Saturday, October 25, 2008 

Weekend links.

We can't help but start with the wonderful sight of Phil Woolas getting pied by the Manchester No Borders group. Hopefully they'll be many more where that came from.

The fallout from Corfu rolls on. Marina Hyde in her usual waspish way comments on how Osborne broke the golden rule of imagining himself bigger than his hosts, Matthew Parris compares the narrative, such as it is, to EastEnders, Paul Linford examines how the Prince of Darkness himself continues to weave his spell, the newly hitched Aaron (congrats) looks at the further connection of oligarchs, this time with the ghastly ex-spook Tory security spokesman Pauline Neville-Jones, and Anthony Barnett asks whether Mandelson is lying.

As the US presidential race enters the final straight, Jon Swift rounds up the various smears directed at Obama in fine style, Lenin dreams of the ideal Obama foreign policy, and MatGB examines the McCain campaign worker who made up her story about being assaulted by a black Obama supporter.

With the 0.5% fall in GDP over the last quarter, the news is generally grim, and Pollyanna Toynbee typically is comparing the have-nots with the haves. Chris Dillow meanwhile argues why the crash in Sterling is not as serious as some are claiming it is. Dave Osler also looks back at New Labour's economic policy.

In general miscellany, Justin attacks Miliband over the Chagossians in typical style, Shiraz Socialist rounds up the week's events over the Human Fertility and Embryology Bill, including Nadine Dorries' latest madness, Anton Vowl picks up on Littlejohn's linking of Mandelson with paedophilia and Laurie Penny launches an assault on Millie Tant herself, Julie Bindel, whilst also looking at the Poppy Project, which Bindel was also involved in and which yours truly also examined. Lastly, Howard Jacobson doesn't think much of the compromise over the bus atheist adverts, which Richard Dawkins himself explains in an interview with Decca Aitkenhead.

Finally, in a new weekly feature we cherish the weekend's worst tabloid comment article, with the prize this time going to the perpetually abysmal Lorraine Kelly for her worthless insight on Kerry Katona, who fittingly is a similarly worthless individual.

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Friday, October 24, 2008 

Of yachts and Murdoch.

Probably the thing about the now notorious meetings in Corfu that will most alienate the average person is not that they took place, but that they took place on yachts. Holiday homes or holiday getaways they could understand, as they could arranged parties, even perhaps in hired nightclubs. It's instead the presence of these monstrous indicators of wealth, the bling which only the squillionares can afford, synonymous not just with excess but also with debauchery and hedonism that will so raise eyebrows. After all, what else is a private 80m or longer yacht for if not hiring the highest class hookers available from the local area, sailing into international waters and then snorting cocaine off their appendages? The whole concept is inscrutable to 99.99% of the population, and that politicians so want to ingratiate themselves with the stinking rich just when the economy is tanking, mainly as a direct result of the avarice of the stinking rich, is far more damaging in the long term than any deals that may or may not have been agreed on board the vessels.

There is then something of the pretender to the throne travelling to see the monarch himself about David Cameron's jolly jaunt via a private jet provided by Matthew Freud (Murdoch's son in-law) to see Rupert Murdoch. You almost wonder whether he went so far as to kiss his ring, although what ring that would have been would be additionally open to question. Tony Blair did of course go on a much further jaunt to woo Murdoch, flying all the way to the fatherland to seek his approval, but at least he was honest and direct with what he was doing. Cameron's entry in the Commons register of interests doesn't so much as mention that the purpose of the visit was to have drinks with the world's most powerful media player. True, it had to be forced out of Blair that he talked with and met Murdoch throughout his reign, but Cameron's lack of openness hardly augurs well should he become the next prime minister.

While it's impossible to tell whether Cameron's visit persuaded Murdoch that he was someone who could be trusted not to affect his business interests, or indeed that he might be more receptive to Murdoch's woes involving the Competition Commission demanding that he sell BSkyB's stake in ITV, it should be noted that the Sun swung heavily behind Cameron following his piss-poor but high on Thatcherite rhetoric conference speech. Murdoch may not be convinced about those around Cameron, especially Osborne and his blabbing about private meetings, even if it is to Murdoch's own newspapers, but Cameron's dash to meet with Murdoch surely signifies another step in his long march towards power.

