Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Who's Hoon kidding?

I notice that James Macintyre has moved from the Indy to the New Statesman, which carries an online exclusive interview with Geoff Hoon.
Geoff Hoon warns against the unhealthy habit of briefing journalists, repeats his appeal to stay in government, and says the PM is the right man to see the country through financial turmoil
Unfortunately, Hoon's reputation was irrevocably damaged by the Iraq war and his deliberate deception of the Intelligence and Security Committee over internal Ministry of Defence dissent over the dossier.

No news is...

The department for Communities and Local Government has told me that its announcement on eco-towns, promised in September, will not happen today or even this week. See previous post

I've done a piece on this for the Indy's Open House. It also covers yesterday's launch of a "coalition" in favour of eco-towns, which bombed.

Great prediction

Looking further into Labour's position on the third runway, I read this in last Tuesday's Times:
The Times understands that Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, strongly supports the proposal and is likely to make the announcement in its favour as early as November.
From Wednesday's Times:
Ruth Kelly has confirmed she will step down as Transport Secretary to spend more time with her family.

Milking the drama

This morning Iain Dale said that David Cameron should call for a recall of parliament to deal with the latest financial crisis. Cameron didn't quite go that far, but showed how desperate he is to pretend that he can do something about it. It looks a bit sad really.

Meanwhile, Labour's John Hutton has tried to outflank the Tories on the pro-business front:
"By opposing Heathrow expansion and now casting fresh doubt on their support for new nuclear power, the Conservatives have today shown they are too weak to take the major decisions so businesses and the economy can succeed."

Spin out of that

Outgoing PM Ehud Olmert has said in an interview that Israel needs to give up just about all the land it grabbed in 1967, including dividing Jerusalem, to achieve peace.

Tucked at the bottom of the Guardian story is an interesting observation from the interviewers:
Olmert's goal, wrote Barnea and Shiffer, was to defend his conduct and leave a legacy, a legacy that might make life harder for Tzipi Livni, who is trying to form a coalition government that would make her prime minister. "There is no diplomatic fog in this interview that she can hide behind," they noted.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Pros and Cons

On Comment is Free, Christian Wolmar has mixed feelings about the tory proposal for a high speed rail line and isn't sure that either the policy or the numbers make sense.
By supporting high speed rail wholeheartedly, the Tories have thrown the gauntlet down to Labour which has dithered over this issue, refusing even to sanction a detailed study of the possible costs and benefits despite a manifesto commitment to that effect. Moreover, in cementing their opposition to a third runway at Heathrow, the Tories have made it even less likely that this outrageous scheme would ever be built.
But does new rail infrastructure, like new airports, encourage travel?
There is an interesting example already on the existing high speed line. In order to increase usage of the line, the government decided to pay for the purchase of high speed trains that will bring in thousands of commuters from Kent. Indeed, housing is now being built in the Ashford area to accommodate them and therefore the overall effect is to encourage people to travel longer distances. The environmental case for high speed lines, therefore, is far from proven.

Vote Tory, save the planet

Have the Tories exposed Labour's inability to take action on the environment? Today's proposal to build a high speed rail network instead of a third Heathrow runway gets my vote.

There are some dodgy (obviously made-up) figures in the proposal:
Villiers will announce that a Tory government would spend £15.6bn between 2015 and 2027 (£1.3bn a year for 12 years) to build the new high speed rail link from London St Pancras to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. A further £4.4bn would be paid by the private sector.
These have obviously been plucked from the air. Then there are the train times:
Journey times on the 180mph line would be slashed: London to Birmingham would take 45 minutes instead of 80; London to Manchester 80 minutes instead of 125, London to Leeds 97 minutes instead of 125 and Manchester to Leeds 17 minutes instead of the current 55.
You can actually get from Kings Cross to Leeds in under two hours. But it does indeed take the best part of an hour to travel the 36 miles from Manchester to Leeds, which should be a cause of national embarrassment.

Declaring an interest

In the Independent, Stephen Glover takes issue with a column in the Evening Standard last week by Roy Greenslade.

Having criticised Greenslade for not declaring that he also writes for the Guardian, Glover says:
I am sure he cannot be in cahoots with Denis O'Brien, the Irish billionaire, who is stalking this newspaper's highly profitable parent company, and says he will close The Independent if he ever gets his hands on it.
Another example of accusing someone without coming out and saying it.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Is this news, or slippage?

There may be more to the Independent's story that British troops will leave Iraq within a year than meets the eye. At first it looks like a rehash of claims last month, that troop levels will get down to a few hundred next year, following a fundamental change of mission.

