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Wikileaks publish BBC’s 39-page defence against the Trafigura libel suit

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From Wikileaks (pdf):

This document was submitted to the UK’s High Court by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in September 2009, as a Defence against a libel claim brought against them by the oil company Trafigura. A May 2009 BBC Newsnight feature suggested that 16 deaths and many other injuries were caused by the dumping in the Ivory Coast of a large quantity of toxic waste originating with Trafigura. A September 2009 UN report into the matter stated that 108,000 people were driven to seek medical attention.

This Defence, which has never been previously published online, outlines in detail the evidence which the BBC believed justified its coverage. In December 2009 the BBC settled out of court amid reports that fighting the case could have cost as much as 3 million pounds. The BBC removed its original Newsnight footage and associated articles from its on-line archives. The detailed claims contained in this document were never aired publicly, and never had a chance to be tested in court.

Commenting on the BBC’s climbdown, John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said: “Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.” Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said: “Forced to choose between a responsible broadcaster and an oil company which shipped hundreds of tons of toxic waste to a developing country, English libel law has once again allowed the wrong side to claim victory. The law is an ass and needs urgent reform.”

Now that this document is in the public domain, the global public will be able to make their own judgement about the strength of the BBC’s case.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 16, 2010 at 7:31 am

What the voters of Banbury might want to ask Tony Baldry MP

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*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

1.  It has been alleged that you met with the Nigerian President last year, and discussed with him the criminal investigation by the UK authorities into the financial affairs of the Nigerian politician James Ibori. Is this true?

2. If so, did you conduct this meeting in your capacity as an MP or a barrister?

3. If it is true that this meeting took place, what was the purpose of the meeting, which issues were discussed and which actions were agreed?

4. If it is true that the meeting took place, how long afterwards did you write your letter to David Miliband about the James Ibori case?

5. Do you deny suggesting in this letter that the criminal investigation into Mr Ibori might be detrimental to British interests?

6. The Oxford Mail reports that a solicitor who has acted for the Ibori family recently paid you £37,000 for 29 hours’ legal work between September and December last year. What did this work involve?

Written by Richard Wilson

March 10, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Support the Libel Reform campaign – Free speech is not for sale!

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Click here to support the campaign for freedom of speech in the UK

England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised – there is urgent need for reform.

Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.

The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.

The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.

We the undersigned, in England and beyond, urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.

More than 30,000 people have signed so far – click here to join them

Written by Richard Wilson

March 4, 2010 at 7:29 am

Tweet if you support us! Online flashmob – 1pm, Thursday 26th November

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*UPDATE* – Make a vid for freedom! We’re defying #Trafigura, and you can too!

Unable to join the #Trafigura flashmob in person this Thursday? Still want to help? Well now you can…

We will be using our freedom under the 1688 Bill of Rights to stand outside Trafigura’s office and quote from a Parliamentary debate which highlighted an allegation that the company has been very keen to suppress:

Newsnight” is being threatened by the lawyers for Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, if it repeats an allegation against Carter-Ruck that deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, even though in 2007 Hansard reported the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before Parliament, and a memorandum of explanation to those regulations stated:

“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”

How can it be that that can be in Hansard, yet there are still threats of legal action against “Newsnight” if it reports the very same wording that is used in there?

From 1pm onwards on Thursday 26th November, please show your support for the campaign by Tweeting the following, and encouraging others to do the same:

Beat the gag! “toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people” #Trafigura http://bit.ly/4DvaNV

OR

I’m tweeting banned text: “toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people” #Trafigura http://tr.im/FBZi

Click here to help us defy Trafigura on Youtube!

Click here for more information about the campaign.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm

*Flipcam Flashmob!* Multimedia protest @ #Trafigura’s London office, 1pm Thurs Nov 26th

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*UPDATE* Sign up for the event on Facebook here – and if you can’t make the protest, you can make a vid for freedom here, or support us on Twitter.

We’re going to ‘flashmob’ Trafigura ( 2 Portman Street, London W1H 6DU ) at 1pm on Thursday November 26th. The main aim is to highlight the fact that Trafigura/Carter Ruck are, even now, still suing the BBC for libel - (over this report) and thus continuing to cast a chill over the UK media.

The key feature of the protest will be an act of defiance against Trafigura’s attempt to stop the reporting of the fact that their toxic waste is alleged to have caused a number of deaths (ie. not just ‘flu-like symptoms’).

The plan is to quote verbatim from Hansard, as (despite some uncertainty recently) we know that we have an absolute legal right to quote from Parliamentary proceedings.

