Friday, March 06, 2015 

Deep, dark, deadly.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015 

Still mass debating the debates.

It really can't be stated enough just how much of a blinder David Cameron has played from a position of weakness on the debates, or increasingly likely non-debates, and what a spectacularly craven one the broadcasters have from a position of strength.  For months before the first proposal sources made clear Cameron would do everything possible to avoid a repeat of what he and his advisers felt was a debacle last time round, when Clegg seized the advantage they felt was rightfully theirs.

Rather than adapt their bids accordingly, they walked straight into Craig Oliver's trap.  Dave debate with Nige? Not without Natalie there to snipe at Ed and Nick from their blind sides.  Instead of saying OK and calling his bluff, they came up with the completely ridiculous and unwieldy idea of also inviting Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and to two rather than just one of the showdowns.  Why then not invite the DUP as well, or Sinn Fein, the Natural Law party, the Pirates, the Real Elvis continuity wing?  There didn't seem to have been the slightest thought put into how a 7-leader debate could possibly work, presumably because they were expecting Miliband and Clegg to now say hang on, this is becoming a joke.

Only they didn't, apparently believing the pressure on Cameron to take part would become too much.  It hasn't, as was predictable considering there isn't as much demand for the debates as the broadcasters, heady from the belief the debates were the campaign last time, and the other parties have convinced themselves.  Then you also have to factor in the lack of pressure from the press, both as they have an interest in not helping out the broadcasters and as most have already dismissed Miliband as only slightly less weird than Arnold Layne, making anything that could prove them wrong extremely unwelcome.  If it was Miliband refusing to be involved you can imagine the uproar, the jibes, taunts, the multiple interns in chicken suits that would be following him around everywhere.  As it's Cameron he'll raise the ire only of the Daily Mirror, and their stock isn't exactly high at the moment.

Now we have Oliver and Cameron's "final" offer, and it's playing the broadcasters at their own game.  You wanted 7 leaders, you've got it, but we're only doing one and before the campaign proper gets under way.  As contemptible as this is for all the reasons the other politicians have spent the day outlining, you also can't help but admire the way it's been done.  It's been Campbell-esque in its evil genius, which is no doubt why it's annoyed the man himself so much.  Having a debate before the Conservative manifesto has been published is all but pointless, as Paddy Ashdown pointed out, as is one when the very presence of at least two of the leaders is completely irrelevant to most of those watching as they can't vote for the SNP or Plaid Cymru whether they like the sound of their policies or not.  Even if answers to questions were limited to two minutes, that's nearly quarter of an hour that's going to be spent on just each leader's opening gambit.  No wonder Cameron thinks he'd escape completely unscathed from such an encounter.

And so we are once again left with the broadcasters threatening to "empty chair" Cameron.  Only because of the impartiality rules the Conservative policy would have to be outlined regardless, quite possibly by a journalist, making the spectacle even more ludicrous, and leaving the one-on-one debate with Miliband presumably transformed into either a long-form interview with Paxman or a town hall style non-event.  The question is who comes out of such silliness looking worse, and Cameron will quite happily take a few negatives headlines rather than risk Miliband appearing prime ministerial a week before voting.  Channel 4 and Sky offering to move that debate forward yesterday was all the encouragement Cameron and Oliver needed to make a final mockery of the "negotiations".  What a mess, and for all the cowardice, cynicism and calculation of the Conservatives, the incompetence of the broadcasters has been just as remarkable.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015 

Drugs, sensationalism and paternalism.

I didn't watch Drugs Live, mainly for the reason that like most people my age I know fairly well how cannabis affects those who use it.  It doesn't instantly make you an utter prick, as say cocaine does, nor is it unpredictable in the way alcohol is.  I've also known people who've been smoking it for so long it has almost no effect on them whatsoever, or seemingly doesn't.  David Nutt then ranking hash, as opposed to skunk at the very bottom of his harm index doesn't come as a major surprise.

