Saturday, November 29, 2008 

Weekend links.

Despite the attacks in India, there has only really been one story this weekend, and while the coverage of Damian Green's arrest could be described as furious, it's hard to believe that it will do anything to bring the police themselves down from their apparent idea that they can do whatever the hell they like.

One of the reasons is because they can rest assured that the likes of the Daily Mail will never scream "POLICE STATE UK" about anything other than journalists or politicians being arrested. Even considering the paper's generally good record on opposing New Labour's anti-terror laws, its support for authoritarian crime policies has just as much of an effect on the police's self-worth. From the bloggers, Justin, Bob, Jamie, the Quiet Road and Heresy Corner all reflect on the powers of the police and the sudden discovery of some politicians that we are suddenly living in a police state, while Rhetorically Speaking notes that the leaker in question seems to have requested a job from Damian Green, although he was turned down. The hacks are pretty much united in their contempt also, Matthew Parris calling it an outrage but blotting his copy book somewhat by almost claiming that this will have been orchestrated by an outraged Gordon Brown who is apparently meant to care deeply about leaks concerning the Home Office that occurred months ago, Nick Cohen thinks similarly, while the Observer and Independent produce almost boilerplate editorials.

Away from Green, the pickings if you don't much want to read the predictable claims that Mumbai will never be the same again are somewhat slim. Paul Linford has though changed his mind somewhat over the pre-budget report, David Semple writes of Chavez, the Yorkshire Ranter bucks the trend for an fascinating piece on the attacks in Mumbai, by way of a Frederick Forsyth novel, and Joan Smith picks up on the Fritzl coverage compared to that of the Sheffield incest case.

Piece of the weekend is undoubtedly from the always excellent Daniel Davies, who notes that commentators of all shades for some reason seem to see their own views in that of the white working class.

Worst tabloid comment piece of the weekend then goes for once to an actual tabloid comment piece, with Richard Littlejohn, commenting doubtless from his mansion in Florida, that Damian Green's arrest is a "monstrous abuse of power by the same gangsters who hounded Dr David Kelly to death." Except that Blair and Campbell have gone and Hoon is currently the transport secretary. Doubtless Melanie Phillips next week will similarly declare that Green's arrest is all the fault of the progressive intellectuals that undermined the family.

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Friday, November 28, 2008 

Green and a very suddenly established police state.

The arrest of Damian Green is understandably raising major questions about how much the government knew and when it knew it, but far more pertinent from my perspective is both what it tells us about the power of the police in today's Britain and how some of those who have given the police such power react when they find themselves under scrutiny.

As long as it turns out that both the police and the government are telling the truth, in that ministers were not informed of what was taking place until it was taking place, then this is not something that is yet truly unprecedented. Extraordinary and deeply troubling yes, but not unprecedented. Examples from decades past have already been regurgitated to show that leaks and governments both knowing and not knowing are hardly new: Churchill in the late 30s, Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting in the 80s, right up to Katherine Gun and David Keogh and Leo O'Connor this decade. Keogh and O'Connor's case was especially politically lead, with utterly disgraceful evidence given against them by government officials.

More analogous to Green's arrest though was the 6am raid on the home of the fragrant Ruth Turner, which the Labour party complained bitterly about. Noses were put out of joint throughout Whitehall over the police investigation into cash for honours, which many thought heavy-handed, even while the rest of the country smirked. It's with Turner in mind that we ought to, for now, accept both the accounts of the Metropolitan police and the government that there was no warning given to ministers over what was going to happen until it happened. We have to assume not that just one side is lying, that but both sides are lying, which would in itself suggest open collusion between the two sides. However friendly some of the discussions between government and the police are, for the Met to suddenly start acting as Labour's personal leak stopping organisation takes a lot of swallowing.

The other point that suggests that open governmental knowledge of the arrest is unlikely is that there is absolutely nothing to be politically gained by having a front-bench opposition spokesman subjected to a stay in the cells of Knacker of the Yard. As soon as it became news the fingers were being pointed and the knives were sharpened. The government might be stupid, venal and corrupt, but is it really that stupid, venal and corrupt? I would hazard not. Are, on the other hand, the police either so full of themselves or flushed with power that they now think that arresting MPs for passing on leaked information to the newspapers is something which they can both brazenly do and ultimately get away with? I would hazard yes. Until some substantial evidence emerges of government knowledge, other than that the Speaker of the House knew and that Boris Johnson knew, or that ministers must have known because Diane Abbott/Michael Howard/etc/etc say so, the latter seems the more reasonable assumption to go with.

In actuality, none of the above examples regarding leakers or arrests really fits properly to the arrest of Green. The one case which is very similar was coincidentally settled today: that involving Sally Murrer of the Milton Keynes Citizen and Mark Kearney, a police officer who was a local source of Murrer's, as well as also for a time being her lover. Kearney and Murrer were charged with aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office, the same charge on which Green was arrested on suspicion of. Like Green, the stories which Kearney supplied Murrer with were relatively inconsequential, concerning a drug dealer and a local footballer, as well as one about an inmate at Woodhill prison boasting about becoming a suicide bomber, which was not actually printed. These charges however seemed to be the cover for getting at Kearney over his knowledge of the bugging of the MP Sadiq Khan when he visited an old friend from his school days, Babar Ahmed at Woodhill prison, of which there was a highly unsatisfactory government inquiry into. Thankfully for both Murrer and Kearney, the judge has concluded that because of the inanity of the stories which Kearney supplied Murrer with, there was no justification for bugging Kearney or Murrer, which directly breached Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, the right to freedom of expression. Tabloid newspapers condemning the HRA for introducing a privacy law via the back-door should take note.

Similarly then, would the police have acted in such a heavy-handed, arrogant way against Green if this really was just about the leaking to him of documents about illegal immigrants working in the security industry, an illegal immigrant working in the House of Commons, a memo from Jacqui Smith concerning how crime is likely to rise during a recession and a document which speculated on the MPs which would oppose 42 day detention? All we have to go on is that a civil servant was suspended from the Home Office 10 days ago and also arrested, and that a complaint to the police was made by the Cabinet Office. Is it possible that Green has been supplied with something far more explosive, perhaps potentially involving the police, which he was yet to share with the media, hence the heavy-handedness and the involvement of what was Special Branch, even if this was strictly being dealt with under common law? We simply don't know. What we do know is that no one is talking about why the police might have acted as they have, simply how they have acted as they have.

And it has to be admitted, their behaviour in this instance is even by the standards by which we are becoming accustomed little short of extraordinary. Yes, whistleblowers have been arrested and persecuted down the years for supplying us with information most certainly in the public interest, but for police to arrest an actual front bench opposition spokesman, hold him for 9 hours, raid his office in parliament, as well as his home, and take his personal effects is on a whole different level to what has come before. As others have pointed out, despite the involvement of anti-terror officers, this as yet does not have anything to do with actual anti-terrorism laws, but what those anti-terrorism laws, such as Section 44 have done is imbue the police with the confidence they need to be able to act almost with impunity. Even whilst we complain that they often can't seem to be bothered to keep actual small town stations open than more than a few hours at a time, or to attend burglaries, they find the time to monitor political demonstrations while recording footage of all those taking part, just for "their records". They, along with community support officers, have routinely stopped photographers from taking shots of almost anything, on the various grounds that either those doing so could be taking part in reconnaissance missions or that they could be taking pictures of children. When it comes to actual terror raids, such as the Forest Gate fiasco, those who dare to criticise the police, of which politicians themselves very rarely if ever do, find themselves under attack for impugning on those carrying out such a dangerous job. In the name of stopping knife crime, blanket searching of those deemed likely to be carrying one has been authorised, with the forms which officers have to fill in when they stop and search someone likely to be scrapped, with even the innocent who were stopped being photographed. Even the Conservatives, opposed to 42 days, appear to support giving the police other powers of surveillance, also likely to be abused just as every other new power has been and will be abused. It is however far too over the top to suggest that we are living in a police state. We are though an undoubted surveillance society, and New Labour, through both its anti-terror laws and authoritarian crime policies has put into place the building blocks of one.

It therefore takes some chutzpah for David Davis, whose stance I have deeply admired, to say he now believes we are living in a police state because one of his own has been raided. When other individuals have said similar things, such as one of the men wrongly arrested in connection with the Birmingham beheading plot, who said that this country was now a police state for Muslims, they have been shot down, especially by politicians. Politicians themselves after all have no one other than themselves to blame for the power the police now have and routinely wield. Only the Liberal Democrats have anything approaching a decent record on opposing the almost yearly measures brought in in reaction to tabloid demands. Like others, they don't believe that it could happen to them until it does, and when it does, they sure as hell don't like it up 'em. If you dislike it happening to you, then think how others who routinely undergo the same thing feel. Politicians have long imagined that they are above the law, but as today has shown, they clearly are not. It would be nice to think that once we truly get to the bottom of why Green has really been arrested, or why the police thought such a sledgehammer approach was appropriate, that it might make some of them think twice before inflicting yet more legalisation on us that further reduces the police's accountability while at the same time making them ever more powerful.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008 

The Sheffield incest case, Baby P and Josef Fritzl.

It would be nice to imagine that the fairly restrained coverage so far over the case of the father who abused and raped his two daughters for the best part of three decades is out of embarrassment at the tidal wave of judgemental coverage earlier in the year over Josef Fritzl. Our finest media denizens, after all, informed us that such a level of abuse going unnoticed was the kind of thing that could only happen in a closed, post-authoritarian society where questions go unasked, secrets remain secrets and cellars are permanently closed. Lorraine Kelly, getting into the spirit of such things, suggested that the Austrian police "should start arming themselves with pickaxes, torches and strong stomachs and start searching those cellars". The Daily Mail is even referring to the father as the "British Fritzl", as though his reign of terror, which lasted longer than Fritzl's, was somehow inspired or just our version of Austria's national shame.

Granted, Fritzl's was just one of three cases emerging from Austria which involved the locking up and abuse of children, although one of those was something of a stretch as it involved a mentally ill mother imprisoning her sons, rather than the more sickening caging of young women for years on end, as occurred in the Natascha Kampusch case. Even so, the coverage was predicated on the idea that this was the sort of thing that didn't and couldn't occur in own backyard, and also showcased our own understandable obsession, some would suggest even fetish for extracting every drop of retribution out of those countries which turned fascist, especially ones which have not quite faced up to their past in the way that Germany itself has, with the Nazi angle being played up as an explanation for why Fritzl became the man he did. Admittedly, he himself used it as an excuse, and that is often enough for the more lazy among us to conclude that must have been it, especially if the person themselves says so.

This though always reflected a rather deceitful decision to overlook our own "monsters", which every society, regardless of its culture, government or society creates. The ultimate example was Fred and Rose West, where a married couple connived to molest and murder young women, and which we already seem to have almost forgotten. Such crimes, and such individuals are of course extraordinarily rare, but when it came to Fritzl and Kampusch the media tended to overlook that the uncovering of such crimes close together was coincidental rather than indicative of a moral malaise in Austrian society. After all, it made for great copy, and that in our current media climate seems to be far more important than taking a step back and examining such things calmly. We connect and correlate rather than detach and research.

While the coverage yet could step up if further revelations of incompetence or failings emerge in the Sheffield incest case, for want of a better way of describing the crimes committed by the father, as all those involved are quite rightly being protected from the media intrusion which they would come under were they to be named, it doesn't seem likely to reach the critical mass which the Baby P story has undoubtedly reached. This is itself ought to be confusing: without a shadow of a doubt this is a case far more shocking, disgusting and frightening than that involving Baby P. The abuse he suffered went on only for a relatively short period of time by comparison, as did the social services involvement with him. Here we are talking about almost 30 years of continuous abuse, contact with the public services and up to 19 pregnancies, all of which went by without anyone doing enough investigation into who was impregnating two sisters on such a regular basis. Even on the lowest level, the abuse of the two sisters was more insidious than that even inflicted on Elisabeth Fritzl by her father: she was after all imprisoned in the family basement. No such physical manacles prevented the two women in this case from escaping; theirs, to quote Blake, were of the mind forged variety. The terror of their father, and what would happen to them, perhaps even to him, imprisoned them far more ably than the construction which Fritzl developed to constrain his daughter.

One of the reasons why it might well be overlooked is that, after all, the Baby P campaign is still in full swing. The Sun is keeping up the pressure, splashing on it again today. You can only tend to keep one outrage going at a time, in the front of people's minds, about which something must be done. Moreover, because of the nature of the case, there are no faces to which the pain can be attached. It was only once Baby P's face was revealed that the witch-hunt proper swung into action. The best we have at the moment is the almost same digitally altered faces, hiding identities and rendering them inhuman as a result. Also true is that this is not the second case in the same area, as it is with Baby P in Haringey. Then there is, equally obviously, that Baby P, was well, a baby. Unable to defend himself, with his own mother either complicit or involved in his abuse, it rings the alarm bells of almost any society that the youngest and weakest can be so cruelly treated and failed by those who are meant to be there to protect him. Young mothers themselves and especially women seem to have been instrumental in the campaign, especially disgusted that someone like themselves could apparently have been so heartless towards her own offspring, or so detached as to allow such things to happen to him. Some of it can surely be placed down to the maternal instinct, to empathise with the child failed by her own mother. That the empathy does not extend to the social workers involved raises its own questions, who are derided as foolish or stupid for believing lies, with the abuse being so apparently obvious.

Those are the more prosaic reasons. Perhaps the ones closer to truth for why it will fail to have the same impact as Baby P, and I might well be proved completely wrong in this, is that while his death and mistreatment has led all the usual suspects to jump to their pre-ordained conclusions, the abuse of the two daughters in this case has no easy scapegoats to castigate. We're not just dealing with one or two doctors or two or three social workers who must be instantly sacked for all our sakes, but with officials and public servants going all the way back to the 1970s. We haven't got the evil mother who left her husband and shacked up with a simple Nazi, who browsed porn on the internet and played poker while her child suffered, but instead the more familiar abusive father. Likewise also, while even though Baby P was born into what was a dysfunctional if nuclear family, the matter of parentage didn't really matter, as single parents and the apparent loose morals of the mother, or of those like her were condemned even if they were irrelevant. In the Sheffield incest case we appear to have an extended nuclear family, which certain politicians and newspapers inform us is the only real way to bring up children, and that anything else helps contribute towards the broken society. Although benefits may have been involved, with the Mail alluding to the father collecting the child benefit from his incestuous offspring, in Baby P's case the welfare state had quite obviously contributed towards his predicament. Here instead the father seems to have been a local businessman, involved in construction, which helped him to move from place to place, evading suspicion.

Ultimately, it might come down to the fact that it isn't so easy in this instance to blame a "leftie mafia", as Trevor Kavanagh called them. The years of rape began in 1981, two years after Thatcher's victory and sixteen before the Conservatives eventually lost. Even if you want to try to blame Sheffield itself, as Haringey has been, it's not so easy to do so years after the fact, although the red flag did fly briefly from the council building during that time. They also lived in Lincolnshire, which is fairly equally split between Labour and Conservative MPs, while the council is at the moment Conservative. You can't so convincingly, as Melanie Phillips attempted, argue that those really with blood on theirs hands were the "progressive intelligentsia who have simply written orderly, married, normative family life out of the script". Orderly, married, apparently normative family life in this instance covered up the abuse. Accordingly, you can't really say that the "ultimate responsibility lies with them [Labour] and the Guardianistas they have created in every section of public life."

Whilst then we have an apparent mirror image of the Fritzl case, we have none of the soul-searching and introspection that country underwent following the discovery. We are perhaps exhausted from the witch-hunt over Baby P, where the underclass reared its ugly head, benefits were seen to be partially responsible and where the political correctness and naivety of social workers could be blamed for the failure to protect him. The Sheffield incest case ought to be an example of how such abuse and failings can happen almost anywhere, in the most apparently normal of families when viewed from the outside. It ought to suggest that all of our assumptions, whether left-wing or right-wing, can often be proved completely inadequate when it comes to the crunch; that we shouldn't imagine that these sort of things can only be possible in dark, uncaring places such as Austria, or only in the benighted council houses of Tottenham. All of this really ought to be just that, apparent. Instead we're so interested in finding someone or something to blame that we skip past the point where we examine why these things happen where they do and how to learn from them. There will always be cases like that involving Baby P, just as there will be those like Josef Fritzl. We create our own monsters, and only by realising that our society and culture as a whole influences them, not just sections of it which we wish to demonise, will we ever be able to move on from the blame game.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008 

Advertising bombshells.

The problem with combining political strategy with advertising campaigns is that when the facts change you can be quickly left looking daft.

This is exactly the trap that the Conservatives have fallen into. Last week, when all we had was rumours and guesswork over what was going to be in the pre-budget report, but where the inkling was that the government was going to produce a stimulus package worth somewhere in the region of between £15bn and £30bn, the Tories thought they were being incredibly clever by bringing back their 1992 tax bombshell campaign. Cheap, effective and simple, and they tried something similar back in 2003. It's partly down to this campaign that Alistair Darling had to set out in such detail how he was going to pay for it, which he did to a fairly decent extent. As it turned out, this wasn't really a bombshell budget in tax terms; yes, the borrowing figures are frightening, but this was negated by the taxing of the rich, which was the distraction measure and sop to the left rather than the main revenue raiser. The real surprise was that national insurance would go up by 0.5%, the part that could be accurately described at least as a potentially painful tax rise.

Almost all of the Conservative fire was concentrated on the national debt. The drop in VAT was the distraction, until an apparently wrongly issued, uncorrected paper on the changes to the tax system still read that VAT was to rise by 1% after 2011, to 18.5%. It was a pretty obvious mistake, as the government quickly made clear, also admitting that they had discussed raising VAT but had decided in the event to raise national insurance instead. You can't however blame the Conservatives for seizing on it, and trying to make hay with the idea that this was a secret plan to raise VAT, with the government not being straight about it. Fair enough.

What you cannot then realistically say is that a 1% rise in VAT is going to be a bombshell, especially when you have been sniffy about a 2.5% drop in the first place. True enough, VAT is a regressive tax, which hits the low paid who don't save but instead spend far harder than it does anyone else. Raising it by 1% would hurt them; Daniel Davies estimates that the cut gives someone working 40 hours a week on the minimum wage £2 a week back, so it isn't outlandish to suggest that a 1% raise would cost them between £40 and £60, possibly more, a year. Not a major sum, but for someone struggling it can more than make a difference. It is not though by any stretch of the imagination a tax rise which is going to put someone into instant penury, especially the mythologised "hard-working families" which both parties so bend over to talk about and discuss. It's equally risible that the country is going bankrupt, as Cameron also claimed at prime minister's questions.

The problem for the Conservatives is getting the balance right between such potentially damaging statements as the country is going bankrupt, which scares people, and attacking the government's lackadaisical and potentially even more damaging plans. Likewise, their own proposals are both rightly and wrongly being lost in the mire, more rightly judging by Cameron's piss-poor examples of what they would do differently, their promised freezing of council tax being revenue neutral and the other two suggestions ones that the government is already doing. Technically, all they have to do is sit and wait and see if the cut in VAT has an effect: if it doesn't, they can claim that their stance was the right one all along. If not, they might be in further trouble. Even then, there's no accounting for whether the public then decide that the softening of a recession created more than in part by Brown means that they'll vote Labour. The Conservatives might still be floundering somewhat, but the end result is still far from certain.

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God Trumps!

Via the Heresiarch, the New Humanist has come up with God Trumps, nicely illustrated by Martin Rowson. Extra points have to be awarded for not glossing over Islam:

The Jehovah's Witnesses card is highly accurate too, although not giving Scientology 10/10 for being easily offended is certainly an oversight.

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The clamour continues.

The Scum continues to delight in the number of signatures flooding in on the Baby P petition - it now claims that it has received over 1,250,000, up massively from the 900,000 it was claiming at the beginning of the week. It's also admitted that the signatures are coming in from across the world, from such paragons of human rights as Mexico and Dubai, which are hardly going to influence the prime minister, who has now had bags of petitions delivered to 10 Downing Street, to swiftly be discarded no doubt. The paper's at least had the sense to put them in bags which could almost pass for bin sacks, which will save even more time.

There has now been an alternate petition set-up on the 10 Downing Street site, calling for there to be a condemnation of the witch-hunt against social workers. When you're up against such overwhelming odds it might seem somewhat pointless, but it's still worth signing.

Especially when there's such mawkishness going on:

Mum Sarah Heasman, 28, was also among the hundreds grieving at the shrine yesterday — after taking her two toddlers to the North London cemetery for a second time. Sarah, from Hounslow, West London, said as her two-year-old Chloe left a pink mug: “When I told her we were going to see Baby P she thought we were going to play with him.

“I had to tell her he was asleep — it was the only way I could think of to describe it.”

Well, you could have told her that he was tortured to death, left in unimaginable agony in his blood-spattered cot, as the Sun describes it. Then though she might have been asked what tortured means, to which Heasman could have replied that it's what she is - tortured by her own inability to do anything of any meaning whatsoever except to take part in a ritual which makes her feel better. Hundreds grieving at a shrine to someone they had never known and never met, but which they imagine they could have saved or could have been saved if only something had been done differently, with children themselves being exposed to something they have no understanding of and with the parents as a result having to lie to their offspring.

And again, there are echoes of cases past:

A jail insider said: I don’t think we should be paid to stop it happening — because she deserves everything coming to her.

“Not since Maxine Carr have we had someone here so hated equally by staff and inmates.

Ah yes, Maxine Carr, whom the tabloids were determined to turn into our generation's Myra Hindley, except there was no evidence whatsoever that she was involved in the abduction or murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. She just believed Ian Huntley's lies, as she previously had, influenced also by his control over her. As a result she's been moved numerous times, women wrongly identified as her have been targeted, and all at the expense to the taxpayer which the tabloids so profess to defend. If the mother of Baby P is to be ever released - and the prison officers, let alone the prisoners themselves don't get to her first - history will undoubtedly repeat itself.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008 

The short-term effects of a witch-hunt.

The Sun is now boasting of having received 1.1 million signatures to its petition for justice for Baby P. Even accepting that some of those will be duplicates, that anyone can sign the online version with just a name and an email, with some signing from abroad and that there may well have been group efforts to get the total up, it's still a mesmerising total, helped along by the pornographic detail of much of the coverage and the almost Diana-like sense of mourning which led reportedly to up to 1,000 spontaneously visiting the cemetery where his ashes were scattered. This was after the Sun reported that he had received no proper funeral; it subsequently turned out that this was completely inaccurate, but the paper quickly adjusted its coverage and no apology was forthcoming for the father of the child, the paper having appropriated his dead son for its own means. That this resembles the "grief tourism" which resulted in crowds visiting Soham during the summer when Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman went missing is unmentioned.

