Saturday, January 30, 2010 

Modern media values.

Not going to bother with a weekend links post this time round; not much on the blogs to link to, the papers aren't much better, and I'm sure you get tired of me linking to the same shit every Saturday anyway.

I do think though that nothing quite sums up the modern media's values as much as today's front pages. On all the tabloids, and even the Telegraph, footballer shags other footballer's ex-girlfriend. The others, oh, some bloke called Tony Blair was before some panel preaching.

Naturally, it's an important victory for freedom, according to the Sun: you have the right to know when a man with all the charm of a house brick turns out to, well, have all the charm of a house brick. What a breathtaking revelation. To quote the paper:

But if, as a married man, he is behaving in a manner many might find unacceptable with his position, the public has the right to know.

Didn't the public then have a right to know that ex-Sun editor Rebekah Wade's relationship with her then husband Ross Kemp was either breaking or had broken down? Well no, because then News International executive Les Hinton phoned round all the papers begging them not to mention it, which they duly abided by. The only freedom which the tabloid press recognise is the freedom to make money, regardless of the facts and regardless of the morals which some attempt to shove down the throats of their readers.

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Friday, January 29, 2010 

The last Blair show.

As it happened, you didn't need to bother paying any attention to Blair's performance before the Chilcot inquiry; you could instead have simply read it in this morning's Guardian. All Blair's main lines of argument were ready summarised and disclosed to Patrick Wintour, almost as if Tone himself had phoned up the paper's political editor and advised the hack on just how he was going to present his case. Surely not, doubtless the paper will protest: instead it was Blair's "friends" that had informed them of everything. It is though remarkable just how close his evidence was to that briefed to the Graun, especially on the September dossier: the paper said he'd now admit that they should have just published the joint intelligence committee's assessments, and lo, so it came to pass.

If Blair was initially nervous, his hands shaking as the session began, as some have claimed, then it's unclear what he was so worried about. He certainly shouldn't have been of the questioning, which varied from the obsequious and deferential all the way to the mildly troubling, like a small dog trying to hump your leg, embarrassing at first but easy to shake off. Around the only moment he faltered during the morning session (which I didn't see) was when asked about that Fern Britton interview in which he made clear that he would have attempted to remove Saddam even if he knew that Iraq didn't have any WMD. His explanation? That even he, with all his experiences of interviews, still had something to learn, and that in any case, he didn't use the words "regime change". It wasn't then that in a moment of weakness he had for once actually given an honest answer, but that he had, perhaps in that modern lexicon of politicians and celebrities, "misspoke".

This led me onto thinking that maybe we've approached this whole inquiry, if not the modern way in which we expect politicians to be interviewed and interrogated in the wrong way entirely. After all, it's not Blair's first slip to a "soft" interviewer: he previously said to Michael Parkinson that God would judge him on Iraq, which again, might well be what he truly believes. Instead then of having a panel made up of historians, mandarins and other peers of the realm, we should of had the thing chaired by dear old Fern, assisted ably by Davina McCall, Graham Norton, Alan Carr and Coleen Rooney. If nothing else, Carr asking about the legality of the war and the wording of UN Resolution 1441, and what difference there was between "consider" and "decide" when it came to what happened if there was a "material breach" by Iraq might have been amusing for oh, 5 seconds at least.

As the afternoon session drew on, and as it became clear that even Sir Roderic Lyne, the only panel member who has even been close to forensic in his questioning whilst also drier than dry in both his wit and ill-disguised contempt, wasn't as much as laying a finger on our esteemed former prime minister, you could sense that Blair was almost beginning to enjoy himself. The whole world used to be his stage; now the closest he gets are corporate junkets where he spouts platitudes and walks away with a massive cheque, which although doubtless pleasing on the bank balance, just isn't the same. He quite obviously misses being a politician, and although you can say what you like about his politics, and this blog has plenty of times, he remains untouchable at what he does. If David Cameron is Blair's heir, then he doesn't even come close, or hasn't as yet; the air-brushed pretender to Blair's possibly Botoxed brow.

And as it went on, the higher Blair's flights of fancy flew. Why, if we hadn't confronted Saddam in 2003 then by now he would likely be competing with an attempting to go nuclear Iran. It didn't matter that Iraq, being almost completely disarmed in 2003, with even his slightly out-of-allowable range missiles being dismantled by the UN inspectors, would have had to spent those years, still impoverished by sanctions which were never likely to be lifted rebuilding his army from the bottom up. You had to wonder just how he wanted you to re-imagine history: should we be thinking as if the UN inspectors were never allowed back in at all, or as if we'd backed down in March 2003 and given them more time? In the first instance the crippling sanctions would have continued, and in the second eventuality it would have been discovered that Iraq didn't have the WMD stocks which Blair and the intelligence so forcefully stated that they had. In either case Iraq would have been left as the weak link, with Iran the most to gain.

Unlike others who, if not exactly chastened by appearing before the inquiry, have at least admitted that not everything went according to plan and that they had regrets about their involvement, Blair was as rigidly certain as ever of the righteousness of all that he had touched. If things went wrong, it wasn't Blair or the coalition's fault: it was everyone else's but. It wasn't that the planning for after the invasion had been inadequate, it was that al-Qaida and Iran had actively opposed the Iraqi people's rightful safe passage into a post-Saddam era. Despite admitting that Iraq had no links al-Qaida, Iran and al-Qaida as the day wore on grew increasingly inclusive, until finally Blair suggested that the two had been actively working together. Considering that the Mahdi army and the other Iranian-backed groups fought against the Sunni militant groups which sprang up in the aftermath and that this reached its peak during 2007 when civil war and sectarian cleansing of entire parts of the country was taking place, this was something of a revelation. To top that, Blair had to go some, and he managed it with his beyond chutzpah quoting of child mortality figures in the first three years of the decade, as compared with now. That those mortality rates are in part almost certainly attributable to the sanctions regime was something that no member of the inquiry felt like bothering him with.

Asked whether he had anything else to say as the session drew to a close, he simply replied in the negative. Lord Goldsmith, giving evidence on Wednesday, took that opportunity to imply in diplomatic language that even if he had decided that the war was legal, in difference with all the advisers in the Foreign Office and almost every other lawyer versed in international law, it didn't necessarily mean that he thought that it was right, or that it had gone well. Blair could have used it to express his discomfort for all those that have lost their lives, and indeed, continue to do so as a direct result of our actions, even if not at the hands of the coalition. Despite this, you almost expected Blair's interrogators to rise to their feet and applaud, just as Cameron attempted to get the Tories to do on his last prime minister's questions. Delusional to the very last, but still religious in the fervour of his belief that he did the right thing, never has there likely been such relief that Gordon Brown is now our prime minister.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010 

The party's over.

Unlike a lot of other teenage revolutionaries, I successfully resisted the temptation to join one of the random far-left groupings that still, despite everything, manage to keep themselves going even as the members doubtless inexorably age. It isn't difficult though to still find affection for groups that believe the shrinking proletariat will, despite all the signs to the contrary, eventually become a revolutionary vanguard with the power and means to overthrow the ruling class. Whether a dictatorship of the proletariat will then follow remains to be seen; that's one of those things that modern Trotskyists never manage to agree upon.

Reading Dave Osler's survey of the potential for a far-left breakthrough at the general election is to re-read the annals of socialist sect history over more or less the last 20 years. Without placing the blame at any particular grouping, the failures are obvious: a complete inability to work together when only an alliance could so much as begin to threaten the Labour party, a shocking lack of leadership material, and that which there is tends to be egotistical and controlling beyond belief, an obsession with fighting yesterday's battles while ignoring the changing nature of modern British society, and most importantly of all, thinking that the electorate will connect with you rather than you having to connect with them.

The spectre which once only haunted the socialist left is now hanging over the left as a whole. The left has just failed to take the greatest opportunity to be handed to it in a generation: a crash which many predicted but which it has been unable to take advantage of. Even as governments turned to Keynes, the left's response has been either muted or non-existent. Just when an alternative has been most needed, as those who have never experienced a recession have had to get used to the feeling of being surplus to requirements, the explanation for why this cycle is doomed to repeat has been almost wholly lacking. Left economists may have been those whose advice has been turned to, but no grouping has built upon this to turn it into a critique of where we went wrong and what has to be changed to even limit the effects should it happen again.

Undoubtedly we can put some of the blame upon a Labour party which has never looked so moribund. It seems determined to spend its few remaining days in power, when not sulking about still being lead by Gordon Brown, showing the poverty of thinking which has condemned it to its current position. All it offers now is the chance for you to keep up with the Joneses, the shallowest, most limited vision of aspiration imaginable. This isn't just down to Brown's intellectual inadequacy when he moves off economics, failing to articulate the "good society" which Blair in flashes painted in his famous verb-less speeches. It's a direct result of Labour's obsession with the dead centre, the triangulation which inhibits its every statement.

Who though is waiting for their chance to prove they could do better? Alan Johnson? One of the Miliband brothers? Harriet Harman? Peter Mandelson? Every single one is dedicated to the continuation of the current policies, with slight changes at the edges. This is the biggest problem facing not just Labour, but the left at large: there are no new potential leaders waiting for their opportunity, rather just the same old bunch of either politicos, trade union dinosaurs or uninspiring if competent incumbents.

