Category: moral horror

so who was a health minister in 1987-88?

So they put Jimmy Savile in charge of Broadmoor? Even if you didn’t know he was a rapist, that would be…head-burstingly weird and inappropriate. It’s yet another reason to think Chris Morris’s life work is a documentary.

So, whodunnit? A valid question, especially as Grant Shapps, the man with two faces and half a brain, is being wheeled out to go after the BBC. Yes, the organisation is responsible. No, Shapps isn’t the minister responsible for broadcasting, for child protection, for justice, for the police, or for the NHS, but rather a Conservative Party official responsible for talking points distribution. How could it happen? I mean, how?

How could it happen, indeed? The Secretary of State for Health at the relevant moment was Kenneth Clarke. Clarke says he remembers nothing, although so did Ernest Saunders, but he has a better excuse – when he took over the Department of Health, his first task was to demerge it from the Department of Social Security, which must have been an epic bureaucratic exercise. The final decision to replace Broadmoor’s management was taken in “the following month” after Clarke was appointed on the 25th of July 1988, so some time in August, 1988.

Who was in charge before him? Step forward, “Mr Privatisation”, John Moore. A Dean Witter vice president, he was officially the jeune cadre dynamique of the time because his wife made him spend 30 minutes a day on the exercise bike. The recent past is another planet. Anyway, he developed pneumonia, kept going to cabinet, keeled over during a meeting, and took himself off to a private clinic. Rodney Bickerstaffe of UNISON got hold of this information and briefed it out to the press. Anyway, he’d already lost the civil servants and his junior ministers, and as a result he was sacked and sent to the Lords. Last year, he was still to make his maiden speech in the great reviewing chamber of experts.

But surely someone was continuously present in the DHSS and then the DoH over the change? Yes. In so far as we’re talking about politicians rather than civil servants, Moore had two ministers of state under him, one for the NHS, one for social security. Those were Edwina Currie and John Major, forging a love affair over the red boxes. I struggle to see Major recommending Savile to anyone, and anyway it wasn’t his area of responsibility.

On the other hand, it was certainly Edwina Currie’s as minister of state for health, and anyway it’s not as if the lady from Strictly Come Dancing series 9 and Liverpool is averse to publicity, celebrity, or professional northerners on the make. I recommend a robust security-style interview, which is my default position with regard to anyone who is ever described as a “great fund-raiser”. (Think about it. Lord Levy. Jeffrey Archer.) More to the point, it would be great if someone in the national press was to have a look at exactly which charitable organisations the two of them were both directors of.

Respectable mendacity

Why has the Guardian gone so soft on George Osborne? Today’s paper is a fine example of the art of journalism as practiced to obscure rather than reveal. On the front page, we have this story headlined: George Osborne exploits fall in borrowing costs to boost growth

Now, that’s pretty much precisely what the chancellor would want on the front page, so it’s suspect in itself. But you might think there was another major UK economy story about. Something about the OECD estimating that we’re back in recession? Or you might even have heard another, something about the Treasury/OBR expecting much lower economic growth? Or that the OBR thinks things are so bad the deficit will rise despite the cuts? Strangely, none of these were considered worthy of front page treatment and were shoved back down the ticket to pages 6 and 2 respectively. Page 2 is of course the classic newspaper graveyard – people flip open the rag and immediately see Page 3, which is why what is on Page 3 is on Page 3 if you see what I mean.

The first number that appears on the front page is the figure of £21.5bn, which is apparently “lower borrowing costs” because gilt rates have fallen since last June. It’s not said anywhere how much this is relative to the total bill for debt service (£44bn), or to the government budget (£696bn), so it’s impossible for the reader to know if it’s a lot of money. It’s also completely mysterious whether this is annual, over a parliament, over a Comprehensive Spending Review planning cycle, or what. It is not said, but it is strongly implied, that this money is available now and will be used as an economic stimulus.

But the Chancellor isn’t doing that, and if it is a 5-year figure, the money isn’t available now. We only find out what’s going on over the page, buried on page 2, where we find out without much surprise that it is indeed a figure for the next 5 years, so 80% of it is promises, and anyway the annual figure of £5.3bn is 0.76% of government spending.

The piece moves on to recite a list of eye-catching initiatives – £380 million (woo, isn’t it a lot? Or a little?) by 2014-5 (does that mean rising to £380 million annually by 2015, or £380 million divided by five? They’re not saying, I’d take the short) for childcare (aww, babies), a “£300 million package of tax breaks for small businesses”, “a seed investment enterprise scheme” with no price tag, and – I am not making this up – £50 million for the Caledonian Sleeper.

