Wednesday, 20 July 2011

David Cameron is let off lightly... again

Today an opportunity arose for David Cameron’s opponents to make the PM suffer over the phone hacking scandal, and his association with some of the main pantomime villains. The problem, again, is that Miliband has failed to make anything stick. His main line of criticism has been that hiring Andy Coulson, who has been arrested for his part in the fiasco, was a “catastrophic error of judgement”.

Maybe so, but it’s been all too easy for Cameron to deflect this barb by saying he sought assurances about Coulson’s involvement before giving him a second chance after this resignation from the News of the World. The leader of the opposition cannot realistically expect to claim any kind of moral high ground when it was his party that brushed this scandal under the carpet a few years ago. Indeed, as Cameron pointed out today, Murdoch can be quoted as saying the politician he was closest to was Gordon Brown… to whom Red Ed was an advisor when he worked in the Treasury!

It is also worth sparing a word to highlight just how embarrassing the questioning of James and Rupert Murdoch by yesterday’s Parliamentary Committee was. Firstly, the line of enquiry itself was toe-curlingly granular for two such high level executives. To ask them questions about the procedure a middle manger would need to follow in order to authorise small payments was either naïve or very hopeful. In that regard, it was a disappointing show from our elected representatives, reminiscent perhaps of the grilling Tony Hayward received over the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (but far more petty). Of course, the Metropolitan police then further covered themselves in glory by allowing a lunatic with a plate full of shaving cream past their security cordon. It is embarrassing enough that a member of the British public would think to attack Rupert Murdoch whilst facing interrogation… that our embattled police couldn’t prevent it is the icing on the cake.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Finally... the US starts punishing Pakistan for its duplicity

It looks as though the US has finally plucked up the courage to publicly face down the most politically awkward of state sponsored terrorism. Yesterday it was announced that USD 800mm worth of military aid to Pakistan is to be suspended, ostensibly to show anger at the expulsion of US military trainers. Up until now, America has been incredibly tolerant of Pakistan’s duplicity in the war against terror. They are, admittedly, an important strategic ally in that much of the focus of the war is in the feral and ungoverned border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. However, there must come a time when the game playing becomes too much.

This is an important show of strength by the US. Since the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, who had been holed up unmolested right next to one of Pakistan’s main military academy for years, the role of the state in perpetuating the status quo has been thrown into the spotlight. The fact that the operation was carried out without the prior knowledge and clearance of Pakistan’s army serves to show the trust within their relationship has dwindled. The argument goes that Bin Laden could not possibly have stayed hidden in such an obvious compound, right next to a major military base, without at least some form of official acquiescence. I find it hard to credibly argue against this analysis.

That is especially true when viewed through the prism of suspicion that obscures the ISI (Pakistan’s military intelligence agency) nearly every time they hit the news. They have long been suspected of funding and training the Taliban, thereby running directly contrary to the aims of their supposed collaboration with NATO. The horrifying ground assault launched on Mumbai by Pakistani militants in November 2008 also appear to have been supported (at the very least) by the ISI. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that intelligence on insurgents supplied to Pakistan ends up in the hands of the targets themselves, thereby allowing them to make a quick escape before the token military operation takes place.

Given that the frozen aid falls under the ‘military’ sector of the US’s overall help to Pakistan, it is almost certain that at least some of the funds and equipment would have found their way into the hands of the ISI. Given the high degree of suspicion that always seems to surround this shady organisation, the only wonder is that these steps were not taken sooner. America happily funded and trained the Mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, only to pay a heavy price once it became clear that in doing so they had created a paradise for Islamic extremists.

The current situation is even more perverse, in that the US is indirectly funding the same group of terrorists it is fighting a war against. The cynic in me would have previously put this down to the perpetuation of the military industrial complex. Fortunately the US top brass appears finally to be waking up to the absurdity of the status quo.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Ed Miliband's weakness in opposition is now becoming boring

With the arrest of Andy Coulson confirmed as part of the ongoing mess surrounding News International, one man in particular should have been sweating nearly as much as the former editor himself. That man is the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who had employed Coulson as his ‘Director of Communications’ (read: Chief Spin Doctor) until the phone hacking scandal last reared its head at the beginning of the year. How can the PM’s credibility survive such close association with one of the country’s most currently hated men?
If things continue the way they are, the answer to the question is, “very easily”. Such a potential PR disaster is a gift to the opposition leader, Ed Miliband. However, his reaction to this whole affair has been fairly muted given the potential for political hay-making. A full and frank admission of “guilt” from Cameron earlier today appears to have wrong footed Miliband; he has been pre-empted and outgunned in what should have been a rare chance to put the boot in.
Miliband’s comment that the PM, “clearly still doesn’t get it” is slightly wide of the mark. The criticism refers to the fact that Cameron hasn’t personally intervened to make sure that the News Corp buyout of BSkyB doesn’t go ahead. He should know that Cameron no longer has any power here; Ofcom would have to be the adjudicator on any potential ‘fit and proper’ owner test since Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt green-lighted the takeover in March.
This isn’t the first time the younger Miliband has looked a bit out of his depth. His cringe worthy speech to protesters at the TUC rally in March showed a shameless appetite for the lowest common denominator. This is to speak nothing of Labour’s utter refusal to answer questions about where they would make cuts to public spending (and they do admit some are necessary). A toothless, and seemingly clueless, opposition is a sure fire recipe for political apathy. Let’s hope Miliband can develop a personality sooner rather than later.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Vince Cable vindicated as News of the World is shut down in disgrace

The weight of scandal dogging the News of the World has finally dragged it beneath the waves, following James Murdoch’s announcement that this Sunday’s issue is to be the last. Murdoch’s statement claims, “…indeed – if the recent allegations are true – it was inhuman and has no place in our company… The News of the World is in the business of holding others to account. But it failed when it came to itself."

