Wednesday, July 31, 2013 

This is our last gasp.

There's been a lot of snarky comment on the Sun's deeply odd wrap-around front page, and for good reason: it makes those splashes the Independent used to run look subtle.  THIS IS OUR BRITAIN it screams, and it might mean something if it wasn't just a promotional exercise to inform the paper's readers that, err, they're now going to be charged to access the paper's website and apps.  To be fair, as a commenter points out over at the New Statesman, it's difficult to draw pictures of non-material things, so what we get instead is an amalgamation of the centrepiece of Danny Boyle's (deeply overrated) Olympic opening ceremony and a lot of err, stuff pasted on the top of it.  There's the Shard, that famously British eyesore, a Routemaster, naturally, a power station, Mr Bean, the Queen's head peaking over an S, and well, every other cliche and landmark you can think of.

Taken altogether, it comes across as being spectacularly insincere. Is this an idealised Britain, or is it the Sun's Britain? It is of course lovely to think of a field that is forever England, or Britain, but when the vast majority of us live in urban areas rather than out in that green and pleasant land, planking everything down in something resembling Elysium is just a trifle odd. The Sun is nothing if not an embodiment of national stereotypes, despite having been born in the 60s, but even if this it's meant to say we might be changing but our values aren't, it just seems lazy and hackneyed. Obviously that's never bothered the paper in the past, yet you might have thought that under a new editor and to encourage readers to pay extra for what they used to get for free they would have gone that extra mile.

More pertinently, the Scottish edition, while keeping much of the editorial, goes for a cleaner and sharper look. The less said about A NEW DAWN the better, but it doesn't make your brain hurt from just looking at it. As Stuart Campbell also notes, the Scottish edition drops some of the harsher language from the statements on politics, in particular on welfare. The paper's stance on benefits and immigration can be summed up in that they're in favour of both for those they deem deserving and are against for everyone else.  Labour also gets it in the neck repeatedly despite the paper saying they're not slavish supporters of any party: who knew that a "culture of entitlement exploded" under the last government which destroyed entire communities, or that they papered over the cracks in education while standards fell measured against the rest of the world.

The problem the Sun faces is that it simply isn't as influential as it once was.  Whether down to the defenestration of Rebekah Brooks as chief executive of what was News International and the whole phone hacking scandal, or changes in the way politicians now attempt to engage the public, the Sun almost certainly comes behind the Mail as the first port of call for the Tory side of the coalition.  Rather than attempt to fight back, the paper has instead gone down the paywall route.  Paywalls can be viable if you provide content that isn't available anywhere else, as the FT has demonstrated; even with the new "not quite Sky Sports" programming promised for subscribers, it's difficult to see exactly what the Sun will have that other free sites won't.

One positive is that regardless of its execution, it's at least a change to see the Sun provide a picture of the country that has some sort of relationship with reality.  A bit of a difference with the paper under the aforementioned Brooks:

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013 

Political dog-whistling: still not working in 2013.

It took a while, but by the end of last week the government's billboard campaign telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest" had attracted the wider press attention it deserved from the outset.  One of the old chestnuts we often hear when it comes to debating immigration is that politicians of old shut down debate by calling people racist.  Accurate or not, we now have the opposite problem: politicians are afraid to say that some of those opposed to immigration are racist, as one thing racists don't like being told is that they are racist.  Hence despite criticism of the campaign coming from the Lib Dems, a few Labour MPs (although not the leadership, again presumably because they fear it being used as "evidence" of their weakness) and even Nigel Farage for goodness sake, who in the next breath scaremongers about a Romanian crime wave, none have called a spade a spade.

It's therefore only lunatics on the left and the "pro-immigration industry" that believe such a straightforward message is racist, says Mark Harper, the immigration minister described by Nick Clegg as "a very good guy", given space in the Mail. He doesn't expand on just which organisations make up the pro-immigration industry, but perhaps he means the Office for Budget Responsibility, set-up by the coalition, which only last week published research on the continuing benefits. Harper for his part doesn't even bother to engage with the argument as to why the billboards are racist, which is that they reprise the old NF slogan and play on the most obvious of racist sentiments, he instead uses attack as defence, saying that those critical are encouraging the breaking of the law. To call this a non sequitur doesn't quite cover it; a billboard threatening illegal immigrants with arrest if they don't leave voluntarily is hardly the most striking example of the law being enforced. Rather, it only underlines the reality: it's completely unfeasible to deport every person here illegally.  Continuing to claim it is only raises unrealistic expectations which then feed further discontent.

For such a short piece, Harper makes up for it by packing in as many distortions as he can. He conflates perfectly legal migration with the illegal by going into the standard riff on Labour's supposed "open borders" policy, says there is evidence that migration has pushed down wages when there's plenty (PDF) that contradicts the claim, that some areas have faced "intolerable" pressure due to migration, despite services continuing to function, then tops it off by saying the government is controlling immigration, if failing to meet their target of bringing net migration down to 100,000 by 53,000 can possibly be considered controlling.

He ends by saying that if the poster campaign helps tackle illegal immigration, who could oppose it? Considering a poll for the Sun suggests that there's almost an even split between those in favour of and those opposed, a remarkable result when there's such a prevailing sentiment against immigration, it suggests plenty don't like such "stupid and offensive" campaigns, even if they don't regard them as racist.  Seeing as Harper doesn't even repeat the actual wording used on the billboards, perhaps he secretly feels the same.  Either way, someone ought to explain to Lynton Crosby that if dog-whistling didn't work in 2005, it isn't going to now.

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Monday, July 29, 2013 

The Twitter hate machine.

I've come to the conclusion that Twitter is the new arsehole of the internet.  There have been many sites that have combined both the best and the worst of the internet previously, but for the most part the media ignored them.  Twitter you can't ignore: there is almost always one story on the Graun's front page about something that's happened on there, regardless of importance, precisely because it's been so adopted by the media, even more so than Facebook has.  These self-same people are in the main the ones that are so shocked that, horror of horrors, there are some really rather nasty people on the internet who enjoy making empty threats against those in the public eye.  Trolling goes back to the earliest days of BBSes; it's only really moved on in that some people are now so confident they troll or flame using their real names.

Stewart Lee couldn't have been more right when he described Twitter as "a government surveillance operation run by gullible volunteers, a Stasi for the Angry Birds generation".  Twitter both monitors and reports, and if you're one of those caught up in a periodic furore when it's decided someone completely lovely has been unfairly traduced, then watch out.  Enter Caroline Criado-Perez, who just so happens to be a freelance hack.  Following her campaign to get true feminist icon Jane Austen on the £10 note, she was subjected to some pretty par for the course abuse on Twitter.  Regardless of who you are, if you become even briefly notable, you will get flamed and trolled, however unwarranted such treatment is.  It's how the internet has always worked.  Where once we just swore at the TV, now some people swear in public via Twitter.  It isn't pleasant, but a lot of people have found there's little to do other than put up with it.  Hell, just a fraction of the criticism and abuse Lee has received makes up part of his last show, Carpet Remnant World.  Turn it to your advantage; ignore it; block people; let them get on with it; or, and this is a really scary one, try and do without the stupid thing.  You might just be able to.

