Wednesday, February 29, 2012 

Oh, Icarus.

In my never-ending campaign to stuff ever increasing amounts of useless information into my brain, I've been spending the last few nights watching Adam Curtis's earlier films on Youtube. His documentary on the collapse of Barings Bank, masterminded by Nick Leeson through the concealment of massive losses on the derivatives market in Singapore has since been rather overshadowed by the crash of 07/08, but it remains the ultimate example of one man with rat-like cunning being able to deceive a whole layer of those who believed they were superior, even when all that separated them was that they were greedier. Leeson repeatedly describes those above him as stupid, which only goes so far as an explanation; they also didn't understand the derivatives market, something not very surprising when it turned out 12 years later that no one did. Anyone who had digged even slightly below the surface of Barings's accounts would have discovered that the profits Leeson was reporting were implausible, yet they kept on sending him ever greater sums of capital, right up until the bank itself went overdrawn.

The problem with imagining that you're smarter than everyone else is that eventually someone will found your answers wanting. Never has this been more proven than in the sad case of James Murdoch, who today had to resign as News International chairman to spend more time with his ego. Like Leeson, his solution to the problems he faced was to plunge himself ever deeper into the mire. Just over a month after the Guardian had splashed on the payout News International had made to Gordon Taylor, a settlement authorised by a certain J Murdoch, he delivered his now notorious MacTaggart lecture in which he described the scope of the BBC's activities and ambitions as "chilling". He should have been rather more disturbed by the continued digging of Nick Davies, as all the BBC (and indeed his very own Sky) did was piggy-back on the investigations by the Graun and New York Times, those loss-makers unable to turn a profit, the very thing which in his opinion made independence unreliable.

As Michael Woolf writes, all he had to do was to maintain plausible deniability. His performance alongside Daddy was well measured, apart from the moment when Tom Watson asked him about willful blindness. It was only when the media committee kept on digging into how the settlement with Taylor came about that his defence fell apart: just about credible was that those reporting to him (Colin Myler and Tom Crone) may not have informed him of the full picture, fearing for their own jobs. Unbelievable was that he failed to read the crucial part of an email sent to him which he swiftly replied to, or that he was subsequently told about it in the meeting he arranged to discuss what they were going to do. Woolf claims he was playing internal politics, rather than participating in a cover-up, something I don't quite buy, but regardless of what he was doing it sowed his downfall.

From being in a position where he seemed destined to ascend to the throne of the company once Keith either retires or pops his clogs, he's now only slightly better off than Rebekah Brooks, disastrously promoted to CEO of News International by Rupe, apparently with James's blessing. It was her strategy of continuing to deny everything, accusing the Graun of "substantially and deliberately misleading the British public" that encouraged the paper to keep on pushing. If they had owned up then, it's still likely that the News of the World could have been saved. This though would have dropped dear Andy Coulson into it and in turn David Cameron, fast becoming Brooks' new best political mate. Woolf claims that poor James has effectively been sent to Coventry by the rest of the Murdoch clan, loathed by sister Liz for "fucking" Dad's company up, and barely on speaking terms with the old man himself. It would almost be sad if he hadn't set himself up for it.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012 

Don't look a gift tabloid editor in the mouth.

Just when you thought that the whole phone hacking/police corruption/general clusterfuck debacle at Wapping couldn't get any more absurd, it does. It's not a well known programme, but apparently if you're a red-top tabloid editor with a penchant for all things equine, the Metropolitan police are quite willing to lend you a horse that has "reached the end of its working life". Sadly, the BBC is reporting that the horse has since died of natural causes, which means there won't be any attempt by a rival newspaper to buy up the rights and bring us an exclusive interview, more's the pity. It does remind me though as everything does for those brought up on a diet of 90s pop culture, of the Simpsons, specificially the episode where Homer offers to provide a "good home" for an uneaten outsize hoagie, leading him to request a minute alone with the sandwich while in bed with Marge. This leads inevitably to food poisoning, or in Brooks's case, the overwhelming stench of corruption sticking to her.

For as Nick Davies reminded us today, away from the hacked celebrities and brutal abuses by the press against some of the most vulnerable in society, the really astonishing aspect of the story remains the closeness between News International and the Met. They might well have lent out 12 horses in similar circumstances in 2008, but you doubt that any of the others went to such deserving causes as that of a tabloid editor. At the same time as they were making such obliging gestures to those they had become so chummy with, the Met was of course ferociously denying that any suggestion that they hadn't been entirely truthful with government ministers such as John Prescott, who was additionally criticised by Andy Hayman in the pages of the Times for continuing to maintain his phone had been hacked. Today Simon Hughes made clear how he'd been misled by the Met, telling the Leveson inquiry that he hadn't been informed of how the notes on him in Glenn Mulcaire's book suggested three journalists other than Clive Goodman had been involved in commissioning the investigation into him. Meanwhile, over at the High Court, redacted information released following the settlements with dozens of hacking victims revealed that apart from Goodman, there were five journalists chiefly responsible for commissioning Mulcaire.

Nothing more epitomises how damaging the collusion between the Met and NI seems to have been than the relationship the News of the World had with the private investigator Jonathan Rees. He was cleared last year of the murder of Daniel Morgan, his then partner in the PI agency Southern Investigations, after the prosecution offered no evidence. As the former Crimewatch presenter Jacqui Hames details in her witness statement to the Leveson inquiry, the initial investigation into Morgan's murder was compromised by how the Met had been corruptly involved with the agency, as well as how Rees was a friend of Detective Sergeant Sid Fillery, who subsequently "medically retired" and became Rees' new business partner. Rees went on to become one of the chief PIs used by the red-tops, as was detailed when the Met planted a bug in his office. He was jailed for 7 years in 2000 after he agreed to plant drugs on a client's wife, in an attempt to influence divorce proceedings. Despite this, Rees was hired again by the Screws after he was released from prison in 2005.

