Category Archives: Australia

the fracking hell of new world energy – “unconventional gas” from America to Australia

I felt like I could see it. A horizontal well bore drilled down into the earth, snaking underneath The Congress, shooting money up through the chamber at such high pressure that it blew the top off of our democracy: another layer of contamination due to fracking. Not the water, not the air, but our government. All those toxic dollars, all those contaminants, all of that influence, outsizing the citizen’s voice in our democratic republic.

The words are from Josh Fox, narrating the end of his remarkable investigative follow-up film Gasland Part II 1, in which he reveals some more of the dirty tricks used by this grotesque industry to fake, cover up and deny responsibility for earthquakes and widespread pollution of both air and aquifers. Methods of manipulation that very often involve the pitting of communities against themselves using psyops techniques that are literally taken from army manuals designed for subjugating enemy insurgents.

But fracking is so filthy that no amount of public relations or concealment by the legislative bullying, nor the extensive use of non disclosure agreements, can ever keep the lid solidly on the truth. The explosive tap water, the bubbling streams, the sick livestock, the nosebleeds, the rashes, the neurological disorders; when it was eventually proven beyond all doubt that fracking was the direct source of the contamination ruining people’s lives and livelihoods, the industry in America simply pulled harder on the levers of powers and the regulatory agencies stepped to one side once again. And of course, it’s not only the American system that’s contaminated by fracking – Josh Fox again:

So I still don’t know what’s gonna happen around here. The saying goes that environmentalists only ever get temporary victories, but the losses are always permanent. There’s no such thing as anyone’s backyard anymore. This wasn’t about me getting drilled or anyone getting drilled in any one place, the plan is for shale gas to be the new world energy. If they get their way, we’re in for fifty years of shale gas running the world. You start to get dizzy. I felt like I could close my eyes and open them anywhere in the world. 2

The image above (also from the official Gasland website) shows the continents of our world blotched red to highlight seams of shale deposits, and show how this uninhabitable gasland might become truly global in its full extent if we do permit this abominable industry to spread. As Josh Fox says, plans are already in place to turn shale gas extraction into “the new world energy”:

A full version of Gasland II is embedded above. You can also click here to watch at Vimeo.

*

Around the time Gasland Part II was released nearly two years ago, I had written to its co-producer Deborah Wallace (I couldn’t find an email address for Josh Fox) to pose the following important question:

I first watched Gasland more than a year ago and it shocked me no end. At that time almost no one in Britain had even heard of fracking. Now it’s here and, as I say, I’m worried. The question I would like to know the answer to is actually a rather simple one. In general how long does it take for the effects of fracking to reach the surface and begin affecting animals and humans? The reason I ask this is because I have a feeling that the industry (in collaboration with the government) is trying to give the go-ahead for fracking in a truly accelerated way. To get as much gas out of the ground as possible before people actually begin to see the extraordinary amount of damage that has been done to our countryside and to the well-being of the population. It seems to me that the race is on here. So to get back to my main question then, could you tell me (to the best of your knowledge) when we can first expect the effects to be felt? Should we anticipate seeing obvious environmental/health problems within a few months, a few years, or does to generally take decades of fracking before the scale of devastation becomes obvious at the surface? 3

To her great credit Deborah Wallace replied 4, although she was reluctant to give a specific answer to my inquiry, saying only: “your question is difficult to answer since there are several ways that wells can fail so we couldn’t give you any specific time frames.” And recommending that I read through the FAQs on the Gasland website (in truth these do not supply an answer to my specific question either).

But now, thanks to a newly released documentary constructed around personal experiences of those living amidst the coal seam gasfields of Australia, a far better estimate can be put on just how much breathing space we realistically have until irreversible damage is done (in the event that the unconventional gas industry gets its foothold in Britain) – and the answer is not long at all. No sooner than the wells are drilled, the clock is loudly ticking…

*

At the midpoint in Gasland II, Josh Fox took a flight to Queensland in Australia. There he interviewed local farmers who showed him effects of contamination he was uncomfortably familiar with from his earlier visits to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and his home state of Pennsylvania. Rivers bubbling with methane, poisoned aquifers, and, most dramatically, water hoses that you can ignite. But what Gasland II fails to make clear is that unlike America, none of the drilling in Queensland began later than 1996, which means that all of the pollution is less than two decades old, most having leaked from wells drilled during the last few years.

In Voices from the Gasfields (embedded below) rancher, John Jenkyns, another who had originally welcomed the arrival of the industry, tells us that things were okay for about the first eighteen months. It was not long after this honeymoon period, however, before his rainwater became so contaminated that not only did it kill his plants, but it stripped paint from the car.

A neighbouring farmer, Brian Monk, also describes the “brown dome” that he often sees hanging over the gasfields. It is from this toxic cloud, he says, that the pollutants rain down. Heavy metals and high levels of radioactivity now found not only in water from the boreholes but in the rainwater too. “If you can’t trust rainwater,” he asks, “then what are you meant to trust?” Adding: “That’s why you’ve got to stop it before it starts.”

So what happened to the environmental regulators in Queensland? Well, that’s where the story becomes the most familiar one of all. Wherever fracking goes – both regular shale and coal seam gas – lack of regulation is sure to follow it, causing contamination, as Josh Fox puts it, not only of the water and the air, but of our governments too. From America to Canada (where environmental regulations were supposed to be some of the strictest in the world) and to Australia, the most painful lesson is simply this: that fracking can never be regulated because all “unconventional gas” extraction is an inherently backward technology and unavoidably polluting. Due to their ignorance people in all these countries as well as others in less affluent corners of the world are now suffering dreadfully, but in Britain we have absolutely no excuse for being likewise deceived.

*

1

Gasland Part II follows on three years [after Gasland], to continue documenting how the stakes have been raised on all sides in one of the most devastating environmental issues rapidly spreading the globe. This sequel further enriches the argument that the gas industry’s portrayal of natural gas as a clean and safe alternative to oil is a lie, where in fact fracked wells inevitably leak over time, and vent exuberantly more potent greenhouse gasses such as methane in cumulative effect, not to mention the continued string of cases of severe water contamination across the United States and even cases as far away as Australia. Gasland Part II follows deeper into these happenings, revealing yet more of an entrenched corporate collusion in the pursuit of exploiting dwindling ‘natural resources’…

gaslandthemovie.com/

2 These extracts are taken from the very end of the documentary, after Josh Fox tries to exercise his First Amendment right to film hearings at The Congress, but is arrested instead. He begins this poetic stream of consciousness conclusion with the following remarks:

When I was in the police station, my arresting officer hit me up for a part in my next movie, as he was leading me over to the fingerprint machine. When they pressed my fingers down on the glass, and I saw the images up on the screen: the ridges, the circles, and my fingertips; I realised they looked just like the inside of a tree. Maybe there’s something deep in our DNA that doesn’t want to get cut down. Maybe there’s something linked – at least, that’s what I feel. The tree doesn’t move until you cut it down, and I’m certainly not moving. We can’t all just move. Certainly not when there’s another way out.

3

Sent: Friday, 28 June 2013, 13:34
Subject: fracking in the UK – an urgent matter

Hi Deborah,

I am a resident of Sheffield in the UK which is set become the centre of region an enormous shale gas extraction – the government pressing ahead at breakneck speed whilst telling us all (courtesy of the BBC mostly) how wonderful it is that we have such large reserves under our feet waiting to be tapped. Obviously there are many people in Britain such as myself who are deeply concerned by these rapid developments.

I first watched Gasland more than a year ago and it shocked me no end. At that time almost no one in Britain had even heard of fracking. Now it’s here and, as I say, I’m worried. The question I would like to know the answer to is actually a rather simple one. In general how long does it take for the effects of fracking to reach the surface and begin affecting animals and humans? The reason I ask this is because I have a feeling that the industry (in collaboration with the government) is trying to give the go-ahead for fracking in a truly accelerated way. To get as much gas out of the ground as possible before people actually begin to see the extraordinary amount of damage that has been done to our countryside and to the well-being of the population. It seems to me that the race is on here. So to get back to my main question then, could you tell me (to the best of your knowledge) when we can first expect the effects to be felt? Should we anticipate seeing obvious environmental/health problems within a few months, a few years, or does to generally take decades of fracking before the scale of devastation becomes obvious at the surface?

I couldn’t find Josh Fox’s email contact details and so I sent this to you with the hope that you can either answer my question directly or pass it on to Josh – I’m sure you’re all very busy but I can’t think who else to ask. My best wishes with your continuing campaign and thanks to Josh and the rest of your team for getting the word out on this terrible industry. And I look forward to seeing Gasland 2 when it is released.

All the best,

James Boswell

4

Date: Saturday, 7 September 2013, 13:22

Subject: RE: fracking in the UK

Hi James,

Thank you so much for your letter, and apologies for our delayed reply. We have been inundated by responses to the film and this has affected our ability to respond to folks in a timely manner, we hope you’ll understand. I’m sorry you had to write twice and that it took us so long to respond.

Unfortunately, your question is difficult to answer since there are several ways that wells can fail so we couldn’t give you any specific time frames. You might want to check out our FAQ section on the website, I think you’ll find lots of answers to questions there.

Best,

Deborah

Deborah Wallace

www.gaslandthemovie.com

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Filed under Australia, did you see?, fracking (shale & coal seam gas), USA

another day, another atrocity: may I speak freely?

Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters 1 — Rosa Luxemburg

As the mad men of ISIS find ever more vile ways to defile the faith they profess to, I am sickened. Sickened by reminders of the depths of savagery and depravity to which some human beings are capable. Sickened by the fact that the country I live in is one of those that has been deliberately supporting these monsters as they spread their obscene medievalism like a cancer across the Middle East and into Africa. And here is the unspeakable John McCain cavorting with a few of them during a sneak visit to Syria in May 2013:

Furthermore, I am outraged to see our leaders prostrating themselves once more before the House of Saud from whom this fundamentalist sickness of Wahhabism  was first contracted. And then we have the other side of all of this. We have the fanaticists at home.

*

When I first heard reports of the attacks in Paris, and then the more recent attack in Copenhagen, the news came like another deadening dose of something expected and horrendous. More rampages of mass killing. And my condolences to the many survivors of these latest atrocities and to families and loved ones of those who were gunned down in cold blood; all of whose lives are now shattered.

I was also braced, of course, like many others, for that different chorus of voices to pipe their own variations to that well-worn theme known as the “clash of civilisations”. But then, and before we had any real chance to draw collective breath, a protest was in full swing with the soon familiar black banners declaring “Je suis Charlie” already fluttering as dusk fell across the world. Right-minded people were gathering together beneath them, and linking arms to show solidarity with the victims. And who amongst us would not stand up and raise the same banner in name of free speech?

Well, I confess that I did not join those gathered in the streets and watched from afar as the “Je suis Charlie” banners were unfurled. Now, after a respectful silence, here are some reflections on the response, both public and media (it was hard to tell them apart), in the immediate aftermath of the murders in Paris. An already ghastly sense of dismay, revulsion and alarm, suddenly compounded.

*

Clash of civilisations

How absurd men are! They never use the liberties they have, they demand those they do not have. They have freedom of thought, they demand freedom of speech. — Søren Kierkegaard

It was coming, of course, and it really didn’t very take long at all. Within only a few hours of the murders, Channel 4’s Jon Snow was one of the better known journalists who reacted without pause or delay by responding with the demanded clichés. He tweeted:

Paris: brutal clash of civilisations: Europe’s belief in freedom of expression vs those for whom death is a weapon in defending their beliefs. [bold highlight added]

Is that so? Well, no – this is nothing more or less than reconstituted, unadulterated neo-con claptrap. Reconstituted from Samuel P. Huntington as a matter of fact.

I shall return to consider Huntington in a moment, but meanwhile, would like to offer a more thoughtful journalistic response, posted by Guardian correspondent, Homa Khaleeli, also on the day of the massacre. She begins:

It’s hard to admit to a reaction other than sadness to the murder of 12 people, especially when it takes place in a city that feels so close by. The images of sprawling bodies and masked assailants on familiar-looking streets gives the tragedy an extra edge of horror.

Yet in the moments after the news broke about the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I found it impossible to ignore a sinking feeling: the recognition that we were being pulled further into a cycle of distrust and division.

It grew as I read through the responses online. The straightforward reaction from far-right extremists was the hashtag #killallmuslims, which would have been easy to ignore as empty words if it hadn’t reminded me of the firebombing of mosques after the Lee Rigby murder.

She then responds directly to all those who, like Jon Snow, were so quick to pull out Huntington’s dog-whistle and press it to their lips:

Less violent but still divisive was the way the attack was depicted as a battle between Islam and freedom of speech, or between Muslims and satire – a clash-of-civilisations argument that splits the world neatly into “them” and “us”, by ignoring the staggering death toll of terrorist attacks abroad (most recently the massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan). 2

In an extended article published by Counterpunch, economist and political analyst, Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, also helped to put the so-called ‘theory’ of the “clash of civilisations” into context in the light of the Paris attacks. He writes:

Huntington’s theory of “the clash of civilizations” is essentially a subtle version of Richard Perle’s strategy of “de-contextualization.” Perle, a leading neoconservative militarist (and a prominent advisor of the Likud party of Israel), coined the term “de-contextualization” as a way to explain both the desperate acts of terrorism in general and the violent tactics of the Palestinian resistance to occupation in particular. He argued that in order to blunt the widespread global criticism of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, their resistance to occupation must be de-contextualized; that is, we must stop trying to understand the territorial, geopolitical and historical reasons that some groups turn to terrorism. Instead, he suggested, the reasons for the violent reactions of such groups must be sought in the arenas of culture and/or religion—in the Islamic way of thinking. Like the “clash of civilizations” theory, de-contextualization strategy has been part of a well-orchestrated effort to divert attention from the root causes of terrorism, and attribute it to “pathological problems of the Muslim mind.”

