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Sunday 31 January 2010

Calling A Spade A Bloody Shovel

Some folks like to call themselves Sceptics. But they are not sceptical. So why the use of the term? As the title of the post suggests, in God’s Own County the tendency is to straight talking, and plain English description. Thus, I believe, it should be with those who oppose organisation and consensus.

Darling of the Tory right Dan, Dan the Oratory Man is explicitly anti-EU. He says he loves Europe, but that the UK should not be part of it. There is no scepticism in his stance, yet we are told that he is Eurosceptic. And I say this is drivel. Anyone who is sceptical of an organisation is not yet persuaded of its utility: such people are in “show me” mode. Hanann is not in “show me” mode. He does not want to be shown; his mind is made up. Thus he is not Eurosceptic but Europhobic: totally and howlingly anti-European. He should therefore be labelled thus.

The attempt to misuse the concept of scepticism is also deployed among those who are opposed to the scientific consensus on Climate Change. Here, too, the likes of Christopher Booker and James Delingpole (both unlikely to upset Guardian readers, who will routinely switch off when treated to their barrage of abuse) attract the term Sceptic, when they are not. Neither of them, nor many of the rest of those scrabbling to rubbish the consensus, are in “show me” mode. They do not want to be shown, and have made up their minds. They deny that Climate Change is happening, and so they are more accurately described as Deniers.

And, as I’ve noted previously, the idea that “Denier” automatically suggests “Holocaust” is also drivel. This is a cheap and sub-Freudian attempt to play the victim. Someone who denies that something is happening is demonstrating an act of denial, and on that subject is therefore a denier of it.

Call a spade a bloody shovel. End of story.

Billion Dollar Brain Revisited

Listening to the testimonies of the succession of witnesses before the Iraq Enquiry, and the poring over of intelligence, it seems a fair bet that there is one classic film missing from the favourites list of those testifying. Billion Dollar Brain, the third of the 1960s Harry Palmer films, has long been out of favour – probably not helped by the “baddie” being from the US – but the plot sounds all the more relevant when put alongside the 2003 Iraq war.

In the film, Harry Palmer, as ever played by Michael Caine, investigates an organisation called the Crusade For Freedom, and discovers that its leader, unhinged Texas oilman “General” Midwinter (played in superb over-the-top style by Ed Begley), is planning to invade the Baltic republic of Latvia (then part of the USSR) on the twin grounds that he believes he is doing God’s will, and that his intelligence indicates that the country has a vast resistance movement crying out for assistance.

The so-called intelligence, however, is mostly pure invention, partly because some of those attached to the Crusade For Freedom are involved in creative embezzlement, and partly because the information they generate is what Midwinter wants to hear. Here is the awful coincidence with Iraq: there was no intelligence source inside the Ba’athist régime, so the West was reduced to using conduits and contacts who had fallen foul of Baghdad. Most prominent of these was the Iraqi National Congress, whose leader Ahmed Chalabi was by this time a convicted fraudster.

Chalabi and the INC passed much intelligence to the West, and much of it was either questionable or downright false. In return, the INC garnered 33 million US Dollars between 2000 and 2003. Much of the information on Iraq’s weapons programmes came from the INC, and this too was largely bogus. But the impression is given that it was just what the recipients wanted to hear.

In the film, Midwinter and his “army” are routed with grim brevity by Soviet planes, and the conclusion is as brief as might be expected in a story limited to less than two hours’ running time. Unfortunately, in Iraq, there is no studio budget constraint: the carnage has been long and bloody. And it has not stopped yet.

[More information on Billion Dollar Brain can be found HERE. And the film is available on DVD – the ideal gift for ex-politicians who have a little more leisure time]

The Summation Of Flannelspeak

Those with sufficient time on their hands to sit through Tony Blair’s evidence to the Iraq Enquiry may have missed his “flannel moment”: this came when the former Prime Minister was discussing the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC. Blair told the Enquiry that the attacks changed the “calculus of risk”.

And what kind of “calculus” might that be? Are we talking differentiation or integration? What’s the point of the wording? Is he talking of maximising public support while minimising opposition? Or is the objective of the “calculus” to maximise the military impact while minimising the time involved? I doubt that Blair knows one end of calculus from the other, and the conclusion is therefore that this is just more verbage deployed for effect.

It happens all too often nowadays – and it’s not good enough. English is a rich enough language for public figures to convey their intended meaning (both explicit and implicit) without misuse. Those who occupy – or have occupied – the highest elective office should be particularly careful not to appropriate forms of words merely because they sound cool.

Even those who tell that they’re just, well, y’know, regular kinds of guys.

Friday 29 January 2010

Friday Food – 2

This week, it’s a kind of bread – but don’t switch off just yet. Bread need not equal routine and boring. So today, if you’ve not yet been there, let me introduce you to the humble Ciabatta.

Strangely enough, I first encountered Ciabatta in Munich: at lunchtimes during a work assignment I was on back in 1998 we would get open sandwiches made with the bread at a local Tengelmann store. But it was when I found the local Aldi selling Ciabatta for 49p a time that I became a serious aficionado.

Typically, the bread comes part baked, and as you then “finish” it, it comes hot out of the oven. As an open sandwich, it goes well with paté (meat or fish), most kinds of cheeses, or bruschetta spread – or, of course, any kind of jam, marmalade or honey. As a (slightly bulky) closed sandwich, you can fill it with cheese, sliced meat, or tuna.

Over the years, unfortunately, Aldi have gradually increased their admittedly very reasonable initial price to 69p, but Ciabatta is still excellent value, versatile enough – and different.

I shall be partaking this weekend: it’s been thawing since last night.

The Republican Wrong – You’re Nicked (2)

Events have moved on from the arrest of “ACORN Gotcha Man” James O’Keefe and his pals on Monday, an event I mentioned the other day. It appears that only three of the four arrested were inside the office of Democrat Senator Mary Landrieu: the fourth man was detained two blocks away, this being the person with what is alleged to be a listening device.

Meanwhile, although the arrest has been aired by O’Keefe’s champions Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), they are downplaying the incident and claiming that it was merely “a prank”. Moreover, the channel’s “stars” Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, who were so eager to showcase O’Keefe and promote his “sting” videos, have remained schtum on TV (although Beck has mentioned the arrest on his radio programme).

And another player is now emerging: Andrew Breitbart. Who he? Well, Breitbart is a right wing commentator and publisher, and most notably the creator of websites such as Biggovernment.com, a site with a slant not unlike that of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance. On this site, the O’Keefe arrest is headlined in one piece as “Crime Tolerating Left Pounces on Apparent New Orleans Stunt”. You see, it’s only a game – where’s your sense of humour?

Breitbart was instrumental in pushing the ACORN “sting” videos, and it now transpires he had O’Keefe on the payroll – except that, he says, those payments did not include any illegal activity. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? Not surprisingly, Breitbart has not said whether or not he would have been willing to promote, or profit from, any product that O’Keefe and his pals may have generated from their visit to Senator Landrieu’s office, had they got away with their “stunt”.

The originals of the allegedly heavily edited ACORN “sting” videos have yet to see the light of day. And it’s not clear just who else may be involved with O’Keefe and his particular brand of “investigative journalism”.

More updates to follow.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Ethical Basement

Here’s a competition you may have missed: Swiss company Covalence has issued its 2009 rankings for company ethics. They have ranked a total of 581 multinationals, with the usual Technology suspects at the top of the pile: IBM are first, Intel second, with Xerox, Cisco and Dell coming in at 6, 8 and 9. HSBC score one for banking with third, our own Marks and Spencer are fourth, and Unilever fifth.

But not everyone can be top dog, and therefore there has to be someone at the other end of the scale. So who’s in the basement? Well, for a taster, eleventh worst is Italian TV company Mediaset SpA, founded and still run by “Duce” Berlusconi. Tenth worst is French oil giant Total, and it isn’t the only one in its sector inhabiting the bottom ten: Occidental are sixth worst, Chevron third worst, and – guess who’s coming for some war action – Halliburton, forever linked with former Veep “Dick” Cheney, second worst.

And in among these pillars of capitalism is another company that features more than occasionally on this blog: Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care) come in seventh worst, and are the worst in their sector.

But rock bottom is king of Agribiz Monsanto, world leader in the production of genetically modified seed. They stand accused of frequently and unfairly suing small farmers for patent infringement, and thus provide a lesson as to what might happen to any country letting GM crops in. That action, if true, is bang out of order.

No Bricks In The Wall

The discussion over whether to put up paywalls for newspapers’ online content has been rumbling on for a while now – ever since Rupe decided that his titles would be having one, despite the warnings coming from those who have the newer side of the media figured out.

