Friday, July 29, 2011

UK government procurement, a litany of ineptitude

A few selected examples of massive overspends in UK government procurement.  A litany of ineptitude.

Gordon Brown's preference for neo-liberal economic alchemy like PFI
has lumbered the UK with hidden defecit of around £250 billion.
PFI: As Chancellor Gordon Brown favoured public investment through neo-liberal economic alchemy projects called PFI (Private Finance Initiative). Studies have shown that borrowing from the private sector in order to artificially reduce the national defecit has lumbered the UK with around £250 billion of overpriced and inflexible infrastructure debts. Studies have shown that PFI hospitals built for the NHS routinely come in 18-60% over budget, replace existing state facilities with smaller private ones and will eventually cost NHS Trusts multiple times the value of constructing the facilities through government borrowing. After the contracts expire, what was originally state infrastructure is left under the control and ownership of private investors. Brown favoured these scams because it allowed him to hide the infrastructure costs off the government debt calculations. The inflexibility of many PFI contracts and their one side penalty charges force NHS Trusts and local authorities to sacrifice other local services in order to keep up their PFI payments, often on infrastructure that is unfit for purpose.

Metronet: the shareholders pulled out of this PFI consortium to maintain and upgrade the London Underground when they got into financial difficulty, leaving the system in chaos with a legacy of unfit signalling equipment, rolling stock and infrastructure, lumbering the taxpayer with estimated costs of £2 billion.

NHS Connecting for Health: The NHS computer spine was ordered in 2003 and originally expected to cost £2.3 billion over three years, in June 2006 the total cost was estimated by the National Audit Office to be £12.4bn over 10 years, the project is still far from completion and the eventual cost is currently estimated to be over £20 billion. The project itself has been described as offering few clinical benefits and suffering from serious data security issues. The costs of the venture should have been lessened by the contracts signed by the IT providers making them liable for huge sums of money if they withdrew from the project; however, when Accenture withdrew in September 2006, then Director-General for NPfIT, Richard Granger charged them not £1bn, as the contract permitted, but just £63m. Granger's first job was with Andersen Consulting, which later became Accenture.

NOMS: The original projected budget for the Home Office procurement of the National Offender Management System was £99 million. By 2008 the cost of the project had risen to £513 million, meaning that the project will end up more that 400% over budget.

Eurofighter Typhoons: Originally ordered in the mid 1980s the fleet of RAF Eurofigther Typhoons eventually cost more than £20 billion, with each aeroplane costing more than 75% more than predicted. The fighters are still suffering technical difficulties and will not be fully adapted for ground attacks until at least 2018, more than 30 years after they were originally ordered. Tory defence equipment minister Peter Luff had little more to say than "the MOD and Eurofigter had learnt from past problems with the programme", yes, they learnt that they could waste £billions of taxpayer's money without any serious repercussions or criminal charges.

1995 Chinooks: The MOD spent at least £500 million and the best part of a decade on upgrades to 8 Chinook helicopters that were not airworthy, unsafe and unfit for purpose when delivered at a cost of £259 million in 2001. A ten year operational delay, a tripling of costs and the procurement of the most expensive helicopters in history.

Brian MacGregor, Tory Transport minister 1992-1994
drew up the regional monopolies blueprint for the UK rail network
and his influence should be considered the most damaging
since Dr Beeching's "axe" in the 1960s.
The Rail Network: Realising that they were almost certain to lose the 1997 general election the Tories rushed through the privatisation of British Rail, which one of the most botched and inefficient privatisation schemes in history. The system was fractured into many regional monopolies, each monopoly running trains hired from private rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs) on a privately maintained network. The network operators Railtrack increased profits by reducing safety maintenance on the tracks, eventually (after numerous fatal accidents) Railtrack was replaced with a quasi state controlled organisation called Network Rail which went on to run up an estimated £24 billion debt while the board of directors awarded themselves obscene pay raises and bonuses in a jobs-for-the-boys culture they also spent £millions of public money paying off and gagging whistleblowers and harassment victims. The ROSCOs didn't bother to order any new rolling stock for the 1,064 days after rail privatisation causing the near complete destruction of the one world leading British train industry.

When Labour came to power, they refused to reform the rail franchising system and even handed out longer term contracts to many of the regional monopolies. The worst example was the Network Rail East Coast Mainline franchise which began with annual subsidies for operator National Express but under the terms of the contract the operator would eventually end up paying a £1.4 billion lease for the franchise. As the subsidies were phased out National Express bailed out of the contract lumbering the taxpayer with an estimated £700 million in costs. Despite ditching their responsibilities and shafting the taxpayer National Express were allowed to keep their other rail franchises elsewhere on the network and nothing will prevent them from bidding for future rail contracts.

Under the state run British rail system in 1994 the net subsidy to the rail network was £1.6 billion, eleven years later net subsidies to the privatised rail network had increased to £4.6 billion despite no large scale improvements to the rail infrastructure. Even if the 1994 figure is adjusted by RPI to 2005 terms (£2.2 billion) the annual cost to the taxpayer of running Britain's railways has more than doubled under privatisation while passengers face increasingly overcrowded trains and inflation busting fare rises year after year.

Mapley Steps: Perhaps the most absurd example of witless government procurement is the case of HM Revenue & Customs' £3.3bn contract with a firm called Mapeley, in which the UK tax inspectorate handed over the ownership and management of 591 tax offices to an offshore company based in the Cayman Islands. The cost of  the contract has subsequently risen to an estimated £3.87bn and the department has found that it cannot recover its own VAT on their rent. The National Audit Office criticised the deal stating that "any apparent savings for the department are accompanied by reduced tax revenues." As well as cost overruns and lost tax revenue it also seems that HM Revenue & Customs will be forced to pay compensation to the offshore company as numerous tax offices are closed as part of the Tory austerity measures. To date nobody in government or the civil service has been held accountable for the creation of such a ludicrous contract specifying that the UK tax inspectorate pay billions of pounds in rent into a massive tax avoidance scheme and no moves have been made to force the company to pay UK tax on their profits.

