Saturday, January 31, 2009 

Weekend links.

In a weekend of rather slim pickings, the main story is the protests over foreign workers at the Lindsey oil refinery and the resulting solidarity wildcat strikes around the country. Lenin, Bob, Jamie, Dave Osler, Shiraz Socialist and Alix Mortimer all provide their takes, while in the MSM Janice Turner, Deborah Orr and Jon Cruddas add to the comment.

Elsewhere, Paul Linford and Matthew Parris both discuss the economy and Gordon Brown, David Semple talks class conciousness, Bleeding Heart Show asks whose problem domestic violence is, Back Towards the Locus spots the Express's own workers contempt for their own reports, and Daily Quail satirises an invasion of transvestites.

In one of the more surprising events of the weekend, the Sun prints a defence of the BBC, albeit by Jeremy Clarkson, which is less so. Likewise is the worst comment piece of the weekend, which must go to Peter Hitchens, who like the rest of the country is completely outraged by queers adopting a child rather than the mother's grandparents, which is undoubtedly an example of the tyranny we get in return for the tolerance we've shown.


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Friday, January 30, 2009 

The comedy of terrorism and Nicky Reilly.

Such is the horror of the end result of a successful suicide attack, few have so far attempted to turn perhaps the ultimate act of personal violence into comedy: Monkey Dust, the dark BBC3 animated satire, had hapless Brummies blowing themselves up, while Chris Morris now has his jihadist comedy in film production, having been giving funding by Warp Films. It's all the more surprising because there is such an obvious rich vein of humour running through some of those who consider themselves martyrdom seekers: even going beyond the belief that somehow killing others at the same time as yourself will instantly result in your entrance to the highest level of paradise alongside 72 virgins, the incompetence of the bombers who can't even succeed in killing themselves, let alone anyone else, alongside the arrogance of the finger-pointing last will and testaments meant to cause fear but which instead strike as someone being far too influenced by the personal hubris which infects YouTube, are all potential goldmine material.

With that in mind, it seems even more difficult to countenance the attitude taken towards Nicky Reilly and his comprehensively failed suicide attack in a Giraffe restaurant in Exeter. I challenge anyone not to find the entire thing completely absurd, or even analogous to a potential comedy sketch: an utter incompetent chooses of all places, one of the most bourgeois and trendy franchise restaurants to deliver his payload, but instead of successfully putting together his "bomb", if a concoction of caustic soda and kerosene can really be described as a bomb, he instead gets trapped in the toilet cubicle, with the mixture going off in his face. Somehow, rather than treating this with about the level of concern that it deserved, he is unaccountably charged with attempted murder, when the only person he came close to killing was himself. It's worth keeping in mind that the failed Glasgow airport attacker, despite launching two failed assaults, was not charged with attempted murder, but rather with conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions. You have to wonder whether this was purely technical: Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead failed to cause any explosion; Reillly did, even though it went off in his face, therefore he could technically of killed someone, hence attempted murder.

Even so, for Reilly to be sentenced to 18 years in prison seems to be out of all proportion to his crime. Yes, his intention probably was, if he could, to kill as many people as possible, but he transparently failed in that aim. Moreover, everyone seems to agree that Reilly was preyed upon, although it seems he was self-radicalised, and that his Asperger's syndrome was more than a factor. It seems equally likely that he could, through personal programmes and direct help, be deradicalised fairly easily. At most, a sentence of around 5 years would have seen justice served, and everyone could have treated it as the joke it was and should have been. 18 years is the biggest gag of all, except for Reilly himself and his family.

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Investing in quality journalism News International style.

Invest in journalism or die, said the ginger ninja Sun editor Rebekah Wade on Monday in this year's Hugh Cudlipp lecture. It was therefore inevitable that News International would do the exact opposite:

News International is poised to make a series of editorial job cuts across its tabloid and broadsheet newspapers in the next two weeks and cut the rates it pays some agencies for stories.

Production staff are likely to be heavy casualties as the Sun, News of the World, the Times and Sunday Times seek to further integrate subbing in print and online, understands.

It is believed that the cuts could affect as many as 200 staff, 10% of News International journalists. However, other sources say the number could be far lower, with fewer than 100 jobs expected to be at risk.

Sources close to the plan say that the Times could bear the brunt of the cuts, while the more profitable Sun will see more protection. ... Further savings are also expected as the publisher reduces the amount it pays some independent news agencies for stories and pictures.

Press Gazette explains what the new rates are going to be:

The new rates are: £20 for a one or two paragraph story; £35 for three to five paragraphs; £50 for six to eight paragraphs and £70 for nine paragraphs.

The rates for small, medium and large page-lead stories are £100, £110 and £135 respectively.

The day rate for commissioned work is £110 and the rate for a page lead in the showbiz section Bizarre is £600.

Napa treasurer Chris Johnson, from Mercury Press agency, said: "They are shaving £5 and £10 off rates that were set in 1993 – they are the lowest rates on Fleet Street."

The minimum rate for a picture, of up to two square inches, has been set at £70 to £75, rising to £100 for six square inches, £130 for up to 30 square inches and £168 for 30 to 56 square inches.

Johnson said: "People won't be able to supply pictures at these rates – many agencies already set a minimum fee which is higher than this."

Paying less than in 1993 does indeed seem a lot like disinvesting in journalism rather than supporting it, but then the Sun always has confused things like journalism with propaganda and quality with bullshit. In fairness to Rebekah Wade she's currently on a piss-up with Murdoch at the World Economic Forum, so isn't responsible for today's completely supreme front page splash:
That's an interview with a cunt, a story about a man walking, and a sub-Daily Sport story about a hospital being haunted. Still, you have to give them some credit: at least they're not currently being as extraordinarily contrary as the Daily Mail, which is supporting a heroin addict over a couple of gay men.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009 

Lording it over us all.

The old cliché regarding political scandals was that Conservatives gave in to temptation over sex, the Profumo affair probably the most notorious, although Cecil Parkinson and David Mellor, not to mention Alan Clark, down the years gave it a run for its money, while Labour MPs sold their souls for money. Perhaps it could be put down to the narrowing of difference between the Tories and Labour that Robin Cook, Ron Davies and David Blunkett all became known for their own sexual dalliances, but few will now forget the loans for peerages affair.

With that in mind, it's no real surprise that the Lords themselves have at long last come under scrutiny. They are the last real target for scandal-mongering: we've had the expenses probes, the immigration and foreign criminal affairs, the hysteria over paedophiles in schools and the already mentioned cash for coronets. Like with the expenses fiddles and the nods and winks in exchange for donations or otherwise leading to peerages and honours, this has also been going on for years. For the most part we've been concerned with the gravy train whereby ministers who find themselves out in the cold suddenly discover that the companies which had an interest in their policy area are prepared to pay for their advice: most notably David Blunkett, having began the ID card process, has been advising the companies bidding for the contract, while at the same time writing newspaper articles and letters without bothering to inform his readers of his own interests; Patricia Hewitt, who did such a wonderful job as health secretary, soon joined Boots and Cinven, involved with BUPA, while also finding time to work for BT, having additionally formerly been a trade minister; then there was Alan Milburn, another former health secretary, who became an advisor to... Pepsico. There are dozens of other examples.

Part of the reason why anyone could have seen this eventually coming is that this government has been more dependent on unelected ministers than any other in the past. The Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform has only three elected ministers; the rest are all Lords, including the prince of darkness himself. Combined with the removal of hereditaries, who often had their own (inherited) fortunes, and the fact that the Lords has now been stuffed even further with first Blair's and now Brown's cronies, as well as those who have retired from their constituency so that young blood can take over their seat in exchange for a seat in the Lords, it's small wonder that the entrapment practised by the Sunday Times hadn't been tried before.

Less easy to propose is just how the Lords should be reformed to reduce the chances of this happening to a minimum. Of course, that the Lords should be elected is apparent, and that the second chamber is still appointed with all that entails is a continuing black mark on our democracy. The saddest thing is that by in effect abolishing the Lords as it currently exists, the end result will almost certainly mean that the second chamber will become just as party political as the Commons is, and with it will go the resistance to which much of Labour's worst legalisation has quite rightly come under. The solution, in turn to that, would be proportional representation, ensuring that no party could ever have as large a majority as Labour had between 97 and 05, and unable to rail-road through so many bad laws as they managed, but Westminster is resistant at the best of times to such sharp, shocking democratic reform, and to do two things at once would almost certainly be an affront too far.

Even with an elected second chamber, we would still have the problem of whether or not the new Lords would be paid, which they would almost certainly have to be to reduce the conflict of interests which are now becoming ever more apparent. Already there is massive resistance to paying politicians anything extra at all, which even when taking into account the generous expenses, MPs are certainly not overpaid for what is a job with long hours (if additionally long holidays) and a heavy workload for little public gratitude in return; paying the Lords, who do far less even if it's still an essential role, would be asking for trouble.

We could just write this off as an anomaly, a case of grasping peers who have already long got fat off the public trough by whoring themselves out to the private one, as Lord Taylor and Lord Truscott are the epitome of. While undoubtedly it still remains the case that we are one of the least corrupt democracies in the world, at the least there has to a mechanism by which peers can be expelled, just as they can currently be denied from taking on the ermine. When Labour tried to introduce something along these lines so that Archer could be prevented from taking to the red benches after his prison sentence, the Conservatives moved to block it, resulting in its dropping. Perhaps Blair already at that time had an inkling of what else was yet to be uncovered and so was happy to oblige; perhaps Labour was just, as usual, moving between cowardice and ruthlessness.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009 

Remembering and forgetting the past.

In a world where the attention span of the average person appears to dim by the year, it's easy to forget that conflicts apparently solved continue to fester long after the settlement itself has been agreed. Even taking this into account, the speed with which Northern Ireland has moved from something regarded as intractable and insolvable to a model for the settlement of other on the surface similar conflicts has been remarkable, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness no longer the hard men of the IRA Army Council, but almost cuddly politicians, Ian Paisley no longer a hate-filled bigot opposed to the slightest of compromises but a laughing first minister, since retired with his place in history assured.

All this has ignored that the tensions beneath the surface remain palpable, the threat from dissidents on both sides apparently increasing, with no real proper attempt made at reconciling the communities that still in many places live apart, isolated, cut off. That previous unsolvable conflict, South Africa, now provides the model, its truth and reconciliation commission providing the unpleasant but necessary bringing together of the disconnected, past crimes repented for and forgiven, tears shed and closure apparently brought. Little is said about how despite the attempts at learning from the past, South Africa's main problem remains the crushing poverty which the black population disproportionately suffers from, with the crime and violence which goes hand in hand crippling the cities, but it still undoubtedly remains the first port of call for lessons in how to bring the wounded together.

You can then only have sympathy for the difficulties in drawing up any sort of action plan or agenda for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, with the Consultative Group on the Past's report being published today (PDF). The main criticism has surrounded the proposed £12,000 to be given to the relatives of those who lost loved ones as a result of the sectarian violence, regardless of whether those involved were paramilitaries or not, which is by any measure something of a crude instrument. For the most part however, the recommendations make sense, and while some have suggested that it's still too soon for such raw wounds to be treated, the argument that they will heal naturally over time is not wholly convincing. While digging deeper into what may have scabbed over will undoubtedly, and naturally, cause further initial pain, the eventual conclusion of shared reconciliation, justice and forgiveness should stop it from later coming to the surface all over again.

The "proposed ex-gratia recognition payment" is therefore especially troublesome because it directly affects the possibility of this process taking place. Its heart, as you might expect, is in the right place: by not distinguishing between those who lost their lives, it tries to stop grievance from arising, further enflaming the situation. By the same token, the fact that it doesn't distinguish means that those who were pure victims of the bombings, kidnappings and assassinations are regarded as being worth the same as potentially the killers themselves; likewise, you simply cannot put a figure of money on a life. £12,000 seems instead to be an insult rather than recognition. You're left with two apparent options, as the others seem even worse: either no payments or payments which don't distinguish at all.

This shouldn't however distract from the other, far more sound recommendations. The legacy commission, to be led by an international figure, seems certain to be headed by Desmond Tutu, the one person who might well be able to stop Northern Ireland from falling into the same mistakes which South Africa's attempt masked over. One thing which all can surely agree on is that there be no more inquiries, like the disaster which has been the Saville report into Bloody Sunday, still yet to report. Few also could disagree from one of the eventual end aims:

The Group therefore recommends that the Commission should, at the end of its work, challenge the people of Northern Ireland, including political parties and whatever remnant or manifestation of paramilitary groups remain, to sign a declaration to the effect that they will never again kill or injure others on political grounds.

One can only hope that such a declaration is eventually signed, and that the Northern Ireland model could one day be used in that other long festering sore, Israel/Palestine.

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The Curious Case of the reverse narrative.

Marcel Berlins notes that the Curious Case of Benjamin Button, ostensibly based upon F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story from the 20s, also shares a storyline with a much more recent novel, the Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer. Whether the screenplay was inspired by a more recent take on the being born old and regressing in age theme, it's hardly one which is entirely unique.

Science fiction especially has often used if not the device of being born old, then certainly the idea of aging backwards. Even more notable, at least in my opinion, was the use of the theme by Martin Amis in his 1991 novel Time's Arrow, one of his lesser known but exceptionally well judged works. Taking its cue from how the doctors in concentration camps harmed rather than healed, a reversal of their natural role, everything is backwards, with the German war criminal who managed to escape to the United States un-noticed going from his death, to practicing as a GP, to finally back to alongside Mengel himself. While Amis's powers have dimmed notably from his heyday, his use of language no longer used to illuminate and astound but more to bludgeon, as his essays on the war on terror testify, few writers could have kept the central conceit going so vividly, especially when writing on as sensitive a subject as the Holocaust. The reverse narrative results not in the deaths of those condemned to die, but their revival, and with it, rather than the extermination of an entire race, their creation. It's not only a masterfully simple way of broaching the horror, it also gives hope itself: Amis's point, as well as showing the reversal of humanity, is that even from the most terrible of acts something new emerges. A message far more substantial than that which Benjamin Button even begins to offer.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009 

A night to dismember.

Billed as her first major speech in six years, or rather appearance, as the Sun's editor, Rebekah Wade, is notoriously shy of the limelight, the invitation for her to deliver this year's Hugh Cudlipp lecture was a curious one. Although the press is too coy to mention it, the real reason why Wade has not defended her newspaper in person when controversy has surrounded it, instead sending out Grahan Dudman to do it, is for fear that she'd embarrass herself, as she did when she rather unfortunately told the truth to a parliamentary committee by saying that her paper paid the police for information. Then there was of course her arrest and night spent in the cells for whacking her then husband, Ross Kemp, after a night on the booze. Again, interestingly, most of the media connived to cover up her split from Kemp, with Private Eye reporting that Les Hinton had phoned round the papers pleading with them not to report on it. For an editor whom in her speech defends vigorously the right to print whatever the hell she likes about those supposedly in the public eye, this strikes as rather hypocritical behaviour.

There is perhaps though another reason why Wade has not ventured into the public gaze for the past few years, which quickly becomes apparent when you read the actual content of her speech: she has nothing of any great interest to say. You don't need to be an intellectual to edit an newspaper, and Wade is probably excellent at what she does, but an orator or a debater she is obviously not. Compared to Paul Dacre, who likewise is supposedly shy of the limelight, his speeches, which included the very same lecture a couple of years back, are furious and infuriating by equal measure. He might be completely wrong, and arrogant and insulting with it, but he can argue his point well enough. Wade however lacks the courage or self-belief to adequately cover the contradictions throughout, leaving gaping holes in her material.

She might well have been then as Roy Greenslade suggests, charming in person, but none of that comes across in the somewhat disjointed full text offered by both the Guardian and the Press Gazette. Starting on somewhat surer ground, she illustrates that those cutting costs without reinvesting the savings back into journalism itself are the ones that are losing the most sales. Unsurprisingly, the Mirror and the Daily Star are the ones that have lost the most sales over the past year. Even this though leaves out some other much needed explanatory detail: Wade doesn't mention that her own paper has reignited the vicious price war, with the paper selling for just 20p across London and the south-east. As has been noted time and again, because of Murdoch's other vast interests, he can afford to do so; his competitors simply can't, and attempting to compete is beyond stupid. Naturally, Richard Desmond has therefore slashed the cost of the Star to... 20p. Although December is always a quiet month for newspapers sales, the Sun fell below 3 million last month, just as it did in 2007. Across the board though all of the tabloids are declining, and falling at far faster rates than their broadsheets rivals and sisters. It indicates the inevitable: that as the internet increasingly takes over as the main source for the celeb tittle-tattle, scandal-mongering and populist wittering which they specialise in, the tabloids are facing the end of their business models. The broadsheets, by contrast, although still giving away their content, can survive thanks to their quality and reader dedication, which simply isn't there among the red-tops and middle-market.

Wade's rallying cry then, that it will be "the quality of our journalism [that] makes or breaks our industry, not the recession", is one of those statements that makes you wonder if she really knows what she's saying. Just the recent Glen Jenvey incident, when the paper splashed on a complete untrue concocted story which accused completely innocent Muslims of being extremists, shows how much it cares about accuracy. It's no surprise to learn that a new poll found that only 19% of those questioned in this country had trust in newspapers. This is a direct consequence of the tabloids' often irresponsible and downright untrue journalism, which unfairly infects opinion of other newspapers and broadcasters, yet still editors like Dacre and Wade defend their "quality" despite its effects.

Wade's second theme, campaigning journalism, offers us her insight into both the recent Baby P affair and the more notorious "naming and shaming" of paedophiles she directed while editor of the News of the World, but first she mentions the paper's continuing support for the Help for Heroes charity, including her own trip to a base in Helmand. She describes a warm welcome and how everyone was wearing the wristbands, but this jars somewhat with the far more cynical views of the newspaper on the Army Reserve Rumour Service message board in response to the paper's Military Awards, which Wade also mentions, and which readers themselves also seemed less than overwhelmed with. She takes credit for the increasing support for the army and turnout at parades, without providing any evidence whatsoever that it was the Sun "wot did it". Similarly, while she calls for more reporting of the war in Afghanistan, she doesn't mention that her paper's own coverage of it never for so much of a second doubts that it's for a good cause or that the battle is being won. Whenever the topic is discussed in the paper's leader column, it inevitably turns to the argument that fighting the Taliban makes us safer, when again there is evidence to suggest the opposite is the case. Blind loyalty is all that it has to offer, when constructive criticism is always the best policy.

