Saturday, July 15, 2006 

The rise and rise of the idiots.

(Obsolete has posted something similar to this before, so it may sound familiar.)

Last year on Channel 4, there was a comedy show titled Nathan Barley. Developed by Chris Morris, who co-wrote and starred in the seminal Brass Eye spoof documentary series, and Charlie Brooker, who ran the TVGoHome website, as well as writing the Screen Burn column in the Guardian Guide, it was much anticipated by Morris's fans, who hadn't seen much of him since the deeply weird (some would say disturbing) Jam series, as well as his short film My Wrongs 8245 - 8249 and 117.

Most however were to be disappointed. Nathan Barley lacked the savage satire which Brass Eye was both celebrated and notorious for, leading many to believe that Morris had lost his touch. It was also criticised for being years out of date, set as it was in trendy London, and much of it based around Barley's website. Fortunately, for those who dipped deeper into it, it soon became clear that the other main character in the show, Dan Ashcroft, was a projection of Morris himself. The first episode, which begins with Barley reading Ashcroft's article for SugaRape magazine about the rise and rise of the idiots, sets the stage for the whole series: Ashcroft is held up to be a genius by the very people he detests and writes about, despite pleading with them that he's not. As a result, he can't win, and the "idiots" are victorious every time.

What most who criticised Nathan Barley seemed to fail to notice is that what is happening in the series is also happening in the country at large. The rise of the idiots is inexorable. The rise of the idiots, as it is, is inextricably linked with the also seemingly unstoppable rise of celebrities.

Monday the 10th of July then may go down as a result as the start of the idiot and celebrity apocalypse. At 9pm, 3 of the 4 main terrestrial channels in the UK were either broadcasting "reality" or "celebrity" shows. BBC1 was showing Only Fools on Horses, one of those shows which the BBC promised it would be cutting down on, but because it's raising money for their "sport relief" charity drive, it's OK. The show itself, if you can't guess from the name, involves celebrities learning to ride and show jump horses, then competing against each other, with the public involved in voting for who did best. Involved in the show are such well known idiots as Sara Cox and well... that's about it, because none of the others are the kind who you'd even recognise on the street, except for perhaps Ruby Wax. At 9pm over on ITV1, viewers were treated to "Love Island". Last year it was called Celebrity Love Island, and was possibly the most ridiculed, hated disaster that ITV has ever produced. It seems though that ITV executives are gluttons for punishment, and they seem to think that the nation's population is similarly inclined. This year's show features such well known celebrities, as err, Bianca Gascogine, step-daughter of Paul, and Chris Brosnan, son of Pierce. Other delightful characters involved are Sophie Anderton, someone known only for the amount of cocaine she managed to shovel up her nostrils while a model and "glamour" model Alicia Douvall, whom Obsolete is proud to say it's never heard of. Finally then, at 9pm on Channel 4, the station that has done much to aid the rise of the idiot and celebrity culture, was showing its tedious behemoth, Big Brother.

The rise of the idiots was at first slow to start. While the British tabloids have always loved a good idiot, none of them really managed to create one themselves, until at least the glamour model Jordan
came along. Jordan is probably the "model" for which most female idiots are based on, unless they are of the "laddete" type, such as Sara Cox, mentioned earlier (and I know I'm probably going to sound misogynistic here, but bear with me until I come to the male idiot); huge pouting lips, possibly created with the aid of collagen; hair extensions, of which blonde is the colour of choice; breast implants, in Jordan's case ridiculously huge; pierced navel, with expensive gold dangling things being the first port of call in a crisis; a lower back tattoo, usually in the "tribal" style; and, without getting into it, a "Brazilian" is a must. In addition to physical attributes, the female idiot must also be unsurprisingly, of very little brain. Jordan fits this requirement admirably, frequently referring to her second child, as the "normal" one. (Her first was born blind.)

Jordan's success as being Britain's favourite female idiot has been threatened by various others who have come along, mainly out of Channel 4's Big Brother show. They are often, like Jordan, referred to by just their single name; hence we have "Jade", who has lately been joined by "Chantelle". Tonight both are taking part in BBC's spectacular "Sport Relief" Saturday Night, competing on "Mastermind". The hilarity. The most widely known American female idiot would probably be "Paris", although "Anna-Nicole" would give her a run for her money.