Also quickly becoming apparent is the effect that the media and Facebook-led witch-hunt is having on social workers themselves. As could have been expected, fearing that a terrible mistake on their part could lead to them being declared to have blood on their hands, the number of applications for child protection orders appears from evidence on the ground to have sky-rocketed. The Observer reported that in London and Leicestershire applications had as much as trebled from the usual average, while in Leeds the number of applications over a week was described as "unprecedented". Figures collected by Cafcass suggested that there had been a 26% increase in applications between the 10th and 20th of November, as compared to the number made over the same period last year.

This is institutional risk aversion. Some will doubtless argue that this is no bad thing, that when children deemed at risk are taken from their families no further harm can be done to them, and that even if it turns out to be unnecessary, it's better to be safe than sorry. Yet this is work which social workers themselves cannot necessarily possibly deal with: tomorrow's Guardian prints a diary from an experienced social worker in Scotland that simply cannot cope with her current work load. Her problem is both that she cannot provide a proper service whilst so overloaded, but that she is expected to justify her every move, all with the copious bureaucracy and paper-work which has become such a familiar part of working in the public sector.

Here is why the media coverage of the Baby P case has been so hypocritical, so counter-productive, and so potentially disastrous for those who have chosen social work as their profession. It has been led ostensibly by the same right-wing newspapers that so howl when children, especially those of respectable middle-class parents that couldn't even imagine harming their child, let alone do it, are wrongly taken into car. When this happens it's the state snatching, even kidnapping children, as the Daily Mail for example earlier in the year described the taking into care of a newly born child, thought to be at risk, as another of the mother's children was. The same newspapers are the ones that object repeatedly to council-tax rises, when resources, as the anonymous social worker describes, have been so cut to the bone or directed elsewhere that it makes it even more difficult to provide adequate supervision. Finally, who now would honestly consider the idea of becoming a social worker when the profession has become the latest soft target for the impotent rage of the nation to be taken out upon? How many, already brought to the brink of exhaustion by their work-load will see how much gratitude is given to them and finally decide that it's time to pack it all in before something goes wrong on their patch and the mob inevitably moves in? Not enough "golden hellos" in the world are going to make someone, even in an recession, want to take on such responsibility whilst at the same time being given no respect.

Even more unhelpful were last week's ridiculous headlines, including in the "quality" press, regarding 4 children a week dying while either in the care of the state or being seen by social workers. These figures, if true, would also have been unprecedented, and completely out of line with the ones produced by the Home Office. As it turned out, Ofsted had confused the number of those who had died while receiving any kind of local authority help - 282 - with the number of serious case reviews that had been taken out following child deaths, which was a far less remarkable 81. Ofsted said that the "report may have been confusing for a lay person", which it seems is a perfect description of journalists in general, with the figure subsequently being bandied about by those already highly excised by the death of Baby P as an example of the incompetence and failure of social work and child protection policies.

The furore over Baby P will eventually calm down, even if the Sun promises to "not rest until those to blame are brought to book" (pro-tip: they're already have, they're in prison), and the equilibrium will settle back down to something approaching normality. In the meantime however, children will be taken from their families when they previously wouldn't have been, further breaking down the relationship between individual and the state, and potentially loosening those families for good. This will ironically be the result of newspapers that preach the virtue of the family, moralise remorselessly about single-mothers and the "underclass", if not openly in some cases dehumanising them, all while demanding a return to traditional values, the same values which previously amounted to the goings on in someone's house being entirely their own affair. Sales, sensationalism, and giving the public what they think they want always triumph over the note of caution and waiting for the full facts before passing judgement. When the next Baby P comes along, we can look forward to going through this all over again.

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Monday, November 24, 2008 

The pre-budget report.

The media can often be accused of overstating otherwise run of the mill events, both for effect and to try to put conflict into politics which has for some time not been there, but today at least it has both been right to describe the pre-budget report as a gamble and to point to it as at least the end of a 14-year long, if not 30-year long economic orthodoxy.

Let's not get too carried away with ourselves though. This isn't, as Pollyanna herself is promoting it, the end of New Labour and the beginning of social democracy, only a year after she declared that social democracy was dead, but rather a readjustment forced on New Labour by events of their own making. Keynes may have been taken out of the box, dusted down and decorated like a soon to be hauled out of the loft artificial Christmas tree, with Friedman, monetarism and supply-side economics placed on the naughty step, but this was still a cautious, as it had to be, reappraisal of what New Labour's economic policy would become when faced with recession. If anything it was far too cautious when it came to deciding that some of the stimulus package would be paid for by increasing the top rate of tax on those earning over £150,000 a year to 45% - raising a little over £2bn, a pitiful amount. They could have surely got away with making it 50p in the £1, and dropping it to those earning over £125,000, even £100,000, as the old Liberal Democrat policy was, raising a much more substantial amount.

Even if it it is timid, it's still the breaking of the Labour promise at the last three general elections not to increase income tax; the last major shift was 20 years ago when the rate was dropped to 40% by Nigel Lawson, causing uproar on the Labour benches. It is long overdue, an overt return to redistribution, previously carried out almost by stealth on tax credits, where the scheme is so complex that the costs of running it and frustration of those on it who often end up having to pay back that which they weren't supposed to take almost do more harm than good. It also leaves the Tories in a quandary: do they attack it as a tax on wealth creation, on hard work, or agree with the progressive thinking behind it in their new, caring, tough on bonus culture way? At the moment they seem to be uncertain.

As welcome as the shift to taxing the rich more was, the rest of the PBR was almost teeth-grindingly awful, not in the policy sense, but in the doom that pervaded it and which we have to look forward to. Darling, for his part, who I'm willing to suggest is a far more accomplished politician than he has ever been given credit for, did his best to offset this both in his familiar dull delivery, without bombast, and only a few party political jibes at the party opposite, the old style bank manager within him shining through, and in the very optimistic estimates for how quickly we will pull ourselves out of the mire. The Treasury forecast is that we will only be in negative growth for four quarters, the second of which we are currently in. Next year will see a fall in output of between 0.75% and 1.25%, which again seems highly optimistic, both by other forecasts and by the fact that the economy shrank last quarter alone by 0.5%. Equally hopeful is that savings can be found, yet again, within Whitehall which will help to lower overall borrowing, which Darling expects to reach 57% of GDP by 2013-14 - or about £500bn, which really will put us amongst the most indebted of the G7, if not the world.

All of which makes it all the more dark-eyebrow raising to see that £12.7bn of the £20bn stimulus package is to come by cutting VAT by 2.5%. Making it even less attractive is that the duty on tobacco, alcohol and petrol will rise to ensure that there is no overall difference, thus leaving the only things on which the cut will make any real difference expensive electronic goods, cars and furniture. You get the impression that they must somehow know something which we don't, as surely a far better way to have inspired spending would have been the American way of cutting income tax, directly sending cheques back out with the rebate instantly cashable. Unity argues that it will result ultimately in lower consumer prices even on zero-rated goods, which is what the government must also be hoping for. It will become quickly apparent if it has worked or not: if this Christmas is as bad as the retailers have been suggesting it might be, and their sales in January also fail to spark interest, the indication will be that it will have already failed.

The unsurprisingly unleaked other major change was that alongside the tax rises for the rich, national insurance will rise by 0.5% from 2011, which will directly hit the middle classes, and even the upper-working class, affecting those earning over £20,000 a year. With the average wage being somewhere around £24,000 a year, although if we face a far harsher recession than that forecast by the Treasury with deflation a major issue that could in fact drop, it's bound to further embitter those already fed up with Labour and who haven't benefited from the 10 years of relatively benign conditions. At least however they know what's coming: the government's spelling out of exactly what will have to rise to pay for the stimulus, as they had to do and also did to pre-empt the Tory shouts of a coming "tax bombshell" was for the most part well-handled.

George Osborne, for his part, was mostly dreadful in response. The only real hit he landed was that the gap between the stimulus ending and the tax rises kicking in signified that what they were really concerned with was the political cycle rather than the economic one, and it does indeed now look as though Brown will wait until the last moment to call the election, although any party in the same position would have almost certainly done the same thing. This was again though the blundering Conservative party which we have become accustomed to on economics over the past couple of years, decrying Labour while offering no substantive alternative, or indication of what they would do instead. Osborne gave no specifics whatsoever, surely a mistake, even if his anger may have struck a chord.

For all the talk of shifting back towards the comfortable ground on which both parties once stood, at best what they have done is take a few steps to the left in Labour's case and a few steps to the right in the Tories'. Unfamiliar to begin with, but easy to adapt back into. A far bigger change is that all three parties will go into the next election having to promise not tax cuts, or as it has been over the past three elections, the investment versus the status quo dichotomy, but instead tax rises. We will back to the biggest question being who you trust the most to run the economy. After 10 years of New Labour economics, if there is such a thing, the answer ought to be obvious. Yet whilst the Tories both fail to look convincing or offer anything even approaching an all encompassing policy, you'd still have to more than consider the odds on the devil we know. How deep the recession will turn out may will be the ultimate decider. Politics may not have just become interesting again, as per the cliché, but it certainly has, after years of economic consensus, suddenly got far more intriguing.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008 

Weekend links.

No real overriding theme this weekend, although we must start by mentioning the wonderfully convenient death of Rashid Rauf via a Hellfire missile from a US drone, after his equally convenient escape from his guards around this time last year. Answers on a postcard as to where he was during the missing time period to the usual address....

Elsewhere, Baby P remains a story, not enough emotion yet having been wrenched from his dessicated corpse. Mike P (who also has restarted his own weekend paper-round up, to which this round-up is indebted) directs us towards Spiked's coverage, which as you might expect is better than almost anything written in any of the papers. The Sun is still demanding its pound of flesh while profiting from its noble cause, now having parked a campaign lorry outside Haringey council. The Daily Mail meanwhile is furthering its attempts to take journalism to ever lower depths. Via Anorak, it asks:

How could anyone believe that a woman like Baby P's mother could be entrusted with the welfare of a child?

That she is a lazy good-for-nothing is not in doubt, but there is more to her character than that.

Is she wicked, stupid or just unhinged?

And so begins the dehumanising, the vitriol, the disgust, all of it based on hearsay and rumour, not a single source named or alluded to. It goes on:

To the vast majority, this must seem too sordid to be true. But these people do not follow the normal rules of civilised society; they have chosen to live outside it.

A perfect description of the "journalists" and editors taking part in the witch-hunt which the tabloids are currently pursuing. The Sun, in its leader on the BBC, is similarly hypocritical:

Yesterday’s report by the BBC Trust criticises “a serious lack of editorial judgment and control” at the Beeb.


It talks of several “failures of editorial judgment” over offensive material.

It reveals a culture at the Beeb of no accountability and no responsibility.

The Daily Quail also brilliantly satirises the Mail's outrage at the possibility that Baby P's mother might be given anonymity once released to protect her from the savages that might kill her, helped along in no small part by completely irresponsible media coverage.

Keeping with the BBC, Catherine Bennett points out the irony of the conservatives wanting to destroy one of the few remaining institutions that promotes tradition. Former BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan is having his own problems, having been exposed as being involved in sock-puppeting. Sunny says he's becoming a laughing stock, Justin notes the spread of the disease from bloggers to hacks, while the Tory Troll's piece on CiF is where it's all been kicking off.

The pre-budget report is on Monday, but there's a surprising lack of real comment on it, seeing as we all seem to be far more interested in either dead babies or old men who can't dance. Paul Linford steps into the breach in his usual fine style, Chris asks whether tax cuts will work, while Matthew Parris thinks the Conservative strategy is far wiser, predictably, than Pollyanna T does.

Treasure the following sentence, because it is most likely the only time this blog will ever praise Hazel Blears. She honestly completely gets it over the BNP and how to tackle them. Even stopped clocks do however manage to get the time right twice a day, so let's not get carried away with ourselves. Voltaire's Priest manages to get a shit storm going again, thanks to some rather inane logic over why the left should be celebrating the fascists getting what's been coming to them.

Onto general miscellany, and we have the really rather good Janice Turner on online cruelty, Howard Jacobson considering what the revelation that Hitler actually did only have one ball means, and Robert Fisk compares the Kabul of today to the one of 30 years ago. Speaking of the past, Thatcher was forced out of office 18 years ago today, as Iain Dale, Justin and the Daily (Maybe) all relate.

Finally then to the worst tabloid comment piece of the weekend award, and as much as I'd like to give it to the above Daily Mail Baby P piece, that's stretching the rules a little too far. Instead we'll have to make do with stretching the rules only slightly with this from the Sunday Times:

The plea bargain is intimidation and extorted perjury, an outright rape of any plausible definition of justice

Says Conrad Black, currently begging George Bush to pardon him before he leaves office.

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Friday, November 21, 2008 

Last words on Sachsgate.

What was all that about then? Already the furore over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand's insulting remarks about a Satanic Slut to her grandfather seem like ancient history; we have, as Tony Blair so often urged us to do, moved on. The new pastures are much greener. Not content with just creating a moral panic, in all senses of the term, over Baby P, while making the lives of those involved with his case a living hell, we also have John Sergeant and Strictly Come Dancing to be aggravated about! Did he jump or was he pushed? Did the maniacal BBC step in end the tyrant's defiance of the judges and save their blushes? Complain to Ofcom about it! A whole collection of other people taking a shallow television contest too seriously already have!

The publishing of the BBC Trust report (PDF) into "Sachsgate" or fuckedyourgranddaughtergate or aren'tweabunchofhypocriticalcuntsgate has then turned out to be rather underwhelming. Oh, the Mail still had to splash Ross's face on this morning's front page just to keep up appearances, but even it seems to have lost heart in it.

While the report does show some fairly damning editorial failures, with it turning out that the Director of Radio 2 hadn't listened to the show before it aired and that the Head of Compliance had only listened to the part where Ross blurted out the "fucked your granddaugter" line, with them deciding that it was OK to go out as they thought Sachs had agreed to it, resulting in broadcasting a caution before the show went out, what really seems to have turned the whole thing is a misconstrued conversation between the producer Nic Phelps and Andrew Sachs himself, when Phelps contacted him to ask if what had been recorded could go out:

The Producer also telephoned Andrew Sachs. Their accounts of what each took from the conversation differ and Mr Sachs believes it may have taken place on Wednesday afternoon rather than Thursday, although the time difference does not appear material and on either account no proper consent was obtained such as to justify transmission of the material in question.

The Producer said the conversation was cordial. He asked whether Mr Sachs had heard the messages and Mr Sachs said that he had, adding words to the effect of ‘they’re a bit wild, aren’t they’. The Producer asked whether the programme could use the recordings and he recalls Mr Sachs saying ‘Yes, as long as you tone it down a bit’, or words to that effect.

The Producer said there was then a discussion about Mr Sachs appearing on a future edition of the programme and the conversation ended amicably with the Producer agreeing to contact him again about a date for his appearance.

Andrew Sachs, for his part, confirmed that the Producer sought his consent but says he demurred. He recognised, however, that he did not do so in strong terms and he agreed that he said that the content needed toning down. He added that he would have reacted more strongly had he heard everything that had been said on the programme.

Mr Sachs also agreed that the conversation went on to discuss his possible future appearance on the programme which by now he knew had been pre-recorded that week. Mr Sachs understood this future appearance was to be instead of using the material which had already been recorded.

Mr Sachs was prepared to accept that it was possible the Producer had taken away the view that his consent had been obtained and that the future appearance was in addition to the transmission of the existing material, but in his view that would, at best, have been ‘wishful thinking’.

Sachs it seems, despite listening to some of the messages left, did not hear Ross swearing or the sung "apology" song, but came away with the impression that the material regarding Georgina Baillie was to be cut. Phelps, for his part, felt that Sachs had given his permission for some of it to broadcast as long as it was, in Sachs' words, "toned down a bit". He did subsequently cut some of it, as newspapers nonetheless rejoiced in reprinting, but large parts of it did go out.

The report goes on:

The Producer did not check what Mr Sachs had actually heard on his voicemail, made no record of his conversation with Mr Sachs and no file note was made afterwards. Even if one accepts the Producer’s account, it remains clear that no proper consent was obtained. Consent in these circumstances would depend on ensuring that Mr Sachs was properly aware of what the programme intended to say about him and his family and what was to be edited out in order to tone it down. Nor could Mr Sachs consent on behalf of his grand-daughter whose separate consent would also be required. However, other than a voicemail that Russell Brand is said to have left for Ms Baillie, no steps appear to have been taken to obtain informed consent from Ms Baillie.

The BBC Trust seems to be going out of its way here to declare its independence, as it also has by rejecting the plans for the ultra-local news video sites, which will delight its competitors. A misunderstanding results in a mistake which could have been sorted out, but there was no real malice to any of the comments. Ross apparently told the Trust that he was only happy for the material to go out as long as Sachs and Baillie had given their consent, and Brand told him that they had. Brand had left a message on Baillie's own voicemail which described the messages and apologised for what was said, but not sought actual consent. Only 2 people complained about the show over the weekend. It was when the Mail on Sunday hack got involved that the story itself was set in motion. Even then the BBC could have prevented some of the fallout if the Radio 2 Director, Lesley Douglas, had responded to the request for an apology from Sachs's agent. As it was, she was on holiday, and didn't see it until Sunday evening when the MoS had already splashed on it. She had wanted to apologise as soon as she knew about the MoS story, but the BBC had wanted to do things officially, through their own Corporate Press Office. As a result of doing things "properly", the apology wasn't made until Monday, by which time Paul Dacre had apparently been enraged by Brand referring to the Mail's support for the Nazis during the 30s when he "apologised" on the follow-up show. It was somewhat slow in reacting, but not overly so considering.

Consequently, the Head of Compliance and Radio 2 director resigned, Brand quit his show, and the puritans that had been so losing the battle over what can and cannot be broadcasted have chalked up a massive victory, almost all down to the BBC's own pusillanimity and self-harm on a grand scale. Newspapers are again running campaigns against swearing on TV, as we simply can't have what we watch reflecting reality, and the Sunday Torygraph has gone so far to rail against "Vulgar Britain", a newspaper formerly owned by a convicted fraudster and now by two recluses who live on a tiny island fortress and threaten to sue if their name is so much as mentioned elsewhere in the press. Running so scared, the Trust also rakes Ross further over the coals for two swearwords on his chat show, made by a complainant with the usual grudges against the corporation:

The complainant wrote an email to the Director-General on 6 May 2008 via the BBC Complaints website. In the email he outlined his complaint against the previous Friday evening’s Friday Night with Jonathan Ross show requesting that he wanted an “absolute assurance” that Jonathan Ross would be taken off air after his “foul mouth outbursts” to two of his guests. The complainant believed the use of such language was a result of “a BBC run by trendy left wing liberals” of which, he said, Mr Ross was one. He closed his email by stating:

“You have disgusted me and I suspect just about every English person.”

That both guests had led him on was apparently irrelevant, as was, if the complainant didn't like it, he could change the channel. Instead it's his divine right to demand that Ross be completely taken off the air. Such bending over backwards to limited complaints results in the following, one of the BBC's other actions as a result of tediousgate:

Alan Yentob (Creative Director, BBC) together with Roly Keating (Director of Archive Content) and Claire Powell (Chief Adviser, Editorial Policy) will lead a group examining where the appropriate boundaries of taste and generally accepted standards should lie across all BBC output. The group will involve members of the on-air talent community and outside perspectives, together with original audience research. It will report to the BBC’s Editorial Standards Board in February 2009 and its conclusions will be reported to the BBC Trust. It will inform the revision of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines which is currently underway and scheduled to be completed in 2009.

Hopefully they will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. After the simpering and pathetic nature of the BBC's grovelling to those who won't be satisfied until it's gone, I wouldn't bet on it.

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Vegetable crime.

Seeing as the Grauniad's pages have been more or less given over to Julie Bindel to pursue her crusade against phallocentric crime, it's a relief to read such a coruscating letter attacking the government's plans for prostitution:

I urge the home secretary immediately to make it an offence to buy leeks produced with the help of somebody who is "controlled for another person's gain", to stop exploitation of eastern Europeans on British farms (Police raid farms in human trafficking inquiry, November 19). A plea of ignorance should be no defence for any shopper facing prosecution for buying vegetables produced by workers in Lincolnshire fields who have been trafficked or are being exploited. This would bring this area of anti-human-trafficking legislation into line with that on prostitution. Consumers of all products or services should be made policemen against these vile practices. The government should also urgently consider legislation against eating chocolate produced by child labour in west Africa.
Andrea Woelke
Alternative Family Law, London

For a more serious dissection, Unity as usual has done the necessary research and ripped all involved a new asshole. Something that those convicted of rape after paying for sex with a trafficked prostitute have to look forward to....

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This internet is so corrupt.

Via the Quail, a truly wonderful comment from the Mail:

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Thursday, November 20, 2008 

Those Conservative economic travails.

This must be a truly strange time to be a supporter of the Conservative party. To enter cliché for a moment, all the chickens have finally came home to roost. The man who promised an end to Tory boom and bust has succeeded in abolishing boom, while the prospects for the bust look increasingly ominous. The economy which he boasted was among the best placed to deal with the global downturn is in actual fact one of the worst placed to deal with it, according to the IMF and the European Union. Unrelenting, the Labour party believes that the solution is to borrow more to fund the tax cuts to stimulate the economy. As Larry Elliot has pointed out, this is a direct contradiction of what Gordon Brown formerly believed. At the weekend the same man attended a conference which he claimed would back up his solution to the downturn; it did nothing of the sort, and predictably only agreed to more or less meet again. Gordon Brown, by rights, ought to be finished.

Instead, it's the Tories themselves that look as though they're the ones in need of some sort of a stimulus. By contrast to Brown, who seems unaccountably at the moment to be walking on water when he should be sinking like a brick to the bottom, they're the ones looking washed up. Nothing they do at the moment can get a look in, or when it does it's almost immediately knocked down for its flaws. Take their hastily cobbled together policy on tax breaks for employers, which was dismissed almost universally as being the kind of tax con which the Conservatives have so often accused Labour of pulling. This week's panic was, with it looking almost certain that there will be at least £15bn worth of tax cuts in Monday's pre-budget report, the minimum needed for it to be minimally beneficial, to declare that they would, despite everything which they've previously said, not stick to Labour's spending plans for at least the first year should they win the next election. In any event this was always a false promise, but such was the apparent anxiety within the party over the floundering response to Gordon Brown's sudden found decisiveness that red meat had to be tossed to those who have always wanted tax cuts before anything else.

