Friday, 30 January 2009

Will this help

An independent panel, headed by the Mail editor Paul Dacre, has proposed cutting the 30 year rule in half, meaning that many - but not all - official papers will be released after 15 years.

The Independent's piece on this cites the attempt to secure release of the pre-Iraq war Cabinet Minutes from 2003, i.e. six years ago. Dacre says the freedom of information act:
is being applied in an "unsatisfactory and patchwork" manner and Britain now operates "one of the less liberal" regimens for accessing government records.
It is interesting to wonder how, if at all, a fifteen year rule would have affected the information tribunal ruling on the cabinet minutes. Would the tribunal have thought that releasing the papers nine years early was no big deal, or perhaps of so little help that it wasn't worth doing?

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Hutton five years on

Peter Oborne has a good long piece in the Mail today saying that five years on (yesterday) from the Hutton Inquiry, we still haven't been told the truth about the war based on lies.

As every day passes, Lord Hutton's judgment that Tony Blair and his leading officials were men of integrity looks more and more flawed. Five years on, his verdict has fallen to pieces. Britain now urgently needs a full-scale inquiry into the causes and prosecution of the Iraq War.
Unsurprisingly, Oborne says that:

The first step should be the publication - strenuously resisted by the Government - of minutes from two key Cabinet meetings in the build-up to war.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Keep up Chris

I've done a few comment pieces in the last 24 hours about the information tribunal's landmark decision that minutes of two pre-Iraq war cabinet minutes must be released.

Yesterday, I did a piece for Comment is Free with my immediate reactions. Today I have done a blog for Index on Censorship on the implications for freedom of information and transparency and a short piece for Independent Minds.

Keep up Beeb!

The BBC is reporting that Andrew Slaughter MP has resigned from the government over the third runway, something the Guardian revealed last night.

Slaughter was wrongly said to be close to resigning two weeks ago so his departure from the government has been reported both early and late.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Miliband who?

At a conference last year, I saw climate change secretary Ed Miliband telling some entertaining but surely much-used stories about how he has been mistaken for brother David and for Ed Balls. Today's lead story in the Independent about the proposed Severn barrage mixes its Milibands:
Apart from the main barrage, four other shortlisted schemes were announced by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, David Miliband, yesterday.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Surely not!

According to the BBC, which is as guilt as anyone:
The House of Lords Communications Committee said it found "friendly" journalists were being told the content before it had been formally announced.

This was to secure favourable and prominent coverage in return for exclusivity, the committee said.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Careful now!

The BBC is so obsessed with balance that its director general has shot himself in the foot defending its preposterous ban on the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for Gaza.
Mark Thompson said: "After consultation with senior news editors, we concluded that to broadcast a free-standing appeal, no matter how carefully couched, ran the risk of calling into question the public's confidence in the BBC's impartiality in its coverage of the story as a whole ...

"We will continue to broadcast news about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and, if appropriate, to cover the work of the UK NGOs on the ground. We cannot, however, broadcast anything which we believe might compromise the impartiality of the BBC's journalism."

I've added the italics to show how weak the justification is. As the Guardian's Marina Hyde says, the BBC is "a bit jumpy" after the Ross/Brand affair:
You will scarcely find an employee who will not speak of a risk-averse culture, with some judging it a worse paralysis than in the wake of the Hutton report.
Which is saying something.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Bananas out for Miliband

The Telegraph's Andrew Pierce has really stuck the knife - or is it the banana? - into David Miliband this morning. Largely based on the foreign secretary's trip to India, he says Miliband is "an embarrassment strutting the world stage".

I've never been particularly impressed by Miliband and thought he looked badly out of his depth in last year's Iraq Inquiry debate. At least on Labour MP told me a while back that he thought the Blairite hope seriously overrated.

Miliband did look very childish and a bit giddy through a lot of the last summer, leading up to the Labour Party conference. The incident where he was photographed with a banana would have been quickly forgotten had it not crystalised this view in a lot of minds and given people like Pierce a stick to beat him with.

Having said all that, Miliband did recommend my Iraqdossier website in a recent letter to an M.P.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

More misleading ministers

It is now clear that ministers have repeatedly misled MPs over the escalating costs of their biggest ever private finance initiative (PFI) project.