Moving on to Sarah's law, what becomes clear is Wade's utter refusal to take responsibility, both for her own actions, and also for the actions of those who read her newspaper and decide to take the law into their own hands. Illuminating firstly is that it came about after she arrived unannounced on Sara Payne's doorstep; not apparently concerned about whether either she or her husband were in a fit state to be interviewed, or to set in motion what became a crusade which if implemented would most likely have the opposite effect to that which is intended, Wade immediately had her witch-hunt. Her own contempt for the truth is also apparent when she castigates the other media for its reporting of what happened on one Portsmouth estate:

Parts of the media went on the attack with a blatant disregard for the facts of the campaign or more importantly their readers’ opinions on the matter.

After we published the first list, a group of mothers from an impoverished housing estate in Portsmouth took to the streets to protest. The BBC described them as ‘an angry lynch mob’.

What the BBC did not report was that the mothers had just discovered that Victor Burnett, a paedophile with 14 convictions for raping and abusing young boys between the ages of four and nine, had been rehoused amongst them unmonitored by the authorities.

Totally unaware of his background, the residents had complained for years about Burnett’s inappropriate behaviour towards their children but their voices, until then, had remained unheard.

How else should the media have described protests such as these, as reported by the Telegraph:

The torch paper was lit by the naming of Victor Burnett, a convicted serial child abuser, in the News of the World: he was a resident of Paulsgrove and was hounded from his home by a chanting mob. Events moved out of control: the rest of Britain looked on in horror and fascination as windows were smashed, cars burned, and angelic, banner-waving five-year-olds happily chanted words that sounded ugly falling from childish mouths. "Sex case, sex case. Hang 'em, hang 'em, hang 'em." Five families were moved from the estate: the police said that none had links with sex offences.

There was no evidence that Burnett had re-offended while on Paulsgrove, but at least he was correctly identified: others had their houses burgled, windows smashed and their cars set on fire. Wade calls the "naming and shaming" her responsibility, which it was. She however hides behind the readers themselves, critical of how others disregarded "readers' opinions", as if readers' opinions are always unimpeachable or always right. As Nick Davies pointed out in Flat Earth News, one of the rules of production is giving the readers what they want, but what
you think the readers want is not always the same thing. The key is that it's cheap, while challenging orthodoxy is expensive and unpredictable.

That Wade has no interest in the ultimate consequences of her own actions could not be more illustrated by the end result of the paper's Baby P campaign. Here's how she describes it:

Campaigns provide a unique connection to the public especially when the subject matter is of a serious nature.For me, nothing can illustrate this connection better than our recent Baby P campaign.

The public outcry was deafening. And we began our fight for justice with a determination to expose the lack of accountability and responsibility for Baby P’s brutal death.

We delivered 1.5 million signatures to Downing Street and the collective power worked.

Children’s Secretary Ed Balls was forced to use emergency legislation to ensure that those responsible were held to account. We received many many thousands of letters at The Sun about our Baby P coverage.

I’d like to read you one: ‘I have never been a huge fan of The Sun, however I thank you for the coverage of Baby P. I am so grateful for the campaign. This is not a modern day witch-hunt but a petition for justice. Please, please do not relent.'

In contrast, I’d like to quote from an article in... The Guardian.

“Full of fury and repellent hysteria, but isn’t that part of the game? This is less about the creation of public emotion and more about its manipulation."

This knee-jerk tabloid kicking reaction is just dull.

But total disregard and respect for public opinion never ceases to amaze me.

They demanded accountability.

And as a result of the campaign, some, just some, of those responsible were removed from office without compensation.

Or as this Sun reader wrote: ‘The tabloid press, which the arty-farty press like to look down on so much, has shown that it prides morality over political correctness.’

Again, there's the lack of evidence that Shoesmith and others wouldn't have been suspended or sacked if the Sun hadn't ran its campaign. Some sort of action was always going to be taken. Again, Wade hides behind supposed public opinion: it's what "they" want, not what she wants or what's good for Murdoch's bank balance. It's not about directing the blame onto other people because those actually responsible for Baby P's death couldn't be named and demonised themselves because the cogs of justice are still whirring in connected cases, it's about so-called justice, or even morality. The result? A new boss has been installed in Haringey, on double what Sharon Shoesmith was earning, while the borough is now so desperate for social workers that the head of the department made an appeal across London for some to be lent him. Children less safe, those who worked on the case who were already likely distraught had their lives ruined, and now the service, what's left of it, costs more. A more ringing endorsement of a Sun justice campaign could hardly be imagined, and yet still Wade feels fit to quote a reader who invokes morality. This so-called morality was presumably what lead the comment sections on the Sun's articles to be shut down, where previously already suicidal social workers had been encouraged to kill themselves. The only more immoral paper in this country is the Daily Mail.

Filled with such chutzpah, it's little wonder that Wade then goes on to make an even more outrageous statement, this time involving press freedom:

This country is full of regulators, lawyers and politicians eager to frame and implement legislation that would constrain freedoms hard won over centuries.

We are already losing those freedoms. Privacy legislation is being created by the drip, drip of case law in the High Court without any reference to parliament.

This from the editor of an newspaper which as the Heresiarch has already pointed out, has never so much as raised its voice once against this government's incessant attacks on civil liberties. In fact, on nearly every occasion it's supported them, whether it be ID cards, detention without trial or its constant bugbear, the Human Rights Act, which it opposed while the government introduced it. She's also completely wrong: parliament passed the HRA, which now so apparently threatens the tabloids' and their dying business model by potentially restricting the scandals they can report. This is also an issue on which public opinion is not necessarily on their side: few cared about Max Mosley, or even knew who he was until the News of the World exposed him while blackmailing the women who spanked him. The HRA doesn't affect real scandal, like the already monikered "Erminegate", which is why no one other than the tabloids and their editors care, and why the Guardian was completely right to print Mosley's own views on press freedom, which she criticises, no doubt intending to be humourous, as "self-flagellation". When she talks about quality, a old man being spanked by prostitutes is the sort of story she means.

Having regaled stories about how much the Sun listens to its readers, she concludes with a few questions which can be happily answered:

We need to ask ourselves: Can we unite to fight against a privacy law that has no place in a democracy?

Obviously not, as firstly there isn't one, isn't going to be one, and even if there was, it wouldn't be supported when it would only cover sex scandals involving celebrities. Next!

Can we agree that self-regulation is the best way to deal with the occasional excesses of a free press?

No, not when the regulator is completely toothless and cannot impose financial sanctions or front page apologies on newspapers when the "excesses" are serious enough, as they often are.

Can we have a press that has the courage and commitment to listen to and fight for its readers?

Not when no thought is put into whether the consequences of that courage and commitment will actually result in a positive outcome.

Can we survive this economic climate if we keep investment in journalism at the heart of what we do?

Not if what you call journalism is whatever's on the front page of tomorrow's Sun (Jade Goody and a footballer being interviewed about a rape).

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Monday, January 26, 2009 

A true victims' champion.

It's a truly inspirational choice on the part of government to make Sara Payne "victims' champion" for just one simple reason. If she was to get her way, the one thing you can rest assured there would be is more victims. Payne's campaign, thankfully mostly frustrated, has been to introduce a version of Megan's law in this country. The NSPCC published an extensive report which looked in detail into the evidence for whether the law had worked - and found that there was nothing to suggest that any child had been made safer as a result. On the contrary, there is evidence to suggest the opposite - that registration levels of sex offenders, which had previously been over 90%, had dropped to 80%, while the recording of vigilante attacks against those "named and shamed" was hardly bothered with. When the purpose of the law is to make offenders more visible and children as a result safer, that seems as close to failing as it's possible to imagine.

Payne's appointment if anything seems to be a government attempt to deflect flak. Having already buttered her up by giving her an MBE in the New Year's honours, she's doubtless to be more inclined to defend the government than say, a Helen Newlove. She's already stated that she thought she was treated excellently by the system, while Newlove complained bitterly about her experience. Whenever a tabloid now complains about how shoddy the criminal justice system is, they can point to Payne and say look, we are doing something, honest!

While Blair's mission to "rebalance the justice system in favour of the victim" has been quietly abandoned under Brown, again thankfully, Payne's appointment is still the hint that the government is beholden to the view that the criminals have it all their own way and that prison is now comparable to a stay in a more regimental, same-sex Butlins. Louise Casey's report last year, the introduction of the "community payback" jackets, and Payne's own view that it's the criminals who have all the organisations supporting them, similar to comments by Jack Straw late last year about the "criminal justice lobby", are all part of the government's attempts to try to fight this increasingly popular opinion while still giving succour to it. Along with the deliberate suffocation of individual liberties, the casual attitude towards things such as the principle of being innocent until proven guilty, as well as the increasing implication that rights are things which only criminals and terrorists have, this all invariably leads to the same ultimate conclusions: that prison works, that it's better to be safe than be sorry and that suggesting the opposite is approaching seditious. The CJS can and should be improved, and victims' rights as well as those of the accused have to be respected, but nothing whatsoever is to be gained by pretending that until convicted one has more than the other.

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Objectivity is a lie which the DEC appeal proves.

Watching the DEC's appeal for aid donations, it's apparent why both the BBC and Sky refused to show it: it puts their own reporting to shame. In three short minutes it clearly and astutely summarises how the Palestinians in Gaza were living even before the 22-day onslaught began, without making so much as a political point throughout. It does however at the same time evocatively suggest that someone, ultimately, is responsible for this very man-made disaster, and that, without a shadow of doubt, is Israel, not Hamas.

Objectivity is, and always has been, a lie. There is no such thing as complete impartiality; there is however trying to be as neutral as you possibly can be. When a state is pounding a tiny, cut-off piece of territory where half the population are classified as children, to be completely impartial is a nonsense, just as when the response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was so woeful as to be useless the reporters there noticeably became angrier at the richest nation on Earth abandoning some of its poorest citizens to their fate. That quite possibly marked the true turning point in the Bush presidency. Likewise, that the BBC (we can safely disregard Sky's decision, as Murdoch has made clear in the past that if he could he'd turn Sky News into a British version of Fox he would) somehow thinks that broadcasting an appeal for help for Gaza would damage its impartiality when its own reporters have reported on the devastation and its obvious causes is equivalent to someone who leads you on all night then slams the door in your face after taking you home. It's a snub, and a completely petty one at that. The BBC may as well, as others have done, equate all Palestinians, or all Gazans, as Hamas, and therefore not worthy of aid or trusted enough not to spend it on weapons. Its own behaviour has breached its impartiality far more than screening the ad would have done.

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Bad law day.

Not just one, but two incredibly bad laws came into effect today - the reclassification of cannabis to Class B, which will inevitably result in more otherwise completely harmless individuals being prosecuted and potentially having their lives ruined just because they smoke one weed rather than another, and the criminalisation of "extreme pornography", which will inevitably result in more otherwise completely harmless individuals being prosecuted and potentially having their lives ruined just because they get turned on by things that others might find repulsive or sickening despite no harm being done to anyone in the making of said arousing images or video.

Next on Labour's agenda is naturally making the buying of sex from someone "controlled" for someone else's gain equivalent in the eyes of the law to rape. To suggest this might be a slow process building up to an even more unpleasant final reckoning might not be any longer being paranoid.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009 

Weekend links.

Is this what Ross and Brand has wrought? A BBC that plays safe on everything, including supposed breaching impartiality? That can surely be the only explanation for the continuing refusal to screen the DEC Gaza appeal, even after ITV and Channel 4 have signed off on it.

Mark Thompson is an unconvincing as they get:

Inevitably an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations. The danger for the BBC is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story. When we have turned down DEC appeals in the past on impartiality grounds it has been because of this risk of giving the public the impression that the BBC was taking sides in an ongoing conflict.

The BBC has run DEC appeals for Sudan and Congo recently, neither of which are natural disasters but man-made ones. Going back decades it ran a DEC appeal for Vietnam, again with no apparent qualms. There's two conclusions: either the BBC are terrified of further accusations of anti-Israeli bias, or they're just terrified full stop. I think it's the latter. Craig Murray, the Heresiarch, Back Towards the Locus and Marina Hyde all comment further. More widely on Gaza/Israel, Joanna Blythman puts the case for a boycott of Israeli produce while Seth Freedman puts the case against, and Bleeding Heart Show comments on Jeremy Greenstock's call to negotiate with Hamas.

Elsewhere, it seems everyone has been Obama'd out, as there isn't much else going on. The closest we come to another topic is the economy, predictably, with Andrew Grice, Adrian Hamilton, Matthew Parris and Peter Oborne all comment variously. Christina Patterson breaks the theme by riffing on the Runnymede report, especially its conclusions on prejudice against the white working class.

As for worst tabloid article of the weekend, it's a toss-up. You can go with yet another a tedious article on Sachsgate in the Mail, where Baillie's mother now turns up to tell her tale of woe for cash, or with Chris Grayling's pledge that zero tolerance policing will be introduced under the Tories. As usual when referring to New York's bringing down of the crime rate, no mention is made of the associated reforms apart from the "broken windows" myth, or the alternative explanations for the reduction in crime. Nowhere does Grayling say how he'll provide all the extra prison places needed for such a crack-down, but that could be expected from the semi-literate rant he provides the Sun with. When you put Amanda Platell to shame, you know you've hit rock bottom.

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Friday, January 23, 2009 

The recession blues.

We can now at least be grateful for the small mercy that we are officially in recession; we've already become so used to the fact that the news itself has only caused something approaching a small ripple, both markets and the pound recovering from drops earlier in the day, but for those of us who have only distant memories of the last recession, which includes almost all of those in their early to mid-twenties, things are undoubtedly about to become a whole lot bleaker.

While the 1.6% drop in the last quarter was higher than expected, it's the other figures that cast further light on how what started with the poor in America defaulting has now spread across the globe, infecting most severely our already distressed manufacturing base, where output fell by 4.6%. Most surprising probably of all was that even growth in the government sector fell by 0.5%, an indication of how bad things are likely to get. Likewise, the 1.6% growth in retail sales last month may as well be a mirage: boosted by the VAT cut and the panic discounting prior to Christmas, which has continued throughout this month, it simply cannot continue. More household names are likely to close their doors as the months pass.

Much of this was predictable: when you have an extended boom, especially one built upon massively inflated house prices and unprecedented private borrowing, the inevitable bust is always going to be painfully extended. This was the undoubted hubris, not just of the prime minister but of the vast majority of politicians. The last few elections were not fought on the economy, but on the public services and social issues. So too was the next one thought to be: under Cameron, the Conservatives offered even less than Howard and Hague. Sunshine was meant to win the day, the great gods of the macroeconomic cycle having decided that this was the End of History. Even after 9/11 destroyed the tiny basis for that claim, we still imagined the economic case to be sound. This bust is indicative not just of those politicians who believed it, but also the whole school of economic theorists who similarly declared that the free-market was the be all and end all, and that only governments and regulation were to blame for not delivering the full benefits of unleashing it wholesale.

In short, hardly anyone saw this coming when it was so completely predictable. You would therefore expect that the response would be humility from all sides, admitting they were wrong. With the exception of the odd columnist in the Times, this has been noticeable for its absence. No one really thinks that Gordon Brown, who whilst not arrogant is as stubborn as feasibly imaginable, is going to own up and admit that his claim to have abolished boom and bust was wrong, but the least he should be doing is now coming straight with us and saying that we face an exceptionally bleak economic prospect over the next year. We are not, as he repeatedly claimed, among the best placed to weather the financial storm; we are in fact one of the worst placed. This though too has been following the pattern which has emerged over the past 6 months. When Alistair Darling said in his Grauniad interview that we were facing the worst economic situation for over half a century, he was denounced. He was right. When George Osborne suggested that the amount of debt were taking on was likely to cause a run on the pound, he was criticised. He was right. When David Cameron now says that we could well have to go cap in hand to the IMF, he too might well be proved right. Nothing should be ruled out.

This isn't to agree with the Conservative's predictable positioning, which is to blame everything on Labour. If they had won in 2005 we would now be facing the exact same recession, possibly an even worse one if they had quickly introduced some of the policies which featured in John Redwood's later economic review. Labour's claims that this is all the fault of a global crisis are equally hollow. Countries which had far tighter regulated banking systems and the absence of such an inflated property bubble are not facing the same problems. Either one or the other can cause disaster, for which see Spain, which has a tight system of banking regulation but an absurdly out of control property market. For the former, we have not just one or two but three people to blame. The Financial Services Authority and and the tri-partite system of financial regulation was the direct creation of Brown, Balls and Gus O'Donnell. Paul Mason, who thankfully has a longer memory than others, recalls a speech by Blair towards the end of his tenure which was highly critical of the FSA for being too burdensome, for inhibiting the perfectly efficient and non-fradulent business of companies which were doubtless complaining too him about it all being so unfair. Who knows, perhaps it even included Northern Rock. Likewise, later in 2007 Gordon Brown, in his Mansion House speech, suggested to doubtless warm applause that the City was on the edge of a new golden age. It was instead on the edge of a precipice, but it's easy to mistake one for the other.

Neither the bankers, the politicians or the regulators are those will suffer the most from this recession, however much we would like it to be the case. Instead it's going to be the poorest, the ordinary workers now about to be drafted into James Purnell's welfare reform experiment. Already even the slightest thing to resemble largesse is being denounced, whether it be the "underserving" likes of Afghan families living in supposed mansions, the radio station for prisons which cost a massive £2 million, or less easy to justify, the bonuses for Northern Rock workers. They were though after all taking a leaf out of the book of their former bosses, so who could really blame them? Our apoplexy will not turn on those who brought us into this mess, but on those supposedly taking liberties. What already resembles a cruel nation will turn even crueller. What should be an opportunity for the left seems to have already been spurned, not helped by the fact that an authoratarian party masquerading as left-wing has been in power for approaching 12 years. Things can only get better, but they'll probably only get worse before that happens.

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Londoners still getting the papers they don't deserve.

You really have to admire the breath-taking chutzpah of the London Paper, owned by that notorious progressive, Rupert Murdoch:

News International's the London Paper ran a full-page house ad yesterday gloating about the sale of rival title the London Evening Standard to Alexander Lebedev "for the price of a chocolate bar".