According to Evan Harris MP (quoted here in a Parliamentary debate, hence we can quote him):

“Newsnight” is being threatened by the lawyers for Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, if it repeats an allegation against Carter-Ruck that deaths were caused by the dumping of toxic waste in Ivory Coast, even though in 2007 Hansard reported the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations laid by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs before Parliament, and a memorandum of explanation to those regulations stated:

“The recent example of the release of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast leading to the deaths of a number of people and the hospitalisation of thousands underlines the risks involved in the movement and management of waste.”

How can it be that that can be in Hansard, yet there are still threats of legal action against “Newsnight” if it reports the very same wording that is used in there?

So the plan is to turn up outside their offices with as many people (and cameraphones, mini-video cams, etc.) as possible, and recite this text – either all of the above, or just the two lines Harris is quoting from the ‘memorandum’.

The highlight will be Sly and Reggie, with their “Suburban Pirate” mobile (a lovely old Morris pickup), which has a public address system they will employ to a similar purpose, together with the rather good song they’ve recorded specifically on this subject.

There’s a rumour that (subject to local byelaws) we’ll also be drinking a toast to freedom outside Trafigura’s office, with some banana bread beer…

Written by Richard Wilson

November 19, 2009 at 8:57 pm

Posted in Democracy

Tagged with ,

Battling the Twitterphobic backlash…

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Given the recent success of Twitter and Facebook in mobilising those outraged by the distasteful comments of Jan Moir, it was probably inevitable that other mainstream columnists would start to get worried.  Until recently, newspaper pundits have been free to air their opinions more or less unchallenged, loudly, regularly, and with scant regard for accuracy – beyond the requirement never to say anything bad about a (living) rich person or an advertiser.

Now that the internet has made it slightly easier for the public to answer back, many columnists seem jittery. The last few days have seen a flurry of news articles likening Twitter users to a ‘mob’, equating the loud criticism of Jan Moir with ‘censorship’, and warning us that online activism threatens  freedom of speech.

Writing in today’s Observer, Nick Cohen announces that “the same people who want freedom of speech for Parliament want to silence Jan Moir” (apparently he did a worldwide survey of every single person involved in the Trafigura protest, and that’s what they all said) and that “when Twitter heaved with protests against Jan Moir, apparent liberals matched conservatives and forgot every liberal principle they knew”.

The irony is that websites like Twitter are actually giving a public voice to thousands of people who never had much of a say before, thereby greatly increasing the value of freedom of speech in this country (since when does sending an angry letter make you a member of a ‘mob’?). The double-irony is that Nick Cohen, in denouncing Twitterers for the way that they have used this new-found public voice, seems to be acting in the same way as those who condemned Jan Moir for the way she aired hers. If he is right (which I don’t think he is) that the strong criticism of Jan Moir’s comments was an attempt at ‘censorship’, then it’s difficult to see how his strong criticism of the Twittersphere wouldn’t fall into the same category.

One liberal principle that Cohen himself appears to have forgotten is the value of condemning bigotry, whatever its source:

opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candor, or malignity, bigotry or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves

- John Stuart Mill, Chapter Two, On Liberty- click here to read the full context

To condemn a bigoted opinion, is not, in and of itself, to demand that the bigot be silenced or censored – we can merely be registering our disapproval of one particular view, and for many who complained about Jan Moir’s comments, this seems to have been the main point. In the words of Ian Hopkinson earlier today: “I resent the implication I want to shut #janmoir up – I just wanted to shout at her a bit”.

Written by Richard Wilson

November 1, 2009 at 1:55 pm

In defence of flashmobs…

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Jack of Kent has written a characteristically thoughtful blogpost about this week’s ‘flashmob’ protest outside Carter Ruck’s offices. Here is my response, which I’ve also posted as a comment on the article itself:

Thanks for this post, David. As one of those involved in this week’s Carter Ruck protest I’m happy to debate the wider questions that you rightly point out such tactics raise.

In my view, companies who abuse human rights and/or pose a threat to democracy need to be named and shamed. This would surely include an oil company whose negilence led to 18 deaths and 30,000 injuries, and who then fought tooth and nail to silence media coverage of the issue. But it would also, I believe, include a legal firm who sought to advance their client’s interests by exploiting a demonstrably unjust law in order to suppress the right to freedom of speech. Should such a firm then seek to do the same by using similarly unjust laws to attack the fundamental underpinnings of the liberal democracy in which they exist, it is then time, in my view, for ordinary people to get on the streets and challenge them directly.

