Tuesday, January 31, 2012 

Learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

The civil service is, as we know, politically neutral. It's therefore implausible, not to mention offensive to suggest that the Forfeiture Committee was in any way lent on or obliging towards the government in deciding that Fred Goodwin should lose his knighthood. Just as David Cameron has been made to look weak and vacillating in his refusal to say Stephen Hester shouldn't be receiving a bonus (and wasn't it also curious that the day after Cameron said if Hester was to get a bonus, it should be under a million, he was awarded one of just under that figure?), here comes Queenie herself, ripping up the honour she bestowed on everyone's least favourite banker on behalf of the last government.

While we can all agree that Goodwin's continuing to hold a knighthood on the basis of "services to banking" was rather rum, the decision to strip him of it is a wonderful example of the dangers of political consensus and contemporary thinking. After all, Goodwin could not have been instrumental in the rise and then fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland had he not been encouraged and received acquiescence from those around him, whether it was from the Labour government, the Financial Services Authority, or indeed the bank's board and its shareholders. All of them signed off on the takeover of ABN Amro, believing that the bubbles in housing and credit would never burst, while not giving too much thought to what would happen should a bank become so big that bailing it out would cost tens of billions of pounds, or become so large as to be too big for some governments to even part nationalise.

Goodwin is undoubtedly primarily culpable, and his reputation as "Fred the Shred" and then his initial decision to take his £700,000 a year pension in full made him the pantomime villain of the sort that has seen him appear twice as a character in Viz, yet his failure was nothing compared to that of the entire system. As Aditya Chakrabortty writes
, the idea of rewarding CEOs extra millions on top of their basic salaries was not thought up by the boards themselves, but by academics, who wrote papers claiming that providing extra incentives achieved enhanced results; politicians and indeed most ordinary people thought this was perfectly acceptable, at least while the economy itself was growing, regardless of the yawning disparities in pay. Labour's increased spending on health and education was underpinned by the tax receipts the financial sector was providing, giving ministers no reason whatsoever to suggest that the system was unsustainable. The opposition, for their part, were suggesting slashing regulation still further, while George Osborne made it known that he was considering a flat tax.

By taking Goodwin's knighthood we are then both repeating the pattern, as there hasn't been a single politician who has dared to suggest that this is an unprecendented step (Update: not quite unprecedented, see comments), considering he hasn't been convicted of any crime, nor is he a head of state murdering his own citizens, with the FSA report into RBS admitting that Goodwin didn't break any rules in his dealings, and also implying that it was one man alone who helped to trigger the "financial crisis of 2008-9", the Cabinet Office's statement relegating everything else that brought about the worst recession since the 1930s as "other macroeconomic factors". We have it seems, like the Bourbons, learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

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Monday, January 30, 2012 

Looking for "errors" products?

The things you find when you look for the latest album by the "post-electro" band on Mogwai's Rock Action label:

(The Mail has apparently been tagged as such due to the mistakes in the paper's Kindle edition, but hey, it works both ways.)

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Saturday, January 28, 2012 

Vessel dogs.

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Friday, January 27, 2012 

We must stay bound by the "shackles of the human rights court".

Despite the briefing it received in advance, David Cameron's speech to the Council of Europe on reforming the European Court of Human Rights was fairly tame stuff. With the exception of his promotion of a "sunset clause", which it has been rightly pointed out could result in a denial of justice, the exact thing the ECHR is meant to prevent, it certainly wasn't the "savaging" the Sun described it as, nor did the elite seethe. The real problem we have is the "lively debate" Cameron referred to over human rights in this country, which translated means the insistence of the tabloids that we should have the right to send anyone back to wherever they came from if they're considered a threat - even if that means depositing them in a country in the middle of a civil war, or in the case of Abu Qatada, to face a trial where the evidence against him was in the ECHR's opinion overwhelmingly the product of torture.

The real danger of the Sun wanting to free us from the "shackles of the human rights court", a ironic sentence if there ever was one, is that if it were to come to that we would be doing the biggest disservice to those in the less free nations in eastern Europe. Figures compiled today show that comparatively, the decisions that go against the UK at the ECHR are relatively few. Indeed, more were dismissed than allowed. Turkey, by contrast, had 159 out of 174 decisions go against her, while Russia had 121 out of 133. Both France and Germany also had far more cases heard and go against them than the UK did, with the courting finding there had been a violation in 23 and 31 of the applications respectively. If those on the right got their way and we withdrew from the convention, then it can be guaranteed that Russia would do the same and point towards our decision in justification.

As right as Sir Nicolas Bratza was in criticising politicians for using "emotion and exaggeration" when taking on the ECHR, it also bears pointing out how they ignore cases which don't fit into the standard tabloid "'uman rights madness" archetype. It was only after the family of Christopher Alder went to the court that the government admitted they had been initially denied a proper independent investigation into his death, as well as accepting that the neglect he suffered at the hands of the police was so serious that it amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment, breaching article three of the convention. By all means reform the court so the backlog it currently has can be swiftly dealt with - what must not be allowed to happen is any dilution of its right to intervene in cases which "have been dealt with properly in the national courts", something liable to be highly subjective.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012 

Number crunching.

£963,000 - The bonus awarded to Stephen Hester, Royal Bank of Scotland's CEO

37 - Under the government's proposed benefits cap of £26,000, the number of families his bonus could provide the whole amount for

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Scum-watch: Promoting the lies of a "Walter Mitty" character.

The Sun, like most of the rest of the press, today notes the conviction of a certain Leonard Watters:

A JOBLESS dance teacher has been sentenced to six months in jail for falsely accusing X Factor judge Louis Walsh of groping him in a nightclub.

Leonard Watters, 24, admitted making two false reports to police that the music mogul sexually assaulted him in Dublin nightspot Krystle.

Father-of-two Watters — described as a "Walter Mitty" character — has apologised to Walsh, 59.

Lawyer Cahir O'Higgins told Dublin District Court Watters is now a laughing stock and has been treated as a pariah in his home town Navan, Co Meath.

