Monday, 30 March 2009

Institutionalised duplicity

In the Independent today, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown argues that it is virtually impossible to trust any "official" inquiry into Iraq. Linking the Iraq deception with UK complicity in torture, she says:
We seem to have institutionalised duplicity in the executive, judiciary, intelligence services, Parliament and the Privy Council.
Looking at the ongoing scandal of MPs' expenses claims, this is what links the sometimes trivial with crimes of true enormity. Making false expenses claims to top up your salary might be what the system is set up to allow but it is ultimately dishonest. Politicians are so used to lying, for whatever reason, that they carry over duplicitous behaviour, from personal finance to high politics or vice versa.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Censorship fails

The Guardian is today having a laugh at the expense of the judge who made it take the leaked Barclays tax evasion documents off its website. It is quoting a statement in the House of Lords, Matthew Oakeshott, the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, who pointed out all the other sites on which the documents can be found. The Guardian was prevented even from telling its readers this but Oakeshott's statement is protected by parliamentary privilege:
these documents are widely available on the internet from sites such as Twitter,, and

Could does not mean will

The Times reports today that waiting five minutes before drinking your tea or coffee "could save your life".

It's another one of those media stories about medical research that gets confused over relative risks. Drinking hot tea may increase fivefold or eightfold your risk of cancer of the oesophagus, depending on how hot you have it. Apparently this kills "more than half a million people around the world every year".

It doesn't take a lot of maths to work out that this is a pretty minimal risk, multiplied by eight or otherwise. With such a small risk, the idea that letting your drink cool down could "save your life" you life is a bit far-fetched.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

More stalling for time

So the attorney general has referred allegations of British complicity in the torture of Binyam Mohamed to the police. She says:
"Any decision on whether any person should be charged with a criminal offence can only be taken following the police investigation on the basis of an independent assessment of the evidence and the public interest, in accordance with the code for crown prosecutors."
But most criminal investigations don't have to wait five months while the attorney general sits on them, do they?

The worry in this case however is that a loophole in the law will allow anyone who was complicit in the torture to claim that s/he was just following orders.


I've just posted a new blog on Comment is Free:

Here's an early comment that says it all really:

The whole point is they don't want anything to come out that makes them look bad. The whole country knows that the war was illegal and that we simply bowed the knee to our American masters when they called. The more they try to hide things, the more our worst suspicions gain ground. It may well be that they were all damn stupid. But unless they put everything out into the open, the public will continue to believe the worst, whether founded or otherwise.

If they have nothing to hide, then they have nothing to fear from a public, all-encompassing enquiry, have they?

Unseemly rows and smear campaigns

There are a couple of unseemly rows in today's papers. Both involve accusations of smear campaigns.

The Standard reports a row over the inclusion of (Lord) Philip Gould's daughter in - I think - a Labour list for the selection of a prospective parliamentary candidate. Gould and Alastair Campbell are accusing people like Charlie Whelan of smears over claims that Georgia Gould has been "parachuted" into the Erith and Thamesmead constituency. It's not clear what the parachuting claim has to back it up - I've never understood how such alleged fixes work - but it is clear that Campbell has been promoting the alleged talents of Gould's daughter elsewhere.

Meanwhile Google and Privacy International are also in dispute over smears and conflicts of interest. It's hard to work out who is right in the Guardian's story but it is clear that Google has been briefing journalists about the alleged conflict of interest of Privacy International's chief executive. Google doesn't seem bothered to deny it, only to confirm that the alleged smear is exactly the issue they want to draw attention to.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

More on the dossier

As the government makes clear that it would like an Iraq inquiry to take place in private and keep a lid on further disclosures, I'm making further disclosures today.

On the Index on Censorship website, I reveal that there are more unpublished documents that show not just that the dossier was sexed-up against the wishes of the intelligence community but sexed-up to meet the wishes of Alastair Campbell and the match the claims of George Bush. The new evidence is on my Iraq dossier website.

I also got a brief mention in this afternoon's debate from Lib Dem Ed Davey.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Still dodging the inquiry

I've done a piece for the Guardian politics blog today asking whether the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq will pave the way for a full inquiry. The government are still unable to answer the question - or rather, making contradictory noises.

