Monday, October 15, 2007 

Usmanov-watch: Playing the victim.

From one revolting end of the Murdoch empire to another, the Alisher Usmanov charm offensive was back on yesterday in one of the most sycophantic, one-sided articles to appear in a so-called newspaper of record. Congratulations have to go to
It was partly in an attempt to curb claims of a shady past that he invited me to his Moscow mansion and agreed to talk for the first time about the circumstances that led to his being imprisoned in 1980. Usmanov runs his empire from the headquarters of Metal-loinvest, his main company, in a lavish building in central Moscow fitted with Italian marble and heavy chandeliers. From there I was driven 30 miles along Rublovka, a road that cuts through a forest of firs to a “billionaires’ row” where Usmanov has a 30-acre estate beside the Moscow river. A 16ft-high metal fence encircles the property.

Usmanov, who never leaves home without a retinue of bodyguards armed with machine-guns, was working in a large, single-storey wooden villa which he has built as a private office next to his palatial house.

Casually dressed in a Lacoste polo shirt, tracksuit bottoms and leather slippers, he was sitting in an armchair, advising a friend on the telephone on how best to clinch a £1m deal. In front of him was a small table and a bell with which to summon staff.

In the next room, his personal adviser on equities was checking the latest share prices on a 30in computer screen.

Sipping tea after his phone call, Usmanov studied the screen with the analyst as they discussed whether to sell a large holding in a Russian bank. A butler delivered frequent messages or passed on one of several mobile phones on which the tycoon fielded further calls.

If you aren't throwing up already having read just that extract, then both Tim and Craig himself
thoroughly fisk and destroy this partial, despicably craven meeting of convenience. Craig incidentally, despite never being served with anything approaching a writ, is described thusly:

Usmanov rejected the charges and threatened to sue Murray “if he can first prove that he is completely sane”.

Usmanov likes playing the victim, that's for sure. A venal bully with the full weight of his fortune and power behind him picking on those who dare to call him on his dubious past, and he's the one who's been wronged.

“I was a victim and when I came out I realised I had one last chance to make a success of my life. I won’t fall so low as to fight those who want to blacken my name. Let their slurs weigh on their conscience. Mine is clean.”

No, he's more than happy to slur his accusers by questioning their sanity while his shysters at Schillings and PR associates as Finsbury PR do the real leg-work. It may be down to last week's Usmanov story in the Sunset Times, about his connections with, err, corruption and fraud, allegations which curiously go unnoted in the interview that this piece of arslikhan inspired, but that doesn't acquit the ST. This is simply lazy, callow journalism from a newspaper that once exposed the Thalidomide scandal. How far away those days seem.

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Monday, April 23, 2007 

That scaremongering round-up in full.

The propaganda war against Iran seems to continue to heat up. Yesterday's Sunday Times was the latest to be slipped an "intelligence report" which is preaching doom about the almost undoubtedly improbable links between Iran and some of the insurgent groups in Iraq:

AL-QAEDA leaders in Iraq are planning the first “large-scale” terrorist attacks on Britain and other western targets with the help of supporters in Iran, according to a leaked intelligence report.

Spy chiefs warn that one operative had said he was planning an attack on “a par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki” in an attempt to “shake the Roman throne”, a reference to the West.

Another plot could be timed to coincide with Tony Blair stepping down as prime minister, an event described by Al-Qaeda planners as a “change in the head of the company”.

The report, produced earlier this month and seen by The Sunday Times, appears to provide evidence that Al-Qaeda is active in Iran and has ambitions far beyond the improvised attacks it has been waging against British and American soldiers in Iraq.

It's difficult to know where to begin with this assertion. Al-Qaida in Iraq has openly declared that it considers Shia Muslims kafir, in difference to al-Qaida itself, which for the moment wants to unite rather than divide and rule, which may come later. This was related by Zawahiri to Zarqawi before he was killed, rebuking him for the suicide bombings which targeted and continue to target Shias. Zarqawi and the subsequent leadership of al-Qaida in Iraq have ignored this advice, continuing to target innocent Shia while not personally claiming responsibility for outrages such as that which killed 150 in a Baghdad market last week. It does however openly claim responsibility for attacks on both the Badr organisation, which is openly backed by Iran as the militia or former militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and on the Mahdi army, which may be receiving some help from figures inside Iran, although nothing has been comprehensively proved.