The court heard Watters is penniless after blowing £670,000 compensation he received for serious burns.

He was allowed bail pending an appeal against his sentence.

Strangely, the Sun doesn't feel fit to mention that this "Walter Mitty" character, now being treated as a laughing stock and a pariah had his initial version of events most prominently promoted by... the Sun. Indeed, after the investigation against him was dropped, Louis Walsh made clear that he was considering taking legal action against the paper for splashing Watters' allegations all over the front page.

His threat presumably resulted in this sort of clarification in the Sun the following day. Gordon Smart took one for the team and wrote an award winning piece of arslikhan, making clear how Walsh is variously "one of the nicest blokes in showbiz", "one of the most friendly, decent and warm characters I have met in the music industry" and also that "he hasn't got a bad bone in his body — even after a big drink". Nonetheless, "[T]he Sun's duty is to report that news. It's our role to ask the difficult questions."

This ought to have been something both Dominic Mohan and Smart could have been asked about at the Leveson inquiry, yet for some reason both were at best, very lightly grilled. Still, plenty of time left for them to be recalled.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012 

Something must break - again.

Politics at the moment seems to be even more a mess of contradictions than it ordinarily is. Just take a look at the current opinion polls - by rights, the Conservatives ought to be in deep trouble. Today's GDP figures for the last quarter all but vindicate the position of Ed Balls and Labour, that cutting too far and too fast would choke off the recovery. With the cuts not really beginning in earnest until April last year, this is the first real evidence of the effects of George Osborne's austerity, and the results have been all too predictable. Left with only the Eurozone crisis to blame, the responsibility for an 0.2% economic contraction can be levelled squarely at the government.

To be fair to those who don't really deserve the benefit of the doubt, some of the coalition's policies aimed at boosting growth haven't yet got off the ground, such as enterprise zones announced in the budget and the credit easing programme trailed prior to the autumn statement. They could yet have an effect. This though is to overlook two of Osborne's other policies which have failed to work: first, that there would be a "march of the makers", the clunky soundbite to end all clunky soundbites, and second that the private sector would be able to absorb those losing their jobs in the public sector. One of the main reasons for the negative figure is that manufacturing and construction output both fell sharply in the last quarter, while the latest unemployment figures (PDF) showed a staggering loss of 67,000 jobs in the public sector, with only 5,000 created in the private.

Why is it then that Labour can't even stay neck and neck in the polls with the Tories? The reliable ICM poll for the Graun gave the Conservatives a 3% lead over Labour, while YouGov for the Sunday Times found they had a 5% lead. Even more worrying is that Ed Miliband, perhaps not surprisingly considering the unbelievably hostile coverage he continues to receive in the Tory press, is continuing to plumb the depths in the personal ratings. Quite why this sudden lead has appeared in some of the polls is frankly a mystery: the last couple of weeks of carnage in the House of Lords over the welfare reform bill can't have irked the public that much, the Daily Mail's attempt to go nuclear over the injustice of bishops suggesting that child benefit shouldn't be included in the cap aside. It's not just the economy, either: the NHS reform bill is even more unpopular than both Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband put together, and Cameron's speech on responsible capitalism last week was piss weak.

It could just be that these are blip polls that will soon be corrected, and ICM's 3% is only just outside the margin of error. According to UK Polling Report, under the provisional new constituency boundaries Labour needs a lead of at least 4.3% over the Tories to win a majority. This is hardly an unattainable figure, but at the moment it certainly looks that way, especially down to the party's catastrophic economic credibility figures. Attempting to change this was behind the shift in recognising that the party could not promise to reverse any of the cuts made should it win the next election. Ed Balls will continue to call for a slowdown in the austerity package, as they would implement should a snap election be called tomorrow and they win it. The obvious problem with this policy is not just that it's a little too subtle, it's also just as slippery as Labour have been ever since the election. It essentially means that nothing in practice will change.

No surprise then is that for now at least it's been welcomed with the same enthusiasm as a fake Gary Glitter account was on Twitter. Beyond the trade union anger at Labour going along with the coalition's freeze on public sector pay, the real reason why it was so short-sighted is that even Standard and Poor's and the IMF, two of the great prophets of neo-liberalism, have now both made clear that austerity on its own is only going to make deficits worse. Through making such a fetish of removing the structural deficit by 2015, something which Osborne admitted back in November was now unachievable, alongside hubristic claims like the country was a safe haven, the coalition invited the kicking it ought to now be receiving. Labour, rather than ramming their point home and pointing out how they said this would happen, is now left in the position where most of the public thinks they wouldn't be doing anything differently.

Ever the optimist (on this only), I still think there's plenty of time for the public mood to change, especially if the next quarter also delivers negative growth. While avoiding the usual complaints of talking down the economy, Miliband and Balls have to keep repeating and ridiculing the promises that Osborne and Cameron made. The current contradictions simply cannot last; something must break. It has to be the coalition.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012 

Ever wondered what happened to Sarah Palin?


(Apologies as ever for the lack of proper blogging today.)

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Monday, January 23, 2012 


Not only then did the News of the World hack Milly Dowler's phone (and claim, laughably, that they had acquired both her phone number and her voicemail PIN from her school friends), they also attempted to check out their cock and bull story about Milly working for an recruitment agency by calling them and pretending to be her mother.

The report from Surrey police also debunks any notion that the NotW obtained the voicemails from the police, as both Tom Crone
and Neville Thurlbeck have suggested might have been the case. More than anything, it's the insouciance of the Screws' dealings with the police when putting their fantastical story to them, and how completely unconcerned they were that the police might find it ever so slightly strange that they'd gained access to a missing person's voicemail that most amazes. As it was, they had nothing to fear. At least, until 9 years had passed.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012 


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Friday, January 20, 2012 

Etta James, 1938 - 2012.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012 

"In a year's time every single one of you in this room might come up and say 'I see what she saw now.'"

