Friday, April 29, 2011 

Watch your bass bins.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011 

Calm down, dears: it's only the economy.

It was good to see yesterday that instead of focusing on the GDP figures released by the Office of National Statistics, which showed that the economy has stagnated over the last six months even before the cuts have begun to kick in, Labour politicians thought the really important issue of the day was that David Cameron had been slightly rude in his usual pompous way to one of their own.

As potentially significant as it is to recognise that Cameron can be almost as quickly riled as Gordon Brown when he realises he's being outmanoeuvred, something which was also apparent during the prime ministerial debates last year, it would also help to point out the catastrophic effect this government has had on overall economic confidence since it took power. Rather than putting fuel in the tank, George Osborne has left it running on fumes. Still, when there was a "classic sexist put-down" to be responded to and endlessly discussed, it was obvious which was going to gain the most attention. Downing Street must have spent today laughing as much Osborne was.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011 

Guantanamo, new realities and crumbling empires.

The release of the Guantanamo files ought to serve as a timely reminder of just how out of control the United States government briefly was in the aftermath of the September the 11th attacks, something which has already sadly been cast to the back of our minds, even as the war in Afghanistan inexorably continues and US troops remain in Iraq. As brief as the talk of a Pax Americana was, no one ever managed to articulate the vision of how the Bush administration was operating better than Turd Blossom himself, Karl Rove, who told Ron Suskind of how

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Rove wasn't exaggerating. The rendition program and Guantanamo are monumental examples of how a new reality was created, a reality in which a nation's historic values were temporarily turned on their head. In the environment 9/11 put in place, almost anything was permissible, whether it was indefinite detention without charge, the rejection of the Geneva conventions, the outsourcing of torture or the active promotion of cruel and unusual punishment, to the extent that government lawyers gave the go ahead for specific acts of "enhanced interrogation". Even in the new reality there had to be some euphemisms.

You have to understand this in order to be able to put the documents released by Wikileaks in their proper context. The files on the detainees now being put fully into the public domain were not written by dispassionate, independent observers who carefully considered the evidence for and against their role in terrorism; they were instead collated by the military themselves, by officers who were all too aware of the pressure on them to get "results", and who repeatedly decided that even the weakest intelligence or easily disproved details were the ocular proof of the threat these individuals would pose should they be released. Joint Task Force Guantanamo weren't the only ones doing the evaluating: also at the camp were the Criminal Investigation Task Force, which mainly drew on those who had formerly working in law enforcement and often reached quite different conclusions but who were almost always overruled by the military, and the Behavioural Science Consultation Team, which actively collaborated with the intelligence officials in suggesting new interrogation techniques.

In addition, the files also make clear just how reliant the camp authorities were on those who either chose to talk, a tiny overall number and whose credibility is incredibly dubious, and those who were tortured, whom predictably told their interrogators whatever they wanted to hear. For the most part their evidence has now been struck out as being worthless as a result, even as those at the highest levels of the Bush administration continue to claim that waterboarding produced intelligence that stopped attacks and saved lives. Abu Zubayadah, who the US now accepts was never a member of al-Qaida, was subjected to "simulated" drowning 83 times, and is referenced in the records of 104 other detainees, while Mohamed al-Qahtani's treatment was so severe that it was even recognised as torture by Bush appointee Susan Crawford. Mohammed Basardah meanwhile willingly provided information on an astonishing 131 of his fellow prisoners, which almost needless to say has since come to be acknowledged as unreliable.

Why then so much of the media relied on just these documents, carrying as much disinformation and baggage as they do, to claim once again that London was a veritable hub of takfirist activism without providing anything even approaching a disclaimer is astonishing. Abu Qatada and Abu Hamza are fingered as indoctrinating asylum seekers at an alarming rate, while the Telegraph, Wikileaks' new newspaper of choice after Julian Assange's fallout with the Guardian, even manages to find something to smear the BBC with. Also revived are the most imaginative and laughable of the plots supposedly aimed against the West: given much attention was the claim that al-Qaida had a nuclear weapon assembled and primed to detonate in Europe in the event of the death of Osama bin Laden. Not given quite the same prominence was that this was from the mind of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, one of the ghost detainees subject to repeated mistreatment, nor did the fact that he was sent back to Libya and subsequently died in prison there manage to put a dampener on such a sensational detail.

The very fact that the US has not complained anywhere near as much about the leaking of these documents ought to tip you off as to the nature of their providence, as should how Obama established a new, untainted review system after he became president, as a precursor to shutting Guantanamo down, a promise he's been unable to fulfil. We shouldn't have expected much in the week of a certain state ceremony, admittedly, and especially when Andrew Marr admitted he shouldn't have stopped the media from reporting on him shagging another journalist, yet these documents also showcase in an unrelenting light that other aspect of newly created realities: the imperial arrogance and incompetence of those given such bewildering powers to detain and capture with a view gaining intelligence.

Little attention has then been given to how these documents show that over 150 of those detained at Guantanamo were completely innocent of any offence, recognised as such even by the JTFG. They show just how wide the signs of being a member of al-Qaida were drawn by the JTFG, determined as they were to find anything which with to incriminate the poor souls who had found themselves in Cuba, stretching to having been detained with a $100 US bill in their possession, while those captured without any identification documentation were likewise found to be instantly suspicious. About the only other detail which did manage to get some attention was how those captured with a F91-W Casio watch were considered to be al-Qaida, as this mass manufactured cheap digital watch had been used in training camps as an IED detonator. Then there are just the simple outrages, like Sami al-Hajj, the al-Jazeera cameraman held at the prison for six years before finally being released. His file explains that one of the reasons for his transfer to Guantanamo, indeed, perhaps the key reason, was so that he could provide details on the station's training programme and news gathering operation. If that's not enough, then even more bewilderingly there's Haji Faiz Mohammed, the 70-year-old with senile dementia who was transferred to the prison as his file shamefacedly admits for no discernible reason whatsoever.

