Friday, February 28, 2014 

Missing persons.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014 

The nerve of GCHQ.

It makes me look only slightly daft that the day after I wonder if the Graun and the rest of the media have been self-censoring over the latest Snowden document, the paper goes and exposes yet another massively invasive GCHQ programme. This time it turns out everyone's favourite Cheltenham based spooks were (and no doubt still are) tapping into Yahoo's webcam service, collecting a grabbed image from the streams of those targeted every 5 minutes.  Staggeringly, 1.8 million accounts were accessed during a six-month period in 2008, for what seems more than anything to have been an exercise in testing facial recognition software.  The program was, brazenly, it must be said, called Optic Nerve.

Just how many terrorist suspects or criminals who use Yahoo Webcam had their chats intercepted we can't know.  What anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the internet does know is while now used for Skype and so on, webcams were principally bought to begin with by teenagers who chatted online.  GCHQ though professes itself to be shocked, shocked that from a sample of 323 users whose streams were intercepted, each of which had just 1 image from those collected examined, 7.1% contained "undesirable nudity".  In what has to be an example of massive understatement, GCHQ considers this to be a surprise.  I mean, who knew people used webcams to do such things?

Don't worry though, GCHQ staff weren't using the Optic Nerve database to exchange amateur porn with each other.  Such "dissemination of offensive material" is a disciplinary offence, and bulk queries were later restricted to just the metadata, lest anyone start building their own personal collection of homegrown nudes.  It seems almost impolite to say, as Jamie has it, but if you're spying on people who aren't specific targets and what you're getting as a result is images of people naked, then images of people naked would seem to be what you're looking to get.  Even more delicate is the fact that as alluded to above, teenagers are likely to still be the main users of a service like Yahoo Webcam.  Let's hope there aren't more people like Geoffrey Prime with the organisation, eh?

According to the government, security services and the High Court, we shouldn't be allowed to know such things have been done in our name.  How do we know Optic Nerve didn't in fact result in the identification of a terrorist who otherwise would have killed people?  How do we know that the facial recognition software won't go on to be hugely important in stopping an attack?  By exposing it those who wish us harm will now know they've been watched and can be watched; as for the millions who had their privacy infringed and potentially their most intimate moments captured, surely it's a small sacrifice to make for security.  Or it could be the ultimate example of the security services doing something purely because they can, caring only for the sensitivities of their staff in having to look at such images, not for the people who had their streams intercepted in bulk.  If there hadn't been enough evidence already of the dubious benefits of mass interception, surely this ought to be the Milly Dowler moment.

P.S. Patricia Hewitt's apology for "getting it wrong" over the Paedophile Information Exchange's links with the National Council for Civil Liberties when she was general secretary back in the 70s looked inevitable after the Graun found a document suggesting that PIE's advice on the age of consent influenced NCCL's lobbying in 1976.  Whether it really did or not is another matter, but as the first real piece of evidence to imply it might have been the case it most definitely brought Hewitt's judgement into question.  Much else still remains murky, and no one has denied that by '76 after Jack Dromey's intervention, even if certain members remained on committees, PIE had mostly been sidelined.  Tom O'Carroll, the then chair of PIE, who doesn't seem to have any reason to lie, says the three never attended the gay rights sub-committee he was on during the late 70s, and that the impression he received was Hewitt, Dromey and Harman were hostile towards PIE even if they didn't make any major moves to expel the organisation.

P.P.S. Nice to see that along with the more obvious mistakes she made while editor of the Sun, Rebekah Brooks admitted she has regrets over her helming of the paper's campaigning on Baby Peter, something she had previously defended in her Hugh Cudlipp lecture.  "Balance went out the window," she said, while it was "cruel, harsh and over the top" to put a photographer outside Sharon Shoesmith's house.  Brooks might also want to privately apologise to Maria Ward, for how commenters were allowed on the Sun's website to tell her to kill herself.  Lastly, worth reflecting that had it not been for the Sun's vociferous campaign, with it demanding "a price to be paid for [Baby Peter's] little life", the taxpayer wouldn't have had to shell out hundreds of thousands of pounds in compensation to Shoesmith after Ed Balls acted unlawfully to dismiss her.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014 

Whither press freedom?

The Guardian is guilty of treachery, and Edward Snowden's disclosures have put lives at risk. Not the opinion of politicians or the security services themselves, although the latter has all but said as much and the odd MP has stuck their pennyworth in, but that of the Daily Mail and commentators in the Telegraph. As Peter Preston wrote in the Observer (although considering his giving into the government over the Sarah Tisdall affair some would say he's one to talk), despite some initial misgivings the press united in defiance over the Thatcher government's attempt to ban Spycatcher. That Tory supporting papers are this time siding with the judges when they say the media as a whole should not publish any intelligence material as they cannot know what potential damage it may cause ought to worry us.

What though if the Graun and the rest of the mainstream media for that matter have in fact abided by pleas from the government not to publish certain material from the Snowden files, despite the threats we know to have been made? It's a question worth asking as two days on from the publication of what seems on the surface to be one of the most sensational documents yet released from the Snowden cache, not a single UK newspaper has touched it.

On Monday Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept posted a PowerPoint presentation authored by the "Head of Human Science" at GCHQ's Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group.  Following on from the reporting he carried out in partnership with NBC that revealed JTRIG had carried out DoS attacks against Anonymous "hacktivists", using the exact same tactics that some of those involved in the likes of Lulzec were jailed over, the presentation outlines exactly which "disruption" tactics could be used against the group's targets.  These include infiltration, stings and, in a term that will prick up the ears of everyone even vaguely aware of the rantings of the more out there conspiracy theorists, "false flag operations".  While the presentation itself does not outline exactly what this means, Greenwald explains it would involve posting material to the net that would then be attributed to either the target or someone associated with them.  Also acceptable would be honey traps, with the implication that once the target had succumbed they would then be smeared as either abusive or worse, with their friends and relatives informed of their supposed actions.

As Greenwald sums it up, "surveillance agencies have vested themselves with the power to deliberately ruin people’s reputations and disrupt their online political activity even though they’ve been charged with no crimes, and even though their actions have no conceivable connection to terrorism or even national security threats".  While the targets we know of so far have been the aforementioned "hacktivists", many of whom did engage in actions which were either illegal or at the very least were threatening towards those who attracted their ire, it's more than probable that those who were only involved at the margins and who did neither of these things could also have been swept up in the process.  It wouldn't be a great leap for such tactics to be used against online protesters who do operate entirely legally and peacefully, or indeed as we have seen with the exposure of the Met's Special Demonstration Squad, the insertion of agent provocateurs, with the authorisation to set up false long-term relationships.

Why then has no newspaper or even a UK-based site such as The Register covered it?  Why indeed.  The Graun's editor Alan Rusbridger retweeted a link to Greenwald's piece, quoting Edward Snowden as saying that GCHQ was in many respects worse than the NSA, yet hasn't found room in the paper itself to repeat what GCHQ has been getting up to.  While the Independent, Telegraph and Mail (no hypocrisy there then) reported on the previous NBC stories, neither has produced a follow-up on Greenwald's latest article and the presentation that accompanies it, despite it containing new detail on precisely which tactics are permissible.  Also of note is the Guardian did not directly respond to last week's High Court ruling on David Miranda in an editorial, leaving it to a comment piece from Helena Kennedy; perhaps explained by how Miranda intends to appeal, but still somewhat surprising considering what is clearly at stake.