The article predictably goes on:

There is no evidence of a formal relationship between Al-Qaeda, a Sunni group, and the Shi’ite regime of President Mah-moud Ahmadinejad, but experts suggest that Iran’s leaders may be turning a blind eye to the terrorist organisation’s activities.

This is the usual step of making you think that something is happening, then somewhat denying it without completely dispelling the notion. As it happens, this is almost certainly complete nonsense, for al-Qaida in Iraq does pose a threat to Iran, due entirely to the brutal attacks on the Shia. Iran is not a passive bystander in Iraq, as we all know. The last thing Iran wants is a fundamentalist "Islamic" state in northern Iraq, breeding hatred which could easily be transferred into suicide bombings in Iran itself. Al-Qaida in Iraq has already most likely carried out a bombing in Jordan, which backfired enormously, hopefully putting paid to any further attacks outside of Iraq for a while, but Iran is unlikely to be taking any such chances. There is of course the possibility that al-Qaida in Iraq supporters are in Iran and operating from there, as they are from other countries in the region, but the chances of there being any actual backing by the state is little short of ludicrous.

The intelligence report also makes it clear that senior Al-Qaeda figures in the region have been in recent contact with operatives in Britain.

It follows revelations last year that up to 150 Britons had travelled to Iraq to fight as part of Al-Qaeda’s “foreign legion”. A number are thought to have returned to the UK, after receiving terrorist training, to form sleeper cells.

Again, it's impossible to judge the veracity of these claims. It's likely that some jihadis have gone to fight in Iraq, and one who wanted to was placed under a control order, but how many is always going to be difficult to judge. Most of the foreign fighters in Iraq are from Algeria and Syria, a report from 2005 stated, and it's unlikely that the frequency has changed much since then, judging by al-Qaida's own recent parades of foreign "martyrs" (WMV), which mainly seem to feature Syrians, Saudis and Egyptians. It was always going to be likely that some from this country would go to fight, and indeed that some would return trained. The head of the "Islamic State" himself last week proclaimed that Iraq was becoming a "university for terrorism", and while self-aggrandisement plays a part, he's also probably right, as the intelligence agencies warned before the war.

“A member of this network is reportedly involved in an operation which he believes requires AQ Core authorisation. He claims the operation will be on ‘a par with Hiroshima and Naga-saki’ and will ‘shake the Roman throne’. We assess that this operation is most likely to be a large-scale, mass casualty attack against the West.”

The report says there is “no indication” this attack would specifically target Britain, “although we are aware that AQI . . . networks are active in the UK”.

So again, there's no evidence that this is even going to target Britain if it isn't indeed crying wolf to begin with, but you can never be too sure in letting these documents out to the Sunday Times just in case.

Despite aspiring to a nuclear capability, Al-Qaeda is not thought to have acquired weapons grade material. However, several plots involving “dirty bombs” - conventional explosive devices surrounded by radioactive material - have been foiled.

More rubbish. There have been no actual foiled plots which would have involved so-called "dirty bombs", unless you include Jose Padilla, where the charges were subsequently dropped, or the fantasist Dhiren Barot, who had no funding, no materials and only the laughable idea of setting fire to or exploding 10,000 smoke alarms. The truth, as the al-Qaida leadership no doubt itself knows, is that dirty bombs are almost entirely useless, likely to only increase the chances of developing cancer to the level of those who came in near contact with the polonium used to assassinate Litveninko, and even that's uncertain. Their use would be mainly for the extra fear effect, as the use of the chlorine in recent attacks in Iraq has illustrated.

There was further stretching of credulity at the weekend when the US claimed that it had intercepted a shipment of Iranian arms which had been destined for the Taliban. That the Iranians had long supported the Northern Alliance, and welcomed the downfall of the Taliban is quickly forgotten once the new enemy has emerged. As the NYT article itself stretches, the only possible gain Iran could get for arming the Taliban would be as a part of a region-wide attempt to further tie down American forces, and would suggest a complete change in policy. The US military instead seems to be pointing the finger and letting others place the blame, when the most likely explanation would be it was again a private shipment by supporters within Iran rather than anything associated with the regime.

