Friday, August 31, 2012 


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Thursday, August 30, 2012 

John McCain bids once again for quote of the decade.

"The demand for our leadership in the world has never been greater," the senator said. "People don't want less of America. They want more."

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012 

A tax on Clegg opening his mouth?

And so the new term fast approaches. The last minute frenzy to buy equipment that'll never be used commences, as does the spending on clothes that only those forced on pain of punishment would wear in this day and age. A new year brings new faces, and new challenges: just who will be the first to christen the toilet ceiling with wet bog roll? Will there be a repeat of last year's highlight, the interruption of an in progress liaison in the sixth room common room cupboard? Who knows? And who can tell what the kids will get up to as well? Ahh.

But enough poor gags inspired by 90s Sunday lunchtime comedy shows. It's also the beginning of the new political term, resuming as the last one left off. We may have lost one shameless self-publicist, off to New York to spend more time with her bank balance rather than the lovely people of Corby, but Nicholas Clegg it seems will always be with us. Having apparently failed to learn their lesson after advising a vote for the Liberal Democrats two years back, the Graun deigns to give our wonderful deputy prime minister a thoroughly soft "interview", which in practice amounts to Nick giving the best gloss possible to his role in our thoroughly miserable coalition. There had to be something more though, and so drawn up on the back of a fag packet came the wizard wheeze of a wealth tax, necessary apparently to prevent social cohesion from breaking down.

It's tempting to treat the suggestion in the same way as it was produced, and just dismiss it as another example of how the Lib Dems will come up with anything in an attempt to show how they aren't quite as nasty as the Tories, or not quite as committed to pummelling the economy into the ground. We know the Tories will never agree to it, Clegg knows they'll never agree to it, and the Graun knows it'll never happen, but it's a silly season story that fills up the politics pages. It's more than this, though. Ignore Clegg's waffle in the interview about an "economic war" and how "what people once thought" would be a "short, sharp recession" has turned into a "a longer-term process of economic recovery and fiscal restraint", for which read "depression made worse by the policies pursued by the government I'm an integral part of", and instead focus on this part:

"While I am proud of some of the things we have done as a government I actually think we need to really hard-wire fairness into what we do in the next phases of fiscal restraint. If we don't do that I don't think the process will be either socially or politically sustainable or acceptable."

Nick Watt takes this to mean Clegg wants something along the lines of a wealth tax in return for the proposed £10bn extra in welfare cuts. The real point to be made here though is that it's all well and good wanting to hard-wire fairness in now, if such a thing were indeed possible, it's that it would have been rather nice if Clegg and friends had aimed to do so already. After all, we had a perfectly fine levy on the wealthiest already in place, the 50p top rate of tax, as introduced by the last government as a temporary measure. Clegg and Danny Alexander decided to bow to George Osborne's ideological sabotage of the policy in return for a further rise in the personal allowance, a policy that helps the middle rather than the poorest the most. As for the apparent concern for those reliant on benefits now, barely a single Lib Dem has raised more than a whisper against the imposition of workfare, or the continuing assault on the sick and disabled through the work capability assessment. That a further £10bn in cuts will make things much worse is obvious, but the current situation is bad enough.

If there was a point to the Liberal Democrats entering the coalition other than self-aggrandisement, or "saving" the country from the prospect of a second election, then surely it was to temper the Tories' worst excesses while hopefully getting a few of their own policies enshrined in law. What exactly does Clegg have to show for the past two and a bit years other than a worthless "pupil premium", the hardly inspiring rise in the personal tax allowance, and a few praiseworthy steps in the right direction on civil liberties? It isn't, as he claims, that the left will always cry betrayal, it's that he and his party have been played for fools by the Conservatives at every turn. He was suckered into a "miserable little compromise" on electoral reform which failed as a result, followed the same path on the Lords, and has failed to stand up to the Tories on education, the NHS and the economy. From the beginning Clegg should have made clear that his party holds the key to power, and without it, Cameron would have to almost certainly go to the country. The coalition agreement was a disaster; rather than a document which locked the two sides into supporting policies both resent for different reasons, there should have been an "understanding" that could develop and change as the facts have. Everything that has happened since has been as consequence of that mistake.

The end result has been two unpopular parties that increasingly loathe each other, but are trapped together for fear of being dumped out of power ignominiously. The least Clegg could do in the circumstances is spare us is the faux concern that the government he signed up to might be protecting the rich at the expense of the poor. It's what it's been doing ever since the rose garden, and even if by some miracle Clegg does get his wealth tax, it won't alter that fact.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012 

Stay classy, Matt Bendoris!

Call it fantasy, but my lack of recent posts on the standards of journalism at the Sun hasn't been down to not looking, rather that Dominic Mohan has turned out to be less sensationalist and overall far better editor than Rebekah Brooks ever was. Last week's antics over Prince Harry aside, that is, so let's not jinx it now.

We may well then have to rely on the Sun's Scottish edition to be reminded of the bad old days. Enter Matt Bendoris, chief feature writer, and his rather sad apparent medical condition, priapism. Unleashed upon "Scots violin queen" Nicola Bendetti, Bendoris turns on the charm:

STUNNING violinist Nicola Benedetti becomes as tightly strung as a Stradivarius when pop babe Rihanna’s name crops up.

I must have hit a bum note after asking why the sexy Scot doesn’t make more of her fabulous figure — when she suddenly flies off on one.

Ah yes, becoming tightly strung and flying off on one at the suggestion from a tabloid journalist that she sexs her act up a bit. Nothing in the slightest bit chauvinistic here, nope.

So I guess Nicola won’t be posing for the lads’ mags anytime soon. Pity, because she looks fit as a fiddle when we meet at Edinburgh’s plush Sheraton Hotel.

