Friday, August 31, 2007 

10 years of turning in the grave.

As tempting as it is to ignore the whole sorry spectacle of today's ostentatious yet banal processions of manufactured grief and remembrance, or dismiss it with a post like "10 years on: Diana still dead", it's hard not to conclude that Diana's death really did change Britain, although not in the way that either the tabloids or most of the more serious pontificating hacks have tried to claim.

Like a decade ago, it's Private Eye's front cover that's provided an alternative narrative to the more mainstream one. Then it punctured the lachrymose, sanctimonious and overbearing mood which most of the press were attempting to enforce on the nation, pointing out the most base hypocrisy of a media which had spent most of its time criticising the Princess, sometimes in the most strident of terms, only then to beatify her once she can no longer actually respond to it, so much so that it was temporarily removed from some shops for daring to speak up for those alienated and appalled by the turn of events. This week it's again both poked fun at and pointed the finger at the media, having exploited her image for their own ill-gotten gains for the last 10 years, with Diana saying she hopes that they haven't just used one of her well-worn photographs to sell more copies.

While it's just a coincidence, it's also intuitive that the latest series of that other tedious behemoth, Big Brother, comes to a close tonight. Just as some celebrate the notion that Diana's death brought us together, made us more comfortable with expressing our emotions and established a new era of understanding and openness which has resurfaced recently with the desperate cases of Madeleine McCann and Rhys Jones, she also did more than anyone else, or rather the media's endless pursuit of her did, to establish the cult of celebrity. While Helen of Troy may have launched a thousand ships, it was Diana that has helped launch thousands of magazines, books and other paraphernalia, an avalanche of low culture which even now shows no signs of abating.

Whether you ascribe to the theory that the media "killed" Diana or not, whether through the paparazzi who chased her through the Paris streets into that fateful tunnel, or just the editors' who demanded the never ending stream of photographs which meant she was followed wherever she went, it's not that far a leap from the cameras stalking one woman to the cameras watching contestants out for a fast buck, both being used as cash cows while pretending to care for their wellbeing. Diana was a real-life soap opera, her Panorama interview the most cathartic episode in its history, only to be overshadowed by a killing off that some doom-mongers may have predicted but was never expected to actually happen. What else is reality television if not the controlled chaos of throwing numerous incompatible people together and seeing what happens? Doom-mongers like myself have long been predicting that this most unethical and distasteful of junk programming will eventually end in a preventable tragedy; while it is yet to happen, judging by how this latest series of BB has been denounced as both the worst and most boring yet, you almost imagine that the producers would actually have liked something similar to happen. They only have themselves to blame: what do you expect when you throw photogenic but completely empty and self-absorbed, mostly young individuals together? Then again, who else would want to go on such shows? It's like flies trying to stop themselves from sitting on shit.

At the very least, Diana occasionally had something of interest to say, or a cause to support that others in her position wouldn't have touched with a bargepole. The very fact that she was far from perfect, a flawed person just like all the rest of us, made her both great friends and great enemies. When her death brought about the biggest reverse ferret in tabloid history, it showed how if there's one thing that riles up the gutter press, it's someone who doesn't always get things right. They hated her because while she indulged them, she also knew when to draw the line, as well as the fact that she was more popular than they could ever possibly be. Only in death could they truly love her, as only then was every little detail about her profitable: while she could object, answer back or tell her side, they couldn't get away with printing the crap they've spent the last ten years selling and producing.

Rather than learning from this model though, today's celebrities have gone the other way entirely; doing everything they possibly can to suck up to the media, even though it holds the key to both their success and their potential destruction. Without Diana, there could have been no Jordan or Kerry Katona, or all the other hideous, talentless morons that have filled the vacuum of the last ten years. Does it saying something about us or about our popular culture that a former glamour model with expandable on command breasts could be worth millions, producing a perfume, lingerie, "writing" novels and have cameras follow her everywhere without anyone suggesting that this is the most facile, vapid, ridiculous and obnoxious of insults to collective intelligence yet seen?

In actuality, the last decade has seen the media learn how to both exploit and even engineer breakdowns and personal problems. While some of this is cynically produced by the women's gossip magazines who are in cahoots with the celebrities themselves, flagging up every slight wobble in a relationship, some of it is voyeurism bordering on the morbid. The recent obsession with Amy Winehouse, a young, somewhat talented woman obviously addicted both to drugs and her husband, with the paparazzi following her every movement, from alleged fights to the beach, has surely been reminiscent how Diana was chased around during her last summer. That some have made reference to "Sid and Nancy" almost makes you wonder whether they'd actually like history to repeat itself so that they can sell some more newspapers and say "I told you so". Something similar has gone on with Pete Doherty and Kate Moss, although both are far less sympathetic figures. Rebekah Wade's blast against her hacks for their failure to get an interview with Doherty, saying that they had "lost any journalistic ability they had ever had" was indicative of just what has happened to tabloid journalism: no longer for the people, but for the rich to tell their sob stories to.

We shouldn't be surprised then that the Daily Express, on today of all days, can't even hold back from splashing its bottomless barrel of conspiracy theories on its front page, while the Daily Mail had a guide to today's service, which if the Grauniad is to be believed, had a hand in making Camilla decide not to attend, having read a "devastating" article by Diana's "close friend" Rosa Monckton in the Mail on Sunday. Monckton was no doubt in attendance today, although Paul Burrell, having apparently offended everyone with his money making through his books wasn't invited. If that same principle had been extended to the press, Monckton herself, who has wrote a children's book associated with Diana, and countless others, no one would have been there. Everyone with as much as a passing acquittance with her has filled their boots, and why not, when that great example the Daily Mail abandoned its pledge to never buy paparazzi pictures again with a matter of days? Quite why both the BBC and ITV had to show the "service of thanksgiving", a classic example of the aristocracy pretending that it cares while still doing its best to stick two fingers up to everyone with a difference of opinion, shows how the broadcasters can't cope with the loss of ratings even on a Friday morning in August.

If there is to be anything gained from bringing up this whole regrettable torrent of sentimentality, it ought to be that from now on we let the poor woman rest in peace. If the media continue to bombard us with her image, if writers continue to produce sordid memoirs revealing nothing new except their abject lack of originality and desire to earn some quick cash and if Mohamed Al-Fayed and friends continue to spout their debunked and discredited theories, all deserve to have mass boycotts imposed upon them. We shouldn't let a media at least partly responsible for her death continue to profit from it, without demanding that they reform themselves so something similar never occurs again. That all of this is a pipe dream, an impossibility, doesn't mean that it isn't true or necessary. After all, who's responsible? You (we) fucking are.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007 

The state of Iraq.

As the long-awaited September 15th report to Congress by General Petraeus on the progress of the so-called "surge" gets ever closer, likely to be somewhat optimistic over a slight drop in sectarian violence but highly critical over the Iraqi government's failure to meet the goals set down to it, the rhetoric, propaganda and downright lies of the Bush administration have been ratcheted up accordingly.

Last week saw the quite incredible sight of a man who did everything he could to avoid going to Vietnam using the blood spilled on both sides of that disastrous war to justify the continued presence of US troops in Iraq. Even Christoper Hitchens was moved to condemn it. This mangled, ahistorical account of events, in effect claiming that the US withdrawal led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when in fact the spreading of the war into Cambodia through mass-bombing raids was almost certainly the trigger for the overthrow of the government as those targeted joined Pol Pot's insurgency, ought to have been expected from an administration that doesn't just misunderstand history, but has from the beginning wanted to create its own reality. As the unnamed Bush administration aide told Ron Suskind, "we're an empire now". Four years on, thousands of dead American servicemen later, the administration in its desperation continues to try to make its own unreality, only to be brought down by its own imperial hubris.