Back in 2002, Hames's husband David Cook was tasked by the Met with fronting a new appeal for information on the murder of Morgan on Crimewatch. With Rees inside, it seems to have fallen to Fillery to make "life difficult" for Cook and Hames. Someone phoned the BBC and claimed Hames was having an affair. On one occasion it looked as though their mail had been tampered with. Then Cook noticed a van he thought suspicious in the park opposite. One van became two, then they started following him. The police stopped one of the vans for having a broken tail light, discovering they were leased to the NotW from Southern Investigations. Asked twice for an explanation, on the second occasion face to face with Cook, Rebekah Brooks maintained that they had been investigating whether Cook and Hames, despite having been in a relationship for 11 years, were having an affair. Even by the standards of the Screws, a police officer who has a minor presenting role on a television programme is a fairly low down target for an expose, not least when it could have been so quickly and easily discovered that were married without any surveillance taking place.

One point not noted by Hames today was that Alex Marunchak, the Screws hack with links to Filley and Rees, was revealed last year to have freelanced at the same time for the Met as an interpreter. Dick Fedorcio, the Met press officer involved, was also one of those with the force who thought there was no reason why Neil Wallis's work as a PR associate for the Met should have been declared. Despite how Cook was leading the reinvestigation into the murder of Morgan, it seems this was as far as the the matter meant. It was only this year that Operation Weeting contacted Hames to inform her of how Mulcaire had details on her that could have only come from her personal file at the Met, details which also made clear he and the NotW must have known full well that she was married. When the police it seems either couldn't or wouldn't investigate the hacking of a police officer whose husband was working on such a sensitive case over which corruption had already cast such a shadow, it's hardly a surprise it's eventually led to the inquiry some are still now decrying.

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Monday, February 27, 2012 

The Sun may yet set.

On Saturday and Sunday, both the Guardian and Independent suggested that rather than it being an atypical moment of Murdochian chutzpah and genius, the bringing forward of the launch of the piss-poor Sun on Sunday (or The Sun Sunday as the paper's front page has it) was to ensure it hit the streets before the worst of the allegations against the paper had come to light.

And so it has proved. You can really take your pick as to which are the most damaging. Sue Akers's statement to the Leveson inquiry made clear that the arrests as the Sun are about a "culture of illegal payments to sources", mostly for tittle-tattle, as the Management and Standards Committee suggested they were, and not about lunches and small-scale tips as unnamed voices from the paper have claimed. Next was the release of an email written by Tom Crone to Andy Coulson from 2006 at the time of the arrests of Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, which makes clear that the police had identified around 100 potential phone victims then, making it incredibly unlikely that Mulcaire was being used only by Goodman as everyone at the Screws and News International subsequently claimed. And lastly, there's the substantial settlement with Charlotte Church, with Church setting out how the News of the World had effectively blackmailed her mother into giving an interview on her depression and self-harm, insisting on taking photographs of her arms.

Whether any of this will affect next week's Sun on Sunday sales remains to be seen. The Sunday red-top market was the most gaping of open goals considering how terribly poor the opposition is (only the Sunday Mirror comes anywhere near to being worth 50p) so it's no surprise whatsoever that a Sunday edition of the best selling daily paper has done well. Had we known last week though that there was such apparent compelling evidence against the Sun, many more voices would have been risen against a replacement coming out while the "swamp" is yet to be drained. In that respect, it is still a typically Murdochian triumph. Whether it continues to be is something else entirely.

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Sunday, February 26, 2012 

All human life is there (or, no further comment necessary).

The paper features new columnists, including model Katie Price and chef Heston Blumenthal, Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, "fashion expert" Nancy Dell'Olio and political writer Toby Young.

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Friday, February 24, 2012 

Scruff box.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012 

Somalia: a dangerous moment.

It's Thursday, it's London, so it must be the Somalian conference. Having previously not been the slightest bit interested in this most benighted of hell holes, instead leaving it to the Americans to occasionally blunder in, it was curious to learn yesterday that we too are now looking at the possibility of sending guided missiles into yet another poor Muslim state. The leader of the transitional government, a government that has now been in transition since 2000, thinks that "targeted" strikes on al-Shabaab would be a splendid idea. And why not? Where previously Ethiopia intervened to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union, whom had successfully liberated the capital Mogadishu from the warlords, we now have the Kenyans involved, having originally crossed the border in pursuit of insurgents alleged to have carried out the kidnap of foreign tourists. Adding ourselves into the mix, even if it was just a few simple in and out operations, couldn't possibly make things worse. Could it?

After the disaster of Iraq and the continuing nightmare in Afghanistan, many, myself included, thought that finally it had been driven into our thick skulls that military intervention in the Arab world/Middle East did not end well. Even if this realisation hadn't taken root, then the recession meant there was no money left in reserve for extended action. Then the Arab spring happened, to the surprise of every Western government, just as they were staggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the space of three weeks the opposition in Libya went from saying that they didn't need outside help to demanding international action, and getting it. A year on, Gaddafi dead, and Libya overall is only in slightly better shape than Syria, where Assad clings onto power by massacring those who have risen against him, just as Gaddafi had threatened to do to Benghazi.

The thing is, Libya proves we have learned something from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans went into both countries with ourselves on their coattails saying that they wouldn't be engaging in something as sappy as nation building, only to change their minds once the initial fighting was over. With Libya, our politicians presented the NTC as ready to take charge the moment Gaddafi was hunted down, even when it seemed probable that it was just a temporary construct that would fall apart once its reason for coming together was over. With all the separate militias refusing during the war itself to work together, they were hardly likely to overcome their differences afterwards. Instead of involving ourselves in these fripperies, we just got the hell out as soon as we could declare mission accomplished. In Iraq and Afghanistan our use of conventional ground forces meant that when we broke it, we owned it; in Libya we just did the damage from the air, with the Libyans themselves owning the result.