The classical musician is wearing skinny jeans which show off her long legs. She’s also busty with a washboard flat tummy, tottering around 5ft 10in in her Dune platform wedges.

Frankly, you get the feeling that Nicola Bendetti would have been better treated by one of the lads' mags. Sure, they would have leered at her, asked her to get her kit off and posed exactly the same questions, but for the most part they don't insult their interviewees:

But Nicola doesn’t always take the bonniest photo — she’s beaky in pics sometimes, which is weird because in the flesh she’s an absolute knock-out.

Class, pure class. One suspects that Matt didn't mention to Nicola at the time that he feared he had been sent to interrogate a pelican, so it's natural he let his relief out in the piece itself. And what relief!

Nicola says: “It’s eight years since I won Young Musician of the Year. In the next eight years I’d hope to be a better violinist and I’d like to have started a family. I’ll be in my early 30s so I would probably like a baby or two by then.”

Better get busy making sweet, sweet music, Leonard. Lucky boy...

With the cliche quotient duly filled, Matt no doubt made his excuses and left. Whether there was a mess to be cleared up once Matt had returned to base, perhaps the cleaners at the Scottish Sun's offices can be persuaded to get in touch.

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The first cut is the deepest.

I'm presuming this current juxtaposition on the front of CiF is deliberate. If not...

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Saturday, August 25, 2012 


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Friday, August 24, 2012 

Yes, they were so in terror of Leveson, weren't they?

Ah yes, so it was fear of Leveson stopping the papers from publishing the pictures of Harry, wasn't it? Poor old Neil and Kelvin, it's always sad when it's your former employer that knocks your claims into a cocked hat. The Sun's editorial justifying their decision doesn't so much as mention Brian, for the reason this was all the doing of the PCC and royal aides.

Not that the Sun's reasoning is anything other than specious. The Sun, and Murdoch for that matter, have never cared a jot for press freedom, only for publicity and profit, the former of which this latest move has certainly brought. The Sun claims there was a need to publish the pictures in order "for the debate around them to be fully informed". This is, frankly, crap, and the paper knows it is. Anyone who wanted to see them had already done so, and anyone else has certainly read the descriptions of what they show. The Sun's public interest reasoning amounts to 23 words, or 2 whole sentences, that there are questions of his security and how his position in the army might be the affected. Soldiers have done far worse and kept their jobs, while we hardly needed to see the pictures to be able to talk about his security.

As for Harry having compromised his own privacy, can the Sun really have forgotten about Sienna Miller so quickly? By any yardstick, Miller's partying a few years back with a married man in full public view looked a far more open and shut case, and yet she still won a number of privacy actions. We already have reports that Harry's security detail asked his guests not to take photographs, more than suggesting that consent was not given. Lastly, the Sun claims that a previous ruling by the PCC makes their stance this time round a mockery. Back in 2010 they ruled that Loaded magazine had not invaded the privacy of "epic boobs" girl by reprinting images of her as they had been so widely disseminated online. The differences though are apparent: even though Loaded hadn't taken them from the young woman's Bebo page (she was 15 when they were posted), she had made them available herself. Moreover, there had been four years between the images being posted and Loaded republishing them, a period of time over which they had gone viral and become a meme. In this case we are talking about three days, not years.

All this said, this is hardly an issue worth getting out of your pram about, as some of the usual suspects have decided to. If Lord Leveson decides that it's further evidence of how certain sections of the press, despite everything, will continue to do whatever the hell they like, then the Sun has no one to blame but itself. And let's leave it at that.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012 

It's the end of the free press as we know it!

Neil Wallis is, Kirsty Wark reminded us on Newsnight last night, still on bail after being arrested in connection with phone hacking. Rather than being humbled by this chastening experience (and Wallis is of course completely innocent of any involvement with what went on at the News of the World until proven otherwise), Wallis, alongside the ubiquitous Kelvin MacKenzie was everywhere yesterday claiming that the only reason that no newspaper had taken it upon themselves to republish the naked photographs of Prince Harry enjoying a game of strip pool in Las Vegas was terror of Lord Brian Leveson and what he might say should they do so. The end of a free press they warned! The triumph of the "unpopular" press over the popular! What delight for the BBC! The same BBC, it should be said, which invited both Wallis and Max Clifford (and Vanessa Feltz) on to discuss this latest journalistic crisis.

Instead, as we learned today, fear of Leveson played only the very slightest of roles, if one at all. As anyone could have guessed, it was St James's Palace that had the real chilling effect. Relying on the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct, the same code which has remained unchanged on privacy since long before Leveson was convened, royal aides pointed out that the code prohibits the publication of photographs where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, especially when photographs have been taken without the person's consent. A hotel room is clearly a private place, and we simply don't know whether or not Harry consented to the taking of the photos; one suspects he may not have even known, as they look to have been taken without flash and are extremely blurry. The Daily Mail reports that a "minder" told one of those taking photographs not to, and they may well have even asked them to delete them, underlining the apparent lack of consent.

The rules on expectation of privacy are not new. The News of the World was reprimanded by the PCC way back in 1995 when it ran photographs of Charles Spencer's then wife walking in the grounds of a clinic, leading an embarrassed Rupert Murdoch to chastise then editor Piers Morgan. It's also hardly the first time that royal aides or their lawyers have stepped in to ask newspapers to moderate their behaviour, although this might be the first time they've issued a pre-emptive strike as it were. The media were asked to respect Kate Middleton's privacy when the paparazzi were making a habit of following her around every day, as they were more recently when the same treatment was being meted out to her sister, Pippa.