Campbell vs Art

The Guardian has a kind of review of In the Loop by Alastair Campbell, who unsurprisingly didn't like the film. I've not seen the film so I don't know if it's any good but Campbell goes for the obvious cliche of saying he wasn't offended by the film's portrayal of someone very much like him, just bored.

Exactly the reaction you would expect from someone who thinks he knows how to spin. It will probably work - but it's hardly original.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Life vs Art

Having included a reference to the Thick of It in my latest piece for the New Statesman, I find an article about In the Loop, Armando Iannucci's film about the Iraq deception, that refers to
further evidence published this month that the dodgy dossier was indeed sexed up.
Relating a recent encounter with Campbell, Iannucci says:
“I think he was confusing fact with fiction. And not for the first time.”
Campbell's guest editorship of the New Statesman has proved slightly less controversial than the dossier itself but has upset a few people. Sarah Brown's diary piece is beyond satire:

The Big Question when I returned from the US was: “What was Michelle Obama like?”

Answer: warm, friendly, smart, stylish and funny. I can’t wait for the British people to see her close up when she joins her husband on their visit to London for the G20 next month.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her charming academic professor husband came to visit us on Friday, staying overnight for meetings on Saturday. We combined a relaxed evening with a lot of discussion about the international challenges – a demonstration, to my mind, of the courage many of the leaders are showing to take the necessary steps to rebuild our financial future.


Meanwhile, the Times has a piece on the troops coming home six years on. It makes some good points but also engages in a shockingly cavalier rewriting of history.
British politics has been transformed by the Iraq war. The so-called dodgy dossier, the death of David Kelly, the debate over Guantánamo Bay and the allegations of torture have changed the political landscape. The perception, whether justified or not, that the British Government went to war under false pretences has seeped into public consciousness, and poisoned politics. Tony Blair's reputation will be judged on the Iraq war. The next election will be fought, in large part, on the issue of political trust, with the war as a backdrop.

More than half of British voters supported the war in 2003, earnestly believing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. When that turned out to be untrue, the nature of British politics was changed for ever, increasing political mistrust in Britain to a level that may be higher than it has ever been. It is hard to imagine what level of justification will be necessary, in the future, to persuade the British people to back a “just war”.

The lies told about the war did indeed cause a significant further erosion of trust in the government and government in general. But more than half of British voters did not support the war believing that Saddam had wmd. Before the war, there was overwhelming opposition, as this BBC report shows and Blair's evidence convinced very few people. There is a well-known effect that once British troops are involved in a war, many people support them even though they did not support the war itself. That is what happened in 2003. So while it is tempting to argue that people were misled, the majority of people were only misled in that they were lied to, not that they believed it.

When exactly?

It's hard to make any sense of this Guardian article, which says that
Gordon Brown will consider holding an inquiry into the Iraq war once British troops have returned home, government sources confirmed yesterday.
This is exactly the confused position that Brown articulated - if that is the right word - in December. That is a backtracking on Brown's promise to hold an inquiry when the troops come home, not merely to consider it. What the article doesn't say is whether this means all British troops or just the "combat troops" who are due home in the next few months.

It still looks like an attempt to move the goalposts.

Friday, 20 March 2009

No wriggle room

The whistleblowers get more coverage today.

The Telegraph mistakenly - and perhaps libellously - says that Dr Brian Jones of the defence intelligence staff leaked information to the media, which he didn't.

The Indy focuses on claims by Carne Ross that there is a lot more to come out. It also suggests that Brown appears to be trying to trying to put the inquiry off still further. I've written about this on IndyMinds, pointing out that previous statements leave Brown no room to do this.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

What's another year?

Today's revelations from the public administration committee's inquiry into whistleblowers and the like has generated some big headlines already. According to the BBC:

A full public inquiry into the decision to invade Iraq is needed because "a lot of facts still have to come to light", a former diplomat has told MPs.

Carne Ross said it was "disgraceful" of ministers to "pretend" the Butler and Hutton inquiries told the full story.

That should set things up nicely for the commons debate next Wednesday in which the Tories will again call for an inquiry.

Rather worryingly, the Guardian says that:
Gordon Brown has promised to consider an inquiry after all the troops come home from Iraq next year.
I think this is a mistake, as Brown has never said that all the troops must come home. Nearly all of them are due to leave in the next four months, with a contingent staying on long term. Surely Brown won't use a long-term deployment as an excuse?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The sharp end

The Barclays tax evasion scandal is certainly at the sharp end of the battle between investigative journalism and corporate cover-up, as today's Guardian shows.

