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.