Wednesday, December 31, 2014 

The best music of 2014 part 2 / 15 best albums.

Honourable mentions, no order:

Fucked Up - Glass Boys
Iceage - Plowing Into the Field of Love
Andy Stott - Faith in Strangers
Young Fathers - Dead
Lee Gamble - Koch
Death from Above 1979 - The Physical World
La Roux - Trouble in Paradise
Damon Albarn - Everyday Robots
Millie and Andrea - Drop the Vowels
Eagulls - Eagulls
Real Estate - Atlas
Actress - Ghettoville

15. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra - Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything

Is releasing an album at the beginning of the year a disadvantage when it comes to it getting the recognition it deserves come the end of it?  It's worth pondering when you consider Run the Jewels 2, which tops a whole host of end of year lists came out very recently, although saying that one of the other albums challenging Run the Jewels was released at the back end of February.  Fuck Off... was released a month earlier, and seems to have been neglected despite it easily being Mt Zion's finest work since 2005's Horses in the Sky.  Efrim Menuck's singing is his best yet, in that he's in tune, the "orchestra" sound tighter than ever, and any album that opens with a child saying "We live on an island named Montreal, and we make a lot of noise because we love each other" instantly wins me over.

14. Hookworms - The Hum

Naming your second album after the background noise some claim to be tormented by might strike a few people as sort of asking for it, and Hookworms are undoubtedly a band you could find yourself laughing at.  Everything about them is conducted in a haze, whether it be much of their music, how they are known only by initials, and the fact their lyrics are all but indecipherable.  Thankfully this doesn't matter when the combination of psychedelia, shoegaze and post-punk melds together this well, and while they might not thank me for it, there's more than an occasional hint of Wish You Were Here-era Pink Floyd about proceedings, which as albums to take inspiration from go isn't a bad choice.

13. This Will Destroy You - Another Language

I am it must be admitted, a sucker for instrumental rock and frankly instrumental music in general.  "Better without the vocals" was a sentence always crossing my lips when discussing music a good few years ago, and so it continues.  Another Language is as post-rock as it comes, at least without involving strings, and the band's name, as with stablemates Explosions in the Sky tells you much of what they're about.  It's not always clever, it often is quiet quiet loud, but as with the best post-rock bands the by the numbers stuff doesn't matter when the beauty and texture of the music is as compelling as it is here.

12. Slackk - Palm Tree Fire

While grime went off in a multitude of directions over the year, Palm Tree Fire was the purest concentration of what the genre does best: cutely sampled melodies, sparse beats and enough space to let it all breathe.  Previously instrumental grime has never made proper use of the album format: for three separate and brilliant records to come out the same 12 months is hopefully just a sign of things to come.

11. Wild Beasts - Present Tense

Wild Beasts have always stood apart from the crowd, Hayden Thorpe's falsetto scaring off anyone who might have mistaken them for a landfill indie group.  Present Tense sees them just as chippy as ever: opener Wanderlust asking "in your mother tongue, what's the verb to suck?", a barb directed at some of their more America-embracing contemporaries, while Nature Boy takes aim firmly at one of those encouraged by the internet fetishes, the willing cuckold.  Wild Beasts' approach to sex is still as ambiguous, mature as before, album closer Palace touchingly honest in its detailing of a relationship while temptation abounds.  "You remind me of the person I wanted to be / Before I forgot" Thorpe sings, a line that expresses both the regrets of the past while being content with the present.  Few groups can pull off such sensitivity both in music and lyrics without becoming twee or dull, and it remains their abiding trademark.

10. Flying Lotus - You're Dead!

I'll freely admit Flying Lotus previously was someone I just didn't get it, so it's perhaps typical that once Steven Ellison went in for an almost concept album on passing away it suddenly began to make sense.  Not that you need to approach You're Dead! as anything other than a virtuoso 40 minutes of alternating beats, free jazz motifs and occasionally inspired guest appearances, including Herbie Hancock and Captain Murphy.  For an album concerned with death it's endlessly playful, and the short nature of the tracks, some little more than vignettes, reminds more of Zomby than the jazz contemporaries Ellison gets lumped in with almost as often as IDM/hip hop producers.

9. Cloud Nothings - Here and Nowhere Else

Cloud Nothings' first three albums managed to pass me by entirely, so Here and Nowhere Else came as pleasant a surprise as a distortion heavy balls out garage rock record can.  Those looking for subtlety or nuance can go elsewhere, as Dylan Baldi's ensemble do the exact opposite.  Despite the pained, growled vocals and accompanying bleak lyrics, it's the riffs and the drums that draw you in, and clocking in at just slightly longer than half an hour Cloud Nothings do what they have to and go.

8. Parquet Courts - Sunbathing Animal

One thing we've lacked in recent years is a properly spiky, angular indie band, such have been the diminishing returns from the surfeit we had in the mid 2000s.  Parquet Courts don't quite fit the bill, as they only fully let rip on occasion, as on Ducking and Dodging.  Truth is that's clearly not the sort of band they want to be: while their workrate which has already seen the release of a follow-up can't be doubted, they're just as at home on the elongated slowjam of Instant Disassembly with its knowing references as they are going all out as on the title track.  If the members don't get bored first, you get the impression even better is yet to come.

7. SD Laika - That's Harikiri

Describing That's Harikiri as grime is stretching the genre's template to absolute breaking point.  Certainly SD Laika's likely only album draws upon grime's percussion and melody as a base, but beyond that it reminds at times of the sonic experimentation of These New Puritans' Hidden, at others of the sound a crashing computer makes as it tries desperately to continue playing music.  If that isn't enticing, then the brutalism of some of the tracks contrast with the synths of others to harmonious effect.  Just when you think a tune has turned fully industrial, SD Laika introduces lush pads that bring you back in, only to then go back to distortion.  One of the year's most challenging listens, it rewards in equal measure.

6. Lewis - L'Amour

Difficult to know how to properly classify this one.  Technically it's a reissue, but seeing as it was barely heard until this year and frankly it's this special the rules are there to be bent.  You probably know the story by now: record collector finds a copy of L'Amour at a flea market (how "lost" the album really was is open to question, as songs from it have been on YouTube since 2010), the label Lights in the Attic reissues it and fails to track the artist down despite their best efforts.  Since discovered have been a further "lost" record and songs recorded as recently as last decade, as has been Lewis himself.  Is it any good then?  Well yes: you could almost describe it as a minimalist counterbalance to FKA Twigs' debut, just thirty years previous.  The same themes are present, as are the often barely perceptible vocals.  Whatever Lewis's intentions at the time, for it still to be as affecting now is testament to how everything and everyone deserves a second chance.

5. FKA Twigs - LP1

At times it proves impossible to resist the hype.  LP1 is the year's most successful crossover critical success, and for good reason: it's produced to within an inch of its life, the instrumentation could be Rustie's, only slightly toned down for a wider audience, and Tahliah Barnett's vocals are hushed, confessional and gorgeous.  Two Weeks has the requisite swearing and video, Numbers asks of a lover whether she's just another notch on the bedpost, and the pace mostly keeps up right to the end.  If I sound cynical it's because while I can't fault the record on a practical level, I wonder about its longevity: what sounds of the moment now soon dates.  Then again, something so in debt to Aaliyah and other 90s R&B might stand the test of time just as much as those songs have.

