Friday, November 29, 2013 


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Thursday, November 28, 2013 

The cycle continues.

At times, you just have to sit back and admire the sheer cant of some of our elected representatives.  Take David Blunkett, who's rather cross that his giving an interview to BBC Radio Sheffield resulted in headlines claiming he predicted riots, something he denies so much as saying.  Whether he did or not, the national media piled into the Page Hall area of the city and came away with the distinct impression that something had to give, such was the local anger at the Roma who had moved into the community daring to stand around in groups outside at night.  They even found a bloke at Halal Fisheries who said a Romanian couple had tried to sell him their baby, as those wacky gypsies are so often trying to do.  While he might not have expressly talked about riots, the Graun does quote Blunkett talking about "explosions", "implosions" and the three northern towns that saw race rioting back in 2001.  All he wants you see is a calm debate, such as the one he instigated previously when he said the children of asylum seekers were "swamping" schools, not to mention the time he gave an interview to the Sun agreeing with them that all these asylum seekers should be sent back, guv.

You can't really blame people for being cynical though when it's become clear just what the government was up to in suddenly announcing yet another benefits crackdown for those supposedly coming here just to leech off our fantastically generous welfare state.  Rather than net migration falling towards the desired tens of thousands, as Cameron and pals pledged, it instead went up in the year to June 2013, rising by 15,000 to 182,000, mainly thanks to a fall in emigration.  Considering Dave has been chastised in the past for apparently pre-empting releases by the Office of National Statistics, it's not that big a stretch to think this might be another example of the coalition acting on information only it has seen.

We are then once again seeing the destruction wrought by the immigration monster.  No amount of facts or pleading can stop the tabloids from claiming come the 1st of January Bulgaria and Romania are going to empty out, the whole population of the two countries upping sticks and coming to sponge off our soft touch welfare system.  It doesn't matter how many Bulgarian ambassadors we hear from who point out that most applications for work permits are already accepted, and that it was 2007 when the two countries actually joined the EU that the largest number decided to start a new life in the UK, clearly the migrant horde is going to be snaking its way through Dover on New Year's Day.  Nor does it have it any impact pointing out that unlike in 2004, when the citizens of the accession 8 states had only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden to choose should they want to look for work elsewhere, this time all the states that haven't yet allowed free movement have to open their borders.  Why would Romanians and Bulgarians come here rather than chance their arm in Germany, say, or somewhere slightly more receptive?

It perhaps does bear repeating that we aren't the only country where sentiment against immigration has turned decisively.  There is also a certain amount of truth in the government claiming that the Germans and French are taking action themselves ahead of January 1st, although again this seems mainly in an attempt to placate public opinion rather than out of there being any hard evidence of benefit tourism.  Putting further restrictions on when migrants can gain access to certain benefits only encourages rather than refutes the narrative that migrants aren't here to work.  Indeed, Cameron didn't so much as attempt to argue that the concern might be misplaced, instead yet again blaming Labour for getting it wrong in 2005.  The opposition meanwhile continues to up the rhetoric, criticising the government for "panicking" at the last minute, while former ministers dig themselves further into the mire by continuously apologising for the mistake they made in thinking other countries would be opening their borders in 05 as well.  The estimate now ritually criticised was made on that assumption, which was why it was so out of line with the reality.

The latest immigration figures in fact suggest politicians are fighting the last battle; rather than it being workers from eastern Europe making the journey, there have been large increases in those arriving from the countries hardest hit by the crash.  Free movement of labour goes both ways: wanting to put an end to it might please the UKIP tendency the Conservatives are still trying to win back, but it isn't going to appeal much to businesses who are already complaining about the government's approach.

Such has been the shift from defending immigration or singing its praises to saying it must now cease while not being able to do much about it, combined with the lack of political will to confront the hysteria from the tabloids, we've reached the point where the public doesn't believe any of it.  More to the point, only a fifth were able to pick out the "tens of thousands" pledge as being government policy.  Why not then be brutally honest with everyone: whether we remain in the EU or not, freedom of movement is highly unlikely to go away when the economic benefits are fairly well established.  We could raise the drawbridge entirely, like say Israel or Australia, but is that the type of country we want to become?  Acceptance of migrants excepting the unskilled is in fact fairly high.  Besides, regardless of whether most know the tens of thousands pledge now, they will come 2015 when UKIP and Labour will doubtless make great play of the coalition's failure.  Only then might it occur to some of our politicians to break out of this self-defeating cycle.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013 

Echoes of past humiliations.

It was hard not to detect something faintly tragic about the press conference staged yesterday by Andrew Mitchell, David Davis and Mitchell's lawyer, in front of the clearly slavering representatives of the media.  It reminded of all those other politicians down the years who have made similar statements, often with their family by their side, many of whom were subsequently discovered to have been lying, or to have indeed been shacking up with someone other than their wife.  Those who can actually remember Jonathan Aitken standing up and saying it fell to him to "cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play", rather than in my case just having seen video clips of it may well have experienced deja vu.

This isn't to suggest the cases of Aitken and Mitchell are in any other way comparable, as they clearly aren't.  Aitken was corrupt to the core (and has since made amends for being so); Mitchell is at worst a liar, who like all of us, is flawed.  Their approach to what they say have been slurs is however eerily similar, with the presentation given yesterday echoing more of conspiracy movies than dour political thrillers.  What it all boils down to in the end, as it has from the outset, is the disagreement over who said what to whom.  Mitchell maintains the officer he admits he swore at, if indirectly, made up the rest of his account and inserted the toxic word "plebs"; PC Toby Rowland (for it is he) hasn't changed his story since filing the email log an hour and a half after the incident, and continues to stand by it.

The Crown Prosecution Service, for its part, hasn't really taken sides.  In new director of public prosecutions' Alison Saunders first major test, she decided there was insufficient evidence for Rowland to be charged with misconduct in public office (aka lying), while there was also insufficient evidence of a conspiracy against Mitchell.  This frankly backs up what anyone with a certain amount of distance from the case will have concluded from the public evidence available: that it's impossible to know what was said between Mitchell and Rowland, and for there to have been a conspiracy it would have needed to be put together extraordinarily quickly.  This isn't to say that Mitchell is lying, or that there wasn't a conspiracy, merely that the CPS felt there wasn't enough evidence for a realistic chance of a conviction.  Separate is how the email log was swiftly leaked to the Sun, which the CPS decided was in the public interest, and how PC Keith Wallis, otherwise unconnected to the incident, emailed the Tory deputy chief whip with his fabricated account of what happened.  One thing that remains unclear is just how quickly the Police Federation got involved, leading to the campaign via the Gaunt Brothers, the factor that really did for Mitchell.

There are nonetheless a couple of reasons to question the police investigation and so the case from which the CPS had to make their decision.  It's curious to say the least that Rowland was at no stage arrested, or it seems questioned on his account - they seem to have taken it at face value, one presumes down to how Rowland accepted Mitchell's apology at the time and until yesterday had stayed out of the spotlight, not wanting to take it further.  There's also the fact the IPCC, like with the investigation into the Federation three, could have conducted the inquiry themselves yet didn't due to lack of resources, instead only supervising.

