Monday, 19 October 2009

Kaminski, Your Time Is Up

Much has been said and written already about David Cameron's new friends in the EU. Anyone who has read much of this blog will know how I feel.

Each time the issue is raised, and someone expresses their concern at the beliefs held by the likes of Michal Kaminski, the usual Tory reaction is to ignore the issue - and, where possible, accuse the accuser.

Not content with kicking out the only Tory with the balls to question this ill-starred alliance, it now appears the Tories are attempting to rewrite history itself, in a risible attempt to make Kaminski look respectable.

Just a couple of points that someone in Tory HQ might find useful.

Number 1. Wikipedia is not the only source of information on the internet. In fact, arguably, it isn't a source of information at all. Still, it's good to know where you get the base data for your policies.

Number 2. If you are attempting to manipulate the published facts for your own sinister purposes, next time don't do it using a House of Commons IP address. With ignorance like that, it's a wonder you found the internet at all.

As for the rest of us, I think this is something we're going to have to get used to under our new Government. As I remember reading somewhere once: "All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers."

Next week: Boris Johnson's Wikipedia page is amended to show his five Olympic gold medals for wiff-waff.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Free Speech Isn't Free

One of the most basic rights available to those of us living in democracies is the right to freedom of speech, or freedom of expression. From this comes the right to vote, to report on events, to express our opinions, and to hold our leaders to account. Most, if not all, of us take this right for granted. And so we should. It is integral to our freedom in general.

The recent Trafigura debacle - where a previously little-known oil company used a notorious firm of libel lawyers to attempt to gag reports of a toxic waste dumping scandal - has reminded me how precarious this right is. And I'm not just talking about big companies using their financial muscle to (hilariously fail to) overturn 300-year-old laws just to cover up their own wrongdoing, which is egregious and heinous in itself, but that this sorry episode is just one small part of an increasing movement by various interests to restrict individual rights as part of their own agenda. It helps if you make annual profits of US$400million plus, so you can afford lawyers like this.

In the UK, we now have "super-injunctions", as used in the Trafigura case, where an injunction can be sought not only to prevent (say) a newspaper reporting on toxic waste dumping - but also that the same newspaper is not allowed to report on the injunction itself. This Kafkaesque moebius-strip of logic means that there may well be thousands of super-injunctions preventing what most people would consider public interest stories being released... and we're not even allowed to know about the injunctions themselves. As Richard Littlejohn might say, if he ever did any research - "you couldn't make it up".

As a Brit, I envy the United States somewhat, in that their rights and freedoms are clearly written down in a Bill of Rights and a Constitution - in contrast with the mishmash of common law that we have. The First (and by implication, therefore, the most important) Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America reads thus:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now obviously there need to be restrictions on the right to freedom of speech - and there are. No reasonable person would say that you have the right to be offensive, and to provoke violence and hatred, for example. And a US case from 1925 states that this freedom does not allow persons to use words which "by their very nature, involve danger to the public peace and to the security of the state." Seems fair enough, doesn't it.

Here's an example. The US Supreme Court is currently considering a case where a man sold videos of pitbulls fighting. The man got three years in jail for animal cruelty (although Fox News still calls him a "dog lover"), but still has the right to free speech - and this, his lawyers contend, even extends to his hateful videos. Personally I consider this bizarre and incredible - but it does demonstrate how precious this right to freedom of speech is to Americans.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I discovered the other side of this story. I remember the stories last year about how Sarah Palin tried to have books banned from Wasilla library. But that's Sarah Palin - she kerrrazy. Surely this sort of paranoid madness isn't that common. Americans are way too keen on their freedoms - aren't they?

So this is what Trafigura reminded me of. The utter nonsense of trying to suppress a story so much that you end up trampling on a 300-year-old law (and shooting yourself in the foot in the process), brought to mind another recent story that I had to read twice, it was so unbelievable.

You see, it's not just children's books about gay penguins that people want banned. Oh no. It's really serious hardcore stuff. Like Harry Potter. Or that dangerous revolutionary Philip Pullman. Stuff that millions of normal kids read. I mean, it's got so bad, that America now has a Banned Books Week.

I know.

America. Land of the Free. Banned Books Week.

WTF? It's THAT bad?? Shouldn't they be banning Jeffrey Archer first?

Don't they know this kind of stuff almost always backfires? Haven't they heard of the Streisand Effect? Or are these people (whoever they are) so blinded by hatred, intolerance, greed or whatever motivation they have, that they'll gladly ride into the valley of death to attempt to restrict the freedoms they claim to hold so dear?

Who are these people? Isn't it rather scary that some people are willing to go to such great lengths to stop other people reading words?

Some of them are companies with deep pockets who don't want us to know what they've been up to. Some of them are religious fundamentalists (y'know, the kind that seriously think Obama is the antichrist) wanting to impose their intolerant morality on the rest of us.

But ALL of them are dangerous. And if we don't stand up to them now, what price will we pay for our freedom in future? We cannot afford to live in a society where you can buy silence, or obtain it by threats. And surely we don't want to live in a world when harmless children's books are banned, while stories of vital public interest are quietly buried. Do we? The question is - can we afford the lawyers?

This is a slightly amended version of a blog post originally uploaded on 15 October, and (ironically) taken down on 16 October

Power To The People

I recently attended a residents' meeting, held to coordinate opposition to a planned green belt development. Having never dabbled much before in local politics, I looked forward to a lively debate, and - with any luck - a bit of a ruck as well.