We are then finally getting an indication of just what Rebekah Brooks meant when she said that there were worse phone hacking revelations to come and that only then would the News of the World staff understand why the Murdochs had made the decision to close the paper. Ignore as best you can the famous names on the list of those who had their cases settled today, although it's worth remembering that both the police and News International specifically said at one point that John Prescott had not had his phone hacked, and instead focus on those who only entered the limelight as either witnesses to or victims of crime: Paul Dadge, who was photographed helping a woman injured in the 7/7 bombings; Shaun Russell, whose wife and daughter were murdered; and Sara Payne, the woman whose cause the NotW supported to the hilt.

The real question is just why the paper was targeting these people in the first place. The only plausible reason I can come up with for why they were hacking Payne is that it was part of the rivalry which existed for a time between Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, with Payne contributing to the Sun as well as the Screws. Why else would they feel the need to listen in to her dealings, unless perhaps they thought they might get a further insight into any meetings she had with politicians?

Almost as baffling is why they felt the need to hack Paul Dadge's voicemails: in his interview with the BBC a year after 7/7 he mentions how he'd been offered up to £25,000 for a "reunion" with the woman he helped, Davinia Turrell, and that even then he thought some of the hacks "were being really shady", although he couldn't have imagined then quite how shady. Who knows whether they were interested either in the meetings he did have afterwards with Turrell, or the other feel good story of his meeting up with a childhood sweetheart as a result of her seeing the photographs of him, but either way he was another totally ordinary person caught in an extraordinary moment who paid the price with his privacy.

The same is the case with Shaun Russell, husband and father of the murdered Lin and Megan. At least with Milly Dowler there is a very arguable case that if somehow listening to the messages left on her voicemail had led to her killer being found sooner there would then have been a public interest defence; hacking the phone though of someone who guarded the privacy of his remaining daughter tenaciously is simply vile. You could perhaps understand it slightly more if it had been Josie's phone they had targeted, as she has given a couple of interviews since turning 18, mainly you suspect simply to stop any hassle from the press before it begins, but not her father's.

Easier to fathom is the accessing of Harold Shipman's son Christopher's email account, the first case of Glenn Mulcaire going beyond simple phone hacking to be settled. There was cynicism at the time that Shipman had killed himself before reaching 60 so that his wife could receive a pension, having apparently told a prison officer that he was considering doing so, and the fishing expedition led by the Screws seems to have been related to that. A double page spread on the luxury life the wife of the worst serial killer in British history was leading on taxpayer's money would have been classic Screws, as would any additional details on his suicide that they could possibly find through going through his son's inbox. Whether or not it resulted in a story, it did lead to Derek Webb, bless him, putting some of those involved under surveillance. Such was the wonderful place the News of the World was under Andy Coulson.

Also crucial today was that though mealy-mouthed, News International essentially admitted that its senior employees and executives had known about and attempted to cover up the scale of phone hacking at the Screws. Their statement says although they did not accept that they had known, they were paying out damages as if they had. The next step surely must be to acknowledge, finally, just how far the conspiracy went. Further to that is the order by Mr Justice Vos for a further 9 computers to be handed over in case they contain evidence of a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence by those very employees and executives who are still trying to weasel their way out of culpability. And this might only be the tip of iceberg, as none other than Neville Thurlbeck has blogged:

Much more evidence against News International will come in the future.

I worked there from 1988 onwards and I am aware of executives who witnessed practices which would send the share price crashing through the floor.

I expect much of this to come out in industrial tribunals and High Court actions by former members of staff.

But it is the irrevocable loss of trust which could sink it.

Not quite. It'll be the cover up, as it always is.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012 

Any inquiry would be better than no inquiry.

Despite the reaction of most human rights groups, the decision to abandon the Gibson inquiry into alleged British collusion in the torture of rendered detainees is not one to welcome wholeheartedly. Ostensibly for the reason that a new police investigation will now begin into the allegations made by two Libyan men that they were abandoned by ministers and the security services to the mercies of the Gaddafi regime, delaying further the already much postponed hearing of evidence, you also can't help but detect other reasons below the surface.

The Leveson inquiry is after all, in spite of initial misgivings, managing to swiftly get on with its work, getting around the problem of some would be key witnesses having been arrested by going through its remit in stages. One assumes that the inquiry is also being careful not to call those that the police could still decide are of interest to their investigation, although some who have been questioned by the police such as Neil Wallis and Neville Thurlbeck have still appeared and simply not been asked questions specifically on phone hacking. While it would have been more difficult for the Gibson inquiry to sidestep this potential problem quite so nimbly, as there are undoubtedly fewer important figures they would be interested in speaking to who wouldn't in some way be caught up in the new investigation, it seems bizarre how one inquiry can seemingly manage to do it and another can't. True, there is a major difference between the regulation of the media and the work of the security services, yet had there been the inclination these problems surely could have been surmounted.

The other challenge was the totally justified boycott of the inquiry both by the major human rights groups and by some of those who have claimed they were the victims of the policies of both the last government and the security services. These crucial witnesses were said to have met with the government on Monday in a last attempt to come to an agreement on their returning to the fold. With no deal apparently forthcoming, it's reasonable to assume that this is the real main reason Gibson has now been dumped. Intriguing then is that this has been so well received - Liberty in their statement even raise the possibility that this "delay" will mean we might actually get a "proper independent judicial inquiry". This leads to the assumption that even if there wasn't a deal reached on Monday, there was at least a promise that an inquiry would soon be held which would go some way towards meeting the demands of the likes of Liberty.

If this is the case, it has to be hoped that this promise is worth more than some of those made by previous governments concerning the security services. Despite Gibson's fundamentally flawed, purposefully crippled nature, such an inquiry would still be better than no inquiry. If it takes the police and then the CPS around the same amount of time to investigate the claims of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi as it did to decide that Witness B and the others involved in Binyam Mohamed's case should not face charges, then it's likely to be another two years at least before the new inquiry can even begin to start its work. This will then additionally depend on just who the justice and foreign office ministers are at that point - there's no guarantee that there'll be as sympathetic as both Ken Clarke and Alistair Burt appear to be at the moment, Cameron continuing to keep his pre-election pledge or not. Even then it's hardly certain that the inquiry will be any less secret or more open than the Gibson one was going to be; the green paper on justice does little to inspire confidence that the security services won't lobby hard to keep their past handiwork almost completely in the shadows.