When fatuous, intellectually bankrupt allusions to past horrors fail to enthuse the American public and the "Defeatocrats" continue to call for a withdrawal as quickly as possible, it was inevitable that the next bogeyman had to be pulled out of the president's battered hat. To accuse Iran, although no innocent party in Iraq of "murderous activities" may just be ever so slightly rich coming from the man personally responsible for the disaster that has led, directly or indirectly to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents. Iran probably has supplied some of the Shia militias with weapons; it'd be more surprising if they'd stood idly by and watched as their neighbour and once most feared enemy was removed, especially as thousands of jihadists, some of whom have denounced the Shia as "kuffar", and a result just as much a threat to Iran as to America, moved into the vacuum of power. Why on earth though would the Sunni insurgent groups want the help of the hated mullahs of Iran when they can just buy the weapons supplied to the Iraqi army and police by the US on the black-market, almost 190,000 of them? Besides, Saddam and his army, handily disbanded by Paul Bremer, had also left behind vast stockpiles of both explosives and weaponry in caches across the country, giving the insurgents more than enough to be going on with, at least up until recently.

For all the claims, both from the Bush administration, General Petraeus and some sections of the media that the surge has worked or at least been working, the security situation outside of Baghdad, where most of the extra troops have deployed, has deteriorated accordingly. Call it the Fallujah effect: like how the majority of the insurgents moved out of the city on both occasions when it was laid surge to by American forces, the fighters get out of an area about to be specifically targeted and move elsewhere, leaving pockets of resistance behind which fight on. Where the insurgency was once strongest in Anbar province and Baghdad, it's moved now to Diyala and up towards Mosul, regrouping and reconstituting. The barbaric slaughter of the Yezidis in multiple suicide bombings, killing over 500, almost certainly carried out by the "Islamic State of Iraq", was only the most visible statement of their ability to attack anywhere and nearly anyone. Despite the surge, June saw the highest average number of daily attacks on US troops since the beginning of the war, reaching 177. As Juan Cole has pointed out, this has happened during the stifling heat of the summer months, when it becomes almost too hot to do anything during the day.

Keeping cool in temperatures approaching 120F has in fact got even worse. The power in Baghdad is now barely on for more than an hour a day, sometimes for 2 if they're lucky. The near collapse of the power grid doesn't just affect the obvious, it's also making the sewage situation in the Iraqi cities even worse, and the news that cholera has broken out in northern regions of Iraq is only surprising in that it's occurred there and not further south. The queues for fuel are just as bad as ever, if not worse, according to IraqSlogger, sadly soon to go subscription only.

Despite encouraging signs that al-Qaida in Iraq (now the self-proclaimed "Islamic State of Iraq") was increasingly being turned on, both by local populations formerly supportive, in the form of the Anbar Salvation Council for one, and also by other insurgent groupings sickened by the repeated attacks on innocent civilians, leading to the formation of the "Reform and Jihad Front", led mainly by the Islamic Army in Iraq, there appears to be little sign of the organisation losing its ability both to attract jihadis from overseas and willing suicide bombers, or its ability to launch deadly attacks. The animosity between the IAI and the ISI may well have been overstated by both reporters and the US for obvious reasons: there was a reported truce (there have been others, only for them also to quickly break down), only to be followed by a suicide bombing apparently targeting the local IAI leadership in Fallujah. As almost all the suicide bombings are carried out by the ISI (Ansar-al Sunnah and the newly formed and little known "Shield of Islam" have carried out others), it's highly likely to have been the latest, and quite possibly the most serious fratricidal attack between two of the Sunni insurgent groups so far. Evan F. Kohlmann has produced a vital, highly in-depth report on the state of the Sunni insurgency, well worth reading, which is available here (PDF).

While it's obvious that a full withdrawal may well temporarily cause casualties to escalate, the presence of the US is only now making the security situation worse, and the longer they stay the longer it will take for the Iraqi army and police to stand up on their own. While much of the insurgency is being kept going only by the presence of US troops, it's also certain that the Islamic State of Iraq, links to the actual leadership of al-Qaida or not, is going to continue its guerrilla war against whoever is nominally in power. The removal of the US from the equation may actually galvanise the groups opposed to al-Qaida into fully facing up to its distortion both of Islam and of humanity; while the US cannot destroy it, the Iraqis themselves certainly can. Whether the US leaves next year, in 5 years or 10 years, the re-awakened tensions between Sunni and Shia are also going to play out regardless, and the drop in sectarian violence, rather than being down to American pressure, might be more due to both factions gradually coming to their senses. As for the British presence, we need to get out, and now. It's that simple.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007 

Scum-watch: Keeping the explicit images at bay.

Incredible news over on the Sun's website, where the paper is pretending to be outraged over Jonathan Yeo's collage of George Bush made out of over 100 top-shelf magazines. Before you get out the hand lotion, the Sun has kindly put up a disclaimer:

The Sun has obscured the most explicit images in the piece.

Quite right too, as you never know when younger readers might be browsing the website. Strange then that the paper's sidebar navigation provides links to plenty of other places where you can get your rocks off. Clicking on virals, the Sun happily presents the avid masturbator with that oft-presented online sight, women covered in body paint, although at least the lady on the left has had her nipples obscured by some well-placed stars. Next down is slideshows, almost entirely dedicated to a collection of images of various celebrities, some in states of undress. Then there's Ibiza Exposed, with yet more scantily-clad young ladies, although many of these seem to breaking the Sun's usual stance on the consumption of recreational drugs. Finally, how could we possibly forgot, where two clicks will provide you with today's latest gorgeous pouting glamour girl, along with videos from the Scum's less classy nationwide wet t-shirt competition, from the exotic locations of Watford and Chelmsford amongst others.

Then again, we could have just looked at the front page itself, where just above the story on Yeo's collage the newspaper aptly illustrates a silly season study that British women are more likely to have cosmetic surgery to please partners than their counterparts in the US with a typically pneumatic woman in a bikini top. Alongside the main story, we're informed that Kate (who she?) has a great carear (geddit?!). Finally, beanpole cocaine hoover Tara Palmer-Tompkinson and Sharon Marshall (who she?) provide advice on how to be "very, very naughty":

BEING a sexy, single and naughty girl is the most fun you’ll ever have. But only if you get out there and enjoy it. If you go out less often than the Olympic Flame then you haven’t made the most of it.

Even if your flat is a lovely, peaceful, shiny and fluffy pussycat-filled heaven, we want you out of it sometimes. At least twice a week. In high heels and (gusset-free) hosiery, please.

Men have broken our hearts. Sharon got so fat from sulking she ended up doing a TV dieting show (Celebrity Fit Club).

Tara got so thin, the paparazzi needed magnifying glasses to find her. We’ve each been at our lowest ebb. But it was time to pull up our stockings.

Forget the 12 steps to recovery, we’ve gone straight to step 13 – the naughty step. Bye bye Miss Goody Two-Shoes, hello Miss Sh*g Me Shoes And Stockings.

