Friday, 31 October 2008

What do they expect?

The Independent is among the papers reporting the gripes of the England cricketers at the Stanford Super Series:
England's players agreed yesterday to continue the quest to win the millions of dollars on offer from Sir Allen Stanford. But they made it clear that they are desperate to get out of Antigua, which has become a kind of hell in paradise for them this week.
How heroic.

A thorough investigation

The Guardian was first (last night) to report that the home secretary has asked the attorney general to investigate possible "criminal wrongdoing" by the MI5 and the CIA over its treatment of a British resident held in Guantánamo Bay.

They may just be going through the motions. The Guardian quotes lawyer Richard Stein as saying that the government had little choice once the evidence, which foreign secretary David Milband had sought to suppress, was aired in court.

Doesn't it make you proud?

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Today's burning issues

I've done a piece on Comment is Free today about Heathrow expansion.

Jack Straw, yes the "lord chancellor and justice secretary", has done a CiF blog too - about Ross and Brand. Hasn't he got anything better to do than jump on bandwagons?

Motorists threatened again

The Telegraph is very confused this morning. "Motorists face tolls to drive on hard shoulder," it says, as if it is some kind of a threat. Of course, motorists are not currently allowed to drive on the hard shoulder in normal circumstances, so it's really more of an opportunity - for the better off. It seems like a bit of a crazy idea to me.

The problem for the Telegraph is that it has a campaign against road pricing. Therefore every example of road pricing must be bad.

Meanwhile, Alistair Darling has called for cheaper petrol prices, because it's a populist cause. Never mind global warming.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

More trouble for Heathrow

Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency and a former Labour minister, has criticised the government for seeking to delay the EU air quality directive while expanding Heathrow, as I report in the New Statesman online today.

Not what they're there for?

In the Independent, Patrick Cockburn reports Iraqi criticism of the US attack on Syria:
"The Iraqi government rejects US aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria," said an Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, in a surprise rebuke to Washington. "The constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighbouring countries."
Anyone would think that the US contrived to invade Iraq to give it a military base in the Middle East...

Protecting the guilty

There's an intriguing new decision on the Information Tribunal website. The Foreign Office has been ordered to release documents dating back to the 1960s showing the involvement of British diplomats in bribing Saudi officials and ministers to secure arms deals. But the tribunal has allowed the FCO to conceal the names of the Saudis involved, some of whom remain in goverment today.

The tribunal found that publication of files requested by Campaign Against Arms Trade campaigner Nicholas Gilby would be highly likely to cause "real and substantial prejudice" to Britain's relations - and arms dealing - with the Saudi regime But it ruled that the public interest nevertheless requires disclosure of evidence that UK officials facilitated illegal payments to secure contracts relating to tank exports and aircraft maintenance.

Significantly, the tribunal ruled that there was a "greater sensitivity" around information relating "directly to those involved in the [Saudi Arabian Government]". For this reason, it found that the public interest in concealing the information outweighs reasons for disclosure.

During the hearings in March, the UK's ambassador to Saudia Arabia, William Patey, had pointed out that the country's defence minister, Prince Sultan, had been in place since 1962. "Thus the documents... may notwithstanding the passage of time continue to be directly relevant to those currently in power."

Gilby, who has carried out extensive research into Britain's ongoing arms trading relationship with Saudi Arabia, won praise from the tribunal for the way he represented himself during the public parts of the hearing. The tribunal had taken the unprecendented step of appointing a special advocate (Khawar Qureshi QC) to represent his interests in its closed sessions.

Gilby told me: "I am delighted the tribunal has accepted the strength of the public interest arguments in exposing British Government complicity in highly dubious business practices relating to arms deals with Saudi Arabia."

The tribunal also hinted that it had heard evidence suggesting that the public interest in continuing arms exports to Saudi Arabia was greater than could be stated publicly. It stated that, although the value of sales in global economic terms was very small, it was "in no doubt as to their importance in the public interest having regard to both the open evidence which we have heard but also that in closed session."

What could this mean? There have been suggestions that BAE might not survive without Saudi contracts, although this seems unlikely. It was also said during the recent case over the Tony Blair's decision to drop the Serious Fraud Office inquiry that intelligence co-operation was at stake.

One thing is for sure: everything about the arms trade with Saudi Arabia is very murky.