It will also mean it'll be nigh on a decade since much of the alleged collusion took place. Even if all the relevant documentation is made available, a very big if considering the problems that the Chilcot inquiry has had in that regard, the problem of failing memories can only combated when combined with exceptional detail, as the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday showcased. With even the report on the research conducted by the Gibson committee to be redacted, it's little wonder some are already suggesting that this may be a chance for truth lost forever. The longer it takes, the more likely those who authorised the collusion will get away it.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012 

The man who knows too much.

There's something about Abu Qatada that truly terrifies the authorities in this country. Fast approaching the tenth anniversary of his initial arrest, he's spent the past decade either in Belmarsh, first under the notorious law introduced after 9/11 that allowed for the indefinite detention with charge of non-British citizens; at his home under a control order with a 14 or 22 hour curfew; and latterly, having been accused of trying to escape from this purgatory purely on the back of secret evidence which he couldn't challenge, held at Long Lartin. Unlike Babar Ahmed, who has now been held without charge awaiting deportation to America for the last 8 years and has had a high profile campaign calling for his trial in this country, hardly anyone has been prepared to speak up for the man also known as Omar Othman.

This is not exactly surprising. Having been described as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe by a Spanish judge, something noted at the beginning of almost every report on the latest legal movement in his case, and as a spiritual leader to al-Qaida when that detail is overlooked, you don't tend to receive much in the way of positive press. His case certainly isn't helped by his proximity to those other notorious Islamists, Abu Hamza and Abu Bakri Mohammed, nor by the speeches and lectures he gave which were favourites among those who went on to take part in terrorist attacks. His interview with Panorama back in 2001, reposted today, is deeply ambiguous and can be taken by both critics and those (very few) speaking in his defence as being either evidence of his general extremist views or his limiting of what is permissible under certain circumstances. Far easier to interpret is a supposed statement from him published on jihadist forums in 2009, where he makes reference to meeting Bilal Abdullah, convicted of the Glasgow airport and Tiger Tiger failed bomb attacks:

"Dr. Bilal Abdullah is a true man of Islam from all points of views; for he is knowledgeable, proficient, and resolute. I was humbled when I heard him say to me: "I was very influenced by your taped lectures.'"

The prison service for its part denied that Qatada was managing to smuggle out or issue any such communiques, although how reliable that claim is when there's a whole interview that was conducted with him also online is debatable.

Nonetheless, described by the reliable Will McCants as one of the most influential jihadi ideologues and having played a huge role in the development of contemporary takfirism, what is clear is that he was in the past an important figure to many involved in extremist Islam. Entirely opaque by contrast is his past involvement with the security services. Along with Abu Bakri, there is much debate about just how far his dealings went with MI5. Bakri has always claimed that he had a deal, described either as a covenant of security or a covenant of peace, whereby as long as he and his groupings did not advocate attacks in this country itself they would be left relatively alone. The only documentation we have which describes Qatada's interactions with MI5 is in the first ruling by SIAC (PDF), where the officer records in the second of his interviews with Qatada that "he came the closest he had to offering to assist me in any investigation of Islamic extremism", following it up by saying he would ‘report anyone damaging the interests of this country’. The officer came away from the third interview believing he had intimated that he "expected him to use that influence, wherever he could, to control the hotheads and ensure terrorism remained off the streets of London and throughout the United Kingdom". According to SIAC there were no further meetings.

This seems doubtful, especially when we consider the highly related cases of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna. Al-Rawi had become friends with Qatada, and following 9/11 agreed to help MI5 keep tabs on him. When Qatada went into hiding after the passing of the indefinite detention bill, al-Rawi was one of the few who knew where he was, and attempted to arrange a meeting between the two, Qatada pulling out at the last minute. His usefulness apparently over, MI5 said he could leave the country and go to Gambia, only for them to pass on fabricated material to the CIA saying they had taken bomb parts along on the journey. The result was their incarceration in Guantanamo Bay for 4 years.

At best then, it seems reasonable to believe Qatada has information which would highly embarrass MI5 should he have to be tried in the UK. At worst, he could be able to sing like the proverbial canary: if his meetings went far beyond what has so far been disclosed, it could well make the previous accusations of Londonistan look tame. As Richard Norton-Taylor also points out, and as was highlighted by the search for relevant documents following the bid for compensation by those who claimed they had been rendered to Guantanamo Bay with the connivance of MI5 and SIS, it will also be both extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming. Only last week it was announced that no one would face prosecution over their role in that policy. Avoiding a repeat of even the chance of that unpleasantness starting all over again, with all it involves for the reputation of the security services must be high on the list of priorities.

Moreover, it seems incredible considering the amount of material available that a prosecution couldn't be brought against Qatada here. The aforementioned SIAC ruling mentions that "he is reliably reported as having made a speech at a gathering in the Four Feathers Mosque in which he gave a blessing to the killing of Jews", the kind of incitement to racial hatred, or even incitement to murder which enabled the conviction of Abu Hamza. Ahmed Faraz was recently successfully prosecuted and jailed for selling books which included Sayid Qutb's Milestones, albeit apparently in a special edition "developed specifically to promote extremist ideology". If such a case can be made which could potentially affect both freedom of speech and freedom of the press, why can't one be made against the man many seem to believe was directly connected with al-Qaida? It seems to only be Qatada and the also loathsome, if not anywhere near as potentially dangerous Anjem Choudary who seem to be able to escape the law here.

This is the light in which today's ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Qatada cannot be deported to Jordan has to be seen. While dismissing the notion that he would be liable to face torture, the court accepting the dubious promise of an authoritarian state that it will refrain from mistreating this one particular special prisoner, they upheld his claim that any trial would not be fair as the evidence against him would be overwhelmingly based on the confessions of two men, both of whom were tortured. Despite the disagreements of consecutive courts, Qatada having gone through the full process of SIAC to the Court of Appeal to the House of Lords to finally the ECHR, the government must have always known it was unlikely that he would ever be deported, whether on the worthlessness of the memorandum of understanding or as, it has turned out, under the right to a fair trial of Article 6.

