the most sympathetic of figures, especially when he and others resorted to claims of anti-Semitism because of the level of criticism and speculation directed towards him, he has the added problem of despite being Labour's chief fundraiser under Blair of by no means being one of the former prime minister's chief confidants. Even the title sticks in the throat, almost mockingly titled "A Question of Honour".

The excerpts from the Mail on Sunday's serialisation may not represent the overall tone, but it seems as if in lieu of actual juicy material, Levy has decided to take his revenge not just on those he felt were out to get him because of his connection with Blair, but also the Blairs himself and his apparent cooling towards them, whether because he felt Downing Street didn't provide enough support in his hour of need or not. Levy relates anecdotes about Blair receiving long massages from Carole Caplin, of Cherie's conflict with Anji Hunter, and his eventual disappointment with Blair "just being in it for himself", as though Levy himself also wasn't. It also wasn't his idea to seek loans and he didn't want to do so, but was pushed into doing so by Blair, Matt Carter and Alan Milburn. Doubtless the offering of a "K or a P" was also not his idea, but someone else's also.

The main vindictive streak though is certainly left for Gordon Brown and others sensed to have slighted him, with him quoting Blair calling Brown a liar and viewing him as duplicitous, both qualities which we know for certain neither Blair nor Levy have. He also suggests that Brown did know about the loans, something that we know almost for certain that he did not. Similarly questionable is his claim that Jack Dromey, Labour's treasurer went public with his concerns over the loans after they were first revealed in a bid to damage Blair and shore up Brown, which if true would have been inflicting a wound on the party as a whole, not just Blair, something that Brown, would had so many opportunities to wield the knife but never did so was loth to do. The biggest wound though is undoubtedly Blair's other suggested conversation with Levy which suggested that he didn't believe that Brown could win against Cameron, something denied by Blair's camp. For those allegations to come at the same time as Brown is in such difficulties, even if they are mostly of his own making and just a few days before the local elections makes it all the damaging and all the less forgiveable for someone already fabulously wealthy to be once again cashing in as he did so often in the past for others.

The Guardian's leader on Levy's comments finishes by saying that Levy isn't the problem but that the funding system is. That lets both Levy and Blair completely off the hook. Levy didn't have to go along with Blair's urgings to get loans, even if that was the case. It omits any responsibility on either of their behalf for the curious coincidence of four of those who had made loans subsequently being nominated to receive a peerage. The Crown Prosecution Service may have decided that there wasn't enough evidence for anyone to be charged under the ancient act brought in after Lloyd George's selling of honours, but that hardly clears him or Blair of impropriety in full. Levy's behaviour undeniably brought the whole system into disrepute, creating a stench of corruption that will only be dispersed when all parties agree to a system, a deal currently being blocked by the Conservatives wanting to destroy Labour's link with the unions, a move that would force it to rely on the very individuals who got it in such a mess in the first place. His profiting from his role is the scandal is typical of both a man and a party which has become just as shameless in pursuit of power and wealth as all those before them.

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Scum-watch: Going soft on immigrants, but not on "Town Hall Hitlers".

In another sign of the Sun's increasing move towards something approaching liberalism, at least outside of the criminal justice system, here's a surprisingly positive leader on immigration:

THE vast majority of immigrants are decent, law-abiding people — whichever country they come from.

They work hard, claim few benefits and are grateful for what Britain has to offer — not just in higher pay and better conditions, but in friendship.

In return, most Brits are hospitable and ready to make room for well-behaved newcomers, as long as they play by our rules.

The experience of Polish builder Piotr Szepsel and his wife Anna is typical.

The couple have mixed in with neighbours and made many new friends. Piotr is a regular at his local pub and an avid Arsenal fan.

The couple work all hours to keep their heads above water, pay their taxes — and refuse to accept welfare.

Now they want to stay and raise their baby daughter, Anastazya, as a British citizen.

They are a credit to their own country — and to ours.

WE benefit from their skills and industry. THEY gain from a country which is genuinely tolerant to its migrant communities.

