Here We Go Again

Reading today’s Daily Telegraph on the David Miranda detention and it is easy to be cast back to other misguided UK government efforts to stop leaks and block embarrassing information from seeing the light of day.

It is taking on digital echoes of the Peter Wright affair when the UK government and the security services opened themselves up to derision with farcical efforts to block the publication of Wright’s book detailing MI6 and MI5 dirty tricks, illegal surveillance and a plot to bring down the Wilson government. They couldn’t stop publication abroad and it was easy to purchase the book.

National security was claimed as the issue too back then but it quickly became clear what was at stake was the reputation of the British security services.

Now we have a Prime Minister sanctioning the destruction of hard drives held by the Guardian newspaper containing the material former NSA contractor Edward Snowden stole — as if that will stop the information leaking out. As the Guardian made clear they have duplicates and presumably Greenwald and Snowden do, too, (probably so have the Russians and Chinese by now!).  Possibly the NSA should destroy their hard drives as the information is so sensitive – after all Snowden has demonstrated the puzzle palace’s own computer system isn’t secure.

And then the Telegraph gets a UK government source today hazarding absurdly that David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Greenwald, was detained for his own good as he was carrying sensitive documents and could have been kidnapped by terrorists. Is security at Heathrow Airport so bad?

Presumably the Snowden material does contain information useful to terrorists but the information is also useful for the British and American publics to gauge what is being done in the name of the “war on terror” and for them to assess whether the politicians and the security services have got the balance right between security and civil liberties. Clearly President Obama doesn’t think so with the tweaks and the inquiry he has ordered. But then, of course, he would have done that without the Snowden revelations. Really?

Visit Tripoli See Fireworks…Including RPGs

Hard not to chuckle at the ill-timing of a Daily Telegraph travel piece that extolled the virtues of Libya as a destination for tourism. The article was posted online on the night of Nov 4/5 and opened: “Tripoli, Libya’s capital, is known for its walled medina and relaxing old-world ambience, and is home to a number of grand mosques, statues and fountains.”

It is home also to several unruly militias. As the article was posted a couple of rival state-sanctioned militias started skirmishing — it lasted  for more than 12 hours — in Tripoli, firing rocket-propelled grenades at each other, leaving nearly a dozen wounded and adding to ordinary Libyans’ sense of powerlessness.

The puff piece was part of a PR effort encouraged by the Libyan government to entice tourists to the North African country. A few months ago USA Today ran a similarly premature travel article urging tourists to visit the country.

Question: Do travel editors pay any attention to what is actually happening in a country?

More on Bob

Damian Thompson over at the Daily Telegraph has picked up on the unfolding Bob Fisk story. Bob apparently feels the criticism he’s coming under can all be put down to malice because he is a “moderately successful journalist.” In other words, it is all a matter of jealously. Well, I would have thought Ian Black, Hugh Pope and myself could all be described as moderately successful journalists, too. No jealously here, Bob. I just called it like I see it.

Further Thoughts On The UK Budget

Hardly surprising but the backlash on the “granny tax” George Osborne announced in yesterday’s UK Budget dominates the British newspapers today with both the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail choosing that angle to lead their coverage.

Presumably Osborne decided to phase out the age-related benefit that dates back to 1925 in order to gain some revenue to pay for the giveaways – to pay for the raising of the salary ceiling for receiving child benefit and for increasing the personal income tax allowance.

Osborne claims the move is merely a tax simplification but he appears to have decided to favor the young –or at least the younger – over the older here, a curious move when it comes to electoral strategy as pensioners cleave more to the Conservatives than to Labour. Of course, Osborne is meant to be the Tories’ electoral strategist, so maybe he knows something here that others don’t. Maybe he’s banking on pensioners dying off!

Aside from the “granny tax”, the Budget is disappointing on two broad fronts. It doesn’t do enough to encourage enterprise and provide incentives for aspiration, and it doesn’t cut public spending, which as a proportion of Britain’s GDP has continued to rise under the Coalition government, along with Britain’s net indebtedness, a development that accounts for Fitch’s recent warning that Britain risks losing its Triple A rating in the next couple of years.