Take, just as an example, the "Progressive London" conference being held this weekend. Not content with continuing to use the word "progressive" as if it still means something, it's Ken Livingstone also failing to realise that despite all he's done, for which he deserves praise, he's now yesterday's man and ought to put his dreams of returning to the Mayorship behind him. Look at the panel on "the cost of war" and try not to either smash your monitor or throw up on it: what can Galloway, the political editor of the fucking Morning Star, CND and the Stop the War Coalition say which they haven't already and which hasn't already driven away those who once protested? To take one gathering which isn't completely shooting fish in a barrel, there's Stopping the BNP - no concession to the far right, which features such luminaries as that guy out of that band which made that "Heavyweight Champion of the World" song, alongside an union regional secretary and someone from Love Music Hate Racism. When perhaps discussion on why people vote for the BNP should be foremost in the minds of the left, and how to win back supporters that have crossed the political divides, the first people I know I'd turn to would be someone from a good cause which everyone can get behind but which changes nothing and a guy who's made one hit record. There are a couple of promising panels, such as the one on electoral reform and homes and planning for London's future, something which is actually practical, but the rest is the left banging on about the same old things without ever moving forward, which, unless I'm much mistaken, is what progressive is actually meant to mean.

Even if the left and the Labour party separated some time ago, the massive victories of 97 and 2001 resulted in a lengthy period in which minds went unfocused and everyone pretended that much was fine. Since then it has, quite reasonably, focused on foreign affairs but in doing so allowed domestic politics to rot away. The biggest indictment of the left, if over anything, has been the continuing rise of the BNP, and through its refusal, both to even countenance debating the organisation but also in accepting the new orthodoxy that immigration was fine before but it is out of control now and needs to be tackled. The response at this year's European elections to the biggest far-right electoral threat of modern times? To split the vote away from the Greens, with Bob Crow's hopeless and reactionary No2EU organisation and the 80s throwbacks the Socialist Labour Party both on the ballot alongside all the other non-entities. Just when it needed to come together to fight the greater enemy it fractured just as it has in the past.

Where does the left go from here? The best case scenario is that it gets the rude awakening of its life come 6th of May; although a Conservative majority of the size of Labour's first and second terms thankfully seems unlikely, a victory which is large enough to concentrate thinking is the best possible outcome. It doesn't just need to rebuild; it needs to examine whether it has to demolish and start again. The party's over, and whether it starts again depends entirely on the reaction in the coming months. If, as Chris so accurately describes the prospect, of a government run by the children of the rich for the children of the rich doesn't reanimate the corpse of a dying ideological bent, nothing will.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010 


These last few days I haven't really known what to write about - nothing that unusual, some days I don't, and only settle on something after browsing the blogs to the right or punishing myself by reading the tabloids. More out of character though is that after that I've still had to push myself to get something down, and the post on Monday I re-wrote a number of times and I'm still not even approaching semi-satisfied with it. Running out of things to say, when news hasn't exactly been slow, is probably a blogger's nightmare, although it hasn't stopped me before, ho ho ho.

I'm going through one of those faux-existential or crisis of confidence (confidence, hah, that's a joke on its own) moments that fog my mind every so often - not just is there any point to this, but whether there's any real point to anything at all. I've managed to convince myself in the past that there is, otherwise surely, as pointed out, I wouldn't have been spouting this constant stream of bilge for approaching 5 years. Increasingly though, I wonder whether I'm right. And the more I think about it, the more I'm certain I'm not.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010 

The VIP treatment.

Here's one of those especially crass Sun articles written with the type of feigned ignorance so prevalent in the tabloids:

ILLEGAL immigrants are getting the VIP treatment when booted out of Britain - with personal security escorts costing almost £500 each.

Yes, you read that right - the VIP treatment. I don't know what VIP means to you, but I somehow doubt that those who considered themselves such would put up for long with what the average failed asylum seeker or illegal immigrant faces prior to their deportation, often provided by the same private security firms. The last report into Colnbrook (PDF) immigration removal centre, ran by Serco (glossy corporate, touchy-feely everything is wonderful page), where many are held prior to their deportation due to its location near to Heathrow, found that it was struggling to cope and that safety was a significant concern.

That though is nothing when compared to the true VIP treatment when those lucky enough to be leaving are taken to the flights to return them to their home country. The reason why "personal security escorts" are used is twofold - firstly because there are few officials and staff within the UK Border Agency who are authorised to use force and as result many first attempts to deport individuals are abandoned because those whose time has come dare to resist - and secondly as many within the UKBA are not prepared to actually see the policies which they implement put into effect.

In a way, you can't blame them - the horror stories from some of the chartered flights are visceral in their intensity. On one of the first chartered flights back to Iraq a detainee smuggled a blade on board and slashed his stomach, while another concussed himself after banging his head repeatedly against a window. Those were probably the ones which weren't restrained, with others either handcuffed or even wearing leg irons. Charter planes aren't always used though - there was the notable case of a British Airways flight to Lagos where the passengers in economy class mutinied after seeing the plight of a shackled detainee who wouldn't stop screaming, with the supposed "ringleader" arrested and charged only to be cleared over a year later of "behaving in a threatening, abusive, insulting or disorderly manner" towards the crew.

Then again, you wonder what the Sun expects. After all, according to them we roll out the red carpet in welcoming immigrants and asylum seekers in the first place, and the commenters on the piece certainly agree. Might as well extend the gesture when we forcibly throw them out as well then, surely? It does though also prove that simply the government can't do anything right - let too many come here in the first place and spends too much when it gets rid of them, regardless of the much higher cost of keeping them detained here before their deportation - why it bothers when there is simply no political benefit in keeping up such brutal but also ineffective policies remains a mystery. Perhaps, just for the Sun, we could think up something that would negate the need to deport them at all; there are after all many lessons which we can learn from history...

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Monday, January 25, 2010 

Baby P to Edlington and angels to devils.

Here's a very quick test of just how soon we forget: who wrote the following and about whom?

HIS bright blue eyes stare out at us beseechingly.

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

If you answered with anything other than the Sun and Baby P, or Peter Connelly, as he is never going to be known, then I'm afraid you're wrong. It does however already seem so long ago though, doesn't it? A furore where the fervour has dissipated often later seems to be unreal when it's recalled; were we really that outraged, that angry? After all, it's not us, detached from the case who end up being personally affected, just those with the misfortune to be connected, however tenuously, who find themselves trapped within the vortex of a nation's temporary indignation. Social workers are still getting used to the voluminous amount of new recommendations as advised in Lord Laming's report on Haringey's failings, not to mention the increased workloads after councils across the country played it safe and took more children into care than perhaps needed to be. As for the Sun, well, one of the front pages from during their campaign took pride of place in their 40th anniversary celebrations.

I've gone over this before, but one of the most telling contributions at the time was from Martin Narey, the head of Barnardo's, who suggested had Peter survived he may well have grown up to be the "feral yob" of tabloid nightmares, condemned and castigated without a thought as to what made him. It was part of a speech which was intended to provoke, which is what it did, but it has also now rung almost too true. The case of the two brothers who committed their crime in Edlington could almost be the inverse of the Baby P case: there, an innocent child killed and tortured by those meant to be taking care of him; in Edlington, two "brothers from hell" torture and almost kill two other young boys. On the one hand, the angelic, on the other the demonic. The biblical implications of referring to the unnamed boys as the "devil brothers" is not openly alluded to, but it is there if you look deep enough: "the battle" between good and evil itself seems to be only just below the surface.

And as then, a similar political battle appears to be under way. Both examples of our broken society, of the failure of the state to protect children, with a familiar number of opportunities to intervene missed. According to David Cameron, not just an "isolated act of evil". Michael Gove described it, while calling for the full serious case review to be released into how social services dealt with the family, as "unspeakable evil". The Sun in its leader calls for the review to be released as well, but perhaps there's a clue to its real motives in the actual report's first paragraph:

THE Government was last night urged to publish the full report into the "Devil Brothers" case and shame the bunglers who allowed the savage attack on two boys.

The bunglers? One of those awful words which only the media use, and one which was put into repeated usage to describe Sharon Shoesmith, head of child protection at Haringey council when Baby P was murdered. And there is the other obvious parallel with Baby P: like then, we have no actual names to put to the individuals whose actions we have read about it. Then it was because there was another court case going on at the same time involving Peter's mother and her boyfriend, with their identities needing to be protected to prevent prejudicing that separate prosecution; here it's due to the judge quite rightly concluding that there was no public interest to be served in the brothers being identified. One suspects that it might have been different had they "succeeded" in killing their victims, like how the fact that everyone knew that Child A and Child B had killed James Bulger perhaps influenced the removal of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson's anonymity. With everyone in the Edlington case behind a shroud, the same never applied. And hence, because we don't know who anyone is, there's no one we can personally blame. The social workers who failed Baby P then became the natural scapegoats, even though they were hardly the ones that personally killed the blue-eyed tot. Without names, it's impossible to keep the story going for long: by changing the emphasis from the "devil brothers" themselves onto "the bunglers" they might just give it a longer shelf-life.