Imagine my disappointment.

The first clue that things might not quite kick off as I had hoped, was the venue: The local Methodist Church.

Now don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Methodists - no more than I do against any other Christian denomination, anyway - but I think it's safe to say that Methodists are not generally known for their rabble-rousing shenanigans. In fact, I'd even go so far as to say that Methodists aren't really known for anything.

On arrival, though, signs were initially more promising. A shifty-looking geezer was loitering outside the church hall entrance, shivering in the cold. He had a fistful of leaflets he was handing out to passers-by, which could not initially be discerned in the dark. As I drew near, I prepared to accept a leaflet. Just as I extended my hand, a terrible stench drew close around me, as if the gates of hell themselves had opened briefly to allow some excess sulphur to leak out. In the darkness, the BNP logo on the leaflet became apparent. I scuttled past.

I wish, now, that I had taken one. I'd love to see an insight into the BNP's angle on planning issues in rural Essex. I'd particularly like to see how they got the race angle involved, in what is possibly the whitest place I've ever lived. Sadly I may now never know.

The Methodist hall itself probably holds around 100 people. It was packed. I can only assume the live entertainment in the local pubs was pretty light this week. Maybe it was even karaoke. That would explain a lot.

The first part of the meeting consisted of the organisers of this little protest group introducing themselves to the assembled throng, and setting out the aims of the group - namely, to stop one particular development from going ahead. We were all showered with facts regarding flood plains, flight paths, traffic infrastructure and the lack of local school places - all good stuff, and strong arguments, but I did wonder whether any single person in the room didn't already know these facts. (Unless the BNP guy had got in, of course.) The proposed building site is indeed in a flood plain, and under a flight path... and it's on green belt land. So far so dandy - but we hadn't really learned anything yet.

All this would change in the second part; the open forum Q&A. This is the part we had all come for. Although admittedly in most cases it was because they had a question to ask. Rather than, in my case, because I hoped a particularly annoying question might result in fisticuffs.

Sadly, as you might expect, most of the questions - and answers - turned out to be pretty anodyne stuff. In fact, all bar a few questions were people asking whether we knew that the proposed development was on a flood plain, was under a flight path, was on green belt land, and did not have sufficient infrastructure to handle the additional traffic. Sigh. At this point I was beginning to wonder whether it might actually be me that started a fight, just out of sheer frustration. Fortunately, ennui just got there ahead of frustration, and I retained my inertia. I'm starting to develop a useful skill of remaining completely immobile while on hallowed ground. Just in case, you know. Just in case.

Most of the remaining questions were about other planned developments in the local area. Each one was dismissed on the grounds that this group was focussing on just this one development. Only. It must have taken a couple of dozen repetitions of this fairly simple concept before the questions dried up. I began to wonder if some people had come in here looking for salvation, and got lost in the talk of drainage solutions.

One contributor to the Q&A deserves special mention. Following a gentleman who described himself as an 'outsider' for living in the next town for the first 15 years of his life, I was initially surprised to find a besuited man stand up and claim to be a proper local resident, in a broad Scottish accent. He had a rant which he had prepared beforehand, plus visual aids. This could be good. This might even be 'it'.

But no.

Just as he'd got rolling, and was beginning to reach a crescendo of irrelevance, he was shouted down. "Excuse me sir, this is not a political forum" - we have polite hecklers out our way, you know. The man continued gamely for a few words, but the chorus of disapproval grew, and he sat down, chastened. A murmur passed around the assembled residents. I just caught the words 'UKIP' and 'idiot'. I wondered whether he had picked up a BNP leaflet outside. I also wondered whether a residents' meeting was the best place to canvass about the evils of the EU. I wasn't brave enough to raise my hand and ask, though.

And just as well. As the meeting began to draw to a close, we were all entreated to attend the council planning meeting next month, and to write objection letters to the planning committee in the meantime. The group organisers had brought some local councillors with them to help us understand some of the more arcane concepts relating to local planning law. What they didn't expect was to end up in a ten-minute bickering exchange on whether residents should support the Core Strategy or not. On such small matters can hang the success or failure of entire revolutions. So it was probably just as well that the matter was brushed under the carpet just before it got really nasty. Of course, nobody now knows whether they should support the Core Strategy or not, but hey - that's democracy. Or indecision. I forget which.

And so it ended. Or, more accurately, so it continued as I sneaked out. They might have still been going the next morning, for all I know.

So there it is. My first real contact with local activism. I don't know whether to be impressed with the protest group's confidence in the face of a vast development conglomerate, but I was expecting at least a minor scuffle. I hope Wolfie Smith would have approved.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The BNP can kiss my indigenous ar*e

As a follow-up to my first blog post, some of the Twitterati have alerted me to the fact that the BNP now have a freephone number.

So, "fellow patriots", feel free (it's in the name, after all) to phone 0800 008 6191 from as many public phone boxes as you can, and leave the phone off the hook. And feel free to pass this on to as many people as you like.

Update: It might be wise to dial 141 first. Some people are getting call-backs from the BNP!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Spot The Difference

Since I was a child, I liked those games where you get two pictures that appear similar, and have to find the small subtle differences. Here's my take on this old chestnut.