You can't though have a television programme in this day and age purely discussing the effects of drugs or even just how they impact on the brains of Mr and Mrs Average Punter, as that's boring and not going to get Twitter, err, blazing.  No, instead you must have Jennie Bond and Jon Snow (the other one) getting baked, purely for scientific reasons, of course.  I did happen to catch one moment when the former royal correspondent's "pleasure sections" of her brain lit up while listening to music after taking a good long pull, which was instantly declared as definitive proof that weed does make shit music sound better.  It reminded me and no doubt only me of the Monty Python Planet Algon sketch, or at least the presenting style did, so the more things change etc.

Any chance the programme had of being more than just a typical Channel 4 stunt, coming after the previous show on ecstasy and Mariella Frostrup asking couples who had just finished shagging in a box in the studio how it was for them was rendered all but academic in any case by the advance promotion.  Jon Snow declared he found being on skunk while in the MRI scanner to be more terrifying than when he'd been in war zones, to which one response is he should try it while in any smaller town's excuse for a nightclub.  Post-traumatic stress disorder would no doubt instantly descend.  Regardless of Snow's intentions, this was the cue for the likes of the Mail to declare that if someone as unflappable and worldly wise as Snow could be reduced to such a state, just what is it doing to the immature and less refined?

Coupled with the other new research into psychosis and use of high strength cannabis, the government was quick to declare it had no intention of changing the law, unless of course there's enough of an outcry to think about tightening it further.  What better time for of all people, Richard Branson to renew his call for the government to follow the example set by Portugal's decriminalising of possession, only this time joined by the man who's turned many of his own party to drink if not drugs, Nick Clegg?

Had Clegg been as explicit in his support for decriminalisation earlier in this parliament, as opposed to simply making noises in that general direction he might just have made something approaching a difference.  Leaving it this late invites cynicism that his conversion to the Portuguese model is less out of genuine belief it would reduce drug usage overall and help addicts and more about trying to retain some of the votes his party has lost.  To be fair, the Lib Dems have long called for a rethink on drugs and they did succeed in getting their comparative study published, even if it did little more than just reinforce what most already knew.

We also shouldn't get carried away, just as it was advisable not to after said report.  Branson and Clegg write that as well as remaining illegal drugs should also remain "socially unacceptable", to which the obvious response is why?  Why should it be socially acceptable, even felt to be obligatory in some circumstances to drink fermented vegetables and fruits but not smoke or chew the extracts of a plant, when the effects are often far less damaging?  Why should it be unthinkable that MDMA could ever be legal, when the real danger from "ecstasy" is from adulteration, or when the supplied pill or powder doesn't contain MDMA at all?  Why should someone be arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis or any other number of drugs we know to pose a low risk and cause little overall harm, let alone then sent for treatment or assessment for a problem the vast majority won't have?  Surely If we're looking towards any model it ought to be the American one, where the effective legalisation of cannabis has taken the trade almost wholly out of the hands of organised crime.  This isn't to deny there will always be problem users, addicts and the potential for harm beyond that measured on a scale, but we have the worst of all worlds at the moment.

The answer to all the above is not just that we have a sensationalist approach to drugs and the harm they can cause, hence why journalists can be felt responsible enough to take them and tell us plebs what it's like, just as The Day Today satirised years ago, but we also have doctors who believe smoking should be banned in parks and squares.  When smoking is to be made socially unacceptable, regardless of your personal view on it, and my own isn't favourable, what chance is there of making any progress on drugs that are illegal but we know to be less harmful?

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015 

5 years in prison for not doing your job? Only for social workers, naturally.

It's getting to the point where it would be easier for all concerned if the government changed tack completely and passed legislation setting out what is legal as opposed to illegal.  David Cameron's major response to the latest report on child sexual exploitation is to propose those in a position of authority who fail to protect their wards could face up to 5 years in prison.  Yvette Cooper says that isn't good enough and argues child exploitation should become a specific offence.  Yesterday the ban on driving under the influence of drugs came into effect, covering both legal and illegal substances, with little in the way of an awareness campaign.  Also to be illegal before long is smoking in a car with children present, destined you have to suspect to be another law seldom used or enforced but had to go on the statute book to "send a message".