Even this though leaves the party looking contradictory, or at least at first glance it does. On the surface it looks like a standard, fiscally conservative measure: you can't borrow your way out of a crisis, so don't try. Instead, spending cuts will have to be found. Yet the Tories are still committed to spending the same as Labour on the NHS, the police and on education, whilst refusing to say where the cuts would be made. Even abandoning ID cards, as they promise, will not immediately summon up the £20bn that they are forecast to cost once they are fully introduced. The figures simply don't add up. As a consequence, the Conservatives are again being accused of being the do nothing party, and it's an insult that for the moment appears to be sticking.

Some of this is undoubtedly thoroughly unfair on the Conservatives. An element of their plight at least is that the media has become bored of the prospect of the Conservatives sleepwalking towards victory at the next election, and with Brown's sudden self-proclaimed saving of the global economy, they have a new horse to get behind, even if it's the same one they were previously saying was only fit for the glue factory. Also influencing it though is that despite all the plaudits mystifyingly bestowed upon George Osborne, such as politician of the year, they have been absolutely hopeless on the economy ever since the run on Northern Rock. Their immediate tactic was to portray the potential nationalisation as a return to old Labour, which could have worked if they had a realistic alternative policy. Gordon Brown took fright, which is partly why they dithered and dithered and made things worse by not doing it sooner. The problem was that the Tories didn't have an alternative, and that everyone got so fed up with waiting for them to come up with one that Vince the Cable suddenly emerged as the politician who knew what he was talking about, given pride of place as the first man to turn to for analysis which ought to have been coming from the real opposition.

The other reason though is that they like Brown and New Labour truly believed the rhetoric. They honestly thought that the economy was now an area of consensus, that growth was natural and endless, and that it was social policy on which they should concentrate. A nasty and pernicious social policy it is, calling a society broken when is isn't and which their solutions for fixing are the opposite of what is needed, but a policy it was, and one which the conservative press especially were fully behind. They may have made some murmurings on personal debt, but they offered no substantive opposition to the government on its spending and borrowing plans, and as Labour has rightly pointed to, they even proposed loosening the regulation on mortgages. Their belief, like Labour's, was that we didn't need to worry about not actually making anything, it was making London the city in which to do financial business which mattered most. In fairness, many of us became caught up in this fantasy: that neoliberalism, despite all the evidence to the contrary, could deliver, and that through almost indiscernible redistribution, played down at every opportunity, that the proles would not become too upset at being continuously shafted. The latter it seems can still be contained, for now, but it was neoliberalism itself which has come in for the mightiest of shocks.

From being 28 points ahead at one point in the craziest poll, the Conservatives are now down to just 3 points in front, within the margin of error, in the mirror craziest poll. Unlike New Labour prior to 97, whenever things aren't going their way, the Conservative approach seems to be to panic. Last year, during Brown's brief honeymoon, there were murmurings of defenestrating David Cameron, such was the concern that the change in leader would affect their fortunes. Luckily, Brown succeeding at shooting himself in the foot not just once but on numerous occasions, first through a dismal conference speech, then over the election which never was, then the obsession with 42 days, then the 10p tax rate etc etc, coupled with Osborne's moment of supposed genius, the raising of the inheritance tax level to £1m. This time round Osborne himself is the casualty, not helped by his dalliances with yachts and trying to win in an unpleasantness contest with Peter Mandelson.

The really strange thing is that the Conservatives have arrived at the right policy in the circumstances in a completely Byzantine way. Although their claims that we are among the most heavily indebted nations in terms of GDP is bogus, even if you include the nationalisations, PFI and pensions, they are right that we should not be further adding to those figures without explaining fully and comprehensively that this means taxes are going to have to rise significantly, or that spending is going to have to be cut considerably to return at some point to equilibrium. After a crisis that was caused by private-sector debt, the public-sector should not be seeking to emulate it. If we are going to have tax cuts, then we should be funding them appropriately by either cutting the ludicrous number of databases we are planning or which are in use, abandoning ID cards, getting rid of Trident and not replacing it, not "investing" in aircraft carriers, by getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq now and by raising the top rate of tax on the richest considerably. It was our indulgence of them that led to this mess, and while our politicians should more than shame the blame, they should also help to pay for it, by also closing down the loopholes that allow so many to evade tax altogether. The party that again seems to be leading the way is the Liberal Democrats, who are flat-lining in the polls and have more problems it seems than the Conservatives. That, sadly, is modern justice.

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Nothing left to say.

There really is nothing more whatsoever to say about Baby P, but that isn't of course stopping the tabloids, the vileness and emotional incontinence of which, on the behalf of the Sun especially, is only fuelling a witch-hunt that has the potential to cause further harm to a system already described by Ofsted as struggling.

Anorak as usual is doing a sterling job of cutting through the bullshit, from where I learn that the headstone left at where Baby P's ashes were scattered, which has been appearing in all the newspapers, was bought by the Sun itself. Nice to see that it's putting some of the money it's making out of turning the lives of the social workers involved into a living hell to good use.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008 

Film review: The Baader-Meinhof Complex.

In these times of apparently unstoppable mass-casualty extremist Islamist terrorism, the likes of the Baader-Meinhof gang, as they were known, or the Red Army Faction, as they called themselves, appear almost quaint by comparison. This might well be partly because in the UK we have never experienced much in the way of overt left-wing terrorism, our quota for targeted explosions having been filled by the IRA; doubtless their victims in Germany feel differently. Whilst the film only makes brief allusions to our modern-day reality, the one exemplary message which it puts across is that terrorism, regardless of who it is committed by or why, can only be defeated through legitimate, legal means. Much else is muddled and ambiguous.

The makers of the Baader-Meinhof Complex claim that every scene is historically accurate, and with it being based upon the book by Stefan Aust, a contemporary of some of those who made up the group, you would have thought you could have at least some faith in the adaptation. This is in fact stretched to breaking point from the very beginning, where it is at least heavily implied that Benno Ohnesorg, the student shot dead while protesting against a visit by the Shah of Iran, was murdered by Josef Bachmann, a right-wing extremist who went on to make an assassination attempt on the leader of the students' movement, Rudi Dutschke, who never fully recovered. The shooting of Ohnesorg, combined with the breaking up of the protest by pro-Shah elements while the police first looked on and then joined in the orgy of violence, was the catalyst that sparked the coming together of the RAF.

Concentrating, unsurprisingly, on Baader and Meinhof, we never get really past the point of superficiality with any of the main players. Baader, played by Moritz Bleibtreu, is the charismatic former petty criminal that is depicted straight out of the box as a hypocrite, egomaniac, possible psychopath and with no real ideological bearing whatsoever. Meinhof, played by Martina Gedeck opens the film proper, with a scene on a nude beach, her daughters and husband playing in the surf whilst she sits alone and clothed. If the implication is that throughout she was the outsider, the radical journalist that abandons just the pen and takes up the gun, but is still never really accepted by her comrades, then her explanation for doing so is also rendered, like much else, as ambiguous. One of the conceits is that her husband is obviously cheating on her, with a gorgeous blonde no less, who walks by on the beach, stops for a chat and then saunters off. She takes the children when she inevitably finds him up to the hilt inside her, and if anything it is her husband's betrayal as much as her convictions that results in her joining the comparative youngsters in the RAF. Even less satisfying is the way Meinhof, after declaring her love for her children and saying she'd never give them up, suddenly decides to do just that, surrendering them to go and live in the Palestinian refugee camps of Jordan.

If Baader provided the romance, then Meinhof provided the RAF's ideological underpinning, writing the Urban Guerilla Concept, and while the group thrashed out incoherently at a whole series of injustices, not just protesting violently against the complicity of the late 60s/early 70s West German government with Nazism, when many lower-level officials were still ex-fascists, but against American imperialism in Vietnam and the plight of the Palestinians in Israel amongst other things, the film also falls majorly short on providing us with any real examples of the members arguing or debating such issues. The closest we come is Gudrun Ensslin, played by Johanna Wokalek, sitting in a steaming bath reading Trotsky. Meinhof's justifications for the various bombs and assassinations are played out along with the violence, but their crudity would for the most part shame even our modern vacuous suicide bombers and their gloating messages from the beyond.

Instead what we have is a group of sexy young people doing essentially, sexy young, impulsive things. The key line is from when the group decamp to Jordan to train with the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine, where they reject the strictures placed on them by their faintly religious hosts and spend most of their time sunbathing naked on the roof of their quarters, which goes down well with the agog young sex-starved fighters that have most likely never seen such an abundance of naked white flesh before, but further shows the contempt they have for those they are supposed to be in solidarity with. Ensslin shouts, when challenged, "that shooting and fucking are the same thing", and for them that much is true. Baader himself, again you have to wonder how realistically, is shown to be a bigot, and objects to having to crawl under barbed wire in the sand "as they are urban guerrillas", which while a good point, rather undermines their reasoning behind attending the camp in the first place.

Some of these complaints can be answered with the fact that the film doesn't set out to delve too deeply into why the RAF did what they did; rather, it is an objective account, almost a slightly fictionalised record of the original founders of the group from 68 to 77, and that to have gone any further would have extended the already 2hr30mins running time. What you're getting is what you see, and very little else. Irrespective of that, this opens up the allegation that the film as a result romanticises, even sexualises terrorism, one made in Germany itself, and while undoubtedly those involved are impossibly good looking, endlessly alluring, wear the most chic clothes, all long legs, perfect plump bodies and accurate hair-styles, it doesn't quite reach that low.

One of the things that saves it from doing that is the more than sympathetic portrayal, alongside the inexorable action, which is as crisply photographed and choreographed as anything Hollywood can manage, of Horst Herold (Googlish biography), the police chief charged with tracking down and stopping the group's members in their tracks, played by Bruno Ganz, most well known for his turn as Hitler in Downfall. Coming across as a firm authoritative but determined liberal, again making you wonder wholly about the reality, he makes allowances for the group and their actions in ways which no one could get away with doing for jihadists now. He realises that when the momentum behind the student movement starts to subside, the RAF itself will only step up its campaign, which is exactly what happens. He knows that the martyrdom of their members will only further the sympathy which the group engendered, especially among the German youth, which nonetheless happened when the hunger striker Holger Meins succumbed, partially as a result of prison brutality, which inspires the second generation of the RAF to take their revenge, almost completely independently of the leadership in Stammheim prison.

The film finally falls completely apart in the last half hour, the strands frayed almost beyond comprehension as the second generation of members enters with even less back-story and explanation. Undoubtedly this is partly because the leaders of the original group themselves knew next to nothing about them, but it does nothing to help any ignorant in the audience follow what's going on. Also frustrating is again the way it keeps open the possibility that Meinhof did not take her life by her own hand, hinting at the way she had been ostracised by the others for apparently beginning to find her conscience, or alternatively, for drifting into mental illness.

It's the implication though of the second, even third generation of RAF fighters that Baader alludes to, all springing up independently of the leadership with just the group's schizophrenic ideals as their motivation that has the message for us today. The RAF after all did not formally disband until 1998, more than 20 years after the original leaders killed themselves; the leaders of al-Qaida, of which the second generation (third if you count al-Qaida's origins towards the end of the jihad against the Soviets) has learned its trade not in the camps of Afghanistan but in Iraq and now increasingly in Pakistan, have not been even captured or killed yet. Even if they are, the militant ideology behind al-Qaida is far stronger and far more encompassing than anything the RAF ever came up with, and while the death of bin Laden especially would be a huge blow, providing the romance to the movement while Zawahiri provides the ideology, it will undoubtedly continue to prosper for some time yet. We however have not had the wisdom of a Horst Herold in our fight against it, and instead the almost as insane likes of Melanie Phillips and Jihad Watch have the monopoly on the analysis. The analogy is obviously not completely apposite: the anti-authoritarianism, almost anarchy of the RAF is the opposite of what al-Qaida wishes to impose, and the RAF probably had more sympathy then than al-Qaida has now, especially among the general population, although surveys of Muslims students show some tendency towards some of their solutions, which is again indicative more of the radicalism of those at University than something to be really worried about.

Ultimately, The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a contradiction in terms, as one of the things it is not is complex. It's instead as superficial as the group itself was. If however you're not looking for an in-depth study of the group and instead want a general, possibly given poetic licence account of their rise and fall, it's as good as one as we're likely to get.

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Let's not have horrible double standards, shall we?

Exciting as it is having a list of British National Party members available at our fingertips, no one, perhaps with the exception of the serving police officer, who might well have already left the group, should lose their job as a result of being a member of a completely legal if highly unpleasant political party.

We ought to bear in mind what we would be saying and thinking if instead of a list of BNP members, it had in fact been a comprehensive list of convicted paedophiles that had been leaked. While most of us would probably have looked at it, just as we have the BNP list, we would be disgusted and deeply worried at the prospect and potential of vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. The chances, it has to be said, of mobs converging on the doorsteps of individual members of the party are rather low, but some are already reporting emails and abuse over the telephone. Amusing as it might be that Nick Griffin and Richard Barnbrook might be getting some sort of comeuppance for their rabble-rousing over the years against vulnerable communities by having their personal phone numbers exposed, what is not amusing is elderly individuals completely harmless to anyone but who have unreconstructed political views receiving the same treatment.

Similarly unacceptable is the Guardian publishing Google Maps, or at least the original one directly pinpointing where some live. Would they be doing the same were this a list of paedophiles? Very doubtful. It doesn't matter that no personal actual information is being disclosed, or that's it not detailed enough to pinpoint any particular individual, although a lone member in a town/village is clearly visible, it's still not the sort of depth we ought to descend to. Only slightly less objectionable is the "heat" map now up, which tells us precisley nothing really that we didn't already know: the BNP's major strongholds, outside Barking and Dagenham, are above the Midlands. The numbers in Wales are the only slight surprise.

The other thing this is doing, apart from severely embarrassing the party's leadership, is giving them the kind of press attention and media access which they can usually only dream of. Instead of being disastrous for them, if they get a sympathy vote (difficult to imagine I realise), and they're already playing on this being down to their imminent success at the polls, not the disgruntled worker, then it may have the opposite effect on the party's fortunes. Less members yes, but more anonymous donations potentially also. Whilst the one thing we should be doing is taking on the BNP in debate, we shouldn't allow this to turn into them getting a free-run, which is what it looks like becoming. All the more reason to shut this down now and instead target the party's policies rather than its actual membership.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008 

Giving false hope.

Whenever a politician says that they want to have a debate, they don't really mean a debate in the terms that us mere mortals interpret it, as in an informed exchange of views possibly leading to changing of opinions. They mean a debate where they can control the flow of information, where they're fairly certain of what the outcome of the debate will be, and where they themselves can then close down the debate should it get out of hand.

When Phil Woolas then says that he wants a "mature debate" on immigration he means that he wants to get in first, set the tone for where the debate is going to go and also knows already what the policy outcome of said mature debate is going to be. A sure-fire way to get a mature debate going is by poisoning the well. According to Woolas, the lawyers and charities working on behalf of asylum seekers, for example, are not doing so out of compassion, the goodness of their hearts or because no one else will, but because they're an industry. By being an industry, they are in actual fact playing the system, giving false hope and causing more harm than good. Similarly, at least half of those that come to this country and claim asylum are not fleeing persecution, but are instead just pretending to be, play-acting as having suffered in order to be admitted when they are nothing more than simple economic migrants. Woolas also said that an asylum seeker than had succeeded in staying here after going through six layers of appeal "had no right to be in this country but I'm sure there is an industry out there [with] a vested interest."

How right he is. There are companies and individuals out there that have a vested interest in the asylum process. One such is Kalyx (they "care for immigration detainees with compassion and understanding"), a business with a social purpose, that was ranked as the worst performer of ten in an investigation into racism in detention centres, where detainees described "banter and taunting as ... part of the natural relationship between a detainee and custody officer".

Similarly, despite the best efforts of this industry and its attempts at undermining the law, it failed in managing to stop Ama Sumani from being deported back to Ghana, despite the fact that she could not receive treatment there for her cancer. She survived for just two months, and died before the £70,000 that her supporters managed to raise for her could be sent to her. The Lancet called it "atrocious barbarism". It took the intervention of the former ambassador to Uzbekistan to potentially save the life of Jahongir Sidikov, an opposition activist that faced almost certain torture and possible death if sent back, as he very nearly was.

We can instead leave the real undermining of the law to the politicians themselves. In June Jacqui Smith declared that homosexuals could be deported back to Iran as long as they were "discreet". Earlier in the year it decided that up to 1,400 Iraqis could be sent back to their home country as "ordinary individual Iraqi citizens were not at serious risk from indiscriminate violence". 1,000 Zimbabweans were also destined to be sent back to enjoy the rule of Robert Mugabe, where a coalition government is still yet to be sworn in. Additionally, last year the Joint Committee on Human Rights issued a report which said the government was using the policy of "destitution" deliberately against asylum seekers in order to force them out, and generally make things as unpleasant as possible. An independent review of the asylum system found that it was "marred by inhumanity in its treatment of the vulnerable" and that it was "denying sanctuary to those entitled to it".

It's been apparent from the beginning that Woolas was appointed immigration minister in order to get up the arses of the likes of the Sun and the Mail and stay there. At a recent CBI conference Woolas argued that Sun readers had an "intelligent" grasp of the immigration debate, who understood "complex issues better than so-called experts". Woolas' comments on asylum seekers' lawyers are today being approvingly run alongside the "bogus asylum seekers" phraseology which has been banned by the PCC for being a contradiction in terms.

On tackling the BNP, Woolas says that "[I]n a democracy you've got to beat them, and you don't beat them by pandering to them. You beat them by thumping them politically in the face." What's apparent is that Woolas intends to beat them by stealing their very rhetoric, thumping them politically in the face by taking their lies and distortions and presenting it as fact in order to influence a debate. This is the very worst way to try to tackle the grievances which the likes of the BNP give rise to. By stealing their rhetoric you give the impression that you're going to implement their policies; thankfully, even the likes of Woolas have no intention of doing that, and they can't on asylum seekers in any case because of our international obligations. This though only leads to the likes of the Sun building a minister up to them bring them crashing down harder than they ever thought possible when their words don't turn into actions. John Reid experienced this: he talked tough, told them exactly what he was going to do only to predictably fail, with the result being his appearance on the paper's front page minus a brain.

This would be fine if it didn't have implications on the ground. But it does. Rhetoric against asylum seekers isn't just used against asylum seekers, it's used against immigrants as a whole, especially those who have recently moved into communities and are as a result instantly noticeable. By suggesting that asylum seekers' lawyers and charitable organisations play the system when they are in fact only trying to do the best they can, and when the government itself has been so repeatedly criticised for its treatment of them is not just unpleasant, it is downright risible. The false hope for many who seek refuge here is that they will be treated with respect, that they will be welcomed into a society which puts the treatment of the vulnerable as amongst the very top of its priorities. Instead they often find themselves locked up, racially abused, and used to score political points in the most base manner. Phil Woolas ought to be absolutely ashamed of himself.

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Reinstate the Gaunty one!

This blog doesn't exactly hold a brief for Jon Gaunt, as past mentions testify. His sacking from Talksport however for calling the Redbridge councillor Michael Stark a Nazi for banning smokers from fostering children is clearly an overreaction. Gaunt merely intended to call him a "health Nazi", and who could disagree that banning smokers from being able to care for children smacks of authoritarianism?

We just can't have people being sacked for speaking their minds. After all, if Gaunt can't call a health Nazi a health Nazi soon the rest of us won't be able to call Gaunt a fat, bumptious, oleaginous, simple twat. And I personally cannot imagine the horror of living in a world where that isn't possible.

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BNP paralysis.

Flying round the internet much like the identity of Baby P's abusers is now also the full membership list for the last year at least of the British National Party (not being linked to here for exactly the same reasons). Schadenfreude is rather understandably the dish of the day, and when it contains not just the home phone number of a certain N. Griffin but also the mobile phone number of one of his (activist) offspring, it looks like being a rather embarrassing few days for the party, which had otherwise been gearing itself up for a renewed fight in next year's European elections, as well as producing such cutting edge documents as "racism cuts both ways".

More pertinently, it's probably going to result in a good few people losing their jobs, although a quick look down the list suggests that there's just the one police officer currently an actual member of the party, although the number of teachers listed is far greater. The police is the one organisation I think where vigilance of members of extremist political parties is justified, although some will doubtless also not be best pleased by having fascists teaching their children.

Typically, as it often is with groups on both the far-left and far-right, this information has not been leaked as a result of the party being infiltrated either by a journalist, like the Guardian managed towards the end of 2006 which resulted in the fact that the ballerina Simone Clarke was a member coming to light (she's listed this time round too, although having split with her Chinese-Cuban partner and now married/engaged to Richard Barnbrook that's hardly surprising) or by the police or security services, but rather by a disgruntled former employee/member, of which the BNP has many. The real point is that many for obvious reasons want to keep their membership of such organisations secret, and not just necessarily because of the hassle they would receive at work were their political predilections to become known. As a result, this has the potential to severely damage the BNP - after all, why would you join a party which can't stop such information from entering the public domain? While it's far too early to suggest that this might be the nail in its coffin, it's surely the kind of blow which is bound to lead even more splits, and the further fragmentation of the far-right in this country, which can only be a good thing.

P.S. The comments on the NorthWestNationalists blog are just too good to miss.

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Monday, November 17, 2008 

The fallout in the Baby P case continues.

Rather sensibly, considering that the names of those involved in the Baby P case, protected by a court order, are currently flying around the internet like the latest unfunny meme, the Sun has closed down the comment sections on all its stories on the case, including on the article involving the suicidal social worker who was being told to kill herself by large proportions of those leaving messages.

It had first shut down comment on its message boards proper on Friday, a day before the article appeared, perhaps before the level of messages with their names proper included had reached their height. Predictably, although other sources are highlighting the Sun's original role in the names being distributed, Sky News is primarily blaming Facebook, although undoubtedly that site (which has a faintly terrifying 200,000 members in the Justice for Baby P group) has had a major role in it being made known. Other news sites that initially had the names of those involved available due to original articles on them being charged still existing online are also sensibly removing them, or are at least making them unavailable until the court order is rescinded. Only one major newspaper seems to be slow on that score.

Interestingly also, the Sun seems to be narrowing its targets in who should "pay the price for his little life". Originally it wanted all the social workers and the doctor involved sacked, as well as Sharon Shoesmith, the head of children's services in Haringey. In leader columns today (currently AWOL) and tomorrow it instead just wants Shoesmith to go. Could this possibly be because one of those it originally fingered, Sylvia Henry, has since been revealed to have wanted to take Baby P into care, but was apparently overruled by those above her? Similarly, the woman who the paper at the weekend described as being "suicidal" but nonetheless let readers comment on the article to urge her to go through with it, has also been described as having 18 cases on her books, more than the maximum 12 which they were supposed to have. It would be nice to think that when the facts change newspapers similarly change their opinions, but it'd also be nice to think that newspapers wouldn't run witch-hunts against such people when the whole facts are not known. Hopefully Henry and Ward will be forgiving of the paper for the letters, bricks and other nasty things that have probably been coming through their doors since their "naming and shaming".

