Monday, December 31, 2012 

Best music of 2012 part 2 / 15 best albums.

Honourable mentions in no order:
ASC - Out of Sync
ASC and Sam KDC - Decayed Society
Seven - Evolution
Bloc Party - Four
Tame Impala - Lonerism
Hot Chip - In Our Heads
Corin Tucker Band - Kill My Blues
Swans - The Seer
Oneman - Fabriclive 64
Ben Klock - Fabric 66
Menomena - Moms
Divorce - Divorce
Burial - Kindred - Truant / Rough Sleeper
J:Kenzo - J:Kenzo
Decemberists - We All Raise Our Voices to the Air
Daphni - Jiaolong
Lone - Galaxy Garden
DIIV - Oshin
Dum Dum Girls - End of Daze EP
(and probably some others I've forgotten)

15. Rinse:20 - Mixed by Uncle Dugs

At the very end of last year, Ministry of Sound put out a "Jungle Classics" double CD. Alongside all the tunes you'd expect, it also included, err, Masochist by Pendulum and DJ Fresh's recent remix of Katy B. For those looking for a true introduction into jungle before it fully morphed into drum and bass, you can't go far wrong with Uncle Dugs' mix for the Rinse series. Yes, there's the ever presents on the tracklist, such as Valley of the Shadows and Pulp Fiction, but you also get the Criminal Minds' Baptised by Dub, X-Project's Walking in the Air and two Conquering Lion tunes. As you'd also expect from Rinse, the mixing is impeccable, something that can never be said of MoS's computer.

14. Bat for Lashes - The Haunted Man

Three years on from Two Suns, and Natasha Khan is back with another album of ethereal beauty of the kind Florence Welch wishes she could emulate. The cover art itself is something to behold, and I'm still undecided as to whether it's brilliant or terrible. It is nonetheless like nothing else this year, and Khan shows the pretenders how it's done. The piano ballad Laura would in the hands of almost anyone else be insincere and overwrought, yet Khan injects a subtlety lost on those whose first resort is stridency. Lillies and All Your Gold are also superb, and as with her past albums, this is another record that only gets better the more you listen.

 13. Shackleton - Music for the Quiet Hour

After last year's collaboration with Pinch, Shackleton returned this year to his experimental output with Music for the Quiet Hour, an album that takes time to decipher. The bass, as always, is there, but so too are electronic pulses and noise more associated with the likes of Throbbing Gristle and Coil. It's avant-garde without being unlistenable, and still indebted to where he began at the outer reaches of the dubstep scene. Along with the Drawbar Organ EPs, Shackleton has established himself as one of the foremost pioneers in a scene where many are content with repetition.

12. Holy Other - Held

The BBC's review of Held wonderfully sums it up as containing "bass ballads for clubs where everyone sits around wearing headphones luxuriating in their own private misery". Seeing as that sounds like a great improvement on the vast majority of clubs to me, it's no wonder that I found Held to be a joy. The instant reference point is Burial, it's true, such are the emotions that Holy Other latches onto and tries to trigger, yet Held never approaches derivative or manipulative. It's mournful without being even slightly depressing, and a terrifically rewarding listen.

11. Dusk and Blackdown - Dasaflex

As summations of a scene go, Dasaflex will be difficult to beat. Having becoming disillusioned with the path dubstep seemed to be taking, Martin 'Blackdown' Clark has focused on finding and producing music that's almost funky, could be grime and is close to dubstep, but isn't truly of any of those genres. Whatever you decide to call it, the 130bpm bass music on this album is of the same quality as that showcased on their monthly Rinse show, with the same amount of variety and virtuosity as you would expect there.

10. LHF - Keepers of the Light

One of those albums that seems to have slipped between the cracks, Keepers of the Light has been criminally overlooked by almost everyone. Yes, it is a double album, something that many seem to regard as extravagant in an age where the album itself is in decline, but in this instance it's more than justified. LHF are a collective in the same vein as Digital Mystikz, producing separately while releasing under the same name. The bind that holds them together is dubstep, but it's a dubstep that realises it's just a small part of the hardcore continuum, with a pirate radio aesthetic as the overarching theme. With the length allowing them to fully explore all their influences, it's one of the treats of the year.

9. The XX - Coexist

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Many have claimed that Coexist is essentially a rehash of the XX's debut, but it's more than that. Anyone should to be able to hear the new sounds Jamie XX has brought to the fray, especially as one track has a melody broadly similar to his release on the Numbers label. While perhaps lacking the same intimacy that made their first album so essential, Coexist was still easily one of the best releases of the year.

8. Cooly G - Playin' Me

There's no getting away from Playin' Me's centrepiece: yes, that really is a cover of Coldplay's Trouble scattered amongst the post-dubstep and UK bass overtures. More staggering still is that Cooly G manages to make one of Coldplay's more dismal dirges flicker with life. It's not quite up there with James Blake's reimagining of Limit to Your Love, but then almost nothing is. It's a shame that Playin' Me hasn't achieved the level of cross-over success as Blake did, as there is much else here to commend and which deserved more attention, especially from the Mercury judges.

7. Lee Gamble - Diversions 1994 - 1996

Constructed entirely from tape recordings of jungle sets on pirate radio in the mid 90s, Diversions must rank up there as one of the most spectacular achievements of the year, if only because just once does a breakbeat enter the fray. There aren't just reference points here for those who were there at the time, although they'll doubtless draw much from identifying some of the elements that make up the 27 minutes worth of immersive ambient-not ambient sounds, as Boomkat puts it, it's that something this remarkable could have been put together using the parts the layman often takes for granted, the intros and breakdowns.

6. Dirty Projectors - Swing Lo Magellan

With Dirty Projectors it's possible to get lost in all the high concepts: that they previously performed a Black Flag album entirely from memory, have composed operas and much else. All that's really important is that they continue to turn out superb albums, and Swing Lo Magellan is most definitely that. The influences are manifold, whether they be classic R&B groups, classical composers or err, the Beatles. If anything, at times it reminds of the Beach Boys around the time of Pet Sounds, the harmonising of Dave Longstreth, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle coming together so expertly that the comparison isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.

5. Jam City - Classical Curves

With so much of the craft of the DJ and producer being about producing singular, killer tracks and choosing the right moment to play them, putting together an album is an alien concept to many and all too often it shows. Classical Curves is a wonderful example of the opposite being the case: it works as a cohesive whole just as much as the individual tracks do on the dancefloor. The synth line of How We Relate to the Body is magical, and when the low end comes in it just gets better. The grime / house hybrid The Courts is just as good, while Strawberries's horn gets under the skin immediately.

4. Andy Stott - Luxury Problems

If there's one thing to take from the seemingly unstoppable rise of EDM and the instant availability of music, it's that albums like this are gaining attention they never would have previously. Luxury Problems is that most unlikely thing: ostensibly a dub techno album married to the vocals of a classically trained singer, it's somehow crossed over to head into many overall top 10s. That it deserves all the accolades and more is undeniable: Alison Skidmore's vocals meld wondrously with her former piano pupil Stott's production, while Up the Box has one of the best and most unexpected pay-offs of the year.

3. Actress - R.I.P.

With 2010's Splazh, Darren Cunningham somewhat kept his powder dry. It was undoubtedly a great album, yet there still seemed as though he was holding back. With R.I.P. he completely lets rip, although it stills takes until 5 tracks in and Uriel's Black Harp for the record to really start motoring. The distortion underneath the melody hints at what's coming, and it's a promise fulfilled by Shadow from Tartarus and The Lord's Grafitti. Cunningham said in an interview that he wanted to make "cool, classical stuff for a modern generation", and that's exactly what he's achieved.