Despite the Chancellor’s claim that this was a Budget for enterprise, it wasn’t. Yes, Osborne has reduced the top rate of tax from 50 percent to 45 percent. That is not a brave or radical move, though. The higher rate wasn’t bringing in much revenue and there were signs that it was deterring the rich and entrepreneurial from settling in the UK. But is 45 percent low enough? The rich will still be paying over 50 percent when local taxes and social security contributions are taken into account.

The reduction in corporation tax is also a good thing and will help business. One hopes it will attract more companies from overseas to set up shop in the UK and encourage others thinking of leaving to remain.

But the Budget was devoid of any creative thinking in terms of using tax breaks and favorable government treatment for setting up business in enterprise zones, for example, a point well made by Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail today, who asked why the government is not offering “VAT and National Insurance breaks in enterprise zones.”

“There is virtually nothing in the Budget, either, to beef up a recovery that’s being driven by increased exports (a result of the 20 per cent devaluation of the pound against foreign currencies) or to place real muscle behind the kind of technological and research-based enterprises that are giving such a lift to the economies of America, China and India,” Brummer writes.

Overall, Osborne seems to have no faith in the proven tactic of cutting spending to allow tax cuts in order to stimulate the economy. And that is really dismaying.

 

 

Part 2 – The Silliness of Simon Heffer

Part 2: The Silliness of Simon Heffer

On 30th July in a Daily Telegraph column ostensibly criticising Chancellor George Osborne for arguing that any Trident replacement should come out of Ministry of Defence funds we got these gems from Simon:

“We live in a world whose massive instability seems to have passed the Prime Minister by.”

“Dave (by this Simon means Prime Minister Cameron) so obsessed is he with image management that real issues of governance are pushed to the margins.”

“If there is the political will, the money can be found to maintain the defence of the realm. As I have argued before, end the overseas aid budget, which is a pointless, socialist waste of money at £7 billion a year.”

As I asked in an earlier blog posting on Simon, are these really the comments one expects from a serious commentator writing for a supposedly serious daily newspaper?

You may or may not agree with Cameron’s recent criticisms of Israel and Pakistan or think they should have been made so publicly (I for one think the Prime Minister was right in the content of what he said and how and where he made his remarks), but does anyone really believe that the Prime Minister is unaware that we live in a dangerous World – always have actually – and that instability from elsewhere threatens?

When commenting on the Coalition, Simon likes to press the idea that the Prime Minister is just a PR man focused on image solely. What he ignores is how radical this government is planning to be – and radical in a lot of Conservative/Libertarian ways. Nothing less than a radical reform of the state and the relationship between the state and the public is being aimed for, a point emphasized last week by the Economist, which noted that “it is shaping up to be an ambitious administration.”

According to Simon, the Prime Minister is not interested in “real issues of governance” but let’s look at the short record so far. The Coalition has introduced an austerity package aimed at ending the country’s fiscal deficit that could see most government departments facing cuts of up to 40 percent – it is a spending reduction package that shames other European governments who claim they too are intent on putting the public books in good order.

But the Coalition is not stopping there. Coalition ministers intend to seize the opportunity to reshape the State and are proposing truly radical changes to NHS management, the Welfare system, schools, and the relationship between the police and the public. The Coalition is already acting to push back on the astonishing civil rights encroachments of the Blair and Brown governments. As the Economist – hardly a lefty or Lib Dem publication – argued “the historic nature of the coalition government itself is now less interesting than its domestic politics.”

So much for the Simon claim that the Prime Minister is pushing to the margins real issues of governance!

Does Simon think that he is writing fine commentary when he sneers and insults and misrepresents and tries to make out that Cameron and his ministers are ignorant and immature. Is this how Heffer’s mentor T.E. Utley wrote? Utley was an ideological Conservative but in his columns he was not bombastic and stuck to the facts and he would never have demeaned a Prime Minister by referring to them in a condescending manner by their first name.

So what does Simon think he is doing? And why he is doing what he is? Well, his chums on the right of the Conservative Party no doubt are egging him on. They, of course, are unable to accept any compromises to their narrow Conservatism. As far as they are concerned Britain should have no mass immigration – European Union citizens included – and Conservatives should not share government power. They want an old Britain that stands alone, proud, free and brave, etc. That fits in well with the kind of Britain Simon would like – the England of Trollope, where the Celtic fringes and working class people knew their places.