Branding the sale of a 75.1% share in the Evening Standard by Lord Rothermere, chairman of the Daily Mail & General Trust, as a "fire sale", the ad claims the reason is simple – that "Londoners wanted the paper they deserved".

"Our great capital had grown tired of a newspaper that had long abused its monopoly to portray the most vibrant, dynamic city on earth in a negative, reactionary light, alien to the majority of its inhabitants," the ad said.

Strange then that this great country has not grown tired of a newspaper that has long abused its monopoly to portray the most vibrant, dynamic country on earth in a negative, reactionary light then, isn't it?

While the above could apply to both the Daily Mail and the Sun (and only they could describe this country as the most vibrant and dynamic on earth while in the next leader comment denouncing welfare scum), the only reason that Evening Standard has been sold off is because the market itself was collapsing even before the arrival of the new free papers. All of the London daily newspapers are dreadful, including the Standard, but the Standard was the least worst because it actually contained the odd piece of news. The London Paper and London Lite by contrast aren't newspapers, they're celebrity freesheets, filled with utter crap stolen from the daillies and the other stuff that even the Mail and the Sun won't print. The only reason TLP could be in the slightest described as non-reactionary is because it doesn't contain any political views, or comment; if it did, you can rest assured that it would the same low-rent garbage that appears in the Sun or Mail.

In those circumstances, you could describe the sale of the Standard as a triumph for News International. After all, what they've always wanted is either no political comment whatsoever, or political comment so skewed to the right that the average 3-year-old can blow holes through it. Both intrisincally defend the status quo, which is want Murdoch wants more than anything.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009 

An end to torture porn?

The inauguration ceremony was terrible, but no one can honestly say that Obama hasn't lived up to his promises so far:

Barack Obama embarked on the wholesale deconstruction of George Bush's war on terror, shutting down the CIA's secret prison network, banning torture and rendition, and calling for a new set of rules for detainees. The repudiation of Bush's thinking on national security yesterday also saw the appointment of a high-powered envoy to the Middle East.

Of interest here is that we were explicitly told by Bush and co that the "black sites" had already been shut down. This was always dubious because some of the prisoners that were known to have been captured by the Americans, or captured by others and rendered into their care had simply disappeared. Unless they were tortured so badly that they died or committed suicide, they must presumably still be out there somewhere.

The thing that's so invigorating about Obama's initial moves is because it's all been so effortless: just a simple issuing of decrees and the abuses of the Bush adminstration have been washed away, almost as if they never existed. That's part of the problem: however much praise Obama and his team deserve for moving so swiftly to end his predecessor's crimes, we still shouldn't forget that this nation which supposedly didn't and would never torture did so with such ease and with so little soul-searching. Our abiding image of it though isn't those who adminstered the worst of it, or those who authorised it, but instead most probably Lynndie England, cigarette in mouth, pointing at the limp dicks of her captives. How fitting that those who thought they were the cocks of the walk have had their little empire brought down to size so swiftly.

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The Palestinians of Gaza - not human enough, obviously.

This is shocking:

The BBC has refused to broadcast a national humanitarian appeal for Gaza, leaving aid agencies with a potential shortfall of millions of pounds in donations.

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella organisation for 13 aid charities, launched its appealtoday saying the devastation in Gaza was “so huge that British aid agencies were compelled to act”.

But the BBC made a rare breach of an agreement dating back to 1963 when it announced it would not give free airtime to the appeal. Other broadcasters then followed suit. Previously, broadcasters have agreed on the video and script to be used with the DEC, with each station choosing a presenter to front the appeal, shown after primetime news bulletins.

The BBC said it was not the first time broadcasters had refused to show a DEC appeal.

The corporation said it had been concerned about the difficulties of getting aid through to victims in a volatile situation. The BBC, which has faced criticism in the past over alleged bias in its coverage of the Middle East, said it did not want to risk public confidence in its impartiality.

The DEC’s chief executive, Brendan Gormley, said the decision could have a big impact on its appeal. “We are used to our appeal getting into every household and offering a safe and necessary way for people to respond. This time we will have to work a lot harder because we won’t have the free airtime or the powerful impact of appearing on every TV and radio station.”


A BBC spokesperson said: “Along with other broadcasters, the BBC has decided not to broadcast the DEC’s public appeal to raise funds for Gaza. The BBC decision was made because of question marks about the delivery of aid in a volatile situation and also to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story. However, the BBC will of course continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza.”

In other words, the BBC have given in to those just waiting to grasp at the slightest hint of bias before they'd even had a chance to. It wasn't as if this was just going to be on the BBC; the other channels would have carried it as well. They've in effect decided that the Palestinians of Gaza are not as human or as equal as those who have been victims of natural disasters; it seems it would take something far worse than the man-made carnage Israel visited upon Gaza for the impoverished and hungry citizens of a tiny, cut off piece of land to be treated the same as everyone else.

I didn't think that the BBC's coverage of the assault on Gaza was that bad, or certainly not as terrible as some of those on the fringes of the left thought, judging by there being another protest outside the BBC this Saturday before the march heads to Downing Street. You get the feeling that if the BBC doesn't change its minds about this tomorrow that they'll be a hell of a lot more there than there otherwise would have been.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009 

A welcome back to Ken Clarke.

Probably the most astonishing thing about the last few months politically has been one of the things that has been barely touched on: just how badly the Conservatives have been doing when they should be, by rights, decimating Labour in the polls and potentially getting ready for government. By badly we have to keep things in perspective: at no point has Labour actually regained the lead in the opinion polls, although it has come strikingly close to it in some. Looking back historically however, Labour after the 92 election consistently led the Conservatives in the polls, sometimes by ludicrous figures of 25%+. The Conservatives for a while managed comparable figures in the middle of last year, before the second Brown bounce after the bail out took full effect.

Things have since improved, the gloom of January, the ever rising toll of job losses, and now increasingly the beleaguered nature of both Brown and Darling, no longer looking like they know what they're doing, or rather at least not radiating the confidence which infected the former during the initial stages of the banking crisis, all coming into effect.

Less immediate will be the impact of the bringing back of Ken Clarke, a move long mooted and encouraged but which still seemed unlikely. Looking at the Conservative front bench today, excepting Clarke, it was impossible not to see a group of grey men, one which you'd find it difficult to have any confidence in. The wider Conservative reshuffle, and Cameron's strange refusal to bring back the irascible David Davis, still apparently smarting from his decision to resign and fight for a principle, said much the same: for all the boasts that Cameron's shadow cabinet now contains more women than Brown's, all, except for perhaps Theresa May, moved to Shadow Work and Pensions, are in the jobs which rarely result in them appearing on our screens. Similarly mystifying was the move of Chris Grayling, a true grey, underwhelming man if ever there was one, to shadow home secretary. When we have a government which is so apparently wedded to the casual dilution, even evaporation of our civil liberties, you want someone in the seat opposite to have something approaching credentials for fighting against such policies. Say what you will about Davis's support for capital punishment and hard-line approach to immigration, you knew where he stood on ID cards, 42 days and everything in-between. His first replacement Dominic Grieve, moved back to his former job as shadow justice secretary, was never likely to live up to Davis's success in outliving, even bringing down consecutive home secretaries, but apart from his supposed libertarian leanings he made truly abysmal speeches and comments on the Human Rights Act and came across as having been promoted above his competence.

All the immediate comparisons regarding Clarke's re-entry to the shadow cabinet were to Brown's far more surprising offering of a job to Mandelson, to whom Clarke will shadow, but to compare the two any further than that is more than a disservice to Ken. Both might be widely disliked amongst the parties' respective core supporters, but Clarke is lovable, affable and endearing when Mandelson is a person you suspect only a mother could truly love. Doubtless that is part of the reason why Mandelson succeeded in most of what he did outside of his resignations; even those that loathed him seem to have a grudging respect. Clarke on the other hand has always been, along with Alan Duncan, regardless of his involvement with Vitoil, the "acceptable" Conservative, the ones that don't instantly set your teeth on edge. Compared to George Osborne, supposedly having lessons in how not to make people resort to violence on hearing or seeing him, there simply isn't a contest. It helps also that as Cameron retorted at PMQs today, he has something of a shining record as the last Conservative chancellor.

It might well have been coincidence, but today was also the first PMQs for quite some time when Cameron comprehensively scored a victory. Brown was so desperate to change the subject away from the economy that he brought up the completely irrelevant fact of Clarke's differences with most of his Tory colleagues on Europe, when surely more damaging would have been Clarke's also apparent agreement with Brown on the need for a stimulus, that the VAT cut wasn't completely idiotic or a "bombshell" as the Conservatives portrayed it, and that anyone going into the next election promising tax cuts was asking for trouble. For someone who appeared to be finally getting better at the dispatch box, it was embarrassing, and the silence on the Labour benches was eerily apparent.

When criticising Conservative politicians you can't of course ignore the fact that there are much the same problems on the Labour benches, with the added disadvantage that these less than promising individuals are actually in power. The only consolation is that we know the Conservatives would introduce even more swingeing reforms of benefits than James Purnell is proposing; there is however no one quite as pompous or over-promoted on the opposite side as Geoff "Buff" Hoon, and that only Harriet Harman could possibly be so utterly stupid as to try to block freedom of information requests on MP's spending in the current economic situation. Not that the Tory shadows would be much better in the same jobs, and indeed, the idea of George Osborne being chancellor is terrifying in the extreme. Likewise, Eric Pickles, the new party chairman, who is doubtless very popular with the Tory grassroots, seems such a throwback to Thatcherite days that he appears to have the exact same bulk as the pre-diet Nigel Lawson.

The bringing back of Clarke bears further comparison to Brown's strategy for a further reason: while Brown has been apparently desperate to put back together the original New Labour coalition, sans Blair, with the equally dislikable Alan Milburn also brought back into the fold, Clarke is from an even earlier era. The difference is that his stretches in Thatcher's government, and spell as, however humourously aesthetically, health secretary, have been all but forgotten. We instead remember him as chancellor, as the successive leadership challenger that could have restored the Tories' fortunes earlier if only he could have closed the chasm between himself and the rest of the party over Europe. Mandelson and the rest just remind us, quite rightly, of spin and the decadence now in retrospect of the early New Labour years. He might well be, as Lord Tebbit characterised him, lazy, but his laziness might just be the thing that convinces those uncertain of the economics of Osborne that there is something of substance there after all.

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War crimes and the second revenge of Hamas.

It's always morbidly amusing the way that Israel announces it's investigating what may or may not have happened during its latest military escapade to have unfortunately resulted in the premature evacuation of souls. The reality is that it knows full well in almost all of the cases exactly what happened without any need to investigate further - hence the very quick indeed discovery that at least 200 white phosphorus shells were fired into Gaza over the 3-week period, with the likewise by no means whatsoever doubtful claim that 180 of them hit their target, which was naturally either Hamas fighters or rocket launchers. 20 of these shells, again if we are to believe the Israelis, seem to have either gone missing or been potentially used for purposes other than targeting of the "enemy", with apparently conclusive evidence that at least three hit the UNRWA's compound, destroying the food and medicine in their warehouses.

The use of white phosphorus, which international law explicitly states has to be used with great caution around civilians, seems to only be the tip of the iceberg of the breaching of the Geneva conventions in Gaza. Numerous stories of children being shot dead by Israeli troops are beginning to emerge, as are reports of the summary demolition of houses that had dared to get in the way of the IDF's advance, regardless of whether or not they had any civilians in them. It's little wonder that the media were until Friday when Egypt began letting in some journalists from their side of the border deliberately kept out - the Western, more respected media would have been forced into broadcasting the same reports which al-Jazeera and the other outlets with Palestinians on the ground carried, potentially further raising the anger and putting more pressure on politicians to demand an end to the conflict.

As could have been predicted, the tunnels which Israel were trying to destroy are already back up and running, if indeed they had been closed during the bombardment itself. The troops may now have withdrawn back to the border, but the crossings into Gaza remain closed; even with more aid now being allowed in, the tunnels will still be helping to keep the impoverished and cut-off citizens off the territory from suffering too badly from the shortages. With the food, livestock and cigarettes will doubtless also come the rockets, the other part of the justification for the murderous assault on the territory.

At the beginning of the week it looked as if this could have been a decisive blow against Hamas, and yesterday's puerile victory rallies were a sign of weakness, not strength, but the hours are already beginning to show the events in a different light. Negotiation with Hamas looks more and more unavoidable, especially as Obama is apparently living up to his pledge to talk to Iran without pre-conditions. When Israel assassinted Sheikh Yassin, the almost blind, disabled spiritual leader of Hamas in a truly cowardly Hellfire missile strike, the organisation had its revenge in their victory in the elections. Their revenge this time round may well turn out to be that "Operation Cast Lead" has not even began to destroy them - but instead left them as the de facto Palestinian group to which both Israel and the US will eventually have to deal with.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009 

Are we about to become utterly fucked?

It's understandable that a lot of people are getting terribly excited about someone who isn't a Bush ascending to the presidency of the United States of America, but left behind has been a major lack of any real substantive comment on the latest bail out of the banks, or rather, as it's beginning to already look, the further throwing of money at a lost cause.

Even if you opposed the original bail out, few were so dismissive of Brown and Darling to claim that they didn't know what they were doing; quite the opposite in fact. While they may have been authoratitive then, they were left looking anything but yesterday morning. They're not helped by the fact that no one, including them, has any idea of just how much effectively providing insurance to the banks for their losses in exchange for them to return to lending is going to cost, for the simple reason that no one it seems, Brown and Darling included, still has any idea of just how much the banks have lost through the collapse of the sub-prime market. This is part of the reason why the City has took such fright and been getting out of Royal Bank of Scotland as quickly as it can - when a bank that is over 70% owned by the state is still not potentially revealing the true nature of its losses, already estimated at £28bn, the idea that RBS is in fact bankrupt and has only been propped up the taxpayer quickly gains traction.

To give an indication of just how quickly we might be moving from another bail-out to full nationalisation of most, if not all of the banks, John McFall, chairman of the Treasury select committee and regarded as close to Gordon Brown, is already calling for both RBS and Lloyds to be fully nationalised, in what could well be a softening up exercise. The implications of such a move should not be understated - taking RBS alone into the public sector would put more than a year's GDP onto the already massive and continually growing national debt. With this fast becoming an increasingly ominous prospect, there's already talk that this could result, inevitably, in a sovereign debt crisis, where the buyers of the debt refuse to take any more, leaving us to go cap in hand to the IMF and also probably the EU.

For the moment this is not yet a full-blown crisis - undoubtedly Ireland and the United States itself are in far more dire straits than we are - but the underlying cause remains the same. For all the talk from the government that this is an American problem imported here on the back of the collapse in the US housing market, it was the hubris of Brown in imagining that he had abolished bust while instituting a light-touch regulatory system which in fact turned out to be a no-touch regulatory system which allowed our own banks to get involved in the toxic loans in the first place. Undoubtedly, the main share of the blame should fall on the bankers themselves, especially the likes of "Sir" Fred Goodwin, who slashed jobs while devouring the likes of ABN Amaro in a truly disastrous predatory move. They were however encouraged by a government which had fallen completely for the mantra of neo-liberalism in the City whilst expanding the public sector too quickly. As ever, New Labour wanted results and it wanted them fast, and to be fair in certain areas it has shown - the NHS, despite the cynics, has been markedly improved. Less apparent are the advances in education, where the obsession with reform has created a gaggle of schools which to this blogger look nightmarish in their controlling tendencies, whilst failing to boost the results sufficiently to mitigate such policies.

The boast since the original bail out that the government had saved the banks has been accurate. Without the injection of funds, RBS and HBOS may well have gone bust, with all the implications that the letting of Lehman Brothers fail caused, not just here but around the world. The fear now must be that all the original bail out has succeeded in doing is postponing just that, with the state shortly to be forced to fully intervene. The jibes at the Tories that they are a do nothing party will look even hollower if it turns out that doing something was almost as bad as doing nothing. If the bank shares continue to fall tomorrow, things really might be about to get a whole lot worse.

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BBC gets goatsed - again.

You'd think that the BBC would have learned, having been goatsed in the past, but apparently not. Asking for readers to have a go at designing a favicon for the BBC News Magazine, Steven from Coventry tells of his inspiration:

I wanted to show someone using their hands to open the BBC and see inside.

Enlarged ever so slightly, here's Steven's effort:

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Monday, January 19, 2009 

Scum-watch: Terrorists dead? Good! Terrorists dead from plague? Better!

Imagine for a moment you're some sort of security asset. You have a major story: 40 militants linked to al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (formerly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) have apparently died of the plague. Either they were the victims of diseases inherent to living in the middle of nowhere in Africa, where outbreaks of plague are still reasonably regular, or, more frighteningly, they were possibly experimenting with weaponising plague, and were struck down themselves in the process. Whatever the truth, it's still a reasonably big story. Who then do you leak this to? A well-respected newspaper, such as the Times, Telegraph or Guardian? Or, on the other hand, the Sun?

Silly question, really. As you might expect, the report splashed on today's Sun front page reeks to high heaven. All the signs that it's either propaganda or complete nonsense are apparent: firstly, that it's been handed to the newspaper over the weekend, to go in the paper on the slowest and generally least busy news day of the week, Monday. Second, it seems to be based on a single source. Third, it's a story which is completely impossible to verify: you could try talking to government health sources in Algeria and see if there have been any recent cases of plague reported to them or which they're aware of and go from there, but that's a lot of effort, especially for today's churnalists. Lastly, the actual details are sketchy while the background information is remarkably, for the Sun, rather well defined: it hasn't just described them as al-Qaida fighters but correctly as AQIM, it directly names the area where they were when apparently infected as Tizi Ouzou province, and where they apparently fled to, and names their leader correctly, even using his less well-known real name Abdelmalek Droudkal rather than his nom de guerre Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.