Thank God they censored shag; someone might otherwise have been offended.

Elsewhere, the Sun is poised to carry out a totally unique piece of investigative journalism, but first they need your help:

IF your name is KATIE PRICE we need you!

We are planning a feature and need to speak to women all around the country who share their name with glamour model Katie Price, AKA Jordan.

WHATEVER your age we need your help and will pay you for your time if you agree to take part in this amazing Sun feature.

If you are not called Katie Price but you know someone who is, whether it be your grandma or granddaughter, tell them to get in touch before they miss out on this exciting opportunity.

Find out more by calling 0207 782 4344 or email NOW

Through my contacts I've been able to obtain a copy of the questionnaire that the Sun's hacks will be using to interview all those who get in contact. Keep this under your hats folks:

1. Is your name Katie Price?
2. What are your vital statistics?
3. Will you let us take photographs of your breasts for a comparison feature in Britain's number one newspaper?

A Pulitzer prize is no doubt on its way.

P.S. The Sun is succeeding in establishing a culture of suspicion in its readers' when it comes to the evil of child pornography. From a comment on the George Bush story:

Ok so the creator of this insult has a sick mind and is a porn junkie, has the image been checked for child porn images?

You can never be too careful.

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The Daily Moolah.

Despite the Daily Mail's new found concern about how the gap between the ultra-rich and the poor might lead to riots, Paul Dacre's decision to go after the feckless rich has unsurprisingly not spread to the boardroom. According to the Guardian's pay survey of the FTSE 100 companies, Padraic M Fallon, one of the Daily Mail and General Trust plc's executive directors received a cash bonus of £2,006,000 last year, placing him tenth in the top ten employees' cash bonuses chart. The Viscount Rothermere also makes the top ten chairmen chart, taking home a cool £827,284. Futhermore, Paul Dacre himself, the new scourge of the fat cats and champion of the downtrodden middle classes, according to Private Eye earned a salary and bonuses totalling £1.23 million. While many of the readers of his newspaper might find themselves with little in their pension pot, Mr Dacre himself has no such worries, as the Guardian puts him in a very select club of people who will be able to call upon a yearly fund of up to £500,000 following his retirement. Not bad work for scaring your customers senseless every day of the week.

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Comedy moment of the day.

Irony continues to smother everything, even an impromptu prison officers strike:

Affected prisons include:

Cardiff prison where inmates locked in their cells have taunted a picket line in the car park with shouts of "You're breaking the law"

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007 

Scrabbling over the bodies for political gain.

If you wanted an example of just how polarised Britain is over crime, you need look no further than today's poll in the Grauniad. 49% now believe that prison doesn't work, an astounding figure when you take into account the overwhelming view of the media is directly the opposite. Accordingly, 51% think that building prisons is the wrong way to go, and that an alternative has to be found to punish criminals and deter crime. 46% believe that the answer is to build yet more. Even so, 77% still want judges to pass ever tougher sentences, a finding that only adds to the thinking that the public in general wants to have its cake and eat it.

Perhaps if the Guardian's poll had been published at the weekend, it might have given the Tories some pause for thought before outlining yet another package for tackling what they're calling "Britian's Crime Crisis" (PDF). More a hodge podge bringing together all their recent thinking on how crime has to be tackled than any radically new thinking, it's clear that the Tories have decided that there's the equivalent of political money to be made out of the blood recently spilt on Britain's streets.

That would be unpleasant enough on its own, but it's also apparent that this is Cameron's attempt to turn the death of Rhys Jones into his own "Bulger" moment. While James Bulger's murder was a horrifying anomaly, the death of Jones does at its root have much to say about modern life in Britain in 2007. Even so, it by no means proves that we're living in a broken society, no more than Bulger's death back in 1993 said that we were a sick society. His death was however though the excuse or cue needed for political opportunism on all sides, leading directly to Michael Howard's "prison works!" speech to his party's conference, Blair's "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", which was actually Gordon Brown's soundbite, and Lib Dem David Alton's thankfully failed attempt to ban all films with a certificate higher than 12 from being released on video. Appropriately, you can find elements of all three knee-jerk reactions in Cameron's own knee-jerk response to Labour's knee-jerking over the last 10 years.

The document opens with an introduction by none other than David Cameron himself, which means we can directly accuse him of scrabbling over the dead for his own political gain. "Deaths by fists, knives and guns are becoming a regular feature of British news" - they haven't always been? "It is simply unacceptable -- a moral reproach to our country -- that someone should have the opportunity and inclination to kill an 11-year-old child with a handgun" - seeing as we don't know whether Jones was the target of the shooting yet or not, hadn't we ought to concentrate on the facts rather than start issuing blanket statements on the state of the nation before anyone has even been charged, yet alone tried? Next he tries to accuse Labour of failing to understand the problem, quoting Blair when he said that it was a "specific problem within a specific criminal culture", without bothering to mention the fact he was talking about gun crime and not violent crime in general, and most likely also trying to blame it all on black youths, as he subsequently did later in the year. Then comes the selective use of statistics that back up what the Tories are saying: that violent crime has doubled in ten years, without acknowledging that the British Crime Survey, regarded as more authoritative, says the opposite; that gun-violence has increased four-fold, dealt with by Unity here; and that knife crime has doubled in the last two years alone, without mentioning that this is robberies involving knives and that it's on disputed figures when the actual research hasn't even been released yet. Then we get the American "example" shoved down our throats yet again, also involving either some faulty quoting of statistics or a deliberate mistake: the murder rate did indeed fall between the years 1990 and 98, but it was from 2,246 to 924, not 2,245 to 633. The most recent figures recorded 874 murders in New York in 2005, which is still more than in both England and Wales as a whole. The least said about the ridiculous "Social Covenant" that Cameron's come up with, a patronising document more familiar to school children than responsible adults the better.

What then are then Cameron's great new ideas to solve our crime crisis? The actions with supposed immediate effect are thus: firstly, he wants to abolish the police stop form, which has to be filled out whenever a police officer stops someone, although one gets the feeling that this is hardly followed to the letter. More controversially is the extending of stop and search, even though some police officers have already raised concerns that the powers they already have are being abused. This would give ordinary constables the power to seal off any area where they believed that someone was carrying or hiding firearms for up to 48 hours. Seeing as black and Asian men are already those most likely stopped under stop and search, you can imagine where this will most end up getting used. The Tories want a review that would examine what restrictions would be necessary to prevent excessive use or abuse of such power, but one hardly expects that it would come up with much. Next up is "permanent police visibility", which as we know is no panacea and can increase the fear of crime rather than necessarily reassure, but it's a simple and popular measure. They also want to reform the police, but don't exactly overburden us with details on either how or why. Penultimately they bring up last week's suggestion that magistrates remove or suspend the right to a driving license, which is unlikely to affect the average gang-member who doesn't have the money to either learn or own a car, and besides, if they're really that involved in such low-level crime, why should they care either about bothering to get a license or getting their own car when there's others out there to steal? Last is the idiotic scrapping of the early release scheme, even though there's no extra prison places which can be used or brought on stream quickly. The suggestion that prison ships or camps should be used is an example of the Tories stealing John Reid's most Sun-pleasing and ridiculous policies, which he realised he couldn't actually achieve once they were looked into. Still, what does that matter to a Tory party that's still in opposition and doesn't actually have to be good to its word? Cameron's speech on the matter also showed his own personal ignorance: he suggested that cells should be used by two inmates rather than one, even though that's exactly what is happening right now. The very reason the early release scheme was brought in was because the prisons chief executive rejected the idea of putting three inmates into a cell meant for one, knowing it was a recipe for riots and even more violence and suicides.

