Thursday, December 31, 2009 

Best music of 2009 part 2 / 10 best albums.

10. Lynx and Kemo - The Raw Truth

A couple of years on from when Lynx first came to mass attention within the drum and bass scene with the sounding like nothing else did at the time Disco Dodo, the d&b producer teamed up with vocalist Kemo for an album that attempted to cover all boundaries. While Lynx provides the beats alongside a whole range of fellow producers, including Alix Perez, whose own album 1984 only narrowly missed this list, it's Kemo's effortless rhymes and compelling voice that rewards repeat listens, providing the context and texture to urban British music at very close to its finest.

Lynx and Kemo ft. Henree - Deez Breakz

9. VA - Fabriclive 44 - Mixed by Commix

If it was dBridge and Instra:mental that created the real crossover and acclaimed smashes that fused dubstep's pallete with d&b's 170 bpm tempo, it was Commix that provided the mix that properly showcased the movement's sound in 65 blissful minutes. Featuring almost all the stalwarts that have kept d&b interesting, especially Calibre, Breakage and SpectraSoul, the biggest tune we didn't know yet here was undoubtedly Instra:mental's No Future, one of the future classics of the year, and since remixed into a complete smasher by Skream.

Commix - Bear Music

8. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers

Wild Beasts are always going to be one of those bands that splits opinion, purely because of the vocals provided by Hayden Thorpe, whose falsetto will either be adored or pilloried. Perhaps to counteract that, or just for further experimentation, Tom Fleming added his voice to the mix, and the result was a sleeper hit from a band that deserve far more attention than they have so far been accorded.

Wild Beasts - The Fun Powder Plot

7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

When Fever to Tell came out back in 2003, all angular riffing and screeching from Karen O, you wouldn't have exactly put money on them returning with their 3rd album in 2009 having largely abandoned the guitars which they made their name with with synths instead. The result however was astonishing, although having created one of the downtempo songs of the decade in Maps it perhaps wasn't all that unexpected. While all the attention will be on the singles Zero and Heads Will Roll, it's the album as a whole that demands listening to in full, as the giddiness of the openers gives way to the tenderness contained in Runaway. Whether they continue to exist in their current form or not, YYYs will still be one of the decade's rightfully acclaimed bands.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Skeletons

6. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport

After the brilliance of last year's scream and noise heavy Street Horrsing, the Buttons had a similar sort of epiphany to the YYYs and recruited veteran house producer Andrew Weatherall to somewhat redefine their sound. The result, while losing some of the sharper points of their debut, was to create an album that toed the line between post-rock and outright electronica which few have dared to breach. It's the beauty that is however as compelling as ever, as well as the ability to get lost within the layers of sound that permeate everything the band does.

Fuck Buttons - Phantom Limb

5. VA - 5 Years of Hyperdub

Inaugurated just a year after the term "dubstep" was first coined to describe the bass-heavy sound which the likes of Hatcha, Youngsta and the Digital Mystikz crew were just beginning to push, very few retrospectives come even close to the aural pleasure provided by Hyperdub's look back at last half decade. With 2 discs, the first providing new material and the second a sort of best of, it's almost impossible to pick the best the compilation has to offer, but Mala's Level Nine and the 8-bit step of Quarta330's Bleeps from Outer Space, alongside the 2000f's You Don't Know What Love Is and Joker's Digidesign will prove very difficult for the label to top.

Quarta330 - Bleeps from Outer Space

4. Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers

After returning to commercial success with Send Away the Tigers, it might have seemed something of an odd move for the Manics to return to the introspection and even desolation of the lyrics left behind by the now legally dead Richey Edwards, but without exaggeration almost never has there been such a worthy musical tribute to a fallen friend as that provided by the Manics' Journal. It's also surely a musical exorcism: the ghost that has accompanied the band since Edwards vanished has finally been laid to rest, and even said goodbye to the in the form of the album's final song, William's Last Words. The anger of Peeled Apples, the humour even of Me and Stephen Hawking and the strange but honest eye which Edwards had for female annihilation on She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach, also seen on the Holy Bible's 4st 7lbs, all add up to easily the best Manics album since Everything Must Go.

Manic Street Preachers - Me and Stephen Hawking

3. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns

There has to be something special about someone for their records to be equally at home being lauded on the likes of Pitchfork while also simultaneously played on Radio 2, and Natasha Khan fits the bill perfectly: few other nursery school teachers go on to write concept albums with the authenticity of Two Suns. A soundscape which is just as ethereal and convincing as that on her debut, it was combined with the brilliance of the singles Daniel and Pearl's Dream, the sort of album which you discover something new in every time you listen.

Bat for Lashes - Sleep Alone

2. Silkie - City Limits Vol. 1

For every jump-up mid-range tune that debauches the name of dubstep, there's the almost classical brilliance which not just Silkie but the entire Anti-Social Entertainment crew to which he belongs infuse nearly every track they create with. Silkie, as the Anti-Social Show on Rinse on Monday nights shows, has so many tunes that many of them remain unnamed, hence almost certainly this being just the first volume in many to come from the deep/melodic master. Almost every track here can stand up on its own, but it's the final two that continue to make waves: The Horizon, as described by the genre's scribe Martin "Blackdown" Clark as "
an explosive burst of emotion that combined Joker-like synth touches with euphoric percussion" and Beauty, which to quote an advert, does exactly what it says on the tin.

Silkie - Planet X

1. The XX - XX

There's a simple reason why the XX's debut has topped so many end of year lists: it's simply something which no one else in the indie camp has tried for quite some considerable time. The open minimalism of the music, combined with the warmth of the vocals, the almost openly sexual but uncertain nature of them, created its own environment in which to exist. Indie hasn't been this heartfelt, personal and solitary in a very long time, and with the band sure to move on, it might well never be again.

