Friday, 31 July 2009

Watch Chilcot closely

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

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Don't bother

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

No need to read any further.

Spin and the weather

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

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

And he's right:

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

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

Monday, 27 July 2009

Kingsnorth fallout

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 20 July 2009

What are they talking about

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 July 2009

Fair Game

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

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Free to tell the truth?

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

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

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Toothless watchdog

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

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

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

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

Utter farce

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

Friday, 10 July 2009

Part of the story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Get out of that!

The BBC reports that:

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

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

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

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

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

Monday, 6 July 2009

Out in the open

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

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

Friday, 3 July 2009

All hot air

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