In short, it provides you with everything except actual evidence. It claims that up to 40 were killed by the plague, yet apparently only one body was actually found, and rather conveniently by the roadside, while the others are meant to be in mass graves in Yakouren forest. There are no photographs, and no confirmation of what type of plague the man had died from. The article claims that plague can kill in hours, but this is only true of the rarest form, pneumonic plague, which if not treated within 24 hours of symptoms developing greatly increases the chances of death. Bubonic plague, the most common, can be treated, and due to its longer incubation period of 2 to 6 days and well-known symptoms is often identified in time. While all forms are increasingly rare in the West, there are still usually a few cases each year in the United States, a recent one of which killed a biologist in the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, apparently contracting pneumonic plague after performing an autopsy on a mountain lion.

Algeria last had a major outbreak in 2003, where there were a total of 11 confirmed cases and 7 suspected, all of bubonic plague with 2 later developing into septicemia. A later study trapped rats in the area of the outbreak and found 9 of the 95 fleas collected to be infected with Yersinia pestis. Despite this attesting that the country most likely still has such fleas and rats in abundance, especially in the apparent remote forest where the fighters were supposedly training, not to mention the possibility of it spreading from southern Africa where it is even more prevalent, all the far from paranoid self-cast jihad watchers have immediately jumped to the conclusion that this means they just must have been experimenting with plague as a weapon. The Sun has nobly followed-up such speculation in tomorrow's edition, with the paper contacting Dr Igor Khrupinov, of Georgia University, who immediately without the slightest of information further suggests this could be the case.

There are just a few problems with this. Firstly, if al-Qaida was experimenting with biological weapons again as it has very amateurishly done in the past, why would one of the least respected and smallest of its groups have been given the "contract" to do so? Moreover, plague is incredibly difficult to weaponise: the United States never managed it, although the Russians did. Famously, it has been used crudely in the past: first at Caffa and later by the Japanese, who dropped ceramic bombs filled with infected fleas on China in the early 1940s. The idea of weaponising plague, or at least bubonic plague has fallen down the list of feared outbreaks, mainly because of the relative ease with which it is treated. It would cause panic certainly, and some deaths most probably, but nothing on the scale of which al-Qaida would be interested in, especially considering the difficulties in spreading it in the wild. Pneumonic plague would be of more interest, especially if it could be spread by aerosol, but fears of its high infection rate have possibly been exaggerated: a study of an outbreak in Uganda in 2004 found a transmittance rate of only 8%. One of the authors had previously published a paper analysing the risk of person to person infection, which also appears to have come to a similar conclusion. That knocks the idea on the head of "suicide" infected walking around cities spreading the disease merely by coughing, and considering the quick onset of symptoms of pneumonic plague, also greatly reduces the time in which to spread it. That none of those involved apparently sought treatment gives the inclination that they were behaving deviously, but again that's if we believe that there are 40 bodies buried in a mass grave, when only 1 body has supposedly been definitively identified, with again no indication of the plague type.

If there was an outbreak then, and as could have been easily established by using the trusty Occam's razor, the most likely cause would have been our old friend Rattus rattus and his pals the fleas. It doesn't quite answer why they wouldn't have sought treatment, as not all of them would probably have been identified as militants, although they could have been "discouraged" from leaving.

That is of course if we accept the story at all. To return to the beginning, why would the Sun be given such a scoop? One answer might have been pay, naturally, not available from the more respected papers, but it still means that if it is completely false and instead an example of the tabloids being supplied with propaganda, that a significant minority, if not majority, are not going to believe a word of it. Why also has it been supplied now? When we last examined what seemed an almost certainly similar piece of unverifiable propaganda, it came at a time when the war in Afghanistan was going through a rough patch. Likewise, the threat from al-Qaida has been talked down of late, including by the head of MI5 himself. This doesn't suit the agenda of some politicians and security officials, who rely on the continuation of the "war on terror" or whatever name it is now masquearding as for both their own dubious ends and for their own employment. Only last week David Miliband was talking about the phrase "war on terror" being a mistake, something which the Sun itself denounced. It's also doubtless a coincidence that Barack Obama becomes US president tomorrow, and with it new policies on that very same war. Even better if the Sun itself doesn't immediately spin on how they might have been experimenting, with the outbreak being the result of weapons tests; let the jihadist watching blogs and forums do that.

Propaganda or not, the story has of course spread like the proverbial plague itself, all without anyone bothering to check it, although an article in the notoriously accurate Moonie-owned Washington Times is building on the story with another "intelligence source", claiming it was a weapons experiment that went wrong, which is helped by the article referring to the non-existent ricin plot without mentioning it being err, non-existent. Churnalism has done its work again, and because it spreads to more respected sites like the Torygraph, even if the story is based entirely on the Sun's original, it becomes more based in fact that it otherwise would. Either way, it's a good news story. Dead terrorists = good. Dead terrorists messing about with plague = good and SCARY, which is even better. The more you loathe the press, the more you come to respect its potential as a propaganda tool, and this article only furthers that.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009 

Ceasefire, weekend links and an extended worst tabloid article of the weekend.

As expected, Israel has announced a "unilateral" ceasefire. The thinking behind this is clear: never again will Israel accept a humiliating peace like that two years ago in Lebanon, making deals and coming out looking the loser. Instead they'll hold their head up high, having done what any other country under 8 years of rocket fire would, treating civilians with silk gloves and Hamas with an iron first. What's more, if Hamas then breaches this kind ceasefire, they'll be the ones betraying their own citizens when Israel has to respond.

The cynicism of this is obvious. This was always a war of Israel's choosing, and now it's ended it in the same way. It leaves Gaza devastated, 1,200 of its citizens killed and over 5,000 injured, and Israel has to all intents and purposes completely got away with it. It's thumbed its nose at the UN, mocked world opinion and made the world's media seethe, even while they reported all of the Israeli government's open propaganda and treated it as gospel. The siege seems unlikely to be lifted, Gaza's tunnels which helped those trapped in the territory to live have been destroyed, and all the funding to rebuild will once again have to come from international donors. How much more does it have to take before we declare Israel to be a rogue state, which is what it has quite clearly become?

On that thought, we may as well keep the theme and go with other comment on Israel and Gaza. A piece a couple of days old but still superb is Flying Rodent's channelling of the spirit of Ehud Olmert, Back Towards the Locus reports on a local protest, while Robert Fisk, Deborah Orr and DD Guttenplan on his reluctance to join last Saturday's march provide the MSM comment.

Elsewhere, Mr E, the Heresiarch and Jennie Rigg all mourn John Mortimer, Derek Draper rather ruins any pretence that LabourList is anything other than a stitch-up by his attitude towards Tim, the Bleeding Heart Show comments on the Tories' Low Carbon Economy green paper and Laurie Penny relates another meeting with our glorious Work and Pensions minister, James Purnell. In the papers, there's little of note other than Matthew Parris on speaking out before it's too late, and Howard Jacobson ruminating on the difference between a silly lad and a murderous racist.

As for the worst tabloid piece of the weekend, we truly are spoilt for choice. There's the Mail's charming description of the murder trial of Meredith Kercher, which it calls the "Foxy Knoxy show" on its front page, despite Kercher's own parents' attempts to have the trial held behind closed doors to prevent sensitive evidence being published and to retain their dead daughter's dignity. It seems remarkable the difference between the Mail's attitudes to trials in this country, which it seems hardly likely to have described in such terms even if someone as supposedly "glamourous" as the always referred to by nickname Amanda Knox was in the dock, and ones taking place abroad. It's almost as if it seems to imagine that because it's happening in Italy that Kercher's parents either have no feelings or inclination to see what the media at home is saying, let alone what Kercher's friends think about the way the media has reported her death.

The Mail though is notorious for not caring about things like intruding into grief. Any paper that was would surely have not published today's truly revolting comment by Amanda Platell, who of out all the other things she could have written about chose to focus her main energy on the tragic death of Rachel Ward, who died of hypothermia after apparently falling into a river. According to Platell, rather than this being a tragic accident, it's instead indicative "of the lives of many middle-class young women". Variously, her death seems to have been down to the following facts: firstly, that she was middle class, and therefore should have known better than to have been taking part in such working class pursuits as going on a skiing holiday and drinking whilst on it; secondly, that her friends abandoned her when she decided to go back to where she was staying on her own, therefore it's their fault too; and finally, that it's actually neither her own fault nor her friends' fault, but rather the fault of equality:

Sadly, in a world where women have fought for generations for equality, where they insist on their independence, where drunkenness and debauchery are actively encouraged, you can’t really blame a young man for failing to act chivalrously.

Yes, Rachel’s death was tragedy — but it was an accident waiting to happen.

There you are then girls - you weren't fighting for equal rights, you were in fact fighting for the right to die alone in a freezing river, because Amanda Platell says so. What a despicable cunt.

Amazingly, that isn't the worst tabloid piece of the weekend. Peter Hitchens has a reasonable effort too, claiming that "poverty is a lie the left uses to destroy the middle class". Good, but no cigar. No, the award must instead go to Julie Burchill, who writes a quite wonderful defence of George W. Bush in the Sun. Strangely, in her case for what a brilliant president he's been, the words "Iraq", "Afghanistan", "Abu Ghraib", "Guantanamo", "rendition" and many others which you can fill in yourselves don't make an appearance. No, instead Burchill concentrates on how he brilliant he's been for Africa (half-true, he has massively increased aid but also insisted on abstinence programmes to deal with AIDS), how brilliant he's been for black people, thanks to his promotion of first Colin Powell (who was ignored and sidelined and so enamoured with the Republicans that he endorsed Obama) and then Condoleezza Rice, doing so much that apparently without those two Obama couldn't have won the presidency, and finally how he signed "the Worker, Retiree and Employer Act which allows the rollover of pensions from a dead gay person to a partner without tax consequences — as has always been the case for straights". No mention of how he opposes gay marriage and how when asked whether he thought homosexuality was a choice answered that "he didn't know". With friends like Julie, who exactly needs enemies?

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Friday, January 16, 2009 

An end in sight?

If it wasn't for all the reports informing us that Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni wanted a ceasefire long ago, honestly, really, you could cynically imagine that from the very beginning there was a plan for the Israeli assault on Gaza. We already know that even prior to the six-month ceasefire with Hamas which even the Israelis admit they were first to breach, Israel was planning for the attack on Gaza which has filled so many with horror over the past three weeks. Why not then that the plan was to start the assault on the 27th of December, while the West is still caught up in its own post-Christmas feculence, blame it on Hamas ending the truce by goading them to fire barrages of rockets into Israel, and then spend the three weeks leading up to Obama's inauguration trying your hardest to annihilate Hamas and force them into a humiliating further ceasefire, ensuring that no longer can they smuggle weapons while also hopefully keeping up the siege?

Things haven't of course gone entirely to plan. Israel perhaps didn't plan on the ferocity of the response from Europe and other countries around the world, but it's managed to get by regardless. It perhaps hasn't done as much damage to Hamas as it would have liked, but it's probably destroyed the vast majority of the tunnels, killed two of their senior leaders, and Hamas hasn't put up anywhere near the sort of fight which Hizbullah managed in Lebanon in 2006, although whether this is because, as we've seen, the Israeli plan this time round has been overwhelming force and taking no prisoners, but regardless, it must still be tremendously pleased with the very low civilian and military casualties, especially when compared to the 1,100 Palestinians killed and over 5,000 injured. Where it has triumphed beyond doubt is with the United States in the very last days of the Bush administration. Not only did Olmert successfully intervene with Bush to stop Condi Rice from ending her monstrous period as secretary of state by voting for a security council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, but they've got just the sort of agreement they want which binds the US to help with the monitoring of the Egypt-Gaza border, and all without apparently so much as consulting the incoming administration. Not a bad last day's work by any means.

Where this leaves Israel's standing in the world at large remains to be seen. The anger which the attack on an impoverished, prison like tiny territory has inspired not just on the streets of the Arab world but on western Europe's as well is quite possibly unprecedented in recent times. There were riots in Oslo, huge demonstrations in all of the major capital cities and dozens of the smaller ones as well, and also, sadly and frighteningly, a rise in anti-Semitic attacks. That was always to be expected when there are individuals that cannot differentiate between a people and a state, just as some cannot between Muslims and terrorists, but nonetheless all such violence, abuse and vandalism has to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Smashing Starbucks' windows, let alone attacking a synagogue, is not going to change one thing in Gaza, let alone Israel, quite the reverse. Likewise, the overreaction of those who want to deflect attention from the carnage in Gaza has been as self-serving as always: witness Harry's Place, perennial defenders of Israeli aggression who have been vocal in their denouncing of protesters linking Israel to the Nazis, comparing the tiny number of smashed windows to... the Nazis and especially Kristallnacht, a photoshopped site banner conflating the two explicitly. Not only is this ahistorical in the extreme, it also demeans and debases the real suffering which those who lived in Nazi Germany during that period went through. A state organised and executed pogrom and an idiot with a brick shutting down a single bourgeois coffee shop from hell for a day are incomparable.

It's easy to see why some have been so quick to change the subject from Gaza itself to those on protests though; even the majority of them must recognise just how indefensible the attack on Gaza has been. Never before has the Zionist trick of screaming anti-Semitism at those criticising Israel been shown up to be so shallow and futile, Elizabeth Wurtzel's attempt to do just that on CiF completely monstered. For all Israel's attempts to win the PR battle, their single decision not to allow journalists into the Gaza strip itself produced a vacuum that could be filled only by the Palestinians on the ground themselves, the likes of al-Jazeera and the other Arab media profiting, the images of the hundreds of children injured filling the screens and newspapers every day now for nigh on 3 weeks.

It will however be the savagery of the Israeli assault which will live long in the memory. Most people might have given them the benefit of the doubt if they'd only managed to hit the one UN building, and believed the story of there being fire from within the compound; when you hit another school where people are sheltering and then finally hit the UNRWA headquarters itself, apparently with phosphorus shells which quickly turn the aid and food stored there into an inferno, it starts to look like it's either deliberate or that the IDF doesn't care what it hits. It's not just the phosphorus shells, which when used as a weapon as they apparently have been are illegal under international law, but also the apparent use of one of the newer discoveries in the world of armaments, DIME, or Dense Inert Metal Explosives. These bombs have the advantage of being more accurate and covering only a small radius, but the downside of completely eviscerating those that they come into contact with. Whether the Israelis are definitively using these weapons or not is difficult to know for sure, but the injuries that some of the doctors in Gaza have been seeing, where limbs have been effectively ripped off without suffering the shrapnel wounds associated with conventional shelling suggests that this might well be the case. Gaza may well be a testing lab for new weapons, being tried on a human and overwhelming civilian population. This is without considering the hospital that was hit, ambulances which have been targeted, the paramedics that have been killed trying to save others and the estimated $1.4 billion damage done to the infrastructure of the territory, not to mention the accusations of war crimes from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the demands for investigations into them by the UN and other governments.

What Israel will have achieved at the end of all this is difficult to know for sure. It probably won't save the Labour-Kadima coalition from being defeated, even if the spilling of Palestinian blood, which always seems to a vote-winner, has been taken to extremes. It might be able to win a "victory", by stopping the weapon smuggling into Gaza, not lifting the siege, declaring a unilateral ceasefire so they look like the good guys after all, and even turn a few Gazan minds against Hamas once the dust has settled and they see the devastation and decide that the sacrifice may not have been worth it. That however seems unlikely. In the worst case scenario for Israel, it could well end up having the opposite effect, showing the world that the real aggressors are not the terrorists of Hamas but those that don't apologise for killing hundreds of children, inspiring boycotts and continued protests, showing that Hamas are going to have to be dealt with if a peace settlement is ever going to be reached, and further establishing the spirit of resistance in a people that have been resisting now for over 60 years. Furthermore, they look set to have to deal with an Obama administration that at the moment is suggesting that it is willing to negotiate with Hamas, and that is also likely to be far tougher on Israel than the Bush administration has ever been, even if that isn't saying much. It's unwise to suggest that this might be one of the last gasps of a nation that has tried to enforce peace without a settlement and has failed, and one of the first of a nation that will have to do the opposite if it is ever to have complete security, but we can live in hope. Whatever happens, those killed in this latest senseless conflict will most certainly not be forgotten.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009 

The only MP deserving of the label.

Is John McDonnell the only Labour MP left truly deserving of the title? You can't help but admire his furious reaction to the evasions, false promises and downright lies of Geoff Hoon, taking the mace (although not shown) as he explains to the BBC as it has been in the past to demand the right of MPs to vote on a new runway at Heathrow.

It is truly remarkable that Geoff Hoon is still in government, or rather, it's truly indicative of New Labour's political bankruptcy that he is. A man only distinguished by his mediocrity, he's crawled from one job to another, involved in the death of David Kelly along the way, his obsequious behaviour to both Blair and Brown enabling him to shift between the two without so much as the slightest recognition of his previous failures, let alone that of his superiors. The real reason for not having a vote is obvious: the government would either lose or come very close to losing, with both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats opposing the plans, and dozens of Labour MPs also opposed to any further expansion of the airport from hell.

The other reason is that as the Guardian reports, Brown views this as a "dividing line" between Labour and the Tories. As ever, his real interest is in his own political advantage: he doesn't care about how it affects the government's other policies on climate change, how it sticks two fingers up at everyone other than the business lobby and the unions that are similarly only self-interested, it's about how can he position himself come the general election, further evidence of how the Tories are a do-nothing party, unprepared to invest in the nation's economic prosperity. That his own policies have had a major hand in our current fall in prosperity is neither here nor there, nor is how every promise made about Heathrow ever has been broken. The really sad thing is that John, even with his 10,000 majority, might well lose his seat when his constituents punish the party rather than the man, betrayed by his allegiance to a party that lost its way a long time ago.

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Scum-watch: More idiotic blaming of British Muslims

You would have thought that after relying on the dubious claims of Glen Jenvey for a front page lead story, only for it to have been withdrawn less than a week later might have made the Sun's journalists slightly more circumspect in accusing British Muslims of stirring up hate or targeting Jews.

Then you of course remember that you're dealing with the Sun, where few of the journalists in the first place have enough brains or probably the time to make a Google search before taking to slamming their keyboard and banging out another idiotic piece. So it is with today's banner boosting, potentially baseless claim, that "menacing texts sent ... by Hamas supporters" originated in this country:

MENACING texts sent to Israeli soldiers’ families by Hamas supporters were traced to Britain yesterday.

Scores of messages have been sent — warning that Israeli sons fighting in Gaza face slaughter.

Checks of the code from the sender’s number revealed the texts originated in the UK.