Cynical? Certainly. The Tories' reasons for calling for the release of the case review are purer, but not by much. They know that there's political mileage in embarrassing the government yet again, even if it's unlikely that anything will be achieved by its full publication. It doesn't seem to matter that the NSPCC have recommended that while executive summaries of the case reviews should be released, they oppose their release in full "as sensitive information must be kept confidential to protect vulnerable children."

That we are so quick to ascribe evil to the actions of children is itself a cause for concern. This goes far beyond whether those responsible understand the difference between good and bad, which was so hotly debated during the trial of James Bulger's killers. It goes to the heart of our own relationships, our own feelings for our offspring, which have never been so conflicted. We seem caught, not between the dichotomy of angel and demon, but between small adult and friend, and inferior and threat. We hug our own tighter, while pushing everyone else's further away. Until we're willing to unravel just how we've become so insecure about our own successors, we're likely to continue refusing to admit that ultimately the blame, if we're going to lay it at the foot of anyone, is with ourselves.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010 

Weekend links.

Yeah, still no return to a proper post yet. Hopefully I'll have stopped my snivelling by Monday. In the meantime...

Lenin suggests that the Obama dream might have died already, Craig comments on Jack Straw's performance before the Chilcot inquiry, Paul Linford wonders if the "causes of crime" have come back to haunt Labour, Jamie takes Cameron's argument over the Edlington attack to its logical conclusion, Dave Semple examines Harriet Harman's speech to Compass on the supposed "Good Society", Neil Robertson quite rightly tears Zac Goldsmith a new one, the Heresiarch turns the hyperbole on slightly in coming soon: a rigged election while lastly Claude asks if "evil" can always be explained.

In the papers, Matthew Parris, having first told David Cameron to go to town on Gordon Brown, now thinks that he should put away the custard pies, probably because Brown has got the better of Cameron the past three weeks for the first time in ages, Janice Turner writes about the somewhat ignored, tragic case of Frances Inglis, sentenced to nine years for ending the suffering of her disabled son, whom the Graun also has an interview from prison with, Andrew Grice and Peter Oborne both comment on Brown and the Chilcot inquiry, with a difference of opinion over how dangerous it is for him (I side with Grice in that I don't think any revelation about Brown's role or not in going to war with Iraq is going to affect votes now), Howard Jacobson has a rather snobbish piece which features both Sunny Hundal and Anton Vowl, the latter quoted out of context repeatedly, while lastly Marina Hyde punctures those who concentrate on political gaffes in her customary style.

No worst tabloid article this week again, despite my worrying about the venom likely to be unleashed after the sentencing of the brothers convicted of the attack in Edlington. Closest is probably the Sun leader, which agrees with David Cameron that "Britain has become an "irresponsible society" with too much greed and selfishness". I can't even begin to imagine which publications and individuals could possibly have promoted such warped and twisted values.

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Friday, January 22, 2010 

A short response to Edlington and David Cameron.

I'm sure you'll forgive me for not writing anything too extensive tonight, although if you want to read my response to all the comments on the post below it's now there, finally.

What I will do is link you to Unity's post on the sentencing of the boys who committed the terrible crime in Edlington, my own post from when they pleaded guilty, which still stands up pretty well in my admittedly biased eyes, and which also makes me deeply anxious about the media response we're likely to see tomorrow morning.

And no, Mr Cameron, it is not responsible to describe the crime committed by those two brothers, however horrendous and wicked, as "evil". You, more than anyone else, should be careful with your words and remember that we are dealing with children here, not adults. Stop trying to make political capital out of terrible but extremely rare events, which do not in any way, shape or form show that society as a whole is broken.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010 

Why am I such a fucking moron?

I have written here before, although not very extensively, about suffering from depression. It isn't something that I want to characterise my writing, or something which I become identified for, even if only by the few remaining like-minded individuals who take their time to read my babbling. Whilst I have for the most part made a good recovery, even if I still have incredibly low self-esteem and am pretty much a shut-in, hopeless at social interaction, one of the other problems I have is a complete inability to be able to forget and let go.

I don't know whether this is because is I haven't managed to establish any meaningful relationships with almost anyone since I left school, although I'm willing to bet that's fairly high up there in the reasons why. I do know however that I really want to be able to move on, but for whatever mental limitation I have, I simply don't seem to be able to. This manifests itself in different ways: while I have successfully gone months without feeling the need to remind myself of what a completely inadequate, insensitive and fantastically brainless fool I am, I almost always end up at some point, usually in the small hours of the morning when my levels of resistance to causing myself and others even more unnecessary pain, anguish and inconvenience break down, being unable to stop myself from doing things that in the morning I always instantly regret.

It is though by then far too late, and the damage as always has been done. By my reckoning this is now the third time that I've broken my promise to stop being such a wet, annoying fucktard; as before, I can only offer my increasingly insincere apologies. There is, just as there has ever been, only myself to blame. The kindness that I have been previously shown, which I don't even begin to deserve, only makes the cruelty to which I have responded to it with even more inexplicable. I hope that this gives a slightly more detailed explanation as to why. The best psychological definition of why this keeps happening that I've come across is that coined by Dorothy Tennov, termed limerence.

I don't want pity; that isn't the reason for this post. I'm more than able to pity myself. It just appears right now to be the best way to try and help myself, while also trying to help others to understand why I'm such a hopeless, ignorant internet equivalent of a bad penny. I wish deeply I wasn't like this; I wish deeply that I could just for once respect the wishes of others. Wishing though is all that I have, and my wishes up to now have never come true.


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Wednesday, January 20, 2010 

The illusion of safety.

Amid all the predictable over-reaction to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's successful attempt to set fire to himself, the first thing to go out the window was any sort of perspective. We are now after all fast approaching the fifth anniversary of the 7/7 attacks, which also marks the last successful attack by takfirist jihadists on a Western city. Not that al-Qaida and its franchises haven't tried to attack or haven't been plotting; it's just that all their attempts have either been spectacular failures or have been successfully prevented.

While America supposedly worries that this otherwise inconsequential island has the highest number of al-Qaida operatives in the West, they don't seem to have noted how, even if accurate, just how incompetent they are. First we had the 21/7 group, whose chapati flour bombs sadly failed to rise (surely explode? Ed), the liquid doom plotters, who needed to be tried twice before a jury was convinced that the main three were going to target aircraft, and where it has never been successfully proved that they were ever going to be capable of constructing a viable explosive, even if they had the necessary material, and then, and most humorously, we found ourselves threatened by two geniuses who thought that they could make a bomb by simply filling a car with patio gas canisters without realising that they needed either a detonator or an oxidiser to create an explosion that was going to actually hurt anyone. Instead, they, like Abdulmutalab succeeded in only harming themselves rather than anyone else.

No, instead we have politicians to do the harming for us. Admittedly, the "underpants" bomber's attempted attack was more serious than the Glasgow airport duo's failure, both for the reason that it focused attention on the deteriorating situation in Yemen, but also because he used proper military explosives, even if they also failed to detonate. It is though unclear whether even if he had created a successful detonation he would have managed to bring the plane down; he may well have killed both himself and some of those seated around him, but the plane could well have limped home, close as it was to its destination. The key fact is though that he failed, and that once such a method has been attempted, it's unlikely to be repeated. Not even the morons "who love death more than we love life" tend to repeat themselves once they've failed once; instead they somewhat innovate. Project Bojinka became the liquid bomb plot, similar but involving suicide bombers and with a different more obtainable explosive. Richard Reid's attempt led to Abdulmutalab's, and in turn will likely lead to a further attempt along the lines of the failed assassination of the Saudi prince Muhammad bin Nayef by Abdullah Hassan Al Aseery, in which the explosive might well have been inside his anal canal, although some have since suggested it was sewn into his underpants ala Abdulmutalab.

Is there any point then whatsoever to today's "package of enhanced security measures"? It seems doubtful, especially the ludicrous stopping of direct flights between Britain and Yemen, as if that'll somehow stop anyone travelling between the two countries instead of just inconveniencing them somewhat. It's also unclear just what use a "no-fly" list will be when almost all those who have attempted attacks in this country have either been British citizens, been here since childhood or here legitimately, such as the Glasgow attackers. As for the full-body scanners, Abdulmutalab went through rigorous security in both Nigeria and the Netherlands which failed to detect his explosives; as it simply isn't possible to go over everyone with a fine tooth comb there's still no guarantee that a bomber wouldn't get on a flight in similar circumstances. The only part of the proposals that might help is the further sharing of intelligence and the security services joint investigation team to be set-up.

In short, this is the same old illusion of safety that we've always had. If the intention is to do something rather than doing nothing, then the government has succeeded. If instead the intention was to increase the fear factor, then it might work amongst a few people; more likely though is that it will just further infuriate those who regularly travel. If al-Qaida in Yemen's real motive was to further discourage air travel they might have succeeded, although then again, the government seems as determined to do the job just as well for them.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2010 

The depressing political fight over binge drinking.