These and many other government outsourcing projects have cost the UK taxpayer tens of billions of pounds. In order to stop the casual waste of taxpayer's money I propose several reforms to UK government procurement, including a ban on contracts with companies that refuse to pay UK tax on their profits, a procurement watchdog and a procurement blacklist for companies that have been found guilty of shafting the taxpayer. I have gone into greater my proposals on my (forthcoming) "Manifesto for the UK economy" article.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Why are the Guardian stifling debate over phone hacking?

In the wake of the phone hacking scandal I came across an interesting article by Jeff Jarvis on the Guardian website about regulation of the media in which he asked four questions. I wrote a response for the comments section however when I clicked publish comment I received a notification that comments had been turned off. Here is the comment that I was prevented from posting.
To answer your questions

1. First, what activities are to be regulated? The rules should state that the owners, executives and chief editor of media organisations will be held accountable if staff are proven to have broken the law. There should be some legal clarification of what is a justifiable "invasion of privacy", legal protection for proper investigative journalism (to prevent lawsuits against people that question medical evidence for example). There should also be strict compliance rules and hefty punishments for organisations that are proven to have wilfully obstructed any kind of investigation, (misleading the regulator, withholding information from police investigations or lying to Parliamentary select committees or the courts).

2. What should a regulator do in the case of violations. Fine the offender into submission? Close the publication? Does that not give your government the same weapon used by dictators elsewhere against journalists? The first two questions are reasonable, the third is just a pathetic piece of weasel wordage trying to taint the whole concept of regulation as some kind of fascism. Yes the independent regulator should have the power to inflict enormous fines on media organisations that repeatedly break the law, they should also have the power to shut down organisations that have been found to be corrupt (making payments to the police, widespread illegal activities, extensive cover-ups, misleading statements to Parliament, perjury etc.). None of this equates to fascism or dictatorship, in almost any other industry widespread illegal activity would/should be punished by the regulator.

3. Third, who is the proper regulator? You offer a false dichotomy as an answer, pathetic self regulation (PCC) or Government control (A concept you have already tainted with comparisons to dictatorship). How about a proper independent regulator taking employees from a cross section of society, rather than just a bunch of industry insiders (with vested interests) as so many other regulators do.

4. Finally, who is to be regulated? In other words, who is the press? I agree that this is the key question.  Obviously the papers, TV and radio broadcasters are media that should be regulated. The difficulty comes when you try to establish which websites should be regulated. Clearly stuff like the Guardian website and the BBC would already fall under regulation aimed at newspapers/broadcasters, however what about personal blogs or blogs hosted on other services such as blogger? What can be done to protect peoples rights to express their own personal opinion? What can be done to stop the routine dissemination of lies across the blogosphere?
 Upon refreshing the page I found this comment from one of the Guardian editorial staff:
"Sorry, we were meant to launch this with comments off, and will be turning them off in a minute. Please use our Open Thread to post all comments relating to hacking. Thanks"
It seems absolutely absurd that an article that asks specific questions of its readers should have it's comments function deliberately and retrospectively disabled. The Guardian began their policy of diverting comments from all vaguely hacking related articles to these gigantic lumbering open threads over the weekend of the final News of the World, however they didn't bother to open a new thread on Monday morning meaning that by then they were insisting that any comments relating to the specific issue of media regulation should be thrown to the bottom of Sunday's pit of over 2,800 other general comments about the phone hacking scandal, mainly consisting of various shades of outrage. Jeff Jarvis happens to be one of the few columnists that has the courtesy to read through the below-the-line comments and respond to them, how the hell is he going to find them if they are subsumed into thread with 58 pages of responses? The one guy that got his response in on the media regulation thread before comments were shut down stated it is "very difficult to have a nuanced debate pertaining to the specific issues raised in disparate articles in one uber-thread" (a view that was later moderated out of existence by Guardian staff).

He is of course right, this editorial decision is an obstruction to nuanced debate. The Guardian have taken the decision to redirect comments from all articles that even mention phone hacking to their comments black hole, including comments on regular opinion pieces from contributors such as Charlie Brooker and Polly Toynbee that always have open comments and always generate large numbers of responses. It has also had a serious impact on the Comment is Free section of the website, creating the absurd situation where it is impossible to comment on several of the Comment is Free articles.

The Guardian deserve a lot of credit for their persistence in pursuing the News of the World phone hacking scandal but they are seriously letting themselves down with this open thread nonsense. It seems like a deliberate attempt to stifle debate by lumping all of the separate issues together into one enormous thread. Restricting comment on any article that even mentions phone-hacking in a week absolutely dominated by the phone hacking scandal would be the equivalent of redirecting all comments that make mention of sports to an open thread that rapidly becomes gigantic impenetrable jumble of sports related themes leaving regular readers of Guardian Football confused and annoyed as well as obstructing people who like to read and comment on the work of a particular sports writer.