Now, as patronising and emphatic as it is on how immigrants must assimilate and not rock the boat by bringing any funny ideas with them, not to mention the insolence of considering claiming any benefits, can you seriously imagine a similarly mostly positive editorial in the Mail which didn't have a sting in the tail, let alone the Express? Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why the debate on immigration has become "deracialised" as Trevor Phillips said is because the latest wave has been, to use a Greg Dyke quote completely out of context, "hideously white". It's not because race itself is no longer an issue, it's because race is at the moment not involved in the discussion, or only is at the very periphery, for example in the hysteria over "Fagin's Heirs", where the Roma were wrongly implicated, or as the tabloids refer to them "gipsies". Fittingly, those who will be hit by the government's points system and restrictions now coming in will be the non-whites, while the eastern Europeans will continue to be able to come and go as they more or less please.

Some of this current approach could be linked back to Murdoch himself: he might be a stupendous hypocrite on most things, but even he realises that he can't get away with bashing immigrants too much, although "foreigners", especially the French, still get in the neck regularly. It would be nice to think that the Sun is perhaps reflecting its readers more accurately than some of the other press, but going by the reactions on MySun whenever immigration is mentioned, although hardly representative, that seems unlikely. It could be related to James Murdoch's appointment as the overseer of the UK News Corp business, as he's known to be more liberal than his father, having convinced him of the virtues of going green, but he's certainly no less tenacious over the BBC, as evidenced by his pathetic bleating about the iPlayer. The most compelling explanation though is that Wade and those around her are figuring out exactly where they want their paper to sit, still assuredly on the right, but not as stuck in the mud as the Mail and Express, moving with the times as those two inexorably age.

Don't be fooled though. The Sun can still be just as unpleasant, idiotic and over-the-top when it needs to be or when Murdoch's own interests are threatened. The signing of the talk radio blowhard Jon Gaunt and the giving of a column to the executive editor Fergus Shanahan ensures that all those bases are still covered. Shanahan's column today is typically boneheaded and offensive, a poor Richard Littlejohn-esque knock-off, tarring all councils with the same brush by using the example of one-offs, such as the man convicted for not having his bin shut and the family spied on by the local council using the powers under RIPA (not anti-terror legislation, as news organisations continue to misleadingly claim), finishing with the flourish that a vote for the Tories is the best option because "at least... you know they are desperate to impress". Those desperate to impress are always the best people to put in charge.

Oh, and not to dwell too long on the on-going Madeleine madness, but the Sun's incredibly one-sided account, which could only have been produced with direct cooperation with the McCanns, has this charming break in the middle of it:

For most of the last 12 months Kate McCann has been the embodiment of suffering — her face wracked with the unbearable agony of a mother whose child was taken to an uncertain fate. The slideshow pictures below show her pain, month by month.

Here's someone suffering - and you too can gaze on 12 different pictures of them doing so for no other reason than voyeurism. Lovely. Some things are set to never change.

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Monday, April 28, 2008 

Ashley and Hillary.

Jackie Ashley opens her ball-breakingly familiar column with this paragraph:

There can't be a lot that cheers Gordon Brown over his morning porridge, but if he turns to the foreign pages he might ponder the Hillary effect. In Hillary Clinton, we see a politician loathed by a big section of the population, written off, jeered at, ordered to leave the stage, who, by sheer dogged determination - and by fighting, not quitting - has not only managed a comeback but earned grudging respect.

Well, that's one perspective. There's a different view of Hillary - an individual who's past their sell-by-date, who can't possibly win the popular vote, and whom by sticking around way past when they should have given in is only causing possible irreparable damage to their wider party, especially by resorting to cheap and nasty tactics while her opponent is dignified and respectful by comparison.

Now who does that remind you of?

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Kill your middle-class indecision.

This, along with the John Prescott bulimia story, almost seem like extremely late April Fools:

Middle England is dead, long live midBritain. The publisher of the Daily Mail, long considered the house journal for middle England, has coined the term in an attempt to rebrand what it considers the "offensive" and "outdated" stereotypes associated with its core readership.

This isn't of course the Daily Mail rushing to the defense of its readership. It's instead rushing to the defense of itself.