British supporters of the Islamic fanatics in the besieged Gaza Strip were assumed to be responsible for the scare tactics last night.

As is usual, the Sun's own story appears to based on one elsewhere, this report from Ynetnews:

After Hamas sent a text message in broken Hebrew to a number of Israeli cellular phones during the first days of Operation Cast Lead, the organization ahs now decided to try its luck in an English message.

"Come on into Gaza. A number of surprises waiting for your sons, the least of which is death. Hamas," read the SMS message received Wednesday by a number of Israelis on their cellular phones.

Attempts to call the phone number from which the message was sent, that appeared to have an British country code, was met with an automated message the number had been disconnected.

Helpfully, Ynetnews provides a grab from the mobile, giving the number from which the message originated, +447624803777, which does indeed appear to be a British number, the +44 being our country code. A simple Google search however quickly reveals that this is not as simple as someone sending out mass messages from a phone which they've then quickly disconnected:

hi all
i am from indonesia,everybody can use that number for sms, pls your try from here

for free sms pls visit my sites
free sms for all

Another site that offered free SMS messages originating from that number was, currently down, as set out here. It seems that the number is just a generic one, meant to confuse people into thinking it's a legitimate number, but is instead just a front, mainly used for mass spamming, as was the case here. A whois for only identifies that the domain is registered with Godaddy, and might well no longer be used. In the comments on the Ynetnews article someone claims to have traced it as an Isle of Man network number, which further distinguishes it as not necessarily being connected with the mainland itself.

In fact, the Sun might well have been cleverer here than first imagined. Their screen grab of a phone with the message has been conveniently cropped so that phone number itself isn't visible, nor the Hebrew lettering underneath it, although it is almost certainly the same source image. It might just have been cropped for space, or for another reason, but the fact that anyone can quickly Google the number and find out that it's been used for spam in the past and debunk the article suggests if not the hack, then a sub-editor might well have looked deeper into it.

The work done, the article goes on, first reporting bin Laden's latest predictable audio message, then reporting the similarly ludicrous claims that Jewish schools are recruiting extra security guards because of the rhetoric from one Hamas leader:

Meanwhile, Jewish schools across Britain are hiring squads of elite security guards after Hamas declared children to be legitimate targets.

Guards are sweeping classrooms for bombs and searching visitors for weapons.

The head of security at North West London Jewish Day School said: “Many of the security staff have served in armies around the world.”

What he in fact said was that as long as Palestinian children were being targeted that Jewish children were legitimate targets also. It was simply the familiar tit-for-tat nonsense which often erupts from leaders in times of war, and about as likely to be acted upon in this country as Kate Winslet giving a short, calm acceptance speech. It's only after all this information about the evil of Hamas and al-Qaida that the Sun finally reports what actually happened in Gaza yesterday:

The Israeli onslaught in Gaza continued yesterday as the Palestinian death toll in the 19-day war soared over the 1,000 mark.

More than 300 victims were children. Thirteen Israelis have died.

The comments on the story tell their own tale too:

This is truly scary stuff- there are Hamas terrorists in Britain drawing up hit lists of British citizens on British soil. Hamas are animals, and any of their representatives anywhere in the world deserve condemnation in the strongest possible terms.

Israel is fighting our war, a war against extremism and filthy civilian-targeting terrorist groups all over the world. The shocking truth is that nobody in the UK can see that, as they are too busy supporting the most 'fashionable' cause.

The story has now been twisted beyond simply domestic "hate-filled extremists" into Hamas terrorists. The Sun and Glen Jenvey should be congratulated on their spreading of such nonsense.

what do you expected? the UK is not for the British any more. look at what New Labor has done to that place!! I wouldn't live in the UK now if you paid me, and watch everyone leave!!!

We can be grateful for the small mercy that electropleb already has.

Also worth noting this disgusting racism from the Ynetnews comments:

To quote one of the posts in the Hebrew ynet: There is no way an ordinary Palestinian can write without any spelling errors, and certainly not manufacture a phrase like "the least of which", even after many years of studying English. No doubt a native Brit is involved here. But is anyone really surprised of this?

Yeah, Palestinians are obviously so fucking backward that they couldn't possibly master simple English sentence structure; it's simply beyond their grasp.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009 

Just another assault on civil liberties.

One of the things about New Labour and its insistent, constant apparent dedication to the slow sapping of our civil liberties is that it never knows when to stop. It's forced to back down one month, then the plans are reintroduced the next, or ever so slightly modified to make them slightly more palatable. Exactly this has occurred over the plans to hold inquests in private without a jury:

Jack Straw, the justice secretary, will today revive his plan to hold inquests that involve aspects of national security in private without a jury when the coroners and justice bill is published.

The controversial measure, which could be invoked in cases like those of British servicemen killed by American forces in Iraq and the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on the London tube, was shelved last month when it faced severe criticism during the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Act.

Like so much else it has proposed in the past, it hasn't even began to make a case or explain why holding inquests in private might be necessary, and indeed, as embarrassing as the inquests into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes was, and as annoying as it is to be constantly reprimanded by upstart coroners over the deaths of troops, it still doesn't seem to merit holding them in private.

The question then has to be, does New Labour know something we don't? Is something even more damaging on the horizon which it needs to pre-empt? Or is this purely just in case, should the police shoot dead another foreigner while chasing suicide bombers, or the deaths in Afghanistan further ramp up in another futile war where troops are dying because of poor equipment?

That's the other thing with Labour. You simply can't work them out, even 11 years after coming to office. You can't fathom why they would put themselves through such ignominy and attacks from their own supporters, not to mention judges and opposition MPs, purely for something they might never have to use. Unlike with detention without charge, no one's going to blame them for not diluting the right to an open inquest, so what do they possibly gain except perhaps kudos from the security services or self-assurance? Perhaps they are just simply determined to cautiously but inexorably turn the country into an authoritarian state. Perhaps they're just utter bastards. Both are as reasonable explanations as the ones they're openly giving.

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Dyslexia is a myth, says PM Rtringes.

For the most part, members of parliament, regardless of their political views, are not complete idiots or dyed-in-the-wool ideologues convinced of the righteousness of their minority opinions. When they are, such as in the case of Nadine Dorries, they tend to expose themselves, if you'll pardon the expression, and even if not pilloried publicly, tend to become known for the eccentricities.

Few though deign to expose their ignorance quite so forcefully or as weakly as Graham Stringer, who in an article for Manchester Confidential doesn't just suggest that dyslexia is occasionally misdiagnosed or that poor teaching sometimes results in children failing to learn to read or write adequately, but that the entire disorder has in fact been invented by the teaching establishment to cover up for their inability to comprehensively offer Stringer's magic bullet, synthetic phonics, having earlier in the article declared they are no panaceas.

Quite apart from the fact that Stringer should perhaps take up his idea that dyslexia has been created by the "education establishment" with the numerous scientists and doctors that first established its existence and have since, as Unity points out on Lib Con, published somewhere in the region of 6,000 peer reviewed papers and articles on it, it would be nice if he could even begin to compare like with like. Spot the problem with Stringer's argument:

There are two simple reasons for being confident about the false nature of dyslexia. International comparisons and the fact that so called dyslexic children have no more trouble learning to read than other children, if the appropriate teaching methods are used.

If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.

There can be no rational reason why this ‘brain disorder’ is of epidemic proportions in Britain but does not appear in South Korea or Nicaragua (it is also pretty damning that according to Professor Julian Elliot there are 28 different definitions of dyslexia).

What languages are primarily spoken and taught in South Korea and Nicaragua? Ah yes, that would be Korean and Spanish. Especially considering that Korean is a completely different system of writing altogether, and consists almost entirely of a phonetic orthography this is about as absurd a comparison as you could possibly make.

Stringer further doesn't help his cause by conflating dyslexia with illiteracy in general. He opens the article with comments about illiteracy and its connection with crime, claiming that 25% of the population in Manchester is "functionally illiterate". Quite where he gets this statistic from in the beginning is a mystery, the closest probably being a Telegraph article from 2006 which claimed that 1 in 6 adults lack the literacy skills of the average 11-year-old. This is substantially different both from complete illiteracy and from dyslexia itself; dyslexia is not simply not being very good at reading or writing, but can also additionally affect speaking and other functions. Dyslexia prevalence is estimated at between 2% and 15% of the population, wildly off his 25% scale, although not far of the Telegraph's 1 in 6. He then further confuses the issue, after his rant about dyslexia not existing, by introducing his "magic bullet" of phonics, by suggesting that that 25% could all be happily reading and writing effectively if only they had been taught properly in the first place. The trial he quotes in West Dunbartonshire has incidentally not just involved teaching synthetic phonics, but also a 10-strand separate intensive intervention policy.

If, instead of suggesting that "dyslexia is a cruel fiction", Stringer had instead wrote, rather more sympathetically, that the common perception of dyslexia is false, or even described it as a myth, as a Dispatches documentary a few years' back did, he would have been on surer ground, as there is certainly disagreement over its exact diagnosis and how to treat it. Instead he's completely confident that there is no such thing, which puts him in a distinct minority of the usual conspiracy theorists and cranks that also still believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. If Stringer had wrote his rant in the Daily Mail then perhaps you could take it less seriously, considering the space it gives other every day of the week to the latest pseudo-scientific gimmickry. You could also accept it more if Stringer himself wasn't decently educated, but he in fact has a BSc in Chemistry and worked as a chemist before becoming a politician. Consequently, we can rather confidently conclude that Stringer himself is more than something of a cnut.

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Over 1,000 dead and still they go and watch.

Israel should be proud: it took the IDF exactly a month to kill nearly 1,000 people in Lebanon during the 2006 war with Hizbullah; this time it has taken them only 18 days. Lebanon however had a population of roughly 4 million; Gaza has a population of 1.25 million. All while the IDF has been pummelling Gaza, Israelis have been travelling to Parash Hill, near Sderot, to have an overview of what their military is inflicting on a population that it first sealed off, then attempted to starve, and is now finally trying to bomb into submission. We've already seen smiles and laughter, stories of picnics and ghouls saying that more could be done, now we have a CNN reporter smiling and laughing with two women as they discuss the carnage going on only miles from where they're sitting. There's the others openly celebrating as they look through binoculars as the air strikes rain down and the phosphorous lights up the sky. And then there's the mealy-mouthed others, those who've had their own homes hit by Palestinian rockets, offering insincere concern for the innocents that might also be suffering in Gaza, the ones whose homes will be unrepairable and the others that will never recover from their injuries.

The reports continue to come in of suspected atrocities, of deliberate targeting of civilians. The Times speaks to a soldier that says everything is being treated as hostile, that this is the most "aggressive line" that has ever been taken with the Palestinians, that even he is shocked by the devastation that they are discovering and which Israel has tried as hard as possible to stop being glimpsed by too many Western eyes. The BBC reports that women responding to an Israeli call to leave, additionally carrying white flags, were shot and one was killed, while others trying to find water were similarly shot and apparently killed. From a less reputable source is an even more shocking, upsetting story, of an 92-year-old man injured on the first day of the Israeli bombardment, only reached today, found decomposing with a white flag in his hand. If substantiated, it is such accounts that remain on people's minds for years to come.

So brutal has the assault on Gaza been that even those supposedly on the Israeli left, such as Yossi Alpher, co-editor of Bitter Lemons, are left looking for comparisons which play down the carnage which has been unleashed. Alpher alighted upon the final battle for Fallujah in Iraq at the end of 2004, where similar accusations of war crimes were made, but which reflects better on the IDF as there were suggestions that up to 6,000 civilians were killed, out of an insurgent force estimated at being between 3,000 and 6,000. Israel claims there are around 20,000 Hamas fighters in Gaza. Alpher fails to mention that even if it did calm Fallujah somewhat, all that it achieved was a dispersal of the insurgency from the city into Anbar province itself, with it only eventually being tackled by the rise of the Awakening programme, when the tribal sheikhs tired of the tyranny and bloodshed brought by their alliance with the likes of al-Qaida in Iraq. Furthermore, there's a rather larger inconvenient fact which Alpher strangely omitted from his analogy: the US army allowed a large majority of the population of Fallujah to flee the city before the attack. In Gaza no one has been allowed to leave, except for those holding foreign passports who wanted to, and the very few that have been transferred to Egyptian hospitals for treatment. If we accept the Israeli figures of 20,000 Hamas fighters, and add another 10,000 to account for the militants of Islamic Jihad and other groups, that leaves 995,000 civilians directly in the line of fire, with hardly anywhere to run to, far above the numbers that were left in Fallujah to face the US military at its most destructive.

As alluded to yesterday, it is indeed telling that it's Iraq that Israelis are pointing towards, for it's quite true that the war on Iraq now has even less justification than Israel's assault on Gaza. They talked of the "shock and awe" of the initial "surprise" attacks on the police and Hamas security officials, and doubtless they would like Hamas to be seen as the Islamic State of Iraq is in that country. You could at least however see the motives for attacking Iraq, whether it was to remove the supposed threat from WMD, to overthrow a tyrant that had been subjugating his people for decades, or to gain control of the country's oil, as being either somewhat noble or at the very least either defensible or achievable, as indeed the initial removal of Saddam Hussein was. The same cannot be said for the attack on Gaza. It won't stop the rocket fire without agreeing to the lifting of the siege, it won't turn the people of Gaza against Hamas, and it probably won't help either Ehud Barak or Tzipi Livni to win the election and keep the Labour/Kadima coalition in power. Just as we are now horrified by the spilling of blood in Iraq, it has to be hoped that eventually both sides in the conflict on Gaza will come to feel the same nausea, and reject the hate that both sides push. Before that though, the killing has to first stop.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009 

Time to boycott Israel.

The above is what the Palestinians of Gaza have now been living with for 17 days. Presumably a "bunker busting" bomb, which the United States only very recently sold Israel, the ostensible target is supposedly the smuggling tunnels out of Gaza into Egypt. Those tunnels, which do smuggle weapons, were also helping to keep Gazans alive by bringing in fuel, food and other essential products which were either in short supply or blocked from entering the Strip by the Israelis. If the blockade is not lifted and the tunnels are successfully destroyed, the people of Gaza will suffer more once this is over than before.

There were around 60 air-strikes on the Strip on Monday night/Tuesday morning, not all probably of the same horrifying, shocking power as that one but undoubtedly more than enough to utterly destroy countless buildings and the humans that may well have been inside them. One such strike targeted a Christian Aid health clinic that contained hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of medical equipment, desperately needed in Gaza. The attack was not a mistake, but completely deliberate: the owners were telephoned 15 minutes before and told to get out, along with the family that lived above it. Why an ordinary home and clinic were methodically chosen and given the OK to be destroyed is a question that will probably never be answered.

What is becoming clear is that as Israel repeatedly ignores calls for a ceasefire, the anger and reaction to the offensive in Gaza continues to grow. Perhaps most indicative of the realisation by many that first isolating a population, starving them and then finally subjecting them to a "shock and awe" style bombing for over two weeks is not how civilised democracies behave is that even the mainstream US press is beginning, however cautiously, to give space to those criticising Israel. The Wall Street Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, even gave over column space in its notoriously right-wing comment pages to a piece by George Bisharat which had the headline "Israel is committing war crimes". In a session only an hour-long after a statement by David Miliband, in which he seemed to have mixed up Hamas and Israel, having said that "Hamas have shown themselves over a number of years to be murderous in word and deed", whilst Israel was "a thriving democratic state with an independent judiciary", apparently having missed that two of the three Arab political parties were banned yesterday, while under the cover of the war on Gaza hundreds of protesters have been arrested and many of them indicted for expressing their views, MPs beyond the usual suspects spoke out against the attacks, with Sir Patrick Cormack declaring himself "ashamed of Israel" after previously being one of its friends, while Ming Campbell asked if "any other democratic state were behaving in that way, would we not by now be considering what other economic and diplomatic steps were available to us?"

Previously, the talk of boycotts, arms embargoes and other measures were made either by trade unions that wanted academic boycotts, boycotts I would have opposed as counter-productive and unlikely to have any real effect, or by left-wing groups that likewise have been repeatedly condemned and ignored. These are though, and now should be start to be considered as real, legitimate options that can be used against what is incredibly close to becoming a rogue state, completely unconcerned by and apparently beyond international opinion. Let's be clear: it is only by an absolute miracle and the almost unbelievable work of the otherwise collapsing health infrastructure in Gaza that only around 970 have been killed so far, with over 4,000 injured. Of that 4,000, hundreds if not more are going to have suffered amputations and other horrific injuries, to the extent where they will be disabled for the rest of their lives, if indeed they manage to survive. The boy in the top image was blinded, apparently by white phosphorus. 40% of the 970 are women and children, with a good percentage of the rest non-fighters or police officers who were deliberately targeted in the first couple of days of attacks. As Gerald Kaufman said in parliament, if Hamas had killed 970 Israelis in just over two weeks, the response of the international community and our own government would have been rather more damning that it has been up till now, even considering that our response has been more biting and quicker than it was during the Lebanon war when we openly colluded with the US and Israel in delaying talks for a ceasefire.

Tomorrow's Guardian leader considers the issue head on, another sign of just how seriously thoughts of potential boycotts and other direct action are being considered by the mainstream. Its main suggestion is that Israel's ambassador's presence should be requested by David Miliband, to show just how high feeling is running within government vis-a-vis his country's Gaza policy. It concludes by mentioning the other options, describing them as "not all appealing, nor should they be yet necessary", which is far from suggesting that they should be immediately dismissed. We know of course that hardly any of these things, even a request to see Ron Prosor, are likely to be taken. After all, if what Israel is doing in Gaza constitute war crimes, or a crime of aggression, where would that leave what we ourselves, in partnership with the United States, have visited on Iraq for what's now approaching 6 years, a war which Miliband and Brown both voted for? We don't even have the justification that Iraq had been firing rudimentary rockets into our territory; the best we could come up with, ignoring the fatuous argument regarding the prior UN resolutions, would be that Iraq did have some missiles that breached their agreements regarding weapons, but which were being destroyed by the UN weapons inspectors. That is almost certainly partly the reason why the criticism of Israel has not been as harsh as it was towards Russia over last summer's war with Georgia, where it was apparently felt we had more of a free ride, regarding Russia's authoritarian turn and rigged elections.