As I pointed out a while back, the Beeb won’t be charging. And neither will the Guardian – a point that was underlined on Monday when editor Alan Rusbridger gave the 2010 Hugh Cudlipp Lecture.

Rusbridger has pointed out that the competition for free news actually includes part of the Murdoch empire, Sky News (first for breaking wind), which as far as is known will still be free, even after the Murdoch papers raise the paywall. Moreover, he revealed that digital growth at the Guardian is running at a tasty 40%.

And, a most revealing fact, a third of those 37 million unique users last year came from North America. You want half decent journalism – you know where to come.

Broadsheet Watch – 13

Yesterday was a big occasion in the USA: it’s the time of the year when the Prez makes his State Of The Union address. Barack Obama addressed both houses of Congress, and the judges of the Supreme Court, for a full seventy minutes, so today the papers on both sides of the Atlantic have been poring over the content.

And weighing in for the Maily Telegraph has been Janet Daley. Who she? Who indeed. Her column is supremely muddle headed on the subject of healthcare, although, given that her CV features some time spent in the USA, you might expect a clearer grasp of the issues: this tells you that the subject really is a thorny one.

The place to focus is on the second paragraph. Here, Daley tells that healthcare reform “had now become health insurance reform”. Well, well. This may be due to the nature of the US system, which is built around insurance. She then tells of there being no more talk of “a genuinely nationalised healthcare programme”. Nothing gets past Ms Daley, does it?

Except that there never was an attempt to produce a national, or nationalised, programme – certainly not on the lines of the NHS. And, as with any critique of Obama’s attempts to reform healthcare, there is no mention of the inconvenient fact that the USA spends almost twice as much on healthcare as a percentage of GDP as the UK, for outcomes that are almost universally less good – even if only marginally.

That isn’t good enough – but if the folks over in the USA want something that isn’t good enough, that’s their call.

Wednesday 27 January 2010

Chocolate – No Rest Till Summer

A reliable prediction in the run-up to Christmas is that I’ll end up with a fair to middling amount of chocolate afterwards. Given that I don’t consume much of the stuff at a time, this will take most of January to dispose of. This year has been no different.

But the temptation, and the needs of the confectionery industry, isn’t about to go away. Not a chance. Hardly have the Christmas leftovers been cleared from the shelves than the Easter stock moves in. Thus every square centimetre of spare space in Crewe’s non-trivially sized Asda is now packed with the ubiquitous Creme Egg, and mainly in the multipack variant that ensures as many of the things as possible find their way into our baskets and trollies.

And this is only for starters: the shelves full of more seriously large and expensive Easter eggs have yet to appear. Given that the supposedly Christian commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ falls this year at the beginning of April, that appearance will be happening round about next week.

The Republican Wrong – You’re Nicked

Back in 1970, a young man from New Orleans called Wade Rathke founded a group to lobby for lower income citizens, this being the Association of Community Organisations for Reform Now, better known by the acronym ACORN. This body has lobbied for better and more affordable housing, improved wages, and has mounted drives to increase voter registration.

These actions, together with the expansion of ACORN over the years, have brought controversy, most notably during and since the 2008 Presidential Election: there have been accusations of voter fraud directed at the organisation, although the numbers proved have been minuscule compared to those suggested. Most significantly, the idea has been floated that ACORN is a far-left associate of the Democratic Party.

But the real trouble for ACORN came last September, when two “Conservative” activists, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, recorded several undercover videos where Giles posed as a prostitute, with O’Keefe pretending to be her pimp. Presenting themselves at ACORN offices, they would ask about tax evasion and trafficking of underage sex workers from Central America. The conversations never involved any formal assistance from ACORN, and moreover, O’Keefe has been accused of dubbing the sound. Nevertheless, the impression was bad for ACORN and there were subsequent moves to cut off state and federal funding.

And the whole saga may have ended there, but for Monday’s events in New Orleans, when the same James O’Keefe was one of four arrested amid accusations that they had attempted to plant a listening device at the office of Democrat Senator Mary Landrieu. The alleged crime is in the felony category (that means it’s serious).

The undercover videos were featured strongly by one broadcaster alone: no prizes for guessing that this was Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), whose “stars” Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity used them to demonise ACORN. So far, although Fox have reported the arrest, Beck and Hannity have maintained total silence.

That must be difficult for them. And while they’re keeping quiet, here’s a simple question: where did the use of the suffix “gate” originate?

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Evidence? What Evidence? – 2

Now that we’re into 2010, perhaps we can look back at the past decade and check out the competing claims on the subject of climate change. Just what can we glean from the first decade of the new millennium? Is the trend one of warming, or, as some have been asserting recently, cooling? Well, as with any controversial subject, it depends on who you’re asking. Let’s start with those who take their data seriously.

And there can be no more serious player here than the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS), who have stated unequivocally that January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record.

[Source: NASA GISS]

An isolated case? Not so. The National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has also concluded that the past decade was the warmest on record.

Is this just a USA-centric view? No it isn’t: our own Met Office has also concluded that the past decade was the warmest on record. And, just for emphasis, the World Meteorological Organisation has come to the same conclusion.

Perhaps these organisations are trying to tell us something.

Monday 25 January 2010

A Stroll Across The Astroturf - 11

This morning, guest poster Zarathustra contributed a piece on Liberal Conspiracy concerning the activities of Astroturf lobby group Nurses for Reform. The following is from the comment I made in the follow-ups:

“I have no problem with anyone suggesting reform of the NHS. Where I do have a problem is when those wanting the reform start making comparisons with the Nazis, and with the platforms they choose to make their calls.

At the end of last week, the increasingly eccentric Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) compared “progressives” to the regimes of Stalin and Hitler. The inference is that the latter controlled every aspect of peoples’ lives, and so anyone who approves of “Big Government”, which in the world of Beck means Liberals, is in step with 1930s Russia, or the Third Reich.

Many across the political spectrum may respond to Beck and his kind with derision, but there are Fox viewers in the US who believe this drivel, and when the Nazi comparison makes its way to the UK, folks here are bound to be wary. But, so what? Well, when darling of the Libertarian Right Dan, Dan the Oratory Man wanted to sound off about the NHS, he could have called for a debate in the pages of the UK press, or on TV here, but did not.

No, Hanann went on Froth Central – he appeared with both Beck and Sean Hannity – and issued a forthright denunciation. His appearance on Hannity implicitly endorsed a characteristically slanted and pre-judged segment, where before Hanann was consulted, Hannity said [IIRC] ‘let’s see what socialised medicine is like in Canada and England … doesn’t look pretty’.

It is when those advocating reform use the US Shockosphere as their pulpit that I have concerns. Moreover, it’s no coincidence that the behaviour of such media outlets is where Libertarian and Right leaning commentators in the UK have developed a blind spot. When Sunny Hundal referenced my post about the recent behaviour of the odious Rush Limbaugh, those commenters were in typical ‘non story … he didn’t mean it … doesn’t read that way to me’ mode.

It is touching to see that those who typically speak in favour of waiving the impartiality rule have the trust of Dr Frankenstein in the beast they would bring to life. And it would be to Young Dave’s eternal credit if he were to disassociate himself and the Tory Party from such ideas, and from any group digging up the Third Reich in order to frighten its target audience.”

A Good Clean Contest?

Last month, I considered the return to F1 of Michael Schumacher, and particularly what the rest of the pit lane will be thinking, especially those who remember some of the tactics the seven time World Champion employed from time to time. Now the great man has submitted himself to interrogation by the assembled media, and it seems he is not happy at the line of questioning.

But the questions are bound to be put: this is the driver who managed, by fortunate coincidence, to take out Damon Hill during the last race of the 1994 season after Hill’s pursuit of Schumacher induced a rare driving mistake and the leading Benetton hit the wall. Had Hill been able to continue and win the race, Schumacher would have been pipped for the World Championship.

Worse, Schumacher tried to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the road during the last race of the 1997 season, and this time the authorities took a suitably dim view, disqualifying him from the championship. And the following year, Schumacher rear ended the car of McLaren driver David Coulthard in torrential rain at Spa-Francorchamps, then angrily blamed the Scot, who had slowed and moved his car to one side of the track to let Schumacher past!

So perhaps it is understandable that some question the manner in which Schumacher approaches the sport. Hopefully he will answer his critics with his driving, and nothing more.

Intolerance – Again

Hot on the heels of the furore generated by the odious Rush Limbaugh last week comes a report from Israel which suggests that 2009 saw anti-Semitic incidents across Europe at a post war high.

This report, from the Jewish Agency for Israel, headed by former Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky, details hundreds of incidents across France, the Netherlands, and, sorry to say, the UK.