Like Kosovo convinced Tony Blair that it was better to intervene than leave well alone, so it now seems that Libya has emboldened the next generation of leaders. It's true that this is less clear cut than it was back then: our failure to push harder for action against Syria proves that. It has though shoved the experience of Iraq further back into the collective memory, even while the "forgotten" war in Afghanistan continues. There simply isn't any other convincing explanation for why else we'd ever imagine that getting involved in Somalia would be anything like a good idea; for all the talk about the pirates based there and the potential threat posed by al-Shabaab, neither are truly crucial problems. The introduction of armed guards on shipping seems to have had a dramatic effect on the number of boats being seized, while the affiliation of al-Shabaab to al-Qaida seems more an act of desperation than one of strength. There is always a chance that some of those apparently travelling to Somalia to fight on the side of al-Shabaab may return and then decide to launch attacks here as is feared, but it seems far more probable that the camps in Pakistan will remain more attractive for those determined to bring the war home.

Tempting as it is to conclude that Somalia will remain a failed state, you can't help but hope that today's conference is a step towards stability. It is just that though, a step. One suspects that Amison and the transitional forces will continue to gain ground, but that as in Iraq and Afghanistan al-Shabaab will turn to typical guerilla tactics, and I fear, potentially even to the mass suicide attacks that the Islamic State of Iraq became infamous for. Despite Hillary Clinton today saying that air strikes wouldn't be a good idea, something more than slightly rich when the US has been carrying out drone attacks in the country as recently as last month, you also feel that we've reached one of those moments when the government is emboldened enough to imagine that they can't possibly make things any worse. And despite my sarky opening paragraph, such moments are always incredibly dangerous.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012 

It's the new poll tax!

Slightly churlish as it is to criticise Ed Miliband when he's finally making some headway at prime minister's questions, it would be nice if we could consign the "this could/will be their poll tax" analogy to something like John Rentoul's banned list. Handy as an allusion as it is, it most definitely doesn't work when applied to the coalition's NHS reforms. No one is going to have to pay a flat rate to use the NHS if the bill gets passed, even if it might in the long run lead to further privatisation.

What's more, using it tends to ensure that the issue will never become as toxic for the government or prime minister personally as the poll tax did for Margaret Thatcher (and it's worth remembering in any case that it was the Conservatives themselves who turfed her out, not the electorate). During Labour's time in office sub-editors, comment piece writers and campaigners variously described the err, privatisation of the NHS, road tolls, the London congestion charge, foundation hospitals, ID cards and the 10p tax rate as all having the potential to become as totemic as the poll tax was (and there's doubtless some I've missed). Of those, road tolls and ID cards never became reality, the London congestion charge is regarded as something of a success, the reforms in the NHS took place and polls suggest that as Labour went out of office satisfaction with the health service was at record highs, while the 10p tax rate was all but forgotten as the economy imploded.

This isn't to suggest that if the reforms do go wrong, and considering how Cameron and Lansley seem determined to ram them through against the wishes of almost every major health organisation that it might not have an impact come the next election. I suspect though that it will come back to how the economy overall is doing, and how the cuts have panned out. Not quite as snappy a soundbite, that.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012 

The snobbery of a day's pay for a day's work.

There are few things that concentrate the mind of business quite like the threat of a boycott. When last week hundreds of people complained directly to Tesco at how it seemed they were offering a permanent job where the pay was just jobseeker's allowance and expenses, their initial response was to shrug it off and insist that regardless of the inaccuracy of this one specific advert, their involvement in the government's work experience schemes had resulted in 300 people getting jobs with the firm. Besides, their pay is "industry leading".

One temporary closure of a Tesco Express store later, and the company has changed its mind. Clearly not satisfied with the "assurance" from the Department for Work and Pensions that everyone who had taken part in the various work experience schemes had done so voluntarily, they've now put in place a parallel scheme where those who decide to come off JSA to take part will receive normal starting pay and a guaranteed offer of a job rather than just a guaranteed interview at the end of the four weeks. It remains to be seen how many will want to come off JSA only to face the possible prospect of having to reapply if it turns out there isn't a job after those four weeks, but it's clearly a massive improvement that came about purely because of public protest. Coupled with Tesco asking that those who decide to opt for the JSA work experience scheme should not lose their benefit if they fail to complete the four weeks, it's a significant victory.

No surprises then that the government ministers responsible for these plethora of potentially exploitative schemes, no doubt having been subjected to an ear bashing from those they thought they were helping out, have launched a counter-attack. First Iain Duncan Smith's underling Chris Grayling wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph, launching an assault on the messengers, with the BBC and Guardian lambasted for daring to provide work experience schemes themselves, and now the boss himself has penned a piece for the Daily Mail. Normally one would suspect that an aide would have wielded the pen, yet it seems so close in tone to Duncan Smith's occasionally bizarre pronouncements that it makes you suspect he wrote it himself.

From the very beginning Duncan Smith deliberately misses the point. No one who has written comment pieces or lengthy blog posts on the subject has suggested that the work experience being provided by the likes of Tesco or Poundland is not worthwhile, as long as it is genuinely providing experience that the person on JSA does not already have. There seems little reason to send someone who has already got significant retail experience onto such placements as Cait Reilly was when there is no prospect whatsoever of a job at the end of it. Rather, the issue is that highly profitable retailers are being provided with free labour by the government, courtesy of the taxpayer. Neither Duncan Smith or Grayling seems to think that this is objectionable. Judging by the increasing number of companies pulling out, or changing their involvement as Tesco has now done, they seem to have come to a different conclusion.

Secondly, both ministers are also convinced that these schemes are entirely voluntary when there is evidence to suggest that the base work experience programme is not. Overlooking the fact that if someone pulls out after a week without good reason (to digress slightly, I have to wonder if someone showing you their bollocks, as they did when I went on work experience while at school would be a legitimate reason for refusing to go back) they face having their benefit stopped for two weeks, the Citizens Advice Bureau for one lists the work experience programme as being compulsory. Similarly, Izzy Koksal writes of how those who refuse to go on work experience may find themselves quickly pushed onto the mandatory work activity programme, where anyone who fails to take part loses their benefit for 13 weeks. Much the same sanctions are in place for those on the work programme who refuse to work just for their benefit.