The results of the group's research, published today, claim that rather than being "old fashioned, narrow-minded and conservative", such people are "interested in others' opinions", are "influential, engaged and vocal", and worry about the economy and the environment. They have a high level of disposable income and are the "ultimate consumers with the power to make or break almost any brand".

Which only goes to prove that when it comes to making yourself look better to researchers, people will say anything. Again though, this isn't about the Daily Mail's readership, it's the Daily Mail saying to anyone and everything, look, you fuck with us, we control these people's minds and we, make no mistake, will fuck you up.

The most distressing "fact" though has to be this one:

Having established that 47% of the population are so-called midBritons

We really are doomed.

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Madeleine: the never-ending story.

You wait ages for more stories about Madeleine McCann to fill the empty stomachs of both newspaper editors and the few, still voracious readers that can't binge on them enough to arrive and then three come along at once.

Actually, let's just rewind for half a second. Is there really anyone still out there that isn't so sick of the sight of Madeleine, her parents and also Clarence Mitchell that they'll purposefully not buy any newspaper or watch any channel featuring yet another redundant article or pseudo-documentary on the three of them? In the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the idea of being able to wipe someone completely out of your memory is treated as though it would be a bad, bad thing - trying telling that for example to either the stalker, or indeed, the stalkee. I, and I suspect a large number of the population of this poor, benighted septic isle, would quite willingly pay inordinate amounts for a service which destroyed the receptacles which contain all we know about Maddie, Kate, Gerry and all in sundry. I try my best to continue to feel something approaching empathy for the couple, who despite everything that has happened, have lost a child through absolutely no fault of their own, but as the days tick by and the headlines still come, the narrative long since lost, I can't be the only one who yearns for them to just go away.

The McCanns are victims on two fronts - not just that their daughter has been taken from them, but that the media, in all its forms, has exploited them and wanted to use their every sweat and tear drop for their own purposes. The ambivalence of not knowing where to apply the blame, and blame, as always, is vital and an important part of the story, is that the McCanns themselves were the ones who were the first to use others. Their motives were impeccable, but publicity, which is what they thought might deliver their daughter back to them, also threatened to scare whoever took her into taking to ground, if "he" hadn't already disappeared for good. It was a risk worth taking, but it was also one that started the fire, one which to this day is still alight and burning just as fiercely as ever.

It seems doubtful that even they could have foreseen that the disappearance of their daughter would be used to beat every dead horse that could possibly be struck. Swarthy foreigners, paedophiles, bent and incompetent bumbling police officers, open class prejudice, down to today's most ludicrous and possibly weakest Madeleine front page splash ever, the deplorable Daily Star's "MUSLIM SICKOS' MADDIE KIDNAP SHOCK", an article which doesn't seem to have been republished online, which details "extremists" chatting amongst themselves of how the McCanns themselves might be responsible, something that the Daily Star seems outraged about purely because they had to publish a front page apology and pay the McCanns £500,000 when they did it for months on end, all have been brought in, attacked and condemned, usually without even the slightest evidence to back up their claims, the only link between them being churnalism and keeping a story going for their own purposes. Lionel Shriver, in an excellent piece, comes to a conclusion few will disagree with:

In the case of Madeleine McCann, the British media has frequently elevated the requirements of fiction over the truth. As a consequence, a grieving couple's loss of their daughter has been made even more agonising than it had to be. Indeed, this last year's over-the-top Maddy-mongering has to go down as one of British journalism's most shameful instances of cheap, cavalier opportunism - of its greater commitment to a "good story" over the accurate one.

Words that feel all the more poignant, published just a day before the Sun launches 3-days worth of what can only be described as flowery bullshit, with "Maddie: A year in the darkness". Just today, the paper is dedicating a whole 12 pages to this special in mock empathy. The emptiness of the words that open this dirge are worth quoting:

WITH one momentous sentence on May 4, 2007, the Associated Press broke one of the biggest news stories of modern times.

Almost exactly a year on, it continues to fascinate and horrify. To send chills down the spine of every parent. To turn us all into armchair detectives harbouring pet theories on what really happened.

Its complexities, moral and forensic, are still talked about in every home, office and factory, and in every newspaper.