The XX - Basic Space

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009 

Best music of 2009 part 1.

Best Song / Track:
dBridge - Wonder Where

Like with last year, it hasn't been an exactly stellar 12 months for the individual song, although the fact that I've become somewhat distanced from the indie scene and increasingly fascinated with dubstep and the liquid/deep/minimal side of drum and bass might somewhat account for it. Accordingly then, my choice is probably one which many normal readers (all two of you) of this blog probably haven't heard. Wonder Where by dBridge is though one of the most musical and soulful tunes to have emerged from what is ostensibly drum and bass for quite some time; originally a part of Bad Company UK, who cornered the jump up section of the genre at the turn of the decade, he became increasingly frustrated by the constraints which many within it feel they have to operate in. Alongside Instra:mental, with whom he's set up the Autonomic club night and podcast, as well as an upcoming Fabriclive mix, the break out was finally cemented totally this year, and Wonder Where is easily the finest moment which the blending of dubstep aesthetics with a drum and bass tempo has so far delivered. Other highlights in a similar mould have been from Instra:mental naturally, with their almost equally gorgeous Watching You, and from SpectraSoul, with the aptly named Melodies.

Other contenders, especially those from outside the above, were Bulletproof by La Roux, Remedy by Little Boots, Shelter by the XX, Hyph Mngo by Joy Orbison, almost anything from the Manics' Journal for Plague Lovers but Jackie Collins Existential Question Time if you had to pick one, Purple City by Joker and Ginz (and almost anything from Joker really), Technique by Kromestar, Cornerstone by Arctic Monkeys and Pearl's Dream by Bat for Lashes.

Best Remix
La Roux - In for the Kill (Skream's Lets Get Ravey Remix)

Almost certainly the most remixed artist of the year, none of the later ones came even close to equalling one of the very first, by probably the most popular and well-known dubstep artist and DJ of them all (excluding Burial). The thing about Skream's immense remix is just how deceptively simple it is: dispensing almost entirely with original's beats, using only a small part of the melody and the vocal, to which more than adequate amounts of echo are added, it's the overwhelming sub-bass that kills it, all leading up to final breakdown and drop, finishing off with that mainstay of underground music for now almost twenty years: the Amen break. While still certainly dubstep, it's so far removed from the wobble and use of mid-range which has come to wrongly define the genre that it completely crossed over, resulting in the genre's very first gold disc. The very best from Skream though is almost certainly yet to come: his second artist album promises to include Listening to the Records on My Wall, a tune so massive and euphoric, again half-way between drum and bass and dubstep (it is after all a sort of follow up to his jungle tribute tune, Burning Up) that it promises to become one of the absolute classics of the genre.

Other contenders include again almost anything remixed by Joker, but especially Cruel Intentions by Simian Mobile Disco and Trouble Is by Turboweekend, Skream's remixes of Night by Night by Chromeo and Pearl's Dream by Bat for Lashes, Brackles' Remix of Crystal Castles' I Love London, Nero's Remix of The Streets' Blinded by the Lights, James Blake's Remix of Untold's Stop What You're Doing, and although more than a little cheesy, High Contrast's remix of Calvin Harris's Ready for the Weekend.

Best Reissue
The Stone Roses - The Stone Roses (I Wanna Be Adored)

Wasn't much competition on the reissue front this year, with only the entire Beatles catalogue being remastered and rereleased (not to mention Kraftwerk's, which received similar treatment), but what is probably the greatest debut album of all time still managed to triumph, with the Stone Roses' eponymous release enjoying it's 20th anniversary with the now customary special reissue. Remastered by the producer John Leckie and Ian Brown themselves, even if it wasn't in exactly unlistenable form before, it now sounds even more thrilling than before, making it a truly essential purchase.

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009 

Most overrated and worst music of 2009.

2009 was the year in which the music industry's chickens came home to roost. Convinced that it's impossible to make money from "new" music, only the surest bets and most blatant copycats of already successful discoveries have been given even the slightest chance to shine. The result has been one of the worst years for mainstream music in quite some time, and hardly a stellar one for the "indie" scene either. It's no coincidence that the round-up of best of polls featured only two debut records, one of which shouldn't have even came close to being in the list in any case.

The real soul-destroying thing about the insipid nature and monotony of most of mainstream music over the last 12 months is that it continues to be so willingly lapped up. The road to stardom no longer even seems to involve a contrived start-up on a social networking site: increasingly we're back in the late 90s when anyone and everyone seemed to be creating either an all-boy or all-girl group simply by advertising for auditions. This was how we came to be lumbered with Pixie Lott: just another of 2009's attempts to jump into the by no means over-saturated market which Amy Winehouse "created" and which was filled further in last year by Adele and Duffy. We should be perhaps grateful for small mercies: rather than just one name, Pixie has two, although the stupidity of both doesn't help. Ms Lott, like Adele and Kate Nash before her went to a performing arts school, and is just as manufactured as those unlamented late 90s groups were, yet in an age where Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor now completely dominate music almost as a whole, no one seems to care or even be cynical in the slightest. Her single, Mama Do, has to be the most overplayed and most aggravating song of the year: if the cliched lyrics about her being hurt by the ubiquitous no good boyfriend weren't bad enough, the chanted "WOH OH WOH OH" throughout makes it close to intolerable. It naturally shot straight to number one, and the only hope must be that she goes the way of Joss Stone, who had similar but thankfully short-lived success a few years back and has since sank into oblivion.