Having failed to convince that the work experience schemes aren't voluntary, he then engages in semantics over what can and can't be described as workfare. He claims mandatory work activity can't be compared to workfare schemes such as those in America as they are only short term, ignoring how a claimant can be put back onto an unpaid placement as many times as the Jobcentre decides is necessary. While he is right to say that MWA is entirely separate from the work experience programme, it seems likely that some of the same providers are involved. Tesco claim that they would never take part in a mandatory scheme, and it's true that one of the guidelines for those on MWA is that they should be doing something of "benefit to the community". It's completely opaque however just what work of "benefit to the community" the first 24,000 to be referred to the scheme have done (PDF): the contracts went to various companies, and whether we receive a drill down into where they were placed remains to be seen.

It's not then really worth responding to Duncan Smith's claim that "much of this criticism is intellectual snobbery". If a secretary of state wants to make himself look a fool by resorting to ad hominems, smearing his opponents rather than engaging with their criticism, that's up to him. Definitely worth challenging though is the oft repeated start in life for former Tesco CEO Terry Leahy, washing the floors of the supermarket. Less well known is that he subsequently got a degree in management sciences, something that helped him get a job in marketing with the company rather more than his brief stint with a mop.

The clue that the piece is Duncan Smith's own work comes with his sudden going off on a bizarre tangent about the X Factor. Well known as Duncan Smith's belief is that any sort of work is rewarding, even the most mundane, with it "setting you free" as he suggested, this isn't so much an attack on the concept of wage slavery as his setting up of another false dichotomy, between those who believe young people should "work only if they are able to secure their dream job" and those like him who believe in work as an end in itself. If we really wanted to get into this, we could more than point a finger at the Conservative supporting tabloid press that so promotes the unreality of the talent shows, although more as a distraction from the drudgery of everyday life than as a career path for the many. Far more eye-opening is the attitude of Duncan Smith, as opposed to that of the young unemployed; of the million among them without work, only a tiny minority could ever be painted as the kind imagining opportunity will come to them rather than other way around. The final insult is how he links this supposed belief with the influx of foreign nationals; rather than dealing with what went before, it would be good to know what he's going to do now beyond the limitations of the work programme and work experience schemes he so defends.

He alludes to how difficult this is when admits that "finding the right job for someone is not easy" and how "there isn’t always one simple route". No one is denying that in the right circumstances, work experience can be incredibly valuable. It must though be voluntary and tailored to the individual, without sanctions if it goes wrong or turns out to be unsuitable, at least on the first occasion. The potential for abuse, as there is currently, has to be addressed. Duncan Smith would be spending his own work time better if he renegotiated the programme rather castigating those who brought the problems to wider attention.

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Monday, February 20, 2012 

A historic comment.

Never has the expression same shit, different day been so apt.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012 


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Friday, February 17, 2012 

That Rupert Murdoch memo to staff in full.

Bonzer mates!

KRM here. James told me I had to pop in considering you seem to be having some sort of local difficulty, nothing too serious apparently but it could impact on my far more important business in the States, fools errand I think personally but here I am.

First off, I wanna congratulate all you fellas and sheilas for your important work over the past 43 years. I obviously put all the money in and therefore it's really my success, but you deserve some credit as well. This paper has become a part of me; not as important as my heart or brain, more a sort of malfunctioning bowel, but a part of me all the same. It will always have a unique position in the company, at least while I remain in charge.

It therefore truly pains me that the goddamn police are sniffing round again, delighting the pinkos and snobs who have always hated what we do. You're all great journalists, like my old man was, and how do we get repaid? With shit sandwiches.

All the same, this can't go on. Much as I couldn't care less what you do to make me money and enhance my power and influence, it makes me look like a raw dingo's bum when I have to apologise to the families of murdered schoolgirls and cough up nonsense like this is the most humble day of my life to please a load of jumped up shirtlifters. From now on, you've got to obey the law.

You might be pissed off that it looks as though I'm selling you out to save myself, so here's a couple of sweeteners. All those people that bloke Kavanagh who seems to know me says are legends are hereby off suspension. We'll cover your legal expenses, at least until the heat gets too much. Everyone's innocent until proven guilty, especially me, as I couldn't possibly have been expected to know what was going in some shabby little outpost of my empire.

And to really stir things up, I'm pleased to announce we'll soon be launching The Sun on Sunday. It won't cost much according to my advisers, and I'm sure you can easily handle putting the same paper out 7 days a week rather than just 6.

I'm going to be in town doing other things for the next few weeks, meeting up with my pal Tony and going in through the back door at Number 10 while no one's looking, so you can trust in my unwavering support at least for now. I'm confident I'll get through this and emerge stronger.

Thank you,
Rupert Murdoch.

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Thursday, February 16, 2012 

The only way is Tesco.

(The only way is workfare doesn't work quite as well as a headline.)

In a way, it's a little odd that the issue of unpaid work has suddenly exploded in the way it has over the last 24 hours. The root of the furore, an advert on the Jobcentre website that advertised a work experience placement with Tesco where the wage was jobseeker's allowance plus expenses, mistakenly describing the "job" as permanent, is part of the government's sector-based work academies programme, a scheme that has been operating since at least last October. This is separate from the work experience programme that Cait Reilly and others have complained about in that it is entirely voluntary and it doesn't seem as though you can be forced onto it; it otherwise though looks exactly the same, in that if you pull out after the first week you may lose your benefit.

