Apple’s not-so-beautiful problem


Hugo Rifkind

So, what is Apple going to do next? Financial results released by the company last night showed revenues down to $54.5 billion in the final quarter of 2012. It’s a funny sort of “down”, this, because revenues in the same quarter of 2011 were, I think, a mere $28.3 billion, which eagle-eyed business analysts among you might notice makes them what, technically, we might usually call “up”. But they’re down compared with how much further up they were expected to be, and as a result the share price has plunged.

You know why. Apple’s problem is that the iPad today is little different from the one that launched three years ago (albeit sometimes smaller) and the iPhone today is much the same as the one they brought out a whole 6 years ago (albeit a bit bigger). Both of these products changed the world (in a limited-horizons sense of the word “world”, admittedly) and the world has since caught up. Yes, all sorts of otherwise sane folk get wildly furious if you suggest an Android or Windows device can now do stuff an Apple one can’t (they can, they can, they can) but pretty much everybody agrees they can at least do the same.

Does this mean that Apple needs a new innovation, so as not to fade away? Probably. You think of Nokia, you think of Blackberry, and you realise that strokey, sexy technology doesn’t often stand still. Though maybe not. Or, at least, not much of an innovation. Think of the Biro. Invented in the 1880s, and revolutionising the exciting world of, um, pens, it’s much the same today. Basically, we’re done with pens. This is what pens look like. Finished.

One day, we’ll be there with handheld screen things - whatever the group term is for phones and tablets. Probably we aren’t there yet. Tech types suggest that the near future consists of tactile feedback - flat screens that pulse at your fingers and don’t feel flat; maybe best understood as a few steps farther along the path from the way your phone goes buzz when you unlock it. Apple will be working on this already, because everybody is.

After that, though, what next? These things can get thinner, shinier and HDer, but there comes a point where we’ll surely get bored. And after that we’ll still need to buy the things, and the people who make them will still make lots of money if we buy theirs; but it won’t be sexy and investors won’t be so inclined to go nuts. Sheer perfect functionality is a humdrum sort of thing. Nobody blogs about forks, do they?

Goldmines dig up trouble for for Mongolia

Giles Whittell

Chilly? Spare a thought for the people of Mongolia. This is their minus 30 time of year.

Since the age of the great Khans, the nomads of the Gobi Desert have coped heroically with the most extreme weather on earth. This year is no exception, but there are complications. Their frozen landscape is host to an over-heated economy, an undernourished democracy and a general sense that Central Asia’s quiet success story may be grinding to a halt.

The focus of what ails Mongolia is also the main source of its wealth. About 400 miles south of Ulan Bator a Canadian firm part-owned by Rio Tinto – which yesterday fired its CEO over unrelated losses in Mozambique – is about to start extracting ore from a hole in the ground so huge and rich that it could account for nearly a third of Mongolia’s GDP over the next half-century.

The Oyu Tolgoi mine’s prodigious gold and copper deposits have been valued at close to $300 billion in today’s money. Already about $6 billion has been ploughed into it, making it the main driver of Mongolia’s breakneck economic expansion even before it yields its first ounce of gold.

So, who gets the money? The state has a 34 per cent stake, but Rio Tinto and its subsidiaries have the other 66 per cent and most of the profits for the next 30 years. This may sound like a good deal for Big Mining, and it is. But when the Government produced a draft law last month giving Mongolians an automatic 34 per cent stake in all future mining ventures, business cried foul. Foreign investors and their local partners wrote to the President warning that the new law would “shut down the entire minerals industry of Mongolia”.

Translation: put foreign capital in a straitjacket and you put yourself in the same category as Mongolia’s less savoury neighbours. Mining will continue in your country, but with less of our investment and know-how and less of the transparency required of us by the Western jurisdictions where we are domiciled.

The protesters have a point. Mongolia’s growth rate is already falling sharply and its foreign business community is increasingly spooked by apparently arbitrary official harassment on the Putin-era Russian model. The larger problem is the Government’s direction of travel towards populism and resource nationalism – at a time when people such as Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez have given them a bad name, and in a country that has done so well from doing right by investors.