There's little that's more depressing than politicians attempting to outdo each other when it comes to the latest social evil to have been sporadically identified. We went through it on gun crime, on knife crime, and now as we approach the election it seems we've decided on binge drinking as the next thing to be cracked down upon, at least until the new and even deadlier scare comes along, which looks at the moment to be shaping up to be mephedrone.

While it's often been the moralising tabloid press that has screamed loudest and longest about the damage being down to the centres of our towns and cities at weekends in the usual hyperbolic fashion, alongside the health workers who find themselves at the sharp end, it's been the Scottish National Party that started the arms race and which is attempting to legislating a minimum price for a unit of alcohol sold off-licence. It goes without saying that this is the equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, penalising everyone regardless of how little or how much they drink, a flat tax on booze if you will.

It is though the kind of policy that ensures you know where you stand. The same can't be said for either the government's changes to the current licensing conditions or to the Tories' counter proposals. Labour seems to be completely ignoring the fact that it isn't the pubs or clubs which are overwhelming flogging cheap alcohol to the masses, as anyone who visits either even casually will notice, but the supermarkets with their offers on cases of the stuff, usually with either 2 for a £10 or a similar slightly higher sum. The Tories admittedly have recognised this, with their new policy being to ensure that supermarkets can't sell booze at below cost price, but their other proposals are even more draconian than Labour's, and typically stupid. The idea that imposing extra tax only on strong lagers and ciders, as well as alcopops, which those drinking to get drunk rarely imbibe will have any effect when they can downgrade to the only slightly less strong "ordinary" beers is ludicrous, and seems more designed to sneer at those who drink them than anything else.

As always, the real reason why there's something approaching a drinking problem in this country is not mentioned. When quality of life is so poor that the one thing to look forward to is getting smashed at the weekend, or indeed every night to take away from the everyday nightmare of living and working, the problem is not with individuals or with the opiate, but with the entire philosophy of a nation and the modern nature of capitalism itself. We then further promote an immature attitude towards drink by denying it to teenagers as a matter of politics, while families across the countries connive in breaking the law to give it them. When politicians are not prepared to so much as consider the first as a factor, while continuing to regard alcohol as a terrible thing until we reach a certain arbitrary age, we're always going to be reduced to a political auction where everyone asks how much without considering why we're bidding in the first place.

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Monday, January 18, 2010 

The Tory education class war.

At the weekend Peter Oborne treated us to a treatise on how the Conservatives have put together the most radical program for government since Oliver Cromwell, or words similar to that effect. Cameron is far more prepared for government than Blair ever was, and he'd make Margaret Thatcher look like an, err, Conservative by comparison.

Back here in the real world, when you can put a cigarette paper between Labour and the Conservatives, it's invariably the Tories that have the more stomach-turning ideas, as well as those which are simply wrong-headed, or indeed those that are openly reactionary, somewhat strange for a party that claims to now espouse liberal conservatism, whatever that is. Hence we have the pledge to openly redistribute from the single, engaged and everyone else to the married, those who are truly the most in need. Or as today's launch of the party's education policies showed, somehow managing to be even worse than Labour at reforming our benighted education system.

After all, it really ought to be an open goal. Even after almost 13 years under New Labour, still barely 50% manage to get 5 "good GCSEs", a record so appalling that it can't be stressed often enough. There have been improvements made, although considering the amount of money pumped in it would be incredible if there hadn't been, and diplomas as introduced by Ed Balls with the mixture of vocational and academic work contained within is one of the few reforms which has been a step in the right direction, but on the whole Labour has been too focused on the league tables, the incessant examination of students and the continued reforming of schools purely it's seemed at times for the sake of it, with academies being the obvious example, which in equal measure have failed to raise standards while at the same time imposing the kind of discipline and rigidity which seems to actively sexually arouse certain individuals pining for the corporal punishment and being seen and not heard of their own childhood. Oh, and the lessons in working in call-centres, the kind of aspirational teaching that the Conservatives seemingly want to build on.

When Cameron then immediately decides that the most important thing which will decide whether or not a child succeeds is not their background, the curricula, the type of school or the amount of funding it receives but the person who teaches them, he's on the verge of talking nonsense on stilts, with Chris linking to some research which is in disagreement with that which Cameron quotes. Ignore that for a second though, and just consider Cameron's thought process: because the teacher is so important, only the very finest should be funded. How are we judging whether the teacher will be any good or not? On the basis of err, the university which they received their degree from and on the grade on the paper they received at their graduation. Surely if the type of school isn't important from the start, it also shouldn't matter which university the degree came from? Obviously not.

For a party which has been crying about Labour's piss-poor supposed class war, the thinking behind the proposed education policy is openly elitist, and also openly discriminatory in favour of the middle and upper classes: when only the top 20 colleges are likely to be considered good enough for those applying for the funding scheme and for their student loan to be paid off, colleges which are overwhelmingly populated by former private school students and which most state school applicants are actively discouraged from applying to for that very reason, this is the Tories' very own class war, their prejudices writ large in the same way as they claim Labour's to be. Even then it's contradictory: only a few months back Michael Gove wanted ex-service personnel to be fast-tracked into schools; now only the "best professionals with the best qualifications" need apply.

Others have pointed out that there is no correlation between the degree you get and the ability you have to teach. In fact, as Chris again suggests, the most academically gifted can potentially make things worse for those with lesser ability. I'd go as far to suggest that there are three groups of teachers out there: those that know what they're doing, those that can connect with those they're teaching, and that far rarer group, those that can do both. The exam results you get in your early twenties are no indication of how good you'll be at either of those things.

Not that the contradictions stop there: on discipline the Tories want to hand all the power over to the teachers themselves, ensuring that they can't be overruled by independent panels on exclusions, while at the same time wanting to ensure that schools can be held to account. Except on the former presumably? Alongside this, we have all the usual promises on cutting bureaucracy, on defeating waste, empowering everyone and all, as is likely, under the constraints imposed by cutting the deficit. Missing, as always, is the realisation that the number one thing parents want is a good local school which they can just send their offspring to in the knowledge that they will receive a good education, not the option to set-up a new one if it isn't good enough or they decide it isn't good enough. This however simply won't float when you can instead introduce your own pet projects, or prove to the newspapers that you're going to do something through even further shake-ups. Just letting the current system settle isn't an option when you've got to put your own imprint onto it, and if anything is likely to make things worse, Cameron's prescription is likely to be it.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010 

Weekend links.

Straight in as before. Paul Linford reckons the Iraq war inquiry is bad news more for Brown than it is for Blair, while Brown himself has been scraping the barrel with his piss-poor aspirations for the middle class, as noted by Chris Dillow, Dave Semple wants Melanie Phillips to meet Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, Dave Osler is clear that "new racism" can only be countered by a new class politics while lastly both Anton Vowl and Angry Mob tackle tabloid coverage of Terence Gavan.

In the papers, Matthew Parris suggests that to really tackle Blair over he needs to be hounded, Patrick Cockburn wonders whether the US is failing Haiti again, Andrew Grice thinks Gordon Brown has to stick to his promise and use the "c" word (not that one), Marina Hyde attacks the killjoy nature of Thames Valley police after officers were warned about their conduct after they went sledging with a riot shield while on duty, and finally David Nutt puts forward his case for his new drugs panel.

As for worst tabloid article of the weekend, we have a choice between the arslikhan of Peter Oborne over the Tories' plans which are far more radical than Maggie's, or the even more dire Howard Jacobson, who's a fine writer when he isn't either knocking on about terrorism or civil liberties. I think we'll go with the latter.

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Friday, January 15, 2010 

Hurrah for the Blackshirts!

Via Next Left, it's 76 years to the day since the Mail declared its support for those ahead of their time left-wingers known as the British Union of Fascists. By coincidence, the latest far-right nutjob to be found in possession of "improvised explosive devices", joining the ranks over the last few years of Neil Lewington, Robert Cottage and Martyn Gilleard was today convicted and sentenced to 11 years.

Unlike the others, whom were either connected to different far-right groups or whose membership to the British National Party had lapsed, Terence Gavan was a fully paid up member of the party, as the last leaked membership list makes clear (XLSB), a Mr Gavan appearing on the list from West Yorkshire with the postcode WF17 7HQ, which covers Healey Lane in Batley. Indeed, Gavan wasn't just a normal member but rather a "Gold" member, having opted to pay the £60 fee in return for his spangly yellow party badge. Still, the BNP, despite being unwilling to admit that Gavan was what they call an "elite" member, with the news being strangely absent from their current home page, admitted that the charges against him were "serious" and that the sentence passed "correct". Whether the members themselves agree is another matter.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010 

How to destroy the BBC without mentioning Murdoch.

It's been obvious for some time now that the BBC under a Conservative government is going to be facing a vastly different climate to the one that it currently enjoys under a somewhat supportive Labour party. Facing not just the accusations from the usual suspects of an innate liberal bias, but also now the outright fury of the Murdochs for daring to provide a free to use news website, with many certain that the deal between Cameron and Murdoch for his support must involve some kind of emasculation of the BBC once the new Tories gain power, there still hasn't been a set-out policy from how this is going to be achieved. Thankfully, Policy Exchange, the right-wing think-tank with notable links to the few within the Cameron set with an ideological bent has come up with a step-by-step guide on how destroy the BBC by a thousand cuts which doesn't so much as mention Murdoch.