So then, to the male idiot. The male idiot, as it is, is more complex than the female idiot. Perhaps best described as a mixture of footballer (or sportsman), playboy and TV presenter, the celebrity male idiot is exemplified by Vernon Kay or David Beckham, or perhaps "Preston", who may well start the craze for male idiots becoming known just by their first name. He is often dressed immaculately, has his hair in whichever is the current hip style, and may, like the female idiot, have a huge love of hideous body art. Most arresting about the male idiot will be his face; it will have a slight pout, but the eyes will be incredibly distant, as if his brain is in a vacuum, which it most likely is.

Having established themselves, the idiots and celebrity idiots are on a quest to conquer the world. Once only being topics which the tabloids and celebrity gossip mags would dare touch, the broadsheets and rest of the media are latching on to them alarmingly quickly. The Guardian, once the secular serious left-liberal newspaper of choice, has recently carried interviews with "Jade", Jodie Marsh and "Paris". The Daily Telegraph, known universally in this case as the Daily Tottygraph, finds any excuse to print photographs of said totty, sometimes of the idiot type, sometimes not. The Times, whose formidable reputation was quickly destroyed by that purveyor of idiots, Rupert Murdoch, is a shell of its former self, especially since it went tabloid. As mentioned, television along with the tabloid was the beginning of the rise of the idiot, and as such has since gone nuclear. Tonight on BBC2, in addition to Sport Relief on BBC1, you can watch Steve Davis and Ronnie O'Sullivan partner themselves with the aforementioned Vernon Kay and Bradley Walsh, a failed comedian, for a game of snooker. The show's name? Celebrity Pot Black.

The rise of the idiot and celebrity idiot has been further exacerbated by the simultaneous rise of the weekly "lads" mag. Once only being of the monthly persuasion, the 90s heralded the start of the second sexual revolution. Feminism was dead, and the lads mag danced on its grave. While at first being no more explicit than page 3, except with more well known celebrity women taking their clothes off, it's evolved into the hell which is Nuts and Zoo. Both seem to compete to see whichever can get the most nipples into each issue, and both are of course the first port of call for the idiot and celebrity idiot to take their clothes off. Grace, within a week of being kicked out of this year's Big Brother, had already sold her soul and her body to Nuts. Both feature explicit sexual stories and advice of the kind you would have once only found on the top-shelf, and both also feature that other preserve of the wank mag; the reader's wife or girlfriend.

Which brings us to the questions which are connected at the hip to the idiot and celebrity idiot. Are we laughing at these people, are they laughing at us, or are they us? Many who claim that Nuts, Zoo, Big Brother etc are utterly harmless are those who argue that what most people are doing are laughing at these people; after all, they're grotesques, the most vapid of the vapid, those who crave attention and money so badly that they're prepared to humiliate themselves in the bargain. Yet the young and impressionable are growing up with this being their defining moment of popular culture, and they seem to be worryingly showing signs of not laughing at it, but being those who want to follow in their footsteps. Of 1,000 teenage girls in the 15-19 bracket who responded to a survey by The Lab, a mobile phone entertainment service, 63% said "glamour model" was their ideal profession. Either that's a lot of deluded teenage girls, an indictment of consumer society or a horrible practical joke. The idiots are also having a laugh at our obsession with them. "Jade" is said to have made £1.5 million as a result.
Being stupid seems to be increasingly lucrative. Then there's the nagging self-doubt that these people are us; you only have to watch the "Jeremy Kyle" show or "Trisha" to experience that.

Is there then any sign of a backlash against the idiots and celebrity idiots, then? Ariel Levy started something of a counter-attack against "raunch", with less than impressive results, with the launch of her book "Female Chauvinist Pigs". The problem with Levy is that she instantly is associated with the radical feminists that want to ban Page 3 and the likes of Nuts; a lot of us dislike both, but things have moved on since the days of banning and thinking about the consequences later. There's also no doubting that many of us, Obsolete included, enjoy pornography (although the vilest types which are available do nothing to shed the image of male dominance which doesn't ring as true as it once did). Those starring in it are the same idiots we should lambast, yet they again have the last laugh, making huge amounts of money having sex while middle aged men pay their wages. As adults, we have the choice whether to watch it or not. Censorship is never the answer. Yet all of this is interconnected with Britain's place in the world; the fact that our children seem to be growing up to be these idiots (and the odd Question Time programme is not proof that this isn't the case) is a huge cause for concern. Know nothings, no questioning, and no special skills; just fucking, shopping and drinking. It's true that young people have been doing this for generations, but it seems to be on the rise on a major scale, media panic or not.