4. Ben Frost - A U R O R A

Aurora is one of those extremely rare albums that manages to combine moments of sheer terror, such is the noise that suddenly erupts on Diphenyl Oxalate and elsewhere, with the tenderest, most touching soundscapes the next.  The most obvious comparison is Fuck Buttons, but whereas their music tends to build and build and build, Frost's structures are far more idiosyncratic, playful, often lulling you into a false sense of security for when the next blast of power electronics hits.  A perfect complement to last year's Virgins by Tim Hecker.

3. Manic Street Preachers - Futurology

When the Manics return to using the Holy Bible typeface with its backwards Rs, it's their way of telling everyone they mean business.  Futurology is quite possibly even better than 2009's Journal for Plague Lovers, when the band felt the need to go back and use the lyrics Richey Edwards left before he disappeared.  Walk Me to the Bridge also seems to have been deliberately written by Nicky Wire to both concern Edwards' likely end while also being about something else entirely.  It proves once again you should never believe any artist when they say what their work's about, the lines "I re-imagine the steps you took / still blinded by your intellect" having very little in the way of alternative interpretation than Wire putting himself in Edwards' shoes.  For a song dealing with such a difficult subject for the band, it's another example of Wire never wanting closure while still saying goodbye.  That it encapsulates the band at their strongest, and comes between the punch of the title track and Let's Go to War gets the album off to a breakneck start, and it doesn't trail off as so many other records do.  Unusually for the latter day Manics, the material that didn't make the album is just as strong if not better than some of the album tracks, with both Sound of Detachment and Caldey from the Walk Me to the Bridge EP deserving of the same playlist rotation.

2. Mr. Mitch - Parallel Memories

Released by Planet Mu, an indication of an artist having been recognised for doing something different within a genre's confines, Parallel Memories is grime for the night bus as opposed to the club.  Burial comparisons are often erroneous or not justified, but while it lies just beneath the surface of some of Parallel Memories tracks, it comes to the fore properly on Denial, the vocal samples just too evocative of Will Bevan's work.  Fact Mag identified the sense of desolation Wandering Glaciers suggests, yet desolation is nearly always synonymous with contemplation and the revealing of previously unidentified beauty, something Parallel Memories has throughout.

1. St. Vincent - St. Vincent

Hands up.  St Vincent's last album Strange Mercy ranked far too low on my 2011 list (which was perhaps a smidgen too dubstep heavy), barely making it in at 15.  The question is whether Annie Clark's err, self-titled fourth album is better than Strange Mercy, and despite my declaring it the best album of this year I'm not certain it is.  St. Vincent is exceptional, that's for certain: almost every review noted the opening couplet of Birth in Reverse, because it's so effortless in its capturing of the numbness of modern life.  "Oh just an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate".  It's a theme that runs throughout, with Digital Witness's all too vivid summing up of a world lived through others through a screen the sadder for its acuity.  Just as wonderful are Prince Johnny and I Prefer Your Love, the latter with Clark declaring she'd rather have the devotion of a partner to that of Jesus in heartbreakingly lush fashion.  Pared back somewhat is the experimentation in sound of Strange Mercy, but that only allows Clark's song-writing to come to the fore all the more powerfully.  Whichever is ultimately determined the stronger, Annie Clark has produced two of the finest albums of this decade.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014 

The best music of 2014 part 1.

Best Track(s)
Flowdan - Serious Business EP

While album of the year lists tend to reach a certain amount of consensus, with usually four or five albums dominating, the same is never the case of track of the year lists.  With 2014 being a year where I'd challenge anyone to say there was without question one song that dominated, I thought I'd choose something from relatively out of leftfield just to emphasise that.

We must do something approaching a round-up of the best nevertheless, and we may as well start with Mala's sort-of sequel to 2009's Level 9, which is certainly my favourite of his under his own moniker rather than Digital Mystikz.  Level 10 (Expected) isn't quite up to its predecessor's standards, but in a year when dubstep seemed in hibernation it wasn't difficult to be among the finest tracks.  Also outstanding was Proxima's Trapped, and while not yet released, the Nomine tune Youngsta has been hammering for what already seems like months that samples Zatoichi also slays.

Grime by contrast hasn't been in better health since the middle of the last decade, and very few grime tunes reflect the best of old and new as well as JT the Goon's Twin Warriors.  2014 production chops are combined with a flute sample that if not for how clean it is could have come from one of those foundational grime tracks, probably because it err, originated from Jammer's Chinaman.  Other sites have Mumdance's Take Time ranking near the top of their lists and while certainly good, I prefer the cleanness of It's Peak, which edges nearer that Night Slugs sound than it does grime.  Mr Mitch's Don't Leave and Denial are grime at its most beguiling and beautiful, while Darq E Freaker went all trap with the unfortunately named Minger.  Just about fitting in here is Rustie's Up Down featuring D Double E (worth mentioning is Pitchfork chose the disappointing Green Language's worst track for inclusion on their list, saying everything about their appalling as usual taste), with grime's best MC bar perhaps one doing his usual thing over some of Rustie's harking back to hardcore beats.

On the drum and bass side of things Fracture's entire Loving Touch EP was peerless, Tessela's Rough 2 was aptly named and as we ought not to entirely ignore the not digital, St Vincent's Digital Witness (oh the irony) and the Manics' Dreaming a City (Hughesovka) were also difficult to beat.

If you were to take Flowdan's Serious Business EP as four separate tracks rather than as a whole, it probably wouldn't come out as top.  All four are by different producers, and while Coki's work on F About is as excellent as always, you can guess what Flowdan, err, flows about from the title.  Combined with People Power and No Gyal Tune though, the former of which is an ostensible grime track (produced by The Bug) about social justice in general, something as rare as a funny Jack Whitehall joke, and the intensity of the latter, it becomes more than the sum of its parts.  Flowdan might not always have the best rhymes, but no one else can touch his delivery.

Best Remix / Bootleg
Peverelist - Roll With the Punches (Kowton Linear Mix)

This year finally saw a release for Kromestar's inspired retooling of Joker's Tron, one of those deceptively simple remixes which does little more than slightly reamp the melody while adding a synth and yet it improves on the original immeasurably.  On the bootleg front Rabit took Kelly Rowland's Dirty Laundry home and applied his sparse production techniques, complimenting the vocal perfectly, while Cyphr polished Rihanna's dull Diamonds until they finally shone as they should.  It probably came out last year, but I didn't hear it until this so I'm also including Special Request's standardly effective junglist improvement of London Grammar's Nightcall.  Plastician was good enough to hand over a shedload of his old dubs to producers new and established to rework, the best efforts coming from AWE on Safari, Mr. Mitch on White Gloves, with Kahn and Neek on The Search and Wen on Shallow Grave bringing up the rear.

