Archive for April 2010
How can we have a free & fair election when the Tories are suppressing media coverage of their leading donor? *Freedom flashmob* Bank Holiday Monday, outside Conservative Central Office
The big unreported scandal of this election is that the Conservative Party’s leading donor (and Deputy Chairman) Lord Michael Ashcroft, is using our draconian media laws to suppress a major BBC investigation into his financial affairs.
As tends to happen when one outlet has been threatened, the rest of the media appears to be staying away from the story. The majority of people voting on May 6th will therefore have no idea of the financial allegations hanging over the country’s richest opposition Party.
While this may, in the words of the Independent, “delight” the Conservatives, it does raise questions about the degree to which an election held in such a climate could be considered genuinely free and fair.
To highlight this serious threat to our democracy, a “Freedom Flashmob” protest is taking place on Bank Holiday Monday at 12pm outside Conservative Central Office (30 Millbank, London SW1P 4DP).
If you’d like to take part, you can join the Facebook group here.
Major embarrassment for Trafigura as reports they claimed were defamatory win prestigious international journalism award
Trafigura sued the BBC for libel over this report
– now the piece has won a major international media award
From the Center for Public Integrity
WASHINGTON, D.C., April 24, 2010 — A gutsy, collaborative series by four European news outlets about toxic waste dumping in Africa and a surprising exposé by a freelancer on payoffs by U.S. military contractors to the Taliban won the 2010 Daniel Pearl Awards for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting.
The winners were announced tonight at the sixth Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. The Pearl Awards are presented by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.
The winners are:
- Kjersti Knudsson and Synnove Bakke, Norwegian Broadcasting Corp.; David Leigh, The Guardian; Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean, BBC Newsnight; Jeroen Trommelen, de Volkskrant (Western Europe), for “Trafigura’s Toxic Waste Dump,” which exposed how a powerful offshore oil trader tried to cover up the poisoning of 30,000 West Africans.
- Aram Roston, The Nation (United States), for “How the US Funds the Taliban,” on of how Pentagon military contractors in Afghanistan routinely pay millions of dollars in protection money to the Taliban to move supplies to U.S. troops. The project was sponsored by The Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.
*Flashmob* – Conservative Central Office, Monday May 3rd – Protest the Tories’ use of libel law to censor a BBC exposé about their leading financial donor
- Name: ToxicTories Central Office Freedom Flash Mob
- Category: Common Interest – Politics
- Description: “If anyone else is as disgusted by the Tories use of our legal system to manipulate the way the this election is being reported as I am, please join us on Bank Holiday Monday (May 3rd), outside Conservative Part HQ at 12pm for a friendly, peaceful but very vocal flashmob. Your voice will be heard.”
Tories use legal threats to censor BBC Ashcroft exposé, then make false and misleading claims about their record on press freedom
1. From The Independent, 19th March 2010
The BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about the business affairs of the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, because of a threat of legal action.
The Corporation has received what one insider described as “several very heavy letters” from Lord Ashcroft’s lawyers. There is now little or no prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.
The hold-up will delight David Cameron’s campaign team, who had been trying to pressure the BBC into delaying the programme until after the general election. But sources inside the Corporation firmly deny that political pressure played a part in keeping the programme off the air, attributing the delay solely to the risk of legal action.
The Tories are anxious to suppress more publicity about Lord Ashcroft’s affairs after the outcry earlier this month when the Tory billionaire belatedly revealed that he is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and so pays no tax on his huge overseas assets.
2. From The Guardian, April 23rd 2010
During a press conference convened to accuse Labour of “scaremongering” the elderly in their campaign literature, the Tory chairman, Eric Pickles, and the shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, were forced to defend the Conservatives from accusations they were involved in the onslaught of negative press against Clegg and his party…
Pickles added: “We have a free and vigorous press, and beware of politicians who tells you that the press have gone too far. Beware of politicians who want to put restraints on the press. We don’t complain when articles are written about us and we might be unhappy about it.”
When challenged by one journalist on whether this was true, he said: “Well, we don’t go too far – we might be occasionally a bit unhappy, but we don’t think it’s a great conspiracy.