As Hossein-Zadeh explains in his piece, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” provided the Anglo-American warmongers with an essential surrogate enemy which might be used to disguise and justify its own neo-imperialist pursuit of control of territory and resources:

The theory, initially expounded by Samuel Huntington in the early 1990s, sets out to identify “new sources” of international conflicts in the post-Cold War world. During the Cold War years, major international conflicts were explained by the “threat of communism” and the rivalry between the two competing world systems.

In the post-Cold War era, however, argue Huntington and his co-thinkers, the sources of international rivalries and collisions have shifted to competing and incompatible civilizations, which have their primary roots in religion and/or culture. 3

Of course, Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” is really no less nonsensical than Fukuyama’s now laughable ‘flat earth’ theory that we have somehow already reached the “End of History”. For where is this great Islamic civilisation that the West is supposed to be in opposition to? There is none. There are just fanatics who thanks to our recent assistance have spread their backwardness into more unfortunate pockets of the world. Beyond these benighted corners, the same fundamentalism is supported only by a powerful few in Saudi Arabia and other despotic Gulf States, and these are not in opposition to the West, they are instead our close allies. So the fact that Huntington’s notion persists at all is entirely due to the needs of the war party helped along by voices in the media who, like Jon Snow (someone I once respected), appear to have become utterly incapable of thinking for themselves. (Please Jon, you did some excellent reporting from Gaza, but you need to get a grip again.)

*

Freedom of expression

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself. — Oscar Wilde

Best response to #CharlieHebdo attack – other than catching and punishing the killers – is to escalate blasphemous satire

Or so tweeted Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate magazine. I heard similar sentiments from friends, responding as if blasphemy was in deficit in the western world. As if breaking all taboos is an unimpeachable good per se. And as if the secular western world was already free from every restriction on what is and isn’t permissible to speak about. But it isn’t so… None of this is really true:

Here is a thought experiment: Suppose that while the demonstrators stood solemnly at Place de la Republique the other night, holding up their pens and wearing their “je suis charlie” badges, a man stepped out in front brandishing a water pistol and wearing a badge that said “je suis cherif” (the first name of one of the two brothers who gunned down the Charlie Hebdo staff). Suppose he was carrying a placard with a cartoon depicting the editor of the magazine lying in a pool of blood, saying, “Well I’ll be a son of a gun!” or “You’ve really blown me away!” or some such witticism. How would the crowd have reacted? Would they have laughed? Would they have applauded this gesture as quintessentially French? Would they have seen this lone individual as a hero, standing up for liberty and freedom of speech? Or would they have been profoundly offended? And infuriated. And then what? Perhaps many of them would have denounced the offender, screaming imprecations at him. Some might have thrown their pens at him. One or two individuals — two brothers perhaps — might have raced towards him and (cheered on by the crowd) attacked him with their fists, smashing his head against the ground. All in the name of freedom of expression. He would have been lucky to get away with his life. 4

That was an excerpt from a short article written by Oxford philosopher and founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights, Brian Klug. It is entitled simply “The moral hysteria of Je suis Charlie”.

There are lots and lots of things I hate (including, since you may ask, religious fundamentalism) but for a variety of reasons I prefer to keep many of those opinions to myself or share them with my closest friends (and sincere apologies to those who regularly put up with the worst of my ranting).

For instance, I thoroughly dislike the Royal Family. To put it politely, they are an unwelcome anachronistic throwback. Many in Britain feel likewise, but most will rarely say so.

Way back in the year 1977, in the midst of the Silver Jubilee festivities, the Sex Pistols had caused a tremendous brouhaha after they released “God save the Queen – it’s a fascist regime”. It was banned by the BBC, of course, but since then, as the impact has inevitably worn off, this blast from the past is fully defused and assimilated. A sample was even included in the pop montage played at the London Olympics opening ceremony in the presence of HRH. Yet, nearly forty years on, if I were to find a spot in the middle of Sheffield city centre and sit there earnestly defacing portraits of the Queen by doodling swastikas across her face (in tribute to the Sex Pistols obviously!) Or if, heaven forfend, I were to deface pictures of the late Queen Mother (God rest her soul), do you suppose that my act of performance art could fail provoke a rather hostile reaction from many of the passersby? Truth is that I wouldn’t dare try such a stunt.

And there are far stricter taboos than this in our ‘Cool Britannia’. For even in a swanky modern secular society like ours, a few things remain completely sacrosanct. Indeed, to offer an incendiary example, suppose that someone (not me) decided to urinate on poppies on Remembrance Day. Well, the fact is that just a few years ago a drunken student did precisely this and it happened in my home city of Sheffield. Caught on camera, the young man in question was publicly shamed. The media had a field day. Even after it had transpired that this piss-artist was so staggeringly drunk that he had no memory of the events of the evening whatsoever, he was still faced with the very real prospect of imprisonment. Given his contrition, however, the judge exercised leniency and sentenced him to a mere 250 hours of community service. 5

And then do you remember the furore when this happened:

 

It was not so much the spray painting of a national icon as his turf mohican that generated the greatest public consternation after the May Day anti-Capitalism demonstration of 2000. And though the more deliberate artist on this occasion turned out to have been ex-soldier, James Matthews, who had served with the Royal Marines in Bosnia, he was subsequently jailed for 30 days. In his defence, Matthews had told the court:

“I thought that on a day when people all over the world are gathering to express their human rights and the right to freedom of speech, I would express a challenge to an icon of the British establishment.”

However, the magistrate was unmoved, saying:

“Your actions caused great affront to many British people”. 6

Doubtless, it was the effrontery far more than the minor criminal damage that cost Matthews his freedom. So we see that even within our notionally free society there are extremely tight restrictions when it comes to “freedom of expression”. Some of these are legally enforced codes of conduct (and they include some of the strictest libel laws anywhere in the world) but there are other limits set by whatever is deemed socially tolerable behaviour. But then “freedom of speech” can never be an absolute in any society; you just need to know where to look to discover its inviolable boundaries.

In any case, to always say precisely what you like with total disregard for the feelings of others isn’t the least bit honourable. In fact, it is Tourettes – and I mean absolutely no offence to those who suffer from the medical syndrome. So let’s return to Paris and rethink the “Je suis Charlie” outcry, but now taking the viewpoint of an already fearful and oppressed minority.

The following is an excerpt from an impassioned article by investigative reporter Chris Hedges entitled “A Message From the Dispossessed”:

The cartoons of the Prophet in the Paris-based satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo are offensive and juvenile. None of them are funny. And they expose a grotesque double standard when it comes to Muslims. In France a Holocaust denier, or someone who denies the Armenian genocide, can be imprisoned for a year and forced to pay a $60,000 fine. It is a criminal act in France to mock the Holocaust the way Charlie Hebdo mocked Islam. French high school students must be taught about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but these same students read almost nothing in their textbooks about the widespread French atrocities, including a death toll among Algerians that some sources set at more than 1 million, in the Algerian war for independence against colonial France. French law bans the public wearing of the burqa, a body covering for women that includes a mesh over the face, as well as the niqab, a full veil that has a small slit for the eyes. Women who wear these in public can be arrested, fined the equivalent of about $200 and forced to carry out community service. France banned rallies in support of the Palestinians last summer when Israel was carrying out daily airstrikes in Gaza that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. The message to Muslims is clear: Your traditions, history and suffering do not matter. Your story will not be heard. Joe Sacco had the courage to make this point in panels he drew for the Guardian newspaper. And as Sacco pointed out, if we cannot hear these stories we will endlessly trade state terror for terror. 7

*

I am not Charlie

This Humanist whom no belief constrained/ Grew so broad-minded he was scatter-brained. J.V. Cunningham

Nothing justifies an assassination, all the more a mass murder committed in cold blood. What has happened in Paris, the beginning of January, constitutes an absolutely inexcusable crime.

To say that involves nothing original: millions of people think and feel likewise on this account. However, in the light of this appalling tragedy, one of the first questions that occurs to me is the following: in spite of the profound disgust experienced by the murders, is it obligatory to identify oneself with the victims’ actions? Must I be Charlie because the victims were the supreme incarnation of the ‘liberty of expression’, as the President of the Republic has declared? Am I Charlie, not only because I am a secular atheist, but also because of my fundamental antipathy towards the oppressive roots of the three principal Western monotheistic religions?

In these opening remarks to another article published by Counterpunch, Shlomo Sand speaks out for many who suddenly found that their own voices were being restricted. But then Sand, who is a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, is no stranger to controversy. Not since he released a book entitled The Invention of the Jewish People in 2008, and then followed it up more recently in 2013 with How I Ceased to Be a Jew. Works in which Sand had set about undermining the foundations of Zionism and then, more personally, interrogating the question of what it means to be non-practising and atheistic (as he is), yet to still be identified as a Jew:

“I wrote [The Invention of the Jewish People] for a double purpose. First, as an Israeli, to democratise the state; to make it a real republic. Second, I wrote the book against Jewish essentialism.”8

That was what Sand had told Guardian reporter Rafael Behr back in January 2010. Five years on, and in aftermath of Paris, he says he identifies with another more famous Charlie:

At the moment, and particularly after this terrible massacre, my sympathy goes to the Muslims who reside in ghettos adjacent to the metropolises, who are at considerable risk of becoming the second victims of the murders perpetrated at Charlie Hebdo and at the Hyper Casher supermarket. I continue to take as a reference point the ‘original Charlie’: the great Charlie Chaplin who never mocked the poor and the little-educated.

Earlier in the article, which is entitled “A Fetid Wind of Racism Hovers Over Europe”, Sand writes:

It has been affirmed that Charlie, impartially, lays into all religions, but this is a lie. Certainly, it mocks Christians, and, sometimes, Jews. However, neither the Danish magazine, nor Charlie would permit themselves (fortunately) to publish a caricature presenting the prophet Moses, with kippah and ritual fringes, in the guise of a wily money-lender, hovering on a street corner. It is good that in the society these days called ‘Judeo-Christian’ (sic), it should no longer be possible to publically disseminate anti-Jewish hatred, as was the case in the not-too-distant past. I am for the liberty of expression while being at the same time opposed to racist incitement.

I admit to, gladly, tolerating the restrictions imposed on Dieudonné from expressing too far and wide his ‘criticism’ and his ‘jokes’ against Jews. On the other hand, I am positively opposed to attempts to restrain him physically. And if, by chance, some idiot attacks him, I will not be very shocked … albeit I will not go so far as to brandish a placard with the inscription: ‘je suis Dieudonné’. 9

However, by far the most stinging criticism of Charlie Hebdo comes from a former member of its own team, Olivier Cyran, who had worked at the magazine from 1992 to 2001 before he quit, angered by what he described as “the dictatorial behaviour and corrupt promotion practices” of its editor at the time, Philippe Val. The following extracts are taken from an article that he first published in December 2013 as a response to an opinion piece in Le Monde that was signed by Charb (Stéphane Charbonnier, one of the murdered cartoonists) and Fabrice Nicolino. He begins as follows [the original footnotes are retained]:

Dear Charb and Fabrice Nicolino,

“We hope that those who claim, and will claim tomorrow, that Charlie is racist, will at least have the courage to say it out loud and under their real name. We’ll know how to respond.” Reading this rant at the end of your opinion piece in Le Monde[1], as if to say “come say it to our face if you’re a real man”, I felt something rising within me, like a craving to go back to fighting in the school playground. Yet it wasn’t me being called out. Which upright citizens you hope to convince, moreover, is a mystery. For a good long while, many people have been saying “out loud” and “under their real name” what they think about your magazine and the effluent flowing out of it, without any one of you being bothered to answer them or to shake their little fists.

A little later, Cyran explains how the magazine was reframed in the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11:

Racist? Charlie Hebdo was certainly no such thing at the time when I worked there. In any case, the idea that the mag would expose itself to such an accusation would have never occurred to me. There had, of course been some Francocentrism, as well as the editorials of Philippe Val. These latter were subject to a disturbing fixation, which worsened over the years, on the “Arabic-Muslimworld”. This was depicted as an ocean of barbarism threatening, at any moment, to submerge the little island of high culture and democratic refinement that was, for him, Israel. But the boss’s obsessions remained confined to his column on page 3, and overflowed only rarely into the heart of the journal which, in those years, it seemed me, throbbed with reasonably well-oxygenated blood.

Scarcely had I walked out, wearied by the dictatorial behaviour and corrupt promotion practices of the employer, than the Twin Towers fell and Caroline Fourest arrived in your editorial team. This double catastrophe set off a process of ideological reformatting which would drive off your former readers and attract new ones – a cleaner readership, more interested in a light-hearted version of the “war on terror” than the soft anarchy of [cartoonist] Gébé. Little by little, the wholesale denunciation of “beards”, veiled women and their imaginary accomplices became a central axis of your journalistic and satirical production. “Investigations” began to appear which accepted the wildest rumours as fact, like the so-called infiltration of the League of Human Rights (LDH) or European Social Forum (FSE) by a horde of bloodthirsty Salafists[2]. The new impulse underway required the magazine to renounce the unruly attitude which had been its backbone up to then, and to form alliances with the most corrupt figures of the intellectual jet-set, such as Bernard-Henri Lévy or Antoine Sfeir, cosignatories in Charlie Hebdo of a grotesque “Manifesto of the Twelve against the New Islamic Totalitarianism”[3]. Whoever could not see themselves in a worldview which opposed the civilized (Europeans) to obscurantists (Muslims) saw themselves quickly slapped with the label of “useful idiots” or “Islamoleftists”.

