Friday, March 24, 2006

Oh yes - this.
"This is a formal call for an ammunition check. What have we got that we haven't used? What have we got that can be used again? Count it, check it, and get ready to use it. Blair must fall."

An odd one:
Jodie Marsh

Mr. Willis: To ask the Secretary of State for Education and Skills if she will take steps to deny Jodie Marsh access to schools for which her Department is responsible. [60882]

23 Mar 2006 : Column 549W

Jacqui Smith: Jodie Marsh does not represent the Department for Education and Skills in any way. Decisions about giving people access to pupils in schools are a matter for individual head teachers and governing bodies.
(Yes, this was in part designed to increase my Google-juice - but who the hell is this unfortunately-named woman? Or has the government finally taken its toeing the Murdoch line to the ultimate extreme and employed a Page 3 girl as a policy advisor?)

If you want a balanced analysis of the proceedings of an economic summit, who better to get in to do it than a man who wants to end the very institution holding said summit. Yep, EUPolitix have got in Nigel "we've got to get back to running our own country" Farrage, the man behind most of the UK Independence Party's (frankly rather silly) policies, to "analyse" the EU's spring summit. Interestingly, however, they refer to him only as "co-leader of the IND/DEM group in the European parliament" - which makes him sound rather less like a barking loon than my description.

However, after his mind-numbingly tedious and over-extended cricketing metaphor (cricket - it's British, see?) I somewhat doubt he'll be asked back again. Some of the worst writing I've seen in a long while (and I was looking through some of the tedious attempts at short stories I wrote while an undergrad the other day... Even worse than that...)

Oh yes - this was funny too. Chirac walking out because of people not speaking French. Heh... France once again acting like the spoilt toddler of Europe.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

OK, so the Capita story's hotting up. But how about the other donors lenders? How about, for example, Sir David Garrard and Andrew Rosenfeld, former co-owners of property group Minerva?

Garrard has sponsored "The Business Academy, Bexley" to the tune of £2.4 million (£100,000 more than he bunked to the Labour party to support one of their flagship "city academy" schemes), not that it did much good despite what the Department for Education and Skills claims. Garrard's promised peerage was already under investigation for that sizable sum even before the extra couple of million in loans appeared. But do Garrard and Rosenfeld maintain links to Minerva as well as the government, and could those links be anything to do with the company recently gaining the right to develop a 440,000 square foot freehold in the heart of the City of London, guaranteed to earn them back hundreds of millions?

Update: I forgot - (ex-)Capita man Rod Aldridge has also bunked £2 million towards a city academy...

So what IS the deal with Capita then?

Chairman Rod Aldridge has quit as head of the vast and frequently incompetent company following the revelation of his £1 million "loan" to the Labour party (which, of course, had nothing whatsoever to do with the hundreds of millions of pounds the company had earned in government contracts since Labour came to power...)

The fact that he's quit of his own accord despite the almost total lack of press interest in the possible links (which he describes as "misconceptions") between the loan and the contracts might, amusingly, finally kick the press into gear on this one. The guy's minted, so he's hardly going to sink into poverty, plus by the sound of things he's going to retain his sizable share holdings in the company. Offering himself forward as a sacrificial lamb, perchance - or would goat be more appropriate? (Of the "scape" variety, naturally...)

Guido's still gearing up on this, and the papers have been distracted by Gordon Brown's little speech yesterday - Aldridge may have gone, but by the (lack of) response of the press so far he could have weathered the storm. By flagging up the issue again (the story breaking early in the day, allowing reporters plenty of time to do some digging before this afternoon's deadlines, and plenty of copy to fill the sparse editions of the day after the day after the budget), he may well have done both Capita and Labour more harm than good.

Interesting... Come on, "proper" journalists - get on the case. Is there more to this than meets the eye, or can we trust the word of a man whose company has regularly bid the lowest possible price for contracts before going massively over budget, and who has bunked secret loans to the government?