What then do they do with Qatada now? Any further appeal seems liable to fail. The most obvious response from the government would be to put him under a TPim, the replacement for control orders, but this can hardly hold up in the courts indefinitely. Sooner or later, the authorities are going to have to face up to the fact that the person they fear knows much about their shady dealings is going to have to be prosecuted. They ought to start preparing for that rather than continuing to try desperately to do anything other than the decent and right thing.

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Monday, January 16, 2012 

Twenty top predictions for life 100 years from now.

1. Every single one of us will be dead

sp. Likelihood 10/10.

2. Err....

3. That's it.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012 

28 grams.

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Friday, January 13, 2012 

The establishment has it all sown up.

It can't be said it's a surprise that no one at either MI5 or SIS will face charges over complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed. When the Crown Prosecution Service only decided after the Ian Tomlinson inquest that Simon Harwood should face manslaughter charges, having previously felt that a jury was unlikely to convict due to the inadequacy of the post-mortem performed by Freddy Patel, it was always unlikely that in an even more complex case, where the security services would doubtless make onerous demands over secrecy that any officers would come appear before the beak.

Even more politically toxic was the investigation made clear that front line officers were operating under guidelines which had been drawn up after consultation at the very highest levels of both the security services and government. Despite having pleaded ignorance at every turn, or completely ignored much of the questioning, it seems that ministers were the ones authorising just what agents could and couldn't do, as has been suggested by the documents that came to light in Libya.

With the horse having well and truly bolted, the government now of course wants to ensure that any such unpleasantness in the future can never emerge in the same way. With that sown up, and the laughable Gibson inquiry apparently stuck in limbo as more investigations unlikely to lead to a prosecution take place, the chance of anyone being held to account diminishes with each passing month.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012 

"It kept it on the front page."

It is incredibly easy to make fun of the Leveson inquiry. (It is though far more difficult to be funny when making fun of the Leveson inquiry, as yesterday's post showed.) Up until today this had been by far its least insightful week, partially down to those giving evidence and partially down to the interrogators having something of an off week. Dominic Mohan on Monday was allowed to get away with the obvious inconsistency of paying tribute at the 2002 Shaftas to "Vodafone's lack of security" and his insistence that this was merely a joke, rather than any indication that either the Mirror or Sun were engaged in phone hacking at the time. Such was either Mohan's preparation and one would expect his work with the best of News International's lawyers, or Robert Jay QC's hangover from the weekend that all that seemed to come across was just how wonderfully philanthropic the paper is.

We should perhaps have expected something different when the representatives of the Daily Express and Daily Star came to pay their visit. They are after all the rogue operators on what used to be Fleet Street, having decided last January to leave the Press Complaints Commission, although they had previously refused for a time to pay their accreditation fees. This issue was also the only thing it seemed that the two current editors, the one previous and then Richard Desmond all agreed upon, apparently having decided on a common line when they came to write their witness statements: they had left, not because the PCC had made stringent criticism in two separate adjudications, one against the Daily Star over the "Muslim-only public loos" story, the other against the Scottish Sunday Express and its quite amazing decision to publish an "outraged" story about the private lives of those who survived the Dunblane massacre, but due to how complainants were now going to the PCC and then suing anyway. Never mind that there was never any rule, written or unwritten, that you couldn't then sue after getting the PCC involved; there had to be some other excuse found for removing themselves from even the lamentable regulatory oversight of the PCC.

First up was Dawn Neesom, the lesser spotted editor of the Daily Star. Richard Peppiatt, who resigned from the Star last March in protest at the paper's stance on Muslims, tweeted that she prefers to keep a low profile. Indeed, I can't remember ever seeing a photograph of her prior to today, and only had the the description of her as "editirix" in Private Eye to go by. On the basis of her evidence, as with some of the other editors and reporters, you'd have never believed she had risen to her position on the basis of merit: some recent stories she couldn't remember at all, while others she was forced to admit treated readers like idiots. Like the one declaring Simon Cowell to be dead, which wasn't even based on someone saying he had passed on, or the report during the ash cloud disruption last year headlined "TERROR AS PLANE HITS ASH CLOUD" which referred to, err, a TV reconstruction of a previous incident due to be broadcast on Channel 5 (prop. R Desmond).

One thing Neesom was convinced of was that the low number of staff under her supervision most certainly didn't compromise accuracy. "We always try to employ people that pride accuracy above all else," she stated, something it seems would be news to Rockstar Games, who were paid damages after the paper claimed that the next title in the Grand Theft Auto series would be based around Raoul Moat's stand-off with the police. Nor would the PCC agree, commenting in their adjudication on the "Muslim-only loos" story that they were "particularly concerned at the lack of care the newspaper had taken in its presentation of the story". She also denied that the paper had any anti-Islamic bias, despite the Star's legal representative later complaining she hadn't been given any of the front pages in advance of Jay asking about them. He later provided two examples of "positive" coverage of Muslims, both notably from late last year, after Peppiatt had resigned in the pages of the Graun.

Up next, and notable perhaps only for one thing was current Express editor Hugh Whittow. His remarkable statement when asked on why the group he worked for had left the PCC was to claim it was because it hadn't intervened sooner over their coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. This rather staggered Jay momentarily, as it did everyone else. To quote him:

Are you seriously putting that forward as a reason, that the PCC failed to stop you freely publishing a defamatory article?

It was just one of the things happening at the time, Whittow responded. Everyone it seemed other than the journalists on the Express were to blame for the repeated libels, as the then editor Peter Hill elaborated on next. According to him it was all the fault of the dastardly Portuguese police, who kept insisting that he print whatever they unofficially told his journalists, even though it all but impossible to check anything they leaked. The Express weren't the ones accusing the McCanns of killing their daughter, even if they were publishing the unverifiable claims of those who did. There was "reason to believe they might be true", so Hill kept on putting it on the front page day after day. Despite costing Desmond £550,000 and having to give an unprecedented apology, according to the Hill there were no internal repercussions whatsoever for his part in the sorry saga.

