Monday, 15 September 2014

Hack Attack is great but where credit is due?

Nick Davies's Hack Attack is great but there is an ongoing irritation regarding one of the Guardian’s claims to glory.

On page 189, Davies refers to the case of former News of the World reporter Matt Driscoll who won his case at an employment tribunal in Stratford, East London being awarded £800,000.

"The tribunal found witnesses from the NOW to have been variously unsatisfactory, evasive and dishonest. The Guardian carried a report. The story had a special significance because Coulson was now clearly likely to be working at Downing Street within six months. Not one other national newspaper published a single word about it," writes Davies.

This is correct but it is rather galling that the Guardian keep referring to their reporting of this case as though it was some their initiative. Editor, Alan Rushbridger previously commented in similar fashion when interviewed on Newsnight.

The reality is that I was the reporter at the tribunal who gave the story to the Guardian. I was asked as a freelance to cover the story by Steve Turner of the British Association of Journalists  who were representing Driscoll. I don't believe there were any other journalists present.

I sent the story to the Guardian who ran it as a page lead on page two on 24/11/2009 headlined ”NOW faces £800,000payout in bullying case”– incidentally, without my byline. So well done the Guardian but credit, where credit is due!!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Hack Attack - a brilliant expose of the Murdoch empire

This excellent book reveals the true horror of a media empire run wild, spreading corruption into almost every area of public life.

The consequences for democracy are huge, with Nick Davies really unveiling nothing less than the equivalent of the Watergate scandal in the UK.

A central figure in this deceit is former News Of the World (NOW) editor Andy Coulson, who went on to be placed at the centre of government, serving as the Prime Ministers chief of communications. Coulson is now serving a prison sentence.

Davies charts the often lonely furrow that he and the Guardian had to plough in trying to reveal  a web of corruption that embraced not just the News of the World newspaper and its journalists but other parts of the media, the police and politicians.

Davies became involved as a result of an interview he did on Radio 4’s Today programme, with NOW managing editor Stuart Kuttner, when the latter underlined the rogue reporter thesis.

It was from here that Davies pursued the line that phone hacking had not just been done by a lone reporter in Royal correspondent Clive Goodman and investigator Glen Mulcaire, who had been jailed in 2006.

The truth was that the hacking was being commissioned on a huge scale by news editors and others on the NOW payroll.  The police had the evidence from the Mulcaire case but at best had been negligent in not following through, at worst wilfully failing to investigate crime.

The book charts the Guardian’s battle to get the truth out, with most papers siding with the bully in the playground – News International.

One of the strengths of the book is how it exposes the whole corrupt morass of the hacking but also gives background incite into how power works and the particularly corrosive network of relationships that existed between the police, politicians and News International.

The bullying of Gordon Brown to get him doing what NI and ultimately the Murdochs wanted him to do in policy terms. The revelations about direct influence on matters like the Iraq war, privatising the health service and opposition to Europe, leave the reader asking who are these people and what right to they have to be influencing the democratic process in this way?

The use of the dark arts to destroy people or the softer approach, of keeping a secret then expecting to call in the favour later.

Davies outlines how a whole coalition of interests came together in a campaign of opposition. There were those being hacked, the politicians (often one in the same) and the Guardian. At one stage the paper does not seem to be progressing far so it decides to share some of the information with other media outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC. This increases the pressure.

Davies then starts linking up possible hack victims with lawyers, while NOW victim Max Moseley funds some of the legal actions and provides general financial support.

The pressure builds and builds with the police eventually waking to the fact that they really ought to do something.

There is then the race between getting the full enormity of the hacking scandal out and NI’s desire to purchase a larger controlling interest in broadcaster BSKYB.

It is a close run thing, with the decisive revelation being the hacking of murdered teenager Millie Dowler. Once this hacking and that of others like the families of the murdered Soham children Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells and the parents of Madeleine McCann, the whole saga goes onto another level.

There is universal condemnation, NI become toxic, with the political class as one- even including friends like David Cameron- turning away.