2. Mala - Mala in Cuba

Thanks to the image most people now have of dubstep, the pairing of traditional Cuban sounds with the syncopation of 140bpm beats couldn't on the surface seem more incongruous. That dubstep even now can encompass Burial and the Skrillex followers at opposite ends of the spectrum with the jazz influenced Silkie and Quest in the middle says something about how a genre that didn't exist a decade ago has exploded, and also explains why it now seems to be in its death throes. Invited by Gilles Peterson to visit Havana with the intention of perhaps producing something from the music recorded during the trip, Mala almost didn't finish his first true album, suffering from writer's block half-way through. Thanks to help from Simbad, Mala completed the job and thank goodness he did. While some were disappointed with the end result, this is an album that reveals itself properly over time: as immediate as Calle F and Curfew are, it's the likes of Como Como and Revolution that make it what it is. As a melding of two seemingly entirely separate cultures, it's as near perfect as possible.

1. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!

By their standards, GY!BE's last album, 2002's Yanqui U.X.O. was a disappointment. Something just wasn't quite right with it: whether it was Steve Albini's production, tensions within the group coming to the fore or otherwise, it simply didn't correspond properly with the intensity of the band's live performances of the same material. An "indefinite hiatus" that lasted seven years later, a full decade on GY!BE went back into the studio to record the follow-up. It doesn't matter that the two movements they put to tape have long been a part of those same live shows, when they sound this expansive, this incredible, this emotive, this euphoric they put almost every other band in existence to shame. We just have to hope we don't have another ten year wait to contend with.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012 

Can't beat the system.

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Friday, December 28, 2012 

Best music of 2012 part 1.

Best Song / Track: 
Blawan - His He and She She EP / Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage 

This year more than ever there's the question of how you truly quantify when a song actually came out. Among the year's very best releases, a number were first heard either last year or even further back: the latest 12" from Mala, Stand Against War and Maintain Thru Madness comes at least five years after the former was first heard in clubs, while Coki's Dry Cry bootleg was of a similar vintage. Night Slugs put out the first vinyl release of KW Griff's jaw-dropping Bring in the Katz, which had been knocking around for at least a couple of years, and we also finally got our hands on Joy O and Boddika's Swims, as well as Joy O's own Ellipsis, both of which were anthems from last year. 

Having said in yesterday's post that straight-up dubstep had for the most part been dismal this year, Distance had a superb year, whether working alongside Tunnidge on Blame, Pinch on Hysteria, or on his own with Blue Meanie and Troubles. Jack Sparrow put out a fantastic 12" in Afraid of Me / Good Old Days, while three tracks from Mala's Cuba album are up there among the year's best, Calle F, Curfew and Cuba Electronic all able to work on their own. 

Grime saw something of a resurgence, even if it came by incorporating elements of other genres, with Champion's funky influenced Crystal Meth a crossover anthem, Silkie teaming up with Swindle on Unlimited and Quartz by Bloom also blowing up. On the post-dubstep side of things Cactus by Objekt packed them in, as did anything from the three Joy O and Boddika joints which came out on Sunklo. Fantastic Mr Fox put out a limited 12" in Power, which delighted those who got a copy. Burial and Four Tet teamed up again for Nova, with Mr Bevan also releasing a further two EPs. Julio Bashmore turned out Au Seve, a great follow up to Battle for Middle You, while Lone went back to acid in Crystal Caverns 1991

Best of all though was Blawan's EP on Hinge Finger, a four track 12" of industrial techno that sampled the Fugees to devastating effect, and sounded quite unlike anything else this year. Apart from the other stuff released by Blawan and Karenn, his collaboration with Pariah, naturally. 

Best Remix / Bootleg:  
Animal Youth - Try Again 

Another fairly barren year on the remix front, thankfully somewhat alleviated by the number of white labels that continue to emerge. L-Vis 1990's dub of Bring in the Katz was the perfect excuse to release the original; Dry Cry, formerly known as Soundboy and sampling Sizzla, got pressed after years in the wilderness; and DJ Q put out two old school garage tracks sampling Brandy on red wax. Distance performed his magic on DJ Madd's already dark Life You Chose, Toddla T wrecked Trojan Sound System in the best possible way, Koreless got to grips with Bloc Party's Octopus, and the 15-year-old Happa entered the hype machine with his take on Four Tet's Jupiters. 

Unsurpassed by my reckoning was Animal Youth, who turned to the much sampled Aaliyah and still managed to do something new with her vocals. 

Best Reissue(s): 
My Bloody Valentine - Various 

With so many to choose from this year, the long-awaited remastering of both of MBV's albums and a compilation of the EPs is simply impossible to top. Loveless came with two separate masters, although whether you'll be able to tell the difference is doubtful, while there's also a new album to now look forward to. For those with £120 to spare, Blur's entire back catalogue was reissued, and Massive Attack's debut also got the deluxe treatment. You can probably guess which one I've yet to get my hands on.

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Thursday, December 27, 2012 

Worst music of 2012.

Until a couple of weeks ago, I was ready to declare 2012 as one of the worst years for music for quite some time.  Considering that 2009 and 2010 were both fairly horrific and 2012 has gone quite some way beyond the awfulness of those years, this would have been quite the statement.  Since then, in preparation for compiling the quite obviously definitive best of the year list, I've been listening again to a veritable boatload of this year's albums, and I've somewhat reassessed my opinion.  If you completely ignore the mainstream and dig a little deeper then there has been some superb music released this year, so much so that it counterbalances the dreck to a certain extent.

This post is about music in general though, and considering just how much crud has been shovelled down our necks this year by all mediums, whether it be the internet, television or radio, you can't help but reach the conclusion that the musical apocalypse is almost upon us.  The homogeneousness of the mainstream this year has been something to behold: almost every other song sounds exactly the fucking same, for the reason that they almost are exactly the fucking same.  For a while I thought it was age beginning to catch up with me, and I was starting to turn into my father, who likes nothing better than listening to Radio 2 the entire day. Then I realised it wasn't me, it was everyone else.  With EDM having exploded in America for reasons that no one can properly ascertain, every pop song must now sound as though it was produced in Europe circa 96 to 99, only with the occasional added screech.

Not that there's anything particularly wrong with the odd slice of Eurocheese, especially when you're between 12 and 14.  I quite liked Sash! at that age, alongside the very slightly more credible likes of DJ Quicksilver's Bellissima, with Insomnia by Faithless rating as my absolute favourite.  It's pretty incredible then that around 15 years later the Europop formula has returned, been suitably toned down so it doesn't sound completely like trance, and then served up for our delectation over and over and over again. 

As with so much else, we have Rihanna to blame: the success of (Only Girl) In the World, written and produced by the Stargate duo, seems to have been the main catalyst.  Rihanna is one of those remarkable critic proof artists, not that the critics have ever really monstered her until the release of her latest album, and that seems to have been as much to do with her renewed relationship with Chris Brown as anything else.  That she can't sing and can't dance hasn't really mattered when her entire act revolves around her wearing as little as possible and all but urging the listener to imagine that they're fucking her as they do so, or indeed, actively saying that she wants you to.