It’s clear that there is some correlation between the increase in attacks and the invasion of Gaza by the IDF, which suggests that someone has difficulty in distinguishing between specifically Israeli, and more generally Jewish, actions.

Whatever the reason, this merely emphasises the need for anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, to be vigilant against prejudice.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Third Again

There was one certainty at the 2008 Crewe and Nantwich by-election, and that was that the Lib Dems were not going to better their usual third place. Yes, the seat has never been fertile territory for the party, but their candidate selection process did not help: there was a prospective candidate in place, but he was binned in favour of Elizabeth Shenton, who was pleasant, knowledgeable and approachable, but new to a whole constituency of activists.

So as the campaign started, the Lib Dems were having to dampen down pockets of unrest, rather than focus all their resources on getting elected. The Tories had apparently harboured doubts over Edward Timpson’s suitability, but Fat Eric sensibly kept his man in place. But, so what? Well, now we’re approaching yet another parliamentary election, and the Lib Dems have come up late once more.

As he’s the sitting MP, we know that Edward Timpson will represent the Tories. Also, soon after their loss in the by-election, Labour chose David Williams to fight next time for them, and he’s been working the constituency to some effect. But, as late as last autumn, there was no Lib Dem PPC.

But the decision had to be made, and now there is a Lib Dem PPC, although being third out of the blocks means, inevitably, that third is where they will end up. Like Labour, the Lib Dems have gone for someone new, and the name in the frame is Roy Wood.

A potentially Wizzard choice, no doubt.

Just Say Sorry

Daily Show host Jon Stewart is considered to be of Liberal outlook, so it will surprise no-one that he revels in going after targets such as Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). But he does not spare other media players, and this even handed approach was in evidence last week.

Fox “stars” could hardly contain their glee at the election of Scott Brown to the US Senate in the Massachusetts Special Election, and Stewart was on the case to some effect on Wednesday, demonstrating that efforts by Fox’ “stars” to rubbish him were ineffective: the previous week, the singularly righteous and vain Bill O’Reilly had wasted a whole segment of one programme attacking Stewart.

By the next day, though, the Daily Show turned its fire on another cable network, this being MSNBC, where Countdown host Keith Olbermann had been giving the new Senator from Massachusetts both barrels in a manner that Stewart showed to be excessive.

The difference between Olbermann and O’Reilly was shown in the follow up: Olbermann showed the whole of the Daily Show send up of him, then conceded that “I have been a little over the top lately. Point taken. Sorry”.

What you will not see on Fox News Channel.

Is Rory Really Ready?

This morning on the Andy Marr Show’s sofa brought former diplomat and new recruit to the numbers of Tory PPCs, Rory Stewart. Here, apparently, is an ideal addition to Young Dave’s cause: Stewart is still young, despite his broad experience, he lives in a farmhouse in his prospective constituency (Penrith and The Borders), and has been thumpingly endorsed by another of those Open Primaries, winning with over half the votes cast.

More, he has a burgeoning career in broadcasting, where his recently aired short series on T E Lawrence and the Middle East was thought provoking and rewarding viewing. So it might be thought that, having done several more “real jobs” than many professional politicians, he would make an ideal MP.

That is, until you consider what makes up an MP’s life: the serving of the public purpose is balanced by the demands of the whips to be there for late night votes, with every public utterance subject to scrutiny and the inevitable call for collective discipline, particularly when things get tough. And tough they are likely to get if Young Dave is voted into 10 Downing Street.

Stewart comes over as a man of independent mind. So when this independence is put alongside the demands on today’s MPs, I do wonder if Rory is really ready.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Intolerance Redux – Follow-Up

Many thanks to Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy, who has referenced my previous post on the behaviour of the consistently unpleasant Rush Limbaugh. As the title suggests, this story is continuing to run: as being Rush Limbaugh means never having to say you’re sorry, he’s come out fighting.

The Anti Defamation League (ADL), whose website displays the strapline “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people ... to secure justice and fair treatment for all”, has been unequivocal in its denunciation of Limbaugh stating “ ... guess who Obama's assaulting? He's assaulting bankers. He's assaulting money people. And a lot of those people on Wall Street are Jewish. So I wonder if there’s starting to be some buyer’s remorse there”.

ADL National Director Abraham Foxton has now found himself in the firing line, as Limbaugh has tried to justify his remarks by saying that he’s going after “Jew-haters”, who he predictably claims are “in the Obama administration or in his circle of friends”. His clinching argument is that one of his closest friends is Mark Levin.

In other words, Limbaugh justifies his behaviour by telling that some of his best friends are Jewish.

Friday 22 January 2010

Friday Food – 1

Here on Zelo Street we like our food. So, starting today, I’ll try and get a food related post onto the blog at the end of each week.

And today I shall be mainly talking about Thai curry. This should not be an alarming prospect for even the least culinary minded.

Many may have seen celebrity chefs putting together their Thai curry paste “long hand”, using a raft of spices and grinding the lot using pestle and mortar. Forget it. All of this can be replaced by the ready made variety which you can pick up at a specialist supermarket (I last bought Thai curry paste at the Wing Fat on Faulkner Street in central Manchester).

That makes everything else a lot easier.

The ingredient list can be varied to taste: I usually start by softening some onions and peppers in a little olive oil, but others will have their own favourites. Being naturally cautious, if I’m doing a chicken curry, the meat gets a pre-cook to make sure it’s done all the way through.

But the things it has to have are the Thai curry paste (so far, I’ve gone through Red, Yellow, Green, Masman and Panang) and coconut milk. The amount of the latter is a personal thing: some like to make their curries very milky and with less curry paste, while folks like me who like it hot (as it were) do less milk and more paste.

And to go with the curry, it has to be Thai sticky rice – as with the curry paste, the specialist supermarket is your friend here. Rinse it before cooking, and just drain it afterwards.

One last caution: if you have any left over, once it’s cooled down, get it into the fridge sharpish. It’s daft not to.

Intolerance Redux

If you were to choose one country as the least likely place to find anti-Semitism, you might go for the USA. After all, a whole range of races and religions have made it their home. But that doesn’t mean that the subject is off limits where our old friend Rush Limbaugh is concerned, and he’s been his usual unpleasant self this week.

Limbaugh made the characterisation of “banker as Jew” in his radio show, suggesting that Barack Obama’s move to raise a levy on the banks would by implication cause disquiet – he called it “buyers’ remorse” – among the Jewish community.

While the usual conservative suspects kept their heads down, the Anti Defamation League (ADL) had no such qualms, calling the remarks “borderline anti-Semitic” and issuing a forthright denouncement of the monumentally insensitive Limbaugh. Thus far there has been no remorse, and no sign of an apology.

Limbaugh is someone that ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie has previously labelled “centre-right”. So, Mr M, is that the same “centre-right” as you folks over at ConHome? Speak up – don’t be bashful.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Iraq Watch – 2

While the Iraq Enquiry continues – Jack Straw is giving evidence this afternoon – there is genuine disquiet out there about the whole business of the war. There was clearly a move to war on Iraq well before the subject was debated in the House of Commons, the intelligence put before that debate was, to put it directly, laughable, and the apparent intention behind the invasion – régime change – is illegal according to the UN’s charter.

To the foregoing can be added the death toll among the civilian population, which even the most conservative estimates put at around 100,000. Other estimates range all the way through the million mark. And the country is still not in a universally peaceful state, though I’m told that a number of players in the petro-chemical industry are doing an increasing amount of business there.

Which comes back to the suggestion, made at the time of the invasion, that the real reason for the war was for Western economies to get their hands on Iraq’s oil reserves, in a move towards a measure of energy security. But no politician, past or present, is going to admit to that. In any case, following that Commons debate, there was a vote heavily in favour of the war: as usual in such circumstances, the conformist instinct is to military action, just as it was with Suez.

The sole substantial Parliamentary opposition came from the Lib Dems: on a BBC special, their then leader Charles Kennedy was sneeringly shouted down by Tory Alan Duncan, the Member for Sunbed South. Duncan hasn’t sounded quite so enthusiastic about the conflict recently, and he probably won’t be impacted by the Chilcot enquiry. But neither, I suspect, will anyone else.

To the victors the spoils, and the writing of the history: nothing much changes.

Brown Is Through

I would have posted earlier on the special senate election in the state of Massachusetts, but decided to let the dust settle first. The seat up for grabs had been held for 48 years by one Edward Moore Kennedy: this is a state usually regarded as a Democrat stronghold. So the victory by Republican Scott Brown, as Jon Stewart pointed out, “a naked man who drives a truck”, has been more than an unwanted distraction to the Obama administration.