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The path from angels to demons.

One of the reasons why the outpouring of outrage over the death of Baby P has been so understandable is his age. Defenceless, tiny and attractive, his treatment has been all the more intolerable because of the three of those things. Statistics tend to show that it's babies and in fact older children (older than the 8 that Victoria Climbié was when she was killed) that are the most likely to abused and murdered. Whilst however we treat babies as angels, the demonisation of older youths has been highlighted by a poll carried out by YouGuv on behalf of Barnardo's.

While we ought to be wary to an extent of polls commissioned on behalf of such non-neutral organisations and of the questions asked, the results should surely still give us cause for alarm. 54% of the 2,021 questioned agreed that children were "beginning to behave like animals", 49% agreed that children are increasingly a danger to each other and adults, 43% agreed that something had to be done to protect us from children, 35% believed the streets are infested with children, 45% thought that feral was a perfectly acceptable way to describe children because they behave that way, and 49% disagreed with the statement that children that get into trouble are often misunderstood and in need of professional help.

Perhaps indicative of the increasing ill-regard to how children are described, troubled or not, was the reporting of the news that 4,000 under-sixes had been excluded from school in the past year. The Sun, in the summary of the story on its main page, described them, typically, as "yobs", probably for reasons of shortness, as the article more accurately calls them tiny terrors. These are children which are only a few years older than Baby P, who will typically often get involved such scrapes, unlikely to do much damage to each other, let alone an adult, and they were already being caught under such a completely unhelpful catch-all term.

Barnardo's also notes that the British Crime Survey recently found that almost 50% thought that half of all crime was committed by young people, while in actuality just 12% was. While we can blame the media for much of the public perception of the young as yobs or worse, some of the blame also has to been taken by the government which has done so much to promote the tackling of "anti-social behaviour". One of the questions asked of people to establish their view of how much is in their area is whether there are teenagers hanging around the streets (PDF). It doesn't matter what they're doing; just them hanging about is seen as one of the indicators of it. We've moved on it seems from the Victorian notion that children should be seen and not heard; now they should be neither.

Likewise, the fear that children are a danger to adults at least is an irrational fear. As can quickly be gleaned by examining those arrested and charged with the stabbings in London which have killed 22 teenagers there this year, the overwhelming number are being killed by their own peers. Children killing adults, or teenagers (one of those involved was over 18) such as the case of Garry Newlove which has been so used to portray the image of the country as broken, are far rarer. If we are to be judged on how we treat those that we incarcerate, then the picture is even bleaker, with one of the highest levels in Europe, without any evidence whatsoever to suggest that prison at such a young age either helps to rehabilitate or to bring actual crime levels down.

The 49% figure, which is open to misinterpretation (do they disagree with them needing professional help or being misunderstood?) is undoubtedly the most troubling. If 49% are already writing off those that get into any sort of trouble, when the vast majority will at some point during their upbringing do just that, then the intolerance we have towards the young is most likely beyond anything in the past. MushKush noted that over the past weekend people will have been donating to Children in Need, with their money likely to be used to help those that that they equally think are not misunderstood and not in need of professional help. One in five teachers asked a couple of months ago thought that the cane should be brought back to help re-establish discipline in the classroom; what is the difference between the thrashings that used to be administered to unruly children and the abuse that we now so rigorously condemn? Why is the hitting of children more acceptable to some when doing the same to another adult would be rightly considered to be assault?

Part of the fear of children is psychological. Like the Roman emperors, with help from the tabloids, we imagine that our children are going to be the ones that are going to get rid of us. When it comes to a battle between youth and experience, at the moment youth seems to be winning, even as our societies themselves inexorably age, with pensioners soon to outnumber the young for something approaching the first time. At the same time, the older generation are also being more called on to look after those children as the parents themselves go out to work, and with the government's determination to get mothers off benefits and into work earlier, this is likely to increase. None of this however seems to have softened our views towards the young; on the contrary, it seems to have hardened them. While the emphasis on knife crime, especially in London will have done little to help, the picture elsewhere is not so grim, yet it's cancelled out by the bias towards the Metropolitan and the demands for such apparently inexplicable slaughter to be halted.

Much like with everything else, the idea that the young are getting more ill-behaved goes hand in hand with the notion that everything is getting worse, even as we live longer and we enjoy wealth which our ancestors could only dream of, even if things could most certainly be a lot better. As Kim Catcheside points out, both Plato and a magistrate from 1898 believed that children's behaviour was worsening, based as always on their own personal experience. Again though, surveys tend to suggest that we actually think that our personal experience of the young, as with crime and the health service is rather good. It's outside of our bubbles that we think things are much worse.

The irony is that as we demand justice for Baby P, we ignore and castigate those slightly older but who we think should know better. Perhaps David Cameron in this instance is actually being more consistent than the government: having advised parents and others to show children a lot more love, which Labour promptly span as being to "hug a hoodie", he's been continuing the theme, if with more party political intent today. As Dr Chris Hanvey wrote five years ago, as long as we continue to have this deep ambiguity about children, splitting them off into villains and angels, we are unlikely to stop the tide of abuse. Consistency is something that very few manage, and it's not likely to be the result of the current witch-hunt.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008 

War on personal freedom, Baby P and weekend links.

Paying for sex to be criminal offence, says the headline, or rather paying for sex with someone "controlled" by someone else is to be made a criminal offence. Ignorance will not be an excuse, and presumably neither will be the person saying they aren't controlled by anyone else before someone hands over their money. This seems to be a part of this government's apparent master plan: first they remove your civil liberties, watch you everywhere you go through the world's largest number of surveillance cameras, capture as many people's DNA and fingerprints as they can and create the world's largest database of such material, creating all the structures necessary for a very modern police-state, ready for any party with such tendencies to take control, then while waiting for that to happen they get bored with just removing political freedom and move on to personal freedom as well. Not only is paying someone to have sex with you going to become a criminal offence, but the government (and the opposition) both want to censor the internet, much like the Australians are apparently planning to do. Meanwhile, the Home Affairs Select Committee suggests banning happy hours, and the Home Office is gearing up to reclassify cannabis from Class C to Class B. Sure, they've let a few concessions through, such as dropping 42 days, mainly because the House of Lords would never have let it through, and scrapping SATs for 14-year-olds, but they carry merrily on their way with the rest. Meanwhile, we're distracted by witch-hunts, first against television presenters and then social workers.

The government's potential "naming and shaming" of ISPs that don't take down offensive material quickly enough they seems like an excellent idea to me. I'll be the first to join up with any ISP that refuses to give in to government censorship, or the one that comes bottom. Just remember, it's all for the children.

Speaking of which, the clamour surrounding Baby P is still undoubtedly the story of the weekend. First the more thoughtful comment: Freedom from Choice and Five Chinese Crackers both target Littlejohn's take, Janice Turner says that "Lurid images and salacious details distance us from suffering by turning tragedy into a modern penny dreadful",Chris asks some questions, Tom Freemania notes the move from Guardian-bashing to welfare-bashing, Catherine Bennett juxtaposes the Jersey non-murder child's home with Baby P, Deborah Orr warns against a rush to judgement, while Sophie Heawood puts the left-wing case for saying that what surrounded Baby P was wrong. Mike Power, married to a social worker, gives his take in response to a comment of mine:

The Maria Colwell case and its aftermath was extremely significant in a way that the present case and, indeed, Climbie, were not. The problems with Climbie (which have been largely underplayed) were largely to do with extreme management dysfunction, partly caused by serious mental health problems, inexperience, together with cultural relativism and inverted racism. Any experienced senior social work manager could have seen what was wrong and sorted it out in an afternoon had they been allowed to.

Most of Laming does nothing to address those issues and in the view of most experienced child protection specialist Laming hasn't saved and will not save a single life.

The real point here, as I have stated before, is that there simply is no story. This case is a little more horrific than usual (although there have been plenty of nasty deaths since Climbie that have never been reported beyond a short piece in the local paper) and it happened in 'loony left' Haringey. Beyond that there is little to distinguish it from many other child killings that happen (on average once every 10 days). It's a moral panic + political opportunism + classic tabloid tub thumping.

I had to laugh when I heard Brown say he will do 'everything in his power to ensure that another innocent child is not tragically killed'.

Yeah, I thought, maybe in Haringey, but certainly not in Iraq or Afghanistan.

From the other side, Peter Hitchens claims that if Baby P's family was middle-class he would have been taken into care (obviously hasn't read the report which states that there was attempts made to do that but the legal threshold for doing so had not been reached, while PDF mentions the rumours that the mother was privately-educated), Dominic Lawson hilariously combines welfare with feral to make familiar points, and Lorraine Kelly, veteran of the worst tabloid comment piece of the weekend award, claims that Baby P's plight should have been obvious to anyone.

The nastiest stuff of the week on Baby P though comes not from commentators but from the readers themselves. Not satisfied with being told that one of the social workers involved is suicidal, they naturally wish to provide the rope:

What you waiting for, you have a chance unlike that little boy!


well whats stopping you i am sure 99% of the population would buy her a rope you are all a disgrace i bet your children will have a good christmas on the money you earn for doing nothing


There are however a few pleas for reason, including one from someone who claims to know the woman involved:

I know Maria too, she is extremely caring, diligent and competent - how can you judge her without knowing the outcome of any enquiry? Even mass murderers and terrorists get a fair trial. As a social worker myself, I am ready to quit this work where we are 'damned if we do, damned if we don't'. I am not trying in any way to justify or excuse any poor practice, but this witch hunt is an absolute disgrace. What you won't hear no doubt, is about the many children's lives that have been saved or improved by Maria's dedication - the stakes are terribly high in social work but who out there hasn't at some time made a terrible error of judgment - none of you ever injured anyone in a car accident that was your fault? Never made a mistake in a job where you're working 8-7 (no extra pay or time off given or asked for) where every one of your clients is at equally at risk? Shame on you all - I am absolutely devastated at baby P's death but wish his natural father had been as concerned about his beautiful son's welfare during his life as he is now - and wish doctors and police would take more notice of social workers when they express concerns instead of dismissing us as time wasters - believe me, there is more than one side to this absoultely terrible story.

Oh, and there was this:

I think some of you are being a LITTLE harsh! 'Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth' springs to mind. She DOESN'T deserve to die! Sacking, fined, possibly even jailed or whatever but killing herself wont bring Baby P back! This is a horrible case but the main people to blame are the sick horrible disgusting mother and step dad and the other man. The Social Services are partly to blame BUT they were tricked by the mother. Yes they should of done better but death is a bit extreme

Death is a bit extreme.

Away from all of that, Laurie Penny writes of her meeting with the Poppy Project, Chris (again) imagines himself as George Osborne, Justin discovers that Ed Balls doesn't hate the poor after all, the Heresiarch talks Prince Charles and his desire to be defender of all faiths, Paul Linford celebrates the reversal on the Post Office Account and Matt Foot relates how there is no justice for those brutalised in Genoa during the G8 summit back in 2001.

No contest this week in the worst tabloid comment piece of the weekend, although the The Times' blaming of the welfare state came close, with its sister paper scooping the crown for its emotionally pornographic demand for (no) justice editorial.

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Friday, November 14, 2008 

Land of the rising scum.

Martin Kettle in the Groan notes that none of the media bothered to report some interesting other details from a survey which they did use to show that the public doesn't think much of politicians:

The survey asked the public how much they trusted 17 different professions to tell the truth. Top of the list as usual were family doctors, trusted by 94% of the public, followed by headteachers (83%) and judges (82%). Ministers and MPs indeed trailed far behind, trusted by 27% and 26% respectively - as the red-tops were quick to point out. At the very back of the line, though, came another group, tabloid journalists, who were trusted to tell the truth by a miserable 10% of the population. Yet this particular finding has not been published in any newspaper until now.

Even this, though, only scratches the surface of what this striking survey revealed about public attitudes to the media in general and to the tabloids in particular. Tabloid readers, the survey found, are more likely than the readers of broadsheet papers or of no newspapers at all to believe that standards of conduct in public life are low, are getting worse, and to think that the relevant authorities are not upholding the right rules. Given their exposure to the sort of stories quoted above, perhaps this is not exactly surprising.

What may surprise, though, is the scepticism of readers towards tabloids. The survey asked their opinion of the papers. Do they "do a good job of keeping politicians accountable?" Yes, said 43%. What about "help the public to learn about what is happening in politics?" Not so sure. This time only 31% of readers thought they did.

Then the figures become really dire. "Generally fair in their representation of politicians?" Only 13% thought that applied to the tabloids. "Look for any excuse to tarnish the name of politicians?" A massive 90% agreed with that one. "Focus on negative stories about politics and politicians?" Almost the same, 87%. And finally, "more interested in getting a story than telling the truth?" This time an overwhelming 82% of tabloid readers concurred.

These findings are of course wholly unsurprising and completely accurate. Yet as Kettle goes on to point out, only the likes of the Daily Star defend their coverage on the grounds that it's to give their readers a bit of fun in the morning. The others, as Paul Dacre argued on Sunday, with a straight face claim that their "extensive coverage of public affairs is the glue of democracy". He later went on to say that it was the liberal media and in effect its contempt for the popular press which was affecting its standing:

The problem, I would argue tonight, is that this unrelenting and corrosive drip, drip, drip of criticism of the press does huge harm to our standing in the eyes of the politicians, the regulators, the judges, the public and, most pertinently, I suspect, to newspaper sales.

Unless then we accept that the pernicious liberal media, including the BBC that according to Dacre drips poison about the tabloid press roughly every half-hour, has such a hold on the public imagination, including that of tabloid readers themselves to the extent that they think what they read is nonsense and often inflammatory, it appears that the problem is all Dacre's and his friends' own.

Another example of how the tabloid's extensive coverage of public affairs is the glue of democracy is provided by the Sun's continuing campaign over Baby P. Whether this is today's or tomorrow's leader I'm unsure of, but it really is one of the purest examples of using empty, cynical emotion to in effect demand mob rule that's come along for a while:

HIS bright blue eyes stare out at us beseechingly.

But it’s too late. Nothing can bring back Baby P from the tears and agony that marked his last hours on Earth.

What we CAN do is not rest until those who abandoned him to his fate have paid the price.

What we must also do is demand that Baby P’s killers — his evil mother, her sadistic boyfriend and their paedophile lodger — are locked away for so long that they never see the light of day again.

Perhaps instructive in all of this is that while social services are taking all the blame, the others that were involved in Baby P's case are almost all in the background. While it was mentioned yesterday that the HSS did attempt to take Baby P into care - only for the legal advice to come back saying that the threshold for doing so had not been met - the police also had carried out investigations into his mother and whether there were grounds for her to be charged with abuse. The Crown Prosecution Service also decided that there was not enough evidence for them to do so. This is again despite all the apparent signs with hindsight that now look obvious - the numerous injuries, the two hospital visits, etc etc - all of which is being seized upon to call those involved with him idiots, which is probably around the mildest insults thrown their way.

The Sun complains about the ministers shuffling the letters sent by the whistleblower around, when in fact the concerns raised were directed to the proper channel to consider them, the Commission for Social Care Inspection, who despite being a quango in flux as Mark Easton says, did raise them with HSS, where they were satisfied that the allegations made by Nevres Kemal had either been dealt with or were not as serious as she claimed.

Gordon Brown vows he will do everything in his power to stop another tragedy.

That must mean the sacking of Sharon Shoesmith and every social worker and official involved.

So long as these dangerously complacent people remain in their jobs, no child at risk in Haringey is safe.

Look at the face of Baby P and then — if you haven’t already — please fill in our petition below.

But were these people dangerously complacent or did they simply make terrible mistakes that are going to haunt them from now on? Again we have the appeal to the dead child's face, the plea to sign a petition that will do nothing to stop a similar tragedy from happening, and the whipping up of a storm which is already in danger of causing far more damage than is necessary. Much the same is of the opening of this article with the newly released uncensored version of Baby P's face, so over the top and out of kilter with what it actually shows that it strikes you as unreal:

THIS is Baby P.

A gorgeous, blond-haired, blue-eyed tot with a heart-melting smile.

The Sun is today publishing the first picture ever of the little boy who died in the most tragic circumstances.

In this heart-wrenching photo he gazes up at his photographer in search of the love and affection he was so cruelly denied.

The photo was taken by a childminder as Baby P happily toddled around her kitchen.

Except he isn't smiling, he quite clearly isn't looking at the photographer but off into space and it's only heart-wrenching because the writer wants it to be and because the editor is demanding that this is the line to be taken.

It isn't only the tabloids - I turned off This Week last night because Andrew Neil had abandoned all pretence of impartiality in his summary before introducing of all people, Jon Gaunt, currently blaming the Guardianistas and the metropolitan elite which pays his wages, and politicians and bloggers on all sides are now trying to make hay out of the death of a child - but they're the ones that are acting as they always do without any real regard for the lives of those they're interfering with. Thing is, as circulations decline further, as they surely will, the sensationalism we have now is only likely to get worse. With little else to define them from their competition, their stance on matters like this will grow in importance. The real question has to be though if their readers dislike what the papers do so much, why do they keep buying them? Is it masochism? Is it because they've always bought them, or their parents did? Is it for what else they produce other than their politics? Or do they lie to their interviewers? I as usual don't have an answer. Anne Karpf however provides again what maybe the real target ought to be:

Curiously, most of the frenzied debate this week has not been about the perpetrators of these crimes but about those who supposedly could have prevented them - social workers. Consequently, we know far more about child protection services and their deficiencies than we do about what makes women damage and kill their children or stand by while their partners do so. There is a profound reluctance, it seems, to look beyond the final stages of these children's lives, to try to understand how those who bore ultimate responsibility for their care could have turned into those who ended their lives or were complicit in abusing them.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008 

Nick Davies gets it right again.

On the ruling out of any murder at the Haut de la Garenne care-home on Jersey, Nick Davies called it back in May. Perhaps understandably he's rather pleased with himself in tomorrow's Graun.

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How not to learn the lessons of Baby P's death.

If the circumstances of the death of Baby P are all too depressingly familiar, so too has been the reaction to it. While politicians for the most part, excepting yesterday's tawdry antics and an example we shall come to, have sensibly and quite rightly stayed above the fray, the reaction in certain sections of the press is all the less salubrious for both its predictability and its savageness.

The Sun, to focus on but one paper, is demanding the resignation of the five people critically involved, whether they be the head of Haringey's children's services department, Sharon Shoesmith, who has it be must be stated not done herself or her council any favours, the three social workers, and the paediatrician who examined Baby P two days before he died. Whether anything could have been done to save a child that already had a broken back and six broken ribs at that point is impossible to know. Typically, the paper itself is not demanding the sackings; its "readers" are. In his column in the same paper, Kelvin MacKenzie, quite possibly one of the least qualified individuals to comment, demands to know why the baby wasn't taken away at birth from a:

[woman who] came from a family of drunks, never worked and watched porn all day. Her council house — she had to have one, didn’t she? — stank.

Much the same line is pursued tomorrow by Jon Gaunt, a man who himself spent time in care as a child, who variously blames "an unelected and elected Metropolitan elite [who] impose their warped views and social engineering on our country" while additionally "the ultimate responsibility lies with them [Labour] and the Guardianistas they have created in every section of public life."

Such reactions, along with the blaming of the rise of the underclass, the welfare state, social workers, society and everything else in-between are understandable. The natural reaction when something so shocking and apparently preventable happens is to demand for heads to be severed, blame to apportioned and for it to never happen again. Yet the sad roll call of names where much the same has happened before is undeniable both in its power and the lesson that we can never abolish risk, or prevent individuals determined to harm children from being able to do so. From Dennis O'Neil in 1945, to Maria Colwell, Stephen Meurs, John Auckland, Wayne Brewster, Jasmine Beckford, Kimberly Carlile and the most recently notorious case, Victoria Climbié, all the more haunting for the photograph of the smiling, beautiful little girl without an apparent care in the world that always accompanies the reports that mention her. The NSPCC's page of statistics on child homicide notes that the overall rate of child murders has stayed broadly the same since the 70s; things do not appear to be getting worse. However slightly reassuring that is, and it is a reassurance that also means that despite all the advances and countless reviews since then that things have also not got any better, we ought to try to get things into some sort of a perspective.

This is why asking questions like who will resign for Baby P, as the usually admirable Lynne Featherstone does is not the way to go. The Sun puts it even more coldly: "a price must be paid for his life." This is despite no one now being able to resign for Baby P; the chance to save him has gone. Likewise, pretending that resigning or sacking those responsible is in some way going to bring some sort of legacy from his death is similarly doubtful. The result of a witch-hunt, especially against the social workers, is likely to have the opposite effect: more children taken from families into a care system which often does not merit that very name. On the other hand, the system is currently, like with everything else, so heavily loaded with meeting legal requirements set by lawyers that taking a child into care is fraught with difficulty. In Baby P's case, the review notes that on the 25th of July 2007 (PDF, page 4), almost two weeks before he died, social services were advised "that the threshold for initiating care proceedings was not met." This was despite a police investigation into the mother, and two visits to hospital which concluded it was more than possible that his injuries had been the result of abuse. Ed Balls in his statement yesterday spread the blame across the agencies, and the investigation into child safety in Haringey has been implemented as a result.

The best summation I've found of why what has happened will happen again and what ought to be learned and potentially changed to try to prevent it as best we can was from 5 years ago, before the Laming report was released. Dr Chris Hanvey wrote:

As long as we continue, as a society, to have a deep ambiguity about children, seeing them as angels or villains; so long as we refuse to listen to what we already know from research and so long as we refuse to acknowledge that work in child protection is skilled, highly stressful and requires years of experience; until we all take much greater collective and individual responsibility for the safety of vulnerable children within our own communities, we are unlikely to stop the tide.

No blame was implied, no political accusations thrown, no insults levelled at Guardianistas, just how we ought to examine ourselves. Sadly it seems we are doomed to keep repeating these mistakes.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2008 

A real horror show.

Who with any sense whatsoever would be a social worker? Lambasted for taking children away unnecessarily, demonised when inevitable if horrifying mistakes are made, it must surely rank up there with opting to become a traffic warden and refereeing in the least appealing professions available.

It doesn't help of course when politicians, as well as the media and now message board ranters are in effect baying for blood. David Cameron and Gordon Brown may not have been actively calling or in effect justifying violence against those convicted of the shocking abuse of Baby P as some have today, but their use of a dead child not as a political football, but as a political corpse, as others have already justifiably defined it, was not just unedifying, it was a shaming spectacle.

