Thursday, 30 April 2009

The war is over - what next?

The BBC is now reporting that:
British combat operations in Iraq will come to an end on Thursday lunchtime with a handover to American forces.
It says that the move is a month ahead of schedule. The Guardian reports that
Britain's combat role – including patrolling the city of Basra – was originally due to end on 31 July but was brought forward.
The bulk of the 4,000 or so UK troops will have returned home by 31 May, leaving a residual number to clear up and pack whatever equipment the army wants to bring home or send to Afghanistan.
That leaves an awful lot of time to fill if the government is going to avoid announcing an Iraq inquiry before the end of July.

What does imminent mean?

The BBC says that "The end of the UK's military presence in Iraq is imminent after six years." What does this mean - and what does it mean for the promised inquiry?

The interesting thing about the BBC article is that it doesn't specify what it means by imminent. It says:
Defence officials say plans for the withdrawal of British forces in Iraq are well advanced.
It's clear - from other articles - that the troops are today being taken off combat duties and that it's a question of getting them home, but how long can that take? The point is of course that they surely must be home well before the end of July - three months away - and almost certainly before parliament rises earlier that month. In that case, the government will have to set up the inquiry it has promised.

So what is the cause of the vagueness? Is it operational - or to help the government out of a tricky political issue? The BBC has previously said that the troops will be out by the end of May but that may have been a slip of the keyboard. The Times today says that "all British troops" will have left by the end of June. Apart from that, the media coverage is sticking to the increasingly implausible line that it could take until the end of July.

I suppose we will find out soon enough.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009


The BBC has uncovered collusion between the Home Office and Phorm, which illegally spies on our internet usage to sell us targeted advertising.
The Home Office has been accused of colluding with online ad firm Phorm on "informal guidance" to the public on whether the company's service is legal.
In January 2008 the Home Office thanks Phorm for comments and changes to its draft paper, which show the company making deletions and changes to the document.

The Home Office official wrote to Phorm: "If we agree this, and this becomes our position do you think your clients and their prospective partners will be comforted."

Liberal Democrat Baroness Sue Miller said that this an other exchanges between civil servants and the company made her jaw drop. It is pretty shocking, but part of a pattern where civil servant somehow think it is their job to collude with business to deceive the public.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Straw, Blix and dirty tricks

As justice secretary Jack Straw makes an announcement on prisons an probation, I have a new piece on Comment is Free showing how he misled Parliament over comments that former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix gave on an early draft of the Iraq dossier.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Old habits...

The government is making it known that it is scrapping plans to build Titan jails, once again breaking a promise to make major announcements to Parliament. According to the BBC:
Plans for three 2,500-place Titan prisons costing an estimated £350m each are to be ditched, the BBC understands.

Instead, Justice Secretary Jack Straw is expected to reveal proposals for five 1,500-place jails, with two set to go ahead immediately.

Sources say the decision has nothing to do with the Budget or making savings.

But Jack Straw's ministry of justice wants to have it both ways. According to the Guardian, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said.

"The justice secretary will make a statement on this issue shortly, and we cannot comment further on speculation."

Even if we are the source of that speculation...

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Looking at it again...

Both the police and Gordon Brown are rightly coming in for criticism over claims two weeks ago about a big terror plot, with the arrest of 12 "suspects". On Comment is Free, Ewan Crawford invites the media to consider their role:

We know from previous incidents that initial police statements, either on or off the record, do not always stand up to scrutiny once the full facts are known. The big fear among journalists seems to be missing out on information that will be published or broadcast elsewhere – but is that reasonable editorial decision-making?

The BBC's security correspondent, Gordon Corera, said today that in relation to the police, lessons needed to be learned in terms of "public presentation". Surely large sections of the media should also be questioning their role in this presentation.

From senior politicians in this government – of all governments – we should expect much greater circumspection when drawing conclusions from intelligence about alleged terrorist activities. We all know the UK went to war in Iraq on the basis of flawed intelligence but once again a British prime minister has been stating as fact the existence of a plot, which we were told was based only on intelligence gathering.