If however the government is unwilling to act, not even for instance imposing an arms embargo on Israel as suggested by Nick Clegg at the very least temporarily, then individually we should be prepared to either boycott Israeli produce or repeatedly demonstrate against what is being done by a supposed democratic state against a people as a whole. We need to be clear that Israel is not an apartheid state, although it is certainly approaching it, that it is not yet instituting a genocide on Gaza, and that comparing Israel to the Nazis is both ahistorical and deeply insulting, even if understandable in the circumstances. We should however be equally clear that as a country its treatment of the Palestinians is now so unbearable that it has placed itself outside the boundaries of civilised nations, and that until it changes its behaviour, we will impose personal sanctions upon it. Israel needs to know that even if other governments are not turning away from it as a result of such murderous cynicism, individuals and their businesses will.

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Monday, January 12, 2009 

Scum-watch: TERROR TARGET SUGAR lasts less than a week.

As Tim notes, less than a week after publishing claims that Alan Sugar was among a number of "top Jews" due to be targeted by "hate-filled extremists", the Sun's front page article of the 7th of January has mysteriously vanished from the web. As it seems unlikely that the paper will have willing accepted that it was a tissue of lies from start to finish, concocted by its journalists with the help of a supposed former spy called Glen Jenvey, either lawyers have already made contact with the paper or the Press Complaints Commission is presumably investigating and has requested it be taken down for the time being.

The damage though has already been done, as previously stated. Hundreds of sites either reproduced or slightly altered the Sun's story without so much as even doing a cursory check of the facts, which would have only involved visiting the site and looking for the thread in question, which was hardly difficult to find. Those stories will remain up, even when the original has disappeared down the memory hole.

Update: Jon Swaine, who wrote the Telegraph's follow-up report on the Sun's story, emails in:


I thought it might be helpful to point out that my take on the Sun's story for is top of the Google News list linked to in your latest post on this subject.

And while your main point - that barely anyone bothered to check the details before ripping off the Sun - clearly stands, in fact I did wait until contacting Sajid at the forum and my story does make clear that it was a call to start a 'polite letter-writing campaign', rather than anything more sinister.

Given that my story is top of the list you link to, and may be read first by your readers, I thought there might be a better way of illustrating your point - eg linking directly to the Mail, PA, Guardian etc versions of the story, which indeed faithlessly reproduce the Sun interpretation.

More than happy to oblige.

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Express and Prince Harry.

What a delightful little juxtaposition on today's Daily Express front page:

Yeah, Harry's going to be reprimanded for a racist slur, but what about these filthy foreigners stealing all our jobs, which is in itself a impossibility, going by the Express's sister's recent front page?

As for Harry himself, as Craig Murray points out, you could pass it off as barracks banter and just soldiers being soldiers, but this wasn't a case of Harry directly addressing the person he called a "Paki" or it being obvious that it was joshing, but him zooming in from a distance and saying "Ah, our little Paki friend Ahmed", without any real evident snide, but not exactly affectionately either. They could of course be great friends, but that also isn't instantly apparent. We shouldn't get too outraged about someone making something which certainly isn't for public consumption and making comments on it which others will find offensive, but we shouldn't necessarily dismiss it either. His use of "raghead" is more jovial, but carries more significance with it, especially considering that St James's Palace saw fit to justify it by describing it as a "term" for Iraqi insurgents or Taliban fighters, when it is of course disparaging to Arabs as a whole, although not as widely used here as in America, where it stands alongside "towelhead", "sand nigger" and "hajji", all routinely used as racist terms for Arabs or by soldiers for Iraqis. No one's going to mind if it is used purely to describe those that Harry fought against in Afghanistan in the heat of the moment, but routine usage is more troubling because of the suggestion that like previous racist terms for those being fought against, such as "gooks" in Vietnam, it becomes used to both demonise and dehumanise. That should be kept in mind before merely passing his language off.

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The Catholic Orangemen of Togo.

Quoting Craig Murray:

Lawyers Schillings, acting on behalf of mercenary commander Tim Spicer, persuaded my publisher to pull out of publishing my new book, The Catholic Orangemen of Togo and Other Conflicts I Have Known. Tim Spicer has made millions from the war in Iraq, and the UK has become notorious for the ability of the rich to close down criticism because of the massive costs - often hundreds of thousands of pounds - of defending a legal action.

There is access to the courts in big libel cases only for the ultra-rich. So much so that just a simple letter like this
can kill a book. This process is known in the trade as "Chilling". Schillings are the acknowledged leaders in chilling.

But the law was formulated in an age when a limited number of printing presses were the only means of mass communication. Not only does this not apply in the digital age, but by using the "Streisland effect" we can make sure that any attempt at "Chilling" results in ten times more people actually reading the book. Eventually this will discourage clients from using firms like Schillings, and hopefully put the leeches of repression out of business.

So as a lesson to Schillings and their potential clients, here is The Catholic Orangemen of Togo and Other Conflicts I Have Known. I am making it available across the internet, absolutely free to read. You can find it here: (PDF files)

Let me be clear: there is no libel in this book - it is all true and based on my own eye-witness account. It contains not libel, but rather truth some people wish to hide.

It is going online in the next 24 hours in over thirty jurisdictions - Schillings will have their work cut out trying to get all those taken down, and it would make a dent even in Spicer's bank balance to try.

So please read it, pass it around, copy it and post it to your site. You will be striking a blow for freedom, and you will ultimately contribute to making libel lawyers poorer.

If you want a hard copy, I have self-published and had some privately printed. You can buy it here.

I should be most happy if people wished to buy the book - you can widen the effect by giving it as a present! My last book, Murder in Samarkand was a non-fiction bestseller, so Schillings have cost me a lot of money. It will be more than worth it if we can get the truth out more widely, and strike a blow against the libel laws.

The blurb reads:

Craig Murray's adventures in Africa from 1997 to 2001 are a rolliciking good read. He exposes for the first time the full truth about the "Arms to Africa" affair which was the first major scandal of the Blair Years. He lays bare the sordid facts about British mercenary involvement in Africa and its motives. This is at heart an extraordinary account of Craig Murray's work in negotiating peace with the murderous rebels of Sierra Leone, and in acting as the midwife of Ghanaian democracy. Clearly his efforts were not only difficult but at times very dangerous indeed. Yet the story is told with great humour. Not only do we meet Charles Taylor, Olusegun Obasanjo, Jerry Rawlings and Foday Sankoh, but there are unexpected encounters with others including Roger Moore, Jamie Theakston and Bobby Charlton! Above all this book is about Africa. Craig Murray eschews the banal remedies of the left and right to share with us the deep knowledge and understanding that comes over 30 years working in or with Africa. Gems of wisdom and observation scatter the book, as does a deep sense of moral outrage at the consequences of centuries of European involvement: even though he explains that much of it was well-intentioned but disastrous.

And already Murray's book is making waves due its stinging criticism of the transformation of the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which has also been the focus of much attention in Private Eye of late:

Lady Amos, who was international development secretary and leader of the Lords in Tony Blair's government, has taken up a directorship with an African private equity firm, three months after it received over £15m from a Whitehall agency wholly owned by her former department.

The timing of Amos's appointment was described as "a coincidence" by the Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC), which approved the cash – amounting to nearly 30% of the funds raised by Travant Capital Partners, based in Nigeria.

Craig Murray, the UK's former ambassador to Uzbekistan, attacks the appointment in a new book published this week. He says: "It says everything about New Labour that CDC, which ... used to run agricultural projects to benefit the rural poor, was rebranded ... with a new remit to provide most of its funds to the financial services industry. It says even more about New Labour's lack of the understanding of fundamental personal ethics, of their embrace of greed, that they see no reason why one of their former senior ministers should not move to benefit personally from the DFID [Department for International Development] money – even if through a 100% owned satellite – thus invested."

Having not had much time to look at it until now despite Craig e-mailing it me around a month ago, just reading the first couple of pages immediately hooks you in, Murray's engaging prose and casual but endearing style an absolute treat that's well worth indulging. Sticking one up Schillings and help with the distribution, however slight, is the very least I could do.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009 

Over 50,000 protest against Israel's murderous cynicism.

Today's was a huge demonstration. By my entirely unscientific method of pure guesswork, I would estimate 50,000+ at the least, possibly even the 100,000 which the Stop the War Coalition are claiming. It was certainly bigger than the second Lebanon march two years ago, which again at max may well have been 50,000.

Unlike then, the planning behind today's march seems to have been the main problem behind some of the trouble which took place, combined with a small minority of hot-heads whom were out to cause trouble. Clearly the StWC and the others behind it weren't expecting the numbers which came, and as also suggested by their appeals for stewards, there simply weren't enough of them to keep it under control or to help those unfamiliar with London with where to go. I got to Speaker's Corner about 12:05, and the park was still continuing to fill when the march finally got under way at around 13:45, although it may have been later. It was all well and good having speakers both before and after the march, but hardly any of those prior to it getting under way had anything beyond platitudes to offer, with the exception of the rapper whose name I missed who spoke/rhymed last. Getting the march under way first, then holding the speeches over for the rally afterwards would have been a better idea.

The anger was however palpable throughout. One thing I'm more than happy to report is that I did not hear one chant throughout the day in support of Hamas; although, on the other hand, there was little criticism of them either. There was as reported last week a few Hizbullah flags, and also some black flags with Arabic script (a couple of white ones also), which I'm always uncertain about regarding what they're supporting or representing. Hopefully some of the shitty photographs I took while clambering on various things give some idea of the numbers of the crowd and just how far back they stretched, especially considering I was some way back from the front. Most amusing here was a hastily parked police motorbike which was quickly draped with a couple of banners and placards, with dozens taking photos of it.

While the news reports are focusing on the trouble outside the Israeli embassy itself, some also flared outside a building that some of us were under the impression was the Israeli embassy or at least something connected with it. A couple of people had clambered onto the walls and were busy waving flags, while the police had congregated underneath. Whether it was simply those spoiling for a fight taking it upon themselves to start trouble, or those with the impression that it was the embassy and so started throwing broken placards and shoes, the police quickly called in their colleagues in riot gear, but not before a couple of officers at least had been hit square in the face with eggs, with others flecked with what looked like red paint. If anything they were very restrained, but they did rush us on a couple of occasions, while a couple of firecrackers/fireworks were also thrown. I was uncertain whether it was the embassy, until a steward did finally turn up with a megaphone telling everyone that the embassy was further on and things broke up.

As the BBC have reported, some of the trouble outside the embassy itself was purely because of the crush, with it getting distinctly uncomfortable, the side streets blocked off and riot police from the beginning throughout the area, the pavement itself apparently off limits. Again there were some hot-heads pushing the barriers back from the beginning, but for the most part things were far more jovial up here, with shoes thrown inside the embassy to great cheers. The biggest though went to the person who attached a Palestinian flag to a number of balloons, which swiftly flew into the grounds before getting trapped in a nearby tree, blowing in the slight breeze and which will hopefully be stuck there for quite some time, a permanent reminder that as was chanted throughout, we will never let Gaza die. Things were only then slightly spoiled by the great moron Galloway, who said that parliament should be turned into a battlefield and that Israeli shops in the bigging shopping malls should be picketed and potentially closed down by protesters at the rally afterwards, but for the most part it was an incredibly encouraging day with only minor scuffles and idiots marring it. You somehow doubt that tomorrow's demonstration by the Board of Deputies of British Jews will be even a tenth of today's size, as it should be. It will have also hopefully have shown the strength of feeling to our own politicians, who have been almost entirely muted in their criticism.

Complete directory of all photographs taken, many very shitty, full res, is here.

Also see Lenin's various posts.

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Friday, January 09, 2009 

Plea for peace.

From the second that the United States abstained from voting on the UN security council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, Israel knew that it had a completely free ride to continue with its onslaught in the Gaza Strip. Forget that according to Ehud Olmert, Hamas's firing of rockets this morning, when Israel had been bombing the strip all through the night, showed that the UN ceasefire was "unworkable"; the unavoidable message sent from the United States was that its surrogate could continue to hammer the Palestinians for at least a few more days yet.

All the messages coming from the US at the UN was that it was going to vote for the resolution and had overcome its objections to the various drafts which had been circulated. It's impossible to know exactly why they decided at the last moment to abstain, although Reuters suggest it was because Condoleezza Rice made the mistake of calling Bush prior to the vote. Their excuse was that they first wanted to see what happened vis-a-vis the Egyptian mediation efforts, but after a day of continuing carnage and further apparent polarisation it's difficult to see what can be achieved there.

Neither Hamas nor Israel seem to have an apparent end game in sight. Israel's actions so far, despite killing over 800 Palestinians, destroying countless supposed smuggling tunnels, and turning a distinct minority of the Gaza strip into rubble, has not even began to break the back of Hamas, who continue to fire dozens of rockets into Israel every day. Hamas is calculating that the longer it manages to hold out, the more likely that it claim to have successfully resisted the IDF, and potentially extract the ceasefire conditions which it wants, which is the lifting of the effective Israeli blockade which stayed in place despite the previous agreement between the two. For the moment the people of Gaza, despite bearing the brunt of the assault, have not blamed Hamas, or at least have not publicly. The longer the bombardment continues however, the more likely it will be that the civilians themselves will, if not now, perhaps later decide that Hamas has paid not with its own blood but with the blood of its people instead.

In launching the assault on Gaza, it was apparent from the beginning that the thinking of the Labour-Kadima coalition was firmly on upcoming election, now less than 5 weeks away. While the poll ratings for both have at least temporarily increased, they cannot depend on them staying at those levels, especially if they are forced into a ceasefire with Hamas still able to fire rockets into Sderot, even if not able to reach the bigger cities which it has managed during the conflict. It's apparent that Hamas cannot inflict the sort of casualties on the IDF which Hizbullah managed during the 2006 war, and so there's likely to be little pressure on the human cost score, the majority of the Israeli public more than apparently not caring a jot for the Palestinian death toll. The cynicism with which the attack was decided upon, where life is considered expendable for the goal of staying in power, says much about the real attitude towards the civilians that Israel claims time and again not to be targeting.

Two weeks on, and the complete futility of the whole exercise seems more alarming than before. Hamas talks tough but can't even begin to follow through on its promises, while Israel knows full well that even if it does succeed in disarming Hamas or destroying the organisation in Gaza, which is most unlikely, that another, potentially even more radical group or party will emerge in its place. The only solution is direct negotiations with Hamas, where both sides will have to make painful concessions, but for the moment the indiscriminate slaughter and the crushing tyranny of the occupation, combined with the casual confiscation of land and building of illegal settlements looks set to continue. Such intransigence only encourages protest, however potentially pointless, which is why tomorrow's protest outside the Israeli embassy needs to be as large as possible. Peace is possible, but not while both sides bomb and rocket in the supposed name of it.

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Thursday, January 08, 2009 

Defending the indefensible.

It takes a lot for the Red Cross to criticise anyone; they generally don't because they know that doing so makes it less likely that will be allowed to work unhindered. It's therefore out of character for them to directly accuse of Israel of failing to meet their obligations under international humanitarian law, but from the truly shocking story they tell you can understand why:

On the afternoon of 7 January, four Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) ambulances and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to obtain access for the first time to several houses in the Zaytun neighbourhood of Gaza City that had been affected by Israeli shelling.
The ICRC had requested safe passage for ambulances to access this neighbourhood since 3 January but it only received permission to do so from the Israel Defense Forces during the afternoon of 7 January.

The ICRC/PRCS team found four small children next to their dead mothers in one of the houses. They were too weak to stand up on their own. One man was also found alive, too weak to stand up. In all there were at least 12 corpses lying on mattresses.

In another house, the ICRC/PRCS rescue team found 15 other survivors of this attack including several wounded. In yet another house, they found an additional three corpses. Israeli soldiers posted at a military position some 80 meters away from this house ordered the rescue team to leave the area which they refused to do. There were several other positions of the Israel Defense Forces nearby as well as two tanks.

"This is a shocking incident," said Pierre Wettach, the ICRC's head of delegation for Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. "The Israeli military must have been aware of the situation but did not assist the wounded. Neither did they make it possible for us or the Palestine Red Crescent to assist the wounded."

Large earth walls erected by the Israeli army had made it impossible to bring ambulances into the neighbourhood. Therefore, the children and the wounded had to be taken to the ambulances on a donkey cart. In total, the ICRC/PRCS rescue team evacuated 18 wounded and 12 others who were extremely exhausted. Two corpses were also evacuated. The ICRC/PRCS will recover the remaining corpses on Thursday.

The ICRC was informed that there are more wounded sheltering in other destroyed houses in this neighbourhood. It demands that the Israeli military grant it and PRCS ambulances safe passage and access immediately to search for any other wounded. Until now, the ICRC has still not received confirmation from the Israeli authorities that this will be allowed.

Coincidentally, today CiF gave Alan Dershowitz house room to blame Hamas for absolutely everything that has happened in Gaza. According to him, not just are the deaths at the UN school Hamas's fault and Hamas's only, but also we can't trust the numbers of women and children killed, because Hamas has used both in the past as terrorists. Here then are some more terrorists that Israel was completely right to take no chances with:

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Scum-watch: Glen Jenvey unmasked as "abuislam".

Strangely for what was a front page "exclusive", the Sun has not so much as a single word to say in today's paper about yesterday's entirely concocted claim that Alan Sugar was on a "hit list" drawn up by "hate-filled Islamic extremists" on a "fanatics" website. Perhaps they'd already noted that the forum had produced a press release which denied the allegations in the strongest possible terms, or maybe they felt they'd already done enough, which they certainly had. Google News links to 174 separate news stories, all of which had their origin in the Sun's original, the vast majority without so much as questioning the Sun's claim or double-checking them. Churnalism, as always, had done its work.

Unfortunately for the Sun, their story has even further unravelled. Their own journalists in this instance seem to have only written the story up, or had it sold to them by Glen Jenvey, a so-called anti-terror expert and former spy quoted in yesterday's report as claiming that the result of the naming of certain high profile Jews on would result in 20 to 30 thugs going round their houses, at the least. Jenvey has an interesting past, and as Tim from Bloggerheads who has done most of the digging with some help from others notes, he's been involved in editing his own Wikipedia page, like all the finest egomaniacs, so nothing on there can be trusted in the slightest. Jenvey's page claims that he studied radical Islam at college, spied on Iran for the United States, and also infiltrated the Tamil Tigers. Again, trusting things on the internet is always unwise, but mikimoose in the comments on Tim's original post uncovered a perhaps more enlightening reason for Jenvey's interest in radical Islam:

Update 16.03.09: Following the latest by Tim Ireland have fully removed the claims involving Jenvey's non-existent daughter.