Carter Ruck this week sought, on behalf of their client, to use the law to prevent media coverage of Parliamentary proceedings. They then wrote to both the Speaker of the House of Commons, and every MP, in an apparent attempt to stop next week’s debate on freedom of speech. This was not the normal behaviour of a law firm in a healthy liberal democracy. In my view, these were political actions, and they were political actions characteristic of a dictatorial regime, not a free and open society. If a law firm starts playing politics (whether or not they do so on the instructions of a client), I believe that they then become a legitimate target for peaceful political protest.

Many people were killed, tortured or imprisoned to win and defend the democratic rights that we still largely enjoy in this country.  These freedoms are now in danger, and our democracy has already been outrageously degraded by the attacks we’ve seen on civil and political rights over the last decade. If we want to remain a largely liberal and democratic society, rather than sliding slowly towards some form of corrupt pseudo-democracy, I believe that we will need to start mobilising political action now against all those now chipping away at our democratic traditions – including, where necessary, law firms.

I don’t believe there is an absolute dividing line between liberal democratic societies and tyrannical ones. A largely liberal democracy may have unjust laws on its statute books, such as the law which led to the prosecution for homosexuality of one of our national heroes, Alan Turing, within living memory of our grandparents’ generation. More recently, it was still possible to be prosecuted in this country for “blasphemy”. Today, someone who writes an entirely truthful article about another living person can be spuriously prosecuted under a libel law which, due to the financial cost of obtaining adequate legal representation, effectively denies many defendants their right to a fair trial.

Where a lawyer chooses to collaborate with the enforcement of an unjust, undemocratic law, they cannot, in my view, insulate themselves from the moral consequences of that choice, even if they are working within a still-largely-democratic society, even if they are acting on the instructions of a client.

I fully agree that cheap shots at the entire legal profession are lazy and unhelpful, but in a way that’s exactly my point. Lawyers are (notwithstanding those cheap shots) human beings. Human beings are moral agents. Moral agents make choices for which they are morally responsible, including choices within their professional lives. Perhaps it’s true that some other lawyers would have done exactly the same as Carter Ruck did this week, but I know that there are many others who would have refused, and would have done so not on legal grounds but on moral ones. In a situation where, as we are now seeing, what is legally acceptable begins to drift away from what is morally right, the role of individual conscience becomes crucially important.

Written by Richard Wilson

October 18, 2009 at 11:44 am

Ungpakorn’s mythbusting article on Thai politics (reportedly blocked by Thai authorities)

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From Asia Sentinel

Three years after a royalist coup, nothing is solved

On September 19, 2006, the Thai army toppled the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra. Soldiers sported yellow royal ribbons and the military junta claimed that they were staging the coup to protect “Democracy with the King as the Head of State.”

They certainly were not protecting democracy. The coup came after massive street demonstrations against Thaksin by the royalist and conservative People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), where many PAD members and leaders of the Democrat Party had called for the King to sack the elected prime minister and appoint another one. Later, the yellow-shirted PAD took on a semi-fascist nature, using extreme nationalism and having its own armed guard. They used violence on the streets of Bangkok.

It was always an exaggeration to claim that “all Thais revere the King” or that “the monarchy has held the country together for decades.” Statements like that gloss over the level of coercion surrounding public attitudes to the monarchy, the deep tensions in society and the serious lack of power, courage and character shown by this king throughout his reign. Nevertheless, for 20 years after the mid 1980s the monarchy was very popular. This was more to do with the weakness of the opposition and the level of promotion that the institution received, rather than any “ancient or natural” love for the king among Thais. Yet, it was enough to convince most Thais that monarchism was deeply embedded in society.

The present crisis has shattered these illusions. Since the coup, the royalists have been promoting the king’s “Sufficiency Economy” ideology, which basically argues against redistribution of wealth. At the same time, Budget Bureau documents show that the public purse spent more than Bt6 billion (US$278.2 million) on the monarchy in 2008, mainly for the Royal Household Bureau (more than Bt2 billion), royal overseas visits (Bt500 million), Royal Thai Aid-De-Camp Department (over Bt400 million) and the rest for security by the police and army. This figure did not include the cost of the new royal plane fleet, which amounted to Bt 3.65 billion.

