Wednesday, October 31, 2012 

Cameron gets the shit touch.

Here's a political concept that some people seem to have difficulty understanding: when in opposition, what you do first and foremost is oppose.  As long as you stay within certain boundaries, you can be as opportunistic, hypocritical and shameless as you like if the overall goal is to make the government look divided and weak, as well as pursuing the wrong policy.  The Tories, notably, did the opposite while Blair was still perched in Downing Street, supporting him and the other Blairites on academies while the party's own backbenchers voted against.  The end result?  Michael Gove's continuing attempts to wrest control of schools away from local authorities as a whole, and the almost certain eventual insertion of privatisation into education.

There are obviously limits to this approach.  Doing it too near to an election is to treat the electorate for fools; and you can't go from one extreme position to the other without doing much the same, unless the facts have changed.  For the most part, Labour have obeyed these rules: it's questionable whether opposing giving more money to the IMF achieved anything for instance, especially when err, Eurozone economies not collapsing is clearly a good thing all round, but otherwise the two Eds have mainly played safe.

While you can see why some of those who are pro-Europe within the party have then objected to today's decision to vote with the headbangers on the Tory right, it still made perfect political sense.  David Cameron after all keeps telling us that he wants to stay in the EU, but there has to be a fundamental renegotiation of our membership.  Presumably then he'd support a cut in the EU's budget in real terms, as the amendment supported by Labour called for?  Well, no.  Ever since his cack-handed "veto" last year which achieved precisely nothing, the rest of Europe have treated us pretty much as we deserve: as whining carpers who've spent the past 40 years in a perpetual sulk.  Even if Cameron wields his "veto" again, all that will happen is the budget will roll over, or increase automatically.  He's not going to win whatever happens.

For Labour, the defeat of the government is a fantastic achievement.  It's the first significant defeat for the coalition in parliament, and it came on the day Ed Miliband compared Cameron to John Major.  If anything, Cameron's predicament on Europe is worse than it was for Major: he might have had his "bastards", but they for the most part didn't want to be out of the EU completely.  This current lot do, and Cameron knows that's something he can't possibly deliver, not least due to how the vast majority of business is quite rightly opposed to leaving.  The more he talks up what he's going to do and the more he fails to achieve anything whatsoever, the more the anti-EU vote is going to desert the Tories and turn to UKIP, improving Labour's chances in the marginal constituencies they need to win back.

Moreover, calling for a cut in the budget is the right policy, whether you want to stay in the EU or not.  When member states are across the board introducing austerity, rightly or otherwise, it's absurd that the union should be getting an above inflation budget increase.  Any comparisons with what Labour did in 2005 are beside the point when the EU was about to expand eastwards and the economy was growing strongly.  In any case, no one's going to remember in 3 years time whether Labour's position was cynical or not; if they recall it at all it'll be that Cameron couldn't get his party to support him.  For a while it seemed as though it was George Osborne who couldn't do anything right.  Now the shit touch seems to have been transmitted to the prime minister as well.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2012 

Are you a fucking horse?

The Thick of It has come to what seems likely to be the end.  For an ostensibly political comedy, its influence is difficult to overstate: it went in four series from satirising New Labour's spin machine to err, providing lines for the now in opposition Labour party to use against the government.  In Malcolm Tucker Armando Iannucci, the other writers, and of course Peter Capaldi have created one of most terrifyingly brutal and yet still likeable characters in recent sitcom history, a man who doesn't so much wield the power he has as use it to cosh everyone who screws up around him, which happens to be everyone.  In the hour-long special Rise of the Nutters, when Ollie somehow finds it within himself to accuse Malcolm of bullying, Tucker is insulted: "I am so much worse than that".

Tucker isn't just Alastair Campbell, just as the Tory spin doctor Stewart Pearson introduced in the specials isn't just Steve Hilton (although clearly, "The Fucker" is Andy Coulson).  Iannucci maintains he based him not wholly on Campbell as much as Hollywood agents and producers, but what he's come to symbolise and be is the political dark arts, the plotting, the sniping, the manoeuvring, the smearing, the treachery, the threatening and the double dealing which we've now come to associate with media management.  The Thick of It's success is that it took all these things, and managed to make them flesh.  Tucker is, as he's variously described throughout the series, a force of nature, a "bad Gandalf".  He seems to appear out of nowhere, and then as soon as he does he's gone, leaving little trace.  Moreover, he's a survivor of negative media coverage, plots by rival spinners and of eventual electoral defeat.  He's only finally brought low by doing things that are arguably in the public interest: bringing down a useless leader of his party while leaking information about a vulnerable man who's being treated appallingly by the government.

Just as remarkable is that The Thick of It isn't a cynical show, or at least isn't about politics itself.  In an age where the refrain often heard "is they're all the same", The Thick of It always presented the actual politicians not necessarily in a good light but almost never in a wholly bad one.  Chris Langham's wonderful performance as Hugh Abbott showcased a minister who's out of his depth, incompetent, false and desperate to cling on to his job, but also as demonstrably human.  He hates that he has to push through policies which he personally disagrees with but does it anyway, has almost no family life due to the long hours that leave him perpetually tired, and at one point even asks Malcolm if he gets lonely, only for both men to step back from admitting and talking about their problems.  The episode where Abbott is forced to give up the London flat that gives him a small amount of respite came before the expenses scandal, but touched upon whether while dismissing our representatives, we also expect too much of them, as does the episode where Nicola Murray is forced by Tucker into deciding whether her husband leaves his job in PFI or her daughter goes to a comprehensive instead of an independent school.

Indeed, arguably the only politicians to be presented as truly irredeemable are Fergus, Peter Mannion's Liberal Democrat junior minister at DoSAC (he's making me hate politicians and I am one, remarks Mannion when Fergus emotes for the cameras after the death of Mr Tickell) and Dan Miller, the horribly slimy, charmless Labour minister who eventually manages to become leader.  That Miller is also the most obviously electable politician on the show is a highly satirical comment on who we seem to keep electing: those who aspire for power or who believe they were born to rule when both qualities ought to rule those very individuals out.

In fact, with the notable exception of the spinners and special advisers other than Tucker, the rest of the cast also fit the "flawed but sympathetic and likeable" trait.  Chief civil servant Terri is hopeless, obtuse and hates her job but does her best while everyone insults her; her assistant Robyn provides additional comic relief; Glenn's the human sponge who realises he's wasted the majority of his life working for and with backstabbing bastards; and Angela Heaney is the journalist repeatedly caught in the middle of the spin storm.

Where the show's ire is squarely aimed is at the careerist young advisers from both sides of the political spectrum.  Ollie is as morally bankrupt as Terri describes him when asked by Nicola, and also dangerously unreliable, typified by when he screwed over Glenn to get in Malcolm's good books.  He effectively defenestrates his party's leader twice, on both occasions at the bidding of Tucker, for the reason that he one day wants to be him.  Mannion's junior SpAd Phil Smith meanwhile is the archetypal Tory child of the 80s, a nerd who could only possibly fit in amongst the weirdos and obsessives in politics, whereas Emma is an "insipid rich bitch" interested only in herself and her career trajectory, sucking up to anyone who she thinks might help her along the way.  These people aren't in politics to help anyone, or make life better in general, nor are they there because they believe in anything beyond an outline; it's just another job, or what seemed like the obvious thing to do after getting a PPE degree from Oxford.

It does in the end though all come back to Tucker.  As he puts it in his monologue at the end of the hour long inquiry special, this is a political class which has given up on morality for the sake of popularity at all costs, and he's the one tasked with achieving it, regardless of how.  The Thick of It says the blame for having reached this situation should be spread around liberally: with the fickle, cynical public, who often are as Mannion once referred to them, "fucking horrible", the media, for whom a crisis must always also be a drama and who allow no respite, and the politicians who can't do anything without a focus group or the advice of someone who's never had a real job in their life.  As for those who sit in judgement, they themselves had to bend the rules to get into that lofty position.  All are guilty, but all are human.

