Saturday, October 30, 2010 

Night slugs.

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Friday, October 29, 2010 

Stepping out of the shadows while wanting to remain in the dark.

One of the glorious things about the British state has always been the notion that the hoi polloi should be eternally grateful when our social betters deign to either visit or talk to us. For the most part this has thankfully broken down, both due to the fracturing somewhat of the class structure and the shattering of the notion of deference. The only real times such attitudes still apply are when it comes to the senior royals, and even more bizarrely, when our intelligence chiefs briefly step out of the shadows to inform us all of just how deeply moral and ethical they are, saving countless lives and foiling the dastardly plans of the evil minority amongst us. We should be privileged, it seems, that they take time out of their schedules of saving the world from impending doom to lecture us on how deeply unfair it is that anyone dares to second guess what they do.

The reality is that such speeches never take place in a vacuum. When Eliza Manningham-Buller whilst still head of MI5 briefly entered the limelight she told of us of how they were monitoring up to 30 active plots, with there being around 1,600 individuals of interest to them who wished us ill. It is doubtless down to the sacrifices of MI5 that of those 30 plots causing active concern, and those 2,000 individuals dedicated to thinking up new and imaginative ways to kill us that there has not been a successful terrorist attack here since 7/7. Then again, perhaps not: figures released yesterday made clear that over the last two years, no one has been held for longer than 14 days without charge under anti-terrorist legislation. Either the terrorist threat has been consistently over-egged, to say the least, or MI5, MI6, the police and everyone else is doing a fantastic job keeping us safe from harm.

Yesterday Sir John Sawers, the current "C", or for those of us who've never much liked James Bond, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service, delivered a speech which was, and this was highlighted by everyone so we must also do so, televised live. His aim in doing so was to answer two questions, the second of which was presumably the whole point of his turning up. In the light of the completely untrue allegations made against the security services by those whose innocence has never been proved, how can the public have confidence that work done in secret is lawful, ethical, and in their interests?

It's a tricky one, isn't it? Sir John thankfully had the answer: because he said it is. In fact, it was even better than that, as his speech itself makes clear:

Suppose we receive credible intelligence that might save lives, here or abroad. We have a professional and moral duty to act on it. We will normally want to share it with those who can save those lives.

We also have a duty to do what we can to ensure that a partner service will respect human rights. That is not always straightforward.

Yet if we hold back, and don't pass that intelligence, out of concern that a suspect terrorist may be badly treated, innocent lives may be lost that we could have saved.

These are not abstract questions for philosophy courses or searching editorials. They are real, constant, operational dilemmas.

Sometimes there is no clear way forward. The more finely-balanced judgments have to be made by Ministers themselves. I welcome the publication of the consolidated guidance on detainee issues. It reflects the detailed guidance issued to SIS staff in the field and the training we give them.

Torture is illegal and abhorrent under any circumstances, and we have nothing whatsoever to do with it. If we know or believe action by us will lead to torture taking place, we're required by UK and international law to avoid that action. And we do, even though that allows the terrorist activity to go ahead.

It is really rather gobsmacking: here is the head of our foreign intelligence service first putting forward the hoary old chestnut that is the "ticking time bomb scenario", where the human rights of the suspect conflict with the opportunity to save lives, then immediately afterwards stating categorically that torture is illegal and abhorrent and that they have nothing to do with it. It's not difficult to see the conflict between these two statements, as Craig Murray most definitely has. We're back it seems to plausible deniability - putting the argument plainly and strongly for exactly the sort of abuse which has been documented post 9/11 - then stating equally plainly and strongly that they would never ever do such a thing.

If for some unfathomable reason you don't trust the word of MI6, then well, you're pretty much stuffed. For Sir John is firmly in favour of the "control principle", where by you don't release information you've received from others without their permission. This was supposedly breached when the "seven paragraphs" concerning the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed were ordered to be published by the Court of Appeal. It doesn't matter to MI6 that the main reason for doing so was that a legal ruling in the US had already established beyond doubt that Mohamed was tortured, using information from the CIA; the principle rather than shining the light of truth on such "abhorrent" practices by our closest allies is far more important. Sawers looks forward to a green paper which will set out "some better options for dealing with national security issues in the courts", for which it's impossible to read anything other than an end to courageous judges exposing what was done in our name.

Although it reflects a Blackadder joke, Sir John Sawers is right in saying secrecy is not a dirty word. We need intelligence services, as is demonstrated by the packages which have been intercepted on cargo planes today. Openness it seems however is a dirty word. Sawers can talk all he wants about the useless Intelligence and Security Committee and two former judges who act as commissioners; their work simply doesn't provide anywhere near enough oversight into services which routinely do perform heroics, but which can equally also find themselves complicit in activity which makes us less safe, not more. What is needed is a wholly independent body, similar to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which would conduct yearly reviews and also have the powers to investigate allegations of abuse, producing reports which would be as lightly censored as possible. For all their recognition that they can no longer hide in the shadows, the intelligence services still want to remain in the dark, and are actively fighting to do so.

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Thursday, October 28, 2010 

Scum-watch: How to take advantage of a parliamentary misunderstanding.

We all know how dearly the Sun loves "Our Boys", even if the feeling is not necessarily mutual. It's therefore hardly surprising that it's instantly leapt to their defence, having apparently been accused by Labour MP Paul Flynn of committing "atrocities in the name of the British people". The problem is that almost every single thing about the report by Tom Newton Dunn in which the claim is made, and the leader comment which accompanies it, is wrong.

WIKILEAKS and a Labour MP were accused of giving the Taliban "a propaganda gift" yesterday by spreading wild smears about Our Boys.

Foreign Secretary William Hague mounted a passionate defence of troops in southern Afghanistan after reports were leaked to the website saying British soldiers had shot at civilians 21 times in four years.

Despite what the Sun says, there has been no new leak to Wikileaks concerning British troops and their presence in Afghanistan. The reports it refers to have in fact been released by, err, the Ministry of Defence themselves, after a Guardian Freedom of Information request based on the incidents first detailed in the US war logs leaked to Wikileaks. Far from being wild smears, these are the MoD's version of what happened; surely the army's own account is more believable and reliable than the second hand one which the US recorded?

The MoD said on each occasion the troops were under grave threat of suicide attack or vehicles being driven at them had failed to stop.