Various factors have influenced the result: Democrat candidate Martha Coakley made a string of gaffes, held less meetings than Brown (19 to 66), and just didn’t show the drive and enthusiasm of her opponent. Worse, she represented the party in power at a moment when the USA is suffering a severe economic downturn, and Brown somehow got independent voters – who make up the largest group in the state – to see him as a “Liberal Republican”. Some chance – when Mr Brown goes to Washington, he’ll do as he’s damn well told.

And in the background are the array of shock jocks, headed by the repellent Rush Limbaugh, who dragged up Teddy Kennedy’s past to mock the Democrats. Allied with them is our old friend, Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), whose “stars” had been shouting for Brown all along. All will now, in the manner of the Murdoch Sun in 1992, claim influence.

But once their man had been elected, the froth mob were not so kind: Scott Brown made a supremely inadvisable remark during his acceptance speech about his two daughters “being available”, and this has freaked Fox News “star” Glenn Beck into tirades on both radio and TV. The message is as clear as it is unsubtle: we put you up there, and if you don’t behave as we expect, we’ll take you down again.

The Republican Wrong – One Year On

It’s just over a year since the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. Latterly it has not been an easy ride for Obama, with his approval ratings sagging and a routinely unpleasant campaign against him from parts of the media.

In the USA, there is no restraint on broadcasters in the manner of the UK – there is no obligation to be impartial. Thus there are broadcasters who are not, and standing head and shoulders above all others in this regard is Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

I’ve previously mentioned Fox News and their consistently hostile coverage of the Obama administration, but suspect that many in the UK haven’t grasped just what a malign beast this is. Fortunately, Media Matters have put together a short video compilation, showing Fox News in full attack mode.

I commend it to anyone who doubts the wisdom of the UK’s impartiality rule, and challenge those on the right who either cheer for Fox News – or, equally as bad, remain silent on its behaviour – to speak up in support.

It could be a very long silence.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Taking It To The Bank

Some ideas that come across from the USA can be a little scary: I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever be comfortable with the police using Taser guns. Other stateside products, like junk food, are downright dysfunctional. But after the recent financial near meltdown, there has emerged a rather sensible idea for managing personal money.

This idea has crystallised into the MoveYourMoney campaign: the idea is simply for ordinary folks, what the banks would call current account holders, to take their money out of the big banks, and instead open accounts with neighbourhood banks or credit unions. It’s a way of demonstrating that you’re putting some distance between yourself and those institutions that made some pretty reckless decisions and brought the financial system a little too near the precipice.

But, so what? What about us here in the UK? What indeed. Someone else has clearly been watching events stateside: today in the Guardian, John Harris is thinking along very similar lines. His solution is straightforward: you can move to a bank like the Co-Op, which at least attempts an ethical dimension to its investment strategy.

Personally, I’m glad of the company, having binned my previous bank – now deeply indebted to the Treasury – for pastures new.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Watching Him Watching You – 5

As promised last week, I’ve been keeping tabs on the survival of the second poster of Young Dave deployed near Crewe town centre. And the result is a kind of neither here nor there state: the poster has been subject to some tearing, but most of it has survived the weekend.

Whether the bookies would pay out on any wager on the poster becoming defaced yet again I don’t know. Maybe this one was secured to the hoarding rather better.

The NatWest poster next door has not been damaged at all, which tells you something about the local popularity of Young Dave vis-a-vis all those bankers.

Meanwhile, the Tories have moved on to education, and Steve Bell has helpfully provided his own illustration of Young Dave for our perusal.

Departure Time – 3

While many minds have been focused on the terrible aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, folks may be forgiven for not keeping an eye on our continuing involvement in Afghanistan. Well, we’re still there, and a recent UN report on the country’s economy makes dispiriting reading.

Because the report reveals that the second largest income generator in Afghanistan, at 2.5 billion US Dollars, is corruption: bribes and kickbacks. It comes hot on the heels of the largest income generator, yielding 2.8 billion dollars, which is the opium trade. And, as I noted a while ago, Hamid Karzai’s immediate family seem to be intimately involved in both.

Which begs the question once more, as I discussed back in September last: what are we doing there? The need for the UK (and many other countries) to maintain a military presence to such little obvious effect, over time, appears minimal.

Monday 18 January 2010

Iraq Watch

Over the past few weeks I’ve been watching as the Iraq Enquiry goes through the motions. Even the much trailed appearance last week of Big Al didn’t cause me to devote any serious time to it – until I had a prod from a regular visitor to Zelo Street, which was followed by a debate about Campbell’s influence, Blair’s behaviour, the intelligence (or lack of it) and a raft of other odds and sods.

What set the debate going was an article in the Daily Mail last week by Stephen Glover, which satisfies the usual rules as laid down by the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre: Blair and Campbell are hate figures to the Mail’s editor, so the maximum bile is dumped on them, along with Jack Straw, who Dacre also dislikes. These, Glover asserts, are the “three men on a sofa” who dreamt up the UK’s Iraq strategy.

So far, so accusing, but what becomes clear after the application of a moment’s thought is that one man is missing from the cabal: who was ever-present next door, the brains behind the economic rationale of New Labour, the man with his hands on the purse strings? Step forward Pa Broon. But here a problem enters: Dacre and Brown are good friends. How to proceed? Well, as the Meerkat puts it, simples: Glover pens his hatchet job, but that airbrush (it’s a busy little brush right now) gets to work and Brown disappears from the sofa.

Meanwhile, over at the Guardian, Richard Norton Taylor has put together his own reaction to the Iraq Enquiry’s progress: he refrains from sinking to Glover’s abusive approach and lets the participants speak for themselves. I particularly liked the reaction of former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull to Big Al’s rubbishing of Clare Short as “very poor”.

Norton Taylor points out that the Enquiry has highlighted five key strands, and he gives a paragraph of analysis to each. It’s worth a look, and I’m sure that the questioning will be suitably forensic. Even so, I still doubt that anyone will come out of the process too badly: nobody should worry about a single ticket to the Netherlands.

Bad, Worse, Worst

One hack who has been subject to the full ridicule of Private Eye for some years now is Peter McKay, now of the Daily Mail. The Eye routinely calls him “McHackey” when they’re feeling kind, or “Peter McLie, the World’s Worst Columnist” if they are not.

And they have a point: look at today’s Daily Mail and there, leading the McKay column, is a piece about the response of the EU to the Haitian earthquake, and comparing it unfavourably with that of the authorities in the US.

Except, as I noted yesterday, this was the stance of Christopher Booker in his weekly Sunday Telegraph rant. McKay has simply taken the Booker column and re-hashed it.

World’s Worst Columnist”: a title well merited.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Broadsheet Watch – 12

Over at the Murdoch flagship Sunday Times, they seem to have pulled off a remarkable coup: finding a body backed by a Labour peer that is finding adversely on Pa Broon and his pals. The article, “Whitehall rebels over ‘brutish’ Gordon Brown” quotes from a report by the “respected” Institute for Government. They tell that this body is “funded by Lord Sainsbury, Labour’s largest donor”.

Unfortunately, it is not difficult to find an article in their own sister paper – the weekday Times – that tells of Sainsbury “helping David Cameron to prepare for power”. The earlier piece puts it directly: “The Institute for Government ... is running training sessions for Shadow Cabinet minsters”.

In fact, Sainsbury’s organisation is plugging a supposedly “better way to govern”, and both the Times and Sunday Times are – no surprise here – putting their own gloss on what is effectively a press release. And that gloss is deepest blue – not that Rupe told them to, of course.

Slanted journalism and churnalism together – real quality papers.

Broadsheet Watch – 11

Another Sunday, another column of weapons grade guff from the Maily Telegraph’s increasingly eccentric Christopher Booker: today, the target is another bête noire of his, the EU. And Booker is complaining that the EU, for so long vilified as being a burgeoning “European Superstate” by folks like him, actually isn’t a superstate or superpower after all.

Booker suggests that the EU should be responding to the Haitian earthquake in the manner of the USA – because he says it’s a superpower. Except it isn’t a superpower, and has never pretended to be one (Booker says it has, but when and where such a proclamation was made, doesn’t say – because he can’t). The EU is an association of nation states, and any comparison with the USA is therefore fatuous. As nation states, EU members make their own decisions on aid – Booker would be the first to complain if such powers were ceded to the European Parliament.

The incoherent and inaccurate rambling extends to a less than perfect recollection of the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami of 2004: Booker claims a death toll of “almost 300,000”, although the US Geological Survey puts the count at less than 230,000. But this is not the point: the thrust of the article is, yet again, to kick the EU, with a side order of BBC bashing.