But August's stories said this would happen by the end of spring and within nine months. The Indy is now saying that this will be achieved within a year from now and by next autumn. So it looks as if the story is not that troops will be reduced but that the reduction will be delayed again.

How clever of the MoD to move the goalposts like this.

Thursday, 25 September 2008


I've done a piece for the Indy's Open House today, asking if North Korea's announcement that it will restart reprocessing plutonium is one more blunder to add to the Bush administration’s counterproliferation record.

Carry on Tony

The Quartet of international powers has "lost its grip" on the Middle East peace process which it is meant to foster, a group of aid agencies says.

The Quartet's representative is, of course Tony Blair. It isn't surprising that it hasn't acheived anything and seems merely to be going through the motions. I can't help thinking of that devastating Harry Enfield sketch where Blair is hired by some big firm, who really don't know what to do with him and send him to the post room.

Police back British big business

The City of London police have closed their files on BT's allegedly illegal trials of spyware Phorm, the BBC reports.

"They said that there was no criminal intent on behalf of BT and that there was implied consent because the service was going to benefit customers," said Alex Hanff, one of the chief campaigners in the case.

Nicholas Bohm, a lawyer with thinktank Foundation for Information Policy Research, said the police response was "absurd".

"A driver who kills someone when drunk has no criminal intent. It is not a necessary ingredient of a crime," he said.

"As for the idea that consent is implied on the grounds that some people would like a service, that is not good enough at all," he added.

If this is true, it seems a bit odd, except that you might expect the City of London police to be reluctant to take on a company like BT.

Right on Jon

Media Workers against the war have posted a transcript with an interview with Jon Snow that went out on Radio 4's Inside Stories on monday. Snow was not happy about the media's collusion with the propaganda stunt of Prince Harry being sent to Afghanistan.
This was propaganda, this was not journalism, this was not ferreting about to get at the truth, this was doing somebody else’s bidding, this was the picture that the Ministry of Defence and others wanted put across the front pages of the newspapers, this was a hole in one for the Palace, the military authorities and Prince Harry, there was no journalism involved at all, not one element of it.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Don't mention the eco-towns

A promise to build ten eco-towns (up from five) was a highlight of Gordon Brown's speech to last year's Labour conference.

This year Brown said not one word about them, neither did Hazel Blears. The only minister to say a word about them was housing minister Caroline Flint, who said this in a little reported speech:
we will rise to the challenge of climate change, creating greener homes for all including 21st Century Eco Towns.

I'm doing my best

Researchers say many ideas about sustainable living are a myth and people who believe they have green lifestyles "can be seen as some of the main culprits behind global warming", the Guardian reports.
According to the researchers, people who regularly recycle rubbish and save energy at home are also the most likely to take frequent long-haul flights abroad. The carbon emissions from such flights can swamp the green savings made at home, the researchers claim.

Questioned on their heavy use of flying, one respondent said: "I recycle 100% of what I can, there's not one piece of paper goes in my bin, so that makes me feel less guilty about flying as much as I do."

What's the problem?

In Finland another young man has gone on the rampage with a gun, killing nine people. He had previously posted video of himself firing a gun on YouTube, been questioned by the police and let go. Is the internet at fault, police incompetence or Finland's toleration of widespread gun ownership?

The Times reports that Finland is going to review its gun laws following the incident
There are 1.6 million registered arms in Finland, a country of about 5 million people. The gun ownership rates are among the highest in the world, but crime rates in general are low.
In an earlier story describing the killer's YouTube posts, the Times reported:

The images show a young man, dressed in black, firing his automatic pistol and delivering the chilling warning: “You will die next.”

The video posted on YouTube alerted police, who detained the student chef on Monday. But he walked free only to carry out his threat.


Anne Holmlund, the Finnish Interior Minister, told reporters that police had questioned the man after being tipped off by the public about his YouTube videos in which he was seen firing a Walther P22 handgun but had no legal reason to detain him and decided not to withdraw his gun permit.
You have to wonder about a situation where this can happen. But what about YouTube? Last week it banned the posting on UK sites of footage showing weapons being used to intimidate people. Does allowing violent people to promote themselves encourage them and others?

In the Guardian, Marcel Berlins takes up the concerns of the internet's inventor Tim Berners-Lee that it may for example allow dangerous cults to spread. Berlins asks whether the net's tendency to encourage lies and deceit itself may mean that it ends up doing more harm than good.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Notable decliner

The Guardian reports the publication of Transparency International's corruption perceptions index in which the UK was a "notable European decliner", down to 16th place, largely because of the decision to stop the BAE/Saudi bribery investigation.
"The decision to stop the criminal investigation raised acute concerns over the UK's international obligation to combat corruption," Transparency International said.
Don't let it spoil your day or claims of fairness, playing by the rules etc, Gordon.