Under the defence training review (DTR) ministers plan to give the Metrix consortium a 30-year contract to build and run a specialist military academy in Wales. But increased borrowing costs and falls in the value of surplus MoD land have pushed the project’s price tag to £12bn. Many doubt the scheme's viability.

The National Audit Office recently disclosed that this “significant cost growth” led the Ministry of Defence to deem the project unaffordable last May. In spite of this, hapless Armed forces minister Bob Ainsworth has repeatedly claimed that it provides savings to the taxpayer.

Last April, a week after he was told of a £1bn increase in costs, Mr Ainsworth stated in a written parliamentary answer that the project provided savings of approximately £400 million over 30 years.

On 3 November, Ainsworth told MPs that “the programme is still affordable and remains more affordable than the in-house alternative”. But the MoD subsequently disclosed under the freedom of information act that the cost of the programme remained at £12bn. It has also emerged that the MoD has developed a new in-house “fallback” proposal, which it has deemed both “affordable and deliverable”.

Tory MP Mark Pritchard is a vocal opponent of the privatisation, which is interesting in itself. His constituency of the Wrekin includes RAF Cosford, which would close under the PFI. He says: “the project’s figures no longer add up - and neither do the minister’s words. There needs to be an early and updated statement in the House to clear up a long list of ministerial contradictions.”

In a letter to Pritchard, Ainsworth has asserted that his statement that the project was affordable was correct “at the time… following negotiations with Metrix to drive down costs and a rigorous and detailed assessment of the project’s affordability issues”.

Ainsworth declined to stand by his claim that the PFI option was “more affordable than the in-house alternative”. Ironically, he stated that detailed information on the costs of the in-house option “underpins our negotiating position with Metrix, and its disclosure would hinder the MoD’s ability to achieve value-for-money”.

Pritchard has accused Ainsworth of compromising his own department's negotiating position and prejudicing its ongoing evaluation. He claims that the government’s current financial difficulties mean the Treasury cannot ignore the rising costs of the project. "It is no longer tenable for ministers to write off the fallback in-house option." he says.

An MoD spokesperson told me: “The bottom line is that [the project] is affordable. The MOD and Metrix have over the last few months and continue to work constructively together to drive down costs without materially affecting the scope of the project. You can’t solely focus on the cost, affordability also incorporates the fact that [the project] is now the best value for money for the taxpayer.” But she refused to deny that the MoD has increased its funding for the project to ease its affordability issues.

Under the PFI, staff from Cosford and other MoD bases would have the option of transferring to St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan as employees of the Metrix consortium, which includes arms companies Qinetic and Raytheon, as well as training bodies City and Guilds and the Open University.

The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union opposes the PFI. Regional spokesperson Robert O'Harney, says: “Should the PFI go ahead, it will see our members being privatised and then 4 years later being given the choice of moving themselves and families to Wales or being made redundant. Additionally the vast ex-military experience of many of our members will be lost forever.”


There's a very confused, but essentially pro-tory, article in the Telegraph, about an alleged warning from Ken Clarke that David Cameron risks being seen as a "right-wing nationalist" by Barack Obama.

The main angle is the tories' counterspin, that Labour has "twisted" the comments. But the piece continues with a discussion of the "truce" between Clarke and Cameron:
Labour are confident that the truce will break down. Caroline Flint, the Europe Minister, said: "Ken Clarke is absolutely right to warn David Cameron that his European policy would only serve to isolate Britain from the US.
No, Labour are not confident, this is transparent spin to plant the idea that conflict between Clarke and Cameron is inevitable.

Talk to Colin

On the Greenpeace website, Christian's blog has a few laughs at the expense of an advert from Heathrow owner BAA.
Describing Heathrow expansion as "modernisation" is just the latest flavour of BAA spin. In particular, the villagers of Sipson who are facing the demolition of their village might well be feeling quite modern enough. I'm not sure how comforting they're going to find Colin's assertion that BAA will "seek to build strong links with our neighbours, particularly those in Sipson". Perhaps he thinks building "powerful and effective partnerships" with your neighbours means getting them to demolish their own houses?
The blog says that the address given in the advert is that of BAA chief executive Colin Matthews. I would think that highly unlikely. Surely it's just links to a PR team. But why don't they just say his email is Perhaps because it is...