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Cooking the crime figures.

It's incredibly tempting to dismiss what appears to be little more than a misunderstanding based on confusion over what is and what is not grievous bodily harm with intent when it comes to recording crime as an understandable mistake and leave it at that. After all, the 22% rise in most serious violence against the person which comes from reassessing the figures involves just 1,000 more offences (PDF). As Mark Easton, and almost no one else additionally points out, with that 22% rise, accordingly there is a drop in the other offences against the person stats of 11,000, or 10% in offences with injury or 4% in offences with no injury. The figures as a whole again show a further drop in overall crime of 6% - on both the police statistics and the British Crime Survey interviews. The only real rises are a 28% rise in attempted murder with a knife, a further 8% rise in drug offences, again most likely down to cautions given for cannabis possession and a 17% percent rise in the BCS figures in theft from the person. Overall, the risk of becoming a victim of crime is unbelievably, considering the media coverage, at the lowest it has been since the BCS began in 1981 at 23%. Broken Britain this ain't.

You could however predict what the response would be to what is not lies, not a conspiracy, but honest mistakes, the classic cock-up. The government is not to blame; if anyone is, it's the police and Crown Prosecution Service for the complexity of what both consider as GBH with intent and what is not. No one as a result of the statistical errors was given a lesser sentence or charged with a lesser offence; the only crime committed here has been one of hubris. The government itself has become, quite rightly, it can be argued, increasingly proud of the fact that by both measures crime has dropped by a third since 1995. Why this has happened can be argued over, and whether Labour's policies are responsible is equally uncertain, especially considering that across the Western world over the same period crime has generally fallen, but any government regardless of hue would be trumping what has happened. Last time round however the government went too far, especially in the face of the rise of teenagers being stabbed to death on the streets of London,
and played up the fall in crime to such an extent that there was almost bound to be a reckoning come either the first rise, whether due to recession, which as the figures bear out has not yet happened, or the first mistake, which has come far sooner than they imagined.

Regardless of what any newspaper or politician will say, this will broadcast just one message to the public: that the crime figures can fundamentally not be trusted. It doesn't help when the Sun for example directly accuses politicians of lying and the police of hiding the true figures as if this was a conspiracy rather than the obvious cock-up, but it's the recounting itself that will cause the damage. It also fundamentally undermines everyone who does consider the numbers to be accurate, whether they be the police themselves, who overwhelmingly do not think that crime is rising, or the academics and policy makers that attempt to turn the evidence into something approaching a strategy.

What is not true is
that people do not believe statistics full stop. They do, but only as long as they back up what they think they already know. A fascinating survey conducted for Louise Casey's crime review found that when one group was told that crime had decreased, 21% said they didn't believe it had. When a separate group was told that crime had increased, not a single person challenged what they were told. Overwhelmingly when told that crime had increased, 42% blamed the government. When told that crime had decreased, just 15% gave the government any credit. The conclusion to be gleaned is simple: the government is on a hiding to nothing. It cannot possibly hope to get across its message that crime has fallen, either because of public cynicism and the general contempt for politicians, or because the most popular newspapers, in some cases certainly because it contradicts their narrative of just how bad things are in Broken Britain, will only highlight the rises while playing down the falls. This is exactly what happened earlier in the year. Also wrong is the Sun's claim in its leader column that people locally believe crime is going up: the last BCS yearly figures showed that two-thirds thought crime had gone up nationally, while just 39% thought it had gone up locally. Most think things aren't too bad where they live, but think they're awful elsewhere. Why this is the case is probably for the exact same reasons as why the government cannot get its message across.

