Thursday, 26 February 2009

Plane obstructive

I've just posted a new piece on the Index on Censorship website:

It’s not just Jack Straw who’s playing fast and loose with freedom of information, says Chris Ames. Heathrow campaigners are finding it impossible to get a straight answer from the Department for Transport

Rendition lies

The Guardian is reporting an admission from defence secretary John Hutton that British troops did indeed hand over "terror suspects" to the US, which rendered them to a prison in Afghanistan.

It is also clear that ministers knew about it.
Hutton revealed that officials knew about the transfer of the two prisoners in 2004, and references had been made in "lengthy papers" sent in April 2006 to Jack Straw and John Reid, the then foreign and home secretaries. "It is clear that the context provided did not highlight its significance at that point to the ministers concerned," Hutton said.
The Independent says that Charles Clarke was home secretary at the time and I think they are right. But what an astonishing piece of spin. Ministers were told about this and lied about it but it wasn't their fault.

The Guardian is linking the case to allegations made by former SAS soldier Ben Griffin, who blew the whistle on SAS involvement in rendition, before being gagged by the MoD.

UPDATE: The Guardian has now decided that it was indeed Charles Clarke who didn't read the report properly.


Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, who was very cross about Jack Straw's veto of the release of pre-Iraq war cabinet minutes, called the decision "breathtaking".

Is there a better word for the naivety of this news story from the BBC, about foreign secretary David Miliband's visit to Iraq?
Mr Miliband is expected to see evidence of improved stability in the region when he meets members of the newly-elected provincial council.
Interestingly, the story on the FCO website does not make the claim about evidence of improved stability. Where did the BBC get it from?

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Politically incorrect

I didn't update the blog yesterday as I was commenting elsewhere on Jack Straw's outrageous decision to veto the release of the minutes of those two pre-war cabinet meetings.

I did pieces for Comment is Free and Index on Censorship. Not everyone agreed that Straw's veto was a bad thing. Some of the more conservative commentators - and the Conservatives - argued that it was necessary to maintain cabinet confidentiality. The point that a lot of people seem to have missed is that the potential for cabinet minutes to be released has not gone away. Straw said that he was blocking these particular papers because of their sensitivity.

This morning I was briefly in the BBC's Millbank studios, for BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland. In the studio booth next to mine was Hazel Blears, who gave me a very friendly smile although I doubt if she has a clue who I am. Blears was I presume talking about her "common sense not political correctness" speech, which will probably go down well with tabloid readers and Telegraph but was savaged in this Comment is Free piece by Ally Fogg.

On the other hand, Straw's veto has gone down very badly with the Daily Mail, which asks:

What do they have to hide?

Monday, 23 February 2009

What's the story?

It's easy enough to compare and contrast the BBC and Guardian's stories this afternoon about Binyam Mohamed. For the Guardian, the main issue is that Mohamed "today accused Britain of involvement in his alleged torture." For the BBC, such allegations must first be put in a context that invites readers to doubt Mohamed's credibility:
A British resident detained at Guantanamo Bay for more than four years has arrived back in the UK.

Ethiopian-born Binyam Mohamed, 30, landed at RAF Northolt in London on Monday afternoon, accompanied by Metropolitan Police officers.

What is fascinating about the Guardian's coverage of the ongoing story, led by Richard Norton-Taylor, is the way it keeps hinting at the contents of the documents suppressed at the request of David Miliband:
There is a growing belief that documentary evidence exists pointing to Downing Street's awareness of allegations of the serious mistreatment of Mohamed between 2002 when he was first seized in Pakistan and 2004 when he was abducted and flown to Guantánamo Bay.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

How privately exactly?

When journalists say that someone says or thinks something "privately", they usually mean that person has expressed an opinion that they would like to see repeated but without attribution. Last week the BBC's Frank Gardner told us that officials were privately dismissing criticism from former MI5 chief Stella Rimmington that ministers are exploiting terrorism fears.

Today, the Observer reports that Gordon Brown has won "the race" to be the first European leader to meet Obama:
Privately, there was delight at Number 10 that Brown, who is struggling in the opinion polls as the economy goes from bad to worse, had got one over his French rival and would have a chance to raise his profile as a world leader alongside the new president.
So privately that it's in a national newspaper...