Much of the rest of Mitchell's complaints (presented by Davis) are though fairly flimsy.  He claimed there wasn't enough time for him to have said exactly what Rowland maintains he did, which is pretty laughable when everyone talks at different speeds and MPs especially tend to have the gift of the gab.  His long-standing gripe that there weren't "several" people outside the Downing Street gates as Rowland wrote, when there were at least three passing by even if they didn't "look shocked", an unsurprising piece of exaggeration, was also further undermined by the CPS. 

It remains difficult to understand what Mitchell hopes to gain from his continuing campaign for exoneration.  His argument that if this happened to him it could happen to anyone has now been tested by a new broom, and found wanting.  If he had no previous dealings with Rowland, as he says, why would the officer have made up such an account, and within an hour and a half of it happening, unless he was so spooked by "not hearing the last of it"?  Why would he have accepted Mitchell's apology and felt the matter was closed if this was a grand conspiracy?  And is going through with the libel case really worth it when the involvement of the PF has already cast a shadow over the police's ability to investigate themselves, and Rowland says he will testify on oath that his account is correct?  Mitchell's not going to get his job back, and most now believe him rather than police, regardless of yesterday's decision.  The way instead seems open to further humiliation rather than redemption, and the last thing politics needs right now is another example of an ex-minister defending themselves up until the very last second.

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013 

Promising too much, too soon.

The old adage if something looks too good to be true it probably is applies just as much to politics as everything else in life. To go by the extensive and also exhausting document produced by the SNP making the case for independence, Scotland is a veritable land of milk and honey, only held back by the perfidy of everyone south of Berwick. If given the opportunity to go it alone, taking back control of North Sea oil, within a matter of years the country could be rivalling Norway for wealth, its own sovereign fund guaranteeing prosperity for decades to come. Benefits would rise, hated impositions such as the bedroom tax will be abolished, the minimum wage increased, and yet taxes will either stay the same or in some cases be cut.

To give the SNP their due, it is undoubtedly a positive, progressive and admirable vision of what they believe their nation could become. For an obsolete old leftie like me, on the surface it's incredibly attractive, and promotes the kind of policies I'd (mostly) love to see implemented at Westminster. Getting rid of Trident? Check. Promoting and welcoming immigration rather than demonising it? Check (answer 359). Looking towards decriminalising drugs? Check (answer 418). Celebrating being, or in this instance becoming, a member of the EU rather than edging towards the exit? Check.  Rethinking the disaster of the work programme and workfare in general?  Once again, check.

Why then does the entire thing leave me cold?  It's not just that to call much of it pie in the sky would be an insult to flingable pastry based products, it's where it's come from and who's offering it.  I can of course understand the grievances that have built up over the past few decades (or centuries, in some cases), not least the impositions of the Thatcher years and the squandering of the wealth the aforementioned oil could have brought to Britain as a whole.  It's also true Scotland has been dismally represented down the years, and continues to be to this day.  Whether by Tory Scottish ministers who put forward the country as a testing ground for the poll tax, or catastrophically inept Labour politicians who prospered thanks to a complete lack of opposition, the country has long deserved better.

Does it deserve the SNP though?  With the exception of Alex Salmond, lower down the ranks the party isn't in a much better state than its rivals.  Indeed, that Nicola Sturgeon has long been Salmond's deputy is enough of an indictment of the party's lack of talent.  It triumphed in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections not so much due to having a unique selling point, more that it's either them or Labour, with Lib Dem and Tory supporters favouring the SNP, at least that time round.  Considering they are exactly the people likely to be either against or leaning towards voting no, there's really very little in Scotland's Future designed to appeal to them.  Strip away the updated parts that point the finger at the coalition, and it's almost exactly the same case as Salmond and the SNP were making before the crash, just with far less talk of "arcs of prosperity", and Iceland and Ireland exchanged solely with Norway.

For all the claims of encouraging growth, the economic priorities set out amount to their childcare plans, which they believe will result in women being able to return to work as well as creating 35,000 jobs, and cutting corporation tax and err, air passenger duty.  The result of the cuts in corporation tax by the coalition so far? A fall in the amount expected to be collected.  As we've learned over the past couple of years, getting multinational companies to pay corporation tax at all is difficult enough; why would they suddenly decide to just because it's been cut by a further 3%?  It also raises the spectre of a race to the bottom: why would any future chancellor of England, Wales and Northern Ireland not reduce it to the same level as in Scotland in order to match it?  Salmond seems to want to rerun the boom years, spending plenty, while not explaining how it will all be paid for.

This is the obvious disjunct and flaw in the SNP's otherwise better than could have been expected case.  Scotland may be rich in natural resources, but the reason countries such as Norway, Australia and others in a similar position have managed to avoid recession or the worst of the crash is that they had the foresight and will to plan ahead.  Should the country vote yes, the SNP will be starting from scratch.  You don't need to take the IFS report on the SNP's proposals as gospel to think they're promising far too much, far too soon.  At the same time, they dismiss out of hand any suggestion that a currency union might not go too smoothly, that the EU might not immediately welcome an independent Scotland into its fold, while indulging also in pettiness, setting up a Scottish Broadcasting Service out of the ashes of BBC Scotland, not apparently expecting those working for the corporation to object.  Scotland's Future might answer 650 separate questions, but it doesn't bring us any closer to knowing what the only one that matters will be.

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Monday, November 25, 2013 

A rare moment of optimism.

There is something of a danger in overstating what was achieved at Geneva between Iran and much of the rest of the world (excluding Israel and the Gulf states, as we'll come to) early on Sunday morning.  Much can still happen over the next six months to scupper the agreement, not least that Obama has to convince some of those in Congress that not bombing another Middle Eastern state is a good idea, so twisted has foreign policy in the US become.  If the sanctions against Iran are slow to be lifted, as they may well be, the current goodwill in which Mohammad Javad Zarif and Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian foreign minister and president respectively are held by both liberals and hardliners in the country could soon dissipate.  There's also no guarantee that an interim deal where both sides have claimed victory will inevitably lead to a permanent one all can abide by.

Those caveats out of the way, there's also little reason to underplay the significance of the delicately brokered agreement, apparently overseen with great dexterity by Baroness Ashton, who was widely mocked and patronised when named as the EU's foreign policy representative four years ago.  It is almost certainly the most significant agreement between Iran and the "great Satan" since the overthrow of the Shah, far outweighing the short-lived months of detente after 9/11 when Iran co-operated with the invasion of Afghanistan, before the country was named by President Bush as a member of the "axis of evil".  The potential is clearly there if both sides really want it for a wider understanding and de-escalation, including in Syria, where the US and other Western countries have become involved in a proxy war between the Sunni and Shia Muslim states.

How much responsibility for the past decade of what often seemed like a gradual drift towards a strike on Iran's nuclear program can be placed on that Bush speech and the following war on Iraq is difficult to pinpoint precisely.  The previous period of moderation under President Khatami was rewarded with what was seen by the clerical conservatives as the suggestion they were next on the list.  In fact, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein gave Iran further influence, as still manifested through Nouri al-Maliki.  It's only been a result of the ratcheting up of sanctions against the country over the nuclear program that it was seemingly decided by the highest authority in the land for moderation to be given another try through Rouhani, after reasonably free elections (if elections in which dozens of candidates were disqualified from running can be called free) resulted in his victory.