“This is not Zimbabwe or the Soviet Union. No political party, no government controls the press.“
From “Mistakes were made but not by me”, quoting Lenny Bruce on the 1960 TV Presidential debates:
I would be with a bunch of Kennedy fans watching the debate and their comment would be, “He’s really slaughtering Nixon.” Then we would all go to another apartment, and the Nixon fans would say, “How do you like the shellacking he gave Kennedy?” And then I realized that each group loved their candidate so that a guy would have to be this blatant – he would have to look into the camera and say: “I am a thief, a crook, do you hear me, I am the worst choice you could ever make for the Presidency!” And even then his following would say, “Now there’s an honest man for you. It takes a big guy to admit that. There’s the kind of guy we need for President.”
Of course the Spectator knows a thing or two about “popular delusions”, having recently got into an embarrassing mess championing the AIDS denialist propaganda film “House of Numbers”.
Awesome stuff. The Daily Mail finally loses its patience with “utterly irrational” UK voters, telling us we need to “wake up and get real”, after opinion polls showed a rise in popular support for the Liberal Democrats.
From The Guardian
Make no mistake, if the Liberal Democrats actually won the election – or held the balance of power – it would be the first time in decades that Murdoch was locked out of British politics. In so many ways, a vote for the Lib Dems is a vote against Murdoch and the media elite.
I can say this with some authority because in my five years editing the Sun I did not once meet a Lib Dem leader, even though I met Tony Blair, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith on countless occasions. (Full disclosure: I have since met Nick Clegg.)
I remember in my first year asking if we staffed the Liberal Democrat conference… I was told we did not. We did not send a single reporter for fear of encouraging them.
…While it would be wrong to say the Lib Dems were banned from Murdoch’s papers (indeed, the Times has a good record in this area), I would say from personal experience that they are often banned – except where the news is critical. They are the invisible party, purposely edged off the paper’s pages and ignored. But it is worse than that, because it is not just the Murdoch press that is guilty of this… All proprietors and editors are part of the “great game”. The trick is to ally yourself with the winner and win influence or at least the ear of the prime minister.
The consequence of this has been that the middle party has been ignored, simply because it was assumed it would never win power. After all, why court a powerless party?
So, as the pendulum swings from red to blue and back to red, the newspapers, or many of them, swing with it – sometimes ahead of the game and sometimes behind.
Over the years the relationships between the media elite and the two main political parties have become closer and closer to the point where, now, one is indistinguishable from the other….
We now live in an era when very serious men and women stay out of politics because our national discourse is conducted by populists with no interest in politics whatsoever. What we have in the UK is a coming together of the political elite and the media in a way that makes people outside London or outside those elites feel disenfranchised and powerless. But all that would go to pot if Clegg were able to somehow pull off his miracle. For he is untainted by it…
The fact is these papers, and others, decided months ago that Cameron was going to win. They are now invested in his victory in the most undemocratic fashion. They have gone after the prime minister in a deeply personal way and until last week they were certain he was in their sights.
I hold no brief for Nick Clegg. But now, thanks to him – an ingenue with no media links whatsoever – things look very different, because now the powerless have a voice as well as the powerful…
From Spin Profiles
According to Dispatches, Cameron has secured more that £50million in donations over the two and a half years since he became the Tory leader (in 2005). Norman Baker of the Liberal Democrats is reported to have complained that Cameron’s fundraising group met in Parliament at the taxpayers expense and he also asked for the names of the members of this ‘Leaders Group’. No names were divulged in the reply. The letter in response to his question simply stated that the group comprised of Cameron’s donors who had donated £50,000 or more to him and that a donation of this amount automatically grants the person membership. It was reported that members are then invited to attend special ‘Leaders Group’ meetings where they meet up with Cameron in person.
The Dispatches investigation dug deeper to establish the names of Cameron’s donors that had donated more than £50k and who were thus automatically members of this group with direct access to Cameron. This is who they found:
- Ian Taylor of the Vitol oil company: In 2007, a subsidiary of this company (Vital SA) pleaded guilty to first degree grand larceny after paying $13million in ‘secret kickbacks’ to the Iraqi government in exchange for oil under the United Nations’ oil-for-food program. They were fined a total of $17.5million ($13 million in restitution to the Development Fund for Iraq)
- Paul Riddock personally donated more than £200,000. It is reported that his company was involved in short selling before new legislation came into force.
- Michael Alen-Buckley personally donated £100,000. Buckley is chairman of RAB Capital an investment management company which he co-founded in 1999. In 2008, the decision to develop a huge open-cast mine in northern Bangladesh is being considered. RAB is backing GCM Resources which plans to undertake the project. If this goes ahead, the Observer reports that 572 million tonnes of coal will be mined, up to 120,000 people from Phulbari in Bangladesh will be displaced, a river will be diverted and a mangrove forest in this world heritage site will be destroyed.