Elsewhere, predictably, Booker is rambling about the weather, and laying in to the Met Office, but shoots himself in the foot at the outset by telling – again, and wrongly – that we’re into our third severe winter in a row. At least, when he gets things wrong, he’s consistent.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Revolving Door

I’m losing track already: Paul Hart has just become the latest manager to go through the revolving door at Queens Park Rangers FC in the out direction. Trouble is, he only went through in the in direction five games ago. The club has now gone through six managers in just over two years – since F1 boss Flavio Briatore became the majority shareholder. Remarkably, QPR are not far away from a play off place: a good run in to this season and their next one could be in the Premiership.

Well, if they arrive there, someone will need to provide a little stability. It is no coincidence that the clubs that have assembled the most Premiership titles (Manchester United and Arsenal) have also had the longest serving managers (Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger). Briatore might also ponder just how far an F1 team might get if it was to mess around with its management or driver line-up at the same frequency with which QPR is swapping managers.

They wouldn’t.

Broadsheet Watch – 10

Most of the time, reading anything from the Maily Telegraph is routine, although picking holes in the articles is not without interest. And then I came across a new blog they are hosting, written by former Thatcher stalwart Norman Tebbit. Norm and I are unlikely to be on the same side of many discussions, but we appear to share common ground on the subject of taxation and allowances, as his post from last Wednesday shows.

Tebbit sees no reason why the threshold for paying tax should not be raised to ten or even twelve thousand pounds. I agree with him. We may be coming at this from slightly different directions: he is clearly concerned with the disincentive for those coming off benefits and into work, while my first thought is the encouragement of economic activity. I will explain.

Suppose you are going to give someone a tax break with the goal of encouraging more economic activity, and the choice is between targeting the well off, or the less well off. It’s often said that the well off should be the beneficiaries of tax cuts, as this encourages entrepreneurial activity. I rank this opinion among the finest examples of industrial strength drivel: the typical entrepreneur may get money lent to start their business, and is most unlikely to be a top rate taxpayer at the time - witness the career of arch entrepreneur Richard Branson. The Virgin group didn’t start its journey from the well off being given a tax break.

No, the best chance of getting more economic activity from a tax break is to give it to the less well off: here, there is always a queue of demands for any marginal increase in income, so the propensity to spend is high. The money might be expended on a good night out, but what the heck – it will get spent. The same cannot be said with any certainty of the well off, where the propensity to save is high: extra money is more likely to be put into savings, and thereby taken out of circulation, adding nothing to overall economic activity.

Whether this analysis has occurred to Norman Tebbit I do not know. But I am glad to be, albeit temporarily, in such illustrious company.

Friday 15 January 2010

Watching Him Watching You – 4

Here in Crewe, the Tories are clearly determined that we should not miss out on our opportunity to see Young Dave in all his airbrushed glory, despite the poster on the hoarding outside the Addscan Hire Centre being defaced during last weekend.

So, by Wednesday, the old poster had been cleared away, with a new one appearing yesterday. If I were a betting man, I might have a few notes on the replacement also not lasting through a weekend.

Keep checking back – I will have the camera with me on Monday for an update.

Broadsheet Watch – 9

Today, the Maily Telegraph has demonstrated the old saying about Birds Of A Feather superbly, in a report which looks like long term analysis of weather patterns, but in fact is merely pushing another group of global warming deniers.

A thaw is under way as the snow and ice is washed away by a belt of rain: here in the North West, there are still traces of snow, but it’s melting fast. But what if the milder weather were no more than a brief respite, only to yield once again to more ice and snow after a few days?

This can now be presented, not as scaremongering, but as authoritative analysis, thanks to Positive Weather Solutions. Who they? Well, clicking on “About Us” doesn’t leave you any the wiser. However, there is also “PWS – Our Challenge to Climate Change”, which reveals that this is another front for the denial lobby.

Journalism produced to push an agenda: how a formerly quality newspaper has become no more than a large format tabloid.

Thursday 14 January 2010

Haitian Remorse

An earthquake registering a magnitude of seven or more on the Richter scale is severe, even for countries whose prosperity enables them to plan and construct buildings that can withstand tremors. For the pitifully poor state of Haiti, ravaged by years of despotism, infighting and neglect, it was always going to be catastrophic, and so it has proved.

Barack Obama, telling that this moment “cries out for US leadership”, has committed a hundred million dollars in aid: troops are being sent to assist, as the population struggle just to dig out and bury the dead, a toll now estimated to be at least 50,000. This was the worst earthquake to strike Haiti in 200 years.

Much in the media response has been positive and factual: this report by Time is comprehensive and gives a feel of the terror unleashed by the ‘quake. Unfortunately, as always with such events, though, some seek to use the suffering of the Haitians for self promotion: “televangelist” Pat Robertson has declared that the country had been cursed by swearing a “pact to the devil”.

And the deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh has sunk to trying to put folks off donating to the relief effort, sayingWe already gave to Haiti. It’s called the US income tax”. Just to rub it in, he declared that the country produced “zilch, zero, nada”, and that Obama would use the disasterto boost his credibility with the light skinned and dark skinned black community in this country”.

I’m sure that those fans of Rush in the UK will be comfortable with the way in which he makes the fullest use of the First Amendment.

Broadsheet Watch – 8

Another supposedly open and shut case today from the Maily Telegraph turns out to be a cheap and slanted piece of churnalism. The line of attack – to assert that the BBC is “wasting money” - is straight from the school of attack journalism as taught by the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre, and is backed up with the kind of substance characteristic of papers like the Daily Mail: roughly zero.

The Beeb, says the piece, has paid “huge sums” for some sports rights, and has “outbid rivals” for US programming, which supposedly “could be ploughed into home grown drama”. The source for the assertions is a supposedly “independent review”, although the Telegraph is unduly reticent in identifying the source, only telling in paragraph five that it is Policy Exchange.

So just how independent is Policy Exchange? Helpfully, its website has an “about us” tab: clicking this reveals its research interests, and first off is “Using centre-right means to progressive ends”. Featured politicians speaking up for this body include Mayor of London Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, along with MPs Oliver Letwin and Tim Loughton – who by miraculous coincidence are all Tories. A further and most fortunate coincidence is that Policy Exchange has released a report chiming with much of what Murdoch Junior has been urging.

Back at the Telegraph, the assertions of how much the BBC is spending on all those sports rights and US imports are backed up with, well, no figures at all – just like the Policy Exchange press release. Because it’s clear from a reading of both that the press release has been used – uncritically – as the basis for the article, churnalism at its worst. For a supposedly quality newspaper, this is an insult to its target audience.

But at least it makes a change from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 10

In the wake of Expensegate, everyone wants to be tough on MPs’ allowances – even some MPs. Not to be outdone whenever Government spending is concerned, the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance has attempted to get a piece of the action, this week setting out its suggestions as to how folks might provide feedback to the newly created Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). The TPA has provided model answers to every question in the IPSA consultation.

The sample answers demonstrate the effortless way in which the TPA manages to finesse its less than saintly position: transparency is urged of everybody else, while they are yet to publish those troublesome accounts, along with a full list of donors to their cause. Here for your perusal are some of the highlights (with my comments: I leave to others the frankly lame practice of cut’n’pasting without any scrutiny).

Question 1 of the IPSA consultation asks “Do you agree that the [Kelly] principles ... should form the basis of the new expenses system?”
The TPA model answer starts “YES. The principles laid out in the [Kelly] report, regarding ... probity, transparency and proportionality ... should underpin the new rules.”
So transparency is a good thing, then.

Question 5 asks “Are you content with our proposed approach to the publication of claims?”
The TPA says “YES. All claims should be published ... in full ... at very regular occasions.”
And regular publication of information is also a good thing!

Question 6 asks “Do you support the idea of requiring MPs to produce an annual report ... ?”
Here, the TPA says “NO. An annual report is frankly unnecessary.”
Phew! That’s those pesky accounts covered, then. For a moment the thought occurred that someone was indulging in a blatant act of stinking hypocrisy.

Mini Ice Storm In Very Small Teacup

The last issue of the Mail On Sunday brought yet another article by David Rose, the subject being, predictably, that global warming, well, wasn’t. He attributes the coming of a “mini ice age” to “some of the world’s most eminent climate scientists”, which suggests gravitas. But much of the article yields only one name, Mojib Latif, who is a member of the IPCC. And, of course, there is the customary kicking of the BBC.

Unfortunately for the MoS, everything started to unravel in short order, despite the article being picked up by the website of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), which dutifully parroted the “30 year ice age” line, which it attributed to Latif, despite his not having said anything of the sort. However, Latif had by this time given notice that he had been – surprise, surprise – misrepresented by the MoS, and even the Fox article you see now has been amended (fortunately, the Mother Jones site has preserved some of the original).