Also crucial it seems, alongside the secret meetings between the US and Iran dating back to March, was the deal on Syria's chemical weapons.  The agreement on their destruction made clear how the US was prepared to step back from the brink when it seemed to be half-heartedly edging towards another conflagration.  If John Kerry and Barack Obama were able to handle the embarrassment and brickbats of not going through on what looked to be a certain attack on Bashar al-Assad, drawing back from sleepwalking to striking Iran was always going to be far easier.  The deal agreed upon also, as alluded to above, allows all sides to look the victor.  Iran has effectively agreed to freeze its program in exchange for being allowed to exercise its rights under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, to have a power capability but nothing more.  The US is denying that's the case, but that's almost certainly the basis for the deal.

Perhaps just as important is how the deal appears to mark what could be the first sign of both Israel and Saudi Arabia having their bluff called. Binyamin Netanyahu has repeatedly overplayed his hand since once again becoming prime minister, at times treating the Obama administration as though the US was the minor partner in the relationship.  Rather than tone down the rhetoric with the ascent to power of Rouhani, the Israelis have carried on as though nothing has changed, only to find Obama in his second term determined to take full advantage of the shift in Iranian leadership.  Saudi Arabia meanwhile, still smarting from the US backing down over Syria, now finds its sworn enemy apparently having its role in the Middle East if not accepted, then at least recognised.  It would be lovely to think this was down to the US finally realising that much of the funding for jihadists can be traced back to the country, as has been proved beyond any doubt in Syria, but one suspects it's more that drawing back from the threat of a strike was in everyone's interests.

This isn't to underestimate how solving the stand-off between the West and Iran is just one part of the current crisis in the Middle East.  Regardless of how Assad now seems to have the upper hand in the civil war in Syria, the war there signifies how intractable and dangerous the Sunni-Shia conflict is, while the always with us issue of Palestine remains a problem for the world.  The deal in Geneva does however give cause for optimism, the merest suggestion that the second decade of the 21st century won't be as disastrous or self-defeating as the first was.  There's still a long way to go, but it's a start.

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Friday, November 22, 2013 

Outta endz.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013 

Vote blue, get crap!

You can somewhat see the logic behind "a senior Tory source" being given the OK to brief the Sun and the Mail that our dear PM said it's time to "get rid of all this green crap." Forced into a corner by Ed Miliband's conference speech, and apparently unprepared to go after the big six energy companies for putting up energy prices year after year, the quick fix appeared obvious: dump the subsidies for green energy and the vulnerable which appear on the bill and instead fund them out of general taxation. You'll still pay, you just won't have it pointed out in black and white every quarter. As the source said, it's no longer vote blue, go green, it's vote blue, get real!

Choosing to brief the Sun, which has long since lost its short-lived enthusiasm for all things green due to the sad defenestration of James Murdoch, with Keith never missing an opportunity to tweet about how wonderful fracking is, and the equally antediluvian Mail with Dave's new creed was just bound to lead to positive coverage. Right? Well yes, except for how it pretty much represents the final renunciation of everything he and his supposedly changed party were meant to be for prior to the 2010 election. You can make a case that the coalition's welfare reforms are at least partially about fixing the "broken society" we heard so much about before the election and almost nothing about since, but no one can argue with a straight face the big society has amounted to anything. It was always hysterical that the Tories, plenty of whom are unconvinced climate change is man-made would be the "greenest government ever", yet Cameron went as far as to change the party's damn logo to a tree, not to mention put a mini wind turbine on his house. To abandon it all leaves the equivalent of a gaping hole in the middle of his head.

Little wonder then even ConservativeHome is wondering exactly what Dave is for.  We should perhaps mention Downing Street are denying Dave specifically said the words attributed him by both the Mail and the Sun, but seeing as Cameron and friends have been touting reducing the green levies for a good few weeks now, it hardly seems the source made up the colourful line for exaggerated effect.  Rather, it reflects both the strategy we're told Lynton Crosby has advised, the scraping of "the barnacles off the boat", getting rid of extraneous policies that distract from all those marvellous things the coalition has achieved, such as reducing the deficit (currently £53bn higher than Osborne had planned it to be by this point), welfare reform (don't mention universal credit), immigration controls (net migration nowhere near the promised reduction to under 100,000 a year) and better schools (so long as you want your children to go somewhere that resembles a prison), and Cameron's gambit of saying the smaller state is a good thing, and that you really can do more with less.

Like with the interesting decision by Danny Alexander to say the coalition couldn't have achieved economic stagnation for three years without his party's input, it's certainly one strategy.  The problem is, just as there's little evidence for a shift to the left among the wider public, although Miliband's conference speech undoubtedly brought us towards today, the idea that by returning to their traditional core themes the Conservatives are likely to see their decline arrested simply doesn't stand up.  Despite some of the more old school Tory MPs believing they would have won outright in 2010 if Cameron hadn't gone in for hugging huskies and all the rest, the real problem was, as Nick Boles this week admitted, most people don't believe the party has changed.  They still see it as the party of the rich, policies such as getting rid of the 50p top rate of tax at the first possible opportunity hardly doing much to alter the perception.

More prosaically, to go in the space of 3 years from telling people to vote blue to go green to saying that was a load of crap is just ever so slightly taking the electorate for fools. As Zac Goldsmith tweeted, apparently having heard it in a Westminster tea room, if Cameron can drop something that was so central to his image, he can drop anything.  The point surely though is that Cameron enjoys relative popularity despite not really standing for anything.  Newsnight earlier in the week asked whether Miliband would inspire an ism like Thatcher and Blair, skipping over how Cameron has (so far) failed to.  Cameron does resemble Blair, but only in how during Labour's first term our Tone was Teflon Tony, with nothing sticking to him.  By abandoning the last thing we were meant to think he believed in, Cameron really ought to hope events don't conspire to paint him in a far less attractive light.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013 

The Paul Flowers pops.

At times, political machinations utterly perplex me.  Take the case this week of Paul Flowers, the former chairman of the Co-op Bank, who was pictured on the front page of the Mail on Sunday allegedly buying an assortment of Class As.  The secretly recorded video was incidentally "provided" (i.e. sold) to the paper by a "friend" (a 26-year-old Flowers met via the Grindr app) disgusted at Flowers' "hypocrisy".  Don't we all wish for friends like that?

Quite why the story was deemed front page material is still unclear.  Flowers left his position at the Co-op Bank back in June; he was only brought back into something resembling the limelight after he appeared before the Treasury select committee at the beginning of the month, around the time it's claimed he was exchanging texts with and buying drugs in the presence of Stuart Davies.  As yet, there hasn't been any suggestion Flowers was taking drugs during his time as chairman of the bank, although obviously that's the implication.  Flowers was however also a Bradford councillor up until 2011, when he resigned after his computer was found to have "inappropriate material" (i.e. porn) on it when handed in for a service.  Again, quite why accessing material that's perfectly legal, even on a computer provided by the state, should be a resignation issue escapes me (we're not seriously suggesting such devices should be solely for professional rather than personal use, are we?) but this misdemeanour apparently should have tipped off both the Co-op and the Labour party as to the fact he was a bit of a wrong'un, or at least should have done had they been informed.

