Friday, November 28, 2014 

Spheres of Costa Rica.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014 

He fought the plebs, and the plebs won.

There's an anecdote Mark Kermode likes to relate (and fellow Wittertainees will know Mark tends to repeat his best ones a lot) about Wes Craven, whose response on discovering Scary Movie would in the main be a parody of Scream, his own tongue-in-cheek post-modern take on the slasher genre, was to say "Wow, things move fast in this town".

As they also do in politics (please excuse the extremely tenuous link).  Lest we forget, Andrew Mitchell resigned just over a month after he swore at the police officers manning the Downing Street gate.  This time last week Emily Thornberry "resigned", or was all but sacked by Ed Miliband a matter of hours after she tweeted a picture of a cage fighting prat's collection of England flags.  After the initial furore, some have been reasonable enough to suggest that if you can't sneer at how someone hasn't taken down the flags they put up for the World Cup six months on then we might as well all just give the fuck up (not that Thornberry necessarily was sneering, as everyone has interpreted her tweet according to how they see the world, just as I did) but the damage was done.  The Sun, champion and defender of plebs everywhere, its journalists going so far to as describe their readers in such terms, spoke and the political class panicked/filled their boots.

Two years later and we at last have the denouement of the Plebgate saga.  It'd be nice to be able to say that never before has so much time, energy and money been wasted over something so unbelievably petty and which it bears repeating, Mitchell apologised over at the time, until you remember wars have started over far less.  Mr Justice Mitting was essentially tasked with deciding whose account of a playground tiff was the more plausible, and predictably enough in the circumstances, opted for the account of the police officer.

Not that Mitting didn't try and make the best of it, having a little fun with his otherwise unutterably miserable task.  He came down on PC Toby Rowland's side, mainly because, in his words, Rowland is "not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper".  Or, to give it a Sun-esque spin, Rowland's a bit thick.

The real question is what possessed Mitchell to imagine the verdict would be anything different.  Undoubtedly traduced by the Police Federation, once the work of the Gaunt Brothers was stripped out the case was always going to come down to whether there was significant doubt concerning Rowland's account of their exchange.  Written up and logged within 90 minutes of the incident, was it ever likely to be found substantially inaccurate, or as Mitchell alleged, a work of fiction designed to bring him down?  Rowland exaggerated about passers-by looking shocked, but otherwise there was no evidence presented that contradicted him.  Mitchell admitted he swore, that he said words to the effect of "I thought you were meant to help us" and "you haven't heard the last of this", so why couldn't he have also said the p-word?  No amount of character references from Bob "fucking" Geldof were liable to persuade Mitting otherwise.

One can only conclude that as with politicians in the distant and recent past, Mitchell refused to accept the inevitable until it finally arrived.  It's hard not to feel sorry for him: never should a understandable if perhaps revealing loss of temper have cost him so dearly, yet at the same time he also has no one else to blame.  It's clearly too much to hope for the media to perhaps show a little more understanding, considering the events of last week and when politicians themselves were so keen to make so much out of so little, but it'd be nice to think us plebs might step back and think before condemning in such uncertain terms.

On second thoughts, nah.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 

Project Mayhem urges you to stay safe.

Blame it on the ultimately superficial, shallow and obvious nature of my mind, but my first thought after seeing ACPO's "STAY SAFE" leaflets was blimey, have we really now reached the point where the police are taking pointers from Project Mayhem, aka Tyler Durden's psy-ops campaign in Fight Club?  Is the next step billboards telling everyone the best way of warding off a terrorist attack is dousing yourself in oil?

Yep, counter-terrorism awareness week is clearly in full effect.  Chiefly this seems to consist of urging Londoners to be suspicious of absolutely everyone and everything at all times, which, let's be honest, isn't exactly the most alien concept to most.  See a dog hanging around Euston without its owner?  Best report it, could be a bomb dog.  Spy a bearded gentleman with a rucksack fiddling around with its contents?  First check he isn't a hipster by looking to see if he has the obligatory tattoos peaking out from under his sleeves, and if he doesn't, kick the ever living shit out of him.  Or alternatively, duck and cover.  Err, run, hide and tell?

Quite what the point of such leaflets is always escapes me.  How else are most going to react should they be caught up in a Mumbai-style attack?  They're not going to be like me and walk towards the AK-47 wielding fanatic, thankful at last for a stroke of luck, they're going to be, err, running, hiding and phoning up our friends in CO19, who hopefully won't shoot the first Brazilian they come across.  Nor has there been the slightest indication a Mumbai in this country is a real possibility, despite Theresa May saying one had been disrupted without, naturally, giving further details.  The most recent intelligence, again, if we're to believe it, was the police themselves were the most likely target.  You don't have to be a natural cynic to wonder if the point in fact isn't to scare people, coming the same week as the rest of the hype over the jihadi threat.

It'd be easier to take also if there wasn't the all too familiar sight of otherwise intelligent people acting like dunderheads.  Malcolm Rifkind was beyond certain last night that Facebook could report every single instance of wannabe terrorists colluding if they wanted to, as they do it when it comes to child abuse.  Except of course they don't, and even if it was possible to review every single instance of an account being flagged when eleventy billion status updates are posted every day, there's no guarantee whatsoever the police or the intelligence agencies would then act upon it, as Rifkind's own report made clear.  Blaming the social networks is though a surefire win, as demonstrated by this morning's front pages, especially when so many don't realise how the systems they have in place work and when it's always easier to point the finger at the service provider rather than the individual, as we've seen in similar instances.

As for how it distracts from the other problems with the government's proposed legislation, that's a bonus.  The example today of the brothers convicted of attending a training camp in Syria indicates just how often the system of "managed return" is likely to be used in practice, unless we see a policy change from the police.

By any measure, the Nawaz brothers would have been perfect candidates for such a scheme: they joined not Islamic State but Junud al-Sham, a group which according to Shiraz Maher has since allied with Ahrar al-Sham, part of the Islamic Front, a jihadist but until recently supported by Saudi Arabia section of the rebels.  When you add how they travelled back in August of last year, when both government and media agreed how wonderful such allies of the Free Syrian Army were, it strikes as more than a trifle rich they're now starting prison terms of 4 and a half years and 3 years respectively.  The judge accepted there was no evidence they intended to do anything in this country, and the fact they returned after a month of training without fighting, albeit with trophies, also suggests they weren't cut out for the war.  If others like them are to be prosecuted, then "managed return" with its agreeing to be interviewed by the police, and possible compulsory attendance of deradicalisation programmes seems like a gesture rather than anything practical.

Instead the emphasis seems to be on confiscating passports, without it being clear whether those denied the chance to fight in Syria or Iraq will then be properly monitored.  It leaves those who do support Islamic State, such as Siddhartha Dhar, arrested with Anjem Choudary's mob of blowhards, easily able to skip bail and laugh at the intelligence agencies from afar.   As previously argued, the best policy could be to let those who want to go to do so, and then deal with them if and when they seek to return, otherwise we risk increasing the chance those desperate to be martyrs will resort to launching their own plans here.

At the moment the coalition seems to want the worst of all worlds.  Whether it be in restricting free speech on campus, promoting the frankly hopeless Prevent scheme which targets completely the wrong people, closing down the last avenue through which families might try to save their kidnapped loved ones, blaming internet companies as part of a vendetta or allowing the police to run a frankly ridiculous "awareness" week, the plans seem designed to embitter, alienate and scare without doing anything that actually might help prevent radicalisation in the first place.  Is it worth mentioning at this point how until very recently successive governments claimed our presence in Afghanistan was about stopping terrorist attacks on British streets?  Can anyone remind me how that's working out?  Or indeed whether the insane contortions of our Syria policy which saw us first lionise the Syrian opposition only to then all but side with Assad to battle Islamic State might have contributed to the current mess?  No, probably not.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 

The real face of 21st century insecurity.