The real "villains" of this piece then are Harbottle and Lewis, as are the PCC, who passed on their view that publication of the photographs would be a breach of part 3 of the editor's code. Indeed, while the Mail and the Sun both complain that they've been in effect "banned" from publication, neither has put any direct blame on Leveson, even if both have quoted certain figures claiming the inquiry has had a role. The Mail doesn't so much as mention the furore in today's leader column, while the Sun merely makes a joke of the whole thing. And this isn't out of fear of Brian, either: representatives from both the Sun and Mail complained during the inquiry that they risked being scooped by the internet should privacy restrictions be made even more draconian. In this case, they've been stopped by the old PCC code they've long been signed up to.

In any case, by the time today's papers went to press the whole thing was already old news. TMZ posted the pictures up early on Wednesday morning our time, meaning the vast majority of people who would have wanted to see them had already done so by last night. Any additional revenue they might have brought in would have been through advertising clicks, not extra sales, had editors decided to be publish and be damned before they heard from the palace. There also isn't any real great scandal here which would have warranted publication through the public interest defence: much as I resent the fact that it's our tax money allowing Harry to live the high life, protected as he is by Scotland Yard's most lucky, it's not as if he's been caught in flagrante in the middle of an orgy, just stark bollock naked having a bit of fun. The sad reality is that the vast majority of our fellow citizens are perfectly happy for the monarchy to continue to function in the style to which it has become accustomed, and it's the institution that remains objectionable, rather than the inbreds that represent it. Oh, and drop the nonsense about Leveson meaning the end of press freedom Neil and friends, yes?

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012 

And so the Assange circus continues.

Sigh. This Julian Assange thing's still going on then? Am I really going to have write another post on it? Certainly seems like it.

It's all a bit depressing really, as what everyone's fighting over is so arcane. What's more, two of those I respect and admire have, if not let themselves down, then certainly damaged their reputations. Glenn Greenwald and Craig Murray, both so right on so many other occasions, have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

Let's start with Craig first. On one of the very few evenings I didn't bother to watch Newsnight, he appears, names one of the women who has accused Assange of sexually assaulting her, and a minor shitstorm commences. On this, in my view, Craig is in the clear. It may well be that the UK media hasn't named the woman in question (who I'm also not going to name out of personal preference), but she has spoken to the Swedish media openly herself. I don't think there's any need whatsoever to name her, but if an individual wants to that's up to them.

Where I think Craig has badly erred is in casting doubt on as he puts it, the woman's "behaviour". There are as I noted before anomalies in the ways in which the allegations against Assange were first investigated and have been pursued, but as we've seen, these have not affected the decision of our courts that Assange can be sent back to Sweden. We simply should not be second guessing what either of the women who have made the claims against Assange did either before or after the alleged assaults took place. If the Swedish police believed that there was any possibility that Assange had been "fitted up", as the interviewer in the Australian documentary asked of the Swedish prosecutor, or that the allegations were not in any way credible then they simply would not have pursued him this far. This is not to say that Assange inevitably faces charges, although he does, as David Allen Green says, face arrest and probable indictment. Should he be charged, then the best place for these questions to be raised is in a court. Craig understandably feels that allegations of sexual offences are one of the best ways to smear someone, having faced similar claims against himself when he was ambassador in Uzbekistan, but is it really credible that this is all an American-inspired put up job?

Glenn Greenwald, by contrast, seems to just be striking out at all and sundry in defence of Julian Assange. He starts off badly in his latest piece for the Graun, indulging in hyperbole by all but claiming Assange is the most hated man in the Western world, and only slightly redeems himself by pointing out a few incontestable facts: that the Americans have always loathed Wikileaks, and that indirectly, Assange "has given the public more scoops than most journalists can imagine". The obvious point to make is that we now have to separate Assange from Wikileaks; without those journalists, the war logs and diplomatic cables would never have been written up in the way they have. The Guardian's editorial attitude towards Assange is undoubtedly dictated by the way in which the paper and the man spectacularly fell out. This though is perfectly understandable when you consider the way in which Assange reacted when they ran the last batch of cables without his express permission, threatening to sue the paper. For someone who believes in total freedom of information, and who has distracted attention from the suffering of the man who allegedly provided them to him, this speaks of volumes of the contradictions within Julian Assange.

Pointing out that Assange perhaps isn't the freedom fighter his most devoted supporters make him out to be isn't to smear the man, or to make him out to be Saddam Hussein, although some of the criticism and personal attacks have indeed gone beyond what ought to be acceptable. Equally, Greenwald could at least acknowledge that by signing up to present a show on Russia Today, the English-language news channel directly funded by the Kremlin, some of his loss of credibility is self-inflicted. Where Greenwald really falls down is in his supposed refutation of David Allen Green's post on Monday, where attempted to correct what he regards as the myths surrounding the Assange case. Greenwald, apparently unable to contradict Green, relies instead on a previous post by Green when it's apparent he's since charged his opinion due to court judgements, a transparent conceit. Greenwald then continues to claim that due to Sweden's relatively secret judicial system, he's more likely to be extradited to America from there than from our septic isle; even if true, which is extremely doubtful considering our direct treaty with the US, then Assange would certainly appeal to the ECHR. The chances of his being deported to the US this side of 2015 were he to leave for Sweden tomorrow are almost negligible. Greenwald will just not accept that any guarantee that they would not extradite is not Sweden's to give, and would be worthless in any case.

Saddest of all is that this entire squabble is academic. Julian Assange isn't going anywhere, unless he's somehow spirited out of the Ecuador embassy once public interest dies down. Those of us who'd rather like him to return to Sweden but most certainly not fall into the clutches of the United States, despite being the majority, have been somewhat silenced by this whole affair.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012 

Pawns in a game.