There is no harm in having an open thread on the phone-hacking scandal, however redirecting comments from myriad other articles into it seems like a ludicrous decision. It is hard to even guess at the motivation for such a strategy however I'm certain that it is absolutely nothing to do with their statement "You asked for open threads. Here they are", nobody asked for comments to be shut down on Charlie Brooker's weekly rant and redirected to an open thread. Here are some of the possibilities:
  •  Costs: There have been several dozen articles related to phone hacking, and before the open thread redirect policy was put in place they were all attracting large numbers of comments, perhaps the decision to obstruct discussion was an attempt to reduce bandwidth costs. 
  • By request: After it was announced by News International that News of the World was to be closed I noticed a few right-wing "trolls" complaining along the lines of "not another artilce on CiF about phone-hacking". It is hard to imagine that the Guardian create editorial policy that would annoy so many of their regular readers based on the complaints of a few right wing whingers.
  • Legal issues: The Guardian could be trying to limit debate on the subject out for fear of legal issues such as lawsuits from News International, however several other leading UK based media organisations (BBC, Telegraph & Daily Mail) maintained multiple open threads on the subject over the same period. I am sceptical of this reason because I find it extremely difficult to imagine a legal basis for holding an organisation legally responsible for readers' comments below the line. Especially given the Guadian's exhaustive list of community standards and often harsh moderation regime.
  • The Guardian genuinely wants to stifle debate about phone hacking. It seems absurd that the organisation that did so much to break the scandal would want to shut down debate about the issue but it is what they are doing with the redirecting of comments policy, so the possibility that it is deliberate shouldn't be excluded. 
I have no intention of posting my response to Jeff Jarvis on an open thread that the Guardian can't even be bothered to renew on a daily basis because there is absolutely no chance that he, or anyone else that read his article would ever sift through nearly 3,000 unrelated comments to find it. One thing that struck me is that the Jarvis article has the word "openness" in it's URL, however the Guardian's decision to prevent me from making a specific response to his questions is pretty much the opposite of openness.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rupert Murdoch: The evil empire, British politics, phone hacking and a murdered teenager

, With a net worth of $6.2 billion,
Murdoch is the117th-richest person in the world
On Sunday 10 July 2011 News of The World went on sale for the last time, bringing it's 168 year history to an end. It was 42 years since Rupert Murdoch took control of the paper at a shareholder's meeting in January 1969 beating Robert Maxwell in a bitter year long battle over the acquisition.

Murdoch had begun his life as a newspaper baron at an early age, inheriting his father's Australian News Limited newspaper group in 1953 at the age of 22. After fifteen years of buying up newspapers across Australia and New Zealand he returned to the UK (where he had studied at Oxford University before his father's death) and within a year had beaten Maxwell to get his hands on News of the World.

In the aftermath Maxwell famously described Murdoch as a "cynical maneuverer" that "plays by the laws of the jungle", damning criticism from a man that went on to pilfer the pension schemes of his employees in order to maintain his life of luxury, allegedly worked as a double agent for the Israeli and British secret services and ended his life "falling off" his luxury yacht off the coast of the Canary Islands in 1991 shortly after the pensions scandal broke.

Later in 1969 Murdoch acquired his second British newspaper taking control of the mid-market daily broadsheet The Sun and immediately re-releasing it as the salacious sex filled tabloid it has remained until the present day. As the Sun and News of the World raced to the bottom of the British news market and Murdoch ruthlessly forced out anyone that got in the way of his agenda, it soon became clear that Maxwell's warnings about Murdoch had been right, causing many amongst the British establishment elite to regard him as an immoral impostor.


The British establishment turned their backs on Murdoch
after the NOTW published sordid details about
John Profumo's affair with Christine Keeler
Murdoch showed his ruthlessness by going back on his word that he would run News of the World alongside former owner Sir William Carr by forcing him out within three months of the takeover. He then outraged the British establishment by publishing the memoirs of the model Christine Keeler in the News of the World. She had played a large part in bringing down the Harold MacMillan government when her affair with minister John Profumo came to light in 1963. Following his resignation Profumo had been seen to have redeemed himself through years of charity work so Murdoch's decision to publish the sordid details were seen as muck-raking of the lowest kind, done entirely for his own personal gain.

After repeated rejections from the British establishment Murdoch left the UK in 1973 to continue his empire building in the United States. His first acquisition was the San Antonio Express in 1973 followed by a stream of other newspapers. He liked to claim that it was him that chose to reject the British establishment and often justified the simplistic and sensationalist style of his newspapers by dressing it up as anti-elitism.

In 1981 he returned to the UK to buy out the Times group, a move that shocked both sides of the political spectrum. He was facilitated in his acquisition by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who allowed the deal to go ahead without referring it to the Monopolies Commission as it should have been. The two remained close allies from that point onwards, Murdoch's papers provided unrelenting support for Thatcher's divisive regime while Thatcher allowed him to sack 6,000 striking print workers in 1986 and passed the merger between Murdoch's loss making Sky TV and the only other major satellite broadcasting network BSB in 1990.

Murdoch and Thatcher had a number of shared ideologies, from hatred of trade unions to belief in the privatisation and the neoliberal economic model. They both also had a ruthless streak, would dispose of anyone that stood in their way and they both had management styles best described as "divide and conquer". Murdoch's relationship with Thatcher seems like one of the few genuine relationships he had with politicians rather than his usual modus operandi of exerting as much control over them as he could in order to increase his own wealth, power and influence.



Fox News, fair & balanced is a great joke,
almost as good as the FCC's 1995 conclusion that Murdoch's ownership of
the Fox Network is "in the best interests of the public"
In 1985 Murdoch became a naturalised American citizen allowing him to bypass the foreign ownership rules for US television stations. He bought Fox studios in 1985 and the Metromedia group, which would eventually become the Fox Broadcasting Company.