Cameron opened up reasonably enough at PMQ's with asking the prime minister why the head of Haringey social services had been the one that had conducted the internal inquiry into what had gone wrong. This was perfectly fine, and more than valid a question to bring up. He should have known however that Brown was hardly likely to give a straight answer; he never does. Apart from that though decisions were obviously going to be made today on what further measures were to be taken: the inquiry in full had only just landed on the minister's desk this morning, after the trial itself had finished, as Brown explained. Ed Balls, schools and families minister, has since announced that an inquiry to be conducted by Ofsted, the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection and chief inspector of the constabulary will be undertaken into the safeguarding of children in Haringey. This decision presumably had not been finalised at 12pm this afternoon, otherwise Brown would have mentioned it. In the circumstances, although Brown can be accused of not showing the empathy that perhaps his predecessor might have done, it was hardly a snub.

It was then that all hell broke lose and that both sides failed to realise just what the petty back and forth would look like to the wider country. Cameron's anger, first with the lack of an answer after the second question, coupled with barracking from the Labour MPs, led him to repeatedly slamming his finger down, getting the age of the mother involved wrong (she is 27, not 17 as he said) and finally swiping his notes completely off the dispatch box. For someone trying to claim that he's similar to Barack Obama, who throughout his campaign never appeared to lose his cool, it was a poor performance. His anger might well have been righteous, but it was never going to achieve anything.

Brown for his part was not angry, just detached and by comparison apparently uncaring. This actually probably isn't fair; undoubtedly he does care, he just was never going to win in a battle with a far more accomplished empathetic speaker. His cheap jibe though that Cameron was making a party political point was equally unfair; Cameron may be many things, but he was not at that moment doing that. It was only afterwards, with the two men facing off in an interminable battle of who would back down first, with Cameron asking for an apology and failing to get one, that the whole affair became wholly shabby and distasteful.

Parliament at prime minister's questions is of course always a bear-pit, and it always will be. For all Cameron's original claims that he wanted to end Punch and Judy politics, he's never really attempted anything of the kind. Realising that he was not going to get an answer, or at least not one then, Cameron ought to have moved on. Brown for his part should not, despite being prodded by Cameron over his tactics, have suggested that it was party political. Cameron likewise, although perfectly entitled to ask for an apology, should have again let it go. All while this was going on the barracking by MPs on both sides continued; only the speaker, almost pleading, having to intervene 3 times to silence the cat-calling, emerged with any dignity whatsoever. As Simon Hoggart writes, no one intended for it to turn out the way. Once it had however, both sides should have recognised the damage that was done not just to their respective parties and personal images, but to the further image of Westminster itself and apologised for how it had got out of hand. Instead, as Justin notes, MPs scored points and bloggers likewise did, further deciding who had came out the better. The reality was that no one did. We can and must improve upon this.

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The plot thickens over Qatada.

No surprises whatsoever to learn that the leak to the Sun that Abu Qatada was allegedly plotting to flee to Lebanon or the Middle East appears to have emerged directly from the Home Office:

Today, the Special Immigration Appeals Commission was told reports in the News International newspaper on Monday, claiming Qatada planned to flee to the Lebanon, appeared to be based on a briefing from "within government".

Andrew O'Connor, for the Home Office, told the commission the alleged briefing was "unauthorised" and of "great concern" to home secretary Jacqui Smith.

"If, as it appears, much of the report in Monday's edition of the Sun was based on a briefing from within the government that briefing was unauthorised. That report is of real concern and inquiries are being made," O'Connor said.

It doesn't mention that the briefing appears to have extended beyond just the allegation that Qatada was intending to flee, with yesterday's paper claiming that Omar Bakri Muhammad was directly involved in the supposed "plot" to get him out of Britain.

If Bakri's involvement is part of the evidence being used by the government to revoke Qatada's bail, then it is not part of that which was presented in open court. If it makes part of the secret evidence which is yet to be put before the Special Immigration Appeals Commission, then surely that makes the leak of it to the Sun even more serious. On the other hand, it might have been obtained by the Sun of its own volition: their obsession with Bakri Muhammad despite his exile in Lebanon is cheap and frequently nasty, especially when the paper demands that Muslims condemn his opinions as if he was a mainstream Islamic voice or somehow speaking for them.

Regardless of the leak, the evidence put openly against Qatada to justify the revoking of his bail was incredibly weak, with the main claim that a senior al-Qaida leader, Abu Yayha Al Libi, posted a personal message to Qatada on an "extremist website" the most curious. This appears to be a reference to an 8-minute audiotape released by the al-Fajr media group to the jihadist forums back in July, translation with subtitles on Liveleak, just a day after the first images of Qatada going to the shops during his time allowed out of his house were published. CBS News in their analysis of the tape suggested that it could have been a message to Ayman al-Zawahiri or bin Laden himself, but to make it public over the forums seems a strange thing to do, as would they suggestion that they could visit the battlefield to raise the morale amongst the mujahideen, which could potentially be suicidal. Messages between the leaders of al-Qaida have been intercepted in the past, and there's no reason to believe that even with the potential for them to leak that they would start openly issuing messages to each other across the jihadist forums. It's possible then that it was a message meant to be sent to Qatada, although the tape is vague enough to be anywhere near certain, and if so also suggests that his standing within the highest reaches of al-Qaida is undiminished despite the allegations that he served as a double agent prior to his arrest.

Even if we accept that as fact, and that's jumping to conclusions, there's no evidence to suggest that the message had reached Qatada. He is after all banned from using both mobile phones and the internet, and the government is not suggesting that he has breached those rules, or at least not in open court. Whilst the Daily Mail has alleged he was in contact with a "known terrorist" (Yasser Al-Sirri, who although convicted in absentia in Egypt was cleared on another charge by a court in this country, and was involved in attempts to free Ken Bigley before his execution by the forerunner to al-Qaida in Iraq) who was not on the list of those banned from seeing him, it's difficult to believe with all the security surrounding Qatada, with all his visits having to be approved, that the photographs of them both together are anything especially sinister. Qatada's counsel argued that he had known nothing of the message until it was raised yesterday, and the judge, along with the other accusation made in the open against him, that he had breached the terms of his bail by recording a video of him preaching, with his counsel arguing that all it amounted to was a private talk to his children on the importance of Eid, agreed that neither claim was enough to have his bail revoked. The "secret" evidence against him has yet to be heard. One would imagine that it will have to be far more serious and damning than the above for SIAC to agree to the revoking of his bail.

Equally doubtful is that the government will allow him to leave for a third-country, as his solicitor and sympathisers are apparently looking into. Palestine will not be considered an acceptable destination for obvious reasons, and the chances of any country voluntarily offering him sanctuary, especially when the US government can find no takers for Chinese detainees held at Guantanamo Bay and found not guilty of any offence, are slight to say the least. None of this alters the fact that Qatada's continuing effective detention without charge, with few putting much stock in the House of Lords overturning the decision by the appeal court that he cannot be deported back to Jordan to face trial because the evidence against him was obtained via torture, is wholly unacceptable. As said yesterday, the government needs to make a choice: either build a prosecution case against him and face admitting that he was something of an asset to the security services, as Hamza and Bakri both were to certain extents, or introduce intercept evidence which could help in the bringing of that case. Deportation back to Jordan ought to have been the absolute last resort, not the first.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008 

Clarence Mitchell bursts Paul Dacre's bubble.

Notable in Dacre's speech on Sunday was the absence of a mention of the name Madeleine McCann. After all, little Maddie has been undoubtedly the biggest story of the last year, and only since the summer and the apparent evaporation of any remaining leads, alongside the unfortunate legal actions launched against all of the tabloid titles, but especially the Express and Star, has apparent gravy train come to an abrupt halt. He did however praise the brilliance of Fleet Street, while condemning those, especially in the malevolent liberal media, who do so much to do down our superb popular press:

Now, in these difficult times, is the time to celebrate that light.

 For all their many imperfections, British papers – which are full of journalists who work extraordinarily long and difficult hours, often on very low salaries – do a pretty good job, which is why I suspect there is much less corruption in this country than in Europe. In a world of Mandelsons hobnobbing with dubious Russian oligarchs on luxury yachts, Campbells making up dossiers on which we went to war, and of a rampant centralising state that year by year seems intent on eroding basic civil liberties, newspapers are the only brakes on the increasingly arrogant – and, in the case of the EU, unaccountable – behaviour of our ruling classes.


Let’s be proud of our industry. Let’s stop this drip, drip, drip of self-denigration. Stand up for the illumination at the top of the lamp post.

Yesterday Clarence Mitchell, the spokesman for the McCanns, had his say on this "illumination at the top of the lamp post" at the same Society of Editors conference:

"The British press out there in Portugal, and I'm not singling out any particular publication, were - I'm afraid to say this and I don't like to say this because I'm a former journalist myself - they were lazy," he told the conference.


"However, when the British press made inquiries they came up against a stone wall so they resorted to sitting in the local bar, which had the lethal combination of free Wi-Fi and alcohol, and that became the newsroom predictably enough.

"It meant that they then sat every morning just going through whatever had been leaked to the Portuguese papers, 99% of it totally inaccurate lies, 1% I would say distorted or misunderstood through cultural differences in some cases.

"This was then put to me, I would then deny or try to correct it, that would be a quote from me, 'Mitchell's balanced it', that was balanced journalism, and off it went."

We shouldn't however blame these self-same journalists though, as it was, as Mitchell went on, their editors whom were making the demands of them (although kicking the likes of Lori Campbell is surely somewhat deserved):

"I had certain reporters from certain groups almost in tears some mornings saying, 'If you don't give me a front-page splash by 4pm I'm going to be fired," he added.

"I can understand the pressure they are under but when I said 'I can't help you, we honestly haven't got anything of value or anything to warrant that coverage' nevertheless a front page would then duly appear in certain titles."

Mitchell added: "Things that were allegations or suggestions in the Portuguese press were hardened up into absolute fact when they crossed the Channel."

Undoubtedly Mitchell is referring primarily to the Express, which had decided that Madeleine should be the front page story regardless of other news or whether there had been any developments, but the demands being made of hacks was undoubtedly much the same across the "popular" press.

The reason why Dacre dared not mention the McCanns is because the tabloid coverage of her disappearance was a masterclass in what journalism should not be, but what Dacre believes sells: empty, soulless emotional pornography, crass xenophobia, rampant ignorance, offset by leaping to conclusions on the slightest of new information, casual pointing of the finger of blame, and depending on your publication, either knee-jerk defence of the McCanns or equally knee-jerk accusations that they were fully responsible, all due to the fact that they knew this stuff was selling, with very little care, except for the McCanns themselves in some quarters, for what this coverage was doing to real lives and real people. The legal payouts have been chicken-feed to what they most likely made, not necessarily in putting on sales, but in ensuring that the sales stayed mostly on the same level as the year before, which in the current conditions is a major success. And they still honestly try to claim that they have ethics, or morals, or that unelected, unrepresentative judges are more of a threat than they are.

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Man disguised as bird nest attempts escape, news at 11...

It's hard to take seriously the idea that Abu Qatada was somewhere even close to slipping his onerous bail conditions and fleeing to the Middle East, possibly Lebanon. Under his 22-hour a day curfew, he must have been one of the most watched individuals in the country, with doubtless if not MI5 sitting outside his door watching his every move, some similar poor sod from what was Special Branch or the Met doing exactly the same. He wasn't like the individuals on control orders who successfully fled, who were apparently so poorly monitored that it's tempting to suggest that they weren't considered that much of a threat; he is now, with Hamza in Belmarsh and likely to be deported to the United States to serve out the rest of his days in one of their living hell prison facilities, the most well-known and supposedly dangerous Islamic extremist in the country. Losing him would have been unthinkable.

Similarly unthinkable is the supposed idea that Omar Bakri Muhammad was the "mastermind" behind the endeavour. It's interesting of course that both Qatada's re-arrest and now Bakri's role have been leaked to the Sun, the paper which has done the most to exaggerate and overplay the terrorist threat whilst supporting measures such as 90-days detention without charge, around the only newspaper that did so. Views differ massively on Bakri: some agree with his own claim that he's a harmless clown, a loudmouth with only a tiny and dwindling band of supporters, not helped by the revelations in of course, the Sun, that his daughter is a poll dancer with plastic tits paid for by Bakri himself, while others believe that his sects and cells, if successfully closed down, would destroy the majority of the threat overnight. As with most opposing views, the reality is probably somewhere down the middle. Bakri is the almost cuddly jihadist who can be relied upon to make a fool of himself whilst the attention given to him furthers the impression that many Muslims hold similar views, but his groups and followers have in some cases moved on from words into deeds.

The Sun claims that Bakri, in an audio recording you would have to suspect was intercepted by the security services or at least passed on to them, said:

"There are two ways to help (Qatada). One is maybe try to help him against the kuffar (non-believer) to remove all these restrictions. Or by smuggling him outside the country if you can find a way.”

“Try to help him financially or socially – whatever way you can.”

It wouldn't be surprising if this was as far as the supposed plot to get Qatada out of the country might have went. After all, Qatada's release on bail, even on such restrictive conditions, was a huge embarrassment to the government. We still don't have any idea just why Qatada can't be prosecuted when there is such a copious amount of material available on him that could be used against him; additionally, like with Hamza and Bakri, we also just don't know how far security service involvement with him personally went. Allegations have been openly made that Qatada was a double agent, hence perhaps why we have been so determined to deport him and be rid of rather than chance the possibility of such evidence coming out in our rather more transparent justice system than Jordan's equivalent.

In reality, Qatada's sending back to prison solves absolutely nothing except removing the embarrassment of more photographs appearing in the tabloids of Qatada merrily going out to the shop to buy kitchen roll and Diet Coke. It keeps him out of the public eye, but the chances of the House of Lords overturning the Court of Appeal's ruling that he can't be sent to Jordan to stand trial because the evidence against him is tainted by torture are minuscule at best, as they should be. He can't be kept locked indefinitely forever, however much that would be what both the government and the security services would like; either they need to come clean over his role prior to the breaking down of the unwritten covenant where he and other extremist preachers were allowed free reign as long as Britain itself was not a target, or they need to introduce intercept evidence which would help in the bringing of a prosecution. However vile a person is, or how reprehensible their views are, keeping them either in prison without charge or under a control order without charge indefinitely is just as offensive as the possibility of his escape. A decision one way or the other has got to be made.

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Monday, November 10, 2008 

The Daily Mail in the flesh.

Andrew Neil once wrote that if you want to know what Rupert Murdoch thinks, you should read the Sun's editorials. Not the Times', the Sun's; Rupert doesn't really do subtlety. It's much the same with Paul Dacre. The Daily Mail after all couldn't really be a person writ large, could it? There's too many contradictions, too much foaming hatred, so much casual cynicism combined with values that went out with rationing. No one could be like that, could they?

Dacre's latest extended utterances prove drastically otherwise. Having previously, and somewhat hilariously, delivered the Cudlipp lecture, the late great editor that Dacre doesn't deserve to even lick the boots of, railing against the "subsidariat" and the BBC, he was given the lectern at the Society of Editors bash. Clocking in at just over 7,500 words, it covers more or less everything that Dacre and by extension the Daily Mail loathes. First though he goes through what originally inspired him:

Hugh Cudlipp’s “Publish and Be Damned”, and Arthur Christiansen’s “Headlines All My Life” were my much-thumbed bibles. All those glorious memoirs by James Cameron, that brilliant reporter, were my text books.

And yet you still turned into the man you are today.

Before we've even got anywhere, he's straight in with the out and out bullshit:

I am, however, delighted, over the years, to have made my own small contribution to the chattering classes’ dyspepsia with the Rothermere press – but then no day is too busy or too short not to find time to tweak the noses of the liberalocracy which effectively run Britain.

Ah yes, the "liberalocracy" which effectively runs Britain. Fact of the matter is, like with Murdoch, no government could ever be right-wing enough to satisfy Dacre or the Mail, just as there'll probably never be a government left-wing enough to satisfy me.

How Dacre became the man he is today:

At university, I edited the student newspaper. I’m afraid I took a product that looked like the then Times on Prozac and turned it into a raucous version of Cudlipp’s Mirror complete, I shudder to admit, with Page 3 girl students whom I dubbed “Leeds Lovelies”. 

We mounted an undercover investigation, complete with photographers, into seemingly respectable pubs that were putting on strip shows. Family entertainment it wasn’t.

His hypocrisy then was already fully in action. Leeds Lovelies on one page, investigation into strippers doing the same thing on the next. Brilliant!

Open sentimental twaddle about the old Sunday Express follows:

So what was the editorial formula identified originally by the brilliant Scottish editor John Gordon and followed with ruthless will by John Junor? Firstly, the paper never, ever, forgot who its readers were and what interested them and their families. Secondly, it told everything through the prism of people. 

Page 3 of the Sunday Express said it all. The lead article under the title “Meeting People” was an interview - not with the kind of half-baked trollop who passes as a celebrity these days, but with, say, the mother of a newly chosen British Nobel Prize winner.

 Next to it was a large cartoon by Giles whose genius for clean, gloriously warm family humour is matched today only by the Mail’s magnificent Mac. Why this genre of cartooning - which combines superb draftsmanship with a timeless universal humour that often contains great truths - is dying out is a subject for another speech. Anyway, underneath was the “You the Lawyer” column addressing the problems of every day life such as fencing disputes and dog bites. What paper today would have such a low-key, non-newsy page 3. Yet all human life was on that page.

All human life, as long as it was suitably middle class, obviously.

Skipping a whole load of nonsense about the good ol' days, how columnists these days don't know their born, how it's all the fault of the state and some justified poking at Richard Desmond, he gets to the start of his main points.

Donning my hat as Chairman of the PCC’s Editors’ Code Committee, I would like to talk to you a little about where we are on regulation and press freedom issues. 

About 18 months ago, I, Les Hinton of News International and Murdoch MacLennan of the Telegraph, had dinner with the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

How very cosy. Ignoring the first two concerns he raised, which were reasonably noble, it's his last two which are the interesting ones:

Thirdly, there were the very serious financial implications for newspapers of the Conditional Fee Arrangement, the no win, no fee legislation. Introduced as a well-intentioned measure to help the poor have access to the courts, it was being ruthlessly exploited by unscrupulous lawyers who were ramping up their costs in media cases. Publishers were being faced with huge bills, sometimes running into millions, to defend even the most simple, clear-cut cases.

 Costs in CFA cases, as many of you here know, can be almost infinite with lawyers entitled to “success fees” of up to 100% on top of their actual bills. This gives them a positive financial incentive to take relatively straight-forward cases, worth just a few thousand pounds, and run them as long as possible. Adding insult to injury, CFA claimants can take out very expensive ATE (after the event) insurance policies to protect themselves against costs. If they win, the paper has to pay the claimant’s premium, but if they lose - and this is the cynicism of it all – the insurer rarely enforces the charges because the claimant invariably cannot afford to pay. 

Let me give you an example: Martyn Jones, an utterly inconsequential MP, sued the Mail on Sunday over their claim that he had sworn at a Commons official. The Mail on Sunday believed it had rock-solid witnesses and decided to fight the case. In the event, they lost and were ordered to pay £5,000 in damages. The MP’s lawyers claimed costs of £388,000 – solicitor’s costs of £68,000, plus 100% success fees, barrister’s costs of £63,000, plus 100% success fees, VAT and libel insurance of £68,000. Associated’s costs were £136,000 making a total of £520,000 costs in a case that awarded damages of just £5,000 in a dispute over a simple matter of fact.

 Can it really be right for a QC in a libel case to be paid £7,000 for a day in court whilst the same QC, prosecuting or defending a serious case at the Old Bailey, may receive less than £600 a day – less than a tenth?

Perhaps predictably, Dacre leaves some crucial facts out of this recounting of the libel case involving Jones. The trial was held in front of a jury, although Justice Eady was the judge in charge, and it reached a majority verdict in favour of Jones. The Mail on Sunday claimed that he had told a House of Commons security guard to "fuck off"; Jones claimed that he had in fact said to the security guard that "I don't give a shit what you are, you should know who MPs are." The jury sided with Jones, and presumably also with the claim from Jones's lawyers that there were "at least a dozen untrue assertions" made which had been "cranked up, spiced up and sexed up" so that it became a "grotesque distortion" of what really happened. Perhaps if the MoS had settled it might not have had to pay such costs, hmm? In any event, what Dacre is describing is extraordinarily rare. As has been well documented, only the rich and famous can usually afford to bring libel cases, with there being very few law firms that will contest cases on a no-win no-fee basis. Jones was lucky; the MoS was not. Boo hoo, isn't the world awful?

The result is that today, newspapers – even wealthy ones like the Mail – think long and hard before contesting actions, even if they know they are in the right, for fear of the ruinous financial implications. For the provincial and local press, such actions are now out of the question. Instead, they stump up some cash, money they can’t afford, to settle as quickly as possible, to avoid court actions – which, if they were to lose, could, in some case, close them. Some justice!

Dacre wilfully exaggerates. Even costs of £520,000 to the Mail group are relative peanuts, and that was about as most extreme a case as you can imagine. The reality is that most who think they have been treated unfairly go to the Press Complaints Commission - where their treatment is often not much better.

The fourth issue we raised with Gordon Brown was a truly frightening amendment to the Data Protection Act, winding its way through Parliament, under which journalists faced being jailed for two years for illicitly obtaining personal information such as ex-directory telephone numbers or an individual’s gas bills or medical records. This legislation would have made Britain the only country in the free world to jail journalists and could have had a considerable chilling effect on good journalism.

 The Prime Minister – I don’t think it is breaking confidences to reveal – was hugely sympathetic to the industry’s case and promised to do what he could to help.

 Over the coming months and battles ahead, Mr Brown was totally true to his word. Whatever our individual newspapers’ views are of the Prime Minister – and the Mail is pretty tough on him - we should, as an industry, acknowledge that, to date, he has been a great friend of press freedom. 

Again, Dacre exaggerates completely. The amendment to the DPA was to stop the sale to journalists via private detectives of information obtained from companies' and sometimes government databases. This information was and is hardly ever, if ever, used to uncover genuine scandals, and even if it was, the journalists in those cases would be protected as usual under a public interest defence. What the DPA amendment would have helped put a lid on was the casual obtaining of information on anyone who crosses the media, almost always either celebrities or those accused of crimes outside the realm of the political sphere. At the trial of Stephen Whittamore, the prosecution alleged that some of the material they delivered to journalists was on two actresses then in EastEnders, the family of Ricky Tomlinson, and a former Big Brother contestant. Quite a chilling effect the amendment would have had on good journalism, I'm sure you'll agree.