Update: Oh - another smokescreen,,,

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Hidden in the budget aftermath

That "glorification of terrorism" nonsense has just passed in the Lords. To say that the tactics of Nelson Mandela and his allies in opposing apartheid achieved a good thing and were laudible will shortly - technically - become illegal. Hurrah.

To cheer yourselves up after that, check out Blunkett's pathetic excuses about that loans business, and join in the heckling in the comments. Great fun - Comment is Free proving its worth after a lackluster opening week.

Oh, and this. This is the voice of the aftermath. Where's the help? Where's the closure? Where's the inquiry?

Attention all bloggers/chat room users:
"A Woman who posted false sexual allegations against a UKIP parliamentary candidate on the internet has become the first person in a British chat room to be successfully sued for libel...

"In a potentially significant ruling for public figures fighting libellous websites, Judge Alistair MacDuff, QC, said: 'The published statements, upon which reliance is placed, are clearly seriously defamatory. These statements have been made to a restricted audience and it is likely that few people have read these statements. But they were available to the whole world, or at least to the part of the world that has access to a computer and knows how to go on the internet.'"
Update: Of course, though the damages were steep at £10,000, this does set a precedent that bloggers can't be prosecuted for libellous comments posted on their sites, and that webhosts can now pass the buck onto the people whose sites they are hosting, which at least clears up one bit of confusion and hopefully should mean that ISPs can no longer be pressured into shutting down sites accused of libel. This could actually be a good thing, considering how uncertain web-based libel has been to date...

Update 2: An alternative knee-jerk reaction.

I am insanely busy

Luckily, Justin has said most of what I wanted to.

Normal service should nopefully resume at some point. Meanwhile, can anyone provide me with a comprehensive list of the contracts Capita's received - public and private - over the last decade?

Oh, and had anyone else spotted the company's recent gearing up to bid for the ID cards contract?

"Simon Lloyd, Operations Director at Home and Legacy, said: 'Identity theft is a particularly frustrating crime because it’s growing so rapidly and is difficult to resolve if you don’t have robust systems in place. Capita has developed a unique market solution that is innovative and very efficient and we are delighted to offer this service to our customers.'"
That could have come straight out of the mouth of a Labour minister offering yet more "justification" for the ID cards scheme based on little more than assertion... Ho-hum.

Main Capita post below.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Ron Aldridge loan should bring Blair down

(Updated: Yes, I know his name's Rod. My bad. More updates at the foot of this post...)

It won't, because we have a largely supine press when it comes to this government. The tabloids can bring people down via sex scandals - but it takes the broadsheets to hammer governments on political issues. At the moment, the broadsheets aren't prepared to do it. The left-leaning ones don't trust Brown, the right-leaning ones don't trust Cameron. There's no potential saviour for them to laud, so they're going to let this particular major political scandal slip under most people's radar.

I really hope I'm proved wrong on this, but hell, even BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson on tonight's 10 o'clock news, though flagging the scandal of Capita's chairman being one of the people behind these morally highly suspect undeclared loans, failed to explain quite the extent of Aldridge's company's involvement in public life. Perhaps because it's the company that administers the BBC's License fee...

Do a Google search for Capita +"government contract" you currently get 30,800 results. Just from the excerpts on the first page of Google's listings, you get figures of £55 million, £400 million, £40 million. Go to Capita's own website you'll see government contract figures of £177.5m, £250m, £500m.

As readers of Private Eye will know, that's not all - Capita have secured an obscene number of government contracts since 1997 - the company's turnover (by its own estimates) growing from £112 million in 1996 to £687 million last year.

It's also not for nothing that the Eye has dubbed the company "Crapita" - its track record in outsourced public service delivery (everything from County Council payrolls and the Metropolitan Police's pension scheme to London's Congestion Charge scheme to running IT systems for the Criminal Records Bureau) is shoddy at best, downright negligent at worst. (They are also the most likely company to secure the contract to run the National Identity Register and ID Cards scheme.)