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Israel's weapons

As Israel admits that its troops may have used white phosphorus shells in contravention of international law, I've published an Independent Minds blog piece about how mentioning Israel's nukes is officially taboo.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Egg on the commissioner's face

Last week I exposed as baseless another government claim on Iraq - that former attorney general Lord Goldsmith decided that the war would be legal before meeting two of Tony's cronies. In a new piece today for Index on Censorship, I suggest that information commissioner Richard Thomas also has egg on his face over for letting the government mix spin with fact.

It was Thomas who negotiated a shabby compromise with the Cabinet Office over a freedom of information request seeking to establish why Goldsmith had gone from doubting the war's legality on 7 March 2003 to unequivocally asserting that it was legal ten days later.

Instead of requiring the Cabinet Office to disclose actual documents, Thomas allowed them to construct a narrative account which would include claims that were not backed by documentary evidence. At the time, former minister Peter Kilfoyle called this a "sanitised timeline".

Faced with admitting that Goldsmith had met Sally Morgan and Lord Falconer on the same day (13 March) that he concluded that existing UN resolutions legitimised the war, the Cabinet Office merely asserted that he made up his mind mind before the meeting.

As I point out, Thomas failed not only to require the government to distinguish between fact and fantasy at the time, but to be open about the basis for the assertion when I asked him last November.

It seems the commissioner is still trying to get his head around the idea of openness.

Lies, damned lies and Israel

The Times continues to follow up evidence that Israel used white phosphorous in areas where civilians would inevitably be injured by it, finding a blinded 14 year-old in a Cairo hospital.

With others such as Channel 4 News' Jonathan Miller actually finding the stuff - in a UN school of all places - there is little point in the Israelis denying it any longer. The Times notes:
Israel, which originally denied the use of white phosphorus in Gaza when questioned by The Times two weeks ago, has since said that all weapons used in Gaza were “within the scope of international law”.
The usual tactic when accused of a war crime is to deny it. If you are proved wrong later, what have you lost?

Your credibility next time? We shall see...

Lies, evasion and misleading

On Comment is Free, Iain Macwhirter is critical of an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament into whether first minister Alex Salmond may have misled it:
The idea that politicians could be forced to tell the truth is absurd, and anyway politicians rarely lie – they just bend the truth a bit to make it fit. The real charge against Salmond is not that he misleads parliament but that, week in week out, he refuses to answer questions, and instead gives MSPs lectures on his own unimpeachable rectitude.
You could agree with all of this, except that it isn't really the point. No-one is saying that politicians should be forced to tell the truth, just that they might be held to account if they don't. Yes politicians refuse to answer questions, as Peter Preston described yesterday.

But it is in his related assertion that politicians rarely lie but merely bend the truth that Macwhirter shoots down his own subequent argument that working out what truth is involves an intractable philosophical inquiry. Politicians do lie, as he implicitly admits, and lies can be proved. On most other occasions, like the one in this case, they bend the truth. In this case, the charge is misleading the parliament, which is also short of lying. Just because the Scottish Parliament seems to have picked a case in which the accused may not be guilty does not mean that the charge can never be proved and is not worth proving.

Spin, spin and statistics

Here's an interesting story - or is it a non-story? - in the Guardian:
The three national exam boards have been accused of spinning last summer's A-level results in a "desperate" attempt to convince the public that it is not becoming easier to get a top grade, after the Guardian obtained figures that raise new questions about grade inflation.
It's a complicated argument about whether you judge grade inflation in A-levels by the number of grade A's. Last summer the exam boards argued that a difference between private and state schools meant that there was no grade inflation. That's hardly convincing. In the Guardian story:
Alan Smithers, professor of education at Buckingham University, said: "Private schools and schools in prosperous places start out with more pupils on the A-B borderline, and as marks rise more pupils in these schools tip into the A grade. In lower-scoring state schools, more pupils started out nearer the B-C and D-C border so the big rises are seen in B and C."
Looking at the figures and asking if they have been misused is on the face of it good journalism. But this seems to be redefining grade inflation, which has previously been about the number of students getting grade A's and indeed seems to be defined as such in the intro to the story quoted above. But, in any case, what's the big scandal if it's true? The media are so determined to prove dumbing down that it's not surprising that statistics get argued in different ways. The head of one board:
wondered "if there was any other country in the world where people would work so hard" to explain away evidence of improving standards.