In 1995 Murdoch's Fox Network became the object of scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), when it was alleged that News Ltd.'s Australian base made Murdoch's ownership of Fox illegal. However, the FCC ruled in Murdoch's favor, stating that his ownership of Fox was "in the best interests of the public" probably the most absurd committee decision since the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to give war monger Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize.


In 1990 his long standing ally Margaret Thatcher was removed from power by a Conservative party rebellion in the wake of the Poll Tax riots and double digit leads for the Labour opposition in the majority of opinion polls. Murdoch's papers supported Thatchers' favoured successor to the hilt, and when the Conservatives defied the polls to win the 1992 General Election Murdoch's Sun newspaper ran with the headline "It's the Sun wot won it" a sentiment acknowledged by several Tory MPs at the time.
By the 1990s Murdoch's gutter press had become
much less candid about their controlling influence
over the British electorate.
By this point the influence of the Murdoch press was powerful enough to win him personal meetings with heads of state and political leaders across the English speaking world, a kingmaking tradition that continues to this day with both Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour opposition leader Ed Milliband having dined with Murdoch since the 2010 General Election.

In 1995 Murdoch unexpectedly turned his back on the Conservatives instructing his News International papers to support Tony Blair causing his long time ally and Conservative party go-between Woodrow Wyatt to state that "Rupert has behaved like a swine and a pig".


After Labour's election victory in 1997, opinion was divided. Many people claimed that Murdoch switched his support to Blair because he knew that "the grey man of politics" John Major couldn't possibly be re-elected and he couldn't be seen to back a loser. Others concluded that Blair must have driven the Labour party so far to the right that their policies had become acceptable to "uncle Rupert".

Whatever the motivation for his betrayal of the Conservatives, in Tony Blair's New Labour he had a party that were more than happy to continue with Thatcherite policies, from further privatisation of national infrastructure to appeasing the right-wing press with measures like the scapegoating and persecution of minorities such as refugees. According to Lance Price, an ex-spin doctor who worked as Alistair Campbell's deputy, Murdoch had regular secret meetings with Blair, was in regular telephone contact with him so much that he seemed like a 24th member of the cabinet.



Tony Blair openly ignored the protests of
millions of his countrymen but took several
secretive calls from Murdoch in the buildup to war.
Blair insisted no record was ever kept of his meetings or calls with Murdoch, including the three conversations in the ten days before the commencement of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

Murdoch was a keen advocate of the Iraq invasion and famously stated that "The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy...would be $20 a barrel for oil. That's bigger than any tax cut in any country." It seems incredible but it seems that Rupert Murdoch held more sway over Tony Blair's decision making than the million plus of Blair's fellow countrymen that held the largest public demonstration in British history in opposition to the invasion on 15 February 2003 and the views of millions more across the globe.


In 2000 Murdoch appointed Rebekah Wade (now Rebekah Brooks) as editor of the News of The World, making her the youngest editor of a British newspaper and setting in motion the events that led eventually to the demise of the title eleven years later. Wade enthusiastically embraced Murdoch's favoured gutter press style of journalism famously orchestrating public witch hunts against paedophiles by publishing their personal details. Unfortunately several of the details published in the paper were inaccurate causing great suffering to innocent people. The campaign was criticised as "grossly irresponsible" by Tony Butler, then Chief Constable of Gloucestershire.

In January 2003 Murdoch moved his protege across Wapping to take over as editor of the Sun. She continued to court controversy with headlines such as "Bonkers Bruno Locked Up" labelling the former boxer a "nut" after he was admitted to a mental health institution suffering from depression and bipolar disorder. This character attack provoked widespread criticism from across the political spectrum and a swift retraction. Later that year she made a bizarre admission to a House of Commons Select Committee, stating that her publication had paid police officers for information.

In 2006 the News of the World phone hacking scandal first broke with Royal editor Clive Goodman and the private investigator Greg Mulcaire eventually sentenced to a few months in prison for hacking into the mobile phone messages of one of Prince William's aides to delve for information. The revelations led to the resignation of Rebekah Brooks' successor as editor Andy Coulson who claimed that he didn't know anything about the illegal practices going on under his stewardship.

News International created the line that it was only a few rogue individuals. It is quite an irony that the phone hacking scandal that eventually rocked his media empire started off with revelations that one of his newspapers had been spying on one of the British establishment that he so openly despised.



"Yates of the yard" clearly misled a Home Affairs Select Committee
helping to cover up the massive scale of the phone hacking scandal.
Inquiries by several organisations came to the same conclusion, that phone hacking and illegal activities at the News of the World were limited to a few rogue elements.

During their investigation the Metropolitan Police took the highly controversial decision not to inform the thousands of individuals whose phones had been hacked and assistant police commissioner John Yates deliberately misled a Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee by stating that "all reasonable steps" had been taken to warn individuals where police had reason to believe their phones had been hacked, which he said only applied in the case of 10 to 12 people.

This  police collusion seems a little easier to understand in light of further revelations that News of the World journalists had regularly paid police officers for information. Given the immense political fallout if the police bribery evidence came to light, a limited scope investigation focusing on the activities of a few clearly nominated fall guys favoured the interests of both the Metropolitan Police and News International. Suspicions were further raised when Andy Hayman, the police officer with overall responsibility for the phone hacking investigation subsequently went on to become a columnist for News International papers including News of the World and the Times where he wrote in defence of the police investigation, maintaining that there were only "perhaps a handful of hacking victims".