For what it's worth, an FCO spokesman gave me the usual line in such cases: "we have seen the judgement and are considering it carefully." The FCO has 28 days (from 22 October) to release the information or appeal to the High Court.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

McCarthyism returns

The most worrying think about the government's latest "eye catching gimmick" is that there might be something in it. As the state broadcaster the BBC credulously reports the government's line "extremists to be barred from UK", even though many "extremists" are barred already, while the Guardian at least reports it as a strengthening of the rules. It says:
The burden of proof is to be placed on the individuals concerned by demanding that they refute accusations made against them by publicly denouncing or retracting their reported views. At present the Home Office has to provide evidence that the individual holds the views ascribed to them. Individuals may have to make a statement of their attachment to democratic values to prove their change of heart is genuine.
Does no-one get the irony of forcing people to make a statement of their attachment to democratic values? How does forcing someone to say something prove they are genuine? What next? Show trials where "extremists" (after recanting) denounce fellow travellers? Making people genuinely love Big Brother before putting a bullet in the back of their heads? If "political correctness" ever had any meaning, which it doesn't, forcing people to hold acceptable views would be the very definition of it.

Friday, 24 October 2008

About time

The Independent tells how Question Time went out without a government representative after immigration minister Phil Woolas was ordered to turn down his invitation. The first question was about Woolas' comments at the weekend and he was unable to defend himself.
Tony McNulty, the recently promoted Employment minister, had been offered to the BBC as a substitute for Mr Woolas, but in a show of independence the corporation refused, saying the Government did not have the right to choose who went on the programme.
Well done the BBC for standing up to the government spin machine, for once.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

On whose authority?

BAA is the private (foreign owned) monopoly owner of most of the country's major airports. It may be colluding with the government to secure a third runway at Heathrow but it is very definitely not a public authority. It was privatised in 1986.

But according to the BBC:
The British Airports Authority (BAA) is calling for a high-speed rail link to Heathrow to complement a third runway at the west London airport.

The real scandal?

In the New Statesman, Brian Cathcart is very angry indeed about the British press's treatment of the McCanns. On one front he's completely right and for the tabloids to be making up stories about anyone is outrageous. But somehow I struggle with any portrayal of the McCanns as victims, rather than suspects, which they were officially until recently.

I notice along the way that the Sindy thinks that the Statesman's Gideon Donald column is a spoof. I also wonder about Tactical Briefing.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Under siege?

Media Workers Against the War are holding their annual conference Under Siege on 15 November at the London School of Economics.

The premise is that:
The "war on terror" continues to have an intensely damaging effect on the mainstream British media – and in turn on British politics.
The conference links the reporting of western-led wars with the media's treatment of muslims in Britain. I'm not sure I buy the connection but that old lefty Peter Oborne will talk about the latter point and what he has to say is very important and very welcome.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The Hello effect

The BBC and the Telegraph have different takes on a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on equality.

The Telegraph reports the finding that the gap between rich and poor in the UK is one of the widest in the developed world, relegating the finding that "the situation has been improving since 2000... with the UK experiencing the largest drop in inequality among all developed nations. "

It is that finding that the BBC leads on and apparently that is what the researchers thought most significant.
Mark Pearson, who wrote the OECD report, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the UK government was not shouting about the drop in inequality.

"To some extent this reflects the Blairite approach; that you do, almost, the redistribution by stealth," he said. " don't advertise the fact that you've actually put an awful lot more resources into helping the least well off in society.

Both picked up on the "Hello magazine effect", where the public would read about the super-rich getting richer and would feel worse off as result.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Never let the truth....

get in the way of a good column. The Indy's media columnist Stephen Glover doesn't think it matters if fellow columnists make predictions that turn out to be wildly wrong:
If they were careful and calculating machines, writing arid, cautious pieces for the comment pages of The Financial Times, they would not be so free with their prophecies. They would also be far less readable.
Glover's point that "Only a fool would read a columnist to discover what is going to happen" does rather beg the question why columnists claim that they know what is going to happen.

Friday, 17 October 2008

The truth about corruption

Here's David Leigh on the Guardian website talking about New Labour and Old Labour's phoney efforts to tackle bribery:

The OECD bursts the banks of normal diplomatic nicety with its public denunciation of Great Britain's behaviour in its latest bribery report.

The UK claims to be fighting corruption, and regularly lectures African countries and the like about the need to clean up their act and stop taking bribes for arms and engineering contracts. But the OECD anti-bribery international working party party and its feisty Swiss chairman, Professor Mark Pieth, have drawn up a report that depicts the behaviour of the UK administration itself as, in effect, corrupt.

