Sunday, 4 March 2012

AIPAC - An Iranian Policy Anti-Climax

What a difference a week makes. Seven days ago, the Israeli government was threatening to go it alone, launch unilateral strikes against Iran, and 'daring' the US to either get involved or step aside. Iran, by merely pursuing its nuclear programme, creating as big a rift between the two allies as seen in over a year.

On February 17th, in Louisiana, the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned that "We, the United States, have all the options on the table but as the Prime Minister of Israel himself said, (military action) ought to be the last option, not the first."
A day later, on a trip to Tokyo, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak hit back: "Once (Iran) have a nuclear weapon...always they will have a higher level of immunity. Not immunity for the military nuclear programme, but immunity for the regime."
And just to emphasise the point, the Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed a conference in Jerusalem on February 23rd to warn: "A nuclear Iran is a strategic threat to Israel, but not only to Israel but to the entire world."

In the last ten days, a succession of US defence and intelligence officials have parachuted in to Jerusalem to lobby their Israeli counterparts. The number and frequency of the visits described by observers here as 'unprecedented'. And although the encounters were held behind closed doors, with no news conferences or press releases, the signs were widely interpreted as the USA seeking to cool Israel's impatience.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was reported to have spent several days working with his advisers on his AIPAC speech. It would "break new ground" according to one report. Ehud Barak and President Peres travelled to the US in advance of their Prime Minister, laying the groundwork for the tough negotiations ahead.

Fast-forward to now, and talk of 'red lines', and ultimatums has dissipated into the usual placatory 'diplomat-speak'.

Netanyahu, we are told, will no longer demand that Obama define the US's 'red lines'. Why? Because Israel might have to reciprocate by defining its own 'red lines', and thus perhaps limit its room for manoeuvre.

President Peres, in his speech to AIPAC on Sunday, will stress the debt owed by Israel to the USA. "Sometimes it does no harm to say 'thank you'." he will say, adding "Israel is not rushing to war".

And Obama, in an interview with The Atlantic published on Friday, asks: "Do we really want a distraction in which suddenly Iran can portray itself as the victim?".

The steam has clearly gone out of this dispute. The concern over Iran remains high, but the likelihood of a military strike remains very much the option of last resort.

Monday, 14 February 2011

An Avoidable Tragedy

There's a story on the front page of today's Times newspaper, repeated in other outlets today, which details the tragic deaths of two teenage girls on a level crossing in 2005, and their families' demands for a new inquiry into their deaths.

13 year old Charlotte Thompson and her 14 year old friend Olivia Bazlinton were killed instantly when they were struck by a train at the unmanned crossing in Essex in December that year. Their families remain traumatised by their bereavement, and the photographs shown of the girls smiling and joyful, makes their premature deaths all the more poignant.

The Times goes into detail about claims that a risk assessment on the crossing was withheld from the inquest, and claims that had risk assessments been more accurate, and locking gates been fitted to the crossing, the girls' deaths would have been prevented. The conclusion The Times reaches: their deaths were entirely avoidable.

But The Times studiously omits what I think is the most relevant factor in the whole case (and in doing so speaks volumes to me about the way society has changed from an ethos of personal responsibility, to one of dishing out blame).

I had to go back to this 2007 report from the Guardian before I could find the relevant information. It is a report of the inquest. Now before we get to it, let's be clear, locking gates would undoubtedly have been more secure. I wish very much that Charlotte and Olivia were still alive today.
But the train did not chase the girls across the pavement and down the street. As The Guardian report reveals, the two girls - tragically - had ignored the flashing red lights and sirens on the crossing, and had made a ill-fated dash for it.

Instead of blaming the lack of locking gates for the girls' deaths, the terrible reality is that they themselves diced with death and lost the gamble. Charlotte and Olivia certainly knew what the sirens meant, they knew the red lights meant 'do not cross', but they did it anyway.