He would say that

"Now we know why it was so dull" says Andrew Neil on BBC2's Daily Politics, referring to David Miliband saying out loud that he toned down his speech yesterday to avoid a "Heseltine moment".

It seems like a great excuse for a crap speech. With spin like that Miliband will go far...

Nationalise away!

Also on Comment is Free, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayer's Alliance says taxpayers should not have to bail out banks. As the standfirst puts it (I can't be bothered to read the article)
There is no reason why wholesale nationalisation should be the outcome of the current economic turmoil
Well, he's right on the first point, but if we are giving them our money, we should nationalise them. At the moment, we taxpayers seem to have a lot of the risk and none of the profit.

Let's hear it for charlatans

Iain Dale is running a poll of most influential journalists for Total Politics magazine. I should be third on the list (alphabetically speaking) but don't get a mention.

One journalist who is on the list is Christopher Booker of the Sunday Telegraph. On Comment is Free, George Monbiot takes him apart for his claims about asbestos, calling him the patron saint of charlatans.
We lean ever more heavily on experts. But who can we now trust? Corporate PR has become so sophisticated that it's almost impossible for most people to tell the difference between genuine science and greenwash, or real grassroots campaigns and the astroturf lobbies concocted by consultants. PR companies set up institutes with impressive names which publish what purport to be scientific papers, sometimes in the font and format of genuine journals. They accuse real scientists of every charge that could be levelled at themselves: junk science, hidden funding, undisclosed interests and inflated credentials.

If journalists have any remaining function, it is to help people navigate this world: to try to understand the crushingly dull documents that most people don't have time for, to smoke out the fakes and show how to recognise the genuine article.

Calling the shots

The Manchester Evening News has a report of a Labour fringe meeting where Charles Clarke accused the media of focusing on confrontation while fellow MP Denis McShane (a former journalist) accused them of "constant untruths and four-star porkies" about the European Community.

Andrew Gilligan, with the Iraq dossier in mind, said:
"Journalists have laptops and expense accounts. Governments have the Army, the Navy, the Air Force - that's who is calling the shots."
In a literal sense, he's right. Blair didn't actually convince the country of the threat from Iraq but Blair went to war anyway.

Blogger jailed

The Independent reports that:
Malaysia jailed a prominent anti-government blogger for two years under a strict security law that can keep him in prison indefinitely for allegedly inciting racial tensions with his writings, a lawyer said today.

The law is a holdover from British colonial days, when it was used against communist insurgents. Independent Malaysia's postcolonial government has kept it in the statute books and has used it sparingly against political dissidents, ignoring calls from opposition groups and others to disband the law.
Doesn't it make you proud that Britain gave democracy to the world - and the means to undermine it?

Just the one crucial fact left out

The BBC has reported that:
Iran has been asked by the UN's nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, for a substantive response to allegations that it is developing a nuclear weapon.
In typical BBC style, the story trades in claim and counterclaim, appearing to be balanced:
Iran says its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes.

Allegations about its nuclear programme are unsubstantiated, says the country's IAEA envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh.

Mr Soltanieh said that Iran had not been allowed to see any of the documents which allegedly back up US accusations of a military nuclear programme.
But apparently IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei isn't having any of it:

Speaking to the IAEA's board, Mr El Baradei said Iran should provide "substantive information to support its statements and access to relevant documentations and individuals".

Iran "should clarify the extent to which the documentation is factually correct and where, as it asserts, such information has been fabricated or where it relates to non-nuclear purposes", he added.

Except that, if you read El Baradei's statement to the IAEA board, he also said this:
"I call upon Member States which provided the Agency with documentation related to the alleged studies to authorize the Agency to share it with Iran."
The IAEA is asking Iran to comment on documents that it can't show it because the states that provided them won't let it. It isn't clear why the very balanced BBC didn't mention this.

Monday, 22 September 2008

How to say nothing without saying nothing

Alex Ferguson shows how to criticise a referee for booking seven of your players while pretending that butter wouldn't melt in your mouth:

"It was a competitive game but I did not think there was one bad tackle in it," said Ferguson.

"People are saying what is going on here but it is difficult to say anything about the referee. I do not want to get involved."
So, when the referee has booked players for bad tackles, saying there were no bad tackles is not criticism? Then Ferguson invokes other "people" who are supposedly suggesting that Man Utd were hard done by.