It might just be that I'm a bitter young person who isn't experiencing the former. It might be that I'm a horrible pessimist, which I am. It might be that things, as usual, are honestly not as bad as they seem. Yet none of that reassures me. And there, when we turn to the idiot box to wind down, entertain us or educate us, the same idiots are there, mocking us and showing the world how stupid they are. Now that's fucked up.

(Or for an alternative view of pornography, you could watch the Annabel Chong story, which is about to start on Channel 4 now. Obviously an extreme case, but quite possibly one of the most soul-crushingly disturbing and depressing films you're ever likely to see.)

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Friday, July 14, 2006 

Just keep saying it: Israel has the right to defend herself.

Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel has the right to defend herself.

Well, at least that's what George Bush added to the debate yesterday. It's also pretty much been the line of all the Israeli spokesman who've blessed us with their presence. The one on Newsnight seemed increasingly incredulous as Emily Maitlis (I think?) asked whether he thought the Israeli response had been "disproportionate". "What are we supposed to do? Sit back and let them attack us?" (I paraphrase slightly.) No, and no one was suggesting you should. On the other hand, repeatedly bombarding an airport, attacking TV stations deep inside civilian areas, pumping out propaganda or not, and blockading the whole country because an organisation in the south of Lebanon decided to show some solidarity with the people of Gaza and maybe free some of its prisoners in the bargain, is not just disproportionate, it is as the Guardian leader says, highly dangerous, destructive and illegal. As Juan Cole also points out, the emphasis on Beirut and the ever familiar collective punishment ethos of the Israeli army meant that Hizbullah managed to fire at least 70 (Wikipedia suggests 700, but that is wildly out of wack with the BBC reports) katyusha rockets into Israel, killing 2 people (The BBC now reports 4) and injuring many more, as illustrated in the previous post.

All of this could have been expected. The Palestinians in Gaza have now been suffering for almost three weeks - they are mostly without power, sewage is pouring into the sea, and rubbish is building up on the streets. Only small amounts of food are being let in by the Israelis, with no Palestinians being allowed in or out. At least 80 Palestinians have been killed in the violence since Hamas and other Palestinian military groups jointly seized the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit, killing 2 other soldiers in the process. The raid itself had been planned for seemingly a long time, but it came in response to repeated assassination attempts by the Israeli military with jets and helicopters firing missiles into the Strip, as well as the beach massacre, caused by an errant Israeli shell which killed Huda Ghalia's 7 relatives. Hamas broke its military ceasefire, which had held for nearly a year and six months, as a result.

Not that Hamas and Hizbullah are blameless in all of this, far from it. Hamas's failure to stop the pointless Qassam rocket attacks from Gaza was part of the Israeli excuse given for their return to the Strip. Hizbullah saw an opportunity with the Israeli army seemingly being occupied in Gaza for an attack which could similarly lead to the agreement which Hamas wants over their captured soldier: the freeing of prisoners from Israeli jails. They knew full well that Israel was bound to overreact as it always does, especially now as it led by Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz, both of whom lack the military background which almost all other Israeli prime and defence ministers have had. As a result of Hizbullah's indefensible action, solidarity or not, the whole of Lebanon is feeling the similarly indefensible power of Israel. Israel's response, bombing the airport, launching missiles at the roads leading to Syria, defended by the Israelis as "to stop Hizbullah from moving the soldiers to Iran" have left not just the population of Lebanon with few places to hide, it is also holding the tourists and visitors to the country to ransom for the acts of Hizbullah.