This piece in the New York Times from C.J. Chivers, having managed to embed himself with rebels from the Free Syrian Army just outside Aleppo, is undoubtedly a magnificent piece of journalism. It is though, shall we say, either just a little credulous or to give the absolute benefit of the doubt, decides not to explain some of the finer details about the group Chivers has joined up with. It may well be that the "Lions of Tawhid" are a mixture of recruits from different backgrounds, as is its parent, Al-Tawhid. That doesn't alter the fact though that Tawhid, or the concept of monotheism in Islam, has been used for some time now by jihadists as part of the name of their groupings. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's original formation in Iraq was called Tawhid and Jihad, while the Army of Islam in Gaza, best known for kidnapping the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, also goes by the moniker. Jihadis also often refer to themselves as lions, something it seems Chris Morris's satire Four Lions has done little to alter.

It therefore seems just a little dubious that the Lions of Tawhid are as opposed to using fighters as suicide bombers as they claimed to Chivers. In any case, why do they need to when they have a member of a shabiha militia they can use instead? Abu Hilial may well have been a shabiha, but when he'd been treated to "extensive beatings" it's likely he confessed to anything and everything, including that he'd been in prison and was released to serve as part of a militia, committing a rape and six murders. He'd been sentenced to death, but why waste a life completely when he could be used instead as a unknowing truck bomber? It's all but needless to say that using Hilial as such is about as heinous a breach of the Geneva Convention as there possibly is, and is in spite of the claims from the FSA that they were going to abide by a code of conduct. That the bomb failed to go off is neither here nor there, while the fact that the group had access to the 650lbs of explosives for it more than suggests that certain sections of the FSA have access to plenty in the way of resources, despite claims to the contrary.

Jonathan Steele's report in the Graun does go some way to telling the other side of the story: as much as the regime must shoulder 99% of the blame for their reliance on indiscriminate shelling and attacks from the air, it's little wonder that some within Syria are also now criticising the FSA for encouraging such reprisals. Strangely, unlike when Israel has launched attacks on Gaza in the past, with Hamas roundly condemned as a result for hiding behind civilians, nary a word of concern has been voiced by our own politicians against the FSA's tactics. You can hardly blame Syrian civilians then when they feel as Youssef Abdelke told Steele, like "pawns in a big game".

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Monday, August 20, 2012 

The continuing triumph of the securocrats.

I recall that, many aeons ago, good ol' Nicholas Clegg asked for ideas on what could be included in a freedom bill. The end result, the Protection of Freedoms Act, is it must be said one of the coalition's very few decent achievements. The amount of time "terrorist suspects" can be detained prior to charge is now 14 days rather than the 28, just a slight reduction on the 90 Tony Blair tried to ram through parliament, the section 44 "anti-terrorist" power the police had that allowed them to search anyone they felt like has gone, as has the biometric data of more than 1m of those arrested but not charged with any offence by the police, although how certain we can be of the destruction of the information is another matter.

We are though still completely in the thrall of securocrats, as a quick glance at the Graun today records. As though the vast majority of the security checks at airports weren't pointless enough, the coalition looks to be resurrecting an old Labour proposal to install similar scanning technology at railway and tube stations. They quite obviously won't be put in place everywhere, and so won't stop those determined to cause carnage who'll be able to enter the system at quieter points, but they will no doubt cause misery at the major terminals. Still, can't be too careful, can you?

The government certainly can't, at least not with intelligence provided by other governments. Not content with ensuring that there will never be a repeat of the release of the seven paragraphs, a memo on Binyam Mohamed which showed we knew the Americans had been involved in "rendering" detainees to foreign climes where they were to be tortured despite our repeated denials, information that we failed to act upon when those detained included British residents, we now learn that the very application for a closed material procedure can also be kept secret if necessary, to of course, "protect national security". In other words, it seems likely that every such order will be kept secret, as by its very nature intelligence involves national security.

If you believe the Ministry of Justice (snigger), this will in fact make it more likely that such claims will go to trial rather than result in settlements, just that we won't be able to know of the documentation that was involved. Which just ever so slightly misses the point, as it's that documentation that established the truth in the first place, and which shows the depths to which our security services are on occasion prepared to plunge. With the cancellation of the Gibson inquiry, and no replacement on the horizon, the desperate need to learn the lessons of our complicity in torture during the first phase of the war on terror seems to have been forgotten.

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Friday, August 17, 2012 


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Thursday, August 16, 2012 


Shall we get an ad hominem out of the way first? That Julian Assange, he's a bit of a tit, isn't he?

Right, down to business. To say there are as many layers to the whole Assange circus as there are in an onion is to probably understate things. Quite clearly, he has a case to answer in Sweden. For this to have all been a set-up or ruse by two women serving US interests, as some of the more ridiculous Assange defenders have claimed, is absurd. Like the claims from Mohamed Fayed and others about the "plot" to kill Princess Diana, which would have been foiled had Di deigned to wear her seat belt, this nefarious scheme would have failed completely had Assange decided to keep Mr Happy in his trousers.

This isn't to say there aren't odd things about the whole Swedish approach which invite suspicion. There has been no unanswerable reason given why the Swedish authorities have repeatedly declined the offer from Assange to interview him here, especially when we're told that is all the Swedes want with him; he has not been charged, and there is no indication that he will be. The expert opinion written by Stockholm's former chief district prosecutor outlines some of the anomalies: the naming of Assange to begin with; the failure to interview Assange while he was still in Sweden, despite the prosecutor taking over the case nearly a month before he left; and the police interviewing the complainants together rather than separately. Nonetheless, the UK courts have all decided that Assange can be deported to Sweden and that these anomalies, such as they are, are irrelevant.