Campbell "a liar" shock

In the Guardian, Nicholas Watt has a snippet from Adam Boulton's book:
Now one of the recipients of his outbursts has decided to strike back by painting a picture of New Labour's chief spin doctor as a bully who thought nothing of lying.
Campbell told a direct lie to Boulton, the political editor of Sky News, to steer him away from writing about a cabinet reshuffle. "'Sorry, Adam, you know why I had to tell you that,'" Boulton writes, of how he was told that Blair was at Chequers, rather than in No 10, a crucial detail for his story.
But Boulton says he was told an even more serious lie, by several people in the Labour party, during the 2001 election after Sky News broke the story that John Prescott had punched a voter. "Lord Falconer - a junior minister but operating as a counsel to the campaign - rang to warn me that I was making a grave personal mistake and was laying myself open to legal action," Boulton writes. "At the very time that Labour was officially denying the story and issuing naked threats, Campbell and co knew exactly what had happened and were consulting their lawyers."

Stelzer nailed

In his media diary in the Indy, Matthew Norman has a well deserved pop at Irwin Stelzer:
That bristly moustache is almost a fixture on comment pages of The Times and The Daily Telegraph and all over telly – and so it should be when you consider his track record as an economic and political analyst. The triumph of the neo-con movement, of which Irwin is a sprat in America but a whale this side of the pond, speaks for itself. As for his stout opposition to regulating financial markets this is triumphantly vindicated. So no wonder that media outlets adore a seer of seers whose gravitas devolves entirely from his track record, and not one iota from any closeness to his friend, former next-door neighbour and overlord beyond the seas Rupert Murdoch.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Keep you hair on

The Mail on Sunday has a funny story about an MI6 agent whose false moustache apparently slipped during filming of an interview by the BBC,. The MoS compares the incident to the NatWest advert and (at least on the web version) shows stills from the ad with captions that suggest that they show the actual spy losing his moustache. It had me wondering for a second whether the whole story was a hoax. But no,
The incident occurred as BBC journalists questioned ‘John’, a middle-aged agent of 20 years’ standing, in an unprecedented interview as part of an MI6 recruiting drive.
Of course! Helping MI6 with recruiting is part of the BBC's remit.

Try and keep up

Obviously, the way to get a bit of publicity for your website is to do a sensational poll and give the story to a national paper. The Observer says:
Gordon Brown is set to lead Labour into an election bloodbath so crushing it could take his party a decade to recover, according to the largest ever poll of marginal seats which predicts a landslide victory for David Cameron.
Unfortunately, a p0ll on this scale (35,000 people) can be out of date before it's published. The Independent on Sunday as a poll suggesting that Labour has halved the Tory lead. This may itself not be entirely accurate but it shows how pointless it is to read detailed outcomes into a poll, however large, a year and a half before an election.

Meanwhile, some of the papers are desperate to keep the anti-Brown rebellion story going. The Times says that the rebellion has spread to, er, Charles Clarke. Also:
Tom Harris, the transport minister, risked censure by expressing sympathy with rebel MPs who called for a ballot. He wrote on his internet blog that the resignation of the Labour rebel David Cairns, the Scotland minister, was “based on honesty and principle” and that he “deserves respect for what he has done”.
Is that the best you can do?

Friday, 19 September 2008

More on the eco-towns non-announcement

Further to my earlier piece about the government not meeting a promise to publish key documents on eco-towns this month, neither opponents nor proponents are surprised. From both directions, it's seen as fairly typical. One developer said, "no surprise there then", while BARD says:

“If true, this latest delay comes as no surprise whatsoever. The whole process seems to mutate from stage to stage as it goes along, lending just further weight to the argument that the process has been flawed from the start. We have written to the Government to ask them to comply with the judge’s Order to offer up the various documentation on which they relied to compile their shortlist. We have also suggested they bring a halt the process until such time as the Judicial Review has been heard and determined. ”

Flak for LabourHome

The LabourHome "survey2 has come in for some flak from elsewhere, I see.

Eco-town decision delayed

It looks as if the government's department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) is going to be late with another of its headline announcements, this time on eco-towns.

CLG had promised to publish two key papers this month, a draft planning policy statement and a sustainability assessment of the remaining eco-town bids. But a source has told me that they will not be published until early October - after the Conservative conference - at the earliest. A CLG spokesman has told me that "we have no date for the announcement but it will be at some stage in the coming few weeks", which translates as don't hold your breath.

My source suggests that the delay is caused by a desire to make the papers as robust as possible, given the threat of court challenges. Last week, the BARD campaign won the right to take the whole eco-town process to judicial review.

The "September" announcement has already been downgraded after it became clear that the actual selection of eco-town bids will not happen until early next year - or is that sometime next year?