By any measure, Greenwald's report is clearly in the public interest, such is the potential for abuse. There are also questions over whether the law as it stands allows GCHQ to carry out such actions, yet only those who have followed the story are likely to have found out.  If the silence is the result of the chilling effect of threats from the government or court rulings, then clearly we have an even bigger problem with freedom of the press in this country than was already obvious.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014 

Both the Mail and Harman have PIE on their faces.

(This is 1,705 words.  Just so you know.)

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  It isn't the Daily Mail's motto, unofficial or otherwise, but it easily could be.  Perhaps though, in line with the Mail's sudden shock finding that paedophilia wasn't universally viewed with the same disgust as it is now back in the 70s, when the National Council for Civil Liberties had an extremely ill-advised sort of affiliation with the Paedophile Information Exchange, it could just as well be a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

That the NCCL, now Liberty, had links with PIE has been known since, err, it had links with them.  It is not a startling new discovery.  Indeed, not a single aspect of the Mail's investigation and its corresponding attacks on Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey (husband of Harman) and Patricia Hewitt, all leading members of the NCCL during the period when PIE was affiliated, is based on new information.  I'm certain that there have been newspaper articles pointing this out on occasion in the past, pieces which have attracted a slight amount of attention and then been forgotten about.  It's not a proud period in Liberty's history by any means, and it's one which current head Shami Chakrabarti has apologised for.

This said, and despite how it sounds like an excuse and a cop out, it has to be remembered that it was a different era.  As the proposed changes to the law that Harriet Harman lobbied on make clear, up until this point it had not been a specific offence to take or make indecent images of children, although to an extent this would have been covered under other laws, such as the Obscene Publications Act.  As we've been rather forced to acknowledge over the past couple of years, the 70s was the in-between decade, a period where the new freedoms and excesses of the 60s continued to an extent, not least in those few European nations which legalised possession of all types of pornography, even if the production remained unlawful, just not necessarily cracked down upon.  It also wasn't unusual for "mainstream" European adult magazines of the period to feature post-pubescent girls under the age of 16, not surprising when the age of consent in the country of origin often was (and in some cases remains) under 16.  By contrast, and as Harman in her paper quotes, the judge in the Oz trial defined indecent as a woman taking her clothes off on the beach in front of someone else's children, or athletes wearing clothing which didn't fit properly.  Harman was writing only 17 years on from the Lady Chatterley trial, and a year and six months after the Sex Pistols and Bill Grundy had their tete-a-tete.  Views on what was and wasn't filth were polarised far beyond what they are today, even by the Daily Mail's maiden aunt standards.

The Mail's fundamental problem with its claims, especially against Harman, is that they've produced the evidence against her in full and it doesn't stack up. Her paper's main suggestion is that images of naked children should not be held to be indecent unless it can either be proved or inferred from the photograph that harm to the child has taken place as a result. This sounds potentially outrageous, but in actuality this isn't far off from the test the authorities now have to apply when prosecuting those who have the lowest category of child abuse images in their possession, I.e. those where the child is naked and is posing in a manner considered to be erotic (see the controversy over Klara and Eddy Belly Dancing for instance). Harman's proposed amendment would have clearly left it up to the police and CPS and in turn judge and jury to decide whether or not a specific image or images were indecent. Her main justification was that parents could be prosecuted for taking such pictures when they had no malign intentions, something it was felt was possible under a new law. About the worst allegation that can be thrown at her is she was being naive, and that paedophiles would quickly exploit such grey areas. There is no evidence she was influenced in any way by NCCL's association with PIE, and the lobbying did not lead to the law being changed in the way she proposed.

Far more questionable is the NCCL's submission to the government on the age of consent, not signed but sent when both Dromey and Hewitt were with the organisation in 1976. While the Mail seems almost as upset about the proposal that it should be 14 instead of 16 (the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 in 1885, so has never been set in stone, and while 16 seems a good middle ground between 14 and 18 to me, other Europeans nations continue to think differently), the real problem is that while it suggests that those under 10 cannot consent in any circumstances, in cases where those between 10 and 14 have sex with an older partner it should be considered that consent "was not present, unless it is demonstrated that it was genuinely given and that the child understood the nature of the act".  The law as it currently stands holds that children under 13 cannot consent in any circumstances, and if the other person involved is over 18, then the act is defined in law as rape regardless of what the child felt.  The NCCL's suggestion might not have quite been a licence for abuse, as the onus would still have fell on the older partner to prove the child understood and had given consent, but it most certainly would be a substantial dilution of the protection we have in force today.

Again though, the NCCL's submission did not win government support, and there is no evidence suggesting it was influenced by PIE.  The other claims against the three Labour grandees is that the NCCL's association with PIE amounted to apologia or validation, in 1975 complaining to the Press Council about coverage of the group, describing it in their annual report as a "campaigning/counselling group for adults sexually attracted to children", which seems to be before the NCCL was properly aware that PIE was more than that; and that as late as 1982 the NCCL's newsletter carried a missive from a self-confessed paedophile defending himself.  Clearly, newspapers and magazines have never published letters from those whose views they vehemently disagree with.  One of the founders of PIE, Tom O'Carroll, was subsequently jailed for "conspiring to corrupt public morals" (and continues to promote sexual relationships between children and adults as being entirely normal), with Hewitt later writing that "[C]onspiring to corrupt public morals is an offence incapable of definition or precise proof", the Mail finding this especially damning.  Except as Harriet Harman's paper makes clear, this is almost a direct lift from Roy Jenkins, who said something remarkably similar about defining "indecency".  The other allegations the Mail makes, that the NCCL's submission to the Criminal Law Commission called for the decriminalisation of incest and also claimed that "[C]hildhood sexual experiences, willingly engaged in, with an adult result in no identifiable damage", don't seem as yet to be supported by posted documents.

What though does any of this matter nearly 40 years on, and when so much has been known for so long?  The obvious reason is that paedophilia is so despicable and beyond the pale that regardless of the passage of time, just the connection with a group like PIE is still to be regretted and apologised for.  That the NCCL allowed anyone to affiliate and didn't at the time have a mechanism for expelling such groups isn't an adequate explanation, and indeed, it does seem as though there was a certain amount of sympathy within the NCCL towards PIE if only briefly, and then due to its stated mission as being to counsel those who found themselves sexually attracted to children.  Some within the NCCL may have been more involved, as the Telegraph has reported. In part however it also seems to be about simple revenge and glee at finding three well known politically correct right-on Labour figures didn't condemn paedophiles on sight, regardless of how long ago it was, especially when the left has been so quick to pounce on the past allegiances of Tories or horror of horrors, the Mail's own history.  Add in the typical Mail rage at how the BBC didn't address the topic until Ed Miliband did, and it all seems wearingly familiar.  That perhaps they didn't cover it immediately as a direct consequence of being so badly burnt over Lord McAlpine doesn't seem to have entered their thinking.