The report paints a picture of a Labour government that spent many years, under Tony Blair, obstructing justice, evading action and making a series of dishonest promises about its non-existent intention to pass legal reforms. Ministers' real intentions, it would appear, were to do nothing that would inconvenience British business and its traditional methods.

Joe's a Republican

On Comment is Free, Joe Queenan (I think that's his real name) blames John McCain for the Joe the plumber hoax.

Joe the hoaxer - or is he a plumber after all?

The Indy and others cover the revelation that "Joe the plumber" isn't called Joe, isn't a licensed plumber and doesn't earn $250,000, so won't be affected by Barack Obama's tax plans, as he claimed.

It looks like it was all a hoax to embarrass Obama and it will be interesting to see who put him up to it. In Britain, the tories and the right wing media have a habit of finding "ordinary" people who will be affected by progressive taxation measures aimed at the well-off.

Meanwhile, the Indy also describes John McCain's appearance on the Letterman show, where the host pointed out that McCain is friends with Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy, one of the dirty tricks team called the White House Plumbers.

Perhaps Joe is a plumber, after all.

Blair goes up in smoke

The Telegraph's Andrew Pierce, clearly feeling some vindication, uses the revelation that Tony Blair lied about the Ecclestone affair to launch an attack on Blair. But, probably advised by lawyers, he is reluctant to say outright that Blair lied on this one, although he does say:
In a funny way, the apparent lie is even more shocking than the one he told in the House of Commons about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
Blair did indeed lie about Iraq's alleged wmd.

Fiddling the figures

I've also got a brief piece in Inside Housing, revealing that the official - and highly disputed - count of people sleeping rough only fell this year because fewer councils carried out formal counts.

Half-truths on Heathrow

I've done an Open House blog for the Indy on the Heathrow story.

There's more to come on this...

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Goalposts moved back

There is an update on the Hilary Benn Heathrow story in the Daily Mail, where the Defra spokesman (previously a woman) is saying there is no connection with "any decision that may be taken in future about capacity at Heathrow".

Except that there clearly is a connection, even if there are other reasons why Britain will need a delay.

Benn fibs back

Paul Waugh's blog has more on our story about Hilary Benn wrongly claiming that there is no connection between trying to delay EU quality rules and Heathrow expansion plans.

Benn's spokeswoman has moved the goalposts on his statement to parliament.

"Hilary Benn’s answer was completely accurate. He was referring to the fact that the UK is likely – along with a number of other European countries – to apply for more time to meet the requirements of the new air quality directive.

"This is because, despite the improvement we have seen in recent years, we are unlikely to meet the 2010 deadline in respect of nitrogen dioxide. The problem is mainly about existing pollution from traffic in London, including around Heathrow, and in other major cities across the UK. The likelihood of the UK applying for more time is not to do with any decision that may be taken in future about a possible third runway."

Quite disingenuous. No-one said it was to do with the third runway. The delay - for five years from 2010 - will be to allow more flights from around 2012. The new runway will come in around 2020.

Waugh's blog also has a letter from Norman Baker, requesting an apology.

Mandy not trusted?

There's quite a non story in the papers today, presumably initiated by the opposition, about Peter Mandelson not being given the role of anti-corruption champion within the government.

I must confess I did not know there was such a role but to suggest that it should be given to the business secretary because it was previously given to John Hutton is unconvincing. As Number 10 has pointed out, before Hutton, Hilary Benn (see below) had the job.

I don't think the job should sit with the business secretary at all, as that job is primarily focused on supporting big business whatever the ethical costs. Not that I trust Jack Straw any further than I could throw him.

Mandy on the other hand is the innocent victim of a smear campaign...

One of many Heathrow lies

I have a story - with Paul Waugh - in the Evening Standard today revealing a direct link between the government's hopes of delaying the European Air quality directive and the expectation that pollution levels will breach the directive when it is introduced in 2010. Amazingly, the government have denied that Heathrow is a factor.

In May, Liberal Democrat shadow transport secretary Norman Baker challenged environment secretary Hilary Benn on the issue in the Commons. Benn said:
We do, indeed, need to look at how we phase in the new rules, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is not to do with any decisions that might be taken in the future about airport capacity.
On the face of it, it's a pretty obvious untruth. But then just about all the facts on Heathrow expansion are being fixed around the policy.