Don't though claim this is a unique problem for women online, because it isn't.  Yes, it's true that women tend to be abused in a far more degrading and sexual way than men are, as just some of the tweets directed at Criado-Perez suggest.  This is mainly due to how, again surprise surprise, the vast majority of trolls are men (or often boys), and usually men whose lack of social skills has made them especially embittered towards women.  As another report currently on the Graun's front page makes clear however, men can and have received almost identical treatment.  Stan Collymore has previously highlighted the racist tweets that were being sent about Patrice Evra in the aftermath of the Suarez affair, while even the slightest digging will find people being unbelievably stupid on the site, such as those complaining about the royal baby being assigned a "gender role".

This is the problem with bringing the police into the equation.  Not only would they never be able to cope if every potentially lawbreaking tweet was reported to them, it raises fundamental questions about fairness and just how abuse in response to abuse should be treated.  As Anorak points out, plenty of people said that Emma West, the woman convicted of a racially aggravated public order offence on Croydon tram, should be raped or killed yet no one it seems was arrested for saying so.  Nor were those who called for Azhar Ahmed to be killed prosecuted, despite the fact that they went further than he did.  The courts have also so far failed to take into consideration the "disinhibition" effect the internet has when sentencing those who have been convicted of going beyond the limits of free speech online: the two Facebook "rioters" were jailed for a staggering four years, longer than many of those who actually did riot, while Matthew Woods was given a three-month sentence for posting a bad taste "joke" about April Jones.  Those who want certain kinds of trolling to be treated as criminal or online threats as equivalent to those made in public or over the phone have to be comfortable in the knowledge that similar punishments will inevitably follow.

The most obvious reason as to why Twitter doesn't have an easy report feature is that it would be endlessly abused.  Moreover, if you are being subjected to an orchestrated campaign of abuse as Criado-Perez says she was, then the police probably are the right people to turn to rather than Twitter itself.  There's trolling and flaming, and then there's bullying.  To repeat a point, there's also an off switch.  Until relatively recently we managed to go without constantly bombarding each other with messages of 140 characters or fewer.  Yes, some people on the internet probably hate you.  More importantly, some people in real life probably like you.

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Friday, July 26, 2013 

Rhythm on my mind.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013 

It's all just a little bit...

Considering where we've been almost ever since the coalition came to power, growth of 0.6% in the last quarter isn't to be sniffed at, especially seeing it's not boosted by one-off factors such as the Olympics.  The worry was that we could have slipped into a triple dip recession back in April, only for that low to be narrowly avoided and the double dip itself revised away.  Having took no responsibility whatsoever for the economy flat-lining, blaming every factor other than the cuts and the chill the spectre of austerity sent through business confidence, naturally Osborne and the Tories are more than happy to present what is fairly insipid growth historically following a recession as the economy healing.

On the face of it at least, the signs are encouraging.  All the main sectors of the economy grew in the last three months, unemployment is coming down, albeit very slowly, and Osborne managed to just about reach his borrowing target, once the Office for Budget Responsibility had revised their estimate.  Take a closer look though, and the figures paint a picture of an economy still heavily reliant on the service sector.  With wages not keeping pace with inflation, there's eventually going to come a crunch point when those who have so far kept spending cut back.

Despite Osborne continuing to boast about rebalancing the economy, his actual strategy is far less refined. The plan is to boost the one sector that has remained overheated with prices now rising again: the housing market.  Desperate for any kind of growth, the danger is of another bubble.  If it works for the Tories in the short-term however, helping them win a majority that otherwise looks all but impossible, who cares if it's repeating the same mistakes the coalition castigated Labour for?  Except for us nerds, obviously.  Oh, and economists.  And anyone with any real interest in winning that "global race" the coalition is constantly regaling us about.  Still, politics eh?

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 

Silly racism season.

The silly season is descending, although frankly it's getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the dog days of late July and August, and well, almost any other time of year.  Apparently, "bitchy resting face ... makes Gangnam Style look like a slow burner", at least according to Hadley Freeman, and yet somehow I had avoided encountering this cultural phenomenon until she elected to write about it. Beards have also reached their fashionable peak, doncha know, and in what seems to be an extraordinarily late April 1st joke, Kerry Katona is to be Marilyn Monroe.  Presumably alongside Peter Andre as JFK.  Oh, and Guido Fawkes, he of repeatedly declaring he can't be sued fame, threatens to sue Claire Perry.  Perry we've already established is a dangerous nincompoop, while Paul Staines is just a hypocritical tool.

Is there anything even vaguely serious going on then?  Well, sort of.  Coming from the same great minds behind the idea of putting up "adverts" pointing out how shit Britain is in Bulgaria and Romania (while at the same time declaring how great we are everywhere else), one of those billboard vans is being sent round six London boroughs telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest".  Why, we'll even be kind enough to help you with your travel documents, and we'll tell the immigration officers not to "Mubenga" you, as long as you come along quietly, of course.  Who wouldn't have their head turned by such a tempting offer?

Understandably, quite a few people are suggesting this is just a teensy bit racist.  On its own, it isn't.  There aren't that many pithy formulations you could put together that are simple to understand and carry the same message.  I mean, they could have gone with "In the UK illegally and want to leave?", but that doesn't carry the same element of menace all rhetoric on immigration must now have.  "Go home" though carries decades of baggage with it; it wasn't just a National Front slogan as Sunny says, go home (or words to the same effect)  is still one of the first resorts for racists, regardless of who it's used against.  "Go back to where you came from", even if you were born here and so were your parents; your skin colour doesn't fit.

When a government is reduced to such, err, dog-whistling, it ought to be apparent that it's in trouble.  One thing the Tories remain terrified by is the likely failure to keep their promise to get immigration down to the "tens of thousands" by the time of the next election.  Almost all the decline we've seen under the coalition has come as a result of the crackdown on overseas students, those grasping, scrounging bastards who come here, take almost nothing out and put hell of a lot in (is this right? Ed.).  Hence this year, as well as being partially in response to the rise of UKIP, we've seen further punitive policy proposals, including the ridiculous prospect of landlords being asked to do the job of the UK Border Force, as though making illegal immigrants homeless is something approaching a solution.  Sarah Teather made clear just how far the Tories would like to go when she revealed the "Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants' Access to Benefits and Public Services" was first known as the "Hostile Environment Working Group".

As pointed out before, this is a great example of how the new politics works.  Politicians say they're listening to concerns, they talk tough and tighten the rules ever further, and then act surprised and chastened when the mood against immigrants hardens as the numbers stubbornly refuse to fall precisely because freedom of movement is clearly here to stay.  Rather than confront voters with a few facts and ask them if they like being able to move freely around Europe even if they don't want to at this precise moment, we just get ever more discriminatory rhetoric.  Once, that the government was paying for adverts which contained allusions to the racist slogans of years gone by would have caused a storm.  That it hasn't shows both how the Tories have succeeded and why they will also end up being hoist by that petard.

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Tuesday, July 23, 2013 

The Crosby mystery.