It would matter more if there was even the slightest indication the three held such views at the time, which again there is no evidence that they did, let alone if they had then carried such opinions with them into the Labour party and then parliament.  The fact is that they didn't, as Nick Cohen points out.  While Harriet Harman has been right to express regret today, something she didn't do in her Newsnight interview last night, she has been right not to apologise, as she has nothing to apologise for.  Whether perhaps Dromey or Hewitt do is more nuanced, considering their potential involvement with the age of consent submission and more besides, but again it needs to be stated that there are plenty of political figures who held opinions or which they even acted upon years ago they would now regret.  Bringing Jimmy Savile into it, as the Mail attempted to, is a nonsense.  They didn't validate Savile, just as the Mail and the rest of the media do not bear responsibility for failing to expose him while he was alive.  Despite the criticism of the lack of response, if anything it's Patricia Hewitt's silence that seems vindicated.  Reacting to the Mail just encourages it and convinces Paul Dacre that he was right.  The real reason the rest of the media ignored the reports at first is there simply isn't any evidence of anything other than naivety.  And if there's one thing that the Mail can't be accused of, it's precisely that.

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Monday, February 24, 2014 

Aberdeen is full of crushing bores.

You have to feel for the people of Aberdeen.  It's bad enough one group of politicians taking it upon themselves to pay a visit to your city, predicated on the strange belief that doing so will suggest that the metropolitan based elite aren't just concerned with the bright lights of London and the south east but also them there yokels; when two turn up, it's enough to make you reach for the digitalis.  About the only such jaunts that gain anything approaching a hubbub are royal ones, for goodness knows which atavistic reason.  Even more bizarre is the Tory insistence on both Dave n' George being seen to visit businesses that demand they don the necessary gear, generally white or blue overalls, hi-vis jackets and hard hats.  Whether this is meant to conjure up the impression of the pair caring deeply about our manufacturing and construction base, or that had they followed a different path they could have been working in such an environment, all it does is make them look like prize twats, successors to the mantle of Hugh Abbott, although as yet neither have been accosted by a woman asking if they know what it's like to clean up their own mother's piss.

To be fair, the real reason both the UK and Scottish cabinets made a stop off in places close to Aberdeen today is due to the city being the country's oil and gas capital.  It would be a bit off to make major announcements about investment in the North Sea sector without at least referring to the damn place, not that it's much consolation to those who had to suffer Salmond, Cameron and the media apparatus descending for a few hours.

Quite why Cameron and pals felt they had to go so big with the report by Sir Ian Wood is something else entirely.  The big questions about an independent Scotland are those that have been discussed over the past few weeks, which currency would it use, would it be able to join the EU, is the SNP promising dick pills to those who vote yes and the Better Together clan suggesting the four horsemen will descend on the 19th of September should the result be yes an unsustainable strategy, and so on.  When it comes to oil, there are a few facts that are difficult to argue against.  That Scotland and indeed the UK as a whole didn't benefit as they should have done from the oil rush, with successive governments preferring to spend at the time rather than save for later making it the SNP and Alex Salmond's trump card, the party promising to right the wrong.  It might turn out that it's too late to set up a sovereign wealth fund now, even if an independent Scotland implemented the recommendations of Sir Ian Wood, but at least it's an attempt to do something.

Which makes it all the more head scratching why Cameron insisted it was only under Westminster tutelage that such funding and investment would be possible.  Take the worst case scenario in the event of independence, that Osborne and the other parties carry through their threats not to agree to a currency union, Scotland as a result refuses to accept its share of the national debt and so is penalised by the markets when it wants to borrow.  Even in such circumstances it's difficult to see why investors wouldn't want to grab a share of the £200bn it's suggested could still be underground, difficulties in extracting it or not.  As overblown as the SNP's vision of Scotland as the new Norway is, you can't help but think it might just put the windfall to better use than the UK has up till now.  Cameron's rhetoric comes as close to the bluster we've heard about recently as anything, his supposed "positive case" laughably inept.

Despite all the carping from Salmond on the basis of a single opinion poll that support for independence had gone up in the wake of the Better Together currency union gambit, a broader view suggests it's done relatively little to alter the standings.  This is hardly surprising when many are yet to make up their minds and almost certainly won't until the last minute.  The polls will narrow as we approach the 18th of September, it's whether Yes Scotland can continue to make a case that convinces the head as much as the heart.  The way the three unionist parties handled the currency union argument was botched yet the right idea, focusing on the uncertainties the SNP have brushed over.  Paul Krugman's intervention shows the SNP doesn't have all the Nobel laureates on its side.  They might also have a few less of those who have a vote, so long as Cameron and friends can be persuaded to keep a low profile from now on.

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Friday, February 21, 2014 

Shadow boxing.

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Thursday, February 20, 2014 

Blair today, gone tomorrow.

When it comes to getting advice on how to deal with a crisis, not many people would think a certain ex-PM would be the best option. Hardly anyone would be able to afford him in the first place, before you start to factor in how Mr Tony handled the loans for peerages so effectively he became the first party leader to be questioned by Inspector Knacker since Jeremy Thorpe. Not many people though are Rebekah Brooks, who sought out the wisdom of the great man the day after the News of the World published its final edition, as the phone hacking trial heard yesterday.

Not for Blair any qualms about continuing to advise the people the new Labour leader was calling to be investigated, with many thinking the Screws had been sacrificed both to save Brooks and also the News Corporation takeover of Sky. Indeed, he was more than happy to be an "unofficial adviser" to James, Keith and Brooks, so long as the arrangement remained just between them.

More interesting though is precisely what Blair recommended. He suggested an independent inquiry, although whether he specifically mentioned the Hutton report as a model or that was more a flourish on Brooks's part we don't know. Also unknown is whether, as Brooks put in her email, he suggested this independent inquiry would clear them, but he apparently did say they should release the first part of the report just as the police finished their inquiries. For those who remember the curious way a whole range of government reports and interventions took place on the same day as the Old Bill came to visit Downing Street, this might sound more than a little familiar.

While it isn't the most startling revelation that internal corporate reviews are often a complete and utter stitch-up designed to save the bosses while deputy heads roll, it's more that this email marks the last knockings of the nexus between not just Labour and the Murdochs, but "Yes he Cam!" Dave as well. Even more tragic is that the relationship between Tone and Rupe has since broke down completely, in the main due to Wend's apparent crush on the globetrotting behemoth. Whether it was just a spell of unrequited lust on the part of Murdoch's third, much younger wife or something more serious no one seems willing to tell, although naturally there is much speculation.  As those good people over at B&T also note, this break down of connivance between the Murdoch press and the establishment was in the main thanks to a certain Ed Miliband, who also, intentionally or not, had a major hand in stopping our involvement in another wretched Middle East adventure.  Not bad for someone still often mocked rather than respected.

Nor did Blair's advice do much for Keith, Jim and Becca.  While the latter is still putting on a stiff upper lip, continuing to deny today in her first day in the witness box that she had ever heard of Glenn Mulcaire, News International (as was) did through solicitors Hickman and Rose ask the "great and good" Ken Macdonald to review the previous investigation by Harbottle and Lewis into Clive Goodman's accusation that the News of World had "full knowledge" of his actions and also supported them.  Macdonald promptly informed the board of News Corp that while Harbottle and Lewis's review seemed fair, the emails they trawled through contained clear evidence of the paying of police officers, something that had to be reported to the Met at once.  Brooks, lest we forget, continues to face a charge of making unlawful payments to public officials.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014 

The closing ranks of the secret state.

