Thursday, 19 November 2009


A small number of people have complained about the M&S Christmas ad, in which actor Philip Glenister enthuses over a model in her underwear. But
A spokesman for Marks and Spencer said: "We're surprised by the ASA complaints regarding Philip Glenister's appearance in our TV ad.

"Our research shows that his on-screen character in Ashes to Ashes is extremely popular with our customers and his lines in the ad are in keeping with that role."

Which translates as "we thought we could get away with a bit of sexism by dressing it up as irony hiding and behind a character who is thirty years out of date."

Interesting side issue: did M&S pay to use Glenister's "on-screen character" or just Glenister?

Not humiliated, honest

So Tony Blair isn't to be EU president. But then, according to the Guardian, he didn't want the job:
It is understood that he would have been unsure of taking the post when the Swedish government, which holds the rotating EU presidency, indicated in a paper on Wednesday that the president would have little or no role in foreign affairs.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

How to lose votes and alienate people

According to the Guardian, not only did Gordon Brown call Rupert Murdoch after the Sun attacked him over the allegedly misspelt letter,
"...he has the most enormous personal regard for Rupert Murdoch," the prime minister's official spokesman said.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The sympathy vote

Who knows how the Sun managed to obtain a recording of Gordon Brown's phone call to Jacqui Janes? But I agree with the Guardian's Michael White that what the paper did in publishing it was pure cynicism in its new campaign to bash Labour and back the Tories.

I also agree with Sue Arnold, writing on Comment is Free last night that Brown is being unfairly pilloried for something that is a combination of his own concern for people and his poor eyesight:
Personally I'm deeply impressed that someone who can only read large print and is gradually relying more on aides to help him at official functions writes personally by hand to the bereaved relatives of British soldiers killed in action. He could go for the sympathy vote by publicising his sight problem but he's not that sort of chap. Besides, who needs sympathy? I've given up using my white stick because I'm fed up with being helped to the other side of roads I don't want to cross. Maybe Jacqui Janes should try re-reading the PM's letter with her eyes, her perfectly good eyes, on the message not the medium.

Monday, 9 November 2009

What was that all about?

By way of a couple of quick updates on the Iraq Inquiry...

Yesterday, on Comment is Free, I did a blog piece on Thursday's seminar, hosted by the Inquiry on the evolution of international policy up to 2003. It seemed to me that the Inquiry members must now be in no doubt that the war was about regime change, not weapons of mass destruction (wmd). I suggested that if the Inquiry could get Tony Blair to admit this early on, it could save a lot of prevaricating, dissembling and contradiction.

Just posted on Iraq Inquiry Digest is an excellent piece by Brian Jones, formerly of the Defence Intelligence Staff, giving his view on the development of policy up to 2002. He takes the view that US policy was about a lot more than wmd and increasingly (if not always) about regime change and that UK policy was mainly about keeping onside with the US. Read more here.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Secrecy at the Inquiry

It looks as if the Iraq Inquiry is going to be a lot less transparent than was promised.

This morning, on the Iraq Inquiry Digest and Comment is Free, I have analysed the protocol that the Cabinet Office has published, setting out the terms on which the government will disclose information to the Inquiry and the circumstances in which the Inquiry will be allowed to publish such information.

In both cases, the rules are a lot more restrictive than the statements made by Gordon Brown when he set up the Inquiry in June. In spite of a promise that an Inquiry by Privy Counsellors will be allowed to see absolutely everything, the government is now saying that "confidential" information will be withheld.

Similarly, although it was promised that only national security reasons would prevent the Inquiry publishing such information, the government has now given a long list of reasons, beginning with the infinitely flexible "public interest", why it might block publication. The Inquiry has to seek permission to publish and every piece of information and the government has a veto.

I've asked the Inquiry how it reconciles this with its statement that
It is the Committee’s intention to publish all the relevant evidence except where national security considerations prevent that.
In my view, the two are entirely incompatible. We'll see how long the statement remains on the Inquiry website.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Helpful advice from the police

I've had a very helpful leaflet from my community police team, letting me know that there is drug dealing taking place in the local park. If I want to buy any drugs, I'll know where to go. Apparently the action the police are taking to combat this is to have officers (and CSOs) conducting high visibility patrols in the area...

A bit extreme

I've always had a problem with the idea of "extremists" and the corresponding, widely-held assumption that it is the job of the state to tackle extremism and to persuade people, notably muslims, away from extremism. The Guardian's story today about police monitoring of "domestic extremism"suggests that the police have completely lost the plot.
Senior officers say domestic extremism, a term coined by police that has no legal basis, can include activists suspected of minor public order offences such as peaceful direct action and civil disobedience.
It's obvious reading the Guardian's story that the police simple don't understand why they shouldn't monitor people who are simply demonstrating against government policy.

Anton Setchell, who is in overall command of Acpo's domestic extremism remit, said people who find themselves on the databases "should not worry at all". But he refused to disclose how many names were on the NPOIU's national database, claiming it was "not easy" to count. He estimated they had files on thousands of people. As well as photographs, he said FIT surveillance officers noted down what he claimed was harmless information about people's attendance at demonstrations and this information was fed into the national database.

He said he could understand that peaceful activists objected to being monitored at open meetings when they had done nothing wrong. "What I would say where the police are doing that there would need to be the proper justifications," he said.

The simple answer is that when the police think that it's their job to undermine demonstrations, as happened at Kingsnorth, we are on the way not just to a police state but one in which the government controls what people are or are not allowed to say.

Another joke

It's quite astonishing that Radovan Karadzic has managed to delay the opening of his trial at the Hague by the simple ploy of not turning up to represent himself. According to the Guardian:
Legal experts predict [that] further delays, perhaps of several months, are inevitable.
The judges have been criticised by lawyers, victims' associations, and human rights activists for allowing the war crimes suspects to set the agenda and manipulate the court.
Here we go again...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Straw blown away

In the Independent, Matthew Norman launches a devastating attack on Jack Straw, his anger sparked by renewed attempts to bring in secret coroner's inquests:
His gift for dodging responsibility verges on genius. Time and time again the hand of censure has brushed his collar, and each time he has slipped it and vanished into the night. Over his complicity as Foreign Secretary in the rendition and subsequent torture of terrorist suspects, he escaped by the skin of his teeth. What deniability he had – and his story changed, in the most legalistic of language, after an initial blanket denial – rested entirely on being given the benefit of a gigantic doubt that he never asked the most obvious questions, or turned his deaf ear to the answers if he did. As Martin Bright wrote in the Independent on Sunday, his self-alleged lack of curiosity about the outsourced torture of British nationals is astonishing.

The man's entire career serves as a gruesome paradigm of the poverty and enfeeblement of Westminster politics. The granddaddy of the professional politician, he blazed the trail so well worn now by gliding seamlessly from leftie student activist to legal qualification to unelected adviser to MP to Cabinet member, quietly jettisoning every belief he once professed along the way to speed the journey.

The one thing we can be sure Mr Straw believes in is Mr Straw. His ambition is unquenchable. When his one serious mistake (deflecting transatlantic glory from Mr Tony Blair by cuddling up to Condi Rice) cost him the Foreign Office, he accepted humiliating demotion just to stay in the game. His transfer of allegiance from Blair to Brown, whose leadership "campaign" he managed (and hats off for winning that one), was comical in its fervency. Even now, be sure that he is scheming to position himself as the Jim Hacker compromise candidate should Labour somehow locate the energy required to ditch the PM.

Tragically, there would be worse electoral choices. As viewers doubtless observed on BBC1 last night, he is adept at promoting an image of calmly authoritative blandness, hence his comparative popularity, and a grandmaster of televisual smoothness. He is as slimy as an oil slick, and always quick to move on once he's coated the vulnerable birdies with filthy tar.

An utter disgrace to every high office he has held, Jack Straw has, typically enough, evaded the widespread loathing attracted by Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Campbell and the rest, despite being one of only three ministers to remain in the Cabinet since 1997. In an all-star team containing Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and Zidane, only the more obsessive fan would notice Patrick Vieira unflamboyantly putting in the hard work in defensive midfield.