By yesterday, media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic had questioned the veracity of the MoS article: Latif was featured in a Guardian piece, where he said “I believe in manmade global warming. I have said that if my name was not Mojib Latif it would be global warming." Elsewhere, MediaMatters for America, which specialises in rebutting right wing media misinformation, has also shown the MoS and Fox articles to be misleading.

So the empire of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre has been shown, once again, to play fast and loose with the facts in order to keep Middle England ignorant and frightened. But, as ever, the usual rule applies: any retraction would have to be prised out of the MoS, the PCC cannot or will not keep the tabloids in line, and in the meantime, the mud sticks.

Which, in Dacreland, is the name of the game.

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Not A Fair Cop

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act – that sledgehammer used far too often in recent times to crack the nut of people indulging in such subversive acts as taking photographs – suffered a setback today when its powers to stop and search individuals without grounds for suspicion were declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.

Moreover, the Court has ruled that, in the cases it has considered, Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been violated. The Government is considering an appeal, and no doubt will cite in its defence the idea that this law exists to keep us all safe from terrorism. However, its use in targeting photographers and tourists is inexcusable, and, coincidentally, other European countries, both inside the EU and out, do not seem to need such measures.

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling says that such measures should not be used as part of what he calls “day to day policing”. So let’s see his party lobbying the Government to have Section 44 repealed. After all, it wouldn’t be a load of hot air generated for political advantage. Would it?

The Republican Wrong – Together At Last

For those of us in the UK, understanding political terminology in the US can be disconcerting. Take the term “Conservative”: in the UK, that suggests someone with a centre-right stance or outlook, perhaps a member of the Tory Party. In the US, saying that someone is a “Conservative”, or part of the “Conservative Movement”, puts them way out to the right – beyond being a mere Republican. And the current darling of that movement is former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

So it was no surprise to see that Palin has been signed up as a pundit and occasional presenter by Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). This is not as daft a move as some may believe: Palin has worked in broadcast media before, and in any case can expect softball treatment from the channel’s “stars”. The style, for instance, of Sean Hannity is that he does not bring comment into play until he has made his conclusion: witness the appearance on his show of Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, where Hannity did not get round to discussing the NHS until he’d stated that such systems “didn’t look pretty”.

So is this good or bad news for the GOP? It may not help the Republican Party to have a media outlet, with someone like Palin on board, making policy for it – especially if it takes that party away from the swing voters needed to get back into power. But the chance of showing his influence will not be lost on Rupert Murdoch. Rupe likes to show he’s got clout. His channel – Fox – cheered for the GOP in 2008, and they lost. Rupe didn’t like that: Fox has been putting the boot into Obama ever since.

Whether Murdoch having more influence over the GOP will bring them success is uncertain: the last “Conservative” candidate cheered on by Palin and Fox lost the contest in a congressional district that the Republicans had held for 16 years. But Palin has no problem with the Fox tie-up, telling that “It’s wonderful to be part of a place that so values fair and balanced news”.

She’s retained her sense of humour, then.

Monday 11 January 2010

Watching Him Watching You – 3

As I surmised last week, the temptation to deface the posters featuring the giant photo of Young Dave is proving too much for some. The response has been varied: as I posted earlier today, the centre left are having some measure of fun about it, but over at Rupe’s supposedly flagship Times, someone is suffering a sense of humour failure.

There, chief leader writer Daniel Finkelstein has observed the defaced poster in north London and is clearly distressed by what he sees. His suggestion, that this is an example of “truly lame or pedantic graffiti”, not only reveals the lack of a sense of humour, but has drawn a disinterested and lukewarm response from the local commentariat.

Lighten up, Danny. You don’t have to pull a solemn face at this kind of thing. Or do you?

Watching Him Watching You – 2

As we were warned by the heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, the giant size image of Young Dave has indeed appeared on a number of billboards around the country. And it has not met with universal acclaim: one hoarding in London was spray painted to remove the “not” from Cameron’s NHS promise, and had the Beeb added to the list of alleged cuts.

Here in Crewe, we need not have felt left out, as the Tory poster campaign left its mark on the hoarding outside the Addscan Hire Centre on Edleston Road. The grand image of Young Dave went up in midweek, and gazed out over the passing shoppers for all of four days.

Because, alas, the poster did not survive Saturday night intact. There was no spray paint, but by yesterday, the bottom half of it had been removed. This makes the image of Cameron look even worse, and does suggest that its display did not meet with universal approval.

As some pundits talk of Cameron winning the upcoming General Election with a small majority – less than 20 – Edward Timpson might well ponder on the last time the Tories won with that kind of endorsement. That was in 1992, and Crewe and Nantwich remained, although with a majority of less than 3,000, Labour.

[Anyone wanting a fuller set of Cameron poster amendments can find them over at the Liberal Conspiracy blog, courtesy of the routinely mischievous Sunny Hundal]

Sunday 10 January 2010

Broadsheet Watch – 7

Over at the Maily Telegraph, not content with his feeble attempts to discredit climate change by smearing the reputation of IPCC chair Rajenda Pachauri, Christopher Booker is making fresh, and typically fraudulent, assertions on the subject. He has repeated the “three cold winters in a row” one, which as I’ve shown previously, is bunk. Now he adds the assertion that “many councils now have more climate change officials than gritters”, backed up with a grand total of, er, no examples at all.

He also says that the Beeb is “facing an enquiry into its relentless obsession with global warming”, which it isn’t, though the BBC Trust is reviewing science coverage, which Booker needs to distort to suit his agenda. And that agenda has brought, over the recent past, a number of books whose lasting value is so low that they are almost being given away.

Following the example of the excellent Tabloid Watch blog, where a similar exercise has been done on the works of Richard Littlejohn, I’ve been having a shufty at Amazon.co.uk to see how Christopher Booker is holding his value in these competitive times. And the news, for the Great Man, is not good.

Booker is also a true Europhobe, so the title of his co-authored book “Castle of Lies: Why Britain Must Get Out of Europe” will surprise nobody. Neither will the “22 used from 0.01”.

Or there isThe Mad Officials: How The Bureaucrats Are Strangling Britain”, which shows “28 used from 0.01”. Then how about “The Seventies”? You can get it in hardback: “16 used from 0.01”, or on the next page in paperback: “10 used from 0.01”.

Perhaps espionage is more to your taste? No need to worry, Booker has also authored Games War: Moscow Journal28 used from 0.01”.

One can only hope that the Maily Telegraph is operating a similarly free market when it comes to commissioning Booker’s columns.

An Inconvenient Interruption

Protocol dictates that, given we had to endure yet another interview with Pa Broon on the Andy Marr Show last Sunday, today would bring Young Dave. And so it came to pass. There were, at the end, jokes about airbrushing, and Dave told how he knew Chris Evans through them both playing football – for which, read that he’s a pretty regular kind of guy, just like Tone.

So far, so positive. However, the moment that Dave might not want to have replayed came earlier: he went on at length about how jolly ghastly Labour were, and told of the things they were doing wrong, only to be interrupted by Marr suggesting that it would be a good thing if he said something about the Tories instead.

Of course, many viewers who watch this show rather in the manner of wallpaper TV might not have noticed – I was otherwise distracted when Pa Broon nearly left the studio too soon last week – so it may not amount to much.

He hopes.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Evidence? What Evidence?

Over in the USA, there is now more than one organisation that specialises in fact checking: these are places where both political protagonists and observers can go and see just how true the assertions made in the heat of campaigning really are. The original fact checking resource is factcheck.org, from the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Also available for your perusal is the St Petersburg Times’ PolitiFact site, with its “Truth-O-Meter” (which has just awarded former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani its “pants on fire” accreditation for his “No domestic terror attacks under Bush” assertion).

So far, so reassuring, but the reactionary Right in the USA isn’t happy: anything from factcheck.org that doesn’t show their side in a good light brings the response that this source can be dismissed, as it’s “in Obama’s pocket”. The site is therefore held to be part of the conspiracy. This way of simply dismissing inconvenient fact has recently found its way across the Atlantic, and into the debate on climate change.

Recently, the climate change denial lobby (some of whom whinge about the use of the D-word, saying it makes them sound like Holocaust Deniers, thereby engaging in a sub-Freudian attempt to paint themselves as victims) have been coming up against organised bodies of information that is not palatable to them. One in particular, RealClimate.org, puts that information in a reasonably straightforward manner, with resident contributors who will take time out to explain the science and the arguments to those who ask.

It will be no surprise at all to those who have seen the dismissal of factcheck.org as being part of the conspiracy that RealClimate.org is now similarly being dismissed.

The Mole on The Mole

Almost invisible in the political landscape at the best of times, the report of a little local difficulty concerning Young Dave’s confidant Steve Hilton might have increased the profile of this mole like creature, but fortunately for Team Cameron, “Buff” Hoon decided to launch his putsch against Pa Broon, thus diverting the meeja and keeping the fallout manageable.