Despite this, anti-war Labour MP Paul Flynn jumped on the statistic to brand the incidents "atrocities".

Mr Hague hit back: "I condemn the unauthorised release of information which can endanger our forces and give one-sided propaganda - a propaganda gift, for insurgents."

He also hailed British troops, saying: "They are the finest any nation could hope to have."

Flynn, as you might have guessed, has done nothing of the sort. The Sun has taken only a half quote and turned on its head, as the Guardian didn't provide a full one in the first place. Here's how it reported his remarks:

The Labour MP Paul Flynn called for an inquiry into the conduct of the units in what he said could be "atrocities in the name of the British people". "Truth has a cleansing function," he added.

Not perhaps the most cautious of statements to make, but also clearly not one where he was directly accusing troops of committing atrocities.

It's pretty apparent then that the statement the Sun has William Hague as making had nothing whatsoever to do with the information released by the MoD. Here's where the misunderstanding seems to have originated from. Hague's comments were made in response to a question from Tory MP Stephen Mosley after his quarterly statement to parliament on the "progress" in Afghanistan, who seems to have confused the Iraq war log release at the weekend with the FoI release reported in yesterday's Guardian:

What is the Foreign Secretary's assessment of last weekend's WikiLeaks reports, which made reference to 21 incidents in Afghanistan involving British troops?

Hague's answer was then a general condemnation and a just as inaccurate one, as he talks of the treatment of detainees, none of which applies to the 21 incidents in Afghanistan. He doesn't correct Stephen Mosley, but his stock condemnation of the release of unauthorised information suggests that he realised his mistake, even if he didn't mention Iraq. Hague's praise for British troops which the Sun quotes comes from the statement, and so has been taken entirely out of context.

Paul Flynn is not referred to anywhere in Hague's statement to the House or the debate that followed. It's clear then that Newton Dunn or someone else, despite obviously reading the report in the Guardian still failed to realise that Stephen Mosley had got the wrong end of the stick. Or did they? After all, the story's nowhere near as good if the information, rather than being leaked, came from the Ministry of Defence themselves. Why not then go along with what was said in parliament, while disingenuously attacking Flynn? This seems to be what the paper's done.

Here's the paper's leader:

AS if facing death from the Taliban wasn't enough, our Forces have to face snipers back home.

Labour MP Paul Flynn accuses Our Boys of committing "atrocities in the name of the British people".

His basis for this slur? Irresponsible and unsubstantiated internet leaks claiming British troops fired on Afghan civilians.

The Defence Ministry insists this would only ever have happened in self-defence when our soldiers came under threat of suicide attack.

Our troops have spent nine years doing their best for Afghan civilians, laying down their lives for them.

As Foreign Secretary William Hague says, these smears are a Taliban propaganda gift.

Ed Miliband should order Flynn to apologise.

The leader then simply takes the same (deliberate) inaccuracies and magnifies them again, further misquoting and taking out of context Flynn's quote, gets the source of the new information completely wrong for good measure, and then finally uses Hague's own mistake to attack the hapless Labour MP further. The only people apologising should be the Sun for conniving in a misunderstanding in parliament in order to attack an MP for quite rightly wanting a proper inquiry into what happened.

P.S. The Sun also does its usual bang up job of promoting the witterings of the friends of Anjem Choudary, this time reporting in depth Abu Izzadeen's remarks on being released from prison. It's this sentence and claim though that catches the eye:

His every word was cheered by a flock including sidekick Anjem Choudary and jailed hate cleric Abu Hamza.

Would the Sun care to explain how Abu Hamza was there cheering him on when he's currently being held at Belmarsh prison awaiting deportation to the United States, or was he allowed out for the day in able to attend? This extra detail is missing from the Daily Mail's report of Izzadeen's release, unsurprisingly.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010 

Book review: Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch.

(BenSix asked for my views on Voodoo Histories, so you've got him to blame for this rather hefty post. His own review, which I've tried not to overlap with too much, is here.)

Iraq only warrants 9 page references in the index of David Aaronovitch's Voodoo Histories, his contribution to the recent welcome if not entirely successful number of tomes aimed squarely at challenging conspiracy theories and other similarly unsound or lazy thinking, yet the war looms as large over the book as it did over the last decade's politics.

Fair or not, Aaronovitch simply can't escape from his ill-fated support for the invasion. In fact, it's not really his support for the invasion which he can't escape from, which was always a reasonable position to take, having stuck with the argument made by many other "decent" left-wing opponents of the war that the WMD and terrorism justifications were secondary to getting rid of a brutal dictator through the liberal interventionism most famously set out in Tony Blair's speech in Chicago in 1999, but rather one of his almost certainly now regretted formulations which he made shortly after the overthrow of Saddam. Responding to how American advocates of the war were already saying that it didn't matter much if WMD weren't found after all, Aaronovitch took the opposite view:

But it won't do.


But the weapons were the pretext on which the invasion was sold to a lot of people in this country, and was attempted to be sold to the people of the world.


These claims cannot be wished away in the light of a successful war. If nothing is eventually found, I - as a supporter of the war - will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. And, more to the point, neither will anyone else. Those weapons had better be there somewhere.

It therefore feels legitimate to doubt whether it really was Kevin Jarvis, the cameraman-producer Aaronovitch was working with and who articulated his doubts about the legitimacy of the Apollo 11 moon landings which set "the hare running" and led inexorably to the publication of Voodoo Histories. Notably, he doesn't actually deal with the conspiracy theory that holds that we never went to the moon anywhere outside of the introduction, as you perhaps think he might have done, even if it was more the fact that such a well-educated young man could believe such egregious nonsense which really made him worried. Instead, it seems more of a reaction to that fated paragraph - if even he could never again believe anything the government said, how could anyone else? Voodoo Histories almost seems to be Aaronovitch attempting to convince himself that governments can be believed, by lining up a whole host of assorted conspiracy theories and knocking them down whilst putting them in their historical context.

