Sunday, 17 July 2011

The rule of law

I am getting more than a little concerned with the way much of the media is gunning for News International (NI).

The hypocrisy of Labour on this subject is something to behold. A couple of years ago several people working directly under Gordon Brown, and even in his office were caught attempting to spread lies about David Cameron when he was leader of the opposition.

Back then we got told that Gordon Brown had no idea what these - if I may be so bold - evil people were doing, and that he was shocked to hear about it. Yet apparently Coulson must have known what was going on in the News of the World, and that James and Rupert Murdoch should pay the price for allowing a culture where the phone hacking could occur. Gordon Brown did not pay the price for a culture - amongst his own directly-reporting staff - where people were willing to spread evil lies for political gain. If the standard that Ed Miliband is holding NI to were to be applied equally then the last Labour Government would all be out on their ears. And yes, that would include the then-climate and energy minister himself.

It is incredible hypocrisy.

The Guardian had a story last week claiming that the Sun had hacked into his and his son's medical records; the BBC led with this story for most of the day, and Gordon Brown himself mentioned it in interviews and within parliament. Yet the Sun came out fighting and proved that their source was a living person and that the information was not obtained by hacking. This forced the Guardian to issue a retraction (hidden away on page 37, in contrast to their original front-page story). I listened to Radio 4 and 5 for most of that day, and did not hear a single mention of the fact that the Guardian's claim had been retracted.

This is the problem: the media are taking claims as being true when they are just claims. And the people doing this are the selfsame people who stand to benefit if NI is weakened or broken up. The Guardian weakens a rival, and the BBC removes some of the threat caused by Sky. No wonder their reporting has been so sensationalist.

David Cameron undoubtedly made a mistake in hiring Coulson, especially after he became PM. Yet Ed Miliband hired Tom Baldwin into a similar position; Baldwin is also another ex-NI journalist with serious allegations against him. Cameron seems sincere when he says he believes in giving people a second chance; after all, Coulson was never even charged with anything after the original enquiries. Now Labour are saying that it shows Cameron's terrible judgement - yet Blair and Brown gave Mandelson two chances after two resignations; the same goes for Blunkett after his resignation and Prescott after his sordid affair.

One rule for Labour, another for Tories?

Labour and the BBC are making a great deal about the number of times that Cameron has met people from the media. Note, however, that Labour have not yet released information about their own such meetings, and I cannot find out if they will be releasing information about such meetings from when they were in power. We do know one thing, however: Blair had three conversations with Murdoch in the nine days before the start of the Iraq war. Of course, that was perfectly okay.

Then we have the alleged hacking of the phones of the  9/11 victims. As far as I can tell this story first appeared in the Mirror (owned by a rival of NI), and seems to come from an accusation that some victims' phone numbers were on a list belonging to a Private Investigator that was hired by NI (amongst other newspapers). Somehow having numbers on a list has become, on the BBC at least, a certainty that the phones were hacked. (On Radio 5 last week the usually-excellent Nicky Campbell told a caller that he needn't use the word 'allegedly' as we could now be fairly sure the accusations were correct). And this matters, as it has put NI's American owners under great pressure. Yet as far as I can tell there is absolutely no evidence publicly available.

Gordon Brown's intervention in the story last week was equally concerning. His speech to the Commons was something to behold  (see part one and the rest) - a man refusing to accept responsibility for anything, just as he blamed everyone else after he was caught on an open microphone calling a voter 'bigot'. Apparently it was all the vile Tories' fault, you see, despite the fact he was at the heart of the Government when the hacking occurred.

We have a great tradition in this country of believing people to be innocent until proven guilty. The media's reporting - and the BBC and the Guardian need especial mention for this - are undoubtedly jeopardising any future trials. Yet I think that is what they may want - the court of public opinion would have well and truly sentenced the accused by the time of any trial, and an acquital would just be seen as an example of how biased the justice system is. After all, everyone *knows* they were guilty weren't they? The BBC and the Guardian told us so.

This is not to downgrade the seriousness of phone hacking, and especially the tampering with Milly Dowler's phone messages. Yet there can be little doubt that other newspapers were involved with the hacking, as shown in the Information Commissioner's Office 2006 report into the scandal. Page 9 shows that other newspapers performed many more questionable activities than the NI group; in particular Trinity Mirror Group and Associated Newspapers. Yet all of the anger is falling on NI for political reasons.

It is totally irrational; except, of course, from Labour's perspective it is all too rational. They are controlling the story and are doing an able job of focussing it upon their enemies rather than on the 13+ years that NI and Labour worked together. In the process they are making some of the people who may have done slightly sleazy things appear like they are the most evil villains in the world. Smear and lies abound.