The ruling by the High Court that the detention of David Miranda under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000 was lawful is not surprising.  As we have seen so often in the past, spurious claims that national security will be endangered or that "lives are at risk" can cover a whole multitude of sins.  Schedule 7 is so broadly drafted even the government recognises it is open to abuse.  That MI5, who requested Miranda's detention, knew he was not a terrorist and also that he was not involved in espionage, despite their claim on the Port Circulation Sheet issued to the police, was also irrelevant.  The only real quandary was whether the judges would express any disquiet about the stop, perhaps even suggesting the legislation needs to be looked at again.  Not only have Lord Justice Laws, Mr Justice Ouseley and Mr Justice Openshaw done no such thing, their judgement effectively agrees entirely with the case made by the government and the security service, to the point that it seems remarkably incurious of the potential abuse of power such legislation provides the executive with.

That the justices make no mention of the fact MI5 failed to put suspected terrorism as the reason for stopping Miranda on the the first two PCSes, putting "not applicable" in the box, is indicative of itself. Only once informed by the Met that they could, err, only detain him if terrorism was indeed suspected did they do as told. The reason for stopping Miranda was two-fold: first, as now seems to be the case, neither the NSA nor our own intelligence agencies know exactly what Edward Snowden managed to take, with it being possible they will never know. Having failed to get back the files from the Guardian, with the paper opting instead to destroy the hard drives under GCHQ supervision, getting an insight from the files Miranda was transporting was the next best option. Second, just as the government had threatened the Guardian with being shut down if it continued to publish the Snowden documents, detaining Miranda doubled as a further act of harassment and intimidation against Glenn Greenwald (Miranda's partner) and the other journalists working on the stories, since detailed further by Luke Harding.

All of which makes it all the more perplexing why Justice Laws dismisses Greenwald and Miranda's witness statements out of hand and accepts those of the Met's D/Supt Stokley and D/Supt Caroline Goode, and that of Oliver Robbins, deputy national security officer at the Cabinet Office, as so compelling.  Robbins, after all, was the very individual threatening the Guardian with an injunction that would have prevented it from publishing, the government having decided the debate the revealing of the mass surveillance schemes operated by the NSA and GCHQ was over.  Neither of the statements from the police and government provide any further detail of the damage meant to have been caused by the release of the files other than the platitudes we've heard from the heads of the security services. Laws is critical of Miranda and Greenwald for not engaging with these claims, yet how are you meant to argue against such statements when either no evidence is provided to back them up, or indeed when other officials, such as the head of the D-Notice committee, are dismissive of the idea that the stories have threatened national security?

Laws in fact goes further.  He describes Greenwald's statement that "not to publish material simply because a government official has said such publication may be damaging to national security is antithetical to the most important traditions of responsible journalism" as true but trivial, due to how the defendants' evidence goes beyond mere assertions.  He then accepts completely the argument from the government and Robbins that journalists simply cannot know what will or will not damage national security when it comes to publishing such documents.  Quite apart from how the Guardian has only on one occasion not co-operated with the government in informing them of what they were set to publish, giving the security services the opportunity to object or otherwise if something was about to threaten an on-going operation, let alone lives, meaning that it is not just journalists but also lawyers and other officials involved in the decision-making, the ultimate conclusion of such an argument is that the media should never publish or reveal anything that the government says they shouldn't.  Freedom of the press it seems is entirely dispensable, regardless of the threat or lack thereof posed to the life of the nation by terrorism.  Adding insult to injury, Laws says there is no reason to doubt any of Robbins' statement.  To which you can only say: really?

This isn't just about the detention of Miranda, as Greenwald himself points out.  It also makes clear that the intelligence agencies were at the least following the movements of all those involved in the stories, if not bugging their communications.  Even if there was the belief that somehow the files they had in their possession might fall into the hands of other states or terrorists themselves, this in itself is another major step across the Rubicon.  Infiltrating protest groups, even peaceful ones, is controversial, but going after journalists is something else.

The reasoning behind this assault is clear: as the legal advice provided to MPs by Jemima Stratford QC set out, the entire system of regulation which enables Tempora and other GCHQ surveillance programmes is years out of date, and almost certainly in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.  This lack of oversight is however exactly what sells GCHQ to the Americans, and why they are prepared to pay millions for it on top of the billions in funding it receives from the UK taxpayer.  Rather than address the revelations, from the very beginning the government has attempted to close down what little debate there has been, and shamefully it's a process that much of the rest of the media has connived in.  Now we know the judiciary is also fully on side.  How ironic it will be if it it falls to the ECHR, the supposed friend of privacy and enemy of press freedom, to strike a blow against a secret state that uses anti-terrorism legislation to intimidate those acting in the public interest.

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014 

The hope or possibility of release returns.

Say what you like about judges, and many, especially the tabloid press often do (as an aside, it's worth noting a certain Brian Leveson, in his role as President of the Queen's Bench division, was one of the presiding judges in this case), there are times when they are remarkably ingenious. Almost everyone thought the appeal court would accept the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights' Grand Chamber, and duly find that those given whole life sentences must have some sort of body to which they could apply to have their sentence reviewed after a defined period of time. The Conservatives certainly did, floating the option of allowing judges to impose American style hundreds of years sentences, which could then be reviewed without release being any real possibility.  It seemed a great, typically Tory ploy: adhering to the ruling, if not the spirit of it, in much the same way as parliament has attempted to defy the court over giving the vote to some prisoners.

One indication that perhaps the government knew some sort of compromise was forthcoming, or had some faith in the case it was due to make to the appeal court, was that it suddenly seem to drop the above proposal, almost as quickly as it had raised it. The appeal court's rejection of the ECHR's ruling is based on what it says is a misinterpretation of the current laws: the grand chamber failed to take properly into account what section 30 of the 1997 Crime (Sentences) Act allows. Although previously it has only been used to release prisoners who are terminally ill, it can allow release in other circumstances on compassionate grounds also. The judges can't say what these circumstances might be, except that they will have to be exceptional given the fact a whole life term was considered necessary in the first place, but it still amounts to the "hope or the possibility of release" required, and to compatibility with Article 3.

Whether this is evidence of the perceived new attitude among some judges to the ECHR, no longer taking direction from Strasbourg as unquestionable, is more difficult to tell.  What it has done is both gotten ministers out of a problem, and given them a new one.  Had the appeal court agreed with the ECHR the easiest and best solution would have been to reintroduce the old system where whole life terms were reviewed after 25 years, only giving the power to the parole board or a judge rather than to a politician as was previously the case.  Instead the onus has been put back on the justice secretary, who now faces not just the likes of Ronnie Biggs applying for compassionate release on the grounds of ill-health, but the most notorious murderers and serial killers asking for the same, if that is they can point towards exceptional circumstances that have arisen since they were sentenced.  Nor will it be possible to simply dismiss such requests out of hand when the ECHR will be watching, even if it might well be a while before any such attempts to test out section 30 are made.