Whether or not these files would have eventually been declassified, they provide the kind of record of a superpower at the zenith of its overreach more normally associated with fallen dictatorships and autocracies. The difficulty as we have already seen is in getting people to care, or rather come to a view other than that Guantanamo was an acceptable construct at a time of asymmetric warfare. When Obama can't even convince a congress under Democratic control of that, blocking his attempt to transfer those remaining there to the mainland, it's not surprising that the files on a scandal have been met with an almost universal shrug. The Bush administration's new realities have been accepted with the minimum of protest, even as their attempt at constructing an empire continues to crumble.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011 

Trig-trutherism and the American political conspiracy hall of mirrors.

Trig-trutherism has then been dealt a death blow. For those unfamiliar with another corridor in the American political conspiracy hall of mirrors, a tiny number of influential individuals on the commentary circuit managed to all but convince themselves that Trig, Sarah Palin's fifth child, was not in fact sired by her at all. Instead, possibly to show just how strong Palin's adherence to pro-life causes was, she happened to acquire a baby with Down's syndrome to demonstrate she wasn't a potential hypocrite, or alternatively, phenomenally embarrassed by her eldest daughter Bristol becoming pregnant in spite of promoting abstinence before marriage, and worried also by the effect it could have on her political career, she covered up for her and claimed the child was in fact hers.

As is usual with the more out there theories, like how the controlled demolition junkies among the 9/11 truthers contend that the WTC was built with the explosives already in the building waiting to be set off decades later after the planes had already flew into the towers, or alternatively that somehow the tens of thousands of people who worked in the buildings were so inattentive that they failed to spot how their floors were being rigged with masses of thermite, the obvious problems are obscured in favour of the wider narrative and unmitigated evil and wickedness of the plot being pulled off. Trig-trutherism ignores simple things like photographs showing Palin almost certainly with child, or how Bristol Palin must have been really damned stupid to get pregnant again despite causing her mother such hassle the first time round, or indeed the even more devious trick of how Bristol managed to give birth while already being pregnant again, as Salon's timeline has now documented.

The main reason why Trig-trutherism was always so bizarre was because it provided precisely the evidence as to just how almost other-worldly Palin is. Without wanting to fall into the trap addressed by Megan Carpentier of demanding gynaecological records when I have no knowledge whatsoever of what it's like to have a womb, what hasn't been denied is that having thought her water had broke, Palin not only went on to give a speech, she then flew from Texas all the way back to Alaska, and even then, rather than going to a hospital in the state capital Anchorage she was driven back to Wasilla, a "city" with a population of less than 10,000, to give birth, 25 hours after first thinking that some amniotic fluid had leaked. This, even more astonishingly, was under advice given by the family doctor, who if didn't exactly advise Palin not to do what she did, also didn't tell her to get her damn self to a hospital. Indeed, she didn't think it was unreasonable for Palin to fly in such a condition, when most airlines understandably advise against or don't allow women who are over 8 months pregnant to travel. Even taking into account that Palin, having had four children, was entitled to be relaxed about giving birth, her behaviour wasn't just insouciant, it was potentially dangerous to the child's health and to her own.

When the fiction is only slightly more sensational than the truth, it's understandable that some are willing to go just that little bit further. Trig-trutherism was though such a complete dead-end: yes, there would be some staggering cynicism involved in such a cover-up, and it would have made Palin completely unfit for office to have carried off such a deception, yet it's hardly Whitewater. It's not Bush stealing the 2004 election, bombing the levees in New Orleans, or creating a vast network of prisons in which kidnap victims were tortured before being detained indefinitely on an island off the coast of America. Oh, that last one happened. Sorry. And it's most certainly not Obama having managed to commit the ultimate crime of becoming President when he wasn't a US citizen, something which a potential presidential candidate has spent the last few weeks promoting across the American news networks. Conspiracies have to be massive and involve hundreds, if not thousands of people, often with a uncanny inkling for what's going to happen dozens of years into the future. Pretending a baby's yours when it isn't, even if for nefarious political purposes, just isn't thinking big enough.

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Monday, April 25, 2011 

Ah, Britain.

"We saw a kid stamp on a pigeon today," reports Kai Campos, one half of the London post-dubstep duo. "It was a nice welcome back to the UK."

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Friday, April 22, 2011 

Can we go back?

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Thursday, April 21, 2011 

Playing the victim in the privacy wars.

Whenever the tabloids start to play the victim, it ought to be apparent that there's something far more vital at stake than the freedom of the press: that other enduring freedom, to make money out of the misery of other people. If you've been cynical enough to think there might be something else afoot that's encouraged the so-called popular press to spend much of this week complaining bitterly about how they're not being allowed to continue to focus on shag 'n' tell journalism to the detriment of everything else, then you'd be right. Even if the phone-hacking scandal hasn't (yet) touched any other newspaper than the ever egregious News of the Screws, they know full well that the longer it rumbles on the more likely the same celebrities and politicos now demanding recompense from Murdoch's minions will turn their attention onto them. Why else after all would they have done so much to either ignore or play down the NotW's sad troubles with the Metropolitan police if they didn't themselves know there would be be similar discoveries if their own email records were exposed to the same intimate attention? It certainly isn't the old Fleet Street spirit of solidarity, of dog not eating dog, which has always been something of a myth.

Anything then to deflect from how so much of tabloid journalism is currently under scrutiny. Politically wise or not, considering the potential for revenge to be taken in the most damaging of ways, Ed Miliband's call for an independent review of the Press Complaints Commission and newspaper practices once the police investigation into the Screws has finished was both brave and welcome. It must have also been alarming to tabloid editors and their owners, not so much because they fear such an inquiry taking place, something doubtful to happen when the levels of mutual sycophancy between themselves and David Cameron are still high, more because it's a sign of just how precarious their craft is becoming that any front line politician feels bold enough to call for something they would have usually not touched with the proverbial ten-foot barge pole.

The resurrection of the issue of super-injunctions for mostly specious reasons should be reasonably apparent due to how the cases the tabloids are complaining about are err, not super-injunctions, otherwise they wouldn't be able to complain about them at all, as they're meant to ban the press from even mentioning they've been gagged. Instead the courts have recently favoured the slightly subtler form of injunction which allows the media to make clear that they've been stopped from printing a story, and even to go into some of the relevant details which could potentially identify those involved. Hence we know a married footballer has stopped the press from splashing on his affair with the fragrant Imogen Thomas, a former Big Brother contestant who's made her living since appearing on the show by exposing her plastic breasts for money, while a "world famous" actor who paid for some sort of sexual activity with the equally lovely Helen Wood, an escort universally known in the gutter press as ROONEY TART/HOOKER for her past dalliance with the Manchester United striker has also been saved from the ignominy of having his poor taste in sex workers revealed.