As it always is with the Middle East, things are incredibly complicated. UN resolution 1559 orders the Lebanese government to disarm Hizbullah and for the militia to disband, something which it both is unwilling to do and incapable of doing. Israel holds this as part of its justification, while she herself is also in breach of numerous UN resolutions, ones that require immediate action or not. Yet the Lebanese government is the same one much praised by Mr Bush and America for its "cedar revolution" of last year, which succeeded in expelling the Syrian military, if not entirely its security officers. The Americans would not be pleased to see it overthrown as a result of the Israeli attack, which is why Condoleeza Rice called for restraint, and why Bush is now said to be "urging Israel to avoid civilian casualties." For the Israelis however, this is a perfect opportunity to lump in all their enemies in one go. Iran and Syria, while providing assistance and money to Hizbullah, do not by any means have complete control over it. The talk has been of an axis of terror - itself a reference to the infamous Axis of Evil state of the union speech by President Bush - all of which is calculated to draw the world into believing this is all part of the so-called war on terror. For their part, the US played the role they have many times before of neither full support nor full condemnation, yesterday vetoing a UN resolution condemning the violence in Gaza (the United Kingdom abstained) for being unbalanced.

Mostly though, things continue as normal: (apart from those in sight of Israeli missiles and Hizbullah rockets) European governments hand-wring without doing anything to alter the situation, and the Americans, hearing no evil, seeing no evil and speaking no evil as ever, continue to mutter to themselves: "Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel does not target civilians. Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel has the right to defend herself. Israel has the rigsifhghds... Israel has ththehs... Israel...."

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Those shocking, sickening, outrageous photographs in full.

There's two topics today in Britain's street of shame. For the broadsheet, or ex-broadsheet press, it's the Israeli attack on Lebanon. For the tabloids, apart from the Mail and Star which have more pressing matters involving their own obsessions, it's groundhog day once again. Yep, it's Diana Friday.

Apparently William and Harry are "deeply saddened" by the decision by an Italian magazine and newspaper to print photographs of their mother as she was receiving medical attention in the car which was to be her last but one resting place. That's fair enough, considering that few people would like to see their loved ones in their death throes. What isn't fair is what everyone's favourite Diana conspiracy theorist has to say:

Mr Al Fayed said the publication of the photos represented a "heartless pursuit of money".

"It makes me sad and angry that a magazine would reproduce an image of the princess as she clung desperately to life," he said.

"The editor and the author, who probably have families of their own, have no thought for the feelings of those who loved the princess, first and foremost her sons, Princes William and Harry."

Al Fayed would know a lot about heartless pursuits of money, seeing as he tries to pay as little tax as possible through offshore havens, and how he recently for a couple of years decamped to Switzerland, purely for tax reasons. Nevermind that though, the phony pharaoh also thinks that the magazine editor and author have no feelings for Diana's sons. This would of course be the same Mohamed Al Fayed who thinks that MI5/6 conspired with the Duke of Edinburgh to kill Diana and his son Dodi, for various reasons which are all laughable. Thanks to Al Fayed's persistence, huge amounts have been wasted on an inquiry which is set to find that Diana died because err, her driver was drunk and she wasn't wearing a seatbelt.

The Sun doesn't have a leading article on the photographs, which is probably for the best (it instead supports Israel's right to bomb anyone it likes anywhere) seeing as only 3 years ago it had no qualms about showing Marc Vivien Foe in his death throes on the front page. They seemed to forget that he had played for Manchester City - prompting 400 complaints to the Press Complaints Commision. More recently it printed the notorious photographs of American lawyer Katherine Ward committing suicide by jumping from a building, resulting in the PCC hardening its line on stories involving suicide, due to the fear of copycats. If you want to go even further back, you can bring up the Hillsbrough tragedy - with the Sun delighting in graphic photographs of fans meeting their end, while at the same time alleging that some fans had picked pockets of victims, urinated on the police officers and beaten one up who was giving the kiss of life, none of which was true. Sales have never recovered in Liverpool as a result.

Are these photographs shocking, sickening, outrageous and disgraceful then? Err, no not really. Maybe you'd like to compare and contrast the photographs with others taken in the last few days, the story of which has been pushed off the tabloid front-pages by Diana and her obsessives:

Lebanese child victim of Israeli attack on the village of Dweir.
Another Lebanese child killed in Dweir.

Other children killed in Dweir, here being taken to the funeral in the town of Nabatiyeh, south Lebanon. 10 were killed in total when an Israeli missile hit their house.
Palestinian child lies in the morgue of a hospital in Rafah. He died despite being allowed into Israel for treatment, after being badly wounded in an Israeli missile strike.