Into this breach has entered Nicki Minaj, who I will admit from the beginning I simply don't get.  Super Bass, one of the biggest hits of last year, was almost tolerable, even if the title doesn't make much sense when there, err, isn't really all that much bass in the track.  According to her A&R, Minaj won't simply rap or sing over any old beat, which seems a strange comment considering the number of times she's featured alongside other artists, including with such notable originators as, err, David Guetta.  It's even more staggering when you consider that her two main singles of the year, Starships and Pound the Alarm, are so aggravatingly execrable, both by the numbers tracks that would otherwise only be notable for the amount of flesh on display in the videos.   That the top comment for Starships on YouTube currently is "this is the weirdest porno I've seen all day" pretty much says it all.

Even if she's delved into the current trend for Europop, Minaj made her name as a rapper, and so it would be remiss if we didn't also take note of "Stupid Hoe". For a start, Minaj doesn't seem to have realised that hoe has a silent e, instead saying how, making it sound as though she's asking an ungrammatical question rather than insulting someone, while secondly the video has picked up more than 600,000 dislikes on YT, more than double the likes. For an otherwise popular artist who isn't Justin Bieber, that's quite the achievement.

The other sign of how dismal a year it's been for pop is the number of one hit wonders the year is likely to become known for.  It began with Gotye's Someone That I Used to Know, continued with Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe, which seems to be ironically topping some track of the year lists, and ended with the phenomenon of Gangnam Style.  Psy's worldwide smash doesn't deserve to be in any worst of the year list, it's true, but it is further evidence of the homogeneity alluded to above.  At first I thought it was a parody of the current Europop trend by a savvy Korean artist mocking the Gangnam area of Seoul at the same time, except it isn't.  It's simply K-Pop, with a highly amusing video and nothing more.  Any life it did have has since been strangled by the sheer number of parodies, each one worse than the last.  It's also indicative of Western culture as it currently stands: for anything from outside America or Europe to get attention, it has to become us.  Little wonder there was such a lot of sound and fury when it turned out Psy had in the past lambasted the US, leading to a humiliating apology.

In a year when the low moments just kept on coming, there was still one that must have scarred memories across the world.  The Olympics closing ceremony was shockingly awful in its entirety, yet there was one moment which suggested irony was something that didn't enter into the producer's equation.  Of all the ideas they must have kicked around, how was it exactly that no one objected to the prospect of Jessie J being driven into the Olympic stadium in the back of a gold Rolls Royce while she performed Price Tag?  It's not about the money, they didn't want our money, they just want to make the world dance.  Except they did take our money, Jessie J must have took the money, and so did Rolls Royce.  Also performing was Emeli Sande, who started off last year with a track that co-opted the Funky Drummer break, and ended this one with a song that rhymes night and light and thunder and wonder.  How long do you reckon she slaved over those lyrics?

Finally, we must as always recognise the role The X Factor and Simon Cowell continue to play in shaping our cultural landscape.  Not only were we treated this year to a video of judge Tulisa slapping herself with her ex-boyfriend's penis, something she later described as an "intimate moment", there was this tear-inducing performance from the three finalists at the switching on of the Downing Street Christmas lights.  Silent night indeed.

Addendum: Last year, I said Martin Clark was wrong to suggest there wasn't much life left in "dark 140bpm half-step beats". Straight-up dubstep has duly this year been for the most part dismal.  Here then is how the genre has changed, or perhaps a better description is how it's subsequently been sequestered, from 2003 when it was still to be named, up till today.

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Monday, December 24, 2012 

Ah, snobbery at Christmas.

Just when you thought the whole Plebgate nonsense couldn't get any more hilarious, the Tories finally discovering since one of their own might have been stitched up that you can't trust some officers as far as you can throw them, comes this:
There is such animosity towards the commissioner that some Tories – though not members of the Mitchell circle – have taken to referring to him as "Bernard Hogan hyphen Howe". Aristocrats traditionally look down on members of the middle classes who hyphenate double-barrelled names.
That is astonishingly witty, isn't it? Considering the "Mitchell circle" consists of, err, Mitchell, it's not a surprise that he wouldn't dream of being so snobbish, at least not where a police officer might be listening. As to its origin, a quick search suggests that it's been popularised by that other man of the people, Richard Littlejohn, who first used it in his column back in January and has repeated the gag numerous times since. So then, enjoy a thoroughly bourgeois Winterval, and I'll be back later in the week with all the usual end of the year crap.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012 


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Friday, December 21, 2012 

Gosh, really?

I rarely do this, but it's nearly Christmas and hey-ho. Me, yesterday:

Not since David Blunkett have quite so many "friends of" a politician been briefing the newspapers. As it turned out, the friends of Blunkett were, err, Blunkett. Anyone willing to wager the same isn't the case this time round?


Was it simply not to antagonise the Police Federation further, or that Cameron had already decided his whip had to go, even if it was a time of his own choosing? 

The Graun, today:

Friends of Mitchell said it was "bloody astonishing" that Cameron had allowed him to resign even after No 10 officials had suggested that CCTV footage raised concerns about accounts of the incident. Mitchell met the prime minister to discuss the matter on Monday.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012 

The Tory who believes he was mugged by the police.

The old cliche goes that a conservative is just a mugged liberal.  Andrew Mitchell is that rare beast: a Conservative who believes he's been mugged by the police.  Amusing as it always is when those whose default position is to trust the police and the army while distrusting most other state employees discover to their horror that our brave boys in blue have the same flaws and potential prejudices as everyone else, Mitchell has clearly gone out of his to express how wronged he has been.  Not since David Blunkett have quite so many "friends of" a politician been briefing the newspapers.  As it turned out, the friends of Blunkett were, err, Blunkett.  Anyone willing to wager the same isn't the case this time round?

This isn't to say that there hasn't been an obvious element of foul play involved.  The member of the public who wasn't there but was a police officer does raise some uncomfortable questions both for the Met and the police federation.  It's understandable that Mitchell's outburst at the officers over their refusal to let him through the main Downing Street gates was soon more widely known, regardless of how it came about; what's more important is how it was leaked to the Sun, and how the letter from the officer came to be written.  If that can in any way be connected to the federation, and to the campaign that has been masterminded, if that's the right word, by Gaunt Brothers, then it becomes far more serious.

Let's not though fall into the trap of believing this is some grand conspiracy against Mitchell, the Conservatives and the government, at least until further evidence comes to light.  The CCTV footage from Downing Street proves precisely nothing either way: yes, it looks as though the officers exaggerated when they said in the log that there "were several members of the public present" and that "they look visibly shocked", as although there were people milling around, only one person seems to have taken much of an interest in what was going on.  This is hardly surprising, frankly, as anyone who's had almost any contact with the police will know.  What the CCTV doesn't contradict is the idea that's been established of Mitchell going on a tirade against the officers: in the log there is no mention of shouting, merely that there was a disagreement and Mitchell made his point extremely forcefully.  Moreover, Mitchell admits that some of the log is accurate: he did swear, saying something along the lines of "I thought you guys were meant to fucking help us," and he did say words to the effect of "you haven't heard the last of this" as he cycled off.  The only part he strenuously denies is calling them plebs.