And so to be brave and free and proud we need an independent nuclear deterrent and shouldn’t be wasting money on some natives overseas. And according to them the nuclear replacement should not come out of defence funds but the government reserve. Well, boys, I have news for you – there isn’t a government reserve, the coffers are empty!

Britain’s nuclear deterrent isn’t and never will be independent – the Americans would have to agree before we fired it! And which country are we going to shoot at? The Russians? We knock out a couple of their cities and they knock out Britain lock, stock and barrel. Terrorists who sneak in a suitcase bomb? Iran has a far more important target than the U.K. – Israel.

I can well understand why Reagan thought all the generals talking about MAD were mad.

Back to Simon, briefly. The days when Britain’s overseas budget went straight into the pockets of Third World dictators are kind of over, Simon. Aid is far more targeted and monitored – although more monitoring is needed – and aid is starting to get more results-oriented, something Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary, is keen to increase.

Yes, money to India and China should cease now but a lot of good can come from that aid budget in Africa and less developed countries, helping to ease the instability Simon worries about so much and encouraging economic development and that helps to ease the immigration pressures on us. Simon, maybe you should read less Trollope and start reading more studies and books on economic development, aid mechanics and even brush-up on what is actually happening in Africa.

The Silliness of Simon Heffer

What a strange creature the Daily Telegraph has become. Some of its economics and business coverage is truly excellent – nuanced, intelligent and knowledgeable. Jeremy Warner, Edmund Conway and Roger Bootle are must-reads.

Obviously, I am not including Ambrose Evans Pritchard in that line-up: his presentation of himself as some kind of media Cassandra becomes increasingly a bore. Nuanced is not a word that could be applied to Ambrose’s journalism — and that goes way back before his surprising re-incarnation as an international business writer after his far right coverage of the Clinton administrations. Why surprising? His Clinton coverage did the reputation of the Telegraph much harm in the States, although not with the “black helicopter” right-wing talk radio crowd.

There are only three things that Ambrose is wedded to: a pre-Bretton Woods belief in the gold standard, an insistence that Vince Foster was murdered and a conviction that Bill Clinton was recruited by the KGB while a Rhodes Scholar. If Ambrose were back in Washington DC, he would be filing copy no doubt “proving” that Barack Obama is a secret adherent to Islam and was never born in the States.

On the plus side, the Telegraph exclusives about the expenses abuses were brilliant and an example of fine investigative journalism – the kind that is alas becoming all too rare in the UK these days among the national daily newspapers.

But the political commentary coming from the paper is devaluing the exclusives the political reporters are securing. Much of that devaluing commentary comes from Simon Heffer.

I ought to introduce a personal note here. I know Simon: we were contemporaries at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and we overlapped at the Telegraph, where I had two stints at the Sunday Telegraph as a political correspondent and as an investigative writer. I have always liked Simon – although I don’t share his passion for Trollope but I do share his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and T.E. Utley.

Despite all of that, I can muster no enthusiasm or respect for his commentary, which is jejune, immature, pompous, backward-looking, and often ill-informed when it comes to the facts and about the World beyond London Clubland. The Young Fogey has become an Old Bore. What was endearing back in the 1980s has become tiresome in this century.

Take three of his most recent columns – on President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and on the importance of updating Trident. The first has all the nuance of a sledge-hammer – it is all noise. Actually, that could be said for all three, come to think of it.

With Obama, Simon begins by registering his shock at how President Obama has become even more unpopular since his last visit to the States four months previously. He then goes on to suggest there is good reason for the falling esteem. Obama has done nothing recently apparently. “It is not clear what Mr. Obama actually does. He isn’t engaged with the economy; he certainly isn’t engaged with foreign policy; he has abandoned hope of a climate change bill this year (and probably for ever); he has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented; he is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration…”

And now, according to Simon, he just “appears to be reading the newspapers and the blogs and watching television.” Is that last point meant to be a serious comment from a supposedly serious commentator writing for a daily paper that believes it should be taken seriously?

Let’s look at the meat of the claim – at what Obama did or omitted to do before he became a shadow of his former self and resorted to just reading newspapers, etc.