The nub of the issue clearly has relatively little to do with how Flowers was clearly not suited to his role as bank chairman, and instead much to do with Flowers' and the Co-op group's involvement with Labour.  There is the matter of how Flowers was given the OK to become chairman despite having an extremely rudimentary knowledge of banking, with the defunct Financial Services Authority ticking the relevant boxes, Robert Peston pointing out that Graeme Hardie, now a non-executive director on the Co-op board was one of those who interviewed Flowers back then, but it's not exactly a surprise that the FSA wasn't onerous in asking questions, even after the crash.  No, this is as David Cameron made clear at prime minister's questions, all about Flowers' relationship with Labour, his position on the party's finance and industry board, and the various loans and arrangements the Co-op has in place with the party, both through the bank and the business proper.  Flowers "broke the bank", and he was on one of Labour's policy boards.  Who wouldn't shoot towards such an open goal?

There are then to be two separate independent inquiries into the near collapse of the bank, neither of which it seems would have happened without the MoS discovering Flowers was/is a drug hoover (allegedly).  To row back on the cynicism for just a minute, it most likely will be useful to see if any individual's behaviour was more responsible than that of the others, or if there are any wider lessons to be learned from the bank having to raise funds via hedge funds to stay afloat, but let's not kid ourselves here.  The Tories are attacking Labour on every possible front just now, such is the apparent desperation at the failure to make any great headway into the opposition's poll lead.  The economy finally recovering was meant to lead to a feel good factor and a Tory bounce. Despite the lead narrowing over the summer and in the period up to the party conferences, Labour is now once again ahead by an average of 6 to 8 points.

Hence the constant bringing up of Unite, Len McCluskey and Miliband's supposed weakness, while everyone else yawns, knowing full well the biggest trade union's real influence on the leadership is negligible.  The continuing fallout from Falkirk could develop into something major, but for now it's just another talking point for those disenchanted with Miliband's leadership.  Going after Labour over Flowers perplexes as there is so obviously no scandal, unless businesses paying for party researchers becomes the issue it ought to be due to the potential for conflicts of interest.  As much as the coalition adores blaming the crash entirely on Labour and Gordon Brown, going over further FSA failures isn't going to achieve much.  Nor is flagging up Labour's relationship with Flowers particularly wise when he made clear at the Treasury select committee just how encouraging the former minister Mark Hoban had been of the bank's doomed attempt to take on 630 branches of Lloyds.

It's more that you can't really believe the chutzpah from Cameron in pointing the figure elsewhere when his former director of communications is on trial, in a case where three of those he worked alongside have already pleaded guilty to intercepting phone messages.  Miliband himself alluded to the trial in his response when he said "and they're just the people I can talk about in this house".  If crying scandal is meant to be a distraction, it isn't working.  More to the point, doing so just further encourages those who want to portray politics as being entirely venal and corrupt.  It takes something on the scale of the expenses scandal to really change minds.  Whatever was or wasn't known about Flowers, it doesn't so much as amount to a single "flipped" property.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013 

Those 10 X Factor changes for 2016 in full.

1. Simon Cowell to return to the show in robot form. The Cowell android will be indistinguishable from the real thing (high trousers, inane grin, wads of cash poking out of back pockets), and be programmed to give 5 interchangeable put downs, along with 1 ridiculously overblown monologue of praise. If another dowdy Scottish spinster with a voice of an angel should audition, the unit will applaud furiously and then self-destruct.

2. The set will be redesigned, with further inspiration taken from the style of mid-1930s Europe. The already intimidating aesthetic of swooping, dramatic lighting and terrifyingly loud Wagnerian music will be added to with floor to ceiling banners, the audience marching to their seats, and the judges saluting the robot Cowell as it trundles in. Megaphones will also be distributed to the crowd, who will be asked to scream "HAIL!" before and after Cowell gives his verdict.

3. In a new twist, the most widely lauded auditionee after boot camp will join the judges and have the deciding vote, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having turned to talentless nobodies to adjudicate over talentless nobodies in the past.

4. In the most dramatic departure of all, the public will vote for which auditionee they thought the worst, who will then be subject to mock execution. Believing they really are about to be killed, the electric chair/gallows/guillotine/crucifix (the method will change each week) will in fact fail at the last moment, with the lights coming on to reveal an audience all wearing Cowell masks (this change presumes a Conservative victory in 2015, and the anticipated withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights).

 5. The winner will no longer receive a Syco record contract due to budget cuts. The new prize will be a tour of Abbey Road, a £25 iTunes card and a packet of wine gums.

 6. ITV to be renamed SCTV.

7. Err...

8. That's it.

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Monday, November 18, 2013 

An invented victory over an invented threat.

"Stunning victory for Mail campaign", screams the eponymous newspaper's front page.  "GOOGLE BLOCK ON CHILD PORN", it goes on, while David Cameron says that Google and Yahoo have "come a long way" following his speech earlier in the year calling for action.  You could easily be fooled into thinking that with one stroke, the major search engines have dealt a critical blow against the depraved and evil people sharing child abuse images and videos online.  Cameron says there's more to be done, and there's the little matter of p2p sharing and the "dark net", but Claire Perry's pleased and the Mail is similarly delighted, so clearly the pressure has worked, right?

Well, sort of.  Read the reports a little closer, and it instead becomes fairly apparent that Google has reacted to the demands of the ignorant by making it look as though they've done more than they actually have.  In his piece for the Mail, the executive chairman of Google Eric Schmidt talks of how the results for 100,000 queries "that might be related to the sexual abuse of kids" have been cleaned up, while the BBC reports how the new algorithms "will prevent searches for child abuse imagery delivering results that could lead to such material".  In other words, there is absolutely nothing to say that any one of those 100,000 search terms did lead to such material in the first place, or that all of those queries had been used by someone looking for abusive images.  It's worth remembering that despite all the ravings of the Mail and friends in June and July, not a single journo claimed to have been able to access child pornography (and no, calling it child pornography does not legitimise it, unless you're too stupid to understand the nuances of the English language) through using just Google or any other search engine, although we did have Amanda Platell tell us that a professionally shot adult scene featuring an 19-year-old was in fact child abuse.  Charles Arthur wonders why it took Google so long to do this; the reason, apparently enough, is that it didn't really need to.

Nor has Cameron's other key demand from his speech, that there are some search terms so "abhorrent and where there can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent" that no results should be returned at all become a reality.  Instead, Google has put warnings from both themselves and charities at the top of the pages for around 13,000 results.  The implication is that none of these search terms returned material either, but again, it looks as if they've given in to pressure to do something, however futile.  Where the furore does seem to have resulted in some real action is it looks as though Google has developed a video equivalent of Microsoft's PhotoDNA, where pictures can be traced even if they're resized or the colours altered.  This again however isn't going to make much difference when neither photos or videos of child abuse are much shared on YouTube or the main social networking sites.

The real question to ask might be just how counter-productive this debate by megaphone has been.  Cameron reckons a Google deterrence campaign "led to a 20% drop off in people trying to find illegal content", yet apparently puts this down as a success rather than wondering whether it in fact means they went elsewhere.  This entire episode has been defined by ignorance, and it's not necessarily a good thing that a lot more people now know about Tor or the other "dark nets" than they did previously.  Cameron says he's going to sic GCHQ onto them, and while it's somewhat reassuring that previously the NSA and GCHQ failed to crack Tor, it's clearly possible they could break it, endangering those who do use it to evade the surveillance of authoritarian states. 