Finally, we were also told that Prince Harry is going to be ruthlessly targeted by the evil insurgents, who in one case want to send him back to the Queen, minus his ears:

Together the testimonies suggest that Shia and Sunni paramilitary forces, traditionally sworn enemies, have joined forces to try to capture Harry, a deeply disquieting development for British senior officers.

Sigh. As again, see above. There are few Sunni paramilitary forces operating in the south for the obvious reason that there'd be quickly turned out by the Shia themselves, and as Juan Cole notes, the Observer has wrongly suggested that Thar Allah is Sunni when it's Shiite, and he can neither find any evidence that what the article refers to as the Malik Ibn Al Ashtar Brigade is even anything to do with the Mahdi army. As it is, it seems another load of scaremongering which does disservice to the other British troops whom are facing the real threat for no discernible reason, while Harry is likely to be permanently covered in any case.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007 

Scum and Scumday Times-watch: Invasions, thugs, and outting bloggers.

Some days, looking at the Sun's news page, it's difficult to even know where to begin, which contemptible stories to ignore and which ones to focus on. Today is one of those days.

Let's start then with this calm and measured article:

BRITAIN is bracing itself for an invasion.

Aliens? Locusts? Killer Bees? Vikings? Neo-Conservatives? Fox News hosts? Rupert Murdoch devotees?

Up to 15,000 Bulgarians will come to live here this year after the former Soviet state joined the European Union on Monday.

15,000? Christ, get the minutemen to the borders now! There also appears to have been a sub-editing failure, as while Bulgaria was a member of the Warsaw pact, it was a never a Soviet satellite.

Then there's yet another scare story about how we are shortly going to be swamped by the hordes from Bulgaria:

BULGARIANS jubilant at their country joining the EU headed straight for Britain yesterday — by crowding on to the first bus out.

As a packed coach set off for London, jobless Nikolai Miglevski, 45, declared: “Now I’m free.”

He slammed job curbs imposed as Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU on New Year’s Day — and said the threat of £1,000 fines would not deter his countrymen from finding work here.

Nikolai said: “I’m travelling on a tourist visa, of course. But I don’t know how long I’ll stay in the UK.

“I have many Bulgarian friends working in London. The Bulgarians already there will help the new ones. I like what I hear about London.”

Yes, after stories that only 3 dastardly Romanians had dared showed their faces after Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, the Sun has taken itself to Sofia. It's managed to find the first bus apparently on its way to London, and describes it as packed - even though the accompanying photograph is taken at an angle which only shows half of the front of the coach, with just 7 people clustered near it. The Sun hack only speaks to 3 as well, and also didn't bother counting how many were actually on the bus, or getting a shot of it driving off in panorama for the true scale of those aboard. Still, I'm sure his dispatch was entirely accurate.

Elsewhere, the Scum is still defending the execution of Saddam Hussein, this time by turning on John Prescott for his daring to suggest that the abuse Saddam was subjected to just before he dropped from the scaffold was "deplorable":

SADDAM Hussein was a monster who tortured and murdered for pleasure.

By contrast, his own death was mercifully swift.

The jeering that accompanied it, from those he tormented most, was understandable though unseemly.

Understandable yet unseemly. That's all the condemnation that the Sun can find for the circus which surrounded him as he was put to death. The last public execution in this country was in 1875, when we decided that those about to die at least deserved the respect of not being insulted, ridiculed and mocked as they were executed, whatever crime they had committed. Not Saussure has posted up the thoughts of Dickens on public executions; they are as relevant now as they were then. Orwell's essay on a hanging in Burma, mentioned in the Grauniad leader, is also worth reading.
The Sun doesn't even deem the potentially dire consequences that the sectarian element to the execution may have in the next few weeks on the already out of control violence in the country worthy of a mention. Even those hostages murdered by Zarqawi et al only heard the chants of "God is great" rather than insults meant to humiliate them as they were killed.

It might even have been appropriate for a British minister to say something sensible about it. That rules out John Prescott. On both counts.

Yet this spluttering oaf — a disgrace even to his meaningless office as Deputy PM — was set loose on the BBC to denounce the incident as “totally deplorable”.

This, remember, is the undignified twerp who humiliated his wife and himself by cavorting drunkenly with the hired help who pleasured him under his Whitehall desk.

This is the man who never misses a chance to sneer, jeer or raise two fingers at opponents — if he can’t actually punch them in the face.

Exactly the sort of unpleasant thug who would be first out of the traps to jeer and dance on the grave of a political enemy.

