Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Tuesday 8 March 2005

News manipulation - Labour and its proposed Anti-Terrorism legislation

I have been gestating this entry for some days - probably since mid-Saturday in fact, since I first heard a breathless announcement on BBC News24 that former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens was the author of an article to appear next day in News of the World in which he was to express the strongly held view that it was necessary to pass the government's anti-terrorist legislation without further delay, anti-democratic clauses and all:

"It would bring in tough control orders against suspected terrorists or their leaders, who, under existing laws, can't be prosecuted."

"The new PTA has had to be rushed in because the Law Lords have ruled that, under the Human Rights Act, a group of al-Qaeda's spirtitual leaders who have been locked up in Belmarsh prison for several years should be freed."

"Depite all our intelligence, they decided that because of their "human rights" these figures must be set free to continue propagating their perverted brand of Islamic fundamentalism because we had no hard evidence we felt safe in producing in court against them."

"They simply should not be at liberty in this country. It is madness. for the safety of the vast majority, occaisionally we will have to accept the infringement of the human rights of high-risk individuals."

- all this without evidence having to be presented in a court of law (even one held in camera).

What it most put me in mind of was some of the rapid changes in government policy put out by Big Brother in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-four designed to whip up the population into a frenzy against some 'enemy of the state'. Now I have no idea if Sir John Stevens had planned to publish this article last weekend, but it does seem very convenient to me, for the government, that it appeared so soon after the Bill's traumatic and stormy passage through the House of Commons and just before the same Bill was predicted to receive a heavy kicking in the House of Lords. One might almost imagine, if one were in a conspiracist frame of mind, that the publication of an article by a person 'independent' of government, now able to speak more openly because no longer in-post in the Metropolitan Police, but who was thought to command considerable respect across the country, would be helpful to the government's case, specially with the Lords who would be debating and voting early the following week. Undoubtedly many of the Lords read, avidly, News of the World every week - if only to ensure that neither they nor any of their acquaintances are featured that week (that's a joke, by the way), or perhaps because the hoped-for fallout from its general readership might be thought to help in strengthening the sinews of Labour MPs who would have to look at the Bill again when it returns to the House of Commons once it has been dealt with by the House of Lords. What is exceptionally curious, though, is the blanket coverage it was given across every news bulletin on Saturday and Sunday, without really discussing any of the detail of what it said, merely the emotional 'bullet points' and with no attempt to analyse what was after all an article which was so important that it appeared on page 13 of a newspaper which, to put it at its kindest, is not a 'heavyweight' publication. 'Orchestrated' is the word which springs to mind! There is a suberb critique and demolition of it in Spy Blog - like many of the postings in that blog it is well worth reading in full.

So far, luckily, the House of Lords have resisted this orchestrated effort to browbeat them into rubberstamping this odious legislation. On Monday the HoL passed an amendment 249 to 119 to ensure that all control orders issued under the Bill, should it become law, will be made by courts and not ministers. Amongst 20 Labour rebels was ex-Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine, Tony Blair's pupil-master when he was training as a lawyer. Further defeats for the government were inflicted by the HoL on Tuesday, most significantly limiting the validity of the new legislation, should it be passed into law, to 30th November 2005 - the so-called 'sunset clause'.

The battle is not over yet, though. The weasel words of Home Office Minister Hazel Blears earlier today on BBC Radio4, before today's latest batch of defeats, make that clear. After today's votes she is quoted as saying:

"We are determined over the next 24 hours or so to do everything we can to make sure we get the legislation to protect national security and also is within the rule of law and compatible with the European convention."

- and I imagine that exceptional pressure will be exerted on Labour MPs by Labour Party whips to support the government. We must hope that they will remember to whom they owe their jobs when the Bill returns to the HoC - not the government, but their constituents. If they don't remember this, then I hope the electorate will punish them at the forthcoming general election - unless of course that is delayed as a result of 'unavoidable security concerns'. I haven't yet, or not quite, got to that paranoid state where I believe such a thing might be attempted. But I'd lay odds-on money that in the day-dreams of a few senior people in our government that this idea has fleetingly crossed their minds.

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