As I wrote at the time, there was no real reason why this should have resulted in the end of Mitchell's career.  He apologised, the officers accepted his apology, and everyone ought to be allowed one such outburst or loss of temper, within reason at least.  It was the campaign orchestrated against Mitchell, not just by the federation but also a tabloid press not enamoured with Cameron's government that did for him.  Mitchell obviously believes that there is no way back into a ministerial position without proving his innocence, the obvious problem being that means either he or the police are lying.  Despite the exaggeration on the police's behalf about the witnesses, they had no reason to lie about Mitchell's use of words, unless we're meant to believe this was such a nefarious plot that the not letting him through the main gates was intended to precipitate just such a response from the chief whip, something that wasn't exactly guaranteed.  Pleb is also hardly a common insult these days; if you were making such a thing up, you'd probably go for "cunts" rather than "plebs", as it's just as believable.

Serious then as the allegations of fabrication higher up in the Met are, there's no reason as yet to believe Mitchell has been stitched up.  This doesn't so much resemble a plot against the government as it does the usual arse-covering that's endemic within the police, only this time they've been found of it.  What is worthy of further scrutiny is why the CCTV footage wasn't released earlier, when we know it was reviewed at the time.  Was it simply not to antagonise the Police Federation further, or that Cameron had already decided his whip had to go, even if it was a time of his own choosing?  If it was the latter, then this whole gambit from Mitchell looks to have been in vain anyhow.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2012 

Newsnight and Duncroft: still far from the full story.

The Pollard inquiry into the entire Newsnight affair has, as recent reports have been wont to do, reached pretty much the conclusions it was expected it would.  Nick Pollard, formerly of Sky News, dismisses the notion that there was managerial pressure to drop the investigation into Savile's alleged activities at the Duncroft approved school, while finding that Newsnight's now ex-editor Peter Rippon made the wrong decision, mainly on the grounds that the CPS had investigated one of the claims about Duncroft and decided there was insufficient evidence to bring charges, to spike Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean's story.

It most certainly doesn't end there though, and there are more than enough uncertainties in the report for those suitably inclined to reach the conclusion that there was in fact pressure put on Rippon.  Both Jones and MacKean certainly believed there was, although Jones has since admitted he had no evidence for claiming at the time that this was the case.  

Key to the entire chain of events is a series of emails between Rippon and Stephen Mitchell, the deputy head of news, on the 29th of November last year (paragraph 91, page 68 onwards).  In the first, Rippon outlined the investigation and when Newsnight was planning to transmit the story, along with a request as to whether he could talk to Mitchell in more depth on the phone later.  As Pollard notes, this email and its follow-up are positive about the story, without any indication that Rippon at this stage was having doubts.  Remarkably, both men are uncertain as to whether the proposed phone call took place; Mitchell cannot remember it, with Pollard noting acidly that he "found the frequency with which Mr Mitchell's memory failed him surprising" at a different point in the report, while Rippon believes he "probably did" talk with Mitchell.

Whether it did or not, this was the point at which Rippon began to properly voice his doubts.  The following morning he emailed Jones, shifting the onus onto establishing that the CPS "did drop the case for the reason the women say", that Savile was too old and infirm to be charged.  Rippon's explanation for his change of heart, given to the inquiry, was that he felt the report as it stood relied too much on the evidence of Karin Ward, referred to throughout as [R1], how the interviews with the other victims had been conducted over the phone by an inexperienced trainee reporter, and how the evidence could be undermined by how some of the women had shared and discussed their experiences among themselves previously on a social networking site (paragraph 100, page 72).

Pollard examines three explanations for Rippon's shift: that he had been very keen on the story but something happened overnight to change his mind, influenced by Mitchell; that he changed his mind based purely on his "pondering it overnight"; or that he had overstated the story to Mitchell in his emails, despite having doubts, which had now come fully to the fore.  Pollard concludes that the first explanation is the most likely, that a conversation did take place, and that it was something Mitchell said that made him re-examine what his team had so far put together.  He doesn't believe, however, that what Mitchell said was "inappropriate or that it was influenced by any wish on Mr Mitchell's part to protect the Savile tribute programmes".

We are then dealing with hypotheticals, leaving more than enough room for doubt to creep in.  Add how Pollard accepts that Rippon made comments to Jones and MacKean along the lines of how if the "bosses weren't happy" [it couldn't go ahead] and "he could not go to the wall on this one", even if again, he found no evidence that he was being put under pressure, with Helen Boaden, the head of news, saying she thought it could have "arse-covering" on his part, putting the blame elsewhere, and it isn't the clean bill of health it looks at first sight.  My opinion remains, as it was at the outset, that this was almost certainly an editor deciding on his own that there wasn't enough evidence, but I don't blame anyone for suspecting there was more going on than has come out even now.  It still doesn't explain fully though why Rippon spiked the report rather than urge his team to investigate further, or indeed why Jones believed that it was either drop the story, or "leave the BBC".  He has instead decamped to Panorama.  Lack of resources, as Rippon claimed, just doesn't cut it, savage cuts to Newsnight or not.

Pollard's other main conclusion on the initial Newsnight investigation, that Rippon's decision was wrong and that Newsnight should have broken the story about Savile being an abuser 11 months before ITV did, also looks strong on the surface.  After all, Exposure used more or less the same evidence as collected by Jones and MacKean, which has in turn lead to over 400 people coming forward with allegations about Savile.  There are reasons though to suspect that at the time, Rippon was perfectly within his rights not to proceed with transmission, and one which has came to light since.  His reasons for having doubts, although undoubtedly expressed more lucidly through hindsight, are more than respectable: the only on camera interview they had was with Ward; they didn't have any corroborating evidence from those who worked at the school; the interviews with the other women, should, ideally, have been conducted in person,  and without there being any possibility of their being led; and some of the other women had discussed their experiences on Friends Reunited, increasing the possibility of the allegations becoming blurred.

Since then we've learned that the letter from Surrey police, which Newsnight knew of but never saw, saying the case was dropped because of Savile's age and infirmity, was a forgeryAnna Racoon has also, in a series of blog posts, raised a number of doubts about some of the testimony.  A resident at Duncroft herself during the mid 60s, she denies that Savile ever visited the school while she was there, refuting the allegations made by one woman there at the same time.  She also maintains that Karin Ward must have been 16 when she appeared on Clunk Click, even if all her other claims are true.  Raccoon, regardless of being suckered in by the Libertarian Party previously, seems to be highly credible.  She may well be utterly wrong, but there are doubts there, and while the police had not previously investigated Ward's allegations, they had some of the other claims made by the others who had made contact on FR, deciding there wasn't enough evidence to pursue them.  It is almost certainly the case, as Raccoon notes, that Savile was a child abuser, an ephebophile (or at least attracted to post-pubescent children) if not a paedophile, but it has not yet been proven that he committed any offences either at Duncroft or with girls from the school.

These doubts bring us into some very uncertain territory.  Even if the Duncroft allegations are exaggerated, it's certainly the case that some of the claims made against Savile have to be accurate.  It's also unlocked memories which many have either struggled with ever since or tried to forget, casting the 60s and 70s in a different light.  While some of this will have had a negative effect on those who rather wouldn't have been reminded of what happened to them or what they got up to, for many talking about it, perhaps for the first time, will have resulted in the opposite.  As someone who struggles with his own past, I can't present opening up about everything as being wholly positive, or always for the best.  For many though it will have helped to exorcise demons, or been the first time they thought they might have been believed.  Negatives as there will have been, I would wager the positives will have outweighed them.