Likewise, despite the United States having not yet begun proceedings against Assange is not to say that they will not, and it's hardly unreasonable that Assange fails to believe that Wikileaks would be treated effectively as a newspaper under US law, as some believe it would be. One only has to look at the treatment of Bradley Manning, the soldier accused of supplying the diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, to see that were they to move against Assange he would hardly be handled with kid gloves. Some on the right have openly called for him to face the death penalty, while even the Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein has said he should be prosecuted for espionage.

This doesn't however answer the obvious question of why Sweden, rather than any other country, including ourselves, would be most likely to deport Assange to the United States. Indeed, as Karin Olsson points out, if the death penalty were an option should Assange be charged in the US, then any member state of the European Convention on Human Rights would be unable to extradite him. Moreover, it's also likely that Assange would be extradited quicker from this country to the US than from Sweden; while Sweden has an extradition treaty with the US, it's far more complex than our own. In any case, any moves against Assange would undoubtedly be challenged under the ECHR, meaning it would be years rather than months before any deportation could take place.

All the same, you can understand why Assange has sought and acquired diplomatic asylum from Ecuador. To assign him the best possible motives, he's right to fear that he could be extradited on the spurious grounds of either espionage or endangering national security. Despite all the shrieking from the US, not just on the diplomatic cables but also on the files from Afghanistan and Iraq, there is very little to no evidence to suggest anyone has come to harm as a result of the release of the cables, including that of the full unexpurgated cables, although this is obviously difficult to confirm. If anything, there is a case to be made that their release was an important factor in the launching of the Tunisian uprising, and in turn the whole Arab spring. The release of the "Collateral Murder" video exposed the deaths of two Reuters journalists at the hands of the US military in Iraq, while the diplomatic cables to pick just one revelation showed how Saudi Arabia was urging an attack on Iran.

At worst though, Assange's motives are base. If the allegations against him are true, then his image as the foremost freedom fighter of the Anonymous generation is sullied forever. The reality is that Wikileaks is now a busted flush, and it's likely that Assange will have to dine out for the rest of his days on just a frenetic year of activity. Found guilty of rape and he's effectively a goner, as much as you can admire his motives.

And so we come to our own role in all of this. Embarrassing as it is that Assange was able to skip bail and seek refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, the threats made against the embassy, and they clearly are threats, are outrageous. As Juan Cole points out, it was only last year that William Hague was castigating the Iranians for the state-approved invasion of our embassy in Tehran. Either invoking the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987 or, an even more drastic step, derecognising Ecuador in order to invade the embassy and arrest Assange would set an incredibly dangerous precedent, one that would make the occupants of UK embassies worldwide fear that they could be targeted should relations between ourselves and their hosts disintegrate. Craig Murray states he has received information that we intend to arrest Assange in the embassy if necessary, and his sources are usually sound.

Ecuador's own deficiencies in the way of press freedom are irrelevant. Much as we do have an obligation to the Swedes, to violate the Vienna Convention would be a far more dangerous step than failing to extradite a man who has only been accused of rather than charged with rape. It's also highly unlikely this would create a precedent where other alleged offenders would seek shelter in embassies: there simply aren't that many Assanges around, and few states will offer them asylum in any case when there isn't the threat of persecution on political grounds involved. Sweden clearly cannot give any guarantees to Assange when the Americans have not sought to bring charges against him, and it's also apparent that there's almost no way Assange can travel to Ecuador when we're denying him passage. Without arbitration at the International Court of Justice, which is one viable option, then it seems dear old Julian will have to make himself comfortable in the flat at 3 Hans Crescent Knightsbridge. And he could be there for a while: Birhanu Bayeh, who sought refuge at the Italian embassy in Ethiopia in 1991, is still there today.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012 

These people are insane.

Bartle Breese Bull in the New York Times knows exactly what the Syrian rebels need to bring down Assad:

Only a shift in military momentum will end such talk. The balance of power that currently favors Mr. Assad could easily be overturned. Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.

Well yes, it's certainly possible such weaponry could tip the balance in the FSA's favour. We could though go the whole hog and hand over a couple of tactical nuclear missiles, the result being the vaporisation of Damascus and instant victory for the rebels! Any concerns that the rebels might then, oh, point one in the general direction of Israel are unfounded, as the FSA would be forever in our debt.

Believe it or not, Bartle Breese Bull went through seven journalistic tours of Iraq, and yet that experience hasn't ingrained in him the lesson that leaving vast stockpiles of weapons and explosives lying around, as Saddam helpfully did, or worse yet, actively giving exactly "500 Stinger missiles" to insurgents isn't the best idea in the world. Not just to pick on Bull, as our very own armchair warrior Malcolm Rifkind is saying much the same. Marc Lynch makes the case for not arming the rebels extremely powerfully:

Nor should the U.S. be joining the dangerous game of arming the insurgency, which seems to be getting plenty of weapons from other sources. All of the risks of the proliferation of weapons into a fragmented insurgency of uncertain identity and aspirations, so blithely dismissed by the op-ed hawks, remain as intense as ever. There are still vanishingly few, if any, historical examples of such a strategy actually leading to a rapid resolution of a civil conflict, and all too many examples of it making conflicts longer and bloodier. Nor is it likely that providing weapons will provide the U.S. with great influence over the groups they are. I see no reason to believe that armed groups will stay bought, or stay loyal, just because they were given weapons, or that the U.S. would be able to credibly threaten to cut off the flow of weapons if groups deemed essential to the battle used them in undesirable ways. As a general rule of thumb if you really think that a group might join al-Qaeda if you don't give them guns, you'd best not give them guns. At this point, the flow of weapons may be as unstoppable as the descent into protracted insurgency and civil war, but that doesn't mean that the U.S. should heedlessly throw more gasoline on the fire. At the most, it should continue its efforts to help shape some form of coherent political and strategic control over those newly armed groups.