Today's Daily Express front page:

A recent BNP demo outside Lunar House (HQ of the UK border agency):

And, finally, more BNP idiots in Dover:

How interesting that a national newspaper should directly quote the slogan of a racist party. Right down to the superfluous "up" at the end. And, of course, the fact that it's patently false doesn't help.

A cynical person might see this headline, and think that this supposedly great historic media organisation was actually run by a shower of small-minded idiots. For example.

UPDATE I see that the ever-excellent Tabloid Watch beat me to it.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The War on Terror... and other abstract nouns

Almost from the moment Kenny MacAskill announced his decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the backlash began. For the first time since his inauguration last January, Barack Obama actually seemed pretty miffed. Even Gordon Brown claimed he was 'repulsed' - although this comment appears to be more directed toward the rapturous welcome the shellsuit-clad Megrahi received in Tripoli, than any comment on his release. Perhaps it was the shellsuit itself that Brown found repulsive.

Now I don't want to get into too much detail about Megrahi here. Plenty of people in the know believe that his conviction was unsafe, and based on circumstantial evidence - although this of course was not a factor in the decision to release him. Balancing the need to punish a man convicted of 270 murders, against the need to show that "we" have a moral superiority over terrorists and can recognise that in some circumstances it is better to treat people with compassion rather than revenge, is a minefield. I'll leave it to those who are paid to make these decisions.

But I do want to focus, briefly, on the backlash. And not just the silly idea of boycotting Scottish products which has been mooted, presumably by the Freedom Fries brigade.

Broadly speaking, it seems that the major objection to Megrahi's release - understandably - is that many families remain bereaved by the murder of 270 civilians back in December 1988. Worse than that, he has failed to show any remorse for the crime - not least, presumably, because he had (until his release) been appealing against his conviction.

I remember clearly when I first heard about the Lockerbie tragedy. I was horrified. There is something about terrorism in the air that really has an emotional impact. And of course the terrorists know this. 9/11 is the prime example.

So, fair enough, I say. If you lost a loved one on Pan Am flight 103, or on the ground in Lockerbie itself, then you have every right to feel angry about Megrahi's release. As many relatives of the victims have pointed out, Megrahi didn't show a shred of compassion to the people he killed, so why should he be the beneficiary of compassion? Why, indeed, should anybody who blows up airliners full of civilians feel anything but the full force of the law?

For example...

Five months before Lockerbie, the USS Vincennes was steaming through the Straits of Hormuz. At the same time, Iran Air flight 655 was flying from Bandar Abbas to Dubai. 290 passengers and crew were aboard the Airbus A300, including 66 children. In the process of chasing some Iranian patrol vessels, the Vincennes shot down the Iranian jet, with the loss of all lives on board.

It took four years for the US Government to admit that the Vincennes had been in Iranian territorial waters at the time of the incident, and that the Airbus had been in Iranian airspace. The Americans' explanation that the aircraft had been mistaken for an attacking F14 Tomcat is of course laughable - the Airbus is 54 metres long and cruises at 515mph; whereas the Tomcat is just 19 metres long and travels at up to 1,500mph. This is a bit like mistaking an African elephant for a domestic cat. In broad daylight. With state-of-the-art military radar and aircraft recognition equipment. And at least one decent pair of binoculars. And a big sign saying "This Is An Elephant".

In August 1988, then President George H W Bush said of the incident: "I'll never apologize for the United States of America, ever. I don't care what the facts are." Which just about demonstrates the US attitude to destroying aircraft in mid-air... unless someone else does it, of course. It wasn't until 1996 that the US agreed to pay over $130 million in compensation. Which sort of looks like an admission of guilt. A bit.

So where is the outrage? The commander of the Vincennes, Captain William C Rogers III, was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1990 by President Bush "for exceptionaly meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer.... from April 1987 to May 1989". No trial took place, and Rogers was not subjected to a court-martial, despite the fact that he stated he did not believe the Airbus (which was transmitting an IFF code) was non-hostile. Sort of like mistaking a white flag for an RPG launcher, only even more stupid and reckless.

I don't know about you, but if I had lost a relative on Iran Air 655, I might be more than a little put out that the man responsible for its destruction was not only allowed to go unpunished, but was actually openly rewarded for his conduct at that time. Arguably, had the US taken this incident more seriously instead of attempting to cover it up, Lockerbie may never have happened.

But Iran Air 655 was still an accident, right? Well, possibly. But this wasn't.

6 October 1976. Cubana flight 455 is en route from Barbados to Jamaica, with 73 passengers and crew on board. Two explosions rip the aircraft apart, and the pilot crashes it into the ocean, once it becomes apparent he will not be able to make it back to land. All on board died.

14 October 1976. Luis Posada Carilles and Orlando Bosch are arrested in Caracas. Weapons, explosives, and a radio transmitter were found at Posada's company premises. Both men had been trained and employed by the CIA. A declassified CIA document quotes Posada as saying "We are going to hit a Cuban airliner... Orlando has the details" in September 1976.

8 August 1985. Two co-conspirators are found guilty of aggravated homicide in a Venezuelan court, and sentenced to twenty years. Bosch got off on a technicality (evidence wasn't translated into Spanish in time), and Posada escaped and went on the run.

Fast-forward to today. You might think that the United States government, with all the noise it makes about pursuing terrorists, might have nabbed these two by now. Perhaps they are languishing in some hellhole prison after being extraordinarily rendered by the CIA. Er, no.