The News of the World closed because of a campaign on Twitter organised by, amongst others, Mumsnet against the newspaper's advertisers. That is Mumsnet, whose chief executive is the wife of the deputy editor of the Guardian.

I also wonder how much traction this has got in the world outside the media. Do the public really care? True, *if* (and it is a big if) the phones of 9/11 victims were hacked then that is terrible. But to listen to the BBC's output, you'd think that Cameron had been wearing a brown coat as he evilly and callously dialled the numbers. It is subsuming all other news.

Of course, the story is moving so fast that by tomorrow morning I may have a great deal of egg on my face. Perhaps Cameron's fingerprints will have been found on a phone used in the hacking, or a video is released of him, Murdoch, Hitler and Mao plotting their takeover of the world. Who knows? It is getting that stupid.

There is no perspective and certainly no truth in the media's reporting. Any rumour and lie is automatically the truth if it makes Murdoch and NI look bad. The words 'arrest' and 'charge' are being used interchangeably when their meanings have very important differences.

The phone hacking has not killed anyone. The reaction to it may well. And that is my bit of irrational hysteria...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Justice... of a sorts.

With all the inward media navel-gazing, positioning and lies in the media at the moment, it is hard to discover information on other stories. Not a single MP asked a question about the improved unemployment figures during PMQs, and the media are ignoring that MPs have just voted a £9 billion increase in our funding to the IMF. Everything has been subsumed beneath a relatively trivial media story.

There is one story today that deserves more column inches, however. It is a story of authorities diverting blame onto two innocent people so that they would not have to answer difficult questions.

In 1994 a Chinook helicopter carrying 29 souls from Northern Ireland crashed into high ground above the Mull of Kintyre lighthouse. The weather was foggy at the time, and a 1995 board of inquiry found the two pilots guilty of gross negligence. A simple stone memorial overlooking the sea marks the point of impact.

Fortunately the pilots' families and the ComputerWeekly newspaper were not willing to let the verdict lie. They noted that the day before the crash, test pilots at Boscombe Down refused to fly that particular class of Chinook helicopter due to problems with the FADEC engine-control software. Other problems with the helicopter were reported in ComputerWeekly's comprehensive 1999 report.

They have fought the authorities on this case for years, tenaciously working towards clearing the pilots' names. 

Yet successive governments refused to accept strong evidence that refuted the board of inquiry's results. Then in 2010 new evidence was found - unbelievably a document dated nine months before the crash showed that the 'positively dangerous' faults within the engines' software could cause them to fail without pilot input.

We will never know what happened on board the helicopter that night, but for over a decade it has been obvious that we could not be sure that it was the pilots' fault. So it is with relief that I hear that Defence Secretary Liam Fox has announced that the pilots have been cleared of all wrong doing. It is, eventually, the correct verdict.

ComputerWeekly deserve to be congratulated for their work on this story. Let us hope that the current phone-hacking furore does not prevent the media from pursuing such stories in the future.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Five more walks on my website...

In which I backpack the West Highland Way.

No.LocationDistance (m)Date Walked
909West Highland Way: Kingshouse to Fort William24.804/07/2011
908West Highland Way: Tyndrum to Kingshouse Hotel19.403/07/2011
907West Highland Way: Inversnaid to Tyndrum19.102/07/2011
906West Highland Way: East Drumquhassle to Inversnaid23.901/07/2011
905West Highland Way: Milgavie to East Drumquhassle11.130/06/2011

The West Highland Way is truly a sublime trail. True, its popularity means that it is a bit of a motorway in places, but that is part of its joy - there are plenty of facilities, and many people walk it as their first trail.

Friday, 8 July 2011


I just watched Atlantis launched on the last-ever STS (shuttle) launch. I wish I could've been there to watch it.

The end of the STS program leaves many questions hanging in the air. Firstly there are the historical questions, which will be endlessly argued over the coming decades. They are questions like: whether the shuttle was a highly flawed system, whether it has been a waste of money or even if it should ever have been kept in use after the Challenger disaster. Then there are the future questions, such as whether the USA will ever had a manned space program again.

Today is not the day for those questions. Let me say just one thing:

God speed, Atlantis.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Two shouts

On my little trip this week I met up with a few people I would like to say a public 'hello!" to.

I met James Urquhart above the Falls of Falloch. He had just started a five-month continuous trip around all the Munros, and was sitting on a stone whilst staring contemplatively at the hills that surrounded us. He is filming his efforts and you can sponsor individual hills - his website is at

About an hour later I met Jade and Becky, two bouncy young women from Devon who are doing a JOGLE walk. They have a Facebook page and are writing an entertaining blog.

Both these feats have been done before, but that's not the point - hats off to all of them for attempting these feats.