Wounded Israelis after Hizbullah launched rocket attacks in response to Israel's airstrikes across Lebanon.
Israeli soldier Nimrod Cohen being laid to rest. He died after the inital Hizbullah cross-border attack which killed 7 more soldiers, with 2 others being captured.

Does anything else need to be said?

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Thursday, July 13, 2006 

When the Levy breaks.

Labour has had numerous bad days in government since the 1997 election, a lot of them coming over the last two years, but yesterday has to rank up there among the very worst. Aside from being humiliated over the debate in the Commons concerning the despicable extradition treaty with America which is not reciprocated, they additionally had the spectre of yet more blood on their hands. As the Ministry of Truth noted, the discovery of the body of Neil Coulbeck, a witness involved in the case of the Natwest Three, brought back unpleasant memories for everyone of the suicide of Dr David Kelly, which resulted in the Hutton inquiry. (Thom Yorke's solo album, released on Monday, has a tribute to his memory which doubles as also being the best song - Harrowdown Hill.)

The Hutton inquiry and the investigation by Scotland Yard into the loans for peerages scandal at the moment share some possibly undesirable parallels for those of us who are hoping this will be the end of Blair. The Hutton inquiry heard what everyone assumed was damning evidence against the government, and that at least one government minister, possibly Geoff Hoon, would be made the fall guy. In the event, Lord Hutton turned all his fire on the BBC, and let the government off spectacularly.
The arrest of Lord Levy, Blair's chief fundraiser, Middle East envoy and tennis partner, might well turn out to be a similar dead end, but for now it's certainly something to *almost* get excited about.

And why not? Who honestly thought when the SNP MP made his complaint to the Met about the reports in the papers that they'd be taken seriously? It's easy to be wise after the fact, as some blogs have been, but the police don't usually make much of politically motivated campaigns. It's left Downing Street seething, as evidenced last night by dear old Dave Blunkett, the former rottweiler wheeled out to denounce the police for behaving "theatrically" in arresting Levy when he was more than willing to go and hand himself in. Sadly for Blunkett and all other Blairite loyalists, the man in charge of the investigation just happened to be giving evidence today to the Commons public administration committee, where he made clear that the arrest had been "integral" to the process - and also revealed that 48 people had been interviewed so far, with 13 under caution. Nor is the Met going purely after Labour's dodgy dealings; more Conservatives, who abused the system similarly to Labour, have been interviewed so far.

Labour's solution, as always, is to just avoid answering the questions. Ministers are refusing to comment because an "investigation is under way", while others just play the innocent act. The main excuse is that the Tories were doing it as well, and that the Lib Dems have their own dodgy sponsor in the shape of Michael Brown, but neither of them rewarded their secret donors with anything in the shape of peerages, nor did the chief architect behind the fundraising tell one of the donors to lie on his peerage nomination form. The other self-defeating excuse comes down to "Well, where else were we meant to get the money from? Most of our supporters detested the war in Iraq, the unions were only eventually placated through the Warwick agreement, so that left us with our favourite businessmen. And why would we want it to be shown that a party created by the unions to represent working people was being funded by the rich, even though their companies are crap? Wouldn't you have used a loophole if you saw it too? Be honest! Would you rather have had the nasty Michael Howard in power, with his "it's not racist to put limits on immigration" and "are you thinking what we're thinking?" campaign?" Complete and utter bullshit of course, but it makes some critical Labour supporters think twice.

All of which leaves Blair worrying about getting his collar felt as well. It's long been suspected that it was only he, Levy and Matt Carter, Labour's general secretary that knew about the secret loans. When Jack Dromey dared to suggest that he was kept in the dark,
he was smeared as not doing his job properly. From a man who promised to be whiter than white and to bring an end to sleaze, he's left looking as if he's been in a fight with someone using snowballs rolled in soot. Not even the worst of the sleaze throughout all the Tory years stuck to Major or Thatcher - it was only afterwards we found out about their misdeeds.

More damaging though are the prospects for Labour in government as a whole. It's no wonder that backbenchers are imploding, but not through anger at the police.
The left seems to be gearing up to challenge Blair, if Nick Robinson is to be believed. John McDonnell has no chance of winning or even coming close in a battle, but it could just be the additional catalyst needed to get Blair packing his bags, start his speaking tours of the US and writing his no doubt abominable memoirs.