Dodgy poll makes headlines

The Indy leads on a poll from Labourhome website, claiming that 54% of Labour activists want someone other than Gordon Brown to lead the party into the next election. There's a lot wrong with this poll, of which you can read more here. The main problem is that if you add up the 46.2% of people who want Brown to stay on and the 53.8% who want him to go, it makes 100%. So don't knows have been excluded, either deliberately or by self-selection - not taking part in the survey.

So 54% of people who took part in an online survey and expressed an opinion wanted Brown to go.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Hang them from the lamposts

On Comment is Free, Simon Jenkins wants retribution:
If the mistakes that have collapsed the world's financial markets had been made by statesmen and had led to war, there would be corpses swinging from lampposts. If they had been made by generals, they would be falling on their swords. If they had been made by judges or surgeons or scholars, some framework of professional retribution would be rolling into action. But those responsible for our finances can apparently vanish into the forest like Cheshire cats, leaving only gold-plated grins. Not for them a Hague tribunal or a Hutton inquiry. They are not just good at shedding risk - they shed blame.

Daily Mail comes out against capitalism

"Spivs, sharks and why the champagne corks were popping on Meltdown Monday", reads the Daily Mail headline above a story about hedge funds, short selling and people who actually wanted Lehman Brothers to crash.

Meanwhile, the Guardian asks some unreconstructed lefties what they make of capitalism in crisis. Ken Livingstone says:
Sadly, I don't think this will be the end of capitalism.
Others are more optimistic.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


I've been researching eco-towns for a couple of articles and have tracked down a copy of the order made by Mr Justice Collins, allowing a judicial review of the government's programme. The review was brought by the BARD group, which was set up to make sure that an eco-town is not built in its green and pleasant backyard of Warwickshire/Worcestershire.

It's clear that all the news stories were based on BARD's press release, of which an MS Word version includes Collins' statement. The Telegraph is perhaps most guilty of muddying the waters.

Hazel Blears 'biased' over eco-town decisions

The Government's eco-town programme faced a fresh blow last night after a judge warned that the minister charged with deciding whether projects should be built could be seen as "biased" in favour of the controversial developments.
The problem is that Collins said that there must be concern that Blears (Secretary of State at the Department of Communities and Local Government) may have disqualified herself from considering any planning application for an eco town because of perceived bias in favour. The story is conflating the current process of selecting of eco-towns with the possibility that Blears may in future have to rule on a planning application, which is initially the job of local councils.

Capitalism - on or off the rails?

Left and right have different takes this morning on the carnage that continues to flow from the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

The Guardian has an extended leader saying:
It is a moment Karl Marx would have relished. From every angle financial capitalism is taking a battering.
Meanwhile, in the Telegraph, Jeff Randall says: "Capitalism - it's painful, but it works". Or does he? In fact, he says:
Soon enough we will discover if the core of Western finance is just an elaborate Ponzi scheme, underpinned only by new waves of suckers, or an imperfect but flexible machinery that, despite its flaws, has the capacity to withstand shocks.

Either way, it seems to me, [US Treasury Secretary] Paulson was right to turn off the tap. If the system is rotten, why shore it up? If it's not, then it will - somehow - survive without more state aid.
The closest Randall comes to an endorsement of capitalism is this:
Nobody said that capitalism was devised to provide soft landings for hopeless losers.
Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Don't tell the truth

Two stories in the Telegraph tell us what's wrong with Gordon Brown's approach to high energy prices and what's wrong with the New Labour model as a whole.

Yesterday the Telegraph reported that:
An executive at energy giant E.On is facing disciplinary proceedings, after Prime Minister Gordon Brown was among those to condemn his "totally inappropriate" joke about the firm making money from gas price rises.

His gaffe, disclosed by the Telegraph, undermined Mr Brown's announcement of a package of measures designed to knock up to £250 off families' fuel bills.
Mark Owen-Lloyd's mistake was obviously telling the truth. Gordon Brown
said Mr Owen-Lloyd's comments were "inappropriate."

"I think everybody is against people making remarks like that, and I'm pleased that there has now been a full and comprehensive apology," Mr Brown said.

Brown is too scared of the energy companies to make an issue of it. Not that it will do him any good. Today the Telegraph, amongst others says that in spite of Brown's promises to the contrary:
Families are facing even higher fuel bills after energy companies threatened to pass on the costs of Gordon Brown's drive to insulate millions of homes.
Of course the government won't be able to do anything about it if they do. New Labour tolerates an energy market that doesn't work, where energy companies make huge profits at the expense of consumers. Its pro-business, pro-markets ideology doesn't allow it to tackle the issue.