New Labour of course turned legislation into the art of seeing to be doing something.  Umpteen criminal justice acts, a smattering of terrorism acts, some of which caused unforeseen problems that had to be corrected with further legislation.  But hey, at least this constant activity at Westminster meant MPs were doing something, as opposed to now when they've got so much free time they boast about it, right?

Or perhaps it's all the free time Dave has to spend chillaxing that leads him to such counter-productive, beyond stupid ideas as further making work all but intolerable for those at the sharp-end of child protection, whether they be social workers, police officers, teachers or the councillors with overall responsibility.  It certainly didn't come from reading the Serious Case Review published today into the Operation Bullfinch grooming case in Oxfordshire, which sets out just how incredibly difficult it was for all concerned to help the victims when the control over them was so absolute and the pattern of abuse had yet to be properly identified.

Without excusing their failures for a second, it describes all the hurdles in their way, the challenging background of the girls which the abusers exploited and the almost complete lack of cooperation from the victims as a result of their grooming.  Three of the six girls the SCR focuses on had experience of sexual abuse in their family prior to being groomed.  Most had experienced parental domestic violence; the police attended one family 74 times in a two-year period (page 37).  A senior police officer related to the inquiry how one girl had as punishment been taken into a wood, where she was raped and humiliated by seven men (page 39).  Left crying and naked, the person she called for help was not a parent, a friend, a social worker or a police officer, but one of the men who had been involved in the assault.  There were a number of attempts to prosecute men involved in similar crimes to those convicted as a result of Bullfinch, one of which went to court but collapsed after the key witness refused to continue giving evidence after a defence cross-examination.  In another instance an officer described himself as "shocked" the victim was only 13, and she was also considered to be "out of control", and there were "no corroborating forensics".  Of the six girls themselves, there were a number of attempts to prosecute their abusers prior to the final court case (compiled on page 43), but only in a couple of instances did the victims cooperate prior to then.

If this all sounds familiar, the report itself notes just how uncannily similar it is to what happened in Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby and Bristol.  The two key differences are that unlike in Rotherham, the council itself isn't getting blamed and second that despite the fact five of the men convicted were of Pakistani heritage, there is no evidence and also been no suggestion of inaction due to fears of being seen as racist.  Indeed, Alexis Jay in her Rotherham report felt decision making had not been affected by fears of racism, even if councillors and others had felt pressure to downplay the ethnicity of the perpetrators.

While there have clearly not been the same problems with denial in Oxfordshire as reported in Rotherham, the report itself asks just how it was "with many professionals very worried about the girls, with considerable resources being used to keep them safe (for example, in distant secure facilities) and ‘missing’ statistics which were unusually high, why the full picture did not emerge and the issue never percolated through to governing body level such as CEOs, Boards, or Committees" (page 75).  The answer, as much as any, the report suggests, is how it wasn't until the late 00s that grooming of this type and this scale was properly identified as being such a major concern in the official guidance (page 70).  That, coupled with the sheer difficulty of trying to help victims who seemingly didn't want to be helped, and who at times, were treated as making their own choices despite their age, seem the key reasons.

This obviously doesn't tally with Cameron's denunciation of a "walk on by" culture, nor with the common assumption that it was apparent what was happening and so could have been stopped far sooner.  Quite why child sexual exploitation required a Downing Street summit now also isn't clear, or rather, is: the election's coming, and Cameron apparently fears UKIP will escalate its campaigning after Farage's disgraceful comments on Fox News.  Not that Cameron's description of sexual abuse as occurring on an "industrial scale" is helpful either, not least for the image it conjures in the mind.  Ridiculous rather than tasteless is making CSE a "national threat", without there being the slightest explanation as to how doing so will help rather than just sound good.