This itself depends on whether or not the ECHR accepts the appeal court's reasoning, should another appeal to Strasbourg be made.  It could for instance suggest that still more clarity is needed around section 30, precisely why it reached its decision in the first place, saying the appeal court hasn't in its view disproved its own analysis.  The other thing the ruling has done though, as Joshua Rozenberg notes, is to somewhat take the wind out of Chris Grayling's sails over the upcoming Tory manifesto plan for the reforming/dumping the convention.  No longer able to point to the court saying we can't lock up the worst of the worst for life, although it never said anything of the sort in the first place as both the appeal court and the QC for the government accepted, it leaves just the Abu Qatada palaver and votes for prisoners as the main grievances. A strong enough case for the Pavlovian anti-Europe Tories and tabloids certainly, but not for anyone who bothers to take an interest.  Judicial lawmaking or not, the appeal court's ruling could yet have far wider political consequences.

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Monday, February 17, 2014 

Breaking up is hard to do.

While there's been little polling as yet on whether or not the gambit by the three Westminster parties to oppose currency union with an independent Scotland outright has had any impact, although indications suggest it may well have backfired, Alex Salmond's response today was billed as being a "point-by-point deconstruction" of their stance.  As was predictable when both sides prefer hyperbole to anything so much as resembling dispassionate analysis, it was nothing of the sort.

Salmond's first problem is that regardless of the spin put on it by Osborne and friends, it's a policy based on the analysis from the permanent secretary to the Treasury, an independent figure.  Salmond can dispute the merit and strength of Sir Nicholas Macpherson's reasoning, but not its source.  Instead then he dealt purely with Osborne, only mentioning the paper from the Treasury once.  Second, of the two new points he made, his publication of an analysis suggesting a £500m cost to UK businesses if there wasn't a currency union is based on the obvious assumption that, rather than using sterling informally, Scotland sets up an entirely new currency.  This would be fair enough if this was the SNP's Plan B, except it clearly isn't.  For someone who denounces the negative campaigning and calls out the No campaign as being Project Fear, this is rather desperate stuff, as making the argument has been from the outset.  It's also as transparent as can be - if Scotland votes yes, it will use the pound, whether within a currency union or not.  No business is going to fall for the same bluster as Salmond has been condemning

On surer ground is the response from Salmond and others to José Manuel Barroso's renewed comments that an independent Scotland joining the EU would "be difficult, if not impossible", if only because Salmond's point that Scotland would almost certainly have an easier time agreeing to join than Cameron will "renegotiating" the rest of the UK's relationship was spot on.  This said, we simply don't know how those negotiations will go until they happen, or indeed whether Spain or other states might object, despite suggestions they will keep their own opposition to Catalonian independence as a separate matter.  By the same token, Salmond is continuing to bet everything on rUK being more receptive to a currency union once the referendum has been won, as Osborne and pals may well be.  Salmond's other argument however, that it is "insulting as well as demeaning" to be told you have no rights to assets built up jointly cuts both ways.  He imagines that public opinion in the rUK will side with the newly independent Scotland's claims to the pound, disregarding how bloody-minded and parochial the nationalists south of the border are also.  Breaking up is hard to do, as it would be nice for the SNP to acknowledge every now and then.

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Friday, February 14, 2014 


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Thursday, February 13, 2014 

The weirdest good cop/bad cop strategy in history.

The Tories have come up with what might be the oddest good cop/bad cop strategy in history when it comes to Scottish independence.  Just last Friday David Cameron was invoking the spirit of London 2012, summoning up all the usual boilerplate about this being the greatest country on Earth, something the Americans are much better at claiming because they genuinely believe it, urging reluctant unionists to tell undecided Scottish friends to stay. 6 days on and George Osborne is back to ramping up the fear, allied with the gruesome twosome of Ed Balls and Beaker Danny Alexander. Should Scotland vote yes, there will be no currency union, end of.

For those who like me think that every time a Tory opens their mouth on independence the yes campaign cheers, it doesn't exactly strike as a winning formula. Not that there was anything spectacularly wrong with Cameron's speech, despite the wearying nonsense about Britain being a brand; if anything, more misjudged was the response from Nicola Sturgeon, complaining about the PM leeching off past sporting glories, apparently letting the fact Alex Salmond had been far more shameless in unfurling a Saltire as Andy Murray won Wimbledon slip her mind.

While David Cameron can do charm, even if it's patently insincere, George Osborne by contrast can only do smarm.  Putting him up in what seems to be a Better Together orchestrated operation to say there will be no negotiations for a currency union is the equivalent of a two finger salute, and the obvious response is to reciprocate.  Yes, he was essentially just presenting the advice provided to him by the permanent secretary to the Treasury, but surely a better option would have been to release the letter and allow someone else to make the case.  Far more than the whole thing being a stitch-up between the Westminster parties, that it was once again a Conservative telling Scotland what it can and can't do seems to play straight into the SNP's hands.

This in turn undermines how this is certainly the most significant challenge yet to Yes Scotland's narrative, and it's one they could have avoided.  Scotland's Future was weakest where it should have strongest, glossing over any potential problems in keeping the pound, as well as in joining the EU.  It might indeed be the "most logical option" to have a currency union, yet independence supporters despite their arguments are playing a weak hand.  The threat to default on taking a share of the national debt if a currency union is refused would almost certainly lead, as Robert Peston says, to investors demanding a punitive interest rate when the newly independent country seeks to borrow.  This would doubtless drop within a few years but could still be crippling.  The SNP's enthusiasm for a currency union also downplays the disadvantages to one, namely that it brings into question how independent a sovereign nation is when its monetary policy is decided in another country entirely.  Using the pound without currency union is certainly an option, just as the dollar is used without permission as the official currency in a number of south American states, and the Euro is in Kosovo, but carries risks (not having a lender of last resort) as well as benefits.

The SNP's response has been, as always, to claim plucky little Scotland is being bullied by the big boys, with a secondary line of it all being bluster and bluff.  It could well be, but the whole point is to plant doubts, something the ploy will certainly achieve.  The other implicit threat is that regardless of the Edinburgh Agreement, the rest of the UK on independence would refuse to just go through the motions when it came to the discussions on (re)joining the EU, NATO, etc should Scotland in turn renege on paying its share of the national debt.  Macpherson suggests this cutting off your nose to spite your face strategy could potentially cost less than currency union with a nation that has "misaligned tax and spending policies", which seems a more devastating critique of the SNP's vision of independence than anything yet come up with by Better Together.

All of which goes to the heart of the campaigns so far run by both Yes Scotland and Better Together. The SNP's case at times has, as Flying Rodent puts it, been only slightly off "promising every man in the country a bigger dick and a Lexus full of cocaine".  Scotland certainly could be a successful independent country,  just not necessarily the social democratic paradise they're so keen to paint it as becoming.  By the same token Better Together hasn't even bothered to present a positive case for the union despite the impression conjured up by its name, preferring instead to scaremonger and also bleat about supposed smearing by cyber-nationalists.  Both would benefit from dialling it down a shade, presenting a more realistic case and even, gasp, accepting their opponents' arguments are legitimate.

And the three bears.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014 

Exaggeration and British jihadis in Syria.

Much excitement, and it has to be described as excitement at how one of our very own has succeeded in blowing himself sky high (literally, in the whole "martyrdom operation" means instant entry to paradise belief of jihadists) in Syria, going where others have previously feared to tread.  It's difficult to know exactly whether it is the intelligence agencies that are so concerned at the potential for those who have gone to Syria to fight, the majority of whom it has to be presumed have gone to join up with the jihadis, to then come back here and plot attacks, or whether it's the media exaggerating those fears in line with how Michael Adebolajo had gone to Kenya looking to join al-Shabaab before returning here.