Monday, 19 January 2009

But what's the answer?

The Guardian's Peter Preston blames the media for the tendency of politicians to avoid answering the questions they are actually asked. He cites that examples of ministers Shriti Vadera and Margaret Beckett, both lambasted for saying that there might be some small reasons for optimism.

As Preston points out, both made highly qualified comments, which the media took massively out of context. Vadera answered a very leading question and more or less discounted the proposition that there was much to shout about. Had she gone any further in saying that there was no cause for optimism, she would have been badly talking the economy down.

Preston bemoans the effect of all this:
Yet, can a politician afford to venture such thoughts in even the most hesitant, deeply nuanced way? Obviously not. Let's snarl at Shriti and bang on about Beckett. Let's play the accustomed game of constant evasion and brain-dead assertion. Let's put any hint of complexity or modest intelligence into cold storage. This is politics after all, not life.

Are we going to hell in a handcart, minister? With the greatest respect, Jeremy, I think I'll get Lord Mandelson to not answer that ...

I remember seeing Mandelson on Newsnight declining to answer a difficult question by pretending that he couldn't hear it.

Friday, 16 January 2009

River airport not yet built

The Spoof had a very funny piece yesterday:
There was absolute mayhem in Middlesex this morning, when a passenger flight attempted to land at Heathrow Airport's third runway, approximately two years before it has been built.
I don't know if New York is planning something like Boris Johnson's proposed estuary on Thames but one pilot seems to have got slightly ahead of himself yesterday.

So who won then?

It will take a while, perhaps years, to work out whether yesterday's announcement on Heathrow is a disaster for the environment or so hedged around with conditions that the new runway may never be viable.

Certainly, in the short term, the proposed increase in flights though mixed mode has been put off, although, bizarrely, Geoff Hoon seems to have used this as an excuse to push through the runway, as the Guardian's Dan Milmo points out:
He said his refusal to allow more arrivals and departures on the existing site in west London made the need for a new runway all the more urgent.
Meanwhile, "Climate Change" secretary Ed Miliband has been telling the Indy's Andrew Grice that he won the last ditch negotiations with Hoon.

He spent Wednesday with the Transport Secretary, refusing to budge over his concerns that the expansion would scupper his forthcoming "carbon budget" designed to put Britain on track to meet its target of an 80 per cent carbon emission reduction by 2050. In the end, sources close to Mr Miliband say he won concessions. He negotiated for the third runway to initially run at half-capacity, limited to an extra 120,000 flights, and he secured a guarantee that carbon emissions from aviation would fall to 2005 levels by 2050.

"Ed is satisfied. The business lobby will effectively get half a runway," said a source familiar with the talks. "BAA won't be happy but we couldn't make an announcement that would blow our carbon budget straight away."

Labour MP and ministerial aide Andy Slaughter is now officially thinking about resigning, having met Gordon Brown yesterday, according to Grice.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Heathrow - the fallout

Even before the Geoff Hoon confirmed the government's support for the third runway, the fallout began.

The Independent reports that environment secretary Hilary Benn was taunted this morning over his failure to stop the runway. Benn may however have persuaded Hoon to drop plans to increase flights in the meantime through "mixed mode" operation.

I just done a piece for saying that Gordon Brown will meet Labour MPs this afternoon in a bid to head off a rebellion. Resignations from the goverment may also follow, although Andy Slaughter, a ministerial aide, has told me that the Standard went a bit too far in suggesting that he was considering resigning.

Speaking of going too far, Labour MP John McDonnell has just got himself thrown out of the Commons for grabbing the Speaker's mace in protest at the runway decision.