From a News International (NI) point of view the most important phrase here is, “has no place in our company.” One of the main offshoots from the latest round of accusations being slung at NOTW reports has been a renewed debate over News Corporation’s (NI's parent company) proposed purchase of remaining BSkyB shares. Critics of this proposed buyout insist that it will leave too much of Britain’s media in the hands of the Murdoch clan, and that News Corp does not pass the “fit and proper” owner test that would clear the way for the deal.

Although Vince Cable made a very poor error by openly speaking of “declaring war on Rupert Murdoch” to an undercover reporter, he probably had good reason to be wary of NC further increasing their grip over the British media. It’s unfortunate that Cable’s public humiliation and subsequent sacking from the deciding panel handed the Murdochs such a PR coup, allowing them to cast themselves as victims; I feel he would have been the strong character needed to resist NC’s immense influence. As things now stand, it seems fairly certain that Murdoch has simply sacrificed the NOTW to improve his chances of the deal going through unhindered.

Who can blame the critics of the proposed deal in this case? If NC must prove to Ofcom that they are ‘fit and proper’ owners, worthy of owning 100% of BSkyB, this is far from a glowing advertisement. NOTW commands a fraction of the public attention that Sky does and, crucially, employs a fraction of the people. If there was such a culture of deceit and criminality embedded within the NOTW’s staff, the prospects of the same thing happening at Sky are terrifying. As a multi-media monolith they have access to far more public and private information than a lowly red top tabloid paper, including my own details and those of nearly everybody I know. Given the sort of people NC’s subsidiaries evidently employ, blocking this deal must be a no brainer. Come back Vince Cable, all is forgiven!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Something we never thought possible: a new low for the British press

British journalism appears to be entering a defining moment in its history as progressively more lurid revelations about journalists hacking individuals’ phones come to light. The most disgraceful story yet surfaced yesterday; that teenage murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone was hacked by a PI working for the News of the World. As if this behaviour were not reprehensible enough, said investigator is also alleged to have deleted messages from Milly’s voicemail once he had listened to them, thus preventing it from becoming full and allowing more messages to accumulate. The upshot of this was that the girl’s parents believed their daughter was still alive due to the fact that her phone was in constant use.

This could be seen as something of a low point for our society; MPs and Peers alike are correctly calling for a full public enquiry into the phone hacking scandal that has engulfed our embattled news agencies. Press freedom is clearly a cornerstone of any creditable democracy; it is a key tool in holding the Executive to account. However, the reckless breaches of personal privacy and integrity that have been displayed by the News of the World in this fiasco have marked the transition to a world where the media feel they are above the law.

But how to hold them to account? The problems here are twofold. Firstly it will be difficult to prosecute the holding company, News International, directly for these alleged crimes. Corporate criminal liability is hard to prove, and requires the prosecutor to show a causal link between a “directing mind” within the company and the crime in order for the firm itself to be held criminally liable. This means that it’s more likely they will go after the individuals who authorised or carried out the hacking, and I feel this is a slightly unsatisfactory outcome when there looks to have been a malignant culture of phone hacking throughout the whole organisation.

Secondly, there are questions as to how fair any trial resulting from the police investigations will be. As this scandal is now dominating the front pages thanks to the latest developments (and is likely to for a few days), public anger will soon be at boiling point. Anybody put in the dock in front of a jury, especially over the Dowler hacking allegations, will probably be subject to a hopelessly prejudiced trial. The police have not yet finished their investigations, but those responsible (including Rebekah Brooks, NOTW editor at the time) already will not be able to return to anything like normality for the rest of their lives, regardless of the outcome of any legal proceedings. This public outpour of disgust leads to a real danger of cases being thrown out on legal technicalities, if juries are shown to have been influenced by prior reporting. Ironically, therefore, it could be the press that prevents those responsible from being brought to book when all is said and done.

Worse still, there has also been indication that they may be more shocking allegations to come, although you have to wonder to what further depths this episode can now sink. There is an inescapable feeling that the British press is about to get a very rude awakening when tighter regulations are discussed in Parliament. I feel this is somewhat unfortunate, because it is nearly inevitable that good journalists using sound methods will also suffer as a result of the hacking scandal. However, if those at the top of the tree at failed banks (notably Fred Goodwin at RBS) are fair game when failings are uncovered further down their organisations, the same rules must apply to other industries as well. Brooks’ protestation that, “…it is inconceivable that [she] knew – or worse – sanctioned these appalling allegations…” is therefore utterly irrelevant. She was in charge, she should be held to account. I eagerly await the public enquiry.