You can then respect Rippon entirely for the decision he made, even if you can't agree with it knowing now how it would have played out.  It would certainly have saved the BBC from the nightmare it's gone through over the last couple of months, one which Pollard finds it brought entirely on itself.  If anything, the BBC's management structure is even more Byzantine than we first thought: it takes him 11 pages (9-21) to describe it and the managed programmes list.  Away from Newsnight, one of the biggest failures he found was that the Savile investigation was moved off of this list, a list set-up in the aftermath of Hutton through which any controversial programmes or ones with risk to the BBC could be known about and shared across the organisation.  Stephen Mitchell decided it should be taken off the list, although he couldn't explain why to Pollard.  Pollard decides it was because Mitchell believed it was so sensitive that it shouldn't be widely known with the BBC, something that led in turn to the disasters that followed.

Also pilloried is George Entwistle, who if he hadn't been forced out would have had to resign now.  Pollard criticises him for taking no action after being warned by Helen Boaden about the Savile investigation, when it would have been the obvious opportunity to postpone the planned tributes until more was known.  He also didn't inquire further when told by the head of "knowledge commissioning", asking about whether they should start on a obituary programme, that he "saw the real truth", having worked with Savile as his first job at the BBC.  He was also at fault over the blog from Rippon which came to be seen within the BBC almost as gospel, despite the inaccuracies in it which MacKean and Jones pointed out almost immediately, failing to address it quickly enough, and then using it effectively to shield himself from criticism, putting it all on Rippon.

Pollard's recommendations are just as predictable.  He thinks the role of the director general as editor-in-chief is outdated, requiring they take responsibility while being unable to step in and make a difference.  The well known problem of too many managers and too rigid an adherence to going up one rung on the ladder at a time needs to be sorted once and for all, although Pollard suggests getting rid of the deputy director general was a mistake.  He sees no reason why there should continue to be "Chinese Walls", such as how Entwistle insisted it was no business of his knowing any more detail about the Savile investigation than what Helen Boaden told him.  He also wonders whether part of the problem might be that almost all of those involved had spent more or less their whole careers at the Beeb; this can and will be overstated, but it certainly wouldn't hurt if the BBC cast its net wider in the search for new recruits.

More important than these is Pollard's advice as a journalist: to be ready to collect more evidence if what is gathered is not enough, and to be prepared to hand over a story to another programme if it needs more work.  Rippon could have asked Jones and MacKean to do more work, rather than spiking what they had, or he could have suggested giving what they had to Panorama to see what they could do with it.  He did neither.  The same is true of the McAlpine affair, except in reverse.  As with so often in the past, these were avoidable mistakes which were made worse by mismanagement.  Whether it will have a long-term impact on a corporation which is still leagues ahead of almost all its journalistic competitors remains to be seen.  For now, deputy heads have rolled again.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012 

Don't leap to conclusions on Andrew Mitchell officer, says police chief...

...that's our job, insists Bernard Hogan-Howe.

In other news:
Desolate, frozen wasteland, neither use nor ornament, named after Queen
Lawyers disagree over how best to change human rights legislation to enhance their fees
Photo-sharing website owned by tax avoiders declares ownership of every highly filtered sex organ posted
UKIP voters "detached from reality", says Baron Ashcroft of Belize

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Monday, December 17, 2012 

Nick Clegg is unsustainable.

When a politician says a current item of spending is unsustainable, you can be almost certain that they are lying.  Last time round it was public sector pensions, ministers claiming something had to be done, when Lord Hutton's report was clear that overall costs were due to fall, not rise.  Today Nick Clegg claimed that the welfare system was in danger of becoming unaffordable, with the economy tripling in size since the 1970s while welfare spending has gone up seven-fold.  This might well be true, but this ignores two key points: first that spending on unemployment/sickness benefits amount to only 3% of GDP, and second that spending on welfare overall, including pensions, has levelled off in recent years.

Clegg's entire speech was, as could be expected from someone desperately trying to claim he's done anything other than prop up a Conservative government for the last two and a half years, filled with arguments along the same lines.  Straw men abounded: there are apparently some on the left who think benefits are an automatic right with no responsibilities, and that it's oppressive and discriminatory to assume those with health problems or a "difficult background" can "make something of their lives".  To call this rich from a politician who's gone along with the introduction of a work programme that doesn't work, and who has done nothing to hold ATOS to account, even when they have offices in buildings with limited disabled access, risks understating the levels of chutzpah of involved.

Even more laughable, which takes some doing, was Clegg's claim that opposing the 1% rise in benefits for the next three years doesn't "make rational sense".  As Paul over on Though Cowards Flinch has been pointing out, it made perfect rational sense last year to George Osborne when he decided benefits should rise at the same rate as inflation; then he wanted to protect those "who are not able to work because of their disabilities and those, who through no fault of their own, have lost jobs and are trying to find work".  What had changed this time?  Simply that Osborne and friends felt they were on safe ground in smearing every benefit claimant as a scrounger, and so could put up a political dividing line between themselves and Labour.  Clegg, naturally, went along with it, and much of his speech recycles the exact same language used by the Tories, to the point where he aped Cameron's "without hope or responsibility/aspiration".

The one point he made that did have something resembling a kernel of truth was the observation that "[W]hen two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work then it has to be changed or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all".  This though is based on the misconception that out of work benefits are generous; I don't think I've seen a single columnist or newspaper editorial point out that as Jobseeker's Allowance for the over 25s is currently £71 a week, if Osborne's uprating takes place those out of work can look forward to an extra 71 pence a week from next April.  It's true that when other benefits are taken into consideration alongside JSA or ESA that the picture isn't quite as bleak; housing benefit, council tax benefit and child benefit for those who have a family alter the picture somewhat, but they don't change the fact that the system is often very far from generous, and will be even less so once the £26,000 cap comes in, ignoring exceptional individual circumstances.

Much of the rest of the speech was given over to claims of how everything the Lib Dems have done in coalition has been rooted in the centre ground, a sure sign of desperation from a party which gained support at the last election because, err, they were rightly seen as being to the left of centre.  It can't help but remind of Aneurin Bevan's aphorism that we know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road.  In Clegg's case it would certainly be a relief for us all.

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Friday, December 14, 2012 


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Thursday, December 13, 2012 

The least they could do.

Right on cue, the news that the government has settled the case brought by Sami al-Saadi over the rendition of his entire family from Hong Kong to Libya only serves to underline how little has changed since the days of collusion with terrorist gangs in Northern Ireland.  Desperate to bring Libya in from the cold so that UK businesses could fully exploit the country's potential, both Tony Blair and Jack Straw went the extra mile in wooing one of the most vicious tyrants of our age, authorising Mark Allen to deal directly with Moussa Koussa in the rendition of both al-Saadi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj.  Al-Saadi was bundled onto a plane in Hong Kong just three days after Blair's trip to Libya to shake hands with Gaddafi, while Belhaj had made a similarly forced trip two weeks prior to Blair's arrival.  Allen went so far as to write that the rendition of Belhaj was "the least we could do for you and Libya".

As with the settlements reached with the men who ended up in Guantanamo, the government has accepted no liability for what happened to al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir.  Both Munthir and Belhaj were senior leaders in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a faction which had close ties to al-Qaida, prior to its dissolution.  This association didn't bother us too much when Libya was a sworn enemy, however: according to David Shayler (prior, it must be said, to his espousal of 9/11 conspiracy theories) MI6 funded a failed assassination attempt on Gaddafi by the LIFG.  This accepting of no liability is despite it being the most clear-cut case of collusion with an authoritarian state, thanks to the documents discovered by Human Rights Watch, and our knowing full well that any promises sought that the men would not be mistreated were worthless.