But viscerally loathed he should be, for the damage he has done us in the cause of personal ambition, and for the damage he hopes to do yet by bringing this pernicious law back to the Commons. Perhaps in time he will be. A painful inquest into the death of New Labour approaches, and whatever Jack Straw's feelings on the matter this one will be held in public.

I've had a few run-ins with Straw myself. Indeed it was his outrageous evasion and pompous bullying of the Foreign Affairs Committee in 2003 that led me to look into the whole Iraq dossier thing. But this is pretty strong stuff.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Planning a war, badly

The Iraq Inquiry Digest, of which I am editor, has a new post from Iain Paton, an ex-RAF officer who says he saw a war being planned from mid-2002. He also saw the problems caused by the extreme secrecy around the war planning, including subsequent problems with inadequate equipment.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Carter-Ruck, Bell Pottinger

The Guardian reports that Peter Bottomley MP is to report solicitors Carter-Ruck to the Law Society over its attempt to prevent the newspaper reporting the proceedings of Parliament. The paper also has a piece on Carter-Ruck and its developing niche in reputation management, in collaboration in this case with PR firm Bell Pottinger.

What is clear is that if you have done something very bad and want to stop the truth coming out, Carter-Ruck and Bell Pottinger are the people to ensure that justice is done and the truth comes out.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Carter Ruck goes much, much, much too far

The notorious law firm Carter-Ruck specialises in protecting rich clients and big companies from the glare of publicity through libel actions and the threat of them, not to mention all-encompassing super-injunctions.

The Guardian is reporting this afternoon that Carter-Ruck has now dropped an injunction, which it gained last night, which prevented it reporting a parliamentary question revealing that Carter-Ruck had obtained an earlier injunction to cover-up oil trader Trafigura's outrageous behaviour in having toxic waste dumped in the Ivory Coast.

Yes, that's right. A judge actually granted an injunction that prevented a newspaper reporting the proceedings of Parliament. It is not clear which action is the most shameful, Carter-Ruck's attempt to challenge one of the basic freedoms of our democracy or the judge's decision to back them.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Using national security as a cover

Not for the first time, the government has been caught out using national security as a cover for its own embarrassment. This is the worst kind of crying wolf and seriously damages the government's credibility.

According to the Guardian, the report by British Transport Police Chief Contstable Ian Johnston into the arrest of Tory MP Damian Green in connection with leaks from a civil servant "concludes that none of the 31 leaks raised a threat to national security", which is what the Cabinet Office told the police.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Good timing?

Just as Barack Obama wins the Nobel Peace Prize, the New Statesman pops through my door with a cover story comparing him to George W Bush. Is that good or bad timing?

According to the BBC:
Mr Obama's spokesman said the president was "humbled" to have won the prize. He said he woke Mr Obama up when he called with the news early on Friday.
I can see why Obama would want to make it clear that he wasn't waiting up to see if he won, but why do people always say "humbled" these days. Why can't they just say "honoured".

Thursday, 8 October 2009

That's alright then

The Times reports that Boris Johnson has been accused of cronyism in trying to appoint Veronica Wadley, formerly editor of the Boris-supporting Evening Standard to an Arts Council post, although she was judged to be "manifestly less qualified than three of her competitors".

At the end of the piece comes a carefully considered piece of defensive spin from Wadley:
A source close to Ms Wadley pointed out that a second civil servant, working alongside Mr Johnson, approved the appointment and Ms Forgan “is a leftie”.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

You can't say you weren't warned

Meanwhile, the Indy's Andrew Grice says that David Cameron is determined to win a mandate for cuts to public spending by talking about the issue so openly now.

It's an interesting idea and an interesting position for the tories to take. I instinctively have more sympathy for political parties who tell voters the uncomfortable "truth", rather than what they want to hear. But as Grice points out:
"Vote for me, I'll freeze your pay" is hardly an election-winning slogan.
The other side of what Grice says is that if the tories come to power and take an axe to the public services, no-one will be able to say they weren't warned.

A good piece is spoilt by the common mistake of asserting what Labour and the tories "think" and "believe", with no objective evidence other than the line Grice was spun:
Labour ministers suspect that people may not necessarily translate their general view into a personal sacrifice.

The Tories ... want to be "honest" about the sort of medicine they know they would have to administer. The £158bn a year public sector pay bill cannot be immune, they judge.

Some senior Tories think they would get the benefit of the doubt for two years. Mr Cameron thinks he must hit the ground running, unlike Tony Blair who, the Tory leader believes, continued to act as an opposition candidate after becoming Prime Minister. The Cameroons think the first six months would be decisive.

The Indy wot dunnit

The Independent is claiming this morning that its story yesterday that Gulf Arab states are secretly planning to stop trading oil in dollars sent global markets into a "frenzy".

It certainly is an interesting development but perhaps they are overstating it.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

David Cameron, the "truth"

Perhaps inverted commas should be used in the Telegraph's piece by self-confessed posh social climber James Delingpole, promising "the truth" (my quote marks) about David Cameron's days at Oxford.

Dave was just an ordinary bloke. If that isn't the ultimate in spin, I don't know what is.

Inverted commas gone mad

The Telegraph also makes interesting use of inverted commas, telling us that, Kevin McGee, the former partner of Matt Lucas, has been 'found hanged'. The link to the article tells us that Lucas and McGee "divorced" (their quote marks) ten months ago, while the article itself calls Lucas a "divorcee" (again, their quote marks).

But then what other expression do you use to describe people who weren't actually married and then stopped not being actually married?

Journalist gone mad

The Times has an interesting take on a piece by one of its own journalists,

Friday, 2 October 2009

More damage to international relations

In a new post on the Iraq Inquiry Digest website, I reveal that the government is again threatening to block the release of documents relating to the September 2002 Iraq weapons of mass destruction dossier, on the grounds of "damage to international relations".

The documents could shed light on some of the most controversial claims in the dossier, including a notorious claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Africa and a suggestion that its acquisition of aluminium tubes was related to a nuclear weapons programme.

Read more here

Thursday, 1 October 2009

More on Iraq Inquiry Digest

I've done a piece on the new Iraq Inquiry Digest website for Open Democracy/Our Kingdom.

Read it here.

Iraq Inquiry Digest goes live

A new website, of which I am the editor, officially launches today. Iraq Inquiry Digest, is a project to monitor and comment on the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war. It is billed as "everything about the Chilcot Inquiry in one place" and aims both to inform and to provide a dynamic forum for comment and analysis. It seeks to provide a balance of views and opinion, to be constructive and to provide reasoned and well argued comment. We'll see how that goes...

The site has a great deal of information already, including a lot of the existing evidence and a list of the questions the Inquiry will need to address. It's backed by some well-known and well-respected people, many of whom will be contributing to it, adding new information and making new revelations between now and the start of the Inquiry's public hearings.

When will that be? Well, there should be announcement soon. But don't hold your breath.

Note the feed on the right. It's likely to update a lot more often than the Iraq dossier site!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

A farcical attempt to deflect attention

The Times has an appalling piece today from Israeli Ambassador Ron Prossor, who seeks to deflect attention from the United Nations Human Rights Council's report on its alleged war crimes in Gaza with an attack on the UNHCR itself. He struggles to do anything except accuse the body of hypocrisy and anti-Israeli bias, somewhat handicapped by the fact that the report's author, Richard Goldstone, is Jewish and neither anti-semitic nor anti-Israeli.

Most farcically, Prossor writes:
Difficult issues, including the use of white phosphorus, as reported by The Times, will not be ignored.
Which translates as: OK so we lied about using white phosphorus but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't believe us when we say we made every effort to avoid harming civilians.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Boden as big brother

Another Boden/mini-Boden catalogue has come through the door with a plea to "help us shine a light on troubled wardrobes". If you recommend up to six friends you will be rewarded with £30 of account credit to buy your own middle class lifestyle essentials.

Grass your inadequate mates up to the Fashion Police - it's for their own good. Just hope they don't see the advert themselves and realise that you think their wardrobe "troubled".

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Gordon's Iraq Hoax

I've just posted a new story for Index on Censorship online about how Gordon Brown's promise in 2007 to make sure that the Iraq dossier debacle is never repeated turned out to me all spin and fantasy.