Not content with turning in a superb remix of Paul Woolford's Erotic Discourse, the criminally undervalued Kowton, given access to Pev's minor classic turned it into a straight up dubstep banger, the original's melody attached to toughened drums and more bass than Pev thought it could handle first time round.

Best Reissue
Nana Love - Disco Documentary

The obvious thing to do would be to just write The Holy Bible 20 here and leave it at that.  Just this once let's not be obvious and instead run down some of the myriad other reissues this year.  Original hardcore / jungle label Suburban Base's entire back catalogue was put out digitally and also released was a 3cd comp of its glory years; Led Zeppelin's albums were remastered, if the extras were a little dull; Mogwai's Come on Die Young got the 15th anniversary treatment; and Sleater-Kinney's discography up to now also came out again, although seeing as my local HMV decided not to bother getting them in and I can't really justify the expense in any case I'm yet to hear them.  Sob.  Also of note is Soul Jazz's Punk 45 series, with two discs given over to underground punk from both America and here, with a third dedicated to what came before between 70-77.

In a year of barely known about gems resurfacing, BBE put out Nana Love's lost 1978 album Disco Documentary - Full of Funk, the kind of record that despite being precisely of its time still sounds incredible today.  Nana Love's voice is unique, and while she was never going to give Gloria Gaynor or Donna Summer much of a challenge it just adds to an album that should never have been overlooked first time round.

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Monday, December 29, 2014 

The worst music of 2014.

This time last year I suggested we might be facing a couple of years where musical innovation (in the "underground" scenes at least) would take a back seat to general consolidation, such had been the breakneck pace of change of the period between 2003-2011.  Now, it could be I haven't listened to as much on Rinse this past 12 months as I have previously, but it really does seem as though we're in the middle of said fallow period.  Coupled with the continuing decline in physical sales, with it becoming ever less clear exactly how musicians are going to be remunerated for their work when streaming services are now the first port of call for so many, with the pittance they offer in royalties, it's often felt this year as though the safest bets have been celebrated and pushed more than ever.

First though, can we have a moment of silence for dubstep, which passed away this year?  Or perhaps some cavernous sub-bass would be more appropriate.  Whole genres of course don't die, and without doubt repetitive beats around the 140bpm mark will come back, as every genre does at some point.  This said, when Youngsta now dedicates almost the entire first hour of his show to that not exactly post-dubstep not exactly tech-house not exactly techno sound others have moved on to, you know dubstep is going through a period of creative crisis.  

This is all the more sad when you consider just a few short years ago the possibilities of the genre seemed endless: "dubstep" was always an elastic signifier, able to encompass Burial at one end of the spectrum and completely deranged tearout by say, Borgore at the other.  Without being confined in the same way as drum and bass is, the likes of Scuba and Joy Orbison could happily sit alongside Coki and 16 Bit.  And now, almost certainly because the bastardised version of dubstep got so popular so quickly among a certain demographic, the genre as a whole has collapsed in on itself.

In what is hopefully a sign of how dubstep can make a resurgence, its sister genre grime has continued its own instrumental revival this year.  Where perhaps the Butterz duo of Elijah and Skilliam can be principally thanked for starting things off, a whole bunch of new labels and producers have emerged this year to drive things further on.  Artists like Slackk, Visionist, Murlo, Kid D, Inkke, and SD Laika have all emerged, while more established people like Mr. Mitch and JT the Goon have pushed on too.  There's also been the revelation of outliers like those mentioned above who had a tenuous connection to dubstep, such as Rabit and Yamaenko, who are sort of making grime, just not the sort you're likely to hear in a club being spat over by an MC.

With 2014 having often felt like a year in a state of flux, not sure whether it wanted to go down as the year when the internet completely took over everything, music in general has often seemed to be mirroring that air of uncertainty.  There hasn't been anything completely irredeemable, just as there hasn't been anything on the scale of say, Get Lucky, conquering all before it.  The closest has been Happy, which in fact came out at the tail end of last year.  To make up for this clearly unacceptable situation, the levels of hype and bullshit surrounding mediocre but successful artists have escalated yet further.  Every female artist on the planet was seemingly asked if they were a feminist, and even if they didn't agree they were lauded as one anyway.  Perhaps Beyonce is a feminist, if getting married to someone who once declared he had 99 problems but a bitch wasn't one can be defined as such, but when Queen B's status as living god has been affirmed over and over no one could possibly demur anyway.

We must then move on to Taylor Swift.  Forget just for a moment the whole removing her music from Spotify thing, the kind of act in 2014 that defines you as a revolutionary, such is the way the industry has gone, and try to remember the music itself.  Can you?  I don't mean the videos, the ones that prompt supposed political commentators to write articles on them, such is their power, but the actual music that goes with them.   I sure as hell can't.  There is literally nothing there, and yet such has been the ephemera of the recent past Swift's music is held up as a kind of triumph.  I'd like to think all those clickbait pieces on Swift and her ilk are written by people no longer ashamed to admit they have horrible taste in music, yet most are clearly just doing what they're told.

Much the same can be said for that other winner against the odds of 2014, Ed Sheeran.  His second album has sold over a million copies, which just proves how massive the market for insipid sort of guitar sort of vaguely urban at times music is.  Sheeran is without question his own man, having gone round the toilet circuit before making it big, but still he seems like the next logical step for the tweenager who's outgrown One Direction or 5 Seconds of Summer.  He's supremely unthreatening but has a sleeve tattoo therefore rebellion, sings a few soppy songs but others have a slightly harsher edge, and if he hadn't arrived fully formed some record company exec would have created him.  That he reminds me and probably only me of Sam Duckworth's Get Cape Wear Cape Fly, except Sheeran is even wetter, fairly sums him up.

Sheeran is at least preferable to the other "big" artists thrust down our throats this year in the shape of Sam Smith and George Ezra, with their faux-soul faux-everything except their voices sound.  James Blake was unfairly described a couple of years back as coffee table dubstep, but that's as nothing to what Smith and Ezra are: they're background noise makers, whether it be to provide a soundtrack to scenes in the Queen Vic or Rovers Return, or to your own dinner party.  To do a couple of obvious jokes, yes, Ezra, you are a Budapest, and will someone please pass me the fucking asparagus.

It also wouldn't be a worst music of the year post if we didn't have a moan about mediocrities getting praise for merely being mediocre, if that hasn't been what the past four paragraphs have been getting at already.  No, this year has seen something far more pernicious: the review that sort of says this album is total cack and then gives it a midrange score regardless.  Chief example being Alexis Petridis' review of Lily Allen's god-awful Sheezus.  Lily Allen has been getting away with releasing sort-of OK pop for years, rewarded at one point with a Novello award no less, only to come rather unstuck following the whole I'm not going to lower myself by shaking my arse in my videos when I've paid a whole load of black women to do it for me controversy.  When the best can be said is that a couple of songs have a couple of decent lines, Petridis quoting the one from URL Badman, just not the "I don't like girls much, they're kinda silly / Unless of course they wanna play with my willy" couplet which rather lets the side down, then giving it three stars is stretching it.  The same goes for Pitchfork's review of Nicki Minaj's opus the Pinkprint, which admits from the outset Minaj is "exhausted", only to then give it a 7.5.  On the Richter scale, presumably.