If this wasn't enough, then today's report by the UN, while accusing the Assad government of committing multiple war crimes, also points out that the rebels have carried out "murder, torture and extra-judicial killings", although not of the "same gravity, frequency and scale" as the regime. War crimes though are war crimes, regardless of who carries them out and how often. We provide plenty of aid and weaponry to distinctly dodgy governments, but handing over aid, even "non-military aid" to groups we know little about who are accused of carrying out atrocities is something we really shouldn't be doing.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012 

The same old mistakes.

Just when you thought you couldn't be surprised any further by the apparent naivety of our rulers, as well as that of the journalists and commentators helping to push policy forward, up pops this latest piece in the Graun on Syria. Horrors of horrors, it seems as though the best funded groups among the rebels are Salafists, and they're being directly supported by the Saudis and Qataris! This is only what those of us who hadn't fallen completely in love with the Free Syrian Army have been saying for ooh, weeks now. What started out as a peaceful uprising against the Assad regime understandably turned to armed insurrection when it became clear that the Ba'ath party could not be removed bloodlessly, but the original leaders of the revolution were quickly usurped by veteran fighters, some of whom had come back from fighting the Americans in Iraq, and who had no problem with following Assad's lead and turning the conflict into a sectarian struggle. Since then civilians have been trapped between a rock and a hard place, the brutality and heavy weaponry of the government and the savage guerrilla tactics favoured by the FSA, with Iran and Russia supporting the regime, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey doing the same for the rebels. As well as a civil war, it's also a proxy war.

And as such, we've had to stick our noses in. With the Chinese and Russian blocking any action at the UN, quite understandably considering the liberties we took with the "responsibility to protect" doctrine invoked over Libya, we've been reduced to promising "non-lethal aid" to the rebels, although who exactly it will be receiving it on the ground is anyone's guess. Whether the United States is directly providing weaponry is unclear, but you most certainly wouldn't bet against it. The other thing that has been so staggering is how we've failed to learn even the most basic lessons from the Libyan intervention, where we didn't have the slightest clue who it was we were helping to overthrow Gaddafi. Luckily enough, while there were some Islamists among the rebels there, they've mainly been sidelined by their more "liberal" allies, although such terms are relative.

In Syria, scratch even slightly below the surface and you'll find the rebels aren't much better than those they wish to replace. In Libya there was plenty of concern about the fate of "mercenaries", those the NTC claimed were soldiers from other African states being paid by Gaddafi to fight on the government side, but whom many worried were being rounded up purely on the basis of their darker skin colour. While there were reports of summary executions from Libya, the worst most were subjected to was torture. Back in Syria, videos abound of those the rebels claim are "shabiba" (non-army militia) being swiftly dispatched, while at the weekend videos of soldiers being thrown from rooftops were widely circulating. Some of this is always going to happen when atrocities have undoubtedly been committed by the government; unlike in Libya though barely a word of condemnation has passed the lips of our politicians, while media commentators have all but ignored these clips, even while they're perfectly prepared to show "unverifable" footage of bombings and demonstrations. The one major exception was the mass execution of members of the Aleppo al-Barri clan by the rebels, and that was glossed over as quickly as was possible with claims of how they themselves had killed a number of FSA troops during a supposed truce.

The fact is that the FSA's propaganda is far better than that of the regime's. Even if the claim by the defected prime minister that the regime now only holds 30% of the country's territory is accurate, and that's extremely doubtful, then it's the 30% that matters. The battle for Aleppo isn't over, but the retreat of last week was a setback the rebels had to spin ferociously. There are also still small parts of Damascus reverberating to the sound of gunfire, but the attempt to capture the capital in the main failed hopelessly. The assumption has to be that Assad will eventually fall, such are the forces now ranged against him, but these are defeats that are important in the short-term. Rather than reporting them as such, they've been presented exactly as the FSA has wanted, as strategic. This is clearly nonsense.

As I said previously, this reticence from the media is understandable, partially due to how volatile the rebels are, and partially down to how many see them as the lesser of two evils, Salafis among them or not. Our politicians have no such excuses: how on earth could they not see that the Saudis were always going to sponsor the most extreme groups they could find when it's what they've been doing for decades? What made them begin to imagine that the Syrian National Council, a group based outside the country, could ever manage to organise the opposition within it? Why do they think providing aid to the rebels, either military or "non-military", will end any differently to how it has before The weapons provided to the Libyans (as well as those taken from Gaddafi's stocks) were swiftly supplied to extremists in Mali, currently attempting to shore up the region of the country they control, while they're also reported to have gone to Gaza and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. We don't need to rehash what happened in Afghanistan, while the funding of the Contras led inexorably to atrocities. Hizbullah might have plenty of weaponry already, but you can bet those on the right in America cheerleading for the rebels, such as John McCain and Lindsey Graham would hardly welcome their aid being sold on at the earliest opportunity.

The sad reality is that whatever we do, it's going to get far worse before it gets better. You only have to read the terror of those trapped in the village of Al-Dmayina Al-Sharqyia, after a shell hit a house killing ten people, to realise how trust in everything and everyone has irrevocably broken down. Unsure whether it was fired by the regime or the rebels, they're left with pleading on their Facebook page for both to stay away.

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Monday, August 13, 2012 

Reality bites.