Some commentators who ought to know better, however, go to great lengths in supporting illusions about the monarchy. Benjamin Zawacki, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International, making a disgraceful comment on an 18 year jail sentence given to a Red Shirt activist for making a speech against the Monarchy, said that “you have an institution here ( the monarchy) that has played an important role in the protection of human rights in Thailand. We can see why the monarchy needs to be protected” (by lese majeste laws). There is absolutely no evidence that the king has ever protected human rights. In fact, the opposite is true. Just look at what happened on 6th October 1976., when police and the military cracked down on students protesting the return of Field Marshall Thanom Kittachakorn to Thailand. They killed at least 46 people and probably many more. The statement is not surprising, however, since the Amnesty International office in Thailand is closely associated with the PAD.

Immediately after the coup in 2006, there was no mass response by the millions of citizens who had repeatedly voted for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) government. But a small group of activists who called themselves “the 19th September Network Against the Coup” did stage a protest and continued to organize repeated protests. I was one of those people who protested against the coup. But we were not supporters of Thaksin and were critical of his gross human rights abuses in the South and in the War on Drugs, in which as many as 2,500 people were gunned down. Since then, the destruction of democracy by the conservative elites has continued relentlessly and has stimulated the growth of a grass-roots pro-democracy movement called the Red Shirts. It has long become necessary to take sides. That is why I joined the Red Shirts in November 2008.

After writing a new pro-military Constitution and using the courts to dissolve The Thai Rak Thai party, the military junta held fresh elections in 2007. This was won by the Peoples’ Power Party (PPP), a new pro-Thaksin party. Again the election results were ignored. The conservative courts, violent protests by the PAD, including the shutting down of the international airports, plus behind scenes activity by the army, eventually resulted in an undemocratic government with Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as the Prime Minister in December 2009.

Thailand took further steps backward with the introduction of draconian censorship, the use of lese majeste laws against pro-democracy activists and the creation by the government of the armed paramilitary gang called the Blue Shirts, who are thought to be soldiers out of uniform. They are controlled by government politicians such as Newin Chidchob and Sutep Teuksuban. The reason for the creation of the Blue Shirts is that PAD is beyond the control of the government and hence there are attempts to limit its power. Nevertheless, the Foreign Minister is a PAD supporter and he took part in the illegal airport occupation.

The Red Shirts have continued to evolve. Mass meetings of ordinary people, numbering hundreds of thousands, were held in sports stadiums in Bangkok. The movement was initially built by former Thai Rak Thai politicians, but it quickly evolved into a grass-roots movement with branches in most communities throughout the country and even abroad. There are local educational groups, community radio stations and websites.

In April 2009, for the fourth time in 40 years, troops opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators in Bangkok, firing live rounds and training rounds to clear protesters from the intersection near the Victory Monument in Bangkok, injuring at least 70 people and killing two. Although the Army later claimed that live rounds were only fired into the air, Human Rights Watch argued that live ammunition was fired directly at protesters.

Some months later, a tape recording of a cabinet meeting was leaked to the public in which Abhistit was caught urging the military to create a situation in which they could shoot the Red Shirt protesters. Each time the army has shot unarmed protesters in Thailand, the aim has been the same: to protect the interests of the conservative elites who have run the country for the past 70 years. This time, the protesters were Red Shirts. Since then, Abhisit’s military-backed government has repeatedly used “internal security” as an excuse to prevent legitimate street protest. They have declared what amounts to martial law under the Internal Security Act in Bangkok over the next few days.

Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party was modernizing and this is why the conservatives hated it. For the first time in decades, a party gained mass support from the poor because it believed that the poor were not a burden. They argued that the poor should be “stakeholders” rather than serfs. These populist policies were developed after the 1997 Asian economic crisis and were a result of widespread consultations in society. This was no socialist party, but a party of big business committed to free-market policies at a macro and global level, and Keynesian policies at the village or grass-roots level. When the party came to power in 2001, the banks had stopped lending and there was an urgent need to stimulate the economy. It represented the modernizing interests of an important faction of the capitalist class.

The major forces behind the September 19 coup were anti-democratic groups in the military and civilian elite, disgruntled business leaders, middle class reactionaries and neo-liberal intellectuals and politicians. The coup was also supported by the monarchy and the majority of the NGO movement. What all these groups had in common was contempt for the poor. For the neo-liberals, “too much democracy” gave “too much” power to the poor electorate and encouraged governments to “over-spend” on welfare. The intellectuals and NGO activists believed that Thailand was divided between the “enlightened middle-classes who understood democracy” and the “ignorant rural and urban poor” who were trapped in a “patron-client system.”