Which is why the show worked.  You might not believe they could all be as imaginatively sweary, but you can believe all these characters are reflections of real, flawed people with real, flawed ideas, all trying to stay on a ride that none of them truly enjoy, but who do it because they don't know anything else.

And I haven't even mentioned Jamie.

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Monday, October 29, 2012 

Sex quiz, hot shot!

There is without a shadow of a doubt an art to writing tabloid headlines.  They might make you groan, laugh or despair (hi), but you can't deny there's a certain talent to constructing a pithy, informative summation of a larger article in a highly limited space.

At times though this lack of room means they can get it terribly wrong.  The Sun was criticised a few years back for splashing on "BONKERS BRUNO LOCKED UP", both for the lack of understanding of mental health problems, but also because people rather like Frank Bruno.  The other problem is that despite the heyday of the tabloids being long gone, they insist on continuing to use archaic language which makes little sense when hardly any one uses it in everyday conversation.  

In tabloid parlance professors or scientists are boffins, women under 50 are girls, those sent to prison are caged, a child who commits any kind of offence, criminal or not, is a yob, and probably also evil, while a celebrity on a beach in a bikini photographed by a paparazzo is invariably showing off her curves or leaving little to the imagination.  Taste or respect also rarely enter into the equation: witness the Daily Star's front page treatment of a notorious murder case, the paper going with the legend "MY SEX WITH SALLY ANNE'S DEAD BODY", as though it was just another arrogant boast from a minor celebrity of their latest conquest.

Today's Sun front page then informs us of "GLITTER's 10-HOUR SEX QUIZ".  The paper presumably isn't implying that the police spent almost half a day asking him questions about sex in general and then awarding him points for the ones he got right, and yet that seems to be exactly what it's saying.  This isn't about taking things too literally, but that only a tabloid newspaper would ever describe a police interrogation as a "quiz", which rather underplays the seriousness of the arrest, just as only a tabloid or a satirist would use "grill" as a synonym for question, as the Sun does in the sub-heading underneath.  Most of the information required is in fact in the first heading: ex-pop star arrested.  Beyond that, all it needs to present is who and why as succinctly as possible, and arguably even the why isn't necessary when the story's been in the news for a day already.  Both the Mirror (Glitter: first of many) and the Star (Get dressed Glitter.. You're nicked!) managed it, in language easily understandable, even if the use of "nicked" by the Star comes across as more than a bit 70s.

This isn't to ignore the argument that this colourful language is all part of the charm and culture of a sub-set of the press, and that readers in general understand it perfectly well and even like it.  If though the BBC (or indeed ITN or Sky) were to suddenly decide to start asking their broadcast journalists to send in reports using similar terminology, the very same papers that abuse language in such a way would be the first to complain about dumbing down and the dreadful message being sent to our youngsters, not yet inculcated in how to like talk proper.  The point surely ought to be that it's perfectly possible to write with brevity and skill while not traducing a language which, fabulously flexible and constantly evolving as it is, can only be stretched so far before it breaks entirely.

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Friday, October 26, 2012 

The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer that I spent...

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Thursday, October 25, 2012 

Just an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff.

We are, apparently, out of recessionIt has to be apparently as, depending on where you live, your job or lack of one and your other personal circumstances, it's never been clearer that the official statistics tell only the slightest of stories.  For a hell of a lot of people, there hasn't been any uplift since the crash of 2008 whatsoever: only on Tuesday the ONS released statistics on net national income per head, showing there had been a decline of 13.2% since then, almost double the drop in GDP.  In parts of London and the south east by contrast, you'd be hard pushed to see any evidence that there's been a recession at all: yes, consumers have cut back on their spending to a certain extent, but for the most part unemployment has stayed low and businesses have carried on much as they did before.

Naturally, George Osborne and David Cameron have both taken credit for this first sign of recovery and while not being too triumphalist, have cited it as evidence of their policies beginning to work.  This is in stark contrast to how they, equally naturally, took no responsibility whatsoever for the previous three quarters of negative growth.  Everything other than their interventions were blamed: banks for not lending, the Eurozone crisis, Labour, the jubilee, the weather and Labour some more.  A couple of weeks ago, the word recession did not so much as pass their lips.  Yesterday Cameron informed the Commons while being pasted by Ed Miliband as is now the pattern at PMQ's that the "good news would keep on coming"

And fair enough, growth of 1% between July and September is to be welcomed.  Once you've stripped out the 0.5% apparently accounted for by the making up of time lost for the extra jubilee bank holiday, and the 0.2% added purely by the sale of Olympic tickets, 0.3% isn't quite as impressive, but it is growth nonetheless.  Indeed, if we're being especially charitable and add that 0.5% back onto the last quarter we actually came out of recession then, albeit with a barely noticeable growth rate of 0.1%.  The figures are though prone to revision, as evidenced by the last quarter where the first announced statistics suggested a decline of 0.7%, rather than the 0.4% it turned out to be after they were twice updated.  No one's suggesting they're likely to be revised up in this instance, so it may well yet turn out that shorn of the Olympic factor, the economy remains as flat as my personality.

There's also little indication that this pattern of negative growth followed by slight recovery is going to change.  The last three months of the previous two years both saw negative growth, and betting against that happening again when prices are almost certainly going to rise would be foolish.  Even if we don't suffer an unprecedented triple dip, and that's a very real possibility if the Americans implement their planned cuts in January, our own cuts are due to accelerate over the next two years.  This is still planned in spite of the recognition from the IMF that they underestimated the effect fiscal consolidation would have on growth, and in spite of all the evidence suggesting that if the pace of consolidation was slowed in order to borrow to invest, there wouldn't be a rise in the cost of doing so.  George Osborne previously claimed, entirely wrongly, that the economy was "out of the danger zone".  Both he and Cameron could yet have to eat their words again.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2012 

In danger, as ever, of forgetting the real victims.

There's something almost touching about the way the vast majority of the media gave George Entwistle a kicking for his performance in front of the parliamentary media committee yesterday.  Far from the image of hacks, and editors especially being grizzled, tough and all but impervious individuals, it turns out that their feelings are really rather easily hurt.  Why else would they have been so hysterically critical of the BBC's new director general, only just over a month into the job, if they hadn't been so scarred by their own appearances before the Leveson inquiry?

This isn't to say that Entwistle was convincing yesterday, as on a number of issues he clearly wasn't.  To start with, he most certainly should have been better prepared.  His lack of inquiry into why exactly Jimmy Savile was being investigated by Newsnight when he was told of the potential problem by Helen Boaden is not adequately explained by his stated refusal to interfere in matters outside of his remit.  Postponing the planned tributes to Savile until after the investigation was completed would have a perfectly reasonable precaution to take.  Likewise, his failure to delve deeper into whether Peter Rippon's blog post was completely accurate despite being warned that it was misleading by the producer of Newsnight's spiked report is both perplexing and worrying.  Also in need of clarification is a report in today's Times which suggests Boaden may well have had more input into the investigation than has previously been stated.

Some of the questioning was though both irrelevant and completely over-the-top.  What point exactly was served by Philip Davies inquiring about the names of those who authorised the transporting of young girls to Savile's shows, and then allowed them to stay on afterwards?  Entwistle didn't know because he doesn't need to know; as long as none of those involved are still working at the BBC, which is highly unlikely, it's now a matter both for the police and for the inquiry he's set-up rather than the director general.  Just as off the mark was Therese Coffey's highlighting of a comment by Rippon in an email that the sources they had were "just the women", taking it as proof they weren't being believed.  Rather than challenging her interpretation, pointing out that this is more likely a reference to how they should also question those working on the programmes at the time, he demurred.  Later on, Entwistle was compared to James Murdoch, as though his failings are in some way comparable to the man in charge of running an company that the media committee itself said seemed to be suffering from "collective amnesia" and which Murdoch senior later admitted had instigated a cover-up.