Hell, the company's failures have even been flagged by Parliament on several occasions, and Capita itself has been known to admit responsibility for major failures (though they often make excuses) yet STILL they gain lucrative contracts. Here, from the Education and Skills Select Committee's report into the failure of the Individual Learning Accounts:

"Mr Paddy Doyle of Capita said: 'looking back on it now, looking closely at the sequence of events, as we have done in our investigations, I believe we should have shouted louder and harder at that time about things that we were identifying'. He assured us that although 'there was an element in the contract which was volume-based' there was no incentive for Capita to ignore fraud and abuse of the system... Mr Doyle told us that Capita 'share our part of the blame in that the scheme has gone wrong'."
Yet do a Google search for "Rod Aldridge" + "Labour donor" and you currently get a grand total of 3 results - two Guardian Education articles (1, 2) and a transcript of the second Guardian article at the website of the Socialist Teachers' Alliance. That first Guardian article notes that
"The executive chairman of Capita, Rod Aldridge, is not a major Labour donor, but has attended Labour fundraising events and has advised the government on outsourcing."
At the time, even that was enough to raise suspicions about the company's receipt of a £177m public education contract (which, if you note the second article, discussing the potential contract eight months earlier, was estimated at *just* £40 million).

Today it was revealed that Ron Aldridge "loaned" Labour £1 million. Naturally enough, this was "in a private capacity". But come on... The chairman of a company whose entire success relies on big government contracts (funded by the taxpayer, lest we forget) bungs the government a million quid out of his own pocket (a million quid earned thanks to the big government contracts funded by the taxpayer and other, private sector contracts earned in part thanks to its high-profile government links) and there's nothing dodgy going on?

Either Aldridge was trying to bribe Downing Street or Downing Street was extorting money out of him. The only vaguely innocent option is that both Aldridge and Blair are too bloody stupid to realise how insanely bad such a situation could look.

No matter which option is the right one, the Labour party Treasurer has publicly denied all knowledge and Blair has publicly accepted responsibility. No matter which option is the right one, this means Blair should go - either for being bribed, for extorting money, or for being incompetent.

In an ideal world, after Blair is forced out in disgrace there would be an in-depth independent enquiry into every government contract Capita has recieved over the last nine years with the option to force the buggers to pay the country back for every failed delivery - of which there are many, many examples.

Remember - "Loans for honours" is not the real scandal. That's small fry and a long-accepted part of British politics (which is why the Tories can't use this against the government). The Aldridge/Capita loan is the real story - and one the government have hoped to bury by releasing his name in amongst those of several others.

Look forward to the next issue of Private Eye. And in the meantime, hope the rest of the press grows some bollocks, actually USES this, and proves my pessimism wrong.

Tuesday update: More from the Financial Times, tim Worstall, A Big Stick And A Small Carrot, Guido Fawkes (and more and again) and Bloggerheads (including a surprising transcript from The Sun)

Update 2: Ha ha ha! Take the Capita contracts quiz (right hand column):
Which of the following contracts has not been awarded to Labour donors Capita?
Criminal Records Bureau, Congestion Charge, TV license fee collection, Council tax bills, Teachers' pensions, Housing benefit, National Insurance, Individual Learning Accounts, Literacy and Learning, BBC Human Resources
Update 3: Jarndyce notes that "Like everything else in Blairworld, the puny case for the defence is just semantics", and links to a Sunday Telegraph article I'd missed, detailing just how personally involved Blair is in all this. This particular Prime Ministerial fox should is cornered and should now be ripped to shreds by the hounds. But as that's been banned, I'll settle for a few blasts from a shotgun. Time to put him out of our misery.

Update 4: Make My Vote Count with "the hastiest of rundowns of what people from all sides of the media are already failing to call Levygate."