I mean, it’s very cool and all – I took it in July 2005 to get out of town after terrorweek – but it’s hardly something that belongs in a front page economics story, is it? It’s an utterly trivial and vacuous eye-catching sunday-fer-monday initiative with a canny bit of marginal seat fan service in there too.

So, about that £300 million. Sounds like a lot of money! (After all, we have nothing to compare it with. Again.) You have to read on to page 7 and a story by an actual business desk reporter to find out that £210 million of it is a rates holiday for some small businesses that was sort-of going to end next October, that’s now going to end six months – six whole months! – later. To put it another way, it’s not new money and it’s a trivial amount and it doesn’t happen for a year yet.

Let’s adjust the £300 million – that’s more like £90 million, and we’re getting into Caledonian Sleeper levels of insignificance here. Experienced observers will guess that the unpriced “seed investment scheme” is probably included in the £90 million, thus getting twice the propaganda for the money, and they’d be right. Again, you’ve got to turn to page 7 for this, but not being the New York Times or the Craven Herald & Pioneer, there’s no way of telling that you need to. Government sources apparently think it’s worth £50 million. That leaves us with £40m to account for, and page 7 tells us that £50m is coming for “co-investment” from the “regional growth fund”. Well, the £10m difference can be accounted for by journos trying to add up. But it’s worth pointing out that the £1.5bn regional growth fund has been re-announced so many times you wouldn’t count on there being anything left in it.

And obviously, this doesn’t add up to anything like £21.5bn or even £5.3bn of stimulus.

So what’s going on here? It’s not as if the OECD or OBR stories weren’t running before the Guardian went to press. They’re right there in the paper! But by the time you read them, you’ll already have had your expectations anchors set by the front page, so you’re going to think things aren’t so bad. This is of course why the Treasury briefers gave the story to Nicholas Watt, Larry Elliott and Severin Carrell – to inject their own spin ahead of the news. In fact, Elliott is probably innocent, as he wrote both the real news stories, and the other two just quoted some of his work (chunks are identical).

Why Watt or Carrell, or the Guardian editor they answer to, still don’t either understand this or don’t mind is the real question.

Also, you’d have to read down to the bottom of Elliott’s piece on page 7 to learn that the Bank of England is apparently refusing to carry out the government’s policy even when it only involves the government’s money, rather than the central bank’s, and Osborne has cracked and given in.

The measures will augment the £20bn that the chancellor is announcing for so-called “credit easing” — money that will be channelled from existing promises that had been made by the Treasury to the Bank of England to enable Threadneedle Street to buy corporate bonds. The Bank has not purchased many corporate bonds and some of the £50bn of guarantees will now be used, instead, to help banks raise money more cheaply on the markets – and in turn reduce the price of loans to small businesses.
Will Hutton, co-author of a report on how to revive small business lending, said: “As it is structured, this won’t add £1 extra of new credit.” His report, written with academic Ken Peasnell, argues that the government would have been more effective if it had created a vehicle to buy up small business loans from banks, freeing up their balance sheets. Under the government’s scheme, the cost of loans to small businesses should fall by one percentage point, according to Treasury projections, although this may be less if the government does decide to levy a fee for the guarantee.

So, the £20bn – or is it £50bn? – “credit easing” just isn’t going to happen, because the Bank doesn’t want to do it and Osborne is too weak to sack Mervyn King and appoint someone who will, and too proud to resign and leave the job to someone with balls. Instead, the Treasury’s money (i.e. ours) will be used to buy bonds (probably government bonds) off the banks. We’re already doing this with money the Bank prints, which costs nothing, but this exercise is funded by government borrowing, which we have to pay back. Why isn’t this on the front page?

neeeews of the world

In an effort to clear some of the NOTWFail stuff out of my mind, I thought I’d try to come up with some useful pointers for further investigation.

1. The Daniel Morgan/Southern Investigations line of inquiry

This is by far the most serious accusation, in every sense. It has police corruption, a murder, and the unusual sight of a police surveillance team following the NOTW’s private detectives following Detective Chief Inspector David Cook around London as he tried to investigate them. (Isn’t the movie going to be great?) And wasn’t it an amazing moment this morning when Patrick “for once, bracingly chilly” Wintour brought it up in the No.10 press conference? It wasn’t that long ago that only Fleet Street or London underworld obsessives knew the story and were unrespectable enough to talk about it.

Here’s the Nick Davies version, which is nicely condensed. The whole affair has a strong taste of noir and this boils it down to a bitter, sticky, toxic, but powerfully caffeinated residue.

As editor of the News of the World Rebekah Brooks was confronted with evidence that her paper’s resources had been used on behalf of two murder suspects to spy on the senior detective who was investigating their alleged crime.