Undone by spin

John Kampfner has an excellent piece in the Standard today, linking the new 50% tax rate - seen by many as the death of New Labour - with New Labour's lust for power. Such a thing was until recently unthinkable because of New Labour's fear of upsetting the rich.
Why were they so frightened of just a little redistribution? When Peter Hain broached the subject of the wealthy paying just a little more tax, Brown's people tried to destroy him.
The actions of Damian McBride and his like, ever smearing and scheming, are rooted not in personality disorders but in political logic. The reason New Labour has always acted in a thuggish manner is because it was founded on an absence of ideals. It was created by Blair and Brown, by Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, as a vehicle for gaining power.
What is so frustrating is that those few MPs, and the odd minister, who do have strong principles and deep ambitions to change Britain felt forced to hide them. They began to look and sound like automatons in order to avoid ritual humiliation at the hands of the Prime Minister's henchmen for speaking out of turn.

No we don't... yes we did

Well done again the Times for keeping on about Israel's use of white phosphorus. Today the paper reports what seems to be an admission from the Israel Defence Forces that media coverage of the issue led them to stop using the very dangerous chemical.

The Times says that the IDF provided "its first explicit admission" on this issue although it does not make this entirely clear. It appears that the IDF is for the first time admitting that it used two different type of phosphorus shell, having previously denied using it at all.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Sexing-up is back

According to the BBC:
The former exam chief for England, who resigned over last summer's Sats marking fiasco, says evidence against him was "sexed up".

Ken Boston told a committee of MPs that accounts of his meetings with ministers given to the inquiry into the delays in marking test papers were "false".

He also accused ministers of putting a "protective fence" around themselves.

Boston clearly knows how to grab the headlines, it will be interesting to see where this story goes...

Colour coding

It's all about colour apparently (unless you're Dick Best).

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland says that Labour's route out of the black hole has to be green with just a hint of blue, arguing not so much for cross-party cross-dressing as cross-party cross colour coding. Freedland is one of many people who think Labour's backing for the third Heathrow runway undermines its credibility on environmental issues:
it's hard to believe ministers are sincere about reaching targets - set for dates long after their political lifetimes - when they, to take the most neuralgic example, give the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow. Instead it encourages the belief that Labour is a lush shade of green when it's in the realm of rhetoric and the distant future - but the colour of concrete and tarmac when it comes to the now.
Meanwhile the IPPR calls for a package of "red and green" taxes in the budget, jumping the gun on a report it will publish in the summer.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

More Tesco - no thanks

After announcing record £3bn profits Tesco promises to get even bigger. According to the Standard:
It now has 1,770 stores in Britain, including about 250 in London, and said it would not slow down its relentless expansion despite the recession.

Tesco hopes to add between six and seven per cent more shop floor space every year, roughly equivalent to doubling every 10 to 12 years.
This kind of bullish talk is clearly intended to impress the City, which demands that huge companies like Tesco keep getting bigger and bigger. But I'm sure I'm not the only member of the public who is horrified by the prospect.

Third Runway? No thanks

Writing in the Times today, Lord Stern of Climate Change is very critical of the government's decision to approve a third Heathrow runway:
...recent decisions - such as approving Heathrow's third runway and a relatively weak green component of the fiscal boost - undermine confidence in the UK's ability to meet its climate change target. It is vital that the Government shows it is credible on the environment.

... big transport decisions, such as the third runway at Heathrow, should be taken only if they make sense in the context of a coherent carbon and transport policy for the UK, and, preferably, for Europe as a whole. I would be surprised if the construction of a third runway at Heathrow passed that test, which will be applied by the Committee on Climate Change by the end of this year. The runway decision should not have been taken before the committee's examination.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Nepotism - no thanks

In yesterday's Independent on Sunday, Sarah Sands wrote a piece in defence of nepotism, with the line: "Maybe nepotism is the worst form of selection, except for all the others that have been tried," which would suggest that it is therefore the best form of selection. If you are a conservative by inclination, you will take this type of line and Sands' other line - that if you cannot be absolutely fair you may as well not bother with fairness at all.

It's an obviously shallow argument and unpicking it leads you to the idea that nepotism is indeed a relative issue. Any bias or discrimination in allocating life chances is best avoided, for reasons that are too obvious to mention, but the damage caused is proportionate to the extent to which a person's relative suitability is ignored. If you define nepotism as selecting on the basis of family without an regard for a person's ablility, it's a very bad thing.

The one thing that the well-off, well-connected and beneficiaries of nepotism are all very good at is claiming that they are the victims of a reverse descrimination. Sands (sort of) takes up the cause of Georgia Gould along these lines:
"... she is clearly a capable young woman. More people might recognise that if she could fight for the job without her parents' helicopter friends piling in."
In today's Standard, Andrew Gilligan takes this line in the opposite direction, coming out firmly against the daughter of Tony Blair's pollster:
The tale of how she has nonetheless emerged, over councillors and a former minister, as the apparent frontrunner for the Labour candidacy in this outer-London Labour seat is being taken as another sign of the party's moral decay. It is, but it symbolises something even more damaging - sheer political ineptitude, both Gould's and Labour's.