There are a number of explanations as to why it's taken so long for either David Cameron or Lynton Crosby to deny they so much as discussed plain cigarette packaging.  The most obvious is that neither were certain that they hadn't, although this still doesn't explain why it took so damn long for them to long back through the minutes of their meetings and rack their aides' brains to be sure that they hadn't.  Another is that they didn't do just that precisely because it would encourage Labour and the likes of the Graun to dig deeper and keep asking about what other interests Crosby has and whether they had been discussed.  Notice that Crosby doesn't today deny talking with Cameron about either alcohol pricing or private companies working within the NHS, both of which he is also linked to through his lobbying firm.  Seeing as the lack of candour up to now has meant it's happened anyway makes that difficult to believe.

Alternatively, it could be that they in fact did talk about it, and it's fallen to Crosby to say they didn't so as to protect the prime minister.  Considering the widespread belief among the press that Crosby was responsible for persuading Cameron to focus on all that guff about hard work and aspiration in the Queen's speech, dropping out the bits on fags and booze, it would be bizarre if it wasn't even mentioned.  This isn't to say that Crosby's conflict of interest had anything to do with Cameron's change of heart, but this doesn't alter the fact that getting in advisers with previous having already lost one in unfortunate circumstances simply isn't very clever.  Nor is going weeks without adequately answering an exceptionally simple question.

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Monday, July 22, 2013 

Moral panic: on by default.

We live, so it seems, in a distinctly weird world.  Never before have we had such easy access to a full array of sexual imagery, and yet despite being able to summon up almost any fetish at the click of a mouse, we don't seem to want to discuss why something turns us on, or what it says about us personally.  Fundamentally, that's down to how we don't want to be judged; despite porn being consumed as never before, we still regard it as being embarrassing or difficult to talk about, understandably so.  We also don't really want to know whether our friends or loved ones might have say, a scat fetish, or even something more prosaic like being partial to BDSM.  What goes on in someone else's bedroom is their business, so long as no one gets hurt.  The same applies to watching other people doing what we would like to, or fantasise about doing; no one else needs to know.

Except, when we don't talk about and rationalise it, what we end up getting is the semi-moral panic we're currently going through, stoked almost solely by the government and certain newspapers.  They have provided absolutely no evidence whatsoever for any of their claims, most specifically that images of child abuse are proliferating, or that normal "online pornography is corroding childhood".  That they haven't is nonetheless irrelevant; without parliament so much as being involved, from the end of the year the big four ISPs, having been pressured into doing so, will block the majority of pornographic sites by default.  These default filters will almost certainly wrongly block plenty of material that is not pornographic (as this blog was by some mobile internet providers), but who cares when it's all about protecting children?  It's surely a small price to pay for something approaching peace of mind.

Here's how the campaign by the likes of Claire Perry and the Daily Mail has worked.  Having failed to build momentum behind their demands despite the Bailey review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, they struck upon conflating child pornography (as we're not allowed to call it, as apparently simply describing it as such is to somehow legitimise it) with legal pornography.  Helped along by the Tia Sharp and April Jones cases, the haranguing of ISPs and search engines for not blocking child porn (despite the fact there is relatively little they can do when they're not the ones hosting it) morphed into haranguing them for allowing a so-called free for all.  Responsibility it seems is not with the parents or adults to ensure that their children can't access material not suitable for them, it begins instead with the ISP.  As I've pointed out before, for a supposedly conservative government to be passing the buck from those truly responsible to those who provide a service to adults, considering they're the ones paying the bill, is quite a break with their usual thinking.

David Cameron's speech today was an absolute classic of the meaning the opposite of what was said genre.  He starts off by saying how difficult it is for politicians to talk about the subject, and it is indeed difficult for them to talk about when parliament has gone into recess for the summer and they don't seem to have been offered the chance to discuss it anyway.  He relates that he doesn't want to "moralise and scare-monger", the paragraph after he's stated without qualification that "online pornography is corroding childhood" and how the internet is impacting on the "innocence of children".  He says that the issues of images of child abuse and underage access to porn are "very distinct and different" challenges, but that they have something in common.  Namely, that it's been decided it's good politics to conflate the two as it reduces opposition.  After all, everyone hates nonces, don't they?

It quickly becomes clear just why the ISPs and search engines have become so agitated at what they see as the ignorance displayed by politicians.  Cameron in his section on illegal images talks as though the way in which search engines work is manual, rather than automatic and constant, saying the comparison with the Post Office isn't accurate as the likes of Google facilitate access to the illegal material knowingly.  This is nonsense.  It also doesn't seem to matter that as we've discussed, it's exceptionally difficult to find such material by accident, or indeed, even deliberately through search engines, what matters is that something is being seen to be done.  What's more, the internet giants should be putting their top people on solving this very problem that doesn't exist, to stop images and videos being posted in the first place!

Finally, and to really make clear how serious everyone is, there are some searches that are so "abhorrent and where there can be no doubt whatsoever about the sick and malevolent intent" that no results should be returned at all.  You know, like how in China on a firewalled connection if you search for "Tiananmen Square" you'll get plenty of information on the square itself but be hard pressed to find any on the massacre.  Not even during New Labour's hyper authoritarian period did they suggest censoring the internet lest anyone commit a truly "sick and malevolent" thought crime and expect to get something back if they did.  The message seems to be that the person committing the offence should be glad that GCHQ don't immediately send the police round.

When it comes to the "default on" blocking on new connections, the mindset behind it is equally transparent. Claire Perry addresses legal pornography in the same way as campaigners against drugs have in the past described cannabis as being a "gateway" to the harder stuff, saying she believes the killers of April Jones and Tia Sharp "had stumbled upon" illegal images having first browsed perfectly legal material.  This rather ignores the fact that neither Mark Bridger or Stuart Hazell were young men, still uncertain of their sexuality.  By that point, you are either sexually attracted to some children, or you aren't.  This isn't to say someone can't develop a fascination with one particular child, as Stuart Hazell may have done with Tia, and then attempt to persuade themselves that the feelings they're having are perfectly normal through accessing images of abuse, but it's relatively rare.  That both Bridger and Hazell, as adults, would have been able to turn a "default on" filter off also doesn't seem to make her think twice about her argument.

Which pretty much sums it all up.  If Perry and friends really want to protect children, then the emphasis on filters over everything else spectacularly misses the point.  Cameron mentions education in his speech, but only as an effective afterword.  No filter can block everything; sure, it'll almost certainly take out the porn equivalents of YouTube, but it won't prevent access to the few remaining public torrent sites and their XXX sections, the's where everything under the sun is hosted including porn, or indeed the numerous porn blogs on Tumblr.  Proxy servers are incredibly easy to use, and the kid that does have access is soon going to be helping out their friends who've found themselves blocked.  What it will do is treat adults as children, as they so often have been in the past for the supposed good of the latter.  Those who hate porn and don't want to engage with how it's become part of modern culture, for both good and bad, love the idea of those wanting to access it having to embarrass themselves by ringing up their ISP, as will happen, knowing many won't. As for the others who just don't want to talk about desire and turn-ons as it's icky and difficult, well, this helps them as well.  Acceptable porn, such as Fifty Shades, will still be available to all and sundry; that other stuff, the disreputable, industrialised output that could be improved if only we felt able to properly address it, will remain the standard behind the "default on", helping precisely no one.