Brooks was summoned to a meeting at Scotland Yard where she was told that one of her most senior journalists, Alex Marunchak, had apparently agreed to use photographers and vans leased to the paper to run surveillance on behalf of Jonathan Rees and Sid Fillery, two private investigators who were suspected of murdering their former partner, Daniel Morgan.

Note the involvement of Fillery, who was the investigating officer in the original case and took over Morgan’s business afterwards, and who was later done for child porn offences. It’s also worth noting that Marunchak was accused of being crooked in both directions – not only was he accused of bribing the police for information, he was accused of trousering a share of the money paid out, as a kickback in exchange for putting business their way.

If anyone needs investigating, surely he should be interviewed as soon as possible – and also Greg Miskiw, who comes up in the story. Compared to these two, the royal correspondent is a bit pathetic. Miskiw is an American citizen. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if he was to turn up in the States, protected against extradition?

2. The Met Press Office

So, who’s the guy who briefs the News of the World? This blog asked the question repeatedly after the de Menezes and Forest Gate cases. Might that be Dick Fedorcio, the then Met press chief who insisted on going easy on the papers after they were caught spying on DCI David Cook?

On a related theme, Andy Hayman and Lord Macdonald’s roles at NI are surely now completely unacceptable.

3. Andy Coulson’s Background Check

This was also one of the things that made it a morning to remember. The prime minister explained that he had commissioned “a private company” – yet more private detectives! – to look into Coulson’s career before hiring him. What company? Also, I’m not sure whether these enquiries were made when he joined the Tory press office or when he joined the Government.

Further, we know Alistair Campbell and other Government press officers had access to highly secret intelligence in the past. (Not a press officer, but the only politician outside the inner-cabinet who knew about Suez in advance was the then chief whip Ted Heath – it’s a precedent for someone with a wholly political/propaganda role being clued in.) Obviously, the dossier was a bit of an outlier, but you’d be a fool to think that the practice of deep integration between government media staff and policymakers had vanished.

So, did Coulson have an official security clearance? Was he ever positively-vetted? If so, what did the DVA’s notoriously nosy investigators say about him?

4. The Missing Millions of Messages

Probably not much point covering this as Davies the scoop is after it already and if the “sources” bits are accurate, the dibble are very close to making arrests.

But. 500 GB of Murdochmail. Please. Please. Even just the headers.

Similarly, shouldn’t we at last get the big list of the hacked?

5. How Hack Happen?

There’s really very little hard information about this around. This piece in the Indy may be by Jemima Khan but that doesn’t make it less interesting. It looks like they had found a way of forcing a password reset – so even if you changed the PIN, they could force it back to the default.

Stupid telcos’ stupid voicemail implemented a password reset by setting the password to a well-known default value rather than issuing a new, randomly generated PIN like your bank or really, any random website’s “forgotten password” link.

But I think we’d all like to know how they did it. Smart money is on the call centres – especially as there have been cases of mobile phone salesmen paying competitors’ call centre staff for lists of people whose contracts are up for renewal and also of credit card numbers being sold. Khan names a company: “CTI”.

6. Mechanics of Collapse

So what just happened? Was it the advertisers? Who went first? How much advertising did they pull?

Also, what happened with the distribution chain? Did, as rumoured, the newsagents stop ordering papers?

7. Compare and Contrast

Andy Coulson has been arrested under Section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, as well as the Criminal Law Act 1977 for the phone-screwing (the NOTW term – after all it was hardly a hack). But this legislation was meant to have been superseded by the Bribery Act 2010. What’s up?

One explanation would be that the Ministry of Justice has been working on official guidelines on how to interpret the new law, which encompasses many more forms of corruption than the old and provides for rather heavier penalties. Obviously, it wouldn’t be ideal to choose the scandal of the century for the new text’s very first run-out, so perhaps that’s what’s up.

However, there are some other issues here. The new Act provides for the seizure of ill-gotten gains and for the disqualification of company directors – the old one doesn’t. And the old Act requires the approval of the Attorney-General for a prosecution; the new one gets rid of this and leaves it to the CPS as per usual.

Either way, it’s enough that Coulson offered money. Whether they accepted it or whether they delivered is irrelevant – the crime is either offering or soliciting bribes.

Acid Helvetica titles do not make you a decent person

(Alt. title: Look, it’s like a society but smaller!)

OK, so you may remember the case of, a well-publicised eye-catching initiative that turned out to be little better than spam paid for with a government grant to some whose-kid-are-you types. It seems that the whole pointless wankabout was kicked off when one of the WKAYers cornered poisonous old Thatcherite gargoyle Lord Young and pitched his eye out.