Critics of the new law say it will replace a burgeoning market economy with sclerosis and corruption dominated by a few oligarchs. One critic in particular accuses the current regime of making sweetheart deals with the Oyu Tolgoi investors at the public’s expense – but his voice is seldom heard these days because he’s been locked up.

Nambaryn Enkhbayar, President of Mongolia until 2009, was arrested last year and jailed on one of the more comical rap sheets faced by a post-Soviet leader. The charges against him include one of abusing his office to require the national airline to ship eight books from Korea to Mongolia “without charge”. There are also corruption allegations relating to an ex-employee and a coal mine, but so far he has not been allowed to answer them.

If his case sounds a bit like those of Yulia Timoshenko in Ukraine and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, going quietly spare in a Siberian labour camp across Mongolia’s northern border, it should. None is a saint, but all are once-powerful reformist figures seen as contenders for leadership through the ballot box by rivals who have therefore muzzled them.

Sad, but true: a full generation after the fall of Soviet Communism there is not one country in the former Soviet bloc east of the Soviet Union’s old western border that has successfully combined a functioning democracy and the rule of law.

For many years, Mongolia looked like the exception – and a possible model for other landlocked, resource-rich countries scrabbling for a foothold in the global economy, like Afghanistan. Its backsliding on free markets and judicial transparency is by no means irreversible, but swift, enlightened action by the current Government is needed to reassure the world that it is serious about building an open society as well as getting rich on gold. Due process for Enkhbayar would be a good place to start.

Can 1,000 Catholic priests be wrong?


Oliver Kamm

The question answers itself, but here’s the context.

More than 1,000 priests have signed a letter to the Telegraph protesting against same-sex marriage. They maintain that the Government’s forthcoming Equal Marriage Bill heralds a return to religious persecution. The Bishop of Portsmouth maintains that “it is quite Orwellian to try to redefine marriage”, and terms the proposed reform “totalitarian”.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as inflammatory nonsense, because that’s what it is. Even so, two points are worth drawing out.  

First, the clerical opponents of gay marriage continually commit the logical fallacy of begging the question (ie, assuming in their premises the truth of what they’re arguing for). They complain that the Government’s proposals “redefine marriage” – a redefinition that they are conscientiously and by Church teaching bound to oppose.

Yet the argument of the proponents of reform, including The Times, is explicitly that we are not redefining marriage. We merely seek to extend marriage rights to couples who are now barred from them on no better ground than that they are of the same sex. Reforming marriage to enable a woman to own property independently of her husband was a change of far greater scope than same-sex marriage will be. It was opposed on similar grounds of its supposedly being contrary to natural law. And it was obviously right and just. Same-sex marriage is a modest reform of similar type.

Second, because of that point, the Church will damage itself by the vitriol and hyperbole of its campaign. That’s a prediction, not a complaint – indeed it’s a scenario that I welcome and look forward to.

Damian Thompson, the prominent Catholic journalist, comments on his Telegraph blog that “David Cameron is at war not just with fundamentalists, but also with middle-of-the-road clergy and lay people from Britain’s largest and, arguably, best-integrated religious minority”.

I see no reason to doubt this, but draw the opposite inference. The war has been declared by the Church. Religious liberty is an axiom of a free society; but on public policy, the Church is a lobby like any other. It is not a repository of wisdom about the right and the true. Numerous Catholics implicitly acknowledge this by ignoring Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, proscribing artificial contraception.  

The history of civilisation is to a large extent bound up with separating religious from civic authority. By its obduracy, the Catholic Church is hastening the process.

An unreliable source in Syria

Oliver Kamm

The Daily Mail disturbingly reported this week: “Syrian rebels beheaded a Christian man and fed his body to dogs, according to a nun who says the West is ignoring atrocities committed by Islamic extremists.”

Its source for this claim was Sister Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun in Syria. She maintains that Islamist militants are inflicting atrocities of scarcely conceivable horror on the country’s Christians.

I am not given to underestimating the cruelty that religious absolutists, and specifically Islamist extremists, can inflict. But I’m wary of this source, in this conflict. Reliable information about the violence in Syria is scarce owing to the determination of President Assad to restrict what is known of his crimes. Only yesterday, the UN raised its estimate of the death toll in the uprising to 60,000.