Justifications for informing the world that famous people tend to be just as human as the rest of us range from the moralistic, such as Paul Dacre's notable attack on Mr Justice Eady for stopping newspapers reporting on the "unimaginable depravity" of the likes of Max Mosley, to how it enables superstars to continue to present themselves as role models to the young while profiting from it through marketing deals, all the way along to the usual press freedom arguments. Others still are now pointing to how unfair it is on the women involved that they can't either protect themselves or sell their stories, as if the likes of Imogen Thomas or Wood are somehow damaged further having usually informed the media in the first place. Excepting Wood, it also ignores their own responsibility for involvement in the affair, even if their identities don't always stay hidden. In a recent case the News of the World had intended to claim that a television presenter had been sacked after the fellow host she had conducted an affair with had requested the break up of their partnership, only for her to support the seeking of the injunction.

It would be much easier to respect the principle of "publish and be damned" if the stories the media does manage to get into the papers were reported accurately. Not content with the already sensational likes of Mosley conducting spanking sessions with dominatrices, the Screws had to sex it up further (arguably to give it something resembling a public interest defence) to Mosley having a Nazi orgy. The John Terry saga of last year took on a rather different air when the quietly determined Vanessa Perroncel managed to extract apologies from both Sunday newspapers involved, more than suggesting that the claims of an affair between the two were inaccurate. Terry has since been restored to the England captaincy, the role he lost after the tabloids called for him to lose it following his "infidelity".

This isn't to suggest there aren't potential problems ahead should the law be more contentiously interpreted by judges. A judgement published yesterday by Justice Eady seems to go a step further than anything so far: in a case he describes as an example of "straightforward and blatant blackmail", he imposed a contra mundum injunction, forbidding not just the national but worldwide media from identifying those involved. These have only formerly been issued in cases where those seeking them were not just at risk of having their right to privacy under the European Convention of Human Rights breached, but their article 2 and 3 rights also; John Venables and Robert Thompson, the killers of James Bulger had their new identities protected in such a way, as did Mary Bell. Regardless of the solid medical evidence suggesting the health, including the mental health of those involved has been affected, this could well be a step too far: it's one thing to protect those who have committed terrible crimes as children from being hounded for the rest of their lives or even killed by banning the publication of their whereabouts and names; it's quite another to do so over a case which involves "intimate photographs and other information". Moreover, it's bound to lay down the gauntlet to media outlets overseas who've graciously respected the past rulings who will be far less likely to do so when the stakes are nowhere near as high; and after all, what exactly can they be threatened with which might make them think twice before doing so?

Despite David Cameron today voicing his "unease" over the recent injunctions, it's still manifest that judges are not making the law, merely interpreting it as best they can and following rulings
which have set precedents, usually delivered either by the highest court here or by the ECHR. It's also clear that politicians still seem unlikely to be willing to get involved in something which will mean them rather than judges deciding on how to balance the competing rights of privacy and freedom of the press, whether or not they have the tabloids screaming at them to do something or not: in this instance there seems to be too much to lose either way. Having spent so long complaining about vested interests and their role in British life, it's would be nice if the tabloids recognised theirs in preferring exposure over privacy. It's only when it comes to their own newsrooms that they opt for the latter.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011 

Guns and consequences in Libya.

From the essential C.J. Chivers. Also, my post from yesterday was mirrored over at Lib Con.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011 

Mission creep and self-inflicted wounds.

The announcement that we're sending 10 or 12 "experienced military officers" (the Graun's quotation marks, not mine) to Benghazi, it should be clear, changes precisely nothing on the ground in Libya. Ever since the passing of the UNSC 1973 or even possibly before there will have been special forces/spooks in the country, doing the same or similar jobs to that which this new team will supposedly be carrying out. The US, for instance, actively signed orders allowing the CIA to potentially covertly arm the rebels back at the end of last month.

No, what William Hague's admission signifies is our desperation at how the situation has turned against the rebels, and also our inability to do anything about it other than gestures. Despite the caveats made above, it is also a clear example of mission creep, precisely because we have now made official what was previously only being done in the shadows. Hague's statement was a master class in euphemism - apparently the main work of these experienced military officers will be to advise the rebels on how they can better "protect civilians", which it seems is unlikely to be a reference to the horribly inaccurate weapons some have welded and bolted to their vehicles, with a side-order of telling them how they can better organise themselves. This though will absolutely not amount to training fighters, nor will it breach the UN resolution, because we've said it doesn't.

For all the allusions to how the Vietnam war escalated, it's difficult to believe this is anything other than ourselves and the French having to do something, anything, to prove that we aren't starting the process of abandoning the rebels to their fate, although it's hardly going to convince them of our long-term intentions. You can give the Benghazi-based rebels all the advice in the world; without proper training, something that will take months and which we aren't offering, the best they'll be able to do against Gaddafi's forces barring a ceasefire will be a repeat of what's happened in Misrata, where those who rose up have been able to slow the advance through urban guerilla warfare. Even with the best will in the world, they can only hold out against such a superior adversary for a few months.

It's an equally bad sign that we've also now started to target communication systems, which will undoubtedly be used by civilians and military alike. Not only will this have the unfortunate side effect of making it far more difficult for civilians to get word out of any atrocities committed by Gaddafi loyalists, it's also an unwelcome reminder of the far broader rules of engagement adopted during the intervention in Kosovo, where NATO was unhindered by an UN resolution. Up until now there seem to have been relatively few civilian casualties as a result of the airstrikes, almost certainly due to how only definitively military targets have been hit; by widening this to "dual-use" buildings and equipment the risks increase accordingly. Possible as it is that such strikes could help to turn further turn feeling against Gaddafi in the towns and cities under his control, bombing from the air with "good intentions" rarely wins the affections of those meters away from being blown apart.