The Lib Dems are very much on the case and other MPs are very critical of Barclays tactics:
Paul Farrelly, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, said: "It is worrying that Barclays should resort to the courts like this to suppress genuine, investigative journalism. Now more than ever the public interest demands that a free press should investigate tax avoidance, especially where it occurs on a grand scale ..."

"The Guardian should be allowed to publish in the public interest and if Barclays wishes to contest the accuracy, it can always sue after the fact."

Richard Shepherd, Conservative MP for Aldridge-Brownhills, said: " It in the public interest that the Guardian wins. The gag should be lifted."

In arguments to the high court yesterday, Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, said: "I considered these documents to be of the highest significance in the debate about tax avoidance. They revealed at first hand the processes involved in structuring extremely complex and artificial tax avoidance vehicles; how lawyers and accountants worked together to exploit loopholes in government legislation; and the degree to which they are sanctioned at the highest levels within Barclays."

I'm calling this tax evasion rather than tax avoidance. Strictly speaking one is illegal, the other legal. But tax evasion is the only phrase that adequately describes using an army of lawyers and accountants to create artificial vehicles that are so complex that no-one can work out whether they are legal or not.

If Barclays has nothing to hide, why the need for the injunction?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Absolutely scandalous

So Barclays Bank indulges in large scale tax evasion and doesn't want us to know how it does it.

According to the Guardian, Barclays went to a judge in the early hours of this morning to gag the paper over leaked documents showing what it has been up to. What is more scandalous - that Barclays should rip off the taxpayer or that it should try - with some success - to cover its tracks?

Monday, 16 March 2009

Brown in good company

The BBC reports that 72% of British people believe there should be an inquiry into the invasion of Iraq. Presumably these include Gordon Brown, who promised an inquiry a year ago but is now reluctant to get it going.

Perhaps the question that the BBC should have asked was whether an inquiry should begin this summer, after the majority of troops have been withdrawn.

The BBC also shows a remarkable, if uncommon, ability to put two and two together:
There were fresh calls for an inquiry last week after documents showed that intelligence chiefs were urged to make a key dossier on the Iraqi threat as "firm" as possible.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Scotland's Sunday Herald has a superb opinion piece looking back at the Iraq dossier documents released last week:
THE "POLITICAL manipulation" of the government's case for war against Iraq in 2003 is now clearer than it has ever been. ... These [the documents] show the extent of the political duplicity that was a signature of this phase of Tony Blair's time in power.

Recall the fake outcry and controlled indignation there was from the government when it was accused of "sexing up" the notorious dossier. Recall the statements of denial from senior Cabinet ministers of any wrong-doing that were given to the Hutton Inquiry, especially the testimony of the then defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, or the material given to Hutton from Alastair Campbell, then effectively Britain's real deputy prime minister. Yet we now learn - and this comes as no surprise to newspapers such as this one which dug deep into the government's case and found it severely wanting - that there was a climate of disbelief among key defence and intelligence officials at how the case for war was being presented with qualified information offered up as certain and verified.


The harsh truth is that New Labour under Tony Blair, subverted Britain's democratic processes in the way it chose to spin the case for a war.


The same process of spin and cover-up were taken by Labour into the 2005 general election. The result of that poll reflected the degree to which Blair and New Labour had lost the trust of the electorate. But what would the result have been if the extent of the duplicity over Iraq had been revealed? It is unlikely Blair would have been able to survive as the leader of his party. The position of those inside the Cabinet who had supported Blair unconditionally - and this includes the then chancellor, Gordon Brown, who remained silent on Iraq - would have been equally difficult.

Hutton's conclusion and, equally, the conclusions of Lord Butler's follow-up investigation, have had their validity eroded by the release of these previously protected emails and memos.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Make your own coverage

I've also done Iraq dossier pieces this morning for Comment is Free and IndyMinds.

Also on IndyMinds, John Rentoul has chosen to disagree with the least significant non-revelation in he papers released yesterday. He has also shown that he doesn't understand the difference between "made available to" and "disclosed". How the spin doctors must love him.