Ah yes, Ms Minaj.  Anaconda was apparently intended as a novelty, which rather poses the question of whether almost her entire body of previous work should be regarded as such also.  "My anaconda don't want none unless you got buns, hun" is the kind of line you could go to your grave trying to decipher.  Is Minaj deliberately using a double negative to satirise the whole debate over her butt implants?  Despite everyone assuming that anaconda is a euphemism for penis, is she actually warning everyone of a snake targeting only those with large posteriors?  Or is it merely a terrible line written to justify a video where Minaj "plays" another woman's buttocks like the bongos?  Then we also had Meghan Trainor, informing the world it's all about that bass, no treble.  All this discussing in song form of bigger than your average back bottoms meant this was soon taken up as a rallying cry for "loving what you got", which is a fine sentiment.  It just rather ignored the whole "Fuck the skinny bitches in the club" bit at the end of Anaconda.

Finally, and most mystifying of all, is just how many deeply underwhelming albums have been praised to the skies.  The War on Drugs' Lost in the Dream is making a lot of top tens, to which you can only ask: how?  I'm not averse to a bit of Bruce Springsteen, but Bruce Springsteen mixed with David Gray with the other worst bits of 80s rock thrown in?  The 80s is the decade music wants to forget for good reason, with the only comfort coming from the emergence of house, techno and hardcore in both musical senses.  Aphex Twin's comeback Syro also does absolutely nothing for me, the praise it's getting more about Richard D James's past contributions than his latest it seems, Swans' To Be Kind similarly washes over whereas The Seer captivated, and Scott Walker's team-up with Sunn 0))) is memorable only for the "Choo choo mama" chorus of Fetish, which for those like me who come from the internet thought was going to end in a different m word altogether.  Choo choo then, motherfuckers.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014 

In block 5 we worship malaria.

And so another thoroughly miserable year is drawing to a close, with the promise of a 5 month general election campaign awaiting us the other side of New Year's Eve.  Thanks to all those still reading, and as per I shall return in a few days with the only truly definitive (read: my entirely subjective and almost certainly stupid in the face) guide to the year's best and worst music.

To get us in the mood, here's a song of festive cheer:

Oh. It seems to be about the Holocaust instead.  Ah well.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2014 

The ghosts of Tory Christmas future.

There is one, and one comfort only to be taken if worst comes to worst and the Conservatives win a majority next May: David Cameron will continue to lead the party.

This isn't out of grudging respect for David Cameron's achievements as prime minister.  Having never understood the appeal of a man who seems to emanate insincerity, who is easily discombobulated and angered (see PMQs most weeks), and who can also express faux anger if the need takes him, about the only positive to be taken from his time as head of the coalition is he will have guided it through the past five years without it collapsing.  This of course has much less to do with Cameron himself and more with the Liberal Democrats staring into the electoral abyss, the Tories also unconvinced they could win a majority in the event of it breaking apart, but slight achievement it is nevertheless.

Cameron is however a titan, a veritable Alexander the Great as compared to those whom aspire to be Tory leader should he fall under a bus or that majority continue to be unobtainable.  Fighting like a sackful of rats and tomcats are George Osborne and Theresa May, with the latest skirmish resulting in Theresa May's special advisers being denied the safe parliamentary seats they believed they were entitled to, supposedly for refusing to do their bit in the Rochester by-election.  Their demotion was, according to the Mail, approved by Cameron, who for reasons known only to himself appears to favour his chancellor moving next door when the time comes.

As mysterious as the charms of Cameron are, those of Theresa May remain as hidden or indeed as illusory as the lost city of Atlantis, and just as cold.  May's rise seems to stem purely from how she's managed to last the full term as home secretary, which as with Cameron speaks much of just how many powers the Home Office has farmed out as it does about her competence.  If nothing else she's managed to stare down problems which destroyed past holders of the office: like the little difficulty with Bodie Clark, or more recently the various immigration reports she delayed publishing, not to mention how while it's unfortunate to lose one head of a child abuse inquiry, to have two resign isn't so much carelessness as sustained buffoonery.  Not having the right-wing press tearing lumps out of you merely for being a Labour home secretary also helps matters.

Dear old Georgie by contrast remains in the race if only due to his superpower of placing sycophants in various government departments.  Not content with having once smashed his party's ratings with the omnishambles budget, his autumn statement with its promise of "colossal" cuts seems to have seen resulted in blowback once again.  Admittedly, only some polls are showing a lengthening of Labour's slight lead, but considering how in the immediate aftermath the spin was about how Osborne had once again made a silk purse out of Ed Balls's scrotum, it's enough to suggest his great shrinking the state gambit isn't working out.

And then we have Boris Johnson.  Anyone who's read Just Boris will be all too aware of quite how unprincipled, hungry for power and determined to get it at any cost the London mayor is.  Hidden beneath the artistry veneer of being upper class twit of the year is a venal liar without scruples, and a libido that would embarrass Russell Brand.  All things considered, he's probably the least worst potential candidate.

Whether Cameron can hang on in the event of his party again emerging with the most seats but without a majority depends on whether the backbenches could be convinced to back a two-time loser for a third time.  Would Cameron really be capable of getting the fabled majority in a snap election following the collapse of a minority administration?  Would the alternatives be any better?  Can you imagine George Osborne helming the campaign for Britain to stay in the EU?  Theresa May being softened by the usual advisers in an attempt to make her likable?  Boris Johnson doing anything other than his Macavity act, one that would put Gordon Brown's in the utmost perspective?  Trust me, the horror could be only just beginning.

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Monday, December 22, 2014 

Sony Pictures! Fuck yeah!

There's something for absolutely everyone in the on-going Sony Pictures hacking saga.  Everyone really meaning everyone, as anyone with even the tiniest bit invested in the entire clusterfuck, with the possible exception of President Obama, has ended up looking the worst kind of self-absorbed hypocritical tool.

Congratulations must go first and foremost to Sony Pictures themselves, for oh so many reasons.  We can start with commissioning The Interview to begin with, merely the latest attempt by Seth Rogen to convince the entire world he's even less talented than James Corden.  Many people have pointed out that Kim Jong-un is just about the only real life national leader a Hollywood studio could get away with depicting the assassination of, as they certainly wouldn't dare to do the same to Xi Jingping of China, not least when it's an emerging market and any criticism of the country is most certainly now off limits, and when it comes to say, Iran, they have to be slightly more subtle about it, as we saw with Argo.  Not so subtle that when it came to handing the Oscar over, it was Michelle Obama doing it mind.

Up next has to be Sony's lamentable security in general.  This isn't the first time it's been found wanting: LulzSec first gained access to personal data from Sony Pictures via a SQL injection attack back in 2011, only a couple of months after the Playstation Network had been taken offline for a month following the stealing of data from the near 77 million accounts made on there.  Quite how the "Guardians of Peace" gained access to so much of Sony Pictures' data isn't yet clear, although suspicion is they were given help from within.  Whatever the case, you certainly wouldn't bet against Sony falling victim again.