Update 5: Charles Clarke goes on the attack - targetting the one man who's name's come up in all this who seems to be entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, Labour Treasurer Jack Dromey. Apparently it's his fault for not noticing that there was something suspect going on... (Coincidentally that's exactly the same logic used by those people who blame the Bush administration for 9/11 and Blair and co for 7/7.)

Update 6: Missed this thanks to the Guardian not recognising a potential story when they're handed it on a plate. Martin Bell on Comment is Free with New Labour's Watergate, and the real question:
"what did the prime minister know and when did he know it?"
If, as seems to be the case, this little peerage scam was orchestrated with Tony's full knowledge from the very beginning (as his granting of a peerage and then Lord Chancellorship to his old flatmate would tend to suggest he did), what did he also know about the Capita/Aldridge loan, and when did he know it?

Was Blair REALLY too stupid to see how bad it would look, or is it ACTUALLY as bad as it looks? Either way, he's not fit to run the country.

Three years on

Via Garry (via Robert Sharp, who I really must add to the blogroll), an interesting piece on media coverage of the Iraq conflict which reminded me of one I wrote back on 25th March 2003 for another site. It was basically a review of the TV coverage, and as I can't find a link to the article as published then, I'll reproduce it in full here - and unedited from its initial form of three years ago. It's interesting to see how much (or little) has changed in the coverage:


Even if you are not sickened by the so-called justification for the conflict itself, and pride yourself on your John Wayne Gung-ho warmongering/patriotism, surely the television coverage of this particularly unpleasant exercise in aggression is enough to make you vomit?

In the last few days, we have been subjected to live coverage of the intensive bombing of a heavily-populated city, on the spot footage of Iraqi troops shooting at a downed airman, witnessed American Marines cheering as they blow up a building full of Republican Guard soldiers, and anchormen desperately acting like they aren’t quite pleased at the scoop that one of their longest serving reporters has been killed. Then yesterday it was revealed that the mother of one of the captured Americans only knew of her son’s misfortune when his face was flashed up on TV – sure enough, news crews were round her gaff like lightning to film the tears streaming down her face. Every time the B-52s take off, the networks know that in six hours time there are going to be some really cool explosions across the Iraqi capital, and so have plenty of warning to free up some airtime to watching the fireworks later in the day. It all makes great television.

According to the BBC, in the first five days of the conflict their viewing figures for news coverage peaked at 32 million – more than half the UK’s population. In addition, there has been a 75% increase in take-up for digital and satellite receivers by ghoulish but previously technophobic members of the public. War means money, never so much as for television companies in this age of 24 hour scrolling news. The presenters are looking decidedly knackered as we approach the second week of the war. Normally they have precious little to do, and can just slot in the same report over and over again throughout the day. With war, the situation alters by the minute, and these poor little newshounds desperately have to keep up. Considering how much stick many of the news channels have got over the last few years (especially BBC News24), it is vital to their continued existence that they pull this off well.

Then there’s the massive hypocrisy of all the news networks broadcasting footage of Iraqi prisoners, while holding back on showing any footage of captured American servicemen and women that the Iraqis have released. As the Pentagon has expressed, the Iraqis filming and publicising the faces of their American prisoners as a propaganda tool breaks the Geneva Convention. The question that has to be asked is does the Geneva Convention not apply to Iraqi prisoners? There seems to be no acknowledgement of this fact from any of the Western news channels – not even the BBC, from whom I personally would expect a little more restraint. As it stands, every news show that showed the footage of Iraqi prisoners with their faces showing has broken the Geneva Convention just as much as the Iraqis have by filming their American hostages.

With every broadcast from Baghdad, Western reporters keep insisting that the have “no way to verify” any of the Iraqi claims of prisoners, civilian casualties, or the good health of their leader. They keep stressing that their reports are being vetted by the Iraqi intelligence services before they leave the country, and that their freedom of speech is compromised. Yet not once have there been any complaints that the British and American military have also suppressed information. The closest the networks have come is to mention the “news blackout” during the first few hours of operations, yet with no complaint.

