Saturday, 29 March 2008

A big hole

British troops appear to have been dragged into the fighting in and around Basra after all. The Telegraph is reporting that:
British forces today became directly involved for the first time in the battle to stamp out militias from the Iraqi city of Basra, engaging suspected Mehdi Army positions with artillery.
The Times reports that:
The heavily armed 1 Scots Guards battle group, equipped with Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles, was on alert and ready to leave its fortified airbase outside Basra as fighting spread to a string of cities across southern Iraq.
The intense fighting means that Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, is likely to tell the Commons next week that British troop levels will remain at about 4,100 for the next few months, abandoning plans to reduce numbers to 2,500 from the spring.
Hang on a second, wasn't the plan announced last October for the troop cut to take place in the spring?

The Times' Foreign Editor Richard Beeston certainly thinks so. If the Iraqis fail and British troops intervene:
any hope of the withdrawal promised by Gordon Brown last year of another 1,500 British troops this spring will have to be shelved until Basra can be stabilised.
Beeston argues that Britain is stuck in Iraq without enough troops to make any difference. But at least we can't have an inquiry while they're there. Or can we? The Independent says that:
Gordon Brown's claim that an inquiry into the war in Iraq would be a "distraction" for Britain's troops on the ground has been repudiated by some of the country's former defence chiefs.

Slight mistake

The Guardian has another gossipy story about the attempts of Gordon Brown's new spin doctor, Stephen Carter, to cheer up his image. It mentions that Brown made a slip of the tongue in refering to Nelson Mandela having been released from prison in our lunchtime. It then comments:
Brown is not renown for making mistakes in speeches.
No, but the Grauniad's mistakes are legendary.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Desperation at the Commons

The last minute decision by the House of Commons authorities to launch a high court challenge against the Information Tribunal order to release MPs expenses has surprised many people. The Times says that, with the information prepared for release, Commons speaker Michael Martin suddenly found a second lawyer who said that the case could be won.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

It's about time

I've got a piece on Comment is Free today about the Information Commissioner accusing the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) of deliberate delay on Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. NOMS is part of the Ministry of Justice, which funds the Commissioner, as part of its overall responsibility for FOI.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Gordon breaks a promise

Speaking of things that turn out not to be true, it turns out that Gordon Brown's promise in October that UK troop numbers in Iraq will fall to 2,500 in 'the spring' will not be honoured.

The spin at the time was that this was part of a plan to get all the troops home by the end of this year.

On Monday the Telegraph suggested that military planners were against the cut. Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence indicated that it might not happen. Today, with the Defence Secretary quietly visiting Iraq and the budget dominating the news, the BBC was told that it probably wouldn't happen.

Will the media be more sceptical of such claims next time? As David McKie said (below):
newspapers print these speculative stories, partly because they believe there's a genuine chance it might happen, but partly because if the story proves to be wrong that's unlikely to be remembered for long.

Saving up for the budget

With the budget appearing to many people to be a bit of a yawn, David McKie on Comment is Free suggests that it's because so much of it has been spun in advance.
There may here and there be innocent folk who will say: excuse me, but exactly what is the difference between the new honest, decent, straight dealing, manipulation-free political environment promised by Gordon Brown when he became prime minister, and the now much-regretted spin-driven methods of the discredited Campbell, Mandelson and of course, Blair?
Mckie argues that an element of leaking has always gone on and points out that some of the apparent leaks have turned out not to be true.
Though well aware what politicians and their acolytes are up to, newspapers print these speculative stories, partly because they believe there's a genuine chance it might happen, but partly because if the story proves to be wrong that's unlikely to be remembered for long.

The depths of shallowness

An advert 'featuring lingerie-clad women praying for beautiful hair' has been banned after offending christians. The Guardian helpfully carries the ad on its website. It shows women uttering phrases like:
"May my new curls make her feel choked with jealousy"
The company whose products the ads promoted are unhappy, claiming to have 'a loyal following of women' and that the ads were 'produced by an all-female creative team', as if that makes any difference. I don't think advertisers can claim the same rights as everyone else to offend people in the name free speech. It's a shame that the main aim of adverts these days seems to be to promote a culture of utter shallowness.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Sparing Saudi blushes

The Guardian has another good story today about the MoD, BAE and the Saudis.

I've also done a piece for Comment is Free about the current Information Tribunal case.

Slightly sceptical

The Guardian reports with some scepticism that China is 'claiming' that terrorists tried to crash a jet. It puts the story in the context of a wider crackdown on separatism in the Xinjiang region. Amnesty International pointed to a lack of evidence to back up the claims.

Perhaps all unsubstantiated claims of terrorist activity should be treated as sceptically as this?

Sunday, 9 March 2008

In BAA's pocket

The Sunday Times story about Department for Transport officials colluding with BAA to fix the results of the consultation on a third Heathrow is a real scandal. Sadly, it doesn't look as if it will be picked up as such.