Then we have the withdrawal of the film itself.  There are some caveats here: despite the chains now claiming they merely wanted the release delayed until it became clear how serious the threat from GoP was, it would only have taken one idiot to do something vaguely menacing at a screening for the lawsuits to start flying.  Delaying the release indefinitely would also have sparked the same hyperbolic reaction as we've seen, as though not immediately releasing a turkey of a comedy is somehow akin to 30s appeasement.  This said, and even bearing in mind how the past year has been one long episode of people saying things and then hastily withdrawing them and/or apologising after others have declared themselves offended, Sony must have known there was no realistic threat.  North Korea being one and the same as the Guardians of Peace or otherwise, neither is about to fly a hijacked airliner into a cinema showing the film.  I'm not one to start crying about censorship or giving in to dictators or "cyberterrorism" over a Seth Rogen vehicle, but plenty will, and indeed have.

Which brings us to the luvvies themselves.  If like me you'd prefer celebrities to be seen and not heard, or for that matter not seen either, nothing is more likely to get them spouting forth than first their extremely private emails to studio executives getting leaked, followed by their unreleased films (for which also see Madonna) and then finally a studio withholding a film mocking the easiest target in the entire world.  Still, if the likes of Rogen, Brad Pitt and Aaron Sorkin hadn't spoken up there wouldn't have been the delightful sight of celebs condemning a free press for reporting on information in the public domain, something that just slightly undermines the whole horrified reaction to Sony then withdrawing the film.  Not that reporting on the information dumped by GoP doesn't raise ethical issues: after all, the very same organisations that professed themselves shocked and outraged anyone would so much as look at the images and video leaked during the "fappening" (while telling everyone precisely where to find them, natch) didn't have the slightest qualms about spreading the news of Angelina Jolie being described as a spoilt brat and Sony executives telling hilarious racially flavoured gags about President Obama's favourite movies.  That North Korea could be ultimately responsible for the leaks seized upon just adds to the amusement.

Finally, there is the "cyberterrorism" aspect.  Cyberwarfare ranks only slightly behind anti-terrorism itself in the bullshit stakes.  Cyberespionage is a problem, yes, as proved by just how many designs the Chinese have ripped off in recent times, yet when it comes to actual direct threat to lives there simply isn't one.  As every single domestic appliance starts connecting to the internet for God knows what reason there might be, but those times aren't here quite yet.  This hasn't though stopped the usual suspects from shrieking about the Sony hack being an act of war, before even the slightest evidence has been produced to prove this really is the work of North Korea rather than just those with a certain amount of sympathy for the hermit kingdom.  Real state sponsored hacks in the past have been to steal things worth having, or to send a message directly to a country, if we take the Estonia attack for example as being the work of the Russian state, or say the Stuxnet worm.  As embarrassing as this whole incident has been for Sony, not to mention costly, no one could have seriously expected them to decide to pull the film entirely.  Credit must go to Obama for describing the attack as cybervandalism rather than jumping on the bandwagon, even if discussions are taking place about putting North Korea back on the state sponsors of terrorism list.

North Korea then.  Villain of choice for Hollywood film-makers who don't want to make their antagonists just generic terrorists, for which see Die Another Day, the remake of Red Dawn (the invaders were meant to be Chinese only for the studio to decide to make them North Korean in post-production) and Olympus Has Fallen.  Strangely, the latter two make the country seem threatening when it most assuredly isn't, at least to the wider world, as both South Korea and Japan have legitimate reasons to worry about the stability and sanity of those in charge.  The reason the country has made such an issue out of The Interview and didn't about say Team America is fairly obvious: Kim Jong-un is still consolidating his power and ranting about this outrageous American insult, or even doing something about it makes clear he is not to be crossed or underestimated.  It certainly isn't, as some have ludicrously suggested, that such a film could through the power of mocking alone help conjure up opposition to his rule.  If that was the concern, Team America would have received more of a response, although frankly Kim Jong-il's being "so ronery" is the best part of the entire, very flawed thing.

Directly responsible or not, Jong-un's point has been made.  As for the rest, they've responded in the only way they know how: by making it about themselves.

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Friday, December 19, 2014 

What lies beyond.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014 

An open letter to Alex Willcock, CEO of VisualDNA.

As a digital stick in the mud, one of those people who enjoys the benefits of the internet but doesn't feel the need to share his every waking moment and feeling with a bunch of strangers, it falls to me to state that the wankery expressed in your Graun advert is even by the usual standards of the guff produced by marketers and advertising agencies quite something to behold.

It's also an extraordinarily pretentious way of saying that you're going to continue sucking up people's data regardless of whether you have permission to do so or not, as your company does currently, boasting of how you can tell your customers of the "Demographics Interests Intent and Personality (DIIP) data of almost 450m people worldwide" (sic).  This is obviously a load of utter crap, but then what else is the point of businesses like yours?

Hopefully this response to your attempt to spark "discussion and debate" reaches you well. Now do everyone a favour and poke your "understanding economy" up your arse.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014 

Unpleasant reading for all concerned.

In keeping with recent events, reading the Al-Sweady report by Sir Thayne Forbes is not a pleasant experience.  It reaches almost the exact opposite conclusions of the previous inquiry into alleged mistreatment in Iraq by British forces, finding that while some of those detained after the Battle of Danny Boy were mistreated, they were certainly not subjected to the beatings that led to the death of Baha Mousa.  Unlike Mousa, Forbes also finds beyond doubt that all 9 of those detained and whom subsequently alleged they were mistreated were either members of or volunteers with the Mahdi army, as were the 28 Iraqis killed by British forces that day following the ambush.  Forbes additionally finds Leigh Day solicitors knew as early as September 2007 that their clients were insurgents, having obtained a document from the Office of the Martyr Al Sayyed Al Sadr which detailed their positions within the Mahdi army.

Whether the inquiry would have came into being had the document been disclosed early we can't know.  Certainly, it's likely the detainees would not have received legal aid for their original claim in the administrative court had the full truth been in the open.  That doesn't however excuse the Ministry of Defence's failure to disclose their own documentation on the events of the 14th and 15th of May 2004 fully back in 2009, which led to then defence secretary Bob Ainsworth setting up the full independent inquiry.  Had that happened the allegations could have been disproved far sooner, with the cost of the inquiry, estimated at £31m, much reduced.

It's easy nonetheless to understand why so many ordinary Iraqis believed the claims that rather than being killed on the battlefield, some of those who died that day were tortured and then executed back at the British base, Camp Abu Naji.  Tensions had risen in the area following an incident that resulted in the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf being damaged, allegedly by US forces engaging the Mahdi army.  The ambush at Danny Boy (as the checkpoint on the road between Basra and Al Amarah was known by call sign) was in apparent direct retaliation for the attack, despite British forces not having been involved.  Forbes notes the assault was responded to with exemplary courage, resolution and professionalism, with only injuries to the British side despite the ferocity of the attack.  The Iraqis were also not subject to a bayonet charge as had been claimed, with all injuries to the attackers a result of either bullet or shrapnel wounds.