The actions with medium-term effect aren't much better. Enforcing school discipline is easier said than done, and naturally, the Tories' suggest making home-school contracts enforceable. Us lucky adults get a social covenant, the kids get a junior version which if disobeyed can lead directly to their exclusion. Lastly, the ever popular voluntary and independent sector has to have a hand in helping those expelled. Next to come under fire is alcohol licensing, even though the real effect of the introduction of the changes in November 2005 has yet to be properly established in any real fashion. The problem with alcohol isn't when or how it's available, it's down to how the people themselves consume it, which is predictably forgotten because that is something that will take a lot longer to tackle. Local control over policing might be the only worthwhile suggestion out of this whole sorry lot, although local people really want yet another election for a local "Crime Commissioner" (which is an Orwellian term if there ever was one), who would hold the local chief constable to public account is another matter. The Tories claim they'll restore honesty to sentencing, which seems to amount to ordering judges to hand down both a minimum and a maximum sentence, just to confuse things even further, with no one released on parole before the end of the minimum. Considering the way the tabloids etc responded to the minimum sentences handed down to Learco Chindamo, Craig Sweeney et al, this might not be the cure all the Tories think it will be. Magistrates will be given the power to send someone down for a year, also announced last week. They also promise to build more prison places, while also "ensuring appropriate provision for the mentally ill and offenders with drug problems", something that Labour has been promising for years and has spectacularly failed to follow up on. There's no reason to think the Tories will fare any better. Finally, the Tories will introduce that wonderful border police force we're all crying out for, and rip up the "hated" Human Rights Act, for no other reason than it'll please the Daily Mail and Sun while destroying some of Churchill's legacy. How times change.

The long-term actions are just as underwhelming. The Tories will discriminate in favour of families, bribing the middle classes while sticking one up to the single mother in standard fashion, while also introducing flexible working for those with children, which should please the CBI no end. Cameron's favoured bugbear, hip hop and rap music, will apparently be tackled by the party having a "regular process of consultation" with music producers. Considering that most of the music he's so disgusted by is American in origin, no doubt there'll be regular trips across the Atlantic, presumably on a boat so as not to affect his carbon footprint. Also coming under fire, in a direct parallel to Bulger's death are films and video games, even though the BBFC is still one of the strictest censorship bodies in the western world, as the banning of Manhunt 2 has shown. The problem isn't with films/games getting more violent, it's with the parents that are buying them for their darling children despite the certificates they've been given. As ever, children are used as a justification to stop adults from making their own decisions about what they want to watch or play. Lastly, the Tories will reform welfare by, you've guessed it, handing it over to the independent, voluntary and commercial organisations to sort out the feckless jobless. Nothing about tackling inequality or poverty, but just what did you expect?

Just then as the public comes to the realisation that prison really doesn't work, that the endless crackdowns and knee-jerk responses have failed, the Tories outline their own detailed, badly thought out and highly discriminatory reflex to end all reflexes. Our society is broken, but don't worry, the Tories have come up with the quickest sticking plaster "solution" of all time. Whether the families of those killed will be receptive to the Tories' use of their dead relatives for their own political benefit remains to be seen.

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Monday, August 27, 2007 

When a picture says more than thousands of words.

Out of the thousands of words that have been expelled (including by myself) on the murder of Rhys Jones, it's perhaps fitting that it's a cartoon that's come closest to saying the most while using the least amount of syllables.

Whether we blame the parents, gang culture, the search for (and lack of) respect, educational failure, crushing poverty, braggadocio, the police, Thatcherism, Blairism, violence in popular culture, little green men, political correctness, alienation, single mothers, the Cheeky Girls, all or none of these things, or even the person who fired the gun, I think we can all agree that Jones' parents shouldn't keep subjecting themselves to going in front of the camera, trying to shame the perpetrator into coming forward or not. They need to go and grieve in peace, and the media has to let them.

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Utterly shameless.

How then did the Daily Express respond to Gerry McCann's request for the media to stop bombarding the general public with images of his daughter and to scale down the coverage of the search for her? By reproducing yet more unsubstantiated reports from the Portuguese press on the front page, while somehow pretending to be outraged by their very existence, naturally.

Just how much longer is this going to go on for? In a decade's time, is the Express still going to be screaming about supposed new revelations about her disappearance? Is it going to be informing us for the umpteenth time that she really was pregnant when she went missing, honest? Or that the Duke of Edinburgh, allied with MI6, conspired to kidnap her from her bed because she was about to bring down the monarchy through a roll of film stuffed inside her cuddle cat that proved Diana was murdered? I spend most of the time here wittering endlessly and complaining about the stranglehold that the Murdoch press has over both the public and political mood in this country, but not even the Scum is so disgustingly blatant in its futile attempts to boost its circulation through lies, conjecture and downright abuse of those unlucky enough to either have died or gone missing in suspicious circumstances. It's worth remembering that Dirty Desmond was helped along in his purchase of the Express/Star titles through donating £100,000 to the Labour party, meaning we have this government to partially thank for the excuse for journalism which adorns the newsagent shelves every morning.

Speaking of disgustingly futile attempts to boost circulation, something suddenly hit me earlier, and for a change it wasn't someone who had randomly abused me for having the temerity to walk down the same side of the street as them.

POSTERS about The Sun’s £100,000 reward for information that helps catch Rhys’s killer have gone up around Liverpool.

Really? In the same city where the Sun has never been forgiven, nor will it ever be forgiven for its appalling coverage of the Hillsborough disaster? Where the unofficial boycott of the paper has never been lifted? Am I being far too cynical when I think that the Sun's offering of such a reward might be more than just a selfless gesture in response to a shocking crime? If Wikipedia is to be believed, then circulation of the Scum in Liverpool was at around 12,000 in 2004, a fall from 200,000 prior to Hillsborough. The newspaper it seems has plenty to gain and little to lose from offering such a reward. After all, who would ever accuse it of having anything other than the very best motives at heart?

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Saturday, August 25, 2007 

More reasons to love Jeremy Paxman.

Earlier in the year we were treated to a semi-coherent rant by the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in the form of the Cudlipp lecture, where he attacked the "subsidariat", i.e. the Guardian, Independent, Times and BBC for their various crimes, mainly not being right-wing enough and as a result treating the general public who as we know are naturally conservative with contempt. It's worth comparing his abortion with yesterday's excellent MacTaggart lecture by Jeremy Paxman, where he effortlessly identified the real problems with the current state of the fourth estate.

Taking his cue in part from Tony Blair's own valedictory speech on the state of the media, Paxman rightly notes that despite the amount of hypocrisy involved in Blair's comments and his laughable example of the Independent, his message was partly right but delivered by the wrong person.

The basic charge sheet against us from Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell is as follows. Firstly, that we behave like a herd. Secondly that we have a trivial and collective judgement. Thirdly, that we prefer sensation to understanding. I’m sorry to say, but I think there’s something in all of these arguments.