Even so, it leaves the Labour party as an empty, vacuous shell. The Grauniad reports that Levy was yesterday meant to be having a meeting with "Sir" Philip Green, the cunt who thinks paying tax is only for the poor and middle classes, and Alan Johnson over possible sponsorship and fundraising for Labour's dismal city academies. When Blair finally goes, unless there's a complete clean out by whoever his successor turns out to be, the current cabinet will still be the same lot who are in thrall to those with huge amounts of money, the same set who got Labour in this mess in the first place.

As a result, Labour looks ever more likely to be booted out by that other vacuum, David Cameron and his err, resurgent Tories,
who can't even organise their removal from the centre-right grouping in the European parliament, one of Cameron's main actual policies, for years. At the moment though, even Cameron's face looks preferable to the Labour mess of their own making. Blair keeps talking about renewal. Surely even he, deluded as he is, must realise that his and Prescott's continued presence is destroying Labour as a whole. If Blair genuinely does care about the Labour party, and there's plenty of evidence suggesting he doesn't, then he'll either quit now or very very soon. Anything else will just be giving David Cameron a blank cheque.

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Craig Murray forced to remove source documents.

New Labour are not as stupid as they seem. I have now had a chance to take legal advice, and that advice is as follows. To defend this case would cost the price of a London house. I don't have a house, in London or anywhere else. I am therefore obliged to give in to force majeure and remove some of the documents from my own site. This reeking government is therefore able to mask its stink on this particular miniscule corner of the internet.

Obsolete still hosts the documents here, as does BSSC, and others.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 

Peace, justice, love for all - not in Britain.

Hat-tip to D-Notice:

The ridiculous and disgraceful policing of the banning of protests within a mile of parliament without seeking prior permission continues apace. The law primarily meant to remove Brian Haw and stop a repeat of the schoolchildren who blocked parliament square at the start of the Iraq war (as well as the embarrassment caused when the police started leathering Countryside Alliance supporters) has claimed a couple more victims. Barbara Tucker and Steve Jago, quite clearly suicidial terrorists hell bent on assassinating Tony and Cherie Blair, were both arrested after having the indecency to turn up outside Downing Street with a couple of placards:

The legal justification for arrests within a mile of parliament is section 132 of the
Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, more widely known as the Serious and Organised Farce Act. A judge has already said that 132 interferes with protestors human rights, but he was obliged to hand down sentences despite that. While it seems unlikely in this case that Steve or Barbara will be prosecuted, it gives the lie to what Tony Blair told Henry Porter in their email exchange over civil liberties a couple of months ago.
You say people can only have blank placards outside Parliament and can't protest. Go and look at the placards of those camped outside Parliament - they are most certainly not blank and usually contain words not entirely favourable to your correspondent.
And within weeks of Blair saying that, Mr Haw had his protest destroyed by 78 police officers in the dead of the night. Freedom of speech and protest - but only if you let them know you're going to do it first, and forget about using a loudspeaker, or even a bell. Welcome to Blair's Britain.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006 

Sun-watch: Kids betrayed by their own outrage.

Rebekah Wade, a danger not only to husbands, but children too.
There is little more satisfying than watching the Sun squirm. As could have been predicted, the average Sun-reader is today subjected to a suitably outraged editoral over the attorney general Lord Goldsmith's decision not to refer the sentence given to the paedophile Craig Sweeney to the court of appeal for being "unduly lenient".

Kids betrayed
THE distraught mother of paedophile Craig Sweeney’s toddler victim tells how he was “literally found with her blood on his hands”.

Yet Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith rejects any appeal against his grotesquely inadequate sentence.

Sweeney was given “life”, with a starter of 18 years.

Under a chaotic formula, this was cut to 12 because he pleaded guilty — even though caught in the act.

The term was then automatically halved, minus his time in custody.

This crazy process could see Sweeney free while his violated victim is still at primary school.

His Lordship ignores public fury and claims the judge was simply following the rules.

But it is the government that sets these ludicrous rules.

The same government that refuses to build new prisons and puts judges under pressure to set prisoners free as fast as possible.

As long as this continues, ministers are betraying their first responsibility — to protect us . . .

And our children.