Whichever it is, and considering how proactive Theresa May has been in removing British citizenship from those of dual nationality who've travelled to Syria the former is just as plausible, it seems a little strange that much of the coverage has been on how those who do go out are likely to be further radicalised.  The obvious historical parallel most have reached for is the Spanish civil war, which I don't think is exactly analogous for the reason that whatever Syria is, it's not a fight about ideology.  The very reason those who joined the International Brigades went to fight was they saw the war as being about putting a halt to the march of fascism across Europe.  Although not universal, many of those who went to fight in Spain returned disullisoned, most notably George Orwell.

It's difficult not to think many will experience the same in Syria, especially as the infighting among the rebel groups has intensified.  Moreover, to have made the decision to travel to Syria in the first place suggests almost all will have been what we'd describe as radical in the first place.  Again, as most seem to be ending up with either al-Nusra or ISIS, the two most hardline jihadist groups rather than with the more "moderate" FSA battalions is indicative of that.  One fact that mitigates against the potential for those who have specifically gone to Syria to fight the Assad government to return and plot is that this is the first time in a decade that a British citizen has carried out a suicide attack in a foreign country.  There have been no such examples of a Brit going to Iraq and becoming a suicide bomber, or in Afghanistan or Pakistan for that matter.  Indeed, there is only one disputed case of someone linked with a group other than al-Shabaab or al-Qaida central returning and carrying out an attack, that of Bilal Abdullah, who had at the least a tenuous connection with the aforementioned Islamic State of Iraq.

The reason for this is obvious: ISIS and other groups, including the Taliban, are far more focused on their own internal conflicts than on attacking the West, unlike al-Qaida central.  ISI did notoriously carry out an attack in Jordan, and it resulted in a backlash.  Those who are more inclined towards the belief that the whole world is a battlefield understandably gravitate towards the likes of al-Qaida, or the increasingly ambitious al-Shabaab.  This isn't a universal rule, as we know that the ringleader of the 7/7 attackers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, travelled to Pakistan with the intention of training and fighting either there or in Afghanistan, only for his plans to change.

Without wanting to say the threat is being completely overblown, you can't help but feel the only reason the the head of counter-terrorism at the CPS is saying those who do travel will be charged on their return is precisely because they are Muslims, and likely to have fought alongside those we consider to be terrorists.  Fighting for a cause you believe in is despite Sue Hemming's reading of the 2006 Terrorism Act not illegal, nor should it be.  Some of those who have gone out to Syria have done so with the very best of intentions; the majority perhaps not so much.  They don't however deserve to be stripped of their citizenship without recourse, nor treated as criminals or terrorists universally.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014 

Here's to you, Mr Robinson. (And the Quilliam Foundation.)

It's been an eventful few weeks for Maajid Nawaz and the Quilliam Foundation, or as I've taken to calling them, the Foundation. Apart from writing a guest post for this blog on his revolutionary tweeting of the Jesus and Mo cartoon, an act that sparked more of a spat over how broadcasters and newspapers also censored the horrendously unfunny web comic than it did over how Nawaz had received death threats for saying he didn't find it offensive, he's also been deeply concerned at the treatment ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson has been subjected to in prison.

Not for Nawaz a simple denunciation of the alleged deliberate leaving of Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, in a room with three men who took a disliking to his face at HMP Woodhill. No, such an incident required an open letter to the Lord Chancellor and the justice secretary (PDF) expressing his disquiet, as well as how he was worried it could reinforce Robinson's "perceived grievances" against the state and undo all his good work in persuading Robinson to quit the EDL in the first place.  You see, "decapitating" the far-right street protest organisation had clearly been in the public interest, and Nawaz dreads to think what might happen if Robinson wound up dead.

Just how in the public interest Nawaz believed his good deed in extracting Robinson from the EDL to be, despite Robinson not retracting any of his previous statements, was revealed in a freedom of information request to the Department of Communities and Local Government. Despite Nawaz claiming that had not received state funding since 2010, something undermined by another FOI request which showed that, although much reduced, they had still received a substantial grant for the following year, on the very day as Robinson was presented to the press as having left his inciting days behind him Nawaz was begging the DCLG for funding to help facilitate Robinson's defection. He obviously couldn't continue to live off donations to the EDL, so why shouldn't the state recognise such an important contribution to community cohesion and cough up?

Strangely, despite the polite request, the DCLG demurred (pay wall). Without wanting to surmise too much about why the DCLG decided not to donate to the keep Tommy Robinson/Stephen Yaxley-Lennon in the manner to which he was accustomed fund, it's difficult not to suspect that like some of us, they might just have felt the entire Damascene conversion was not all that it appeared.  With Robinson now detained at Brenda's pleasure, something that both he and Nawaz must have known was likely, and with the EDL already falling apart, having failed to capitalise on the murder of Lee Rigby, it was the perfect time for Robinson to claim he was leaving because he couldn't control the "extremists" any longer.  As Nawaz reveals in his letter, it's also clear how desperate Quilliam was, without a budget to fund their most high profile act of deradicalisation.  Deprived of state funding it's unclear how the thinktank is staying afloat, although that's far from unique as many other thinktanks also refuse to disclose who their benefactors are.

Due to a lamentable oversight, the letters to the department were however published with Nawaz's personal mobile phone number not redacted.  Such a breach of privacy would be unacceptable even if Nawaz hadn't been receiving threats, regardless of the credibility or lack of them.  All the same, Nawaz seemed to put the blame as much on Jason Schuman, who had also placed an FOI request, as Richard Bartholomew notes.  Threatening legal action or responding to criticism with insults is something Quilliam has a record for: Craig Murray faced down just such a threat, while Vikram Dodd was attacked after he revealed Quilliam had secretly profiled Muslim organisations for the government.

As Sunny Hundal argued back then, government funding of certain groups and not others only increases suspicions, and Nawaz's begging for money for having "turned" Robinson does everything to reinforce those prejudices.  For an organisation that started off so promisingly, Quilliam's reputation now lies in the gutter.  To have a chance of recovering it will almost certainly need new leadership, and with Nawaz the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn, there's a ready explanation available should he feel it's time to move on.

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Monday, February 10, 2014 

The floodapocalypse.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. With Owen "the badgers are moving the goalposts" Paterson otherwise indisposed with a detached retina, into the puddle has stomped Eric Pickles, a force of nature few would like to be subjected to.  Where Paterson seemed just a touch too smooth to really feel the pain of those currently up to their neck in the mixture of sewage, mud and stagnant water, Pickles is all too rough and ready. And if the worst comes to worst, he could quite easily double as a raft, his buoyancy beyond question.

Yes, it's the floodapocalypse, the country not having been this saturated since Simon Cowell left to break America.  Suitably broken, Cowell is back, and has brought the weather with him.  With January the wettest month since records began around the time of Ethelred the Unready, a fair proportion of the country is underwater, which means only one thing: someone, somewhere, is responsible.  You could quibble and say that such an unprecedented amount of precipitation was always going to cause flooding regardless of how many rivers had been dredged, or fields left to be used as additional flood plains, but clearly you'd be wrong.  This is not the time for saying oh dear, how terrible about your fields, at least we've saved thousands of houses from being made uninhabitable, this is the time for gestures, tours of the affected areas and dozens upon dozens of COBRA meetings.