You only have to see re-examine the coverage of Rhy Jones' tragic death over the last few days to see just how the herd operates. It's been almost an exact mirror of when Madeleine McCann went missing - the news media has decamped to Liverpool, the newspapers have offered rewards for information, we've had the same intrusion into the parents' private grief, and we've had interviews with any teenager who so much as looks like he might be in a gang, none of which have told us anything to new.

Take the Guardian's interview
this morning with a "Nogadog", a disgusting litany of boasts, bravado and shallow willy-waving that tells us absolutely nothing that we didn't already know about gang culture, but it sure makes for good copy and introduces the general public to local slang for the police. That the little prick behind the interview is now probably a hero along his friends for getting into the posh Grauniad with his senseless, immature mumblings despite being too afraid to show his face like the frightened shit he is ought to have told the journalist that this was gutter journalism rather than investigative reporting and getting the story behind the story. Did the television and newspaper photographers also have to film and snap Jones' parents looking at the tributes to their son, showing his mother crying again, even after they'd given an emotional press conference? It was tawdry voyeurism of the worst kind, emotional pornography that intruded on their private grief. That some of the tabloids (and indeed, the Telegraph) put it on their front page ought to tell us how much they really care: and does the Mirror's front page happen to remind anyone of one of the Sun's early efforts to "empathise" with Kate McCann?

It's perhaps fitting that Gerry McCann himself has now criticised some of the coverage of his daughter's disappearance. Some will rightly suggest that it takes some chutzpah on his behalf to condemn the "bombard(ing) [of] people on a daily basis" with Madeleine's image after that was what his wife and he set out to do in the first few weeks, but the continuing of just that has become truly revolting, with the Daily Express making up stories every day now for weeks because it's decided its a circulation booster. This is the very worst of the media's behaviour, acting both like a herd and preferring sensation to absolutely any understanding. Every reported act must be met with a reaction - Jones' death demands zero tolerance; Madeleine's disappearance has to lead to more co-operation Europe wide on paedophiles; immigration figures are not anaylsed for exactly what they mean, but are distorted, used as a political football and then by single-interest groups to prove how right they are (see Five Chinese Crackers all this week); and the decision not to deport Learco Chindamo must result in the ripping up of the Human Rights Act - and all of this in just one week, in the supposed silly season. When it's not pure sensationalism, we instead get irresponsible fearmongering: just look at the Sun's idiotic, designed to cause panic coverage of the floods, claiming there were going to be mass outbreaks of water borne diseases and that yobs were going round pissing in and smashing up bowsers, which the BBC, the Sun's natural enemy had to correct.

Paxman rightly points out just how money, ratings and the digital age have all had a hand to play in both the scandals concerning the faking of competitions, the defrauding of the vulnerable who enter premium-rate phone line quizzes, and the gradual drop in trust all round. Big Brother is but the biggest example - a witless, unethical exploitation both of those who involve themselves in it and those who itch to vote the contestants out, but which Channel 4 relies on as its banker. You could argue that Big Brother pays for Channel 4 News, Dispatches, Peep Show etc, but why should a channel providing a public service have to stoop so low in order to also bring the "highbrow"? Shouldn't we be outraged that Newsnight, an institution that usually gets less than a million viewers that if were to disappear would leave a gaping hole in political coverage on television, is getting even further cutback while programmes that are an insult to viewers' intelligence like "GrownUps", "Tittybangbang" and "Little Miss Jocelyn" are still being produced and mass advertised? Why should we be surprised that people are turning off and losing faith when such dreck keeps getting renewed?

We need to treat our viewers with respect, to be frank with them about how and why programmes were made, to be transparent. We need, in short, to rediscover a sense of purpose.

This ought to be, to quote one of the most abused terms of the week, "common sense". That it isn't suggests how far the media has moved from being the supposed voice of the people to deciding that it knows what the people want - and how wrong it often is.

Slight update: Tory MP John Whittingdale and Panorama's John Sweeney have come up with the obvious solution to Newsnight's woes: close BBC Three. Considering about the only decent programme it's managed to produce in four years has been Monkey Dust, it ought to be a no brainer. The other reasonably popular dramas it's produced, such as Torchwood, Bodies, etc would be just at home on BBC Two as they are on the BBC's feeble attempt at a "yoof" channel.

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Friday, August 24, 2007 

More thoughts on crime and why we don't need zero tolerance.

(This is mostly going to be a tedious post based around the premise that despite all the claims that zero tolerance has worked in New York and Los Angeles, the cities are in fact more dangerous than London is. If you don't want to read me ranting about overreactions to one heinous crime, skip it.)

Which side are you on? Is this what it comes down to? Must we be polarised between the Sun's call for the murder of Rhys Jones to "change us as a nation" and the Grauniad's that this is not a country "beset by universal violence or disorder, or even, in most parts of the country, by rising levels of criminality"? The answer, as usual, is somewhat in-between. It's incredibly easy to pick major holes in almost every Sun leader, as regular readers will know, so I'm not going to bother doing that today, although I will say that I at least agree with its sentiments on education, although it doesn't so much as mention poverty, both in terms of wealth and ambition, especially when these gangs see the alternative ways of earning respect as the way to make up for both. Community solidarity, which it does at least mention, although it doesn't look at the reasons why it's broken down, is also vital.

While most on the left side of the political fence will nod along with the lack of urgency and appeal for calm which emanates from the Guardian leader, the very last thing we should be is complacent. For too long Labour and much of the left has taken the poor for granted, regarding their votes as already earned and ignoring the very real problems which have emerged on the so-called "sink estates". Labour's answer, instead of really listening, both to those caught in the crossfire as it were and to both the victims and the perpetrators has been to dish out ASBOs and legislate, rather than examine why things are as they are, or in fact afraid to find out what they are. As Justin points out, for too long we've allowed idiots to rule the roost in some of these communities while everyone else has suffered in silence, either out of want of a quiet life or fear, when what's really needed is for them to be ridiculed as the little men they are. If this involves a certain amount of humiliation, so be it. At the same time, we should also recognise that some of the lower-level trouble is just a teenage stage, which in some children is a lot more serious than it is with others. Not every teenage occasional hooligan or "yob" turns into an adult with those same tendencies.

The key to tackling it though is in intervening early, in firm parenting rather than the blaming of everything and everyone else that some indulge in, and understanding the desperation that often underpins such an existence. In our little world of pseudo-individualism, where capitalism is the solution to everything, and we only need to send in the voluntary organisations and the entrepreneurs for all to be made right, we have to accept that the concept of wage slavery, which a lot of those involved in low-level yobbery will have the rest of their lives to look forward to is not much of a fairytale existence. There is no simple solution, but the much mocked SureStart centres deserve both more funding and more time to make a difference, local government and accountability have to be strengthened, and most of all, we shouldn't knee-jerk into yet another punitive, draconian crackdown.

Which, naturally, is just what the Sun is saying must happen. Like two days again when David Cameron brought up New York, the paper is calling for zero tolerance, like that introduced by the police chief Bill Bratton in that city and now in Los Angeles. He's even talked to the paper saying that it's exactly what's needed here.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, Bratton's experiment has not just involved pumping in police and implementing ridiculously harsh punishments in some cases, but also the COMPSTAT system, used to break down where crime has occurred over the past week so that task forces, more patrols and further measures can be brought into those areas. This is all very well for a city force, but to do it across a whole country, especially when a decent amount of areas of it have no such problems and crime is something the residents read about in the paper, is not just untested, it's the old cliche of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Secondly, we have to examine the actual figures to see just how safe Los Angeles and New York are. It's impossible to compare either to England and Wales entirely due to the vast difference in overall population, but we can reasonably well apply the crime levels in both to that in London. The Sun produces a load of figures showing how crime has dropped in both under Bratton's watch, but by just how much in comparison to our own major city?