In 1990, President George H W Bush (yes, him again) granted Bosch a pardon. He now lives in Miami. Posada was in fact arrested by US authorities in 2005, but only for illegally entering the United States. The charges were later dismissed - apparently because Posada faces the possibility of torture if extradited back to Venezuela. And they say Americans don't do irony. Like Bosch, Posada now lives freely in the USA - something that 73 innocent people will never be able to do.

Bosch, Posada, Rogers, and any number of other US-backed killers remain alive and at liberty; Abdulbaset al-Megrahi is about to die. It seems to me that Megrahi has served his sentence. Perhaps now we need to go after those who have yet to be held to account for their own crimes. And perhaps we can take some advice from a man that all US Presidents claim to follow: "You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

I Found A Tory Policy At Last

I have been casually following the Healthcare debate in the United States recently, most notably because of some of the more bizarre and outrageous statements that have been made about Britain's "socialised" healthcare system. Did I say statements? I meant lies.

For example, Fox News's Glenn Beck - never a man closely acquainted with the truth at the best of times - claimed that world-renowned scientist Stephen Hawking would have been left to die by the NHS. Hawking immediately rebutted:

"I wouldn't be here today if it were not for the NHS," he said. "I have received a large amount of high-quality treatment without which I would not have survived."

That just about covers that, then. Well done Glenn. As "fair and balanced" as we have come to expect.

It gets worse, though. Much worse.

Hypothetical question - what would YOU do, if you knew you had (a) no coherent argument, and (b) were about to lose a debate? That's right... you reach for Godwin's Law (Limbaugh), call the other side Nazis (Beck), and harp on incoherently about an "evil" system involving state-sanctioned murder by "death panels" (Palin).

Nurses model their new NHS uniforms [above]

Obviously we have come to expect this sort of behaviour from the Fox News brigade, and the shock-jocks. This isn't new. But for a recent VP candidate, and probable future Presidential candidate, this demonstrates an alarming shift towards the loony end of the political spectrum from the Republicans.

Even the British are at it (or, at least, one Brit who makes a career out of talking complete bollocks). The NHS isn't perfect, but this doesn't tally in the slightest with my experience of the NHS. This, however, is a reasonable riposte to Mr Hannan which I wholly endorse:

Despairing of anything that might resemble a proper fact-based debate in the United States, I turned closer to home to see if the recent elevation in this story's prominence might actually prompt the Tories to come up with a policy. I've been waiting a long time for this moment. Would "Call me Dave" Cameron oblige, or would there just be more mealy-mouthed words about supporting the NHS, while packing his team of health ministers with people paid by private healthcare companies?

Searching for Tory policies these days is no small task. Yes, they make statements on a daily basis - and some of these statements appear, at first glance, to be policy-type commitments... but on closer inspection they generally turn out to be piffle. Thus far, I have found one in particular that caught my eye, thanks to the snappy name they gave it - the "Bonfire of the Quangos". Oh yes, Tories, very clever and hilarious. Shame there's no substance, but never mind. At least you've set your stall out in terms of not supporting massive unelected organisations running the nation's infrastructure. And fair enough, I say.

Back to their health policy. I went to the one place where surely I'd be able to find an unadulterated summary. For the first time in my life, therefore, I visited the Tories' own website - and look what I found:

Few things matter more to our country than the NHS – it’s an institution that binds the nation together.

And a Conservative Government will work tirelessly to earn the trust of the patients and staff of the NHS.

* We will always provide the funding the NHS needs and are committed to real increases in health spending
* We will scrap Labour’s plans to cut A&E and maternity services, which are not supported by evidence that patient access and care will be improved, so that patients have access to high-quality services at their local hospital
* We will protect family doctor services by opposing Labour’s plans to impose impersonal "polyclinics" at the expense of local GP surgeries
* We will make money available for 45,000 more single rooms in the NHS over five years, almost doubling their current number. This will mean every patient going into hospital for planned care can have a single room if they want one
* We will reform the way drugs are priced so that all new treatments that are clinically effective are made available, ending the situation whereby cancer drugs that are routinely available in the rest of Europe and not provided in this country
* Most importantly, we will set the NHS free from the ministerial meddling that has resulted in money being diverted from patient care to wasteful bureaucracy. We want to deliver an NHS that provides the best health standards in the world, and ensure every patient is able to choose a good healthcare provider for their needs.

Our draft NHS Autonomy and Accountability Bill, published in 2007, set out plans to release NHS staff from top-down interference and allow them to concentrate on doing what they do best: providing top-quality care to patients.

A vital part of this is the creation of an independent NHS Board to take responsibility for dividing up NHS funds between different parts of the country away from Ministerial meddling. This body will allocate money fairly and in a way which will help secure equal access to healthcare for all.

Much of this is, of course, rubbish. How can anyone, for example, disagree with the first sentence - and are there any political parties that don't say just the same as the Tories' second sentence? And what is "top-down interference", if it's not just "doing as your boss has instructed"?

The bit that interests me most, though, is the creation of a new NHS board to replace "ministerial meddling". (Funny, I thought it was the Health Secretary's job to get involved in the NHS, but no... apparently it's meddling.)

How big would this NHS Board have to be, to run an organisation with 1.5 million employees, and a budget of around £100 billion? Even Andy Burnham realises that this would involve the creation of the world's largest Quango.