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Friday, July 19, 2013 

Born to know.

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Thursday, July 18, 2013 

The Crosby show.

Where once everything seemed to lead back to the Simpsons, now everything seems to just as often lead back to The Thick of It.  With David Cameron whining to Nick Robinson about how he seemed to be falling in with the Labour campaign to link Tory adviser Lynton Crosby with the decision to drop plain packaging for tobacco, something described as "looking like a smear campaign" by Michael Green Grant Shapps, I couldn't help but be reminded of Jamie's response to Clive when he said "he would never forgive" what Malcolm did to him.  "This isn't fucking Eastenders ... we're all in the same plague pit, there's no clean hands."

Indeed, in the irony stakes, the whinging from the Tories about Labour daring to suggest there might at least be a conflict of interest in Crosby's lobbying firm representing Philip Morris is off the charts.  In what have almost certainly been Crosby advised ploys, over the last couple of weeks we've first seen Cameron present Len McCluskey as being only slightly less evil than a 70s BBC TV presenter, and the unions in general as little better than enemies of the people, while last weekend there was clearly an orchestrated attempt to "get" former health secretary Andy Burnham over the mediocrities in the NHS laid bare in the report by Bruce Keogh.  Fed to the likes of the Mail was the deeply misleading, not in the final report figure of 20,000 excess deaths (other papers went with 13,000) at the 14 trusts examined, with the blame pointed squarely at Burnham and Labour for having allowed the situation to develop.  This was then followed by Jeremy Hunt describing the report as "Labour's darkest day", while yesterday's Mail again splashed with an attack on the party.

Frankly, who knows what it was that led to the coalition backing down on plain packaging for fags and a minimum price for alcohol, although you suspect on the latter at least it was because it would have been extremely unpopular and also wouldn't have worked.  There's also a decent explanation for delaying action on tobacco for now: that it's prudent to wait and see whether it has an impact in Australia.  Of course, this government like its predecessor doesn't give a fig for evidence when it comes to going against expert advice on drugs they decide simply must be banned, so it's not entirely convincing, but all the same, it just about stands up to scrutiny.

Cameron's problem is that he keeps placing his trust in people who have what might be known as previous.  First it was Andy Coulson, and there's still the potential for massive trouble for the prime minister if his former spin doctor is found guilty of perjury, amongst the other charges he's contesting, now it's a man who was at the helm when the Australian PM John Howard claimed asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard.  His advice during the 2005 Tory campaign resulted in the much mocked "are you thinking what we're thinking" campaign, while his work for Boris Johnson's Mayoral campaign has been undermined somewhat by accusations he ranted about "fucking Muslims"

Regardless of the reality, and Cameron still hasn't explicitly denied that he discussed tobacco packaging with Crosby, just that Crosby didn't "lobby him" about it or anything else, that your chief adviser also works for tobacco companies fails the smell test.  It might not be Bernie Ecclestone giving Labour £1m and then finding to his surprise that Formula 1 would be exempt from the ban on fag advertising, but it's of a piece with Cameron's apparent lack of curiosity about those he surrounds himself with.  Yesterday's lobbying bill isn't going to alter that.

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013 

Hip, hip hooray!

Can we have three cheers for the Intelligence and Security Committee?  Having postponed the hearing where the heads of MI5 and MI6 would have been questioned for the first time in public as it was "too busy" trying to get to the bottom of the Woolwich murder and the ability of GCHQ to get access to almost any data that it feels like, it's managed to come to a firm conclusion on whether or not the access GCHQ has had to the NSA's Prism programme broke the law.

Could you possibly believe that it didn't (PDF)?  Indeed, it was fairly obvious that it didn't when dear old Bill Hague stood up in parliament and inferred, for that was as far as he went, that everything GCHQ did was signed off by either him or another minister.  It was up to the Graun to inform us that everything was legal and hunky dory as GCHQ's Tempora programme, similar to that of Prism, is operated on the basis of certificates and warrants that are renewed every six months, taking advantage of the wide discretion given in paragraph 4, section 8 of the RIPA act 2000.

Of course, the ISC doesn't specifically state this is how the system operates, as that might make clear just how wide open it makes it for potential abuse.  It merely alludes to it, with the line that "a warrant for interception, signed by a Minister, was already in place".  Meekly, it does make the point that even though written just over a decade ago, RIPA is clearly out of date, as "it is proper to consider further whether the current statutory framework governing access to private communications remains adequate".

Which is only a slight understatement.  RIPA was never written with the intention of giving the security services access to what is likely thousands of terabytes worth of data, which can then be stored for up to 30 days. In part, this is was what the communications bill was meant to address: ministers and the security services just didn't think it was relevant to let us know that they already had access to the exact metadata that was to be collected through it (Tempora collect the data itself as well), under a system that is legal even if it stretches RIPA to absolute breaking point.

In a way, the revelations via Edward Snowden and the Graun have actually played into the securocrats' hands.  Now it's apparent that GCHQ can get access to whatever it wants anyway and it's all perfectly legitimate, what's the point of opposing a bill that will simply update it for a modern age?  Thanks also to the D-Notice and much of the media deciding that the security services are above suspicion, there's been hardly any outcry here at all about the impact on privacy, in complete contrast to how the news of snooping under Prism has been received in mainland Europe.  Moreover, we've got a generation growing up now used to sharing their lives online, apparently perfectly happy with the premise that if you've got nothing to hide you've nothing to fear, where movies actively celebrate how wonderful and beyond reproach Google is.  To say this doesn't bode well for a future where the internet is only going to become even more integral to everyday life no longer seems vaguely paranoid; instead, it looks set to become a fundamental challenge to civil liberties.

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Tuesday, July 16, 2013 

Trident: no alternative.

When it comes to pointless reviews, the Liberal Democrat initiated Trident Alternatives paper has to be one of the most worthless reports authored by government in recent times.  Commissioned as part of the phony war between the coalition parties over whether or not our "independent nuclear deterrent" should be replaced like for like, it comes to the surprising conclusion that Trident is superb and you can only be sure it's truly a deterrent if there's continually a submarine at sea.  Of course, we don't know whether there actually is a Vanguard out there somewhere right now, doing the equivalent of waiting for Godot, but then neither do our enemies.  Then again, we don't currently have any enemies that are capable of launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike, but who knows what the next five years, let alone the next fifty might bring?