Ah well, the Big Society was always going to be a happy hunting ground for grantsmanship, wanktanking, and various other kinds of ligging and general availability enterpreneurship. Small business grant programs – which it essentially is – are notoriously vulnerable to fraud and general dodgy dealing.

And then it came to the MySociety listserv. So this message plunked into the trap last Monday. In it, a thing called “Sidekick Studios” offers to hire some software developers. Note – because this will be important later on – that they didn’t make any bones at all that they were making an offer of employment. (A shorter version of this post is in the list archive.)

“*We’re Sidekick – And We’re looking to hire 3 Developers…We’re a social innovation organisation – we develop web and mobile tools to tackle social issues and public services in a different way. We have 3 different jobs – please take a read and get in touch if the roles spark interest

Fair enough. The first one is for a Ruby on Rails developer with 3-5 years’ experience, for an 8 week consultancy gig at their headquarters in London Bridge, working alongside a mobile developer and a user-interface designer on a project for an unnamed client. Nothing to see here.

But here’s the problem.

*2 x Creative technical leads / senior developers *
Project – “SS3”
*Key info: *
· 3 month contract – maybe more
· Social innovation projects
a) Social Care Swap “wife swap for your gran”
b) Youth Justice Game Project “4 square for criminals”
· Experienced and creative developer to build proof of concept for an
innovative social project
· Start up experience preferred
· No language preference – but solid front and back end web-dev skills
required – whatever environment you’re used to
· Work in small dynamic team
· Based at Sidekick studios, London Bridge
· Read more hear

To be honest, it was the peerlessly idiotic “concepts” that caught my eye. “Wife Swap for your gran”. Had Nathan Barley been contracted to write the requirements statement? Or was the whole thing a reality-TV show? Had I stumbled upon a new Chris Morris project? We could read more “hear”, and some of us did.

SS3 is an experimental technology and design incubator to create new types of public services. We’ve assembled a team of 10 people, with diverse skills across research, design, technology, social venturing and commerce. Over 3 months, the team will work together out of a studio in London Bridge to launch 3 social businesses, each with the potential to deliver sustainable, social impact. And rock the world.

OK…well, it would appear from the next paragraph that the team is us. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that part of the team is us – the 10 ground crew have apparently been recruited already. It just remains to find Laika and Strelka the space dogs.

We’re offering 3 people the chance to become the resident entrepreneur for each venture. And have their salary paid for 3 months. And have the opportunity to become the full-time Managing Director of the venture at the end of the SS3 experience.

Note that the software jobs are additional to this. So you’re being offered the chance to implement…”Wife Swap for your gran”…over three months, and if you succeed you get to keep it. And they’ll pay your salary. Or maybe not – let’s skip ahead here…

How much will I get paid? Good question. And we’re going to duck it. Sort of. We are not saying exactly because we might pay people differently depending on their level of experience. We can say the salary will be more than enough to live off in London, pay exorbitant rent, travel to and from work, and have money left over each month. The value of SS3 is the awesome and talented people who’ll help build the venture. If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you.

Note that they have no interest in any ideas you may have:

I have my own idea / startup / service – will you help me with that? No. The startpoint is the ideas that we’ve already developed with partners, providers and people in the sector and which we know have some potential.

and reserve the right to terminate you at any moment:

What happens at the end of 3 months? We don’t know! The venture could be up and running, with money coming in. In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all. If the venture has limited chance of getting to market, we’re going to just kill it and you’ll be left with a whole load of training and skills, and some happy memories we hope. If the venture has a chance of going somewhere, but we’re not right for each other, we move on and find someone else. Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point.

So even if the project is a success, in fact, there’s no guarantee of getting the job, contrary to prior statements, and no guarantee of any pay even if you get it. And there is a lot of horrible macho Alan Sugar rhetoric and passive-aggressive expectations-wank.

But if you don’t do a good job, or your venture isn’t going anywhere fast, we replace you…Or we kill it…No remorse…We’ll try not to come to blows and then move on…Sounds risky, huh? That’s the point…Entrepreneurial..Committed. Passionate..Not an idiot…If you want exits / earnouts / options, we’re not for you…No…you have to be in the office in London Bridge…Or out telling people how great this is / learning / selling…If you can’t see that, then we’re not for you….It’s all about the team….If you’re afraid of sales, we’re not for you…Definitely not. Full-time. 100 MPH. Absolutely committed. As if your life depended on this. Well at least, your financial security. Because it does.

Indeed it does, but not so much that they’re willing to offer anything lame like a job. As previously noted, they’re not actually promising any money or any commitment of any kind, but they do keep using the word job:

If you do well, and the venture is doing well, you’ll get a job. A good job.

Ahem? What was that again?

In which case, you’ll be in the box seat to be the person to get the job on a permanent basis. That might be paid at a higher salary, at a lower salary, or no salary at all.