Could it possibly be, that Cameron was once again talking out of his Eton-educated multi-millionaire completely-out-of-touch pandering-to-the-Mail behind? Again?

Given all the private healthcare interests already ensconced in Cameron's shadow cabinet, I think we can see through these statements to the real future of the NHS under a Tory government. And it makes Glenn Beck look almost sane.

Cartoon (c) Martin Rowson, The Guardian

Monday, 17 August 2009

Norfolk & Rest For The Wicked

We have recently returned from a week's break in Norfolk, where we stayed in a converted windmill.

If you're looking for some peace and quiet, without having to fly somewhere remote (or, rather, more remote than just outside Great Yarmouth) then you could do a lot worse than here. The mill, a former drainage pump for Haddiscoe Island, is a four mile drive from the nearest Tarmac. Now known as Red Mill (for fairly obvious reasons), it was formerly known as Langley Detached Mill.

Haddiscoe Island is over 2,000 acres of drained marshes used as grazing for cattle. The island is dotted with gates and cattle grids to keep the livestock under control, and there are currently two residences (that we could see) in constant use on the island. Other than these signs of civilisation, there is little other than wildlife to break the silence.

The island's bird life is extraordinarily diverse. Even an avian ignoramus such as I was able to see (with identification assisted by my splendid wife) cormorants, Egyptian geese, herons, swifts, and many more. We even saw - in daylight - an owl taking small rodents from the long grasslands. The same owl swooped at me more than once when I stepped outside at night for a cigarette. Having spent most of my life living in cities, this place feels truly wild.

Here's a shaky video of the mill exterior, and immediate surroundings, recorded on my phone:

As you can imagine, such a place is paradise for dogs. Azul and Blackie wasted no opportunities to run off on adventures, only to reappear half an hour later covered in various noxious substances. The water in the drainage channels isn't the freshest....

Azul seemed to be mainly fascinated with the cows. However, this being calving season, the cows failed to reciprocate Azul's friendly curiosity. On more than one occasion I was walking along the track across the island, looking for the dogs after their latest escape attempt, only to find the cows herding them back to me. I've never seen a cow chase a dog before. It was worth the wait.

Blackie, as ever, is more interested in smelling, eating, or rolling in things. Preferably dirty things. If there's a filthy ditch full of stagnant water somewhere, you can be sure Blackie is heading in that direction. Or is already half-submerged in it.

Canine adventures aside, we found our stay in the mill to be most restful. It's a rare opportunity these days to be able to sit by the water and read a book. No traffic. No people (bar the occasional walker along the sea wall, or the odd passing river craft). And barely any mobile phone coverage (and thus no work). If they had mains water, and broadband, I'd happily stay there all year round.

The ground floor of the mill has an extension built to house the bathroom and kitchen, but otherwise all remaining rooms are built into the original structure. The ground floor has a cosy living room with gas fire, and steps up to the first floor bedroom, which has views north toward Yarmouth. The second floor is accessed by a vertiginous 'stairway' (ie ladder), and a similar arrangement allows you to climb right up to the cap itself, where some of the original mill workings remain. The views from all floors are stunning - and, as is so often the case in this part of the country, the sunsets are pretty staggering too. Each night we were able to sit on the decking outside the mill, watching the flame-red sky reflecting off the River Yare.

I think the dogs will miss this place even more than I do.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

It was with no small sense of amusement that I noticed the following article in today's Daily Mail:

Scared to death? The REAL worry is today's culture of fear

To save yourself the mental anguish of opening a link to - the article basically bemoans the fact that "The Authorities" (their capitals) are trying to scare us all to death over swine flu. Yes, "The Authorities". Not, as you might have thought, "The Mendacious Nazi-Friendly Tabloid Press", oh no.

I couldn't be bothered to read the whole article - seems only fair when it comes to the Mail to judge them without actually reading it - but it did strike me as odd that a paper which has been so sensationalist about swine flu could even attempt to try something so blatantly hypocritical (and staggering to think that a large proportion of their readership would swallow this without hesitation).

Here are a selection of front pages from the previous week:

So, as you can see, it's all the fault of The Authorities. Shame on them all. I bet The Authorities cause cancer and are bad for house prices, too.

Now I believe in giving everyone a chance - even racists and liars - so I picked another story from last week which grabbed my attention, and thought I'd see how that was dealt with. As a 'control' in this experiment, I compared the Mail's reporting to The Guardian (left-of-centre quality daily), and The Telegraph (close to the Mail's political stance, but written by people with intelligence). Here's what I found. I warn you - it will not come as a surprise.

The story I checked was this - the release of the latest UK crime statistics by the Home Office (or, if you prefer, "The Authorities").

The Home Office website summarises the report, very briefly, as follows:

Here are some significant crime statistics from our most recent research, Crime in England and Wales 2008-09:

* the number of police recorded crimes fell by 5% between 2007-08 and 2008-09
* police recorded 6% fewer violent against the person offences, 10% fewer vandalism offences and 10% fewer offences against vehicles, but home burglaries have increased by 1%
* the risk of becoming a victim of crime as measured by the BCS rose from 22% to 23%, but is well below its peak of 40% in 1995

Overall that looks pretty good, I'm sure you'll agree. It certainly could be worse - if you don't believe me, watch The Wire.