Had the bodies of the attackers been left where they fell, it's likely fewer local civilians would have believed the claims subsequently made.  Instead, a highly unusual order came through for the soldiers to identify the bodies.  The original intention was for the bodies to be photographed, but this apparently then morphed into taking them back to the base, as this would be the best way of doing so.  The idea was to check whether one of the men thought responsible for the killing of six Royal Military Police the previous year, Naseer Zachra Abd Rufeiq, was among the dead, as it was believed he could be.  Predictably, he wasn't.

How much in the way of further damage was caused to the bodies by the transfer isn't clear.  Forbes accepts it was possible some was done, not least as due to the room taken up by the corpses some had to be stood on for the soldiers to be able to take up the usual "top cover" positions.  Once unloaded, they were then moved again before they were photographed.  Blood samples were additionally taken, leaving puncture wounds which could also have given the impression of abuse.

Arrangements were made for the bodies to be handed over to the Iraqis the following day.  For reasons Forbes wasn't able to properly ascertain, some of the medics and ambulance drivers at the Al Majar al’Kabir hospital came to believe they were also to collect some Iraqis merely injured.  After the handover, the bodies were first taken to Al-Sadr Hospital, where footage was recorded showing in Forbes' words how "clearly even before the bodies had been properly examined, conclusions were being reached about how some of the deceased had sustained their injuries".  The bodies were then moved again, to Al Majar al’Kabir hospital, where they were examined by Dr Adel Al-Shawi and Dr Jafar Nasser Hussain Al-Bahadl.  Death certificates were issued, some of which observe the bodies show signs of torture, beatings and mutilation.  Even taking into account the bodies may have been further damaged in transit, the evidence, including the photographs taken at Abu Naji, discount those observations.   Forbes concludes the doctors "were so caught up in the emotional turmoil and hostility to the British Military then prevailing" that they failed  "to apply the professionally rigorous and objective judgment" expected of them.

The one part of the report the MoD won't be pleased with is on how those detained on the battlefield were subsequently treated during their detention.  Despite the death of Baha Mousa the previous year, it finds three of the detainees were forcibly strip-searched, and kept blindfolded for too long; they were not expressly authorised as being healthy enough to undergo "tactical questioning"; the soldier undertaking the questioning was poorly trained, and believed throwing a chair during interrogation was authorised behaviour; and that the training itself was still lacking.  Taken out of context, some of the ill-treatment Forbes identifies seem minimal; these were insurgents after all, are we really meant to be shocked or appalled by how they had their necks blown on?  When you learn the blowing comes in a sequence of events, which began with the detainee entering the room blindfolded, left seemingly alone for a while until suddenly the interrogator either drummed his fingers or whistled, before circling the detainee, blowing on his neck and banging a metal peg on the table, only then removing the prisoner's plastic handcuffs and blindfold, it's a little different.  Forbes also finds the men were sleep deprived, again like Mousa, as well as being denied adequate food and water.

Phil Shiner in a piece for the Graun claims there are a further 30 Baha Mousa-type cases and that by January the high court will have heard of up to 1,100 cases of mistreatment or worse by UK troops.  The obvious question following the Al-Sweady inquiry is how many of these are similarly based on deliberate lies.  Not all of the claims are however purely one side against the other: Forbes deals a number of times in the report with soldiers themselves alleging they were witness to mistreatment, or having concerns about what they saw or heard.  He discounts each one, but that doesn't alter the fact.  It could be the response of the defence secretary Michael Fallon, angrily denouncing the lawyers involved, is based less on the particulars of this inquiry and what might still be ahead.  It could also be that Public Interest Lawyers, having found one horrific example of abuse in the case of Baha Mousa went to see if there were others, and has been misled by the Iraqis themselves.  This doesn't explain why the document in the possession of Leigh Day proving the 9 men were insurgents didn't come to light earlier though.

Whatever the case, it doesn't excuse the MoD for its failures to anticipate exactly the kind of conditions and situations the military were going to have deal with once tasked with maintaining security in the south of Iraq.  The Al-Sweady report while debunking the most serious claims against the military underlines how much was still the same almost nine months on from the death of Baha Mousa, with the recognition something had gone badly wrong in that instance only dragged out by a similar public inquiry.  One hopes the recommendations made by Sir William Gage in his report have been implemented, as will be the additional ones made today by Forbes, if they haven't already.  We also still await the Chilcot report and its conclusions on Iraq in general, now highly unlikely to be published before the election.  It's probably best we don't mention how by then UK military personnel will be officially back in the country.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2014 

Two nations, the same words, the same outcome.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Eric Garner after a NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, before he was then slammed to the ground.  Within minutes he was dead.  The decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer who placed him in the chokehold, coming just a week after a grand jury similarly declined to indict the officer who shot dead Michael Brown, sparking riots in Brown's hometown of Ferguson, has led to protests by sportsmen and celebrities.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Jimmy Mubenga, after three G4S guards meant to be supervising his deportation forced him forward in his seat, despite his already being handcuffed from behind.  Except, it's now difficult to know if that's what happened as the jury at the manslaughter trial brought following the unlawful killing verdict at Mubenga's inquest found all three not guilty, and within hours of their being sent out to consider their verdict.

This isn't the first time the verdict of an inquest and the subsequent manslaughter trial have differed.  Most notably, an inquest jury found Ian Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, dying not long after he was pushed to the ground by PC Simon Harwood.  The jury at his trial similarly was not convinced beyond reasonable doubt he was responsible for Tomlinson's death, a decision which could be rationalised by how there was a difference of opinion between the pathologists who carried out consecutive autopsies.  The first post-mortem was performed by Freddy Patel, an incompetent who was suspended at the time of the trial and has since been struck off, details the jury were not told as they were deemed prejudicial.  Patel also poured away the liquid he found in Tomlinson's abdomen, which could have determined beyond doubt the cause of death.

The jury at the Mubenga trial were not told of the inquest's unlawful killing verdict, rather more understandably, nor that two of the guards had "racist" jokes on their phones.  We can't of course know which parts of the evidence the jury accepted and those they didn't: the guards denied hearing Mubenga crying out that he couldn't breathe, something that passengers seated much further away on the plane did and testified they had.  They also denied putting Mubenga into a position known to have the potential to cause breathing difficulties, which again witnesses testified they had.  The prosecution case also included reconstructing the alleged restraint placed on Mubenga, with a section of a Boeing 777 constructed in the court, members of the jury placed in the same position as Mubenga was.

We can then only surmise at how they reached their verdict.  We know juries are reluctant to convict police officers or others in positions of authority, whether they be British or American.  Just last week a jury cleared two officers of attacking a man with autism in Luton, despite hearing a recording of one of the pair referring to him as a "fucking Paki" moments prior to the altercation.  The jury seemingly accepted the injuries Faruk Ali sustained were due to his falling into bins when grabbed by one of the officers, not the punches claimed by Ali's family.  This giving of the benefit of the doubt is perhaps explained somewhat by polls showing a healthy majority retain trust in the police, one survey finding 65% would generally trust officers to be truthful.  Only teachers, doctors and judges are trusted more.  Journalists and politicians rank along the bottom.