Pixie is however musical bliss personified when compared to her contemporary Paloma Faith. Like with Lott, a key to her relative success seems to be the heavy rotation which all of her material has been given on Radio 2: once the station seen as irredeemably naff until Radio 1 got its act together, it now has the blessing of those who once preferred its sister ageing and growing into its supposedly inoffensive nature. Faith's Wikipedia page introduces her as having grown into her career as a "singer" thanks to her efforts at mimicking those she admired, but has now developed her own style. She has, but probably not in the way in which either the writer or Faith herself believes: she still mimics poorly those she admires, but it's her voice which defines her style. The nasal twang with which she squawks can only be compared to that other least-likely to be singer of recent times, the thankfully vanished Macy Gray, who was best herself compared to a being strangled Marge Simpson. Gray at least though didn't sound stupid when she warbled through I Try, something which can't be said when Faith squeals through the title song from her album, which is rendered by her as "Do You Want the Trooth or Something Bootiful?", for which she presumably has to pay royalties to Bernard Matthews.

Faith can at least sing, even if it isn't the most pleasant noise to listen to. Saying that Florence, out of Florence and the Machine can't sing is however it seems one of the great unmentionables of the year. No critic has been brave enough to admit that they were greatly deceived by her Lungs album, which despite being decidedly average still managed to get to 8th place in the poll of critics' polls. The proof of the pudding has emerged, both from her execrable live shows, where she seems determined to attempt to outdo Craig Nicholls of the Vines in being a tit on stage stakes, and he has the excuse of having Asperger's syndrome, and from the truly painful attempt by Florence to cover Halo by Beyonce in the graveyard which is Radio 1's Live Lounge. Halo isn't the greatest song in the first place, it being an obvious attempt to do Umbrella all over again, but only someone with the singing talent of Florence could make it sound like she was killing a cat whilst going through the motions. This, coupled with the dirge which is her truly unnecessary cover of Candi Station's seminal You Got the Love, easily deserves her the prizes of most overrated act of the year and worst cover versions of the year.

The true musical crimes of the year were however those committed by the usual suspects, the Black Eyed Peas. In one of the very few amusing things to happen on Twitter, Perez Hilton made a desperate plea for help after allegedly questioning the musical value of the group's latest album to the face of front man, a critique that resulted in an assault. It's mystifying as to why responded in such a way: to write such awful music you either have to have the knack of it and know what you're doing, or get incredibly lucky. Having spent the last six years having huge success, it's pretty certain that in this case it must be the former and not the latter. In other words, must be an intelligent man and know that his music's shit; why then respond with violence to the truth, unless the truth hurts, especially coming from someone who wouldn't normally know it even if it swam all the way up his posterior?

Shit isn't really an adequate description for the majesty of "Boom Boom Pow", nor does banal adequately describe the refrain of "I Gotta Feeling", the feeling being that tonight's gonna be a good good night. As for the album title, the inspired The E.N.D. is meant to reflect that the idea of the album itself is dead, now that you can pick away at them on iTunes like "scabs". When even you are inadvertently referring to your music as scabs, perhaps you don't need anyone else to be rude about your life's work.

Tomorrow: the best music of 2009.
Thursday (probably): Top 10 albums of the year.

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Thursday, December 24, 2009 

Merry Winterval!

Or something. Back with all the usual end of year shit which you don't read most likely on Monday.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009 

Shorter David Willetts.

(With apologies to Don Paskini.)

"As only 270,000 people married last year, it's clear that marriage is in danger of becoming the preserve of the middle classes. This obviously has nothing whatsoever to do with the ever increasing cost of getting married, but instead to do with the fact that there is no recognition of marriage in the tax system. By recognising the institution in the tax system (and putting the state to work to help couples stay together, but we'll make sure that we keep this relatively under our hats) we will at a shot vastly increase the number of couples who will tie the knot and live happily ever after. That this will also be a massive tax break for the already married, overwhelmingly middle and upper class that traditionally vote for us is neither here nor there. Nor is it an example of Conservative class war. Only the despicable Labour party does that."

(P.S. My eldest brother was due to get married this year to his long-term fiancée. They called it off, not because they would be penalised for getting married by the tax system, but because they could no longer justify the cost of the ceremony and reception etc, something which Willetts completely dismisses as an issue.)

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009 

Season's greetings from the UK Border Agency redux.

Martin Edge provides his version of the UK Border Agency's highly compassionate Christmas card:

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Monday, December 21, 2009 

Scum-watch: This man deserved brain damage.

Every single time there's a "controversial" case of someone attacking a burglar or a criminal, almost always when said intruder has been fleeing the scene, as now in the Munir Hussain jailing, or previously and most notoriously when it came to Tony Martin, either the government or the opposition review the law of "reasonable force" or promise they'll change it, only to later quietly drop it or decide not to because the law as it stands is perfectly adequate. Every single time the tabloids and the occasional broadsheet get on their high horses and complain bitterly, often invoking that an "Englishman's home is his castle", and that in said castle said Englishman should be allowed to rip the intruder's head off and spit down the hole and receive a medal for removing from the gene pool such a disgusting piece of human filth. Every single time said tabloid and broadsheet also quietly drop it.

I'm not sure though that any publication has gone so far in the past to say that either the deceased or injured person deserved the treatment they received. The Sun however thinks this is exactly what Walid Salem needed:

It was never better exposed than by the scandalous jailing of Munir Hussain for chasing and battering a burglar who had tied up and terrorised his family at knifepoint.

How many fathers brave enough, strong enough and angry enough would have held back?

Career criminal Walid Salem richly deserved his beating.