There was a belief that Thaksin cheated in elections, mainly by tricking people or buying the rural poor vote. This was a convenient justification for ignoring the wishes of 16 million people. There was no evidence for any serious electoral fraud which would have changed the clear majority that the Thai Rak Thai gained in many elections.

Thaksin has often been wrongly accused of being against the monarchy. In fact he is a royalist. He opposes people like myself who are republicans. His government promoted the King’s 60th anniversary celebrations and started the North Korean-style Yellow Shirt Mania that invoked the color of the king. But Thaksin lost out to the conservatives in his attempt to use the monarchy.

Thaksin is also accused of corruption. His sale of his family-held Shin Corp shares, without paying tax, was certainly moral corruption, but quite legal. The military and the courts have had three years to come up with evidence of his corruption, but have only managed to convict him on a technicality in one instance. Perhaps a thorough-going anti-corruption campaign might unearth widespread corruption among all the elites, especially the military and the conservatives and even those involved in the King’s vaunted Sufficiency Economy program?

Much damage has been done to Thai society by the conservative elites and the coup. They may manage to cling to their power and wealth for some time, but millions of pro-democracy Thais are no longer willing to compromise and accept anything less than real democracy. Many like myself would now like to see a republic and a wholesale dismissal of the top generals and judges. The king will die soon and his son is largely despised. But the elites, whose real power lies in the hands of the army, will still try desperately to promote and use the monarchy for their own ends. We can only hope that their dreams will crumble.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 18, 2009 at 9:57 am

Posted in Democracy

Tagged with

Déja vu…

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From Hansard, 28 January 1992

Mr Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

Will the Prime Minister now give a categoric assurance that he will not impose any increase in VAT? Will he please answer yes or no?

Mr John Major (Huntingdon)

We have no plans to increase value added tax.

From The Independent, 17 January 1997

Mr Clarke denied any lapse of memory about VAT. “The [1992] manifesto did not say we weren’t going to extend it and I have never said we weren’t going to extend it,” he said.

In fact, Mr Major said the Government had “no plans” to raise VAT, before imposing it on domestic fuel, which had been zero rated.

From Press Association 9 August 2009

The Tories have “absolutely” no plans to raise VAT to 20% if they win the next general election, shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley insisted.

Mr Lansley rejected reports that the move was being “very actively considered” and insisted it had not even been discussed at senior levels.

“As far as I am aware we have absolutely no such plan and I know there have been no such senior level discussions,” he told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 9, 2009 at 11:06 am

Refreshing bluntness from a UK political journalist

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From Fraser Nelson in The Spectator

If you’re reading this, Ed (and I suspect you will be) then we have a serious point to make. Five years ago, you could lie like this on the radio and get away with it. Space is tight in newspapers, no one would devote hundreds of words and graphs – as we did – to expose a lie for what is. But the world has changed now. Blogging has brought new, hyper scrutiny. Blogs have infinite space, and people with endless energy, to expose political lying – no matter how small. Your claims can be instantly counter-checked, by anyone. If you stretch the truth, you can be exposed – by anyone. And if you plan to base a whole election campaign on a lie, as you apparently intend to do, then you’re in for a rude awakening.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 30, 2009 at 10:35 pm

Irony levels around UK government secrecy policies now dangerously high, warn scientists…

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Judge rules that judges who get sacked or reprimanded should enjoy anonymity…

From The Guardian

The government and the judiciary can continue to conceal the names of more than 170 misbehaving judges, a freedom of information tribunal has ruled.

The judge heading the tribunal decided that some members of the judiciary who have been sacked or reprimanded for misconduct would suffer “great distress” if details of their misdemeanours were made public.

Written by Richard Wilson

June 18, 2009 at 8:47 am

Scandal-hit Nick Brown was among the 98 who voted to cover up expenses by exempting MPs from Freedom of Information Act

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The latest revelation on MPs expenses is that Labour chief whip Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend – majority 7,565), was allowed to claim over £18,000, without having to present any receipts, for “food” at his second home. Predictably, Nick Brown was among the 98 MPs who voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, in an apparent attempt to prevent public scrutiny of their expense claims.

Compromised MPs spring to defence of discredited Speaker Michael Martin

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As Parliamentarians grow increasingly vocal in demanding that the discredited Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, steps down from his post, it’s interesting to see which MPs are now stepping forward to defend him.

The BBC quotes “Sir” Stuart Bell – who it describes as an ally of Mr. Martin – as insisting that the majority of MPs still wanted to the Speaker to remain in his post. Stephen Pound MP, meanwhile, has said that he supports Michael Martin and dismisses calls for what he describes as a “blood sacrifice”.