Monday, 4 July 2011

"Made in Britain"... just not in Sunderland anymore

Having just seen the BBC’s intriguing and somewhat informative documentary, entitled “Made in Britain”, which discussed the various staples of Britain’s economic diet, there are a couple of points to pick up on. Evan Davis seems to be fairly switched on as far as journalists go, but it’s a shame that (again) the job of purveying important information to the public has been left to somebody with such ‘red’ tinted lenses.

The BBC is supposed to be an “apolitical” organisation, but a fair slice of the programme was devoted to slating the financial industry, whilst extolling the virtues of growing our manufacturing sector again. That said however, Davis’ narrative on how Britain transformed itself from a manufacturing economy to a service-based one was very accomplished.

It was strange, though, that he laid bare the main reasons for the decline in heavy industry (i.e. other countries closing the knowledge gap and offering cheaper labour), only to then argue that we need to take a step back towards our industrial past if we’re to drag ourselves out of recession. The problem here is that he ignores the main reason manufacturing has died so resoundingly over here… and I doubt there will be a reversal in our labour laws any time soon to remove this stumbling block.

It was also disappointing to hear the BBC perpetuating populist narrative about finance causing more problems than it solves. Again, this was an odd tack for a documentary about the prevalence of service industries in our country to take. Having argued that Britain has reinvented itself as a service economy out of necessity, Davis capped off his criticism by presenting the lower rates banks have enjoyed in the Money Markets, due to the backing of taxpayers, as a form of daylight robbery.

This is a slightly disingenuous viewpoint, as the fact is that the UK Government wouldn’t let a major bank fail under any circumstances anyway; the fallout would be catastrophic. This position will have been strengthened by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and seeing the economic carnage that its failure caused. Lower overnight borrowing is essentially a side effect of the importance of banking to our social fabric (thus the inability to let it fail); it would be poor business not to take advantage of the cold reality at play here. In fact if you follow Davis’ argument to its logical conclusion, Britain has remained economically competitive precisely because our service institutions, financial or otherwise, can capitalise on international brand recognition and trust.

The bottom line is that Britain needs to be able to attract investment by way of offering services to other economies and individuals; that much is in fact tacitly admitted by Evan Davis. I would recommend watching his commentary on what is a currently a hot topic (at least it should be); just be aware that there are certainly no feasible solutions on offer, and that some of the debate isn’t quite as cogent as you may wish to see from an apolitical media organisation.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Jack Warner's resignation: send in the clowns

On the face of it Jack Warner’s resignation may appear to be a victory for those campaigning against the corruption that seems to have spread like fungal roots throughout FIFA. Far from it. I feel that this is a very clear case of an insurmountably embattled individual jumping before being pushed, and the only result of this final humiliation is that FIFA itself has dodged a bullet. For one of its Vice Presidents to be found guilty of bribery by its own ethics committee would have surely cemented public suspicions that the organisation is rotten to the core. However, FIFA’s statement on the resignation announced that the undertakings of the ethics committee, “…have been closed and the assumption of innocence is maintained.”

I suppose by now it is naïve to expect anything else from this unaccountable organisation, but I feel it’s worth having a quick look at the history of this wonderful servant to football:

· Accused of selling millions of pounds worth of World Cup tickets on the black market for personal gain.

· Abused his position in FIFA to further the interests of his home nation, writing letters to Premiership managers about the availability of players for Trinidad & Tobago’s international squad.

· Commented that, “…no foreigner will come to my country, particularly a white foreigner, and try to harass me, intimidate me, and push me around…” in response to questioning about the profit he made from selling World Cup tickets.

· Allegedly warned delegates to book travel arrangements (which could be claimed back in expenses) to a conference in Trinidad through his family’s travel agency, or risk having to pay themselves.

· Claimed he would like to “spit on” a Panorama reporter asking questions about the World Cup ticket scandal.

That’s off the top of my head, and with about 5 minutes research for links to support them.

It may sound clichéd, but it's fair to say that the real loser here is football itself. The game is still being held hostage by a shady organisation that bears some of the hallmarks of a large criminal network, run by racketeers. It’s interesting that Warner released an email from another FIFA executive suggesting that Qatar had “bought” the 2022 World Cup, but quickly retracted his promise to “unleash a tsunami” against his former buddies. Now it seems he wants to get off the radar as quickly as possible, before he’s shot down in a hail of friendly fire.

The ‘presumption of innocence’ is quite hard to take given the sheer volume of smoke, if one is to accept the smoke / fire adage. It suits FIFA down to the ground though because nothing has been proven, and they have a credible scapegoat with whom to try and defuse the situation they now find themselves in. As controversial and loathsome as Jack Warner is, the best result for anybody who cares about football would have been for him to stay on and be found guilty of corruption by the ethics committee. If that had happened then the footballing public would have been in a strong position to press for more investigation into FIFA’s conduct… instead one of its shadiest characters has gone for an early bath. FIFA may have lost a clown, but rest assured the carnival will continue with aplomb.