Now, I mentioned that the projects are non-profit and are to stay that way. Fine. This doesn’t, however, mean that Sidekick itself is non-profit. In fact it’s a commercial company, registration no. 6707987, and its customer in this project is, well, us. Specifically, they’ve scored a grant from the UK Technology Strategy Board.

So, to summarise: You get to work your arse off trying to make some daft idea like “Wife Swap for grans” fly. For this you get a suspiciously unspecified sum of money. You may be terminated without cause at any moment. After three months, you may get a job, you may get the same job but without the money, or you may get “no tea and walk home”, depending on no conditions that anyone is willing to state at the outset. You may not profit from the business, no matter how well it may do, but Sidekick’s directors get theirs whatever happens. And we’re all paying for this exploitative, cynical, spammy, hilariously ill-thought out shite.

Further, and just in case anyone thinks I’m biased in any way, does anyone else think The Guardian could perhaps make its pay-for-play Guardian Professional advertorial and events operation look and feel distinct from the actual newspaper’s website?

Why am I talking about this?

Well, Sidekick also recommended “a Guardian article” to us – this one. Now, unless you follow Fleet Street politics closely you’d probably think that’s just another Guardian URI. But the key bit is that it’s in their “Social Enterprise Network”, one of their “Professional Networks”. Guardian Professional’s front page is here. It’s possible that there is some difference between Guardian Professional Networks and Guardian Professional, in which case it might be more professional to make this obvious. But I suspect that this piece is advertorial.

It is, however, informative.

Over the past year, in the face of chaotic reorganisations and relentless manager bashing from politicians, we’ve seen many of them decide to take up generous redundancy packages, in some cases over a year of full pay…

Those civil servants who have been made redundant – they collected their redundancy money! The bastards.

Aside from the huge drop in productivity during the prolonged reorganisation, this mass firing and re-hiring carries huge risks for costs going forward. The same manager is thinking of moving on to work for an international research agency. If the GP consortia wants her unique skills and community relationships in twelve months time, they’ll find her charged out to clients at £1000 a day….

Indeed, just like last time. Perhaps it would be better not to do the privatisation and mass sackings in the first place?

If all this sounds a bit gloomy, social enterprises could offer a way to stem the flow of this talent and make use of the experience and knowledge that the taxpayer has invested in…the fear is the shadow of large private sector companies coming in and cleaning up….At Sidekick Studios, we’re going t try to grab some of this talent first. Our reasons are pretty selfish – if public services don’t want these people, and their knowledge, and their skills, and their networks, then we sure do….From May 1st, we’re starting SS3…

I think this might have been improved by an admission that Sidekick Studios is in fact a private sector, for profit, company. What offends me about this is that they are quite openly trying to help push public servants out of real jobs with pensions and union recognition and that stuff and into the hyper-precarious code-for-pizza status we just outlined. Come to think of it, if you can’t get hipster interns living off the Bank of Mum & Dad you might as well try sacked civil servants living off the redundancy money.

But then, what else would you expect from people who want to replace the poor sods working in local authority social care with “Wife Swap for your gran” and the police with “Foursquare for criminals”, all held together with sales-training day bullshit and shameless volunteer-mining?

aspirational torturer

It says something about the modern thinkers that one of the Egyptian spooks the Piggipedia team identified turns out to be working in the “Security and Loss Prevention” department of a major hypermarket chain. Having lifted photos with names on them from their HQ, they started searching PofacedBook – sorry, LinkedIn – for them, and discovered many more stories like this. That particular spy had been in charge of infiltrating NGOs before shifting over to the retail sector. Sadly, they started deleting profiles pretty quickly.

GCHQ Review, Part 4 – History and the overseas outposts

A major claim of the recent group of “intelligence historians” is that the study of the secret world is the “missing element” in contemporary history – that, just as the history of the second world war needed revising after the British government finally let on about ULTRA, history (especially of the Cold War) is missing the perspective provided by intelligence. Richard Aldrich’s GCHQ is certainly part of this project, just as his The Hidden Hand was one of the better works in it for covert action, propaganda, and human intelligence.

But do we know that much more about the main line of history from it? There are, of course, a couple of serious documentary and methodological problems with this. Even where we do have good sources on the history of secret intelligence, it’s typical for the actual intelligence product to remain secret. We have a reasonable idea of what all those antenna farms were after – we don’t have much, post-ULTRA, of what the prime minister actually got delivered to his desk in the blue-jacketed files. Writing my own Master’s thesis, I remember that the literature was rather better on the contribution of Soviet intelligence to the 1973 crisis than the US kind, but even that was because various individuals had been forthcoming. The Soviets tried to persuade Sadat to end the war by producing MiG-25R imagery showing the Israeli counter-offensive building up; he wasn’t apparently convinced. We don’t know, however, if the Americans did anything similar with the Israelis, although we do know that the Israelis weren’t sharing their own information with the Americans. (And we know now that Ted Heath turned off their SR-71 operation out of Lakenheath, so how much did they know?)