Here, as Simon Jenkins writes, are the limitations of half-cocked liberal interventionism being played out: not all of those who wanted a no-fly zone were naive or paid little attention to what it would actually mean in practice; then there's Ming Campbell, one of the first to call for something to be done, who seems to be incredibly uncomfortable with how it means sending in those blighters in the military. Alan Juppe meanwhile says with considerable understatement that NATO underestimated Gaddafi's "capacity to adapt", as though bombs from the air were ever going to be able to topple him alone. All of this was both predicted and warned of, and yet the same old traps have been eagerly walked into once again. Excepting the regime suddenly imploding from within, something there's no sign of, or the establishment of a protectorate around the ever decreasing land which the rebels control, the negotiations UNSC 1973 demanded and which ourselves and those in Benghazi have rejected look to be the only viable way out. Tony Blair might not have won his last two wars, but he was never humiliated by his failure to do so. Cameron's belligerence looks more like a self-inflicted wound by the day.

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Monday, April 18, 2011 

Betrayal seems to beckon.

One of the things you can't help but notice is that those who shouted loudest for intervention in Libya have gone strangely silent over the last couple of weeks. Even when UNSC Resolution 1973 was passed over a month ago it seemed likely that the introduction of a no-fly zone would merely instigate a stalemate; indeed, to read it by the letter that was exactly what it was supposed to do, calling as it did for an immediate ceasefire. It's now difficult to reach a conclusion other than our involvement is simply postponing the inevitable: first the fall of Misrata, and then a march by Gaddafi's forces on Benghazi, precisely what our politicians crowed about preventing.

There's also no getting away from the fact for those of us who have opposed the conflict from the beginning that what's happening in Misrata is appalling. Gaddafi's army loyalists and irregulars have imposed a very old-fashioned siege on the city, first shelling it indiscriminately to "soften" it up, and are now in the process of clearing it street by street. They've used as revealed by C.J. Chivers in the New York Times Spanish manufactured cluster munitions, a doubtless very uncomfortable shock to a nation which can't help but be reminded of its own terrible civil conflict. How many civilians have been killed is impossible to know for certain, although going by the records of the city's hospital it must number in at least the low hundreds. The only reason why the city has managed to hold out this long is due to the incredible bravery being displayed by the revolutionaries defending it, who in contrast to their brethren further east have organised themselves effectively, dug in and used the damage wreaked by the artillery bombardment to their advantage.

Clearly and sadly though they simply can't keep holding on without either being relieved or their ammunition restocked. The only hope of either happening is through the port, which is mainly being used to evacuate the civilians still remaining to Benghazi and which for now at least remains under rebel control. A conflict being fought in such a way only goes to show the stark limitations of a no-fly zone: while the rebels are complaining that there have been minimal airstrikes against Gaddafi's forces in and around the city, it must be all but impossible to know for certain just who is who from hour to hour, even if they're in contact with those on the ground, while additional bombardment from the air will do little more than deteriorate conditions further. Sending in ground forces now would also only exacerbate the situation, with it being incredibly difficult to be able to protect civilians in a battle reminiscent of the attacks by the US in Iraq on Fallujah, another rebellious city.

Quite where the suggested EU humanitarian force would fit in is even more difficult to fathom. The Libyan government has supposedly promised the UN access to the city, although whether this is only after the fighting has finished is less clear. Why after all would Gaddafi call an end to the siege now when it could only be a week or less away from being back in his control, especially when he and his regime have lied repeatedly about their intentions ever since UNSC 1973 was passed? It's also hard to imagine all the countries involved allowing their soldiers to enter what could still be a live fire zone, almost certainly coming into direct conflict with those still fighting on both sides. This isn't to suggest a post-conflict force wouldn't be welcome, as it would definitely provide a bulwark against Gaddafi's forces taking revenge, as they have been in the other towns and cities which rose and then fell. How though could one set of ground forces be justified or explained to the rebels without others being sent in to prevent Benghazi suffering the same eventual fate?

Which brings us back to those who argued for the imposition of the no-fly zone. One of their key arguments was that to allow Gaddafi to murder the people of Benghazi would have sent the message to those dictators still standing that the only way to react against peaceful protests wasn't through concessions, but with brutal, overwhelming and horrific force. The problem is that this is exactly what we have allowed to happen in Misrata regardless, and which was always a possibility due precisely to our reluctance to involve even the threat of ground troops. Others said that we would never be forgiven for letting another Srebrenica happen, especially when those about to massacred had risen up in favour of self-determination and human rights, the very values we espouse and occasionally demand of those regimes that don't buy our silence through selling us cheap oil. Those in Libya who initially welcomed the UN resolution are now damning us, quite understandably, as not doing enough. If Benghazi falls too and we don't intervene further, then no one will remember the no-fly zone; they'll recall that the West will do little other than "impose" itself from the air when it's just the lives of brown people at stake.

As stated previously, as soon we involved ourselves, we took complete ownership of the situation whatever the eventual outcome. This was precisely why there should have been a plan for all eventualities, and which there's now been a further month to put together. There is still no sign of one, unless you count a letter/comment piece signed by Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy which once again says Gaddafi must go while failing to explain what we'll do if he continues to refuse. The longer this goes on, the more land Gaddafi is likely to seize, and with it the body count will continue to climb: Cameron and friends, having fallen into the belief that a war from the air can succeed where it has previously failed, are faced with the horrendous prospect of having to broker a deal with the very man and regime they demand disappear. Betrayal seems to beckon either way.

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Saturday, April 16, 2011 


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Friday, April 15, 2011 

A front page for the ages.

Yes, that's a young woman described as both a tart and a moll due to her relationships with two different men, an actress brave enough to admit she's struggled to cope with mental illness referred to as "loopy", while lastly the always handy idle dole scrounger provides today's two-minutes hate. Makes you almost yearn for the Daily Sport, doesn't it? (No.)

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Thursday, April 14, 2011 

Good and bad immigration.

It isn't exactly news that politicians can at times be cynical beasts. After having campaigned fairly vigorously for that age old misnomer "controlled immigration" last year, David Cameron and the Conservatives then mostly forget they had said any such thing. The Tory policy of reducing net immigration from "hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands" (page 21 of the manifesto) didn't receive a mention in the coalition agreement, while the decent and desperately needed Liberal Democrat push for an amnesty for illegal immigrants was also thrown on the scrapheap. With the exception of Cameron's slight divergence into integration and multiculturalism during a speech on radicalisation, on the same day as the EDL marched through Luton, our dear leader hasn't so much has mentioned the topic over the past year.

