Saturday, November 29, 2008 

Weekend links.

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, November 28, 2008 

Green and a very suddenly established police state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, November 27, 2008 

The Sheffield incest case, Baby P and Josef Fritzl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008 

Advertising bombshells.


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

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

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

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

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

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God Trumps!

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


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

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The clamour continues.

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

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

Especially when there's such mawkishness going on:

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

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


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

And again, there are echoes of cases past:

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008 

The short-term effects of a witch-hunt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, November 24, 2008 

The pre-budget report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, November 22, 2008 

Weekend links.

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

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

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

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

Is she wicked, stupid or just unhinged?


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

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

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

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

...

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, November 21, 2008 

Last words on Sachsgate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The report goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vegetable crime.

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

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

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

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This internet is so corrupt.

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

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Thursday, November 20, 2008 

Those Conservative economic travails.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nothing left to say.

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

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

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008 

Film review: The Baader-Meinhof Complex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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