Monday, 21 September 2009

It matters who is lying

The awful John Rentoul said yesterday that he thinks calling one's political opponent a liar is "in poor taste and, worse than that, a mistake". He argues - if that is the word - that
"name-calling makes it hard to debate and is more likely to lead to disorder and fisticuffs"
This is just the type of mindless tosh people who are stuck in the political consensus come out with. It's on a par with people who say that using "swear" words (i.e. using more words than other people) means that you have a limited vocabulary. The problem with our political debate at the moment is that politicians regularly lie through their teeth and it's considered "poor taste" or "bad form, old boy" to say to.

Rentoul says that Tory George Osborne didn't actually call Gordon Brown a liar, as billed. But, bizarrely, today's Times says that David Miliband accused Osborne of "the politics of the big lie and the big smear". No comment yet from Rentoul.

The top line of the Times story is that "Treasury officials have accused the man who could soon be their boss of implying that they had broken the law". Senior civil servants are quoted, anonymously of course, as "voicing anger" at this.

Sadly, from the coverage that I've read, I can't work out who's telling the truth. That is what matters. If Brown really did conceal plans to cut spending while making such a virtue of not doing so, it really should change the landscape of politics, as Osborne claims. But the problem isn't that someone has called someone else a liar, it is that the media like the drama of accusation and counter-accusation more than analysis of who's right and who's wrong.

Have Trafigura got away with it

I've been following for a while the massive scandal of how oil Trader Trafigura had toxic waste dumped in Ivory Coast in 2006, injuring thousands of people, and according to Greenpeace, killing 15. After a campaign of dirty tricks, spin, denials and threatened libel actions, Trafigura has now settled a legal case, offering to pay about £1000 to each victim. The total of £30, is slightly more than 10% of the company's reported profits last year. Greenpeace is still trying to get the Trafigura prosecuted in the Netherlands, where the scandal orginated. But, as the Guardian reports,
Although the deal costs Trafigura £30m and does not appear to absolve it of blame for the illegal dumping or resultant injuries, company director Eric de Turckheim claimed today: "This settlement completely vindicates Trafigura."

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Four letter words

It's probably trite to point out that spin is a four-letter word but I would make the point that I don't mind what language people use, as long as they don't talk bollocks. In the Independent, Andrew Grice says that Gordon Brown has finally used the c-word, by which he means "cuts" - geddit? You could also make the point - made by many people already - that if you limit the language that people use, you limit their ability to discuss things. Cuts is a simple, short word loved by the media and usually avoided at all costs by politicians. The trouble is, there isn't an agreed definition. Is a failure to increase a budget in "real terms" a cut?

But then, if you say the wrong thing, you get punished. We also learn from the Indy that the "voice of the Shipping Forecast" (or, as the sub-headline puts it "voice of shipping forecast") has been dropped for reasons allegedly unconnected with having said "fuck" after a fuck-up, when he thought his microphone was turned off. Perhaps it should have been.

No comment on that bastard

Someone else who wants to make his point without coming out and saying so is, according to the Telegraph's Jeremy Warner, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King. In this case, King is apparently happy to be quoted, he just wants it understood that he isn't criticising former Monetary Policy Committee member David (Danny) Blanchflower, even if he is.

Spinning to save the planet

Is spinning OK if it's in a good cause? The Guardian's exclusive this morning says that Europe has clashed with the US Obama administration over climate change in a potentially damaging split that comes ahead of crucial political negotiations on a new global deal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

The story is clearly planted by "Sources on the European side", who "say the US approach could undermine the new treaty and weaken the world's ability to cut carbon emissions." US negotiators have apparently told European counterparts that the Obama administration intends to sweep away almost all of the architecture of the Kyoto treaty and replace it with a system of its own design.

The story makes clear that "European officials are reluctant to be seen to openly criticise the Obama administration, which they acknowledge has engaged with climate change in a way that President Bush refused to." So one of them is doing it anonymously. We are even told what the European negotiators "fear" - that the US move could sink efforts to agree a robust new treaty in Copenhagen in December.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Cupid Stunts

The Independent's Pandora tells us how Tory MP Nadine Dorries has enlisted the help of a couple of rightwing bloggers in her attempt to sue Brown's former spin chief Damian McBride and New/Old/New Labour spinner Derek Draper. In what Pandora rightly calls a "stunt" Dories got "Guido Fawkes" and "Tory Bear" to deliver the writs to McBride and Draper.

Does Dorries really think that this type of stunt will earn her the moral high ground - or is she just after cheap publicity?

By the way, I didn't know that McBride and Draper had accused Dorries - in emails that Guido Fawkes/Paul Staines published - of having an affair. Interesting...

Monday, 7 September 2009

Never ever trust Straw

As the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war gets stuck in to a mass of documents, it will have the opportunity to compare what ministers said about them while they remained secret with what they really say. On many occasions, the leaking or publication of papers has shown that ministers lied.

I've just come across what Jack Straw said when the remainder of Elizabeth Wilmshurst's resignation letter was leaked. She was the Foreign Office legal adviser who resigned when attorney general Lord Goldsmith changed his mind - allegedly for a second time - to give unequivocal legal backing for the war.

In the Commons, Straw was challenged by Tory Dominic Grieve over the new part of Wilmshurst's letter that appeared to most people to show that Goldsmith had changed his view.
The view expressed in that letter [of 7 March] has of course changed again into what is now the official line.
Straw was having none of it. In the Commons - where ministers are supposed not to lie - he said:
The hon. Gentleman then made a wholly tendentious claim based on his reading of Ms Wilmshurst's letter. He said that it showed clearly that the Attorney-General had one view on 7 March and a different view later. He asked what change of law or fact had taken place. The letter showed nothing of the kind...
Goldsmith's advice of 7 March was leaked and then published in full soon afterwards and, as everyone now knows, it was different from his later advice. In fact, the government
then published an account of how Goldsmith came to change his mind.

On 13 March the Attorney General discussed the matter with his Legal Secretary. ... As the Legal Secretary recorded at the time, the Attorney confirmed in that discussion that, after further reflection, having particular regard to the negotiating history of resolution 1441 and his discussions with Sir Jeremy Greenstock and the representatives of the US Administration, he had reached the clear conclusion that the better view was that there was a lawful basis for the use of force without a second resolution.

Straw being Straw, he would probably claim that even this does not mean that the "conclusion" that Goldsmith had "reached" was any different from what he had thought before. But that's why no-one should ever, ever trust anything that Straw says.

Friday, 4 September 2009


Today's Guardian has an absolutely shocking story about swine flu. Shocking because someone - the subs presumably - doesn't know the difference between could and will. It is nevertheless good news.

The headline says that swine flu won't be as dangerous as was thought. But the subheadline gets all mixed up:
The estimate of the number of Britons who will die of swine flu this winter has fallen dramatically after health experts admitted the virus is less lethal then they feared
When it was estimated in July that that up to 65,000 people could be killed across the UK, a few tabloids made a meal of this worst case scenario but it was generally clear that that was what it was. Now the official estimate of the number of Britons who could die this winter from swine flu is to be reduced substantially to roughly 20,000.

In both of these cases, I've quoted from the Guardian article itself, which in both cases talks about the number of people who could die. The article also quotes Scottish health minister Nicola Sturgeon as saying "that that (sic) official worst case scenario had been revised downwards".

"Worst case scenario", "could" and "could". Which bit of that did the sub on this story not get? Thankfully it is a story that is about the numbers being revised downwards, which lessens the impact. If the story was that more people "will" die such sloppiness would be outrageous.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Privacy and Censorship.

There are a couple of interesting new stories on Index on Censorship online - and a moral dilemma or two.

The new information commissioner Christopher Graham has told MPs that privacy breaches are not being taken seriously enough. He cites the case of the former BNP member who was fined £200 after leaking membership details. It's hard to have sympathy for BNP members who have their membership revealed and you could say that if people are in the BNP we need to know about it but then you could say the same about communists etc.

Graham wants people banged up. He accuses MPs of being “seduced by the siren song of Fleet Street” into not pushing for a tougher approach to privacy breaches. On this point, he's probably right. The tabloid press have made it very hard for politicians to take action on breaches of privacy and if they try they will no doubt be accused of self-interest.