It still took quite some chutzpah for the Sun, of all papers, to splash on Entwistle's problems and describe him as baffled, bumbling and clueless.  Considering that the paper's last editor is currently awaiting trial for perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to intercept communications, a little humility would be nice.  Similarly, as we await Lord Leveson's report, perhaps Paul Dacre could reflect on what it might say about his own paper and editorship, rather than accuse the BBC of "manipulating the facts".  Or perhaps Dacre is annoyed as that's his job.

Just as opportunistic has been Maria Miller, who felt she just had to write to Chris Patten to register her concern at the BBC's ability to investigate itself, despite the media committee deciding they would allow the Pollard review to reach its own conclusions.  It's understandable she might feel aggrieved at how her predecessor nearly lost his job after acting as the minister for Murdoch, but that was hardly the BBC's doing.  Patten was entirely justified in effectively telling Miller what she could do with her concern.

All of this focus on Newsnight runs the risk of taking attention away not from why Savile got away with hiding in plain sight for so long but how.  Monday's Panorama made clear that even if not common knowledge, there were plenty of people who either suspected or had seen for themselves Savile's activities, and yet for the most part they either did nothing about it or their attempts to get it looked into floundered.  Without wanting to criticise those who must now bitterly regret not doing more, it still seems remarkable that some of those who knew didn't push harder, either going to the police or finding others with the same worries and then approaching managers to give their concerns extra weight.

This can't all be explained by the culture of the time; indeed, it was barely cited by those who've now come forward.  Certain commentators, while quick to assign blame to the liberal left either down to permissiveness, or because the abuse took place within the BBC or other state institutions, have ignored almost entirely Savile's links to other parts of the establishment. He befriended both royalty and politicians, spending Christmas at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher throughout the 80s, something the same right-wing tabloid press that worshipped the ground she walked on don't seem to want to discuss.

The greatest difficulty victims of abuse have always faced is being believed, as still shown by the failings of the police, social services and the CPS in Rochdale.  It wasn't political correctness that allowed the rape of vulnerable young girls to continue, but that the victims either weren't believed or even felt by those who should have been protecting them to be "making their own choice".  In an age before child abuse became synonymous with the darkest reaches of the internet, it often took the actual catching of a paedophile in the act for a charge to be brought and a conviction achieved.  Nick Davies wrote a whole series of articles on abuse in the late 90s that are just as applicable today, in spite of the advances in investigation that have been made.  Those in positions of power have always been able, either through connections, lawyers or influence to get their abuses either dropped or hushed up, the testimony of the weak disregarded or ridiculed.

That this now seems to have happened to a limited extent at the BBC is not surprising.  Compared to other powerful institutions that have either dragged their feet or gone into complete denial when faced with such accusations, it has acted with relative speed, albeit not swiftly enough.  What this shouldn't be allowed to become is another witch-hunt, where those who have made limited but understandable mistakes today pay the price for the much greater failings of the past (just as the News of the World should never have been sacrificed in an attempt to save Brooks and the Murdochs).  Savile is dead.  His victims and those who facilitated him are not.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2012 

The Tories can still win in 2015.

According to media consensus, David Cameron and the Conservatives had a bad first week back following the end of the conference season.  Any uplift from the decision to stop the extradition of Gary McKinnon to the US was swiftly curtailed by the belated resignation of Andrew Mitchell, just 48 hours after Ed Miliband had said the chief whip was "toast".  Add in the passing frenzy of George Osborne sitting in first class on a train to Euston having only paid for a standard ticket, his aide attempting to convince the ticket inspector that the Chancellor of the Exchequer couldn't be expected to sit in the pleb wagons as they were trying to watch a film on a laptop, and it isn't surprising there are long pieces, from hacks and Tories alike, suggesting Cameron needs to get a grip.

Cameron, naturally, has an answer to all this.  Away from the ephemeral stuff, the economy is beginning to turn.  Unemployment is down, and on Thursday it seems certain that the country will emerge from the double dip recession of the past 9 months with the publishing of the last quarter's GDP figures.  Inflation is also down, as is crime, and much more questionably, NHS waiting lists.  Everything is moving in the right direction, and shortly, the public at large will begin to recognise the improvement and support from the Conservatives will start to rise again.

There are, equally naturally, a number of holes in Cameron's argument.  While it seems likely there will have been growth in the third quarter, the figure itself will be crucial: economists suggest that anything less than 0.6% will be highly disappointing considering the making up for the lost output of the extra holiday for the diamond jubilee, while the Olympics should also have provided a boost.  If this turns out to be the case, all it will confirm is that we're still bumping along the bottom, with the economy broadly flat.

Similarly, while the unemployment figures are somewhat encouraging, they mask the fact that hundreds of thousands are underemployed, wanting to work longer but unable to get the hours.  The last quarter saw a drop of only 4,000 in those claiming jobseeker's allowance, while the number unable to find a job for over a year has also increased.  The work programme, much praised by Cameron and other ministers, doesn't seem to be working.  As for inflation, it seems certain to surge as fuel bills rise.  Food prices are also destined to increase following extreme weather in both this country and abroad, crops having been decimated.  The report yesterday that increasing numbers of those in work are having to rely on housing benefit to keep a roof over their heads as rents continue to rise is another major worry.  Then there's the cuts still to come, the introduction of universal credit and the problems likely to surround that, as well as the abolition of disability living allowance and the roll out of its replacement, the personal independence payment.

All this, along with the opinion polls continuing to show Labour with a comfortable lead over the Conservatives, as well as making up the ground on which party is trusted most to run the economy, is helping to convince more than a few that this will be a single term government.  Indeed, when it's taken into account that the Tories will need to increase their share of the vote on what they achieved in 2010 (36%) in order to have any chance of forming a government, something there is no indication at the moment they are capable of doing, their chances of remaining in power seem all the more remote.  To strain the point slightly, it should be remembered that the Tories have now not won an election outright for 20 years, longer than the 18 years Labour spent in opposition.

The problem is that this could all too easily turn out to be wishful thinking.  The numbers on the TUC's march at the weekend, while still respectable at 100,000-150,000, were well down on the previous year's, suggesting there's either apathy or resentful acceptance even from those most well disposed to Labour's arguments on the failings of austerity.  This is backed up by the polling conducted by Peter Kellner for YouGov, which found that while the party has won back most of the support it lost to the Liberal Democrats (not surprising when there's now a grand choice of either Labour or the Greens for those of us on the centre-left and beyond) few on the centre or right have yet been convinced to come back.  Moreover, it would be foolish to rule out a Liberal Democrat revival, especially if the party moves to dump Nick Clegg prior to the election, or when their past voters realise they still loathe Labour and the Tories just as much as they always did.

At the moment, Labour is far too dependent on the economy continuing to flatline.  As right as Miliband and Balls are to resist the urge to set out their spending plans this far from an election, this isn't an excuse for the lack of policy initiative elsewhere, or the failure to flesh out what a "one nation" Labour Britain would look like.  The attitude of the party seems to be that the Tories are so incompetent and blundering that they'll effectively knock themselves out of contention, while the Liberal Democrats can be left to expire of their own accord.  This ignores the very real possibility that the problems in the Eurozone could be fixed, that a second term for Obama could result in a delay to America's own fiscal retention programme, or even, against all the odds, that the economy could start growing strongly of its own accord.  The Tories' taking of Blair's advice to start "reforming" immediately means that even if Labour win the next election, the NHS, schools and the welfare system will all be massively changed from how they were in 2010.