In any event, the government quickly backed down, especially in the face of private lobbying by Dacre, Hinton and MacLennan, as Dacre goes on to boast:

Thirdly, there is to be action on the “scandalous” greed of CFA lawyers. That adjective is not mine, by the way, but Justice Minister’s Jack Straw’s in a recent speech on the subject. For following Number 10’s intervention all those months ago, there have been many constructive meetings between the industry and the Ministry of Justice on what to do about CFA.

A few weeks ago, I, Rebekah Wade and Murdoch MacLennan saw Jack Straw who assured us that, in the next few months, he is set to unveil proposals to reform CFA, including capping lawyers’ fees.


It was agreed that the Data Protection Act should be amended so that journalists would have the right to seek out protected information if they had a “reasonable belief” that their actions were in the public interest.

 And, more pertinently, the Act was amended so that the jailing clause cannot now be implemented unless the Secretary of State seeks approval from Parliament to activate it.

That they already had that "reasonable belief" obviously didn't matter. With the jailing clause unimplemented, the industry can carry on in exactly the way it was doing before.

So that is where we are. The industry has been warned. We must make sure our house in order. Under the auspices of PressBoF, we have produced a guidance note on DPA that has been sent to every paper in Britain. Now it is up to all of us to ensure that our journalists are complying with the Act. At Associated, we are holding seminars on the subject and have written compliance with the Act into our employment contracts. 

At the Editors Code Committee, we are considering whether the current provisions of the Code on data protection and our Guidance Notes, as well as the wording in the Editor’s Codebook, can be strengthened.

Why is it that I don't believe a single word of this? Probably because it was the Mail itself, without even including the MoS, that made the most use of Whittamore, with over 952 transactions. Dacre must have known and sanctioned every single one of them, and then he is one of those responsible for updating the current PCC code! The same newspaper which rages against misuse of government data and the loss of it broke the law in numerous instances and has got away with it. No wonder Dacre is so triumphant.

The parts on Justice Eady now come into view:

But there is one remaining threat to press freedom that I suspect may prove far more dangerous to our industry than all the issues I have just discussed.

 Put to one side the United Nations’ recent attack on Britain’s disgracefully repressive libel laws that have made London the libel capital of the world – something that should be a bitter source of shame for our judicial system. Concentrate instead on how inexorably, and insidiously, the British Press is having a privacy law imposed on it, which – apart from allowing the corrupt and the crooked to sleep easily in their beds – is, I would argue, undermining the ability of mass-circulation newspapers to sell newspapers in an ever more difficult market.

Here then is Dacre's thesis. He doesn't really care, when it comes down to it, about who he and his friends in the media expose in three-in-a-bed sex romps; what he cares about is that the exposing of the rich and the famous is in his view what makes people buy newspapers. Without it, the industry will be further damaged, and the state will have to step in. To suggest this is nonsense would be to give it too much respect: it is crap of the highest order. The Sunday tabloid press, which delivers the scandals and the sex in spades, is already falling of a cliff circulation wise. By contrast, the broadsheets, both daily and weekly are holding up fairly well. The tabloids have to face up to the fact that their readers are increasingly being lost to the internet, where no holes whatsoever are barred. The broadsheets on the other hand are doing OK because they rely on their quality: something which the tabloids simply do not provide, and that includes Dacre's paper, which most agree is the best tabloid regardless of the politics. Would a privacy law further heighten the drops? Probably, but it probably wouldn't make much difference.

In any event, we are not having a privacy law developed in front of our eyes - yet. That might depend on the verdict in the upcoming trial involving Sienna Miller and the Big Pictures photo agency. Just to emphasise how the tabloids don't learn, the Sun and News of the World today settled with her over the publication of nude photographs, awarding £35,000 plus costs, or a pittance as it is to News Corp. Miller has been serially offended against: the Star paid her £15,000 in September over similar photographs and the Sun and News of the World paid her £37,500 last December over, you guessed it, naked photographs. Some will hardly be predisposed to Miller because of her alleged behaviour, but surely the right not to be effectively stalked by paparazzi to the extent where you fear for your life, which is what Miller has been, is one which the law should recognise.

This law is not coming from Parliament – no, that would smack of democracy – but from the arrogant and amoral judgements – words I use very deliberately – of one man. 

I am referring, of course, to Justice David Eady who has, again and again, under the privacy clause of the Human Rights Act, found against newspapers and their age-old freedom to expose the moral shortcomings of those in high places. 

Two cases in particular underline this threat. 

Two years ago, Justice Eady ruled that a cuckolded husband couldn’t sell his story to the press about another married man – a wealthy sporting celebrity – who had seduced his wife. 

The judge was worried about the effect of the revelations on the celebrity’s wife. Now I agree that any distress caused to innocent parties is regrettable but exactly the same worries could be expressed about the relatives of any individual who transgressed which, if followed to its logical conclusion, would mean that nobody could be condemned for wrongdoing. 

But the judge – in an unashamed reversal of centuries of moral and social thinking – placed the rights of the adulterer above society’s age-old belief that adultery should be condemned.

Because Dacre cannot dispute Eady's rulings in a legal sense, he instead turns to morals to try to traduce him. The problem with this is obvious - the country has moved on. Unless hypocrisy is involved, or those involved are mega famous, no one really cares any more. We still disapprove of adultery, but we don't think those involved should be shamed just because they're famous. Dacre however thinks this is exactly the way it should be, that shame is what newspapers are meant to provide, but it isn't. They're supposed to inform, educate, and entertain. Shaming celebrities does none of those things.

The other problem is that the Mail is hypocrisy on stilts itself. The paper is wholly immoral - it thinks nothing of accusing innocent people of terrible crimes with no evidence, such as Robert Murat, who unsurprisingly doesn't warrant a mention in this speech, not to mention Colin Stagg. While it defended the McCanns to the hilt, because they were "its people", the second that Fiona MacKeown came to public attention in a similar plight she was smeared, her home broken into and pictures taken of her dead daughter's bedroom, and attacked by the same columnists who cried fake tears of sympathy for Kate McCann. It ran the most vicious and mendacious campaign possible against the MMR vaccine, now responsible for increased cases of measles up and down the country. It breaks the law with impunity, as we have seen. And then it imagines that it has the right to deliver lectures on what is and what is not moral, as Dacre goes on to do:

Recently, of course, the very same Justice Eady effectively ruled that it’s perfectly acceptable for the multi-millionaire head of a multi-billion sport that is followed by countless young people to pay five women £2,500 to take part in acts of unimaginable sexual depravity with him. 

The judge found for Max Mosley because he had not engaged in a “sick Nazi orgy” as the News of the World contested, though for the life of me that seems an almost surreally pedantic logic as some of the participants were dressed in military-style uniform. Mosley was issuing commands in German while one prostitute pretended to pick lice from his hair, a second fellated him and a third caned his backside until blood was drawn. 

Now most people would consider such activities to be perverted, depraved, the very abrogation of civilised behaviour of which the law is supposed to be the safeguard. Not Justice Eady. To him such behaviour was merely “unconventional”. 

Nor in his mind was there anything wrong in a man of such wealth using his money to exploit women in this way. Would he feel the same way, I wonder, if one of those women had been his wife or daughter? 

But what is most worrying about Justice Eady’s decisions is that he is ruling that - when it comes to morality - the law in Britain is now effectively neutral, which is why I accuse him, in his judgments, of being “amoral".

Dacre then is the only one who can decide what is and what is not moral. The whole point of the Mosley case was that the News of the World claimed it was a Nazi orgy; it was not, as Eady painstakingly pointed out. If it had been a Nazi orgy, the News of the World would have had a public interest defence; it wasn't, so it didn't. Fact is, Dacre thinks that what goes on in other people's bedrooms is his business; it isn't, and it is no business of the government's either. If Dacre really thinks that some mild BSDM is "unimaginable sexual depravity" he has a very very poor imagination. As for his comments about the way Mosley "exploited" the women who were more than willing to take part and who subsequently testified for his defence, with him suggesting that Eady might have been more concerned if they had included a daughter or his wife, that says far more about Dacre's own insecurity than it does about anything else.

In the sporting celebrity case, he rejected the idea that adultery was a proper cause for public condemnation. 

Instead, he declared that because family breakdown was now commonplace, there was a strong argument for “not holding forth about adultery” or, in other words, attaching no greater inherent worth to marriage than to any other lifestyle choice. 

Thus no moral delineation was to be made between marriage and those who would destroy it, between victim and victimiser, between right and wrong.

We're talking about three people's private affairs here, not the breakdown of society as we know it. One person's infidelity is not about to bring this country down; Dacre's sophistry has to be seen to be believed.

In the Mosley case, the judge is ruling that there is no public interest in revealing a public figure’s involvement in acts of depravity.

 What the judge loftily calls the “new rights-based jurisprudence” of the Human Rights Act seems to be ruling out any such thing as public standards of morality and decency, and the right of newspapers to report on digressions from those standards.

Except Mosley was not a public figure. He was not a hypocrite. He was just someone who the News of the Screws could make money out of. They couldn't care about the morals involved, as you'd expect; that was the excuse, just as it is here with Dacre. Or perhaps it isn't; maybe he really cares about morals whilst being completely immoral himself.

But most worrying is that when it comes to suppressing media freedom, the good Justice Eady is seemingly ubiquitous.... 

It was he who was going to preside in Tesco’s libel case against the Guardian, which was, in the event, recently settled out of court. 

It was the same Justice Eady who, in Lord Browne versus the Mail on Sunday, ruled that BP’s shareholders had the right to know that Browne had lied to the court – but did not have the right to know details of his conversations with his boyfriend, despite the paper’s case that they had serious public-interest implications. 

Again, it was Eady who found in favour of a Canadian folk singer called Loreena McKennitt, who had objected to the publication of a book about her by a former adviser, Niema Ash. Ms McKennitt did not claim that the book was in any way untrue, merely that it infringed her right to privacy. Never mind Ms Ash’s right to freedom of expression.

Except Eady was more than fair to the Guardian, despite his reputation. Browne's case is difficult, but in the main he came down on the side of the media. In the case of McKennitt, Eady's original ruling was then backed by both the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords. Hardly all the blame can be placed on his shoulders in that instance.

And it is Eady who, almost unnoticed here, has the distinction of having provoked the US Congress – in what’s dubbed the Libel Tourism Bill – to consider making English libel judgments unenforceable in America. This follows the judge’s decision to allow a Saudi banker to sue a New York author in the London courts even though she hadn’t published her book in Britain. Not for the first time, it seems that our colonial cousins can teach us a thing or two. 

But surely the greatest scandal is that while London boasts scores of eminent judges, one man is given a virtual monopoly of all cases against the media enabling him to bring in a privacy law by the back door.

Dacre makes about his only salient point here. This was a disgraceful decision by Eady, but is all about our libel laws, not the unwritten laws on privacy. The best course of action would be a re-writing of both: removing only the rich and famous from being able to sue for libel, whilst ensuring London cannot be used to silence critics worldwide, whilst protecting individual privacy against press intrusion. Neither though is about to happen, as, although newspapers complain about both, for the most part they are thoroughly happy with the situation. Their belief in freedom only extends as far as their wallets.

English Common Law is the collective wisdom of many different judges over the ages. The freedom of the press, I would argue, is far too important to be left to the somewhat desiccated values of a single judge who clearly has an animus against the popular press and the right of people to freedom of expression.

This is another fair enough point, but it's not as if Eady is purely making it up as he's going along: he's drawing extensively on past rulings and interpreting Articles 8 and 10 of the HRA; if he wasn't, he would be subject to far more criticism than just from those concerned with libel tourism and tabloid editors.

I personally would rather have never heard of Max Mosley and the squalid purgatory he inhabits. It is the others I care about: the crooks, the liars, the cheats, the rich and the corrupt sheltering behind a law of privacy being created by an unaccountable judge. 

If Gordon Brown wanted to force a privacy law, he would have to set out a bill, arguing his case in both Houses of Parliament, withstand public scrutiny and win a series of votes. Now, thanks to the wretched Human Rights Act, one Judge with a subjective and highly relativist moral sense can do the same with a stroke of his pen. 

All of those adjectives, apart from corrupt, could be applied to Dacre just as much as they could those he attacks. He describes what Gordon Brown would have to go through, but he doesn't mention another trial he'd have to pass: the opprobrium of the media, and that is not covered by public scrutiny. Put simply, the unaccountable media with all its power would not accept it, and they would ensure it would never pass, even though their actions have led to its effective creation. Here exposed then is why the likes of the Mail and Sun so hate the HRA; not because it's a criminals' or terrorists' charter, but because it directly affects their business models. They have to remember that the HRA was passed by parliament, that they had the opportunity to oppose it then and failed, and that it was the HRA that has helped to establish the Reynolds defence.

All this has huge implications for newspapers and, I would argue, for society. Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour, helping ensure that citizens – rich and poor – adhere to them for the good of the greater community. For hundreds of years, the press has played a role in that process. It has the freedom to identify those who have offended public standards of decency – the very standards its readers believe in – and hold the transgressors up to public condemnation. If their readers don’t agree with the defence of such values, they would not buy those papers in such huge numbers.

This may as well be Dacre's justification for the witch-hunt against Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. It doesn't matter that the Mail has its own individual view of what public standards of decency are, as long as people keep buying the papers that justifies support. This is abject nonsense - people buy the newspaper they do for numerous reasons, not just for its political or moral outlook. This is simply the fig-leaf which those who think they have a right to decide what's right and what's wrong cover themselves with.

Put another way, if mass-circulation newspapers, which, of course, also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.

This is nothing more than blackmail covered with eye-watering cynicism. The same person who goes on to lionise the press and how wonderful it is is here suggesting that the gutter press needs scandal to survive. Nice little free press you've got here, be a shame if something was to happen to it. The proles need scandal, whilst we provide them with the finest news coverage in the world at the same time. What isn't there to like?!

Now some revile a moralising media. Others, such as myself, believe it is the duty of the media to take an ethical stand.

Did Paul Dacre just claim to have ethics? No, seriously, Dacre's taking an ethical stand? If he ever genuinely did, the ethics would snap beneath him in an instant. Not satisfied with descending into parody, Dacre then further suggests just how completely mad he is:

Why does not half an hour go by that the high priests of the subsidariat, the BBC, can’t resist a snide reference to the popular press, again blissfully oblivious that all too often they are following agendas set by those very popular newspapers whose readers pay their salaries.

Yes Paul, the BBC is always sneering at the "popular press". Please, keep taking the medicine.

He warms to this further theme by attacking Flat Earth News and Nick Davies without so much as mentioning the name of either:

Again, blissfully oblivious to the need for self-criticism of their own papers – the sine qua non of such pages is, by and large, that the liberal media can do little wrong while the large-circulation press is invariably scurrilous, malign and beyond all salvation. 

There was, of course, that recent book that savaged the behaviour of virtually every national newspaper. The book, which began with a presumption of guilt, was itself a pretty sloppy piece of journalism, full of half-truths, anonymous sources, gossip and urban myths presented as facts, and the very selective reporting that it accused papers of employing. And heaven forbid that its author should have observed the basic journalistic nicety of checking those facts with the parties concerned.

Could it possibly be because the liberal media is that which is also the least complained about, the least likely to have to settle damages out of court, and the least likely to be taken to court, and when it is, it's also more likely to win, as the Guardian did twice during the 90s? The tabloid press meanwhile continues to show itself invariably up as it is, as during the Mosley trial: unaccountable, lazy, disreputable, and downright nasty. It would be nice also if Dacre bothered to bring up examples of just where Davies was wrong in Flat Earth News, although I suspect it's because the book dedicated a whole chapter to the Mail, whilst the Mail itself has mentioned it twice, and that was prior to actual publication, even while the "liberal" press which he so disdains discussed and argued about its findings at some length. Half of this is because the tabloid press presents itself as infallible; the broadsheet media does not.

Fair enough. Newspapers should be constantly criticised. If you dish it, you should take it with bells on. The problem, I would argue tonight, is that this unrelenting and corrosive drip, drip, drip of criticism of the press does huge harm to our standing in the eyes of the politicians, the regulators, the judges, the public and, most pertinently, I suspect, to newspaper sales.

 In good times, such a poisoning of the well is unhelpful, to say the least. Today, with large parts of our industry fighting to stay alive, it is damnably, unforgivably and depressingly damaging. 

I am not a Jeremiah. I passionately believe that Britain has the best newspapers in the world and – indeed, our papers today are as good as they’ve ever been. Nostalgia be damned.

Gosh, anyone feel deja vu after Hazel Blears' similar rave last week? It couldn't be that the tabloid press gets everything it deserves could it, when it demands accountability at the BBC over authorised comedy pranks and then no one resigns when dozens of stories about Robert Murat result in huge payouts? In Dacre's eyes though there's nothing wrong with it, and after all, who are we to argue? He's the Daily Mail in the flesh, and the Daily Mail can never be wrong.

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In the shitter with Gary Glitter.

Paedophiles, as we know, are the incarnation of evil. Where once murderers and rapists could be satisfied that their crimes were the ones that would guarantee them the most exposure in the following morning's press, the condemnation and public fury descending firmly down onto their shoulders, these days they have to share the mantle with closeted onanists being prosecuted for downloading images of child abuse, not to mention the cuddly neighbourhood jihadists, who can be relied upon for providing something for the average person to get angry about on a slow news day.

The dream then for the tabloid press is when fame meets underage sex. In the 90s we had OJ Simpson, who despite being acquitted of murdering his wife and her friend has not worked since and is now in the slammer on a separate offence. Michael Jackson then upped the ante, but was also acquitted, with his career also stalling as a result. Gary Glitter, or Paul Gadd, as he was born, has instead broken the mould: not just was he convicted of possessing child pornography, he then took the classic, almost cliched child abuser pilgrimage to Thailand, via Cambodia, where he was swiftly convicted of sharing his bed with two children. Forced to return to the United Kingdom, he will now almost certainly be held in reserve, much like Omar Bakri Muhammad is, for when the Sun doesn't have much news and needs something to fire up its base.

It turns out then that those jokers over at the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance had set as part of GCSE music coursework the task of "composing a song that relies on tempo and/or style for its effect." The paper recommended some songs that the student could listen to for inspiration: alongside Freddie and the Dreamers, Queen, Gloria Gaynor, Dexy's Midnight Runners and Meatloaf, there's Mr Gadd himself, with "I'm the leader of the gang (I am)". Perhaps not the most astute choice in the circumstances, but not one surely that warrants such frothing outrage. It's not as if the paper had offered Glitter's song as the only example of what was required, after all; and as far as tempo and/or style goes, it's hard not to admit that Glitter knew how to use both, even if the music was far from original or that anyone would now listen to it outside of a wave of nostalgia.

You could also accept that recommending one of Glitter's songs as an example increases the possibility of him receiving extra royalties, and no one likes the idea of a unrepentant paedophile receiving funds from the general public. That though really ought to be as far as it goes. We don't ostracize the likes of Roman Polanski, despite his conviction for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old, although the fact that he was both a survivor of the Holocaust and had his first wife murdered by the Manson family does mean he's a far more sympathetic character, or boycott his films. We don't regard Nabakov as unacceptable or his novel Lolita as obscene because of its content, and we don't campaign against the use of Wagner's music, despite his anti-semitism and subsequent appropriation by the Nazis. Phil Spector, if eventually convicted of murder, seems unlikely to have his work blacklisted either. Why then does the "recommending" of Glitter's music to anyone inspire such revulsion and irrationality?

He said: “He’s a convicted paedophile jailed for sexually abusing kids. It’s completely inappropriate to recommend him as listening material.

“Boys and girls of 15 or 16 who select this song will go straight to the internet to find Glitter’s music. I dread to think what they may find searching online for him.”

Err, his music, plenty of jokes about him and information involving his convictions, perhaps? Searching for Glitter isn't suddenly going to lead to a treasure trove of category five child pornography, and besides, we're talking about 15 or 16-year-olds here. If they don't already know about Gadd and his record then they must have lived on another planet.

The Deputy Head, who asked not to be named in case his daughter is penalised in the exam, added: “A national exam board should have the basic common sense not to recommend past works of a paedophile to teenagers.”

There goes Polanski then. Like with homosexuality, we don't know for obvious reasons how many past authors or artists we now treasure may have been sexually attracted to children: allegations have been made for example against J.M. Barrie, although nothing has ever been proved in that case, as well as Lewis Carroll. Why though should what someone did ever affect what they also produced, or rule it out as suitable material to be studied? Why for instance should Chris Langham be ostracised or ridiculed from ever acting again because of his conviction for possession of child pornography? It's as if we've decided abitrarily what offences are unforgivable, or rather, some in the media have, and those that have made mistakes have no possibility of making amends.

But Dr Michele Elliot – director of children’s charity Kidscape – insisted the papers be reissued.

She said: “AQA need to get Glitter off there. It sends totally the wrong message to paedophiles’ victims. Thousands of children take this exam. If they buy his song it could be a nice earner for him.

“One way to show we dislike his abuse of children is to cut off the money he lives on. It’s in the hands of AQA to do that.”

The idea that kids are going to go out there and instantly buy his stuff because a GCSE paper recommends they do is nonsense. Our history teacher recommended we read Mein Kampf, which we respectively declined to do. What they might do is go and search and see if they can get the song for free from somewhere, or even more likely, go and search YouTube for it. Failing that, they might ask their parents if they have compilation CDs with some of his stuff on it. How also is presenting one of Glitter's songs as an example for how to construct their own sending "totally the wrong message to paedophiles' victims"?

Anti-child abuse campaigners Shy Keenan and Sara Payne called use of Glitter’s song “disgusting”.

They said in a statement: “This stonking great child molester should crawl back under the rock he came from, not be celebrated for his music. We’ll campaign to have any reference to him taken out.”

No one's celebrating his music; it's being used as an example for one piece of coursework. Do you people have problems with comprehension?

You'd be forgiven then for thinking that listening to one of Glitter's songs would be enough for the average child to be overcome by the paedo-waves, turning them more susceptible in just 3 minutes. The reaction and the Sun's part in it any event swiftly resulted, predictably, in AQA removing the song from the paper, something that will doubtless cost them a ridiculous amount of money to erase a non-mistake because a few jumped-up self-righteous morons imagine that we'd be better off if we could throw some people and some of their work straight down the memory hole. Remember, this isn't the British Isles, it's the paedoph-isles. Or something.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008 

Weekend links.

Perhaps it's the exhaustion from the over exertion during the week, but the comment this weekend seems a little thin.