I know there are various behavioural experts who will likely explain that teenage brains do not have an adult's capacity to appreciate the concept of mortality, but the reality is that children who use level crossings must be told, and told again: familiarity with a crossing must not breed contempt or complacency toward it, warning lights and sirens cannot be ignored, it's just not worth taking the risk.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Contempt and Twitter

The Attorney General is apparently concerned that social media is a threat to the smooth running of justice. Dominic Grieve is considering whether to issue an advisory warning about coverage of the Jo Yeates murder - in particular the way the main suspect Chris Jefferies is being portrayed in print and online. It is far from being a new concern, and tabloid headlines have often trodden perilously close to declaring a suspect guilty long before a jury has had the chance to.

What marks out this latest case is the influence of social media websites such as Twitter in mixing fact, rumour, speculation and reportage, and disseminating it with lightning speed. Barely a decade ago, the risk of local jurors being prejudiced about a case could be largely neutralised by moving proceedings to a different Crown Court in a different town. In today's global cyber village, we're all effectively living in the same street. Online, the murder of Jo Yeates is being followed as intently in Kirkaldy as it is in Jo's home district of Clifton.

And while the mainstream media are regulated and (by-and-large) abide by those regulations, individual Tweeters face only the remote prospect of being sued for libel. In a murder case, a journalism professional will certainly toe the legal line when they tweet updates. A non-reporter neither knows - nor probably cares - where that legal line is. (Indeed, the notorious 'Baby P' child abuse case showed how internet users are sometimes prepared to deliberately flout legal restrictions.) The risks of false, prejudicial, and malicious gossip gaining widespread currency online are huge.

The water has been muddied somewhat by the permitted use of Twitter in reporting the extradition hearing of Julian Assange. Recording devices and cameras are absolutely banned from courtrooms, and court ushers routinely warn journalists and the public that mobile phones must be switched off during proceedings. Now it seems the use of Twitter in court will be decided on a case by case basis.

So the dilemma facing the Attorney General - and all of us who believe in fair trials - is deciding where to draw the line. How best to balance the rights of a free press and the understandable curiosity of the public, with the absolute need for the trial process to remain untainted? The rules banning prejudicial reporting are already in place, but are routinely bent by the professionals. The reason why? The law on contempt is itself held in contempt. It has no deterrent effect because in case after case, the Attorney General berates the media but declines to actually prosecute.

Proving contempt of court (ie: that a report created a 'serious risk of substantial prejudice') is notoriously difficult. But applying a three decades old Act of Parliament to police the modern phenomenon of social media is surely near impossible.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Donating to Wikileaks

With Paypal, Visa, Mastercard and others severing their links to Wikileaks, a few days ago on Twitter (@paulrbrennan), I asked the wider Twittersphere: "if someone was so inclined, how should one best donate to #wikileaks ?" These were the options suggested:

1. "donate to via bank transfer, they handle money for #wikileaks" (from @GlynskyandPete)

2. "Cash in a brown paper bag" (from @simonwillins)

3. (via @smokeythebare)

4. (via @psbook)

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Hicks thows the dice, not the towel.

Even by the 'hard-ball' standards of corporate America, Tom Hicks' latest attempt to block the sale of Liverpool FC is breathtakingly audacious.

Despite being outvoted on the Board and defeated in the High Court, Hicks is not the kind of man to take 'no' for an answer. On Twitter yesterday, I expressed my suspicion that he would refuse to comply with the High Court's 8pm deadline for cooperation. I never suspected he would launch such a spectacular counter-attack.

But to a man like Tom Hicks, the High Court seems a mere irrelevance. And even as Liverpool's "English Directors" were gathering in London last night to receive Hicks' 8pm capitulation, the Texan was preparing a quite different response. Confronted by a legal ruling he didn't like, Tom Hicks had simply gone out and found a different judge who would agree with him.

That man was Judge Jim Jordan, sitting in the 160th District Court in Dallas yesterday, and the outcome was a restraining order, issued late last night. And just in case that wasn't enough of a bombshell, Hicks demanded 1.6 BILLION pounds in damages. His lawsuit claims he was sidelined by the other directors, who were intent on pushing through an under-valued deal. It further claims that RBS, whose loan Liverpool must repay by tomorrow, was exerting undue influence and pressure on the Board.