It does then strike (ho ho) as just a little rich for Danny Alexander to criticise the Tories who have been belittling him and sending letters to the Daily Holocaust, err, I mean Telegraph, as having failed to get out of a cold war mentality.  After all, the preferred option of the Lib Dems isn't to unilaterally disarm, or even to switch the position of say Japan, which has the capability to quickly produce a nuclear weapon should a crisis arise, but err, to reduce the number of submarines by either 1 or 2, and not have one constantly at sea.  To be sure, this is far saner and less costly than the position advocated by both Labour and the Tories, where we can't step back an inch from the status quo of the past 50 years, yet it's still surely out of date when you consider the way the threat from nuclear weapons has reduced massively since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The report didn't even consider complete disarmament or the "nuclear latency" option, so we don't know how much could have been potentially saved by not replacing Trident, although there are plenty of estimates.  What we do have is an estimate of how much would be saved by only having 3 submarines and putting an end to the constant at sea presence, which comes in at about £4bn.  It sounds like a lot, until you consider that this would be the amount saved over the entire period the authors of the report considered, which goes right up to 2060.  Suddenly it doesn't seem such a massive saving.

This isn't to say there aren't a few interesting nuggets in the report.  The idea that Trident is in any way independent takes a battering just 6 paragraphs into the executive summary, where it points out that the "deterrent" is also available to NATO as "a contribution to the Alliance's collective deterrent".  In other words, if NATO decides that it's time to put the nuclear umbrella up, it's extremely unlikely that the prime minister of the day would decline to do so.  Indeed, this has always been the main problem with describing Trident as independent, for in just what circumstances would we use it without our closest allies also using theirs or giving their OK?  An attack on a NATO country is still regarded as an attack on all.  The reality is that we are completely dependent on America for Trident: the missiles are American; Aldermaston is part owned by Lockheed Martin; and the report makes clear that even the non-nuclear parts are also sourced from the US (paragraph 18).

As to whom Trident is meant to be deterring, we're still none the wiser almost 7 years after Labour first decided it had to be renewed.  In fact, nothing has really changed since then.  The two main "threats", North Korea and Iran have all but remained in stasis.  Iran still doesn't have the bomb, although it has the potential to make one, while North Korea has the bomb but doesn't have a reliable delivery mechanism that can reach the US as yet.  Neither country could currently or likely in the near future carry out a first strike on this country, nor is there any reason to imagine they would want to when both have enemies closers to home.  It's possible if not entirely plausible that relations with either China or Russia could deteriorate to such an extent that we could re-enter cold war territory, but there isn't so much as a hint of that on the horizon as it stands.  The only other threat is from the spectre of nuclear terrorism, but even in the extremely unlikely event that al-Qaida acquired such a device, how would Trident deter them from using it and who would we strike back against it if it was used?

What it all comes back to in the end is the prestige of being one of the main five nuclear states under the non-proliferation treaty.  The report itself suggests as much.  "Any change ... may have the potential to impact not only on the credibility of the deterrent, but also on our wider national interests and foreign relations." Noted peacenik Tony Blair has said much the same, writing in his autobiography that "the expense is huge" and "the utility non-existent".  He only didn't push for disarmament as he thought it would be "too big a downgrading of our status as a nation".  Trident isn't so much a deterrent as it is the political equivalent of a medallion round the neck of certain men in the 70s, or the Rolex, Wag and Bentley of the modern day footballer.  The same Thatcher lovers who don't have a problem with cutting the rest of the military to the bone imagine that dispensing with Trident would be the ultimate example of accepting decline.  We might not be able to defend the Falklands if it came to it, but at least we've got the capability to start a war that would end human civilisation if we so wanted.  That means something, doesn't it? Doesn't it?

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Monday, July 15, 2013 

Well, you can prove anything with facts.

Usually, it's in opposition that politicians have the most opportunity to mislead with statistics.  The Tories repeatedly claimed that violent crime had increased massively under Labour, disregarding the fact that they were comparing statistics that err, couldn't be in real sense as the recording method had been changed so drastically, from the police deciding what was a violent crime to the victim saying whether or not they felt the incident they had been involved in was violent.  Labour, meanwhile, were repeatedly accused of fiddling statistics, often precisely because the change in recording methods meant that the old statistics weren't comparable.  Now the Tories are in power they naturally never miss a chance to trump how crime continues to fall under their watch, as though they had always recognised it had done so under Labour's stewardship.

The coalition has succeeded though where Labour failed in misleading with statistics, if only down to how it doesn't seem that anyone's prepared to stand up for benefit claimants.  Despite being criticised by the head of the UK Statistics Authority when he last claimed that 8,000 of those told they were likely to be hit by the benefit cap had suddenly found work, when as Declan Gaffney and Jonathan Portes pointed out the document his remarks were based on said that the figures couldn't be used in this way, Iain Duncan Smith today upped the number further to 12,000.  Things like facts don't matter to IDS it seems, as long as he has "a belief" that he's the one in the right.  Besides, we can't "disprove" that he's wrong in his belief, despite the fact that you "cannot absolutely prove" the connection between the introduction of the benefit cap and the number who would have been affected finding work.

The BBC for their part are reporting IDS's assertion as fact, not mentioning in their piece that he was previously told not to make such claims.  Benefit cap 'encourages job seekers' is their headline, the only indication that they're not swallowing the line from the DWP completely being those quotation marks.  Coming as it does on the same day as a report suggests that those earning under £22,000 a year are finding it more and more difficult to afford private rented accommodation, you might have thought the BBC would have looked into the DWP's claims more deeply.

It seems instead that when it comes to a policy that is popular, despite the fact it's estimated the cap will save a relatively minor £110m in its first year when around £95bn is currently paid out in benefits to those of working age, that the usual critical faculties don't apply.  Indeed, they don't seem to come into play at all when it comes to ministers commenting on their anti-scrounger policies.  Quite why the media takes Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green seriously at all is a mystery, let alone when he claimed that hundreds of thousands were dropping their claims for ESA rather than go through the work capability assessment, completely ignoring the natural churn between applying or being moved onto the new benefit and the WCA being carried out.

Little wonder then that as we saw last week, the public have hugely inflated notions of the number cheating the system as well as the amounts spent on out of work benefits.  If the media aren't prepared to take on ministers when they at best mislead and worst outright lie, something they used to get highly excised about, what hope is there of those outside the politics bubble having an accurate picture of the state?

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Friday, July 12, 2013 

Sensory deprivation.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013 

Expecting the worst.

As the poll released by Ipsos-Mori this week makes clear, the great British public think pretty much the worst about our glorious United Kingdom. It's an island nation where 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant every year, 24% of the population are Muslims, 31% are immigrants, and 29% think more is spent on JSA than on pensions.  Now, we could blame this projected image of Britain on the media, and it would be perverse if they didn't take some of the responsibility.  The real reason most don't know though is far simpler: it's that they don't really care that much, and aren't interested.  Poll after poll suggests that while our experience of local services tends to be positive, we imagine that things must be worse elsewhere.  We don't know, so we expect the worst.  You could call it the British disease, except compared to the insularity of other nations, we're surely not that self-obsessed.

Everyone though, and I mean everyone, thinks the worst of politicians, regardless of how again by world standards our parliamentarians are very clean indeed.  They're only out for themselves, they feather their own nests, they claim expenses for second homes, and they're either funded by the nasty trade unions or the greedy hedge funds.  In this respect, I honestly can't imagine that the proposal by IPSA that MPs' pay should rise by around 9% in 2015 is going to have any great effect on their already dismal reputation.  In a way, it's just of a piece with what's going on at the top in both the public and the private sector: while wages for workers are either stagnating or just about making pace with inflation, the bosses continue to award themselves massive pay increases, whether they be council leaders or FTSE 100 CEOs.  This is how late capitalism has developed.