Friday, 20 February 2009

An iota of a sentence

It seems that Hazel Blears' loyalty to Tony Blair may have been to the leader than the man himself. The BBC reports today that
In a speech to constituents in Salford, Ms Blears told ministers to "get a grip" and stop jockeying to replace Gordon Brown when he steps down.
Presumably Blears made sure that the speech got reported to the ministers who are not constituents of hers.

The BBC's article includes a sentence that goes even further than the usual practice of dropping the word "that" and is consequently even more mangled:
It comes as Harriet Harman insisted there was "not an iota of truth" she was positioning for the top job.
Presumably, that should read:
It comes as Harriet Harman insisted [that] there was "not an iota of truth" [in claims] [that] she was positioning for the top job.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Yes, it matters

Yesterday's stunning Guardian story about the conspiracy between the Department for Transport and aviation lobby group Flying Matters didn't get half the attention it deserved and to be honest I'm only just catching up with it. The Guardian has got hold of Flying Matters documents showing that:
Civil servants at the Department for Transport (DfT) asked a top aviation lobby group [Flying Matters] for help to win the parliamentary battle over keeping aircraft emissions out of key climate change legislation
This is one government department using outside lobbyists to undermine another department's bill, which is pretty outrageous. The lobbyists also offered help to the all party parliamentary aviation group, something it only partially denied:
Michelle di Leo denied the suggestion Flying Matters had offered funding. "We did not offer the All Party Parliamentary Aviation Group money. We offered to help them with their secretarial work, not set their agenda. Our role is to get attention for issues. Yes we generated headlines. That's what PR people do. They place stories."

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

But it isn't on the streets

The latest fairly transparent "good news" story from the MoD is about the seizure of "four Taliban narcotics factories containing £50m of drugs", as told for example by the Guardian today.

How true the claims are is unclear. What is clear, if you go to the MoD website, is that they have used the "UK street value" of drugs that are in Afghanistan.

So there are two fibs for the price of one from defence secretary John Hutton:
"The seizure of £50m worth of narcotics will starve the Taliban of crucial funding and prevent the proliferation of drugs and terror on the UK’s streets."
Obviously the Taliban were not going to get anything like £50m for the drugs while they were in Afghanistan. Neither will the seizure of drugs that were by no means destined for the UK prevent the proliferation" of either drugs or terror here.

The Independent's very dramatic piece on this looks like it was written by the MoD press office.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Tell all, do

Great blog post (yesterday) from Sam Coates of the Times. He points out that cabinet secretary Gus O'Donnell's "hysteria" about the release of pre-Iraq war cabinet minutes is badly undermined by a "fetish for full disclosure" of last week's cabinet meeting by ministers briefing the press.

In the Observer yesterday, Andrew Rawnsley had what purported to be a blow-by-blow account of the discussion on bankers' bonuses. Collective cabinet responsibility and confidentiality in all its glory.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Back on message

I've just come across this astonishingly naive piece about the defence training review on the BBC Wales website.
The consortium behind plans to build a multi-billion pound defence academy says the project is back on track after a new partner signed up.

The contract to build and run training facilities at St Athan in the Vale of Glamorgan is worth £12bn and could create thousands of jobs at the base.

The ongoing problems with the defence training review have been well documented here and by other media. The BBC, which didn't go near any of the negative stories, doesn't bother explaining why the project was ever off track.

It's also pretty astonishing that the scheme is described as being worth £12bn, which is the officially "unaffordable" cost to the taxpayer. Still, if the BBC is determined to turn a PR puff into a news story, small matters like that shouldn't concern them.

Colluding in the cover-up

The Guardian's story about President Obama apparently being deprived of details of torture inflicted on Binyam Mohamed has a theme running through it about people who have either tried to cover it up or not looked as closely as they should.

The two judges who ordered last week that evidence of torture should be suppressed have agreed to reopen the case after it was suggested that David Miliband pulled the wool over their eyes. If they change their decision on this basis, Miliband is finished. So they probably won't.