While there has been widespread damage to the coast over the past month and many areas remain underwater, what you might not necessarily realise despite the coverage is the tiny number of houses that have actually been flooded, at least in Somerset itself, not including the flooding along the Thames today.  This stands at 40, which seems remarkable.  This isn't to underestimate the effect of being cut off by the floods, which is the real problem in the Levels, but it certainly puts it into perspective.  As the BBC's Paul Hudson points out, this is a minuscule amount when compared with the 688 properties affected by the coastal surge on the Yorkshire coast late last year, let alone the 23,479 homes that were flooded back in 2007 in the Yorkshire/Humber region alone.  Over the past 10 weeks about 5,000 properties in total around the country have been flooded

This helps to explain why it wasn't initially a big story that such a large area of Somerset had been and remains flooded.  Yes, the area and plenty of land has been hard hit, but the houses have mostly been spared.  Such a situation cannot go on for such a period of time however without someone getting the blame, and the Environment Agency has had it squarely in the neck.  Head of the quango Lord (Chris) Smith complains that his hands had been tied by rules set down by successive governments, and that only £400,000 was provided in 2012 as a consequence, nowhere enough for the job of removing silt from the rivers in the Levels to be done properly.  He also mentions the 1.3 million properties that have not been flooded due to his organisation's work.

With Pickles in charge though as Paterson continues to recuperate, the shit-throwing duly commenced.  He blamed the EA for giving duff advice to ministers, all but suggesting Smith should be shown the door, only for Paterson to complain to David Cameron that Pickles was clearly criticising past ministers at the same time.  Understandable as it is for all involved to look for someone to be held responsible, as the only other thing to do is either visit those affected, with a procession of the great and not so good donning waterproofs and rubber boots to visit Burrowbridge, Nigel Farage finally succeeding in finding a flood of some sort, even if not of Romanians or Bulgarians, or pretend to be in some sort of control by holding discussions in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, it just makes all involved look even more pathetic than usual.  At least King Cnut made clear he couldn't hold back the elements.  These cunts try and pretend otherwise.

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Friday, February 07, 2014 

Let it be known.

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Thursday, February 06, 2014 

The collusion and complicity of the IOC.

Is there a more ridiculous and self-evidently false bromide than the one that claims politics and sport don't mix? We seem to now have a biennial media battle between the hosts of the World Cup/Olympics/Winter Olympics/European Championship, FIFA, UEFA, the IOC and the various malcontents, protesting over either the exorbitant cost of staging the showpiece event, the abuse of those who built the facilities, alleged corruption, or the human rights situation in the country in general.

With the Sochi winter games every single one of these issues has come into play. Costing a staggering £31bn, or not far shy of 3 times the amount we pumped into London 2012, with almost the entire resort being built from scratch, billions have almost certainly been creamed off, to little apparent concern from the IOC. Despite this, and while it seems the athletes' accommodation is befitting of the no expense spared philosophy from the Russians, journalists report their hotels are unfinished and unfurnished, the staff not always particularly helpful either.

Something the IOC could not predict was Putin would choose the past year to sign into law the kind of antediluvian anti-gay legislation designed it seems to wind up the West as much as position himself as a defender of traditional values in the face of metropolitan liberalism. Think Section 28, only with even more transparent emphasis on linking homosexuality with paedophilia and you're pretty much there. When you have Putin himself and other officials all but saying gay men are desperate to inculcate innocent children in depraved sexual practices, you might have thought an organisation which in its charter decries discrimination would have had made a more substantial stand than it has.

The reality is that the IOC has been hand in glove with Putin from the beginning, and could hardly start expressing something resembling independence now.  The IOC forbids competitors from making political statements during the games, including according to the Russians at press conferences as well as on the podium.  This is then written into the contracts of the athletes themselves, according to John Amachei, something only half-denied by the British Olympic Association, who say that they have to balance an athlete's right to freedom of speech with the IOC's own rules.

It's this ever increasing stifling of anything approaching spontaneity or which could be construed as going against the values of either the organisers or the sponsors that has led to the current trend for either developing countries or authoritarian states to be favoured as the hosts for such showpiece events.  South Africa saw the introduction of a short-lived court system to deal with those who transgressed against the various rules and regulations FIFA had set down, while Sep Blatter's monopoly also demands the kind of tax concessions that would shame Vodafone and Amazon.  Brazil undoubtedly deserves the 2014 World Cup, but it's not a surprise it also won the 2016 Olympics.  WIth Russia due to host the 2018 World Cup before it then heads to the kleptocracy of Qatar, with the abuse of migrant workers there already so well documented, the pattern has been well and truly set.

Some of the coverage of Russia's human rights record has nonetheless been over the top, at least when compared to how politicians had far fewer qualms about going to the Beijing games, when China is by any objective measure far more repressive than Putin's Russia.  This said, the pathetic criticism by the IOC's head, who decried the unofficial boycott of the opening ceremony by various world leaders as an "ostentatious gesture", completely sums up the organisation's approach to anyone who dares to criticise their decision making.  Gestures are all that left to those who want to stand in solidarity with the forgotten and abused in Russia, the very people who have paid for the games in the first place.  A boycott would be self-defeating, so what other way is there to express disapproval than in whichever way those taking part can?

One possible solution to the burden placed by major tournaments on host countries is perhaps to follow the example set by the 2020 European Championships, which will see 13 different cities in 13 countries host the games.  While it poses an obvious problem for fans travelling from one match to the next, it will spread the cost and mean just one nation won't become the sole focus for protests.  Whether it's an idea either FIFA or the IOC will look into remains to be seen; one suspects there's far too much for them personally to lose than for the taxpayers of future hosts to gain.

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014 

The return of bansturbation.

It seems a while since we last had an outbreak of bansturbation.  We have of course had the imposition of opt-out internet filters, which it has now been recognised are not working as they should, but objections to them aside, it isn't exactly the same thing as the outright introduction of censorship.

Yesterday did however see the government re-announcing the banning of retailers selling alcohol at below cost price, thankfully not quite the same thing as the alternative proposals, a minimum cost per unit of alcohol or extra duty on strong lagers and ciders, which even by the standards of we know best policy are either deliberately discriminatory or in the latter instance utterly ignorant.  Still, if it's not booze, it's fags and while for the moment the threat of plain packaging has receded as we wait for evidence on how it's worked in Australia (and if it has had a discernible impact, I could yet be convinced it's as worth supporting as the shrieks from the tobacco companies would normally suggest) into the breach has entered a ban on smoking in cars when children are present.

My objection to a ban is not so much down to it being an intervention into a private place, as cars long haven't been considered one.  Regardless of whether you're driving or not, in law you're considered to be in charge of a motor vehicle, meaning if you're sleeping off a skinful despite having no intentions of driving till you've sobered up, you can still be prosecuted under drink drive legislation. Despite misgivings about the smoking ban, and I continue to see no reason why pubs and clubs should not be able to have smoking rooms/areas so long as staff aren't pressured to work in them against their wishes, not stinking of stale smoke after a night out is a benefit difficult to argue against on its own. Not subjecting children to second hand smoke is similarly something no one wants to be seen as defending; it doesn't matter that very few of those who do smoke while in a car will be doing so without having the window open, or that the vast majority simply don't while they're with children.