Regardless of its origins, VH is not wholly successful due exactly to that slightly confused mix of aims. Neither a true debunker's handbook or a history of the development of the theories dealt with, it fails to satisfy on both counts. It also heads almost immediately into trouble: before he even sets out what he defines a conspiracy theory to be, he's quoting Daniel Pipes, "author of two books about conspiracy theories". Could this possibly be the same Daniel Pipes who set up Campus Watch, has been incredibly outspoken about the threat of radical Islam and has most recently suggested that Barack Obama used to be a Muslim, something that could definitely be categorised as a conspiracy theory? Why yes, it is. Shouldn't this have been mentioned, perhaps, considering how Campus Watch was described as McCarthyite, especially as Aaronovitch dedicates a decent section of a chapter to exactly the hysteria and conspiracy which a certain section of the American right fell into between the 30s and 50s? Apparently not.

On surer ground is Aaronovitch's introduction of Occam's razor, one of my own favourite implements and its ability to cut through to the simplest explanation, as is his recognition of Iran-Contra alongside Watergate as one of the few well established conspiracies which have been uncovered. Why though not dedicate a chapter to the former, rather than just a few lines, to show that governments are capable of such backhanded deviousness, putting it in its proper historical context? Or would that perhaps undermine the book's well structured argument and conclusion that conspiracies themselves are not powerful when it's the idea that in fact is?

Also dubious is one of the characteristics he defines as helping conspiracy theories propagate. While his first, historical precedent, is beyond doubt, as it nails how many conspiracy theorists don't just believe in one disconnected theory but often every single one going (proof of this if it was needed is this thread on of all places,, where I wasted my time trying to argue, increasingly desperately, with a whole load of 9/11 sceptics). Far less sinister is the practice Aaronovitch associates with those who set themselves up as expert witnesses, which is worth quoting:

Another aspect of this fudging is the tendency among conspiracists to quote each other as to suggest a wide spread of expertise lending support to the argument. Thus, over the events of 9/11, the French conspiracy author Thierry Meyssan cites American conspiracy author Webster Tarpley; Tarpley cites David Ray Griffin and David Ray Griffin cites Thierry Meyssan. It is a rather charming form of solidarity.

Err, yes. It's also what those who agree with each other tend to do normally. Bloggers of all shades link to those with similar views; those who prefer certain sources of information tend to disregard those who espouse the opposite. Hell, there's an approving quote on the inside cover of VH from Francis Wheen, himself partial to a bit of debunking as well as being a supporter of the invasion of Iraq. He also alongside Aaronovitch complained to the Guardian about an apology to Noam Chomksy following an interview in the paper in which Emma Brockes tackled him over his views on the genocide in Bosnia. A charming form of solidarity, or just like-minded folk sticking together?

This isn't to suggest that in its best chapters VH isn't an excellent contribution to the current number of books on conspiracies. The very first, on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is superb: tracing their progress from fiction to supposed non-fiction and the massive influence which the Chekist-forgery had across Europe and America, it almost justifies the book's arguments on its own of how dangerous such theories quickly become when combined with those who already have a grievance. It loses its way somewhat in the chapter on the Stalinist show-trials, which could perhaps have been pruned and seems to have been dug into mainly because you suspect Aaronvitch already knew much of the detail having come from a socialist family, as well as originally being something of a firebrand himself, before picking up again through the chapters on the origins of McCarthyism and the assassination of JFK, although even that one could have done without the meander onto Marilyn Monroe. Also fascinating is the delve into the now foolish looking theories surrounding the death of Hilda Murrell, capturing the spirit of the time effortlessly, although some of the judgements on those who suspected foul play (Tam Dalyell and Nick Davies among them) seem harsh when they had and continue to have got so much else right.

After a rather needless further kicking of the "facts" behind the Da Vinci Code, we come to the 9/11 chapter, which is also somewhat lacking. Not only does it not really engage in any actual debunking, although to be fair I myself find the idea that anyone other than al-Qaida carried out the attacks to be completely ludicrous, in it Aaronovitch launches a misguided attack on the use of asking "cui bono?" (who benefits?) when it comes to attempting to understand what has just happened and why. True, if you start out from a basis of highly questionable assertions when doing so it does lose its ability to see things clearly, yet it can also be used as another way of debunking conspiratorial thinking. Ask for instance who would have benefited from the death of Dr David Kelly, the topic the next chapter deals with, and you certainly wouldn't give the government as the first answer. Indeed, the Hutton inquiry, even though it placed most of the blame for the circumstances which led to Dr Kelly taking his own life on the BBC and not the government, resulted in most (rightly) taking the view that the entire exercise was a whitewash and that the government had behaved abysmally, so dedicated was it to maintaining the fiction that there had been no "sexing up" of intelligence dossiers.

Aaronovitch, despite even using "Cui bono?" as one of the chapter's headings, fails to challenge the alternative theory in such a way. It is however the most forensic and devastating of all the chapters in how it disparages those who believe there was foul play in Dr Kelly's death, to such an extent that you suspect he took great personal delight in the monstering given to Norman Baker MP, author of the main conspiratorial tome alleging such. Certainly Baker's casual, hurtful dismissal of Kelly's surviving relatives' views is risible, Aaronovitch deals with him with more venom than almost anyone else in the book, including those who have committed far worse offences, both real and intellectual. Again, you're left wondering whether this isn't all something to do with his own being taken in by the exact same government that left Kelly in such a terrible emotional state.

It isn't then the scattergun approach of the book which most lets it down, rather that which it passes over. As we have seen, Iraq is both everywhere and nowhere. Extraordinary rendition, the first major uncovered true conspiracy of the 21st century also doesn't receive a mention, even when the first allegations were made it was the politicians whom rubbished those investigating by claiming that it was all a conspiracy theory and therefore, by association, the ravings of lunatics. The United States of America operating a worldwide network of black site prisons, that detainees were transferred around and tortured at? Who could possibly believe such a thing? When governments tell such obtuse lies or get things so wrong (if we're being very, very charitable on the WMD fiasco), who can be surprised when conspiracy theories gain such currency and become almost more accepted than the reality? Try as he might, and boy does he try, Aaronovitch simply can't put the genie he himself unleashed back in its bottle.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010 

The not so slow death of the BBC.