Index also has a piece by Lal Wickrematunge on the horrific 20 year sentence with hard labour handed out to fellow Sri Lankan journalist JS Tissainayagam for writing the wrong kind of article. He says this has not sunk in with the journalistic fraternity yet. But, he says " the message to the journalistic fraternity in Sri Lanka is loud and clear."

Friday, 28 August 2009

It's always families

The Times is leading on a claim that Gordon Brown "plans to take cash from the poorest families." It's an interesting story but quite complicated and significantly over-hyped.

The gist of the story is that the government, in fact the Department for Work and Pensions rather than the PM, is planning to make changes to local housing allowance (LHA). The Times claims that LHA "replaced the old housing benefit in 2007" but the truth is that it is replacing housing benefit, which is the benefit paid to the majority of people who need help with their rent. The Times says that 600,000 people get LHA, of whom 300,000 get paid, intentionally, more than they actually pay in rent. The government plans to remove that surplus income.

So undoubtedly a small minority of people will lose out and if you are on a low income, every bit of money counts. But the Times is saying that people will lose "up to £15 per week". This is the maximum surplus. How many of the £300,000 actually get this? It also reports claims from Crisis the housing charity, that "this could mean that people on £65-a-week jobseeker’s allowance losing 20 per cent of their income". Hang on a second. Crisis is a charity for single people. Who gets £65 per week? Single people over 25 - and that is their living costs, not their housing costs. What Crisis is saying is that the people worst hit by this will lose the amount by which their income after housing costs is increased by a surplus on their housing allowance. Somehow they have worked out that £15 is 20% of £80 (i.e. 65 +15), which it isn't. Undoubtedly some families will lose out but this will be a small minority even of those getting LHA and the money they lose will be a much smaller percentage of their income.

And what is the evidence to back up the article's claims of a revolt by Labour MPs? It quotes two Labour MPs who pay very close attention to this type of issue. One of them, Frank Field, plans to table an amendment opposing the change.

There is a good point in the article, made by Field, that removing the incentive for people to find a rent that is less than LHA destoys the whole purpose of the new benefit. But making it into a big political story comparable to the abolition of the 10p tax rate is way over the top.

Don't mention the fraud

The BBC has certainly made the running with its stories about fraud in the Afghanistan elections. It is now reporting an "explosive" row on the issue between President Karzai and US special envoy Richard Holbrooke. It says that Lord Ashdown has expressed concerns that undermining the election could have disastrous consequences.

He said: "The effect of it could be to de-legitimise the whole process.

"If it is the case that the Americans by some form or another have declared these elections illegitimate as it were, have undermined the legitimacy of the electoral process, then our capacity to be able to win back the support of the Pashtun tribes from the Taliban is lessened."

It's an interesting idea, that you should keep quiet about a fraudulent election, especially if your mission is to spread democracy.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

A challenge for Chilcot

In a new piece for Index on Censorship online, I describe how my latest freedom of information request has unearthed still more unpublished documents on the Iraq dossier, including some from the intelligence services that are outright exempt under FOI. The new Chilcot Inquiry must see the documents, take note of them and publish them, whatever their origin.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Make your mind up

The Telegraph has decided to re-spin Lord Adonis' comments in Beijing about the need to cut down travel to save the planet. But Adonis is in a spin either way.

Here is what Adonis said, as reported in both yesterday's report and a new one today:

“We’ll never sell a low-carbon future to the public if it depends on a deprivation model. I’m convinced that there’s no necessary trade-off between a low carbon future and more or less transport,”
“If you can radically cut emissions as a result of new transport technology it is not necessary to face people with an ‘either-or’ choice between a low carbon future and big cuts in travel.”

Yesterday, the Telegraph presented Adonis' remarks about the personal choices of consumers, claiming that Adonis

"said it was not realistic to expect people to curtail their travel habits in the name of global warming.."

Today, realising it had missed a trick, the paper presents the remarks as undermining government policies that discourage travel, claiming that Adonis:

"said emissions can be cut without forcing people to make personal sacrifices in their lifestyle."

I think today's story is a more legitimate interpretation of what Adonis said and this leaves him even more confused about his government's policy. A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that Adonis' support for new rail links that cut short haul air travel and therefore carbon emissions undermined the government's claim that aviation emissions are irrelevant because they will be offset under a carbon trading scheme. Now - as the Telegraph points out - Adonis has undermined the rationale for taxes that seek to restrict road and air travel.

In last week's New Statesman, Dominic Sandbrook described Adonis as one of the current political scene's few "overtly intellectual politicians". Perhaps he's too clever for his own good because his main talent seems to be tying himself up in knots.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Beyond satire

In the Telegraph today, Emma Soames, editor at large of Saga magazine, begs Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary to spare a thought for second home-owners.
There are several hundreds of thousands British residents who would never have actually slammed down the money for houses in Europe if you hadn’t first torn up the rule book about how to run an airline.
So far, I have only managed once or twice a month for three or four days at a stretch
In the world of the Telegraph, we are supposed to take such whinges seriously but I still had to read it very carefully to make sure it wasn't satire. Neither O'Leary or Soames give a stuff for the damage it is doing to the planet for people to fly twice a month to second homes in France. Because they can do it and have done it, it has now become an inalienable right and we have to keep expanding airports to preserve that right.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Defending the indefensible

Both the Guardian and the Independent have the story of the MoD press officer who is suing after being forced to tell both bereaved families and the media that servicemen killed in Iraq had been properly equipped.

It's not a straightforward story as it's not clear how the press officer came to know that he was lying, other than from media reports. But the role of the MoD here looks suspicious:
his job "was to visit families just hours after an officer had called to tell them the news that their loved ones were dead." He provided a "media shield" to help them deal with the press interest.
Was his job to help the families - or to make sure they were onside?

The Indy has the best headline: "Lying about Iraq made me quit, press officer claims".
For a minute, you might think it was Alastair Campbell, John Williams or one of the other spin doctors who sexed up the dossier.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Kilfoyle on the Inquiry

The Yorkshire Post has a piece from Labour MP Peter Kilfoyle, whose book, Lies, damned lies and Iraq, is , as you might guess, "An Indepth Analysis into the Case for War and How It Was Misrepresented". Kilfoyle says of the forthcoming inquiry:
Of prime importance is the political culture within which, ultimately, all key decisions on war and peace are made. Where spin – and, at times, mendacity – is the order of the day, the truth will suffer. Without truthfulness, decisions will be hedged by other considerations, including ambition and fear.

A truly objective inquiry will point out the ease with which those in senior positions in government, in the media, and in the forces, were able to convince themselves against the evidence of the justice of this war.

Thus, the very people who should have put the brakes on the rush to an illegal and immoral war, actually facilitated its implementation.

This moral failure at the very top of our civil structures is possibly the most instructive phenomenon of all.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Watch Chilcot closely

As more details of the Iraq Inquiry are announced, Comment is Free has a strong piece from Richard Norton-Taylor aimed at strengthening its spine:
Do not underestimate the ability of ministers and officials – former and serving – and the mandarin classes to dodge questions and, if they cannot avoid pointing to mistakes, blame the system rather than individuals.
He lists some of the evidence that has come into the public domain through leaks and concludes:
Will Chilcot question the participants about the extraordinary material in these documents? Or will he succumb to Whitehall's practice of not commenting on leaks – or asking others to comment on them? Maybe I am doing Chilcot a disservice. He will have to be watched closely.
It had not occurred to me that the excuse of not commenting on leaks will get in the way. These documents should come into Chilcot's hands through official channels, indeed, he saw them during the Butler Review, which largely avoided commenting on them on the grounds that their contents were outside its remit. There is no doubt that they are within Chilcot's remit.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Don't bother

On the front page of the Telegraph website is the headline "50p tax to stifle economy", which carries the explanation:
New 50p tax rate to stifle economy and increase unemployment.
When you click on the link, the story itself, which is about consumer/personal finance instead of economics, suddenly uses inverted commas and the sub-headline reveals that it is based on a "study" by the Taxpayers Alliance.

No need to read any further.