Hilton, who is not universally popular within the Tory Party, had been handed a fixed penalty of 80 notes after getting a little over assertive with the barrier staff at Birmingham’s New Street station back in 2008. But, so what? Over a year ago, and he didn’t get a criminal record. Not much of a story, it might be thought. Ah well.

In the aftermath of the revelation of his argument with the barrier staff, the discussion turned to the identity of another mole: the one who had shopped Dave’s pal. At one point, it was thought that a disgruntled member of the opposition front bench was behind it, but, as today’s Guardian has asserted, the view is now that the culprit is an old school Tory who doesn’t like Hilton’s level of access to Cameron – and that neither man listens much to those so-called “Bufton Tuftons”.

And there, perhaps, it might rest, save for the continuing attacks on Hilton: this one, in Standpoint magazine, shows a significant dislike for the man, but its author, in declining the opportunity to put a name to the piece, confirms that he or she is of less than perfect courage. And this means that Young Dave cannot be sure just how significant the move against his pal – and against his own judgment - really is.

Friday 8 January 2010

Murdoch Is Served (9)

The story that is Phonehackgate never really went away, and just to underline that, the Guardian has reported that former Screws royal editor Clive Goodman has received a “generous” payoff from News International subsequent to his sacking. Goodman had been intending to take the Murdoch empire to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal: it was clear that he would win his case.

All this has come to light after the House of Commons culture, media and sport committee received written evidence from new NI head Rebekah Brooks. Ms Brooks will still be appearing in person before the committee, date not yet set. As with the appearance before them of the Guardian’s Nick Davies (the man who brought us the excellent Flat Earth News), there will be no point in turning up on spec to get a seat: you wouldn’t even get through the door.

Not bad for something that so many on the political right have been trying to shout down as a “non story”. The proximity to the case of Young Dave’s communications chief Andy Coulson is of course entirely coincidental.

About Face

I’ve previously mentioned that there is a difference between long term climate change and transient weather patterns, whatever the global warming denial lobby would have us believe. Today, there is an excellent example of this available to anyone prepared to look at available data.

Last night, it was cold in the north west – very cold indeed. As I’ve said before, this is down to the north easterly airflow at the coldest time of the year. However, the “blocking” high pressure area over Greenland has relented a little, to the extent that we now have the – rather stubborn – high sitting to the north of the UK (and therefore still bringing winds off the cold continent). This in turn has allowed a low pressure area to move to the north west of Iceland, bringing that country into what is known as a warm sector.

The result, as a check of the Met Office pressure chart and a cross check of the Beeb website’s five day forecast shows, is that, while the UK freezes, Iceland (way to the north of Scotland) enjoys a temperature range of 4 to 7 Celsius (and those are plus figures).

I commend this information to the denial lobby, but do not expect recognition of it, and far less any coherent debate.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Committed to an Institution

A regular visitor to Zelo Street has contacted me to signal his bafflement over Young Dave’s pledge to “recognise marriage within the tax system”, which has caused the Tories some discomfort this week.

The more this move is examined, the more it fails to make sense: Cameron would appeal to no more of the population by pressing on with it, any commitment would come with a cost attached – and a convenient stick for his opponents to beat him with – and it would place those who cohabit but are not married into a “lower division”, along with same sex couples who have entered into Civil Partnerships (which Cameron is said to support).

Unsurprisingly, Tory blogland is not exactly awash with enthusiasm for the proposal, and who wants to even discuss an idea when Party HQ can’t say for certain what it is? Big Al, who would himself be relegated to that “lower division”, will be exploiting this one for a while yet.

Mind How You Go

Today was one of those rare occasions when I visit the hairdresser. It’s a small shop opposite a tee junction deep in Redbrick Crewe, on a street quiet enough for the snow to have fallen, lain, and then impacted. The side street facing the frontage is slightly downhill as it approaches that tee junction – enough for the icy conditions to spell disaster for anyone driving without brain engaged.

And so it came to pass. As I approached the hairdressers (on foot, mind) I saw a small, moderately customised red hatchback emerging from the side street, shall we say, not under the complete control of its driver. It glided effortlessly sideways until a dull crump signalled significant contact with an unfortunate resident’s parked Fiat Uno.

Basic lessons not heeded: slow right down, use a gear higher than usual to reduce the chance of wheelspin, soft hands on the steering wheel, and maybe leave the car at home if you’re not going far.

I have.

Veep Strong Endorsement

More and more folks in the UK are travelling by rail: the numbers have increased by some 40% recently, to overall levels not seen since nationalisation back in 1948. Some of the growth is where rail can do consistently better on time than an increasingly congested road network, and some is down to the move for greater mobility. And it’s not just a European thing.

Over in the USA, many cities – and even states – have little or no rail service, but in the Washington – New York – New Haven – Boston “Northeast Corridor”, rail is not merely competitive, but strongly so. It’s therefore not a surprise that some in Government use the train to get to and from Washington DC, and perhaps the most prominent right now is Vice President Joe Biden, who reckons to have chalked up seven thousand round trips with Amtrak.

He’s a passionate advocate of rail travel, and he’s right so to be.

Own Goal – 3

Not until after the General Election, then: the latest attempt to unseat Pa Broon appears to have failed to achieve lift off. Some of the statements of support were clearly lukewarm, and one or two missing, but the result is that Brown soldiers on, and “Buff” Hoon is likely to find that, within the Palace of Westminster, he has garnered all the popularity of a turd in a swimming pool.

But, barring a spectacular reversal in popularity, defeat at that election looks certain – unless a number of things happen to turn events to Labour’s advantage. Brown continuing to get the better of Young Dave at PMQs is a minor part of that: more significant would be the ability of Team Brown to expose and rubbish Tory manifesto pledges, and exploit any lack of consistency in their approach – something that Big Al has been banging on about for some time, and he’s back on board.

What could also ride to Labour’s rescue is the economy: if recovery from recession is confirmed for the last quarter of 2009, then swing voters may decide to stick with the devil they know, just as “Basildon Man” did in 1992. Of course, were there a General Election sooner rather than later, there would be little chance of any economic upturn saving Labour – hence Cameron wanting a poll right now.

And finally: the outcome of the General Election is not just about Labour turning events in their favour, but the Tories keeping out of trouble. The forthcoming campaign, with two former red-top journos in the background, is going to be as dirty as any in the past. If anyone has a skeleton in their cupboard, they should leave the stage right now.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Broadsheet Watch – 6

Although I have more time for the Guardian than any other current or former broadsheet paper, that does not mean that I concur with everything that graces its pages. Today has brought an excellent example of this, with a superbly muddle headed denunciation of the railways by Simon Jenkins, who has form in this area.

The main thrust of Jenkins’ article is high speed rail, and the move to map out and then build a new link between London and Scotland. He would rather the cost of such a link be spent instead on the existing network, which would be fine up to a point, and that point is all about capacity. The C-word was the driving force behind the first high speed lines in both France and Spain: the idea that these were vanity projects misses the point.

The existing line between Paris, Dijon and Lyon was, by the 1970s, at capacity: the demand for paths by both passenger and freight trains meant that the former could not be accelerated, not without less of the latter. Thus a new line. Similarly, the main line south from Madrid through Aranjuez was at saturation point: commuter and regional passenger services had to share the same pair of tracks as freight and long distance passenger trains. The new line from Madrid to Sevilla eased the pressure, but the demand is relentless, and more capacity – to remove more or less all long distance passenger trains from the older route – will be needed soon. This will result in new high speed lines to Valencia and Alacant.

Some capacity improvement has been made on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) along its route through the Trent Valley, but ultimately a new line will bring much more of the C-word. This also lies behind the Crossrail project, which Jenkins opposes, saying that the existing Central Line tube is “slightly congested”. Hell’s teeth. He clearly doesn’t have to suffer it in the rush hour. And it’s not just about the City: the health of the West End as a destination is also at stake. As before, there is no capacity in the existing tube service: the Central Line already runs the longest trains on the system, and uses Automatic Train Operation (ATO) through the central area: there is no more improvement possible.

The Jenkins assertion is that high speed rail is for the benefit of the rich, which suggests that he has never sat on a TGV leaving Paris for Lyon, or ridden the AVE out of Madrid Atocha: these trains, as so many others, are used by a broad cross section of their countries’ populations, as are all the other services that can now be fitted in on existing lines, following the overall increase in capacity.

I commend further study of the industry to Simon Jenkins: as with so much that impacts on everyday folk, it does not involve rocket science.