So how did the Guardian, Telegraph and Mail report this story? I searched their websites last week, and found four articles in the Guardian, five in the Mail, and four in the Telegraph.

Let's start with the least sensationalist - the control in this experiment, if you like. The Guardian article headlines were as follows:

Murder rate at its lowest in 20 years - comforting headline, albeit accompanied by photo of serial killer.

Murder rate at lowest for 20 years - same again but without Harold Shipman.

Crime figures: 'The largest sustained fall in crime in this country's history' - an audio entry from a senior reporter.

The Guardian also added a Comment piece: Massaging the crime figures in which they (maturely and unsensationally) discuss how the figures provided by the Home Office might have been measured.

Let's move on to The Telegraph. Surely they will be equally responsible, and not whip these figures up into some sort of crime wave hysteria. Won't they? Let's have a look:

Crime victims rise significantly for first time in 14 years - note the use of the word "significantly", and then check the second paragraph:

It represents a one per cent increase in the risk of being a crime victim - the first significant rise since 1994.

Oh right, sorry. I thought we were in danger for a moment there.

Their other efforts:

Burglaries likely to rise for first time in six years because of recession fuelled crimewave - basically a wild prediction of mayhem and trashed homes... based on figures which show a fall, or at worse a tiny increase, in relevant crimes.

Pickpocket thefts and bag snatches rise 25 per cent, British Crime Survey shows - followed by an article that then demonstrates that almost all categories of crime show a fall, and fails to mention the most likely reason for a 25% increase in reported thefts is down to an increase in reporting, rather than an increase in theft.

The Telegraph also posted a video report, following up on the above story.

Well, I thought... while I am slightly surprised at the Telegraph's relentlessly downbeat attitude to their headline writing, surely the Daily Mail can't out-sensationalise them, can they?

Oh dear.

Hidden epidemic of teenage crime: Two thirds 'fell victim to theft in past month' EPIDEMIC!

Credit crunch crime wave: Theft, burglaries and fraud rise on the back of record unemployment CRIME WAVE!

Rise of the online credit card sharks: Annual crime figures reveal fraud soaring to £610m SOARING!

Serious knife attacks rocket by 50 per cent in one year ... acknowledged to be entirely down to change in the way such crimes are counted... but still worth a panicky headline apparently.

'Dynamic' security system developed as cash card fraud spirals out of control OUT OF CONTROL!

Now, I don't know about you, but when I woke up this morning I did not expect that today would be the day I was mugged by a teenage crack whore, raped by a gipsy (sic) immigrant benefit scrounger, and then caught a virulent deadly virus from a politically correct remark.

But now I just wish I'd stayed at home. I'm terrified. And there's no point, now I've reached this level of abject fear, to point out some fluffy rubbish like "The REAL worry is today's culture of fear" when we all know...


Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Greatest Over

Alright, so perhaps that's a little OTT in the hyperbole department... but nevertheless this is a joy to watch.

Sadly, we shall not see his like again. So let's hope his final four Test matches yield as much in terms of sheer guts and entertainment.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

My Pet Hates #1 - Toilet Roll Dispensers

Yes folks, here it is, the not-awaited-at-all first in an occasional series of articles on STUFF WOT WINDS ME UP. Think of it as being a bit like a Daily Mail article - but without the casual racism (although while still retaining that staggering disregard for facts).

Actually, now I think about it, the Daily Mail - there's a future candidate for this list.

Right now, though, this is my bugbear. This ridiculous contraption. Just look at it.

Ugly isn't it.

The basic rule for any design is "Form follows function". So how can something that has such a basic function - so basic that, for years, we've managed with just a stick to hold the roll - have such poor form?

OK, so I wasn't expecting Pininfarina to be part of the design process when I'm just going for a Number Two... but on the other hand, I also didn't expect to see a contraption that looks like a cross between an early Apple Mac prototype and an Imperial Stormtrooper's codpiece. So, on form, it's a FAIL.

Ah, but what about function, I hear you fail to ask.

After all, these things stop people nicking the loo roll, don't they.

Well... yes... I suppose they do. But how many people do YOU know that would nick an industrial-sized roll of bogpaper? Maybe once, in a drunken puerile prank... but probably not habitually. (Well, not since the court order.)

Now, I did some research on this. Only half-arsed research, obviously, but it was research nevertheless. And I discovered that these plastic monstrosities cost about thirty quid each. THIRTY QUID. That means you'd have to prevent the theft of at least six rolls of paper to make them financially viable. Is there a massive black market in illegally acquired industrial bumwipes? No, I think not. Opium, guns, porn... but not dunny roll. Imagine the Royal Navy chasing down a ship full of that stuff. They'd be pretty disappointed when they opened up the hold, I think you'll agree.

This particular model is getting closer to perfection

Alright then, so I agree that locking a roll of ultra-low-cost paper in an expensive plastic and metal container WILL stop all but the most determined thief. But surely the main object - certainly this is what I use it for - is to dispense toilet paper. The clue is in the name.

But here's the other "function" problem. It doesn't work. If the roll is new, the paper jams against the inside of the dispenser, and the roll barely turns at all. You have to yank it so hard the paper breaks, and you're left with enough paper to wipe the corner of your eye, not a great big fat arris like mine.