It doesn't matter then that as well as proposing this 9% increase, which will equate to a salary of around £74,000 a year, IPSA also recommends a further crackdown on expenses, the closing of an "unaffordable" pension scheme and the abolition of parachute payments for those who lose their seats, meaning in their estimation the overall cost to the taxpayer will be £500,000, as IPSA seem to believe politicians are operating in a vacuum.  They claim that they've taken into account the austerity being imposed by the same politicians they say should get a huge by comparison rise, but this is as good a time as any for the problem to be sorted out, as "there has never been a good time".  It might well be true that compared to those in similarly demanding jobs in the public sector MPs' pay has fell behind, yet this is hardly a reason for the difference to be made up all in one go.  If IPSA were instead proposing that pay only increase once the fixed 1% rise for the rest of the public sector is rescinded, and then by say, 3% or the equivalent a year rather than all at once, it's doubtful that we would have the situation today where most MPs are saying they won't take the rise. Which at least makes a change.

The issue of public trust and faith in politicians ultimately has very little to do with money.  What it comes down to is two things: competence and difference.  The real start of Gordon Brown's downfall wasn't so much the economic crash as it was the loss of the child benefit data discs by HMRC.  Tony Blair never recovered from the failure to find WMDs in Iraq, even though he won the next election partially due to the continuing uselessness of the Tories.  The situation as it stands now is that we have three parties with pretty much the same policies on the economy; while this didn't matter during the boom, it matters very much now we're still in the bust.  The coalition isn't competent in the slightest, but it doesn't matter because Labour now believes that to win in 2015 it has to offer the same harsh medicine that hasn't worked.  Labour thinks doing so will make them seem competent. It won't.  As long as politicians continue to aim for one of the two rather than both, trust simply isn't going to return, and we'll go on expecting the worst.  And frankly, why shouldn't we?

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013 

The usual posturing on the ECHR.

If nothing else, the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights' grand chamber that those sentenced to whole life terms must have at the least a slight hope of one day being freed, has thrown up an somewhat heartening statistical comparison.  We might lock up far more people than most of the rest of Europe, with 83,902 in prison or immigration centres last week (a figure that doesn't include those in either maximum, medium, or low secure mental health wards) but only 49 of those will definitively never be released.  Obviously, some of those given life terms with a minimum period they must serve before being able to apply for parole will also never be released, while others will die in prison, but it can't be said that judges lightly pass sentences that deny the convicted any chance of reform and rehabilitation.

It's understandable then that some have been angered by the ECHR ruling, unusual in that the grand chamber disagreed with the judgement handed down by the court itself, which found against Douglas Vinter, Jeremy Bamber and Peter Moore.  Politicians and commentators alike have made the point that in abolishing capital punishment, the compromise was that life sentences that meant life for the most serious offences would be the replacement.  In actuality though, it was only back in 2003 that all discretion was removed with the passing of that year's Criminal Justice Act, when the power to increase the minimum term of life sentences was rightly taken out of the hands of politicians.  With it also went the appeal after 25 years that those sentenced to whole life terms could make.  Oddly however, those who are considered terminally ill or incapacitated still make their appeal for release on compassionate grounds to the justice secretary, hence the controversy over the release of both Ronnie Biggs (still alive, although definitely incapacitated) and al-Megrahi (dead).  The system is also different across the UK: Scotland doesn't have whole life tariffs, while Northern Ireland still has the 25-year system.

The very existence of the whole life sentence poses problems which have never been fundamentally answered.  When there is no hope of release, there is little reason for the prisoner to cooperate with the system except to make what life they have slightly easier for themselves, and in turn, the prison officers.  We saw this just last month with Ian Brady's appeal to the mental health tribunal: whether he genuinely wants to return to prison in order to starve himself to death only he really knows.  What he definitely likes doing is challenging the system, which is what his "hunger strike" protest has long been about.  It's also possible it can have even grimmer side-effects: we can't know whether Dale Cregan's motivation for killing two police officers having already murdered two members of a local crime family was, as he said when he gave himself up, for the hassle the police had caused his family, or that he knew full well the net was closing in and he was likely to spend the rest of his life in prison anyway.

As Joshua Rozenberg points out, it wouldn't take much for the government to meet the court's ruling, whether it amended the 1997 act that provides for compassionate release, or established a system through which whole life terms could be reviewed either by the parole board or a judge after 25 years. It seems extremely unlikely that any of those currently on a whole life tariff would be deemed suitable for release, precisely because they have been used so sparingly. The real issues are two-fold: that a whole life term doesn't seem like one if there is the possibility of release, however remote, the same problem there is with the life sentence which really means life on licence rather than actual life in prison; and that this is in the view of some, another example of the ECHR interfering in laws that should be left to the discretion of member states.

However much it does go against decent liberal sensibilities, that there is always the possibility of redemption and reform, there are some cases where life has to mean life.  That doesn't mean there shouldn't be a system where even the hardest cases should be reviewed, but getting the message across that this won't mean the most depraved criminals could still walk free after 25 years is going to be incredibly difficult if not impossible.  This said, the idea this is going to be legislated on swiftly is laughable: it's now 8 years since the ECHR first ruled that some prisoners should get the vote, and as yet there still hasn't been an act facilitating it.

Instead we will get plenty of posturing.  Chris Grayling we're told wants further reform of the ECHR rather than the exit, while Theresa May apparently wants us out.  It doesn't matter that however often scrapping the human rights act is discussed or leaving the ECHR is proposed, we never hear specifically what it is about the convention that makes it beyond the pale.  We hear complaints about the right to a family life preventing the deportation of criminals as well as the whole Abu Qatada fandango, when the reality is that the objection is to the way judges, both British and at the ECHR interpret the law.  Getting rid of the HRA and replacing it with a "British" bill of rights which will almost certainly contain the exact same protections is not going to change things without the legislation being so specific as to be discriminatory itself.  Unless the Tories win a majority in 2015, and they're certainly not on course for one at the moment, we might eventually get round to putting back in place a system that until very recently wasn't regarded as beyond the pale.

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Tuesday, July 09, 2013 

The continuing triumph of the political class.

There are two explanations for Labour and Ed Miliband's panic over what happened in the candidate selection process in Falkirk, with Unite widely accused of trying to manoeuvre Tom Watson's parliamentary aide Karie Murphy into place.  Either the party genuinely has lost all self-control on the very first occasion that an accusation against Miliband has stuck, terrified at the prospect of the Tories constantly invoking Len McCluskey as the biggest bogeyman in British politics, his hand firmly wedged in Ed's bottom, or this is a plan that has long been in the works which has duly been dusted down and brought out, designed to deal with the "union problem" as some within Labour have come to see it.  Sunny, not normally prone to seeing conspiracies, points out how Labour seemed to want to stoke up the row with Unite last week rather than calm it down or put in perspective.  Miliband's hastily arranged speech today more than smacks of being a back-up left in reserve.