Then he provides some specific examples of the kinds of xenophobia that the magazine has seen fit to publish:

I remember a full-page article by Caroline Fourest which appeared on June 11 2008. In it, she recounted her friendly meeting with the Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot, who had gotten some grief for representing his Muslim fellow-countrymen in a particularly hilarious way. Judge for yourself: an imam dressed as Santa Claus buggering a goat, with the caption: “We have to share our traditions”. Or an Arab, slumped on a couch and lost in thought: “The Qur’an doesn’t say if you have to do anything to be on the dole for 30 years.” Or even the “monument to the slavery of white indigenous taxpayers”: a Dutch person in foot shackles, carrying a black person on his back, arms crossed and sucking on a pacifier. Foul racism? Oh come on, it’s freedom of expression!

And of how this culture of bigotry outlasted the toxic influence of both Caroline Fourest and editor Philippe Val:

After Val and Fourest left in 2009, called to higher things – one as head of a public radio network, the other to the podiums of official anti-racism – we might have wondered if you would continue to follow their lead in their absence. The least we can say is that you have remained faithful to their line. You’ve absorbed it down to the core, it seems.

Today, those flies which Tignous never fails to add buzzing round the heads of his “beards” are more than ever attracted to your imagination, as soon as you “laugh at” Muslims. In a video posted on the Charlie Hebdo website at the end of 2011, we saw you, Charb, imitate the Islamic call to prayer, to the rapt giggles of your little buddies. What a hilarious new version of the Qur’anic recitation for your magazine’s deadline; Michel Leeb [famous French impressionist] could not have done better. What collective poison would you have had to stew in to get to this point? From what psychological depths did you drag up the nerve to “laugh” at a cartoon representing veiled women baring their buttocks as they bow in prayer towards “Mecca-relle” [a pun on maquerelle, the madam of a brothel]?  This pathetic stream of crap isn’t even shameful; its stupidity embarrasses you, even before it reveals your state of mind, your vision of the world.

As well as the wider effects on French society:

The obsessive pounding on Muslims to which your weekly has devoted itself for more than a decade has had very real effects. It has powerfully contributed to popularising, among “left-wing” opinion, the idea that Islam is a major “problem” in French society. That belittling Muslims is no longer the sole privilege of the extreme right, but a “right to offend” which is sanctified by secularism, the Republic, by “co-existence”. And even – let’s not be stingy with the alibis! – by the rights of women. It’s widely believed today that the exclusion of a veiled girl is a sign, not of stupid discrimination, but of solid, respectable feminism, which consists of pestering those whom one claims to be liberating. Draped in these noble intentions that flatter their ignorance and exempt them from any scruples, we see people with whom we were close, and whom we believed mentally healthy, abruptly start to cut loose with a stream of racist idiocies. […]

But your throne is overlooking a swamp. Charb, for whom I once voiced my esteem, and  Fabrice, whose intellectual rigour I appreciated[13]: I hold you, you and your colleagues, co-responsible for the increasingly rotten atmosphere. After September 11, Charlie Hebdo was among the first in the so-called leftist press to jump on the bandwagon of the Islamic peril. Don’t deprive yourself of receiving your own share of the shit, at a moment when the number of Islamophobic acts is breaking records: 11.3% higher in the first 9 months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012, according to l’Observatoire national de l’islamophobie. They worry about a “new phenomenon” of violence, marked by at least 14 attacks on veiled women since the start of the year.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying that reading Charlie Hebdo automatically unleashes a craving to bucket a mosque with pig’s blood or to rip the veil off a supermarket shopper, as happens here and there. You’ve pointed out the targets, but you wouldn’t want some poor guy to attack them for real, because you’re against violence and against racism. As are, most certainly, your readers. They have no prejudice against Muslims. It’s just that they break out in whole-hearted laughter at that Charb cartoon where an Arab with a big moustache stops in front of a prostitute, while a bearded preacher sermonizes: “Brother! Why would you pay 40 euros for a single shag when for the same price you could buy a wife!” In the 1930s, the same gag – with Jews instead of Muslims – would have gone down a treat, except that, at the time, its teller would surely not have had the idea to wave around a certificate of anti-racism.

There is a great deal more. Olivier Cyran is incensed and this attack on his former colleagues is boiling over with vitriol. But if you accept that Charlie Hebdo is just harmless fun then ask yourself, as Cyran does, whether or not a magazine devoted to publishing similarly provocative caricatures of Jewish figures would be so lightly laughed off. As Cyran points out (just as others have):

Have you forgotten the Siné incident…? A proven report of Islamophobia, and you burst out laughing. A misleading accusation of anti-Semitism, and someone gets fired.

The incident he is referring to occurred in 2008, when another of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists, Siné, was sacked:

Maurice Sinet, 80, who works under the pen name Sine, faces charges of “inciting racial hatred” for a column he wrote last July in the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. The piece sparked a summer slanging match among the Parisian intelligentsia and ended in his dismissal from the magazine.

“L’affaire Sine” followed the engagement of Mr Sarkozy, 22 [son of then-President Nicolas Sarkozy], to Jessica Sebaoun-Darty, the Jewish heiress of an electronic goods chain. Commenting on an unfounded rumour that the president’s son planned to convert to Judaism, Sine quipped: “He’ll go a long way in life, that little lad.”

A high-profile political commentator slammed the column as linking prejudice about Jews and social success. Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Philippe Val, asked Sinet to apologise but he refused, exclaiming: “I’d rather cut my balls off.” 10

Olivier Cyran has since added the following postscript to his Article 11:

[T]o all those who think that this article was validation in advance of the shameful terrorist attack against Charlie Hebdo (that they were asking for it), the editorial team of Article 11 would like to give a hearty middle finger to such vultures. To make things absolutely clear, please see this text.

Click here to read a full version of Olivier Cyran’s Article 11, entitled “’Charlie Hebdo’, not racist? If you say so…” translated by Daphne Lawless and reprinted by Lenin’s Tomb with the relevant offending cartoons interspersed throughout.

Wagging the dog

Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because the dog is smarter than the tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog. 

— Caption from the film Wag the Dog

The “Je suis Charlie” campaign had as its main slogan the famous adage “the pen is mightier than the sword”, which meant that pens, or better yet, pencils, became imbued with renewed symbolic potency. The pencil-wavers suddenly popping up all around:

Here, for instance, was the scene in Congress during Obama’s State of the Union address on Wednesday 21st. Whilst in Britain, that well-known bastion of free speech, the Daily Mail, reported on the incident as follows:

There are 534 members of Congress, including the 100 senators who shoehorned themselves into the crowded hall. (One seat was vacant after former New York Rep. Michael Grimm’s resignation.)

At 4pm on Tuesday, Mr Harris said that nearly three dozen members of Congress had confirmed they would be participating in the Charlie Hebdo salute, which was broadcast live on television.

Continuing (without a hint of irony):

The pencils were deliberately unsharpened due to security concerns. 11

So one moment the humble pencil is adopted as the embodiment of free expression and the next second, it is being mistaken for a deadly weapon. The pencil may indeed be mightier than the sword, but surely the Members of Congress recognise that this might isn’t in any way intrinsic to the rapier-like sharpness of its tip. Boy, it’s a mad, mad, mad, mad world, ain’t it?

As an aside, do you too recall the carefree pre-9/11 era when it was permissible to board a flight carrying almost any object barring the obvious exclusion of actual deadly weapons? Immediately afterwards, of course, a ban was imposed on sharp objects like scissors, and then further bans and hindrances after plots (whether or not the plots were subsequently proven) involving the deployment of exploding liquids, or shoes, or underpants. So will we now be required to leave our pencils at home? (Perhaps in a safe for heightened security!)

Going back to the goon show… Did you see all of the pictures of that “unity in outrage” march which took to the streets the following Sunday? Out in front Francois Hollande, David Cameron, Angela Merkel, and the rest of the politerati, quite literally linking arms with Bibi Netanyahu, who had muscled his way to the head of the barmy army… and then, after a wide security gap of several hundred yards… the rest of the cortège… an entourage of plebs (a word forbidden by those who appear to have mistaken it for a swear word, and one I am endeavouring to reclaim) marching far behind (as we do). Solidarity – ha, ha, ha, ha!

Frankly, I can’t see how any protest movement could ever be headed by around 40 world leaders and maybe a hundred or more other dignitaries who regard the whole event as a splendid jolly and another photo op:

“Je Suis Charlatan” as satirical magazine ‘Private Eye’ captioned it

Incidentally, if you have never watched the satirical film Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, then, and if only to understand how media focus can be reframed and public opinion manipulated, I thoroughly recommend it. Without wishing to give too much away, I will simply draw attention to the film’s centrepiece, which revolves around the skilful construction and orchestration of a protest movement. A public relations stunt which flashed to mind (and doubtless the minds of many others) soon after the “Je suis Charlie” banners were unfurled and the pens held aloft. In the film, the tributes are for a soldier called “Good Ol’ Shoe”, and here is a short clip showing how De Niro and Hoffman set about priming the pump for their own PR masterpiece:

*

The Pen is Mightier… (so beware!)

As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.” — Enoch Powell

It seems to be taken for granted by some that if there is real truth to the adage “the pen is mightier than the sword”, then this is unreservedly a good thing. The presumption being that not only is the pen – here a metonym for speech or expression of ideas – the more potent force, but that it is additionally, and without any exception, a beneficent tool. But when we stop to consider this for a moment, it is evident that not all speech (in the broadest sense) is for the betterment of mankind. In fact, the single word “propaganda”, which only surprisingly recently has become sullied, shows how dangerous ‘speech’ can also be. For speech itself can be filled with bile and hatred, or else a more subtly contrived means for misdirecting and coercing the unwitting. It is a potent instrument not only for delivering truth but also for spreading rumours, stirring up hostility, inflaming tensions and aggravating divisions.

Thus far, all of the quotes selected to mark the beginning to each of these sections have been ones I subscribe to. All, that is, except for the one I have quoted above. Taken out of context it is inoffensive and seemingly appropriate, but it is also the most notorious sentence extracted from what in full remains the most deplorable speech ever made by a British mainstream politician during my lifetime.

Full of pious concerns for the condition of the “quite ordinary working man”, Enoch Powell’s racist bigotry was thinly veiled as he outspokenly called for “re-emigration” of the “negroes”. To most twenty-first century readers, this vocabulary alone betrays him, but back in 1968 it wasn’t the language that upset people so much, as his desire to impose an apartheid solution on what he saw as the problem of immigration from Commonwealth countries. Powell declaring that ‘rivers of blood’ would soon flow because “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” 12.

The modern bigot is rather less inclined to lean too overtly on the importance of colour as a discriminating feature. Things have moved on, and in this regard racism is no exception. In Britain, the far-right English Defence League (EDL) provide us with a helpful illustration of this on-going shift. For it is rather less common nowadays to hear the unguarded opinion that there are too many “Pakis” around, whereas all-too common to hear that the main problem the country faces comes from the number of “Muslims”. So in response, the EDL have formally abandoned the politics of race in favour of the politics of “religious intolerance”:

“If you look at the pictures of the stage you can see a St George’s flag,” said Robinson, who was speaking before the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, adding that the man had travelled there “to offer them support and discuss what the next steps are for them and all of us, because what’s happening is a European problem”.

That extract is drawn from a report published in Newsweek and the Robinson in question is the former leader of the EDL, Tommy Robinson. He was answering questions regarding his thoughts on altogether less savoury anti-Islam “solidarity marches” which had been taking place in Germany, and he continues:

“I would have been in Germany in a minute if I could have been”

Adding:

“When the state starts calling [the people on the march] fascists and they know they’re not – that’s the kind of problems the EDL had. In Germany they know they’re just normal people but the state are lying to everyone. I know what will happen because they did the same to the EDL – the state will slander and campaign, everything will get thrown at them.” 13

Robinson was talking about protests run by a group that calls itself Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida). The group was founded as recently as October last year by ex-professional footballer and ex-convict Lutz Bachman, who looks like this:

His idea of a joke by the way

Now, I am fully aware that many of those who did venture out to support the smaller “Je suis Charlie” vigils in Sheffield were totally horrified to find that they were standing side-by-side with members of the EDL. But my open question to them is: why the big surprise? Who else would you expect to be standing in solidarity with…?

It was Voltaire who is most credited (perhaps wrongly) with saying “Though I may disapprove of what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” And very few with a liberal outlook would argue with that sentiment. However, too frequently overlooked is that whoever respects this laudable position is merely defending the right to speech, and not necessarily the content of what is said. Indeed, implied within this famous remark lies the very principle that one ought to be feel free to speak out against anyone whose words are thought repugnant or offensive. In this spirit, no-one stands immune from criticism.

It is an admirable principle, I believe, to defend the rights of Enoch Powell and Tommy Robinson to speak in ways that we find detestable. And it is a measure of the strength of our democracies that such open discussion is permitted. But if Powell or Robinson were assaulted for what they said, then although we might decry the assault, this does not mean that we are somehow obliged to leap to the defence of what they have said. The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are no different. The murder of the cartoonists does not alter their message. If we feel that the message is a racist one, then we are not merely justified in saying so, but in the same liberal spirit, we are obliged to say so.

*

Mistakes were made…

Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has a right to knock him down for it. 14 — Samuel Johnson

For the last two decades and more, the Western powers (most especially Britain and America) have been making a rod for their own back. Having embarked upon an endless campaign of neo-imperialist aggression, we have been covertly supporting the very enemy that we are simultaneously hunting out to destroy. For make no mistake, what started out with Operation Cyclone, the clandestine Cold War programme to arm the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, still goes on in many other ways. With the backing of militant Islamists, including air support, when we wished to see the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya, and providing further assistance when attempting the decapitation of the Assad regime in Syria. The West has no qualms at all about fighting dirty, or about choosing sides as and when it suits our purposes.