What a surprise then that just three weeks before the local elections Cameron finds the time to deliver a speech on immigration to the Tory party faithful. It contains absolutely nothing he hasn't said before and mostly just emphasises what the party's long-term policy on immigration is, which is not the same thing as the coalition policy, even though he presents it as such. Call it what you want, a dog-whistle, a handy reminder to his supporters that they haven't been forgotten, something for the quietly critical tabloids to chew on, an unjustified attack on Labour, it covered all the bases.

Whether or not Vince Cable's objection to the overall tone was manufactured or not is much more difficult to ascertain. I'm certainly cynical enough about the coalition to wonder if much of the so-called divisions are purely cosmetic, playing to each party's base, determined to show that significant differences remain. Nick Clegg, as shown in his New Statesman interview last week is not very good at keeping up the pretence, and instead came off looking like a phoney with an incredibly selective memory, not to mention distinctly strange children (Do they live out the kind of existence featured in Renault car adverts? Papa? Really?). Cable's criticism of the overall tone of Cameron's speech, and "unwise comments" within which risked "inflaming extremism" wasn't exactly ferocious, especially when you consider how critical he's been in the past about the cap on migration from outside the EU. Would Cable also have so easily fell into "the trap" of being on the supposed wrong side of the debate about immigration if he wasn't just engaging in a staged fabrication of a disagreement?

If it wasn't for the highly suspicious release of a quote from Nick Clegg's office, that he had "noted rather than approved" the speech, I'd be inclined to believe that it was Cable speaking out. Instead it does look distinctly like a disagreement about nothing for the benefit of both sides' base, especially with good old Vince coming so quickly round to the "official" view, the spinning having successfully knocked Andrew Lansley's continued difficulties down the news agenda.

This is a double shame, for if even Cameron's main comments that immigration has "created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods" were in fact relatively moderate, they were swiftly sexed up by the media into something far more brutal. The Mail had him saying it had divided Britain, a word not used once in the speech, the Express raised it to "ruined", while the Sun went with "immigration tears UK apart", about as far as from what he actually said as it was possible to imagine. Cameron notably doesn't place any blame whatsoever on the media for inflaming the debate, with their constant distortions, despicable campaigns against asylum seekers and rage-inducing insistence that you can't say anything about immigration without being called a racist, despite having done so themselves ever since the invention of the printing press regardless.

No, all of it instead goes on Labour. It was they who inflamed the debate, ministers refusing to talk about it and screaming racist, while others talked tough but did nothing. For someone aiming "to cut through the extremes of this debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably" this is a laughable caricature and he knows it. According to Cameron Labour's stance allowed the BNP to flourish, as if far-right politics in this country had never been in such a position before. Just as transparent is his hope for immigration to return to not being a central issue in our politics, as though at some point in the recent past it wasn't. Immigration and the arguments surrounding it have like the poor always been with us, especially so since the 60s. Labour's chief offence was that it both didn't explain what it was doing enough and that ministers repeatedly refused to defend the policy of allowing those from the eastern European accession states to come here from 2004 without restriction, which as with so much else was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, based on all other EU states opening their doors at the same time. When only Ireland and Sweden did, it wasn't exactly a shock that so many plumped to give Britain a try.

Like with any modern speech on immigration, Cameron has to praise what it's previously brought us, the all too predictable food, clothing and music, then explain exactly why we can't continue to have such nice things. Cameron and the Conservatives want "good" immigration, rather than unlimited immigration, which not only brings to mind Brass Eye, but also the deserving and undeserving. This essentially means that you're deserving if you're willing to buy your way in or if you have a rudimentary knowledge of English and the skills we need; otherwise, you can get stuffed. This applies in the cruellest of ways - Cameron is quite happy to trumpet the new requirement that those applying for a marriage visa need to demonstrate a "minimum standard of English", as if love has never been able to transcend language. And as others have pointed out, as we demand that those coming here speak English, we're cutting the courses they need in order to learn.

The worst is saved for near the end, where Cameron conflates immigration with welfare. Still it seems we have to contend with the pernicious myth that there's always been hundreds of thousands of people sitting around who could quite easily do the low-paid jobs that immigrants have taken. Like with so much else of the speech, Cameron tries to sugar the pill by stating, quite rightly, that there are never a fixed amount of jobs, and that immigrants don't just take those already available, they also create wealth and more new jobs; then he baldly claims that migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left open by the unreformed welfare state. This is nonsense, not only as Chris outlines, but also for the reason that it's ludicrous to expect those who have been on incapacity benefit (as the numbers on JSA for long periods prior to the recession were negligible) for years to move straight into such often back-breaking labour as cleaning or crop-picking, jobs that have been taken overwhelmingly by young migrants who can quickly move to where the work is, have no dependants and are often employed by agencies that control the entire process, where British workers rarely get a look in.

Even if the Tories ultimately succeed in their bid to get the overall numbers settling here each year under 100,000, we'll still it seems be able to rely on the issue being firmly grasped once campaigning is under way again. The sad thing to note is that we used to have a third party that was prepared to make the case for unpopular causes, only for it to be subsumed into a coalition which now has "disagreements" purely for their own ultimate benefit. No one could possibly want "bad immigration" though, could they?

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011 

No alternative.

Three weeks away from the alternative vote referendum, and to hazard an extremely unscientific guess, I'd imagine that a majority of those shortly to get their cards through the door probably don't have the first idea that it's even happening, or what the alternative vote is and why we're having a referendum on it. This is hardly surprising, as many of those who do know about it, myself included, are fairly mystified on the latter score as well.

The alternative vote is a decent electoral system, let's be clear, but only when it comes to voting for an individual rather than for the representative of a constituency on a party basis. This was after all why the Jenkins commission recommended the alternative vote plus, which would have kept single-member constituencies while introducing a regional list system, similar but not identical to that used in elections to the European parliament. Even then it seems like, to borrow a phrase, a miserable little compromise: is the constituency link that essential and important that it necessitates keeping a system which is not proportional only to put in place one that is but which only 20% will be elected through? It seems like a stop-gap towards the full implementation of the single transferable vote, creating a second-class of MPs in the bargain.