Rightly overshadowed last week by the far more grievous cuts being made to government spending, the surprise capping of the BBC licence fee at its current level until 2016/17 still came as a nasty shock, and one apparently foisted on the corporation by the government with little warning. We were solemnly informed that negotiations that would usually take a year of back and forth between government and managers, with input from outside interests and the public were conducted in just three drama-filled days, with everyone other than the BBC left out in the cold. Indeed, S4C, the Welsh-language channel which the BBC agreed to takeover the funding of was only told about its new erstwhile owner after the deal had been done.

While criticism was relatively muted, mainly due to how the BBC was at the bottom of most people's priorities as they tried to digest exactly what the cuts and benefit changes might mean for them, it was still apparent that the BBC had came out of the battle for the worse. The only bright spot was that it had managed to fend off having to fund the free TV-licences for over 75s introduced under Labour, which had it gone through would have meant more than £566m being sucked out of the corporation's £3.6bn yearly budget in an instant. Instead it managed to negotiate, supposedly with the help of sympathetic Liberal Democratic MPs, to take on the cost of running the World Service and BBC Monitoring from the Foreign Office, as well as the aforementioned S4C. Even saved as it was from having to impose such potentially draconian cuts to services, this still leaves the corporation having to look for further savings of £140m a year, the equivalent of a 16% cut in real terms over the duration of the fee settlement, slightly below the average 19% cut in government departments' spending.

The very making of that comparison is something that previously the BBC would have resisted. It might be funded by the taxpayer, but its independence from government always has been and supposedly remains cherished, even if it's the government that decides what the licence fee will be during each charter review. Simply involving the BBC proper in the spending review and not just its sections which it had control over was an attack on that independence. As the Guardian argues, that independence may always have been a mirage, yet it's always been and remains one which should have stayed in place. If that alone wasn't enough, then the incorporation of the World Service into the BBC's News output proper raises just as many questions and contradictions. The BBC is essentially being asked to act as the Foreign Office's limp propaganda arm whilst at the same time remaining scrupulously impartial. The public certainly wasn't asked as to whether they would like a portion of their licence fee to be spent on overseas broadcasts which have little to no relevance to them. The only real winners are those listening abroad, who can now have confidence that the message they're listening to is funded by the British taxpayer rather than the government itself, with all the massive difference that will entail.

Mark Thompson, attempting to recast the BBC's submission to becoming all but just another government department in the best possible light, deployed every favourable point in his armoury yet still failed to make a convincing case for having made the best possible deal. True, as he states, it both prevents an active cut in the licence fee itself, something much feared, and puts the BBC on a stable footing until after the next general election, outside of further political manoeuvring. That however is the best that can be said for it. Thompson claims that the BBC couldn't expect to be "untouched by the wider pressures facing the country", yet it already had been prior to the further cuts decided on the bounce at the end of the spending review, agreeing not to take up the rise in the fee which had been pencilled in under the previous government, while its "Putting Quality First" report was a retrenchment strategy before it knew it had to make any extra efficiencies. Thompson said in his MacTaggart lecture that "[A] pound out of the commissioning budget of the BBC is a pound out of UK creative economy", something which he appears to have turned full circle on in a little over two months.

The only other incredibly slight positive that can be taken from the deal is that it doesn't leave Sky in quite the massively advantageous position they must have hoped for, and which the Murdochs must have trusted on gaining in reward for their slavish adherence to Cameron during the election. Make no mistake though, come 2016-17 the difference between the still coasting BBC and its competitors is going to be massive. The BBC was already planning on cutting back its spending on both foreign imports and sports rights, and with the savings having to come from somewhere while the costs of the former increase exponentially, you can see all but the few protected events crossing to satellite. Sky has already bought up the rights to all of HBO's back catalogue, and snapped up the next series of Mad Men more recently. While it's already become apparent that many managers at the Beeb will soon be leaving their posts, finding £140m of savings a year purely from their oversized pay packets and through efficiencies is a nonsense. 6 Music, saved from closure by the BBC Trust, will almost certainly be back in the firing line, as will other services which the private sector simply can't or won't provide. With no pay rises being possible without cutbacks in programme budgets, the workforce itself will either have to be cut further or will be militantly unhappy, as it already is over the changes to the pension system.

All this bodes ill for public service broadcasting in general. The innovations that will inevitably surface between now and 2016-17 will further constrain the BBC as it finds itself unable to find extra funds to provide content for them. This, along with the all but of end of its independence is what will most hurt the corporation. Remove its ability to change with the times, abolish its defining feature of rigorous impartiality and you have something which will fade into irrelevance and simply end up all but asking to be put out of its misery, which seems to be exactly what the Conservatives had in mind from the beginning. They seem to be playing just as long a game as Thompson and friends themselves thought they were. The BBC's slow but inevitable death has just come a step closer.

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Monday, October 25, 2010 

The day musical satire became obsolete.

Tom Lehrer famously said that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Musical satire isn't as wide a movement or genre as political satire, outside of the output of a few individual bands and parodists, yet if there was a music awards ceremony similar to the Ig Nobels where tongue being held firmly in cheek was the guiding principle rather than just recognising the objectively bad, you might perhaps, if you were really pushing it, give an "innovation in sound" award to say, Mark Ronson. You could probably just get away with giving the "best track" award to You Got the Love by Florence and the Machine. The "best act in the world" award, less controversially, should go to Kasabian, while the "best new act" prize could be given to say, Mumford and Sons.

As it turns out, such an awards ceremony clearly doesn't need to be invented, as we've already got the Q Awards, although apparently satire isn't their aim. Yes, they really did give the "Innovation in Sound" award to Mark Ronson.

(Apologies for the shitty blogging. No excuses offered, will get back on it properly tomorrow.)

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Saturday, October 23, 2010 

Quote of the week.

And yet it has also been a week in which there has been at least one glowing reminder of the pleasures and the pride that should accompany being employed by Manchester United and the impression left is this: whatever you think of Sir Alex Ferguson, his hypocrisies, the frequent mistruths and the even more frequent rages, how can anyone not have at least begrudging admiration for that shrewd, political mind, still as sharp as a tack as we approach the beginning of his 70th year?

So sharp it seems that he can be run rings round by a 24-year-old widely regarded by the media, when it's being polite, as "thick". How can anyone not have at least begrudging admiration for someone who has just doubled the already obscene pay of a footballer currently in the worst form of his career, a footballer whom this week insulted both his club and his team mates and threatened in a fit of apparently money-induced pique to go to their fiercest rivals, coincidentally at the exact same time that the rest of the country was introduced to the coming austerity measures?