In 2009 the Guardian and Private Eye revealed that senior News International executives had signed of a secretive £1 million compensation package to former FA chief executive Gordon Taylor on condition of secrecy. The evidence that they had tried to suppress was the commissioning of private investigators to illegally obtain personal information on an astonishing scale. The evidence showed that journalists from News of the World, other News International titles and senior executives from News International had systematically paid private investigators to (illegally) hack into over 3,000 telephones and (illegally) con organisations into breaching the data protection act by giving out personal details such as telephone numbers, personal addresses, criminal record details and health records. The organisations targeted included the DVLA, police criminal records databases, British Telecom, the Inland Revenue, taxi companies, hotels and other sources.

In the wake of these revelations John Yeats of the Metropolitan police took the decision not to re-open criminal proceedings after studying the evidence for only eight hours. The media owned self-regulation service the Press Complaints Commission strongly resisted calls from the Information Commission to issue "a clear public statement warning journalists and editors of the very real risks of committing criminal offences", choosing instead to issue guidelines that were criticised as insufficient, and to announce that they had found no evidence to show that they had been "materially misled" by the News of The World or News International executives.

The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger resigned from the PCC in disgust and his newspaper continued their efforts to reveal the true scale of the scandal, efforts derided by the Murdoch press as a witch hunt against Andy Coulson who had taken over the Woodrow Wyatt role as Conservative party communications director (the human interface between David Cameron and the Murdoch press) an appointment that neatly coincided with Murdoch's decision to switch allegiance once again, to back the Tories ahead of the 2010 election.


Rebekah Brooks was condemned by a House of Commons
report for her failure to co-operate with their investigation
In February 2010 a House of Commons report condemned the testimony of News of the World witnesses that had appeared before the committee, referring to "collective amnesia" and "deliberate obfuscation", and noted Rebekah Brooks (who had by then risen to become News International chief executive) had refused to appear at all.

The Committee concluded "We strongly condemn this behaviour which reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred". These findings prompted Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative Mayor of London Boris Johnson to call for a full judicial inquiry into the affair, however further investigation into the phone hacking affair was deliberately torpedoed by Britain's top civil servant Sir Gus O'Donnell on the grounds that re-opening an investigation involving a leading member of the Conservative party (Coulson) would be inappropriate so soon before the 2010 election.



British Prime Minister David Cameron may come to regret his close
personal friendship with Rebekah Brooks, 
his employment of
Andy Coulson 
and his meetings with Rupert Murdoch
After no side managed to form an overall majority David Cameron became Prime Minister by entering into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the judicial inquiry into the phone hacking affair was forgotten about but the Guardian, Private Eye and Labour MPs Cris Bryant and Tom Watson continued investigating the phone hacking affair releasing a stream of information throughout 2010 and 2011.

 Amidst all of this negative publicity Andy Coulson's position as Cameron's communications director became untenable and he resigned in January 2011.


In January 2011 the Met's deputy assistant commissioner, Sue Akers, headed up yet another investigation called Operation Weeting which employed 45 officers on a full time basis. Hopes were high that this one may actually turn out to be more than just a cover-up and whitewash.

In July 2011 the Guardian revealed that the News of the World had hacked into the telephone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, interfering with the police investigation and giving false hope to the parents that she was still alive. They also revealed that other victims had included the families of dead British servicemen, victims of the 7/7 bombings in London. They had evidence that News of the World had been making illegal payments to police officers in return for information. Other newspapers reported that the families of murdered Soham schoolchildren Sarah Payne and Holly Wells were also potential victims.


Despite revelations that NOTW employees had been
involved in the hacking of telephones belonging elected politicians,
the real public backlash came when it was revealed that
they had hacked the phone of murdered teenager Milly Dowler.
Following these revelations there was a huge public outcry and a mass exodus of sponsors away from News of the World. On 6 July Chris Bryant was allowed to bring an emergency debate in parliament which featured condemnation of News International from across the political spectrum. One of the most extraordinary contributions came from Conservative MP for Richmond and Hampton, Zac Goldsmith who concluded with the statement that Rupert Murdoch's organisation had "systematically corrupted the police and castrated parliamennt".

On 7 July 2011 News Corporation Europe and Asia chief executive and Rupert's son, James Murdoch announced that the News of the World would be shut down after the publication of the 11 July edition. Tom Watson MP responded with the statement that "Rupert Murdoch did not close the News of the World. It is the revulsion of families up and down the land as to what they got up to. It was going to lose all its readers and it had no advertisers left. They had no choice."

Rebekah Brooks adressed staff for the final time she told staff how advertizers had deserted because the News of the World brand had become toxic, that the decision to close the paper had not been taken lightly but as the worst revelations were yet to come, the paper would have suffered a further two years of turmoil.

It is pretty hard to imagine what is worse than hacking the telephone of a teenage girl and deleting messages from her inbox as she lay dead, spying on the grieving families of dead soldiers and victims of terrorism, bribing the police and paying private investigators tospy on key members of the British government.


News of the World staff were virtually unanimous in their appraisals that they had all been sacrificed to save the career of Rebekah Brooks who remained in her post as chief executive of News International. As staff worked to complete the final edition of the paper, without access to the internet or email, (presumably to prevent angry staff from exporting further incriminating evidence):
  • Speculation abounded that the NOTW would simply be replaced by a Sunday edition of the Sun, a strategy that has allegedly been under development for at least three months.
  • Their former editor Andy Coulson was arrested by police.
  • Scotland Yard's assistant commissioner tried to talk down the police role in the cover up and his refusal to reopen the case after the 2009 Guardian revelations with words of "regret".
  • It was revealed that a senior News International executive had deliberately deleted the majority of an archive of millions of internal emails, including potentially incriminating correspondence with other senior NI executives.  
  • It was revealed that private investigators acting on behalf of newspapers from across the News International spectrum blagged information, hacked into databases and employed corrupt police officers to gather information on Gordon Brown while he worked as chancellor and Prime Minister.
  • Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown who had been extensively briefed on phone hacking details that had not been made public for legal reasons revealed that he had advised David Cameron of "terrible damage" to the coalition if he continued to employ Andy Coulson once the truth eventually emerged.
  • Labour party leader Ed Milliband announced his intention to initiate a parliamentary vote to block News Corporation from buying out the 61% of BSkyB that they do not own.
  • The coalition government announced that a full judicial inquiry into the affair would be initiated.
News Corp stock lost $2 billion in value in the week and the BSkyB takeover plan began to look dead in the water causing critics of Murdoch's evil empire to rejoice, however Murdoch is a tenacious fighter and still held a strong influence over British and global politics.