Jimmy Mubenga wasn't only black; he was also being deported following a conviction for actual bodily harm.  All three of the guards found not guilty are white, the youngest 39.  The jury accepted their argument they were simply "trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances, to the best of their ability".  You have to suspect that Mubenga, unlike Garner, will not have footballers or say, Idris Elba, donning t-shirts featuring some of his last words in protest.

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Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

There are a couple of reasons why l spend inordinate amounts of time slamming away at a keyboard instead of advising the Labour party.  First off, I'm not American, nor have I been parachuted into a safe seat, more's the pity.  Second, I cannot for the life of me work out why you would effectively launch your general election campaign in the middle of fricking December when most people's minds are even further away from politics than usual.  Presumably, and I'm really clutching at straws here, the idea is to get a head start on the other parties and begin the process of drilling the 5 key pledges Labour has decided upon into everyone's skulls.  Come May, all concerned will march to the polling station, their minds focused on controlling immigration fairly and cutting the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS.

The words under and whelming come to mind, as they so often do when the topic shifts to Labour.  If you wanted to be extremely charitable, you could say it's an indication of just how spectacularly the coalition has failed that Labour seems to have pinched wholesale two of the Conservatives' pledges from 2010.  Alternatively, you could point out it's spectacularly unimaginative and an indication of Labour's chronic lack of ambition for it to be defining itself in the exact same way as the hated Tories did.  5 fricking years ago.

Again, to be fair, we're promised Labour is getting the less pleasant of its pledges out first, with the more unique ones to follow, defined by those all time classic Labour values.  Quite why Labour has decided upon the pledge approach in the first place is a difficult one to ascertain: presumably modelled on the 1997 pledge cards (and Christ alive, the photo of Tone on the card is easily as terrifying as this year's Christmas effort), is it meant to bring to mind the good old days when Labour could win a vast majority on the most vacuous of aspirations?  They're not even pithy, as the actual pledges amount to three sentences of deathly prose.  Cutting the deficit every year while protecting the NHS would be great, if the exact same message hadn't been plastered around the country accompanied by Cameron's suspiciously taut forehead.

Dear old Ed today gave what must rank as one of the briefest speeches of his career, outlining the second pledge, emphasising how he wouldn't repeat Cameron's promise of getting migration down to a specific point, only that Labour would control it, and fairly, that distinction apparently intended for both those pro and anti to interpret as they see fit.  Call me picky, but saying you'll control something you cannot still makes you a hostage to fortune in my book.  Miliband's audience helped by moving the debate swiftly on, similarly to how the campaigning against UKIP document leaked to the Torygraph suggested Labour candidates do when the topic is broached on the doorstep.

As pointed out by Andrew Sparrow, the briefing paper is about the most sensible thing Labour has said about immigration in months if not years, recognising they're not going to win over the virulently opposed while also suggesting for most immigration is "used as a means to express other concerns".  Except as it sort of implies people aren't steaming about immigration directly, and the party for whatever reason has decided to so much as suggest this is the equivalent of not taking legitimate concerns seriously, shadow ministers have all but disowned their own strategy.  It's also meant the media can talk about the distraction rather than a boring old policy Labour are only re-announcing anyway.

Still, what a jolly 5 month long general election campaign we have to look forward to.  Already the dividing lines are set between Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats on the economy and the deficit, and they are of course the most absurd caricatures of actual stated policy imaginable.  Special marks for dishonesty must go to David Cameron, who managed to scaremonger about a difference between his party and Labour of about £25bn in borrowing terms in the most hyperbolic way possible.  Just imagine if there was another crash and Labour was once again racking up the debt!  Except, err, if there's another crash and borrowing is only falling by as much as the Tories are projecting it will, there will still be problems, although nothing as compared to elsewhere.

Labour meanwhile is making as much as possible out of the 1930s comparison on everyday spending, which is technically correct, again if the Tories mean what they say, just not particularly illuminating.  A better approach would be, as Ed Miliband somewhat tried last Thursday, to set out exactly what sort of state it is most people want.  If George Osborne carries through and magics into existence his surplus, parts of government will be left barely functioning, which really isn't to scaremonger: cutting the budgets of departments other than health, education and foreign aid (which surely won't continue to be ringfenced) by as much as needed doesn't look remotely plausible.  When the best minds are baffled by what the chancellor is up to, apart from mischief, it deserves highlighting.

Even if we look at Labour's plans in the most flattering light, Ed Balls is still promising to run a surplus as soon as possible, not because it's good economics but as a result of the way the debate has been framed.  Doing so is still going to require huge cuts, savings which the party has done the least of the main three to outline.  In the grand scheme of things, as Chris and Alex Marsh have so persuasively argued, this doesn't really matter.  The real issues affecting the economy are the collapse in productivity, and with it the decline in wages growth.  We are though operating in a climate where the difference is between "colossal" and merely "eye-watering" cuts, where the Tories claim to have succeeded on the basis they've more or less reduced the deficit to the level Alistair Darling pledged to, except they've done so on the backs of the poorest, and where it seems personal taxes will never have to rise again, despite government having apparently decided not to bother taxing companies properly either.

There's a third reason I'm not advising Labour.  I'd be even worse at it than the current lot.

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Friday, December 12, 2014 


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Thursday, December 11, 2014 

"Nowhere to hide".

Call me a stick in the mud, but there really is something extraordinarily aggravating about the use of hashtags, in you know, real life.  They're bad enough online, especially when campaigns such as #CameronMustGo are like, totally indicative of the feeling of the general public and for it to be ignored is a typical example of the old media's systemic bias.  Or it could be no one cares about this particular circle jerk for a good reason.  Doesn't excuse them for the ones they do, mind.  Have the Chibok girls been rescued yet, incidentally?

It could be I just despise social media.  All the same, when a group uses a hashtag offline and combines it with an incredibly self-aggrandising statement, such as #WeProtectChildrenOnline, good cause or otherwise, it rather sets my teeth on edge.  Perhaps it's that protecting children so often means infantilising adults, or indeed, the state taking responsibility for that which should be left to parents to decide upon.  We're almost a year on from the universal rollout of "on by default" filtering, and spank me silly if it's made kids safer online by as much as a fraction, the vast majority deciding they prefer the internet uncensored, thank you very much.  Not that most do anything beyond going to Facebook with the odd surreptitious glance at insert your favoured porntube site here anyway.

Ministers regardless of party tend to be at their sanctimonious worst on all matters connected with child safety and the interwebs, understandable when you consider the legitimate concerns surrounding the danger posed by sexual predators online, less so when they're often responding to exaggerated and occasionally plain wrong coverage and campaigning in the media.  You then also have people like the former head of Ceop, Jim Gamble, who seems to imagine he's fighting a one man campaign ala Frank Castle against the evil of paedophilia, only without the guns.  Or the subtlety, for that matter.

Co-opting GCHQ fully into the battle against those particularly devious perverts who hide and exchange material via the dark nets, whether it be Tor, i2p or Freenet, is then a no-brainer.  Anything that makes people forget about things like Tempora, or Optic Nerve, which must have sucked up a fair share of exactly the material David Cameron now wants GCHQ to crack down on the better.  Except, as James Ball points out, GCHQ has been doing exactly this for quite some time already, and politicians have also been flagging up their work ever since the Snowden revelations.