One though who stays loyal is Tony Blair, who notably at the time of maximum pressure on chief executive and former editor of then NOW and the Sun Rebekah Brooks suggests she set up a Hutton style inquiry as he did in 2003, following the Iraq war. This would “clear you” and “accept shortcomings and new solutions,” Brooks relays to James Murdoch.

The book is a excellent expose of a corrupt abuse of power. The final three pages of epilogue are particularly powerful, putting the whole scandal into the context of the neo-liberal onslaught that has hit people the world over for the past 30 years. Soberingly, Davies concludes: “For a while we snatched a handful of power away from one man. We did nothing to change the power of the elite.”

Davies does undoubtedly over –egg the role of the Guardian, riding into opposition on its trusty stead to oppose the evil Murdoch empire. The Guardian did play a vital role, standing virtually alone among national newspapers- many of whom no doubt were concerned about their own dirty linen getting aired in public. However, there were others like Private Eye magazine who played a vital role in unveiling the scandal.

Davies also adds a bit of colour, referring to his riding his horse around the hills of Sussex at times of frustration – a mobile phone never far away. However, all in all this is an excellent read, a must for anyone who wants to really understand the corrupt forces at work in Britain today.

Whatever else maybe said, Nick Davies and the Guardian have done a great service to journalism and democracy with their work in this area.

*Hack Attack by Nick Davies
Published by Chatto and Windus price £20



Monday, 8 September 2014

Sad loss of Jim Dobbin at 73

Very sad news that Labour MP Jim Dobbin has died at the age of 73. Jim was a trusty fighter for justice in Parliament, working particularly hard on issues like opposing euthanasia and life issues generally.

Formerly a microbiologist, Jim was first elected in 1997. He served as MP for Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester, where he had a majority of 5,971.

He was what has become known as old Labour, namely he believed the Labour Party was there to serve the interests of working people. He rejected the new Labour view of the party as a quasi-lighter shade of blue whose interests  always had to coincide with those of the rich and powerful.

Jim was a strong supporter of Jon Cruddas when  he stood for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 2007.

Jim may have had differences of opinion with Jon over some issues like the life of the unborn child but he could see the importance of supporting a political platform that purported to reconnect Labour with its traditional supporters.

A staunch Catholic Jim was a proud Scot, who shared core beliefs with his fellow Celts across the UK. He was a regular at Irish embassy receptions. The last time I met him was at an Irish in Britain reception in Parliament on St Patricks Day. We went to the Strangers bar afterwards, where talk turned to football. A fervent Celtic supporter, Jim fought off friendly banter from fellow Mp and long time friend David Crausby. Hull Mp Alan Meal was another in the group, discussing all matters football.

Jim was also a regular at the Migrant mass held for the past decade at Westminster Cathedral on May Bank holiday. He recognised the importance of multiculturalism and the fact that we are all migrants coming to the country at some point.

Jim was also a devoted family man, with his wife Pat working in his Parliamentary office for many years. Jim will certainly be missed in the corridors of Westminster where his quiet charm crossed party lines. On one occasion I was walking down a corridor with Jim when we bumped into Anne Widdecombe. A Tory opponent Widdecombe would be at odds with Jim on many areas of policy  but there was a common purpose on  a number of Catholic matters.

Jim was a principled man, who for the most part worked quietly behind the scenes. He will be a big loss from the Parliamentary scene, public life and the Catholic Church.   RIP Jim, we’ll lift a pint of Guiness in your honour.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Arthur Miller's play the Crucible as relevant today as during the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s

The excellent Old Vic dramatisation of Arthur Miller’s play “the Crucible” comes at a most opportune time, with the government seeking to frighten more and more of the population into giving up their basic liberties on the altar of security.

The play was first performed in 1953 at the time of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts against supposed communists in America. Miller, who had attracted the senator’s attention, devised the play as a way of highlighting the injustice that was going on.
The play charts what happened in Salem in Massachusetts in the 1690s, when there were trials involving  hundreds of people accused of being witches. Many were executed having been processed through the courts.