What now for Britain?

In the Independent, Patrick Cockburn reports that the US and Iraq have finally reached an agreement that will see american troops remain in Iraq until 2011. Cockburn describes it as a vindication of Barack Obama's position, although Obama wanted the the troops out early in 2010.

It's been clear for a long time that British troops have to stay in Iraq at least until the US position has been sorted out. Can Britain now begin a withdrawal - or will troops be kept in Iraq to forestall the promised Iraq inquiry?

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Top Cover

According to the Washington Post:
The Bush administration issued a pair of secret memos to the CIA in 2003 and 2004 that explicitly endorsed the agency's use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding against al-Qaeda suspects
Waterboarding - making a captive experience the sensation of drowning - is not merely a technique or tactic but torture.

Cleese on Palin

John Cleese says that Michael Palin has been eclipsed as the funniest Palin by Sarah. He compares her to a (live) parrot, saying words that it has memorised but clearly doesn't understand. I've always thought the same could be said about George Bush.

The politics of envy?

I don't know what the opposite of schadenfreude is, but it's entertaining to see lots of right wing bloggers and commentators feeling it just now. It must be pretty sickening to see Gordon Brown not just back from the dead but allegedly saving the world economy and the tories are openly wondering how to get "back in the game".

A lot of attention is being paid to an alleged tory briefing published by Conservativehome. The tories are hoping that as the real economy falls into recession, the gloss will once again come off Brown. It was a thought that occurred to me this morning but when this kind of thing is "leaked" it looks like wishful thinking.

Similarly, Conservativehome has a list of some daft things Gordon Brown and Ed Balls have said in the past in favour of risk taking and deregulation. It's allegedly from a "contact", but it looks like something prepared by a tory researcher, who has chosen to air it by this method.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Ask the question!

I've just been listening to the Radio 4 Today programme interview with Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell. The interview has been reported along the lines of Rammell saying that a new "status of forces" agreement will be needed to cover British troops in Iraq when the UN mandate runs out.

But the interview never got to the bottom of why the troops are staying into next year at all. It started off promisingly enough, with Rammell asked to reconcile what the Iraqi PM said yesterday about troops no longer being needed for a combat role and the Brown plan for a fundamental mission change next year. But Rammell was allowed to say that troops would be withdrawn when they are no longer needed for security, which is now!

As for Rammell being asked when an inquiry might be possible - forget it!

Monday, 13 October 2008

Are they leaving then?

With quite a lot going on, perhaps it's not surprising that a statement by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki that
British combat forces are no longer needed to maintain security in southern Iraq and should leave the country
isn't top of the headlines, but it is a pretty dramatic one. It raises some huge questions that aren't being answered today. Why are troops not leaving now? Are they staying only so that Gordon Brown doesn't have to have an inquiry? Will an inquiry happen when "combat" troops leave and only a few hundred are left training - or will Brown use this as an excuse never to hold an inquiry?

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Earlier, in fact

Yesterday I went to see Now or Later at the Royal Court. My wife and I were rather surprised that her bag was searched on the way in but now it makes sense.

It's a good play, but not brilliant. Through some rather clunky dialogue, you learn that the son of a (white) Democratic candidate on the verge of being elected to the US presidency has been photographed at a "naked party", dressed as Mohammed. The play centres around issues of freedom of speech, mainly, should he issue some kind of apology. Along the way it turns out that during the party he had also performed a mock fellatio on his friend.

What doesn't quite hang together is that the young man doesn't get the potential for massive offence. The Royal Court obviously feels the danger that the play will offend and, if you think about it, so did the playwright, Christopher Shinn. There is no way that the incident in question could have been represented directly in the play. Freedom of speech is relative.

Blair a liar shock

Congratulations to the Sunday Telegraph on winning its "two-and-a-half year Freedom of Information battle" to
reveal that [Tony] Blair personally intervened to secure Formula One's exemption from the tobacco advertising ban just hours after meeting Bernie Ecclestone, the motorsport's billionaire boss.
We know that Ecclestone gave Labour a million pounds, that he met Blair and asked him to exempt F1. Immediately afterwards, Blar set out doing just this. If this was a local authority official giving
planning permission to someone who had just him money, both parties would be in jail.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Shallow and false

A good piece from Martin Samuel in the Times, pointing out how awful Sarah Palin is and asking why the US media haven't taken her apart. Anyone who has seen her t.v. interviews will know what he means:
Tina Fey is at least attempting to do the job of nailing Palin's shallowness, her falseness, her studied populism and the way the standards and expectations of public debate have been lowered to accommodate her. Yet if there truly were this liberal media elite to which Palin makes constant reference, it would have bounced her out of the building by now. Anyone who thinks Palin's performances since her catastrophic CBS interview have been adequate must also believe the American public are stupid. By any normal yardstick of political discourse - substance, accuracy, coherence - she is a bust.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Will the market save the world?