P.S. Daniel Taylor is the author of This Is the One: Sir Alex Ferguson - The Uncut Story of a Football Genius.

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Friday, October 22, 2010 

The real shame of England.

Forgive me for not plunging straight back into wholesale blogging, which I'll leave to Monday, as I'm sure you're spending reviewed out in any case (these two posts summarise it fairly succinctly). Instead here's something I and I suspect almost everyone else missed from before I went away (it was on Have I Got News for You last night, incidentally):

Two Sunday newspapers have quietly apologised to a woman who was the subject of a tabloid feeding frenzy earlier this year.

Vanessa Perroncel was alleged in several papers to have had an affair with the Chelsea and England footballer John Terry. All sorts of personal and private information about Perroncel was published at the time, much it (sic) false.

The News of the World's apology has since disappeared behind their hastily established paywall, although the apologies by the Mail on Sunday and the Screws were almost identical:

On January 31 and afterwards we published some personal information about Vanessa Perroncel in articles concerning an alleged affair with the footballer John Terry.

Miss Perroncel has since informed us that she would have preferred her personal information to remain private and it was untrue in any case. We apologise to Miss Perroncel for any distress caused.

As Roy Greenslade points out, these apologies are absolutely remarkable. They suggest, although it's difficult to be certain, that almost every single thing printed about the apparently non-existent affair between Perroncel and Terry was wrong. It suggests that Terry was potentially in the right in seeking the super-injunction in the first place, both to stop a story which was untrue, and even if not his prime motive, to protect Perroncel from having every single aspect of her life splashed across the tabloid press, something which happened regardless. By the same token, there was no reason for Terry to be stripped of the England captaincy, and also no reason for Wayne Bridge to decline to be a part of the England team which went to South Africa.

Many will reason that's there no smoke without fire. Where did the story come from in the first place? Pure rumour based around the fact that Perroncel and Terry had been seen together, how they were "just friends" as Perroncel herself has put it? It wasn't clear in the first place, and clearly doesn't seem likely to be explained now. Was Wayne Bridge convinced of Terry's betrayal purely by the press? Again, we don't seem to know.

Something that is certain and is just as remarkable has been Perroncel's dignity and quiet determination ever since the super-injunction failed and the story broke. She has maintained from the very beginning that there was no truth to the allegations, despite doubtless having numerous cheques waved under her nose. She could have quite easily sold a completely spurious story for an obscene amount of money, as countless others would have done in her situation, or alternatively have accepted money from Terry to keep her silence, as was also allegedly offered in what could now be equally inaccurate accounts. She could also have sued for libel, and considering the more outlandish claims made, including that she had slept with almost half of the Chelsea team, it seems likely it could have been more than easily proved such allegations were lies. Instead she simply pursued apologies from the newspapers held most responsible, something that she achieved, with the predictable outcome that those apologies were buried respectively back on page 18. At the time the Daily Mail thanked Fabio Capello for getting rid of the captain who had "shamed" England; it has never been more clear just what it is that truly shames England.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010 


Am being dragged away again for a week. Back next Friday, which conveniently means I miss the spending review. In the meantime, here's a picture which proves that while David Miliband frequently looks stupid when photographed, his brother can look absolutely terrifying:

Have a good one, or something.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010 

Why Vince Cable needs to block Murdoch taking full control of Sky.

While it is rare for either the entirety or vast swathes of the British media to work together, it is not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is that the target of the group formed this week is not the government of the day, as has always been the case previously, but another media group. Such it seems is the existential threat posed by News Corporation acquiring BSkyB in full, already owning as it does a 39% share in the company, that political differences, allegiances and much else have been cast aside for the greater cause.

This isn't quite the abandoning of the mentality in Fleet Street which has long held that dog doesn't eat dog, at least when it comes to general journalistic ethics, most recently broken by the Guardian's investigation into the phone-hacking at the News of the World and which has been almost entirely ignored by the nation's tabloids if not the former broadsheets, but it is highly significant. It's not often that either the Daily Mail or Telegraph see eye-to-eye with the Guardian, let alone the BBC which both of the former continue to pillory when the opportunity arises. The list is if anything more marked by those who haven't given their support, which amounts to Northern and Shell, the owner of the Express group, Richard Desmond presumably either not rocking the boat having recently acquired Channel Five with little adverse comment, as well as perhaps harbouring ambitions of one day rivalling Murdoch in the media ownership stakes; the Independent; Virgin, having recently sold Sky its main channels and ended the war sparked by the removal of Sky 1 and other services from their packages back in 2006; and ITV, in which BSkyB has a 7.5% share, having been forced to sell some of the stake it acquired as part of a gambit to block Virgin, then NTL from attempting to take full control four years ago.

Undoubtedly self-interest is purely behind the appearance of BT on the list, having formerly been a monopoly itself, and which has only very recently attempted to begin to attempt to compete with Sky. Indeed, it's difficult to know just how many of those on the list genuinely do believe, as their letter to Vince Cable, the business secretary has it, that the "proposed takeover could have serious and far-reaching consequences for media plurality". The Mail and the Telegraph certainly haven't been quick to let their concerns about Murdoch's previous predatory behaviour come to the fore; if anything they actively cheered some of it on. Only now that it could possibly affect them have they begun to cry foul. Simon Jenkins also has something approaching a point, although some his analysis is dead wrong, such as his suggestion that without Murdoch there may have been only 3 newspapers by now as in most other "unionised" countries (this ignores the fact that as a country we have always bought newspapers in far greater numbers than almost anywhere else on the planet) when he says that other organisations have opposed his "innovations" only then to take advantage of them without the risk he took on.

The other main problem with his argument is that even if the end of the union control over Fleet Street resulted in massively increased pagination, it most certainly didn't result in a corresponding increase in quality. As others in the comment thread also point out, it was the creation of the Premier League and Sky's stranglehold over the live football market which continues to this day which was the true making of him in this country. Mark Thompson recently pointed out that despite having fifteen times the turnover of Channel Five, Sky spends about the same as that broadcaster on home-grown original content, just £100m. Its marketing budget, by contrast, is the same size as ITV's programming one. It's that massive turnover of almost £6bn which those who signed the letter fear becoming fully under the control of News Corporation; the kind of money which can outspend all of them put together, consolidating Sky with his newspapers and HarperCollins, creating a behemoth of an organisation which will be the first port of call for those using the new technologies which Murdoch is eager to get into, starting with the iPad.