Indeed, the only real difference between these schemes seem to be the period of time the placement lasts. On work experience it can be between two and eight weeks; on the sector-based work academies programme it seems to be six; and on the far more objectionable mandatory work activity programme (PDF) it seems to be four weeks, although considering it seems as though you can be instantly placed back on MWA if you haven't found a job the scheme is potentially never ending. Crucially, it seems that regardless of the different names, the companies involved are all the same. Tesco, as John Harris wrote last year, is involved in MAW, as is Poundland, and both are also offering places on the other two schemes. This more than suggests that the work involved is also the same, which casts substantial doubt on the claim by the government for the "sector-based work academies" that the placement "will be tailored to help you prepare for an actual job vacancy". The specific carrot offered for those taking part in SBWA is a guaranteed job interview at the end, but this doesn't seem as promising once it becomes clear that when your placement is over someone on one of the other programmes is likely to take over.

Tesco in response have claimed that "in recent months 300 young people have got a job with us after work experience", which while seemingly reassuring is potentially nothing of the sort when they haven't provided figures for how many people have gone through the scheme with them. It also isn't clear whether those 300 have all been specifically on SBWA, or whether it also includes those on the other programmes we know Tesco is involved in.

The way this issue has emerged is slightly unfortunate in that there's the potential for a wholly voluntary scheme similar to SBWA to be beneficial for all concerned. Yes, it is objectionable for highly profitable high street retailers to be provided with what is in effect free labour courtesy of the taxpayer, yet if that's the sector the individual wants to look for work in and there is a real chance of a job at the end of it then the ethical dimensions can be overlooked. Far more problematic is the pure work experience scheme, where it seems as though personal circumstances are often ignored, and where the specific details of the programme are not always fully explained to those who express an interest. It simply doesn't make any sense to put someone who has plenty of retail experience into a placement with Tesco for instance, especially if there's not even an interview on offer at the end.

Or it doesn't unless all these slightly different dressed schemes are a subtle expansion of the workfare principles behind the mandatory work activity programme. Seeing as it looks as though those involved are the same partners, it's more than reasonable to reach this conclusion, and it looks even more damning with the announcement that those in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance may well soon find themselves obliged to go on open-ended "work experience".

Put aside for a second the inequities of the state subsidising the likes of Tesco in this way, and it's worth looking at whether workfare actually, err, works. The DWP commissioned a study back in 2008 looking at how "work for benefits" schemes functioned in America, Australia and Canada, and the findings were stark (PDF). While there were "few systematic evaluations that isolated the impact of workfare from other elements of welfare-to-work programmes", the evidence there was suggested that the programmes could if anything reduce employment opportunities as it meant those on them had less time available to look for an actual job. Crucially, it found workfare was least effective in "weak labour markets where unemployment was high", or if you prefer, Britain in February 2012.

The mandatory work activity programme originated in Labour's last package of welfare reforms, and it's been eagerly adopted by the coalition. Those placed on it were meant to do work of "benefit to the community", but that definition is obviously being stretched to the absolute limit. If anything it's proving to be the exact opposite, as it seems what would be full-time or at least part-time positions are being filled by a succession of those working in one way or another just for their JSA. For those wondering how the government is benefiting if it's still having to stump up for JSA, we can look at the 2008 study again: it found there was a "deterrent effect", with many dropping out before the "workfare" element of their benefit began. While some of those may well have been the scroungers and malingerers we hear so much about, others are those who couldn't face the demeaning prospect of working for a pittance and would rather take their chances with charity or rely on friends and family. Combined with how making people work for their benefits polls well, this seems to be the reasoning behind expanding the programmes, as well as how it seems to be those offering the placements that cop the flak, rather than the government.

Always worth remembering is that one of the coalition's first acts in government was to abolish the Future Jobs Fund. Despite being characterised as another example of Labour's profligacy and reliance on the public sector, it provided a job for a full six months rather than weeks, something which looks far better on a CV, and it paid at least the minimum wage, giving those on it a semblance of independence, and so in turn they put money back into the economy. The best that can said for the non-voluntary work experience placements is they will help *some* of those on them to acquire skills they may previously have lacked. The reality is that the long-term unemployed need tailored help, which is both expensive and undermines the narrative from the government that all they need to do is brush up their CV, look harder or alternatively even lower their aspirations. When they won't even accept that there are not enough jobs to go round it ought to be seen that something is badly wrong, and these latest revelations bring that even further into focus.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012 

On the rights and hypocrisies of both Abu Qatada and The Sun.

Maajid Nawaz from the inconsistent Quilliam Foundation makes a good point over at the Graun when he says that by approaching the Abu Qatada story from a different angle, it in fact portrays our legal system in a very positive light. Here is someone accused by the most outspoken media sources of wanting every single one of us infidels dead, and yet we're doing our damnedest to secure from Jordan guarantees that he won't face evidence from torture should he be sent back there, in order to a satisfy a court that other European countries in similar circumstances have simply ignored. Rather than it being an outrage that we're letting someone described as a real threat walk the streets, even if it's only for 2 hours a day, it shows that we're not willing to sacrifice the very values that made our society strong in the first place for the sake of a little extra supposed security. As he says, one of the government's own (ridiculously broad) definitions of extremism covers those who attempt to "undermine the rule of law".

Less convincing is his following argument for how we we could limit Qatada's influence, that by highlighting his use of "manmade law" to maintain his status in this country we could undermine his credibility amongst the jihadists that regard any such complicity as heresy. As Nawaz undoubtedly knows, there is also a school of thought within extreme Salafi circles that considers it perfectly permissible to go against their traditional values, as long as through such actions the end result is a blow against the prevailing system they seek to destroy. This isn't to say that Qatada is an adherent to this takfirist way of doing things, even if has, as has been alleged, links to al-Qaida, who have decided on numerous occasions that killing Muslims is acceptable if the ends justify the means. More likely is that he simply doesn't want to go back to Jordan on the perfectly rational basis that it's far more unpleasant in prison there than it is here. Nonetheless, the concept of those who wish us harm using the very protections they themselves don't believe in against us is far easier to understand and complain bitterly about than the supposed damage his hypocrisy might do to his image as a respected extremist sheikh.