All that's likely to have been achieved by Google etc humouring the government and the Mail is a few of the more boneheaded perverts being told by their computers they need help, while doing nothing to help those in the clutches of the abusers.  Politicians and newspapers trying to make complicated and intractable problems look easily solvable while making them the responsibility of others? Who woulda thunk it?

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Friday, November 15, 2013 

Wut it do.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013 

A journey to the killing fields.

You could forgive both David Cameron and the Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa for wondering exactly what's changed in the last year.  After all, back in June of 2012 Rajapaksa came over for a flying visit to our septic isle, attending a diamond jubilee lunch organised by the Commonwealth secretary general, and hardly anyone batted an eyelid.  Not only was Dave prepared to pose for an informal photograph with Rajapaksa, Liz herself also shook his hand, leading to this lovely shot which reminds of the famous Low cartoon after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.  "The biggest welfare scrounger in Britain, I presume?" "The butcher of the Tamils, I believe?"

It certainly is rather odd that it's considered worse for politicians to travel to jamborees abroad hosted by human rights abusers than it is for the human rights abusers to be invited here to hang with the the nobs, but such it seems is the way these things work. It's also the case Sri Lanka is far from the only Commonwealth nation with a dire record on human rights, as the number that still outlaw homosexuality attests. This said, few of the other governments have committed atrocities on the scale of Rajapaksa's, as has now been documented beyond doubt. The killing fields are only part of it; the torture and sexual abuse of those accused of being Tamil Tiger supporters continues, while this year the country's chief justice was impeached and then sacked by Rajapaksa.  As for press freedom, Sri Lanka has been ranked behind Egypt, with 25 journalists murdered in the past 20 years. It's a country where the defence secretary (Rajapaksa's brother) can make these kind of threats to an editor and remain in his position.

No surprise then that before he was so cruelly forced to resign, defence secretary Liam Fox was all for extending our relationship with the country, meeting with Rajapaksa and travelling to the country with pal Adam Werritty in tow.  Nonetheless, even if Cameron had wanted to try and avoid attending, or openly pulled out in protest as Canada, India and Mauritius have, it wouldn't make much difference when it was hardly likely a royal representative would have made the same decision. As it is, Liz has decided to give it a miss, although who knows whether that's due to the controversy or not. In her stead the birthday boy himself has made the journey, and we can trust that Chaz won't be so crude as to bring up the tens of thousands of dead in the final stages of the civil war, lest we have another "appalling old waxworks" moment in the future.

Cameron is clearly talking the most specious nonsense though when he says we wouldn't be discussing Sri Lanka if he'd deigned not to go. A boycott would have resulted in far more coverage and reporting as to why it hadn't been thought appropriate, as well as being highly damaging to the image Sri Lanka has carefully crafted, something made clear by the ridiculous response from the media minister. It also provides a wonderful contrast with our policy on Syria: no epithet is too strong to describe Assad, we've recognised an opposition group no one in the country recognises as "the legitimate representative of the Syrian people", we've been training some of the "moderates" who are fighting the regime and we came extremely close to going to war with the country mainly because we thought the Americans were going to.  As for Sri Lanka, we didn't care then and we clearly care even less now.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013 

The continuing mystery of the death of Gareth Williams.

Amid all the fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations, one thing seems to have been forgotten, including by myself.  Despite the attempts of intelligence agencies since they were first created to appear omniscient, they are not.  GCHQ may well have "mastered the internet" through the Tempora programme, but can they actually use it, as those of us critical of the security services believe, to spy on practically any piece of internet traffic if they wanted to, or is it, as Charles Farr additionally argued yesterday, that it does not provide them with the same capabilities as they wanted ISPs to give them via the data communications bill?  Could it be that Tempora merely exists because GCHQ and the government wanted to see if it was possible, and to help the Americans?

We obviously can't know.  What we do know is that down the years GCHQ, MI5 and MI6, despite having some major successes, have also from time after time failed disastrously.  As David Anderson said to the Home Affairs Select Committee, us Brits tend to think of the security services as Bletchley Park and James Bond. Not many of us are aware for instance that MI5 was first set up to combat an invented menace, or how the security services themselves never succeeded in discovering the traitors in their midst.  They failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11 (although there most certainly were warnings that the American agencies didn't act on), or the Arab Spring.  The head of MI6 Sir John Sawers responded to that latter failure last week at the ISC by saying his agents aren't "crystal ball gazers".  Fair enough, but when they've been found wanting on so many occasions, including when intelligence agencies across the globe believed the lies of Curveball, isn't it something we should be concerned about? Or should we accept lessons truly have been learned this time?

We come then to the continuing mystery of the death of GCHQ employee Gareth Williams.  Seconded to MI6, he was found dead in the bath of the safe house where he lived, locked inside a holdall.  The inquest, hindered at pretty much every turn by MI6 demanding secrecy and the severely limited inquiry undertaken by the Metropolitan police, which seemed to take every statement given to it by GCHQ and MI6 staff at face value, ended with the coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox deciding on the balance of probabilities Williams had been unlawfully killed.  Her verdict was slightly undermined when footage emerged a couple of days later of a reporter advised by a retired army sergeant successfully locking herself into the same holdall, something two other experts to the inquest had failed to do.

Suitably chastened by the criticism, the Met relaunched their investigation, with MI6 second time around apparently deciding to be more cooperative.  A year and a bit later, Detective Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt has concluded that rather than being the victim of murder, on the balance of probabilities Williams most likely locked himself in the bag, and failing to get out, was quickly overcome by CO2 toxicity. He nonetheless admits he cannot be certain, and that it remains a possibility others were involved. Nor are there any answers as to why there were no fingerprints, including Williams', found on the padlock used to secure the holdall, or on the sides of the bath. It would though have been "theoretically possible" to get in the bath and holdall without leaving fingerprints, so this anomaly is not necessarily sinister.  Also unexplained is why Williams's iPhone had been reset to factory settings, or if he did get into the bag himself, how he was found in such a "neat" position.  Presuming this wasn't an extremely elaborate suicide, surely he would have been struggling to get out, unless he gave up and accepted his fate.

Understandably, Williams' parents are not convinced, and continue to think the coroner got closer to the truth. If we are to accept Hewitt's conclusion, there are only two explanations as to what happened. Either Williams, contrary to Wilcox's verdict, did have an interest in bondage and escapology, as perhaps indicated by his once having to be released from binds to his bed, or his work for MI6 and GCHQ included being trained in how to escape from and/or deal with extremely tight situations. This isn't entirely far-fetched: US special forces for instance have undergone waterboarding as part of their training. This isn't to say spies are being asked to emulate Houdini, but that perhaps Williams, becoming more confident in his training, felt he could go further on his own. This would also explain why the heating was turned up, and also how he managed not to leave any fingerprints on the bath.

If this is what happened though, it doesn't properly explain why MI6 weren't forthcoming from the outset. They could have told SO15 about the training, and intimated to the coroner as to why a secret session was absolutely necessary, but apparently did neither. If they have since come clean to Hewitt, then good, but why have they not decided to do so with his parents? Human fallibility explains why Williams' absence wasn't investigated until 8 days after he failed to turn up to work, but it still seems odd.

The other circumstances, such as the wiped iPhone, are similarly strange.  It's not beyond belief that the entire thing was part of a sex game, Williams having made contact with someone who killed him and then covered their tracks extraordinarily well, but if so it was done in public rather than over the phone or internet, there being no records of any calls or emails/messages.  As alluded to above, other agents have successfully concealed their sexuality, or in the case of Geoffrey Prime, paedophilia, but neither of the investigations have turned up any evidence to suggest Williams was gay or this was sex based.