Something of an answer to this would be to make the gathering and presenting of the statistics on crime completely independent and also transparent. The government and the statisticians need to stop fiddling around and changing the way the figures are counted so that they're not comparable over the long term, something they seem obsessed with doing, even if it is generally for good reasons. This won't stop the tabloids from screaming blue murder every time the figures go the wrong way, and it won't stop them resorting to the tawdry tactics
of reaching for comment from the highly unrepresentative victims of crime which they always do, but they quite clearly need to be depoliticised. With a government however that is committed to politicising security policy, something on which bipartisanship is vital, and when control from the centre is ever more formalised, this seems ever further away than ever.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008 

Stealing a nation and getting away with it.

The worst scandals are those that are already known but which are consistently either underplayed or entirely ignored because those involved are not the right kind of people. The asylum system ought to be a scar on the conscience of this country, where children are routinely imprisoned in conditions which do just that to them, whilst control orders can now be issued against "terrorist suspects" without any evidence whatsoever needed to be given to them in explanation for their treatment.

Most truly shocking about what happened to the population of Diego Garcia, the Chagossians, is that every detail of their plight since their home was leased to the United States of America is in the public domain. There doesn't need to be any journalistic sleuthing; everything is already there, from the US request for "an austere communications facility" in the Indian Ocean that turned into a massive base which has since been used to flatten the homes of other civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to the depopulation of the islands and the crushing poverty that the Chagossians then experienced in Mauritius, where the government washed their hands of them. The colonial and imperial contempt for these few "Tarzans" and "Man Fridays" was not even slightly hidden, and time has only made the attitude towards them even more disgraceful.

Why then is it that even the Guardian dumped yesterday's House of Lords decision, overturning the Court of Appeal's verdict that the islanders must be repatriated, back on the 20th page? The BBC News at 10 last night did not so much as mention it, and as for the tabloids, a Google search suggests that only the Mirror ran anything about them. The result itself was even a surprise: almost everyone thought that the House of Lords could not possibly rule in the government's favour, and in the event, the decision was by a majority of just one.

At the same time however, no one also believes for a moment that the Chagossians are ever going to be allowed to return to their home, however many courts rule in their favour. Before the world changed forever™ on September the 11th 2001, Robin Cook knew that this had to be a historical wrong that had to be righted. In 2004, this was simply unthinkable: the Diego Garcia base is now integral to the "long war", or as it was formerly known, the war against terror. While their other bases throughout the Middle East are subject to the vagaries of their hosts, not to mention their populations and the possibilities of them quite literally exploding in indignation at the gates, Diego Garcia is an oasis of calm and stability. To even consider that some noble savages might be allowed back to within spitting distance of the occupiers is anathema, just as it's similarly unthinkable that the Palestinians will ever have anything other than an emasculated husk of land which was once theirs. Indeed, the Palestinians will probably eventually get something; both sides will get tired of killing each other one day and do some sort of deal. The Chagossians however are being denied even one of the minor islands in the archipelago, such are the security concerns.

It's perhaps this complete lack of interest that means that the government and their learned friends can continue to get away with expressing such contempt for those they have treated so abominably. According to Jonathan Crow QC, leading the case for the government, "the Chagossians do not own any territory ... [W]hat is being asserted is a right of mass trespass," which is about as churlish and specious an argument can get without descending into outright sophistry, and only that is because it's true, in the sense that the government of the day ensured they did not own any territory.

The blame then should not reside with the judges, as some have lashed out at. The judgement in full, incidentally, is a joy, with quotes from Shakespeare, Magna Carta and the kind of sharp legal argument which you will now only find in such rulings. The 3 judges who ruled in the government's favour have undoubtedly reached the wrong decision, but the real anger should be directed at that government which continues to treat those "Tarzans" and "Man Fridays" as just that, as fictional characters that have no right to exist, let alone to return to their homeland which was so cruelly snatched from them. As Lord Mance concludes and quotes from Richard the II:

“A heavy sentence, my most sovereign liege,

And all unlook'd for from your Highness’ mouth".