(This is almost 2,000 words.)

To believe in most conspiracy theories, you need also to believe in the concept of all powerful government.  9/11 couldn't possibly have been the work of 19 men armed only with boxcutters and rudimentary knowledge of flying planes, that's far too implausible.  Instead, it was an inside job, possibly involving explosives that were planted in the twin towers when they were built, possibly involving holograms that looked like planes, all in the aid of justifying war and/or wars designed to take control of more Middle Eastern oil.  Or maybe the owner of the WTC wanted the insurance money, and was so motivated by greed he felt no compunction about the lives of the people in the buildings he was going to first have planes flew into, and then demolished remotely.

Except, as anyone who pays the slightest attention will quickly realise, government is not all powerful.  The intelligence agencies, despite having incredible powers of surveillance are not all knowing, let alone an panopticon.  In fact, for the most part they're just as stupid as you or I.  They rely chiefly for many of their outlandish claims on how the vast majority of the public don't remember the last time they were told about just how massive the threat level is, not to mention how the media for the most part repeats those same claims without hesitation.  More to the point, why shouldn't they when those wishing us harm say that's precisely what they intend just before they kill their latest victims?

We are then facing perhaps the most severe level of threat ever, says Theresa May.  Since 7/7 40 major plots have been disrupted, including ones we know about, such as the liquid bombs one, as well others we might not, like a Mumbai-style massacre, which could be a reference to the on-going Erol Incedal semi-secret trial.  This is the most severe level of threat since the last most severe level of threat.  For I recall former Met commissioners telling us how the "sky was dark", such was the scale of plotting going on, former MI5 heads warning of 30 on-going plots, of 2,000 individuals associated with extremism.  To be taken in by this nonsense you need to completely forget about the IRA, and more or less, every single past agitator either inside or outside the country.  In reality, the only thing that distinguished Islamist extremists from other terrorists was they didn't issue warnings, and were prepared to kill indiscriminately.

Now even that claim doesn't properly stand up.  As the Intelligence and Security Committee's report into what did or didn't go wrong with the security services' dealings with the two men convicted of killing Lee Rigby makes clear (PDF), the most pernicious threat right now is not so much from "lone wolves", those who have no contact whatsoever with other extremists, but "self-starters" (page 80, para 232).  Self-starters are those without major links to an al-Qaida franchise or Islamic State, but who are inspired by their example and decide to do something, anything.  They will be known to other extremists, probably having appeared on the periphery of investigations carried out by the police or MI5/GCHQ, just not considered an imminent threat.  Without the support and resources available to those with direct links to an AQ franchise, they're likely to think smaller and go for something achievable rather than spectacular.  Such as killing a soldier, or perhaps beheading the first person they don't like the look of.

This raises the question of just what is and isn't terrorism.  Within hours of Lee Rigby's murder his death was being defined as a terrorist act, rather than a homicide egregiously justified by his killers as revenge for British foreign policy.  The implication seems to be all someone needs to do is shout "Allah akbar" or the equivalent for their violence to be deemed terrorist inspired.  Any other factors can then be disregarded, and lessons must be learned from the failure to prevent the attack in the first place.

In the absence of there being anything or anyone to blame, or the refusal to apportion blame where it would most obviously lie based on the evidence, something else can always be found.  When it's done in such a transparent, utterly flagrant way as it has by the ISC and the government though, it just insults everyone's intelligence.  The first part of this week has been designated as a time to highlight "the threat" and demonstrate why yet more new powers are necessary, with the ISC report at the core, despite it having been ready for publication for weeks if not months.  It's a brilliant report, in that in the style of the very best it provides documentary evidence of how incompetent MI5 and MI6 can be, taking months to process intelligence and follow it up, leaving crucial details out of reports provided to the police, removing Michael Adebolajo from his status as a subject of interest, despite his links to 5 other major investigations and so on, and then reserves its real ire for Facebook for not passing on what it considers the one key piece of intelligence the security services believe could have prevented the attack.

It does this despite openly contradicting itself.  The key intelligence not passed on by Facebook was a conversation between Michael Adebowale and an extremist with links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the former spoke of wanting to kill a soldier and received advice on how to go about doing so (page 127, para 378).  It seems fairly damning, until you consider how a similar piece of intelligence on Adebowale was used, or rather not used.  Back in 2012 GCHQ reported an unknown individual, not at that time identified as Adebowale, had been espousing "views includ[ing] references to operating as a lone wolf (or lone actor), and other general extremist remarks" (page 77, para 221).  The ISC notes at first sight this seems "striking", only for the committee to be reassured by the director general of MI5 that "those sorts of things said, and worse, on these sorts of [sites] are very common" and "[T]he vast majority of it, *** translates into no action at all". 

You can of course argue that going into the specifics of an attack is very different to vaguely talking of wanting to be a lone wolf, as does the contact with someone with links to AQAP, although at the time the intelligence agencies didn't know that was the case.  The same argument as made by Andrew Parker could though surely be applied to the exchange on Facebook; the vast majority of such talk would similarly translate into no action at all.  The real difference seems to be GCHQ obtained the first conversation, while Facebook didn't until after the murder discover the interaction between Adebowale and "Foxtrot", despite a number of Adebowale's accounts being automatically closed due to links to terrorism.  Adebowale closed the account used to contact "Foxtrot" himself.

Just then as Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ used his first day in the job to describe social media companies and other tech giants as "facilitators of crime and terrorism" so today David Cameron was denouncing the likes of Facebook for providing a "safe haven" for terrorists, intentionally or not.  All this cant seems purely down to how accessing the personal data, meta or otherwise of everyone has been made harder by the shift towards greater encryption by the data companies.  Despite the efforts of GCHQ to master the internet, the ISC report claims in what seems to be the first official confirmation of the existence of Tempora, without naming it as such, in theory, "GCHQ can access around ***% of global internet traffic and approximately ***% of internet traffic entering or leaving the UK" (para 410, page 135).  James Ball suggests Edward Snowden believed GCHQ could access 20% of UK internet traffic, although as neither Adebowale or "Foxtrot" were under investigation at the time they wouldn't have known what to look for anyway.

Quite what the real aim is remains far more opaque.  As Alan Travis and others point out, what GCHQ and the government seem to be demanding is either that social media companies do their job for them, which is an impossibility; or, far more dangerously, that they let governments and their intelligence agencies do whatever they like with the data passing through the servers.  Even if we accept they have the very best of intentions, why should a US company hand over information without objection to a UK government agency and not say do the same for the Russians or Chinese when their requests would no doubt be made on the very same terms?  The argument they already do so when it comes to child exploitation is bogus, and more to the point, as we saw with the raids on Tor, disrupting paedophile networks still appears to come second to the war on drugs.