- Lord Irvine Laidlaw is reported to be Cameron’s biggest donor. It is reported that he promised to become a UK taxpayer in turn for a peerage, but then broke this promise. He lives in Monacco and is estimated to save a wopping £50million in tax by doing so.
- Michael Ashcroft is reported to have donated over £10million over a number of years. He is not listed as a personal donor, however Dispatches uncovered that millions have made their way to Cameron through a ‘chain of companies’. Ashcroft is reported to own the Belize Bank (he used to live in Belize) with an address of 60 Market Square, which is the registered address for donations given to Cameron.
Ashcroft is also reportedly involved with Bearwood Corporate Services: which is a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a loss making company that is also registered as a donating company.
In 2008, Ashcroft serves as Deputy Chairman for the Tory party and a member of its management Board. He is also chair for the ‘Target Seat’ campaign which targets marginal seats…
Following on from the bizarre refusal by the Parliamentary authorities to reveal even the number of MPs currently under investigation for corruption, and prompted by Paul Bradshaw of www.helpmeinvestigate.com, I just sent the following message to the Labour Party. I’ve also sent similar messages to both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.
Dear Sir or Madam,
I’m a writer and blogger reporting on the election. I’m writing to ask if any Labour MPs who are standing for re-election on May 6th are currently being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and if so whether [you] will release their names?
I will also be putting this question to the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats, with responses published in full on my website here: http://richardwilsonauthor.wordpress.com
Many thanks in advance for your help on this.
Some good news on the battle for freedom of speech in the UK – British Chiropractic Association drop “bogus” libel case against Simon Singh
The BCA have finally dropped their vindictive and misguided attempt to use UK libel law to attack a well-respected science writer, Simon Singh. This follows a refreshingly sensible ruling from the Court of Appeal in which the judges made it clear that the libel courts were no place for trying to settle a scientific debate.
If we’re lucky, this could help to deter at least the most extreme abuses by cranks, quacks, and peddlers of corporate pseudo-science who seek to silence their critics through threats of legal action.
Simon Singh has done a huge service to the many British writers and bloggers who have been threatened by quacks and charlatans – and also to the British wider public, who depend on the freedom of the press (including scientific journals) to ensure that bogus and flawed medical claims are properly scrutinised.
On Monday the 12th of April 2010 Parliament was formally dissolved in advance of the forthcoming general election. This has prompted some interesting, and rather bizarre, responses to the Freedom of Information requests which have been made to the House of Commons and House of Lords since dissolution. Each such request made via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com has received a standard reply stating:
When Parliament has been dissolved there is no ‘House of Commons/Lords’ for the purposes of Part 1 of Schedule 1 to the 2000 Act, and there is therefore no ‘public authority’ to which the 20 day deadline under section 10 of the 2000 Act is capable of applying. The time limits do not, therefore, apply during the period of Dissolution.
The effect of the 2000 Act, including its time limits, resumes when the new House of Commons/Lords first meets.
Requests which were due to receive a response during the period parliament is dissolved have had their “clocks” stopped, with notices saying:
As your request was received before the House dissolved, the 20 working day time limit of your request will be split, ceasing on 12 April 2010 and resuming on 18 May 2010 when the new Parliament first meets.
As mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow automatically publishes requests, correspondence and responses online it’s not just the requestors who can see those responses, anyone can.
During the 2005 election according to the UK FOI blog Parliament placed a notice on its website saying it had consulted with the Information Commissioner and agreed the procedure for extending the time limit for a response.
Clearly the Houses of Parliament still have staff employed and people are still acknowledging the FOI requests. While both houses have stopped meeting, the institutions behind them must surely still be operating, and to claim they have ceased to exist is bordering on the utterly ludicrous.
Are the staff who would otherwise be in a position to respond to requests for things like viewer statistics for the Parliament Live TV stream, content of the Commons’ Intranet or cost of the Parliament Education Service not at their desks at the moment? If they are who’s employing them? Who’s paying them? While it is presumably a busy time for those staff preparing for a new intake of MPs; you might think that without MPs and Lords around it may be a quite time for many staff who might want to use the opportunity to catch with correspondence like FOI requests. Perhaps in the midst of all this rather British oddness we should be happy that at least the parliament website hasn’t been turned off at this time of peak interest in the nation about parliament and our democratic system…
I was amused to read this tweet from Catherine_mayer just now:
She has a point – Battersea Power Station is an iconic British monolith that has been sliding into dereliction for the last three decades – despite endless attempts, under successive governments, to renovate it and turn it into something useful… Possibly not the most optimistic backdrop for a big conversation about the future of the United Kingdom.