  1. “He isn’t engaged with foreign policy”. Well, Simon, he seems pretty engaged with Afghanistan by shifting US policy from a counter-terrorist strategy to a counter-insurgency one, it strikes me, and his administration is trying out a bit of a détente with Moscow. Now, granted, I don’t believe the COIN approach to Afghanistan will work – neither will the CT strategy for that matter – and the détente with Moscow will fail, but he is engaged and a better and more mature column would have been to analyze Obama foreign policy, its strengths and weaknesses, the chances for success, the internal and external challenges the administration faces in forming and executing policy and whether the policy is right rather than claiming that the President is “not engaged with foreign policy.”
  2. “He isn’t engaged with the economy”. Simon undermines this claim himself by noting the massive stimulus package the President forced through in his first year in office, his push for an extension on unemployment benefits and his wanting to raise taxes on those earning more than $250,000 a year. Again, I don’t agree with raising taxes. What is even more shocking, though, is Simon’s complete ignoring of the truly radical financial reform legislation that has been passed. Wasn’t that worth a mention? Or was our commentator unaware it had been passed or how significant it is?
  3. “He has seen his health care bill into law, but America awaits news of how it will be implemented.” Well, Simon, old boy, it was a huge accomplishment, whether you like it or not, to get major reform through on health care – it was something other Presidents would have liked to do, notably the last Democratic White House incumbent, but failed to do. And one of the reasons Americans are waiting news about implementation is that many of its major provisions don’t start immediately and come into effect over time. By the way, the delay in implementation has much to do with the lobbying by the insurance companies and brinkmanship by the Republicans.
  4. “He is under attack for a casual approach to illegal immigration.” There is nothing casual about the Obama Justice Department’s challenge to the new Arizona anti-immigrant law. And, overall, “casual” isn’t the word best applied to what Obama is not doing on the immigration front. He is not fighting for reform – the same reform that his GOP predecessor in the White House wanted to introduce but also decided that cowardice was better part of valour. Although that might be more preferable than Senator John McCain’s betrayal of immigration reform.

Among other silly points Simon makes in this column is the author’s belief that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the “serious Republican” who could beat Obama. “He is the sort of opponent Mr. Obama should fear, because he is experienced, an intellectual, and has widespread name recognition,” says Simon, who scolds silly “Democrats (including Howard Dean, the party chairman),” who are urging Gingrich to stand in 2012. According to Simon, they are only doing so “to ensure that the Republicans make some policies that the Democrats can attack.”

In fact, Dean and other Democrats are doing so because if Gingrich were the GOP candidate they could rest easy in their beds – oh, yes, the Tea Party members would turn out in droves to back the hero of the “Contract with America” – but the Democrats would not only see their own base energised by the presence of Gingrich on the ticket but they would see independents and the centre swing back to them, too.

What would have been a far more interesting column to write on a trip to America would be something along these lines: Obama has, in fact, achieved much – health care reform, financial services overhaul, a stimulus package that may have prevented the US recession becoming a Depression; in fact, his legislative record is more impressive than either Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s at equivalent stages in their first terms. Even so, Obama has failed to gain real credit from Americans for the legislative accomplishments and this raises the big question of why. Is it because American economic pain and uneasiness has clouded appreciation that may be forthcoming once the property market improves and unemployment decreases? Or were expectations too high for Obama? Were Americans voting for different kinds of change when they backed him? And will the Republican tactic pay off of offering nothing in the way of policy? That article is, of course, beyond Simon because he can only engage in polemical support of political allies or polemical damnation of opponents.

In Part Two I’ll look at Simon’s articles on Prime Minister Cameron and Trident.

Missing The Point

Simon Heffer allows his ideological perspective to get the better of him in the Daily Telegraph today. He pinpoints the withdrawal of a moderate, pro-abortion GOP candidate in a New York state election as an indication that moderate Republicanism is a vote-loser and that the future direction of the GOP has to be a hard-right one — only when the Republicans understand that will they have a chance of beating Obama.

But in the same column Heffer notes that New York mayor Bloomberg got back into city hall because he has made New York a more livable and efficient place. Heffer fails to note that Mayor Bloomberg is firmly, of course, a moderate Republican.