On the face of it, the LA figures (PDF) do indeed look good. In all areas, apart from homicide, where LA had 481 last year and London (PDF) had 165, it looks as if LA has less rapes, less robbery and much fewer burglaries. The only problem with all that is that LA, according to the COMPSTAT weekly figures (PDF), has a population of just over 4 million. London, however, has a metropolitan population of between 12 and 14 million, which means we're going to have to multiply the LA figures by three to make them applicable. LA then has just under 600 more rapes than in London, 2,709 to 2,094, robberies are around the same with 42,975 in LA to 43,971 London, burglaries similarly go to 60,060 in LA to 59,285 in London. LA counts theft from vehicles and vehicle theft separately, so when added together and multiplied by 3 hits 163,494 compared to London's vehicle crime figure of 125,234.

New York, with a population of around 19 million, is more broadly comparable with London's, so I'm just going to do them side by side, but if you're anal enough you can ratchet the London figures up accordingly. New York had 874 murders in 2005; London had 165 last year. Rapes in NY were at 3,636, London at 2,094, NY experienced 35,179 robberies, while London had 43,971, and NY had 68,034 burglaries whilst London had 59,285. There are no instantly comparable figures on aggravated assaults, but for comparisons sake lists 46,150, while London records 4,810 instances of grievous bodily harm.

Does this actually tell us anything? Well, when it comes down to what most occupies the media, the murders and rape, both New York and Los Angeles are on this data far more dangerous places to live. Indeed, both have more murders than England and Wales have as a whole (There were 765 in 2005, including the 52 victims of 7/7). On the other instances of more minor crime, the figures are broadly comparable. While New York and Los Angeles have had zero tolerance, the numbers in London have been falling without any such heavy-handed intervention.

This isn't to deny that it's possible that zero tolerance here could bring crime down further than it already is. Both the BCS and the police figures have shown a major drop in most crime, with the chances of being a victim the lowest for a generation. They've also broadly either stayed static or dropped for the past 10 years. Whether you want to link this to New Labour's crackdown is up to you. What it doesn't show however is that there is a major need for the zero tolerance approach. If we were to go down that road, it would require a major step change in our current thinking on the criminal justice system. More prisons would need to be built, we would have to accept much harsher sentences for what we now regard as "minor" crime, and we would also have to reconsider the role of rehabilitation as a whole. The reality is that we should be making policy on what works, not on what's either liberal or punitive respectably, and if there's one thing we do know, it's that prison doesn't work. The time for zero tolerance has not yet come, if it ever will.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007 

Tory hell and failing to understand youth crime.

Whichever way you look at it, the Conservatives are having hell of a week. Dear old Dave returns from holiday on Monday, finds himself 10 points behind the polls, a Labour lead not seen since prior to the Iraq war, and quite understandably, panics. Cue a quick re-emphasis on one of the few areas where the Tories, much to the chagrin of Labour, had made some headway on: the NHS. Promising a "bare knuckle fight" over hospital closures, the Tories launch a list of what they claim is either going to be shut down, or at least reconstituted in some way. They might have expected that some of the hospital trusts would reply that their claims were nonsense; they didn't expect that one of their own MPs would, who was quickly brought in for some Cameroonian re-education in not making the leader look like an idiot.

Clearly thinking they were on to far more of a winner with the tabloid outrage over Chindamo's successful appeal against deportation, Team Cameron comes out and blames the Human Rights Act, demands that it be repealed and that common sense must prevail, hence we must have a "British" Bill or Rights. 24 hours later they have egg on their face again, as it turns out it was an EU directive and not the "hated" act itself which was to blame, but Cameron goes on demanding it must go nevertheless, despite numerous bloggers pointing out the HRA is as much a legacy of the Conservative party and Britain as it is anything to do with Europe, let alone the EU.

Finally then, Cameron makes a speech on the other pressing issue of the week, youth crime, yob culture, anti-social behaviour, whatever you want to call it. It's a little known fact that New Labour invented anti-social behaviour: before Blair came to power and started warbling on about it, little attention had been paid towards it. All that changed as the media latched onto the idea, and soon those unlucky enough to be young, dumb and bored while standing around on street corners became the enemy within. All this remember against a background where the chance of becoming a victim of crime is at the lowest point in a generation, when attacks involving knives peaked in 1995, but where the fear of it rather than the actuality has become ever present. Along with the fear of terrorism, Labour used this as a potent weapon to trim civil liberties down to size, introducing ASBOs, creating 3,000 new criminal offences, and filling the prisons to breaking point.

How then does the Tory party possibly react to some of the most draconian crime and punishment policies seen in decades? First, Cameron attempted to "hug a hoodie", as his speech on showing children more love will forever more be known. While it certainly had some merits, everyone just remembers the soundbite and not what he actually said. This time round it would all be different.

And so it proved. The motto of the day was "common sense", a phrase he used 3 times during the speech. Common sense, unfortunately, is subjective: according to Cameron, it's common sense to hit teenagers where it hurts, which doesn't mean that you punch hormonal youngsters in the region of their developing sexual organs, but that you give courts the power to delay them obtaining a driver's license. His examples for this perhaps weren't the best he could have come up with, as he suggested that a youngster caught buying alcohol twice could have it delayed, which seems like a recipe for embittering and further alienating those caught. In any case, most of the evidence suggests that few 15-year-olds are buying drink, rather getting others to buy it or stealing it from their parents. How many of those most likely to be the source of anti-social behaviour are even in a position to learn to drive and have a vehicle once they turn 17? Learning to drive and getting a car young tends to be a middle-class pursuit, especially due to the costs involved.

Cameron's other main criminal justice proposal was to give magistrates greater power over sentencing, extending the length they can hand down to 12 months, as well as scrapping the early release scheme. Tabloid pleasing gestures, but ones that will put further pressure on the prison system which is already bursting at the seams. The early release scheme has actually done nothing to bring down the population, with it hitting 80,000 again, and scrapping it would only make things worse. Cameron doesn't say whether he's going to build more prisons, but to keep his promise he would have to.

Not that little things like that get in the way of Cameron's rhetoric. He says that violent crime has doubled over the last ten years: the British Crime Survey (PDF) says it has fallen over 41% since 1995, and that 49% of violent incidents reported to the survey do not involve any injury, while the police figures over the year showed no statistical difference. He quotes the Centre for Crime and Justice Study figures on knife crime which the Home Office disputed, and which the centre itself still hasn't put online (nor have they replied to my email) (Update: Richard Garside writes to the Grauniad saying the review is based on the best information the HO has available and that the report will be released next month). He mentions New York as an example of how crime can be tackled, through zero tolerance: when the Sun raised that earlier in the year, I pointed out New York is in fact more dangerous than the whole of Britain combined:

A quick look at the crime statistics, especially the number of murders, shows there were 889 in New York in 2004. By comparison, London had 221. Even taking into account the population difference, with New York having 19 million and London having around 13 million, that's a huge difference. The 889 figure is in fact higher than the number for the whole of Britain in 2004 - the British Crime Survey reporting there were 820.