Well, the less said about the closing ceremony the better, yes? There are after all enough innate contradictions in Jessie J's Price Tag dirge without her arriving to sing it in the back of a Rolls-Royce, in surroundings which confirm that err, yes, it really is all about the money.

Musical apocalypse aside, even a hardened pessimist such as myself has to admit the last two and a bit weeks have been both a success and thoroughly enjoyable. Despite the media's overwhelming positivity though, the Graun's poll on whether it was all worth it is hardly as conclusive as portrayed; 55% compared to 35% thinking it was is a percentage that will soon fall if, as expected the Olympics hasn't done as much for the economy as the coalition insisted it would. The far from universal euphoria will soon fizzle out (And check also the depressing numbers that, while supporting multiculturalism, still think that immigrants don't bring anything positive).

Some of the waste involved has been obscene, none more so than the ridiculous levels of security. According to the police up until Friday they had made a grand total of just less than 250 arrests, the vast majority of which were for ticket touting. Would a minister now like to remind us just why there was a need to put missile silos on the top of blocks of flats, or indeed why we had to have the Zil lanes that went almost completely unused? There was also no need whatsoever to close off vast swathes of land surrounding the areas where the events where being held, but such were the restrictions we were told were necessary.

As should now be obvious, the only thing the Olympics is really about is the sport. If they provide something resembling a legacy to deprived parts of London then that's a bonus. Instead, apart from the left over buildings and arenas, the one other likely to remain is yet another poxy unneeded shopping mall. Much of the responsibility for this does have to be levelled at the Blairites who convinced themselves the Olympics was just what London needed, and whom inevitably fell completely for the commercialisation of everything. Remember Tessa Jowell introducing the horrid logo, informing us all that this was a "iconic brand"? Everything followed on from there, and if we needed any further confirmation then the "VISA party" to mark the closing of the Beijing Olympics provided it.

Considering those involved in the planning then, that everything went almost entirely smoothly barring a few minor hiccups to begin with was a bonus. A successful games wasn't enough though, 65 medals for "Team GB" or not. Heaven forfend that everything built specially for the games should then be handed over to local communities to enjoy and run, as that would just be a waste. Hence the early sale of the Olympic village to the Qataris, and more is likely to follow. When David Cameron sets a ludicrous target of bringing in £1bn in investment, he sets himself up to fail. Everyone enjoys a change for a couple of weeks, being in a different city that bends over backwards to welcome the foreign guests and athletes, and then they move on to the next one. This is what the modern Olympics is about, as Sydney, Athens and Beijing have demonstrated. Rather than indulging in fantasies, we could have been realistic. For all the excitement and achievements of all and sundry, it's now back to earth with a bump. Still, hows about Jess Ennis, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt, eh?

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Friday, August 10, 2012 

Calle F.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012 

Obvious joke is obvious.

Alex Dymock on reporting Simon Walsh's trial on charges of possessing "extreme" pornography:

At one point in the trial, the prosecuting barrister asked Mr Datta, a colorectal surgeon at Guy's and Thomas's NHS Trust: "Can you tell us what a douche is?"

I believe he's called Keir Starmer.

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When is a withdrawal not a retreat?

When it's the Free Syrian Army performing it, of course. You can at least understand why those journalists that have got into Syria and managed to embed themselves with the FSA are very reluctant to criticise their hosts: apart from earlier occasions when it seemed as though the FSA was trying to get journalists killed, more recently they've been threatening to murder those whose allegiance they aren't certain about.

For those wondering what Ed Husain is up to these days (i.e. none of you), then it seems he's got a plum job at the Council on Foreign Relations. His verdict on the situation isn't just that al-Qaida is infiltrating into Syria and joining up with the FSA, but that the FSA actively needs al-Qaida to avoid being overwhelmed. That this poses something of a problem for us back here in the West, keen as we are to either provide further "non-lethal" support (our good selves) or weapons through Turkish intermediaries (the US) to the FSA is something Ed says we shouldn't worry about for the minute. No, we should simply plan "to minimize" al-Qaida's influence over the rebel groups, and of course, make contingencies for seizing Assad's chemical weapons should the regime fall. Don't worry, it will all work out fine.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012 

All the news that's fit to bury part 3.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012 

And the winner of the 2015 general election is...

If procrastination was an Olympic event (and if it was, it'd still be more interesting than dressage), it's a sure bet that our politicians would take the gold. Over a century after the passing of the Parliament Act, and come the next election the House of Lords will still look almost exactly the same as it did then. Bearing in mind that it took a slight by comparison 96 years after the Great Reform Act of 1832 for suffrage to be granted to men and women at the same age, this is a pretty sorry state of affairs. The primary reason prior to now for this repeated failure had been a lack of political will; had Labour really wanted to do so, it could have spent the time it wasted "banning" fox hunting on getting rid of peers altogether, instead of just some of the hereditaries.

Under the glorious coalition, the main factor has been the dinosaur tendency in both the Conservatives and Labour. Yes, it's true as Jamie says that the plans were the equivalent of favouring a dog's dinner over a dog's breakfast, but some movement, however small would have been welcome. The Tory opposition it should be pointed out hasn't just been about the loathing of the Liberal Democrats, even if it's thanks to them that the coalition's agenda has up to now been passed, it's also somewhat about the continued ill feeling towards David Cameron. Having had the luck to run against the one of, if not the most unpopular prime ministers of the last half century. against the backdrop of the worst economic climate since since the great depression, he still failed to win his party a majority. Jesse Norman might not be a member of the dinosaur tendency, but his leadership of the rebellion earned him the ire of David Cameron, more than understandably considering what was at stake.