Should any of the above happen, the Tory message come 2015 will be simple and effective: do you really want to jeopardise all that's been achieved?  Even if it doesn't, the emphasis will undoubtedly be on how Labour can't be trusted on the economy, taxes or public spending, or for that matter on welfare or immigration.  Ed Miliband will be portrayed variously as a weak, capitulating Brownite, a dangerous left-winger, and as so devious he even stabbed his own brother in the front.  The party's link to the unions and their direct involvement in Ed's election will be played up for all its worth.  The party will also face being attacked from both sides, the coalition parties defending their achievements in government equally combatively.  The idea that Labour can stroll to victory just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

This isn't so much a warning just for Labour as it is for those of us who have already slipped into the comfortable belief that the additional cuts to benefits won't happen as the coalition will be gone by then.  One thing we can depend on is that the nasty party is back: the 2015 Tory manifesto will be both populist and punitive in equal measure, such has been the failure of Cameron's brand of "liberal" Conservatism, and this will in turn push Labour to the right.  Any Labour government seems better though at this moment in time; the disappointment and disenchantment can come later.

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Monday, October 22, 2012 

The BBC leaves an open goal. Again.

It's all but impossible to overstate just what a catastrophic decision the now ex-Newsnight editor Peter Rippon made when he spiked the Jimmy Savile investigation pieced together by reporter Liz MacKean and producer Meirion Jones.  Working barely a month after Savile's death, it now seems apparent that there was just enough evidence for a report to have been broadcast. Indeed, on its own the revelation that Savile had been investigated by Surrey police, even if no charges were brought for lack of evidence, ought to have been enough to get something on the air.

Had Peter Rippon not for reasons still unknown ended the investigation, we might now be experiencing the opposite to what has happened since ITV's Exposure was broadcast at the beginning of the month.  While it's obvious that there would still be major questions about who knew what, if anything about Savile's proclivities beyond rumours, and almost certainly an investigation into the culture at Television Centre during Savile's time at the BBC, we wouldn't now be having to endure the Mail and much of the rest of the media's latent schadenfreude at the corporation's difficulties.  The BBC's coverage both of the phone hacking scandal and then the Leveson inquiry is well and truly being avenged.  It's even possible the corporation would be getting a certain amount of grudging praise for investigating itself, too late for Savile to be brought to account or not.

Quite how the BBC has managed to respond so ineffectively and poorly is a mystery.  The corporation's incredibly well paid managers really do seem to have learned absolutely nothing, whether from Sachsgate or indeed from the phone hacking debacle.  The obvious lesson from both crises, one serious and one not so much, is that you have to get your investigations, apologies and statements out as quickly as possible while at the same time making sure that they're as accurate as can be.  If you don't, then you can't possibly complain when you get turned over.  In this instance, the BBC has fallen at almost every hurdle: its initial statements were either inadequate, or as it now turns out in the case of Peter Rippon's blog post, inaccurate.  The corporation didn't apologise quick enough, nor did it set-up the independent investigations into what happened until far too late.

These failures have been exacerbated further by how it's apparent that those at the top of the BBC were aware of Newsnight's initial investigation, and yet did nothing to prepare for just such an eventuality as this one.  They must have known it was possible that the allegations would be followed up by someone else, especially when the disquiet in the newsroom at Rippon's decision was soon leaked to the press, with the Oldie even going so far as to make direct accusations against Savile.

The key question remains why Rippon decided that the broadcast could not go ahead, one which the specific investigation into Newsnight has to uncover quickly.  Highly doubtful though is the claim that Rippon either came under direct pressure from those higher-up in the BBC to drop the investigation, or that the forthcoming tributes to Savile, which hardly made up a substantial part of the BBC's Christmas schedule were thought as more important than exposing a man now being described, possibly hyperbolically, as one of the most prolific child sex offenders the country has seen.

Far more likely is that is Rippon, completely mistakenly, decided of his own accord that the story was just too potentially toxic for the amount of evidence that had been put together.  You can see his predicament: Newsnight only had on camera, in person testimony from Karin Ward, with the other statements coming from women who had been at the Duncroft approved school in the 70s who weren't prepared to appear in the film.  Ward's allegations, and I'm not doubting them here for a second, almost seem too good to be true from a journalistic point of view: she alleges that as well as being abused by Savile, she also saw Gary Glitter having sex with a girl in the alcove of Savile's dressing room.  Ward did indeed appear on a show with both Savile and Glitter, but the inclusion of the country's most notorious "celebrity" paedophile was always going to ring alarm bells.  Add in how the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to press charges, Surrey police having spent what the Telegraph is now reporting as 2 years investigating possible abuse at Duncroft, and you can almost understand why Rippon bottled out at the last moment.

Almost, but not quite.  It reminds of the BBC's (and Newsnight's) cowardice in the Trafigura case, deciding to settle rather than contest a lawsuit from Carter-Fuck over the programme's report that Trafigura's dumping of toxic sludge in the Ivory Coast had killed rather than simply injured those who came into contact with it, despite an UN report concluding there had been deaths.  The reporter in that instance was... Liz MacKean.  No wonder that both she and her producer feel so strongly that Rippon was wrong, with Meirion Jones predicting at the time in an email that regardless of the reality, should someone else follow up the story it would be seen as a cover-up.

So it has come to pass.   Quite clearly there is the the usual amount of humbug from the press, whom with the exception of the Sunday Mirror in 1994 completely failed to investigate Savile at all, leaving it to ITV to do the hard work once Newsnight had bowed out.  It's also laughable for the Sun of all papers to take the moral high ground when News International so spectacularly failed to investigate phone hacking at the News of the World until it was forced into it at the beginning of last year, just the four years after Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were sent down.  The BBC was positively sprightly by contrast in realising the seriousness of the allegations against it.  It's also clear that the BBC can investigate itself to an extent that the rest of the media can't or won't, even if the full inquiries must be independent: tonight's Panorama is evidence of that.  Nor is it true this is the BBC's worst crisis in 50 years, even if it was John Simpson who said so.  Has everyone already forgotten the Hutton whitewash when both the director general and chairman of the BBC resigned?

The sad fact is though, as so often in the past, this is a disaster of the BBC's own making.  Some might well point to that very Hutton inquiry and to the extra compliance regulations brought in after Sachsgate as explanation as to why the BBC has been timid and overly cautious ever since, but neither stopped the corporation from broadcasting the documentaries which exposed abuse in both secure and care homes.  It may very well turn out that this is a simple case of an enormous mistake by an editor, and of a culture in the past that was all but universal, but that doesn't explain the BBC's incompetence once the allegations finally came to light.  At a time when public service broadcasting is still in peril, regardless of the collapse of the BSkyB-News Corp merger, the last thing the BBC needed was to leave an open goal for their enemies to attack.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012 

Get things straight.

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Friday, October 19, 2012 

A man, a plan and a Shitmat.

The UK singles chart is sixty years young this year, and in tribute Shitmat has set about remixing every single number one from those sixty years, using only samples or parts from the tracks themselves. The end results have been as varied as the music of the last six decades: witness U2 made into noise rock, three of the X Factor group tracks rejigged into a requiem for Simon Cowell, two hundred separate chart toppers crammed into 7 minutes and Arctic Monkeys toughened up even further.  Oh, and the Beatles and Billy Connolly combined in the most juvenile manner imaginable.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012 

Britain broken no more.

Remember the good old days of a few years ago when the arrival of the latest crime statistics invariably led to both the Conservatives and the tabloids arguing that the end was nigh?  I do, mainly because I then went and looked at the actual figures. Even a quick browse showed that both were being either highly selective, relying on the police figures over the results of the British Crime Survey on violence against the person for example, or highlighting only one aspect of recorded crime, such as the use of a specific weapon when the numbers being attacked and killed were in fact in decline.