Spin and the weather

The Met Office is downgrading its forecast for the summer. The BBC's Roger Harrabin is giving it something of a hard time for predicting a "barbecue summer". The Met Office says that it added a probability (65%) to its forecast and:
explains that it coined the phrase "barbecue summer" to help journalists' headlines.
Harrabin comments:
But this has come back to bite the organisation because many people do not feel like they have been enjoying a "good" summer, especially compared with previous searing years.

Some now ask if the Met Office risks its reputation by attempting to popularise its work this way.

And he's right:

Independent meteorologist Philip Eden told BBC News that Met Office forecasts were "generally fairly accurate".

Instead, he blamed "spinners" in the Met Office press office for exaggerating the certainty of forecasts.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Kingsnorth fallout

Last week Kent Police published both the original report into the policing of last summer's Kingsnorth climate camp and a second report by South Yorkshire police. They had told me that they were only publishing the second report. Both reports are critical of the controversial police tactics at the camp.

Indymedia has an update on the judicial review of the police's use of stop and search under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) and a suggestion that anyone who was unlawfully searched should consider suing Kent Police.

Climate Camp say that the judicial review is "progressing really well", which is something of an understatement. The case against Kent Police has been strengthened by the release of the second report, carried out by South Yorkshire Police. "This is clear evidence that most section 1 PACE searches had no lawful basis. " The initial report, by the National Policing Improvement Agency also gives the game away. Both make clear that, whatever the official claims that each and every search was based on individual circumstances, the "post event reality" shows that being searched was "a near condition of entry" to the camp and that police officers on the ground thought they were to search everyone.

The advice to people who were searched is to hold on to your search form, even if it is illegible.

Those who were searched unlawfully under section 1 of PACE will have the basis for legal claims against Kent Police.

It has been agreed that claims can be made up to three months after the conclusion of the judicial review.

Monday, 20 July 2009

What are they talking about

So today we learn that the official assessment of the terrorist threat to the UK has been downgraded, from "severe" to "substantial". According to MI5, severe means that "an attack is highly likely" while substantial means that "an attack is a strong possibility".

But what does this mean? What timeframe are they talking about? Without a timeframe it is meaningless. I would say that it remains "highly likely" that there will be a terrorist attack at some point in the future, even if the perpetrators have not even thought about it yet. Surely the threat level must reflect a combination of probability and immediacy.

Bizarrely, the highest level, "critical", means that "an attack is expected imminently". Has the assessment of probability ("expected") changed from "highly likely", or is it the immediacy that changes.

I heard one reporter on BBC describe the previous level (severe) as meaning that it was highly likely that an attack would take place in the near future. This isn't what the system says.
But it does perhaps explain why the level has been downgraded. You can't go on forever saying that it is likely that an attack will happen soon.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Fair Game

In a fascinating piece that uncovers the unseemly side of spin, the Telegraph reports that
"Labour ministers are threatening to launch a concerted effort to tarnish the reputation of British Army chief General Sir Richard Dannatt."
The story is a bit hard to follow, not least because of the omission of the word "that" at a vital point:
Relations between the Chief of the General Staff and the Government hit a new low after senior Labour sources warned the general will be “fair game” for political attacks when he leaves his post at the end of August.
You have to read this very carefully to realise that no-one "warned the general" about anything but warned that he would be fair game. The basis for this assertion is a quote from a minister:
“Once he’s gone, we can have a go at him. He can write his book and talk all he wants, but he’ll be fair game then.”
The idea that a concerted effort is planned is backed up by the fact that they are already at it:
A Labour source accused the general of “building up his own reputation at the expense of the Army” and added: “The man’s a hypocrite. He’s sat in these meetings and approved these things, and then he comes out in public and complains about them.”
Pretty gutless really. And pretty inept, given the Telegraph's loyalty to the military. It turned the story round and it looks like backfiring.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Free to tell the truth?

Index on Censorship has posted online a petition to Iran's justice minister, calling for the release of journalist Maziar Bahari, who has been held without charge in an Iranian jail for over three weeks.

Meanwhile, as the BBC and Guardian report,
A group of soldiers who took part in Israel's assault in Gaza say widespread abuses were committed against civilians under "permissive" rules of engagement.
The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has dismissed the report as hearsay as the soldiers were anonymous:
"The IDF expects every soldier to turn to the appropriate authorities with any allegation,"
There would of course be no repercussions...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Toothless watchdog

In the Times today, former BBC journalist and goverment spin doctor Martin Sixsmith sinks his teeth into the information commissioner, for being utterly useless in pursuing what he describes as a freedom of information request but which seems to be a subject data access request under the data protection act.

Sixsmith tells how, after some pretty severe delaying tactics from the government

I urged the ICO to demand that the Government hand over the data. The ICO threatened enforcement action, but the Government did not reply. So the ICO set another deadline, which the Government also ignored. When the Government failed to meet a third deadline, the ICO moved it back again.

It was clear that the Government was accustomed to bullying and ignoring a toothless ICO, and that the ICO had no stomach to take it on.
All very familiar...

Utter farce

Last night I posted a new story for Index on Censorship online about how ministers and officials at the DfT lied to conceal a letter about BAA's lobbying for a third Heathrow runway. I also did a piece for Comment is Free.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Part of the story

A fascinating piece in the Independent from Steve Richards, who argues that it's bad for a spin doctor like Andy Coulson to become part of the story but feels that the influence of spin doctors is overblown.

But then, if you are or have been a political correspondent, you may be too close to the issue - or the spinner - to see the problems. Richards thinks that Alastair Campbell's significance has been overstated:
During Labour's conference in 1996 an entire, tedious Panorama focused on Labour and spin, a few months before the general election.

Throughout the pre-election period more words were written about Campbell than any member of the Shadow Cabinet apart from Gordon Brown. On the whole Campbell fumed against what he regarded, rightly, as a disproportionate focus on his activities. But I suspect in the early years at least those involved in presenting new Labour's case were flattered at the suggestion they were mesmerising titans.

It's quite amazing that Richards seems to be telling us that Campbell was angry at what he saw. How does he know what Campbell thought? Campbell may have professed anger but he was a spin doctor - geddit? At least Richards shows some grasp of the possibility that what Campbell said was not the same as what he really felt.

On balance Richards thinks Coulson will get away with being implicated in the News of the World phone tapping scandal, although becoming the story will be a problem. Not least:

Who does [Cameron] turn to for advice about how to handle the media's sudden interest in his Director of Communications?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Get out of that!

The BBC reports that:

The Hague tribunal has rejected the argument by former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that he should not be prosecuted because of an immunity deal.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Sir John Chilcot - or rather the Cabinet Office - has named the secretary (ie the head of the secretariat) to his Iraq inquiry. It will be Margaret Aldred, currently Director General and Deputy Head of the Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat in the Cabinet Office.

This secretariat took over from the Overseas and Defence Secretariat, which helped Tony Blair cook up the clever plan to take Britain to war in Iraq. It produced the March 2002 options paper and its deputy head in 2002 asked joint intelligence committee chairman John Scarlett to drop the caveats from the Iraq dossier.

So Aldred should know where the bodies are buried. Will this be a help or a hindrance to the inquiry.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Out in the open

On Friday, the Campaign for Freedom of Information issued a press release and report stating that
Long delays by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in investigating freedom of information complaints are undermining the effectiveness of the FOI Act...
This very much reflects my experience and it's disappointing that the story seems to have got little press coverage. Following the expenses scandal, I thought people were more tuned in to FOI and the tendency for public authorities to bury things for as long as possible.

A day earlier, the FOI News blog, was suggesting that the ICO "is no longer putting itself in the stocks for its slow handling of appeals". It published a letter putting the blame on the failure of Jack Straw's Ministry of Justice to fund it adequately.