Own Goal – 2

By all accounts, Pa Broon was in uncharacteristically good form at Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) today, but most of the attendant hacks were not paying as much attention to the banter between him, Young Dave and Corporal Clegg as they were to the news, first broached by the Guardian at 1157 hours, that there had been a call for a Labour leadership ballot.

What? Here we are, in a General Election year, with the campaign effectively under way – whatever the denials from any of the main parties – and the party of Government becomes embroiled in what will potentially turn off large numbers of voters. Who on earth wants that, apart from anyone who is not in the Labour Party?

Ah well. We need look no further than one of the instigators of the ballot call: step forward Geoff “Buff” Hoon, disaffected former minister, passed over for European Commissioner, and leaving the Commons at the General Election. He is supported by The Usual Suspects: Patricia Hewitt (also failed to get a Euro-berth, and also standing down next time), Charles Clarke, Frank Field, and Barry Sheerman (the Austen Chamberlain of the Labour back benches).

Thus far, anyone else being quoted is backing Brown: Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole has cautioned against media overreaction, Hoon has been characterised as “Sideshow Bob”, and Brown confidante “Auguste” Balls has pointed out that Labour has actually had a moderately good week. But still absent from the chorus (1620 hours) are both Milibroons, Jack Straw, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn and of course Alistair Darling. And the Mandelson intervention came not from the good Lord himself, but his spokesman.

But who wants the top job right now? Johnson doesn’t, Straw couldn’t cut it, and I doubt Darling would want to move next door. Hilary Benn, on the other hand, might just: after all, it would put one over on his Dad.

Just a thought.

Tuesday 5 January 2010

Weather Bad Shock Horror

It snowed last night. It then snowed again this morning. However, the sky has not fallen in just yet, and the people of Crewe have been going about their business today without too much difficulty.

But why the snow? Well, it’s January, and if you’re going to get snow in winter, you’re most likely to get it then – it is, after all, the coldest time of the year. Anyone seriously interested in this kind of thing might find the synoptic chart on the Met Office site instructive: the feature to watch is the high pressure area over Greenland and its possible retreat later this week, which might bring change. Then again, if it stays put, its blocking effect stops the usual westerly pattern and locks us in to more north easterlies.

There was the one casualty today: milk running out at Aldi, confirmed as due to the driver being delayed by the snow. Not really worth frightening the public over, mind.

A Bit More CREAM

News arrives from CREAM, which is campaigning to retain Crewe station in its current location – that is, in Crewe, where it belongs – and against the crackpot idea of moving the station out of town to Basford, just so Network Rail and other participating bodies can make themselves a little pocket money.

The group is now represented on the website of the Campaign for Better Transport, and the entry includes links to useful documents, along with contact details. There will no doubt be a meeting of the group in the near future: this will be signposted on its blog site. If you’re in the area, and would like to support the campaign, all are welcome.

A Stroll Across The Astroturf – 9

Back from their Christmas and New Year break this week is the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, and today they have posted another work of variable accuracy by their so-called “research fellow” Mike Denham (aka Wat Tyler). Mike (or Wat, if you prefer) is now hot on the public sector “paybill”, which, he suggests, is out of control.

Keeping costs under control is no bad thing, and on this point Mike would have my full support. However, his “research”, with the usual “figures”, has one flaw: he’s made it up. Check out the graph headed “Public Sector Paybill as % of GDP” and the sources for the information it contains. These are “HMT PBR (Pre Budget Report), Public Sector FinStats, and BOM Calcs”. The last of these shows that part of the information has been produced by Denham himself: the text directly above the graph concedes that “We estimate that percentage has risen to nearly 12%”.

So the scary bit at the top right of the graph is from the bloke whose purpose, as with the rest of the TPA crew, is making things look as bad as possible, and thereby enabling the demonising of Government. It should therefore be taken with the largest available pinch of salt.

And what about those accounts?

Broadsheet Watch – 5

Another day, another public body in the crosshairs of the Maily Telegraph: today, their target is the Met Office, and more specifically its chief executive John Hirst, who has received a pay rise of a size which the Maily Telegraph considers inappropriate. The article says that the pay rise comes “despite a series of widely criticised forecasts”, thereby showing that the Telegraph footsoldiers have no sounder grasp of meteorology than their “Comment Star” Christopher Booker, whose cheap attack on the chair of the IPCC I considered recently.

The UK sits on the boundary between a very large expanse of ocean and an equally large continental land mass – added to which is the effect of ocean currents on sea temperature. With this mix of influences, weather forecasting is inevitably a less than totally certain art, and if there is one golden rule to follow, it is that forecasting the weather for more than 24 hours in advance is, more often than not, difficult.

So what use is the Met Office? Well, their computer power enables us to pick out trends in the weather, and gives us the best estimate – perhaps the “best worst” one – of how weather patterns are developing. It gives us better notice of extreme weather events than any number of whingeing hacks can ever do. If it were as bad as is made out, farmers, aviators and sailors would not trust its utterances. That they do should tell us something.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph article goes into Phil Space mode by banging on about low stocks of grit and salt, overrunning engineering works near London’s Liverpool Street terminus, and industrial action on Virgin Trains, as if these are somehow connected to John Hirst’s remuneration. It does manage a quote, but wrongly attributes the usual froth from the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance to “campaigners”. The TPA is an Astroturf lobby group and should be labelled thus.

Monday 4 January 2010

Panic Stations

As I noted recently, the Bruges Group, which calls itself a “Eurosceptic think tank”, is in reality a repository for screaming Europhobia: its website is littered with articles telling how “Brussels” is going to take away our jobs, our prosperity, and possibly our livelihoods. It will allegedly increase our taxes, impose a terrible burden of regulation, and is part of the great global warming conspiracy.

And for any railway enthusiast, the article that leaps out from that website frontpage is called “On The Wrong Track” by one John Petley. Petley has in the recent past been associated with the UK First Party, a group that has split from UKIP rather in the style of the Judean Popular Peoples’ Front. Ukfp supporters are wont to call UKIP “EUkip” as if they were Europhiles.

His article is shot through with the kind of guff that makes analysis rather like shooting fish in a barrel. He tells us that in the UK, “We ... encouraged competition long before the EU told us to”, except that the EU didn’t “tell” us any such thing. What did come out of the EU was Directive 91/440, which forces running and infrastructure costs to be accounted separately, and thus enables competition to occur.

Petley tells that the EU would prevent a vertically integrated railway system to be adopted in the UK, but this too is bunk. All that is required is that separate accounting, which at present means Network Rail (NR) look after the infrastructure. Over in France, most trains are still run by SNCF, with RFF looking after the tracks, although both are effectively public bodies. We could do the same. End of story.

The rest of the article is similarly shot through with holes, although one stands out: Petley tells that “A European Commission proposal ... which, if implemented, could ... ”, demonstrating an ability to scaremonger that could have come from the Paul Dacre book of hackery.

Otherwise, the usual keywords abound: “regaining control”, “freedom”, and of course the reminder that we gave these rotten garlic crunching foreigners railways, so they should remember who’s the boss. It’s the standard paranoid stuff: the EU is full of folks talking foreign, and the idea that it’s a club where the UK is a prominent member does not enter.

Wrong Sort Of Baked Beans – 2

Some time ago, I considered why so many across the political spectrum are so ready to bash the Beeb. Much of the attack comes from Tory supporters, but you don’t need to read more than a few blog posts from Big Al to be reminded that Labour aren’t totally happy either. My conclusion was that both sides want the news served up in a way that suits their taste: this is the Right Sort Of Baked Beans. The Beeb, in its quest to maintain impartiality, serves up the Sort Of Baked Beans that reflects, as far as they can, the Real World.

Thus the dissatisfaction. Since that time, however, we have had the denunciation of the Beeb by Murdoch Junior, together with News International swinging its weight behind the Tories, then Young Dave telling how he’s going to abolish Ofcom (a body which has incurred the Murdochs’ displeasure) and Shadow Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt talking of tearing up the Beeb’s charter.

Consider all of the foregoing as a backdrop to this morning’s Tory press launch (as I mentioned earlier, this is the one with the Big Brother photo of Cameron), when the Beeb’s political editor Nick Robinson, fresh from grilling Alistair Darling at an earlier Labour press briefing, had the temerity to put a question to Young Dave. As the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow has observed – scroll down to 1055 hours – Cameron replied by telling Robinson that the previous briefing had “indoctrinated” him and that he would have to be “re-educated”.

No doubt Young Dave thought he was being jolly clever, and the presence of a hundred or so Tory supporters chortling in the background will have made him look good, but this comes over as another cheap attempt to paint the Beeb as biased, and could easily rebound: Labour will milk the popularity of the Beeb and any perceived Tory attempt to move against it.