The Tories are proposing that only "grossly disproportionate" behaviour towards someone should result in their being prosecuted (as David Cameron suggested as long back as 2005, only for it to be quietly put at least on the back-burner). Isn't chasing a burglar who is fleeing and then adminstering a beating so severe that the person attacked suffers brain damage "grossly disproportionate"? Not according to the Sun. It was however according to a jury, who heard all the mitigating circumstances involving the case and how Salem had threatened to kill Hussain's family, yet still felt that the attack on Salem justified a conviction for grievous bodily harm with intent. This isn't just a case of a liberal namby-pamby politically correct judge deciding that Hussain's crime was serious enough to warrant a relatively light in the circumstances 30 months in prison, of which Hussain will probably only serve a third, but of a jury of members of the public, among them doubtless Sun readers, who felt that it warranted a conviction. True, they didn't decide on the sentence, but 30 months is hardly the harshest sentence which could have been passed. Salem also didn't "walk free" from court, as the Sun has it: he was given a two year suspended sentence for the very reason, as the judge pointed out, that he couldn't adequately plead as a result of his injuries. Otherwise he would received a substantial custodial sentence himself.

As Catherine Bennett asked on Sunday, what sort of society is it that praises vigilantes with cricket bats and iron bars? Ours, of course. The self-same newspaper (and indeed tabloid media as whole) that regards yobs that use violence on the slightest of whims as the scum of the earth turns to the other side when it's a beating that was, in the Sun's terms, deserved. The judge, about the only person who comes out of this with any credit, noted exactly what would happen after his verdict:

"It may be that some members of the public, or media commentators, will assert that Salem deserved what happened to him at the hands of you and the two others involved, and that you should not have been prosecuted and need not be punished."

And then, in lines which no newspaper or commentator has been able to adequately deflect, he explained exactly why they needed to be punished:

"However, if persons were permitted to … inflict their own instant and violent punishment on an apprehended offender rather than letting justice take its course, then the rule of law and our system of criminal justice, which are the hallmarks of a civilised society, would collapse."

Which is it seems what some would clearly like to happen.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009 

Weekend links.

Straight into it this week. Paul Linford says Blair's candour is rather late, 5cc compares Richard Littlejohn to a Viz character, Dave Osler reflects on the murders of Katie Summers and Tulay Goren, Shiraz Socialist speaks to a Unite activist over the BA strike debacle, Anton Vowl has the year of the Twatter, sorry Twitter storm, the Heresiarch considers and contrasts the crimes of Munir Hussain and Memhet Goren, Next Left sees Philip Davies as a parliamentary troll, Don Paskini wonders about populist policies and Ben Goldacre has the year in nonsense.

In the papers or at least their sites, relatively slim pickings. Matthew Parris says politicians have done nothing for the average African, Marina Hyde sees Simon Cowell making Jedwards of us all, Peter Oborne ponders why Cameron isn't doing better in the polls, Andrew Grice wonders if Labour is working after all, and Howard Jacobson thinks we devalue relationships by saying "I love you".

As for worst tabloid article of the weekend, the award must go to the Sun, which has a "woe is me" interview with Munir Hussain and an editorial saying he should be released. You somehow doubt it would in any other circumstances ever believe that a prison sentence is not the right punishment for beating someone so badly they received brain damage.

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Friday, December 18, 2009 

The TRUTH strikes back.

The joy of new comment on old posts, redux. I'm not sure whether The TRUTH is related to a headline in a newspaper some while ago, but it might explain something:


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Thursday, December 17, 2009 

The BBC is spineless, yet again.

The one thing it seems you can rely on the BBC to do, especially post-Sachsgate, is to fold completely when challenged by almost anyone on almost anything. It decides it can't broadcast Javier de Fruto's dance tribute to Diaghilev, supposedly because they stupidly agreed to transmit it pre-watershed before they discovered it contained a deformed pope, pregnant nuns and "wild sex", but also you suspect because of the outcry which would have naturally followed had they decided to do so even after 9pm; apologises for asking a stark but legitimate question concerning Ugandan legislation against homosexuality on its notorious Have Your Say boards; and now, and most, pathetically, has settled the libel claim from Trafigura over Newsnight's original broadcast on the toxic waste dumping by a contractor of the company in Ivory Coast.

The BBC report claimed that the toxic waste had caused deaths, something which the company has ferociously disputed, and it admitted no such liability when it settled with either the Ivory Coast government for $200 million or the 31,000 personally exposed to the waste, who were bought off for a pitiful £30 million. That there were deaths, contrary to Trafigura's claims, represented by the egregious Carter-Ruck, was supported by the investigation by the United Nations Special Rapporteur Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu:

"On the basis of the above considerations and taking into account the immediate impact on public health and the proximity of some of the dumping sites to areas where affected populations reside, the Special Rapporteur considers that there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala."

Supposedly terrified of the cost of defending the reporting, with the Guardian claiming that Carter-Fuck could at the end of the action leave the BBC with a bill for £3,000,000 (or half a Jonathan Ross), as well as the prospect of it being heard by Mr Justice Eady, the corporation caved in. Trafigura's director Eric de Turckheim meanwhile is still maintaining that the dumping of the waste was "a deplorable action which Trafigura did not and could not have foreseen", even after emails between company executives showed that they knew full well of the toxic nature of the slops they were seeking to get rid of and the specialist cleaning which was required.

Quite where this leaves the BBC's increasingly rare investigations is anyone's guess. What it does clearly do is further embolden Carter-Fuck, a law firm it seems which truly has no shame when it comes to those it chooses to represent. It failed to gag parliament and the Grauniad, but the BBC was an easier target. The question of just what the BBC increasingly is for also remains unanswered.

The original Newsnight report is still incidentally available on YouTube:

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009 

Barry George and the News International smear merchants.

Once you've been fitted up by the police (sorry, I remember, the case was "fit to be put before a jury"), being fitted up by the tabloids is probably something to be expected. In the case of Barry George though, the way in which three major outlets of Murdoch media attempted to cast doubt on his innocence was quite something. After having received a "six-figure sum" in damages today at the High Court from News Group Newspapers, along with the now customary confidentiality agreement (hopefully one which the Guardian will be able to breach like it did the one that Gordon Taylor signed after his massive pay-out over the Screws' phone-hacking), it's worth reflecting on just how they did it.