We are then almost back where we started, none the wiser to the circumstances in which Williams died.  Using the respective razors of Occam and Hanlon would suggest Williams did manage to climb into and padlock the holdall himself, and that MI6 were incompetent rather than conspiratorial in their actions, backing up Hewitt's conclusions.  Can anyone possibly be blamed though for imagining more sinister forces may well have been at work?  We only learned that Alexander Litvinenko was an active MI6 agent last year, something which put his murder in an entirely different light.  As outlandish as it seems that Williams could have been killed by a foreign agency, MI6's failure to notice he was missing and to follow it up meant his body was decomposed to the point where it was impossible for any short-acting poison to be detected, while their initial actions in not revealing to the police that there was another identical holdall owned by Williams in their possession along with 9 memory sticks invites suspicion.  If anyone really does know what happened to Williams, they seem determined for the rest of us not to find out.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013 

Get over here!

In a sign of the race to succeed David Dimbleby as the scion of the BBC establishment heating up still further, both Hugh Edwards and Jeremy Paxman have been to quick to reveal that unlike Dimbleby, they've been sporting ink for far longer than the Question Time and election special host.

"While they might not look like it," said Edwards, in an interview with Horse and Hound magazine, "I can reveal that my lips are actually tattoos.  I thought accentuating the outlines would help my career.  Unfortunately, I didn't realise quite how painful having a red hot needle poked through one of the most sensitive parts of the skin would be, and I was left with the problem of my upper lip curling when I speak.  To my surprise, this facial quirk seems to delight some viewers, even bringing comparisons to Elvis.  It certainly hasn't done any harm in the long run."

"While it might not look like it," said Paxman, in an interview with Hirsute Monthly, "my sudden penchant for facial hair is in fact a cleverly conceived ruse. My chin does indeed seem to be sprouting hair, but it's actually an incredibly complex and realistic tattoo of a beard. I can't be bothered with keeping growth on my face in trim, so I had it all removed by laser and got the ink instead. Some of the more observant Newsnight viewers have noticed it hasn't been getting longer, and Dimbleby's off the wall six-legged scorpion made me decide to come clean."

Other unlikely celebrities to reveal their love for tattoos include George Osborne, who has a black line down the middle of his nose, not realising it would make his appendage look like buttocks, and Cliff Richard, who has a "living doll" he says talks to him etched on his chest. The Sun is even reporting that the Queen is thinking of getting a tribal butterfly on her lower back, in a gesture designed to show there's no reason for her subjects to be embarrassed by such ink, unlike Cheryl Cole.  Prince Harry meanwhile quite fancies a traditional Indian symbol (That's enough made-up tattoos. Ed.)

In other news:
Disaster in Philippines, thousands dead, not yet known how many were tattooed
Third Dimbleby brother, locked away in family annexe, revealed not to have tattoos
18-year-olds see sad old men getting tattoos, say fuck this shit

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Monday, November 11, 2013 

The real victors? The pirates.

As I suspect was the case with most other people, I cautiously welcomed BT's successful bid for the rights to show 38 Premier League matches a season.  I have neither the inclination nor the money to subscribe to Sky or BT, and frankly anything that undermines Sky's ultimate owner is fine by me.  I make do with 5 Live and Match of the Day, and don't think I miss anything not hearing the insights of Jamie Redknapp, or even Gary Neville.  Analysis of the game has always been done better in the papers, and the mute button works wonderfully when it comes to Alan Shearer and most of the other cretins the BBC employs, although it doesn't quite work when Robbie Savage is co-commentating on the radio.  Terrestrial broadcasting of Premier League matches clearly isn't coming back, and I have no problem with the decadence the game has sunk into since Sky invented football back in 1992 being on the conscience of others.

It looks as though, as per usual, we should be careful what we wish for.  Emboldened by signing up 2 million subscribers, BT has spent an astonishing near £900m to secure the rights to every Champions League and Europa League game, more than double the sum ITV and Sky jointly paid 3 years ago. Come 2015, those who don't wish to further enrich the oligarchs of the intertwined business and football worlds will have to make do with the final of both competitions, and probably just the one free-to-air game featuring a home team a season, likely translating to a grand total of 6 matches in the CL shown gratis a year.  ITV currently show one game live every round of the competition, so those not prepared to shell out are soon to be in a similar position to F1 fans stiffed by the deal cut between the BBC and Sky.  To get an idea of how out of reach coverage is becoming to the BBC, ITV, and Channels 4 and 5, the BBC's total yearly income courtesy of the licence fee (including the government picking up the tab for the over 75s) amounts to £3.65bn.

While you can detest how the modern game has developed, the Champions League, despite the best efforts of UEFA under Michel Platini is something of a rejoinder to the glib sentiments of those who argue the Premier League is the best in the world and an unalloyed good for football in this country.  Unable to watch foreign leagues free to air, Champions League games let us compare just how good the top four truly are, as well as how the different systems of training and development on the continent contrast to our own.  Over the past couple of years it's been obvious that despite the vast sums injected into the top clubs, the Uniteds and Cities have fallen well short of the top sides from Spain and Germany, while Chelsea were lucky to win on 2012 on penalties.

The loss of most of the free-to-air matches will certainly do nothing to fix the gap developing between British sides and our European brethren, while likely exacerbating further the stranglehold the clubs with the most money have on the top half of the Premier League.  Despite none of the four English clubs making it past the quarter finals last season, they still shared £100m between them, while the winners, Bayern Munich, picked up £43.2m.  These sums will only increase with the new deals.  Nor is there any suggestion Sky will cut its prices having lost another of its selling points, while BT admits it will have to put its own up, on top of the 6.5% rise their customers already face in January.   Despite this, BT's head of consumer division has the chutzpah to say "in difficult times people deserve access to sport".  Chance would be a fine thing.

If there is one slight reason to be optimistic, it's that despite the best efforts of the Premier League and others, illegal streaming of live games over the internet continues to grow.  They may have had First Row blocked by court order, but other sites quickly sprang up to replace it, while those already established have not yet been targeted.  For every fan who decides to subscribe to BT, another will say screw it and turn to the streams.  It's not yet a challenge to the game and the broadcasters as say piracy has become to the music industry, it's true, but as more and more homes get access to super fast broadband the potential is there for games to be streamed in similar quality to that they're transmitted in, albeit with a slight delay.  Only then might live football once again become available to those without deep pockets.

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Friday, November 08, 2013 


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Thursday, November 07, 2013 

The illusion of oversight.

It would be an exaggeration to say today's first ever public session with the heads of the intelligence agencies was a waste of time.  Finally getting MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to answer questions from a committee in front of the cameras is itself an achievement; not so long ago Andrew Parker and Sir John Sawers' predecessors were refusing to give evidence to any other parliamentary committee, and would only do so to the Intelligence and Security panel in closed session.