Prime Minister David Cameron understandably made moves to distance himself from Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks and has repeated the line that he was "naive" to offer Coulson a second chance after his resignation as News of the World editor.

It is clear that the Prime Minister has two courses of action available to him, he could either bite the bullet and ditch Murdoch, just as Murdoch ruthlessly betrayed the Tories in the mid 1990s or he could join in with the popular condemnation for the time being and simply wait for the fuss to die down before allowing the News Corp takeover of BSkyB to go ahead. After all, he knows that the British electorate have remarkably short memories given the fact that so little was done after the public outrage at the parliamentary expenses scandal and the fact that the banking sector have been allowed to carry on enriching themselves despite the furious public reaction at their role in the 2008 global economic meltdown.


My guess is that Cameron will avoid confrontation with one of the most powerful men in the world at all costs, knowing that after his policies of cutting services for the poor, slashing legal aid, privatising the NHS and allowing the economic elite to continue to siphon billions out of the economy via elaborate tax avoidance schemes, he will need unanimous support from Murdoch's gutter press if he intends to hang onto power for more than a single term in office.

However if he has the balls that I suspect he doesn't; he could begin a campaign to rid the United Kingdom of Murdoch's corrupting influence by crashing the BSkyB takeover, forming a cross party agreement to cut News International out of the political loop and reforming the press regulator to give them the power to force demonstrably corrupt organisations to divest their ownership of British media.



 Another Angry Voice is a not-for-profit page which generates absolutely no revenue from advertising and accepts no money from corporate or political interests. The only source of revenue for Another Angry Voice is the  PayPal  donations box (which can be found in the right hand column, fairly near the top of the page). If you could afford to make a donation to help keep this site going, it would be massively appreciated.
Acknowledgement: I borrowed heavily from this  excellent blog post by Adam Curtis (featuring BBC archive footage of Rupert Murdoch) for the details of Murdoch's early influence over the British press.


                    
The economic case against tax-dodging
                  
The JP Morgan vision for Europe

                                          

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

George Monbiot: Useful idiot for the nuclear lobby

George Monbiot, environmental campaigner
turned celebrity  nuclear power propagandist.
The nuclear industry is worth hundreds of billions of pounds and it doesn't matter how often the nuclear lobby and their stooges in the government get caught out lying, misrepresenting, misinforming and spinning the truth in order to create the impression that nuclear is a safe, clean and affordable solution to our energy needs they will always have a number of "useful idiots" to blithely parrot the "benefits" of nuclear power.

One of the most famous of these "useful idiots" is the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, who before his conversion to unofficial "nuclear greenwash tsar", was known for his environmental activism but now seems to spend most of his time (and Guardian column inches) justifying his new found support for the nuclear industry.

I am not a nuclear physicist or an expert in the field but I have taken an interest in the subject and over the years I have taken the time to inform myself of the fundamentals of the debate, measures Monbiot seems to have deemed unnecessary judging by some of the dreadfully ill informed and frankly misleading statements present in several of his "love letter to the nuclear industry" style opinion pieces in the Guardian.

Before Monbiot's much criticised nuclear conversion I admired the man for the strength of his convictions and the fact that he had devoted himself to the task of trying to educate the public about environmental issues and do his best to prevent the climate change Armageddon that he fears, as well as his criticism of the neo-liberal economic model and his attempts to have Tony Blair arrested for his role in the Iraq invasion. Despite respecting his motivations and determination I always had concerns about his methodologies, the way that his writing style veers between sanctimony and sensationalism, his willingness to cherry pick statistics and his tendency to speak with journalistic authority on subjects that he clearly knows little about often detracted badly from the cases that he tries to make.

After his post-Fukushima nuclear conversion I have begun to find his articles utterly cringeworthy, not only has he failed to tone down his bombastic and sensationalist writing style, his articles seem even more error strewn than before and the position he has found himself defending is an utterly divisive one to the green movement. Surely he must have realised the hugely divisive effect of one of the ideologues of the green movement suddenly beginning a very public campaign in favour of an industry that the majority of environmentalists will always oppose.

After the Guardian broke the news that the nuclear lobby and the UK government conspired to systematically misinform the public about the severity of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and below-the-line commenter's began to make jokes about Monbiot's nuclear conversion I knew it would only be a matter of days before Monbiot's next pro-nuclear article.

Considering the fact that it took the man several days to come up with his response it was massively disappointing with a large number of gaping flaws which at best could be described as ill-informed and at worst deliberately misleading apologia for the nuclear industry.

Faulty basic premise

The basic premise of the article is that "nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags" yet the technology itself is a viable solution to the impending climate change disaster.