The intelligence and security committee (ISC) is also in the frame. For once the Guardian correctly describes it as a "group of MPs and peers" rather than a parliamentary committee. It says that Mohamed's lawyers, including Clive Stafford Smith met members of the committee, which is
facing mounting criticism in Westminster over claims it failed to effectively scrutinise the activities of MI5. Stafford Smith said he told the committee it would have been "absolutely impossible" for it to have cleared MI5 of involvement in the torture of Mohamed had it seen 42 key documents in the case – as he has.
Utter compacency again from the ISC.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Heathrow case undermined

The Sunday Times continues to make the running over Heathrow expansion. Yesterday it reported that the House of Commons library has produced a briefing for MPs that cooly and objectively undermines the transport secretary Geoff Hoon's case for a third runway:
Hoon said only low-emitting planes would be allowed to use the runway, but the report – published just last week – cautions that “aircraft designs do not at the moment incorporate many of the features highlighted by the secretary of state”

Well argued, well asked

Yesterday's Sunday Times carried a letter from Chris Lamb, the person who submitted the freedom of information request for disclosure of cabinet minutes in the run-up to the Iraq war.

In a well-argued series of comments, Lamb laments the information tribunal's refusal to order the publication of the cabinet secretary's handwritten notes of the two meetings. He describes the tribunal's decision as otherwise "exemplary".

I can't imagine the government will agree as it scrambles to find grounds for appealing the decision.

Friday, 6 February 2009

More on the MoD

I've just posted a piece for Index on Censorship, arguing that the case of McNally and Reid takes place in a context of a wider crackdown on military and civilian personnel talking to the media.

Transparency international?

I've done a blog piece today for Independent Minds, lamenting the government's tendency to suppress embarrassing information under the guise of protecting international relations.

Nasty stuff from the MoD

Comment is Free carries a blog piece from Rachel Reid, the Human Rights Watch researcher said to be involved in the alleged leaking of civilian casualty figures from Afghanistan. She complains that the "the MoD has whispered into the ear of the Sun" to drag her reputation through the mud "when I live in a country where a woman's reputation can mean her life".

The government showed in the case of David Kelly that it is quite prepared to humiliate anyone who crosses it, even if it puts their life at risk.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Spin doctor at work

A Downing Street political adviser overrode the "forcible" concerns of the NHS's chief statistician, who refused to sanction the publication of controversial figures on knife crime and hospital admissions, MPs were told today.

So a spin doctor overruled the exports to make the government's case more compelling. Where have we heard that before?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Peston's unconvincing denial

The BBC reports that its Business editor Robert Peston has told MPs he does not believe his reporting led to the collapse of Northern Rock. When you dig into Peston's denial, he hasn't really denied anything.

Mr Peston broke the story of the bank asking for emergency funding from the government in September 2007.

He has been criticised for causing the run on Northern Rock that followed.

But he told the Treasury select committee he had acted responsibly in reporting the facts, which were from multiple sources and had been checked.


Mr Peston said he had never held off from reporting a story he knew to be true to serve a wider interest.
No problem with that last bit, but it's quite an admission, not any kind of denial. In fact, Peston is claiming that his report wasn't responsible for the "retail" run on the bank:

He said the bank had a flawed business model and there were other "structural reasons" why it was vulnerable, such as its policy of keeping its number of branches to an "absolute minimum" in relation to its number of customers and its lack of computer server capacity, which made its website crash.

"Savers become anxious because they simply could not find out from the institution what was going on," he told the committee.

But in any case,

Mr Peston said the bank's collapse had not been caused by the queues of customers demanding their money back but a "wholesale run, " with other institutions refusing to fund it.

"Northern Rock, frankly, would have collapsed, it would be where it is today, irrespective of whether there had been that retail run," he said.

It wasn't wot killed her guv, and even if it was me, she would have died anyway.

Plagued with doubts

I've just posted a new piece (my first) for The First Post, about some very suspicious tales of black death and wmd.

Keeping quiet on casualties

The Guardian reports that a British army officer has been arrested in Afghanistan for allegedly leaking civilian casualty figures to a human rights campaigner.

The idea that civilian casualty numbers should be an official secret is just a little bit strange. Why would the British and US governments not want people to know how many civilians they have killed and injured?

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Going Dutch

I've just posted a new piece for Independent Minds, pointing out that the Dutch prime minister's decision to hold an Iraq inquiry on his own terms holds lessons for Gordon Brown, not all of them good ones.