On Comment is Free, Madeleine Bunting makes the necessary but obvious point that free market ideology is pure faith, and has been proved wrong.

What worries me is that many free market fundamentalists still think that capitalism and market mechanisms will magically provide a solution to global warming. Perhaps the realisation that this is mumbo jumbo is what will get people's heads out of the sand.

Who's spinning?

The tories are continuing to row with British Airways, perhaps happy to show that, unlike Labour, they are not in the pocket of big business. Today Theresa Villiers is accusing BA chief executive Willie Walsh of spinning the figures over the impact of a high speed rail link. Walsh had said the tories were all over the place on aviation policy. Villiers says:
“We are not all over the place on aviation policy,” she said. “We have made a firm decision on the third runway at Heathrow. It is not a decision Willie Walsh wants but it is decisive.
Fair enough, but it looks like it's the tories' figures that don't add up:
"Willie Walsh is challenging our figures on the basis that only Leeds and Manchester flights are included.”

Ms Villiers said that, based on the Government’s own figures, there were 63,200 flights last year between Heathrow and the six destinations – 13,200 to Leeds and Manchester and 50,000 to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

“If roughly 63,200 flights were substituted by high-speed rail, that would free up slots at Heathrow equivalent to 28pc of the total 222,000 capacity the Government say would be generated by a third runway,” Ms Villiers said.

Are the tories really saying that a high(er) speed rail link between London and Leeds and Manchester would mean no-one flying between Heathrow and those four destinations? And even if they did, according to the tories that would be only 28% of the capacity of a third runway.

One grumble about the frequent absence of the word "that" from news stories. Sub editors don't like the word and don't understand how it provides clarity and how its absence causes confusion. In this piece:
She denied scrapping the runway would infuriate big business and believes she can convince firms of the greater merits of high-speed rail.
Five words into the sentence, I'm wondering which runway Theresa Villiers is denying having scrapped. But no, what the Telegraph means is that she denied that scrapping the runway would infuriate big business....

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Auntie returns

I've just been watching the latest edition of Newswatch on BBC. Newswatch is the BBC's pretence of accountability on its news coverage and is slightly more credible than Points of View. Sometimes the presenter will put viewers' complaints directly to journalists and BBC managers and challenge their answers.

But this week it was the BBC's gossipy political coverage in the firing line and Nick Robinson was put up to rebut every complaint. The format was to have a viewer's complaint read out, followed by Robinson doing a piece to camera explaining why he was right and the viewer was wrong.

Robinson insisted that the BBC was right over its "Heseltine moment" story, pointing out that David Miliband had never denied using the words. But there is no doubt the BBC sexed the story up. It claimed:
David Miliband has been overheard telling aides that he toned down his speech to Labour's conference to avoid it being seen as "a Heseltine moment".
Which implied that Miliband had a strong version of his speech that he then "toned down". But he BBC reported that he said:

"I couldn't have gone any further. It would have been a Heseltine moment."

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Not over yet

The US defence department says the fundamental character of the conflict in Iraq remains unchanged, despite dramatic security improvements there, the BBC reports.

Meanwhile, the William Hague has said that setting up an Iraq inquiry will be one of David Cameron's first acts as prime minister.

I've just done a new blog piece for the Indy, pointing out that the government has little time left either to release documents showing how the Iraq dossier was sexed-up or to appeal to the Information Tribunal.

One-sided criticism

The Independent has a brilliant story this morning, that:
The rising tide of protest over the refusal by the NHS to provide expensive drugs for cancer and other conditions is being funded by the pharmaceutical industry
Charities that have criticised decisions by NICE not to fund drugs have received money from companies who will make millions if their products are approved. Here is the killer line:
Yet none of the charities named has criticised the high prices charged by the pharmaceutical companies for their products in their recent campaigns.