Increasingly, it's the BBC which stands in the way of this vision, as has been made more than clear by James Murdoch and other Murdoch employees and devotees. As Roy Greenslade says, subscriptions to the Times and Sunday Times have been disappointingly low since they took the plunge, Murdoch led, of charging for access to their websites. One suspects that when the News of the World and Sun eventually follow suit that sign-ups to those high quality sources will be even lower: it's one thing to pick up a tabloid for between 20 and 40 pence to flick through during lunch break or when commuting (yes, I know the Screws costs more than that; Sunday papers have always been different); it's another to subscribe to them online when you can get far superior content for free elsewhere. Blaming the BBC for the failures of the Times and Sunday Times is perverse while the other broadsheets provide their content for free, yet increasingly it's clear they cannot afford to do so in the long-term, with paid for physical sales in almost certainly irreversible decline. Reduced to say, a choice between the Guardian and the BBC for free content, it will be far easier to point the finger at the corporation as to why the private sector can't make money.

It's no wonder then that with so many other potential targets, the Times picked only on Mark Thompson and the BBC in a leader this morning. Taking the moral high ground when you're a Murdoch paper may be difficult, but the Times still attempted it, making clear that it couldn't objectively comment on the proposed full takeover of Sky for obvious reasons. It accused Thompson of acting as any other business organisation would, despite calling for the corporation to be treated differently, and making a serious error in compromising an issue that the corporation would wish to report on without being accused of self-interest. Far less convincing was its claims that this was still about potential BBC expansion, when it ought to be abundantly clear that the only thing the BBC is going to be doing in the short-term and almost certainly in the long-term also is the old impossibility of trying to do more with less. In an almost certainly unrelated development, Sky also complained to Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading about the BBC's proposed YouView service at the very last minute.

Whether there will be any material difference made by News Corp and Murdoch wholly owning BSkyB, at least in the short-term, is dubious. Murdoch has always controlled the broadcaster regardless of owning only 39% of the shares. What Vince Cable really needs to consider should he have to rule on the matter is two things. Firstly, that Murdoch owning vast swathes of the British media has never resulted in anything other than a race to the bottom. The best that can be said is that he saved the Times and the Sunday Times for the nation, hardly the greatest of achievements. His partnership with the Premier League resulted directly in the pricing out of the game completely those on low incomes, unable to afford either his coverage or to attend matches, while contributing directly to the massive rise in player salaries and short-termism which now rules the day. The best his satellite services can be said to offer on the cultural front is the Sky Arts channels, and they were only relatively recently brought in house from outside control.

Second, is that the power he already has is immense: nothing illustrates it better than than the MPs who were frightened of the potential consequences should they continue pushing the initial phone-hacking investigation. Politicians have to woo him, not the other way around. While his influence in an online world can and is exaggerated, the fear which comes from having the biggest selling newspaper in the country pouring the journalistic equivalent of a bucket of shit over you, deserved or not, is total. When the police could well be curtailing their investigations because of their links with the real power in the land, it ought to be more than apparent that giving those who wield it even more revenue without the corresponding responsibility is a disaster waiting to happen. Stopping Murdoch from taking complete and total control of Sky is the only way to ensure that it doesn't.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010 

"The ultimate mowing machine."

The second issue of the Inspire jihadi glossy - the one which caused an inordinate fuss among the more ignorant sections of the press previously - is out and contains some "original" thinking when it comes to launching attacks on a budget and without using explosives:

There are suggestions for low-cost operations in the US soil, such as shooting sprees in restaurants catering for government workers (such as in Washington DC), and using trucks to mow down pedestrians on crowded streets. The latter tactic can be further refined, Khan suggests, by welding sharp blades to the front of the truck so as to create “the ultimate mowing machine.”

Whether this is inspired by Carmageddon, Death Race 2000 or even the more recent delights of careering down pavements in Grand Theft Auto is impossible to tell. It does however certainly add colour to the "trust no one" ethos of the following advice:

  • Do not travel abroad for jihad – act on US soil instead.
  • Do not use mobile phones and the Internet for any jihad-related communication – if you have to, use coded language and encryption tools.
  • If you are clean stay clean – do not interact with other activists.
  • Do not access jihadi websites – get your jihadi propaganda fix from anti-jihadi monitoring sites such as MEMRI and SITE.

With the exception of the suggestion to act on US soil, this could have been written by a spook just as much as a jihadi. While anyone taking this advice would be incredibly difficult to track or monitor, it would also greatly isolate them - and almost no one acting completely alone has ever launched a successful attack. Those that have have almost always been in contact with someone else or even a whole group and received encouragement from them, or acted in the hope that their deeds will inspire others. A more disturbing parallel worth drawing, and alluded to in the first suggestion above, is with spree-killers, who on many occasions have acted completely alone, yet have been somewhat inspired to do so by those who have gone before them, to such an extent that some term them as copycat crimes. With some also now suggesting that America might have just as much of a problem with radical Islam among its own citizens as it's long been claimed we have, the Fort Hood shooting provides a model which is far more achievable, and with it frightening than any cartoonish video game influenced plan.

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In tribute to Claire Rayner.

One of Chris Morris's less deserving victims, but oh so funny, which I sadly can't embed. She was also on one of the best ever Have I Got News for You episodes, from the series when Paul Merton was on a sabbatical.

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Monday, October 11, 2010 

Jonathan Powell and the Machiavellian memoirs.

With the political coffee table already buckling under the weight of New Labour memoirs, the market all but saturated even before Gordon Brown and his few allies add to the all but unreadable pile, it's little wonder that the hangers-on and those behind the scenes are already embellishing their accounts with additional asides and analysis in a probably futile attempt to stand them out from the crowd. With Jonathan Powell, former chief adviser to Tony Blair, having already written a worthy if almost certainly little sold account of the Northern Ireland peace talks, his wheeze has been to cast a Machiavellian eye over his time spent in and around Downing Street.