The report also downplays or accepts "national security" excuses for why MI5's attempts to recruit Adebolajo can neither be confirmed or denied (page 44, para 117).  Despite this, the ISC "investigated all aspects of MI5’s actions thoroughly, and [has] not seen any evidence of wrongdoing by MI5", so clearly any suggestion the "harassment" of Adebolajo may have contributed to his actions must similarly be dismissed.  MI6 was also wholly uninterested in Adebolajo's claims he was mistreated when arrested in Kenya (page 153, para 461), presumed to be intending to join up with al-Shabaab with Somalia, with the ISC concluding "we would have expected that all allegations of mistreatment would now be treated with the seriousness they merit" and that "whatever we now know about him as an individual does not detract from the fact that his allegations were not dealt with appropriately".  Again, any impact the alleged mistreatment could have ultimately had on Adebolajo's actions, considering the links between the UK and the anti-terrorism unit in Kenya codenamed ARCTIC, must obviously be disregarded.

As the Graun puts it, the "bleak truth is that it's possible nothing would have saved Lee Rigby from his awful fate".  Despite the government or the agencies themselves occasionally repeating the old adage that whereas they have to be lucky every time, the terrorists only have to be lucky once, protecting the public in the face of such odds remains one of the few things they continue to boast about.  It doesn't matter that governments wilfully redefine terrorism to be almost anything, raising the stakes even further, to the point where schools are deemed not to be doing enough to tackle extremism if sixth form societies have Facebook pages with links to radical preachers, still everything must be seen to be done, even if it turns out to be counter-productive or worse.  Continuously ramping up the perceived threat helps no one, and yet successive governments have done it.  When the intelligence agencies then fail, as they will, the blame has to be diverted.  If that in turn further helps the securocrats who are never satisfied with the material they have access to, so much the better, again in spite of how Tempora is useless against one determined person armed with a sharp knife.  All the technology, all our powers of surveillance, all our intelligence, brought low by men armed with a car, an unloaded gun and a few blades.  There is the true insecurity of the 21st century, and it's not the stuff conspiracy theories are made of.

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Friday, November 21, 2014 

I know it's over.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014 

The speed of stupid.

It's hard to disagree with Chris when he writes of a turn away from politics.  Not in the sense of apathy, but in how so many appear incapable of seeing the wood for the trees.  Never has it been so possible to fully immerse yourself in politics, and yet many of those who chose to do so spend much of it squabbling at the margins.

Take just today's example:  Labour MP Emily Thornberry tweets a picture of a house in Rochester with three England flags adorning the outside.  There's also a white van in the drive.  Image from #Rochester is the message.  Almost instantly she's jumped on for her apparent blatant snobbery, veteran idiot Dan Hodges describes it as "an entire political movement defined by a single tweet", and those whom should know better like Anne Perkins are describing it as Labour's biggest mistake since Ed Miliband stabbed Myleene Klass live on TV (is this right? Ed).

Small things like how Thornberry had already tweeted a photo of a "vote Felix" sign and what ordinary voters had told her under a Tales from #Rochester hashtag obviously don't matter.  Her explanation, that she was surprised by how the flags were blocking a window entirely also makes no odds.  Clearly just a feeble effort from an Islington liberal to deny her own bigotry.  Right on cue, in calls a hopping mad Ed Miliband to reprimand Thornberry for not considering absolutely every possible way her tweet could be interpreted, and the inevitable apology is made.

Which is the key.  Being incredibly loud and not giving in works.  It's why #gamergate is still going on, despite everyone having long since forgotten what it was meant to be about.  It's why Sheffield United have now retracted their training offer to Ched Evans, Julien Blanc was refused a visa, and a real life Nathan Barley received far more attention than his alleged comedy had previously once he became the target for campaigners.  Both left and right can lead a monstering in this brave new world, where tribalism meets narcissism and threats are the most powerful currency.  Forgive me if nihilism seems ever more attractive.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014 

Bringing out the worst.

By-elections in marginal seats always without fail bring out the absolute worst in politicians.  They know full well that in the grand scheme of things i.e., as a guide to what might happen at the general election they're meaningless, and yet still they campaign as though it's the last ballot ever.  Every Conservative MP we're told has been ordered to visit Rochester and Strood 3 times, while cabinet ministers are expected to have made the journey 5 times.  Bizarrely, no one seems to have connected this swamping of the constituency with those lovable rogues from Westminster and the continuing rise in support for UKIP.  Can you imagine just how hellacious it must be to turn one corner and see Michael Gove in all his finery, and then discover Jacob Rees-Mogg further down the road holding forth on the iniquities of EU farming subsidies?  And this has been going on for a month.

24 hours before the vote and the campaign has predictably ended in a battle over whether it's the Tories or UKIP who are going to be nastiest to migrants.  For sure, it's being conducted as though it's truly outrageous Mark Reckless could ever have suggested Poles might be repatriated should the UKIPs' vision of leaving the EU become a reality, while the UKIPs for their part are feigning contempt for Tory candidate Kelly Tolhurst's letter-cum-leaflet which nearly suggests people might not feel safe walking the mean streets of Rochester because of uncontrolled immigration, but let's not kid ourselves here.  The fight over who can move closest to shutting our borders completely without being objectively racist or invoking the old policies of the BNP/National Front has been going on for some time now, and just when you think they've gotten near as damn it, they inch ever nearer.  The "go home" vans were just the start.

Because the by-election is obviously all about immigration, see?  It's all the Tories want to discuss, it's all Labour wants to broach, and err, are the Liberal Democrats bothering to stand a candidate?  Oh, they are.  That's £500 wasted then.  It's also the only topic the media wants to cover, as they can't seem to handle the idea a by-election might be about more than just the one issue, especially when they decided beforehand it was the only thing anyone was interested in.  As Frances Coppola writes, and she's unlucky enough to live in the constituency, even the BBC's local political editor says it's the immigration, stupid, and this in a piece headlined issues beyond immigration and in which she concedes the main topic of discussion on the doorsteps is the local NHS hospital.

Other reporters point towards concerns about the Medway as well and, staggeringly, this might just be why Mark Reckless despite being far less popular than UKIP itself seems to be winning.  It's also no doubt helpful the Conservatives haven't learned anything from the Eastleigh by-election, where it was decided their candidate should try and out-UKIP the UKIPs and came third for her trouble.  Tolhurst if elected will apparently "demand something be done" immediately, although seeing as David Cameron is yet to figure out exactly how to temper free movement without angering business and coming off the worst at the European Commission it's not exactly clear what the tactic will achieve.

Then we have the never knowingly unconfused Labour party.  Last week Ed made great play of how Labour wouldn't pander to UKIP, as once you looked "[at their vision] it is not really very attractive".  This week, first up was Yvette Cooper informing the world one more time it's not racist to be concerned about immigration as she announced yet another new border force, this time complete with shiny uniforms, and then yesterday it was Rachel Reeves' turn.  Apart from the heart sinking at the very mention of the name, it's an odd sort of not pandering to all but agree with the greatest myth of them all, that it's the welfare system attracting EU migrants and not the promise of better paid work, or increasingly, a job at all.

In the name of listening to real concerns people have Labour will prevent migrants claiming out of work benefits until they've paid into the system for two years, an arbitrary period of time if there ever was one, and also stop migrants from claiming child tax credits and child benefit for children back in their home countries.  Reeves also intends to look at migrants claiming tax credits in general, as "it is far too easy for employers in Britain to undercut wages and working conditions ... knowing that the benefit system will top up their income".  The inference seems to be it's fine if Brits have their income topped up in such a way as has become the norm, rightly or wrong, while for migrants it's a subsidy too far.

Quite apart from the obvious problem of basic fairness, one the EU isn't likely to peer kindly on, it once again makes you wonder if the logical next step isn't to extend the same restrictions on JSA to everyone. Small things like how claimants are sanctioned for the slightest alleged "infraction" don't matter, nor does the false economy of reducing so many to relying on food banks, a development Labour has never condemned too loudly, presumably as it has no intention of changing the JobCentre regime.