Much the same thinking seems behind the five years jail plan.  Social workers must wonder what fresh hell each new day will bring: damned if despite their best efforts they fail to protect a child, damned if they "overreact" and take a child of a lovely middle class family going through a few problems into care, whom then go to the Daily Mail.  Little wonder there are so many vacancies, few now wanting to go into a profession which despite being incredibly rewarding invites such hostility.  It's not even as though politicians at a national level accept they, like others, failed to see CSE as a problem, only responding once it started to receive wider attention.  Nor will it see extra resources provided to councils as their budgets are slashed further by Whitehall, as fine words and big sticks are the only things on offer.  While reports try and explain why, politicians remain interested only in the now. 

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Monday, March 02, 2015 

Of Savile and Emwazi: the "monsters" in our midst.

There are times when it's difficult to judge how flippant, snarky and blase to be about the everyday horrors of the news.  Comments which to a friend are made in the context of a shared antipathy to the routine stupidity of the media look awful when shorn of it, as they can on a blog to someone unfamiliar with its general style.  Ripping on coverage or the often self-appointed voices of the voiceless can easily fall into being criticism of those who are seeking justice, or most certainly ends up looking that way.

With that in mind, I honestly can't think of a few days of media coverage so utterly lacking in apparent wider awareness as the ones we've just been through.  It's a toss-up as to the most evil person to have ever lived: is it Jimmy Savile, apparently the most prolific and depraved sex offender of all time, and whom despite his proclivities being so widely known, whether by hospital staff, journalists who couldn't get their exposes past lawyers or just through rumours, managed to escape justice? Or is it "Jihadi John" (the last time I am ever going to refer to him as such), aka Mohammed Emwazi, Islamic State's propaganda executioner de jour, at last unmasked so we can know every last detail of his utterly banal life and attempt to pinpoint just when it was he decided he wanted to behead aid workers for a living as opposed to continue his career in IT?

The weight of evidence against Savile being an abuser at places where he was in a position of authority is overwhelming, as proved by the report into his activities at Stoke Mandeville hospital.  What has most certainly not been proved is that he acted the same way wherever he went, as documented by Anna Raccoon bothering to read all the other reports produced by various NHS trusts, and which the media have bunched together as being similarly damning.  Even taking into consideration how faulty memory is, not least when the events under investigation took place anything up to 50 years ago, the lack of almost anything turned up by the various people behind the reports suggests Savile was a very ordinary sex offender, just one given extraordinary opportunities by his fame, charity work and patronage by politicians and royals among other powerful figures.  He attacked the vulnerable when he was certain of not being caught, or when he knew others would cover for him, in the exact same way as the vast majority of sex offenders have and always will.

Clearly though such findings aren't what's required when Savile has been worked up to be the monster to end all monsters.  The Stoke Mandeville report shamefully reproduces the rumours about Savile not just being content with the living but also going after the dead, as obviously such a man with access to the mortuary couldn't have a simple fascination with death as opposed to wanting something else.  His reported time spent with his mother's corpse could similarly only be about one thing.  The Guardian, in what has to be one of the most ridiculous editorials the paper has ever published, reflects it is "difficult to comprehend the existence of such a completely unrestrained id".  Well yes, it might be if half of what has been written or claimed is true, as opposed to the febrile imaginations of journalists taking the already shocking and deciding the ante has to be upped.

And so the editorial goes on, in what can be taken as being the general tenor of much of the coverage.  The writer manages to weave in the exhumation of the judges who condemned Charles the II's father to death, obviously primitive behaviour to us now "but the savage, theatrical desecration captures and discharges something of the rage that Savile’s wickedness inspires today", before moving on to mention Pol Pot, who oblivion is also too good for.  One way of addressing the need for closure or something like it robbed of us by Savile's death could be a "public ceremony of what used to be called commination, a ritual expression of public condemnation and disgust".  Or we could just let the nation's hacks carry on as they have been and leave it at that.