Much of Cameron's speech rests on familiar arguments, such as cutting down on police red-tape and paperwork and even on the statistic collecting mentioned by Peter Fahy: perhaps because the statistics tell the story that things aren't as bad as either the media or politicians are making out. This isn't to suggest that they're worthless suggestions, as sometimes the most common response does hold a well-known truth, but why should we expect the Tories would be any better than Labour at sorting it out?

Finally, he rounds on the social aspect, bringing up the old new proposals on tax benefits for getting married, designed to soak the middle classes, attacking single mums by saying it's work rather than benefits that's the best path, as if they didn't know, and lastly lauding all those independent organisations that are really making a difference. The Labour response? To accuse them of lurching to the right, which is just about as pot and kettle as you can get, then promoting and extending the ABC behaviour contracts program, which it has to be said is a better suggestion than increasing sentencing.

Unsurprisingly, there's little to no mention in any of this of the actual reasons behind either anti-social behaviour, youth crime, or even gang culture. We've forgotten the causes. Anyone who saw the feature on Newsnight on the "Niets", the 16-24 year-olds not in education, training or work saw the desperation, alienation, humiliation and pessimism that came from their helplessness as a result of their educational failures, family background and endemic poverty that had blighted their lives. They didn't want to be on benefits, they just didn't see any way off of them. Tackling this is just as important as deciding what the latest punishment has to be. Iain Duncan Smith came close to realising this in his report but relied upon the same old solutions which have failed before. It's come to something when it's a man in his 60s, Ming Campbell, who's come the closest to actually getting it.

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Scum-watch: First things first, smear the enemy.

Generally, when you think that you're on the moral high ground, you don't resort to cheap dirty tricks to further prove your point. When you're the Sun newspaper however, or indeed, any part of the Murdoch empire, the first not the last resort is to smear, slander and lie about today's common enemy.

Before the news came through of the shooting of Rhys Jones, the Sun's front page had a banner headline reading "KILLER'S VILE BOASTS". Even after the story has been confined to the inside pages, it still contains the same highly questionable content that's all too familiar of a hatchet job.

THE thug who murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence JOKED about the brutal stabbing, a man who served prison time with him revealed last night.

Learco Chindamo BOASTED of his wicked crime and swaggered around jail with a gang of fellow killers, handing out beatings to other cons.

Ex-thief Mark Brunger said: “He didn’t give a toss about killing Philip Lawrence, he used to laugh about it with everybody.”

Mark, 28, hit out after a tribunal blocked Chindamo’s deportation on his release — despite Home Office warnings that he is still a threat.

Oh, so this happened in prison did it? Err, no:

Mark, who met Chindamo at Swinfen Hall Young Offenders Institution in Lichfield, Staffs, said: “To say he is reformed is a joke.

“He is a violent, dangerous man. He would kill again.”

Just for a second, let's accept Brunger's account of events at face value. Swinfen Hall caters for young adult prisoners between the ages of 18 and 25. Seeing as Brunger is now 28 and Chindamo is 26, Chindamo's swaggering, boasts and beatings must have occurred between either 3 and 8 years ago. The Sun naturally doesn't mention when this actually took place - and the leader only refers to it occurring in the recent past. Without wishing to turn into an internet detective, a quick MurdochSpace (someone with a Facebook/Bebo account could do searches there if they so wished) search for Mark Brunger turns up just one entry in the UK, a 28-year-old currently living in Bristol. In his about me section:


Someone with more guts than me might want to ring that number and ask him whether he's one and the same as the Sun's source. He also has what seem to be a couple of Friends Reunited accounts, both of which list the same school as the MySpace page, one of which suggests he's just started a university degree in counselling.

Even if we decide that Brunger is telling the truth, we have the word of a fellow ex-prisoner, one who could be talking about an event up to 8 years ago, to put against the testimony not just of a deputy governor of Ford open prison, but also that of an unnamed female officer at the jail that had helped to prepare Chindamo for day release. According to today's Independent, the Home Office attempted to suppress their evidence which contradicted its own, only allowing them to submit it once the governor of Ford had himself intervened, and even then they weren't allowed to give their account of Chindamo's rehabilitation in person, where their arguments could have been cross-examined in detail. To quote from their panel's judgment:

"Of particular significance was what was said by Mr Hughes, the deputy governor of Ford Prison, in his letter to the appellant's solicitors of 8 March 2007. He had been in the Prison Service for 30 years and had dealt with numerous offences. There were only a small minority who had demonstrated a change for the better and gone on to lead lawful and purposeful lives and he strongly believed that the appellant was a changed person who had realised the gravity of his index offence and if given a chance would prove himself worthy of trust. All the reports on him had been very positive and the parole board had been very impressed."

It's little wonder then that the Sun has set out to do everything in its power to try and prove that Chindamo is still a brutal, evil thug, especially when his ruling means it can further attack both the EU and the "hated" human rights act. Taking its cue directly from Mark Brunger's helpful intervention:

Forever evil

LEARCO Chindamo should not be deported. But only because he should not be released.

The idea that the savage, cold-blooded killer of headmaster Philip Lawrence is a reformed character is a joke.

A joke to a newspaper that doesn't believe in forgiveness, it's true. Not however to prison staff themselves, who are not very often bleeding heart liberals.

We now learn that this “model prisoner” swaggered around in jail boasting of his appalling crime while leading a ruthless gang of other young killers who ruled E-wing through violence.

This was in the recent past. And the Home Office still considers him “a genuine and present risk” to us.

Quite true, but the Asylum and Immigration Panel rejected that conclusion, and the Home Office's argument was purely on the basis that the press coverage of his release might make him difficult to settle in a particular part of the country. The Scum has been more than happy to make that observation a self-fulfilling prophecy, as its readers' comments continue to show:

Let´s hope someone is waiting for him when he gets out.

Posted_by: mrcrocker

His face should be shown in British Papers and TV News every day from now on. Like this, when he gets out, everybody will recognize him in the street and turn his life into hell!! He will then be the one eager to leave the country!!! Posted_by: joh123

Chindamo told other inmates he expected to serve at least 18 years. When he comes up for parole next year, the board must ensure that prediction comes true.

Instead of swallowing any claptrap about him being a changed man.

Considering the reverse midas touch that the Sun has recently had when it's previously intervened in judicial decisions, it perhaps ought to have known better than to order the parole board around. No such luck. One can only hope its bad luck continues.

For those fascinated by the Sun's front page splash on "OUR KEELEY PUTS BOOT INTO PUTIN!" (geddit?!) it's another example of the Sun putting its own thoughts into the mouths of its page 3 girls, something that Rebekah Wade instituted when she became editor. Gorgeous pouting Keeley, who previously bawled when an explicit sex tape of hers was leaked onto the internet, despite getting her tits out for numerous publications (probably something to do with not getting paid for it), says:

“They have a ruddy cheek spying on us from these monster planes. It’s just a pathetic signal that they are investing in their armed forces again. So what, our RAF heroes will see them off every time.”

For those not so interested in Russia's attempt to regain its superpower status and create a multipolar rather than a unipolar world once again, the Sun asks its readers whether Keeley's sacks of fat are better than Russian Kristina's, apparently the top page three girl of Russian daily "Tvoi Den". Yes, it's official, the disease is spreading.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007 

Rehabilitation can never win against the demands for a pound of flesh.