Not so thin though that Obama's victory is still not rightly reverberating throughout the newspapers and online. The initial euphoria does seem however to have rightly given way to more circumspect analysis of how much is likely to change, with the even the first pieces emerging, from Back Towards the Locus and Mark Braund of open scepticism towards Obama. Paul Linford compares Obama's victory with Labour's in Glenrothes, whilst Gerry Hassan on OurKingdom writes of the continuing struggle for Scotland's soul. Mike Power via Neil Clark also reminds of us of how Janet Daley predicted that America would instead vote for the "war hero, the statesman who talks about foreign policy and national security with real authority." John McCain may have been a fundamentally decent man, but he's also long been a unrepentant warmonger, and exactly what was not needed after 8 years of the same under Bush.

Elsewhere, in general miscellanea, Daniel Davies takes on Trevor Phillips, who seems to have decided that his job is to think the unthinkable, which often in reality means talking out of his backside. Davies assaults him on immigration, whilst also nonsense were his remarks that a Barack Obama in this country could not become prime minister due to the institutional racism not in society, but in political parties. The fact is that a Barack Obama has not emerged in this country because our politicians routinely fail to inspire those of their own allegiance, let alone the general public. When one does, the obstacles in his or her way hardly be insurmountable. The Heresiarch meanwhile attacks Iain Dale for his apparent belief in psychics(!), Catherine Bennett remarks on how animals are often treated better than humans, the Guardian celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Human Rights Act, and it would be remiss not to link to Alix Mortimer's takedown of Hazel Blears's remarks on blogging nihilism.

Finally, the award for the worst tabloid comment piece of the weekend is again a struggle between the usual suspects. Lorraine Kelly writes that Barack Obama's best asset is his wife (not his oratory, breaking of the political mould, calmness in a crisis or opposition to the Iraq war then), whilst Amanda "Glenda Slagg" Platell aims her scattergun at the familiar targets of Fergie, Michelle Obama, which really has to be quoted to just emphasise Platell's nastiness

Michelle Obama the new Jackie O? Not with that frock she wore on the big night, arguably the most hideous acceptance outfit in the history of the free world.

No, I suspect Mrs Obama will be more like Cherie Blair - her cleverness matched only by her chippiness, her humble beginnings rammed down our throats at every opportunity.

'My number one job as First Lady is to be Mom first,' she has said. In which case, why has she spent the most formative years of her daughters' lives as a highly paid hospital administrator?

and Ulrika Jonsson. We're going to break the rules though and instead give the award to Bidisha on CiF, who wearingly mistakes the mockery and contempt for Sarah Palin for misogyny. No, Bidisha, it isn't hatred of women: it's that Palin was the epitome of Republican reverse-snobbery, an uneducated ignorant bigot that shockingly if McCain had won was, to use the cliche, a heartbeat away from being the most powerful person on the planet. That's what was frightening, and why she has deserved everything she's got.

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Friday, November 07, 2008 

A blip?

What a difference a couple of months can make: back then we were seriously discussing the possibility that Glenrothes could be Gordon Brown's last stand as Labour leader, where a defeat to the Scottish National Party would mean his cabinet colleagues would move against him, with David Miliband the most likely successor. Harold Macmillian said that it was events that were most likely to blow a government off course, but it was the apparently imminent collapse of the banking system which has turned out to be Gordon Brown's saving grace. Having bailed out them and by his own spin, having led the world at large to decide upon a similar policy, he's almost certain now to lead Labour into the next election.

The circumstances of the win in Glenrothes are enough to make you question whether there was a cock-up or conspiracy in Labour's apparent acceptance that were going to lose yesterday's vote. Use of Occam's razor would suggest the former, but how on earth do you go from the apparent doom expressed to the media by Nick Palmer, who said that he didn't know any Labour MPs who expected to win, to what looks like a remarkable in the circumstances 6,000+ majority? The betting was all on the SNP to win, with Paul Routledge alleging there was a conspiracy amongst SNP supporters to lay bets around the country in order to get the odds back in their favour, and the pundits all agreed that the SNP were likely to take it, but how do you not apparently manage to realise that you've got a more than healthy majority in the bag?

Labour's share of the vote in actual fact increased, despite their majority dropping by around 4,000, something which has not happened to a government fighting a by-election since 1982. The vote for both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats collapsed, possibly because of their failure to campaign in what was seen as a straight fight between the SNP and Labour, but it's hardly encouraging for the leadership of either party, especially David Cameron, whose hopes for the next election were on the SNP taking Labour's Scottish seats in the areas where his party is not close to being in the running.

Most impressive is perhaps not the result, but the way in which Labour so successfully, at least for now, turned the onus onto Alex Salmond. Despite the fact that it's Gordon Brown himself who's primarily responsible for the bursting of the biggest economic bubble of recent times, the attack on Salmond's plans for independence was pointed and damning. An independent Scotland would not have been able to bail out the likes of Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS in the way that Westminster had, went the argument, whilst the television networks happily played along, repeating and replaying Salmond's in hindsight naive rhetoric about how Scotland, along with Iceland, Ireland and the Scandanivan nations could form an arc of prosperity if only it was freed from the union.

The last few days, in contrast, really should have been horrendously damaging for Gordon Brown and New Labour: first the European commission reported that the UK would face the deepest recession among the EU's mature economies, then the IMF issued a similar verdict, which also said the UK would be the worst hit of the world's developed economies. For a man and a spin machine which had boasted repeatedly that we were well-placed to deal with the economic downturn, if not among the best-placed, this should have been enough to puncture any sign of personal political recovery. Instead, with the election of Barack Obama helping to distract attention away from events here, the story has been the exact opposite.

To draw much else from the victory in Glenrothes would be wrong. It's almost as if the whole by-election was conducted in a vacuum: the opinion polls show at best that the Brown bounce has been fairly negligible, at least in personal terms. Labour has clawed itself back up from 20% behind the Tories to between 8 and 9% behind, which in a general election would deliver either a hung parliament or a very slight majority for David Cameron, which for a government in the middle of a third term in a soon to be recession isn't bad, but certainly isn't going to save it. As the downturn starts to really bite and unemployment rises further, it's then the resentment against Labour will likely start to really affect things. The odds are most certainly still on for a Conservative victory, and Labour's hopes in the long-term still look fleeting at best, Gordon Brown saviour of the world economy or not.

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Frank Field and preventing a British Kristallnacht.

For some reason the Guardian doesn't seem to have published today's response column from Frank Field online. One has to wonder if this might be something to do with the arguments made by Field in it. Responding to an article by Paul Oestreicher on the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, in which Oestreicher referred to Field but once, quoting Peter Selby's attack on him, Field defends his call for "balanced migration" by saying that his ultimate aim is, and I quote directly, "[T]he aim must be to prevent a mini Kristallnacht in this country."

To suggest that this is a wholly distasteful comparison and allusion is an understatement, but it is perhaps one that is more appropriate than Field realises. Kristallnacht was sponsored and abetted by the German government. Field's argument that is as "unemployment rises there is a danger of increased tension as British citizens lose their jobs." This is almost identical to Phil Woolas's completely unprompted comments that "people losing their jobs makes the immigration issue extremely thorny", and that it had been "too easy to get into this country in the past and it was going to get harder." It's true that during recessions tensions are bound to rise, but those tensions very rarely turn to major unrest or riots without the deliberate involvement of those with the most to benefit from such unrest. The riots in northern England in 2001 were almost uniquely sparked by the activities of the British National Party and National Front in the respective towns. What you do not do when tensions are liable to rise is then stoke the fire: Woolas may have been addressing what he thought was a coming problem, but he also through his statement suggested that it had been too easy to get into this country, when that is simply not backed up by the facts, as Diane Abbott pointed out. He was pandering to those whom have been arguing such for years, encouraging the kind of victimhood which the BNP feeds of off. Woolas was quite openly pointing towards who's really to blame for the economic mess, and it wasn't his party. From someone that had accused the Tories' Sayeedi Warsi of pandering to the BNP over very similar comments, this was hypocrisy of the highest order.

Likewise, Field seems to be taking the opportunity afforded by the recession to gain supporters for his immigration "reforms". His invocation of a "mini Kristallnacht" as something which can only be avoided if his slamming shut of the door is introduced is not worthy of a politician that stood up to the government over the 10p tax rate. He tries to shut down dissent to his ideas by claiming that they are overwhelming supported by the public, as though this means they are unquestionable. Then finally, to add insult to injury, he states that "[A]ny outbreaks of anger will be denied public support if voters know that the labour market is closed to new migrants from outside the EU." In other words, unless we adopt my proposals, it will be understandable if the public supports the indiscriminate targeting of "foreigners" like that which occurred in Germany in 1938. And Field has the audacity to suggest that his policies should not be confused with the position of asylum seekers, when he seems to be tacitly suggesting that riots would be understandable in the current circumstances, in which asylum seekers, legal workers, illegal workers and long time citizens of this country would all be tarred with the same brush. What a thoroughly boorish and unpleasant man Field really is.

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The rise of poppy fascism.

One of the most curious things about this time of year is how supposed impartiality is temporarily suspended on almost all TV channels during the build-up to Remembrance Sunday. When this first started is beyond me, but surely poppy fascism, as Jon Snow so accurately described it, is now reaching ever more ridiculous heights. The sight last week of the panellists on Question Time, which had decamped to America for the US presidential election all wearing poppies ought to perhaps have suggested to some of the producers or higher-ups that decree that everyone seen on screen must have a poppy that there should be sensible limits on how far it should go. The BBC incidentally claims, or claimed at the time not to have a compulsory policy on poppy wearing, but incidents such as last Thursday's suggest otherwise.

It isn't of course their fault. They're just running scared, as usual, of the tabloids that think that not wearing one at this time of year is some sort of insult to the memory of those who so selflessly gave their lives in the past. It doesn't matter that the Royal British Legion themselves, in the aftermath of Snow's justification for not wearing one said that wearing a poppy is entirely voluntary and that he was justified in holding his opinion; such outbreaks of free-thinking are anathema, as is the idea of non-conformity.

Likewise, bans on wearing poppies should be similarly resisted. A young woman who protested to the Sun about not being allowed to wear one on the make-up counter in a Christian Dior store was perfectly justified in doing so; it's then that as usual things start getting completely out of hand. The Sun in response has stated that it will, predictably, name and shame any bosses or companies that ban them. Again, that's perfectly acceptable. What is not acceptable is then to do the exact opposite of that and go randomly around shopping centres looking for stores that aren't selling poppies or have employees wearing them, as the paper has:

Here’s what we found in spot checks:

LONDON: Sainsbury’s, Victoria: Poppies not sold, just two staff wearing.

M&S, central London: Not sold. One staff member wearing. A worker said: “We sell them in some stores, but not this one.”

NatWest, central London: None of 15 staff wearing.

BIRMINGHAM: HMV, Bullring: Not sold. No staff wearing them.

Tesco Express: No poppies at tills. Primark: None sold, but a quarter of staff wearing them.

YORK: Morrisons: Two staff members wearing. But a poppy vendor in store.

WHSmith: Lone security-guard wearing. Not sold.

Borders books: Not sold, one worker spotted wearing a poppy.

We've gone then from denouncing bosses that have banned them into doing the exact opposite: naming and shaming stores where employees just happen to be not wearing them. That they have a personal choice to not do so is apparently neither here nor there, as is the fact that banks and stores like HMV might have more usual things to be stocking and doing than competing with the sellers that almost always operate outdoors. The mindset behind this kind of behaviour was again summed up by someone quoted at the time of the Snow controversy:

"Any questioning of the poppy can only cause anguish to the people that have worn it with pride over the years, the families of those who gave their lives and those people who are still doing so."

Yes, any questioning. Snow's invocation of fascism, which was fought so we still had freedom of choice, could not be more apt.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008 

Offended about offence.

Talking as we were of politicians without a clue what they're going on about, here's Keith Vaz, moral crusader against video games on his latest high horse:

AN MP wants a sick computer game — where players carry out suicide bombings — hauled off the internet.

Labour’s Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee, said Kaboom: The Suicide Bombing Game “devalues human life” and contains an “unnecessary” level of violence.

Quite so; what sort of video game which has suicide bombing as its theme should contain violence at all?

Kaboom: The Suicide Bombing Game is so popular that searching for Kaboom on Google doesn't bring it up on the first page (search for Obsolete and this pathetic blog even manages to turn up 4th). It does however now bring up the Daily Mail's story on Vaz's rage as the 8th result. Having then thusly succeeded in bringing Kaboom to a wider audience, it's only correct that we further extend its popularity by linking to it.

Kaboom is then a really rather poor, even by the standards of Flash, game in which the aim is to kill as many passers-by as possible. Perhaps I'm just sick in the head, but it's faintly amusing and fun for about five minutes to try and get the highest "score" you can, although killing more than six people with your Kim Jong Il lookalike cartoon bomber seems to be fairly difficult. Strangely, rather than distributing the detritus of the bomber over a large distance, the only gore which emerges when you detonate yourself is that of the victims, who always respectively lose their head, one of their legs and what looks vaguely like a badly drawn heart. It may scare and repulse very small children, but even your average 8-year-old is not going to be scarred for life by coming across this during an unsupervised web jaunt. It's completely harmless, pretty unlikely to be used by potential terrorists for training purposes, unless they too, instead of heading off to meet their 72 virgins in paradise can miraculously reform and explode over and over again, and possibly only likely to offend those who have nothing better to do than get offended about stupid things on the internet.

You have to wonder if Vaz has even actually bothered to play the game, which unlike playing the likes of Grand Theft Auto or Manhunt, which he's usually campaigning against, costs nothing to do. It instead seems likely he himself is just picking up on a bandwagon started by the UK Bali Bombings Victims Group, which four years after the game was first created noted its existence and demanded it be removed from the internet. Vaz though has put down an early day motion, which is parliament's ultimate form of narcissism: utterly pointless, but it makes you look like you actually do something (charges of hypocrisy can be made in the comments). Printing these out costs in the region of £627,000 a year, and it's little wonder when the likes of Ann Cryer, the most prolific signer of lost and ridiculous causes has currently during this session, which ends shortly, put her signature to a staggering 1,863, including Vaz's one on Kaboom. Other notable ones she's signed include Blackpool Tower and Strictly Come Dancing, the Rugby League World Cup, which you'll be pleased to learn the House welcomes, Salvia Divinorum (Drug! People daring to enjoy themselves on said drug! Ban it!), Scout Membership Increases and Bethlehem and Banksy.

Maybe it's just the current mood, but pronouncing yourself offended about something that doesn't affect your life in the slightest possible way seems to have suddenly came back en vogue, having previously festered under the other outrage, which is when political correctness goes mad. The relationship between them can be incredibly slight: 5cc points out that Donal Blaney, who wanted Ross and Brand to be sacked over their calls to Andrew Sachs, thought that the "storm" about Jeremy Clarkson's remarks about lorry drivers and their propensity to kill prostitutes was all about leftists who had waited years to get him, except that err, the Daily Mail, not usually the natural home of "leftists and ecofascists" was the main one kicking up a fuss. The Sun also didn't see why anyone should be offended; it was just a joke after all, and that they employ Clarkson is neither here nor there. The Sun isn't so dismissve, equally strangely, about online jokes involving dead babies. That they are on Facebook, which directly competes with the News Corporation owned MySpace is also completely irrelevant.

It would be too much to expect our politicians to approach every subject rationally, consider whether it genuinely affects anyone other than those instantly likely to be offended because of misfortune which has sadly befallen them, and then decide whether action is necessary, mainly because they have to respond to public anxiety, and if public anxiety, or rather, what masquerades as public anxiety i.e. the front pages of the nation's tabloids is currently decreeing that Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross should be lynched in public, they have a direct duty to agree with that public anxiety. That is after all how the political system works. You'd just like on occasion to come across just one of them that does the exact opposite of following the crowd. I would vote for the first politician that comes out, for example, and tells Rupert Murdoch to go fuck himself. Until then, we'll just have to make do with Keith Vaz.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008 

From the sublime to the ridiculous.

The problem with the election of Obama for our own parliamentary equivalents is that it doesn't exactly show them in the most flattering light. Here's a master of oratory who's managed to inspire millions to go to the polls, and here's our bunch, left looking like a stood-up date on a particularly filthy evening. Whilst we've learned the lesson the hard way about charisma and the apparent "everyman" quality, you're still left absolutely bewildered, wondering where our own personal Obama might suddenly come from. With no suitable candidate in sight, we instead have to make do with both Gordon Brown and David Cameron fighting over which of them is most like Obama, reminiscent of two little boys at school squabbling over who the new girl likes the most.

Appropriately enough, the anti-Barack Obama decided upon today of all days to stick her head above the parapet and talk about something she clearly has absolutely no knowledge of whatsoever. I'm talking of course about the walking, talking, Labour-vote destroying robot which is Hazel Blears. Hazel Blears deciding to talk about political disengagement is a little like getting David Irving to talk about the problem of Holocaust denial; Blears, with perhaps only Tony McNulty for company, is the epitome of everything that an member of parliament should not be. She's loyal to the point of willing to sacrifice herself instead of the leader, or at least was to Tony Blair; she refuses to answer any question with anything resembling a straight answer; she has not a single apparent ideological bone in her body which might explain why she's joined the party she has; and when faced with overwhelming odds against her, she starts making things up. These might all be qualities which are essential to rise up the ranks of almost any political party today, but for those of us who actually want our representatives to have some specialist knowledge of any subject whatsoever, excepting motorbikes, or heaven forbid, even be more intelligent than we are, Blears and her friends, overwhelmingly Blairites, incidentally, are everything that is wrong with our politics as it stands.

All things considered, it therefore takes quite some chutzpah to imagine that you're suitably qualified to lecture anyone on political disengagement. Blears isn't interested in just why people are politically disengaged; she wishes to apportion blame. Predictably, it's not the fault of the politicians themselves for having indistinguishable policies, all the charm of a wet Sunday night in Salford or for prostituting their wares to the gutter press, but rather the media itself and additionally, bloggers.

Says Hazel:

Famously, Tony Blair called the media a "feral beast" in one of his last speeches as prime minister. But behind the eye-catching phrase was a serious and helpful analysis of a 24-hour broadcast media and shrinking, and increasingly competitive, newspaper market which demands more impact from its reporting – not the reporting of facts to enable citizens to make sense of the world, but the translation of every political discussion into a row, every difficulty a crisis, every rocky patch for the prime minister the "worst week ever".

Serious and helpful as in spelling out the bleeding obvious, as your humble narrator set out at the time. The liar in chief himself had to have balls to come out and attack the feral beast, having used said beast to get elected and then stay in power, but he of course didn't attack those most responsible for the cynicism with which politics in this country greeted, the Daily Mail and Sun, because if he had they would have chewed up said balls and spat them out in double-quick time. No, he instead attacked the Independent, which nobly stood up him to over the war and many other things, for daring to put its opinions on its front page, something the other tabloids had been doing for decades. Disingenuous could have been a adjective invented to describe Tony Blair, but he at least made the speech on his way out. Blears you would have thought still desperately believes she's on the way up.

In any event, Blears' claim that somehow it's just the media that exaggerates differences of opinion and bad days is simply nonsense. Blair himself was again partially responsible for this: he demanded and expected complete and utter unstinting loyalty. Read Alastair Campbell's diaries and see how he complained bitterly whenever the Labour party resisted his latest wheeze on principled grounds, with him condemning his colleagues for not "being serious". Blair went for such an uncompromising stance both because he wanted to be seen as the indomitable, strong leader, but also because the media had a hefty role in ensuring that Neil Kinnock never became prime minister. Campbell and Blair himself didn't want to see a Labour prime minister on the front page of the Sun again on election day inside a light-bulb, but the ends, suppressing all dissent and Faustian pacts with the likes of the Sun never justified the means. Politicians have themselves to blame as much as anyone else.

Blears continues:

And I would single out the rise of the commentariat as especially note-worthy. It is within living memory that journalists' names started to appear in newspapers; before then, no name was attached to articles. And in recent years commentary has taken over from investigation or news reporting, to the point where commentators are viewed by some as every bit as important as elected politicians, with views as valid as cabinet ministers. And if you can wield influence and even power, without ever standing for office or being held to account by an electorate, it further undermines our democracy.

As Unity has already argued, this is the equivalent to suggesting that only politicians are allowed to have complete freedom of speech. Blears is correct in suggesting that comment has swelled as investigations and genuine journalism has declined, and that the Guardian's maxim, that comment is free but facts are sacred has irrevocably broken down, but the idea that commentators are viewed as valid as elected politicians is abject nonsense.

As is her follow-up point:

The commentariat operates without scrutiny or redress. They cannot be held to account for their views, even when they perform the most athletic and acrobatic of flip-flops in the space of a few weeks. I can understand when commentators disagree with each other; it's when they disagree with themselves we should worry.

Even before the advent of the blog, commentators had to deal with letters in green ink as well as to the editor, and also the occupational hazard of appearing in Hackwatch in Private Eye, not to mention being parodied by Craig Brown, as many of those considered to be the most influential have been. Half of blogging is mocking what the mainstream thinks, or disagreeing with it, especially the likes of Polly Toynbee, so ruthlessly watched and baited by the right online. The only way in which Blears' statement makes sense is if you remove the word "commentariat" and replace it with "tabloid press", but she's hardly about to start attacking them.

There will always be a role for political commentary, providing perspective, illumination and explanation. But editors need to do more to disentangle it from news reporting, and to allow elected politicians the same kind of prominent space for comment as people who have never stood for office.

Ah yes, that's it; what's wrong with our politics is that politicians themselves don't have enough space to inculcate us with their philosophy and policies. Once they have we'll realise just how wrong we are about the lack of difference between them.

She then gets onto those of us pathetic and vain enough to run blogs:

This brings me to the role of political bloggers. Perhaps because of the nature of the technology, there is a tendency for political blogs to have a Samizdat style. The most popular blogs are rightwing, ranging from the considered Tory views of Iain Dale, to the vicious nihilism of Guido Fawkes. Perhaps this is simply anti-establishment. Blogs have only existed under a Labour government. Perhaps if there was a Tory government, all the leading blogs would be left-of-centre?

There are some informative and entertaining political blogs, including those written by elected councillors. But mostly, political blogs are written by people with a disdain for the political system and politicians, who see their function as unearthing scandals, conspiracies and perceived hypocrisy.

Unless and until political blogging adds value to our political culture, by allowing new and disparate voices, ideas and legitimate protest and challenge, and until the mainstream media reports politics in a calmer, more responsible manner, it will continue to fuel a culture of cynicism and despair.