Blair, unsurprisingly,
comes out of this test well, his only real failing being that he wasn't as ruthless as Machiavelli advised when it came to dealing with a potential rival. It wasn't weakness on his part, Powell believes, merely a refusal to deal harshly with an old friend. The rival by contrast, despite his achievement in eventually forcing the prince to abdicate, was weak on exactly the things he needed to be strong on. As an addition to the analysis from figures associated with the last government as to why the party lost the election, it's certainly both more interesting and based in reality than Blair's own view that Brown lost thanks to his abandonment of "New Labour values". It is however just as lacking: while Powell recognises that the TB-GBs were far more complicated than many accounts have portrayed them, admitting that if Blair had sacked Brown he would be ridding the government of the other major talent within it and risk creating a concentrated opposition on the backbenches, even he still doesn't find that Blair and Brown, arguments and fighting aside, were better together than individually. Blair without Brown may well have in fact been brought down sooner, while Brown failed more than anything because he couldn't the party beyond New Labour, not because he repudiated its values as the Blairite thesis has it.

Away from the musing, Powell's account, especially of the last couple of years of Blair's time as prime minister strikes as being just as deluded as his master had become by that point. Having written earlier on of how Gordon Brown avoided responsibility, supposedly originating in strictness of his parents, it's interesting to note how
Powell tries to blame the military for the Afghanistan deployment to Helmand in 2006, having lobbied for troops to be sent there in "strength", while poor Tony and then defence secretary John Reid were "reluctant". Powell tries to convince us that no prime minister "enjoys" going to war, in spite of media consensus, yet if Blair ever was reluctant about sending in the troops he certainly never let it show, although perhaps that's just another example of his taking Machiavellian advice on board.

Just as instructive is the reaction to General Richard Dannatt's outburst on the army's deployment in Basra,
as detailed at length by Powell. To those outside the Blair circle it was little more than a statement of the obvious: that the army had took part in a war of aggression and that their presence in Basra was making things worse. He was right then and he's still right now: they had lost the city, unable to enforce order without using overwhelming force which would have been wholly counter-productive, and were simply acting as a lightning rod for insurgents. This was again though in the Powell Machiavellian analysis a signal of weakness, one which supposedly had the Mahdi army redoubling their efforts, while Nato and everyone else complained about Dannatt undermining morale. It didn't help the troops, and expanding the fallout even further, Blair and Powell both claim that such observations don't just threaten first-division army deployments, they threaten our very status as a country as we step back from putting troops in harm's way. That Powell believes military escapades define us as a nation in the 21st century is damning enough; that he doesn't know when we should either admit defeat or know when to pull back is far worse. To add to the projection, Dannatt is described without irony by Powell as being "divinely convinced of his own rightness". Completely unlike Powell's master then.

This hysterical view of the slightest criticism and its potential consequences was not just limited to Blair and Powell, but also to another adviser, Nigel Sheinwald,
as the "al-Jazeera memo" trial showed when he claimed that its release would have "put lives at risk". It also extended to the belief that even when wielding such power, it was others who were so often out of line, such as the police during the "loans for peerages" scandal. Lord Levy, can you believe it, was only informed the night before that he was to be arrested the following day, while Ruth Turner was subjected to arrest in the early morning. They were, in other words, treated exactly like anyone else suspected of a serious crime would be, yet this was little short of an outrage. Worth quoting in full is Powell's view of the position the police were in:

The problem at the core of the whole fiasco was that the police had got themselves in too deep to be able to retreat with dignity. The more they dug themselves a hole, the more they were determined to turn something up.

Remind you of anyone or anything? Powell paints an image of a Blair administration that felt it was essentially above the law, yet which at the same time also saw itself as hemmed in by enemies who threatened everything regardless of their weakness or righteousness. Unable to see parallels, or rather, refusing to see them, it's difficult to come to any other conclusion than if hadn't been for the transition of power, Blair and his aides would have eventually collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions. Instead, set free and remunerated for their observances, they've been able to carry on believing they were right and everyone else was wrong, challenged even less than they were then.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010 

International roots.

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Friday, October 08, 2010 

Labour's new generation part deux.

When you're blessed with such a surfeit of talent as Ed Miliband was in the shadow cabinet elections, there's always going to be a great difficulty in pleasing everyone when picking the jobs to place them in, and so it has proved. Frankly though, there was never much of Ed Balls becoming shadow chancellor; as effective as he might well have been in facing George Osborne, he both has a "reputation" as Gordon Brown's main protege and spent large parts of his leadership campaign all but denying that any cuts were going to have to be made.

This said, putting Alan Johnson in the position instead is potentially a gamble. As much as I'm inclined to agree with the ten reasons put forward by Martin Kettle for why he'll do a good job, all too noticeable by their absence is any actual economic credentials. True, George Osborne didn't and doesn't have any either and it's done little harm to his position apart from the occasional jibe about inexperience from the City, yet Yvette Cooper was surely the best compromise figure. It might as some have suggested led to another soap opera between her and Balls as to whether they agree and to as to how much influence her husband potentially has over her, but she clearly has experience on her side having both been an economist (researcher and journalist) before becoming an MP as well as formerly chief secretary to the Treasury.

Balls as shadow home secretary is also hardly ideal, again as we know little on his actual views outside of immigration - on which the party seems likely to move even further to the right following the major impact it had on the leadership election. It was however impossible for Johnson to stay in his position having in effect criticised Ed Miliband for saying the party had got it wrong on civil liberties, not being able to remember a "single issue" where it had got the balance wrong. Also constricting Miliband was that he had to consider the leadership contenders' relative placings; Balls might have best suited to his post while in government at education, yet his high profile and share of the vote meant he had little choice but to promote him, with either shadow home or foreign secretary the choices as chancellor was out. Somehow you just can't imagine Balls as foreign secretary, although how Cooper will perform there is equally open to question, even if as Sunder Katwala suggests she was moving towards a closer position to the new leader's one on Iraq three years ago.

Outside of those choices, the only other one worthy of critique is perhaps Miliband's choice of defence secretary. John Denham would have been a good choice, considering his opposition to the Iraq war, signifying a break with the past, although whether he would have wanted the job is open to question. It has to be hoped that some of the more lowly shadow ministerial positions will go to some of the new intake - the true next generation, unencumbered by having previously supported such destructive and disastrous policies as almost the entirety of the new shadow cabinet.