Just how wrong were the original reports about the reasons for why Learco Chindamo couldn't be deported then? Despite nearly every news organisation blaming the decision almost instantly on the Human Rights Act, from the BBC to the Guardian, from the Mail to the Sun, the actual decision was taken not under Article 8 of the HRA, as we were told, but rather on the 2004 EU directive on citizenship, which gives those who have spent over 10 years in one nation state protection from summary deportation to another. It was only if this directive had not applied in Chindamo's case that Article 8 could then then have come into play; as such, it was a secondary factor in the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal's ruling that he should stay in Britain.

Not that this has stopped even the Times from splashing on the "threat" posed by Chindamo. This supposed threat, taken from the Home Office's submission to the panel on why Chindamo should be deported, was so far from being conclusive, as well as downright disengenuous, that the panel rightly dismissed it. The relevant part of the letter is reproduced by Unity, and ought to be compared to the coverage in the Times, Sun and Mail:

In the revised reasons for deportation letter it is noted that it is unlikely that the appellant will reoffend, and that he accepts his responsibility for his offences and has undertaken courses for anger management. It notes however that his current behaviour and actions and day-to-day life are very closely monitored. There is reference there to one escorted visit, though we accept that the evidence is in fact that he has been on two escorted visits and three unescorted visits. The point is also made in the refusal letter that the court has deemed that the appellant’s crime is of such severity that he will always continue to be a threat to the community such that his release on licence would be on the basis that he might be recalled to prison at any moment for any breach of his conditions. The point is made that he has been assessed and that he is subject to the highest level of multi-agency public protection arrangements (Mappa) (Level 3). In this regard though we must bear in mind the point to which we were referred by Mr Scannell that that assessment was not made on account of the appellant being a threat to the public but because of the likelihood of media scrutiny and/or public interest. The letter does note that risk factors might increase because of media and public scrutiny that the appellant might receive. It also comments that the OAsys report notes that there are occasions where the appellant has overacted to situations and there are severe concerns with finding him appropriate accommodation on release if allowed to remain in the United Kingdom. He would need to be excluded from certain parts of the country, community integration would be a problem on release and he might suffer a backlash. The letter states that the appellant’s notoriety might make him feel excluded from society as he had been before and there was a significant risk that his previous disregard for authority and the law might resurface and result in him coming to adverse attention. As a consequence it was considered that he posed a continuing risk to the public and that his offences were so serious that he represents a genuine and present and sufficiently serious threat to the public in principle such as to justify his deportation.

In other words, the only justification that the Home Office could come up with for his deportation was that because of the adverse press coverage likely around his time of release, it'd be better for him if he was removed from the country entirely. Never mind that he was no longer considered a threat, that he had completed anger management courses, as well as 3 GCSEs and a NVQ, despite not being able to write his address when he entered prison, and that he had shown genuine remorse for his crime, all of that was secondary to the government's concern that it was likely to get it in the neck whether he was deported or not. Their last laughable argument was that he had overreacted on a couple of occasions to certain situations. I think all of us might overreact if we too had been kept in the constant uncertainty and insecurity of prison for twelve years.

What the Times additionally doesn't mention, for reasons to be explained shortly, was that the governor of Ford open prison had made a submission for the tribunal to be held behind closed doors because of the previous reaction of the press to Chindamo being allowed out on day release to visit his family. To quote the relevant paragraph from the ruling (DOC):

In particular he referred to the memo from Ms Radford, the Governor of HM Prison Ford, dated 25 April 2006, to be found at pages 63 and 64 of Mr Scannell’s bundle. Among others things she referred to the fact that on day release in February 2006 the appellant had been pursued by members of the press and an article appeared in the Sun newspaper three days later. There were further follow-up articles in the Sun, the Daily Express and the Brighton Argus. Ms Radford expressed her deep concern that they were ‘managing offenders by media’ and spending more time playing down risk than explaining their offender management strategies and how those more effectively protected the public than hysterical misinformed articles in the gutter press.

And we really are talking about the gutter press here. The Scum splashed Chindamo's release on the front page, calling it an "outrage":

THE killer of headmaster Philip Lawrence has been let out of jail early — despite an emotional warning it would “destroy” his victim’s family twice.

Former teenage gangster Learco Chindamo, now 25, was allowed an unsupervised day outing from Ford Open Prison in West Sussex.

Yep, that's right, Chindamo, like all over prisoners coming towards the end of a long prison sentence, had been allowed out for a whole day on his own as part of the general program towards preparing him for his eventual release. The article also willfully misquotes Mrs Lawrence: she had made the warning after Chindamo had appealed against the length of his sentence, an appeal that was denied. It was nothing to do with his day release. The Sun additionally published what its readers' felt should have been done with Chindamo to start with:

He should have got a suspended sentence - suspended from the end of a rope.


The next day Mrs Lawrence was herself in print, condemning what she thought was "a jolly day out" and thanking the Sun for bringing it to her attention. Most likely as a result of the Scum's coverage, Chindamo was as a result moved back to a closed jail, despite what the governor of Ford open prison described as his measured reaction to being followed by members of the press. The Sun subsequently referred to Chindamo as "evil" in its leader condemning the situation, saying he should be behind bars for life. The newspaper ought to have taken that up with the judge who gave the twelve year sentence, and not with the person who had been trying his hardest to rehabilitate himself, only to be vilified again in the tabloids because of a decision made by the prison service.

Mrs Lawrence herself has also now been making nonsense statements that seem to owe more to the Sun's line in rhetoric than the more dignified, understanding approach she had favoured on the previous day.

“It takes away our human rights and gives it to them — and that is wrong.”

“In a way I am glad this ruling has brought the whole human rights debate to the fore. Something has to be done to balance things. At the moment the criminal is the only one getting the rights. I felt I had to come forward and speak up for my husband.”

It only looks as if the criminal is getting the rights because the press never report on the other cases and the government is too spineless to defend the act. As I wrote yesterday, the families of murder victims have used it to obtain inquiries into their deaths, while Katie Ghose outlines 3 cases in which the right to a family life has been used to defend individuals wrongly taken away or banned from seeing their relatives. These are the ordinary people being protected, but their stories are boring compared to the latest instance of human rights madness. The Sun also completely misunderstands the act in its entirety, claiming that judges give more weight to Article 8 than to the right to life, which is not just patently absurd, but also completely untrue. It also refers to bits of it being politically correct; would that a reference to the right to freedom of expression, which the Sun so obviously loathes when it gets pulled up on its lies?

As Justin argues, Chindamo ought to be a model for how prison can work. Coming in illiterate, his success in gaining qualifications, counselling other inmates, accepting his guilt and showing remorse mark him out as one of the success stories of how prisoners can be rehabilitated, given the right circumstances, facilities and the necessary resources. Instead, all of that has now been dismissed out of hand, rejected without a thought by the press and reactionaries who want a pound of flesh rather than the evidence that "bad people" can indeed change. The Sun says that his lawyer and Jack Straw should hang their heads in shame; how bitterly hypocritical of a newspaper that today prints the following:

NEVER mind deportation — what’s he doing being let out of prison if he killed a headmaster in cold blood? I hope this evil killer is hounded by the press and vigilante mobs until he dies.

The government it seems would like that: maybe then it'll convince the appeal panel Chindamo really does have to be deported, disgracefully for his own safety.

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