It's interesting to note then that the release of today's figures, showing that despite the recession crime continues to fall, with only theft from the person increasing, has been met with an almost universal shrug.  There's no report as yet on the Sun's website, while the Mail has been left with having to put a story alongside its article on a "teenage yob" being given just a final warning after beating a boy with his own crutches.  Unlike how the Conservatives couldn't wait to pile in on any sign that Labour was being "soft on crime", on occasion concocting figures to such an extent that they were warned by the UK Statistics Authority they were likely to "mislead the public", the opposition's response has been just as low key, focusing mainly on the drop in the numbers of police officers.

Welcome as this is when the British Crime Survey suggests the chance of being a victim of crime is its lowest since it began, it's also indicative of how the right-wing press tends to play dirtier with Labour governments than they do with the Tories.  The Sun for instance claimed that a mistake in recording GBH was an indication Labour had been cooking the figures altogether, something it had no evidence whatsoever to back-up.  Admittedly, some of this was Labour making a rod for their own back: the consistent tough talking from home secretary after home secretary led all but inexorably to the press shrieking when the next moral panic arrived.  Just though as we barely hear a peep from David Cameron about the broken society now he's in power, even as hundreds of thousands have to rely on food banks, so the paper that did the most to promote the notion has "moved on".  As for any even grudging recognition that crime fell massively while Labour was in power, even if the two things are not necessarily connected, we'll be waiting a long time.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012 

An absurd decision for an absurd institution.

In the year of Brenda's diamond jubilee, you expect there to be a certain amount of royal bum-licking, just as you expect those Tory MPs still over-awed by the sheer majesty of generations of inbreeding to jump on anyone daring to suggest the monarchy isn't the most magnificent institution on the planet.  When the brown nosing reaches the heights it did in David Cameron's Conservative party conference speech though, where he described Lillibet as the "finest head of state on earth", it's difficult not to be staggered by the level of cynicism involved in such a statement.  

Never mind the implication that, regardless of the flaws of democracy and the individuals who put themselves forward for such a position, the hereditary passing on of patronage is still a superior system in the 21st century, it's the absurdity of saying such a thing at all.  Why celebrate the Queen's actual position when you can celebrate the person?  And moreover, why say it when it's the equivalent of saying The Sun is the best tabloid newspaper in the world, or indeed that Katie Price is the best topless model turned one person brand in the world?

This is the kind of mindset you have to enter in to to even begin to comprehend the decision by Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, to veto the release of 27 letters written by Prince Charles to various government departments over a seven-month period during 2004 and 2005, as ordered by a freedom of information tribunal.  The Guardian has been trying for 7 years to get the letters released under the FoI legislation, and is now considering appealing against the decision by successive governments not to do so at the High Court.

To judge by what we know of Chaz's personal interests, you'd imagine that the letters in question must be terminally boring.  Tessa Jowell spoke today of his interest in the "perceived lack of traditional skills such as stone masonry and hedge laying", which you can file alongside his fascination with chocolate box architecture, homeopathy, fox hunting and the dangers of nanotechnology.  Not a bit of it, if we're to believe Grieve. 

According to his statement, were these 27 letters to be released, there's the very real danger that Charles would be seen to be disagreeing with government policy, endangering his party political neutrality.  Moreover, the letters while containing nothing improper, do reflect his "most deeply held personal views and beliefs" and "are in many cases particularly frank".  At the same time however, Grieve argues that Charles is doing nothing more than engaging in what would fall under the "tripartite convention" once he becomes monarch, whereby he is perfectly allowed to make his own personal views known to ministers.  Hence his lobbying of them is simply part of his "preparing for kingship".

As arguments go, this has to be one of the most spectacularly fatuous to have been given by an otherwise decent minister for some time.  If we take Grieve at his word, his statement implies that the next in line to the throne (or indeed, any of the others who come after Charles in the line of succession, as you never know when we might have a Nepalese style massacre on our hands) is preparing for their ascent to the throne from the moment they are born until they either become monarch or die waiting.  Anything they write to a minister, regardless of how inappropriate or party political, is therefore part of their preparation for their future role.  Despite it being us serfs who pay for the royals to continue to live in the style to which they have become accustomed, we're not allowed to know how they lobby in private and how this might influence government policy because, err, it might encourage us to believe they're not politically neutral after all.  We're meant to just take at face value the insistence of ministers that they are.  Indeed, if we were to know, then it would damage the very concept of "preparing for kingship".

And so ministers of the capability of Grieve have to humiliate themselves to ensure that the rantings of a Prince are protected and the monarchy as a whole is not embarrassed.  There's a very simple choice here for Charles: either emulate your mother and let your views be known truly in private, or renounce your title and join the rest of us proles at the back of the queue in getting our letters read and answered.  Alternatively, we could just decide that Elizabeth the II will also be Elizabeth the Last, solving the whole wretched problem. Clearly though, when the Saxe-Coburgs make for the "finest head[s] of state on earth", homeopaths or not, the end of this rotten anomaly seems as far away as ever.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012 

The hacker and the hacked off.

At times, it's nice to be reassured that, despite everything going on in the world, whether it be our politicians telling us unless we give away all our hard won employment rights we'll be back in the economic dark ages, men jumping from the edge of space and not splattering themselves over a wide area, or one-trick ponies still being cheered on for performing their one trick, much is exactly the same as it has always been and it seems destined to stay that way.

Take the case of Gary McKinnon, for instance.  If you put aside for a moment the quite brilliant campaign ran in his favour, so successful that it drew in support from across the political spectrum, it seems an open and shut case.  McKinnon did hack into almost a hundred separate computers operated by various arms of the American state, although mainly military ones.  He has never denied doing so.  It's likely that their security was appalling lax rather than McKinnon was some kind of master hacker, and it's also dubious that he caused anywhere near the amount of damage they claimed that he did, which supposedly cost $700,000 to put right.  At worst, he seems likely to have put a few computers offline for about a day, until their operating systems were repaired, as one of the key claims made against him was that he deleted key system files, and might have also, as the US prosecutors claim, temporarily rendered over 300 US Navy computers inoperable in the aftermath of 9/11.

Nonetheless, the Crown Prosecution Service repeatedly decided that since the investigation into McKinnon's activities had begun in the US, and most if not all of the evidence of McKinnon's wrongdoing had been collected in the US, with most if not all of the witnesses also based there, it made perfect sense for the case to be tried there too.  It's also highly doubtful whether, if convicted, he would have been sentenced to anything like the lengthy term his campaign often referred to.  A plea bargain which McKinnon rejected would have resulted in a three year sentence, with the possibility that the majority if not the whole term could have been served in the UK.

All of which brings back memories of the "Natwest Three", those other oppressed innocents, all of whom are now back free in the UK despite the many hysterical claims about the treatment they would also face in the US.  McKinnon's case is different, firstly in that by any reasonable yardstick his is not as serious, as he didn't break any law to personally enrich himself (nor did he cause any significant damage to the US), and secondly in that no one denies he does have Asperger's syndrome.  It's also now clear that his mental health has suffered to such an extent that his extradition to the US could well result in his suicide, as five eminent psychiatrists have all found.  Theresa May is therefore quite right to decide that his deportation has the potential to breach his article 3 rights to protection from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Understandably then, the relatives of both Bahar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, who also has Asperger's syndrome, are more than a little miffed, and wondering whether they were always at a disadvantage.  Barely 2 weeks after their deportation to the US, and someone who has effectively admitted his guilt and unlike Ahmad hasn't spent the last 8 years of legal process in prison has been saved on what looks suspiciously political grounds.   