If as expected UKIP win tomorrow it most likely won't result in the reckoning or further defections some predict.  For a start we're getting too close to next May for there to be any point in more by-elections prior to then, especially when UKIP's real aim has always been to keep the Farage bandwagon rolling on.  Second, if more defections are in the offing, delaying them until nearer the election will damage Cameron and the Conservatives that much more.  Third, it'll go some way towards confirming a pattern: as we saw in Clacton, voters who already favoured their MP aren't too bothered if they move slightly more to the right, especially when most Tory voters are sympathetic to UKIP in the first place.  There was some anger locally at Reckless's betrayal, but if anything Tory support will likely hold up thanks to tactical voting.  Lastly, the sensible will point out how by-elections are always fought on local, rather than national politics.  No doubt however the media and parties both come Friday will be crowing on how it proves immigration is set to dominate next May.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014 

Ched Evans is an unashamed rapist. That doesn't mean he shouldn't play football again.

Amid the outrage, the group resignation of patrons from Sheffield United Community Foundation and 160,000+ signatures calling for him not to be re-signed, you'll struggle to find any summary of how and why Chedwyn (you can see why he shortens it to Ched) Evans was convicted of rape, beyond that his victim was drunk and the jury decided that while she had consented to sex with Clayton McDonald, she did not with Evans.

This isn't because it suggests Evans is, as he claims, innocent, guilty only of infidelity to his girlfriend, who has supported him throughout.  If anything, it makes him look even worse.  According to the account provided by the Court of Appeal, the facts are these.  The victim  "literally stumbled across McDonald's path" some time after 3am on the morning of the 29/30th of May 2011.  CCTV footage from before then shows her falling over in a kebab shop, and indeed, she was such the worse for wear she left her handbag behind.  The taxi driver who took McDonald and the victim to a nearby Premier Inn said the victim's "upper clothing was somewhat dishevelled".  While in the taxi McDonald texted Evans "telling him that he had 'got a bird' or words to that effect".  The night porter at the Premier Inn described the victim as "extremely drunk".

Some time after the pair were showed to the room, Evans arrived with two other male friends.  Evans persuaded the porter to give him the key card to the room as he had "booked the room for a friend who no longer needed it".  McDonald and the victim stopped having sex when he opened the door.  This is when according to Evans the victim was asked whether he "could join in" and she replied in the affirmative.  The night porter, for whatever reason checking on what was happening, heard what he thought was a couple having sex and thought no more of it.  Evans' friends meanwhile were outside the bedroom window filming the goings on until the curtains were drawn.  It doesn't seem their recording picked up the exchange Evans says there was between him and the victim.

About half an hour later Evans and McDonald left the room.  McDonald spoke to the porter before leaving the hotel, telling him to look out for the girl in room 14 as she was sick, while Evans went through a fire exit.  Both men then went back to Evans' home.  The victim woke up at 11:30am with no memory of what had gone on, and straight away went to the police.

The prosecution's case was the room at the Premier Inn was booked for the "sole purpose of procuring a girl or girls later that night".  The defence stated Evans had in fact booked it for McDonald and a friend to use to stay in.  Despite being in Rhyl all evening, it seems McDonald hadn't succeeded in meeting anyone who wanted to go back to the hotel with him until by chance a young woman he must have realised was extremely drunk approached him and asked what he was doing.  The jury in acquitting McDonald and finding Evans guilty seems likely to have decided, as the Court of Appeal puts it

that even if the complainant did not, in fact, consent to sexual intercourse with either of the two men, that in the light of his part in what happened -- the meeting in the street and so on -- McDonald may reasonably have believed that the complainant had consented to sexual activity with him, and at the same time concluded that the applicant [Evans] knew perfectly well that she had not consented to sexual activity with him (the applicant).

They also note the jury might have considered the different ways in which McDonald and Evans left the hotel to have been relevant.

Regardless of what you think of the behaviour of all involved, the case was as the CoA puts it, a "classic case for decision by the jury".  A different jury might well have reached a different verdict on the same evidence.  Nonetheless, all of Evans' appeals to date have failed.  It could be he is the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice.  It could also be, and it has to be said this is my view, that both he and McDonald took despicable advantage of someone they must have known to have been incapable of truly consenting to sex.  When you then consider the further extenuating circumstances, that immediately after Evans' conviction the victim's name was being spread on Twitter and she was being denounced as a liar and worse, not to mention his wholesale lack of remorse, you can more than understand why some don't want to see Evans playing football for Sheffield United again.

Except the campaign against Evans isn't being fought on those grounds, for the good reason a person sent to prison shouldn't be stopped from returning to their job once released unless it was directly relevant to the crime, or if the conviction makes it impossible for them to resume, i.e. if they were in a position of true authority.  All the onus has instead been put on the "role model" argument, the exact same one so often snatched at by tabloids when they've uncovered a footballer having an affair or a celebrity taking drugs, having failed to prove hypocrisy.  This assumes first that anyone who plays football at a professional level can be held up as a role model, that the simple act of pulling on a football shirt elevates them above normal mortals and demands they show extra responsibility, lest anyone is naive enough to think what a player does off the pitch is just as worthy of emulation as what they do on it.  This is quite the burden to put on the shoulders of young players, whom regardless of their new found status are likely to be just as immature as their peers who aren't in the public eye.

Second, the argument seems to suggest some people can be so overawed by the status of someone they admire that any other bearing on their thinking, whether it be friends, parents or siblings can be disregarded.  There is perhaps something to Jean Hatchet stating that for Sheffield United to re-sign Evans would be to send a message that "men who commit such atrocious crimes will suffer only a small penance whilst the women they attack suffer for the rest of their lives", but Evans, whether he plays again for United or not, will forever be remembered as being convicted of rape and having caused this entire furore.  Some Sheffield United fans have responded in a way that gives credence to the claim re-signing Evans trivialises his offence, and the club while condemning the abuse meted out to Jessica Ennis-Hill could have justified its decision to allow Evans to train with the team instead of hiding behind the PFA's request far better, yet fans will nearly always defend their club when they perceive it as under attack, as we saw with Liverpool and Luis Suarez.  Sheffield United players have not worn t-shirts defending Evans for one thing.

It's also come to something when Julie Bindel, of all people, wonders if the campaigns against Dapper Laughs and Julien Deblanc aren't in danger of morphing into a censorship akin to the one her generation detested when it was led by Mary Whitehouse.  Evans is clearly a separate issue, but it does as she writes distract from dealing with the wider issue of misogyny and outdated attitudes in general in the game; when Richard Scudamore can say he wouldn't employ a rapist, but is more than happy to bully smaller clubs and remain friends with people who refer to women as "gash" then it's not as though an example is being set at the very top.  The underlying sentiment may be the right one; whether Evans and Sheffield United are the right target at the right time remains to be seen.

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Monday, November 17, 2014 

Islamic State and the "glamour" of war.

If there's one thing war most certainly isn't, it's glamorous.  Only the truly chuckleheaded try and make it look that way, most of whom are by coincidence looking for fresh recruits.  All too often accounts of soldiers, defenders, even those on the offensive, fall into adulation and hero worship, any qualms about the hideousness of what those being chronicled are doing, for the greater good or not, forgotten amid the need to create a myth.  Those defending Kobani against Islamic State for instance are without a doubt fighting a noble cause, against an enemy whose inhumanity, barbarity and bloodlust is most certainly not mythical.  They are not however uniquely heroic, the best of humanity against the worst or any other hyperbole; they're still a militia, a people's militia or not, and turning your back on any militia isn't advisable.