Not that Policy Exchange itself is completely free from Murdoch devotees or those who call him their boss. The trustees of the think-tank include Camilla Cavendish and Alice Thomson, both Times hacks, while Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and who refused to pay the licence fee until Jonathan Ross left the corporation is the chairman of the board. Also a trustee is Rachel Whetstone, whose partner is Steve Hilton, Cameron's director of strategy. Whetstone was also a godparent to the late Ivan Cameron. The report itself is by Mark Oliver, who was director of strategy at the Beeb between 1989 and 1995, during John Birt's much-loved tenure as director-general. Oliver it seems isn't a blue-sky thinker to rival Birt however; his plans are much simpler.

His chief recommendation (PDF) is that the BBC should focus on quality first and reach second. On paper this is a reasonable proposal: the BBC has for too long tried to be all things to all people, although its reason for doing so is that all of the people are of course forced to pay a regressive tax to fund it. Oliver's pointed recommendations on what it shouldn't be doing though give the game away: it shouldn't be spending money on sports rights when the commercial channels do the job just as well when they win the bids. Has Oliver seen ITV's football coverage, one wonders? About the only sport ITV has covered well in recent years was F1, and they decided to not bid for the rights the last time they came up because of the money they'd spent on the FA Cup. The other thing the BBC should stop trying to do is 16-35 coverage, which really drives the point home. The real proposal here is that by stopping catering for the youth audience, the hope is that the young lose the reverence for the BBC which the older demographic continues to have, even if if that has been diluted in recent years. There is a case, as I've argued in the past, for shutting down BBC3 and privatising Radio 1, not to stop catering for the young but because the money spent on both could be better distributed and spent elsewhere. BBC3 in nearly 7 years of broadcasting has produced at most 5 programmes of actual worth, and all of them could have been easily made for and accommodated on BBC2. Radio 1 is just shit, end of story.

Along with Oliver's proposal to end the spending on talent and on overseas programmes which the other channels would bid for, this removes the justification for the keeping of the licence fee right down to the public service credentials - in short, the BBC should do the bare minimum, stay purely highbrow and in doing so, would lose the support which it currently still has across the ages and classes. The first step in this process was clearly the Sachsgate affair, resulting in the stifling layer of compliance which producers now have to go through, and which is discouraging even the slightest amount of risk-taking or programmes which might cause anything approaching offence. If, after Sachsgate, the BBC was allowed to keep its bollocks, just not allowed to use them, then Oliver's proposals would complete the castration.

Oliver's other key recommendations involving the BBC include the abolition of the BBC Trust, which hasn't held the corporation to sufficient account even though it has put its foot down on a number of occasions, while also recommending the "bottom-slicing" of the licence fee, which as the BBC has repeatedly rightly argued, would end the special relationship it has with licence-fee payers, leaving it no longer able to justify itself fully to the public. Finally, a Public Service Content Trust would be set up, another quango to which the BBC would have to justify itself to.

The other two eye-catching proposals which don't involve the BBC are that Channel 4 should be privatised - after all, ITV is a shining example of the benefits of such a move, or the Simon Cowell channel as it is shortly to be renamed. Lastly, ownership and competition constraints should be relaxed in exchange for programme investment commitments, or as it may as well be called, the Murdoch clause. The vision which this report set outs is a media environment in which Murdoch's every wish comes true - allowed to buy ITV and Channel 5, those pesky rules on impartiality dropped, and a BBC reduced to a husk. Whether we should go the whole way and rename the country Murdochland is probably the subject of Policy Exchange's next report.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2010 

Rambling about the Naked Rambler.

At the very best of times it's difficult to get a bearing on the workings of the criminal justice system. Without coming over all Daily Mail, there certainly are cases at times which result in cautions or very minor penalties that clearly deserved harsher punishment; to balance that out though there are often also trivialities dealt with in the courts which should have never got anywhere near coming up in front of a beak. One such case is that of Roger Day, prosecuted under the Army Act of 1955 for pretending to be an army veteran after he took part in a Remembrance Day parade in Bedworth wearing medals which he clearly could not have earned himself.

Day thankfully only received a relatively light community service order for his crime of fantasy. At the opposite end of the scale is the continuing stand off between
Stephen Gough, better known as the Naked Rambler, and the Scottish authorities. Having walked from Land's End to John O'Groats on two occasions completely naked, both times being arrested repeatedly, and most often north of the border, Gough has only experienced freedom for a matter of minutes since 2006 after he was arrested for exposing himself on a flight between Southampton and Edinburgh. Since then Gough and the police have been involved in what is probably best described as the Pete Doherty shuffle, so named because of the police's constant pursuit of ex-Libertines drug addict: each time Gough finishes serving his last sentence, for either breaching the peace, contempt of court (for appearing naked in the dock) or public indecency, they immediately arrest him for once again stepping out into the open air wearing usually only socks, boots, a wristwatch and a backpack. Gough's latest arrest came after being released from Perth prison on the 17th of December. He was warned yesterday that he faced life in prison if he continued to refuse to put on clothes, with the same process continuing over and over.

Quite why the Scottish magistrates are allowing this charade to continue is unclear: it's obvious that this long stopped being about Gough and his belief that he has a right to be naked, and has instead become a battle between Gough and the authorities over their consistent re-arresting of him within seconds of him leaving custody. It's all about who's going to blink first, and for the moment it doesn't seem like either side is going to back down. Gough for his part continually argues that nudity in itself is not harmful or indecent, which it isn't. It's arguable whether nudity can be alarming, as suddenly come across a naked person certainly can be, but never has it been argued in Gough's case that his motives for remaining naked have been sexual in nature, nor has anyone made any complaint in that regard. Having undergone psychiatric examination, it's also fairly certain that Gough is not mentally ill, nor does he suffer from a personality disorder. His persistence in remaining naked seems to be based on completely rational justifications,
as his letters to supporters suggest.

The cost of all this is difficult to estimate, but some have suggested that including his legal aid, his room and board at Her Majesty's pleasure and the successive prosecutions, he's run up a taxpayer-paid bill of around or over £200,000. All because the Scottish authorities seem determined to ensure that one man can't possibly be allowed to wander around naked, even for 30 seconds, lest someone be alarmed at a very shrivelled and tiny male member. The obvious solution would be to let him get on with it, but that seems beyond the comprehension of a system which can't seem to let someone who is determined to keep making a fool of it get away with it, even for as long as a minute.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2010 

Iraq inquiry groundhog day.

It's difficult not to feel the sensation of deja vu when you see Alastair Campbell once again holding forth, defiantly as ever, before a cringing committee of the great and good tasked with supposedly wringing the truth out of him. That they'd have more chance of draining red viscous fluid from a hard inanimate object is ever the unspoken reality. It is also touching though, almost heart-warming to see just how loyal Blair's ever faithful spin doctor remains to his former boss. Blair after all feels no such compunction to keep up the pretence that Iraq was all about the weapons of mass destruction and not, in that famous construction of his following the 9/11 attacks, the re-ordering of things while the pieces were still in flux, admitting as he did to that noted Rottweiler Fern Britton that he would have invaded even if he had known that there were no WMDs.

Campbell in his evidence continued to deny even the possibility that, as one of the leaked Downing Street memos made clear, that the plan to invade had already been settled and that the "facts were being fixed around the policy". Christopher Meyer, the ambassador to Washington at the time, made clear in his evidence that he felt the government never resisted the march to war once it was clear that the US was going to take action regardless of anything or anyone else. Meyer himself sent back a memo in March 2002 (PDF) after a meeting with one of the architects of neo-conservatism, Paul Wolfowitz, in which he stated that "we backed regime change, but the plan had to be clever and failure was not an option". This was somewhat backed up by Jeremy Greenstock, who felt this was the case, but who was kept out of the loop, even though he was the person at the UN charged with trying to get a second resolution through. Campbell, for his part, later suggested that Meyer had been "glib" in not considering the consequences for the US-UK relationship in not supporting the war, with the implication that, as always seems to be the case, the illusion of the "special relationship" being maintained is always more important than the consequences of the alliance.

At points Campbell's evidence made you wonder whether his stubbornness to admit almost any mistake is not in fact borne of his continuing loyalty to Blair, or his own unstinting belief in his own righteousness, but in fact that he has to keep telling both himself and the world how he got everything right while everyone else has repeatedly got it wrong in order to convince himself that he is still on the side of the angels. Hence he'll defend "every single word" of the September 2002 dossier, while Andrew Gilligan's substantially confirmed report on the Today programme was a "dishonest piece of journalism", which is a quite wonderful example of projection, and almost anything which contradicts his evidence is a conspiracy theory, like the Guardian report of yesterday which suggested that he changed a part of the dossier to bring it into line with a claim made by Dick Cheney.