It certainly brings into perspective the anger expressed by Blair at how he couldn't deport anyone designated as a "terrorist suspect" to wherever the hell he felt like; no doubt aware of how swiftly those opposed to a new dictatorial ally had been delivered into their grasp, it must have smarted that the likes of Abu Qatada and others kept winning their legal battles.  It also remains to be seen whether charges will be brought against anyone involved in these two cases: the Gibson inquiry into rendition was abandoned as a consequence, ostensibly for the reason that the investigation by the Met would have further delayed the hearing of evidence.  I'm certainly not holding my breath on that score. 

Considering then that Blair has been making such a killing through his work for Kazakhstan, and Straw will presumably be receiving royalties from his memoir, perhaps the pair would like to contribute towards the £2.2m cost to the taxpayer of their handiwork.  It's the least they could do for us, and the country's worldwide reputation for human rights, surely?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012 

From Finucane to Mohamed, the story remains the same.

The report by Sir Desmond de Silva into the murder of Patrick Finucane in 1989 by the Ulster Defence Association is a truly remarkable document.  Rather than follow the pattern of whitewashes and missed opportunities we've come to associate with past inquiries, it does something quite different and quite extraordinary.  

Helped by previous inquiries by Peter Cory and the now Lord Stevens, it collates a massive amount of evidence, all of which points towards something a lot of people would define as a conspiracy, and then reaches the flat conclusion that it was collusion, and nothing more.  Unlike with Hutton and Leveson, where the media was blamed and the politicians involved all but exonerated, de Silva assigns responsibility only to organisations which no longer exist and individuals who are dead.  As for those who were at least somewhat aware of the RUC's interest in the Finucane, they couldn't possibly have anticipated what would happen.  The way the establishment conducts itself changes, but the result seems to stay the same.

As David Cameron acknowledged in the Commons, de Silva's report is shocking in the picture it builds up of a security state that was a law unto itself.  He finds that none of the agencies running agents in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s had an adequate framework for handling them, with the result being that in some instances they made up the rules as they went along.  The Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch had no workable guidelines at all; the Army's Force Research Unit had ones which were contradictory; and MI5 had no effective external guidance as to how far their agents could go in breaking the law in order to keep their cover and continue passing on intelligence.  Despite officers from all of these organisations repeatedly raising their concerns with the cabinet ministers of the day, it wasn't even recognised as necessary until 1993, and statutory legislation wasn't passed until the RIPA act of 2000.

At the heart of the collusion which led to Finucane's murder was Brian Nelson, an FRU agent who managed to become the intelligence head of the UDA thanks to the backing of the British state.  He was recruited despite his role in the kidnap and torture of a partially sighted Catholic man, for which he served three years in prison, and then recruited again after leaving the force in 1985, having spent the previous year involved in a plot where a Sinn Fein councillor was targeted and attacked.  Nelson's supposed remit was to target Provisional IRA activists, individuals who would take time to track down, thereby giving the authorities the necessary time to intervene to save lives.  

In practice, as de Silva finds, only very rarely were these counter-measures initiated.  Nelson's role was in effect to provide the UDA with the identities of those the British state had decided were expendable.  When Gerry Adams entered the sights of the UDA in 1987, MI5 was clear in how damaging a repeat could be, a senior officer sending a telegram suggesting that it could be seen as conspiracy to murder if Nelson's role became known.

Despite this, MI5 only decided against running Nelson themselves, having become aware of how he wanted the UDA to attack "justifiable" targets.  They did nothing to intervene with the FRU, nor offer guidance to them on how Nelson should be run.  This turning of a blind eye was carried over to the RUC, who claimed that the FRU didn't pass on the intelligence Nelson supplied them with, only for de Silva's conclude this was a lie; the FRU nevertheless didn't concern themselves with how the RUC wasn't doing anything to protect those Nelson said the UDA were to target.  Indeed, de Silva's own research leads him to believe the RUC were influenced to a certain extent as to whether they acted on intelligence by their links, real or fictional, to paramilitaries, as supported by the failure to act on threats against another lawyer, Oliver Kelly.

Also worthy of note is that MI5 included Finucane in the "propaganda initiatives" they conducted in Northern Ireland during the 1980s.  That Finucane was a lawyer, and that no credible evidence has ever been presented to suggest he was a member of the IRA (he married a Protestant and also represented loyalists, regardless of his brothers' links to the IRA) was seemingly irrelevant; he was best known as acting for republicans, and had been Bobby Sands' lawyer.  De Silva performs somersaults to clear MI5 of any responsibility, saying there was no intention on their part to incite loyalists to attack Finucane.  It just so happened that two previous threats had been made against him, neither of which he was informed of.  All these initiatives were meant to do was "unnerve" republican paramilitaries, nothing more.  They just should have foreseen the effect they might have had.

So too should Douglas Hogg, the then under secretary at the Home Office (now best known for being the MP who claimed expenses for the cleaning of his moat).  Hogg made a highly provocative comment in the Commons just a month before Finucane's murder, stating there were a number of solicitors in Northern Ireland who were "unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA".  He based this on a briefing he had received from the RUC, who told him some lawyers were "effectively in the pockets of terrorists".  Four days before his comments he received profiles from the RUC of Finucane and Oliver Kelly, neither of which de Silva finds even began to prove they were in the pockets of the IRA.  De Silva nonetheless exonerates Hogg, as he can find no basis for any claim this was active encouragement to loyalists to go after solicitors known for representing republicans.  He does say however that his comments, "albeit unwittingly", could have increased the vulnerability of solicitors in NI at the time.  This can't help but remind of Lord Hutton's finding that the Joint Intelligence Committee may have been "subconsciously influenced" by Tony Blair and others into producing the strongest possible dossier on Iraq's imaginary weapons of mass destruction.

De Silva does find that, on the balance of probabilities, Finucane's name was suggested as a target to the UDA by an RUC officer.  He does not however find that Nelson informed his handlers of his role in handing over a photograph of Finucane to his killers.  Nonetheless, he concludes that since the FRU was well aware of how Nelson withheld information from them if he believed the target was a "justifiable" one, this means the army must bear " a degree of responsibility" for Finucane's murder.  All but unbelievably, the man who was eventually convicted of Finucane's murder, Kenneth Barrett, was recruited by the RUC as an agent after he had confessed on tape to the killing, the case against him dropped.

Nor did the attempts to pervert the course of justice at the very highest levels of the state stop there.  The then attorney general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was lobbied by the Northern Ireland secretary, the defence secretary and other senior government officials to drop any prosecution against Nelson, according to de Silva due to the highly inaccurate and factually misleading briefings they were given by the Ministry of Defence and the RUC.  He doesn't however accept any ministers at the time had foreknowledge of Finucane's murder, nor that they "encouraged or directed any form of collusive activity with the UDA".

Little wonder then that Finucane's family have reacted with incredulity and anger to the report.  As it has been so many times before, no single person in a position of authority has been held responsible.  Even if we accept de Silva's conclusion that there was no "overarching State conspiracy" to murder Finucane on the evidence he was able to collate, what he does find is that agents of the state were involved in abuses up to and including murder.  No individuals other than Nelson or Barrett though have any responsibility for this.  Can it really be true that ministers weren't aware of the policies being pursued by the police, the army and MI5, or if they were, that they condoned them even if they decided they didn't want to know?  As the Guardian argues, the only way to be certain is for these questions to be asked of those in power at the time, at an open public inquiry.