Apart from their showing up though, there wasn't much else to recommend them having bothered taking time out of their schedules.  A flavour of just how little we were likely to learn was in the ludicrous "security" measures that were taken: journalists weren't allowed to take their phones in, for who knows what reason, while the session was broadcast with a two minute delay just in case any information believed too sensitive was discussed or mentioned.  Considering it was unlikely Parker, Sawers or GCHQ's Sir Ian Lobban were suddenly going to detail exactly how it is we combat cyber espionage, or listen in to the communications between al-Qaida leaders, this presumably was meant to be in case a committee member quoted too liberally from the Edward Snowden revelations, or rather, to give the impression such sensitive material could be discussed.  All but needless to say, it wasn't.

There were at least a few minor points, mainly from Parker, which we weren't entirely aware of before.  He put an actual number on the plots which have been foiled since 7/7, saying there had 34, one or two of which had the potential to be mass casualty attacks, presumably a reference to the "liquid bombs" plot and the cell disrupted in Operation Crevice.  Seeing as we've heard from 3 different heads of MI5 now, including Parker, who have repeated the claim there are around 30 plots on-going at any one time, with 2,000 individuals involved in one way or another, these two figures don't exactly tally.  Is MI5 in fact more successful than it's letting on, or are the extremists less competent or committed than is routinely imagined? This discrepancy wasn't remarked on however, unsurprisingly.  Parker's other point of interest was, despite the whining from Labour earlier in the week, they don't regard the replacement of control orders with TPIMs as having had any adverse effect on security.

The rest of the session was dedicated almost entirely to questions that we either already know the answers to, or which the agencies themselves have responded to in one way or another.  Sawers gave the same response when asked if MI6 would ever work with foreign agencies who use torture that he has previously, saying that if he was concerned someone could be mistreated he'd get ministerial approval, and if he was certain there would be, authorisation would never be forthcoming.  This approach was presumably not in operation when two of Gaddafi's opponents were rendered back to the dictator's most notorious jail courtesy of MI6 with Jack Straw's signature, but none of the committee were crass enough to raise the issue. Sawers was also pleased the Justice and Security bill was passed, "as this meant they could "now defend themselves" in such cases, rather than say ensure such embarrassing details as the seven paragraphs never become public again.

You see, secrecy isn't to prevent the services being embarrassed or privacy concerns from becoming known, it's only to ensure those who want to do us harm aren't aware of how we prevent them from doing so, as "nosy" Parker made clear. The idea that GCHQ has been reading everyone's emails and listening in to phone calls just isn't true, said Lobban in response to some very carefully worded questions. Snowden's revelations of course didn't say that they did, as such a thing would be impossible, rather that Tempora has meant they can hoover up all that information. Lobban claimed that their approach was to get to the needle without upsetting the haystack, which was a wonderfully revealing analogy: GCHQ can apparently do the undoable! Or, err, they can't and don't.

Thus we moved on to the ordained Guardian bashing section. Sawers growled that the paper is "not particularly well placed to make [that] judgement" on what would and wouldn't affect national security, echoing the position chairman Malcolm Rifkind had already reached. Sawers added that "our adversaries had been rubbing their hands with glee ... al-Qaida are lapping it up", yet when the three were asked for specific examples of the damage done, they naturally refused to compound it by setting some out.  Lobban said they had "intelligence on specific terrorist groups discussing what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods", which rather suggests that, err, they haven't made any such shift yet, and that they might have been rather slapdash in the first place.  All three would expand on the damage done, but only in a closed session, meaning us proles will never be able to judge whether or not the three were telling the truth. Their point was also slightly undermined when they accepted that the ISC had not been kept informed of how their capabilities had developed, learning along with the rest of us from the Guardian, but this too would now be remedied in a closed session. No one suggested that this was perhaps a little late, nor does it inspire confidence they will be more up front in the future.

There were also some great big pork pies in amongst the dull stuff.  Parker, quite incredibly, said that MI5 "was not arguing for more intrusion and more and more powers", even going so far as to say they had turned down "disproportionate" offers in the past.  Really?  Did MI5 really tell Blair and then Brown they didn't want 90 days or 42 days detention?  Eliza Manningham-Buller might have said she didn't believe it was necessary, but that's not the same thing.  As for the data and communications bill we know full well all three agencies have been lobbying hard for, and which would have enshrined in law the powers the Guardian revealed GCHQ already has, we heard absolutely nothing about it.

The committee, with the possible exception of Lord Butler who asked a couple of the more searching questions, completely flunked the opportunity to get any real nuggets of information out of the three.  No one thought to ask why it was the Americans have funded GCHQ to the tune of £100m over the past three years, or what GCHQ meant when they boasted to the NSA that the "legal framework" here was a "unique selling point".  We also didn't hear why it was that only the prime minister and relevant secretaries knew about Tempora, with the national security council and other senior ministers not being informed.  If we're being charitable, perhaps two out of the Guardian's ten questions were somewhat addressed.  The rest were clearly far too pointed.

The real purpose of today was to present the illusion of oversight.  All three intelligence chiefs thought the current regime worked quite well, as indeed it does, for them at least.  When the head of the committee asking the questions makes clear the media simply doesn't have the knowledge to make a decision on what might damage national security, and so shouldn't publish anything without first consulting the very people they're about to expose, it's abundantly clear the entire system is a joke.  Even with its expanded powers, the ISC is a fig leaf, and whether the secret state likes it or not, it's one that goes on shrinking.  The sooner we have a regulator that's worthy of the name, the sooner the public concern about privacy and civil liberties will subside.  Sadly, that seems as far away as ever.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2013 

Russell is a Brand.

Part of me really doesn't want to engage with the sudden emergence of Russell Brand as the voice of the disenfranchised youth.  Everything about his Newsnight interview, New Statesman guest editorship and now Guardian column screams that this is just the latest in a very long line of stunts from a man who hides his sharp wit and intellect under the pretence of being a Jack the Lad, a "cheeky chappie", as he himself acknowledges.  It's clearly a winning act, it's just that it's very much a poor man's Bill Hicks, and Hicks, great as he was, probably doesn't fully deserve the laurels that have been bestowed on him in death.  He was a comedian who said think for yourself and question authority; he did to such an extent it led him to believe the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of JFK.

Brand's philosophy doesn't so much as amount to that.  To give him credit, he doesn't pretend it does.  All he wants is for everyone to love each other a little more and to work together; if we do, we can design a system that makes the current one obsolete.  It's an echo of the sentiment I've used in the past, that another world is possible.  That other world is only possible however if you take the people with you, and that requires far more than just working together.  It's damn hard work, and it involves exactly the sort of participation Brand dismisses as not working because we haven't got what we wanted in the past.  To quote a remark that's now close to being a cliché, democracy is the worst system of government apart from all the others that have been tried.  To be sure, Brand isn't proposing a violent uprising, although it's a very rare revolution that manages to be bloodless, but he does seem to be overlooking exactly what democracy has achieved, snatched as it was from those he says have fully captured it.  It's the equivalent of in Life of Brian where Stan asks what have the Romans ever done for them, only to be reminded of the sanitation and so on, even if it was achieved by a conquering power.  Our forefathers built the democracy we have now themselves, and the franchise for the ordinary man was obtained only through protest.