It's another example of how civil servants in the Labour government see themselves as there to do the bidding of big business. The Times also revealed last October that civil servants had conspired with mobile phone companies to stop the EU cutting charges for international calls.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Not Zimbabwe yet

The Independent reports that the Ministry of Defence, fresh from gagging SAS whistleblower Ben Griffin, has obtained a court order to stop the intermittent peace camp outside the Aldermaston nuclear weapons facility. The Indy criticises the move as another curtailment of the right to protest, which is true, but is that the intention? The monthly protests have attracted little attention but the story is now front page news and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is drumming up support for a day of action to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Aldermaston march.

Meanwhile the Indy has another story about how a Zimbabwean trade unionist was tortured and made to say 'Robert Mugabe is always right'. That's true big brother stuff and however obsessive and repressive Gordon Brown is becoming, we're not quite at that level yet.

Friday, 7 March 2008

'Monster' Hillary claims her first victim

Hillary Clinton has claimed the head of a key member of Barack Obama's campaign who called her a 'monster'. Samantha Power used the M-word in an interview with the Scotsman, apparently saying that the it was off the record.

The paper printed the insult, on the basis that the interview was said in advance to be off the record and therefore that anything Power said was fair game.

Hillary then jumped in and, to prove that she is not someone who eats people up and spits them out, called for Power to be sacked.

There are some challenging ethical issues here. I think when people try to spin things with off the record attacks, it's just hard luck when it backfires. But it doesn't look like Power was doing that. She was promoting her book in the UK with little expectation that anything she said would affect the campaign in the US.

Ironically, the New Statesman has a profile of Power.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

For Iran, (don't) read Iraq

Today's Guardian has the type of story that preceded the invasion of Iraq, an anonymous source feeding a supposedly intelligence-based story about weapons of mass destruction. This time it's about Iran:
The British government said yesterday that Tehran could still be developing a nuclear weapon, and called into question a key American intelligence finding that work on building an Iranian bomb had stopped in 2003.
Apparently, the UK did its own intelligence assessment shortly after the US National Intelligence Estimate said that Iran had dropped its nuclear weapons programme. Was it the Joint Intelligence Committee by any chance?

The anonymous source appears to be Simon Smith, Britain's representative on the International Atomic Energy Authority board, who is quoted directly in the article. The Guardian tells us that:

The evidence has been met with scepticism by several members of the IAEA, who point to the debacle over WMD intelligence on Iraq.

The senior British diplomat said, however: "Just because we got it wrong on Iraq doesn't mean we're getting it wrong on Iran."

Or should that be, 'just because the stories we fed the press on Iraq were dodgy, doesn't mean they won't fall for it again'?

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Ben Griffin speaks out

You can see Ben Griffin, now gagged by the government to prevent further claims about UK involvement in rendition/torture, on YouTube:

They believe we think

The Telegraph reports that:
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is escalating its probe into alleged bribery and corruption at BAE Systems, with one line of investigation being a series of commission payments personally overseen by chief executive Mike Turner during the late 1980s.
It's a good article, with some inside information. But this really spoils it:
It is thought the company, which has always maintained the commissions paid are perfectly legal, legitimate and not bribes, believes Turner is being unfairly smeared.
So Turner, who is still chief executive, wants to claim that he is being unfairly smeared. It's not unusual for such spin to be dressed up as 'X believes he is hard done by'. Of course, the journalist has no way of knowing what X really believes. Here the journalist put some small distance between herself and what Turner believes. But still, if she has to admit she doesn't know what Turner believes, she should leave the spin out altogether.

Was Harry at risk?

As the press continue to go ga-ga over prince Harry in Afghanistan, it's obvious that for the most part the government has achieved a huge propaganda victory with the help of a compliant media. Editors here are said to have unanimously agreed to a 'news blackout' (conspiracy of silence) over Harry's deployment on the grounds that publicising it would put his life and other lives 'at risk'.

But, as I pointed out the other day, the idea that people in a war can be kept entirely safe is a bit strange. Of course, to make Harry a hero we have to believe he was in some kind of danger. According to the Sunday Times, publicist Max Clifford thinks it was all just a PR stunt. Others praise Harry's bravery.

But if Harry was at risk in Afghanistan anyway, how can the media justify concealing his deployment? Perhaps he would have been more at risk had we been told the truth, but can a conspiracy of silence like this be justified on the grounds of relative risk. It looks more like the media engaged in the usual faustian pact of co-operation for access, access that means propaganda for the government. John Williams, the BBC's world news editor, admits as much here.

I think the media would have been more honest if they had said, 'OK we won't reveal his deployment but we won't join in the propaganda either.' But of course there would be no possibility of the media not breaking ranks on that.