Friday, 3 July 2009

All hot air

Yesterday's Telegraph carried an amazingly naive interview with Sir Nigel Rudd, chairman of airport owner BAA. Rudd's claim to be concerned about climate change/global warming is pretty transparent:
Like many bosses of consumer-led businesses, he recognises that mitigating climate change is becoming very important to customers, and that companies need to act on the issue to preserve their reputations and brands.
"Combating climate change is very important to us,” he says. “Clearly as far as our customers, the travelling public, are concerned, I think people want to see that we are environmentally aware."
So we'll believe him when he says he's worried about climate change, even when he says he only says it to keep his customers happy. The article is full of naive assertions about what Rudd believes or is worried about:
If, on the other hand, environmental concerns prevent the development of a third runway at Heathrow, he is worried that interconnecting flights that currently go via London will be routed to overseas airports instead. “Frankfurt flies to six cities in China now, because that’s where the economy of the world is going to grow, in the Far East,” says Sir Nigel.
Never mind that Heathrow is chock full of transatlantic flights because those are the most profitable, lets blame the lack of flights to China on a lack of capacity. Reading the article, it's clear that Rudd doesn't give a stuff about global warming. He comes close to outing himself as a climate change denier:
"Sometimes there isn’t a hugely open debate about this. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who believes that human activity is not affecting the planet, but there are a lot of people who will not speak out about the real issues, because they’re concerned they will be branded as Luddite."
An honest debate would be great. But tacked onto the interview is an even more naive piece about what BAA is doing that looks as if it was written by BAA's press office:
BAA’s approach is to lead the airport industry in managing emissions, where it has direct control over them. Where it does not have direct control, such as over emissions from flights, it seeks to encourage the airline industry and policymakers to tackle climate change.
Question for the Telegraph: do you call this journalism or are you having a laugh?

Monday, 29 June 2009

Imaginary offence

The Guardian has a piece today by David Mitchell, who argues against the very idea that certain "swear" words are inherently offensive. He really nails it when he says:
That's the argument often deployed against swearwords: "If you overuse them, they'll lose their effect." Well, so what, if you hate them so much? Or is the prospect of a rude word losing its offensive power too unsettling for the offendees, as it would reveal that it was only ever a word and the power was an illusion of their own making? It would emasculate their attempts to censor with their censure.

Spin at the Treasury

The Independent has a fascinating piece today from its economics editor Sean O'Grady, looking at the Treasury's spin machine, currently being deployed against the Bank of England:
The Treasury's panzers are the modern ways of manipulation – anonymous smearing, leaks and spin.
A number of old-style press officers were eased out in New Labour's early days. As a result, the Treasury was well able to get down and dirty, this time at Balls' expense. Don't forget, either, that this is the department of state that once gave Charlie "Bollocks" Whelan a berth, and was also the nursery of one Damian McBride, the man who gave us an "email campaign of hate" against the Tories, as the tabs called it.
In New Labour's early days, our current PM was in charge, of course.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Who remembers eco-towns?

I've done a piece for Inside Housing asking whether Gordon Brown's grand project for eco-towns will come to anything. An announcement is (sort of) promised next month, but don't hold your breath...

More Iraq inquiry fallout

Today's Independent reports David Miliband admitting that the government was wrong to try to hold the Iraq inquiry behind closed doors.

Yesterday's Spectator carried a piece by John Kampfner which claimed that the attempt was part of an explicit deal agreed between Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, who in return protected Brown in his hour of need. It's a good story, but the flaw in it is that the government has been spinning for some time that the inquiry was to be in secret.

At the end of the Independent piece, Brown's spokesman also describes the story, but for different reasons:
We would certainly deny the suggestion that the Prime Minister has done any sort of deal," the spokesman said. We are not having the inquiry in secret so the whole premise of the article does seem to fall down on that basic point."
The prime minister's spokesman seems to believe that if he rewrites history to pretend that an open inquiry was always the plan, everyone else will forget that Brown inisted last week that the inquiry must take place in secret.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Who are the bad guys?

In a blog post today, the Guardian's Michael White cleverly suggests that the opposition are the bad guys in wanting a transparent Iraq inquiry, not Gordon Brown for trying to impose a secret one. White also says:
With four Iraq inquiries already undertaken, some MPs wonder what more there is to unearth, let alone anything to change many minds.
To his credit, he does try to find out, asking a variety of military and political figures. He points to a good piece in last night's Standard from former intelligence official Brian Jones. But then he says:
Less well-placed conspiracy theorists routinely assert that Blair and the "sexed-up" dossiers were part of a plot to do it anyway, though anyone watching at the time will remember that, even on the eve of war, they would have settled for Saddam Hussein and his family leaving quietly.
The idea that the suggestion that Blair would have settled for a change of regime in Iraq disproves the "conspiracy theory" that he was really seeking regime change is a bit baffling. You could of course argue that the possibility that Blair would have left the wmd in the hands of a different regime proves that they were never the issue.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Vote for no change

According to the BBC, Margaret Beckett has based her pitch to MPs in the contest to be Speaker on an implied promise not to change very much:
She said she did not disagree with any of the reforms floated by other candidates but said it was important to get the details right and pledged to take MPs with her in efforts to make reforms.

Were you listening, Gordon?

I've been looking back at some of the Comment is Free pieces I've written in the last year on the subject of the Iraq inquiry. I think I've been pretty consistent: I've never held up that much hope of it getting any nearer the truth than previous inquiries, especially if it's another establishment stitch-up.

In November, I asked what is Brown afraid of?
it appears that Brown plans to buy enough time through dithering to make sure that any political fallout comes after the next election.

I remain unconvinced that a new establishment inquiry will get to the bottom of the Iraq scandal, particularly if it is largely held behind closed doors. If there is a Hutton-style inquiry with witnesses questioned publicly, that should throw up some embarrassing moments, not to mention new leads for investigative journalists. But only the Lib Dems and smaller parties really want this type of inquiry. It looks as if Labour and the Tories will agree on a closed format something like the post-Falklands Franks inquiry. After the openness of Hutton and the freedom of information act, that looks 25 years out of date.
In March I said that if the government thinks a secret inquiry into the Iraq war will restore public confidence, it's very wrong. Last month I predicted that:
a head of steam is building up to ensure that the public get the inquiry that they want, not the one that Straw, Brown and David Miliband are planning to give them.
Perhaps Gordon should have listened.

A watershed?

I've done a new piece today for Index on Censorship, arguing that the expenses scandal is a watershed for freedom of information and that transparency is no longer just an obsession for journalists and freedom of information campaigners.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Brown's Balls up

Ed Balls has gone badly off-message, by expressing his personal view that the Iraq inquiry should be "as open as possible".

Meanwhile, in the Mirror, Kevin Maguire agrees that Brown has put himself on the wrong side of the argument:
The PM's made himself part of the cover-up when blame could have been pinned to his predecessor.

Trouble already

The Independent reports that senior military figures are already criticising the secret Iraq inquiry and pointing out that the purpose is to protect politicians, not national secrecy.

General Sir Mike Jackson, head of the Army during the Iraq invasion, said: "I would have no problem at all in giving my evidence in public." He said Mr Brown's decision that the proceedings be held in private fed "the climate of suspicion and scepticism about government", adding that the Prime Minister ought to consider requiring witnesses to give evidence on oath.

"I do not see why it could not have gone for a halfway house with sessions in public and then having private hearings when it comes to intelligence," said General Jackson.

Air Marshal Sir John Walker, the former head of Defence Intelligence, said: "There is only one reason that the inquiry is being heard in private and that is to protect past and present members of this Government. There are 179 reasons why the military want the truth to be out on what happened over Iraq."

As a former deputy chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir John was asked for advice by members of the Defence Intelligence Service unhappy at the way the "dodgy dossier" on weapons of mass destruction was being put together. "We have worrying questions about how intelligence was ramped up to suit Tony Blair and his cronies and their reasoning for invasion," he said. "There is no reason why intelligence officials alone should have to carry the can for this. If there is anything particularly secret – and God knows there is precious little left secret over Iraq – then that can be heard in camera."

There is more trouble ahead with the Tories planning a Commons vote on the issue next week.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Storing up trouble

I've just posted a piece for Index on Censorship online, arguing that Brown's secret Iraq inquiry could be storing up trouble. If the details leak, as they probably will, Brown risks being seen as the Michael Martin of the Iraq cover-up. The man who tried to stop the truth coming out.

Own goal

This morning's papers are all pretty critical of Gordon Brown's decision to hold an establishment stitch-up of an Iraq inquiry.