If you're fortunate enough to visit the smelliest room when someone else has done the hard work for you, and pulled out the first few metres, then you may well be able to access the paper. But only by sticking your hand up into the gap (with serrated edges) in an attempt to find the end of the roll and pull it back out again. One. Damned. Sheet. At. A. Time. By this time there's a pretty annoyed person banging on the cubicle door, and the only way to get at the paper is to smash the dispenser. Brilliant. Thirty quid please.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Persian Tyranny

I have to admit to being unable to resist the emotional lure of seeing great numbers of people stand up and resist oppression. To do so in a non-violent manner when provoked by beatings, shootings and more, shows a level of courage and certainty that I find both admirable and inspiring.

Anyone that follows my Twitter feed knows that I have been trying to follow recent events in Iran closely. I have seen, and shared, a number of videos and photos with people around the world - some uplifting, some distressing.

There is one simple yet moving video which has really touched me - one that shows the passion and the deep-seated need for freedom behind the current uprising. I'd like to share it with you here.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Labour's Lost Love

Last night was the final nail in the New Labour coffin. Demoted to third place in the polls, behind the Eurosceptic far right UKIP with just over 15% of the popular vote, this is an utter humiliation. A party that has been in Government for twelve years, beaten by a motley group of no-hopers. Who would have thought it, back in 1997.

Much of the media focus - and, admittedly, my own wailing and gnashing of teeth - has been in relation to the BNP's breakthrough. Yes, it's the 21st Century, yet a slice of the people of (certain parts of Northern) England decided it was in their best interests to send two Nazis to represent us in Europe. In the capital of a nation which we helped free from, er, the Nazis. The embarrassment is palpable - but, just perhaps, the sense of the end of days is somewhat overstated.

The BBC's Nick Robinson has confirmed today that the BNP got fewer votes in their favoured area, North West England, than they did in the previous Euro elections in 2004. Their total vote in the region dropped from 134,959 to 132,094. Clearly they have held on to their core vote - now we know almost exactly how many racist idiots there are in the North West - but their increase in the voting share (from 1.6% in 2004 to 8% in 2009) is down entirely to people not voting.
So perhaps the "problem" we currently face in the UK is not, mercifully, the rise of intolerance and hatred.... but the rise of apathy and disaffection with the political process. Sadly, the latter is almost as dangerous as the former.

No doubt, many of those who neglected to vote will be complaining about some aspect of Europe or another, during the next five years. I suggest they address their complaints to Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons. After all, they - just as much as the 132,094 people who voted BNP - put them in the European Parliament in the first place.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Tory! Tory! Tory!

Just a short post today, in the aftermath of yesterday's local and European elections. Early results (as I write, 3 of 35 councils have declared) show a major swing from Labour to the Conservatives. Although this was not unexpected, it demonstrates that David Cameron's opportunism over the expenses scandal appears to have worked - despite the fact that, arguably, he and his MPs were amongst the most egregious claimers. Images of moats, duck ponds, and the like come to mind.

Those of us who had hoped for a radical shift in the political landscape - be that toward the Eurosceptics and nationalists, or toward the eco-friendly leftie types - will be disappointed again it seems. Except perhaps in the Netherlands, where the anti-immigrant nutters seem to have done quite well. Worrying, but again not entirely surprising (particularly in Holland).

So now we wait. And hope. Is the turnout high enough to negate the knuckle-draggers' votes for racists? It doesn't look good. How will Cameron's MEPs get on in their new post-EPP alliance with homophobes, climate change deniers, and the like? Bearing in mind there aren't that many of them, I'd guess not too well.

I can barely bring myself to look. It's bad enough that we elect these idiots domestically, but to send them out to represent us internationally is severely embarrassing.

Still - one good thing has come of all this: the chance to have another laugh at the idiots at UKIP, the party of racists who shop at M&S. Given the extreme length of the ballot paper this time around, poor old UKIP found their small band of intellectually challenged followers were unable to deal with a fold in a piece of paper. Hm - and they want to determine whether or not we remain in the world's largest trading bloc. I don't think so.

Now I'm off to watch Gordon reshuffle his cabinet. If he has any MPs left.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Dogs Have Owners; Cats Have Staff

"Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea." - Robert A. Heinlein

I'll get this out in the open - I'm a dog person. Always have been. Rarely have I met a cat that I can tolerate - even a docile, sleepy mog curled up in the far corner of the room has as much appeal to me as covering yourself in furballs and scratches (and all too often one follows the other alarmingly swiftly). So it is with great joy that I am now able to say.... "I am a dog owner, and I smell of wet fur".

Last month, my wife and I rescued two dogs from a shelter in Spain. Like most animal rescue shelters, they do a fantastic job on almost no resources - relying the generosity of people who are able to give some time or money to help out. The shelter is even now in the process of being forcibly closed by the local authorities: any dogs not rehomed before the deadline will be euthanised. Now I've had the odd row with my neighbour over the party wall, and I've had the council building regs bloke round to check on my home improvements, but this is a bit more serious. Something needed to be done.

The two dogs we chose (and boy is it hard to choose when you know whatever you do is a life and death decision) were both close friends, and shared the last kennel enclosure right at the back of the shelter. Both are great characters, and seemed a perfect fit for us - they are also inseparable, and it would have been agonising to split them up, and leave one behind. Now, the upsides of dog ownership are well-known: companionship, loyalty, exercise... but the downsides are less publicised. Nevertheless, with the right attitude, even these can be considered positively. For example, I am pleased to confirm that the acquisition of two dogs means that I am no longer the most flatulent member of the household... although I think I've just about managed to hang on to second place under a strong challenge.