Quite how this has become a national issue at this precise moment is remarkable.  Local parties are overruled all the time over their choice of candidate, or have apparatchiks parachuted in at the last minute.  There was just such an incident during the selection of Labour's candidate in the Rotherham by-election, while John Harris notes some other recent examples where the leadership's chosen candidate has resulted in grassroots anger.  The only distinguishing feature in Falkirk is that it's Unite that's been accused of trying to influence the selection, through not particularly subtle ways.  It's about as much of a reflection of the influence Len McCluskey has over Ed Miliband as it is of the power the mid-Bedfordshire constituency Conservative party has over Cameron through their continued support for Nadine Dorries.

We shouldn't get carried away, though.  No one wants to see a full break of the link between Labour and the unions, says Robert Philpot, director of the Blairite pressure group Progress.  Just because certain Labour MPs, like Simon Danczuk, think that the Labour left should be treated like the BNP for so much as disagreeing with the party line doesn't mean that they're out to get you personally.  That everyone has instantly reached for the "clause 4" analogy, and Blair himself has popped up to praise Red Ed, saying he wished he'd moved towards an opt-in rather than opt-out system for union affiliation doesn't mean that this was engineered as a "look how Ed is slaying the union dinosaurs and transforming his party" moment.  No, this was clearly cobbled together on the spur of the moment to ensure Ed doesn't go through another PMQ's where Cameron effectively spends the entire session just pointing and saying McCluskey over and over again.

Paradoxical as it seems, the changes set out by Miliband today are ultimately designed to increase the parliamentary party's control even further.  The suggestion of open primaries for the 2016 London mayoral election, for which David Lammy already seems a shoe-in, and other as yet unknown contests are there as window dressing.  As Mark Ferguson points out on LabourList, a spending cap for candidates and the unions/groups backing them sounds wonderful and fair, but it can also have the effect of giving a big advantage to the established/establishment candidates, stopping upstarts or late entrants from spending extra to get their name out there.

The message to the unions also couldn't be clearer: thanks for all the money down the years, but we've decided we don't need you any more. Far from this being about making a break with the "machine", an hysterical proposition when the entire shadow cabinet are products of it, making do with less from the unions has the same reasoning behind it as New Labour itself did. Even if you felt that the party had abandoned you, where else were you going to go? The far left is in even more disarray than usual, while the TUSC is an utter joke. It's us or bust, except now you won't have even the semblance of influence. It might eventually be a good change for both sides, but it certainly won't be initially.

When politicians retreat from offering a vision of a better future and instead only offer years of austerity and the dilution or abolition of hard won rights in order to "win the global race", all we get is the battles of the past, fought over and over again. The Tories are never happier than when recalling their sanitised history of the 80s, and so every union is the NUM, and every leader a baron, a Scargill in the making.  For a certain section of Labour, it will forever be the battle against Militant, with the Graun hilariously describing Neil Kinnock's speech in Bournemouth as one of the "greatest of the post-war period", and as a close second, the shaking off of the old dogma of nationalisation.  Those who otherwise hate Miliband are then naturally applauding what he's done today, even though next week they'll be back to bashing him again. 

While all these former glories are replayed, and as Chris points out, pretty much anyone under 40 now has only hazy memories of the miners' strike, normal people just see three parties that look much alike, against each other purely because they think they could manage things slightly better than their rivals.  It's not that ideology has died, as some would have us believe, or that right and left are now meaningless, it's that those who make up the political class have abandoned such labels because they're a part of the past they don't want to relive, when being either Labour or Tory meant something.  Now we all just pretend it does.

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Monday, July 08, 2013 

So. Ta ta then.

Abu Qatada is gone.  Not, despite the attempts at further myth making and spin from the Home Office, because he had finally ran out of legal options, but almost certainly down to him realising that even if he had appealed again and delayed his deportation for another couple of years, he was never going to be able to live free (and die hard? Ed.) in this country.  It's worth remembering that with the exception of a short period when he went "missing" after 9/11, Qatada spent the vast majority of the past decade either in Belmarsh or Long Lartin, or during the periods he was released on bail/control order, under the kind of curfew and restrictions that would rid life of pretty much all enjoyment.

Moreover, Qatada never faced a single charge in this country.  If he had appealed, it's possible he could have been charged with some sort of offence over the material allegedly found in his home when he was last arrested which breached his bail conditions, but that's now rather moot.  It might have taken 8 years for Qatada to be deported, longer if you include the time he spent detained without charge between 2002 and 2004, yet it's surely just as unacceptable that someone should spend that period of time under effective detention with charge.  Babar Ahmad suffered a similar fate, despite it being unclear at best whether he had committed any offence whatsoever under UK law.

Qatada then went of his own accord, giving at least as his public justification that he now felt assured he wouldn't face a trial in his home country where the evidence against him would be tainted by torture.  This in itself is an indictment of successive governments, rather than it is of Qatada, or an outrage that human rights laws prevented us getting rid of him at the first opportunity.  For most of that time period ministers were perfectly happy for someone, however unpleasant, dangerous or even murderous, to be deported back to an authoritarian state where torture has long been endemic and trials by the same token are unfair.  We would protest bitterly were a UK citizen subject to such abuses, or we would if it happened in a nation state we aren't friendly with, considering the prevarication over those accused of bombings in Saudia Arabia.  Just look at the campaigns, both successful and unsuccessful, to stop the deportation of the Natwest Three and Gary McKinnion, and that was to the US.

Grudgingly, successive home secretaries were forced to take the legal route.  However it came about, the end result has been for the judicial system in Jordan to be made at the very least fairer, benefiting the population there greatly as a by-product.  Rather than celebrate this as an example of soft power, of the way that diplomacy can result in reform, the government naturally has presented this triumph as exactly why we should consider scrapping the Human Rights Act and even possibly withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.  They can't explain why this needs to happen now, as there isn't a similar case waiting in the wings, and even if there was, it clearly wouldn't take as many years now that it's apparent that people can't be deported back to countries where the evidence against them was the product of torture.  If you want to get rid of someone in such circumstances, either the evidence has to be dropped, or they can't be sent back.  It isn't difficult.

Indeed, considering some of the wilder estimates and that it took 8 years, the reported bill to the taxpayer of £1.7m seems relatively slight.  Quite why it was deemed necessary that a private jet had to be charted for his journey back to Jordan is unclear, especially when security was so lax that Qatada was not handcuffed at any point.  Considering the way in which asylum seekers who have had their request rejected are dealt with, often travelling on commercial flights, his departure could surely have been arranged in a similar way had it been desired.  That wouldn't however have provided the pictures that politicians clearly wanted, of Qatada not quite being carted off but certainly being sent on his merry way.  Regardless of their supposed anger, it summed up what the Qatada case became: not about the rights and wrongs, but about being "tough". 

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Friday, July 05, 2013 


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Thursday, July 04, 2013 

The Murdoch tape: weak, weak, weak.