It is though perhaps instructive to compare how we conduct inquiries with the Dutch. Previously the government of the Netherlands resigned after a damning report into the Dutch military's failures at Srebrenica. By coincidence, their own inquiry today into their role in the Iraq war has concluded that it was illegal, as UN resolution 1441 could not be used as a mandate for armed conflict. Back here, we're still regarding Alastair Campbell as though he's a reliable witness. One suspects that the Chilcott inquiry's conclusions won't be anywhere near as incisive.

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Monday, January 11, 2010 

The impossibility of freedom of speech.

As quickly as it was announced, and as quickly as the media were tiring of the story, Anjem Choudary and friend(s) have decided that they're not going to march through Wootton Bassett after all. Not that they were ever going to march in the first place, as anyone who had bothered to take a look at the aborted "March for Sharia" last year would have concluded. While Choudary certainly played a blinder throughout, as suggested last week, it's also difficult not to conclude that the media were wholly complicit in and even further encouraged Choudary's offline trolling. Admittedly, it is a great story - Islamic group which hates our freedom wants to march through the same place where our "glorious dead" are first honoured on their return to their final resting place, especially the chutzpah it takes to suggest they'll be doing something similar, carrying empty coffins to symbolise those that the same glorious dead might themselves have killed, and one which few will have decided not to cover on the basis that it's all bullshit. After all, bullshit is something that the media thrives off, as anyone reading a tabloid on almost any occasion will note.

It is however slightly rich to then play the "distress and hurt" line, on how deeply offended the families of the dead will be by these prancing bearded extremists walking down the same street as their relatives were returned down when you yourself are also causing it by suggesting it's going to happen when it's fairly certain that it isn't. It also allows the likes of the Sun to suggest that because there's one idiot with verbal diarrhoea around there must be plenty of others like him also, and that the government isn't doing its job in protecting us from these clearly dangerous mouthbreathers. It doesn't matter that the Sun itself provided him with more of a soapbox than anyone else, interviewing him, printing his nonsense and allowing him to appear on their piss-poor internet radio station with Jon Gaunt. Clearly it's not the media that provides him with space that are the problem - it's the loon himself. The government, naturally, agrees, hence the umpteenth banning of a group that Choudary's been involved with. To call it futile and stupid would be putting it lightly - all he's going to do is after another period of time create a new one, which will again in consequence be banned, until the world explodes or Choudary dies, whichever comes sooner, and each time it happens Choudary can continue to claim both persecution and mystique, martyring an idiot with no support purely for the benefit of other idiots.

All this is distracting us though from a group that actually did go ahead with a protest, and who were today found guilty of public order offences after protesting at a homecoming parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment in Luton last March. Whether they have links with Choudary personally or not is unclear, although it wouldn't be completely surprising if they did, but one suspects that they are also remnants of what was once al-Muhajiroun, or malcontents with an ideology similar to that of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, although that group generally shuns such public confrontation. Luton has had problems with a small minority of Islamists for a few years, causing widespread grief through guilt of association to the wider community, with the protest last March being the final straw.

The conviction of five of the group who were prosecuted, with two others being acquitted, is still however a cause for concern, regardless of whether or not you agree with the views they expressed, when it comes to the right to protest. The old cliche is that to shout "fire" in a crowded theatre when there isn't one is illegal because of the dangers of causing a panic; in this case the men have been convicted not because of something similar, but because they were causing "harassment and distress", to which one response has to be to say "ah, diddums". It would make rather more sense if they were convicted on the grounds that their shouting, accusing the soldiers of variously being murderers, rapists and baby killers, was inflammatory, which it certainly was, to such an extent that the police were having to protect the men from the crowd, with a couple of members of the public themselves arrested for their behaviour in response, but that wasn't the case.

Instead, the worrying thing is that the Crown Prosecution Service felt that their actions had gone "beyond legitimate political protest". Although soldiers themselves are quite rightly very rarely targeted for their role when the responsibility mainly lies with the politicians that send them into conflicts, with the exception of the shout that the soldiers were rapists, the other cries they made would certainly not be out of place on an angry but perfectly legitimate protest against a war, especially one that was ongoing. It's also not as if the slogans themselves are necessarily inaccurate: some relatives of service personnel killed in Afghanistan and Iraq have described them as being "murdered", hence those on the opposite side could say exactly the same, while air strikes have in the past certainly caused the deaths of whole families, babies included. The rape accusation is the only one that couldn't be made to stick in any circumstances. The difference between abuse and insults and legitimate political protest is a very fine one, and one which some swearbloggers would certainly breach if placed in the same situation. In one sense, what today's successful prosecution means is that protesters have to consider whether the public around them might consider their sentiments to be harassment, alarming or distressing. Doubtless those there to welcome home and support the troops did find a protest which was unflinching in its criticism alarming or distressing and also outrageous; do they though, as the judge said, have the right "to demonstrate their support for the troops without experiencing insults and abuse"? Or indeed, the unspoken implication, without having to put with up any sort of protest that disagreed with the view that the troops were courageous heroes?

No one is going to be crying any tears for those convicted, especially when they are quite clearly using freedom of speech only for their own ends, not believing in it for anyone other than themselves. We have though always had a strange notion of freedom of speech in this country, one that is far more restricted than it is in other equivalent democracies: it would be lovely if we could be more like America on this score, where they put up with the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church without having to resort to the law to prosecute them for pushing eccentric, insulting and abusive opinions, but that seems to be beyond us and our media, who delight in being outraged even while pushing that which disgusts them.

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Saturday, January 09, 2010 

Weekend links.

Back to the usual after last week's attempt at something slightly different. Paul Linford explains why he wants a hung parliament, Mike Power has a somewhat controversial view on the continuing Iris Robinson saga, Dave Semple has an excellent piece on the politics of war guilt, Dave Osler is already looking forward to Labour's years in the wilderness, Tom Freeman thinks the economy might have frozen as well, John B invokes JS Mill to oppose the neo-puritans, which I'll also drink to and lastly Splintered Sunrise has all you need to know and more on the Robinsons.

In the papers, Matthew Parris says the plotters just wanted to hurt Brown rather than bring him down, something I'm not entirely convinced by, Andrew Grice suggests power has swung further in Peter Mandelson's favour, Peter Oborne still thinks that the "assassins" might yet get their man, John Kampfner reckons David Miliband is now also a serial bottler while Pollyanna Toynbee bizarrely still thinks Labour has some ideas up its sleeve. On other subjects Janice Turner is sorry to see Jonathan Ross go as Marina Hyde also thinks his departure means the likes of the Mail has won, Ben Goldacre has a superb piece on how the figures on public vs private pay don't add up while lastly Howard Jacobson ponders on whether life and love are more important than human rights.

No worst tabloid piece this week as there doesn't seem to be anything beyond redemption (feel free to drop any suggestions you have in the comments), so that's your lot.

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Friday, January 08, 2010 

The real perplexing issue about the snowstorm coup.

Now that the "snowstorm coup" or whatever it's being called has already been forgotten by anyone with half a brain it's always instructive to learn the real reasons behind the attempted putsch. Unsurprisingly, both Hewitt and Hoon had been angling for jobs which they didn't get, hence most likely their fit of pique, although why Hewitt wants another job when she's already got a couple of highly lucrative ones thanks to her previous jobs in government is unclear.

No, the real question is just why Bob Ainsworth is so unhappy about Brown's leadership. Widely if perhaps unfairly judged to be the most useless in a long line of hopeless defence secretaries, does he seriously think that he'll ever have a better offer or job than the one he currently has? The words "ungrateful" and "git" really do come to mind.

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Here's to you, Mrs Robinson.

Surely if there's one thing that shows the progress in Northern Ireland, it's that Iris Robinson's lover has been revealed not just to be 19-years-old (now 21) but also a Catholic. To go from not sitting down with that man to laying down with him in little more than 10 years must mean there's hope for all other unsolved conflicts around the world.

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Thursday, January 07, 2010 

More Islam4UK.

After the sad shutting down of Islam4UK's website (although it seems that it might be making a return: the 403 error is gone and there's now a MySQL one instead) Cryptome has thankfully done the essential job of archiving the nuttiness and wingnuttery for prosperity. Especially instructive of just how likely the Wootton Bassett march is to take place is the page for the October 31st March for Sharia, which Choudary and co didn't go through with:

In forthcoming days, Islam4UK will also publish, as a run up to this special event, a fascinating insight into how Britain's architecture, transport and culture will be revolutionised under the Shari'ah. Watch out for articles including:

Trafalgar Square under the Shari'ah

Football Stadiums under the Shari'ah

Pubs under the Shari'ah

Buckingham Palace under the Shari'ah

It goes without saying that they couldn't even follow up on these pledges: only Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace were presented under the "Shari'ah", although the adult industry was additionally treated to a insight to how it would operate under Islamic law, i.e., it wouldn't. That would presumably be something of a downer for Yasmin Fostok, daughter of Bakri Muhammed, whose plastic mammaries were purchased for her by daddy in order to further her pole dancing career.