Jenvey is linked with another whole host of interesting characters, the online group Vigil, which claims to be monitoring and infiltrating jihadist forums online, both for surveillance purposes and, it seems, with a view to selling stories onto the national press. Vigil themselves deny that Jenvey is a member, although they admit that they have worked with him in the past. While as noted is by no means a radical forum, it has previously attracted extremist sentiment, and other sites have described it as being part of the so-called Londonistan set-up. For such an apparently sophisticated former spy meant to be monitoring incredibly dangerous individuals, Jenvey's exploits on were amateurish to say the least. While yesterday it was thought that "abuislam", the poster on the original thread that attempted to stir the letter writing campaign up into something it wasn't was a freelance journalist called Richard Tims, this appears to have a simple cover for Jenvey himself. Tims' only post on was to link to a website where you could sell stories, now defunct. Unfortunately for Jenvey, posts on other sites spamming point to the fact that the site was owned by none other than... Jenvey.

Tim has noted that "abuislam" had tried on a number of other occasions to troll, hoping to catch some bait, presumably to sell to the newspapers, but he failed on each and every occasion, not getting enough for a story to be weaved out of it. First he posted about the prospective release of "terrorist mastermind" Abu Izzadeen, without getting a single reply. Then he went a bit further, asking whether "marital rape" exists, which did spark discussion, but as you would expect, plenty of condemnation and some others in thread wondering about trolling. Next up was asking where the failed nail bomber Nicky Reilly might have been encouraged into carrying out a suicide attack, again without any luck. Probably most interestingly, especially regarding the Sun, he next tried to ask opinions on the Sun's "Help for Heroes" charity single, done in conjunction with the X Factor. One response was his reward, and that was to tell him that they didn't really discuss pop music. Perhaps this was his attempt to cash in on a previous Sun front page story, where the paper claimed that Omar Bakri Muhammad had ranted about the X Factor's involvement with the charity, suggesting that even watching it was committing a form of "muadaat". After failing with a thread on Prince Harry, he finally struck gold with his posts on letter-writing campaign thread.

The best that can be said for the Sun itself is that it was tricked by Jenvey in alerting them to the non-story in the first place, with them chomping at the bit to concoct from the little there was to go on in the thread a supposed "hate-filled Islamic extremist" threat to Alan Sugar and others, not bothering to investigate whether abuislam's interventions were too good to be true. At worst, the Sun has connived with a supposed anti-terror expert in completely fabricating a threat to some of the most prominent Jews in those country, doubtless causing them undue worry at the very least, all while further demonising British Muslims who were only planning to exercise their democratic right to peaceful protest. Whatever the truth, what has happened here is still a scandal; a newspaper caught red-handed, diverting attention away from the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza to completely spurious and invented threats, purely for its own profit and gain. This deserves to be investigated by the Press Complaints Commission at the very least, although is already considering its legal options. The paper might well yet curse doing business with Glen Jenvey.

Update: Fayruz in the comments on Bloggerheads says that Jenvey has no daughter and that the entire interview was invented by the Saviour Sect. I'm not removing the link as yet but just another thing to be kept in mind.

Update 16/03/09: Have fully removed the claims as above.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009 

Threat level diminishing? Say it ain't so...

Sometimes the headlines used in different newspapers on the same story can be instructive: while the Guardian headlined their report of the interview with MI5 head Jonathan Evans "al-Qaida threat diminished but not over", the Telegraph went with the more alarming "MI5 chief warns of threat from global recession". Little of what he said really hinted at any imminent security threat as a direct result of the recession, more a gradual shifting of power from the West potentially to the East, but it made for a better story than the much more important revelation that the threat level has diminished.

Whether this is, as Evans argued, a result of the last couple of years of prosecutions or rather down to the changing priorities of those becoming radicalised, with Evans suggesting that Somalia is becoming an increasingly attractive place to join the jihad is impossible to know. It is however very encouraging and informative that according to Evans al-Qaida appears to have no "semi-autonomous structured hierarchy" currently in place in this country. This suggests that if there are going to be attacks, or attempted attacks, they're more likely to be of the variety provided by Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead outside the Tiger Tiger and at Glasgow airport, where incompetence and lack of funding combined with an apparently automonous decision to launch an attack, although allegations of links to the Islamic State of Iraq, rather than al-Qaida "central" in Pakistan have been made.

Without saying as much, Evans more or less admitted that since the Glasgow attack there has been no serious, imminent plot to disrupt. He also more or less suggested that the number of active sympathisers, said by himself to be around 2,000, a figure which has never been adequately quantified, has also declined, although whether this is due to recantation or those previously identified leaving the country is again impossible to know. From attacks supposedly being imminent, or actively being planned, Evans only said that "they have the intention to mount an attack here", which is a long way from some of the blood-curdling rhetoric and outright fearmongering we have heard from politicians and police in the past. It also directly contradicts the recent remarks made by Lord West that "another great plot is building up again".

Evans' interview ought to raise the question of why the "official threat level" continues to remain at "severe", which is meant to mean that an attack is highly likely. By his comments, a more suitable level would be the next one down, which is "substantial", with an attack a strong possibility. One of the factors involved is surely that prior to 7/7 there were discussions about lowering the threat level to "substantial", only for the attack to apparently occur from out of the blue, catching police and security services off-guard, although it subsequently became clear that MI5 had known about two of the attackers, previously described as "clean skins". Potential criticism for messing around with the threat level is probably part of why it hasn't been brought down, but also surely a factor is that Labour ministers themselves continue to scaremonger at every given opportunity, regardless of the reality. Keeping it at "severe" helps them to be able to continue sell the ever continuing casual dilutions of liberty and the new plans for databases, all supposedly to make us safer while apparently doing nothing other than properly prosecuting and monitoring plots has up to now stood us in apparently good stead.

Evans did mention the mega-database plan, or at least something similar to it, although his main concern appeared to be calls made over Skype, which they seem to currently have difficulties intercepting. Far less impressive was his defence of the Intelligence and Security Committee, for the obvious reason being that it is about as inefficient and hopeless as a watchdog over the security services as any parliamentary committee. From its whitewash over MI6's involvement in rendition, which changed the descriptions of what constituted an "extraordinary rendition" so that MI6 was found innocent, to its pathetic censored reports which may as well not be issued for all the enlightenment they offer, both MI5 and MI6 need to have a fully independent organisation which monitors them, similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which although flawed, is far better than the ISC currently is. Neither political party however is interested in opening up the security services any further than they currently have been, and they'll continue to be able to do more or less as they please for years to come. They may have cleaned up their act considerably on the home front, but abroad and especially regards to suspects in Pakistan and elsewhere they seem as dependent on torture and the unannounced, shadowy visits as they ever have.

Outside of that, what we ought to take from the interviews with Evans is that the sky is not about to fall, despite so many relentlessly predicting just that. The one real concern is in fact that the assaults on Gaza by Israel seem to be successfully radicalising not just those living in the occupied territories, but those outside it as well. All those defending Israel to the hilt ought to take note of that; when we refuse to recognise that such disproportionate attacks on an impoverished people far away can have such an effect on our own streets, it imposes on all of us an obligation to push ever harder for a peaceful settlement. And one thing that can be guaranteed is that the massacres we have seen over the last couple of weeks are only likely to put that further away.

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Scum-watch: Letter writers turned into "Islamic fanatics".

How then do you report the conflict in Gaza if you're a tabloid based in this country? Convinced that your readers couldn't care less about war in other countries unless it involves us and especially if it involves people with a skin colour other than white, as well as the fact that such reporting costs money, you have to try at all costs to get some sort of link in to what's happening here. Despite 40 being killed in a UN school which the Israelis now apparently privately accept there was no mortar fire from, only the Mail so much as mentioned it on its front page today, and that was on the side away from the utterly vital news involving the phasing out of incandescent light-bulbs.

The Sun though had an exclusive: TERROR TARGET SUGAR their front page shrieks, with EXTREMIST THREAT TO UK JEWS in a banner above it. The online version of the article, which has a rather less hysterical headline with "[H]ate hit list", spells it out pretty clearly:

FEARS grew last night that hate-filled Islamic extremists are drawing up a “hit list” of Britain’s leading Jews — bringing the Middle East conflict terrifyingly close to home.

TV’s The Apprentice boss Sir Alan Sugar and Amy Winehouse record producer Mark Ronson are among prominent names discussed on a fanatics’ website.


British anti-terror expert Glen Jenvey is convinced online forum Ummah is being used to prepare a deadly backlash against UK Jews.

Here is the thread on which the Sun article appears to be based on. It bares almost no resemblance whatsoever to the Sun or Jenvey's claims. The title of the topic is "[C]ompile a list of those who support Israel, started by saladin1970:

Asalamalykum, it seems that the time is right to compile a list of british people who support Israel

I read this post
"The names and addresses of Wealthy Zionist Jews can be found in the lists of sponsors and contributors of Zionist Charities. The names and addresses of Company Directors that work for Military Industrial Companies that support these tyrannical regimes can be found in publication like Dunn and Bradstreet"

It would be beneficial to start compiling a list so that we can write polite letters reminding them of the injustices of israel and to stop supporting israel

Ah yes, so what's being proposed on this "extremist" website is a deadly letter writing campaign. The thread itself was started on the 29th of December, and there wasn't exactly much headway made except in linking to lists on other websites. Suddenly, "abuislam" two days later bumped the thread up:

Have we got list of top jews and supporters yet we can target? can someone start posting names and addresses.

Saladin continues to link to a load of different pages, urging others on the forum to write to separate organisations to campaign against them, before abuislam suddenly pops up again and directly names some individuals:

Sir Alan Sugar

Alan Howard

David Miliband

Again, there's some further discussion but no indication of any protests that would involve anything other than private representation, until, wait for it, out comes abuislam at 7:31am yesterday with:

(QUOTE:It would be beneficial to start compiling a list so that we can write polite letters reminding them of the injustices of israel and to stop supporting israel ) polite will not work. Target them with Demo's out-side their Home's and Business hit and run demo's showing and exposing their war crimes in their support.

There where then no further posts until an admin posted on the Sun's story and locked the thread. seems to have already looked into who "abuislam" was and quickly found some rather quite surprising details:

I can confirm that the User "AbuIslam" who was posing as a Muslim on this forum is infact a freelance Journalist by the name of "Richard Tims" who registered on this forum to twist what the original Intent of this thread was for and to make Muslims look bad. Whether he works for the sun or not i dont know.

Abuislam Deliberated added comments on this thread which made is as if this thread was intended to cause harm to names that were mentioned

This has been confirmed from his IP address and Email addresses has he used on this forum and previous usernames

It's obviously impossible to confirm's claims, and a quick Google for Richard Tims doesn't turn up any obvious social networking profiles which would confirm there's a Richard Tims who describes himself as a hack, but on the surface the evidence does look rather damning; no one suggested anything other than a letter writing campaign or passing information on to other Muslim organisations for them to make representations, and very few actual names were mentioned until abuislam just happened to name some of the biggest used in the Sun's story, including Sugar and Miliband. Then, probably because even the Sun was going to have difficulties spinning a story out of absolutely nothing, abuislam finally suggested protests outside their homes and businesses, which even then suggests nothing other than unpleasant but within the law doorstep demonstrations.

There isn't even any out and out anti-semitism within the thread, although some will doubtless consider the targeting of individuals simply because they are Jews, regardless of their views on Israel, to be intimidating and most certainly counter-productive. As for the names the Sun mentions, Mark Ronson, Lord Levy and Anthony Julius were not so much as mentioned in the thread itself. They are however all entries on the Jewish Chronicle's list on the 100 most influential Jews, which was linked to on the thread.

Worth quoting is a section from's "press release", which attacks the Sun's article in no uncertain terms:

Examining the adjectives used in The Sun's article gives us an undeniable insight into their intent in publishing this piece; the words "hate", "hit list", "hate-filled", "extremists", "terrifyingly", "fanatics", and "deadly" all appear in the short article. The article mentions anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in Europe, quotes a statement from a figure in Al-Qaeda saying Muslims should attack targets wherever they can, alleges that Hamas call for the killing of Jewish children by saying Jewish people should be targeted anywhere and mentions attacks including an arson raid on a Synagogue. Discerning readers will be able to see this for what it is: a despicable attempt to paint law-abiding, Muslim peace activists - who are campaigning against Israel's actions - as criminal, murderous, anti-Semites, and terrorists. By using the language and imagery of hate and fear, they are instilling these feelings towards Muslims in the hearts and minds of their readers, and this has been an obvious feature of The Sun newspaper for many years.

Around the only accurate comment made in the article regarding the thread on the forum is that as Glen Jenvey says, it has in the past been used by extremists. Considering however that it is a wide open forum, where debate is not strenuously moderated, this is always likely, especially on the internet where intemperate and extreme comment are only a click away on any major forum. Some of those on it are quite clearly militant in their thinking: "kuffar" is used a number of times to describe those that aren't Muslims, alongside the usually illuminating remarks about the "illuminati" and "masons", and on the open press release thread one person has an Israeli flag combined with a swastika as an avatar, while others have avatars regarding the caliphate, potentially indicating support for Hizb-ut-Tahrir or other similar revivalist groupings, but none of this even begins to justify the Sun's twisting of the thread, or their outright scaremongering about the threats facing famous Jews in this country.

Some, like the press release will further link this to the Sun's previous articles about Muslims, whether supposedly telling passengers on their buses to get off so they could pray or attacking the homes soldiers had looked at with the view to moving in as evidence of the paper's Islamophobia. To me it just looks like the Sun doing what it always does: twisting the truth as far as it can to create a "story" while not telling outright lies. That it will further inflame hatred against Muslims who were only proposing a letter writing campaign, and also scare Jewish individuals already concerned at the potential for attacks on them because of Israel's actions in Gaza is just an unfortunate by-product of the Sun's constant need to keep shifting copies and making money. Nothing else apart from that matters, and if other people get hurt, so be it.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009 

Massacres upon massacres.

The inevitable then has happened. As almost always occurs when Israel uses overwhelming force, whether in Lebanon, the West Bank or in Gaza, they have succeeded in massacring a large group of civilians, and then subsequently claimed that it either wasn't their fault or that they had no choice. Between 30 and 40, mostly children, were slaughtered when tank shells hit a UN school in the northern town of Jabailya.

It's almost impossible to describe this as anything other than a crime for the simple reason that Israel knows full well that thousands if not tens of thousands of Palestinians are now sheltering in these schools, the only semi-safe havens there are in the entire Strip. It knows full well because it has been dropping leaflets across the territory ordering citizens to vacate their homes or face the consequences, making the ominous telephone calls that houses are about to be destroyed, all while claiming that civilians will be dealt with with "silk gloves". The Israelis know the exact locations of these schools, because the UN gave them the GPS co-ordinates.

There are therefore no excuses whatsoever for hitting them with artillery fire, or launching air strikes at them, as another suffered, which killed 7 of those sheltering there. Even if we believe the Israeli claims that Hamas fighters were launching mortars from inside the school, information which the UN completely denies, although they accept that there was fighting close by, there is no justification whatsoever for hitting somewhere which will almost certainly result in gross civilian casualties, just because you are getting shot at. The Israeli propaganda ministers, sorry, spokesmen, even have the audacity to claim that it's Hamas that is launching cover-ups and conspiracies in response to the massacre at al-Fakhura. In reality, Israel has participated in cover-up after cover-up and whitewashed inquiry after whitewashed inquiry whenever large numbers of civilians are killed. The explosion on the beach in Gaza which killed most of Huda Ghalia's family was first blamed on Hamas mining the beach; only later did they admit that it was most likely the result of unexploded Israeli ordnance, although others also still believe it was the result of Israeli shelling, with the IDF admitting a shell had gone "missing" during firing at the time. The shelling of Beit Hanoun later in 2006 which killed 19 Palestinians initially brought an end to the Israeli attacks and apologies for the "malfunction"; the Israelis then however repeatedly blocked a UN fact finding mission led by Desmond Tutu from entering Gaza, only letting them in at the third attempt, while decrying the UN for criticising Israel after it had expressed regret. Finally, there was the air strikes which hit a building north of Qana during the 2006 Hizbullah-Lebanon war, which killed 28 civilians, again mostly children sheltering from the bombing. Initial claims that Hizbullah had been firing rockets from the buildings or nearby were shown to be false, with missiles have been fired from south of the village. The Israelis then claimed they had "intelligence" that the building was unoccupied and was being used by Hizbullah, statements which were again given short shrift by human rights groups and journalists in the area. Instead it seemed that Israel was continuing with its collective punishment regime, flattening many of the buildings in Qana and north of the village where the building was located.

This time round there has not even been the slightest suggestion of apologies or regrets for the targeting of the UN schools. The response has instead been as combative as ever, the same old repeated blaming of Hamas while refusing to accept responsibility for so much as hurting a hair on a Palestinian child's head. The Israeli propaganda offensive has been completely overwhelming, a constant flow of spokesmen (and women) repeating the same lines endlessly into cameras, controlled by the recent establishment of a National Information Directorate and fear of repeating the mistakes of 2006, when the propaganda offensive fell down, partially thanks to independent reporting from Lebanon, but also due to there being those on the opposite side who were felt to be representative and which broadcasters would not be criticised for hosting. This time round, Israel has successfully blocked foreign journalists from entering Gaza, leaving the West's hacks stranded and dependent on local producers, while the Arab news channels can broadcast live from the Strip around the clock. As much as this will inflame the Arab street and put pressure on governments in the Middle East, it's Western governments and especially the US which are in a position put pressure on Israel to end the assault. With television in America especially either completely ignoring the conflict or so pro-Israeli that it's beyond a joke, very little pressure is being placed on anyone. Only today did Barack Obama bother to so much as mumble a few lines on the situation, spreading the blame equally. Combined with this is that few stations will put on Hamas members or leaders, at least the ones not in hiding on screen, or give them the time to properly interview them. The result is much the same as the disparity in strength between Israel and Hamas, with only one message being put across, even as the scenes of carnage are being broadcasted, themselves sanitised less any squeamish Westerners be shocked by the polls of blood along with the twisted bodies which are now routinely being pulled out of the rubble of bombed buildings.