It remains surprising just how often stories that first appeared in Private Eye aren't followed up until rival organisations then suddenly decide to claim them as their own.  A case in point is the Murdoch tape: Private Eye published extracts from it 2 issues ago.  3 weeks later and Exaro News along with Channel 4 claim the tape as their own scoop.  True, they've made available the full tape, apparently recorded by embittered Sun journalists who didn't trust Keith meant what he said at their meeting, but without giving the Eye any credit for having obtained it first.

What's more, for the most part both Keith and the Sun's hacks have good reason to be embittered.  Murdoch's comment that "news tips from cops" in exchange for money have been going for over 100 years is right, nor is it just the Sun or the late Screws guilty of such payments.  That only the Sun has been turned over by the Met does give more than a hint of how this is in some way vengeance for how the Met were themselves caught in the phone hacking fallout.  The handing over of the archive by News Corporation's Management and Standards Committee helped immensely, but don't underestimate the desire of the police to get even, for which see the continuing revelations about how they attempted to smear the family of Stephen Lawrence.

Nor should anyone underestimate the desire of Murdoch to strike back.  That he promises they will "hit back" when they can is a wonderful insight into how his papers have always worked.  They might not wreak revenge immediately, but they will.  Just look at how the Sun last week almost unbelievably highlighted how the police smeared Liverpool fans after Hillsborough without mentioning its own abhorrent role.  The message was clear: the police, who used to be able to rely on the Sun to back them come what may, have at least temporarily lost one of their closest media allies.

The other insight provided is just how loyal Keith remains to Rebekah Brooks, which understandably continues to anger the rest of the staff on his papers.  He whinges not just about how the police came into her office, despite being told they wouldn't find anything, but also about how she was arrested on a Monday morning by about "15 or 16 officers", which is "ridiculous, quite openly".  Considering the number of times Sun hacks have been in tow when the police have raided celebrity targets, or how the Scum recently entrapped Tulisa Contostavlos and then rejoiced when she was picked up, excuse me if I don't empathise with Brooks' sad predicament.

The point is, neither do the hacks.  They don't believe Keith when he says that even if they're found guilty and imprisoned that News Corp will look after them, as he did Brooks when she walked away with an astonishing £10.8m in compensation for in effect screwing over his company.  If they did commit misconduct in public office, then surely so did their editors and those who signed off the payments.  Never before has Murdoch been anything other than trusted, and never before has he been so weak while still trying to give an image of strength.

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Wednesday, July 03, 2013 

Khat fight; evidence loses.

Yesterday, the home secretary Theresa May did something both commendable and liberal.  She stood up in the Commons and made clear it is unacceptable that the police's use of stop and search is still resulting in disproportionate numbers of young black and Asian men being hassled purely for going about their daily business.  Launching a consultation after a pilot study made clear that when threatened with action, the number of searches fell without there being a corresponding rise in crime, it might just result in one of the grievances that helped spark the riots of two years ago being tackled.

There is though a unwritten rule when it comes to being a modern home secretary.  For every apparent liberalising reform you introduce, you have to then do something that makes life that little bit more miserable for one section of society.  Hence the utterly absurd, ridiculously counter-productive and flying in the face of all the evidence decision today to make khat, or qat, a Class C drug.

This is now the third time in relatively quick succession that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has seen its expert advice disregarded for entirely political reasons.  First, Labour under Gordon Brown ignored the council's report that said cannabis should remain Class C, with the panel a year later recommending the downgrading of Ecstasy, or MDMA, to Class B from A.  The head of the ACMD, Professor David Nutt, was then unceremoniously sacked by Alan Johnson after he continued to criticise the government for ignoring the council's advice.  Now with the supposedly more government friendly Professor Les Iversen at the helm, the coalition has decided it simply can't accept their view that khat is only a "mild stimulant" and its effects on the community are relatively negligible (PDF). Iversen merely says that he is "disappointed".

Theresa May for her part claimed that as some of the evidence is on the light side, it's possible the ACMD has underestimated the harm caused by khat, and so she pledges she's acting to protect "vulnerable members of the community". This is rather at odds with the coalition's economic policies, but let's take her word for it. That the ACMD had previously looked at khat in 2005 and came to the same conclusion is irrelevant, nor would it apparently make a difference if further research was commissioned.

The real reasoning behind the ban it seems is, err, that everyone else has already made it illegal. Whether the fears are substantiated or not, it seems the government has come under pressure from both the US and mainland Europe lest the UK become the main trafficking hub for the plant. Again, that khat is an extremely minority pursuit seems irrelevant, as the figures quoted in the ACMD report (2,500 tonnes imported in 2011, worth approx. £13.8m with VAT receipts of £2.8m) suggest. Normally the Tories love nothing better than sticking two fingers up at Europe, but it seems on this occasion that it's lobbying from the US that has made the difference. Considering the now wildly divergent laws that different US states have on cannabis, a drug that the ACMD believes is more harmful than khat, and that the US led war on drugs has worked so magnificently so far, a minister with more backbone would tell them where to get off. But no.

Unfortunately, as the ACMD report also sets out, in hardly any of these countries was khat subject to a harm review prior to it being made illegal (pages 57-58).  Indeed, in the Netherlands, where khat has recently been added to the same list of technically illegal but tolerated substances such as cannabis, the government there also ignored a review that found khat was relatively benign (PDF).  The report also makes clear the obvious consequences of putting khat in Class C: at the moment khat costs between £3 and £6 a bundle to the consumer.  Make it illegal though, and the cost will inevitably increase, attracting those already involved in the wider drugs trade who previously saw the market cornered by legitimate traders with low profit margins.  As Transform say, not only is the government ignoring expert advice that says the harm posed by khat is too low for it to be controlled, doing so will almost certainly make the problems there are worse.

For as Dr Alex Klein argues, there's more at work here than simply the positives and negatives of a plant that in Somali communities plays a role somewhat analogous to that of alcohol in our own.  He believes that the campaign to ban khat is led by those who see the "mafrishes", the cafes where khat is chewed, as a challenge to the authority of the mosque and Islamic organisations.  With the plant banned, and those opposed to the mafrishes likely to quickly inform the police if illegally imported khat continues to be chewed there, the potential for conflict is likely to increased rather than decrease.  Instead of regulating khat, for argument's sake similarly to alcohol, making mafrishes apply for licences, the government wants to move in one fall swoop from khat being completely legal to illegal, even if it's likely to be policed in a similar way to personal possession of cannabis now is.

The government though doesn't want to get into a debate where khat is compared to alcohol, for the reason that it's one it would almost certainly lose. As David Nutt comments, "[I]f politicians wish to argue for drug prohibitions on a moral basis, because they think it is obnoxious and dissolute to sit around getting high from leaves or intoxicated by drink, that's fine, let them make the case, and see whether parliament or the electorate have an interest in policing people's personal habits".  It's far easier to instead rely on claims of links to terrorism, just as it's also easier to ban something getting the blame for a problem rather than tackle the real root causes of why Somalis tend to be marginalised.  When the self-appointed leading campaigner against khat claims there is no such thing as a responsible user of the plant, something immediately disproved when the Independent last year visited a number of mafrishes, it's clear that evidence is still always likely to be trumped by emotion.

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