If Blears thinks that Guido represents vicious nihilism, then she presumably hasn't read the finest of our swear bloggers, more's the pity. She does have something resembling a point regarding how the most popular blogs are right-wing; partly that is obviously because the government is nominally left-wing, but it's also because the left is far more disparate than the right tends to be in this country. As Unity has again already stated, politicians' blogs are almost notable only for their dreariness, with perhaps only Tom Watson and Tom Harris, excluding Bob, rising above it. Blears sees most bloggers as having a disdain for politicians and the political system, but while some are only concerned with the propagation of their own political world view, there are hundreds if not thousands of others who blog because they care about that self-same political system, and think that the current lot are debasing it through their very actions. Of course Blears would see this as a threat: she's wholly satisfied with how things are at the moment, where loyalty to the party counts above what is actually best for the country. She likes how this government has not been held to account for the Iraq war, for the complete abandonment of those that it was elected to defend, and for being in complete subservience to the City over everyone and everything else. Bloggers, for all their faults, and they are myriad, are the future. Barack Obama and the Democrats in America recognised this, and they treated them as more than equals. Instead of learning from their harnessing of the web, Blears only sees the dangers rather than the opportunities. She dares not imagine that she and her party are the problem, not the solution.

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Barack knew.

For all that has already been written, is currently being written, and will be written, for all of it that will come to be seen as the over-enthusiastic euphoria-influenced dementia that it was, for all of the similarly deluded denunciations of how America has in effect just signed away its freedom, it's still too easy to play down just how honestly transformational Barack Obama's election is and will be. Not because of the scale of the victory: whilst winning a more convincing victory than either of Bush's, it was not the landslide that some claim it was, broadly in line with the more successful Democratic victories; not because Obama won the popular vote; not because Obama overcame the GOP smear machine despite the filth that was consistently thrown at him; not because of the turnout, however unprecedented it was; but because of the one thing that never should have mattered: the colour of his skin.

Despite all of the hope and the expectation, we weren't willing to believe that he really could win, or really had won until McCain conceded. If McCain had ran his campaign with the same magnaminity, respect, grace, heartfeltness and humility with which he delivered his concession speech, the result could surely have been different. McCain always was a fundamentally decent, honourable man, undone on this occasion by his volatility, both in his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate, even if she did help to deliver the base, and then his behaviour over the crash, first claiming the economy was fundamentally sound, next cancelling his campaign to go back to Washington to attempt to fix things single-handed. He cannot be blamed for how the campaign was run; the smears were always going to happen, regardless of the candidate. In an ideal world, he would surely be offered some sort of job by Obama; thanks to those smears, that seems highly unlikely.

Before that speech, the paranoia was still overwhelming. We feared the polls had been wrong; we feared that the exit polls, like in 2004, were wrong; we feared the Bradley effect; we feared, that somehow, the Republicans would manage to steal a second election, if not a third. As it was, we need not have worried. Pennsylvania should have tipped us off, but it took Fox News, of all stations, to call Ohio for Obama, for it to finally begin to sink in. Florida followed, and before we knew it, the game, such as it was, was over. That was the point when I went to bed, and unlike the others, my tears waited until this morning. Not at McCain's dignity; not at Obama's beautifully worded, measured and delivered victory speech, with a crowd more befitting of Glastonbury than a political rally; but instead at the tears on the face of Jesse Jackson, the old warrior, the man who only a few months ago had wanted to cut the president-elect's nuts out, who had never believed that he would see an African-American win the presidency in his life-time, now overwhelmed by the emotion of seeing the reality before his eyes. For those of us who have been critical of the fatuity of the American dream when so many in that nation remain downtrodden without any real hope, this was the shattering of our cynicism happening in front of our noses. This doesn't just show the American child of whatever skin colour, gender or sexuality that anything is possible; it shows the world's children that anything is possible.

We should not give in to wilful exaggeration, or not confront the sad fact that from here the only way is inexorably down. Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States of America at a time when few would want the job. His first task is to tame the recession which is coming, to rebuild an economy which like ours has for too long relied on the financial sector for its profits and growth. He faces two wars, one which appears to be winding down, with another which seems to coming up to boil. He faces a world which thanks to his predecessor has turned against America, no longer willing to listen to the chutzpah and bullying which has so often been the tone and content of diplomacy over the last 8 years. The amount of expectation on one man's shoulders would be enough to crush a lesser person's will. He will inevitably, especially to the European left, and maybe even the American anti-war left, be a disappointment, as the pragmatism which he will need to display will take precedence over populist measures. A swift withdrawal from Iraq, however welcome, cannot be countenanced whilst there is still the possibility that the former Sunni insurgents who now form the Awakening councils or what remains of them could go back to war, especially against a Shia administration that may yet abandon them. Likewise, in Afghanistan, where Obama seems to favour something resembling a "surge", we cannot expect him to come to the realisation that others have that Afghanistan cannot possibly exist as a democratic sovereign state in its current form. Deals with the Taliban, or what is described as it, will have to be considered. There is unlikely to be any significant difference between Obama's policy on Russia's re-emergence than that of the current administration.

The biggest problem Obama will face though is keeping together the incredibly fragile coalition that has brought him to power. America is still frighteningly polarised between the two parties, especially considering how little they often disagree over, even with Obama securing 52% of the vote to McCain's 46%. Overwhelmingly, the reason why he won that share of the vote is the economy, and those that voted for him will not be instant returns next time round. While some may have decided to be colour-blind this year, with voters directly in some cases saying to canvassers that they were "voting for the nigger", that will not last. While the Republican machine may be temporarily broken and bowed today, what Hillary Clinton long ago described as the "vast right-wing conspiracy" will shortly be doing everything in its power to make Obama a one-term president. The young that turned out yesterday, empowered by belief in this one man, will be the apathetic of the years to come. Whilst Obama is not Tony Blair, we should not dismiss the possibility that we don't yet know what we've let ourselves in for.

Tonight though such things are for another day. Today we should just enjoy the fact that after 8 years of seemingly endless war, abuses of power, contempt, arrogance, ignorance and imperial hubris, the underdog who almost became the establishment candidate has triumphed. Another world is possible. We need to hope, once again, that Barack Obama can begin to deliver on his and that exceptional promise.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008 

Till tomorrow.

No point whatsoever in adding to the millions of words currently going unread, so here's the whole presidential election cycle as one very large image. Oh, and if Obama doesn't win, we just might be fucked.

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Labour isn't working.

When your default world-view is cynicism, not much tends to shock you. Even by the modern standards of the Labour party, this is little short of astonishing:

Ed Balls, the children's secretary, and Yvette Cooper, the chief secretary to the Treasury, have launched an attack on the so-called London living wage – the £7.45 an hour recommended minimum for all workers in the capital. They claim it would be "artificial, inflationary" and not "necessary or appropriate."


But the children's ministry, which is a signatory to the Child Poverty Pledge, said: "An artificial 'living wage for London' could distort labour markets and prove poor value for money. Moreover, in seeking to reflect perceptions of the cost of living, this proposal could also raise inflation expectations at a time when increased vigilance is needed on inflationary risks. We do not believe it is necessary or appropriate."

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter crap. The real danger at the moment as has been argued by David Blancheflower and others is not inflationary pressures but unemployment and if anything, deflation (not stagflation, obviously. durrr).

Who on earth is New Labour attempting to appease with this in effect two fingers to the working poor? Why, that would be the CBI, the same organisation which opposed the minimum wage from the very beginning and complains every time the government dares to raise it.

To try and get your head around just how foolish this is, even the Tories support the living wage, or at the moment at least pay lip service towards it, as do the Liberal Democrats. Why then would any person in London or other major city on the minimum wage vote Labour when they don't even pretend to be on their side, and make such utterly dismal arguments to defend the indefensible?

The irony is that this comes just as Labour has attempted to mount a defence of its record on social mobility - which the Cabinet Office's report suggests has improved, at least very slightly, since 2000. Pollyanna Toynbee naturally noted this and swiftly determined that the Tories would it wreck this slight improvement should they come to power. This is on top of a recent report from the OECD which found that also, since 2000, inequality had declined. The criticism isn't that the government hasn't tried, it has, although it has often tried to do so without soliciting attention, but that it hasn't done anywhere near enough. For all the spending on tax credits, notoriously complicated, open to fraud and only available to those over 25, the benefits have been slight. This is why increasing attention is being paid to the citizen's basic income, along with the proposal to lift the lowest paid out of tax altogether. To do so though would mean taxing the higher paid a higher rate, and to judge by the complete lack of backbone being displayed towards the bankers that we now own a share of, there simply isn't the political will for any such drastic changes to be made. When a Labour government seems to be abandoning the very basic foundations of what the party was built around, you have to wonder whether there ought to be a prosecution attempted against it under the Trades Descriptions Act.

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Monday, November 03, 2008 

From Ross and Brand to pay, with Cameron jumping on the bandwagon.

By Sunday, the Ross-Brand-Sachs story had just about burnt itself out. After all, the Mail and the others had won an extraordinary victory: Brand gone, the head of Radio 2 gone, Ross suspended and the BBC as a whole doing its best to alienate even its biggest supporters through the spinelessness which it was displaying towards those who wouldn't be satisfied until it is fully abolished. There's only so much you can make of it without even your own readers, including those that might have complained, becoming heartily sick of the boasting, pomposity and hypocrisy on stilts. If you need an indicator of just how scared the BBC had become, on Have I Got News for You on Friday night they even censored the word "twat", something almost unheard of, lest the Mail pick up on it. Back in the 70s Fawlty Towers itself featured the word twat uncensored, in one of the rearranged name plates at the very beginning. That's how far the clock has potentially been turned back.

This though is still a huge opportunity for attacking the BBC. It just needed a new angle, one which the News of the Screws could happily provide: wages. According to them, various BBC executives receive in total £14.6m a year, with some earning more than the prime minister, instantly meaning that they could not possibly be worth it. Throughout the article there is of course not a single example of comparing like with like, such as how much executives on ITV, Channel 4, or hell, even Sky receive. There's a reason for this: as Mark Thompson himself points out, his counterparts on ITV and Channel 4 earn more than he does. From last year's ITV annual report for example (PDF), we learn that Michael Grade earned in total, taking in benefits as well as salary £1,934,000, more than double what Thompson did (page 110). John Cresswell (CFO) also with benefits earned more than Thompson, taking home £1,231,000. Dawn Airey (who has since joined Five) and Rupert Howell received basic salaries of £450,000 each, of which only four BBC employees, including Thompson, earned more, and one of those is paid out of the BBC's profits from worldwide sales. The ITV report also provides an explanation of why they are paid sums which to most of us are beyond our wildest dreams:

Market positioning of salary and other elements of reward is approached on an individual basis. The aim is for base salary to be set around market median, whilst recognising the need on occasion for an appropriate premium to recognise superior talent. The Board is of the view that a senior executive team of high calibre is critical to developing and delivering the Turnaround strategy and to delivering long term value. Therefore, in a number of instances this year, senior individuals with exceptional industry knowledge and commercial skills have been recruited to the Senior Executive team, and the Committee has judged it appropriate to pay a talent premium.

In line with the majority of employees and senior executives, executive directors’ base salaries are reviewed on an annual basis, effective from 1 January. The salaries of Michael Grade, John Cresswell, Dawn Airey and Rupert Howell remain at market competitive levels and therefore the Committee determined that they would not receive any increase at 1 January 2008 over their 2007 salaries. The salaries of Dawn Airey and Rupert Howell (basic salary of £450,000 per annum in each case) were market competitive at the time of their appointments in October 2007, and have not been subject to increase since then.

In other words, most of those being castigated for their earnings out of the public purse could if they so wished most likely earn more. Jonathan Ross was an one-off, and one which is hardly likely now to be repeated.

This isn't to say that there shouldn't be concern over the largesse at public expense, or that all of those getting wads of cash are worthy of it: Peter White's salary of £220,000 for promoting the digital switch-over is completely ridiculous. Speaking of ridiculous, that is what can only be said of Simon Cowell's apparent remark to the newspaper that "these salaries are crazy". He would know about crazy salaries: according to reports, he earns £20.5 million for presenting American Idol, or £6 million more than the entirety of the BBC list. Who pays him such a ludicrous sum? Fox, owned by the same parent company as... the News of the World. That is also without taking into account how much he's paid by ITV, of which BSkyB, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, has a 17.9% share in. Add in comments by Esther Rantzen, formerly of the BBC parish but who is now rightly not considered worth a penny of anyone's money, and also Nick Ross, also no longer working for the BBC, and you have chutzpah defined.

We all know why Murdoch and his ventures target the BBC so: it stands in the way of his complete dominance of the British media. Through its quality and impartiality, it shows up his offerings for what they are: cheap and ludicrously right-wing. One thing you don't see however is politicians prostituting themselves at the feet of Mark Thompson, as Tony Blair once did and David Cameron now is. Cameron in the summer, as we learned a couple of weeks back, accepted private jet flights from Murdoch's son in law, Matthew Freud, to go and visit Rupe on his yacht, although Cameron strangely forgot to mention they were to see Murdoch in the register of member's interests. This same man was last week demanding full transparency from the BBC even whilst he himself could not manage it. As for what Cameron and Murdoch discussed we don't know, but it seems unlikely that it was their respective health. After all, after Cameron's otherwise piss-poor conference speech, the Sun had Cameron as Bob the Builder on their front page, ready to fix our broken society with a few choice implementations of mortar.

No surprises then that Cameron is already repaying the favour, deciding upon the pages of the Sun to further pursue the BBC. If Murdoch or the Sun's editors were hoping for a full-throated denunciation of everything the BBC does though, then they haven't got it. If anything, Cameron goes out of his way to be fair to the corporation, saying he's got nothing against the way the BBC is funded. Undoubtedly this is partially down to Cameron not being about to burn bridges which he still needs to cross to get across to the public; once he's in power, which still looks highly likely, he can do whatever he likes, and a highly cut down settlement for the licence fee under the Tories seems odds on. He acknowledges this when he writes:

With ITV doing less and less politics, and with newspaper readership in decline, the importance of the BBC in general — and the big audience evening news programmes in particular — for political parties trying to get their message across cannot be overstated.

Ah, but the BBC is still biased, after all:

But, I can hear the cry, what about the left-wing bias?

My answer is: yes, the BBC does have what even Andrew Marr called an “innate liberal bias”, principally because it does not have to behave like a commercial organisation and make its money from scratch every year.

That tends to make the BBC instinctively pro-Big State, distinctly iffy about the free market and sometimes dismissive of a conservative viewpoint.

I’ll never forget, some years ago, sitting next to a BBC presenter at a function and being told it was just about all right to have Conservative politicians on the radio, but “there weren’t really any you would want to see socially”.

Yep, Cameron's evidence for the BBC's bias amounts to a BBC presenter telling him that there are no Conservative politicians you'd want to see socially, which has to be the biggest statement of the blooming obvious you're likely to come across. It can in fact be extended across politicians as a whole; how many can you name that you'd like a drink with, and that's excepting those you'd like to meet so you could physically assault them. As others have pointed out, the Tories didn't have many complaints about the BBC's coverage whilst Gordon Brown was doing so badly, but once George Osborne was in the soup over his own dalliances on yachts the familiar cry went up again of how the BBC was biased against them.

Finally Cameron does get to the point:

The BBC has lost touch with the values of the people who support it through the licence fee.

How could anyone who works at an organisation that prides itself as socially responsible possibly have approved broadcasting the sick telephone calls made by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand?

Because it went out past the watershed, involved individuals known for their near the knuckle comedy and was a ridiculous scandal created by the right-wing tabloid press? This social responsibility garbage, as put forward by the Tories' Jeremy Hunt, is censorship in a modern form. It may have lost touch with the values of the 35,000 that complained, but it hasn't with the however many thousand that joined Facebook groups in protest at the overreaction, or the millions that didn't complain.

It’s become bloated with many of its executives overpaid. The licence fee has gone up by 15 per cent on top of inflation since 1997.

Jonathan Ross’s £6million annual contract costs the equivalent of what 43,000 people pay in their licence fee.

Is it really the job of the BBC to pay these sorts of figures?

Shouldn’t they rely on the kudos of the platforms they have — after all there is no real national commercial equivalent to Radio 2 — to attract and keep talent?

And while we are at it — on the kudos of the BBC — why on earth is the director-general paid over £800,000 a year?

More than 50 people at this great public institution get more than the Prime Minister.

I simply don’t believe these kinds of salaries are necessary to get the best candidates. These are some of the best jobs in British broadcasting and it is a huge honour to be asked to do them.

The BBC of course doesn't decide how much the licence fee should go up - the government does, so Cameron should blame them if he wants to apportion it. Relying on kudos rather than remuneration is laughable, as is the idea that individuals now will be satisfied with the "honour" of the job they're in rather than the pay. If they can get more, substantially more at least, they will go elsewhere, hence why all of those competing for the talents tend to pay around the same. The very top jobs are undoubtedly something of an honour - Thompson if he had stayed at Channel 4 could be getting £1,211,000 (PDF), as his successor does, when his benefits are taken into account, instead of the over £800,000 he gets at the BBC. Any less and he might well decide he could be doing better.

The BBC has become oversized and over-reached itself.

What on earth was the BBC doing taking over the Lonely Planet guides and threatening other travel guide publishers with unfair competition?

Why is it now planning to take on struggling local newspapers with its plans for local online video news?

Cameron does have a point on the Lonely Planet takeover, which was just inviting deserved criticism. He's less right however on the struggling local newspapers, most of which have no one to blame for their plight but themselves, or rather, their owners. As Nick Davies pointed out in Flat Earth News, the "grocers" have been more concerned with paying their shareholders dividends than investing in journalism, with the result being that with advertising increasingly going online, there is no money to provide anything approaching a decent local service. The BBC is just moving into an area which has been abandoned by others, including ITV, and likely to be providing a service which few others are prepared to.

The BBC needs a vision that goes beyond chasing ratings for their own sake.

As our pre-eminent public service broadcaster it should set the standards in quality TV. The mission must be to attract large audiences to quality programmes, not large audiences by going to the lowest common denominator.

The argument that the BBC needs to win big ratings on BBC1 to prove that it is providing value is bogus.

The BBC should be judged on what it does to promote excellence in all it does and should justify its existence and funding on the basis of its reach — how many people use different parts of the product — rather than on nightly ratings figures.

Now we're onto the quality versus ratings argument. Quality doesn't have to equal boring, but that's undoubtedly what some would like to limit it to, with worthy documentaries and news programming and little else, closer to the PBS model than the BBC's current one. This is fine as far as it goes, and the awfulness of much of the output on BBC Three, for instance, which with the closing of could be split into providing more funding for BBC Four and for journalism is an attractive proposition. How though does Cameron define "quality"? If it's attracting large audiences to the likes of those worthy documentaries and news programming, then it's just simply not going to happen, as they have always been, with the exception of nature documentaries, niche products. They're not going to get bigger audiences without monumental advertising campaigns. After all, the BBC does justify its existence on how different people use different parts of the product, as Cameron puts it: thanks to the licence fee it has been at the forefront of developing an online presence, and noted the possibilities for it far before ITV, Sky or the likes of the tabloid newspapers did. That would doubtless under any cut in the BBC's licence fee be one of the first things to suffer: it would be pushed into defending its core audiences, and at the moment that would exactly result in the further cutting of news programming and those documentaries, because that's the way the entire TV industry is going. This is where Cameron has to decide exactly what he wants, and at the moment he doesn't seem to have much idea.

We also need to look at how the BBC is regulated. The BBC Trust has been an improvement on the previous BBC governors.

But if people have a complaint about standards, should they not be able to complain to a body that is properly independent of the BBC?

And when decisions are taken about salaries paid to senior management, should they not be reviewed by an external body to avoid any charge of cronyism?

Like the Press Complaints Commission, for instance, on the boards of which editors and others from the industry sit? Giving Ofcom oversight over the BBC is potentially the next move, but when Ofcom has already put its own agenda firmly on the table over its determination that the licence fee should be top-sliced, something that Cameron as yet does not support, and when it gives the go ahead to ITV to slash its local news output, why should anyone believe it would be any better than that currently provided by the Trust? As for the salaries paid, the BBC Trust has already investigated them after the Ross controversy, and found that it was paying for the most part the same as the market rate.

The squeezing and crushing of commercial competitors online or in publishing needs to be stopped. We need the BBC, but we also need healthy competition to the BBC to boost choice and drive up quality.

Above all the BBC needs to be given a clear remit — the pursuit of excellence.

Like that provided presumably by Cameron's former employer ITV - on which I can honestly say that there is only one programme I ever watch - the wonderful Harry Hill's TV Burp, a commentary on other television programmes. The BBC already pursues excellence - a slight pruning and it would be even better, but who honestly believes that Cameron or his sponsors at the Sun would only go that far? Even further reason to truly fear and oppose both the current attacks on the BBC and the potential of a Conservative government.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008 

Weekend links.

The Ross-Brand-Sachs saga might have moved off the front pages but it's still the overwhelming story in the comment ones. First though the bloggers continue to have their say: Stroppyblog says Ross and Brand should have been sacked for being crap, not over this; 5CC brings up the Mail's politics on asylum; Paulie says it's time to pick sides; and Jim D says it isn't.

Meanwhile Marina Hyde makes what to my knowledge amounts to the first real defence of the BBC in any newspaper, Howard Jacobson says this isn't just a storm in a tea-cup, it is the tea-cup, and Deborah Orr makes the point that what this really should be about is that you should not discuss other people's sex lives, which is more than fair enough. Hugo Rifkind in easily the finest piece though imagines Georgina Baillie's week.

Moving on, Lenin writes an extended post on what's happening in the Congo, Justin notes that yet more details about Blair's behind doors deals with Murdoch have emerged, whilst Chuka Umunna calls for Labour to popularise its policies. Peter Oborne takes aim at Gordon Brown, and mainly hits the target, although I don't think it's quite true that he's been pretending that he never suggested he had ended boom and bust; he's just ignored it when asked about it. Hopi Sen makes the point that the Conservatives have been all over the place on economic policy, which is the very least of it.

With a little over three days to go, things are getting desperate in the John McCain camp, the latest attack on Obama over the fact that one of his aunts is apparently in America illegally. Aaron takes a look. Harold Evans writes an interesting piece about how the America media has been overwhelmingly biased towards Obama, which even if true makes a change from the last few elections when they were overwhelmingly biased towards Bush, and also does something to counter the smears directed against Obama which dominate online. The Guardian endorses Obama, in a rather tepid editorial, while Martin Ivens thinks that fear will carry the day.

Finally, we have a draw in the worst tabloid comment piece of the weekend prize, with Allison "I blame the mother" Pearson saying that "we live in an era obsessed by youth, with politicians and broadcasters so terrified of seeming out of touch they daren't take a stand on anything," on, of course, the Ross-Brand-Sachs affair. Predictably, she shares the honour with colleague Amanda Platell, who calls Georgina Baillie "a girl that typifies the new female vulgarians," a position her paper strangely didn't have at the beginning of this week.

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