From a larger than life monster we move to one previously identifiable only by his gravelly London accent.  If making Savile out to be evil incarnate is daft or rather distraction, when no one seems to really want to inquire into how it was Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles were taken in by his charms, especially curious when the likes of Leon Brittan are cast to the dogs without a scintilla of evidence being presented against them, then the frotting of Emwazi, as that's what it's been, has been jaw dropping in its stupidity.  In the space of four days nearly every aspect of Emwazi's life prior to his joining Islamic State has been set out, no detail being too slight to be ignored.  He went to school with Tulisa, didn't have any social media accounts, worked in Kuwait where he was a model employee, was a "beautiful man", had a collision with a goal post, played Duke Nukem, joined a gang, was bullied, had bad breath, "borderline stalked" a girl he was supposedly infatuated with, used both drink and drugs, was "painfully shy", has a Chelsea tattoo on the back of his neck, was allegedly choked by an MI5 officer, played five-a-side football, got a second from the University of Westminster, and took anger management courses as a teenager.

That I've only made one of the above things up is testament to how unrestrained by any notion of well, sanity the detailing of Emwazi's past has been.  Some of it has no doubt been prompted by how up till now he has been the face of Islamic State, and the obvious shock that comes from someone who grew up in Britain killing on camera out of political-cum-religious motivation, but all the same.  Emwazi is not the Islamic State; he most probably is not even above a middle ranking position in the organisation; he's a propaganda prop, utterly disposable, and that's it.  He's a tool (in more ways that one), just as the cadres of extremist organisations in the past have carried out the orders of their leaders.  Making him out to be something more is to fall completely into the gaping trap of turning him into a hero for bedroom jihadis and other fellow travellers, which is of course precisely what IS wants.  It's why he was the centrepoint of the mass beheading of Syrian officers, with other foreign fighters at his side, why the camera zoomed on his face as he carried out the act.  What the media hasn't reported is the fear in those eyes, instead of the defiance and belligerence they were meant to convey.

There is next to no need to understand how he came to be Islamic State's chief prop.  Perhaps there's something in the stories of his time at school, but equally perhaps there's not.  The important facts are the all too familiar ones: he was part of a wider group of extremists who no doubt reinforced each other's beliefs; they were known to the security services; they had some contact with him; he ended up going to Syria.  Exactly how he came to be radicalised is of slight interest, but only slight.  Maybe it somewhat happened at university, perhaps he was already going down that path.  Perhaps the bull in a china shop actions of MI5 had some influence on his decisions, perhaps they didn't.  If there are questions deserving answers, it's on just how serious MI5 is when it suggests to those it encounters they become informants, as it does seem to have been offered to almost every individual who has subsequently launched an attack.  Does it ever work?  How does MI5 know it isn't being played?  Has it really, honestly, prevented attacks?

All too predictably with the election coming, much hay is being made by all parties over just who can best protect the nation from such people.  The Tories say they know better than universities who should and shouldn't be allowed to speak on campus, the Lib Dems say no, they do, and Labour says control orders should be brought back, as they were just as big a success as TPIMs.  The reality is no one has the first fucking idea on how we can stop more Emwazis, only they're a massive threat and something ought to be done.  Instead it's easier to detail Emwazi's life up to now in much the same vein as a MTV "behind the music" docu would, only in this instance everyone's looking "behind the terror".  Because it couldn't be there just isn't anything to find, could it?

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Friday, February 27, 2015 

They rave us.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015 

The immigration monster strikes again.

You can't help but admire the Tories' hugely successful efforts to increase net migration.  There was the campaign abroad stressing just how wonderful the United Kingdom is, the repeated loosening of the rules on claiming benefits, despite there not being the slightest evidence a country's welfare system was a pull factor, and, not unrelated, we've also seen the rise in the polls of the single issue EU-OK! party.  The government hasn't quite reached its ultimate target of 300,000, no ifs, no buts, it must be noted.  Still, 298,000 couldn't be much closer.  Considering the miserable failure to double the deficit in a single term, to all but achieve his aim on immigration is a major fillip going into the election for David Cameron.