The Guardian rightly points out that we already know much of what went on:
The chief point of a new probe, then, cannot be to get at things that have necessarily lain under wraps until now. No, the real reason an inquiry is needed is to draw together what we already know, and in its light to try to grasp how such a monstrous blunder could have been made.
While the Mail goes for the jugular:
So the Iraq War is to end as it began - under a blanket of secrecy and deceit, spun to keep the public in the dark about how Britain came to be ensnared in this bloody and shameful disaster.
The Mirror says:
To hold the inquiry into the Iraq war in secret is another spectacular own goal by the Prime Minister.
Can't argue with any of that.

Monday, 15 June 2009

A straight answer

The Sunday Times story yesterday Ministers 'misled' MPs over Heathrow resulted from documents I obtained under the freedom of information act. The documents do indeed show that a minister, Ian Putney, misled tory MP Justine Greening when he claimed that neither ministers nor officials had met Heathrow owner BAA to talk about the expansion of the airport. But the government's response to the revelation raises the question, if you don't accept that this is misleading, why would anyone believe you in future?

Pearson told Greening in a written parliamentary answer:
Ministers and officials within the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform have not held meetings specifically on Heathrow expansion. However, they have held a number of meetings with business organisations where Heathrow was discussed as part of a broader conversation.
But a letter from (Lord) Peter Mandelson revealed that (Baroness) Shriti Vadera of his department was met BAA chief executive Colin Matthews "to discuss the issue of new runway capacity". So the only thing that stops Pearson's answer being an outright lie is the fact that the expansion of Stansted was also discussed.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Brown's fake non-announcement opens the door

It's now looking very unlikely - I could still be proved wrong - that Gordon Brown will announce his long-promised Iraq inquiry this week. It looks as if reports that such an announcement was imminent were another bit of baseless spin, gobbled up by a gullible press. On the bright side, there is still time to make sure the inquiry is not a stitch-up.

The story began on Saturday night with the Sunday Telegraph's Patrick Hennessy claiming that Brown was "poised" to announce details of the inquiry:
He could make the announcement within days as part of his “fightback” plan aimed at reasserting his political authority and appeasing his critics on Labour’s backbenches.
It seems the context, that Blair was keen to throw Labour MPs a bone as he fought for survival, was more accurate than the substantive story, although the claim that Brown "could" make the announcement "within days" was sufficiently hedged - and meaningless - not to be proved wrong.

Yesterday Downing Street told me that no announcement was imminent and that the matter was in the hands of the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, as other outlets had reported. This suggests that the process of setting up the inquiry is still at an early stage.

On balance, this is good news it suggests that Brown may not simply announce an inquiry on his terms, i.e. long, secret, and focusing on the post-invasion debacle rather than the pre-war deception, and may consult opposition parties and others on what it should look like.

One group that is very keen to have an input is the all party public administration select committee (PASC), which held a seminar yesterday to ask exactly this question. At the meeting, held under the Chatham House rule, were many of the great and the good, including, as the PASC press release coyly put it "chairs of previous inquiries" and... me.

After the meeting, the PASC's chairman, Labour MP Tony Wright said:
“The Iraq inquiry is a fundamental opportunity to explore issues about which there has been significant public disquiet for some time. The point that emerged most strongly from our seminar was the following: only if the inquiry is conducted in a manner which is legitimate and credible—and is seen to be so—will the public be assured that it is not a whitewash. In my own view, this will require a process of engagement on the inquiry’s purpose and conduct, and Parliament’s agreement to the form of inquiry that is proposed.”
Quite right.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Conspiracy theory

The Daily Mail's Stephen Glover is asking whether the Guardian was more than a mere spectator, in the recent, failed plot against Brown:
Was it trying to orchestrate events so as to secure the resignation which it had called for in its editorial? If it was involved as a player, the person whose head was deepest in the maul was Polly Toynbee, the Guardian's sometimes overwrought columnist.

Cleared for publication

dThe Telegraph and others say that Gordon Brown is being forced to publish a summary of the Shahid Malik report, something it refused to do this morning.

Should be interesting.

Deeper, not wider

I've just done a new blog post for Index on Censorship in which I argue that, while Gordon Brown’s promise today to extend freedom of information is welcome, FOI needs to be deepened, not widened, if it is truly to hold power to account.
Brown’s promise that Justice Secretary Jack Straw will look at broadening the application of FOI to include new bodies that spend public money is not new and is an easy pledge to make at virtually no cost to to central government. What would be more impressive would be a commitment from ministers that they will release more information themselves.

Good news is no news

The Times says that the Treasury is looking at the options for selling - or privatising - Northern Rock. For the most part, its suggestion that a sale would be politically motivated looks fairly weak:
The Government is eager to sell Northern Rock to the private sector at a profit to prove to voters that Gordon Brown has overcome the financial crisis that brought the British banking system within hours of collapse.
However, Treasury insiders sought last night to dampen hopes that Northern Rock would be sold before the next general election. Ministers are understood to be cautious of selling the bank in the short term and want to ensure the best return
Treasury sources insisted last night that the Government was in no hurry to sell Northern Rock and was keen to leverage its control of the bank to extract substantial commitments to boost lending to the mortgage market.
Buried at the bottom of the story, we learn that:
The nationalised bank cut costs by reducing staff and has since been repaying the Government. By March this year Northern Rock was well ahead of target, owing a net balance of £8.9 billion on a loan that stood at £26.9 billion at the end of 2007.
Rather too much like good news to get widely reported, even if the scale of government exposure to the bank was once a very big issue.

Not cleared for publication

The Telegraph has an interesting lead story, pointing out that the report that supposedly cleared Labour MP Shahid Malik over his rental arrangements has not been published. We therefore only have Number 10's word that he is in the clear. The Telegraph says:
Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said last night the report should be published.
Number 10 says that the report "goes into quite a lot of detail about Mr Malik's personal affairs" and they may have a point, but then it has been the dragging out of MPs' personal affairs has exposed how corrupt many of them are.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Spin in overdrive

With Gordon Brown's future still said to be on the line, the spinners on both sides have gone into overdrive. The Telegraph reported on Saturday that Brown would throw Labour MPs the bone of an Iraq Inquiry - on his terms of course.

But today's Telegraph article on Labour MPs' last chance to tell Brown to go is so full of spin it's hard to know where to start. Peter Mandelson says directly that replacing Brown "would mean irresistible pressure to hold a general election". Whether he will say the same if Brown does go is another matter.

The Telegraph falls into the classic trap of reporting what someone "believes" when it is clearly spin:
Some of Mr Brown's allies believe he has survived the worst of the current crisis and that the rebels are now retreating.
But Brown's opponents are just as guilty of manipulating the media:

A group of MPs had been planning to circulate a letter to backbenchers asking them to support an email-based call on Mr Brown to resign.

In the event, the letter has not been widely distributed. One person involved in the plot said it had still "served its purpose" after being extensively reported in the media.

Instead, the rebels have done most of their canvassing via the telephone.

So the "hotmail plot" was created for media purposes.

Friday, 5 June 2009

It will never work

I often wonder why people say publicly "it will never work", leaving themselves open to be proved badly wrong. The government's car scrappage incentive scheme is one policy that attracted this type of comment but the Mail reports today that it is so popular that it could itself be scrapped in August.

Badly spun

In the Guardian, Deborah Summers describes the campaign by senior ministers to rally round Gordon Brown, following James Purnell's resignation. It sounds typically inept:
many of the supportive emails issued were almost identically worded - fuelling suspicions that they were part of a Downing Street effort to bolster Brown's position.
And former deputy prime minister John Prescott used a message on the Labourhome blog to dismiss Purnell as "not so much a Blairite as a careerite".
It does seem a bit unfair to attack Purnell in this way, given that he has just put his career on the line. But you can see where Prescott is coming from; Purnell always seems a bit too full of himself and with those silly sideburns reminds me of an up and coming but ultimately flawed from a Thomas Hardy t.v. adaptation.

Quick update, I've just realised that the Daily Mail's Ian Drury has called Purnell, "the 'sideburned schmoozer' who milked his expenses".
his kamikaze bid last night may have come about by the realisation that he has been tainted by the expenses crisis.