Sometimes this leads to blowback, as when the forces we have been supporting turn full circle to bite the hand that was feeding them. But on other occasions, the blowback comes more indirectly. For the West’s deplorable foreign adventuring breeds resentment both home and abroad. And just as the “freedom fighters” abroad (later rebranded “terrorists”, which they were all along of course) were quietly co-opted to become unwitting allies of convenience against foes who stood in the way of a greater neo-imperialist agenda, the blowback that takes the form of domestic terrorism can also be profitably finessed. As Adolf Hitler is credited with saying (and whether he said it or not, it remains self-evidently the case): “Terrorism is the best political weapon for nothing drives people harder than a fear of sudden death.”15

Yes, terrorism is a potent, since terrible, tool for mass persuasion, and frequently less helpful to the cause of the terrorists themselves than to the authorities they seek to weaken. After all, each fresh atrocity opens up the possibility for revenge in the form of new collective punishments. The war party licks its slavering chops and prepares to send more drones with Hellfire missiles. Meanwhile, back on the domestic front, we can be more easily nudged when asked to accept a tightening of control all around: infringements of privacy, restrictions on civil liberties, and violations of human rights are always easier to justify when there exists a climate of fear. And restrictions on freedom of speech and expression are yet another part in this sacrifice of our freedom for “security” – truly a bargain with the devil.

In fact, the erosion of freedom of speech started long ago, although the growth in legislation that prohibits it actually helps to make the prohibition itself appear more respectable. For in spite of the Freedom of Information Act, there is plenty that remains above top secret in Britain, with documents routinely withheld as classified on the grounds of “national security”. And aside from being one of the most secretive nations, Britain also has some of the strictest libel laws in the world; laws that ensure the worst indiscretions of rich and the powerful (not only individuals but corporations too) are rarely exposed to full public scrutiny. Not that freedom of speech has any real teeth without freedom of the press, and this has been a wishful fantasy both in Britain and America for decades. Almost the entire mainstream media of the West having been privately captured, so that, as a general rule, those who work within its bounds dare not offend their plutocratic owners or corporate sponsors.

Thus, at the present time, the more significant restriction of freedom of speech has been the narrowing, not so much of what it is legal to say, as what is permissible. This is how western media censorship can be rampant but insidious.

Journalists who are brave enough to report in ways that transgress the bounds of the officially sanctioned narrative can expect to be given short shrift, and so very few actually dare to try. Seymour Hersh is one of the rare exceptions, and yet in spite of his outstanding credentials, no major newspaper has been prepared to publish any of his well-documented articles whenever he has risked straying too far from the reservation. For instance, when he questioned who was behind the release of the deadly sarin gas in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, or when he later reported on the CIA’s “rat line” which enabled the transfer of armaments from Libya to support al-Qaeda fighters in Syria. Speak too freely on such controversial matters as these and irrespective of your standing, you put your reputation in jeopardy. Repeat offending and there is a danger of being branded a “conspiracy theorist”, which is the modern-day equivalent of landing up on a blacklist.

As someone who does not have an editor to rein me in (not always a blessing), or advertisers to please, I am at liberty to ask tougher questions and altogether disregard the official line. So there is little to hamper me, for instance, when it comes to asking why it was that the suspects in both of these terrorist attacks (in Paris and Copenhagen) were well known to the authorities.16  In the case of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we might also inquire how an arsenal of powerful weapons could be accessed in an unarmed country like France, as well as how was it that these assassins encountered little to no resistance when they assaulted such a high profile target. On her show Breaking the Set, Abby Martin put one of those questions to journalist Chris Hedges – almost by accident – whilst they were discussing the background to the attacks. The subsequent conversation went as follows [from 23 mins]:

Martin: I also want to get your comments on some questions Julian Assange raised when talking about the recent attacks. As we know the French authorities were already monitoring the Kouachi brothers. Why do you think that surveillance against these men didn’t stop the deadly attack?

Hedges: Um [sustained pause] Well, that’s a good question. I know, having covered al-Qaeda in France, that they have very heavy phone wiretaps. I remember from a Ministry of Interior official telling me that there are twenty-three different dialects of Arabic in Algeria and in real time they have the ability to translate every single one of those dialects. So these people are heavily monitored and that’s a good question, but, you know, somebody from inside France’s security service would have to answer that one.

Their full discussion is embedded below (and well worth listening to):

But it is not only those inside French security services who should be interrogated, because there is a clear pattern which is difficult to overlook. In all of the recent terrorist attacks I can think of (and I invite the reader to offer counter examples) the suspects were known to the authorities, and in many instances, were not only tracked by the security services, but had been approached or actively recruited to act as informants. Take, for instance, last December’s siege in a Sydney cafe. The gunman, Man Haron Monis, was already a wanted man in Iran (and the Iranian government had tried but failed to extradite him in 2000) long before he was “flagged up on the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s watchlist in 2008 and 2009”. When Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was asked about these security lapses, he replied feebly, “I don’t know why he dropped off the watch list in those days, I really don’t.”17

And today, we have the case of Mohammed Emwazi, the alleged ISIS executioner who is better known by the absurd sobriquet “Jihadi John” (a nickname that manages to both simultaneously ridicule and glorify him). But it now transpires that Emwazi wasn’t only on a watchlist as a “subject of interest” (SOI), but that he was actively pursued by MI5 who were wishing to recruit him as an informer. Likewise, Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, the two men who brutally attacked and killed Fusilier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich Barracks, “had already been on the radar of MI5 and the police for years by the time they committed their savage murder.” The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) later produced a report that pointed to repeated ‘failures’ by MI5, MI6, GCHQ, as well as the police.18

This theme of security agencies latching on to, but then losing their ‘SOI’s, people we subsequently learn these agencies were “trying to turn”, is repeated again in the case of the Chechen Tsarnaev brothers, suspected of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombings. On this occasion the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was certainly known to the FBI and the CIA after both agencies were tipped off by the Russian intelligence agency FSB who suspected him of terrorist involvement at home.19 Another perhaps more startling example is Mohammad Sidique Khan, the alleged leader of the 2005 London tube suicide bombers. Khan was yet another on the MI5 radar, and it turns out that he had been under suspicion prior even to the 9/11 attacks.20 And then lastly (in this exceedingly reduced summary), there are the 9/11 suspects themselves. It has been well-established that the US security services dropped the ball many times prior to 9/11, and here I will refer the reader to an earlier post on whistleblower Sibel Edmonds, but also direct you to the 28-pages that we now know were redacted from the official report of the Joint Congressional Inquiry:

(You might also like to read my own extended post on issues left unresolved by the 9/11 Commission inquiry. I have also written posts on the inconsistencies in the case of the so-called “underwear bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, that you can read here.)

I note that Conservative MP and former shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, published an article in last Friday’s Guardian that raises the same issue. He writes:

It has also been reported that MI5 tried to recruit Emwazi after it was suspected that he was attempting to join a Somali extremist group. Somehow, despite supposedly being unable to leave the country, he was still able to make his way to Syria and join Islamic State in 2013.

These failures are part of a worrying pattern. Prior to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center at least two of the hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, were known to the American authorities, and known to have entered the country before the attacks.

Similarly, one of the 7/7 London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan, had been scrutinised, bugged and monitored by MI5. Unfortunately, it was determined that he was not a likely threat, and he was not put under further surveillance. And prior to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the intelligence agencies of Britain, the US and India had all picked up signs of an imminent terrorist assault, and even had some of the terrorists under surveillance.

The Kouachi brothers, responsible for the Charlie Hebdo massacre, were part of the “Buttes-Chaumont network”, well known to the French authorities and kept under surveillance, on and off, as far back as 2005.

Michael Adebolajo, one of the men who brutally beheaded Fusilier Lee Rigby in broad daylight in Woolwich, was also known to the security services. He too was supposedly a recruitment target for our intelligence agencies. After he was arrested, his family claimed he had been “pestered” by MI5, which wanted to make him an informant infiltrating radical Islamic extremist groups.

Given the numbers who appear to have slipped through the net, it is legitimate to ask: how many more people must die before we start to look more closely at the strategy of our intelligence services?

Finishing his piece as follows:

Whether it is the ISC’s review of the intelligence on the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005, which required a second report to deal with the first’s failings; its inability to detect the UK’s complicity in torture; its failures to correct Tony Blair’s dodgy dossier; or its lack of insight, let alone oversight, into the surveillance programmes revealed by the Snowden revelations – the ISC has been too timid and unwilling to criticise.

The time has come to learn from the pattern of failures across the globe and apply the appropriate lessons: namely that we need to prosecute, convict and imprison terrorists, and that all our policies should be bent firmly towards that end. We should use “disruption and management” only as a very poor second choice.

As the US experience shows, this policy is both safer for citizens in the short term and more effective at destroying terrorist organisations in the long term.21

I applaud David Davis for speaking out so frankly (although I fail to see why he praises the US example given their similarly poor record).

*

Strategy of tension

Let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories 22 — George W. Bush

The quote reprinted above is taken from a notorious speech given by George Bush Jnr at the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Just a few months later, of course, the very same George W. Bush was himself conspiring. Together with Tony Blair, they settled on a false pretext to launch illegal war against Iraq. And it was the same George Bush who also gave secret clearance for kidnap and torture of “enemy combatants”, a term that was quickly redefined after 9/11 to include anyone alleged to be a member of al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The trouble is that our media has allowed him to succeed in these outrageous conspiracies. The war went ahead, the “black sites” remain open, and still no-one has been prosecuted.

It is a disgustingly bitter pill, and one that many people, especially those who live in the West, find almost impossible to swallow, but what we can say with certainty is that we are constantly lied to, and not only by obvious villains such as George W. Bush and Tony Blair. The really sickening truth is that these lies are endlessly perpetrated and recycled and especially so when pressure grows for war. As a consequence, so long as we choose to remain silent, then we clear the way for permanent war, and, in parallel with this, a never-ending attrition of our freedoms. This is why it is the duty of serious investigative reporters not to unthinkingly restate the official story, but to scrutinise the available details of every case and to demand answers wherever discrepancies appear. Here is the most important reason for protecting our rights to freedom of speech.

*

There were two words that flashed through my own mind when I first watched the dreadful news from Paris. Words that I know sprang into the minds of many others, but who afterwards perhaps said nothing for reasons of not wishing to sound too alarmist or provocative. The words were these: Operation Gladio.

Below I have embedded (again) a youtube upload of a three-part BBC Timewatch documentary made in the pre-Hutton years (first aired in 1992). If you have never seen this documentary before then I very much encourage you to do so – the quality of reproduction may be a little grainy, but it remains one of the most remarkable pieces of investigative journalism ever broadcast on British TV. For what it is reveals is extremely shocking:

“You had to attack civilians, the people, women, children, innocent people, unknown people far removed from any political game. The reason was quite simple. They were supposed to force these people, the Italian public, to turn to the State to ask for greater security. This is the political logic that lies behind all the massacres and the bombings which remain unpunished, because the State cannot convict itself or declare itself responsible for what happened.”

These are the words of right-wing terrorist Vincenzo Vinciguerra, who is one of many to testify in this film:

For the majority of us, negligence in the workplace results in charges of misconduct, dismissal and the possibility (depending upon our occupation) of a criminal prosecution. Yet, in the aftermath of the atrocities detailed above, no-one in charge of any of the relevant agencies has been brought to book for their failure to protect us. The agencies themselves have instead been rewarded in spite of their negligence, with powers extended to permit snooping on everyone. Post-9/11,  we are all guilty until proven innocent.

Meanwhile, the government inquiries into these terrorist attacks have apportioned only broad-brush culpability, having refrained from holding individuals accountable, whilst both governments and the agencies themselves have subsequently issued hollow apologies constructed around the ‘don’t blame us, it’s a difficult job’ refrain, which ends: “we must move forward and learn from our mistakes.” And even as the police state grows, the terrorists, many of whom are extremely well-known to our authorities, are somehow still able to slip between the cracks.

We may never know the final truth regarding what happened in Paris, in Copenhagen, or in other recent terrorist attacks, but given the historical precedent of the Operation Gladio so-called “strategy of tension”,  we are fully justified in holding our security services to account for their failures, and for interrogating those in power to try to establish it.

 *

Additional:

On the morning of attack on Charlie Hebdo, France’s best known contemporary author, Michel Houellebecq, was about to launch his latest and perhaps most controversial novel, Submission. Its central story, involving a mix of real and fictional characters, foretells the coming to power in 2022 of an Islamist and pro-EU (strange combination) French President after the discredited Socialists and Conservatives form an alliance to keep out Front National leader Marine Le Pen.

The following extracts are drawn from a short review by Lara Marlowe and published in The Irish Times in the hours immediately prior to the Paris atrocities – given the timing, her views are undoubtedly less guarded than they might otherwise have been. The article starts rudely:

With his wispy, greying hair, dark-circled eyes and sempiternal anorak, Michel Houellebecq looks like a scarecrow, or one of the amoral, sex-obsessed characters who people his controversial novels. His books are about the profound alienation of French society. They feature masturbation in peep shows, sex tourism to exotic countries, and murderous Muslims.