Hill was though thoroughly upstaged by his former boss, who breezed in and did his absolute best to come across as the cheeky upstart wideboy he imagines himself to be. This might have changed had someone, as Michael White notes, uttered the dreaded "p" word, Desmond having made most of his fortune through his past ownership of a vast array of porn mags. Happily, this was skirted around, with Desmond himself making the only mention of his involvement in "adult magazines". His initial approach was to try to bore the inquiry into submission by droning on about how he had cut costs when he bought the Express group, including how he sacked the one correspondent they had in New York, America after all being a country where not a lot happens

Only then did we get onto the good bit, Desmond first livening things up by asking Jay to define ethical, claiming not to know what it meant, only clarifying slightly with his comment in his witness statement (PDF) that everyone's morals and ethics were different and that "it's a very fine line". Just how fine his ethical line is quickly became clear, as Jay tussled with him over the McCanns. Disagreeing that there had been 38 libellous articles, he then went on to suggest that over the four month period if there had been 38 "bad" articles there must have been around 68 "good" ones. Startled by this novel logic, Jay tried breaking his point down to its component parts: that if people believed Madeleine was dead, as the Express was suggesting, they were less likely to look for her. Desmond, having clearly imbibed the Daily Express's other obsession down the years, suggested this wasn't the case as people were still talking about the death of Diana and "these situations where no one actually knows the answer, as it turns out, it just goes on and goes on". Except there was a body in Diana's case, as Jay exasperatedly pointed out.

With his hole duly dug, he kept on going down. It wasn't until the McCanns had taken on new lawyers that they decided to sue, and in any case, it kept it on the front page. As for the PCC, only the Express were made scapegoats by ex-head Christopher Meyer. How much better regulation would be if instead it was done in Desmond's own image, with proper business people, proper legal people, not these other industry johnnies that had slandered him ever since he bought the Express.

If anything, Desmond got off lightly. Like with the non-mention of the pornography, no one brought up his goose-stepping and sieg heiling at a meeting with the Telegraph bosses, the time he punched a journalist in the stomach for not running an obituary of a friend of Desmond's, or any real instances where he had directly interfered in the Express's editorial process, such as when he described a front page Peter Hill had put together as "fucking shit", the then Express editor downing tools as a result. Instead, he dropped himself in it. How one hopes the circulation of his "fantastic" Daily Star drops in a similar fashion.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012 

It keeps rolling on...

There was consternation at the Leveson inquiry today as the Daily Mail's picture editor admitted he receives around 400 pictures of unsolicited arses every hour.

"This," sobbed Paul Silva, "is the new cold reality of working on a tabloid newspaper thanks to your inquiry. Where previously I would have expected to receive thousands of photographs of such A-list celebs as Imogen Thomas and Kim Kardashian every day, all I seem to receive now is freelance submissions of buttocks. All male, I might add."

"You can't possibly use them, of course," Silva went on. "There's no justification for doing so when they are pictures of arses simply going about their daily routine. That's a new policy we've implemented, similar to the one we said we were going to abide by when Princess Diana died and then broke within the week."

Silva's claim received short shrift from counsel to the inquiry Robert Jay QC. "Is a yacht not a private place? Why then are there numerous shots of an especially famous arse on Mail Online today? And even if you don't use long-lens shots of one particular arse, as long as it isn't going about its daily routine, only last weekend your sister paper used it to promote a five minute workout they were featuring. Where exactly is the bottom line?"

"Oh, I'm not responsible for the website," replied Silva. "They put any old bum up there."

At this point Lord Justice Levesoncarrot intervened and suggested it was a good time to adjourn for luncheon.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012 

Facing up to the same old reality.

There appears to be a quarterly cycle in how the media report the progress of Labour under Ed Miliband. With the exception, predictably, of the Graun and Mirror, Ed's conference speech was almost universally derided by the press. Business itself, ignoring the always open mouth of Digby "the biggest bore in the world" Jones, was strangely muted in response, perhaps realising that a change was in the air. So it has come to pass: having accused Miliband of being anti-business for daring to suggest that some firms act akin to vampire squids, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have since leapt on to remarkably similar territory. Cameron's proposal that shareholder votes on executive remuneration be binding might not amount to much when hardly any ultimately reject what the boards propose to pay themselves, but it's reminiscent of the old tactic, much used by both the Tories and Labour of stealing policies first floated by the Liberal Democrats. Having first proposed them, the third party duly received none of the credit once they'd been nicked.

Now it's poor Ed that's left murmuring of how the older boys have pinched his toys. The vast majority of the media, having dismissed the idea that our politicians would ever dream of suggesting that the last 30 years of neo-liberal capitalism might not have in the long run benefited society as a whole, has also not changed its tune. Just as Miliband should be recognised as having succeeded in pushing the debate towards the left, as he also did (somewhat) through his championing of the still undefined "squeezed middle", we're once again going through the beginning of the month questioning of whether he's up to the job. He's not connecting with the voters, he's not capitalising on the coalition's official policy of destroying the economy, he's making typos in his tweets, and, most seriously of all, he's just not very attractive. The only pandas the public deem lovable are those behind railings in Edinburgh Zoo; the one leading the Labour party is simply unelectable.

It really is incredibly lazy, tiresome stuff, but it's what we've come to expect from the right-wing press. The tabloids have always tried to tear apart opposition Labour leaders; Tony Blair was the exception, and he was given a soft ride only due to how hopeless it had been decided John Major was. More to the point, Miliband still has incorrigible Blairites on his back, convinced that if only Brown had been overthrown the party would still be in power, or failing that miracle, are also unshakeable in their belief that if Ed hadn't shafted his brother Labour would now be 20 points ahead in the opinion polls. Their remedy, or at least the remedy of Dan Hodges, to do the Blairites generally a major disservice by suggesting his views are the same as theirs, is to be to the right of the coalition on everything: more hawkish on the deficit, harsher on welfare recipients, even more vicious on law and order. Hell, go the whole way: string up a banker or two and then, to balance it out, carpet bomb a sink estate. Try to follow that, David Cameron.