The idea that bringing the nuclear industry under greater government control, in the guise of renationalisation or much stricter regulation would stop nuclear operators getting up to the same kind of activities is laughable. The Chernobyl disaster and the attempted cover-up by the Soviet authorities shows that state controlled nuclear operations are not necessarily safer or more transparent than the current model. The collusion between nuclear lobbyists and the UK government to misinform and mislead the public  in order to protect the interests of private nuclear operators raises the question of what kind of lies and misinformation a government would spout in order to cover up it's own nuclear mistakes to protect themselves and their own interests from electoral disaster.

The whole idea that control of nuclear technology can be taken out of the hands of the corrupt electricity industry and their inept regulators and given over to righteous and incorruptible individuals (like Monbiot himself perhaps) is laughably naive.

Ill-informed/misleading

The vast majority of spent uranium is stored like this, in vast open air facilities,
not in highly engineered underground bunkers as Monbiot likes to pretend.
Fitting the criticisms of his latest pro-nuclear paean into one post is going to be hard enough so I'm going to hope that the contents of this article are enough to demonstrate that he has a track record of using weasel words, deliberately misrepresenting his opponent’s arguments, asking for proof for banal statements that have been established beyond all doubt, citing evidence that actually disproves his own arguments, and utterly misunderstanding concepts fundamental to a decent comprehension of the issues.

The fact that he has been called out on this track record of misrepresenting his opponents arguments and misunderstanding the basics of the subject on multiple occasions did not prevent him from sprinkling his latest effort with absurdities the worst of which is this utterly disingenuous question.
"The claim that it's unsafe to put fissile materials underground is inexplicable. Isn't that where they came from? Why is it less safe to leave uranium several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, backfilled with bentonite and capped with concrete than it is to leave it, as nature did, scattered around the planet, just beneath the surface?"
There is so much wrong with this it is difficult to know where to start. 

Firstly, as Monbiot surely knows already naturally occurring uranium occurs in the form of uranium ore that has roughly 0.05% Uranium content which is a vastly different proposition to the mass storage of thousands of tons of highly concentrated fissile materials, meaning that his question is reliant on nothing more than a facile and disingenuous comparison.

Secondly, the question implies that the only concerns about nuclear waste that anti-nuclear protesters hold are that burying it "several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, back filled with bentonite and capped with concrete" is not safe enough, when most well informed anti-nuclear protesters are much more concerned with practices like the long term storage of nuclear waste in close proximity (or even above) nuclear reactors, slinging nuclear waste down well shafts (Dounraey), wrapping depleted uranium in plastic and throwing it in landfill, or even selling it to the military for use in shells causing the dispersal of radioactive uranium dust particles across confict zones.  Characterising anti-nuclear protesters as irrational and oversensitive nutcases by falsely defining their complaints is a classic straw man argument.

Thirdy, the phrasing of the question implies that spent uranium is routinely stored "several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, back filled with bentonite and capped with concrete" when even the slightest amount of research would reveal that nearly a million tonnes of spent uranium is being stored in huge outdoor storage facilities in the form of Uranium Hexaflouride in steel drums that only have an expected safe life of a matter of decades. Efforts are being made to create safe storage for the most deadly nuclear byproducts, I'd recommend a viewing of the award winning documentary Into Eternity to anyone who considers safe waste storage as a simple option. The film is about the construction of a monumentally ambitious underground nuclear containment facility for the most highly radioactive waste. The idea that this level of expenditure is routinely spent on the safe storage of uranium, as claimed by Monbiot is absurd.

Downplaying the Japanese nuclear disaster

Map showing the scale of the Japanese nuclear disaster.
Considering Monbiot's article seems to have been written as a diversionary strategy to deflect negative attention away from nuclear technology in the wake of the leaked misinformation campaign by creating a false distinction between nuclear industry and the people that run it, he seems to have spectacularly missed the point.


The reason people are so angry about the leaked evidence of collusion between the British government and the nuclear lobby is that non-experts decided that they could speak from a position of authority and give out misleading information in order to downplay the significance of the Fukushima incident and create the false impression that there was nothing to worry about, when they were not actually in possession of the full details.


In an article that is intended to deflect attention away from the deliberate downplaying of the seriousness of a nuclear accident, the inclusion of this statement is quite astonishing.
"The Daiichi meltdown.... has caused no medical harm.....to date no confirmed health effects have been detected in any person as a result of radiation exposure from the accident".
There is an absolute consensus amongst scientists that the health consequences of large scale radiation exposure are measured in terms of years and decades, meaning that anyone signalling the "all clear" after only eight weeks is being highly misleading. Radiation exposure has cumulative effects meaning there is no such thing as a "safe" level of radiation exposure, something that Monbiot has been known to contest in the face of overwhelming opposition. The idea that a significant increase in background radiation would have no health consequences would be challenged by virtually anyone with any medical expertise.


We should be thankful that there are not thousands of people dying from radiation poisoning after the Japanese nuclear disaster, but to use the lack of corpses after only a few weeks as an argument in favour of nuclear power is both misleading and offensive to the 200,000 people that have been forcibly evacuated from their homes, many of whom will be worrying about whether the radiation exposure they have experienced will lead to cancer or the premature deaths of their children.

The fact that Monbiot is prepared to mislead his audience like this shows that his approach to "selling" us nuclear technology is no different from the nuclear lobbyists and government shills that he describes as "scumbags".