Sister Agnès-Mariam has a notable record, however, of saying things that are convenient to the Assad regime and that do not accord with the conclusions of more reputable investigators. She claimed that the massacre of 100 civilians at Houla was the work of anti-Assad rebels.

It’s unsurprising that Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Jesuit expelled from Syria after 30 years, was caustic about Sister Agnès-Mariam’s testimony when she was on a trip to Ireland last summer. He told the Irish Times: “I have been there, I know the people, including the youth, who are working for the revolution, and I know that what she is saying is insane. It corresponds with the regime version of the facts.”

Syria’s is unquestionably a brutalising conflict. But there is also much nonsense being circulated by fringe elements on the Right and Left who wish to denigrate the Arab Spring and the case for solidarity. A peculiarly monstrous example, confected by a right-wing conspiracist and Birther website called World Net Daily, also made it to the Daily Mail a few months ago. It was seriously claimed (with literally no documentary evidence, such as a photograph) that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was conducting crucifixions in front of the presidential palace. In Syria’s conflict, a Carmelite nun is suspiciously serving the cause of a murderous despotism. 

Crippling austerity and a euro break-up won’t help Europe recover

Oliver Kamm

Political speculation and newspaper commentary this year have concerned the possibility and consequences of a Greek exit from the euro. I have long been sceptical that this would happen, owing to its immense costs. But I felt that the austerity programme required of Greece was so unyielding that it was counterproductive. While living standards have been collapsing, the debt burden threatens to become overwhelming without credible plans to restructure it. (See here an Intelligence Squared/Google debate on austerity – which I argue is not the answer for Europe – a few months ago where I discuss the problem with, among others, George Papaconstantinou, former Greek Minister of Finance.)

Recent Greek developments have thus been modestly encouraging: a successful debt buyback, an improvement in the country’s credit rating, and a decline in government bond yields after the European Central Bank said it would again accept Greek sovereign debt as collateral. If the eurozone is to get out of this mess, it will do so this way: not by fantasies of a purportedly orderly break-up of the euro, but by structural reforms in the debtor countries that are acknowledged, rewarded and made easier.

Greece is an extreme case, and the conjunction of variables in each of the problem countries is different. In Greece, the banks were relatively strong but were undermined by a catastrophic fiscal position (in 2009, the Greek Government admitted that its budget deficit of 12.7 per cent of GDP had been vastly understated in an earlier estimate of 3.7 per cent). In Ireland, the weakness ran the other way: a banking crisis born of excessive bank lending, rather than a crisis of public debt, that then became a fiscal crisis owing to the need to nationalise the stricken banks.

What the countries have in common, despite these differing histories, is extreme stresses that turn private debt into potential public debt. And the only route out of this is to build the fiscal dimensions of the euro that were lacking at its launch, make structural reforms and adopt a more rational approach to the economics of austerity.


Angry Oborne’s brush with pseudo-Cicero

Oliver Kamm

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph’s chief political commentator, is angry. He often is. The latest spark for his anger is The Times, which he thinks is not a properly run newspaper. Oborne’s criticism should be judged on its merits; so should Oborne’s qualities as a commentator.

I’ve never met Oborne but I did an ill-tempered radio debate with him once, on the tenth anniversary of the euro. Oborne would presumably claim that the eurozone crisis has vindicated his prediction of the currency’s eventual demise (it hasn’t), but his reasoning stays with me. He argued that the yield spread between German government bonds and the debt of other eurozone members showed that markets expected the currency to fail – not the size of the spread, but the fact that there was a spread at all between different eurozone countries’ bond yields.

That’s like saying that the difference in municipal bond yields between Massachusetts and California shows that the market expects the dollar to collapse. In other words, it’s nonsense. Different countries within Europe’s currency union have different borrowing histories and (obviously) different credit ratings. Within the eurozone, fiscal policy remained with national governments, some of which borrowed too much. That’s why we are where we are.

My favourite Oborne column was a screed, when he was at the Daily Mail, against a welfare system that “blatantly rewards the workshy and the idle”. He concluded:

Writing more than 2,000 years ago, a Roman politician made the following observation: “The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt. People must again learn to work, instead of living on public assistance.”