Well said

It's hard to find any more to say in advance of the promised Heathrow decision than Michael McCarthy's brilliant piece in the Indy, Gordon Brown doesn't get climate change.
At a stroke Gordon Brown destroys his environmental credibility and that of his Government. His sanctioning of Heathrow's third runway with the huge leap in the UK's greenhouse gas emissions that will be consequent upon it will be seen as one of his premiership-defining decisions, on a par with his failure to call an election in October 2007. It will come back to haunt him. is still a terrible error on Mr Brown's part as a world leader in 2009, not to see that the issue of global climate change is simply going to trump all his other long-held concerns...

It is a disastrous example to give to the developing countries, whose own carbon emissions are soaring, and who will only take action to reduce them if they think rich countries such as Britain are leading the way. Gordon Brown simply doesn't get it: no other conclusion can be drawn.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


I haven't looked at Harry's place lately but it seems these days to be a website/blog almost entirely given over to defending Israel and in particular its attack on Gaza.

The latest post is called "Getting our heads round Hamas", which probably makes some valid criticisms of the mindset of Hamas, as if that justifies killing nearly a thousand people. Here is an excerpt, which links to a video:

And here we have another Hamas figure explaining how, when he got a phone call from the Israeli military warning him to get out of his house, he instead moved his family onto the roof, and invited his friends and neighbours to bring their wives and children into the house as human shields.

Both acts are extraordinary. It is extraordinary to phone your enemy and warn them to clear civilians from a target. And it is extraordinary not only to ignore the warning but to do the reverse and crowd the area with women and children.
I'm not going to get into justifying what the "Hamas figure" is alleged to have done, just highlight the comment that "it is extraordinary to phone your enemy and warn them to clear civilians from a target". It's a house. Apparently a house occupied by a family. In what sense is that a "target"? According to Harry's place, Israel should be given credit for suggesting that the family leave before destroying their house, which as far as I can see serves no purpose - not even the assassination of the "Hamas figure" beyond collective punishment and probably amounts to a war crime.

How proud Harry must be to home to apologists for collective punishment. What an astonishing lack of insight the poster "Brett" must have to have started his piece with a discussion of holocaust denial.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Some cover-up

If the background to this story wasn't so sickening, it would be funny. The BBC reports that:
A colleague of a head teacher arrested on child porn charges tried to cover up the case by asking a janitor to buy all copies of the local newspaper.

Spinning off the runway

The promise of a decision on the third runway this week appears to have been all spin after all, with the Cabinet not yet signed up. According to the Press Association:

The Government is intending to announce its decision on a third runway at Heathrow by the end of January, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said.

The proposal to expand the airport was the subject of a "brief" discussion at Cabinet amid reports several ministers harboured serious concerns.

The spokesman said the discussions in the Cabinet had been "constructive."

More spin over Heathow

It turns out that Gordon Brown and Geoff Hoon may indeed have been trying to bounce the cabinet into approving Heathrow expansion by spinning that the announcement would be made this week. The Guardian says:
The prime minister is planning to set out the case for having the runway at today's cabinet meeting, prompting speculation that Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, will make a formal announcement approving the runway on Thursday.

But there were signs last night that this could be put off, possibly until later this month, as concerned cabinet ministers demand greater assurances on air quality, noise pollution, and what was described as the overall "environmental story".

More spin over Iraq

I've got a new story on Iraq in the online Guardian this morning:
Fresh questions over the legality of the Iraq war were raised today after the government admitted it could not substantiate its claim that Lord Goldsmith had changed his mind over the legal basis for the invasion before a highly controversial meeting with two of Tony Blair's closest allies.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Don't fall for the Heathrow spin

I've done pieces for both Comment is Free and Independent Minds this morning, mainly questioning the idea that environmental safeguards will limit the damage of the government's widely predicted announcement that Heathrow will get a third runway.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Implausible denial

The Times is doing a great job of revealing Israel's use of white phosphorous in Gaza, reporting today that hospitals are seeing civilians with unusual and severe burns:

The Times has identified stockpiles of white phosphorus (WP) shells from high-resolution images taken of Israel Defence Forces (IDF) artillery units on the Israeli-Gaza border this week. The pale blue 155mm rounds are clearly marked with the designation M825A1, an American-made WP munition. The shell is an improved version with a more limited dispersion of the phosphorus, which ignites on contact with oxygen, and is being used by the Israeli gunners to create a smoke screen on the ground.