Now, the Sun is being just slightly coy about all this. Apparently it's now all the government's fault, even though just a month ago it was, err, all the judges fault! Their naming and shaming campaign has been such a huge success that it's seemingly been forgotten about within a month.

The Sun editoral also ignores their own hand in the decision by the Attorney General not to refer the sentence as "unduly lenient". On the morning of the sentence being handed down to Sweeney, the Sun started its campaign against "soft" judges. Within hours, "Dr" John Reid, had made public his reservations about the sentence, and set about sending his concerns to Lord Goldsmith. Goldsmith was not amused. Can anyone claim that the Sun's campaign didn't influence Reid? Of course not.

The arguments made by Lord Goldsmith for why he didn't refer the case to the court of the appeal are similarly disengenous, aimed at protecting Reid from further criticism. He claims it was because the judge followed the formula set down by the sentencing council properly - which is entirely true, but that didn't stop him from referring the other case that has been mixed in with the coverage over Sweeney - that of Alan Webster, who was given a life sentence with a minimum of six years for raping a 12-week-old baby. That judge also followed the sentencing formula, but Goldsmith argued that the sentence was too short for a crime which had "shocked and outraged public opinion." The court of appeal agreed, and his minimum sentence was extended to 8 years. The only difference is that the outrage in Webster's case only came from the media - not from a government minister who should have kept his mouth shut. Reid and the Sun should not be blaming anyone else; they are the ones who are responsible for Sweeney's sentence not being extended.

The Sun however is right in its claims that some of the discounts given for pleading guilty when guilt is obvious are ludicrous, and Goldsmith has said so himself, with a review currently taking place. Yet it is unwilling to recognise that in both cases Sweeney and Webster were given life sentences. It is highly unlikely that either will be granted parole at the end of their minimum sentences, as the judge in the Sweeney case himself said. Procedures are also now in place that rightly put public safety above all other concerns. The Sun just can't help itself though, and continues to parrot its line over the lack of prison building and pressure on judges to release prisoners early. It has been the pressure on the government, a lot of it coming directly from the Murdoch press that has resulted in prisons now being horrendously overcrowded, full of the mentally ill and those with drug problems who would be better treated outside the penal system. Last Tuesday the prison population was 78,107. The maximum prisons across the land can hold is is 81,149.

Just build new prisons then, that'll sort it out, right? As Obsolete has said in the past, the Sun doesn't seem to want to discuss where these prisons will be built, how much they will cost or who they'll be run by, it just wants them to suddenly appear out of thin air. As the Guardian leader today points out:

In the past 18 months, Labour has repeatedly been shortsighted and inconsistent over terrorism and law and order when it should have been farsighted and consistent. The result has been both a policy and a political shambles that has brought the government nearly to its knees.

New Labour just cannot see how the tabloids are helping to destroy it from within. Hazel Blears froths at the mouth over David Cameron's hoodie-hugging speech (nowhere near tough enough for someone who wanted community offenders to wear Guantanamo style orange jumpsuits), mainly because even though as usual he's devoid of an actual policy behind the soundbites, he's got the balance right (although whether farming out paperwork to the private sector is a good idea or not remains to be seen). Blair's whole reign has been an example of how selling your soul right at the start to Murdoch will in the end result in you being hoisted by your own petard. Mirroring that, John Reid's start in the job of Home Secretary would be almost comical if it wasn't for how dangerous his giving in to the tabloids potentially could be, especially over "Megan's law". Sadly, there's no doubting that the tabloids will continue to scream, and the government of the day will continue to jerk their knees in response, either Conservative or Labour. Rationality was kicked out of bed long ago.

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Monday, July 10, 2006 

OK class, does anyone have any idea what we're doing in Afghanistan?

Does anyone have an answer? When the former Defence Secretary "Dr" John "Oh fuck, not health" Reid announced back in January that nearly 6,000 troops were going to be deployed to Afghanistan, the tasks that the army were meant to be facing up to were "peace-keeping, nation-building and counter-narcotics." Yet at the same time dear Dr Reid said "we do not go there with the primary purpose of waging war," and that he'd prefer it if there was not a "single bullet fired".