Marlowe continues:

Before it was even published, Submission became a cause célèbre, winning praise from the right and condemnation from the left. Jérôme Béglé of the conservative weekly Le Point sees the book as an attack on “the blindless, silence, passivity and complicity of centre left media and intellectuals” regarding the rise of political Islam. […]

By portraying the “UMPS” [left-right coalition] in cahoots to hand France over to Muslims, Houellebecq validates one of Le Pen’s favourite conspiracy theories. The publication of his novel “marks the return of extreme right-wing theories to French literature”, writes Laurent Joffrin, the editor of Libération. “It warms up a seat for Marine Le Pen in the [famous literary] café de Flore.”

She finishes her piece saying:

Submission is the English translation of the Arabic word “Islam”. It’s meant to designate man’s submission to Allah, but in Houellebecq’s profoundly misogynistic novel, it’s really about the submission of women.

The strange coincidence of the release of Submission on the day of the attacks is compounded by a caricature of Michel Houellebecq which featured on the front cover of that week’s edition of Charlie Hebdo. Houellebecq depicted as a dishevelled magician with the caption “The Predictions of Wizard Houellebecq”:

This article published in The Telegraph, also from the day of the attacks, explains more:

Submission, by celebrated French author Michel Houellebecq, was featured on the front cover of this week’s Charlie Hebdo, the magazine attacked by terrorist gunmen on Wednesday.

Speaking prior to the terror attack on the magazine’s Paris headquarters, in which at least 12 people were killed, Houellebecq said the book “was not taking sides”.

He denied that the novel – which has triggered furious debate prior to its release over whether it is Islamophobic – was a “Christmas present” to Marine Le Pen, the far-Right Front National leader. […]

In an interview on state TV channel France 2’s flagship evening news programme, Houellebecq said his political scenario was not implausible.

“It is a possibility – not in as short a term as in the book, not in 2022. But it’s a real possibility,” he said.

Following the attacks, Michel Houellebecq briefly went into hiding. He returned to Paris to break his silence over the murders, saying “Je suis Charlie”.

*

Update:

We had been noting, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, how the country that then held a giant “free speech” rally appeared to be, instead, focusing on cracking down on free speech at every opportunity. And target number one: the internet. Earlier this week, the Interior Minister of France — with no court review or adversarial process — ordered five websites to not only be blocked in France, but that anyone who visits any of the sites get redirected to a scary looking government website, saying:

You are being redirected to this official website since your computer was about to connect with a page that provokes terrorist acts or condones terrorism publicly.

Click here to read the full article from techdirt.com published on March 18th.

*

1 Literally “Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden” and generally translated as quoted here.

2 From an article entitled “After the Charlie Hebdo attack, we must resist the clash-of-civilisations narrative” written by Homa Khaleeli, published in the Guardian on January 7, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/07/charlie-hebdo-clash-civilisation-terrorism-muslims

3 From an article entitled “Making Sense of the Paris Terrorist Attacks” by Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, published in Counterpunch on January 16–18, 2015. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/16/making-sense-of-the-paris-terrorist-attacks/

4 From an article entitled “The moral hysteria of Je suis Charlie” written by Brian Klug, published by Mondoweiss on January 11, 2015. http://mondoweiss.net/2015/01/moral-hysteria-charlie

5 

The CCTV images caused national outrage, and the judge said that he had been sent many letters about the case before sentencing.

“I said to you when you last appeared that the image of your urinating over the wreath of poppies at the city war memorial was a truly shocking one. That was no understatement,” he said. “There you are, a young man of 19, urinating on the war memorial erected to honour the memory of so many other young men.

“You have understandably had the wrath and indignation of the public heaped upon you and your family, but I am required to decide your sentence on the basis of the facts of the case and principles of law alone.”

His parents left through the public exit and his mother said: “He’s sorry. He’s very, very sorry.”

From an article entitled “Student who urinated on war memorial spared jail” written by Martin Wainwright, published in the Guardian on November 26, 2009. http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/nov/26/student-urinated-war-memorial-sentenced

6

An ex-soldier has been sentenced to 30 days’ imprisonment for defacing the statue of Winston Churchill during May Day demonstrations in central London. […]

There was widespread outcry from MPs and the press after the statue of the former prime minister was defaced with red paint and the Cenotaph was sprayed with graffiti during rioting at the anti-capitalism demonstration.

The figure, which stands in Parliament Square, was made to look as though blood was dripping from its mouth.

Graffiti was sprayed on the plinth and a turf mohican was added to the statue’s head. […]

Although he admitted defacing that statue, he denied any involvement in graffiti sprayed on the Whitehall Cenotaph during the May Day demonstrations.

The ex-soldier said it was “a monument to ordinary soldiers and I was an ordinary soldier”.

From an article entitled “Churchill graffiti man jailed” published by BBC news on May 9, 2000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/740524.stm

7 From an article entitled “A Message From the Dispossessed” written by Chris Hedges, published by Truthdig on January 11, 2015.  http://www.truthdig.com/report/page2/a_message_from_the_dispossessed_20150111

8 From an article entitled “Shlomo Sand: an enemy of the Jewish people?” written by Rafael Behr, published in The Observer on January 17, 2010. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/17/shlomo-sand-judaism-israel-jewish

9 From an article entitled “A Fetid Wind of Racism Hovers Over Europe” written by Shlomo Sand, published in Counterpunch on January 16–18, 2015. http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/01/16/je-suis-charlie-chaplin/

10 From an article entitled “French cartoonist Sine on trial on charges of anti-Semitism over Sarkozy jibe”, written by Henry Samuel, published in The Telegraph on January 27, 2009.  www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/4351672/French-cartoonist-Sine-on-trial-on-charges-of-anti-Semitism-over-Sarkozy-jibe.html

11 From an article entitled “Members of Congress wave yellow pencils in the air during State of the Union address as they pay tribute to Charlie Hebdo victims” written by Jane Evans and David Martosko, published in the Daily Mail on February 21, 2015. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2919442/Members-Congress-wave-yellow-pencils-air-State-Union-address-pay-tribute-Charlie-Hebdo-victims.html

12 Here Powell is relating words from a conversation he had with a constituent. In fuller context the man says to him: “I have three children, all of them been through grammar school and two of them married now, with family. I shan’t be satisfied till I have seen them all settled overseas. In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” And Powell’s very sympathetic response to this man’s remarks goes as follows:

“I can already hear the chorus of execration. How dare I say such a horrible thing? How dare I stir up trouble and inflame feelings by repeating such a conversation?

“The answer is that I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that his country will not be worth living in for his children.

“I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else. What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking – not throughout Great Britain, perhaps, but in the areas that are already undergoing the total transformation to which there is no parallel in a thousand years of English history.”

A full transcription of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech was reprinted by The Telegraph on November 6, 2007. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/3643823/Enoch-Powells-Rivers-of-Blood-speech.html

13 From an article entitled “Anti-Isam Marches Will Come to Britain, Says Former EDL Leader Robinson” written by Lucy Draper, published by Newsweek magazine on January 8, 2015. http://www.newsweek.com/anti-islam-marches-will-come-britain-says-former-edl-leader-robinson-297257

14 As quoted in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Vol. 1 (1791), p. 335.

15 According to wikiquote, it is unclear whether this is apocriphal or not.

16 In the case of the last month’s Paris attacks, the suspects were the usual ones. Both of the Kouachi brothers were well-known for their jihadist sympathies. Chérif Kouachi had previously been convicted of terrorism in 2008, and sentenced to three years in prison. Saïd Kouachi had received direct terrorist training from al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2011. The suspected gunman in Copenhagen, however, Omar el-Hussein, was more of a petty hoodlum. Indeed, he had only been released from prison a fortnight prior to the attacks, after completing a two year sentence for grievous bodily harm following a knife attack. The question asked now is had el-Hussein been radicalised in prison? And the answer to that question is that we will almost certainly never know for sure. Instead of facing a criminal investigation and trial, as with the Kouachi brothers before, el-Hussein was himself shot dead.

17 From an article entitled “Sydney cafe gunman Man Haron Monis ‘dropped off watchlist’ and Australia refused Iran’s request to extradite him, Tony Abbott says”, written by Adam Withnall, published in The Independent on December 17, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/sydney-cafe-gunman-man-haron-monis-dropped-off-watchlist-and-australia-refused-irans-request-to-extradite-him-tony-abbott-says-9930073.html

18 From an article entitled “Lee Rigby murder report: How MI5 latched on to – and lost – the man who later murdered soldier”, written by Kim Sengupta, published in The Independent on November 25, 2014. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/lee-rigby-report-how-mi5-latched-on-to–and-then-lost–the-man-who-later-murdered-the-soldier-9883135.html

19 Read more in a Reuters report entitled “Russia warned U.S. about Boston Marathon bomb suspect Tsarnaev: report” published March 25, 2014.  http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/26/us-usa-explosions-boston-congress-idUSBREA2P02Q20140326

20 More details on the failures and mistakes of MI5 can be read in an article entitled “7/7 inquest; Mohammed Sidique Khan on MI5’s radar before 9/11”, written by Duncan Gardham, published in The Telegraph on May 6, 2011.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/8497204/77-inquest-Mohammed-Sidique-Khan-on-MI5s-radar-before-911.html

For instance, the article details how:

“Sidique Khan had been photographed at Toddington Service station on the M1 after he was followed on his return from the meeting in Crawley, West Sussex, along with fellow bomber Shezhad Tanweer and another associate.

The photographs from the service station were taken at close range and in full colour, clearly showing Sidique Khan and Tanweer standing in front of a Burger King takeaway and a fruit machine.

But an MI5 desk officer cropped the photographs so that the background could not be identified before sending them to America, the inquest into the 52 deaths was told.

Hugo Keith QC told a senior member of MI5: “I am bound to observe, if you will forgive me, one of my children could have done a better job of cropping out that photograph.”

Tanweer was missing half his nose and face and Sidique Khan was so badly cropped that he was missing half his head and the majority of his body and picture was not sent to America.”

21 From an article entitled “If MI5 sticks to outdated tactics, Emwazi won’t be the last British security failure” written by David Davis, published in the Guardian on February 27, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/feb/27/mi5-mohammed-emwazi-security-failures-terrorists-free

22

“We must speak the truth about terror. Let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September the 11th; malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists, themselves, away from the guilty. To inflame ethnic hatred is to advance the cause of terror.”

From George W. Bush’s address to the United Nations on November 10, 2001.

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fracking is just one symptom of our diseased democracies: how do we find a cure?

Of all the many troubles we face, from the huge repercussions of giving free rein to a criminal and insolvent financial services ‘industry’, to the rapid installment of a super-Orwellian grid for mass surveillance thanks to the NSA and GCHQ (and it’s hard to draw a clear division between the two agencies since evidently they share so much of our data and metadata), there is one that fills me with a more imminent sense of foreboding. That singular issue, fracking, my personal bugbear (at least for the present), somehow encapsulating everything that is so diabolically wrong with our democracies.

A branch-line of arguably the most ruthless and disreputable of all corporate sectors – takes some doing, but the hydrocarbon industry would at the very least be nominated for such an award, and that’s to say nothing of fracking pioneers Halliburton – first puts out its totally ludicrous lie that fracking has never caused any significant damage either to the environment or to human health. Notwithstanding such scandalous denials, the spokesmen of this same industry then lie again in efforts to allay our fears, making contradictory assertions that fracking in the UK will be completely, absolutely, and categorically different to more lax fracking practices carried out in other places. Perhaps even more flabbergasting, however, is that anyone outside of the industry gives credence to any of these corporate refutations and guarantees, yet predictably, it seems, some do… which amply illustrates the efficacy of a deviously clever and exceedingly well-funded public relations campaign.

Nevertheless, as trial drilling began in Britain, protesters gathered in huge numbers – just as anti-fracking protesters have gathered in huge numbers throughout the world. They came out to remind our contemptible Con-Dem government that this is not simply an environmental issue (as vitally important as this is), but that without proper consultation with local communities, any permission granted to frack under our neighbourhoods means yet another stab into the heart of (what we laughably still call) our democracy.

So back in early July, shortly after government plans for widespread fracking in Britain had been revealed, I decided to contact local constituency Labour MP Paul Blomfield in order to express my alarm. At the time I didn’t know if Blomfield felt similarly concerned about fracking nor the Labour Party’s official position. But I dashed off a quick email as follows:

Dear Paul,

The most pressing environmental issue facing this area of the world right now is fracking. Please stand up and challenge these plans to begin destroying our beautiful countryside and poisoning the precious ground water.

Best wishes,

James Boswell

Not the best email I’ve ever written, and after a month without reply I imagined it had found its contents emptied into Paul Blomfield’s recycle bin. But no, come mid August [14th] and to my surprise, Blomfield had put together an extended reply that was waiting in my own inbox:

Dear James

Thank you for your e-mail concerning fracking.

It must be a top priority to decarbonise our power supply as a matter of urgency if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is why the Labour party has said this will be in our manifesto at the General Election. Indeed I challenged David Cameron on a decarbonisation target for the power sector at Prime Minister’s Questions in February and pressed the issue with the Energy Secretary Ed Davey in June. I feel strongly about these issues, am a member of Sheffield Renewables and recently, working with Green Alliance UK, organised a city-wide conference on the potential of community energy schemes.

However I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix, if it is accompanied by an expansion of renewable energy capacity and investment in carbon capture and storage. But it makes no sense at all for the Government to announce tax breaks and industry incentives before we know how much shale gas is actually recoverable, or before anyone even has a licence to extract it. This money should instead have been used to kick-start a major national retrofit scheme, which would reduce carbon emissions and bills and create thousands green-collar jobs. The UK has among the best renewable resources / technology in the world and we should be seizing this great opportunity, including research in to carbon capture and storage.

Finally, it is vital that we fully address the wider environmental concerns associated with fracking. It is therefore crucial that Parliament is able to properly scrutinise the Government’s proposals and to ensure that key environmental safeguards are met and that there is robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring in place.