It's the housing, stupid

Shelter's Adam Sampson says on Indyblogs that the solution to homelessness is, - well, more homes. He criticises the Tories for focusing on certain aspects of homelessness without the commitment to bring in real solutions.
Picking on street homelessness as an obvious symbol of the failings of modern welfare is all very well. But sooner or later, someone will start to draw the connection with the rise in housing need and the resistance of Conservative local authorities to the building of new homes

Thursday, 11 September 2008


I have a piece on Comment is Free today on the toothless, clawless and clueless Intelligence and Security Committee and Gordon Brown's half-hearted reforms.

Good PR, bad PR

The Guardian continues to assist Gordon Brown in his attempts to present a "£1 billion" package of energy measures:
A long-awaited £1bn energy package aimed at helping households cope with rising fuel bills, including improved cold weather payments of around £25 per head, will be unveiled today by Gordon Brown.
A senior E.ON executive was accused of insensitivity last night when he essayed a joke about high prices. Asked what expensive gas prices would mean this winter, Mark Owen-Lloyd said: "It will make more money for us."

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Warming us up

In the Guardian today, Patrick Wintour tells us that:
Ministers and the country's leading electricity companies are expected today to finalise a £1bn plan to improve energy efficiency and help cut soaring fuel bills.
Last week, Wintour wrote of Gordon Brown's plans following his climbdown on fuel payments:
The prime minister still hopes to tout the programme as worth £1bn
And with your help, he has.

More spin than substance

The Daily Mail seems to have today's best spin story, that NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, spends more on spin than evaluating drugs. It trots out a host of disgruntled patients to express their outrage.

Except that the £4.5 million that NICE "squandered" on communications last year wasn't exactly spin:
NICE said the majority of its communications budget was spent informing doctors about which drugs had been approved and new guidelines for treatments, although it admitted that it had a 'small' marketing budget.

The clampdown

The National Union of Journalists has made a film about police intimidation and surveillance of journalists and posted it online.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Less truth comes out

I've just come across a new (and I think unreported) "open" decision by the Information Tribunal, dismissing the Campaign Against Arms Trade's (CAAT) attempt to secure the release of two memorandums of understanding (MoU) relating to the Al Yamamah Saudi Arms deal.

I wrote about the hearing in March on Comment is Free. My main point then was that the government's attempts to save Saudi embarrassment were as counterproductive as the attempts to stop the SFO investigation into bribes paid to Prince Bandar.

The Ministry of Defence has won this case as well but received a kicking in the process. The Tribunal was very critical of the Treasury Solicitor's presentation of evidence, which threw a spanner in its schedule for the hearing:
we hope that in future no Tribunal will be faced with documentation that is not presented properly in a form that can assist its understanding by the Tribunal
The Tribunal was also critical of the government's alleged attempt to secure the permission of the Saudi government to release confidential documents. This appears to have resembled the description put forward by former diplomat Carne Ross, a witness for CAAT:
"In my experience what tends to happen is that the FCO will say
something like:

'There is this awful Tribunal in London that is threatening to release these documents, don't youthink this will be a very bad idea?'

to which the foreign interlocutor is likely to respond:

'Yes, that would be a bad idea, please report that to London.'
The Tribunal observed:
We have had the benefit of considering contemporary documentation in closed session and we are able to say in this open decision that in our view the approach adopted by MoD in consulting the KSA was unsatisfactory. We consider that at the very least it should have been put neutrally to the KSA and that only if KSA asked what was the attitude of MoD should that have been indicated.
The "open" decision is a version of the decision that can be published without giving away secret information, including the information that is in dispute. Surprisingly, the Tribunal made clear that there is no "smoking gun" showing corrupt conduct in the Al-Yamamah deal:
If either MoU revealed evidence of such conduct, we would expect to have attached significant additional weight to the public interest in disclosure, when balancing it against the public interest in maintaining the exemption. However, we have had the advantage of reading the MoU and we can say in this open decision that there is nothing in either of the documents that would support such a conclusion.
Compare that to the Information Commissioner's decision in my latest case on the dossier:
There is therefore a strong public interest in a degree of exposure of the circumstances of the dossier’s production, because that would facilitate public understanding of and participation in the debate about alleged Iraqi weapons capability and intentions, and promote accountability and transparency of the bodies responsible for producing the dossier and for taking decisions on the basis of its contents. The latter point would of course be of even greater significance if there was evidence that the dossier was deliberately manipulated in order to present an exaggerated case for military action, particularly as its intended audience included Parliament itself.
Like the Tribunal, the Commissioner could easily have stated that such evidence is not to be found in the papers, but chose to leave open a strong suggestion that it is.