To make matters worse, the building is perhaps best known for its association with the Pink Floyd concept album “Animals”, which features a giant pig-shaped barrage balloon being parked several hundred feet in the air above the building, to the accompaniment of these lyrics:
Big man, pig man, ha ha charade you are.
You well heeled big wheel, ha ha charade you are.
And when your hand is on your heart,
You’re nearly a good laugh,
Almost a joker,
With your head down in the pig bin,
Saying “Keep on digging.”
Pig stain on your fat chin.
Excellent profile on Wikileaks and Julian Assange in today’s Sunday Times. Outstanding quote from Julian Assange: “The dead hand of feudalism still rests on every British shoulder; we plan to remove it”. I think if Wikileaks was a political party, that would be the one I’d vote for…
Are you, like me, a nerd? Do you care about nerdy things like science and rationality? Are you wondering, ahead of the 2010 general election, which parties and candidates also care about basing policy on evidence, rather than media scaremongering, opinionated ignorance and/or kneejerk populism? If the answer is yes to all of the above, I would like to point you towards Skeptical-Voter.org.
Because it’s true what they say – this is going to be Britain’s first digital election. But not, you suspect, in the way that the parties might think, or hope. For every vote swayed by WebCameron or the Labour Party’s official Facebook page, there will be thousands who change their mind because of the faster spread of information that the internet allows.
Skeptical Voter is a tool, similar in broad intent if not design to our own Vote Match, that allows voters to find out which parties and candidates match their views on rationalist topics. Worry that your MP wants creationism taught alongside evolutionary theory in schools, or to give Sharia legal status in the UK? Maybe you think homeopathy (I know I go on about it) should be subject to the same standards of scientific rigour as other NHS treatments, and want to know which candidate agrees with you. As the Bad Science blogger and Guardian writer Ben Goldacre put it in a typically acid Tweet, “Does your MP seriously believe in fairies and magic beans?”
Three weeks before a General Election, Parliament refuses to disclose details of which MPs are being probed by standards watchdog
Less than a month before a General Election, you are not entitled to know whether the MP seeking your vote on May 6th is currently under investigation for corruption.
On March 25th I made a Freedom Of Information Act request to the Parliamentary standards watchdog, asking:
a) How many MPs are currently under investigation for suspected breaches of the rules (this could be anything from failing to disclose a second job to taking cash from lobbyists)
b) The names of any MPs currently under investigation.
It seemed to me that in the run-up to the General Election, it was important that the public should be aware which of the MPs currently seeking their votes are at the same time being investigated for dodgy dealings.
Given the well-publicised complicity of the House of Commons authorities in the abuse of Parliamentary expenses by MPs – and their role in the subsequent cover-up – along with the cagey and defensive attitude of the person I spoke to when I phoned the Parliamentary Standards Office a few weeks ago, I was expecting a fair bit of obstruction and evasion. They haven’t let me down.
Today I got an email from Bob Castle, who carries the impressive job title of “Head of Information Rights and Security” at the House of Commons.
According to Mr Castle,
The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22 of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication).
Conveniently for those MPs under investigation (and for all we know this could be all 646 of them), “early summer” in this context almost certainly means after the General Election on May 6th. Last year’s annual report on MP abuses was published on 29th June 2009, the previous one on 17th July 2008, and the one before that on 25th October 2007.
Bob Castle goes on to say that:
While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received.
This means, as far as I can tell, that in the opinion of the Commons bureaucrats, a 4o-page report published just once a year tells us, the public, all we deserve to know about the investigations being carried out by the body whose job it is to stamp our corruption by our elected representatives.
It would surely not cost the Parliamentary authorities very much simply to disclose the number of MPs currently under investigation. As a commenter on this article helpfully points out, releasing that information would almost certainly have taken less time than typing out their lengthy excuse for not doing so.
We are also not allowed to know the names of any of the MPs under investigation, as this would apparently infringe the “priveleges of Parliament”.