Strangely though, some of the right-wingers currently frothing at the prospect of Choudary and gang descending on the hallowed ground of Wootton Bassett might find they share his view of our own Dear Leader:

Almost 300 years old, 10 Downing Street is the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Gordon Brown, the current Prime Minister, is one of the chief figures in making laws and regulating the affairs of society. In the last few years, he has undoubtedly brought Britain down to an all new low and appears to be truly blind to the damaging impact of his oppressive bureaucracy.

After demanding the abolishment of the House of Commons Muslims will then march to 10 Downing Street, and call for the removal of the tyrant Gordon Brown from power.

Sounds rather like a jolly Conservative Future outing, doesn't it?

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010 

The world's worst coup.

It's official: the Labour party is crap at coups. While it's tempting to suggest that's something to do with the fact that the Labour party as a whole is crap, and that wouldn't be far wrong, for some reason no one in the party has ever seemed to have the killer instinct. Certainly not when compared to the Tories, for whom plotting over the years delivered the heads of both Thatcher and Duncan-Smith, and almost Major as well.

Perhaps it's got something to do with how those who finally summon up the courage to go public with their demands for the leader to stand down, or this time round for a "secret ballot" to be held, which certainly isn't a coup attempt, oh no, are either yesterday's men or those with chips on their shoulders, ala James Purnell last year. Seriously, did Geoff "Buff" Hoon and Patricia "most patronising person to ever wear a pair of shoes" Hewitt really think they were going to set the world alight by demanding that it was time for Brown to face the parliamentary Labour party? It's hardly Michael Heseltine or that other least likely individual to rebel, Geoffrey Howe, complaining about finding that the bat had been broken by the team captain once he had gone out to bat, is it?

Oh, but they had such a hard-hitting team behind them, didn't they? The Safety Elephant, Labour's honorary BNP member Frank Field, Barry Sheerman, who no one has ever heard of, and Fiona MacTaggart, who first felt that legalising prostitution in certain zones might be a good idea then changed her mind completely once told sweet little lies about people trafficking. Again, you're not allowed to mention that with the exception of Field, who's always hated Brown because he blocked his "thinking the unthinkable" on welfare reform and possibly Sheerman that they're all Blairites. Not that either Hoon or Hewitt have anything as dignified as differences with Brown on policy, although Clarke and Field do; this is all about the fact that they somehow imagine that simply by replacing the man at the top Labour will instantly reclaim its rightful place at the top of the polls, vanquishing the upstart Cameron and leading them into that historic fourth term.

If it wasn't so desperate and counter-productive it would be hilarious. Oh, all right, it is hilarious, and the only real meaningful response is the one on Liberal Conspiracy, which is to come up with some lolcats. While some backbenchers almost certainly are despairing of Brown leading them into the election, the idea that you can do it now bloodlessly and without laying the foundations for internal fratricide is ludicrous. The very real damage being done is, as it was always likely, to the party as a whole: it gives credence to the continual Tory claim that Labour is hopelessly divided and that the only way to sort it out is to install them instead. Already out is the "we can't go on like this" billboard, now featuring Buff and Hewitt instead of Cameron's hideously airbrushed bonce, and you can't help but imagine it's going to be "bucket of shit" time in the papers tomorrow, even when the coup attempt has been so laughable.

The only real debate within Labour has been between those fearing that Brown and Balls have been brewing up a "core vote strategy" and those around Peter Mandelson who despaired of that when honesty was needed regarding the size of the deficit and the need for cuts. As seen by the first movements in the election campaign, both the Tories and Labour are still in denial when it comes to just how sweeping and deep the cuts are going to be, still squabbling over the small print while completely ignoring the bigger picture. Neither party is offering anything other than the same old, same old. That you could probably replace Brown with Cameron as leader of the Labour party and hardly notice any significant policy differences is the biggest indictment of politics as a whole at the moment; that though would be a coup worth writing about.

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Redeemed by the red wine of Christ.

Isn't it strange how so often the most sanctimonious and deeply "moral" individuals who condemn others for their "sins" are those that end up being caught out? Back in 2008, Iris Robinson MP, while condemning the attack on Stephen Scott told Radio Ulster that:

"I have a very lovely psychiatrist who works with me in my offices and his Christian background is that he tries to help homosexuals trying to turn away from what they are engaged in.

If this self-same "very lovely" psychiatrist tried to help Robinson after she started having an affair, then it seems he didn't do that great a job; Robinson attempted suicide after telling her husband of her transgressions on March the 1st last year. Another strange decision considering Robinson's fundamentalist, Pentecostal branch of Christianity, for which the usual punishment for suicide is a lengthy vacation in the bowels of Hell.

Not that Robinson's comments on Stephen Scott were the only homophobic remarks she made. During the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, she claimed that "[W]e are moving mountains to facilitate immorality ...". Whether she personally had to move mountains to facilitate her own bunk-up sessions with a man "who had suffered a bereavement" isn't clear, but one suspects that she didn't have to do anything so strenuous. Apart from the actual exertions involved, obviously.

Still, at least Robinson is confident that God has forgiven her, just like so many others before her are convinced through their very personal relationship with Our Dear Lord and Creator that their own inconsistencies with scripture are no big deal. Again though, it seems Robinson has different standards for herself and how God will treat her as compared to those abominable homosexuals. After complaints about her comments, the parliamentary ombudsman accounted for her remarks thus:

"Mrs Robinson made it clear in her first interview of June 6th that comments she had made in a previous discussion in which it appears she described homosexuality as an 'abomination' were, 'scriptural, and what I clarified it with was very very clear that my Christian belief teaches me that you love the sinner and hate the sin and that goes right across every type of sin'."

Or maybe that is how she's seen it all along: that she, the sinner, loves herself, while hating the "sin" she was committing. Not that the Old Testament wrathful, vengeful God saw it in the same way: there's not much nuance in Leviticus 20, for which the punishment for adultery is quite plainly death for both the adulterer and adulteress. Presumably Robinson has atoned for her sin in the same way in which she proposed Scott could be forgiven for his: redeemed by the blood of Christ. Or was that just the cheap red wine which made one thing lead to another?

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010 

Scum-watch: Nutted.

Back in November the Sun decided that it was time to resort to the old tabloid trick of attacking someone by association when they couldn't lay a finger on the target himself personally. David Nutt, a senior adviser on drugs to the ACMD, had just been defenestrated by Alan Johnson for daring to argue again that cannabis isn't as dangerous as either the government claims or its classification suggests, so naturally it was time to go scouting around his children's social networking pages to see if they could find any pay dirt.

The result, an article which accused his son Stephen of partaking in cannabis because he was smoking what was clearly a roll-up and not a normal, honest, cigarette, his daughter Lydia of drinking underage, and the by no means hypocritical sneering at his eldest son for appearing naked in the snow in Sweden, ended up being removed with days of it appearing.

Yesterday the Press Complaints Commission published Stephen Nutt's letter of complaint on their website (h/t Tabloid Watch):

The complaint was resolved when the newspaper removed the article from the website, undertook not to repeat the story and published the following letter:

FURTHER to your article about photographs of me on my Facebook site, (November 14) I would like to make clear the pictures were not posted by me and while I had been drinking I was smoking a rolled-up cigarette which did not contain cannabis as the article insinuated. My younger sister Lydia was not intoxicated, so was not drinking under age. My older brother lives in Sweden where it is custom to use a sauna followed by a ‘romp' in the snow in winter. He was neither drunk nor under the influence of intoxicants. Innocuous photographs were taken out of context in an attempt to discredit my father's work.

Which is about as comprehensive and wounding a clarification as ever gets published in the Sun. The article was so obviously in breach of the PCC's code on privacy, not to mention accuracy, that it should never have been published in the first place though; why then should the paper get away without making anything approaching an apology, only having to print a clarification buried away on the letters page? As long as the PCC remains so toothless in the face of such egregious breaches of its code, the campaigning will continue not just for reform but potentially for independent regulation of the press.

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Monday, January 04, 2010 

The public relations brilliance of Anjem Choudary.

Anjem Choudary is brilliant, isn't he? No one else can currently touch him when it comes professional media trolling; he knows exactly what to say, what to do and who to talk to, and also when to do it. As strokes of genius go, nothing is more likely to wind up the nutters outside of his own clique than a half-baked supposed plan to march through Wootton Bassett, which may as well be our current Jerusalem, a holy place which cannot in any way be defiled, such is how it's been sanctified both by the press and politicians. As for his rather less amusing supposed plan for "sending letters" to the families of those bereaved through the current deployment to Afghanistan, urging them, according to that notoriously accurate source, the Sun, that they should embrace Islam "to save [themselves] from the hellfire", it seems more likely that this would only be through the "open letter" which appeared on the Islam4UK website, which is currently 403ing.