Same old Times

No-one should ever be surprised by the extent to which the Times is prepared to parrot Rupert Murdoch's anti-union agenda. The only surprising thing is that Murdoch is prepared to pay journalists so much to preach to the (mainly) converted. Today Rachel Sylvester has a rant:

After a long period of irrelevance, the trade unions are back - and that could mean trouble for the centre Left

By "centre Left" Sylvester means Blair, Milliband, Parnell or any other stooge Murdoch can engineer into the leadership of the Labour party.

Losing the propaganda war in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the US frequently wipes out large numbers of civilians in misplaced air strikes. It invariably denies having done so, claiming that only Taliban fighters or "militants" were killed. In a recent case, the US has had to carry out a new investigation, after video footage suggested that up to 90 civilians had been killed, including as many as 60 children. According to the Guardian
"Killing civilians is not the best way to attract hearts and minds," one European official noted sarcastically yesterday.
Lying about it afterwards doesn't help either.

In the same piece, the Guardian says:
British officials believe they have stabilised the opium cultivation in Helmand province, questioning UN figures suggesting it has increased over the past year.
Or are they just saying that?


There has been a trial. Some men were convicted of terrorist offences. They and others were not convicted of other offences as the jury could not reach a verdict. According to the BBC
Counter-terrorism officials were "dismayed" by the verdicts in the trial linking eight men to a transatlantic bomb plot, the BBC has learnt.
The BBC's Frank Gardner said there had been "astonishment" in Whitehall as the evidence was considered to be strong.
The BBC's Frank Gardner is fast developing a career as the mouthpiece of the security services. The state doesn't get the verdict is wants and - while a retrial remains a possibility - uses the state broadcasting service to moan about the outcome and talk up the evidence.

Or perhaps the state over-egged the whole airliner plot from the outset.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Spilling the beans

The Mail on Sunday has a new angle on my own freedom of information case last week:
Secret advice from a foreign power, thought to be America, helped to shape the dossier that said Saddam Hussein could attack within 45 minutes and set out the case for war in Iraq.
Information Commissioner Richard Thomas' decision did indeed allow the Cabinet Office to keep under wraps something that:
would reveal information of a confidential nature concerning the relationship between the United Kingdom and another state or states.
The MoS again picks out the key sentence from the decision:
Mr Thomas has ordered the disclosure of material that could provide ‘evidence that the dossier was manipulated to present an exaggerated case’.

More truth comes out

The Sunday Telegraph has a great story this morning about the British government's obstruction of the investigation into the murder of Julie Ward in Kenya 20 years ago:
Jon Stoddart, who wrote the independent report – seen by The Sunday Telegraph – on behalf of Lincolnshire Police, said of the role of the FCO and the British High Commission: "There is clear evidence of inconsistency and contradictions, falsehoods and downright lies, and it is this that has not surprisingly led to John Ward believing that there was an active conspiracy to prevent him from identifying his daughter's killers."
Ms Ward's father obtained the report, written in 2004, under the Freedom of Information Act. It was originally suppressed on the grounds of national security.

Friday, 5 September 2008

The truth... at last?

Yesterday's story about the Information Commissioner's latest decision on the Iraq dossier was picked up well by the mainstream media and bloggers but studiously ignored by the BBC.

I've even got the Daily Mail on my side. In a leader (at the bottom), the Mail says:
thanks to the Commissioner's principled stand, the truth may at last come out.
It's a shame it took the Commissioner nearly three years to get there, albeit with some significant obstructiveness from the Cabinet Office.

This morning, I have a piece on the Indy's Open House Blog.

Boot on the other foot

The Telegraph reports controversy in France over Paris Match's typically insensitive pictures of Taliban fighters wearing uniforms of French soldiers they had killed.

Understandably, the dead men's relatives were upset. Also

Defence Minister Herve Morin has accused Paris Match of helping the Taliban propaganda war.

He said: "Should we be doing the Taliban's promotion for them?

This is probably more to the point:

The article has also reignited the debate in France about whether their soldiers should still be in Afghanistan.

A survey taken in April this year, when President Nicolas Sarkozy announced he was sending out another battalion of almost 800 soldiers, showed that two-thirds of people believe their country has no place in the conflict.

No gimmicks here

I would had some sympathy for Gordon Brown's claim that improving energy efficiency is better than short-term gimmicks on fuel payments if he hadn't tried and failed to introduce those same short-term gimmicks.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Labour backbencher Fabian Hamilton has warned the government of the political consequences of not doing something to help people in the short term. At the bottom of the piece is a staggering statistic from the Local Government Association, which argues that energy efficiency should be prioritised, funded by energy companies:
The association - which represents councils in England and Wales - says its research has found that the companies increased pay-outs to shareholders by more than a quarter of a billion pounds over the past year.
That is increased payments by a quarter of a billion. Does anyone think we're being ripped off?