There’s another problem, though, which is understanding what contribution intelligence actually makes to decisions. Cynically, you might say that giving politicians more data is pointless; they’ll either ignore it or pick the bits that suit their preconceptions. John Keegan argued that across history, intelligence was more often misused, ignored, or just irrelevant to the balance of forces on the ground than not. Obviously, having regular deliveries of ULTRA decrypts didn’t prevent Dunkirk, although it may have helped bring off the evacuation. Even more obviously, whatever intelligence sources Tony Blair was using in 2002 didn’t bring him very much enlightenment. That raises another question – was the intelligence valid even before the upsexers got at it? Why did all the European countries with their own overhead imagery choose to stay out?

These problems are less serious when the events in question were motivated by intelligence interests, rather than by the content of intelligence. Aldrich is good on this – the times when “the SIGINT tail started to wag the policy dog”. Notably, this seems to have been a major motivation in the whole sorry story of Diego Garcia, intended as a replacement for the abandoned sites on Mauritius and Ceylon and for the NSA’s intelligence-gathering ships after the attack on USS Liberty. Around this time, GCHQ also considered building an enormous, nuclear-powered ship intended to contain a complete overseas station of the size of HMS Anderson on Ceylon or Little Sai Wan in Hong Kong, plus a BBC World Service transmitter site – Harland & Wolff’s was commissioned to carry out a design study.

The plan was to have it flagged as a merchantman, but it would have been an enormous and expensive sitting duck.As plans go, at least it didn’t involve ethnic cleansing.

Later, when the third Wilson government decided to pull out of the remaining overseas bases in 1976, it was the GCHQ interest, backed up by the NSA, that led them to keep the presence on Cyprus – as well as huge British intelligence facilities, the Americans had transferred numerous organisations there from Turkey when the Turks asked them to leave, which had then moved into the British bases for security after the 1974 invasion.

some memories of west Bradford

Well, this is grim. Intelligent comment is to be found here, in Jamie Kenny’s interview with David Wilson.

Would you say that serial killers are a kind of negative indicator of the health of society in the sense that the fewer victims there are, the better society functions?

Serial killers function best within fractured communities, where people don’t look out for each other, and when the gap between those who have and those who have not is wide. In cultures such as these no one really bothers to notice the elderly neighbour living by themselves, or the kids who are homeless because they don’t view these people as having value, or being connected to their lives. Serial killers also exploit homophobia and our laws related to those young people who sell sexual services. When I was in Ipswich in 2006 I used to point out that less than an hour’s flight away was Amsterdam and that no Dutch serial killer had ever targeted prostitutes.

There’s also a nasty surprise; according to Chris Williams, who actually met him, he was working on precisely that question, whether the 19th century’s apparently low murder rate was explained by the fact that the victims of Victorian murderers were more likely to just vanish rather than be reported to the police.

Well, Yorkshire scores another historic first. I used to work off Thornton Road, and also in Dockfield Mill in Shipley; they’re both places where the death of the textile industry left behind a lot of rotting mill buildings that then got re-purposed by all kinds of odd little businesses. Dockfield Road is less so, more traditionally industrial, and there are terraces of classic working-class homes part of the way along it, just about where the pie van parked up when I was working in an envelope factory.

Thornton Road, though, is nothing but old mills and warehouses, now become small engineering workshops, garages, curry wholesalers and the like, a sort of Yorkshire favela development. The district, in the valley between the university and Great Horton Road on one side and Manningham on the other, is not identified with any community – hardly anyone lives there, they only work there or cut through the backstreets to avoid the inner ring road. (Oddly enough, the anarchist 1 in 12 Club is round there too, up the hill towards Westgate. And so are the Quakers.)

The vice trade moved down there after the girls were driven out of Lumb Lane, further uphill (uphill and downhill are always important directions in Bradford) and northwards in the centre of Manningham; this event has been variously considered to have been an example of community vigilantism, Islamism, and also to be associated with control of the drugs market and black/Asian tension, which later led to serious violence. In the 1990s, you could drive past any time of the night or day and see drug dealing going on – I also remember that one of the corner shops still had a sign outside advertising paraffin.