A key ally of ex-Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, Mr Purnell has also been accused of avoiding thousands of pounds in capital gains tax by designating one of his properties as both a main residence and a second home.

He was also embroiled in a fake photos scandal when it was revealed that his image had been crudely inserted into a publicity shot after he failed to turn up to the even on time.

Weeks earlier, he had lectured broadcasters that they were 'forfeiting public trust' with scandals over doctored footage and faked competitions.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Inadvertently crooked

Geoff Hoon is claiming that it was an "inadvertant administative error" that he made overlapping claims for two second homes, as the Telegraph has revealed.

I don't think that the mistake defence really applies if you get caught red-handed doing something wrong while milking the expenses systems for whatever you can get out of it.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Lawful protest

On the subject of Kingsnorth, the Guardian is featuring Nick Broomfield's film about "the Kingsnorth Six", who actually did shut down the power station in 2007 but were acquitted of criminal charges.

The BBC meanwhile has a story about Martin Jahnke, the man accused of throwing a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at Cambridge University. The prosecution says that the act went beyond "lawful protest" while he denied any offence.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to deduce from the article what offence Jahnke is charged with.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Lame spin

I've just posted a piece for Comment is Free about the disappearing Kingsnorth review. Another lame piece of spin I've identified is a claim from Kent's chief constable Michael Fuller that the protestors wanted to "break into Kingsnorth power station and stop power supplies to more than 300,000 people in Kent".

Fuller should know that the National Grid doesn't work like that.

That explains it!

Bill Cash has now explained why he had to rent a flat from his daughter in spite of having a flat of his own nearer to Westminster. According to the BBC:
He told the BBC he could not have stayed at his flat in Pimlico because his son was living there, rent free at the time.

"He was then living there and I had the option of going somewhere else, so I took the rented property from my daughter which was a reasonable rent and in accordance with the tenancy agreement I had entered into," he said.

So the taxpayer effectively provides a rent free home for Cash's son. But Cash says that:

"I don't believe that therefore that there was any disadvantage to the taxpayer."
It is really worrying that Cash thinks that this is a sensible approach. He clearly isn't fit to be an MP, not just because he is crooked but because he thinks everyone else is as stupid as he is.

This was, by the way, an incredibly inept interview from the BBC. Surely the point on which Cash should not have been pressed is that he shouldn't have given up his own flat if it meant generating additional expense.

More eco-towns spin

The Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that an advert in support of an eco-town scheme was potentially misleading, in that it made four claims that it could not substantiate.

Kingsnorth cover-up

I've done a new - and I think important - story today for Index on Censorship, revealing that the Home Office and Kent Police have colluded to bury a report on the policing of last summer's Kingsnorth climate camp.

Having shelved the report by National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), the government and the police force are pretending that a new review is being carried out by the NPIA, presumably hoping that no-one will see the join. Unfortunately, both the NPIA and South Yorkshire Police, whose assistant chief constable is carrying out the new review, have made clear that the NPIA are not involved.

Mainstream monopoly

Buried in the Telegraph's amazing story about Bill Cash using his expenses to rent a flat from his daughter while he already had a Westminster home is a bizarre comment from Ed Balls.

Cash simply won't explain why he couldn't live in the home he already had but chose instead to use public money to fund his daughter's mortgage while she lived elsewhere.

But it is Balls' comment that really takes the biscuit:
With European elections approaching, Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, urged voters to continue backing the mainstream political parties rather than fringe organisations such as the UK Independence Party or the BNP.

“Whichever mainstream party they [voters] are going to vote for, they should go out and vote and not allow minority parties to gain,” he said. “Obviously I want them to come out and vote Labour, but it is very important that people come out and vote for the mainstream parties.”

Saying "don't vote for Nazis is one thing" but to tell people that they should only vote for the "mainstream" parties who between them have a stranglehold on the political process is arrogant and dangerous. UKIP might be a bunch of cranks but they are a legitimate party. What about the Green Party? Is Balls saying people should vote Conservative rather than vote for them?

Hidden Massacre

The Times reports that "more than 20,000 Tamils were killed in last throes of the Sri Lankan civil war". But it looks as if the Sri Lankan government will get away with it:

On Wednesday, Sri Lanka was cleared of any wrongdoing by the UN Human Rights Council after winning the backing of countries including China, Egypt, India and Cuba.

Here is its astonishing explanation:

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan High Commission in London said: “We reject all these allegations. Civilians have not been killed by government shelling at all. If civilians have been killed, then that is because of the actions of the LTTE [rebels] who were shooting and killing people when they tried to escape.”
The claim that the Tamil Tigers were shooting their own people looks pretty far-fetched, but to say that absolutely no civilians were killed by government shelling is entirely unbelievable.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

It's a conspiracy!

What is amazing about the Guardian's story about Ruth Padel resigning as Oxford's professor of poetry is that she is claiming she has done nothing wrong and a host of women writers are queueing up to claim that she is the victim of a conspiracy:
Ruth Padel the first woman elected Oxford's professor of poetry, has resigned following claims she tipped off ­journalists about allegations that her chief rival for the post, Derek Walcott, had sexually ­harassed students.

Padel won the vote nine days ago. But in a statement tonight she said: "I genuinely believe that I did nothing intentional that led to Derek Walcott's withdrawal from the election. I wish he had not pulled out. I did not engage in a smear campaign against him, but, as a result of student concern, I naively – and with hindsight unwisely – passed on to two journalists, whom I believed to be covering the whole election responsibly, information that was already in the public domain."

She said she had acted in "good faith"
It seems to have been the fault of the journalists for using information that Padel gave them. Clearly she had no idea that they would do so.

No more convincing are the claims of women writers like Jeanette Winterson that it's a sexist stitch-up. Surely they must realise that crying "sexist" on such a weak case damages their credibility.

It appears though that the writer of this piece Charlotte Higgins, is also on Padel's side:
The so-called smear campaign saw up to 100 Oxford academics sent ­photocopied pages from a book detailing a sexual ­harassment claim made against Walcott by a student at Harvard in 1982. Widely felt to be the favoured candidate of the Oxford English faculty, the Nobel laureate resigned from the race on 12 May.
If sending photocopied pages to 100 academics is not a smear campaign, it's hard to imagine what would qualify. Padel is in any case claiming that this act was nothing to do with her. It's presumably just a coincidence that she was tipping off journalists about the same allegations.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Alarming, to say the least

The BBC's Roger Harrabin has an interview with US energy secretary Stephen Chu, who says the US will not be able to cut greenhouse emissions as much as it should due to domestic political opposition.
The American political system is in the throes of a fierce battle over climate policy. President Barack Obama says he wants cuts in greenhouse gases but has left it to Congress to make the political running.

The House of Representatives is debating a climate and energy bill but even if it passes it may be rejected by senators, many of whom are funded by the energy industry.

Prof Chu is a Nobel prize-winning physicist and a world expert on clean energy. But he said it was impossible to ignore political reality.

Another triumph for democracy. Unsurprisingly environmentalists are alarmed. Damon Moglen from Greenpeace USA, echoing the views of Nasa scientist James Hansen, says:
"we are getting very concerned. Professor Chu is a good man and a good scientist, but the science on global warming is clear and he should be guided by the science not the politics."

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The true meaning of suspect

The Independent has an astonishing story detailing how MI5 blackmails British muslims into becoming informers:
Five Muslim community workers have accused MI5 of waging a campaign of blackmail and harassment in an attempt to recruit them as informants.

The men claim they were given a choice of working for the Security Service or face detention and harassment in the UK and overseas.

Apart from the outrageous and probably counterproductive treatment of citizens by the state, the story raises more quesions about the phrases "terrorist suspect" or "suspected terrorist" and about the use of extended detention.

If, as the men claim, people are treated as terrorist suspects as a punishment for not co-operating, it implies that some people are not genuinely suspected. Neither the terms nor the consequent treatment are justified.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The politics of Zimbabwe

Did Gordon Brown really tell David Cameron that we can't have an election because it would result in the "chaos" of a Tory government? Not holding elections because the "wrong" people will win is the politics of Zimbabwe.

But of course there is nothing democratic about the ruling party deciding to hold an election when it thinks it can win and putting it off if it doesn't.