In, the Crucible, a girl seeking revenge manages to manipulate a situation where by whole numbers of innocent people are named as being witches and in league with the devil.
These people are brought before courts, with many hanged on little if any evidence. The idea of an evil being out there that threatens all God fearing people was enough to bring about this hysteria - much injustice resulted. It only came to an end when enough people stood up and said no did McCarthyism.

The Old Vic production comes at a timely moment as the government seeks to frighten the population with talk of terrorists threats. The scare being created is then used to bring in draconian measures that take away people’s most basic liberties on the back of a claim that it is the only way to ensure safety.

The threat is a perceived one rarely quantified – a bit like the witches. The result over recent years has been a number of individuals being detained for years on end, unaware of what they are accused of or their accusers.

They are kept out of the court system, in a state of almost perpetual limbo. The situation is perpetuated and justified by periodically stoking up a threat in the public mind.

Miller’s play - brilliantly performed by an Old Vic cast led by the excellent Richard Armitage - has many parallels with the present day. Frightening people enough, so that they are prepared to accept draconian action. What next – a helping of  Franz Kafka’s the Trial?   

Monday, 1 September 2014

Recent history teaches that cutting civil liberties does not prevent terrorism

The government seems once again to be conjuring up the fear of terrorism in order to justify further cuts to the most basic liberties of the population.
On Friday, Home Secretary Theresa May announced in true Orwellian tones that the terror threat level was being raised from “substantial” to “severe” with a terror attack “highly likely” but not “imminent.“
Then the rush to bring in more anti-terror measures, like stopping people coming home who had been involved in foreign conflicts.
The Labour Party, which gave up on civil liberties long ago, appeared to move further to the right of the government calling for the re-imposition of control orders.
Control orders were first introduced by the Labour Government when the courts ruled that they could not just lock people up on the basis of untried and tested intelligence information.
They amounted though to a form of house arrest that enabled people to still be effectively detained outside of proper judicial oversight. Control orders were replaced in 2011 by Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, which are effectively watered down control orders with a few more qualifications in place like time limits.
The history of recent anti-terror measures from the conflict in Northern Ireland to the most recent “war on terror” show that denying liberties has done nothing to prevent terrorism. In the case of the Irish conflict, successive Prevention of Terrorism Acts simply resulted in more innocent people going to prison and the creation of a suspect community out of the whole Irish population of Britain. This in turn probably gave real cover to terrorists.
Lessons were not learned though with even more draconian anti-terror measures being created in the gap between the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and 9/11. Post 9/11, more liberties were taken away and the Muslim population replaced the Irish as the suspect community.
There were similar results. Anti-terror legislation does not stop terrorism, it simply results in the reduction of the liberties of all and in many cases the incarceration of innocent people.
It also increases the powers of the security state over citizen’s lives. Police, security services and politicians of most political persuasions have increasingly rushed to call for these measures on the basis that they can keep people safe from terrorism. It is not true. Indeed it is worth recalling here the words of the late chief constable of Devon and Cornwall John Alderson that the call to give up your liberties in return for security has been the call of dictators down the ages.
The only way to stop terrorism at home is to stop interfering abroad. Britain was involved in both American military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both have become fulcrums of instability. Britain sits with America arming the Israelis and standing by while they slaughter thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. This is not a way to ensure that people across the world love us.
It is noticeable that over the past decade or so countries like Norway, Italy and Sweden that have not become embroiled in these conflicts have endured no terrorist threat at home.
We suffer terrorist threats because of our international actions usually as a result of playing the role of lap dog to America. Instead of seeking to deny liberties to British citizens on the basis of wholly counter productive anti-terror measures, the government should look at its international role. It should stop interfering in countries in the Middle East, and most importantly stop pouring arms into conflict regions. It must stop arming Israel.
Britain should stop posturing in a way that is about 200 years out of date – Britain no longer has an empire and needs to adjust to its role as a minor player in world affairs. It will be these type of moves addressing the causes of conflict that will prevent terrorism on our streets, not taking away every citizens most basic liberties.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

British coal has key role to play in energy mix

The miner’s strike of 1984/5 is considered a landmark for the Labour movement, collective action taking on the individualistic neo-liberal economics of Thatcherism. The battle saw collective community resistance at its strongest yet in the final analysis the miners lost, returning to work after a year of struggle - with heads held high.