A classic of the genre is making someone comfortable, thinking they're going to be given a soft soap, friendly interview and a sympathetic piece, as you might expect having it just been confirmed that you were the victim of one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice of recent times, and then either going on the attack or, as in this case, making the quotes up. The News of the Screws, which bought George's story, today admitted that George had not told the paper that "he couldn't have murdered Jill Dando, as he was stalking someone else at the time". Unlike most made-up quotes in the tabloids, which you can spot a mile off, this was an actually believable one, especially when the tabloids had painted a picture of George as a notorious oddball that spent all his spare time following and frightening women. Along with the Screws interview, George also went under the forensic gaze of the ever fragrant Kay Burley on Sky News, which was probably the biggest mistake of the lot. Burley it seems decided that George, on the basis of possibly asking for her phone number and contact details after the interview (it's unclear how much of what was reported at the time was true, now that so much has been retracted) and cycling to the Sky News studios to ask for a copy of it was either stalking her or about to start, her fears of which, as well as being reported to the police, were also published in all the nation's leading titles. Whether they began in the Murdoch titles originally or not is now difficult to ascertain, but it wouldn't exactly be surprising.

Those attempts at casting aspersions on his innocence were however nothing compared to the treatment he got in the Sun the day after he was acquitted. Mike Sullivan, the paper's crime editor (featured previously here on a number of occasions) drew up a list of 10 "facts" which the jury didn't hear, a run-down which had quite obviously been provided by the police and which was in any case just as the flimsy as the case which was presented against him, as I detailed on the day. Also published that day, and still available on the Sun's website, was a "warning" from the woman George raped in 1982, of which these three paragraphs stand out:

"I was angry that despite what happened to me, Barry George had been left alone. No one had seen the signs or done anything about it.

"I have seen George portrayed as some kind of harmless eccentric. But he is far from benign.

"He knows how to work the system and look like a sad case. I think he always craved notoriety."

He knows how to work the system, a rather dubious claim about someone with a personality disorder and an IQ of 75, who in the words of Paddy Hill you wouldn't trust to go to Tesco - but not one that the Sun felt like tempering. Over a month later and the paper was still at it, making an issue of George sharing a hotel with mainly women, along with quotes which look highly suspect. Around the only piece that was even sympathetic towards George was a comment from the Scottish Sun columnist Martel Maxwell, and even that emphasised that George could still be a "nasty piece of work".

Whether George will be having the last laugh, having received between £50,000 and £100,000 from the Screws and Sky for the original interviews, and with now a likely further £100,000 for what was to all intents and purposes a smear campaign is unclear. It is however beyond low, and shows that the media has learned absolutely nothing from the way it went after Colin Stagg in similar circumstances, motivated then as now by the exact same police force which had brought the ridiculously dubious prosecution in the first place. George, you get the feeling, will also not be the last to be subject to similar treatment.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009 

The ghost of Labour future.

For a pre-budget report that was pretty much universally disparaged, especially by both the Sun and the Daily Mail, the opinion poll returns have been far better than Labour can have expected. Not that a 9-point lead for the Conservatives is going to result in fevered discussion about a March election, as the media, clutching at straws for news as we wind slowly but inexorably towards Christmas, seems so certain that it both has and will.

One explanation for Labour's improved showing is, as almost always happens when an election is no longer just a distant thought but a fast approaching reality is that those who have previously flirted with changing their vote are returning, tail between their legs, to the one they know best. Having led in what should be the rock solid Labour north back in October, the Conservatives have now fallen back to a far less significant 28% support, compared to Labour's 44. The difficulty for Labour is that the marginals, key as we are so often reminded to who will be taking or retaking up residence in Downing Street next spring/summer, are often fought on battles which have little to nothing to do with the national message which the party is pushing. As Political Betting suggests, in the ones where it's a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, they will in effect be referendums on 4 to 5 more years of Labour rule, not to mention Gordon Brown himself, with specific policies being a secondary concern to general feeling.

Another is that the Conservative performance of late, while hardly catastrophic, has not exactly been setting the world on fire either. While few will probably have noticed Cameron's cock-up at prime minister's questions a few weeks back when he rather bizarrely attacked the prime minister on money being given to a educational charity linked to Hizb-ut-Tahrir, not the most populist of subjects on which to focus and got the details wrong, coupled with the also poor performance of George Osborne in response to the PBR, Zac Goldsmith's tax status, the biting attacks from Labour on Tory tax policy being drawn up on the fields of Eton and the constant character assassination from the Daily Mirror, equivalent to that which Brown has been subject to from the Sun, things have not been going their way. The claims of class war, taken up by certain parts of the press, have not made much of a dent, probably because anyone with the slightest amount of digging can see through them. While Osborne attacked the raising of national insurance for anyone earning over £20,000 a year as Labour abandoning anyone outside their core, the party itself has been assessing whether to raise VAT should they come to power, hitting the poorest directly in their pocket when they spend.

Brown meanwhile, while his personal ratings remain desperately poor, has been having a better time of it. Ever since the Sun personally attacked him over the letter of condolence sent to Jacqui Janes, which won him overwhelming sympathy, things have gradually been improving. Afghanistan, which looked for a time to be potentially becoming as toxic for Brown as Iraq was for Blair, has been somewhat lanced, thanks partly to the Obama "surge" change in strategy and also to the army itself not being in apparent mutiny over government drift, while politicians as a whole must be somewhat relieved that last week's latest expenses revelations seem to have been a damp squib rather than inspiring outright revolt as the slow drip-drip from the Daily Telegraph did earlier in the year. The general piss-poor nature of the Queen's speech, with legislation to neither outrage or nor inspire, has added to the benign nature.