Which brings us, however tenuously, to the Sun. The Graun is reporting that "senior journalists" at the paper are considering launching legal action against News Corp's Management and Standards Committee for a potential breach of the Human Rights Act, as previous rulings have found that Article 10 gives sources similar protection to that of hacks themselves. This doesn't necessarily mean that in every instance newspapers wouldn't be forced to hand over material provided to them by sources if it was demanded by a court: the Grand Chamber of the ECHR found that such an order could still be justified "by an overriding requirement in the public interest". Whether this would cover the instances where the MSC has handed such information to the police is dubious, especially if it's true as the Guardian is now reporting that the Sun was keeping some of those leaking material to them on retainers worth thousands of pounds a year.

It could though be worth bringing a case, as Geoffrey Robertson suggested today in (where else?) the Times. Like with Qatada relying on laws he doesn't personally believe in to keep him in this country, so it seems that the same Sun journalists who have been condemning the HRA for years on the orders of their editors may well turn to it in an attempt to stop the Plod from breaking their doors down at six in the morning. While we could then describe this as a example of typical tabloid hypocrisy and humbuggery, we should instead perhaps take our cue from Nawaz: it simply shows that however much they complain about it, the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on which it's based protect both the best and worst in our society equally, just as it should be.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012 

Not quite payback.

For those who spare themselves the daily assault on sanity that Newsnight increasingly resembles (last week saw Naomi Wolf and Katie Price on the same panel, with the artist formerly known as Jordan fobbing off Paxman's inquiries as to why she had decided to repeatedly mutilate her breasts) you'll have missed last night's tussle between Charlotte Harris and Nick Ferrari over the arrests at the Sun. Harris quite reasonably felt it was a bit rich for the employees of the Sun of all papers to complain about the tactics of the police, considering how often they seem to have been invited along in the past on dawn raids or had helpful information leaked to them. Ferrari instantly decided this meant Harris regarded the Met's antics as "payback", and therefore they were absolved as it was about time.

Rather, the response not just from the Sun but also from those defenders of the free press at the Daily Mail just showcases the everlasting truism of Corporal Jones's catchphrase: they don't like it up 'em, as indeed the Sun itself has often commented. The Sun and the Daily Mail, in their fantasy ideal world, want a police state for real criminals, the burglars, murderers and paedophiles, a slightly less rigorous regime for white-collar offenders, and an almost free society for Mr and Mrs Law Abiding Citizen. This though is not an ideal world, and the kind of treatment that the Sun openly applauds when it comes to collaring drug dealers or suspected terrorists is simply unacceptable when those being arrested are among the "legends of Fleet Street". The dawn raid is in fact fairly standard police procedure, as it's when those being sought are most likely to be home, and carrying out the arrests all at once also makes sense when, as the High Court heard recently, even directors at News International may have attempted to destroy evidence. Informing those due to be brought in may well have given them just such an opportunity.

It is also doubtless the case that the Met under its new leadership, the last commissioner having had to resign as a direct result of his links with former News International employees, wants to be seen as both independent and as following the evidence, having miserably failed to do so when first alerted to Glenn Mulcaire's activities. For this new spirit the Met is naturally being roundly assaulted. Richard Littlejohn, that chronicler of police PC madness, writes of how his fellow hacks are being subjected to "Gestapo tactics" and how Knacker of the Yard is guilty of a "massive abuse of power". Similar to the complaints when Ruth Turner and Damian Green respectively were arrested, with MPs from Labour and the Conservatives quick to denounce the burgeoning police state when it was their own being nicked, so now we have those other lovers of ever increasing police powers deciding that it's not such a good idea after all now that the attention of coppers has turned towards them.

The Sun being the Sun, it couldn't possibly help exaggerating. Trevor Kavanagh in his piece yesterday and in his subsequent interviews talked of how "up to 20" officers were ransacking the homes of journalists, only for the Met to point out later that "no more than 10" had been involved in any such arrest and subsequent search. Difficult as it is to comment when so few details about Operation Elveden have been made public, although that's hardly stopped Kavanagh, with others whispering that this is all about relatively inconsequential things rather than out and out corruption, it remains the case that payments to the police are illegal, and have been for years. While there's a potential public interest defence for every form of subterfuge, and it's possible that revelations from within the police could have exposed corruption or incompetence, far more likely coming from the Sun is tittle-tattle or worse on arrested suspects, such as the stories the Sun and News of the World printed on the Koyair brothers, all of which were wrong.

Kavanagh's conclusion, that this myriad of inquiries and investigations might result in a cowed press where politicians decide what WE can and can't read might have more traction if the likes of the Sun didn't already trumpet what their chosen man of the moment wants the public to hear at every opportunity. Similarly, if any politician was calling for statutory regulation, or if Lord Leveson was even hinting that would be his chief recommendation, it would be time to start worrying. Instead, as Steve Richards points out, politicians still have an awe for the press which it increasingly doesn't deserve. The real risk from the current police investigations is that it puts whistleblowers in general off, especially if they believe that their details might at some point yet be sifted through. Journalists can't work without sources, and if they fear being exposed even if no money changes hands, then we do have a problem. It should be noted though that the most recent breach of confidentiality between journalists and sources came at the Sunday Times, where editor John Witherow handed over emails between Vicky Pryce and the paper's political editor Isobel Oakeshott, almost certainly resulting in the charges against both Pyrce and her ex-husband Chris Huhne.

As amusing as it is that the boot is now firmly on the other foot, it doesn't really compare to the hilarity of News International employees finally discovering just how ruthless Rupert Murdoch is. Despite all they've done for him, or think they've done for him, it counts for nothing when there's the potential for a corruption investigation into News Corporation as a whole in the US. Kavanagh might not like the suggestion that there's a swamp at the Sun that needs to be drained, but this is essentially Keith being cruel to be kind: the Management and Standards Committee's cooperation is surely preferable to the closure of the Sun as a whole, isn't it? As for these legends of Fleet Street, Rupe couldn't care less, as was shown when he maintained he'd never heard of Neville Thurlbeck, the Screws' chief reporter and onanist extraordinare. Appealing to someone still set on world domination, even if it no longer involves his British newspapers, isn't going to cut it any more.