AV+ would still have been vastly preferable to simple AV, and why the Liberal Democrats didn't push harder towards a referendum on that instead is a question which both hasn't been asked and which they would almost certainly have great difficulty answering. To be fair, this is probably more the fault of the novelty of a hung parliament being thrust upon us, much predicted as it was: both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would now probably agree that far longer should have been spent hammering out the deal which created the coalition. Instead, it was a rush job, not helped by the right-wing press screaming at Brown to get out of Downing Street immediately despite constitutional precedent suggesting he had every right to stay there until there was no longer any hope of a deal being reached with the Lib Dems and other minor parties, while the Tories made mischief by claiming that without a strong government immediately in place the markets would take fright. Belgium has now gone over three hundred days without a government
, and somehow hasn't had to call for a bailout from the EU, or bring in the IMF.

We then have a sad situation in which we have a referendum on a voting system that no one really wants, except those trying too hard by claiming they've been for AV all along, like the Election Reform Society. AV is, as Vernon Bogdanor has convincingly argued, a tiny change. It would make the voting system slightly fairer, but not anything even approaching proportional. It would mostly ensure that those elected have the backing of 50% of those that bothered to vote, an improvement on the third that currently do. That however is about as far as it's possible to go in listing its advantages over FPTP. Indeed, in some circumstances, due to the vagaries of our parliamentary system, AV would in fact further exaggerate large swings to one party: New Labour's crushing majority in 1997 would almost certainly have been even bigger, as would the Tories' in 1979.

As however befits a political culture in which shouting the loudest and making the most lurid claims nets you the most attention, such a slight reform has inspired a debate where opponents and supporters alike have made laughable arguments their key ones. While as could have been expected the no campaign has been the most disreputable, bringing the lives of children into it, those in favour have also had to scurry around for just why, as they put it, we should vote for a "small change that will make a big difference". Their site says it all: the why vote yes page has three main reasons, two of which are essentially the same point, while the page tackling the "myths" explodes, err, eleven. While AV would indeed mean some MPs would have to work harder around election time to win second and third preferences, it would make no difference whatsoever to what they do in between, while the vast majority of those that currently have safe seats would still have them. Scotland will remain an all but Tory free zone, while the south east of England will still be permanently blue, essentially disenfranchising the hundreds of thousands of voters in each region that are stuck with MPs free to ignore their views with impunity.

It's also utter rot that AV would give more influence to extremists. While Baroness Warsi's argument was slightly misleadingly reported, as she wasn't suggesting that it would mean the BNP would actually win seats, just as dubious was her claim that it would lead to more inflammatory campaigns and more extremist policies. As we saw with Phil Woolas, we already have scurrilous, lying, desperate politicians working under FPTP, prepared to smear their opponents. This won't alter a jot under AV. It's true as some party hacks responding to Warsi have said that the BNP opposes AV, although they haven't made clear that the party supports STV, for the obvious reason that under such a system they would win a handful of seats. And what's more, why shouldn't they? As their showing last year made clear, they have far more support than the Greens, and even the SNP; as loathsome as they are, having a bunch of incompetent knuckledraggers at Westminster exposed for all to see would be to the benefit of everyone. Under AV though it's difficult to see who their voters will give their second preferences to: UKIP perhaps? While those putting Green first will happily go for either the Lib Dems or Labour, are any of the main parties extreme enough for BNP voters? Excepting those who vote BNP at the moment purely as a protest who probably won't want to see their votes entirely wasted, the few remaining true believers aren't going to compromise, leaving the chances of politicians attempting to appeal for second preferences limited to say the least.

Those of us then who want a more proportional electoral system are faced with voting for something which can only sometimes be called an improvement over what we currently have. It is nonetheless an improvement, and those who are calling for a no vote on the grounds either that it will set the genuine reform movement back for a generation or alternatively for a change in the local voting system are missing the point that it will settle the argument for a generation whichever side wins. We can complain as much as we like that the Lib Dems should have demanded either AV+ or an open referendum, giving voters a choice of systems, but what we have is what we have. It is also in line with our history of incremental voting reform, beginning in 1832 and which continued right the way up to 1969. Alternatively (groan), we could take the advice of Simon Munnery and take up the AV cause completely, by voting both yes and no.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011 

The ties that bind.

Tom Watson, whom in hindsight I was more than a little harsh on last year, has called on Rebekah Brooks to do the decent thing and resign as chief executive of News International. The appointment of Brooks a couple of years back wasn't a surprise, as it had long been rumoured that she was being groomed for a management role, yet it's only now that Brooks' unwillingness to take any responsibility for her actions has come back to haunt Murdoch. It's more than pathetic for the editor of the biggest selling newspaper in the country to repeatedly refuse to defend her decisions in front of the cameras, instead leaving it to her underlings, the same people incidentally that she once berated for failing to get an interview with err, Pete Doherty. Then again, when Brooks' two main forays into the limelight involved a night in the cells and the unfortunate admission that journalists had formerly paid the police for information, it was clear that when confronted and put under pressure she wasn't exactly Kelvin MacKenzie.

Which makes it all the more mysterious why Brooks was allowed to put out such mendacious nonsense as the press release discussed on Friday and the statement to the parliamentary media committee which went with it, claiming that the Guardian had "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public", until you realise that this was precisely what James Murdoch had also authorised when he signed off the compensation payment to Gordon Taylor. This wasn't just the hubris of being certain that through brazening it out the entire affair would be forgotten, as News International continued to hope; Brooks was being full supported by another Murdoch given to ranting and raving about the injustice of a world when everything had been handed to him on a plate. If Brooks must go, then so should junior. Completely unconnected, last week the heir apparent was promoted, just as Brooks and the Screws were preparing to come clean. Blood, as it goes, is thicker than water.

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Monday, April 11, 2011 

Phone-hacking: and now?