The same applies to the more recent cases of apparent collusion in rendition, where there is similar evidence of the security services acting in concert with foreign intelligence agencies to transfer "terrorist suspects" to countries where they faced torture.  The axed Gibson inquiry would have at least provided us with a starting point; at the moment there's no guarantee we'll get the promised inquiry during this parliament.  At the same time, the government is still looking to push through its secret courts bill, specifically designed to stop the security services being embarrassed again by their failure to do anything about a British resident being horrifically tortured.  When after three inquiries into the death of one man we're still little nearer to the truth, what chance uncovering the reality behind our role in a worldwide conspiracy?

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012 

Could it be?

Loth as anyone in a position in authority is to admit it, there are times when they simply get stumped.  Look at Arsene Wenger: the man who managed his team to such a successful extent that they went an entire league season without defeat, and now he can't even motivate his latest squad to beat Bradford City, a whole 64 places below them.

I, on the other hand, have no authority whatsoever and am happy to admit that I can't wrap my head around the decision by David Cameron to push ahead with legislation for gay marriage.  Seeing as we can safely dismiss the notion that our current crop of politicians do anything for the reason that it's the right to do, it's difficult to see how the Tories will get even the slightest credit for wanting equality.  If it's a belated attempt to continue with the "detoxification" of the party, then it's surely came far too late to make a difference.  Even if it does have an impact, are many really going to be swung towards supporting the party due to this one issue, ignoring or rationalising everything else?

It seems highly doubtful.  Besides, this is an issue where regardless of the policy pushed by the party leadership, it comes down to whether or not your actual MP/prospective MP supports it.  As the party's split on the issue, to the point where up to 40% of the parliamentary party opposes it, any benefit seems likely to be even slighter.  Indeed, if anything it seems likely to ostracise both shades of opinion: the lobby against has been vociferous in targeting Tory MPs, motivating some to make comments which have come very close to being homophobicWith UKIP being as opportunistic as ever (Nigel Farage still can't work out whether his party should be libertarian or populist, settling on a ghastly mixture of the two), those opposed have somewhere to go, while those in favour, already unlikely to support right-wing Tories, are going to be further put off the party.

Cameron's predicament is at least understandable.  The release of the 2011 census data was wonderfully juxtaposed with Maria Miller's setting out of the proposed legislation, a happy coincidence if ever there was one.  With the number specifically identifying themselves as Christian dropping sharply, and the number professing no religion increasing to a quarter, it's never been more apparent that Britain is changing incredibly rapidly.  20 years ago the age of consent was yet to be equalised, while it took until 2003 for Section 28 to be repealed in England and Wales, a measure David Cameron voted against, only to later apologise for the Tories introducing it in the first place.  The young especially are bemused at the fact that this is even an issue, and the sight of Peter Bone or David Davies being so enraged at the prospect of gay couples being able to marry as well as enter civil partnerships is hardly likely to enamour them towards the party.  Labour can take the credit for practically every piece of liberalising social legislation, even if much of it was pushed through by a politician who later left for the SDP; why shouldn't Cameron finally take some for his modern, liberal Conservative party?

This leads you to wonder whether it's an attempt by Cameron to ape Tony Blair's insistence on repeatedly riling his party.  The difference surely is that Blair for the most part did it when he was well ahead in the polls or entering his valedictory period: Cameron by contrast is well behind, and needs to silence the muttering against him by those who continue to blame his entire strategy as leader for their failure to win the election.  Much as their analysis is absurd, they're right to worry that this is just the kind of policy likely to antagonise their core support.  We already have civil partnerships, which the vast majority welcomed so the thinking goes; why offend or outrage the religious sensibilities of quite so many people for so little likely gain?

The bill itself follows this bewildering pattern.  Despite suggestions to the contrary, there will be no mechanism by which Church of England priests will be able to go against the orthodoxy and marry gay couples, while similarly civil partnerships will remain available only to same sex couples.  At the same time, the bill will allow certain faith groups which are happy to marry gay couples to do so, thereby angering the coalition that wanted religions to be exempted entirely.  Those that wanted individual dioceses within the CoE to decide for themselves what to do have also been left disappointed.  Partially this is meant to remove any possibility of either the domestic courts or the ECHR ruling that the bill is discriminatory, but it also has the effect of further confusing the issue, leaving very few other than Stonewall happy.

If it's true that this is one of those policies Lord Ashcroft has decreed must go ahead for the Tories to appeal to the yoof, then his thinking seems severely flawed.  The bill will clearly pass the Commons, but only due to Labour support; any credit Cameron might be able to claim will duly be tempered by the crowing from Ed Miliband that it was only thanks to his party that it went through at all, emphasising that the Tory backbenches remain the home of err, social conservatives.  We therefore have to return to my hasty dismissal of the notion this could be an example of politicians doing the right thing at the right time, acting with the best of intentions and attempting to do so while taking all opinions into account.  It couldn't be, could it?

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Monday, December 10, 2012 

The Daily Mail has spoken.

The great tradition when new reports on drug policy are produced is to see what the blessed Daily Mail thinks.  Last time round the Mail claimed the UK Drug Policy Commission's final report said using cannabis was comparable to eating junk food when it naturally said nothing of the kind.  If anything, the Mail has today misrepresented the Home Affairs Select Committee's ninth report on drugs to an even greater extent: it takes the committee's recommendation that ministers visit Portugal, where possession has been decriminalised, and implies this means the government's considering legalising "heroine and crack".  Getting quite so many distortions into one headline takes real talent.

As was inevitable then, this latest report has been dismissed by those wielding actual power.  It doesn't matter whether or not Jeremy Browne is prepared to go and visit Portugal, a no doubt very agreeable junket should he delay his journey until midway through next year, as David Cameron has already decided we don't need a royal commission into drug policy.  According to him, the current policy is working swimmingly as drug use amongst the population is at its lowest rate since 1996.  The same message has also come from the Home Office, which claimed quite incredibly that current laws "draw on the best available evidence".  As lies go, this ranks up there with the best produced by the Mail, considering that the HO have completely ignored the last two recommendations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to keep cannabis in Class C and downgrade MDMA to Class B respectively.

We've had so many similar reports produced now, all recommending more or less the same things, all recognising that prohibition has failed miserably and that we have to move from criminalisation towards decriminalisation that it's apparent we need a major, front line politician unafraid to take on the tabloid press in order to make progress.  Some, amazingly, thought David Cameron might be that politician, seeing as he served on the HASC prior to becoming leader of the Conservatives.  More realistically, it needs to be someone in opposition who can set out their stance and then claim a mandate for change should their party win the election.  The problem with this is that, if anything, the post-Brownite wing of Labour tends to be more authoritarian on drugs than even the Tories.  Could this be the perfect next campaign for Stella Creasy?

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Friday, December 07, 2012 

This is the life you chose.

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Thursday, December 06, 2012 

"Possessing a copy of a terrorist publication is a serious offence."

As we've learned this year, taking trolling too far can net you a prison sentence.  Indeed, even expressing your strong personal views on a controversial subject can result in a 240 hour community order, while those who actually did call for you to be killed aren't so much as arrested.

Less well known is that you can be jailed for even longer simply for having a magazine in your possession.  Last year a German national was jailed for 16 months after he was found with a digital copy of Inspire magazine, the English language house journal of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  Today Ruksana Begum was jailed for a year for having two separate issues of the magazine.