When I worked in an industrial bakery further up the road towards Lidget Green (and its Pathan community), and would walk back down towards the city centre, stinking of roasted high fructose syrup and cream-style product, I remember passing a huge billboard for Coca-Cola with some pouting model reclining across it. Some Four Lions character had decided to deface this example of imperialist decadence and fitna, but rather than aiming for the cleavage or the thighs, or for that matter the Coke, they’d chosen to tear down the face.

we’re the muslimeen, creating a scene

So, I went to see Chris Morris’s takfiri flick, Four Lions. Short review – it’s desperately, barkingly hilarious. Stupidly funny. It started with the snickering. The snickering led to giggling and the giggling led to batshit honking horselaughs all night long.

Perhaps too funny – one of the markers of Chris Morris’s work is that everyone is an idiot, is responsible, and deserves the most extreme mockery and sarcasm. The jihadis are either simpletons, paranoiacs, or deluded. The police are bunglers. The defence establishment is desperately trying to be as ruthless as the CIA but can’t manage it. Democracy is represented by Malcolm Sprode MP, a contemptible Blairite stooge, brilliantly observed, babbling nonsense. The mainstream of British Islam is represented by a Sufi imam who is an obscurantist windbag full of half-digested quotations, who keeps his wife locked in a cupboard (“It’s not a cupboard! It’s a small room!”, he protests). The general public are either tiresome eccentrics or half-wits. The NHS employs the jihadi leader’s wife as a nurse – she is charming, tough, probably the most sane and competent person in the entire movie, and she offers him crucial psychological support when he doubts the wisdom of exploding. Even his little son is cool with Dad blowing himself up and encouraging all his friends to do so as well, and weighs in to help him through his dark night of the soul and on the way to self-induced fragmentation. The real jihadis on the North-West Frontier treat the international volunteers as especially low-grade cannon fodder, hardly surprising given the volunteers’ self-regarding pomposity and utter inability to do anything right.

This plays out in a nicely observed version of Sheffield; it’s as much a Yorkshire film as Rita, Sue, and Bob Too or This Sporting Life. There are a hell of a lot of jokes that turn on this; they only need to drive up a hill and climb over a dry stone wall in order to go from the deep city to somewhere you can safely test-fire a bomb without attracting attention. While meticulously reducing their stash of hydrogen peroxide and assembling the devices, they pose as a band – it’s Sheffield, after all. What else? Inevitably, they attract a rehearsal studio hanger-on somewhere between cool and fairly serious mental illness. Again, who else? Their in-house psychopath is responsible for proclaiming the Islamic State of Tinsley (I really began to lose it with this bit). The volunteers hugely overestimate their knowledge of Islam, and suffer from a sort of quasi-colonial superiority complex to actual Pakistanis in Pakistan – one of them makes the serious mistake of calling a Waziri sentry a “Paki banchut!”. (George MacDonald Fraser would have had him knifed for that, but Chris Morris has crueller plans for him.)

They learn that their cover has been blown from a news screen on the Sheffield Supertram; Omar, the leader, works as a security guard at Meadowhall.

There is a great moment of direction early on where the camera catches the shopping centre roof lit up just as the sun is coming up, catching it briefly showing off its oddly Islamic dome. Around the same time, we watch the CCTV feeds from within the centre through Omar’s eyes – the place is entirely empty and a large sign announces “SHOPPING”, with an arrow pointing upwards. Clearly, when he looks at Britain, this is what he sees.

Omar is a classic type, an autodidactic revolutionary, the only member of the cell with any self-reflection or intellectual depth or capacity for anything much. He’s a man surrounded by novelty-marathon running managers, daft younger brothers, and SHOPPING with an arrow; arguably, what he’s really rebelling against is the sheer horror of Chris Morris’s worldview. A main force in the plot is his progressive self-corruption – he is throughout the least convinced of them about the rightness of their cause, chiefly because he’s the only one with any capacity for doubt. As the mission progresses, he resorts to increasingly sordid deception to keep the show on the road through this or that crisis, and his eventual explosion is more motivated by horror at his failure to stop the others from blowing themselves up and a sense of having run out of options than anything else. It’s also telling that, despite his fury and loathing at British consumerism, self-satisfaction, etc, he’s by a distance the best dressed, shod, housed, and generally equipped member of the gang, redrafting his manifesto on a shiny new laptop in boxfresh trainers, although he does have to communicate with the others and The Emir through a children’s social network website called Puffin Party.

Barry, on the other hand, would have been the Islamic State of Tinsley’s chief of secret police. Barry is the only offcomed’un and the only white man in the group, not so much a convert to Islam as a lifelong convert to non-specific extremism and raging paranoia. As the plot progresses, despite his spectacular ineptness, he begins to take over as the driving force, and eventually it is his action that forces them to go ahead with the attack. One thing he has successfully learned in a long implied career of political madness is that paranoia, ideological enforcement, and ruthlessness pay. This doesn’t mean his thoughts make any sense, though; his idea of strategy is to blow up the mosque in the hope of triggering a wave of race riots and the revolution, but he rather undermines his planned false-flag operation by insisting on recording a martyrdom video taking responsibility for it. A hopeless case in anything that involves practical work, he helps to doom the plot by recruiting any fool he falls in with and blames everything that happens on Jews.