The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking, recognising that the current system is outdated and unworkable. We haven’t jumped on the “dash-for-gas” bandwagon and have instead set out six conditions that need to be met before fracking should be allowed:

1. Mandated disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and assessment by regulator of their potential environmental impact and only non-hazardous chemicals to be used in fracking mix.

2. Must be a full assessment of the well integrity to ensure casing and borehole not susceptible to leaking; this must meet current industry standards for other types of drilling.

3. Micro-seismic monitoring of the area prior to any drilling to determine what the potential impact would be on local area.

4. Full assessment of impact of water use on local community, including assessment of how much of the water will be reused or recycled.

5. An assessment of groundwater methane levels prior to fracking.

6. There should be at least a full year’s monitoring of all of the above before any drilling can proceed.

Labour’s Shadow Minister for energy has set out more on our position here: http://centrallobby.politicshome.com/latestnews/article-detail/newsarticle/tom-greatrex-osborne-should-listen-to-obama-on-shale/

Thank you once again for writing to me and sharing your views.

Best wishes,

Paul

Grateful for receiving a genuine response, I was also dismayed. Apparently the Labour Party too – our only major party not in government! – also has big plans for natural gas fracking. Picking between the lines I read “The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking” with Blomfield’s personal position being “I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix”. In other words, we’ll do fracking too although we’ll be careful to avoid any of that nasty old Tory fracking. New Labour – new fracking! I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything different, but it was depressing nonetheless. I wrote back forthwith:

Dear Paul,

I am grateful to you for replying to my letter but feel that I must disagree with you on a number of important points. To keep this simple, I will try to respond with reference to the points as enumerated.

1. I fail to see how fracking can be done at all without the use of hazardous chemicals. Can you provide examples of fracking carried out anywhere else in the world that uses an environmentally benign mixture of chemicals?

When selling the scheme in Poland the industry also claimed that only non-hazardous chemicals would be used but this turned out to be an outright and deliberate lie.

2. Well casings fail time and time again, I forget the exact percentage but any claim that well casings can be made absolutely secure from leaking is simply another industry lie.

4. Fracking requires enormous quantities of fresh water which will put an immediate strain on our reserves in areas where it is carried out. Much of this water never returns to the surface, which is surely worrying enough, the rest is then polluted not only with the chemicals added but also with any heavy metals and radioactive isotopes dissolved from the shale. Since this contaminated water is costly to dispose of the industry has been caught many times simply spreading it on roads or fields or wherever else happens to be convenient.

5. An assessment of methane levels prior to fracking is better than nothing but it only serves to help in the case of claims for compensation after the damage is done and when people discover their property has become uninhabitable. This has again happened over and over again but the industry regularly uses bribes, threats and non-disclosure agreements to cover up the fact.

6. One year’s monitoring is nothing. Why the big rush? If fracking offers such a potential boon then surely any government should first convince a concerned public by having a proper public debate on the issue.

Additionally, I cannot understand how dislodging large amounts of methane from shale can in anyway help to decarbonise the country. Methane itself is a far more effective greenhouse gas than CO2 and when it is burned again it simply produces CO2.

I am a physicist by training and in truth I am dismayed by the complete lack of imagination and investment when it comes to finding and developing alternative sources of energy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century surely we must find better and cleaner solutions for securing our long term energy needs. We live on a small island surrounded by ocean, so whatever happened to plans for wave and tidal power for instance? Fracking is a short-sighted, short term solution that pollutes land and water and endangers human populations. It is being promoted by the same people who brought us Deep Water Horizon (quite literally in the case of Lord Browne who is the man behind Cuadrilla) and yet for some reason we are now being asked to trust them.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the case of Jessica Ernst who is a Canadian environmental scientist in the process of suing the energy company Encana for the damage done by fracking in Alberta. She points out that although Canada has the highest environmental standards and tightest regulations in the world, when it came to fracking the industry managed to run roughshod over all of that. Here is a link where you can access the relevant documents: http://www.ernstversusencana.ca/

Thanks again for replying to my previous letter. Hopefully, I have now more clearly outlined my objections to plans for widespread fracking of our beautiful island. I look forward to hearing from you.

James

Three months (to the day) have since passed and I am yet to receive any further reply from Paul Blomfield.

More recently I came across yet another documentary investigating environmental and health issues associated with fracking, this time focussing attention on the rush for gas in Britain and, in particular, plans for extensive drilling throughout the Mendips as well as the immediate effects of the test drilling already carried out in Lancashire.

The Truth Behind the Dash For Gas takes a detailed look at the contamination of land and drinking water, seismic effects, as well as other less immediately toxic or hazardous strains that fracking puts on local communities. It starts out, however, by simply making the more straightforward assertion that the UK government has been deeply infiltrated by industry insiders. As evidence for this, it offers a summarised breakdown of appointments to government courtesy of Lord Browne of Cuadrilla (formerly of BP), who had himself been appointed as the government’s “lead non-executive director” in 2010:

He will be the government’s “lead non-executive director”, working with cabinet ministers to appoint people to improve efficiency in each department.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said Lord Browne’s experience would be of “real benefit”.

The appointment comes as Whitehall is being asked to make spending cuts averaging 25% over five years.

Lord Browne will sit on the Cabinet Office board, chaired by Mr Maude. This will look to take on non-executive directors for all government departments.1

Click here to read the full BBC news report.

Another article published more recently in July of this year by The Independent going on to point out that:

There are more than 60 “non-executives” (Neds) who sit across Whitehall departments, largely drawn from Britain’s most impressive corporate talent. Their job is to help ministries be run in a more business-like manner, and Lord Browne is the overall lead for this group.

Lord Browne sits within the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s constituency includes Balcombe in West Sussex, another area where Cuadrilla is drilling. On his website, Mr Maude acknowledges that fracking “understandably rang alarm bells” after the tremors in Lancashire, but argues that “shale gas could help significantly by contributing both to improving our security and independence and to keeping prices down”.

Mr Laidlaw has been the lead non-executive at the Department for Transport. Centrica, which owns British Gas, recently bought a one-quarter stake in Cuadrilla’s most promising licence, which is the one in Lancashire.

Baroness Hogg sits in the Treasury, but she is also a non-executive director at BG Group, which has extensive shale gas interests in the US.2

Incidentally, you can find a list of these non-executive directors in Whitehall departments here.

So if it wasn’t bad enough that our politicians are quite openly bought off by lobbyists, the appointments of non-executive directors means that corporations are now also granted an unelected but direct foothold throughout government. As the bloated corporatocracy becomes ever more bloated, our remaining elected representatives presumably wondering who they more profitably serve. They say they work for us, but aside from the website theyworkforyou.com where’s the evidence? Returning to the issue at hand, are the electorate jumping up and down and demanding to be fracked? I certainly don’t hear them. The corporate ‘Neds’ on the other hand…!

George Monbiot expounds the same point in his latest Guardian article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” and captioned “Lobbying is the least of it: corporate interests have captured the entire democratic process.” His article begins:

It’s the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It’s the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It’s the great unmentionable. Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time.

The political role of business corporations is generally interpreted as that of lobbyists, seeking to influence government policy. In reality they belong on the inside. They are part of the nexus of power that creates policy. They face no significant resistance, from either government or opposition, as their interests have now been woven into the fabric of all three main political parties in Britain.

After supplying a range of pertinent examples, Monbiot continues:

The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business. In doing so it creates a tollbooth economy: a system of corporate turnpikes, operated by companies with effective monopolies.

It’s hardly surprising that the lobbying bill – now stalled by the House of Lords – offered almost no checks on the power of corporate lobbyists, while hog-tying the charities who criticise them. But it’s not just that ministers are not discouraged from hobnobbing with corporate executives: they are now obliged to do so.

Thanks to an initiative by Lord Green, large companies have ministerial “buddies”, who have to meet them when the companies request it. There were 698 of these meetings during the first 18 months of the scheme, called by corporations these ministers are supposed be regulating. Lord Green, by the way, is currently a government trade minister. Before that he was chairman of HSBC, presiding over the bank while it laundered vast amounts of money stashed by Mexican drugs barons. Ministers, lobbyists – can you tell them apart?3

Click here to read the complete article published in the Guardian.

But unfortunately, it’s even worse than that. The corporatocracy already transcending national boundaries and thanks to behind closed-doors “free trade agreements”, quickly reaching a point where corporations will not merely be embedded with governments but enjoying equal status with nation states:

The United States and European Union (EU) are in closed-door negotiations to establish a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) that would elevate individual corporations to equal status with nation states. Seriously.

The pact is slated to include a foreign investor privileges scheme that would empower foreign corporations to bypass domestic laws and courts and demand taxpayer compensation for government actions or policies to safeguard clean air, safe food and stable banks.

This “investor-state” enforcement system would grant foreign firms the power to drag the U.S. and EU governments before extrajudicial tribunals — comprised of three private attorneys — that would be authorized to order unlimited taxpayer compensation for domestic health, financial, environmental and other public interest policies the corporations claim undermine their “expected future profits.” And, there would be no outside appeal.4

So writes Lori Wallach , someone who has testified on NAFTA, WTO, and other globalisation issues before thirty U.S. congressional committees and is currently Director of Public Citizen‘s Global Trade Watch.

Click here to read Lori Wallach’s complete article on Huffington Post.

Around the time that negotiations started on this US-EU free trade deal back in July, claims that it would lead to “an economic bonanza” also came under close scrutiny in the Guardian. Dean Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (not to be confused with the unrelated Centre for Economic Policy Research in the UK) , pointing out that:

As growth policy, this trade deal doesn’t pass the laugh test, but that doesn’t mean that it may not be very important to a number of special interests and, for this reason, bad news for most of the public. Since conventional barriers to trade between the US and EU are already very low, the focus of the deal will be on non-conventional barriers, meaning various regulatory practices.

Each industry group has a list of regulations that it finds troublesome, which it has been unable to eliminate or weaken at the national or sub-national level. An EU-US trade agreement provides these industry groups with an opportunity to do an end-run around such regulation.

For example, several countries in Europe and many state and county governments in the United States impose restrictions that make fracking difficult or impossible. In their dream agreement, the oil and gas industries will have a set of minimal restrictions on fracking. The deal will then define anything more stringent as a restraint on trade subject to penalties.

Yes, it’s a deal that once again helps to open the way to that old devil called fracking, but not just fracking… it will loosen regulations for big agra, big pharma, and the financial services ‘industry’. It may even permit tightening of controls that limit the freedom of the internet and without any need for bills like PIPA and SOPA to be passed into law:

There are likely to be similar effects on food regulation. Europe has far more restrictions on genetically modified foods and crops than the United States. Since it is not possible, given current European politics, for the industry to get these restrictions eliminated, it will be looking to include provisions in a trade deal that define limits on genetically modified foods and crops as trade barriers.

Millions of people took part in the efforts last year to defeat Sopa and Pipa, two bills that would require individuals and internet intermediaries to proactively work to stop the transmission of unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted material. The entertainment industry would very much like to include comparable provisions in a trade agreement, so that it can avoid having to have another fight over this issue in Congress.

The financial industry will also be at the table trying to include language that limits the ability of governments to impose regulations. It is likely that it will try to include wording that would make it impossible to enforce a financial transactions tax like the one now being considered by the European Union. Although the industry may not be able to sway enough votes in European parliaments to prevent them from supporting a tax, they can use an EU-US trade deal to make that fact irrelevant.5

Click here to read Dean Baker’s complete Guardian article

Monbiot says “I don’t blame people for giving up on politics” by which he means, I suppose, giving up on our current party political system. However, there are myriad alternative ways in which people remain very actively engaged in politics, and arguably, there have been few times in history when more people have been politically engaged (or perhaps I better mean enraged!) than during recent years.

With our governments already captured by special interests, it is just two years since many hundreds of thousands took to the streets to camp out in protest. Los Indignados leading the way, followed by Occupy Wall Street and then the wider Occupy movement. Those millions failed, but since their dissent was representative of even greater numbers who stayed at home, their valiant stand remains as a political marker. And since Occupy packed up their tents and retreated, the numbers of disaffected have only continued to rise, even if our cries of distress and anger are that much harder to hear. Irrefutably there is indeed a burgeoning interest in politics and a growing desire for a new political direction.

In the long run, protests will only get any movement so far, in any case, and so serious engagement with the democratic remnants of the extant political system is actually the only practical and realistic way forward. Credible and detailed programmes for real change, a basic requirement. Our new policies in turn requiring electable representatives to carry them forward. To take our democracies back we simply have to make use of the ballot box.

In the shorter term, however, protests do indeed help to bring about important, if generally, more local victories. And for once, the documentary I have featured above actually ends on a positive note. Since in spite of the Australian government’s keenness to give fracking the go-ahead, public hostility and the resulting anti-fracking campaign known as Lock the Gate has quickly gathered momentum to become an immense obstacle to further drilling. The campaigners driving the industry away from region after region, and real grassroots democracy for once beating back corporate greed.

The lesson, if we needed it, is that direct action really works – so (and certainly when it comes to fracking) why not follow Australia’s fine example? Meanwhile, letters to your MP cost nothing, and at the very least may help to sow a few seeds of doubt in the minds of our supposed representatives. To reap fuller rewards, however, we need first to retake ownership of territory other than the immediate landscape outside our doors, as vital as that is. We must aim instead to recapture the political heartland itself. Occupying not the streets outside Whitehall, but the corridors of power within. Following this, we may finally be able to start the lengthy treatment needed to cure the main disease, which is corporatocracy – the worst of its symptoms, such as fracking, will then, in turn, abate.