Islamic State is hardly likely then to document how their fighters around Kobani will be shitting in dug pits, if of course they have enough food to be able to think about shitting, desperate for water or any liquid, constantly watching the skies terrified of a drone or US warplane getting too close for comfort.  No, instead they ramp up how a tiny minority when not on the front line are housed in seized properties where it's not all that different to back home, chilling with their Muslim brothers, truly living rather than merely existing, as they would have been had they stayed in Jeddah, Tunis or err, Portsmouth.

As Shiraz Maher says, the stuff IS does make available to the world is of "exceptional quality", at least in comparison to a decade ago when IS's predecessors were uploading videos depicting much the same thing, only it appeared to have been filmed with a potato.  It's also revealing in how it mixes the utterly banal with the unbelievably narcissistic, the most vapid and disposable of Western culture appropriated to promote a creed and cause antithetical to everything Hollywood holds dear.  Under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's glorious caliphate, the message seems to be, even the executions will be choreographed and directed by someone with much the same talent as Michael Bay or McG.  Not for these poor bastards a bullet in the back of the head; whereas before IS eschewed all out gore, the screen fading to black as a Western hostage's neck began to be slashed, the camera on this occasion delights in the blood spilled onto sand, the vivid red deliberately set against the dull yellow for maximum impact.

It's not meant for me, of course.  This is your fate, it says to those in Syria and Iraq fighting against IS, whether it be government forces, the Kurds, Shia militias or rebel factions they might have once battled alongside.  This is what you could be doing, it says to the disaffected radically inclined Sunni youth of everywhere, whether they be psychopaths, the sexually frustrated or those with notions of doing good, all are invited and welcome.  Sure, our masked friend with the London accent is once again centre stage, promising to bring the slaughter he's about to lead to "our streets", but it's an empty threat.  After cutting the neck of the man who a second ago was kneeling before him, he then pulls his victim's head back, slow motion is deployed, and he fixes the camera with what is meant to be a stare of defiance.  All I see in those eyes is fear.  A supposed terrorist not at his most powerful but his most bestial, with the man he's just mortally wounded helpless, and still he's terrified.  The victims by contrast go to their deaths with a courage the killers are incapable of emulating.

The video also distracted, intentionally or otherwise, from how things suddenly aren't going the way of IS.  Whether al-Baghdadi was injured or not in the missile strike near Mosul, the group still hasn't taken Kobani and doesn't look as though it can.  It's also losing territory in Iraq, mainly thanks to the involvement of the aforementioned Shia militias backed by Iran, and it's not beyond the realms of possibility the Syrian government might soon win back control of Aleppo, with the obvious next target for Assad the IS capital of Raqqa.  A movement that previously looked unstoppable isn't going to attract the same numbers of recruits, especially those who aren't looking for martyrdom and instead have treated their journey to Syria as little more than a gap year.

Enter then David Cameron, who somehow confused parliaments, announcing new anti-terror legislation in Canberra rather than at Westminster.  A compromise has been reached between stripping citizenship altogether from those who go to fight and instead excluding them for two years, unless they accept they could be prosecuted, as well as subject to stringent monitoring.  Except in reality statelessness was never an option as it's illegal, and nor has it been explained whether someone who decides to wait out the two years will then be treated in the same way on return anyway, as you expect they would.  This rather ignores how the main threat comes usually from those who are stopped from travelling in the first place, as both of the recent attacks in Canada were carried out by men whose passports were confiscated, or from those chosen specifically for a plot, as the 7/7 jihadis were.  Most who head for Syria will end up dead extremely quickly, or left embittered and/or damaged by their experience rather than further radicalised.  It might seem blasé or irresponsible to let those set on jihad go to Syria, but it could be the least worst option, so long as combined with a policy of prosecution and heightened surveillance for those who do choose to come back.

Hyperbole is admittedly tempting when it comes to IS.  Their aim is to instil fear and hatred, and when you really could be next the effect is always going to be palpable.  The best way to respond here though is not to ramp up the panic or to scaremonger, it's to fight back against the narrative of their propaganda, to not give them almost pet nicknames but regard them as what they are: the lowest of the low.  They're not revolutionaries or religious fundamentalists (although they are) so much as murderers and rapists of fellow Muslims, and that is what they will remain.

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Friday, November 14, 2014 

The Rake's song.

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Thursday, November 13, 2014 

The downfall.

Ah, Mazher Mahmood.  Time was all we had to identify him were a couple of grainy photos filched from an Albanian newspaper website, obtained by them from who knows where and which also soon disappeared down the memory hole thanks to "Maz's" ever busy legal beavers.  It took a long damn time, but the collapse of the Tulisa Constovalos drug trial finally prompted a media organisation to challenge Mahmood's claims his life would be put in danger should his true countenance be widely publicised.  The last time Maz tried and failed to prevent the media publishing his fizzog, winning a temporary injunction against among others, this blog, only the Graun went ahead and did so anyway.

Panorama and John Sweeney are thankfully more indefatigable beasts.  Twice Mahmood's lawyers forced the BBC to postpone the broadcast, first with the renewed claim he couldn't possibly be unmasked lest those he exposed come after him, always a risible argument considering his victims know his face all too well, and then after that failed with a challenge over the evidence involving John Bryan's procuring, or rather non-procurement of prostitutes.  With this last desperate attempt rejected, BBC1 was at last able to show the documentary last night.

And while for those of us who've followed Mahmood's activities down the years there was little we didn't already know included, the exception being the claims of Mahmood's links to corrupt Met officers, you can more than understand why he and News UK tried everything to stop it from airing.  Apart from identifying Mahmood, his methods were laid bare, vignettes taken from the secret recordings made by his team which he and the News of the World never wanted you to see.  John Alford declaring himself teetotal, with Mahmood then urging him to drink anyway, page 3 model Emma Morgan given cocaine by the person she was then entrapped into "buying" it from to supply to Mahmood, Constovalos made to believe she was being considered for a role in a Hollywood film alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as she was the obvious choice to play a "bad girl"; whoever the source was for the material, and the guess would have to be it came from within News UK, it showed Mahmood in just about the worst possible light.

As contemptible as Mahmood is, this was never about just him.  Mahmood could only work as he did for so long with the support of first the News of the Screws, and then following its sad demise, the Sun on Sunday.  It should be stressed that on occasion, Mahmood's entrapment tactics produced important, genuinely in the public interest stories, such as the corruption he uncovered involving the Pakistani cricket team.  Those kind of targets didn't satisfy either him or his editors though, nor one could say did they NotW readers.  No, instead they had to stitch up foolish but otherwise decent people somewhat in the public eye, such as Emma Morgan, Johnnie Walker or the Earl of Hardwicke.  At his very worst, he and his team concocted entire fictional plots, whether it be the one to kidnap Victoria Beckham, with the trial of those accused collapsing when it become public Mahmood had paid the man who "informed" him of the nefarious deal, or the "red mercury" plot, with those entrapped thankfully found not guilty.

Yet despite these failures, both the police and the Crown Prosecution Service continued to work with him, going ahead with cases such as the one involving Constolvalos when it was an obvious example of entrapment.  They carried on doing so even after the Screws was put out of its misery, and as we now know, 3 further cases have been dropped as Mahmood was to be the key witness.  It's possible other previous cases could now be the subject of appeal, especially if Mahmood is charged with perjury and attempting to pervert the course of justice over the collapse of the Constolvalos trial as many expect.