Cameras play a special role. The wannabe terrorists are compulsive film-makers – a running gag has Omar with a laptop at the kitchen table, despairingly trying to edit the latest rushes of his comrades’ martyrdom videos into something presentable. They keep filming and filming, but they always get it wrong – accidentally advertising fast food, posing with a tiny plastic gun, falling out about strategy as the camera rolls. Barry insists on doing a second video just in case they attack the mosque anyway. Omar is secretly keeping an out-takes reel for his own amusement. Reliably, people freak out and fuck up as soon as the red light comes on; Faisal falls over a sheep and accidentally triggers a suicide vest while clowning for a bit of impromptu iPhone video. Hassan makes a fool of himself at training camp by firing off a Kalashnikov for his holiday snaps. As well as Omar’s official making-of project, and their own unofficial video diaries, the state is also making a movie – several scenes show that they are under surveillance as they carry out a test explosion. But it’s a blooper in itself, a sight gag; the cops raid the wrong house and only succeed in giving themselves away and encouraging Omar to bring forward the attack.

The police response, like the mad conspiracy theories and the bomb making and the ratty, third rate band scene gaffs, has obviously had the benefit of careful observation and a close reading of the Stockwell II report – it follows the detail for Operations KRATOS and C closely, and as actually happened, the command and control system breaks down at once and the wrong man is shot, but there is far worse left to happen.

I urge you to see this film at once, although given that you read this, you probably already have done.

Authoritarianism Does Its Thing

This has done the rounds and been roundly done for all the right reasons.

There is almost nothing the Obama administration does regarding terrorism that makes me feel safer. Whether it is guaranteeing captured terrorists that they will not be waterboarded, reciting terrorists their rights, or the legally meandering and confusing rule that some terrorists will be tried in military tribunals and some in civilian courts, what is missing is a firm recognition that what comes first is not the message sent to America’s critics but the message sent to Americans themselves. When, oh when, will this administration wake up?

From a purely literary/journalistic point of view, it’s the “When, oh when” that gets me. Sometimes, style and content – aesthetics and morality – fuse into one.

More to the point, the astonishing thing here is Bush’s lasting achievement – he created a political lobby for torture. It’s not just that he let torture happen, or connived at it, or even specifically ordered it. It’s that a significant chunk of the body-politic now demands torture – not just ‘baggers, but editors of the Washington Post. There isn’t a lobbying group with tax-deductible status under 501(3)c yet – unless you count the American Enterprise Institute – but perhaps it would be a more honest world if there was one.

Do I have to quote Vaclav Havel’s crack about the man who puts a sign reading “Workers of the world, unite!” in the window all over again? OK. Havel said that obviously, he probably wasn’t doing this out of conviction; but if the sign said “I am afraid and therefore obedient”, its actual meaning, he might not be so happy to do it.

Perhaps. But I can’t help thinking the example may be wrong. Richard Cohen is, after all, not just being willing to turn a blind eye. He’s actually yelling for torture, and for specific methods of torture. And the marker of the Bush achievement is that the torture lobby has survived Bush. Here we are, more than a year on, after the US armed forces have been given specific orders against torture. And they’re out there wanting it. It’s weirdly reminiscent of the last Stasi man and the last suspect.

Also, it’s nothing to do with expediency; when the FBI wanted to question Captain Underpants, they got his relatives to talk to him, and it worked. It is usually the case that the purpose of torture is torture; what service, I wonder, does the knowledge of torture provide to these people? After all, Cohen explicitly says that he wants torture because it impresses the public, not because it produces names.

I can’t imagine what would have convinced me in 2000 that in 2010, responsible Americans would be lobbying for torture – even after they had succeeded in voting out the torture president. Back then, it used to be a commonplace notion that the power of the state was fundamentally uninteresting; I recall an especially silly newspaper article in which both Bill Clinton and Deng Xiaoping (Deng Xiaoping!) were bracketed together as meaningless figureheads.

Having a considerable lobby that needs a constant drip of draconian rhetoric to maintain their psychological stability is probably very bad for democracy, especially faced with a terrorist group that explicitly aims to destabilise the state through auto-immune warfare. These people have been trained to freak out at the faintest threat and howl for torture – in a sense, it’s yet another backdoor into the political system, as well as an example of the unconscious conspiracy between the terrorist and the state.