The penny drops

The story of the new Iraq dossier memos gets good coverage in the press today, although it was largely ignored by the mainstream broadcast media. I don't think anyone mentioned - or even knew - that it was my freedom of information request that forced the documents into the public domain.

I've done a piece for the Guardian today with the estimable Richard Norton-Taylor. The Independent also has a good take on it currently leading its website, stating without caveat or qualification, that the dossier was sexed-up. The Times covers it briefly but the Mail does it better.

Newsnight had a good, if brief, piece on it yesterday, perhaps reflecting the BBC's continuing reluctance to be seen to be causing trouble for the government on the dossier. The best line of all came from Today's Sarah Monague, who "hestitated" to use the phrase "sexing up" but did so anyway.

This appears to have prompted the Telegraph, which covered the story on its website yesterday, to do another, good, piece this morning:
Mandarins openly discussed removing caveats from the security assessment of the ability of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, to deploy weapons of mass destructions.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Under the radar

I've done a blog post on the Index on Censorship about Gordon Brown's plans for a joint parliamentary committee on his national security strategy. The role of the committee and its composition are causing backbench MPs all kinds of constitutional concerns.

Lloyd nearly right shock

I usually disagree strongly with John Lloyd, formerly of the New Statesman, particularly his thesis that journalists should be more trusting of politicians. But I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he says in a post last night on Comment is Free - up to a point.

Essentially, Lloyd picks up on what Max Mosley and Gerry McCann said to the to the culture media and sport select committee - that media invasions of their privacy and fabricated stories had been deeply damaging. He shoots down Mail editor Paul Dacre's view that sexual exposes are necessary to enforce sexual morality and - worse - to fund tabloid political coverage.

But Lloyd loses the plot towards the end of the piece, agreeing with McCann:
that the press had to have tighter regulation if harm to reputations, families and private lives were to be avoided.
I would insert the qualification unnecessary in front of "harm". People cannot always be protected from damage to reputations etc and should not be so protected when a genuine public interest in exposing something rotten outweighs the harm.

As Lloyd puts it himself, shortly after setting morality above truth:
Journalism finds its calling in trying to ascertain the truth, and in providing a platform for diverse views. The rest is for the law, religion and conscience.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Not in my (holiday home's) backyard

Steve Rider deserve all the stick he is going to get for objecting to a "social housing" development in the Devon village where he has a holiday home. It's quite astonishing that he has the nerve to do this. Does he not realise that it is second home owners who make housing unaffordable for local people in rural and seaside communities?

According to the Independent:
The debate has split residents of the village, in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with some second-home owners threatening to take their business elsewhere; others support the scheme, describing it as "vital for the long-term viability" of the community.

"Threatening to take their business elsewhere?" Outrageous.

Monday, 9 March 2009

And now the bad news

The mainstream press don't seem to want to report the aid convoy that George Galloway and others are taking to Gaza - unless it's bad news.

Today the Times reports that the convoy was stoned in Egypt as it waits to get into Gaza. The story refers back to an earlier one from 15 February which claim that the three members of a northern contingent of the convoy were terror suspects, seeking to leave the country "under the cover" of the convoy.

As far as I can see, that was the last time the convoy made the paper. And what a load of bollocks it was:
The men had been under surveillance for some time as part of what police described as “an ongoing intelligence-led operation”. Although details of the surveillance remain unclear, one source said the men were believed to be planning a terrorist operation abroad.
For a start, how does a convoy provide "cover" to leave the country? You either have the right travel documents or you don't. And why to the police, who have had the men under surveillance, decide to reveal this to a national newspaper? Were the men arrested just in case they might be up to no good abroad? Has it stopped them going abroad in future?

Friday, 6 March 2009

On CiF this morning...

I've got a piece picking up on my New Statesman story published yesterday. It asks whether the threat of public transport chaos will be the third Heathrow runway's Achilles heel or whether the government's new infrastructure planning commission will gloss over such concerns in deference to stated government policy.

I'm not sure if it's as good a way to challenge government greenwash as that demonstrated by Plane Stupid protester Leila Deen this morning.

Also on CIF, Richard Norton-Taylor has a good piece pointing out - as I have done - how useless the Intelligence and Security Committee is as its annual report for 2007-8 is finally published by Number 10 after Gordon Brown has censored it.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

So strict we fudged it

I've got a piece in the latest issue of the New Statesman, now online, revealing that the government fixed the third of its "strict" environmental conditions for the third Heathrow runway - that improved public transport access would provide the main "solution" to the expected road and rail congestion.