In any case, the Sun simply can't help itself. As Kavanagh and friends complain bitterly about their treatment at the hands of the Met and how really unfair it all is, the paper itself campaigns for the immediate deportation of Abu Qatada. Who needs the rule of law anyway?

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Monday, February 13, 2012 

Understated headline of the day.

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All together now: awwwwwwww.

Trevor Kavanagh's self-pitying whinge in the Sun today following the further arrests at the weekend under Operation Elveden would have been rather undermined if he'd mentioned it's all the result of the internal investigation by the Management and Standards Committee, tasked with the exact "draining of the swamp" Kavanagh claims isn't necessary. Still, always better to blame and attack everyone other than those actually responsible, isn't it?

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It's come to my attention thanks to the good people at the Open Rights Group that this blog is being blocked by the mobile phone operators O2, T-Mobile, Vodafone and Orange for those who haven't verified their age and opted out of the default censorship on their networks. Hopefully apparent as it is that this blog isn't pornography, ORG point out that those who do opt out of the default firewall are often actually asked to "opt-in" to porn.

This blocking wouldn't be so bad if it was easier to appeal against, yet it seems as though the only way to get a site removed from the blacklist is for users themselves to complain, rather than site owners. ORG have the contact details for each of the major networks on their Blocked site, and I wholeheartedly support their recommendations for how the current system can be improved:

Phone companies should ensure that:

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Saturday, February 11, 2012 

Alone in the darkness.

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Friday, February 10, 2012 

The new fat cats (or nice work if you can get it).

Nice as it is to see the Daily Mail getting stuck into A4E and Emma Harrison, their splash is overly kind to both her and the company she set up. Rather than it being just the bulk of the £8.6m she awarded herself coming from the state coffers (her salary being topped up by the dividend paid out, 87% of which went to herself), the entirety of it did, as A4E's CEO Andrew Dutton confirmed to the public accounts committee yesterday. All of the company's £160-180m turnover derived from government contracts, with Margaret Hodge noting that it effectively owes its existence to the taxpayer. The Graun's piece incidentally doesn't even feature in today's paper, bizarrely.

Stephen Hester can at least make an arguable case that he's steering RBS in the right direction; Harrison's firm by contrast missed its target of getting 30% of those going through the Pathways to Work scheme back in employment by a significant margin. The committee suggested it had only achieved 9%, although the company last night rebutted that and said the true figure was 24.2%. Either way, it didn't achieve what was expected of it. And yet A4E was still awarded a significant proportion of the Work programme contract, while Harrison herself has been made the "troubled families" tsar. Still, good to know that while those on the programme are used as cheap labour for supermarkets and high street retailers Harrison is getting rewarded for failure, isn't it?

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Thursday, February 09, 2012 

Syria: get used to our impotence.

There is only one way to describe you can describe the attack on the city of Homs by the Syrian army: it is nothing less than an attempt to crush the uprising against Bashar al-Assad through wholesale murder. Especially hard to take is that if Benghazi had been subject to a similar siege, rather than just a threatened one, it would have been incredibly difficult to oppose intervention in Libya on the same grounds as I did at the time.

Syria though, as we must always point out, is not Libya, just as Libya was not Iraq or Afghanistan. As predictable as the veto by Russia and China was at the UN security council last weekend, and as pathetic as the synthetic outrage from ourselves and the Americans has been since, it's indisputable that the veto has emboldened Assad in ordering the assault on Homs. This wasn't though the only factor: equally ill-judged was the withdrawal of the Arab League monitors whose simple presence meant that the regime couldn't take the gloves off in the way it now has.

That move was instigated by of all countries, Saudi Arabia, which gives an insight into the regional politics at play. Having urged the United States to attack Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, it's little surprise that the Saudis alongside the Qataris and Emirate states are now trying to damage the Shia theocracy through removing from power their ally in Syria. While there is some natural concern at how the majority Sunnis are being persecuted by the minority Alawites, much of the approach of the Saudis is down to how if Assad were to fall it would help to isolate Iran. By equal measure, as Simon Tisdall points out, this is why Iran is determined to ensure Assad is not overthrown, and is doing so by probably collaborating outright with the crackdown by the regime. They do after all have experience in putting down a budding revolution by force.

The Russians also have much to lose should Assad now fall from power, as has been pointed out at length by more or less everyone. This doesn't alter the fact that if both Russia and China weren't outright lied to, they were most certainly misled by the NATO powers over Libya. The topic has been done to death, but UNSC 1973 most certainly did not authorise what became effective regime change, even if it was achieved purely through air power, the use of special forces and the NTC on the ground, armed and trained by the Qataris. Destroying artillery and tanks that posed a potential threat to civilians was one thing; bombing regular forces to soften them up before the advance of the rebel fighters was quite another, as were the attacks on retreating regime cadres and the onslaught Sirte was subjected to from the air. Accusing the Russians and Chinese of essentially allowing civil war to descend as the US ambassador Susan Rice did was the height of hypocrisy. NATO had no qualms whatsoever in picking sides when it came to the civil war in Libya, or indeed Afghanistan.

It is true that nothing in the proposed resolution would have allowed for anything remotely similar to the intervention in Libya. It was though nonetheless the first real opportunity for a protest by the Russians and Chinese on a resolution of a similar nature, and there doesn't seem to be anyone suggesting that it's Chinese interests in Syria that motivated their use of the veto, for the reason that they're relatively slight. Opinions similarly differ on how effective the resolution would have been had the Russian and Chinese abstained as they did on UNSC 1973; it would have done little other than endorse the peace plan proposed by the Arab League that Assad and his regime have already rejected with no sign of a reconsideration coming, with a UN sponsored observation of the planned ceasefire tacked on. It may well have influenced more in the army to defect, or persuaded one or two senior regime figures that the game was up as some decided in Libya, and also increased the regime's isolation; equally, it may have encouraged Assad to try and deliver a knock out blow to the resistance in the way he is doing now, before any further steps could be taken.