Both these MPs have a track record in attempting to block public scrutiny of how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Both were among the 98 who, in May 2007, attempted to pass a law exempting themselves from scrutiny under the Freedom of Information Act.

More recently, Stuart Bell MP proposed that the processing of MPs expenses should be outsourced to a private company, apparently in the belief that this would place the claims beyond the reach of Freedom of Information requests.

Stuart Bell is Labour MP for Middlesbrough, and currently enjoys a thumping majority of 12,567 votes. It will be interesting to see how well that holds up at the next election.

Stephen Pound is Labour MP for Ealing North, and is in a somewhat more precarious position, with a majority of 7,059. Given Labour’s current electoral woes, this would already have put him in some jeopardy ahead of next year’s vote – it’s difficult to see how his track record on expenses will do him any additional favours when the time comes.

The 98 MPs who tried to cover up their expense claims by exempting themselves from the Freedom of Information Act

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In May 2007, 98 MPs voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act, with the apparent aim of stopping the public from finding out the details of their Parliamentary expense claims.

The measure was ultimately defeated, and after a long legal battle, the courts last year ordered the publication of the expense claims made by MPs. The government, however, continued to drag its feet until the information was finally (and now famously) leaked to the Telegraph newspaper, amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Parliamentary authorities.

Amid the uproar that the last week of revelations has caused among the wider public, attention has understandably focussed on the worst excesses of the worst offenders – the claims for non-existent mortgages, exorbitant gardening bills, and the famous “moat-cleaning” expense.

But alongside this, it now seems worth taking a closer look at the people who helped create the environment in which this behaviour was able to flourish – and who fought so hard to stop the truth from being exposed.

Interestingly, several of the MPs – such as Elliot Morley, Julie Kirkbride and Tony McNulty – who have now been identified as serial abusers of the Parliamentary expenses system, were also among the 98 MPs who, in May 2007, voted to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act. But there are also many others who, to date, seem to have largely escaped public scrutiny. There’s a detailed summary here by the Campaign for Freedom of Information of the bill in its various stages. From this we can see that:

78 of those who supported the bill are Labour MPs:

Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West)
Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)
Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth)
Andrew Dismore (Hendon)
Angela C. Smith (Sheffield Hillsborough)
Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon)
Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East)
Bob Laxton (Derby North)
Brian H. Donohoe (Ayrshire Central)
Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
Claire Ward (Watford)
Clive Betts (Sheffield Attercliffe)
Clive Efford (Eltham)
Colin Burgon (Elmet)
Dari Taylor (Stockton South)
Dave Watts (St Helens North)
David Cairns (Inverclyde)
David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
David Lammy (Tottenham)
David Marshall (Glasgow East)
David Wright (Telford)
Denis Murphy (Wansbeck)
Desmond Turner (Brighton Kemptown)
Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne North)
Elliot Morley (Scunthorpe)
Frank Doran (Aberdeen North)

Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)
Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington East)
Gareth Thomas (Harrow West)
George Mudie (Leeds East)
Gillian Merron (Lincoln)
Graham Allen (Nottingham North)
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)
Huw Irranca-Davies
Ian McCartney (Makerfield)
Ian Stewart (Eccles)
Ivan Lewis (Bury South)
James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)
Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)
Jim Dowd (Lewisham West)
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town)
Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North)
Joan Ryan (Enfield North)
John Heppell (Nottingham East)
John McFall (West Dunbartonshire)
John Robertson (Glasgow North West)
John Spellar (Warley)
Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
Keith Hill (Streatham)
Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton North East)
Kevan Jones (North Durham)
Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham Perry Barr)
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
Liz Blackman (Erewash)
Malcolm Wicks (Croydon North)
Maria Eagle (Liverpool Garston)
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside)
Martin Salter (Reading West)
Martyn Jones (Clwyd South)
Meg Munn (Sheffield Heeley)
Michael Foster (Worcester)
Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)
Nick Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend)
Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester)
Phil Woolas (Oldham East and Saddleworth)
Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
Siôn Simon (Birmingham Erdington)
Stephen Pound (Ealing North)
Steve McCabe (Birmingham Hall Green)
Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
Thomas McAvoy (Rutherglen and Hamilton West)
Tom Harris (Glasgow South)
Tom Levitt (High Peak)
Tom Watson (West Bromwich East)
Tony Lloyd (Manchester Central)
Tony McNulty (Harrow East)
Wayne David (Caerphilly)