It turns out that the test wasn't that strict after all.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

It doesn't add up

Press, politicians and bloggers have been remarkably quiet about the Caroline Spelman scandal. Spelman clearly used public money to pay for a nanny and has to pay some of it back. The idea that this was "unintentional" is just one of those fudges that the establishment uses to protect its own.

According to the Guardian, John Lyon, the parliamentary standards commissioner, found that the nanny did a proper administrator's job but was overpaid for the work.

But the Independent's report shows that there are two different ways of doing the maths:

The report found that Ms Spelman paid Mrs Haynes £13,000 a year for doing secretarial work between 1997 and 1999. Ms Spelman said Mrs Haynes was paid no salary for taking sole care of her three children. Her nannying duties were rewarded with free board and lodging.

But when Mrs Haynes gave up the constituency work to concentrate on the nannying, Ms Spelman paid her a £13,000 salary out of her own pocket to cover the childcare.

A constituency secretary who took over was paid £4,800 a year less than Mrs Haynes for doing the work – and so the report found that Ms Spelman had been effectively subsidising Mrs Haynes' nannying job.

So Spelman suddenly paid her nanny £13,000 a year for nannying, having previously paid her nothing at all?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Uncovering the cover-up

The Independent reports that:
The CIA destroyed almost 100 videotapes of terror suspect interrogations, far more than previously acknowledged, the Obama administration said yesterday as it began disclosing details of post-September 11 Bush-era actions.
The admission relates to a court case involving the American Civil Liberties Union, which says that the CIA should be held in contempt for withholding evidence.:
"The large number of videotapes destroyed confirms that the agency engaged in a systematic attempt to hide evidence of its illegal interrogations and to evade the court's order,"
Unsurprisingly the CIA has issued a vehement non-denial:
CIA spokesman George Little said the agency "has certainly cooperated with the Department of Justice investigation. If anyone thinks it's agency policy to impede the enforcement of American law, they simply don't know the facts."

Whose opinion?

Here's an interesting dilemma. Richard Littlejohn, writing in the Mail, takes issue with Harriet Harman's claim that Fred Goodwin's pension is not enforceable in the "court of public opinion". He points out for example that;
In the court of public opinion, Tony Blair would find himself accused of war crimes after sending troops to Iraq on the basis of a dodgy dossier cooked up by his co-conspirator Alastair Campbell. The court of public opinion would have convicted him of selling honours and taking bribes from Formula One.
Good point. But then Littlejohn takes it further:

Left to the court of public opinion, we'd bring back hanging, restore the grammar schools, end immigration and force councils to empty the dustbins once a week, every week.

We'd pull out of Europe, scrap the yuman rites act and put every foreign criminal and terrorist on the first plane to Timbuktu.

There'd be police stations open day and night in every High Street and bobbies on the beat. Serial burglars, car thieves and anyone carrying an offensive weapon in public would face automatic, exemplary prison sentences.

Ludicrous elf'n'safety laws would be scrapped and the legions of five-a-day co-ordinators and diversity managers would have their contracts torn up and be told to get a proper job.

Those preposterous windmills scarring the landscape would be torn down; speed cameras would be dismantled, except in genuine accident blackspots, and traffic humps would be bulldozed flat.

You have to assume that Littlejohn appears with everyone of these mindless, populist, ignorant proposals. I disagree with just about all of them.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Who said what?

Another hangover from yesterday is what Harriet Harman said about Fred Goodwin's pension. I think she was trying to sound as if the government would do something without the first idea what it might do.

The Times' Sam Coates says that Harman was suggesting that legislation might be used to claw back the money and that this "triggered renewed tensions with Downing Street", whose "sources also distanced themselves from the idea".

On the other hand, if Harman and Downing Street planned to get maximum publicity for the idea and significantly less for shooting it down, the plan worked a treat.

Who says so?

I've done a piece this morning for IndyMinds, looking in some detail at a quite crass piece of spin from the Indy on Sunday's John Rentoul. His piece is a shocking example of the kind of thing I'm always banging on about here - the tendency to tell us what journalists "know", "feel", "hope" or "believe".