These words were uttered by Cicero in 55BC. Today they are every bit as apposite.

It will seem incredible, but Oborne copied this passage without checking it or apparently even noting the fantastic anachronism of a Roman statesman’s referring to “assistance to foreign lands”. The “apposite” quotation is entirely bogus.


'There's no way of prettifying it. Legislation would be the intrusion of the State into the press'

Oliver Kamm

Journalists committed gross intrusions of privacy. The press must be free. These two truths are at the heart of the debate over regulation of the press.

Lord Justice Leveson has gone to great lengths to balance them and stresses that any new regulatory body would be independent. It would, however, be supported by law. The required legislation would not itself establish the new organisation, and Lord Justice Leveson emphasised that no new powers would be granted to Parliament. Instead, the legislation would establish the ideals that regulation should embody.

This is a skilful and accommodative set of proposals, aimed at securing political consensus and press participation. But the balance between statute and self-regulation is the crucial issue. There is no way of prettifying it: legislation would be the intrusion of the State into the workings of the press. David Cameron is right to baulk at it.

Nor is it credible to suppose that a new mechanism would be without coercion. Lord Leveson made clear that if a newspaper or magazine failed to sign up to the new system, it would be subject to exemplary damages in cases of libel or invasion of privacy. There are already laws applicable to the journalistic malpractices that Lord Leveson heard evidence of. The proposals he has made to counter them abridge press freedom.


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UKIP’s empty libertarianism

Oliver Kamm

Having written yesterday that UKIP’s policies are unpleasant, I note with complacence that the UKIP candidate in the Rotherham by-election has been supported today by Neil and Christine Hamilton, whom the party apparently regards as electoral assets. Mr Hamilton once complained at my describing him as a disgraced former minister, but, as he is undeniably a former minister, I’m not sure what else to say.

On his Spectator blog, Alex Massie says sensible things about UKIP (my only difference with him is that I favour tough anti-tobacco legislation). It’s a highly illiberal party with incoherent and destructive policies. But the term “libertarian” would be applicable to it in an American context. Libertarianism in that tradition doesn’t mean what it ought to mean: it’s instead a philosophy of minimal government and immense private coercion.

The fascination of US libertarians with gold makes philosophical sense in that context. If the currency is pegged to the price of gold, government is powerless to act as lender of last resort or to stimulate the economy through monetary or fiscal means. And libertarianism is a starkly empty conception of politics. As Hannah Arendt wrote (Past and Future, p. 148): “Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance.”

An alliance of the Conservatives with UKIP would be a catastrophe for the Tories. It would undo the work of David Cameron and his fellow modernisers, such as my close colleague Daniel Finkelstein, to reconcile Conservatism with modernity. This is of some autobiographical interest to me, though of scant interest to anyone else.

On election day in 2010, Daniel expressed incredulity and some hilarity that I’d voted Labour even though I recognised (and had long said) that Gordon Brown was utterly unsuited to high office. Labour has, in not quite such an extreme form, got the wrong leader now too. But if the Tories were to treat UKIP as their ally, they would abandon any claim to be a credible party of government, even given Labour’s current state.


Why is Mark Carney the new Governor of the Bank of England?

Oliver Kamm

The appointment of Mark Carney as Governor of the Bank of England is a political coup not only for George Osborne. It has also given heart to conspiracy theorists (see here for a peculiarly silly example) who believe the world is ruled from Goldman Sachs, where Carney spent 13 years. Carney’s cachet in fact reflects not the power of Goldman’s but the reputation of the Bank of Canada, where he has been Governor since 2008.

The Bank of Canada has a good name in international markets as well as the domestic economy. That is reflected in the surprising strength of the Canadian dollar during the financial crisis. Normally, a high-yielding currency does best in times of global financial stability. In a crisis, investors usually prefer the safety of the US dollar, as the world’s leading reserve currency. But amid immense ructions in the financial system, the Canadian dollar and the Swiss franc have been big beneficiaries, rather than the US dollar and the euro.