“Everyone knew this wasn’t about buying coal, it was about destroying communities , destroying collectivism. In those communities the strong supported the weak,” said Ian Lavery, former NUM president and now Labour Mp for Wansbeck and member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, who regards the strike as symbolic of Thatcher’s attack on trade unionism generally.

The government had made clear it was going to take on the trade unions from the moment it got into office, deploying a three pronged attack that involved using the law, the Murdoch dominated media and the scourge of unemployment.

The Thatcher government learnt the lessons of the earlier 1974 dispute, when the miners defeated Edward Heath’s administration, the final victory coming when the electorate kicked the Tories out on the question of who runs the country.

Thatcher’s Conservatives had prepared for the strike, stock piling coal at the power stations, making sure coal could be brought from overseas and substituting oil for coal at the power stations.

The government also turned the police into a quasi-military force, with virtual blanket immunity for their misdemeanors. “Some 10,000 miners were arrested during the strike but there were no criminal charges or disciplinary actions taken against the police. Policemen have since admitted committing grievous bodily harm in the strike,” said John Alderson, the former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall.

The government, via its henchman at the Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, lied to the miners and the country, declaring that only 20 pits would close, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. NUM general secretary Arthur Scargill claimed the true figure was 70 pits, with 68,000 jobs going. Earlier this year, Arthur was proved right when the government  papers for the time proved that the plan had been to close 70 pits all along. The papers also revealed that the government had contemplated bringing the troops into break the strike.

Today, there are just three deep mine pits operating with two of these due to close shortly. The Tory government  reeked a terrible revenge on the mining communities. The work disappeared and there was little effort made to replace it. There are people in the mining communities that have never worked again. Drug and alcoholism levels have gone up in many areas due to the devastation caused. The human legacy has been well documented, however, less well known is the resultant damage caused to Britain’s energy security.

The NUM nicely summarises the situation. “ Most of the nation's collieries have been closed, we are now at the mercy of foreign importers and gas and oil prices are rocketing. Our own gas and reserves have been depleted at an alarming rate as we have squandered them in massive quantities in gas-fired power stations when we could have used coal. At the same time access to the indigenous coal reserves is severely restricted by the closure of coal mines. At the same time we have been squandering the talents of our skilled workforce by making them redundant,” said a spokesperson for the NUM.

In its desire to smash the miners and mining industry generally the Conservative government has created an insecure energy situation, where Britain remains dependent on coal for 40% of the fuel to service power stations but over 90% of this comes from overseas. Some 38% of the coal supplied to the UK comes from Russia. “How unstable is that, relying heavily on Russian coal to keep the lights on in this country,” said Ian Lavery.


Yet instead of look to reignite the mining industry in the country, the Coalition government chooses instead to plunge toward shale gas exploration and the nuclear option.


The obduracy of government in this area is illustrated by the fact that it is prepared to subsidise new nuclear sources of energy like EDF’s Hinckley power station project to the tune of guaranteeing twice the standard electricity price.


Britain now produces around 15 million tonnes of coal a year and employs fewer than 6,000 miners.


Last year, the British Geological Survey estimated that over 17 billion tonnes of coal remain in British coalfields, enough to provide power for 300 years.

Ian Lavery believes that the resurrection of the coal industry in the UK should provide a large part of any future plan for energy provision. He believes there should be between 10 and 15 mega pits created with carbon capture and storage technology fitted. “If carbon capture and storage technology is fitted there is near zero emissions,” said Ian, who believes the CCS technology would satisfy any environmental concerns of reviving coal. The UK is statutory bound to reduce its greenhouse gas  emissions by 80% by 2050.