Indeed, as Roy Greenslade writes, this level of protection seems to be continuing, as the attorney general asked the BBC not to screen the docu.  Presumably on the basis it could make it more difficult for Mahmood to get a fair trial should he be charged, the real objection is more likely "Maz" and his editors still have friends in high places.  Why else would News UK still be providing Mahmood with their largesse for vexatious litigation when he is supposedly on suspension, unless they still have a glimmer of hope that he could still return?

Regardless of that wishful thinking, Mahmood is finished.  The real motivation behind his attempts to stop Panorama was not over his safety, but his ability to carry on as before.  His methods detailed, his visage shown, few will now make the mistake of being drawn in by the image and boasts of a serial offender.  And with him, hopefully, also ends another disgraceful period in British journalism.

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014 

There isn't a whitewash at the Home Office.

Not provenSuch was the verdict given by Theresa May yesterday on the allegation there was a Home Office cover-up after Geoffrey Dickens MP sent his now famed dossier on establishment paedophiles to then home secretary Leon Brittan for his perusal.  She couldn't say categorically there hadn't been a conspiracy, as the review she commissioned by NSPCC head Peter Wanless and Richard Whittam QC also couldn't be certain there wasn't, as all but one of the 114 documents found to be missing, presumed destroyed remain unaccounted for.  They also however found nothing to suggest there had been an concerted effort to remove evidence; the majority were likely shredded in line with the 2 year retention policy the Home Office had at the time.

Had this been a report into nearly any other aspect of policy or alleged wrongdoing by government, the minister would have ignored its inconclusive findings and claimed it proved nothing untoward had gone on.  Nor could you particularly blame them for doing so: for a report that decides to hedge its bets in its conclusions, the evidence fairly speaks for itself.  Wanless and Whittam, despite what critics have suggested since, did not feel constrained by the somewhat restrictive terms of reference they were given (paragraph 12, page 5 of the report), and so went beyond the Home Office to see if they could find anything related, including asking MI5 to delve into their archives.  They failed to discover anything either.

The report makes clear this wasn't a half-arsed quick look behind filing cabinets and inside previously locked cupboards.  777 storage units were checked (para 2, page 13), and nothing that shouldn't have been in them was found, with all the physical holdings of various branches of the Home Office searched.  In addition, the CPS, Department of Health, Department of Education, Department for Communities and Local Government, the Attorney General's office, HMRC and the Cabinet Office were all asked to see if they had anything that could be related to the missing files or of relevance to the inquiry, and none did.  One new discovery was the Ministry of Justice, split off from the Home Office by the last government, found it had destroyed one of the lost files as late as two years ago (para 38, page 24).

One other highly significant document that was found by the Home Office following the publication of the first inquiry poses as many questions as it answers.  Not located initially due to its title failing to suggest it contained anything relating to child sexual exploitation (para 3, page 13), it records details of a meeting between Dickens and Brittan in November 1983, a couple of months after an attack on a child in Brighton made front page news.  Dickens gave Brittan two letters containing allegations, and sent a further letter in January 1984, thanking Brittan for his "splendid support" along with more cases for investigation.  Brittan sent a reply in March the same year outlining the progress made, with the DPP having decided two of the cases should be the subject of further inquiries by the police.  Wanless and Whittam note that contrary to contemporary media coverage of these meetings, there is no mention of "prominent politicians or celebrities" in the cases under discussion (para 9, page 14).

Could it possibly be that Dickens' dossier, which might in fact be nothing more than a slab of letters if it has any relation to the attachments sent to Brittan in January 1984, didn't in fact name the establishment figures it was claimed in the media?  We know Dickens was one of the first MPs to go out of his way in courting the press, and it wouldn't surprise if there was some mutual exaggeration going on for additional effect.  It would explain why Dickens didn't so much as mention or ask whether progress was being made on these high profile individuals, and also why contrary to the media coverage of their meetings no further cases involving VIPs were presented.  That Brittan was also more than cooperative rather casts doubt on the point of hounding two successive heads from the overarching inquiry into child abuse due to their links to him; Brittan may well have been treated unfairly.

Indeed, as Wanless and Whittam note, of the missing files not assumed destroyed at the end of the standard 2 year retention period, most seem to have vanished this century (para 2, page 34), well after the point at which most of those employed at the Home Office will have moved on.  Why someone at this remove would feel the need to "protect" the Home Office isn't clear.  Nor are these 114 files a trove of exposes.  Annex I of the report (PDF) details what is known about them, and 67 are letters from MPs, while the rest are mostly on paedophiles or paedophilia in general.  Some do relate to the Paedophile Information Exchange and discussions on whether it should be outlawed, with the report in its second part considering whether PIE was funded either directly or indirectly by the Home Office.  With no files again being found to support the evidence of Tim Hulbert, who believes £30,000 was paid to PIE via the Voluntary Services Unit, possibly to assist Special Branch with infiltrating or monitoring the group, Wanless and Whittam can only conclude there is nothing else to back the claim up.

It is, as the report concludes, "very difficult to prove anything definitive based on imperfectly operated paper records system at 30 years remove".  This suits those who are convinced something has to be there just fine, as they can point to omissions in the search process and carry on regarding 30-year-old media reports and the works of not taken seriously by almost anyone for good reason MPs as gospel.  It also means those like me who are sceptical at best about the idea of an establishment cover-up when the establishment is terrible at cover-ups can say there's better things those worried could be doing than looking for something that probably isn't there.  Like how the raids on Tor last week targeted not the real source of depravity on the dark net, the paedophile forums, but instead some of the drug markets and Doxbin (which is already back online).  The most sexually exploitative site seized was the Pink Meth, a "revenge porn" onion.  We also have vigilantes targeting those of very little brain, prompting Jim Gamble to suggest we should have police officers sitting in stations entrapping potential abusers on social media, something guaranteed not to result in injustice or abuses of power.

Obvious is that the child abuse inquiry needs a new chairman, and quickly.  When the likes of Simon Danczuk refuse to accept the findings of a report by the head of the NSPCC though, it's difficult to know just who will be acceptable.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014 

Is it possible to parody something so clearly beyond parody?

The woman in the Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up video is the woman we've been waiting for: a woman who does everything the very worst men do and then ends it all with a hearty "fuck you".

The video for Smack My Bitch Up looks on the surface to be a dystopian feminist nightmare: shot entirely from a first person perspective, we see what look to be a man's arms as he prepares for a night out, using shaving cream, going to the toilet (notice that he sits down; is he merely dropping the kids off at the pool or perhaps sitting down for another reason?), snorting cocaine.

Nothing especially wrong with any of that.  It's once he reaches the first bar things start to go awry.  He tries to force a woman to kiss him; he gropes the women he passes on his way down to the stairs into a club; he attacks various people once on the dancefloor, before setting upon the DJ, who seems to be playing a fairly generic 90s piece of electronica which doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be straight up drum and bass or something far more tame, and is enlivened only by the vocal informing us of how the singer is "change[ing] my pitch up" then "smack[ing] my bitch up".  When all else fails, head into obviously controversial territory and then respond in the most obtuse way imaginable.  Just ask Nicki Minaj.