Gould has reportedly enlisted a professional PR company. Her campaign materials have been glossy, abundant and sumptuous. Alastair Campbell and Tessa Jowell have been lobbying on her behalf.

Even for an ordinary candidate, such overkill would be ill-advised. For the daughter of a New Labour peer and millionaire publisher, it is worse. Campbell, moreover, is toxic; nobody with any political nous would touch him.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009


Quite how addicted to spin Gordon Brown remains is demonstrated by this Guardian story, in which - under cover of the emails and smears row - he lets it be known that he will delay the Iraq inquiry for as long as possible.
Brown has agreed that an inquiry will be held after the withdrawal of all British combat troops from Iraq, which must take place by 31 July. Government sources insist that no final decisions have been made on the format and timing of the inquiry, though it is expected to meet in private and to be given a lengthy timetable.

Brown and David Miliband, the foreign secretary, want to assess the success of the operation to withdraw British combat troops before deciding when to make an announcement.

The Guardian understands that, on current thinking, an announcement is unlikely in the immediate aftermath of a 31 July withdrawal. This raises the possibility that it will come in early October when MPs return from the summer recess. An autumn announcement would mean hearings did not start until the new year. Ministers are keen not to commit themselves to an early announcement because they are nervous about the withdrawal, fearing that militias could use it to stage attacks on British forces.

One Whitehall source said: "If everything goes to plan and everyone is out and you don't need to leave a substitute force there, then you can get on with the inquiry. But if you have to keep a large force in place to guard the withdrawal, then that's going to be dangerous and will delay any announcement on an inquiry."

When ministers make the announcement, they are likely to say that it will be modeled on the Franks inquiry, which reported on the Falklands war in 1982. This consisted of six privy counselors who met in private and had access to all the relevant government papers. "A privy council inquiry probably makes sense because they can see all the papers," one government source said.
The Guardian falls for the story hook, line and sinker, telling us credulously what ministers are "not keen" to do and what they "fear". "if you have to keep a large force in place to guard the withdrawal"? I'm sorry, what on earth are you talking about? Who would believe that the government could move from promising to hold the inquiry as soon as practicable after the troops withdraw to claiming that they need to assess the withdrawal? And why does anyone believe that a withdrawal that has already started will take until 31 July?

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Policing the policers

The police are still getting a good kicking over the death of Ian Tomlinson - and rightly so. Their attempts at news management have backfired.

The Guardian deconstructs the spin operation from the Met and the City of London force.
When Mr Tomlinson died during the police operation, the Met chose to delay announcing it for more than three hours. Its statement pointed a finger at protesters. "The officers gave him an initial check and cleared his airway before moving him back behind the cordon line to a clear area outside the Royal Exchange Building where they gave him CPR," it said. "The officers took the decision to move him as during this time a number of missiles - believed to be bottles - were being thrown at them.

The force refused yesterday to reveal why it took so long to announce someone had died within the demonstration area, or to address the question of where the information about missiles being thrown at police officers had come from. Witnesses who aided Mr Tomlinson have always contested that police had been attacked by a hail of missiles.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission also comes out of the affair very badly:
"They have caught a real cold on this," said a senior source. "They were very slow, they clearly didn't think anything was wrong and they didn't look for it. Sometimes they just don't seem to be very independent."

A former IPCC insider went further, blaming a "cosy" relationship with the police for the commission's failure to act quickly. "The problem with the IPCC is that it is too late to start inquiries and they go on for too long," said John Crawley, a commissioner for four years. "They should have picked this up as an independent investigation straight away. There was strong public interest given the concern about the 'kettling' tactics being used to police the protests and the need to gain the confidence of those demonstrators with information to come forward to someone who wasn't the police."

It's left to another Independent to put the boot in some more on the police, albeit a very balanced boot. "Unaccountable, secretive and out of control", the paper says. It too has sussed out the police spin:

Almost as disturbing as the assault itself was the misleading response of the police when they were first probed on the incident. They made no mention of contact between Mr Tomlinson and their officers before he collapsed and briefed that other protesters had impeded police medics in their efforts to help him. It was only when this new footage emerged that the police admitted they might have a case to answer.