*

Update:

Yesterday [Nov 13th] wikileaks released a 95-page draft of a chapter relating to a different behind closed doors ‘free trade’ agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement, which is being negotiated between the United States and twelve Pacific Rim nations, could also have wide-reaching implications for internet freedom, civil liberties, publishing rights and medicine accessibility with changes to laws on intellectual property rights, product safety and environmental regulations. Today’s Democracy Now! hosted a debate between Bill Watson, who is an analyst at the Cato Institute, and Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch:

 

Here is a brief overview of the debate:

LORI WALLACH: Well, free trade is a pretty theory, but as yesterday’s WikiLeaks showed, the TPP has very little to do with free trade. So, only five of the 29 chapters of the agreement even have to do with trade at all. What’s in that intellectual property chapter? What the Cato Institute would call rent seeking—governments being lobbied by special interests to set up special rules that give them monopolies to charge higher prices. What does that mean for you and me? In that agreement, we now can see the United States is pushing for longer monopoly patents for medicines that would increase the prices here. They’re looking for patenting things like surgical procedures, making even higher medical costs. They’re looking to patent life forms and seeds. And with respect to copyright, the U.S. positions are actually even undermining U.S. law. So, for Internet freedom, if you didn’t like SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, the domestic law that Congress and amazing citizen activism killed last year when it was attempted to be pushed here domestically, huge chunks of SOPA are pushed through the backdoor of this intellectual property chapter.

Now, what the heck is that doing in a free trade agreement? I would imagine the Cato Institute is also wondering: Are Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the free trade philosophers, rolling in their graves? Because that is protectionism. This is patent monopolies. This is copyright extensions. This is actually exactly what Bill just talked about, which is powerful special interests—Big Pharma, Disney and the other big-content guys—undermining us as consumers—our access to the Internet, our access to affordable medicine—and they’re using their power to put that into an agreement that they’ve got misbranded as “free trade.”

BILL WATSON: This is a rare occasion where I do agree with Lori Wallach. I agree that what’s going on in the IP chapter is a special-interest free-for-all, a grab bag, that U.S. companies are pushing to get what they want in these agreements. And the problem, really, with that is that intellectual property is not a trade issue, and it shouldn’t be in the agreement. Originally, adding intellectual property into the agreement was a way to bring on more political support, to be able to bring in U.S. companies to counter other U.S. companies that would oppose the agreement. At this point, I think we’ve gotten to where the intellectual property chapters are so expansive that what you’re seeing is a domestic constituency, people concerned about copyright and patent reform, who are opposing the TPP, not because of anything having to do with trade, but just because it’s going to reform U.S. copyright and patent laws. […]

You know, I’m certainly glad that WikiLeaks published this report. Personally, I like to be able to read it. It’s very interesting. I wish that they would publish the rest of it, to show us the rest of the draft text. I don’t think that it would be, at this point, particularly harmful to the agreement to let us know something about the countries’ negotiating positions.

But I really—I really disagree that the TPP negotiations are especially secret. There’s a lot that goes on in Congress that the public doesn’t know about. When Congress writes a law, we don’t know in advance what it’s going to be before it gets proposed. So, they’re still trying to figure out what the contents of the agreement will be. They don’t know yet; they’re working on it.

LORI WALLACH: Well, first of all, this is extraordinarily secret. I’ve followed these negotiations since 1991 with NAFTA. And during NAFTA, any member of Congress could see any text. In fact, the whole agreement between negotiating rounds was put in the Capitol, accessible for them to look at. In 2001, the Bush administration published the entire Free Trade Area of the Americas text, when it was even in an earlier stage than TPP is right now, on government websites. They’ve even excluded members of Congress from observing the negotiations. I mean, this is extraordinary. […]

I mean, these agreements, once they’re implemented, you can’t change a comma unless all the other countries agree. It locks into place, super-glues, cements into place one vision of law that, as we’ve seen, has very little to do with trade. It’s about domestic food safety. Do we have to import food that doesn’t meet U.S. safety standards? It’s about setting up international tribunals—can’t imagine the Cato Institute likes that, global governance and all—where U.S. government could be sued and our Treasury raided by foreign corporations, who are rent seeking, compensation for not having to meet our own laws that our domestic companies have to meet. […]

The bottom line of all of this is we need a new procedure to replace fast track that gives the public the role and Congress the role to make sure what will be binding, permanent, global laws do not undermine either our democratic process of making policies at home—that we need—or that lock us into retrograde policies that the current 600 corporate trade advisers are writing to impose on us. So, we need a new way to make trade agreements to get different kinds of agreements. And the bottom line with TPP, as this WikiLeak just showed, it’s very dangerous. It’s not about trade. You’ve got to find out about it. And you’ve got to make sure your member of Congress maintains their constitutional authority. Democracy is messy. But I, myself, more trust the American public, the press and this Congress rather than 600 corporate advisers. We need to make sure what’s in that trade agreement suits us, and you all are going to be the difference in doing that.

Click here to read the full transcript or watch the debate on the Democracy Now! website.

*

1 From an article entitled “Ex-BP boss Lord Browne to lead Whitehall reform” published by BBC news on June 30, 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10467532

2 From an article entitled “Revealed: Fracking industry bosses at heart of coalition” published by The Independent on July 14, 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-fracking-industry-bosses-at-heart-of-coalition-8707589.html

3 From an article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” written by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on November 11, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/11/business-rules-lobbying-corporate-interests

4 From an article entitled “’Trade’ Deal Would elevate Corporations to Equal Status With Nation States” written by Lori Wallach (Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch) published by Huffington Post on October 22, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-wallach/trade-deal-would-elevate_b_4143626.html

5 From an article entitled “The US-EU trade deal: don’t buy the hype” written by Dean Baker, published in the Guardian on July 15, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/15/us-trade-deal-with-europe-hype

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lies, damned lies and outrageous fracking lies!

When filmmaker Josh Fox was asked to lease his land for hydraulic fracture drilling for natural gas (known as fracking), he set off instead on a journey in search of the truth about fracking. His award-winning film, Gasland, chronicles that investigation, uncovering the secrets and lies that the industry uses to protect itself, and documenting the real impact that two decades of fracking has already had on communities across America.

On Wednesday [1st Feb], Josh Fox attempted to film a congressional hearing, called after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming had been caused by fracking. Instead, he was handcuffed and arrested. On Thursday, Fox spoke on Democracy Now! about his arrest and also explained the importance hearing:

Well, basically, I was there to report on a story that I’ve been following very closely for three-and-a-half years… this was a crucial hearing for us to tape, because what was going on there was a clear and brazen attack on the EPA and on the meticulous three-and-a-half-year investigation that took place in the small town of Pavillion, Wyoming, to expose a link between fracking and groundwater contamination. And this is the first case in which EPA has come out and said, at least in this last 10 years, that the likely cause of groundwater contamination was fracking.

And what was apparent to us was that this was going to be an attack on science from within the science and technology committee, that they had a panel that was stuffed with gas industry lobbyists, that there was—this was actually a way of trying to dismantle this EPA report. We wanted to be there to show that that was what the agenda was. We wanted to report on what happened. I was not interested in disrupting that hearing. It was not a protest action. I was simply trying to do my job as a journalist and go in there and show to the American people what was transpiring in that hearing…

Fox was also asked his thoughts about President Obama’s recent State of the Union address. Obama stating that “my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy”, whilst claiming that the supply of natural gas from fracking could last America nearly 100 years. And that: “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.” Fox replies:

That was actually quite, I think, a very painful moment for a lot of people who have been focusing on gas fracking for the last several years. I think the President’s statements right there are wrong. I mean, it’s very clear that we do not have a hundred years’ worth of natural gas, and certainly not if we want to start using it in cars and trucks. And it has been—it’s very, very unclear, in the science, whether or not this fracking technique can be done safely. And in my research, it shows itself to be inherently contaminating. And there is no proof to think that we could be doing this gas extraction safely.

In the second part of the interview, Josh Fox, who is currently making the sequel Gasland 2 for HBO, was joined by John Fenton, a Wyoming farmer and chair of the group Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, which is attempting to bring awareness of groundwater contamination by the local natural gas extraction industry. Here are extracts of what they each had to say:

JOHN FENTON: Within just 350 feet of our home, we have eight to 10 of them. On the whole farm, we have 24 gas wells. When industry first moved in here in the middle ’90s and started really filling this field in, we were assured over and over that these processes were safe, that we had nothing to worry about. And, you know, a lot of people around here, quite frankly, have a pro-industry view and wanted the gas to be extracted.

But things changed pretty rapidly. It didn’t take long to notice significant impacts to the water, the change to smell like diesel fuel. Methane was bubbling in the water. We had neighbors that actually had livestock die from drinking the water. […]

Drinking and cooking water comes in five-gallon office cooler-type water jugs now. So that’s what we do all of our drinking and cooking issues with. We’re still bathing in the contaminated water. We have not been able to prepare an alternative source yet. We’ve seen all sorts of impacts from that. We have people with really unexplainable health conditions, a lot of neurological problems, a neuropathy, seizures, people losing their sense of smell, sense of taste, you know, people with their arms and legs going numb. It’s very significant.

JOSH FOX: But what we’re seeing here is a rampant situation of water contamination, both with methane getting into aquifers, as you see the methane coming into the private water well, the natural gas, and actually being ignitable out of the tap—but what’s scarier, in a way, is the benzene and the carcinogenic chemicals, some of these things that have shown up in John Fenton’s well, that are associated with drilling fluids and drilling muds. In Pavillion, they showed that there was 50 times the safe level of benzene in their groundwater. Now there’s no real safe level of benzene at all in groundwater. Benzene is a carcinogen. […]

And when you witness the events of yesterday, not only kicking out journalism from the House of Representatives and kicking the First Amendment out, and out with that goes John Boehner’s pledge of transparency in Congress, but also kicking out science and saying, “Actually, we don’t care about science.” And what’s true here is that we’re living in an age which is not kind to objective information. And frankly, this kind of obstructionism of investigating the truth, reporting the truth, this is what we’ve seen over and over and over again. And I’m outraged at this approach, because when you see people like John Fenton, who have been dealing with this and who don’t have a political position coming into it, and they’re being attacked simply for reporting what’s happening to them, you witness that this is a phenomenon and a tactic and a strategy that happened when climate change was first reported. It goes all the way back to when they started to link tobacco with lung cancer. They mounted a PR campaign to try to dismantle that information. And this is not a democratic approach.

Click here to read the full transcript on the Democracy Now! Website.

To read earlier posts on fracking click here, here, and here.

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ACTA is a treaty drawn up by pirates and for pirates

With SOPA and PIPA kicked into the long grass, another attempt to close down free speech on the internet is now coming under scrutiny. ACTA, the “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement”, is yet another draft of legislation that is ostensibly for the purpose of enforcing intellectual property rights, although unlike SOPA and PIPA, ACTA is an international treaty. (And apologies for such an obfuscation of acronyms — I presume that’s the correct collective noun).

ACTA, which establishes its own governing body outside existing international institutions such as the WTO, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) or even the United Nations, was originally signed by countries including Australia, Canada, Japan, and the United States back on October 1st 2011.

When, last Thursday [Jan 26th], twenty-two of the European Union member states including the UK also signed the agreement, French Member of the European Parliament, Kader Arif, was so angered by “manoeuvres” used to get the bill approved, that he immediately resigned in protest from his position as rapporteur:

Negotiations over a controversial anti-piracy agreement have been described as a “masquerade” by a key Euro MP.

Kader Arif, the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (Acta), resigned over the issue on Friday.

He said he had witnessed “never-before-seen manoeuvres” by officials preparing the treaty.1

And Kader Arif made the following statement:

“I condemn the whole process which led to the signature of this agreement: no consultation of the civil society, lack of transparency since the beginning of negotiations, repeated delays of the signature of the text without any explanation given, reject of Parliament’s recommendations as given in several resolutions of our assembly.”

Click here to read the full BBC news article.

In Poland, tens of thousands of demonstrators also voiced opposition to their own government’s signature to the ACTA agreement:

Crowds of mostly young people held banners with slogans such as “no to censorship” and “a free internet”.

Earlier in the week, hackers attacked several Polish government websites, including that of Prime Minister Donald Tusk.2

Russia Today reported that the Anonymous group had earlier sent out ‘a stern warning’ to the Polish authorities, issuing what was little short of a blackmail note:

“Polish government – we are more powerful than you. We have a lot of your files and personal information. We warn you to exercise caution” which was published on pastebin.com.

The scope of ACTA is more expansive than SOPA and PIPA, not merely geographically, but because it aims to establish and enforce global standards in many other areas. Here’s analysis of how the new legislation will affect the lives of people across the world, published in Forbes:

Worse, it appears to go much further than the internet, cracking down on generic drugs and making food patents even more radical than they are by enforcing a global standard on seed patents that threatens local farmers and food independence across the developed world.

Despite ACTA’s secrecy, criticism of the agreement has been widespread. Countries like India and Brazil have been vocal opponents of the agreement, claiming that it will do a great deal of harm to emerging economies.

I’ll have more on the agreement as it emerges. But to briefly sum up, according to critics of the agreement:

  • ACTA contains global IP provisions as restrictive or worse than anything contained in SOPA and PIPA.
  • ACTA spans virtually all of the developed world, threatening the freedom of the internet as well as access to medication and food. The threat is every bit as real for those countries not involved in the process as the signatories themselves.
  • ACTA has already been signed by many countries including the US, but requires ratification in the EU parliament.
  • ACTA was written and hammered out behind closed doors. While some of the provisions have been taken out of the final US draft, plenty of unknowns still exist. It’s not nearly clear enough how the agreement will affect US laws.3

Click here to read more details in Forbes.