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Thursday, October 07, 2010 

Labour's new generation.

Of the 19 elected shadow cabinet members:

  • Only 5 voted for Ed Miliband as their first choice for Labour leader (John Denham, Hilary Benn, Sadiq Khan, Ann McKechin, Maria Eagle)
  • Only 2 voted against the Iraq war (John Denham, Ann McKechkin) while Ed Balls, Mary Creagh, Meg Hillier, Liam Byrne and Sadiq Kahn only entered parliament in 2004/2005
  • Regardless of the above, every single one voted against investigating the Iraq war
  • Only Sadiq Khan voted against 90 days detention without charge for "terrorist suspects" (Ann McKechkin abstained) (This has been corrected from the original which said none voted against; see comments) (All incidentally as far as I can tell voted for 42 days; TheyWorkForYou/Public Whip isn't very helpful on that vote)
  • Every single one voted for ID cards
  • Every single one voted for top-up fees while Ed Balls, Mary Creagh, Meg Hillier, Liam Byrne and Sadiq Khan only entered parliament in 2004/2005
  • Every single one either voted for a stricter asylum system or was "absent" on certain votes; none actually voted against the party whip
  • 1 described herself as being used as window dressing after she resigned in a huff for not being promoted (incidentally only days after taking part in a newspaper fashion shoot)
  • 1 stupidly left a message for the new government saying there was "no money left", joking or not
  • 1 knew absolutely nothing about her now ex-husband

Still, a new generation for change, eh?

(Source for all the votes is TheyWorkForYou; far too many pages to directly link to, have to trust me on this.)

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Wednesday, October 06, 2010 

Fairness and fatutity.

If you were to use one word to describe David Cameron's speech to the Conservative party conference, and there are a good few choice ones which would be almost equally apposite, then it would have to be fatuous. Fairness was meant to be the theme, yet apart from the few paragraphs given to the media in advance, it hardly got a look in. Instead Cameron treated us, once again, to his vision of the "big society", which was, once again, so lamely sketched out as to be laughable.

Let's put it this way: compared to Ed Miliband's speech last week, large parts of which must have been thrown together at the last moment following his "surprise" victory and which inevitably suffered as a result, his could be a case study in both honesty and humility. It for the most part struck the right tone, and did what had to be done, even if I ripped into parts of it. Cameron, despite knowing just how much anxiety there is throughout the country at the cuts to come, said relatively little to calm nerves, although when the party has already so botched the child benefit cut this week that might well be either unsurprising or surprising according to your view.

In there among an especially ill-thought out attack on Labour for more or less everything they ever did, one which resembled one of the more impenetrable rants left on a website comment thread rather than a critique from a prime minister was a denunciation of spin. Say what you like about Alastair Campbell, at least he was almost always good at what he did, even if the end results were ignoble. He or someone else in New Labour's inner circle would have spotted the obvious problems with Cameron's "your country needs you" motif which must have passed Coulson and Hilton by. Not just that in the most famous case of the government declaring that it needed you personally the reality behind the slogan was the establishment sending off a generation to needless suffering and slaughter in the trenches, although that ought to have stopped them immediately in their tracks. It also isn't just that next week the government is going to be declaring loudly and clearly that it doesn't need tens of thousands of current state employees, told in no uncertain terms that their country doesn't need their services in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat imposed age of austerity.

More than anything, it's that for millions either unemployed or currently on almost any kind of benefit, it's never been more apparent that they are surplus to requirements. Despite this Tory conference being dominated by talk of work and how those willing to work will be rewarded for not sitting on their sofas as in Cameron's distasteful remark on responsibility, talk of jobs or growth has been almost wholly absent. Cameron mentioned the former word just 5 times, and all but one of those uses was in a context other than the creation of them; two of them were in the terms of the government cutting them. You can change the welfare system as much as you like, it's not going to make a scrap of difference when there are simply not enough jobs for those who are on jobseeker's allowance, let alone on the sickness benefits which Iain Duncan Smith is determined to get so many off of. Much is instead being left to the "wealth creators", as window cleaners are now to be known if we take Cameron at his word. The unemployed will get access to an "enterprise allowance" to start up their own business, yet for many who find themselves out of work that will be the last rather than the first resort, when such start-ups require further capital which they either can't borrow or which they don't have. These are the real people who are going to suffer even more when the cuts begin to bite, and the prime minister is offering them the opportunity to join in the "big society spirit" to take their mind off it.

The fatuity was in far too many places to deal with them all (although Left Foot Forward has given it a go). Even by the standards of certain sections of the speech though, talking of the "selfishness" of the Labour years and "unchecked individualism" takes a whole lot of chutzpah for a Conservative leader and prime minister. Labour at least believed in equality, and even if it achieved it almost through stealth, the redistribution it managed mainly through tax credits stopped the poorest from completely falling off the scale. It wasn't enough, yet now David Cameron wants us to not just measure fairness through "the size of the cheque given" but "by the chance we give", one of which is, of course, those elusive jobs. Seeing as most of those cheques are going to be reduced vastly thanks to the various cuts and caps to be imposed, this makes perfect political sense. Cynicism certainly wasn't one of the things Cameron identified as characterising Labour's time in power.

Much else was drearily familiar. No alternative to cutting now, however much Cameron wished there was. Greece beckoned if action hadn't been taken immediately. Everyone agrees with the Tory-Lib Dem position, even the EU, that august economic body much respected amongst Conservatives. Except, oh, Ken Clarke, who admitted there was a possibility of a double dip recession. Ireland certainly didn't merit a mention, despite taking much the same medicine as we're about to and also with the backing of everyone. The debt and deficit a disaster of Labour's making, despite the Tories having supported the government's actions up until mid-way through 2008. A crisis of the private sector transformed into one of the public sector, with those with broadest shoulders sharing the most burden, even when the budget showed it will be the poorest hit the hardest.

If we take Cameron at his word, he wants to build a country defined not by what we consume but what we contribute, something he'll hopefully remember should that dreaded double dip become a reality. Rather than eating cake, he wants us to eat optimism, all in this together, our country needs us, sunshine winning the day all over again. It leaves only one question: will next year Cameron tell us it hasn't been raining despite pissing on us for 12 months?

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