Inspire is notable for that one reason: it's in English, something that the wider media picked up on.  As Thomas Hegghamer pointed out at the time, this in itself wasn't an innovation, as previous jihadi publications had been translated into English, while newsletters had previously been produced in the 90s.  More to the point, most radicalisation isn't so much linked to the written word as it is to videos, which are now often the starting point for those who find themselves attracted to Islamic extremism.  English translations of the feature-length releases from jihadi groups have been around for years.

Nor is the actual content of Inspire anything special.  Wikipedia has a run down of the all the issues released so far, and most of the articles are either by notable leaders of the assorted franchises, doing the usual jihadi wittering unlikely to have an appeal beyond the already convinced, or actively plagiarised from elsewhere.  What it does have that seems to have worried the authorities is the odd do-it-yourself piece, such as the "build a bomb in the kitchen of your mom" article in the first issue, and the "It is of your freedom to ignite a firebomb" in the latest one.  Even then these articles for the most part are highly unlikely to be of use to anyone set on becoming a lone wolf jihadi, such is the usual quality and accuracy of the advice, and it's not as though there aren't dozens of similar documents available online or even from AmazonOnly rarely has possession of these resulted in prosecutions and convictions.

While it's unclear what the German man and his friend were intending to do on their visit to this country, no such ulterior motives have been found in the cases of Begum and Mohammed Abu Hasnath, who was also sentenced to 14 months for possession of Inspire.  Begum's explanation to the court as to why she had two issues on her mobile phone's SD card, that she wanted to attempt to understand what had motivated her brothers to plot to blow up the Stock Exchange, was accepted by the judge, while the worst Hasnath got up to was some grafitti.

It's true that Inspire can certainly be said to fall under Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, in that it contains information of a kind likely to be useful to those involved in acts of terrorism.  The same could be said though of a whole myriad of novels and non-fiction works, let alone old army manuals.  Such information is only ever dangerous if those in possession of it have the resources, ingenuity and motivation to use it.  Begum and Hasnath did not, yet they were sentenced to terms of imprisonment that were out of all proportion to the offence.  Amazing as it might seem, you can still find yourself behind bars in 2012 in the United Kingdom for owning a work of literature, however disreputable.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012 

The equivalent of a kick to the balls.

According to Michael White, George Osborne was wearing a purple tie as he delivered his autumn statement.  On my admittedly ageing TV it looked black, a colour far more reflective of the words spooling out of Osborne's mouth.  If during the budget the question being asked by the chancellor was just how hard and fast those earning under £150,000 a year wanted to be shafted, there were no such rhetorical flourishes this time round.  Today's statement was nothing less than the equivalent of a kick to the gonads of all those earning under £42,000 a year, already sprawled on the floor from previous budgetary onslaughts.

Never before have the battle lines been drawn quite so distinctly between those who claim any benefit from the state and those who don't.  Osborne focused, as the Tories repeatedly have, on the mythical striver going out to work early in the morning and coming back late at night, only to notice that some of the other families on his street aren't doing the same, their lights not on when he goes out and their lights still on when he goes to bed.  How can it be fair that he works hard while others fail to take any responsibility whatsoever?  It doesn't matter whether these other individuals are feckless scroungers (extremely unlikely) or they can't get a job as there aren't any, whether they're too disabled or sick to work, or even if they do go out to work and claim tax credits, under Osborne's new uprating regime all are equal.  First he tried changed the method of uprating benefits from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index to save money, only for inflation to be so high that the impact was minimal, so now he's simply fixed the increase at 1% for the next three years.

Remember the outcry when Gordon Brown raised the state pension by 75p a week?  Well, Osborne's gone one better.  Those over 25 on Jobseeker's Allowance, or on the lowest rung of Employment and Support Allowance can look forward to an increase of 71p a week come next April, or in total an extra £36.92 over a whole year.  As we saw last week, thousands of those on JSA are being failed by the work programme, the government having abandoned a scheme that both worked and paid at least the minimum wage.  They will doubly suffer due to the incompetence of the coalition.  As for those who've managed against all the odds to be recognised as unable to work by ATOS, well, you've had rises in previous years so stop complaining.  And frankly, as for those of you on tax credits, they were invented by Labour and we'd really like to abolish them altogether but can't quite yet, so count yourselves lucky.

As it was with Gordon Brown, everything with George Osborne is about screwing the other side as much as it is about the economy.  His change to the benefits uprating will require legislation, therefore challenging Labour to either side with the government against the most vulnerable and poorest in society or to stand up for those the Tories have characterised and will continue to smear as the undeserving.  It is base, disreputable and vile politics, but it works.  Polls show we still want a welfare state, we just don't want welfare claimants, and the Tories are determined to milk that sentiment down to the very last drop.

Something else half-inched from Brown was Osborne's almost magical finding of extra money, which allowed him to claim that he wouldn't despite speculation be borrowing more this year than he had previously announced.  Similarly to how PFI debts were kept off balance sheet by Brown, allowing him to claim up until the crash that he was keeping debt to 40% of GDP, Osborne today counted money that hasn't even been raised yet.  By including the £3.5bn expected to be raised from the auction of the 4G spectrum, as well as £5bn meant to be coming from the deal with the Swiss over tax avoidance, along with the £11.5bn of interest created through the Bank of England's quantitative easing programme, Osborne somehow managed not to give Ed Balls an open goal.

Not that Balls would have scored anyway, as he had an off day.  Quite how he managed to be so awful is unclear, such was the incongruity of much of Osborne's statement: only a politician with his level of smugness could describe the economy as "healing" when the OBR predicted growth this year of -0.1%.  Osborne also claimed that the OBR had absolved the government's austerity programme of responsibility for the double-dip, all the blame being heaped again on outside factors, something not wholly backed up by the facts, as Chris points out.  The big winner was, once again, large businesses, with those unable to manage their affairs so they don't pay any corporation tax able to console themselves with a further cut of 1%.  This puts the onus further on the individual, and so more of those on higher middle income can look forward to falling into the 40% tax band.  I think we've dealt with the continuing rises in the personal allowance more than adequately before, and how they fail to help the poorest, almost to the point where it can be disregarded.

While the Institute for Fiscal Studies will no doubt confirm it tomorrow, this table from the Resolution Foundation sums up Osborne's approach.  Stripping out the measures inherited from Labour which are still having an impact, today's changes are remarkable in how regressive they are, with the supposed squeezed middle and hard-working families we hear so much about taking a battering.  The richest meanwhile, while affected, will barely notice their losses.

Just as remarkable is how little dissent there's been at the extension of austerity right up until 2018.  The coalition was formed with the main aim of eliminating the structural deficit by 2015.  Half-way through the the parliament, the economy has stagnated, the public sector has been severely cut, welfare has been slashed close to the bone and still more is being demanded.  Politicians have probably never been as unpopular, yet apathy rather than anger or resistance is the mood.  This more than anything is why Osborne can get away with claiming that the real disaster would be to alter his plan, even as the OBR itself recognises the problem isn't with the supply-side, it's with the lack of demand.  Even the spectre of an unprecedented triple-dip recession seems unlikely to make the coalition budge.  We don't just face a lost decade, as that doesn't anywhere near adequately describe the situation; what we're going through isn't just unnecessary, it's counter-productive, ideological and downright nasty.  If we can't get these bastards out come 2015, then frankly we've deserved all of this.

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