There's a lovely insight provided by the exchange of letters between Keith Vaz and Rebekah Brooks as to just how important parliament felt the revelation that the press had previously paid the police for information was. It's taken a mere eight years before the chairman of the media select committee felt it was the time to ask the then editor of the Sun to clarify her remarks. Presumably not wanting to deal with two scandals at the same time, the ever fragrant Brooks has now made clear, just as clear as those who previously appeared before the committee from News International and denied phone-hacking had ever been committed by anyone other than Goodman and Mulcaire, that she was speaking in the historical sense.

Not that many police officers often need to be paid for giving information; most hacks, especially on local newspapers, will cultivate a source amongst the constabulary who can be relied upon to provide accurate background, often only in return for the occasional drink, as has been the case since time immemorial. Anyone though can plainly see that the Sun and News of the World often outdo all their rivals when it comes to crime exclusives, and not all of that is just the product of mutual scratching of backs. It did however hold News International in especially good stead when Goodman went too far by picking on royalty: as we have now seen, it seems politicians up to the very highest level were perfectly fair game, while accessing the most mundane and banal details about the lives of William and Harry was ultimately their undoing.

If you want to take it as far as some commentators, this could be our Watergate; if anything though, it's the exact inverse. Watergate was a plot uncovered by two journalists helped massively by an inside source who consequently managed to bring down the most powerful man in the world. This by contrast is a case of a far too powerful media organisation exerting its influence over politicians who were prepared to overlook anything if it meant they would continue to be nominally supported, while the police, mindful of the co-operation and good relationship that had been nurtured over a long period didn't want it to come to an end over something so seemingly petty.

This isn't to suggest that the tabloids or their parent companies and owners are more powerful than our politicians, a trap it's easy to fall into. At the very least they certainly shouldn't be. It's instead that politicians are terrified even now of being repeatedly crudely abused in the popular press, or doing anything which angers them more than just the day to day business of governing does. Not all politicians adhere to the belief that they have to be slavish in their toadying to the tabloids, but the great majority are, or at least give the appearance of it in order to make life easier for themselves. One who doesn't is Ken Clarke, currently being attacked on an almost daily basis in the Sun for his law and order policies, and whom you wouldn't bet on remaining as justice secretary come a reshuffle.

For one thing, we shouldn't pretend that such behaviour was only going on at News International titles. While it's difficult to be certain enough to be able to make sweeping statements about what was going on across the whole of what used to be Fleet Street, we have the What Price Privacy? reports from the Information Commissioner on the private investigator Steve Whittamore and his records, which more than suggest that journalists were making industrial use of blagging to gain access to private information on their targets. Some of those were requests which could well have been ultimately in the public interest, as phone hacking itself could be in the right circumstances; politicians in my view could quite legitimately have their voicemails listened in to if it was to prove wrongdoing other than sexual transgressions, which is of course what the tabloids were most interested in exposing.

The response to the scandal then ought to three-pronged: firstly, there should be a judicial inquiry with a remit going far beyond just the News of the World, which should set out to establish how the "dark arts" of blagging and phone-hacking became so widely used and abused; secondly there should be a royal commission or equivalent into the press, as the Press Complaints Commission has once again shown itself to be worse than useless, as self-regulation almost always is; and lastly, there needs to be a thorough, far-reaching debate into just what we ourselves want from a media that is more a part of our lives than ever before. The latter will almost certainly pose more intractable questions than the former.

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Saturday, April 09, 2011 

A universal crush.

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Friday, April 08, 2011 

They lied and lied and lied.

Worth rereading in full following today's announcement is the press release put out by News Corporation back in July of 2009 following the Guardian's resurrection of the phone-hacking scandal. This part though fairly summarises it:

From our own investigation, but more importantly that of the police, we can state with confidence that, apart from the matters referred to above, there is not and never has been evidence to support allegations that:
  • News of the World journalists have accessed the voicemails of any individual.
  • News of the World or its journalists have instructed private investigators or other third parties to access the voicemails of any individuals.
  • There was systemic corporate illegality by News International to suppress evidence.

Despite today's claims, they of course knew that the above was mendacity epitomised. Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade) herself after all, according to Private Eye, asked the private investigator Steve Whittamore personally to gain access to information while she was the editor of the News of the World. Brooks, now chief executive of News International, was personally responsible for the pack of lies the company released, and also claimed in a letter to the parliamentary media select committee released on the same day (PDF) that the Guardian had "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public". The British public can now decide for themselves just who it was that deliberately set out to mislead them.

Embarrassing as today's apology is, News International has still not yet dropped its "one rogue reporter" defence, although it can only surely be a matter of time, nor has it made any comment on just what Andy Coulson knew, as the cases the Screws hopes to settle all occurred under his watch. Coulson of course completely denied he knew anything about phone hacking back in December when giving evidence at Tommy Sheridan's perjury trial, even going so far as to claim he had no knowledge of Glenn "Trigger" Mulcaire, the private investigator being paid over £100,000 a year for his services to the paper. It really would be awful if the prime minister's former chief media adviser was to end up in the cells himself, wouldn't it?

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Thursday, April 07, 2011 

Consciences salved, we move on.

It's quite something for a movement to go in the space of six weeks from saying it needed no outside help in its uprising against a dictator, to then conceding it did and desperately calling for it, which it received, to finally condemning those risking their own lives for their sake for not doing enough to "protect civilians".

To suggest that all is not going well in the battle against Gaddafi would be putting it mildly. The longer journalists are on the ground, some of them more battle-hardened than the fighters, the more damning their verdict on the uprising is and the claims which were originally made for how a full-scale revolution was only a heartbeat away (and which I also fell into believing). Any quickly cobbled together volunteer militia is going to be indisciplined and make up in bravery and spirit what it lacks in skill, yet still it seems that a familiar pattern is repeated day in and day out. Rather than digging in or attempting to hold ground, the fighters rush forward in vehicles towards where the pro-Gaddafi forces are, and then as soon as they come under artillery bombardment or even machine gun fire, they beat a hasty retreat, losing men needlessly.