As others have suggested, perhaps a little too vituperatively, there's not all that far to go from Brand's position to outright demagoguery.  Calling the main three parties all the same has become the default position for those who want more radical change, whether they be on the left or right, and frankly it's becoming extremely boring.  I sympathise with those who feel that way, but it simply isn't accurate, and anyone who seriously claims that a Labour-Lib Dem coalition would have governed in almost exactly the same way as the Tory-Lib Dems have is just dead wrong.  I don't believe that under Labour we would have had 400,000 people denied their benefits in a single year, for instance, or the top rate of tax lowered to 45p at the first possible opportunity.  We wouldn't have had vans with racist slogans being driven around, while foreign executives are welcomed with the red carpet.  We wouldn't have had the prime minister travelling with the actual fucking arms companies trying to sell weapons to despotic regimes in the Middle East, or the same level of support given to the rebels in Syria.  You can argue these don't truly amount to significant differences, but try making that case to those who've been denied the most basic means to subsist on the whim of a jobcentre adviser.

Brand's major point is politicians serve big business, rather than the people who vote for them.  It's certainly the case that all three parties remain committed to neoliberalism, with only minor differences over how economic growth should be shared, yet Brand's critique doesn't extend to the masters of the universe themselves, only the politicians.  Yes, he brings up the increasingly tired example of Philip Green giving his wife based in Monaco a dividend of £1.2bn, therefore avoiding a bill of hundreds of millions in tax, but rather than direct the blame at Green beyond saying he's an asshole he again blames politicians.  This is nonsensical: Green was only able to do so thanks to his customers.  Without them, he would be nothing.  Considering the army of fans Brand has, his suggestion of a boycott might just amount to something, but he should make the point across the board.  If companies you use avoid tax, don't patronise them.  That's a practical suggestion, and if politicians see the public reacting, they will shift.  Brand you can't help but suspect doesn't truly want to bite the hand the feeds.

You can however understand why his message has resonated.  He hasn't said anything even slightly original, again as he acknowledges, it's that previously no one with a similar cachet amongst those roughly my age has done so, or at least has and been given such wide coverage.  Indeed, his message is far less radical (and much more self-defeating) than that advocated by the Occupy and UK Uncut movements, it's that neither felt the need to have a leader, imbued with the apparent belief that such things aren't needed in the Twitter age, and consequently have declined into insignificance.  It's not yet clear though if Brand wants to try and truly surf the current wave of interest and take this beyond a few articles and interviews, and one suspects he won'tt.

Notably, Brand mentions Boris Johnson, having seen him being made-up for Question Time, yet the two have more in common than they would likely admit to.  It's not clear with either just where the act ends and the actual person begins.  Brand has gone through distinct stages: the junkie who turned up to work the day after 9/11 dressed as bin Laden; the star of a stream of terrible films, having made it to Hollywood; the husband of the global pop star.  Now he claims to want a revolution.  We really could do with someone from outside politics to speak up for the dispossessed, the apathetic and the disillusioned.  They need however to be sincere, genuine and preferably, not completely in love with themselves.  Brand fails on each of those measures.

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Tuesday, November 05, 2013 

The same old priorities.

There's a really simple answer as to why it is the likes of Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed and others before him have managed to go missing despite being under TPIMs or control orders: it's because they're not considered dangerous enough to truly be concerned about. Those connected with terrorism who really are dangerous, or at least pose a threat to the public in this country either directly or indirectly are prosecuted, or in the cases of Babar Ahmed and Abu Qatada, deported.  Clearly, this can never be an exact science: MI5 knew of some of those who went on to carry out the 7/7 attacks as they were on the periphery of other watched groups, and you suspect much is yet to come out at the trial of the two men charged with the murder of Lee Rigby, but for the most part those considered to be a present threat have been properly dealt with.

The fascinating thing is how much certain newspapers suddenly know about these individuals when they do manage to give those monitoring them the slip. All that was known yesterday was Mohamed was the man referred to as CC in this appeal against his control order, and that he was strongly linked to al-Shabaab, the case against him described by the judge as being "overwhelming". Not overwhelming enough for him to face any charges here, natch, and the judge also found that his arrest in Somaliland was against the law there, but this wasn't an abuse of process by our good selves. Equally naturally, the reason why it wasn't an abuse of process is only explained in the closed judgement.

Luckily for all concerned, we now know Mohamed is in fact so dangerous he's a "disciple" of the "white widow", none other than Samantha Lewthwaite herself, as both the Sun and Mirror tell us. Their evidence amounts to, err, she's connected with al-Shabaab and he's connected with al-Shabaab, therefore QED. The tabloid obsession with Lewthwaite seems to mean little things like accuracy don't apply; reading their articles gives the impression she leads the whole damn group, while previously they were near certain she was involved in the Westgate mall siege. She wasn't, and she's almost certainly just another western jihadi, only female and the widow of one of the 7/7 attackers, but when has the press ever let facts get in the way of a good scare/outrage story?

The only other point of interest is it illustrates how Labour is still undecided on civil liberties. The tighter control order regime didn't stop people on them from absconding, so how on earth would either resurrecting them or reintroducing "internal exile" make any difference? Those determined to go on the run will, and without more intrusive surveillance they won't be stopped from doing so.

Such inevitabilities do however distract from the cases where the secret state quite evidently oversteps the mark. Earlier in the year Justice Tughendhat ruled that the women who were misled by police spies into either long term relationships or sex could not have their cases heard in open court, instead having to go to the investigatory powers tribunal. There is no guarantee that the IPT will hear their case, and even if it does, all evidence will remain secret. Unsurprisingly, the IPT has upheld only 10 of the 1120 complaints made to it, and as such is an integral part of the regulatory system GCHQ boasted was less onerous than that of our American cousins' NSA.

Today the court of appeal upheld Tughendhat's ruling, although they did not repeat his bizarre argument that the regulation of investigatory powers act could be used to authorise spies relying on sex to get information they otherwise could not, as fictional accounts such as Ian Fleming's James Bond gave credence to the idea that such things did happen.  The only consolation for the women was the court overturned Tughendhat's other ruling that they had to go through the IPT process before claiming for damages under common law, something they can now go ahead with.

Our old friend "national security" also reared its head at the court martial of three marines accused of murdering an injured fighter in Afghanistan.  The entire incident was captured by one of the marines on a helmet cam, yet the judge advocate ruled the footage could not be released as he had to balance "the risk of members of the armed forces being killed if the DVD is released against the right of the press to have access to and publish information".  Unless he was seriously suggesting the video could lead to more Woolwich style attacks, the risk of being killed on operations abroad is one soldiers take on signing up, and it's extremely dubious one video is going to directly lead to dozens more recruits joining the Taliban.  It might well be a propaganda gift, as the Ministry of Defence argued, but that isn't a reason for not letting the public see both what troops are being asked to do in Afghanistan and the reality of what sometimes happens, allowing them to make up their own minds.

The default position when it comes to state subterfuge or embarrassment over defence remains secrecy.  More than anything else, this continuing refusal to allow proceedings in open court is at odds with our expectations of both government and business.  It invites cynicism and ridicule, and leads to people like me being dismissive of the state's case in its entirety.  There may well be instances where the only way to gain access to a violent protest group considering turning to terrorism would be to seduce one of its members; when it's been used as a matter of course to further infiltrate either peaceful groups or those using civil disobedience though, and the state refuses to defend itself in public court, it only encourages the demand for a full end to the policy.  Then again, when rulings such as today's get next to no coverage, just as the initial one did, while the disappearance of a terror suspect deemed to pose no threat to the UK public makes the front pages, the potential for reform remains as slight as ever.

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