To which in my opinion the Crown cannot here simply reply:

“It boots thee not to be compassionate;

After our sentence plaining comes too late".

The only difference is that it seems unlikely this time that Mowbray's prediction that Richard will sooner or later be overthrown can be applied to the Chagossians' situation.

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Scum-watch: Perry knifes Sun.

Katy Perry's publicist has replied to yesterday's Scum super-splash:

Katy Perry is against all violence. The photo in question was taken in 2005 and is in no way related to the current events in the UK.

Not just two years old then, but three years. This also rather undermines the Sun's "sources" claims that the shots were for her debut album or her website; back in 2005 Perry was working on an entirely different album, according to Wikipedia.

The Sun meanwhile has contacted another relative of a victim of crime:

Ex-EastEnders star Brooke Kinsella, 25, whose brother Ben, 16, was stabbed to death, said: “Celebrities should be role models.”

Quite right. Miss Kinsella's thoughts that "[I]f these evil people want to fight so badly, let them fight for their country" are exactly the sort of thing we should be encouraging.

The Sun incidentally does mention the publicist's comments, but strangely cuts them off mid-flow:

Katy’s publicist said last night: “She is against all violence.”

A case study then for aspiring tabloid journalists: when you need to spice up an otherwise boring report on someone dying, just go to the latest star's MySpace page, grab a photograph of them doing something that makes them seem oblivious or indifferent to someone else's pain, completely invent a "source" to attempt to back the story up, and get a quote from someone guaranteed to be outraged, and you have a front page splash. That you'll be promoting that person at the same time, whilst belittling the victim for sales purposes is neither here nor there.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008 

Scum-watch: I knifed a girl and I liked it.

The invented scandal is undoubtedly one of the very lowest forms of journalism. Alongside the hatchet job on those who can't defend themselves, the trick of getting someone to condemn what someone else has either done or said is not just lazy, dishonest and contemptible, it's also cheap, the first and most important rule of production which now silently governs the press.

Five Chinese Crackers never said it better when he wrote that the tabloids aren't there to report the news; they exist to tell the same stories over and over again in a slightly different way, regardless of the actual facts of the matter, all the time promoting their own viewpoint on just why these things are either happening or what needs to be done to stop them from happening.

You really couldn't get a better example of this than today's front page Sun super-splash, featuring singer Katy Perry holding a flick knife. Juxtaposed with the shot of Perry, apparently taken during a photo-shoot to go with either her album or onto her website, is the fact that in Liverpool another teenager was stabbed to death. The two obviously go together: Perry, by foolishly posing with a knife is glamorising the culture which leads to teenagers carrying knives and then to the inevitable conclusion, the knife being used to injure someone. Ergo, Perry is partially responsible for what has happened, and hence she, along with everyone who has ever held a knife while being photographed, is little less reprehensible than the murderers themselves. The Sun though can't just leave to chance that this is what will run through their readers' heads; they're far too stupid to be left to think for themselves, after all:

POP star Katy Perry poses with a knife — an image which sparked fury last night after another teen was killed by a blade in Broken Britain.

Angry critics said 23-year-old Katy, who sold five million copies of her No1 hit I Kissed A Girl, was “out of her mind” for glamorising knives.

The snap of the singer was taken to make her look “edgy”.

The grieving families of Broken Britain’s young victims could not be faced with a greater — or more baffling — contrast.

This is nothing less than emotional blackmail. How dare someone consider holding a knife in view of a camera while families out there are grieving because other people have used them to stab someone with? Don't you have a conscience?

There is however an obvious contradiction here. If an image of someone holding a knife is so intensely dangerous, so alluring to the average teenager that by just looking at an image of someone fairly famous holding one is likely to lead to them also carrying one, why is the Sun bringing it to such wider audience? After all, in the words of the one person the Sun bothered to contact, or the only one that gave them a suitable quote, Damilola Taylor's father, Richard:

“Any youngsters seeing her will think it is OK to carry a blade.”