The charges against Ahmad in particular have long been controversial.  While Ahmad admits to having operated, one of the earliest English language websites to become well-known for supporting various jihads across the globe, whether he was breaking any British law at the time seems dubious in the extreme.  Indeed, like with McKinnon, the Crown Prosecution Service found that there was insufficient evidence for him to be tried here, the difference being that the US only applied to extradite Ahmad after the CPS had decided not to bring charges.  The charges he now faces there also include "conspiring to kill people in another country", which seems to refer to his possession of details of the passing of the US Fifth Fleet through the Strait of Hormuz, and money laundering.

Ahmad is undoubtedly not as vulnerable as McKinnon, but that doesn't begin to justify the difference in treatment they've received.  Regardless of the truth of what happened when Ahmad was arrested, having received £60,000 in compensation courtesy of the Metropolitan police for the numerous injuries he suffered, only for a court to acquit the officers accused of inflicting them when it emerged that an MI5 bug in Ahmad's house picked up none of the shouting Ahmad claimed had taken place (the jury were not told of the payout by the Met), it seems bizarre that the government is prepared to stand up to the US for one British citizen with a campaign behind him and not for a couple of others when their case is highly similar.

May's decision to invoke the Human Rights Act in this case also brings into focus the government's determination to deport Abu Qatada to Jordan to face trial there in spite of the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the evidence against Qatada was almost certainly the product of torture.  Currently appealing once again to the Special Immigration Appeals Committee, we've learned that the evidence against Qatada in one of the plots he's accused of being involved in "is a bit thin", and that ministers sought a pardon for Qatada only for this to be rejected by the Jordanians.  More astonishingly, it seems one of the witnesses called for the prosecution accepts that the evidence against Qatada since struck out by Jordan was obtained through torture, meaning we were perfectly happy with sending someone back to an authoritarian state to face what would have been an unfair trial.

And with her move today, May seems determined to ensure nothing quite like this happens again.  From now on it will for the High Court to decide on appeals against extradition under the HRA, and not a minister.  While that removes any possibility of decisions being made on the basis of politics rather than the facts of the case, the introduction of a "forum bar" allowing the courts to block deportations if it would be fairer for trials to be held here seems to conflict with the difficulties the CPS will have with prosecuting cases when much of the evidence has been collected overseas and the witnesses live abroad.  Also a cause for concern is May's apparent intention to limit legal aid in such cases, especially worrying when it seems as though the government now accepts Qatada was justified in claiming he wouldn't face a fair trial in Jordan.

We also shouldn't rejoice much in the fact that May had to rely on the very act she and the Conservatives want to scrap to block McKinnon's deportation.  Those determined to repeal legislation which their friends in the press have for so long derided as only protecting criminals and terrorists have never let the facts get in the way before, and are unlikely to do so now.  A British Bill of Rights will, they'll tell us, protect us in the same way while ensuring that never again will we be taken for a ride.  Perhaps Babar Ahmad's family can testify as to how that feels.

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Monday, October 15, 2012 

Want a true legacy, Nick?

Whenever there's a new, in-depth, excellently researched and extremely carefully worded report released which calls for a reform of our increasingly antiquated drug laws, it's always worth going and seeing what the Daily Mail has written about it.  The influence of newspapers may well be in long-term decline, but when it comes to social policy it's still the right-wing tabloids that rule the roost.  If they're against it, it's an incredibly brave government that does the opposite.  

Much as we now spit at the very mention of the name Tony Blair, it's worth remembering that on occasion he did go against the puritanism of the Mail; not on crime, obviously, as that was a battle he was at one with them on, but as for the liberalisation of gambling, the licensing laws and also on the reclassification of cannabis to Class C he ignored Paul Dacre's opposition and pushed the reforms through.  One of Gordon Brown's first acts as prime minister was to ignore the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and put cannabis back in Class B, in an act that certainly wasn't meant to curry favour with his pal Dacre.  Supposedly meant to "send a message" that use of any recreational drugs wasn't OK, all it did was waste more money and police time.

The UK Drug Policy Commission's final report has then, as you might have expected, been giving the Mail treatment.  Their article, which doesn't feature on the voluminous front page of their website, does the classic trick of misrepresenting the report by picking on one comparison it uses, ignoring a crucial sentence which clarifies their stance, and then asks those opposed to the use of recreational drugs in all circumstances to comment on this calumny.  Hence the Mail's report claims the report says "smoking cannabis is just like eating junk food", when it naturally says nothing of the sort. What it does say is (on page 108, PDF):

A small but significant segment of the population will use drugs. We do not believe that pursuing the goal of encouraging responsible behaviour means seeking to prevent all drug use in every circumstance. This is not to say that we consider drug use to be desirable. Just like with gambling or eating junk food, there are some moderately selfish or risky behaviours that free societies accept will occur and seek to limit to the least damaging manifestations, rather than to prevent entirely.

The Mail quotes the second half of the paragraph, but not the first part which makes clear why they're making the comparison.   Much of the rest of the Mail's report is a fair summing up of the UKDPC's conclusions, but it's the headline and opening sentence that as always set the tone.

It's a great shame, and shows exactly the hurdles that still need to be leapt through to get anything approaching sensible coverage of calls for drug law reform, especially as the report's conclusions are thoroughly conservative and incremental rather than revolutionary.  It doesn't advocate the decriminalisation of all drugs, let alone their legalisation; what it does suggest is that the possession of a small amount of a controlled drug could be made a civil rather than a criminal offence, leading to fines and referrals to drug awareness or treatment sessions rather than sanctions through the criminal courts.  The report recommends that cannabis would be a good place to start, and if and only if evaluations of the policy suggested there hadn't been a substantial increase in usage or other negative effects, then it could be extended to other drugs.  Similarly, it suggests that either decriminalising or altering the sanctions for the growing of cannabis for personal use could strike a blow against the current situation where empty houses or warehouses are rented or broken into and used by criminal gangs to grow the high-strength strains of the drug that have caused such concern over recent years.

For those who, like me, think we could go relatively quickly from prohibition to the strict regulation and sale of the relatively safe recreational drugs, such as cannabis, MDMA, LSD and "magic mushrooms" with few problems, while decriminalising the harder "Class As", this report is far less radical than it thinks it is.  Where it shines though is in the area which is less sensational: with recommendations for supporting "responsible behaviour", recognising that drug specific education as it stands doesn't work, through to further encouraging the use of needle exchanges up to pill testing services it isn't afraid to say that drug use, like it or not, isn't going to disappear or be eradicated regardless of the apparent fall in use.  It also notes that recovery has to be tailored to the individual, despite what some influential recovered addicts have been given an hour of prime time television to claim.  Most of all, it accepts we need better research into prohibited drugs across the board, something made all the more difficult by their very illegality.

More optimistically, it calls for a cross-party political forum to be set up to examine where drug policy to go from here.  Sadly, even if one were to be created, should it come up with the "wrong" conclusions and proposals then it's highly unlikely it would get us any further.  With both the main parties clearly wedded to prohibition, regardless of how this report has apparently been welcomed even by the likes of Jack Straw, ideally there should be someone from the third party with a high profile who could make a break with the failed policies of the past by being clear about where we've been going wrong for so long.  Want a legacy that could eventually sideline your role in the coalition, Nick?

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Friday, October 12, 2012 

We laugh, we scream (and some GY!BE).

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Thursday, October 11, 2012 

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but the police want a word about the names you called me.

Here's something that really hasn't been stressed enough, although Simon Jenkins hinted at it back in August: as deserved as the worldwide outcry was against the 2-year jail sentences for three members of the Russian group Pussy Riot, that's nothing compared to the 4-year stretches handed down to two young men in another authoritarian nation, namely our own.  These two men didn't supposedly offend Orthodox sensibilities by performing their anti-Putin song in a church; all they did was set up pages on Facebook for events that didn't take place.  This was enough for the judge to describe what they did as an "evil act".