Part of the reason is the credibility of Canadian monetary policy. Canada had an inflation problem in the 1970s. John Crow, Governor of the Bank of Canada from 1987 to 1994, withstood political criticism to run a tight monetary policy. Canada adopted inflation targeting in 1991, a year ahead of the UK. Whereas the UK’s adoption of that framework was an outcome of the failure of the previous policy of targeting the exchange rate and joining the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, Canada’s policy was a natural development from what had gone before. It has achieved what it set out to do.

Canada’s financial system proved notably resilient to the global banking crisis of 2007-09. Restrictions on mergers of the big domestic banks were a source of stability. Carney commented to international central bankers in 2009 that “price stability does not guarantee financial stability and is, in fact, often associated with excess credit growth and emerging asset bubbles”. That judgment describes recent British economic history. The new Governor of the Bank of England has expertise and experience in charting a different course.


Read our editorial on Mark Carney’s appointment

With Roberto Di Matteo gone, who should be Chelsea’s next manager?

Joe Joseph

General David Petraeus: If there’s one place outside a battlefield where the skills of a military tactician come in useful, it’s on a football pitch: sneaking down the wing when the opposition’s attention is diverted elsewhere; throwing all your resources into the Big Surge around the 85-minute mark – all to ensure that you leave with a victory under your belt. But best of all, this is a man with a proven talent for playing successfully both at home and away.

Abu Qatada: To be fair, he doesn’t win many matches, but he does have a marvellous track record of getting the authorities to overturn his team’s losing scores. Roman Abramovich may try to shift him after a few poor results, possibly with the lure of a foreign transfer, but Abu Qatada has proved himself a very hard man to shift anywhere.

Sir Mervyn King: Managing Chelsea could be the perfect job for King after he finishes his stint as Governor of the Bank of England, given the club’s history under Abramovich of throwing more and more money at the problem. After all, this is football’s equivalent of quantitative easing (with, so far, similarly inefficacious results).

Mitt Romney: Being possibly richer than Roman Abramovich, he won’t be cowed by the Russian’s cash. He also has “binders” full of players he can hire. And if it turns out that they’re no good, he likes being able to fire them. The size of Stamford Bridge itself won’t faze him, the pitch being slightly smaller than Mitt’s own back garden (one of them). Romney’s trademark match tactic is the flip-flop, in which Chelsea players will suddenly start running in the same direction as the opposing team, towards their own goal. It’s a trick that’s guaranteed to confuse everyone, even the Chelsea squad.

Dr Rowan Williams: Having failed in his bid to allow women to be appointed as bishops, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury could channel his efforts instead into allowing women to play for Chelsea’s first team – a laudable strategy, given the success of England’s women footballers in international competition compared with their male counterparts.

Read more: Gabriele Marcotti, European Football Editor, on why Di Matteo’s departure makes no sense

Remember the Israelis living under a barrage of Hamas rockets

An Israeli policeman holds the remains of a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip towards Sderot, southern Israel, on November 11

Oliver Kamm

The Israeli town of Sderot, near the Gaza border, has a squat, reinforced police station. If you walk into the backyard, you see rows of spent rockets. Thousands of missiles have been launched at Sderot in the past decade, including 800 this year till last week.

As a presidential candidate in 2008, Barack Obama visited the police station. I saw the same scene on a visit to the town last year. To understand why Israeli jets are attacking targets in Gaza, it’s necessary to know that Israeli civilians face a continuous threat that makes normal life impossible. Obama surely recalled Sderot’s fate when he said yesterday: “Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory.”

Five days into the conflict, increasing numbers of civilians on both sides are dying. Our correspondent in Gaza City says that ten members of a single family were killed when a house was bombed in error. The fog of war obscures such horrors. It is unlikely that Israel can permanently stop missile attacks from Gaza. But Israel’s Government may be calculating that it can reinforce deterrence. Hezbollah has been reluctant to attack Israel across its northern border since the Israeli attack of 2006.

Will Israel’s tactics have that effect? Don’t ask me. I’m just a pundit. As a profession, we tend to strike positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict regardless of familiarity with it. Many say that the problem is Israeli occupation, but Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005. For my part, I acknowledge the force of the comment made by Tony Blair during that Second Lebanon War. For this to stop, he said (meaning Israeli military action), that has to stop (meaning missile attacks on Israeli civilians).