While it must be something of a concern to the Cameroons that their lead is 10 points below New Labour's at Christmas 1996, there was always likely to be a narrowing of the lead. The real problem is that while Labour won 3% more of the vote in 2005 and got a majority of 67, the Tories can win by 9% as in the current poll and still only get a majority of four seats. The money must still be on a comfortable Conservative win, but that continuing spectre of a hung parliament also refuses to stop looming. That still no one is showing any great enthusiasm for a Conservative victory, certainly nothing that even begins to equate with that of the Labour victory in 97, perhaps suggests that maybe it is time for the Liberal Democrats to at least have a sniff of power. Whether they get it or not might well depend on just how much Cameron motivates from now on and how little Brown alienates.

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Monday, December 14, 2009 

The political zzz factor.

Sunder Katwala tries hard convincing us that even if Simon Cowell attempts to do for politics what the X Factor has done for music then it will be an ignominious failure:

Simon Cowell might do better than that - but not too much better.

If he wants some issue-based current affairs debate, that's fine. But the push-button democracy element on knife crime and Afghanistan strategy is slightly harder to envisage.

If he wants to know why it might not quite work out, he might find that a box-set of the BBC's Amazing Mrs Pritchard or a quick chat with people's champion John Smeaton might help.

Cowell has though done remarkably for a man who himself has no discernible talent - except for being able to spot when someone can do a slightly better up-market karaoke version of a song than a fellow competitor - much like a lot of politicians, really. Perhaps we should just accept the inevitable and allow the most popular man in the country (both in numbers of viewers and number of participants to his show) to become prime minister and be done with it. After all, isn't that how democracy works?

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Saturday, December 12, 2009 

Weekend links.

You have to say, it's nice of Tony Blair to admit that he's a war criminal. Strange choice though to confess to Fern Britton, although she's probably less likely than someone else to get straight on the blower to the Hague. Madam Mioaw has more. Elsewhere my post from Thursday has been mirrored over on Lib Con, Lenin has a post from a Pakistani socialist on the continuing crisis there, both Craig and the Heresiarch have the latest on Justice Eady and his continuing desire to ensure that that we remain the libel capital of the world, Anton Vowl has some positive immigration stories, Paul Linford writes his weekly column on the pre-budget report, 5cc sees how the Mail reacts when one its pet myths is debunked, while lastly Dave Osler isn't impressed by the piss-poor class war.

In the papers, or at least their sites, the Graun has an interview with the outgoing prisons inspector, Anne Owers, Paul Lewis had a tête-à-tête with the filth for photographing the Gherkin, John Gray reflects on the decade past and the end of various dreams, Peter Oborne thinks Mandelson and Brown are at war again, Matthew Parris talks far too much sense in calling for a end to the fetishising of "Our Boys", Andrew Grice detects continuing jitters in the Cameron camp, Howard Jacobson doesn't believe in the joy of giving, Christina Patterson celebrates the kindness of strangers and Polly T advises against Cameron copycatting.

As for the worst tabloid article, we either have Amanda Platell continuing with yet another myth, that of the sponging teenage mother, or this simply classic Sun editorial wondering whether Simon Cowell can work his magic on the electoral process:

Is there a role for X Factor mastermind Simon Cowell here?

He inspires young people. He makes things interesting. He is a straight talker with a populist touch.

Unless he sets up his own party, for which the winners of his competition would stand, I don't think there's much chance of it happening.

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Friday, December 11, 2009 

Season's greetings from the UK Border Agency.

Sort of following on from yesterday's post, via OurKingdom and Jamie, this is the UK Border Agency's quite delightful Christmas card:

Nothing about locking up innocent children until their hair falls out, but perhaps that's on the back.

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Thursday, December 10, 2009 

The continuing scandal of child detention.

When Labour's best political boast is now more or less that they won't be as brutal as the Conservatives will, it's well worth remembering how the government treats some of the most vulnerable in society. Not content with having expanded the prison population to such an extent that as soon as a new wing or establishment is built it is almost immediately filled, it also seems hell-bent on continuing with the detention of those whose only crime is to be the children of asylum seekers who have had their application for refugee status rejected.

Not that the government itself has the guts to be personally responsible for their detention. Probably the most notorious detention centre in the country, Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, is run by SERCO. We used to have this strange notion that establishments like prisons shouldn't be run with a view to a profit being made, and that surely applies all the more to those where the "guests" have not committed any offence, but going by yesterday's pre-budget report, with the funding for prisons due to be slashed, it's one we're going to have get even more used to. In the last report on Yarl's Wood, the chief inspector of prisons Anne Owers noted (PDF) while Yarl's Wood should seek to improve the "plight of children" who were being held in the centre, they were "ultimately issues" for the UK Border Agency. That would be the same UK Border Agency where bonuses are being paid out, something defended by Phil Woolas, who claimed they were "risking their lives" in what they did.

It's doubtful though that the most recent initiative at Yarl's Wood took place on the orders of the UK Border Agency. The latest Private Eye (1251) reports on the opening of new classrooms for the detained children, which "local bigwigs" had been invited to attended. They were treated to the kind of welcome that royalty might have been, with one happy child detainee prompted to sing "Happy Birthday" to his mother, older prisoners dressed in blue gowns who sang "My Sweet Lord" and were given a complimentary mug and coaster set which was emblazoned with a logo featuring two smiling parents, two happy children and the legend "compassion, commitment and respect for all". While few dispute that the centre has improved significantly since SERCO took over the contract from Group 4, the prisons inspectorate's last report still criticised the healthcare available, the lack of activities provided and most of all the insufficient provision for children, one wonders if SERCO would do better to focus on the motif inscribed on the cups rather than just presenting it when the influential come to visit.