The remaining 20 are all Conservative:

Andrew Pelling (Croydon Central)
Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and the Weald)
Ann Winterton (Congleton)
David Maclean (Penrith and the Border)
David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds)
David Tredinnick (Bosworth)
Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East)
John Butterfill (Bournemouth West)
John Randall (Uxbridge)
Julian Lewis (New Forest East)
Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin)
Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst)
Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)
Tim Boswell (Daventry)
Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East)

Strikingly, only 26 of Parliament’s 650 MPs turned up to oppose the bill – 5 Conservatives, 9 Labour, 9 Liberal Democrats, 1 Plaid Cymru MP and the Respect MP George Galloway.

Guido Fawkes savages the Telegraph’s forelock-tugging political journalists

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From Guido Fawkes in The Telegraph

There are a lot of bitter, jealous journalists at the Telegraph and you have behaved shamefully over the McBride story.  You even tipped off Downing Street in advance as to exactly what I was up to. It reflects on you a lot more than it does on me.

You revealed sources, broke a confidence, breached a signed non-disclosure agreement and behaved like patsys for McBride.

You still failed to spoil the story.  Your political team is about as weak as it gets, that is why you sucked up to Downing Street.

The Telegraph was once run by gentlemen for gentlemen.  This would never have happened under Deedes or Charles Moore.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 13, 2009 at 9:19 am

Telegraph gets fooled again by UK government spin around McBride smear campaign

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From Order-Order.com

Damian McBride is desperately trying to throw a smokescreen up tonight with a planted frontpage story in the Telegraph which downplays what he has been up to.  Andrew Porter, the Telegraph’s lobby correspondent, is Damian McBride’s  regular drinking companion and tame mouthpiece, so it is no surprise whatsoever to Guido that the Telegraph is being used by Downing Street for damage limitation.

The Telegraph implies that Guido has sold the story to the Sunday newspapers – that is completely untrue – Downing Street tried that same line against the Home Office whistleblower.  They are also trying to make out that the story is just about Damian McBride sending gossipy emails to his pal Derek Draper.  Utter lies…

Downing Street under Gordon Brown has been particularly vicious in smearing opponents.  Other well known Labour insiders besides Damian McBride – including a government minister – are involved in the operation.  Guido has hard evidence that Tory MPs have been smeared, and that a particularly vicious concerted smear operation was mounted against George Osborne, smears that Damian McBride – a civil servant – knows and admits in writing are untrue, yet he was still instrumental in spreading.  Some well known lobby journalists have knowingly gone along with it.  This is a lot bigger than some minor bloggers spat.

From Iain Dale

Number Ten are seeking to play down the seriousness of McBridge-Gate, describing it as juvenile. The Telegraph and the BBC have fallen for the spin. No matter. They will revise their opinions when they see the contents of the emails which will presumably be published in tomorrow’s newspapers.

Downing Street also played down the planned website RED RAG, which, they say, never saw the light of day. Really? Dizzy has proved otherwise. There’s no content on it, but it’s registered and ready for lift off. The fact that they even thought such a site was a good idea and could remain secret says it all really.

Damian McBride is a special advisor, paid by the taxpayer. He is not paid to smear Tories. He’s paid to give advice to the Prime Minister.

By chance, I met Derek Draper in Dean’s Yard recently, after his appearance with Guido on the DAILY POLITICS. He wanted to be friends again. I explained that I couldn’t have a professional or personal relationship with someone who behaves as he has done and insinuated that I hold racist views. I then asked him about receiving emails from Damian McBride. He denied to my face that these emails existed. There’s a word for that. It’s called lying. I wonder what a professional psychotherapist would make of it.

Written by Richard Wilson

April 11, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Geoffrey Alderman suggests Home Secretary’s husband’s porn expense claim was “legitimate research”

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Amid the growing furore over the £93 million of public money that UK MPs claimed last year for various arcane “expenses” – whilst also attempting to block full disclosure of the details – the broadsheet columnists have been coming out in force to defend our poor beleagured politicians.

Writing in the Times, David Aaronovitch suggests that the publishing of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith personal bills – for which she had submitted a public expense claim and which included the cost of two “adult movies” watched by  her husband – was “as big a breach of privacy as one can imagine”.