The Jewish national movement historically has sought pluralism and faced down its own extremists. When there is eventually a Palestinian State alongside a secure Israel, that will accord with the highest Zionist ideals. But it wouldn’t satisfy Hamas, which seeks Israel’s annihilation. There are things that Israel can negotiate, but not that, and it’s frivolous for outsiders to expect otherwise.


Read our editorial, The Gaza Trap

The 10 golden rules of Twitter

David Aaronovitch

No week seems to pass without some tweeter or other having their handle felt by officers of the law. So if you don’t want to be one of them but you do want to communicate in 140 characters, here are my 10 Golden Rules:

  1. Twitter IS publishing. Putting it out there for others to read is publishing. So don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t be happy to see on the newsagent’s shelf with a picture of you above it.
  2. You think you know the law of libel. You don’t. Nor do any of your friends. I have had grown men telling me on Twitter this week that repeating a libel is not itself libel (it is) or that if you don’t directly say X is a rampant Y, but just hint at it then it doesn’t count (it does).
  3. If you’re an obscure nobody who no one follows, but who wants to say something rude sort-of privately, don’t do it under a trending hashtag. You will bring the wrath of thousands of strangers down on your hapless head.
  4. Some people LIKE the wrath of strangers. They’re called trolls. If you feel yourself bridling at repeated rude comments aimed at you and your cherished views then just BLOCK the offender. They disappear as if by magic.
  5. You are hurt. Wounded. Someone has questioned your talent or integrity. You wish to howl with online pain. Don’t. Those who enjoy your discomfiture will gather like crows around a carcase. Laugh. Put up a smiley.
  6. That brilliant retort you have composed, replete with pungent sexual or violent imagery, which will utterly destroy the Twitter foe who has, despite my advice, so annoyed you? Cherish it. Roll its 140 characters on your tongue. And then, for God’s sake, DELETE IT.
  7. Don’t tweet while drunk. You think it’s clever, and funny, you giggle and dribble at your own brilliant verbiage. But you are opening wide the gates of Hell. Morning will come, cold and clear.
  8. Don’t EVER meet a jolly Twitter companion, even one you’ve been ff’ing (suggesting people follow you every Friday) for months. Not without a police report. I learnt the hard way.
  9. Get yourself a decent avatar (picture) on Twitter. Not that default egg or the eye slicing scene from Un Chien Andalou. For everyone else’s sake.
  10. Lastly, the golden rule, the rule of rules. Never, ever tweet anything about anybody that you wouldn’t say to their face. There’s a REASON why you wouldn’t say it to their face. They might hit you, or sue you. So why would you want to tweet it?


Read more: “The unhealthiest falsehood spread on social networks is that users are living lives of constant glamour and hilarity,” says Libby Purves

The small mind of Sir Cyril Smith, paedophile

Oliver Kamm

We report today allegations that Sir Cyril Smith, among the most recognisable politicians of the past half century, abused young boys in the 1960s and 1970s. Smith won Rochdale for the Liberals in a by-election in 1972 and held it for 20 years. The charges against him were made in the Commons yesterday by Simon Danczuk, Labour MP for Rochdale.

Danczuk deserves credit for attacking the reputation of his predecessor. The allegations are true. Smith was a paedophile sadist who satisfied his urgings by inflicting humiliating punishment on vulnerable boys who were nominally in his care. Francis Wheen exposed these horrors in Private Eye 30 years ago. Smith never sued.

When Smith died in 2010, cloying tributes ensued. Nick Clegg said: “Rochdale and Britain have sadly lost one of their great MPs.” I believe that the sole critical remarks were made by Kevin Maguire of The Mirror and me. It’s long past time for a proper evaluation of Smith’s life and crimes.

In making a speech in Parliament opposing European regulation of the asbestos industry, Smith asked for and received the help of an asbestos company in his constituency. He made no mention to Parliament that he was a significant shareholder in the company. He thus dishonestly sought to protect his financial interests in a deadly industry.