The TUC together with the Carbon Capture and Storage Association recently published a report showing how the technology could create thousands of jobs across Yorkshire, the Humber and the Tees Valley. It is estimated the technology if developed could  create 6,000 jobs across Yorkshire – adding £245m to the regional economy. The long-term economic benefits to the region could be as high as £26bn by 2050. .

The research also found that the development could reduce wholesale electricity prices by 15 per cent compared to the cost of decarbonising the economy without CCS – leading to an average cut in household bills of £82 a year.

There have been some encouraging signs on this front recently with the government investing £100 million in the CCS White Rose project at the largest coal fired Drax power station and in Peterhead, with the EU providing a further £200 million.

Ian contrasts the government’s attitude to the coal industry with it’s gung ho attitude to shale gas. This approach sees planning laws being relaxed to allow private companies to frack on people’s land without permission. Shale gas though is a fossil fuel, so pursuit of its exploration as opposed to coal with CCS will not cut emission levels to the statutory required levels.

Ian argues that coal offers the perfect solution. He does though insist that a reborn coal industry would have to operate under public ownership because only such an arrangement could provide the investment levels necessary to develop the mega-pits. “If coal got the same subsidy as renewables and shale gas, the deep mine industry would be easily viable,” said Ian, who believes the answer to the UK’s energy needs should be a combination of home produced coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewables. Coal could provide 35 to 40% in this mix. “The plan could bring jobs, skilled apprenticeships and security of energy supply,” said Ian.

The mega-pit  plan could lead to the employment of 40,000 to 50,000 people and secure the energy needs of the country.

 “The Government should act now and ensure that an indigenous coal industry is retained otherwise we will continue to have to import coal in larger quantities at a price determined outside any control of the Government,” said and NUM spokesperson.

There will though have to be a change in the political climate if the domestic coal industry is to be revived under public ownership. The industry is still regarded as a political football, despite all the economic, security and environmental indicators pointing in its favour

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Historical amnesia and lack of political context marks World War I commemorations

The commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of World War I has been moving but totally lacking in political context. The appalling loss of life in this grotesque conflict marked a total breakdown of the international political system. The historical memory has also been selective. There has been no mention of the economic and political landscape of Europe at the time. It was not just in Russia that revolutionary forces were stirring, in Britain too there was huge industrial unrest and in other countries in Europe. It is not a cynical view that the rulers of the time might well have welcomed a war that would suddenly draw working people into another bloody conflict on the behalf of those who owned capital. Listening to some, it would seem that the ludicrous propaganda that this was the war to end all wars is still believed. The reality is that 20 years later an even bigger and more costly war broke out. Nothing had been learned, the seeds of World War II were laid in the Versailles peace accords, punishing Germany in the way that they did. What the past century has really marked is the evolution of ever more deadly weaponry. By 1939, war could be taken much further into civilian centres, thereby increasing the number of civilians killed. Out of World War II came the ultimate weapon the nuclear bomb, that could destroy the whole planet. Within 17 years of the end of World War II, the world was brought to the brink of destruction as it looked as though a nuclear conflict was about to erupt over the Cuban missile crisis. The progression of ever more dangerous weaponry continues with drone warfare. This remotely controlled technology allows the leaders of the aggressor nation to operate even more easily in their own moral vacuum. Unless checked, in time drone warfare will make the slide to total war even quicker to achieve. Then the final great irony of this commemoration is that it comes at a time when thousands of people are being slaughtered with high tech weaponry in Gaza whilst the world looks on. There is a hollowness about the words of politicians like David Cameron about the 1914/18 war, when it is remembered that Britain continues to supply weaponery to Israel to kill Palestinians in Gaza. It was this type of double standard that brought about World War I in the first place, so maybe the real reflection should be what has really changed in 100 years? * Independent - 6/7/2014 * Ilford Recorder - 7/7/2014 * Wanstead Guardian - 14/8/2014