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Shamelessly playing the national security card

I make an appearance in this morning's Independent story, that the Information Commissioner has ordered the Cabinet Office to release "Secret emails and memos showing how the Iraq war dossier was 'sexed-up' ".

This was a case where the government invoked a national security exemption under the Freedom of Information Act after it became clear that another exemption about limiting free and frank advice didn't wash.
Mr Ames said: "The commissioner has laid bare the Government's farcical cover-up, which included shamelessly playing the national security card. He has also given a strong hint that the Government has concealed evidence of sexing-up to save political embarrassment."
We'll see if anyone picks up on the story.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Derring don't

Who's got the best tale of Derring do this morning?

Is it the Times, with its propaganda laden "exclusive: British forces Triumph in Afghanistan:
Vital generator reaches Kajaki hydroelectric plant after one of the most daring operations since Second World War
or the Telegraph?
A British engineer who was being held in Gambia accused of illegally mining uranium has broken out of the country in a daring escape.
Someone accused of a crime has escaped. How marvellous! Except that of course it's a British businessman, unfairly (obviously) charged in a foreign country.

All the fun of the fair market

The government's latest housing market plans haven't gone down too well. From the Telegraph calling it a symbolic gesture to others, like the Times, saying it was overshadowed by a recession warning from the OECD, they've hardly been a hit.

The department for Communities and Local Government issued a press release entitled "Ensuring a fair housing market for all", which seems a bit fanciful. What I don't get is this: if giving help (like a stamp duty holiday and equity loans) to first time buyers will help support the housing market, how does that help first time buyers? Surely price falls are the best way to help them?

The other heavily-spun measure is
£100m investment to support SMI [Support for Mortgage Interest] reform which could help prevent a further 10,000 repossessions
This raises the question that if helping people earlier who are struggling to pay their mortgages can prevent repossessions, why didn't the government do it earlier? There's also the usual Brown spin in preventing what is essentially an extended welfare benefit as "investment to support reform".

Monday, 1 September 2008

Same again please

On Friday, I did a piece for Comment is Free, pointing out that the government was heavily - and inaccurately - spinning its housing market proposals as a new era for council housing. The main source of the spin was a Times article.

Today, the Times recycles an embarrassingly large amount of the same copy, adding news of an additional proposal for a new tax-free account for those saving for a deposit. But this proposal has been denounced as "half-baked" before it's formally been announced. And:
The Prime Minister is thought to have shelved a more radical proposal under which councils would have been freed to compete as mortgage lenders with access to a pot of £2 billion in government borrowing.
Is Alistair Darling behind this proposal and the claim that Brown has sat on it?

No Comment - unless it suits us

The funny thing about the leaked crime letter story is that the Home Office is keen to say that it was only a draft, uncleared and (therefore) unsent, in spite of the policy of not commenting on leaked documents. According to the BBC:
A spokesman said: "We do not normally comment on leaked documents but this is draft advice that the home secretary has not cleared and has not been sent to Number 10.
The BBC also uses the "set to" ruse, in spite of the uncertainty in its report:
The letter suggested both property crime, such as burglary, and violent crime may go up, based on the experience of the recession in the early 1990s.
At the bottom of the piece, the BBC asks:
Are you worried about rising crime levels in the current economic climate? What are your experiences? Send us your comments using the form below.
If you're not worried, we don't want to hear from you.

Campbell wanted here?

The Independent has more on the ousting of outsider spin doctor Stephen Carter from No 10 by "Labour's old guard". Apparently:
Gordon Brown is looking for a "more political" and aggressive chief adviser to fulfil the role that Alastair Campbell performed for Tony Blair...

Mr Brown has floated the idea of appointing Alastair Campbell, but the former director of communications for Tony Blair is reluctant to take on the job again, having "got his life back".
The idea of Campbell returning to No 10 is bonkers. Apart from anything else, he and his spin and bullying will immediately become the story for a hostile press.

Will or could?

The Telegraph has a very confused take on the leaked Home Office memo:
The economic downturn is set to lead to more crime, fewer police, more illegal immigration and a rise in far right extremism, a leaked Home Office letter reveals.
"Set to" is a favourite newspaper construction, saying something will happen without absolutely committing. The story's intro is in do doubt:
A blunt assessment of the pressures that a recession will bring on law and order is detailed in a document which is to be sent to Number 10 from Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary.
But the next paragraph is less sure:
It outlines the potential rises in crime, including violent crime, that could occur because of the credit crisis.
"potential...could" - make up your minds!