All this only underlines how few options we have for helping those who have risen against Assad. No one serious is advocating an intervention outside of UN auspices, and those suggesting Turkey might try its hand will be disappointed with how they have also ruled out military action. An insight into how some of those who go out on such limbs seem to have a distant relationship with reality is how Michael Weiss claims Syria has "only" 100,000 ground troops. Even if it's only half that number, taking into account defections and other wastage, that's still at least double the number Libya had. Syria can also rely as alluded to above on some support from Iran, especially when it comes to weaponry, with the country having more modern Russian equipment than the Soviet standard Libya had. There is also no safe buffer zone in Syria, as they at least admit, and it would be difficult to create one. Not impossible, but certainly difficult and with a potential cost in terms of lives considering the Syrian defences.

Similarly fraught with difficulty would be arming the Free Syrian Army, as Marc Lynch goes into great detail on. We know even less about the Syrian opposition than we did about the Libyan NTC, which basically means we know sweet F.A. It's rumoured that the Saudis and Qataris are already doing so, but the way the assault on Homs is going it seems doubtful whether those resisting can carry on doing so publicly for much longer. Longer term insurgency and guerilla warfare may well have to be resorted to.

Unpalatable as it is then, there is relatively little we can do other than up the diplomatic pressure and look to impose further sanctions, with the exception of encouraging the Arab League to continue its efforts to seek a transition. A beefed up observer mission could help to stop the bloodshed were it large enough, but this seems unlikely to be accepted.

Sadly, Syria has all the attributes which make an intervention near to impossible: a regime where most of the elite come from an ethnic minority that fears what would happen to it should the majority gain power; a large military with relatively modern equipment; an opposition without a strong base; a powerful ally well versed in putting down dissent and viscerally opposed to losing its friend; and no major natural resources that those intervening would potentially gain better access to. Unlike with democracies where pressure can come to bear on those launching limited wars, Israel eventually succumbing to it in both Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2009/10, dictatorships can hold out for far longer. Having also seen what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Assad knows overwhelming force is now his best weapon. We will almost certainly have to get used to this feeling of impotence, such is our managed decline.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2012 

The same mistakes.

It's odd the way the slowly turning wheels of justice can have an effect out of all proportion to the punishment when they stop grinding. Had John Terry's trial for racially abusing Anton Ferdinand (maximum penalty: a £2,500 fine) been scheduled to take place in March as it was thought it would instead of being postponed to July, then Fabio Capello would tonight still be in a job. Incidentally, for this it seems we mainly have to thank the continuing triumph of club over country, as it appears the players couldn't be expected to both play and give evidence on different days, despite Harry Redknapp combining managing and his trial, being absent from only one game due to his appearance before the beak.

Capello's resignation as England manager over a disagreement with the FA can then be respected on the principle of it, but not when you really drill down into the matter. There is after all much to admire in Capello's insistence that Terry should not be judged until he's had the opportunity to clear his name in a court of law. Being appointed the captain of England ought to be seen as a far less important role in the grand of scheme of things than being a minister in the government; whereas it was completely impossible for Chris Huhne to stay in the cabinet having been charged with perverting the course of justice, as someone effectively deciding what the laws should be while being accused of breaking them, Terry could certainly have continued in his role, remaining innocent until proven otherwise. The problem in practice is that it's been widely reported that since the alleged offence other England players have understandably had a problem with him leading them, and this sentiment was not just coming from Rio Ferdinand, brother of Anton. This was what really made his position as captain untenable.

We will now enter a period of interminable debate where it will doubtless be discussed whether or not the FA should have done more to try to contact Capello with their decision on stripping Terry of the captaincy, but they nonetheless reached the right decision, even if for the wrong reason. Just as reasonably, Capello communicated that this was an interference too far, and was well within his rights to decide it undermined him.

So then ends another unsuccessful era for the England team, and accordingly the brickbats are flying. Even in the Graun Capello is lambasted as a bullying autocrat, and you can guarantee that the red-tops will put it even more brutally. As much as some of the criticism is valid and warranted, with it being ridiculous that Capello never properly mastered English, especially when Roberto Mancini has managed it despite his City side coming from (almost) the four corners of the globe, and being too conservative tactically, much of it will typically ignore the deficiencies of the players themselves. The manager can after all only do so much to motivate his players, and when they perform as abysmally as they did against Algeria in South Africa in 2010 some of the blame has to be laid at their feet. Capello was meant to have been the man to bring the primadonnas down to size following the reigns of Eriksson and McClaren, yet he clearly didn't manage it. How could he when the media does so much to hype them based on their performances in the Premier League, where they're complimented by other players of all nationalities?

Having learned nothing from the past, Harry Redknapp is duly being groomed to take over. With Capello we tried aloof, austere and demanding; now we can go back into the comfort zone of likeable, populist and therefore almost certainly doomed. Taking over with just four months to Euro 2012 is the kind of job anyone with any sense would run from: England simply don't have a chance of winning when the so-called "golden generation" is ageing and the younger players coming through simply haven't been blooded yet. Reaching the quarter finals is probably the best that can be hoped for, and as we saw two years ago, it's results which are increasingly demanded both by the fans and the media. While even they might blanch from really launching into team and manager considering the far from perfect preparation should there have be another capitulation, the honeymoon will be well and truly over.

All this also distracts from how nothing has changed in the set-up of the FA or the football leagues to improve the chances of the national team prospering. The European Championship in June will itself mean that the players will only get about a month's break before the league starts up again, with those taking part in the early qualification stages of the Europa League back even earlier. Without some fairly major reform at all levels, and a dampening down of expectation on the behalf of both media and fans, all the same old mistakes seem likely to be repeated, regardless of who is chosen to take over.

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