We should then be concerned when Hodges, albeit guardedly, welcomes anything Miliband announces. With the media having placed today's speech from Ed in almost the same "make or break" category as that of a football manager threatened with the sack, his big new direction on the deficit to be set out, it was always likely to be a damp squib. Labour's policy on the deficit, so critiqued and ridiculed by those who think it's the party's unreliability on the economy that is preventing them from making a significant breakthrough against the coalition, is difficult precisely because it depends on exactly how successful the government is in bringing it down. Osborne is now reducing it less quickly than Alistair Darling projected he would, and a double-dip recession will only exacerbate the differences. All Miliband has done today when you boil the speech down to its bare bones is admit that there will still be a deficit whoever wins the 2015 election.

Despite Hodges' tempered enthusiasm, this hasn't altered actual policy one jot. Yes, he's admitted that there won't be the money to return to "social democracy v2" as Peter Kellner has described it, but there's also no real detail on where further cuts might have to be made. The Miliband and Balls approach of criticising cuts while not explaining what they would do differently will then continue, the same one so bemoaned by those convinced it means the party has no chance of winning in 2015. At the same time, for those of us who don't think the public will still be entirely monomanical about the deficit come the next election, there was very little here to encourage us that Miliband can build on his initial push against unreformed capitalism. He talks as leaders must about fairness but only uses the word equality with in on the front of it, and that's to describe how the last government failed to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Some of the policies he did suggest could turn out to be harmful: quarterly reporting by businesses may encourage short-termism, but it also provides an insight into those that are failing due to poor management. Why also should it only be the over-75s that must be placed on the lowest tariffs by energy firms, and how indeed would that work in practice? The very policy that would make a huge difference, the living wage, was the one that he skirted around.

Thankfully, contrary to popular belief, Miliband still has plenty of time to get all of this right. David Cameron's EU treaty veto fiasco showed that barring a calamity, such as war with Iran, the coalition is bound together far more strongly than many of us believed. Should there be another recession, the idea that this is all Labour's fault will wear ever more thin. With three years still to go, as long as Ed continues to raise his game (ugh), the prevailing attitude towards him and at the same time Cameron and Osborne will begin to shift. Perhaps with time these media-led wobbles might then be reduced to mere yearly occurrences.

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Monday, January 09, 2012 

It's no ordinary sale.

Dominic Mohan's witness statement to the Leveson inquiry doesn't just sell the Sun. He, in the style of
an Osakan shop's promotions, fuckin' sells it:

Put simply, The Sun connects with the values, broad interests and obsessions of millions of ordinary working men and women every day and in doing it serves a proper purpose in our democracy. It distills complex important issues of the day, including politics, finance and law into concise readable copy which educates and entertains. Publishing popular newspapers is not a public service but the publication of commercially successful titles like The Sun is, I believe, in itself in the public interest.

How then did the Sun connect with the values, broad interests and obsessions of millions on Saturday, distilling the complex important issues of the day into concise readable copy?
By splashing, of course, on how Ed Miliband (or rather, one of his aides) had made a typo when tweeting about the death of Bob Holness. Blackbusters! LOL! How Freudian!

Mohan was far too humble: truly, not just in the public interest, but also a public service.

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Saturday, January 07, 2012 

Mutant jazz.

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Friday, January 06, 2012 

Poetry corner.

In Memoriam

So. Farewell then
Bob Holness
Host of Blockbusters,
Actor and

"Can I have a P
Please Bob?"
Yes. That was
Their catchphrase.

Now it seems
You're the one
With a D.

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Thursday, January 05, 2012 

Another depressing passing frenzy.

Sigh. Honestly, are we going to carry on in this way until the end of time? People in other countries use social networking sites to help launch and organise revolutions; we apparently use them to flay alive those who say or do things we don't like. No one's safe, whether it's 13-year-olds with dreams of stardom, clearly drunk women mouthing off on trams, an ageing, jeans-wearing man who likes cars cracking a joke about impartiality, BBC news editors who light-heartedly included a panda in their list of women of the year, not expecting that over Christmas there would still be thousands of humourless people on Twitter, or as today's shown, an MP being careless in their choice of words.

I didn't really even want to write about this, but thought I had to after yesterday's post. And let's make this clear, as plenty of people have wrongly drawn equivalence between Diane Abbott's comments and Luiz Suarez's argument with Patrice Evra. There is simply no comparison between a footballer, who when asked by his opponent why he kicked him said it was because he was a negro, repeats the word a further six times, and then denies he's done anything wrong until he issues a feeble general apology months later rather than address it personally to the man he said it to, and a politician who was quite clearly not seriously implying that *all* white people love playing divide and rule when replying to a critique of the idea of there being both a "black community" and "black community leaders".

This said, Abbott's subsequent attempts at explaining her tweet have not been fully convincing. Yes, as the hash-tag in her original makes clear, she was defending the idea of there being a black community when in the past both the establishment (overwhelmingly white) and colonial powers have tried to prevent any such leadership from taking shape in order to keep black people in "their place". Politics is though inherently all about dividing and ruling, as this government is more than ably demonstrating, and Abbott should have known that generalising it to "white people" was a simplification way too far, even for 140 characters. She then compounded this by not fully explaining just what she meant, rather going for the age-old excuse of it being taken out of context. If she had done that to begin with and apologised immediately for any offence she may have caused, she probably wouldn't have received the public dressing-down from Ed Miliband, or prompted an onslaught from those who jump at any chance to launch an assault against the "politically correct" lobby on the comment sections of websites.