The propaganda offensive is naturally not just limited to print news and television, but to internet comment threads as well. No longer are the likes of just GIYUS selecting pieces on mainstream news sites as well as individual blogs to target and invade with the same old rehearsed arguments which have been heard a thousand times, the Israeli Foreign Ministry itself is now taking part in similar efforts, with the Guardian and Times among those being targeted. Dissent from the view that Israel is perfectly justified in slaughtering at least 595 Palestinians in just 10 days is simply not to be tolerated, especially when claims that white phosphorus or depleted uranium is being used are made. We've yet to see the risible claims from right-wing bloggers during the Lebanese war that the Qana massacre was staged for the cameras, but we have had, as mentioned yesterday, the just as ridiculous idea that Palestinians are actively pretending to be injured for the cameras. That there is no need for such tactics or manipulation when so many have been injured or killed is beyond their imagination.

At the same time, there are those who repeatedly apologise for the Israeli assault while providing deafening denunciations of leftists for palling up with the likes of Hamas and Hizbullah supporters when going on marches. Sunny from Liberal Conspiracy even complained on CiF about how a tiny minority on Saturday's march had tried to chant "we are all Hamas" and then had shouted "Allahu Akbar", which unpleasant as it is for secular leftists is always likely to take place. Such temporary coalitions when protesting against murderous cynicism are unavoidable, however much we dislike those involved. Additionally, if it wasn't for the likes of the Socialist Workers' Party or the Stop the War Coalition such protests would probably either not take place or be as well organised as they are, however much you dislike the SWP's politics or the StWC's partners. However much some dislike it, at the moment the only people actively defending the Palestinians in Gaza are Hamas and the other militant groups, and even if they stopped fighting or firing missiles tomorrow the fighting and the siege are hardly likely to be lifted any time soon. The policy has gone from stopping rocket fire to the apparent overthrow of Hamas, and the Israeli concession of "humanitarian corridors", when it denies there is any humanitarian crisis in Gaza suggests there is still plenty more shelling and missile strikes to come rather than a quick ceasefire.

If there is an abiding image of this conflict, apart from the incessant images of the brutalised and eviscerated coming into Gaza's close to collapsing hospitals, it's this one of Israeli citizens, the ones so apparently fearful of Hamas's rocket attacks, the ones terrorised for 8 years while the Israelis disengaged from Gaza, who made the journey to near Gaza's border to watch the IDF attack Beit Hanoun. While the Palestinians cower in their shattered homes, they watch and comment on how the IDF could be doing more. Both sides have been damaged by the incessant conflict, but only one finds the time to go and watch from afar the destruction being waged in their name. Probably because the Gazans can't even if they wanted to.

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Monday, January 05, 2009 

Unethical and immoral pity.

It sums up both the disparity between Hamas and Israel that a stray shell has killed three Israeli soldiers, the same number of civilians that Hamas has succeeded in killing in more than a week of launching rockets into Israel, as well as the complete inaccuracy of such repetitive firing which the whole of Gaza is now enduring, at a far greater cost than any weapon which Hamas has, other than the suicide belt which has largely recently eschewed.

While the more deluded Hamas officials continue to spout murderous nonsense to themselves that Israel by its actions has authorised attacks on synagogues or Israeli children, those on the opposite side do much the same. Take this utterly delightful article by Adi Dvir, which urges us not to pity the Palestinians, as doing so is "
unethical and immoral", patronising them by believing that they are not in control of their own actions or either too stupid or unable to overthrow Hamas. By the same yardstick, we shouldn't pity those living in Sderot whom the Israelis and their mouthpieces are urging us to feel for, having lived for eight years under Qassam rocket fire, as they too are either too stupid or unable to overthrow their own government which enforces a blockade on a territory which starves it while not starving those within it to death. Israel has never lived up to its promises since it left Gaza. As Mike Power pointed out in response to Melanie Phillips' discounting the idea that Hamas's terror is similar to what we lived with from the IRA, with her claiming it would only be the same if the IRA had controlled Ireland like Hamas controls Gaza:

Only if the UK had blockaded Ireland, controlled its water and power supplies, prevented its inhabitants from seeking urgent medical treatment and controlled the movement of its citizens in and out of the country (and that's just for starters).

We shouldn't also feel pity for any of these people below, and remember, most of them are either only pretending to be dead or pretending to be injured, including the cow:

Oh, and in the interests of balance, here's a terrified Israeli attempting to protect her child, who isn't putting it on like all those above:

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Suicide by churnalism.

As Sim-O notes over on the Sun Lies, the Sun and 12 other newspapers/news sites have been found in breach of clause 5 of the Press Complaints Commission's code over articles reporting the suicide of a man who decapitated himself with a chainsaw, all of which were found to have reported the method used in excessive detail, something of increasing concern due to the apparent number of copycat attempts after similar articles have been published. While I'm hardly one of those people who thinks we shouldn't so much as mention suicide or ways to kill yourself for fear that those that would otherwise live long and happy lives will kill themselves on a whim, what also has been to be kept in mind when publishing such articles is the potential for further distress to those left behind, especially when splashed all over the national press for what is little more than titillation value, so-called public interest or not.

Again though, this is a prime example of churnalism in action. It seems that none of the newspapers had reporters at the actual inquest, which naturally heard forensic detail about how the man had set-up and activated the chainsaw in order to kill himself, but rather that all the information was provided by the Press Association. The PA itself quickly realised that the first report had gone too far in giving a blow by blow account of the exact facts of the case, and issued an edited follow-up. By then though the initial account had been put up across the web, and few seem to have replaced it with the updated version. As Nick Davies argued in Flat Earth News, PA and the other wires are often considered to be authoritative and therefore don't need to be double-checked, even though they themselves are under the same time constraints as their print counterparts are. Likewise, in this instance few of the newspapers bothered to edit the initial report, or even if they did didn't edit it enough to the PCC's liking, which seems to have investigated the reports without an actual complaint being made, presumably because of their own concern about them.

The PCC emphasised the importance of editing in its statement:

However, this was not a sufficient defence [the copy having came from the PA]. Indeed, this case demonstrated the importance of the editing process in removing excessive detail before publication – both online and offline.

Of the 14 articles that were investigated, only the Metro's print version and the one in the Guardian were ruled to have not breached the code. The Guardian's is worth quoting because it seems to sum everything up perfectly concisely, without dwelling on the story:

A man cut off his own head with a chainsaw because he was "irrationally opposed" to leaving his home, which was due to be demolished, an inquest heard yesterday. David Phyall, 50, rigged the machine up with a timer before swallowing painkillers at his housing association flat in Bishopstoke, Hampshire, on July 5, the hearing at Winchester was told. At the time of his death Phyall, who had suffered from mental illness, was the only person living in the 1960s block. Recording a verdict of suicide, coroner Simon Burge said Phyall was "irrationally opposed to moving".

The PCC's adjudication decided "in a difficult judgement call" that the newspaper had "stayed on just the right side of the line". In others, such as the Sun's print version and the Daily Star, it decided that the opposite was the case and that they had included just "slightly too much" detail. None though responded in the way which the Daily Mirror did, which claimed that the method of suicide was so "exceptional" that reporting it was in the "public interest". Perhaps not knowing which battles to fight and which to not, it went on to argue that it didn't believe that copycats were likely, and "also questioned whether the restriction on the right to report inquests in full was practicable for newspapers or consistent with the principle of open justice". The Mirror might have had a point if the PCC were objecting to the details of a murder being reported in such a way, or if it was genuinely restricting the right to report on inquests completely rather than just asking newspapers to show discretion over cases involving suicide or apparent suicide, which are rarely of such public interest that the full details need to be known for justice to be seen to have been done, but it wasn't. Interestingly, the Mirror's Scottish sister, the Daily Record, accepted in good grace that its report had breached the code, "apologised, and acted to make sure that the back bench and night desk were more familiar with the terms of the Code in this area", which seems like a model response.

You could understand the Mirror's response more if its own reporters and editors had been involved in the story other than rewriting or editing it slightly, but they weren't. Surely the fact that the copy had been provided by an outside source, even if one routinely used, meant that it should have come under more attention, especially on a subject where the code is more than clear. Perhaps the reaction was more to do with the fact that the Mirror, along with the Express group and the Independent are the papers which have the fewest resources to work with and so less time to spend on messing around with the wire copy, especially when it is seen as high quality. Indeed, the Express recently made more than half of its subeditors redundant, with the Star having already done similar. Accordingly, the Star was raked over the coals while the paper protested that its sister had edited the story down to just mentioning the chainsaw, as if that was a defence.

As the recession takes hold and advertisers further desert the print media, more job losses are inevitable. With them will come the further triumph of churnalism, and as newspapers continue to try to appeal across the board and do everything, even more mistakes and complaints with them will be made. The future is, as Peter Wilby argues, the niche - either highbrow or lowbrow, not trying to be both. You can imagine that the Mail and Sun will likely survive, as will probably the Torygraph, Times and Guardian in their current forms, at least for now - the others may well fall by the wayside or go online only, although I can't imagine many seeking out the Star, Express or Mirror websites when everything they do is done elsewhere and almost always better. Before that happens, things will probably deteriorate rapidly, and like with the other victims of the recession outside those being made unemployed at least so far, the papers and their owners will have few others to blame but themselves.

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Godwin's law and Tory economic policy.

One of the old rules of debate, long before the invention of Godwin's law, was that the first person to bring up the Nazis lost. Unless you want to look like Rick in the Young Ones, even in these times when calling Labour ZaNuLiarBore or similar is considered the height of wit and sophistication, or calling Gordon Brown a one-eyed communist passes for enlightened discourse, it's mostly still looked down upon.

Iain Dale, the nation's premier serious blogger is obviously beyond such subtleties. Opening his article on Comment is Free, he invokes everyone's favourite propaganda minister (no, not Alastair Campbell, or Andy Coulson):

Gordon Brown and his ministers seem to have adopted the Goebbels principle of propaganda, hoping that the more often they repeat an allegation, the more likely a gullible public is to believe it. Over the past month they have repeatedly accused the Conservatives and David Cameron of adopting a "do nothing" approach to the recession, in the hope that Cameron can be made out to be heartless and uncaring. James Purnell's interviews on the Today Programme and 5 Live this morning were classic examples of the genre. Goebbels would have nodded approvingly.

Yeah, shame about him giving his children cyanide pills before he and his wife blew their own brains out, otherwise we could have asked him personally what he thought of Labour's media strategy. By the same token, Dale must surely be concerned about how the Conservatives have repeatedly suggested that the country is either "going bankrupt", "near bankruptcy" or "bankrupt", all of which have been the Tories' refrain for quite some time now, with even less basis in facts than the accusation that the Conservatives are a "do nothing" party. Dale lists some of the other policies proposed by his party, but few of them have been praised by those outside of it, and others such as the proposed tax break for employers have been derided. Few of them would provide anything resembling a stimulus, or one more likely to be spent than saved, which is what is needed, and while the jury is still out on the VAT cut, even fewer of their promises seem to actually add up.

The same can of course be said of the government's policies, which do indeed also deserve criticise, but today's new announcement by the Tories for tax cuts for savers are especially wide of the mark. Welcome as further incentives to save would be once we're out of a recession, it's the opposite of what's needed right now, as Tom Freeman points out. The Conservatives can though of course say whatever the hell they like when they're in opposition, as they're not suddenly going to become the party of government and have to introduce their announced plans immediately, and unsurprisingly the Tory press has lapped up Cameron's latest pronouncement, as they were meant to.

All the rhetoric however masks the fact that if the Conservatives had been in power rather than Labour, they would have in all likelihood have let the market rip even further. Yes, taxes might well have been lower, the public services might well have not had as much money pumped in, the deficit might not be quite so high, but we would almost certainly be in much the same hole. It has taken the recession for the Conservatives to rediscover the "morality" of saving rather than going into debt, and that's something that should always be remembered now that parties of all political shapes and colours decide that capitalism might well need taming after all.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009 

Weekend links.

The main story remains, quite rightly, the assault on Gaza, with ground troops now apparently entering the Strip. Reports on the demonstration on London are coming in, with Lenin being quick off the mark as usual, followed by Socialist Unity. Some after the end of the main rally split off to protest outside the Israeli embassy, where it appears that they were charged at least once by riot police, with the Stop the War Coalition claiming three times and that they intend to register a strong complaint. Karma Nabulsi in the Graun paints a picture of a society under siege, burying its dead while trying to continue with everyday life, in one of the strongest and most vivid pieces yet published. Howard Jacobson in the Indie writes a somewhat conflicted piece, as if he doesn't know whether he's against the attack on Gaza or for it, feeling the pain of Palestinians and mocking the overreactions while saying that Israel had to do it even while its action is neither right nor wise. Sitting on the fence, plague on both your houses type thinking is all very well, but achieves even less than taking sides does.

Elsewhere various bloggers respond to the latest conclusive study that shows
the white working class feel betrayed by politicians over immigration. Few bother to mention that the report for Hazel Blears' community cohesion government department interviewed just 43 people, or if they do, don't make much of such a ludicrously small sample, but thankfully Dave Osler, the Daily Quail and Anton Vowl all do have a say.

In general miscellany, Tom Freemania notes
that inflation no longer exists, Marina Hyde mocks the latest idea for the great unwashed to get involved with active citizenship by rating their doctors like a book on Amazon, Clive Stafford Smith says we owe the men in Guantanamo a reprieve from hell, which is quite right when we ourselves have been involved in their detention, but for the most part it should be the US itself which takes in those it has imprisoned and held without charge for up to 7 years, and Matthew Parris writes of how Obama will handle a declining superpower, namely his own. Paul Linford asks whether Brown can survive 2009, which is what many were asking at the beginning of 2008, while Stephen Garrett puts in a contender for worst tabloid article of the weekend even though he's writing in the Indie, demanding new laws now to protect his cash inflow from the likes of Spooks, threatened by the hordes of illegal downloaders.

The worst award though must go to this lionisation in the Daily Mail of the loathsome Liz Longhurst, successful in her campaign to make the viewing of "dangerous pictures" a criminal offence which carries a potential 3-year prison sentence. It's instructive to learn this of Longhurst:

Until her daughter's untimely death, Liz knew little about pornography. She didn't even watch TV soap operas, thinking they were too violent.

Not because they're shit then; because they were "too violent". Who could possibly be surprised that such small-mindedness and already established resistance to anything "different" would go hand in hand with the "ban it!" tendency, regardless of the impact it will have on the lives on others?

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Friday, January 02, 2009 

The status quo ante returns.

When did we hear this before?

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, called for a "durable and sustainable" ceasefire - one which should "not allow a re-establishment of the status quo ante, where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza".

"We cannot return to the status quo ante," Ms Rice told a press conference. Lebanon had to have "one authority and one gun".

For those that have been suffering from an outbreak of deja vu before Rice's comments, it just further establishes that this is little more than a rerun of the 2006 summer Lebanon-Hizbullah-Israel war. The difference is that this time round Israel has even less justification for its actions in Gaza: then Hizbullah had attacked a IDF patrol and kidnapped and killed soldiers, and even if the subsequent action across Lebanon by the IDF was similarly indefensible, Israel had the right to try and get its soldiers back. This time round the justification is the "incessant" rocket fire - but this was at similar levels to what it had been since the 6-month long ceasefire had broken down, if not lower. The real reason appears to be not Hamas provocation but electoral politics from a party that fears it is about to be turned out of office, combined with the IDF itself trying to shake-off the humiliation it suffered in 2006 by re-establishing the fear that other armies and militant groups had of it since the 1967 and 1973 wars.

Rice's remarks show that the despite the Quartet's call for a ceasefire, the US is adopting the exact same position as it had in 2006 - giving Israel room to do whatever the hell it likes until they decide that the calls for a return to some sort of "peace" become too much to resist. In actuality, Rice's statement in effect gives Israel carte blanche to continue its siege of Gaza indefinitely, as Hamas and the other militant groups in the Strip will always have the materials to make their crude home-made rockets, even if they run out of the Grads they have recently obtained. The only solution to the rocket fire is a peaceful one, as all sides realise however much rhetoric they deliver, yet as Ehud Barak said earlier in the week, there is a time for peace and there is a time for fighting, and at the moment Israel seems determined to not stop its attacks until a distinct part of the Strip has been reduced to rubble.

It's difficult to know if what has become known as the "Dahiya doctrine" is in operation yet in Gaza, although as the bombing continues and the supposed "Hamas" targets dwindle it must be getting close to it. Named after the Dahiya district of Beirut which was Hizbullah's erstwhile base in Lebanon, it was ostensibly completely decimated by Israeli airstrikes during the 2006 war. In interviews last year, the IDF's Northern Command Chief Gadi
Eisenkot referred to Dahiya, with his remarks built upon by the columnist Yaron London:

In the next clash with Hizbullah we won’t bother to hunt for tens of thousands of rocket launchers and we won’t spill our soldiers’ blood in attempts to overtake fortified Hizbullah positions. Rather, we shall destroy Lebanon and won’t be deterred by the protests of the “world.”

We shall pulverize the 160 Shiite villages that have turned into Shiite army bases, and we shall not show mercy when it comes to hitting the national infrastructure of a state that, in practice, is controlled by Hizbullah. This strategy is not a threat uttered by an impassioned officer, but rather, an approved plan.

This goes beyond "disproportion". This is an out and out call for crimes against humanity, of the sort which ought to see those who authorised them brought up at the Hague. As the rockets will undoubtedly continue to be fired, as long as Israel continues a siege which the UN is now describing as a "critical emergency", the full implementation of such a policy surely approaches. Can we depend on our government, let alone any US government, under either Bush or Obama to stand up to such an onslaught, should Israel decide the time has come? Again, we have to ask, who exactly are the terrorists here?

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Thursday, January 01, 2009 

Happy new war.

I was intending to write something more substantial today, but considering my head is pounding like a motherfucker and I wasn't even out on the raz last night I'll just direct you to the In Gaza blog, which is providing a superb service in where the missiles are being dropped, along with the casualties involved.

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