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan will now be over a quarter of the way through their sentences, and will hopefully be released before too much longer.  As acts of stupidity go, theirs was fairly spectacular: setting up pages on Facebook advertising meeting places for riots during the hysteria of last year clearly was asking for trouble.  Nonetheless, no one turned up at either, and in Sutcliffe-Keenan's case he always maintained it had been a joke that had badly backfired.  For the two to be sentenced to terms far in excess of what others who actually took part in the riots received was an overreaction of quite staggering proportions.  That their appeal against the length of their sentences was also rejected is a stain on the justice system.

If this was simply an aberration, an example of the judge in question being as overcome by the hysteria of the moment then it wouldn't be so serious.  Since Paul Chambers finally succeeded in having his conviction for sending a "menacing" message on Twitter quashed at the High Court, albeit only after he had attracted the support of celebrities and pro bono legal representation, an absurd case that the Crown Prosecution Service should never have brought let alone twice contested at appeal, it might have been hoped that judges and magistrates would think long and carefully before convicting anyone else under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

Yet this week has seen two more such cases prosecuted, neither of which should have ever reached a court.  Azhar Ahmed was more fortunate than Matthew Woods, although not by much.  Earlier in the year Ahmed was moved in the aftermath of the deaths of four servicemen in Afghanistan to post an angry Facebook status update in which he said that "all soldiers should die and go to hell".  His status also made clear that more attention should be paid to the deaths of innocents in the country, although this seems to have been much overlooked.  It was clearly an angry, very much over the top and potentially offensive message, but it was a political one.  A failure to be eloquent should not be used to punish someone for making their voice heard.  Equally clear is that Ahmed did not say that soldiers should be killed; and as the court presumably accepted, Ahmed afterwards apologised to those who responded to his update, saying that he hadn't meant for anyone to be upset by it.

Despite all of this, Ahmed was convicted of sending a "grossly offensive" message, and was told by district judge Jane Goodwin that he had gone beyond the bounds of freedom of speech.  Indeed, she said that he had "failed" to live up to the responsibility that comes with it.  He was ordered to perform 240 hours of community service over two years; by comparison, the TV presenter Justin Lee Collins was ordered this week to perform 140 hours of community service after he was found guilty of a prolonged campaign of harassment against his ex-girlfriend.

Undoubtedly worthy of less sympathy is Matthew Woods.  Woods pleaded guilty earlier this week to sending a grossly offensive message after he was arrested "for his own safety".  Woods' crime was to post jokes on his Facebook page about both April Jones and Madeleine McCann, one of which was described by magistrate Bill Hudson as "abhorrent".  This seems to be a reference to Woods' show-stopping gag:

"What's the difference between Mark Bridger and Santa Claus? Mark Bridger comes in April."

If delivered on a stage, it would have been worthy of boos.  Posted online during a search for a child, with all the emotions surrounding such a disappearance, Hudson decided it was worthy of three months in prison.  Only Woods' early guilty plea prevented it from being for the full six months available under the law.  Earlier the same day the court fined a man £100 and ordered him to pay £100 in compensation after he called a woman who had pulled up alongside him in her car a "fucking black cunt".

Woods was badly advised, if indeed he was legally advised at all.  It seems dubious however whether or not an appeal would be worth it, as the joke clearly is grossly offensive.  The problem here is the law itself: we should not be criminalising grossly offensive messages purely because they are sent online.  No amount of seminars between Keir Starmer, lawyers and the social networks are going to make a difference when the law was drafted at a time when the closest thing to Facebook and Twitter were Friendster and Friends Reunited.  It's also ridiculous that the onus should be placed on the social networks themselves to police what is and isn't "grossly offensive" or "menacing" when it should be down to users to not outrage themselves.  There's a massive difference between someone posting jokes on their personal page that they suspect will only be read by their friends, never imagining that they'll be widely linked to or retweeted and someone directing their ire straight at someone, and it's one which the courts are not taking into account.

It's also the case though that as the Heresiarch says, true free speech has never been very popular in this country and seems to be becoming less so.  That judges now seem to believe that prison sentences are an appropriate punishment for saying or writing things that clearly do not incite hatred of any variety but which do hurt feelings is a sad indictment of what a petty, pathetic bunch many of us appear to have become.  Twitter storms and online witch hunts rather than ignoring or calmly criticising the obnoxious and mean-spirited now seem the accepted norm, and it's a deeply dispiriting change.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2012 

No responsibility.

Well, that was a perfectly workable speech by the leader of the opposition.

What do you mean, David Cameron's the prime minister and has been for the last two and a half years?  How can he possibly be?  How can you have been in power for that period of time and still be blaming every single problem you face on either the previous government or on other outside forces apparently conspiring against you?  How can someone who praises the virtues of taking responsibility be so completely unwilling to accept it himself?  How can someone with such intellect be so wilfully obtuse?  Or is it that intellect, that apparent belief that all you need to do is aspire and work hard and you'll achieve greatness, in the face of all the evidence that it is still overwhelmingly privilege or lack of it that defines where you'll end up in life, that makes Cameron such a dull boy?

To get away from answering my own questions for a second, we should give Cameron some credit.  Most party leaders lay off the blatant untruths until they're at least a tenth of the way through their conference speech.  Not Cameron: 60 words in and he claims that he came into office with the challenge of making an insolvent country solvent again.  Now, you can play around with what the true definition of insolvent is, but by most reasonable measures we are not and were not insolvent: even if we class insolvent as needing a bail-out, we have not needed one, and would not have needed one regardless of which party won the election.  As pointed out yesterday, George Osborne is now thanks to his superb management of the economy going to eliminate the deficit later than Alistair Darling planned to.  Despite this, the markets have not decided we can't pay our way in the same way they have Spain or Greece.  Half-way through the current parliament, it really is about time that the coalition dropped the act that it's thanks to them we've avoid bankruptcy.

Not that this is even close to crucial when neither George Osborne or David Cameron can bring themselves to admit that there has been no economic growth for the past nine months.  The word recession has not so much has crossed their lips.  Instead Cameron can't "tell us that all is well"; all he can say is that "the damage was worse than we thought, and it's taking longer than we hoped".  All our woes were placed squarely on the Eurozone crisis, down to how Ireland, Spain and Italy aren't buying as much from us as before.  As for who got us in this mess, it was Labour.  Yes, it was Gordon Brown who personally and purposefully crashed the economy.  It wasn't anything to do with the popping of a bubble that politicians of all parties and stripes encouraged, or the sub-prime crisis in America, or the neoliberalism of the past 30 years finally collapsing under its own contradictions, it was Labour.  Labour, Labour, Labour.

And now what do Labour propose, even though they shouldn't be so much as allowed to continue to exist as a party considering what they did to us all?  They want us to borrow more.  It's their solution to everything.  It doesn't of course matter that the coalition is borrowing far more than it planned because of the unmentionable recession to pay for out of work benefits, in spite of which we still have the phenomenally low interest rates the Tories never stop raving about, if we were to so much as deviate from austerity even slightly it could mean our doom.  It also doesn't matter that the high priests of austerity, the IMF, on Monday admitted they'd completely underestimated the effect of cutting government spending and that it was now really time to consider a Plan B, Cameron and Osborne know better.  As for the IMF's prediction that there will be negative growth of 0.4% this year, should that be proved correct it will obviously Labour's fault as well.

When a political party is in trouble, it can do one of three things.  It can change its leader, it can do a thorough analysis of where it's going wrong and why it isn't appealing to voters in the same way as it used to and act on it, or, as the Tories under Cameron are doing, they can just reprise their old tunes and hope it works.  Yesterday it was murder a burglar; today from Cameron it was aspiration, aspiration, aspiration,  the supposed magic ingredient that propelled Thatcher and Blair to successive terms of office once again being turned to.  The problem is, most people only dream and aspire to more when they're comfortably off, when the support's there to help them realise their aims.  The vast majority at the moment are struggling to make ends meet, they're not saving, they're paying off their debts.  And how is the government itself trying to inspire workers?  By telling them to give up their rights in exchange for shares.  Truly empowering stuff.