Calling for a sense of perspective is of course a complete waste of time. It doesn't matter that Islam4UK, the umpteenth successor organisation to Al-Muhjarioun, which may once have been a potentially dangerous grouping but which has long since become quite the opposite, probably has less than a hundred supporters and that its only purpose seems to be to get what still could be spoofs into the press (such as how Trafalgar Square would look under Sharia law). It also doesn't matter than the group already has a record for not following through on its stunts: it had a "march for Sharia" through Whitehall and Westminster planned for the 31st of October last year which they didn't turn up for, although the planned counter-demonstrations to it did go ahead. No, what clearly matters is that Choudary makes for good news and especially for outrage when there isn't much to get worked up about going on. And boy, how he and his media accomplices have succeeded this time: already there's a 200,000 plus strong group opposing his march plans on Gulliblebook (sorry, I mean Idiotbook, err, Facebook), while the politicians themselves have competed to condemn him.

It is almost enough to make you wonder whether Choudary is in fact for real and not a long-standing security service plant; after all, we now know that the likes of the IRA had agents right at the very top, or at least those that while still sharing the ultimate aims still felt the need to prevent some of the more egregious actions of their colleagues by informing on them, so it isn't completely impossible. What's far more likely though is that he's become that creature who can be relied upon when news is slow to provide something for readers to get themselves worked up about, a creation as much of the media themselves as a representation of their own personality. Choudary is himself after all describing his group's plans as "publicity stunts"; by firing off press releases that can easily be turned out and churned on by lazy hacks, it's as if the events have already happened without anyone needing to leave the house.

Even by the Sun's standards they are though laying it on a bit thick. Jon Gaunt, who can always be relied upon to turn a molehill into a politically correct Guardianista mountain, suggested that Choudary's plans for the march amounted to "treason". Really? Even when although we can hardly rely upon Choudary's word for it, his plans for the demo seem to amount not to the usual placards and slogans about the superiority of Islam, but instead for an almost reasonable carrying of clear coffins to represent the others that have died in Afghanistan but whom have received no memorial?

Underneath all this nonsense, there is something far more serious going on, and it's just how quickly politicians and others that declare they love freedom of speech and demonstration change their tune when it's a message they don't like being expressed. There is of course the risk if Choudary's unlikely march was to go ahead, even in its rather benign form, that it would naturally attract the attention of equally unpleasant individuals who seem to imagine that the entire notion of Britishness is being defiled by allowing such people to put their own points across; indeed, that's the other point of the stunt in the first place. Choudary wants a reaction, both written and physical. Without it, there's no point to his doing anything in the first place. When Alan Johnson says that the idea of Choudary's march fills him with "revulsion", he's doing Choudary's job for him; in what other circumstances would a perfectly legitimate protest fill him with such an emotion? The Sun's editorial says it's a "unfortunate downside" of our "cherished tradition of free speech" that he and his supporters can demonstrate. An "unfortunate downside"? No one with any true belief in free speech would describe any peaceful protest, even one they disagree with, in such terms.

Increasingly, even while those who oppose the war in Afghanistan increase in number, the actual ways of expressing disapproval about it decrease. It's no coincidence that the Sun, whose whole "Our Boys" campaign, alongside its support for the "Help for Heroes" charity has ensured that to even suggest that perhaps the soldiers themselves aren't entirely blameless in all of this when they freely volunteered to join the army is the outlet leading the cries against Choudary's antics (despite its role in actively promoting them, repeatedly). Those who protested during the Luton homecoming parade back in March are by coincidence currently being prosecuted under Public Order legislation for having the temerity to suggest that British soldiers might be killers; when does something that might be perfectly legitimate to suggest about politicians become unacceptable when it's said against those that actually do the killing? That's a distinction that the jury are hardly likely to reflect too long upon.

As the Heresiarch suggests, Wootton Bassett has become the very centre of the justification for the war, because what started out as a spontaneous and heartfelt tribute for those who lost their lives in the line of duty has become an almost official and politicised remembrance centre where no dissent from the official line can be tolerated. This isn't the fault of the people there, but the media especially and others for exceptionally focusing it on. When there is no major political outlet for discontent, as there currently isn't from any of the main three parties, you can hardly blame the likes of Choudary for wanting to fill the void. If Choudary should give a kick up the backside to anyone, it should be to those that are not lunatics or comedians but who oppose the war to step up their game and properly make their voices heard; the risk is that they get silenced both by the backlash and the view that to oppose the war is to somehow invite bloodshed on our own streets. At the moment it's more likely that the brainless anti-Choudary brigade could cause it through fighting amongst themselves than it happening as the result of anything else.

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Saturday, January 02, 2010 

An alternative to the usual weekend links. Sort of.

The tradition is that on a Saturday I generally do a weekend links post. Frankly, there's so little worth linking to today, with probably this and this as honourable exceptions, that there isn't much point.

The other intention I had was that as part of the usual end of year, or in this case end of decade baloney, I was going to name the person of the decade as Katie Price, aka Jordan, for reasons you can probably guess. Then I noticed that Joan Collins in the Daily Mail did almost precisely that, calling her the non-entity of the decade. That is ever so slightly rich on two levels: Joan Collins is only notable these days for marrying numerous times, and secondly that she made her point in a newspaper which currently has the latest antics of said Katie Price as its top story on the Femail pages. If the very newspapers that perpetuate the likes of Katie Price suddenly stopped giving them attention, they'd soon fall from view. True, by the same yardstick an insignificant little nothing like me can be accused of hypocrisy for calling someone else the epitome of almost everything that was wrong with the last decade in cultural terms when I've hardly contributed to the wealth of the nation, but I like to think I don't contribute the same level of poison into the national spirit as the Daily Mail does every day.

I've spent some of the last week or so watching a load of old Have I Got News For Yous on YouTube, and it is instructive just how quickly we forget. Peter Oborne in the Mail today for example, and he's usually quite good, bemoans the "moral decline". I was only 13 in 1997 and even I can remember back then the usual suspects saying exactly the same thing, just as I remember the "Back to Basics" desperation which Major had come out with a couple of years previous. This naturally drove the gutter press on to expose as many adulterous MPs as they could, and there sure were a lot; we also now know that the prime minister himself, even if his affair with Edwina Currie had finished some time previously, had given in to the temptations of the flesh. Oborne goes on to complain:

For Cameron it is more complex. New Labour brilliantly used the capture of political power in 1997 to establish the dominance of the liberal Left across vast swathes of public life.

It now has key placemen and women in the civil service, the voluntary sector, the legal profession, the arts world, the intelligence services, the BBC and the quango state which has passed outside democratic control and yet controls so much of our public life.

These quangos are run, almost without exception, by New Labour placemen.

And were things any different back under Major? No, the quangos then, even if there were fewer, were also almost uniquely ran by Tory placemen, often the wives of Tory MPs. Will Cameron actually cut them as he promises, or will he just install his own placemen? You can bet it's more likely to be the latter. Already we've seen Boris Johnson trying to put in place Veronica Wadley, ex-editor of the Evening Standard and whom cheered him to his ascension as London mayor as chair of the London Arts Council.

As usual though, Oborne is nothing as compared to Amanda Platell, who's finally decided after years of criticising immigration to actually become a British citizen herself (complete with low-cut Union Jack dress, something she has previously criticised others for wearing). Her vision of British society and how as a selfless gesture she's becoming a citizen mainly so she can save the nation from itself is so different from mine that it's clear that we may as well live in completely separate countries. This is her summary of the best of what we have to offer:

The only areas where Britain excels - indeed, we're top in Europe - are drunkenness, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.

Yet the nation which the Mail and the others are always encouraging us to look towards - America - is about the only other place that has a worse record on certainly the latter and more than likely on the other two as well. And she complains:

Today, too often, crude vulgarity prevails on our TV screens and on the street.

Nothing, naturally about when "crude vulgarity" appears in our national newspapers. Such as when a certain Amanda Platell blamed "equality" when a young woman tragically fell into a river while on a skiing holiday and died, for which the Mail eventually had to print a "clarification" letter from one of her friends about. And could this Amanda Platell that is always banging on about how essential marriage is possibly be the one that admits in the opening of today's piece that her husband departed long ago? No, of course not.

I don't have a rose-tinted view of the country as it stands. Certainly, things could be a whole lot better; we have after all probably just came through possibly one of the worst decades, if not in living standards but in general unpleasantness and misery for quite some considerable time. To read the Mail and some other people though you'd think that the country was about to completely fall apart, or already had, that society had also broken down entirely and that the only good, decent people left, the middle class naturally, are too scared and threatened by what's going on around them that they daren't leave their houses. The police are politically correct loonies, except of course when they're shooting dead Brazilians who look like Asians and beating the shit out of peaceful protesters; the entire country, despite being ruled by decidedly conservative with both small-c and capital C individuals for the last 30 years is a liberalocracy where you can't say anything for fear of being branded either a racist or a homophobe or a bigot or a sexist, and to cap it all, the economy's gone up the spout, even though the obvious thing to happen after the longest boom in at least a hundred years was a lengthy bust. We can rejoice though: here comes Cameron's Conservatives, ready to mend our fractured land, as demonstrated by him mouthing cliché after cliché in an especially fatuous Sun article.

Here then is my highly controversial prediction for what the next decade holds: much, much more of the same old shit. Regardless of who wins the next election, by the time it's their turn to be ousted from power, everyone regardless of political affiliation, including Oborne and Platell will be saying exactly the same things about how rotten the country is. And yet again, they'll be wrong.

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