Yep, we are once again in bizarro world.  There was never the slightest chance of getting net migration down to the tens of thousands as Cameron so foolishly promised, but it looked for a time at least as though the numbers would come down enough for some sort of progress to be claimed.  For the figure going into the election to be 50,000 above the number which prompted Cameron to make his pledge is little short of fantastic.  Indeed, you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh, if it wasn't for how immigration has long since just become another issue to beat politicians as a whole over, transforming unpopular populist bores into salt of the earth sages who can be trusted to mean what they say.

As plenty of Tory sympathisers have been quick to say, what the increase really shows is that compared to much of Europe the UK economy has recovered faster, except they naturally included the words long, term and plan, when there has never been any such thing.  And had the main parties and most commentators not decided that it was better to indulge the tabloids and public opinion by saying it was no longer enough to make the case for continued immigration on economic grounds, instead of doing so while promising to deal more effectively with the pressures on local services in the areas most affected, with the impact of the cuts naturally having the exact opposite effect, they might now not be in a mess entirely of their own making.

Those with memories longer than your proverbial goldfish might recall much of the immigration panic of 2013 was centred around our Romanian and Bulgarian friends, whom on 1st of January 2014 would have unfettered access to our glorious shores.  Estimates varied from every single person currently in the two countries emigrating to Britain to slightly more sensible guesses.  To give the doommongers some credit, the numbers from the two countries have indeed gone up on the 2013 figures, after the first estimate suggested there might have been a fall.  37,000 came, which isn't a number to be sniffed at considering the 298,000 overall net figure.  This is however an increase of only 13,000 on the previous year, when those wishing to work here had to apply for work permits.  A statistically significant one, as the ONS says, but hardly the end of the UK as we know it.  Nigel Farage can rest assured he's unlikely to be getting any new and unwelcome neighbours.

Let's not kid ourselves here, though.  There's just the one stat that will be seen and it's the headline figure.  How much it really matters is open to question, considering poll after poll suggests people tend to see things in their local area as having not been majorly affected, if at all, as most haven't, while by contrast elsewhere no one speaks English and something has to be done.  Draw a line in the sand, the Sun says, and the fact the Tories didn't have immigration in their 6 key election themes was proof Cameron didn't want to win the election.  If we're to believe Matthew d'Ancona the reason the prime minister's so frit of the debates is he doesn't want to give Farage a platform.  Someone with just a bit more courage ought to take it upon themselves to inform Dave that the very moment he came up with his ridiculous pledge he gave UKIP the kind of platform they had dreamed of for years.  You can't control immigration while you're in the EU, Nige repeats, and it's true, you can't put a cap on the numbers.

What you can do is make a case for exactly why a cap isn't necessary provided the resources are in place to deal with any problems unexpected surges will have temporarily.  What you can do is try and provide enough housing for everyone, enough jobs, introduce regulations that stop the unscrupulous from exploiting casual labour and enforce the payment of a living, as opposed to poverty wage.  You can make the point that a real sign of strength, both economically and culturally is the number of people from outside who want to live in a particular country.  What you don't is encourage the belief that it's all about an over generous welfare system when it's not, that despite previous waves of migrants being welcomed and celebrated for their achievements it's now time to say sorry, we're full when you can't, and then, finally facing that reality, decide it's time to make immigration the key factor in the debate about the EU when that's precisely what the headbangers in your party and the antediluvians in UKIP want to make it.

Considering the number of mistakes Cameron and the Tories have made, and when you factor in Andy Coulson, Libya, Syria, the bedroom tax and continuing to humour Iain Duncan Smith amongst others there's plenty to go round, the immigration target has to be the biggest.  It's not as though it's his only broken promise, that little one about eliminating the structural deficit in a single parliament also jutting out.  As a major cause of cynicism and anger it must be right up there, and yet rather than even at this late moment decide it's time to put a stop to such idiocy and level with a public that could still respect them for doing so, politicians look set to put in place further targets making them a hostage to fortune.  It seems they'd rather see the rise of blowhards and buffoons than make a case for the national interest, something they're more than prepared to fall back on when it comes to taking part in crazy foreign adventures.  Politics at times just doesn't make any damn sense.

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