It's more that as is so often the case when it comes to legislation which is meant to make people think something is unacceptable more than anything else, there's been absolutely no thought put into how such a ban is going to be enforced.  In her Graun piece defending the attempts to force the ban into law, Luciana Berger doesn't so much as mention how the poor sods in the police would attempt to stamp out the practice.  They already have to look out for those not wearing their seat belt or using a mobile phone; if the amendment becomes law, one presumes they will soon be sitting in lay-bys, eagle-eyed, checking to see if drivers are puffing on coffin nails while ferrying sprogs about as well.  Considering the number of people that still use their phones while driving, something far more dangerous for all concerned than a lit cigarette, it does make you wonder at times about the priorities of those who suddenly decide something must be done.

Then there is the fear that this is just the next step in the move towards banning smoking in the home as well, regardless of how anathema that would currently seem.  The problems of enforcing the ban do though raise the point that if the police are to be empowered to intervene in a car, then what will be the difference with doing so in the home, should a "concerned" neighbour complain about children being made to suffer a smoking parent or relative?  Presumably the police will overwhelmingly act having seen someone smoking with children in the car themselves, but you can't see them not acting if provided with evidence via video of someone flagrantly breaking the law.

My personal worry is that just as we seem to be moving, however slowly, towards the point at which the end of drug prohibition becomes a real possibility, policy on those substances which are legal is becoming ever more reactionary.  If we won't allow adults to make their own decisions on whether they smoke or drink without putting ever more restrictions on the sale and use of their poison of choice, what hope for getting that of cannabis or MDMA into proportion?

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014 

Syria, the abyss, and the least worst option.

To call Syria a humanitarian disaster doesn't even begin to do justice to the abyss the country has fallen into over the past three years. Millions displaced internally, 2 million more having fled, most to neighbouring states, estimates of over 100,000 killed; the Arab spring outside of Tunisia has long since become an apparently endless Arab winter. Any hopes that the Geneva II talks would lead to some slight opening, even just the lifting of the government siege on a couple of areas that have been blockaded for months were finally dashed with the face to face negotiations ending without agreement.  The deputy to UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has since announced his resignation.

The great majority of the blame for having reached this point has to be placed on the regime of Bashar Assad. Having seen what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, those calling for reform, not initially the fall of the government, were shot down almost from the outset. The brutality of the military and security state is not in doubt, nor the continuing indiscriminate assaults on areas that have been taken by the rebels. The chemical attack on Ghouta, despite questions which still remain, was but a piece with the use of conventional weapons. The same goes for the report on the execution of prisoners compiled from the evidence provided by a defector. There are concerns over how the defector was interviewed, the fact it was funded by Qatar, which has long supported the rebels and is unworried over how hundreds are literally being worked to death building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, and how the authors didn't see the full cache of photographs the defector smuggled out, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if thousands had been tortured and then executed.

The rebels shouldn't however get a free pass as they so often do, both from the media and human rights organisations.  A case in point was the release last week of a report from Human Rights Watch, outlining the systematic destruction of 7 different areas in Damascus and Hama.  As with so much else in Syria, the demolition is undoubtedly a war crime.  Similar destruction has also been inflicted however in areas where the opposition has captured territory, most notably Aleppo, which was first taken by the rebels in a move civilians there criticised at the time.  Just as the evidence for the report was collected from satellite images, similar evidence of the destruction elsewhere where either responsibility is not as clear cut or where the blame is likely to lie with the opposition is also easily available, but clearly not of interest to HRW, which along with Amnesty was all but demanding military action after the Ghouta attack.

Part of the problem was inadvertently highlighted by the Washington Post, which mentioned in passing that the Syrian opposition groups in Geneva had been "aided by a posse of nearly a dozen mostly British media advisers".  Something few will have realised is that the group conducting the talks in Geneva with the Assad government continues to haemorrhage the little support it has in the country itself.  Juan Cole suggests the Syrian National Coalition, connected with but not in control of the Free Syrian Army, is strongest in only a third of the territory in the hands of the opposition in the north.  One suspects even that is optimistic considering the evacuation of Salim Idriss, who fled the country after the newly formed Islamic Front overran the area where he had supposedly been helming the FSA from.

The coming together of the Islamic Front brings into sharp focus just how fragmented and sectarian the fight against Assad has become.  Some of the groups which make up the Islamic Front were those described as moderate, which while not directly aligned with the FSA did fight alongside them and were meant to share their broader aims.  While there are reports the Islamic Front and the FSA have reconciled, the IF's charter makes clear its ultimate goal is a caliphate and Sharia law, not democracy.  Indeed, late last year we cut off even the non-lethal aid we had been supplying to the FSA due to the Islamic Front's emergence.  Had we started to supply weapons as some commentators had long been demanding, it seems certain they would have fallen into the IF's hands had they not already.

To get an informed impression of the current state of the civil war, you have to know that yesterday the leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, finally condemned outright the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, effectively stripping it of its affiliation with al-Qaida central.  While the Islamic State of Iraq (previously al-Qaida in Iraq, the Mujahideen Shura Council, etc) has never been under the true control of either Osama bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, not even during the height of the sectarian conflict in Iraq which ISI did so much to foment was the group ostracised by those they were meant to ultimately answer to.  Confusing things further, Jahbat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, which has also pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, was first set-up with the approval of ISI before the group decided it itself had to get involved in Syria.  The fitna between the groups was sparked by the murder of Hussein al-Suleiman, a doctor and fighter with the IF by ISIL after he had gone to the group in an effort to resolve a dispute.  With the alliances on the ground taken into account, even if unofficial, this essentially means that the British government is indirectly supporting al-Qaida, which is fighting a group that shares al-Qaida's ideology but which is too extreme for al-Qaida to affiliate with.  Did you get that? Hardly anyone does.

And yet, despite all this, we still have a few who while not putting forward what an intervention would entail, suggest that we will regret not doing so or will have to at some point in the future, when the same regrets will come to the fore.  To be fair to Hopi, he admits the current position of not doing a lot while pretending to care but still being involved enough to not be a neutral player might be the best policy, while bitterly denouncing the fact that we aren't admitting that we either don't really care or that the impasse suits us fine.  Sunny, though, really like him as I do, doesn't so much as outline what we should do that might make things better, while suggesting that we will probably have to fight on two fronts.  Do we then deal with ISIL first and then take on Assad, or do we attack the regime first then assault ISIL and then either come to an arrangement with Nusra and friends or fight them too?  Or perhaps we should take them all on at once?  Who knows?

What is more apparent that ever is that a conflict that started out simple has become intractable from the wider antagonisms playing out across the region, something to be expected when it long ago turned from being about the people against the government into being the Gulf kleptocracies against Iran, Sunni against Shia, jihadist against Islamist against moderate.  It's destabilising the nation states around it, inciting hatreds thousands of miles away, and there seems little we can do other than try and knock heads together around a table.  Truth be told, while the security services worry, and despite how close it seemed we were to taking part in a military strike on Syria, the amount we care can be summed up by the number of refugees the coalition said they'll allow in.  Hundreds, over the 1,500 that made their way here already.  The promise of getting immigration down to the hundreds of thousands is far more important, you see.  Doing nothing is an option, and is almost certainly the least worst option.  Trying to justify or humanise such a position is far harder.

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