Going by our past record in identifying and then striking properly defined and legitimate targets, it's not exactly shocking that when we catch sight of what appears to be heavy weaponry on the front line we attack it without asking questions, or indeed, despite apparently being told by the rebels that they were going to be moving it there. It does somewhat give the lie to the idea though that NATO isn't being proactive enough, although there could have hardly been more disastrous ways of that becoming apparent. Considering the role of Twitter in convincing the easily led of the overwhelming support for the uprising, it's instructive that the likes of EnoughGaddafi are now convinced that the intervention is going to result in the betrayal of the revolution, as though somehow NATO can simply ignore the facts that have become clear on the ground: that however dedicated and serious the rebels are in their aims, they might not even be able to hold on to the ground currently under their control. What looked like becoming a stalemate could still result in the overrunning of Benghazi, and there's little NATO can do to prevent that from the air without inflicting massive casualties on both sides.

As the more realistic in that city now admit, even with a month's training possibly conducted by ex-special forces it's doubtful they could do much more than hold onto the territory they already have. Putting together a serious challenge to Gaddafi's army would take up to six months of intensive support, something which even if it could be provided by another Arab state could well be in vain. This is exactly why it was so crucial that we had contingencies in place before we began enforcing the no-fly zone; instead, as Peter Beaumont writes, we've moved from one panicky policy to the next.

With the Americans having already effectively handed the entire mission over to the nations which were most keen on the intervention in the first place (ourselves and the French), the consciences of the likes of Susan Rice apparently salved by the prevention of another genocide in an African state, quite where we go from here other than to a ceasefire is unclear. There's definitely no appetite for this to continue for months, not least when it means Cameron being attacked in the Sun for cutting back on defence when we're fighting not one but two wars. That however means that unless the terms involve the removal of Gaddafi, even if only to be replaced by one of his sons alongside some piecemeal reforms, Cameron and everyone else are going to be left looking like fools. And that more than anything else will be resisted to that last.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2011 

Scum-watch: Still demanding a pound of flesh.

Around every decade or so, a crime is committed that either through the cruelty involved, the number of bereaved relatives it leaves behind or the unusual nature of the perpetrators temporarily appears to transfix, even horrify an entire nation. The murder of the 2-year-old James Bulger by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson not only left a country asking itself how two only slightly older children could apparently collude to commit such a wicked crime, snatching him when he was out of the sight of his mother for a matter of seconds, his body left to be run over by a train on a nearby line, it also had a direct impact on the politics of criminal justice. With a certain Tony Blair condemning the Conservatives over their attitude to the society he maintained their policies had established, John Major urged the country to condemn a little more and understand a little less, while Michael Howard went on to declare that prison works. New Labour agreed, and only now with Ken Clarke as justice secretary has that attitude been called into question.

When Jon Venables, having been released in 2001 after serving 8 years of a life sentence, was last year arrested and subsequently convicted of possessing child pornography there was an inevitable and understandable inquest into whether he could and should have been better supervised following his release. While a report by the probation service reached the conclusion that it would have required 24-hour surveillance to have stopped him from accessing the material, and that he had had sufficient and appropriate contact with those in charge of overseeing his release on licence, it nonetheless challenged the assumption that many, including myself had reached that the treatment he received during his sentence had achieved its goal of attempting to heal this most damaged of individuals. As Blake Morrison, who had followed the Bulger case from the beginning had wrote, Venables and Thompson were not beyond redemption, as some had dismissed them. He rightly stuck to that view even after his second conviction.

If we were too triumphalist or comfortable in declaring that Venables and Thompson were positive examples of how the criminal justice system in incredibly difficult, even unprecedented circumstances could deal with those so young and only 8 years later decide they were ready to be released back into society, albeit under new identities, then at least Venables' return to custody has allowed us to reassess the regime which he and Thompson were held under should it be required again. In this spirit, it's right that it's been revealed that Venables had sex with a worker at the secure unit he was being held in when he was 17. The woman was suspended at the time and never returned to work. It's also right to wonder whether Venables should have been allowed to live in Cheshire, close enough to where the murder was committed to be able to return to Liverpool, something explicitly forbidden under the terms of his release. That he had also received a warning after being involved in a fight, and was also cautioned for possession for cocaine without being returned to prison is also concerning in light of his re-conviction, although they were finer judgements.

Utterly irrelevant however to any review of their time in custody and subsequent supervision after release is the revelation that Venables and also Thompson have both been on foreign holidays while under licence. It's unclear quite why the news of Venables' holiday has re-emerged now, as the Daily Mirror first reported on it last year, without it making much of a stir. That's for the simple reason that in this instance there is no scandal: Venables not only went through the proper channels in order to travel abroad, requesting permission from his probation officers, the decision on whether to allow it or not went all the way up to the home secretary, with David Blunkett giving his authorisation back in 2004. It wasn't until 2007 when he actually travelled to Norway, having again had to seek permission from the justice secretary, which Jack Straw subsequently gave. It's clear it also wasn't a simple signing of a form without as much as a thought: risk assessments were undertaken, although it's not apparent if the authorities in Norway were informed of his visit.

If there was little public interest in it being revealed that Venables visited Norway, then there is none whatsoever in the Sun splashing on its front page that Robert Thompson went on what it describes as a "secret lads' trip to Europe". He too only did so after gaining the proper permission. No one is questioning or suggesting that Thompson has in a similar fashion breached the conditions of his parole, nor has he committed any offences after being released; why then should he be denied the right to travel abroad with friends when he was given authorised to do so at the very highest level? Rather than being about concern at how he could breach his licence, or how this sends the wrong message to victims, it instead seems to be about unending retribution and vindictiveness. While it can certainly be argued that both were treated leniently and given the very opportunities that they denied to James, quite what purpose denying a visit to mainland Europe would serve is difficult to ascertain. Indeed, it would instead suggest to Thompson that despite having done everything asked of him, he's still to be punished seemingly in perpetuity. And once again, it seems in incredibly dubious taste for John Kay, convicted of the manslaughter of his wife on the grounds of diminished responsibility to be one of the reporters responsible for an article which carries such a subtext.

If the tabloids had got their way from the beginning, Venables and Thompson would never have been given new identities, leaving them if not under the constant fear of attack then almost certainly ostracised from society. This it seems would have been preferable to the attempts, wholly successful or not in the case of Venables, to reintroduce them into the community with a second chance. Some would have denied them even that. To pretend that redemption is ever truly achieved is dubious in all but the rarest of cases, but to withhold even the possibility of it is absurder still.

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