For as was threatened, Nick Clegg has now made clear his party will not support the boundary changes the Tory leadership decided were crucial to their chances of winning the next election outright. Quite apart from the arguments around potential gerrymandering, Clegg is quite right to point out that reducing the size of the Commons to 600 when the number of ministers and their hangers-on seems to keep on increasing is to risk further empowering the executive at the expense of accountability. It wasn't so long back that we were complaining about Tony Blair's effective elective dictatorship, where almost anything he wanted could be passed thanks both to his majority and to the number of ministers and PPSes expected to support government business as a matter of course. Add in how there's always going to be a certain number of MPs either ill or away when crucial votes are held, and it's perfectly legitimate to be worried about the potential for abuse.

The fact of the matter is that Nick continues to sell his party short, although they seem more than happy to go along with it. Consider the best case scenario for the Conservatives come the next election: the economy has at least recovered somewhat, the deficit has been somewhat paid down, although not enough for any giveaways, and the party runs an effective campaign highlighting Ed Miliband's long apprenticeship alongside Gordon Brown and how Labour continues to promise much without being anywhere near specific enough. Even in such ideal conditions, the party's going to find it all but impossible to hold on to the number of seats it currently has, even if it picks some up at the expense of the Liberal Democrats. If as estimated the provisional boundary changes are worth 20 to 40 seats to the Tories, it's possible although still unlikely that they could tip the balance in their favour.

Without them, David Cameron looks destined to be a single term prime minister. That's fine for Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, especially when they look set to achieve nothing other than the worthless pupil premium and the increased income tax threshold, but not for a man who considers himself born to rule. The signs are that some Tory backbenchers are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face: they'd prefer opposition to the coalition, as long as it brings down a leader they believe wasn't right-wing enough to win them power outright. Little wonder then that Cameron is going ahead with bringing the boundary changes to a vote, desperate to reach some sort of deal with the Lib Dems that doesn't involve the Lords. If Clegg wants at least something to be able to crow about come the election, he ought to demand a loosening of austerity, as Simon Jenkins writes. It's something that could staunch the losses come 2015 for both parties, but Clegg seems unlikely to ask for it and Cameron and Osborne appear too far gone to recognise their mistakes now. Which, incidentally, is fine by me. A Labour victory next time round with a small but workable majority seems the least worst of all worlds right now.

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Monday, August 06, 2012 

Buy anything other than Vogue.

In keeping with its tradition of profiling the wives of hated dictators, I note that the latest Vogue has an interview with Glam Sam Cam™.

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The collected highlights of Louise Mensch's political career.

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Friday, August 03, 2012 

Dark crawler.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012 

And the "is this guy for real?" gold medal goes to...

Andrew M Brown, for this passable Alan Partridge impression. He's terribly concerned that the girlies might hurt themselves at judo:

With those judo contestants – and I realise this will probably sound appallingly sexist – I couldn't help wondering about their soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises.

No, it doesn't sound appallingly sexist Andy, it is.

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ATOS and Chris Grayling continue to not give a toss.

Right on cue, up pops Chris Grayling in the Graun to argue that white is actually black and that even though you can see he's pissing on you it's in fact raining. Despite the BBC and Channel 4 doing their level best to bury their separate investigations into Atos Healthcare's helming of the work capability assessment, the Dispatches revelation that those administering the system are told if they put any more than around 12-13% of the cases they review into the support group of Employment and Support Allowance they're liable to have their decisions as a whole reviewed by management seems to have rattled the Department for Workfare and Penury (surely Work and Pensions? Ed.).

Since it's not worth engaging with much of Grayling's piece, as it's mostly the same old story reheated with a new anecdote, in this instance a woman who having been found fit for work was "hysterical" on her first day on the ill-named Work programme only to soon be volunteering for work in the community and applying for part-time jobs, the key word being applying, we'll instead focus on the untruths. Grayling claims that those called in for the assessment now "get telephone calls to explain the process". Not true. You still have to call them. He also says that there's now a new stage where Jobcentre Plus can reconsider a decision before claimants have to make a formal appeal to the tribunal service have been deemed fit for work. While this is the case, this is the way it's always been since the introduction of the WCA, and all it involves is the person on the other end of the phone line looking at the decision and OKing it. If you've already presented every piece of evidence that supports your claim at the assessment and still been deemed fit for work, then it's a complete waste of time even bothering.

There is it should be noted absolutely nothing wrong with wanting, as Grayling claims is the government's intention, to help those currently on ESA back into the work if indeed they're capable of doing so. The first problem with this noble aim is reality: there are already 2.58 million people unemployed, and the number of vacancies remains stubbornly just below 500,000. There are simply not enough jobs to go round. Second is that the Work programme Grayling continues to laud, bound together as it is with the other various Jobcentre schemes, is failing. Third is that Grayling and the government as a whole continue with the blanket statement that if it wasn't for the WCA millions would be left to languish for the rest of their lives on sickness benefits, when reassessment has been a part of the system since the introduction of incapacity benefit, not to mention how people do get better on their own and take up work of their own accord. Finally, if as Grayling and ATOS insist there are no targets set for how many claimants have to be found fit for work, or "statistical norms" meaning essentially the same thing, then they should have no objection to the contract between the government and the company being published, suitably redacted.

Instead, in a none too subtle fuck you, ATOS have been awarded most of the contracts to administer the replacement for Disability Living Allowance, the Personal Independence Payment. The only bright spot is that there look to be changes to the WCA on the horizon, in the form of alterations to the descriptors on the self-assessment form. Whether this will make much difference when it seems more than likely that only slightly more than 10% of those reassessed can be put into the support group remains to be seen.

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Steve Bell: legend.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012 

All the news that's fit to bury part 2.

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