6 months later, and after six deaths in a single month, the lesser-spotted (and known) defence secretary Des Browne has belatedly announced that 900 extra troops are going to be sent, despite Downing Street denying that more troops had been requested by the military throughout the whole of last week. This still only brings the total numbers up to 4,500 troops, still short of the first reported figure of 6,000. Also, their mission now is apparently to "help security and reconstruction efforts". and that "UK troops were not seeking to take part in a war on drug production." In other words, they seem to be there for the sole purpose of target practice for the Taliban and various other malcontents who want to fight the Brits. After all, we're told that the British deployment has "energised" the Taliban.

So has the "counter-narcotics" part of the mission been dropped? It seems unlikely. Not only does 90% of the heroin that enters Britain come from Afghanistan, but the UN now estimates that it produces 89% of the entire global crop, even though the area under cultivation decreased in 2005. Despite what Blair said at PMQ's last Wednesday, the Taliban were incredibly successful in almost eradicating the opium yield. It has to be said that this was done mostly through threats, but according to Simon Jenkins Mullah Amir Mohammed Haqqani, a member of the Taliban pleaded at the time in 2001 for Western aid for farmers that had their revenue drop by three quarters as a result of growing vegetation and corn rather than poppies. The UN also confirmed that the crop for that year was virtually nil. What has now changed is that the remnants of the Taliban, various mujahideen and otherwise have realised the potential of the opium crop. It provides them with an excellent source of money, and what's more pleasing than seeing corrupt Westerners not only slowly kill themselves, but also pay for attacks on their own troops?

What's alarming the "coalition" in Afghanistan is how little they can do to stop farmers from growing their favourite crop. Softly softly tactics, first mooted by Clare Short while she was in charge of that ever optimistic cabinet post named "international development", failed spectacularly, and the crop has grown ever since. They appear to have completely rejected pleas from opium farmers across Afghanistan, organised by the Senlis council, for the West to buy up the crop to use in medicines such as morphine and codeine. In exchange they promised to fight drug trafficking, although how they would in practice do this would need fleshing out. Rather than go for what seems incredibly attractive on paper, the US crazily seems to be weighing up whether to go for airborne eradication, as Shaphan notes. This would be done with a variant of Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant that has been blamed for causing birth defects in children in Vietnam.

The United States policy on Afghanistan has changed remarkably since the 2001 invasion. With even the dedicated programme to find bin Laden being abandoned, and with Hamid Karzai propped up in Kabul, despite the odd problem, they're content to let Nato do the dirty work. After all, heroin is nowhere near as big a problem in the States as it is in Europe. They prefer their crack, PCP and "legal" opiates, such as Oxycontin. It's therefore left to the Brits, Canadians and other nations silly enough to provide troops to help re-build and keep the peace. The whole concept of keeping peace in Afghanistan is laughable. With the porous Pakistani border letting anyone who wants to cross back and forth, the smuggling of weapons couldn't be easier. As has been noted, the remnants of the Taliban and others have quickly learned new tactics from the disaster in Iraq. Roadside bombs, suicide bombings and ambushes are the order of the day. All this takes place in the shadow of history: Afghanistan has been restive for almost 200 years, only having a period of relative stability during the reign of King Zahir. Otherwise, it's been at war either with itself or with colonial occupiers for most of that time.

It's clear that the troops are not welcome. Even those who don't side with the Taliban forces are faced with enduring battles and deaths in the crossfire. Apache helicopters are increasingly called in, and as one of the operators tells the Guardian, they don't really have any idea who they're killing. Those who argue against British involvement are told that they would rather have the Taliban and the al-Qaida training camps back, as if they aren't already, or that the camps have merely moved across the border. It might be defeatism, but what is the point of sending in more troops simply to be shot at? At the moment they're trapped in their sweltering barracks, able to do almost nothing to change the situation. As Simon Jenkins, who has returned to the topic again and again and gets more forceful and outraged each time notes, to complete the supposed "mission" UK troops are meant to be carrying out would need not 10,000 men, but possibly 100,000, the sort of number which is still failing abysmally in Iraq. Menzies Campbell today hilarious says that if the mission were to fail it would "deeply damaging to the credibility of Nato", the same Nato which has been made completely redundant and non-credible since the death of the Soviet Union. Still, maybe that will be one good thing to come out of this seeming mea culpa. The downfall of Nato and the rise of European Union backed peacekeepers seems to be the only possible positive that can be taken from the amount of blood which will be shed in the long run. And that's very, very little comfort.

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