The rounds, which explode into a shower of burning white streaks, were first identified by The Times at the weekend when they were fired over Gaza at the start of Israel's ground offensive. Artillery experts said that the Israeli troops would be in trouble if they were banned from using WP because it is the simplest way of creating smoke to protect them from enemy fire.


Confronted with the latest evidence, an IDF spokeswoman insisted that the M825A1 shell was not a WP type. “This is what we call a quiet shell - it is empty, it has no explosives and no white phosphorus. There is nothing inside it,” she said.

“We shoot it to mark the target before we launch a real shell. We launch two or three of the quiet shells which are empty so that the real shells will be accurate. It's not for killing people,” she said.

Asked what shell was being used to create the smokescreen effect seen so clearly on television images, she said: “We're using what other armies use and we're not using any weapons that are banned under international law.”

Neil Gibson, technical adviser to Jane's Missiles and Rockets, insisted that the M825A1 was a WP round. “The M825A1 is an improved model. The WP does not fill the shell but is impregnated into 116 felt wedges which, once dispersed [by a high-explosive charge], start to burn within four to five seconds. They then burn for five to ten minutes. The smoke screen produced is extremely effective,” he said.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

People living in residential areas

The Times has something of a non-story, which was covered before by Channel 4 News, that privately run bail hostels are going to be set up in "residential areas" without first inviting local residents to object.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Israel's smokescreen

The Indy's Robert Fisk says that Israel's tactic of excluding the Western media from Gaza is counter-productive:
the Israelis are so ruthless that the reasons for the ban on journalism may be quite easily explained: that so many Israeli soldiers are going to kill so many innocents – more than three score by last night, and that's only the ones we know about – that images of the slaughter would be too much to tolerate.

That the Israelis should use an old Soviet tactic to blind the world's vision of war may not be surprising. But the result is that Palestinian voices – as opposed to those of Western reporters – are now dominating the airwaves. The men and women who are under air and artillery attack by the Israelis are now telling their own story on television and radio and in the papers as they have never been able to tell it before, without the artificial "balance", which so much television journalism imposes on live reporting. Perhaps this will become a new form of coverage – letting the participants tell their own story. The flip side, of course, is that there is no Westerner in Gaza to cross-question Hamas's devious account of events: another victory for the Palestinian militia, handed to them on a plate by the Israelis.
Meanwhile the Times has pictures which is says show the Israelis using phosporous as a weapon or a smokescreen, and in another story says that:
Israeli forces pounded the Gaza Strip from air, land and sea today, killing at least 13 people - including seven children

which both contradicts and supports Fisk.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Steady now

I find myself agreeing with something John Rentoul has said today, on the anti-speed camera lobby:
when people complain about speed cameras and points on their licence I only wonder why the police shouldn't use hidden cameras and nick anybody who breaks the law. It seems pretty simple: either there is a good reason for a speed limit, in which case it ought to be enforced, or there isn't, in which case it ought to be changed. But instead of campaigning to change speed limits, the entire car-driving nation engages in the displacement activity of complaining that speed cameras are a means of raising revenue.
Not quite the entire nation, more a vocal minority egged on by the right-wing press.

Don't mention Israel's nukes

The Times seems to want it both ways with a story claiming that Hamas rockets could threaten Israel's "top-secret nuclear facility at Dimona". It's hardly a secret that Israel has a nuclear facility at Dimona, or that it has nuclear weapons. But that last fact is buried deep in a very coy piece as a mere suspicion.
Many fear that as the group acquires ever more sophisticated weaponry it is only a matter of time before the nuclear installation at Dimona, 20 miles east of Beersheba, falls within its sights.Dimona houses Israel’s only nuclear reactor and is believed to be where nuclear warheads are stored.
This is the best the paper can do to stand up the claim that Dimona is threatened, which seems to be more about justifying Israel's killing of hundreds of people.