Blowing raspberries is also a talent, you know...

Later blog posts will document some of the ups and downs of life with our two dogs, but here I'll restrict myself to a brief introduction to each of them.

Azul is, as far as we can tell, a cross between a husky and an Australian cattle dog... possibly with some dingo thrown in for good measure. His previous owners left him locked out on a small balcony area with no room for exercise, and little human contact (except possibly the abusive kind). Now around two years old, he is extremely people-friendly, but still a little hostile - or, more likely, nervous - around dogs he doesn't know. He would be a useless guard dog, unless we happen to be burgled by someone who is allergic to saliva.

Azul tends to prompt the most reaction from people because of his appearance, and his foreign name (Spanish for "blue", after his eye). At least one member of the family prefers to call him Abdul, and a number of people have asked whether his blue eye is blind. One suggestion was for him to wear a patch over his brown eye, "and see if he bumps into things". Clearly a zoologist at work there, a Johnny Morris de nos jours if I am not mistaken.

Azul has already shown a liking for Bombay Sapphire and Tonic... without a doubt, this dog was destined to be with us. Next time I'll leave my glass a little further out of reach though.... remember: one G&T is seven G&Ts in dog drinks.

Blackie is a cross between a Belgian Shepherd and, er, a Wookiee. His name is in fact the Spanish diminutive for Chewbacca, and is by no means a racist epithet (ahem). Nevertheless, I am careful when calling him that I don't sound like some Dambusters-obsessed Tourette's sufferer. There are some areas near where we live, where I just wouldn't call him at all. So if you find a dopey-looking dog with outsized feet wandering around W*stcl*ff On S*a, give me a call.

Blackie's rescue story is epic, and makes Reggie Perrin look like John "canoe man" Darwin. He was found when still a small puppy, being kicked around outside a local cafe by the cooks and staff. When he was fed, it was more thrown at him than served - I suspect he didn't leave a tip. The lady that rescued him asked his "owners" if she could take him away for a free neutering operation, but couldn't bring herself to return the dog to such violent owners, so called them and told them he died during the operation. As a result, therefore, Blackie doesn't officially exist - sort of like Jason Bourne, but having to turn around three times before shooting someone.

Blackie is around six months younger than Azul, and still has many puppylike traits. He is extremely playful when off the leash and out in the fields, and loves nothing more than bounding through the crops like Tigger on a frightening cocktail of amphetamines. He is, perhaps not surprisingly, very wary of people and seemed in the first instance to have no idea how to deal with physical affection. I am pleased to say that he is now settling in quickly with the help of his best mate. All he needs to learn at this stage is that there are some things on this Earth that were NOT specifically created to be chewed to oblivion.

Both of these dogs have suffered badly in their early lives, and were extremely fortunate to have been rescued by such dedicated people. We are lucky to have them, and if they are happy in their new lives then so much the better. I knew that one day I would have a dog again, but these two nutters have added more joy and warmth to my life than I could ever have reasonably expected. If you have the time, the space, and the heart for it, then I cannot recommend anything more highly than to rescue a friend for life from certain death.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The Wonders Of Democracy

I don't expect this blog will change the world - in fact, I'd settle for it changing its own underwear from time to time. But I would like my first post to be at least partially serious. (The rapid downhill slope starts here...)

So, we have an election coming up - this time it's for the European Parliament, on 4 June. And after the recent political scandals here in the UK, it seems even the British are going to outdo themselves when it comes to electoral apathy.

Now I don't have a problem, per se, with people who don't vote - although I do find it odd that such a basic and fundamental right isn't exercised by people who are either too lazy, or too smug, to realise its true value. But in this particular case, I care more than usual. Unlike our Parliamentary elections, the European elections are on a Proportional Representation basis - meaning that every single vote counts. And, by extension, every missed vote counts as an increased share for the BNP. That's where it gets serious. That's why it matters.

So this first blog post is really just to urge you to vote in this election (if eligible). And I don't care who for, as long as it's not the BNP.

While you're thinking about who to vote for, here's an amusing exercise that I completely don't recommend. The BNP's latest electoral leaflet is their usual mish-mash of outrageous lies, racist innuendo, and plain bullshit. It even includes stock photos of pensioners and the like, with BNP-type comments attached. It's a shame they didn't ask the permission of the people whose images they used, but hey - that's the BNP for ya. Fascists don't ask - they just do. Hence the egregious use of a photo of Winston Churchill - a man who was most famous for fighting the likes of them.

As many people have already spotted, buried away in the small print somewhere, is a return Admail address for people who wish to communicate with our friendly local racists - so friendly, in fact, that they'll pay the postal charges.

So wouldn't it be awful, for example, if thousands of us sent the leaflets back to the BNP at their free admail address. Or, worse, if we all sent them thousands of A4 sized envelopes - these cost more than the normal size. Imagine the mayhem at BNP HQ. Imagine the impact this sudden expense would have on a small, fringe political group. It would be a terrible shame. If enough people did it, there might even be some real financial problems for our black-shirted chums.

The address I don't recommend you send anything large, heavy or smelly to, is:

National Office, Admail 4148, London, EC1A 1UY

Please don't forget to vote.