At its heart, this was a truly with us or against us speech.  Cameron portrayed everyone who disagreed with his policies as either wreckers, snobs, sneerers, scroungers, or comfortable with under achievement.  The section on welfare especially was a disgrace, not just a tissue but a fabric of lies, claiming that some actively made a choice not to get on in life from their very earliest days, not bothering to try at school as they could live on the dole instead, get a free house or flat and laugh at all the strivers doing the right thing, looking in on them as the hard workers look "out of the window dreaming of a place of their own".  He mentioned families claiming 40, 50 or £60,000 a year in housing benefit, when even the slightest attempt at checking found that 99% of claims are under 15k a year, with 0.0025% over 50k.  And yet again there was no recognition that the overwhelming majority of new housing benefit claims are from those in work.  As for the work programme and Cameron's hyping of it, it simply isn't working.  But then how can it when there are simply not enough jobs out there, and when Cameron himself uses such dodgy statistics to claim that under the coalition there have already been more private sector jobs created than under 10 years of Labour?

It wasn't all bad, however.  While it was nothing like the old days under Blair when almost every year saw him all but launching an attack on his own party, Cameron did all but accept it was often his own natural supporters that block new housing developments with nimby or banana attitudes, urging them to accept we need to build more.  

That was though more or less it, and there were so many egregious sections that anything even slightly conciliatory was completely overwhelmed.  Like giving all the credit to Theresa May for the deportation of Abu Hamza, as though it wasn't a legal process that started under the last government simply reaching  its conclusion.  Or hilariously claiming that the Queen is the best head of state in the world. Or telling blatant lies about the coalition's stewardship of the NHS, while not so much as mentioning the reform bill.  Or not so much as mentioning the police after Plebgate, although considering the walloping every other section of the public sector received just for existing, perhaps that was a merciful decision.  It wasn't then so much a flat speech as the final confirmation that Cameron hasn't adjusted to being a leader of the country rather than just a leader of a party, and we're the ones paying for it.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2012 

Osborne delivers in the race to the bottom.

One of the best positions to start from in politics is that if almost everyone agrees on something, either they or the principle itself is wrong.  Obviously, this isn't universal; all the mainstream political parties are opposed to capital punishment, or making abortion illegal, even if there's disagreement on the limitations on the latter, which is a Very Good Thing.  All the mainstream parties are though at least ostensibly in favour of continuing both the war on drugs and the war in Afghanistan, and these are Very Bad Things indeed.

Which brings us in a very round about way to saying that Ed Miliband last week was rather good, despite everyone agreeing that he was.  I do find the whole making a speech without notes and wandering about the stage thing rather tiresome, the equivalent of riding a bike without using your hands, something that is easy to do with plenty of practice, but it was a very decent speech by a man who has been the victim as much of an ever more impatient media and also party than someone clearly not up to the job.  He started off slowly, it's true, but he's been improving ever since.  Derided by the right-wing press last year for his "predator capitalism" speech, which was shaky in both content and delivery yet soon being ripped off by the coalition, there was even less actual content this year and and yet it was lapped up universally.

Once he'd finally finished labouring on about his comprehensive (yes, Ed, most of us went to them as well and were equally scarred by the process) and finally got to the One Nation bit it was perfectly fine.  It was though just a little underwhelming; yes, the Tories have moved so far to the right that they've vacated their old one nation territory and therefore there's plenty of space for Labour to move into, but it isn't much of a rallying cry.  The fact is that most of those old one nation people have shifted to the right with the Tories, and therefore they aren't going to move back. Where then does that leave those of us on the left who want a redistributing but non-nanny state, an adequate safety net without the likes of ATOS deciding who's deserving or not, a publicly owned and controlled NHS and a foreign policy that doesn't involve us either directly funding armed gangs or intervening on their side?  Inside the tent certainly, but with only slightly more say than we had under Blair.

All this though is for another day, as indeed are any definite policies.  Which is fine, as it's utterly pointless for Labour to say what they'd do if they won in 2015 when the coalition doesn't know what it's doing tomorrow.  The contrast between last week's conference and this week's Tory soiree in Birmingham is stark: one was a party finding its feet again as a direct consequence of the coalition's disastrous policies, while the other is, err, a party uncertain of what's to come as a direct consequence of their disastrous policies.  

The old classic of conference time is, if in doubt, bring out the batter a burglar policy.  New Labour did it countless times, briefing to the ever gullible right-wing press that this time they really would be changing the "reasonable force" law to one which would allow you to carry out the most vile torture imaginable on an intruder without PC Plod (or should that be Pleb?) laying a finger on you.  Every time the answer came back that the "reasonable force" rule was working perfectly fine as it already allows you to do anything other than lie in wait for and then shoot burglars in the back as they run away (or alternatively, calling up your friends and family and then battering your assailants to within an inch of their lives once they've reached the road outside your house) and nothing changed.  Regardless of the ever more ridiculous headlines ("new right to attack burglars", says Torygraph), I'm willing to wager that once again nothing will come of Chris Grayling's wheeze.

If only the same could be said for the ordure presented for the conference's delectation by George Osborne.  Osborne is a fairly unique politician in that he actually seems to enjoy being hated: some thought they saw in the Paralympics booing clip his anger and bewilderment at being even less popular than John Terry and Ashley Cole combined.  My view was that his cackle and then laugh was the sign of him loving it.  Osborne wants to be loathed, as in his mind that means his medicine is working; short-term pain will turn into long-term gain.  Not for him the namby-pamby nonsense from of all people, Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome, who recommends an end to the attacks on the poorest as they're the real reason why the party is disliked.  

No, here comes another £16bn of welfare cuts, apparently agreed by Iain Duncan Smith, and directed straight at the children of the unemployed, as though those out of work don't think exactly the same way about having another child as those in work do and whether they can afford it, as though the extra child benefit payment they receive somehow make all the difference.  The same applies to restricting housing benefit to the over 25s, as though everyone under that age claiming it is out of work when the latest figures suggest that 50% are not.  Osborne asked how anyone could justify the incomes of those out of work rising faster than those in work; simple, George.  When those out of work are struggling by on their £70 a week through no fault of their own, a rise in line with inflation is more than justifiable when the average full-time working wage last year was £26,200.  5% of not a lot is still not a lot, while 1.6% of considerably more is, err, considerably more.

Much of it was all too predictable.   Osborne didn't so much as deign to mention growth, or recognise that there had been a double-dip recession, or even that there was such a thing as the unemployed as opposed to scroungers, all while at the same time criticising Ed Miliband for not mentioning the deficit.  That Alistair Darling's plan for reducing the deficit would have eliminated it before Osborne will now manage also went by the by.  Instead we got not reheated old Thatcherism, but the equivalent of pie in the sky: workers of the world hand over your rights and don't unite!  £2,000 in worthless shares in exchange for complete job insecurity; who could possibly object to such a scheme, except, oh, perhaps anyone with half a brain or the European Union?  The only way in which Osborne's brainwave could possibly be attractive is if there isn't any other option, and with the prospect of low to non-existent growth and the introduction of the universal credit, which it seems will demand that part-time workers find full-time jobs or else, desperation might well win out.  

It really isn't over the top to suggest this is like something out of Atlas Shrugged: according to Osborne and the Adrian Beecrofts of the world, it's the John Galts, the strivers and the creators, not the humble workers without whom the business wouldn't be able to function that are deserving of reward and rights.  Britain can deliver, but only it seems in the race to the bottom.

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