Really? Are teenagers so shallow and feeble-minded that seeing one of the most manufactured singers of recent years in the company of a blade that they'll be instantly informed that if she does it in a staged photograph that they can do it in their everyday life? Or is this actually a truly warped view of human nature? As Anorak puts it, if we apply such logic to the Sun's wider oeuvre, we're shortly to be plagued by teenager girls walking around topless, alternately kissing each other whilst plunging a sharp edge into each other's chests.

Such level-headedness though is alien to the Sun's very concept. It treats its readers as infants, therefore they must be infants, therefore they will act like infants when presented with glamour shots of weapons. Any evidence will do to show just how Broken Britain is; it doesn't matter that Perry is American, that the shoot probably took place in America and that the shot in any event was rejected, this is a wider symptom of just how smashed and atomised our society is, as their accompanying "discussion" has it. Anyone would think that the Sun and its owner's other commercial concerns had never glamorised violence, or provided space for similar images.

For a newspaper that so crusades against political correctness, this is an very oddly politically correct line to take. Without wanting to give credence to the idea, it's long been evident that there is either a reverse or a right-wing political correctness, very closely tied to censorship as a whole. This decrees that something must be restricted as a whole because it might be bad to a certain section of society; that adults can make their own choices is irrelevant if children are potentially at risk of harm.

Even the demand for what Perry must do to make amends for her crime is familiar: she must, of course, apologise. Whether she should do it while kissing a girl, or while down on her knees begging for forgiveness from all those throughout the ages that have been the victims of crimes involving knives is unclear, but express sorrow she must:

SCORES of teenagers are stabbed to death each year in Britain.

The latest tragic victim was a 16-year-old Liverpool lad, knifed to death incredibly on his first visit to a church youth club.

So how does publicity-hungry pop babe Katy Perry respond to this massacre on our streets?

By posing for a publicity shot waving a flick-knife.

We need to hear an apology. Fast.

Never mind then that being American, Perry probably isn't aware of this "massacre on our streets", and so isn't responding to it unless you're a Scum leader writer making a story out of nothing, she must apologise and fast. The nation's biggest selling newspaper demands it. The shed blood of our children necessitates it. Nothing less will do.

According to the Katy Perry forum the photograph is years old, so the "source" the Sun is quoting is probably completely made up. It's also quite possible that they might have found the image on Perry's.... MySpace, from where it has since been deleted.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008 

From Scotland to Corfu.

Back slightly later than I imagined, so I'll get properly back into the swing of things tomorrow, but it's hard not to be fascinated by the powers at work behind the Mandelson-Rothschild-Osborne-Deripaska yacht story.

As Justin and Bob Piper point out, Mandelson even sort of warned that the apparent briefing of conversations that occurred on the yacht involving himself bad-mouthing Brown could result in repercussions because of what else was also said on the good ship Deripaska. The difficulty is in knowing where Mandelson begins and Rothschild ends; the final straw appears to have been this story in the Sunset Times, linking Mandelson even further to the "super-rich" and especially Rothschild. Rothschild then sends a letter to the Times, detailing the conversations he was privy to involving the suggestions of donations, a letter which had to be re-written after the Tories
threatened legal action against the Times. All hell then breaks loose.

It has to be said that none of this is - yet - on the scale of almost any of the sleaze allegations against Labour. Just last week we learned for certain that Blair had directly changed policy after the £1 million donation from Bernie Ecclestone, something which took ten years before the whole truth became known. Blair's response was to declare that he was a "pretty straight kind-of guy". Osborne has been saying the same in not as many words. Unless things get worse, there's no chance of him being defenestrated. He is, and has been an integral part of the Cameron revolution in the Conservative party, and while I think he has been hideously overrated, especially considering his and his party's anonymity during the financial crisis, and lack of almost any substantive policy whatsoever apart from irrelevant or tinkering around the edges tax cuts, he's still likely to be the next Conservative chancellor of the exchequer. It does however further fundamentally expose the lack of difference between New Labour and the "new" Conservatives - both fascinated with and craven towards the super-rich.

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