With the track's breakdown swirling in our ears, the ethereal female vocal that accompanies it corresponding with our protagonist injecting something into his arm, the video takes an even darker turn.  He heads for a strip club, again groping a woman on the stairs down into this new hell.  Here we see him getting too close to one dancer for her comfort, raising the question of where the bouncers are, before he somehow manages to seduce one dancer through apparent sheer force of personality.  They steal a car, and retire back to the flat we started out in.  After the requisite amount of gratuitous fumbling around, the dancer leaves as soon as the sex is over.  It's only then our view switches from the door to a mirror where it's revealed that... the person we've been seeing the world through was a woman the entire time!

This bait and switch technique, drawing in those who came for the T and A only then for the video to shove their narrow and sexist motivations back into their faces might seem like having your cake and eating it, but this doesn't matter when the joke's on them.  The video acts out these caricatures for our amusement, while also challenging our prejudices: why couldn't it have been a woman acting in such a way?  Real equality will be here when women have the right to be as stupid and irresponsible as men, and aren't judged differently for it.  This is a band in full creative control of their image, unafraid to troll people if they can also force them into thinking.  How's that for paradigm smashing?

[In answer to the title, no, you really can't.]

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Monday, November 10, 2014 

The worst of it is Dan Hodges could be right.

There are two main factors behind the shadowy manoeuvrings against Ed Miliband.  The first is the party, riven by the competing personalities of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has never attempted something akin to a proper reconciliation since.  In a sense, what we've seen over the past few days are the attempts made against Brown replayed 5 years on.  Sure, then it was far easier to define just who it was trying to get rid of Gordon, not least as first James Purnell and then Geoff "Buff" Hoon and Patricia Hewitt were all incorrigible Blairites.  They also in fairness to them had the courage to come out and say Gordon was leading the party to certain defeat.  The problem was both they had left it too late to change the leader again, and also there was no one willing to take over anyway, the attempts to get David Miliband to stand against Brown having failed.

When the favoured Miliband then lost the leadership contest to his younger brother, it was no surprise there were ructions from the beginning.  Ed wasn't the continuity Brown candidate, Ed Balls having taken on that role, but he wasn't seen as anti-Brown enough either.  More importantly, he hadn't just thwarted the obviously most electable prospective leader, he'd defeated his own brother.  This of course wasn't taken as evidence of Ed's ruthlessness, rather of his treachery.  Although, having now suffered under 4 years of Ed's leadership, ruthless isn't one of the first adjectives you'd choose to describe it.

Miliband hasn't been a weak leader by the most standard definition, just as David Cameron hasn't been a weak prime minister by the same measure.  Taking on Murdoch, Paul Dacre, speaking against "predator capitalism", calling for an energy price freeze, none are things a cowardly or spineless opposition leader would have done.  If anything, it's his luck that's been out: we are living through a time when the public itself doesn't know what it wants, so confused are the various poll findings, the rise of the UKIPs, the Greens, the SNP.  David Cameron is more popular than his party despite his kowtowing to its worst elements; Ed by contrast is less popular than his party despite embodying Labour's values.  Cameron has the advantage of being prime minister: it's easier to be thought of as being up to the job once you're in it.  That he often comes across as incredibly easy to fluster and wind up, exactly the qualities you don't want from the person set to renegotiate our most important trade relationship doesn't then matter so much.

Ed's biggest mistake has been to not attempt to properly unite the party.  Instead, he did the bare minimum, trying with his speech immediately after winning the leadership to dress old wounds.  He might as well have thrust in a salt coated finger for all the good it did.  The old Blairites hate him for not being David; the right-wing of the party hates him for not hugging closer to the Tories, for not copying their spending plans to the letter; Ed Balls and his supporters (are there any?) hate him for standing in his way; and the left-wing of the party, if there is still such a thing, can't work out why, having done the hard part of standing up to the press, he then hasn't pursued the coalition's beastliness to everyone below the middle.

Atul Hatwal's post over on Labour Uncut is fairly representative of why this is happening and now.  As from the beginning, it's the same complaints: Ed isn't seen as a potential prime minister, and the Tories lead on economic competence because Labour hasn't managed to convince the public they won't revert to tax and spend.   If it was one or the other rather than both, it would be different, but it isn't.  Quite what Labour is supposed to do at this point to try and win back trust on the economy, having apologised plenty of times despite the Tories claiming they haven't, and with Ed Balls promising to match the Tories' spending plans, just with some additional leeway on spending on infrastructure isn't explained, for the reason this isn't really about that.  Dan Hodges admits as much in his Torygraph piece: no one believed in Ed as leader from the outset, for their own specific reasons as summarised above.

The other factor then, 700 words later, is the sheer cowardice of all involved.  And I mean all involved, as neither side wants to do anything other than brief journalists.  None of the 20 shadow ministers desperate to get rid of Ed, if we're to believe the Observer, want to be the first to come out wielding the knife.  Nor do those within the shadow cabinet or even the parliamentary party want to visit TV studios and say I'm backing Ed, except for those forced to do so when confronted at camera point.  Moreover, if the strength of feeling has been running at this level for so long, why postpone it until now, when there simply isn't the time for a replacement leader to bed down, not that one has come forward anyway?  Yvette Cooper is a joke, Andy Burnham would be attacked mercilessly by the Tories over Mid-Staffs, Chuka Umunna isn't ready yet, and Alan Johnson, apart from having been a hopeless minister and shadow chancellor in the past, has enough brains to know a poisoned chalice when it's put in front of him.  That Johnson probably is the best alternative is indicative of the intellectual poverty, not to forget the absolute stupidity of doing this now.  Just as some tried to get John Reid to stand against Gordon Brown, so the moron tendency in Labour thinks all you need to do is stick someone certifiably working class into the leader's chair and everything will be awesome.

All that's changed to trigger this has been Labour's slip in the polls.  Ignore the nonsense about the conference speech as it's just that.  It was bad but ever since it's just been used as the excuse.  The same goes for the Heywood and Middleton by-election, where the Labour share of the vote held up.  Yes, Labour does have its own problems with the UKIPs, just not anywhere near to the same extent as the Tories.  UKIP is clearly not going to end up with the 15+% share of the vote the polls suggest come the election, nor is it likely the SNP will all but wipe out Labour MPs north of the border.  Just as the argument goes Labour can't win the election not trusted on the economy and with a useless leader, neither can the Tories when they need to increase their share of the vote to get a majority.  There is not so much as a smidgen of polling evidence to suggest they can.

2010 was meant to be a good election to lose.  Such has been the success of the coalition that 2015 is now being described in the same way.  Perhaps as Dan Hodges says Miliband needs to lose so Labour can move on.  The problem is whether the voters oblige.

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Friday, November 07, 2014 

Into mist.

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Thursday, November 06, 2014 

Make it easy for us, Cheltenham.

At this point, it would be a lot easier for all concerned if GCHQ (and MI5 and SIS for that matter) just let everyone know who the very few people they aren't bugging are.  Is it safe to assume the royal family aren't having their phone calls intercepted, for instance, or at least aren't now, considering the still uncertain provenance of the "Squidgy" and Camilla tapes?  How about MPs?  Is the Wilson doctrine still in force, or is that another relic no longer felt necessary in this brave new world that has such people in it?  Considering the doctrine was established in the main to protect communications between MPs and their constituents, conversations that would not, as phone calls between lawyers and their clients are, be felt to be subject to legal professional privilege, is there any reason to believe the successive prime ministers who have insisted the doctrine still has force?