It wasn’t only Smith’s conduct that was disgusting. So were his politics. In successive divisions, he was the only Liberal MP (and subsequently Liberal Democrat MP) to vote for the return of capital punishment. He was a doctrinaire and unyielding opponent of abortion, for whom questions of ethics and women’s rights could be countered with boneheaded abuse. After the failure in 1988 of David Alton’s bill to reduce the time limit for abortions to 18 weeks, Smith was forced by the Speaker to apologise for referring to MPs who had talked it out as “murderers in the womb”.

Cyril Smith was a reactionary bigot whose mind was as small as his girth was huge. Above all, he was a sexual predator and a corrupt, venal liar, and should be remembered that way.


Media Lens: a warning

Oliver Kamm

This is a note for the record on a minor issue, for other journalists, but I hope it’s of use. Our profession is targeted by a small sub-Chomskyite organisation called Media Lens, whose supporters write periodically to accuse us of bias. As, contrary to the conventions of debate, they don’t disclose their affiliation, it’s easy to assume that they are legitimate if not especially articulate inquirers. Bear in mind, if you’re among those they accuse of ideological transgression, what Media Lens stands for:

  1. It defends repression by President Assad of Syria. Rupert Read, the Green activist, has noted that ML’s campaigning on Syria serves “tacitly to increase the credibility of Assad’s black propaganda…”.  He rightly maintains that it does so by repeated insinuations that Assad is combating a terrorist uprising and that Western media use inflated estimates (in fact, UN estimates) of the number of his victims.
  2. ML’s source for its pro-Assad claims is Michel Chossudovsky, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist who maintains in his book War and Globalization: The Truth Behind September 11, that the 7/7 bombings were an “inside job” by British intelligence. Chossudovsky’s organisation, Global Research, used to carry content (till media attention forced it off, though not before I’d read it) claiming that Jews control the media and that the number of victims at Auschwitz has been exaggerated.
  3. It stands with genocide deniers. Edward Herman and David Peterson, founders of a preposterous organisation called the Srebrenica Research Group, maintain that the figure of 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre “is a political construct and eminently challengeable”. ML says that they are “perfectly entitled” to that view. No, they are not. Srebrenica denial uses the same methods as Holocaust denial but is a still more blatant fraud: the bodies have been found. The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has revealed the identity of 6,598 people missing since the fall of Srebrenica, through DNA analysis of human remains in mass graves. It estimates the total number of victims as around 8,100. If ML maintains that deniers are “perfectly entitled” to their position, it must believe that the ICMP has faked that analysis.


Plebgate: a storm in a Westminster teacup?

Daniel Finkelstein

Inside Westminster everyone agrees that the Andrew Mitchell issue is a nightmare for the Conservatives. Is this correct?

I do have my own views on this, but let me try instead just some cool voter analysis.

Well, it is certainly a nuisance. It is a distraction for the leadership, it depresses morale in the Commons, it undermines the whips’ office and, because the Westminster lobby (who own the story) regard it as a huge political issue, it makes the tone of coverage worse. It further damages an already bad relationship with the police.

And any story that makes the Prime Minister look as if he isn’t in control of the situation is a bad story.

But beyond that?

Well, first things first. Voters don’t know who Andrew Mitchell is. And they don’t know what a chief whip does.

They also don’t follow this sort of story. They may have noticed it (although my understanding is that recall in focus groups was almost zero) but they certainly won’t be wondering what happened.

There are three issues still running, so let’s look at each of them. Assuming that voters recall it, the use of the word “pleb” is only more of a problem than swearing if it is commonly understood to have class connotations. It is by no means certain that people have a clear understanding of the word pleb.

The second question is whether the police are being accused of lying. Voters do not unquestioningly believe the police.

And finally, while people don’t believe in swearing at the police, and always think politicians should resign, voters are strongly disinclined to believe in media storms (if you can believe in a storm, but you know what I mean). They will blame the media for the whole saga as much as Mitchell and the police and will regard the whole thing as a whole bunch of people in Westminster entertaining themselves on an irrelevant issue.

When looking at the issue purely in terms of public opinion, David Cameron can ride this one out.

Daniel Finkelstein is chief leader writer and a columnist for The Times. Read his latest column on Jimmy Savile and celebrity power and contact him on Twitter @Dannythefink

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