SERCO can't however be blamed for children being detained in the first place. Report after report and expert after expert has now condemned the continuing snatching of families at dawn and months of waiting in what are very slightly more friendly prisons. The children's commissioner Sir Al Aynsley-Green called for the "inhumane practice to end" a few months back; the home affairs select committee found that no one was able to give an exact figure on the number of children held in a year, while an overview of their welfare was also not available; and most damningly, the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, in a study which featured 24 children from Yarl's Wood itself (PDF), found, unsurprisingly, that some were so stressed they had regressed to bedwetting and soiling during the day. Anxiety and depression had developed or re-developed in others, as had post-traumatic stress disorder, while most worryingly sexualised behaviour had come to the fore in others. The Royal Colleges of General Practitioners, Paediatrics and Child Health, and Psychiatrists, and the UK Faculty of Public Health are now all calling for the practice to end.

The case of Child M is an extreme one, but illustrates the system at its very worst. An 9-year-old from Iran, he was first imprisoned along with the rest of his family in the summer of 2008, being held for 52 days before being released. During his incarceration he had recurring nightmares, suffered from ringworm and his hair started to fall out. His family was detained again on the 17th of November, spending another three weeks in Yarl's Wood under the threat of imminent deportation, with Child M again suffering from a deterioration in his mental health, before finally being released again on Tuesday. It's impossible to know whether this again is just a temporary reprieve, but for Child M to undergo such a traumatic experience at the hands of the state twice, when such detention is hardly ever truly necessary (asylum seekers generally don't abscond, especially those with families) is unforgivable. No one it seems however is prepared to stand up for children who have committed no crime; as Mike Power suggested on Chicken Yogurt's post on Child M back in March, it seems to take a place where "socialism is entrenched" like Haringey for anyone other than the usual suspects to care.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009 

The real "we are all in this together".

At one point during the pre-budget report, you had to wonder whether Alistair Darling, tired of the deliberately tedious nature of what he was delivering, had inserted a concealed joke just to see if anyone would notice. To be vulgar for a second, you suspect that there are plenty of people out there, politicians included, whom have paid money for old boilers in their time, although £400 seems a bit steep.

It was the one moment of levity in what was otherwise a tour de force in the completely expected, the responses also seemingly written weeks in advance and not updated to take account of any late changes. George Osborne, who courtesy of Steve Bell I now can't look at without seeing buttocks on his nose, did the now standard New Tory act of claiming this meant Labour had completely abandoned the aspirational, while the Daily Mail has somehow construed a pre-budget which hits more or less everyone in some way or another as class war.

If the Mail's right, then this is class war on all of the classes rather just the middle or the upper. While the additional increase in national insurance will affect anyone earning above £20,000 (the average wage before the recession being somewhere around the £24,000 mark) the freeze in public sector pay across the board, which will in effect be a cut in real terms, spreads the pain across the board. George Osborne ought to be pleased: Darling, with the tax on bank bonuses and freeze on the inheritance tax threshold is ensuring that we truly "are all in this together", something you doubt his own plans will accurately reflect.

Like when some papers and the Tories cried that the Queen's speech was nothing but pure politics, as if this was something new and terrible, Darling's effort today could be condemned in similar terms. Depending on your view, it could be cowardly, as it puts off almost all the big decisions until after the election; political, in that as it's more than likely that the Tories will then be the ones to pick up the pieces; and also the right thing to do, as cutting now in the way that the Tories propose, when the recession is not over and everyone is just assuming that growth will return in this fourth quarter, will just damage the recovery even further. It can also be all three of these things, which is the view I take.

In short, what was billed as being significant was nothing of the sort, or wasn't presented by almost anyone in those terms. The real significance was in the back of the documents which accompanied the speech as always (PDF), showing that the deep cuts are coming in the years to come, just unannounced, although everyone already assumes the worst. The battle is now over who can be the most optimistic in the public whilst being a pessimist behind closed doors, and the government has to hope that the gap in the polls can still be made up by portraying the Tories as the ruthless cutters of old. One suspects however that even with the Tory lead being reduced of late, the victory is still the Tories' to lose rather win.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009 

The revisionism of Sir Ian Blair.

In general, once our great leaders and other betters resign from their positions of power, a strange thing tends to happen. Stripped of their main claim to fame, as it were, they become once again reasonable, even likeable human beings. This doesn't apply to the most controversial or divisive figures, such as Thatcher or Blair, who will doubtless continue to be either lionised or loathed until the day they die, but Major certainly, Michael Howard more recently and I confidently predict, Gordon Brown, will all eventually become mere mortals again that don't immediately invoke an almost atavistic sense of hatred.

Another person to whom this doesn't apply is Tony's namesake, Sir Ian Blair. At one point in the distant past I wondered whether Blair wasn't actually the best we were likely to get, despite being such an utter scaremongering tit; as it turns out, I was completely wrong, and Sir Paul Stephenson has, despite the G20 police riots, been the archetypal safe pair of hands. Blair though, despite having been forcibly retired, is determined that he shouldn't be remembered as the man in charge when a Brazilian was shot by his officers and who didn't learn of the fact he wasn't the man they thought he was until the following day despite even his secretary knowing, and is instead attempting to put together a revisionist account of his own time as chief commissioner at the Met. Not about Jean Charles de Menezes - he's clearly lost that battle - but rather of his role in cheerleading for up to 90 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects.

First, he attempts to draw a hardly conclusive historical parallel:

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both," said Benjamin Franklin. Nearly a century later, Abraham Lincoln would disagree: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew." That essential conflict remains alive today.

This is hardly comparing like with like. Lincoln faced the biggest catastrophe a nation state can - a civil war. In such circumstances, when the life of the nation can be conclusively said to be under threat, emergency procedures and laws which would never otherwise be considered as proportionate may well be vital. We at the moment face a tiny band of extremists who can be more than successfully contained using the normal powers of the criminal justice system, who pose no threat to life as we know it whatsoever. New threats do pose new problems, but while the threat may be new, the actual danger posed is relatively limited compared to those we have come through in the past.