Even if it does still apply, as was outlined by David Davis in parliament, the ban is only on the content of communications, not on the metadata, the time of the call and so on.  Evidently the same must apply to intercepted communications between lawyers and their clients; even if a government lawyer decides a conversation cannot be stored and must be destroyed as keeping it can't be justified under the usual national security, economic well-being or prevention/detection of serious crime exemptions, the metadata will still exist and be kept.

Considering the Snowden revelations, it really shouldn't be surprising the intelligence agencies also view privileged communications as fair game, so long of course as they can point to one of the above reasons for doing so.  It does though, precisely because the legal privilege attached to conversations between lawyers and their clients should be sacrosanct.  If there was any suggestion of collusion, for instance, between a lawyer and a "terrorist suspect", we almost certainly would have known about it down to how the Met leaks anything remotely prejudicial should their charges fail to stick.  No, this seems to have been done not just in case it provided additional information that could be useful to the government against those facing deportation on national security grounds, or to help resist legal claims by those caught up in the rendition scandal, but as with so much else of GCHQ's work, because it could.

We have a good story to tell, GCHQ's new director Robert Hannigan wrote at the beginning of the week.  And so, as seems inevitable, will the next whistleblower.

Update: I somehow managed to confuse provenance with providence.  I am, as ever, an idiot.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2014 

On naming Will Cornick.

Hard cases, so it goes, make bad law.  Much the same applies when it comes to what judges themselves recognise are extraordinary cases.  The murder of Ann Maguire, stabbed to death in her classroom by a then 15-year-old pupil, named as William Cornick after the judge lifted the legal restrictions on naming juveniles accused and convicted of criminal offences, is sadly not entirely without precedent.  Maguire did not so much as intervene in a fight as headmaster Philip Lawrence did, though; she died purely as a result of Cornick's long developing irrational hatred of her, fostered by what might well have been similarly developing personality disorders.

As always in these instances, especially when someone pleads guilty at all but the first opportunity, how much of what would have been the prosecution case can be taken as beyond dispute is open to doubt.  Despite media reporting which might give the impression, Mr Justice Coulson in his sentencing remarks does not accept without question that Cornick had been planning to kill Maguire for the best part of three years, although Cornick had certainly not hidden the violent animosity he felt towards her.  At Christmas last year he told a friend on Facebook he intended to "brutally kill" her, later writing in February of how Maguire "deserves more than death more than pain torture and more than anything that we can understand".  He later told the prosecution's leading psychiatric expert he firmly made up his mind to kill Maguire the Thursday before the murder, rather than killing himself.  Whether he truly intended to also kill or at least attempt to kill two other teachers, as has been reported, is dubious; after stabbing Maguire the opportunity to seek them out had he so wished was there.  He instead went and calmly sat back down in the classroom, remarked it was a pity how she was (at that point) still alive and then gave himself up meekly when two other teachers arrived.

Cornick's actions are not just unusual in terms of how minors rarely kill, and how when they do they most often kill other children, but in that he killed both an adult and one in a position of authority.  The first apparent instance of a student killing a teacher in the classroom itself in this country, a grim fact that brings into focus how we've escaped the worst of the violence other nations have experienced in schools since the Dunblane massacre, it would have taken an especially brave, or indeed, foolish, judge to refuse the request from the media for the section 39 order preventing his identification to be lifted.  More eyebrow raising perhaps is that the application was led by the Guardian.

One letter writer criticising the paper comments on how the leader in defence of the application seems almost embarrassed at its role.  Certainly, by far the most important principle at work is that justice should be seen to be done.  This is obviously not an absolute: most I suspect would now accept the decision by Mr Justice Morland to lift the s39 order on Jon Venables and Robert Thompson was the wrong one, fuelling rather than dampening the moral panic that followed the murder of James Bulger, as David Omand noted in his review (PDF) into what, if anything went wrong in the supervision of Venables following his conviction for possessing child pornography.  In his extended reasoning on why he is lifting the order, Mr Justice Coulson dismisses the arguments made by Cornick's defence counsel that it could affect his right to life under the HRA, opening him to attack by others at the secure unit where he is detained, and could in turn increase his risk of suicide.  As he is already on permanent 24-hour suicide watch, which in turn limits his interactions with others being held, the increased risk is at least for now fairly negligible.

Where Coulson's balancing of Cornick's welfare with the right of the press to name him is more questionable is on how it could affect his parents, and on the wider issues raised by the crime itself.  In an especially unusual move, Cornick's parents sat alongside him in the dock as he was sentenced, a request allowed by Coulson.  As they've more than reasonably refused interviews and requested privacy, we can't know their exact thinking so can only guess, but you would hazard it was a gesture meant for Maguire's friends and relatives, expressing the remorse and guilt their son has refused to, hating what he did while still being there for him.  Coulson suggests this level of support is unlikely to be affected by his being named, but there is surely a myriad of difference between being known locally as the parents of a notorious killer, and then suddenly being thrust into the limelight nationally as such.  At the end of his ruling Coulson expressly criticises the media for how they conducted themselves outside court on Monday, calling it "shameful", and this was in reference to how journalists and photographers jumped onto the car bringing the Maguire family to the hearing.  If that's how they acted towards the victim's relatives, just what behaviour can the Cornicks expect?

Equally problematic is Coulson's view that debate on "the safety of teachers, the possibility of American-style security measures in schools, and the dangers of 'internet loners' concocting violent fantasies on the internet" will be informed by Cornick's naming.  As he says, this is an exceptional case.  It is however very far from exceptional for teenagers to have violent fantasies, at the same time as not having the slightest inclination of carrying them out in reality.  Few if any of Cornick's friends seem to have believed he was truly capable of such a horrific act of violence until it was too late to prevent it.  Coverage has focused not so much on the rarity of Cornick's crime as it has on whether he could have been stopped, as well as his wholesale lack of remorse and empathy for his victim.  Cornick may not have been aiming for notoriety as some others who have committed acts of violence at their schools have, but it is nonetheless what his crime has wrought.  Plastering his face across front pages, this boy least likely to kill, who hid "strong feelings of anger" beneath his "outward appearance", does not seem likely to deter those harbouring similar feelings exacerbated by mental health problems or disorders.

Coulson for his part dismisses any naysayers on just how much of a deterrent naming is, writing "Ill-informed commentators may scoff, but those of us involved in the criminal justice system know that deterrence will almost always be a factor in the naming of those involved in offences such as this".  Some of us may indeed be ill-informed, but is someone such as Frances Crook, or Ben Gunn for that matter?  Unlike others who have questioned the sentence itself, in the circumstances it does not seem excessive for a pre-meditated, brutal murder committed in front of other children, even with Cornick's age and capacity for rehabilitation taken into account.  If the psychiatrists and psychologists who have spoken with and examined him at length are right in that he has a personality disorder with marked psychopathic traits, he might will never be released.

Naming Cornick has also had the effect of putting attention almost wholly on him rather than on Maguire and the influence she had on so many lives.  Most of us remember a teacher who went beyond mere platitudes and was actively inspirational, for whom nothing was too much trouble, who could be a friend at the same as demanding that you aspire for more than just mediocrity.  For 40 years it seems Maguire was that teacher, leaving separate generations much to be thankful to her for.  All until a indistinct, hateful young man took against her for reasons no one, not even he can properly explain.  Justice might have been served by naming him, but it also would have been in two years' time when he reaches 18 and his protection under s39 lapses.  It would have allowed Maguire to be remembered as she deserved to be, rather than as a bit-part in a story where the victim always ranks after the perpetrator.

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