Sad to say, there is also more than an element of truth to their accusation that if a politician had made a similar blanket statement about black people (although you can't exactly turn it directly around in this instance) then it's more than likely they would be out of a job now, even if an apology was made or there were similar nuances involved. It's worth remembering that Patrick Mercer was ridiculously made to resign from his shadow cabinet position by David Cameron, supposedly over how he repeated the stereotyping used by drill sergeants (although it always seemed more likely it was to do with how he dismissed out of hand any suggestion that there might be racial discrimination in the army), a decision also likely made as an attempt to ensure that his "detoxifying of the Tory brand" was in no way undermined. It would be lovely to imagine that all instances of racism could be treated the same regardless of the colour of the skin of the person involved, but this itself is difficult when some on the left continue to believe that it is only those with white skin, or those in a position of power who can be racist. This needs to be seriously challenged and to change.

It would also help wonderfully if the media, rather than looking for constant controversy and jumping straight on the back of a Twatterstorm could instead continue to reflect on how the last couple of days have demonstrated that British society has been changed for the better by the courage, tenacity and dignity of two people who simply wanted justice for their son. They were helped along by both natural and unnatural allies, including those who made their own individual breakthroughs, like Diane Abbott. Moving on to the next passing frenzy was especially crass in these circumstances.

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Wednesday, January 04, 2012 

Liverpool, Suarez and the football bubble.

At the best of times, it often seems as though football, or at least top-flight football operates within a bubble. This can indeed be a source of strength: long may it continue to be the case that at three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon the problems of the outside world can be temporarily forgotten about, the sheer artistry of 22 individuals on a field overwhelming everything else. At the same time, it's impossible to do so when those outside problems are mirrored on the pitch itself. Thanks to the work of groups such as the Kick it Out campaign and others, racism has for the most part been eradicated both from the pitch and terraces. There is still work needed to ensure it doesn't return, as well as to raise the overall level of respect both players and fans have towards one another, at least within reason, but for the most part the situation has improved massively over the past two decades.

This is why the incidents between Luiz Suarez and Patrice Evra, and John Terry and Anton Ferdinand have cast such a pall over the game. Most of us thought we'd got beyond the point where massively paid international footballers, regardless of how a minority have conducted themselves off the pitch would ever think it acceptable to racially abuse one another on it. While Terry is innocent till proven guilty, and it must be said it is thoroughly regrettable that the police have become involved in his case, the case against Suarez has been overwhelmingly proved. Even so, everyone has rightly been at pains to point out that regardless of what Suarez has been found to have referred to Evra as in the heat of the moment, no one is even beginning to suggest that he is a racist. The FA has stated they do not believe him to be a racist; the independent regulatory commission found in its exhaustive report that he was not a racist; and more to the point, Evra himself said in his evidence that he does not believe Suarez is racist (paragraph 232 of the report).

Both Suarez and Liverpool as a football club seem to have completely ignored this crucial point: that making a racist comment does not instantly make the person who made it genuinely prejudiced, let alone a supremacist or as both seem to fear, a potential pariah. Ever since Evra made his complaint, both have dug themselves ever deeper into a hole when all that was really needed was for Suarez and his club to recognise that he had breached, perhaps even through ignorance, the FA's rules, accept the charge and make an apology to Evra. The FA would have taken this into account and most likely given a less harsh penalty than the 8 game ban and fine of £40,000 that he's received, as they did in the case of Reading's John Mackie, who had 5 games of his ban suspended. Instead, and to what should be their shame, they've contested the charge with such a vigour that they've brought both themselves and the game into disrepute.

From the very outset, when Dalglish's second comment on being called to see Andre Marriner and Phil Dowd after the game was to ask hadn't Evra "done this before" (paragraph 145) it seems as though their strategy, rather than being to recognise Suarez might have gone beyond the pale was to stick to him blindly, and far more ignobly, accuse Evra of making the whole up. Evra has not, despite common belief, made accusations of racism before; when he was involved in a ruck after a game at Chelsea with a groundsman it was Mike Phelan and United's goalkeeping coach who claimed the word "immigrant" had been levelled at the player.

If the hope was that through rigorously contesting Evra's evidence it would be found wanting, then the approach failed miserably: over a quite incredible 115 pages, almost every part of Liverpool's case is destroyed. If the FA had really wanted to be vindictive, they could have said that one player calling another a negro was by itself completely unacceptable in the English league; instead, the commission instructed two independent experts, both of whom painstakingly go through all the linguistic connotations and found that if Suarez said what Evra says he did, it would have been offensive even back in Uruguay, while if it was the other way around, it wouldn't have been (paragraphs 167-202).

Most remarkable of all is that Liverpool have kept up this pretence even after Suarez told the commission that he wouldn't be using the word "negro" again (paragraph 454). Their statement yesterday, making clear that they wouldn't be appealing the judgement, is typical of the bluster of football managers when they want to cover over a poor performance. Everything according to them was subjective, even when time and again it's clear the commission went out of their way to be fair to Suarez. It's true that their decision was made on the balance of probabilities rather beyond reasonable doubt, but this was always going to be the case when the evidence they had to decide upon depended so much on how their individual accounts stood up. It could be that United coached Evra better, and that he made a better impression as he gave his evidence in English while Suarez's had to be translated, yet it's also the case that both Damien Comilli, Liverpool's director of football, and Dirk Kuyt thought that Suarez had told them he had used words he subsequently denied saying (paragraph 376).

Rather than it being the FA that has damaged Suarez's reputation, as they charge, it's been the approach of the club and Suarez, both denying everything that has led to this point. Little more would have been said had he accepted he was in the wrong to begin with; far more damaging in the long term is not that he strayed beyond a line through genuine ignorance, but that then he subsequently gave unconvincing evidence about it. On yesterday of all days, someone ought to have read the statement they put out, especially the mealy-mouthed part that follows the accusations against the FA, of how they're not continuing "a fight for justice in this particular case" as it would only obscure their support for putting an end to any form of racism in English football, and decided to strike it all out and make as low-key an announcement as they could, even if they still didn't accept guilt.

The greatest shame of all is that while everyone has come to expect unfettered, unapologetic arrogance from Manchester United, such is the way Alex Ferguson has long conducted himself, the team we didn't begin to imagine could react in a similar fashion has gone completely off the deep end. And as an Arsenal fan, and someone who has long admired Liverpool, it deeply pains me to find that if only this once, it's United that have been on the side of righteousness.

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