As for their attempts to present their involvement as merely shielding Mr Tomlinson from an angry mob, this was reminiscent of the false information circulated in the wake of the mistaken shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London in 2005. The public were told on that occasion that Mr Menezes' behaviour and clothing had given them cause for suspicion. These lies were exposed by CCTV footage from Stockwell Underground station, just as the police's account this week has crumbled in the light of these latest images.

We like Sarah

The Telegraph's Deputy Political Editor, Robert Winnett, reports that Sarah Brown has resorted to renting expensive designer outfits for official functions, and seems to approve.
Mrs Brown is said to usually wear clothes from high-street retailers such as Marks & Spencer and New Look. However, a friend of the Prime Minister's wife, said: "Sarah thinks it's important to dress well for big State occasions, and renting her dresses makes that a bit more affordable."
It looks like a piece of spin to me but the Telegraph seems to like Sarah for not being Cherie, as this piece by the amazingly bitchy Andrew Pierce shows.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

When it suits us

I've just posted a new piece for Index on Censorship, pointing out that the government has a double standard when it comes to the disclosure of confidential information, to the point where it will censor a document that it has already published.

Same old story

The death of Ian Tomlinson following an assault by police is leading a lot of papers. The Guardian has made the running on this and on Comment is Free, Duncan Campbell has the best analysis. He points to early and so far unsubstantiated police claims that protesters threw bottles at police medics trying to help Tomlinson:

Some of the miles and miles of footage that was shot has now been given to the Guardian and shared across the internet. It shows Tomlinson, who was not a demonstrator but one of the many people unable to leave the melee, being thrown to the ground a few moments before he died of a heart attack. Far from the police coming under attack, at this stage Tomlinson is only cared for by a demonstrator. Do the police have their own film of what happened?

What is also striking is that, so soon after the inquest into the death of the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, assumptions about a suspicious death should be so swiftly made and the official version accepted so unquestioningly. One of the Met's major problems in the wake of de Menezes was the feeling that misinformation about the circumstances of his death was allowed to linger too long in the public domain.

Of course, the police are under pressure to come up with instant information for the ever-increasing media outlets. A man has died. How? Why? Who was he? It is hardly suprising that the police's best take on the incident – that they were the subject of attack by demonstrators as they tried to save a man's life – is the one that gets passed out and then gets prime position in the coverage. But when did it become clear to the police, from their own intelligence and video footage, what had actually happened to Tomlinson?

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Don't mention the genocide

A good, brief piece from Robert Tait in the Guardian about how Barack Obama managed not to mention the Armenian genocide on his trip to Turkey.

Jade the saint

Michael Parkinson has committed something like heresy by suggesting that Jade was no saint but "ignorant and puerile". According to the Mail:
His words are bound to come under fire from Goody’s legions of fans, who dubbed her the 'Essex princess'.
Max Clifford, Goody’s publicist, said he was 'surprised and disappointed' by Sir Michael’s comments.
'What Michael forgets to mention is that Jade already has saved, and will save in the future, countless lives of young women through her public battle with cervical cancer,' he said.
Saved lives already? Blimey!

Monday, 6 April 2009

Wouldn't he

I've come across an interesting piece from Andrew Billen in Saturday's Times about In the Loop. It starts off pretty well.
How Peter Capaldi hopes that the adverts for his new film, In the Loop, will bear this quote: “A disappointment', Alastair Campbell.” It is, after all, there to be ripped, only slightly out of context, from Campbell's recent critique in another newspaper of the film adaptation of the scabrous BBC Westminster satire, The Thick of It. Since its infamous spin-doctor, Malcolm Tucker, as portrayed by Capaldi, is universally recognised as a reincarnation of Tony Blair's press chief at his bullying, foul-tongued, paranoid worst, Campbell's criticism shoots well up and off the “He Would Say That, Wouldn't He?” scale.
But Billen then goes on to say:
Not that Campbell was offended by the film. He was bored. He felt that the cartoon-like portrayal of new Labour did not stretch to a film...
Which bit of “He Would Say That, Wouldn't He? didn't you get?

How crooked is Barclays?

The Guardian reports that
A Barclays bank executive claims to have been made redundant after raising issues relating to one of the bank's tax avoidance schemes.
But Barclays pulls the old "no evidence" stunt, claiming that ""no evidence has been found" to back the claims. As if they had a really good look.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Seven out of ten

As a lover of (intentionally) fake news, I had a go at the Guardian's spot the April Fools news quiz. I got seven out of ten right, and a suggestion that I might be about to try my own hoax...