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Friday, June 06, 2008 

42 days: the Murdoch press not speaking with one voice, and connected thoughts.


As the vote on 42 days looms ever larger, the Murdoch press is, in a very rare occurrence, not speaking with one voice. While the Sun attempts to ratchet up the tension on the Labour backbenchers, the Conservatives and also doubtless the Democratic Unionist MPs who potentially could swing the vote, the Times seems to taking the opposite view.

While some of the Times's apparent sniffy view of 42 days might well be down to attempting to balance out publishing Gordon Brown's own justifications for the extended detention limit on Monday, it seems to be going out of its way to both publish critics and to question whether now after the "compromises" that alter the chilling power not one jot that it leaves the police even more caught up in bureaucracy. Its biggest coup is getting John Major, who rarely comments on politics at all, to write an article denouncing the measure in terms just as strong as anyone from Liberty. While it was Major's home secretary, Michael Howard, that started the authoritarian crackdown which Labour has happily carried on, coming from someone who was himself targeted by the IRA but who also later started the peace process that led to the Good Friday agreement, he deserves to be listened to.

As for the police now complaining the powers will be too convoluted if they are passed, most of it appears to be objection purely for the sake of it, and also to anyone other than themselves deciding exactly how dangerous an individual "suspect" is when it comes to them declaring they need longer than 28 days. Whoever was speaking to the Times however is bang on in this instance:

"Some of what is being proposed is very worrying because it amounts to a blurring of the lines between politics and operational policing.”

Well, exactly. Requiring parliament to vote on whether the temporary extension to 42 days should continue to be in place when those are still in custody is ridiculous on at least 3 levels. No MP is going to vote against it when they'll be jumped on if they let a "terrorist" go in the process; they can't make a judgement without knowing what evidence or case is against the individual, therefore potentially prejudicing any future trial; and finally, it's something that no politician should be deciding in the first place. To be fair to the government for half a second, they're trapped between a rock and a hard place: they can't win if they were just to extend the limit to 42 days with the same system which is currently in place, but their safeguards have both made the legislation worse while not altering the fact that 42 days is simply unacceptable, and no amount of pleading by the police or ministers that they need it either because of the level of threat or because of the complexity of the cases they're investigating is going to change that.

Hence why the Sun is now going for the only other tactic remaining: bring in the survivors, feed off "their lifetime of suffering", as the article is headlined, and make clear that the proposal must be adopted for all our sakes. When the Sun tried this method last time round, it splashed on its front page the image of John Tulloch in the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, implying that he supported both the government and the Sun's campaign. The only problem was that he didn't, and he was livid with being used in such a way. This time the Sun's been far more careful, interviewing 2 survivors of 7/7, 2 who lost relatives, Colin Parry, who lost his 12-year-old son in the IRA Warrington bomb, and Michael Gallagher, whose brother was killed by the IRA and who then lost his son in the Omagh bomb. All of them concentrate on the police needing more time, but it isn't just about that. It's also about the effect this has on the Muslim community, and disillusioning those that are fighting against the few that do have radical views. 42 days will only increase the grievances that some already hold, and make it even more difficult to increase the flow of intelligence from within.

If the Sun had wanted to add a semblance of balance, it could have asked the views of probably the most high profile 7/7 survivor, Rachel North, who opposes any increase. It could have asked John Tulloch and apologised for its previous distortion, but it seems this is too important an issue to give an opposing view a chance. This sort of statement also needs directly challenging, whether coming from someone who's lost a relative in a terrorist attack or not:

"If the suspects are innocent then they won’t have anything to worry about. If they are guilty then why are their human rights in custody more important than the rights of the people whose lives they were going to take, or may already have taken?"

Won't have anything to worry about? How would you feel about potentially being held for 42 days in a police cell, while your life outside falls apart with you falling under the highest of suspicions even if you are completely innocent? 42 days means potentially losing your job, losing your partner, losing your standing, losing everything. We don't know anything about those who were held for 27/28 days then released without charge and how it affected them, possibly because they didn't want any further publicity, or how those previously found innocent, such as the other "ricin" plotters, were then persecuted because the case was not proved against them. Through her remarks, already Stacy Beer is judging those arrested; no one is "guilty" until they proved that they are. Their rights are not more important than anyone else's; they deserve the same as everyone else, regardless of what they are accused of. John Major in his article also directly challenges the "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear" view that the Sun and others have constantly referred to:

The Government has been saying, in a catchy, misleading piece of spin: “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This is a demagogue's trick. We do have something to fear - the total loss of privacy to an intrusive state with authoritarian tendencies.

We could also ask Rizwaan Sabir, someone who did have nothing to hide whether we have something to fear, as we could Hicham Yezza, the man who printed out the document he downloaded from a US government website, also held and due to be deported over completely separate immigration charges.

No one now is likely to change their minds willingly. As Diane Abbot made clear on the This Week last night, all the garbage about Jacqui Smith making a barnstorming speech that had convinced everyone was wishful thinking spun to the waiting hacks who had to quickly send in their copy to meet the deadlines. The real convincing had occurred over last weekend with Gordon repeating his cold-calling act on his MPs, with whips making similar threats and if that didn't work, resorting to wimpering begging. They want it to be changed from a matter concerning the drift of this country towards ever increasing police power and authoritarianism to an issue simply of Gordon Brown's leadership. If Brown has any courage left, he could even at this late hour admit defeat and withdraw the amendments from the bill. He would suffer further in the short-term, but his supposed moral compass and the ability to admit when he's got it wrong would in the end strengthen his leadership. Instead, if he loses, he'll be one step closer to the abyss.

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I totally despise that whole “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” The problem with such statements (like the 'if you've done nothing wrong....' defence) is that you are not the one who defines what is wrong, it is the government. What you might define as being acceptable one day, might suddenly be deemed unacceptable by the government the next. That whole defence only works if you are in control of what the government define is right or wrong. You are not. It is entirely on the whim of a few elected politicians and subsequently any one of us can be defined as having 'something to hide'. This is the danger with such legislation and this is why it must be opposed.

What I find most interesting is the academic community seems to have been entirely shunted out of this terrorism debate. There is an entire think-tank up at St Andrews dedicated to studying terrorism, for example, who have not been contacted once by the media for a frank discussion on detention limits. Its not like these people are hard to contact, or aren't willing to talk to the press.

But then again, experts seem to rely on facts (facts that suggest this extension is unnecessary), whereas the Sun, true to form, relies on manufactured outrage and emotion to make its points.

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