Aaronovitch clearly needs to try imagining a bit harder, and obviously hasn’t been paying  attention to what Jacqui Smith’s own department has been up to recently. Sadly, there’s nothing “imaginary” about the sweeping powers that the government has been seeking, to monitor every email sent, every phone call made, and every website visited by every person in the UK – or about cases like that of local journalist Sally Murrer, who was bugged for weeks, then arrested, strip-searched and put on trial on trumped up charges (she was acquitted in November last year after an 18-month ordeal) as part of the government’s vindictive campaign of harrassment against the police whistleblower Mark Kearney, who Murrer happened to be friends with.

Just three days ago, Jacqui Smith was being quoted in the Telegraph (where else?) denouncing those who have raised objections about such government encroachments as “people who take an approach to rights which puts the right of privacy above a pretty fundamental right for us to be safe”.

But now that the privacy of Jacqui Smith and her husband have been compromised – albeit chiefly through their own greed and carelessness – the government is threatening to launch a criminal investigation into how the information was leaked.

Writing in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee insists that “Our politicians are among the cleanest in the world” and warns that “Those who abuse, belittle and encourage popular contempt for MPs should consider that we need more good people in politics”. Toynbee suggests that “the excruciating public humiliation of the home secretary’s husband for watching a couple of porn movies” may deter decent candidates from seeking a political career.

This seems entirely to miss the point. What’s primarily at issue is not that Jacqui Smith’s husband watches pay-per-view porn movies – it’s that he got his wife to make an official claim requesting that the costs of his private habit be reimbursed with public money. If Smith hadn’t submitted her husband’s extracurricular activities as a supposedly legitimate “expense”, then the media would never have found out about them in the first place. Anyone who’d be deterred from going into politics by the fear that their dodgy expense claims may lead to public humiliation would clearly be better off out of it for everybody’s sake.

But the prize for the most slavishly forelock-tugging display of deference to our self-serving political elite must surely go to the historian Geoffrey Alderman, also writing in the Guardian. Jacqui Smith and her husband have done nothing wrong and have nothing to apologise for, he insists, and anyway “the rules governing the reimbursement of MPs’ expenses are very unclear”.

Furthermore, says Geoffrey Alderman, for an assistant of the home secretary (Smith’s husband is paid £40,000 from the public purse to do her admin for her), it “might be argued” that watching pay-per-view porn “is legitimate research”. Pure genius…

Labour elite’s slapdash approach to personal privacy comes back to haunt them as MP expense details rumoured to be in the hands of data thieves…

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Following revelations that the UK taxpayer has been helping to fund the Home Secretary’s husband’s porn habit, and former trade minister Nigel Griffiths’ unconventional use of publicly-funded office-space, the government appears to have been dealt further humiliation by rumours that the full, unedited list of MPs expenses has been stolen by data thieves and is being offered for sale to the highest media bidder.

Given the government’s notoriously slapdash approach to everybody else’s personal data, it seems fair enough that information which should never have been deemed confidential in the first place has now escaped into the public domain by similar means. The fact that our engorged mediocrats aren’t even capable of keeping their own dirty secrets secret does seem to raise further questions about the wisdom of giving them an uber-database with all of the UK’s most personal data gathered together in one, easy-to-hack-and-duplicate place.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 31, 2009 at 12:29 am

Telegraph newspaper denounces torture investigation

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True to form, the Telegraph newspaper has roundly denounced the news that there is to be a criminal investigation into allegations of complicity in torture by the UK security services, and urged the Attorney General – a political appointee – to intervene in the judicial process in order to stop the investigation.

In the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and during the subsequent campaign by Bush administration hardliners to convince the world of the need for a war against Iran, the Telegraph security commentator Con Coughlin famously published a series of articles containing  false and misleading information that appears to have been fed to him directly by the intelligence services. Now that those same intelligence services risk facing serious public scrutiny, the Telegraph is leading the calls to get the criminal investigation stopped.

Reported assassination attempt against Alexis Sinduhije

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A few days ago I wrote about the release of Burundi opposition leader (and former journalist) Alexis Sinduhije, who I describe meeting in my book “Titanic Express”, and who has been very supportive over the case. I had been following Alexis’s fate since his arrest on trumped-up charges last November.

Now Alexis’s party, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (renamed recently from “Movement for Security and Democracy” after the authorities ruled it illegal for a party to include the word “Security” in its name) has reported that the bolts on the wheels of Alexis’s car have been tampered with, apparently with the intention of causing an accident. Although the damage was spotted and repaired before any harm could result, Alexis and his colleagues were then followed by the police, arrested, and held for several hours. 

Although Alexis has since been released (again), the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that a number of those arrested with him are still being held.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2009 at 9:50 am