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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