What this is really about is an attitude. Despite being paid out of the taxes we earn, Bob Castle certainly does not seem to be behaving like someone who believes he is actually accountable to the British public. More than any of the details in this particular case, it’s that attitude that seems most worrying, because it seems to show that the same mindset that allowed the expenses to scandal to happen is very much alive and well in Westminster.
While many of our most corrupt and tainted MPs are stepping down at the next election, and while many others will be fired on May 6th when the voters have their say, Bob Castle and his unelected colleagues will all still be there on May 7th, doing, presumably, what they’ve always done.
As it turns out, Castle played a starring role in the expenses cover-up:
…the preliminary decision in favour of detailed [expenses] disclosure was made by [information commissioner] Mr Thomas.
Signed by Graham Smith, the deputy information commissioner, and dated October 2, 2006, it stated:
“The Commissioner requires that the House of Commons shall provide the complainant with the requested information with the following redactions made. “
The redactions included identification of any third parties e.g. traders; personal and third party addresses; and details of bank accounts and mortgages.
A leaked email from Bob Castle, a data protection and FOI officer at the Commons, sent to Nicole Duncan at the commissioner’s office, protested that the wording of the decision was “inaccurate and unfair”.
Further leaked emails show Ms Duncan continually tried to extract information about the expenses claims of the named MPs.
However, in November 2006, Ms Duncan emailed Mr Castle to “confirm that for the purposes of the [final] Decision Notice in this case we will not be reproducing the exact details of what information the House holds in relation to each of the MPs.”
A reply from Mr Castle at the Commons stated that “the House considered that it would be a breach of the fairness provisions of the first data protection principle to provide any personal data relating to an individual MP’s claims including information as to whether part of their allowances claim is in respect of mortgage or rental payments”.
He added that “until the case is finally determined” the Commons believed it was “released from its obligations” under key sections of the FOI Act.
I’ve appealed this latest FOI refusal, but conveniently, again, for the MPs under investigation, given the timescales involved for FOI appeals, it’s inconceivable that any kind of ruling would be made this side of the General Election.
My personal view is that clearing out the corrupt MPs will not be enough (although it is a very good start). We need a wholesale clear-out of the officials who, for so long, have been doing such a lamentable job of protecting the integrity of our Parliamentary system.
The exact questions I asked were:
I would like to know:
1) The number of MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
2) The names of any MPs currently under investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
And here are the exemptions cited in full by Bob Castle:
The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards is inquiring into these matters under the procedures set out in Standing Order No 150. The number of inquiries under way as at 31 March 2010 is information that will be included in the Commissioner’s Annual Report for 2009-10, which is expected to be published in the early summer. It is therefore exempt from publication under s22 of the Freedom of Information Act (information intended for future publication). While there is a public interest in providing access to information such as that covered by your request, this interest is being met by regular publications of information about number of complaints received. Therefore, the balance of the public interest rests with maintaining the exemption while this information is being prepared and finalised for routine publication.
The procedure approved by the Committee under SO No 150 does not currently provide for the disclosure of the remaining information requested (a list of the names of MPs under inquiry). As this procedure has been approved by the Committee in accordance with the Standing Order, the exemption under s34 is necessary to avoid infringing the privileges of Parliament, which include the rights of each Committee to interpret its own orders of reference. I must therefore refuse your request.
“We would respectfully adopt what Judge Easterbrook, now Chief Judge of the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, said in a libel action over a scientific controversy, Underwager v Salter 22 Fed. 3d 730 (1994):
“[Plaintiffs] cannot, by simply filing suit and crying ‘character assassination!’, silence those who hold divergent views, no matter how adverse those views may be to plaintiffs’ interests. Scientific controversies must be settled by the methods of science rather than by the methods of litigation. … More papers, more discussion, better data, and more satisfactory models – not larger awards of damages – mark the path towards superior understanding of the world around us.” “
1. From Dr Evan Harris MP (via Twitter), outside the Royal Courts of Justice:
“The judgment is simon…. Wins!”
2. Further updates from blogger and libel reform champion JackofKent.
3. Further background on the case here.
4. Via Index on Censorship – photo of Simon Singh speaking immediately after the ruling.
5. Via James o’ Malley. Audio of Simon Singh and his lawyer speaking about the case immediately after the ruling – link here.
7. The British Chiropractic Association have reportedly issued a statement responding to the ruling…
10. Lay Science publishes statement from the BCA
More to follow…