If Cameron's speech really does signal a new offensive by the police and GCHQ against the paedophile forums on Tor, then clearly it's to be welcomed, at least up to a point.  There are reasons to be doubtful however, not least that if the intelligence agencies have found a way to identify both users and where the servers of dark net sites are hosted, the decision to first go after some of the drug markets was a curious one.  Operation Onymous didn't so much as seize a single child porn .onion, leading most to conclude the raids were down to sloppiness on the part of admins rather than flaws in Tor itself.  It might seem counter-intuitive that admins of drug markets are less security concious than paedophiles, until you realise they've still probably got less to lose if they're exposed than paedophiles have.

The other concern is that if Tor is broken, the knowledge of how to identify users will quickly become known to other, less enlightened security agencies, with the activists whom rely on Tor for anonymity the first in the firing line.  It also suggests that despite the encouraging comments from Simon Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead on child protection, who said it was realism to admit it was impossible for the police to go after every person viewing child abuse, and that those caught who are determined not to be a risk to children should be treated as patients rather than go before a court, politicians and others are still pretending all those who do so will be brought to justice.  They won't be, not only as the resources aren't there considering the numbers of people estimated to have a sexual attraction to children, but also as combined with a VPN, the use of Tor or i2p offers fairly substantial protection.  Most paedophiles are caught not through being tracked down via the web but due to their cache of child abuse material being discovered by someone accessing their computer in person.

The recognition that a good percentage of those who view child abuse imagery will not themselves abuse children is at least a start.  If we can help those who fear they could act on their urges by not considering every paedophile as an abuser by default, encouraging others like Eddie to come forward, we might be on the way to further preventing abuse before it happens.  Despite the suggestions there isn't any help for paedophiles in this country unless they offend, I suspect if someone was to go to their GP and tell them about their problem they might well be referred either to a psychiatrist or for CBT, but that obviously also sets up the potential for precisely the exposure most paedophiles fear.

What doesn't help is the language of there "being nowhere to hide".  It's both false and encourages paedophiles to seek out the exact "refuges" which do so much to perpetuate the abuse politicians so desperately want to prevent.  Surely, in this post-Savile era, it's time for the debate to become more informed.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014 

Look past the horror.

It's easy, reading the Senate intelligence report and the articles derived from it to be overwhelmed by the horror of the torture programme (because that's what it was, let's drop the euphemisms once and for all) established by the CIA.  With its 26 wrongly detained victims, those with broken limbs put into stress positions and chained to walls regardless of their injuries, the playing of Russian roulette with one victim, and perhaps most chilling of all, the image of Abu Zubaydah, so thoroughly broken and brutalised by his treatment that all it took for him to mount the waterboarding table was a raised eyebrow from his interrogator, to get distracted and not draw the necessary wider conclusions about what it should tell us would be thoroughly human.  Good thing I'm not then, eh?

First, it should tell us that torture affects those charged with implementing it just as much it does those on the receiving end.  With the exception of the few sadists and genuine psychopaths who are likely to find themselves in such roles, the report notes the sickened and disgusted responses of hardened CIA officers to what they both saw and were being asked to do.  Doctors who pledge to do no harm were forced to choose between refusing to treat detainees they were essentially fixing up enough so they were fit to be tortured again, and letting those under their care die, with all the potential consequences the latter option would open up.  How many would have died had it not been for medical intervention we'll never know; at the same time however, doctors were also behind the rectal feeding, as well as the forced feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, itself considered to be a form of torture by the UN and condemned in journals by senior doctors.

Second, the decision by one Western state to use torture inevitably makes its allies complicit, such is the way intelligence agencies cooperate.  This puts those allies in a great quandary: do they blow the whistle, do as much as they can to avoid becoming wholly complicit in the practice, or the opposite and accept it as necessary in extraordinary times?  Our complicity in the CIA's programme can still not be properly quantified for the reasons outlined in yesterday's post.  What we do know is that just like the CIA lied to everyone concerned, including politicians themselves about what they were doing, so too did our spooks.  We know that as early as January 2002 MI6 officers reported back to their superiors that detainees at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were being abused; this was before the torture regime proper had been established.  Those officers were told, wrongly, they were not required to intervene to prevent the abuse from continuing.  Despite these and subsequent reports, MI6 claimed it wasn't until 2004 and the Abu Ghraib scandal they properly realised the "black sites" they were aware of were being used as torture dungeons.

To believe that you have to believe the intelligence agencies are both unimaginative and lack inquisitiveness, precisely the qualities demanded of them.  We also now know about the renditions of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, both of whom were sent back to Colonel Gaddafi's prisons via the services of MI6 and the CIA.  Belhaj arrived back in Libya two weeks before Tony Blair went to meet his new friendly dictator.  Both he and Jack Straw deny any involvement in the rendition of the Libyans, Straw claiming that he was kept out of the loop.  MI6 respond they operate under ministerial oversight, more than suggesting Straw signed off on the rendition.

Straw though is nothing if not a serial offender.  When the first details of the rendition programme started to be leaked he said that unless he was lying and unless Condoleezza Rice was lying (we know she was; she was directly involved in the process of the setting up of the torture programme) it was little more than conspiracy theories. 

Let's not limit this to just Straw and Blair though, as a whole host of New Labour ministers also told if not lies then half-truths in an attempt to protect both the United States and the intelligence agencies.  Those with long memories for the mundane might recall the furore after the release of the "seven paragraphs", which detailed what the security services knew about the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed, who was tortured in Morocco for the CIA before he was sent on to Guantanamo.  Alan Johnson, then home secretary, said the idea the security services didn't respect human rights was a "ludicrous lie", while David Miliband fought the courts for months in an eventually futile attempt to prevent the paragraphs being released.  This led directly to the justice and security bill passed this parliament, supposedly meant to prevent the "control principle" of intelligence from an ally being published being violated in such a way again.  That we know thanks to Edward Snowden how tens of thousands of contractors and sub-contractors have access to secret documents obviously doesn't mean the act was in fact meant to prevent ministers and the intelligence agencies being embarrassed again in such a way.

Lastly, the report shows just how quickly practices thought completely abhorrent can be implemented when national emergencies are declared and extraordinary powers handed out.  The CIA may well have lied to politicians about what it was doing and the president may not have been fully briefed, but senior figures in the Bush administration did know about and signed off on similar techniques to those adopted.  It's worth reflecting just how close we came in this country to giving the police powers akin to those of authoritarian states: not just the attempt to ram 90 days detention without charge through parliament, thankfully defeated, but also the struck down indefinite detention without charge of foreign "terrorist suspects", the law lords ruling the life of the nation was not threatened as politicians claimed.  We can argue over the additional powers still being sought which are claimed to be necessary to deal with the renewed threat, yet nothing proposed comes near to the attack on basic civil liberties Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown were behind.  The question remains whether come the next emergency we'll remember any of these lessons.

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