Yes, and this "undignified twerp" is currently running the country, or was, as Blair is still off sunning himself at a home of a Bee Gee in America. All these insults though are aimed at the fact that by the Sun's reckoning Prescott had overstepped himself by calling what happened "utterly deplorable". In fact, as the Guardian leader mentions, it seems that Prescott was more concerned that the additional footage, shot on a mobile phone, possibly by a senior member of the Iraqi government, had emerged at all, more than the fact that Saddam was not allowed to go to his death with dignity. Some will, and can reasonably argue that as he showed his enemies no respect he didn't deserve any - but this could still have been the perfect opportunity to put previous abuses of power in the past, for the new Iraqi government to draw a line under the everyday brutality in the country and to show that they were going to do things differently. Instead things could have not gone more badly or been more indefensible.

The real reason for this editorial is that the Sun, having been so far behind the Iraq war that it would have supported the toppling of Saddam even if WMD had never been mentioned, cannot simply let something which it has took such delight in be bashed in such a way. That it was Prescott that did so made it all the more easier to attack.

On then, to the Scumday Times. For those who thought the journalism on the once revered newspaper was far removed from the abyss of its sister tabloids, it's worth reading this email sent to the sex blogger Girl With A One Track Mind, via BlairWatch:

Aug 5, 2006 11:08 AM

Dear Miss [my name],

We intend to publish a prominent news story in this weekend's paper, revealing your identity as the author of the book, Girl With a One Track Mind.

We have matched up the dates of films you have worked on - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Batman Begins and Lara Croft Tomb Raider - and it is clear that they correlate to your blog. We have obtained your birth certificate, and details about where you went to school and college.

We propose to publish the fact that you are 33 and live in [my address] -London, and that your mother, [her name], is a [her address] -based [her profession]. The article includes extracts from your book and blog, relevant to your career in the film industry. We also have a picture of you, taken outside your flat.

Unfortunately, the picture is not particularly flattering and might undermine the image that has been built up around your persona as Abby Lee. I think it would be helpful to both sides if you agreed to a photo shoot today so that we can publish a more attractive image.

We are proposing to assign you our senior portrait photographer, Francesco Guidicini, and would arrange everything to your convenience, including a car to pick you up. We would expect you to provide your own clothes and make up. As the story will be on a colour page, we would prefer the outfit to be one of colourful eveningwear.

We did put this proposal to you yesterday, but heard nothing back. Clearly this is now a matter of urgency, and I would appreciate you contacting me as soon as possible. To avoid any doubt we will, of course, publish the story as it is if we do not hear from you.

Yours sincerely,
Nicholas Hellen

Acting News Editor

Remember, the privacy test is whether personal information published by a newspaper without permission is in the public interest. While it may be of interest to some people who the blogger actually is, it is certainly not the kind of information that is relevant to the running of the country, or even to the level of who a celebrity is having an affair with. If the Girl With A One Track Mind had entered into a relationship with a politician for instance, then maybe it could just about be argued that revealing who she is would be of great public interest. The reality is that she had simply just published a book based on her blog, which itself is based around her private sexual exploits.

Furthermore, the letter is clearly of a deeply threatening nature. It's the classic gutter journalism trap: we know who you are/what you've done, help us with the story and we'll make it all so much easier. Even this though is shot with malice and licks of sneering contempt, as they have a "less than flattering" shot of her, probably shot with a long-lens or covertly, meant to make both her readers and publishers wonder whether if she's some kind of a fantasist or fictionalising her accounts; clearly an unglamorous woman could never have such an eventful sex life. Then there's their suggestion for the clothes she should wear for the replacement photo shoot, which appears to translate to something tight, extravagant and possibly naughty; all the better for the old colonels and codgers to potentially get off on. The fact that the newspaper had obtained her birth certificate is also something that the information commissioner perhaps ought to investigate: private detective agencies like the one previously exposed by Richard Thomas may well have been involved. Not even the blogger's mother's privacy is safe: she's thrown in to embarrass the family as a whole, and make the deal even less likely to be rejected. That Girl With A One Track Mind refused to go along with Murdoch's minions blackmail was both brave and worth saluting. If this is the depths that the Sunday broadsheets are sinking to, then the tabloids themselves may not have finished scraping the barrel yet.

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