In the last Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf had the cheek to publicly thank the Western news networks for broadcasting a lot of his bluffs, ensuring that Saddam and his advisors had little idea of what was actually going on. This time it’s even more extreme, from the maps purporting to show the locations of chemical weapons factories that the UN inspectors somehow failed to locate to the constant drive to scoop the opposition by reporting unsubstantiated “facts” from unreliable sources on the off-chance that there’s some truth to them.

The occupation of Basra has, as a rough estimate, been announced five times over the last six days, despite the fact that coalition troops have yet to enter the city. On the first day of the conflict, a respected BBC journalist managed somehow to keep a straight face while claiming that the incredibly detailed troop movements he was relaying (which later turned out to be untrue) had come to him from a reliable civilian source, and that the military command did not want those “facts” to be known. Sky News reported that Saddam was believed dead, and that the video footage of him was in fact a body double, until the CIA announced that voice identification technology had verified the man as Hussein. Most networks announced the grenade attack on the coalition base in Kuwait as a “terrorist” attack, bolstering the American and British claims that Saddam has links to terrorist organisations, despite the fact the actual perpetrator turned out to be an American serviceman. All networks also reported the surrender of “8,000 Republican Guards”, with no official retractions coming at any point, even when the same channels later announced that there were only 3,000 prisoners of war to date.

It is surely entirely reasonable for both sides in this conflict to want to control the information/propaganda that is coming out – the Iraqis more than anyone. After all, they have British, American and Australian journalists deep in the heart of their country, scrutinising every action, and reporting back to the outside world. This fact in itself is amazing. Are there any Iraqi journalists being allowed to report from the coalition high command in Kuwait? Are there any Iraqi journalists “embedded” with coalition forces? Of course not – that would risk a major breach of security. It’s a major breach of security having journalists of any nationality along for the ride, but at least if they’re with you, you can control what they say.

Unlike the coalition forces, the Iraqi regime, for all its faults, has been cooperating pretty much as fully as it realistically can with the Western Media. When ITN’s Terry Lloyd went missing (apparently killed by American troops, as it turns out), the Iraqis were cooperating as much as the British and Americans in attempts to locate him. It is not in Iraq’s interest to deliberately kill any journalists – at least, not at this stage. To demonise Iraq in the manner of the Murdoch press, it is entirely possible that the reason they have agreed to let journalists from the countries that are attacking them remain in Baghdad is so that they have a ready supply of hostages and human shields to use should the war start going badly. But let’s face it, they’ll probably use the chemical and biological weapons that Britain and America keep on insisting they possess (with no evidence whatsoever) before they get to that stage, at which point the journalists will be pouring out of the country like rats.

As this war wears on and on, its instigators have, in the twenty-first century media, a propaganda tool of immense power and unprecedented reach. They are trying to utilise it to its fullest capacity, spreading images of surrendering Iraqis to encourage more to do the same, emphasising the amount of humanitarian aid waiting out in the Gulf to be delivered, putting out false reports of troop movements and military strategy, bluff after bluff after bluff, wild claim after wild claim. We were told to expect a short war, now to expect a long one. We were told Saddam is dead, now he’s alive.

As it stands at the moment, it seems safest not to believe anything the networks tell us. All information regarding the conflict is classified, no matter what may appear to be the case, and no military commander would be stupid enough to tell Fox News of his plans until long after they have been successfully put into operation. The news reports are simply acting as a slightly more sophisticated version of “Germany Calling” crossed with every lowbrow reality TV show of the last five years. “War, what is it good for?” – wild speculation, propaganda, misinformation and excruciating excuses for painful entertainment.

Wembley Stadium - I mean, why bother, really?

Still, good to see it's not just the Scottish parliament with a dodgy roof that could collapse at any moment, ensuring that millions of pounds of public money have been wasted... And we're going to get the Olympic village finished on time? Yeah, right...

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