Well I sat through the whole High Court case and the conclusion of the judge couldn't have been clearer or - to my mind - more justified by the evidence. Far from being excluded from Board meetings, the judge concluded that Hicks had deliberately absented himself from the meetings in an attempt to thwart a deal which he disagreed with. His sacking of LFC directors Christian Purselow and Ian Ayre was, said the judge, an attempt "to renege on an agreement and issue a veto which the (Board's rules) were specifically aimed at preventing". The judge concluded that "the idea that RBS connived (with the Board) is not a realistic one".

But if there are few things more dangerous than a wounded tiger, and Hicks is not the kind of animal to skulk away licking his wounds. The truth is that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain by engaging in brinkmanship.

He is gambling that RBS will decide not to call in the £297m tomorrow, because to do so would mean the risk of administration, relegation from the Premier League, and the devaluing of an already damaged club.

Furthermore, he is betting that even if he loses, he will be able to avoid paying damages by pleading poverty. As the High Court judge concluded on Wednesday, "there is no evidence that the owners (Hicks) would be good for damages, indeed there is a little evidence they would not".

All that is scant consolation for Liverpool FC and its supporters, who have seen their beloved club undermined and weakened by the instability at the top.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Met Police caught out by The Firm.

Worrying news this past week, involving - on the face of it - deep embarrassment to the Met Police, but beneath that, an apparent deliberate flouting of the conventions governing police access to TV news footage.

The Met circulated 66 photos of supposed football hooligans from the recent trouble at the West Ham v Millwall match, only to realise belatedly and to their horror that the pictures included images from the recent Brit movie "The Firm".

Cue lots of jokes about hapless 'Knacker of the Yard', and a Yard spokesman putting it down to "a bad day at the office". But now the laughter has subsided, how exactly did this fiasco happen?

It seems that many of the 66 pictures had not come from CCTV or police camera operators. Instead, they had been taken - without permission or consultation - from a television news report which had made a comparison between the real and fictional images of violence. The Met was caught out because they had watched the news report with the sound turned off, so the person gleefully copying it was unable to hear the clear distinction made.

But what is most worrying is that the Met felt it acceptable to lift the news footage without asking for it through conventional routes. That deceit seems to deliberately flout a court ruling from 1999, where the City Of London Police were rebuffed in their attempt to get access to TV footage of anti-capitalist protests. The judge in that case refused the police demand, and agreed with the media that if the footage was handed over, the media might be seen as 'agents of the state' and attacked by demonstrators at other events in the future.

That ruling doesn't seem to have stopped the Met. Rather than risk a refusal, or another court case, the Met seems to have just bypassed the whole principle of legal access, and taken the footage regardless. The Met was caught out this time, but it begs the question: how many other times have police 'stolen' footage without permission or credit?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Citizen Journalism? Get A Life.

Skimming through the Daily Mail this morning, I spotted this photo of Steven Gerrard leaving court yesterday.

Look closely at it.

Now explain to me why at least seven - yes count them yourself - SEVEN of the teenagers are trying to 'photograph' Gerrard on their mobile phones!

What is that all about? I can understand the desire for an autograph. Perhaps the chance for a brief chat with their footballing idol.

But what possible souvenir value is there in a shaky video clip of his left ear? Or a blurred shot of the back of Gerrard's head? Do these kids all get together afterwards and compare the results? I would love to see them too, so I could point at them and laugh.

I've seen similar at movie premieres, when the stars "work the crowd", signing autographs. Tom Cruise is one of those who gets up close and seems to genuinely try to chat with the fans. Pity old Tom when the fans prefer instead to simply shove their mobile phone into his face and take snapshots.

I'd like to ask these teenagers, are the snaps intended to remember the moment by? Well WHAT moment?? You missed the moment because you were too busy trying to peer at the viewfinder on your stupid little phone! You wasted your chance for a real encounter with your idol, and a ridiculous 30-second clip will not recapture that.

Citizen journalism can be amazing. A video clip of a burning oil depot, filmed long before any TV crews could arrive? Excellent. Footage of the aftermath of a Tube train bombing? Brave and informative.

Blurry phone clips, probably of nothing more useful than the celebrity's feet? Get a life.