Monbiot's fantastical idealised version of nuclear industry

 Monbiot concludes his article with the statement that "A new generation of nuclear power stations should be built [but] only with unprecedented scrutiny and transparency". As recently as March 2011 Monbiot still described himself as nuclear neutral and set four preconditions for his support.
1. Its total emissions — from mine to dump — are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option.
2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried.
3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay.
4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

There are several problems with these conditions: Condition 1 seems like a sick joke (see the footprints section below for more explanation). Condition 2 relies on the misleading assumption that nuclear waste is "safely" buried instead of being stored as uranium hexaflouride in vast open air facilities or just thrown in landfill. Condition 3 is absurd, given the huge subsidies that the nuclear industry relies upon and the fact that at the end of the lucrative electricity generation phase the owners can demand clean-up subsidies and if the government wont cough up they could just fold the company leaving the whole cost to the taxpayer. Condition 4 is also highly unlikely to be met judging by the fact that British and American forces have been free to contaminate conflict zones with spent uranium dust for the last couple of decades.

In the aftermath of Fukushima Monbiot decided to make his conversion to "nuclear greenwash tsar", however the nuclear industry has not come close to meeting even one of his silly preconditions. If he is prepared to drop them so quickly and put his full support behind the nuclear industry in the wake of a huge nuclear disaster who is to say that he wont just quietly drop his call for "unprecedented scrutiny and transparency" at some future date? Perhaps after a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant or a massive accident at an open air temporary nuclear waste storage facility?

Footprints

The Earth has a feedback mechanism for dealing with excess carbon dioxide,
but no way of removing highly toxic nuclear waste products
should they find their way into the environment
The first of Monbiot's abandoned preconditions about making nuclear power "carbon neutral" shows how muddled Monbiot's thinking has become. He seems to have spent so much time and effort considering the potentially catastrophic consequences of man made climate change that he is prepared to embrace absolutely anything that offers an alternative.

I'm utterly sick of hearing about "carbon footprints" in discussions about the nuclear industry. I admit that it's a nice simple soundbyteish way of getting the message across to people who can't be bothered to find out about environmental issues for themselves however I'm much more concerned with my "plutonium footprint" and my "depleted uranium footprint".

Monbiot has a wealth of knowledge about environmentalism and climate science so he must know that the Earth has a feedback mechanism for dealing with excess carbon dioxide called the carbon cycle, this is the biogeochemical cycle that allows the Earth to recover from massive spikes in carbon dioxide concentrations such as the one caused when Mount Tambora blasted 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as well as an ash cloud that blocked out sunlight to such an extent that 1815 was known as the year without a summer. 

This statement is not intended as an attack on the environmentalist camp, it is simply an observation that the earth has a repair mechanism that could deal with excess atmospheric carbon dioxide over the course of several hundred years.

Obviously there is no biogeothermal feedback cycle for dealing with rare and highly radioactive rare elements such as uranium and plutonium. Plutonium has a half-life of around 24,000 years meaning that it takes 120,000 years to become 3% as radioactive as it is today (still too dangerous to handle). Considering the fact there have been several major radiation leaks in the last few decades alone, the idea that the nuclear industry is capable of safely storing highly radioactive waste for 100,000 years would be laughable if it were not so scary.

Divisiveness and unsustainability

Monbiot likes to frame the debate as "clean, safe and efficient" nuclear power generation against "dirty, polluting and dangerous" fossil fuel energy sources. Simplifying the energy debate to this level is completely misleading because it neglects the role of properly sustainable renewable energy sources, a pretty heinous oversight for a so called environmentalist.

The real issue is sustainability of energy supply, not a short term reduction in carbon emissions. Nuclear technology as it is now is not sustainable, uranium reserves are estimated to last the next 50-100 years, with extraction becoming increasingly difficult and ecologically damaging as the richest seams are used up. In calling for governments to invest £hundreds of billions in a new fleet of uranium fuelled nuclear reactors Monbiot is actually calling for the a long term postponement in making the shift to sustainable energy supplies, handing the task of developing properly sustainable technologies to future generations while lumbering them with a hugely expensive toxic legacy to clean up too.

As I have pointed out already, Monbiot's conversion from environmentalist to nuclear cheerleader is hugely divisive to the green movement. At a time when environmentalists should be uniting to send a clear message to governments that we demand a proper sustained investment in renewable energy sources he is advising us to just give up and switch our support to the nuclear industry.

Conclusion

Uranium based nuclear technology is not sustainable, it is not economically viable (reliant on vast government subsidies), it produces hundreds of thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste and creates the risk of further Fukushima type incidents. The Germans have shown that they would prefer to see the €hundreds of billions invested in the development of properly sustainable technology, in which they will probably become world leaders and net exporters. The neo-liberal Brits would prefer to forget about sustainability for the next couple of generations, give the £billions to companies like EDF and let future generations buy the sustainable solutions from the Germans and spend billions more cleaning up the toxic nuclear legacy.

Monbiot has shown that he is prepared to make a number of incredible mental contortions in  order to adopt this pro-nuclear stance, based on his belief that anthropogenic climate change is the biggest threat to the human race in all of eternity. His tactics include using weasel words, straw man arguments, deliberate misrepresentation and hectoring opponents. He has shown an alarming miscomprehension of several concepts that are fundamental to the debate and a willingness to speak as an authority on issues he knows little about. He seems to have created a fantastical idealised version of the nuclear industry that is far removed from the appalling reality of the situation and has seemingly ditched a number of preconditions he previously said ought to be met before he would support nuclear expansion.

In converting himself to a high profile nuclear industry shill, he has chosen to signal that environmentalists should give up on the pursuit of properly sustainable technology and in doing so has further divided the green cause and has given ammunition to those who would take delight in the failure to develop sustainable energy. 

Perhaps the most striking thing is the fact that an environmentalist with a background in zoology could call for the production of thousand of tonnes of highly ecologically destructive material when the nuclear industry has abjectly failed to safely dispose of the vast stockpiles of nuclear waste it has already created.


In the words of noted British economist E.F. Schumacher "No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make safe and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime ever perpetrated by man".

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