None of us had heard of Madeleine McCann until she was already gone. But we feel we know her now.

To see pictures of the face we will never forget, click on the slideshow below

Since last May, millions of words have been written about her disappearance and the continuing torment of her parents Kate and Gerry. In three Sun specials this week, JOHN PERRY sorts the fact from the fiction in the most complete account to date.

This the very worst of journalism. In fact, let's not dignify it by calling it journalism. It isn't. It's emotional pornography, the act of someone who should know better doing the equivalent of jerking the reader off, telling him or her what they think they want to hear rather than making them employ the use of their brain for half a second. There is only one previous event that resulted in trained, well-educated individuals turning out such mawkish, sentimental nonsense, and that was the death of Princess Diana. Diana's death occurred before the full takeover of the 24-hour news cycle, before the full advent of the internet and all that has entailed for individual participation, but even then it was noted that her death resulted in it being flooded with the very worst that it encourages and provides a platform for: the conspiracy theorists, the cranks and those who can shout the loudest when they ought to just shut up.

Perhaps the Sun's front page and its special signify more about their and everyone else's response to the case than even they realise at face value. "Her harrowing story" it screams - harrowing? Really? It's harrowing purely because of the spin that they've put on it; it seems, in retrospect, as Shriver notes, almost ordinary. Little girl goes missing, her fate unknown. Harrowing for the parents maybe, but for Madeleine herself? Not necessarily. The opening paragraphs of their story give the game away even further, "to send chills down the spine of every parent"; fear sells, as the self-same newspapers ever shrieking about predatory paedophiles when children are most likely to be killed or abused by those known to them, especially their close family know all too well. We want to lock terrorists up for 42 days and plan endlessly to thwart attacks, yet being killed by a terrorist is far beyond the odds of winning the lottery, with dying from a hospital superbug, or even more likely, in a car accident, is something which is far less, well, sexy. The title itself, Madeleine: a year in the darkness works both ways: we don't know what happened to her, but then neither do those who have wrote about her; they've been literally working in the dark, shamelessly slandering anyone and everyone, all in the name of pursuing sales. It doesn't matter who's been caught in the crossfire: the ends justify the means. £500,000 from the Express, which went too far, is probably small beer off what even those two gutter rags earned from their reports. Robert Murat, another individual caught in the crossfire after a tabloid journalist, who might just have a degree in the humanities instead of psychology or anything that might have justified her turning her petty suspicions into open accusations reported him to the police, has launched his own libel action against all of the tabloids and also the Scotsman. It's hard not to think that he'll deserve every penny that he might receive.

It's not even as if today is the first year anniversary of Madeleine's disappearance: rather, it again seems that this is the media trying to outdo each other, either the Sun or the Mirror responding to each other's respective exclusives, the actual date still being 3 weeks away. The Mirror's headline is "Sometimes We Feel Like Giving Up". Excuse me if I'm wistful that either they, the newspapers, or indeed I actually did do that. Then again, maybe there is a glimmer of light in another, genuinely harrowing story, the one that broke yesterday in Austria. The Sun is already on the case, asking MySun contributors how they would punish a man not yet convicted of any crime.

To come back to Shriver again, she also writes:

Journalists have to remain committed to keeping reality intact, even if the real story is flat.

This is an almost utilitarian, noble view of what journalists are supposed to do. As this blog and countless others have noted time and again, this is simply not what the British press does. It sensationalises, it distorts, it lies, and it's done it for a very long time. Say this to them and they scream of censorship and press freedom, yet it's those very notions that the press brings upon itself by its actions. They complain of a liberal media, as does some right-wingers, of a sort of conspiracy between the BBC and the Guardian that somehow governs the country and controls what can and cannot be said. It's a hysterical fantasy, but it's a beguiling one, much like their very coverage of the Madeleine McCann case. Some thought that the libel actions against the Express would have brought an end to the rapacious, scurrilous coverage, but it hasn't. There's still newspapers to be sold and money to be made, and little things like accuracy and compassion don't enter into that. The crocodile tears will continue to be shed, and getting a grip or a perspective has long been cast out, to be shunned for evermore.

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