After the fall of communism, the west believed it had won. Despite what we now know to be al-Qaida-inspired attacks in the US, East Africa and the Gulf, many supported Francis Fukuyama's theory that history had ended. The 2001 attacks on the twin towers suddenly revealed it had not. As the Balkan conflict had indicated, older conflicts were resuming, not with the left-right mutually assured destruction of the cold war but an asymmetric struggle in an age of global communication.

It would be unfair to suggest that this is Blair attempting to be the intellectual. When he says "many" supported Fukuyama's much quoted but rarely examined in detail treatise that history had ended, it's unclear whether he realises that Fukuyama was one of the original neo-conservatives who believed that the end of the Soviet Union was the perfect opportunity to massively extend US influence and power without anyone having the temerity or power to interfere. History had only ended, in Fukuyama's view, in that both democracy and neo-liberal economics had triumphed and were now the only realistic options for mankind. That nations which disagreed with this view could then have democracy and neo-liberal economics imposed on them by force already suggested that this was hardly the end of history, but then Fukuyama himself has since changed his mind, and is even now espousing "realistic Wilsonianism" as an alternative to the less benign neo-conservative he once identified with.

What we do not know is what happens next: whether the last decade will prove an aberration; whether or not al-Qaida will be marginalised and fade into history. There is no doubt that the centre of al-Qaida has suffered many setbacks: those of its leaders who survive are in hiding. However, the group's inspiration and its message remain vibrant, resonating across continents and borders. It can reach not only its adherents but also the lonely and the unbalanced, using new methods of communication, trumpeting the many causes of anger and despair in the world, suggesting new dreams of fulfilment, offering new tools of attack and searching for more, including radiological and chemical weaponry.

So the question is whether, echoing Lincoln, "our case is new". If it is, then it may be better to risk being at the mercy of the state than at the mercy of the murderously inclined. At the very least, it would be useful to hear the arguments of those who believe or believed that we must "think anew and act anew".

Except none of what Blair lists is new, nor are we unable to adapt to it. He also presents the classic false dichotomy: we need neither be at the mercy of murderously inclined or at the mercy of the state. The current limits on detention without charge, which is what Blair is leading to discussing, do not put us at the mercy of the murderously inclined, but extending the limit further may well be putting the innocent at the mercy of the state.

By 2006, Britain had twice been attacked by suicide bombers and the plot to blow up airliners had been uncovered – a plot described by the trial judge as "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven within this jurisdiction". We believed that we could not properly investigate these crimes within the period then available for detention.

Strange that Blair doesn't additionally list the case of Dhiren Barot, which he formerly described as a "true horror". Barot planned to construct a dirty bomb using smoke alarms, a crime so terrible that his handlers decided not to bother funding his fantasies. It's also instructive that Blair uses "believed" rather than "knew" or "expected", as those crimes were indeed investigated within the period then available for detention. The 21/7 attackers were dealt with successfully under the 14 days then available, while the "liquid bombers" were charged on the 28th day. Since then, anything longer than two weeks has not been needed in any terrorist investigation.

We proposed an equivalent of the system of "investigative detention" used in Europe – a rolling series of detention periods of up to seven days at a time, granted by increasingly senior members of the judiciary, with prisoners legally represented at each judicial hearing and throughout police interviews. This was necessary, we said, owing to the growing need to intervene in internationally constructed plots at a very early stage, given the scale of al-Qaida ambitions. At such early stages it was difficult to distinguish main conspirators from lesser players, there were language barriers and problems with encryption. We suggested an outer limit of 90 days.

Now this really is open revisionism - the up to 90 day period was never once described as the equivalent of the system of "investigative detention" used in Europe, probably because it isn't an apposite comparison, as the legal systems in which investigative detention is used differ from our own. The judicial nature was only ever used as a fig leaf - only the boldest judges are ever going to openly disagree with the police when they say they need more time to potentially prevent a terrorist attack. Even with the extra time, the police have still consistently failed to distinguish main conspirators from lesser players, with at least three men involved in the liquid bomb plot released without charge after the full 28 days. One of those tried in that case was cleared of any involvement after the second jury trial. Problems with encryption could have been got round used already applicable laws. Even in retrospect, Blair fails to conjure up anything approaching a convincing case.

It seemed to us that this was like bird flu: when that threatened, the public were entitled to hear from the chief veterinary officer, now they should hear from the police. But no: commentators of all stripes said this was the police being political. It was not. It was the police being the police, talking about policing. We should not be seen as street butlers, silent until spoken to.

Except this doesn't even begin to reflect what Ian Blair was doing when it came to discussion of 90 days. He wasn't just suggesting what was needed, or telling the government what he thought was necessary, leaving it to them to make the case, he himself was actively campaigning for the change, as did other officers. The Tories told at the time of the 90 day vote of MPs being contacted by their local chief constables urging them to rebel against the Tory whip and support the government. Again, it's also not an apposite comparison: the chief veterinary officer acts directly as an adviser; the chief commissioner of the Met is in charge of the police, who uphold the law, not actively attempt to make it up as they go along, a very good reason for them to be directly separate from it. It's also the case that the police will always claim that they need new powers regardless of whether they do or not; anything that makes their job easier and which gives them more authority is to be welcomed. It is the politician's job to resist it. The connect between the two Blairs became so close that the dividing line became indistinct. Neither saw this as a problem, and that in itself was worrying.

Still, much of this now feels like the ghost of Christmas past. Gone is the unrelenting paranoia of the terrorist threat; now we instead have the economic threat, much more real and much more damaging than the terrorist threat ever was. Whether we will feel the same way about our upcoming overlords as we now do about our previous ones may well depend on what happens tomorrow.

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