With regards to the internet, the tightening of control on websites will automatically lead to the closer scrutiny of all internet users:

Under ACTA, internet service providers are virtually obliged to monitor all user activity for possible copyright violations. It also gives trademark owners and officers of the law great authority to violate privacy while investigating suspected infringements.4

Rick Falkvinge, the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, told Russia Today that the ACTA copyright protection treaty is an “excellent example of abuse of power by the corporate industry”:

“This legislation about putting people in jail was negotiated by corporations and the lawmakers just got it in their lap,” he explained. “That is not how a democratic society should work, quite regardless of what this law says.”

Click here to read the full Russia Today article.

Jonathan Swift famously said that “laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” ACTA is a perfect example of Swift’s observation, drawn up in order to serve the interests of the biggest pirates of our economies. The pirates at the helm of the megabanks who continue to force whole nations to surrender their wealth to bail them out on the basis of threats from their pirate buddies at the credit rating agencies. And the multinational corporate pirates who refuse to pay up their modest contribution in taxes, preferring to bury their treasures in offshore havens.

We already have laws to bring many of the major pirates to justice, but these laws are rarely used for such purposes. Regulations that haven’t so far been axed are increasingly being ignored. Meanwhile, bills like SOPA, PIPA and ACTA have been drawn up to further choke opposition, opening the way for greater corporate control over our lives. All of this so-called ‘anti-piracy’ legislation is nothing but humbug, and poisonous humbug at that. The signing of ACTA, which is clearly designed to squeeze out the little guy and stifle the independent voice, represents just another miserable step towards a globalised corporate tyranny. In short, ACTA was written by the pirates and for the pirates.

1 From an article entitled “European Parliament rapporteur quits in Acta protest” written by Dave Lee, published by BBC news on January 27, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-16757142

2 From an article entitled “ACTA action: Poland signs up to ‘censorship’ as 20,000 rage”, published by Russia Today on January 26, 2012. http://rt.com/news/acta-poland-internet-government-745/

3 From an article entitled “If You Thought SOPA Was Bad, Just Wait Until You Meet ACTA”, written by E.D. Kain, published by Forbes on January 23, 2012. http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2012/01/23/if-you-thought-sopa-was-bad-just-wait-until-you-meet-acta/

4  http://rt.com/news/acta-poland-internet-government-745/

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if you tolerate this…

My eldest nephew is very excited at the moment. He has just turned eleven and is about to move to his new secondary school. Anyway, a few weeks ago, my sister showed me a letter she’d received via the assistant head at her son’s new school. It read:

“Dear Parent/Carer,

I am pleased to inform you that we will be installing biometric fingerprint readers at the – – – School as part of the catering system.”

“Pleased to inform you… as part of the catering system!”, I parroted back, as my sister read on from the briefing, my own voice rising with incredulity. “They’re fingerprinting the kids to help with the catering?!”

“Yes, but he’s not going to have his fingerprints taken”, she assured me, “they’re not going to treat him like a prisoner. It’s not compulsory…” And she then read on:

“This will enable students to get their dinners more quickly by speeding up the payments process. It will also mean that they can put cash into the system (via paying in machines, like a ticket machine) whenever it suits them so that they do not have to carry cash around with them all day…”

I interrupted again: “But you could do that with a card or something.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, “that’s the alternative option…” And then continuing from the letter:

“Swipe cards can be issued as an alternative to the finger scanning however these can obviously be lost, forgotten or stolen.”

“So what are the other parents thinking?” I asked her.

“There are a few of us refusing but mostly they think it’s just a good idea.”

“Do you know what company’s behind it?” I asked.

“No, but there are some notes on the back…” And she turned the letter over to show me, adding: “perhaps you can check it out”.

On the back of the letter, there is indeed “information” about the biometric system being installed. Information that explains why: “students, parents and staff can rest assured that the fingerprint images cannot be used by any other source for identification purposes”, because “the software turns your child’s fingerprint into a mathematical algorithm” and about how “the image of the fingerprint is then discarded”.

What the notes fail to mention, however, is that this kind of “processing” is standard procedure when recording any kind of digital biometrics. With “image capture” followed by “feature extraction” leading finally to “digital representation”, data compression is an inevitability, but that’s okay so long as in this processing the “vital information” isn’t lost. The important thing is that “the encoded information is functionally as unique as the original, and as easily processed, i.e., compared.”

How do I know this? In part because I’ve just read through Chapter 8 of the Defense Science Board Task Force report on biometrics (p35–6) published in September 2006. Not that a report from the US Department of Defense has anything to do with the installation of a catering system at a school in Sheffield, obviously…

So the fact that “the information stored cannot be used to recreate an image of the child’s fingerprint”, as the notes on the back of the letter explain, is actually beside the point. The actual point being that they can be used to identify the child, because the information is still “as functionally unique as the original”. To put all this another way, a photograph cannot be used to reconstruct a perfect 3-D likeness of your head. There is a loss of information. But that obviously doesn’t mean a photograph can’t be used to identify you. It can, and even when still more information is removed, by let’s say photocopying it a few times, a photo will still retain a sufficiently detailed likeness to identify you. Biometrics are just the next step down. The original photo can be deleted, just so long as sufficient details are retained of, for example, how wide your mouth is and how close together your eyes are. With enough of the right pieces of information, they can distinguish one person from another, reliably and consistently. Which is how biometrics works.

All of this biometric information, “the unique digital signatures” are then held in the database, as the notes on the letter from school also explain. Less clear is who actually owns this database. And skipping through the other details on the back of the letter, I can’t immediately find the name of the company involved, but it does give the brand name of their “cashless catering system”, which is IMPACT. So I looked up IMPACT:

“A million users in over 1700 schools throughout the UK.

We design, build and maintain industry leading, reliable and functional cashless payment systems under the brand name IMPACT…”

Here begins the sales pitch on the homepage of CRB Solutions. Never heard of them? Nor had I. Well, it turns out that they are a “Serco Learning Partner”, one of many. Indeed, Serco have more than 20 current “Learning Partners” offering “solutions” to “clients” (i.e., schools and colleges across the country), which means they have access to a lot of biometric and other kinds of data on school pupils and college students. For instance, listed directly above CRB Solutions, there is Aurora Computer Services, who are:

The UK market leader in face recognition. faceREGISTER is designed for sixth form registration or whole school lateness. faceREGISTER enables students to register automatically in school, college or university.”

Gone are the days, apparently, when teachers simply remembered their student’s faces. Now whenever a student is late:

they will be asked for a reason why they are late and these marks are fed back to Serco Facility via our administration software faceMANAGER.

Those of a more curious disposition are perhaps wondering what other kinds of personal information is downloaded at the “Serco Facility”. In fact, what other kinds of information more generally, since Serco already offers its services in sectors as diverse as environmental services, health, science, transport, local government, welfare to work, defence and nuclear. Nuclear? Yes, nuclear:

“We support the operation of over 20 nuclear reactors, and serve as the lead nuclear safety advisor to Westinghouse, designer of the AP1000 nuclear reactor currently under assessment for the UK’s new civil nuclear programme.” 1

That and the management of the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), which Serco says is the leading nuclear technology services provider in the UK, “with expertise across the full range of nuclear technology, including waste management, nuclear safety and non-proliferation, materials and corrosion and plant inspection.” So that’s pretty comprehensive. Aside from this, Serco also manages the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) as part of a consortium with Lockheed Martin and Jacobs. So the company behind the introduction of school biometrics systems across the country is also responsible for managing the UK atomic power and weapons programmes:

“Serco has a reputation for being a tad secretive. This is perhaps not surprising, as it manages the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire, where nuclear weapons are made, and runs the ballistic missile early warning system.

There are parts of AWE that even the head of the company, Kevin Beeston, can’t go into. Other secrets, too, are kept from him, such as where the company stores evidence on behalf of the National Crime Squad. “I don’t need to know or want to know,” he says.” 2

So begins an article entitled “Serco thunders down the tracks: Traffic lights, rail services, atomic weapons, the time of day. This secretive company manages them all” from the Independent on Sunday, published in March 2002. The article goes on:

“While many people haven’t heard of Serco, almost everyone in this country will have come across its services. It is Serco that runs the speed cameras on the M25, and maintains the traffic signals on a third of motorways in the UK. Half of London’s traffic lights are run by Serco, as are all the signals in Dublin. Manchester’s tram service, Metrolink, and London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) are both Serco-operated. When you ring National Rail Enquiries, you will speak to a Serco employee. The company has also built hospitals and prisons.

“In fact, Serco is so ubiquitous, it even sets the time. It manages the National Physical Laboratory, which owns the atomic clock that gives us Greenwich Mean Time.

“You’d be forgiven for thinking Serco was a government ministry.”

This article was published almost a decade ago and yet Serco‘s involvement in running public services was so large and far-flung that comparison is already being made to “a government ministry”. So just how did Serco manage to expand so rapidly and yet so inconspicuously? Well, here’s a brief overview of their rise and rise, taken from the same article:

“As well as having a novel corporate culture, Serco also has an intriguing history. It started out in 1929 as the UK maintenance division of RCA, at the time a cinema and radio equipment company. In the late Fifties it got its first taste of top-secret government contracts. The Ministry of Defence needed a radio equipment specialist to design, build and run the four-minute warning system for nuclear attacks. RCA got the job and has been maintaining it since.

“But it was in the early Eighties that the government-related business really started taking off. Beeston takes up the story: “Mrs Thatcher had come in power in 1979 and began reducing public sector costs on a tax-reduction agenda and carrying out privatisation. One of biggest areas that was first turned to contractualisation was the Ministry of Defence.”

“Happily for Serco, Thatcher’s successors, John Major and Tony Blair, both exhibited a fondness for getting the private sector involved in the public sector.”

Click here to read the full article by Heather Tomlinson:

Four years later and Serco were already being talked of as “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of”, as a glowing profile of their CEO Christopher Hyman in the Guardian explained:

“Have you recently travelled on a train in northern England? Or on London’s Docklands Light Railway? Or perhaps been caught by a speed camera?

“If the answer to any of these questions was yes — or you have spent any time in custody or the armed forces — chances are you have dealt with the support services company Serco. With almost 48,000 people helping to service 600 largely public-sector contracts around the world, Serco is probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of.”3

No longer a small British subsidiary of a little known American corporation, by 2006, when the article above was published, Serco had gone global. Here, for instance, is taste of what Serco are already running in Canada, Ireland, Dubai, and Australia these days:

Taken from ABC Australia’s Hungry Beast.

Rebranded with Olympian titles, we are familiar with the names of most of our new gods: Blackwater and DynCorp, gods of war and reconstruction; Monsanto, god of harvests; Nokia, god of messages; Walmart, god of convenience; Aviva, god of life (insurance); but then, above and beyond all of these, there is Serco, the god of all the things the other gods don’t already do. A god without portfolio, and although not quite omnipresent, Serco is certainly “highly maneuverable”. As their own bragging PR likes to put it: “Serco has a finger in many pies”.

Now, having reached this point I realise that I have drifted well away from the original issue. My initial response to reading the letter from my nephew’s school having been to wonder at the kind of country we are living in. Already the most surveilled society in history, and now face-scanning and fingerprinting our children on a routine basis. In the process, as my sister says, we are already treating them as if they’re little criminals. Is it really necessary to hammer home the point here?

For we may believe this data can and will never be retrieved for uses beyond the bounds of the schools and colleges involved, but in permitting such licence we are nevertheless inculcating a sense of naïve trust in the next generation, which will normalise them to accept adult life in a surveillance society. We are teaching them to submit to authority. The word Orwellian is very overworked, but what other word can be applied in this instance? We are fingerprinting our children and entrusting that information to the major government defence contractor. And there is barely a raised eyebrow. Parents are mostly thinking that this is “helpful”. So please, if you haven’t done so already, read Nineteen Eighty-Four (not that Orwell has anything to say about fingerprint or face recognition systems, because back in the 1940s such hi-tech digital biometrics had yet to be imagined, let alone invented).

So what kind of a world awaits my nephew and his friends when he finally leaves school in five years time? Well, that will depend.

The road ahead is already laid. As our national assets and provision of our state sector were stolen away, Serco, and a few other giant corporations, absorbed the new workforce and took over. And now, as ours and other economies around the world begin to splutter and flail, they are about to suck up whatever remains at bargain prices. Finally, they will put up their toll-booths at every turn of our daily lives, and in the envisaged “cashless society”, these toll-booths will also be our checkpoints — logging every transaction and every movement.

History ought to have taught us to beware, its overriding message being that the rise of tyranny needs to be constantly guarded against. But those, like Thatcher and Reagan, who rushed us away from more direct forms of centralised government (supposedly to save us from a Soviet style tyranny) have delivered us instead into the talons of an unregulated and monopolised market. Any distinction between interests of the state and the corporations having thus been eroded, the takeover by multinationals such as Serco has been unstoppable. After all, someone has to be in charge of things. Serco then (and the pantheon of other corporate gods we must increasingly bow to) amounts to governance by another title, and not merely at a national scale, but transnationally — a few corporations becoming, in effect, arms of an unelected and largely unaccountable “global governance”.

This shift away from democracy and towards neo-feudalism is happening in plain sight. You even get the picture from Serco‘s own PR  material — the closing overlapping mosaic of corporate heads in their latest video simultaneously and hypnotically announcing: “we are Serco”; with the eerie subtext being that “resistance is futile”. But resistance isn’t futile, not yet…

If you’d like further information about this widening programme of school biometrics then I direct you to a worthwhile campaign group called Leave Them Kids Alone (LTKA) that is calling for a stop to this latest encroachment upon our civil liberties, or rather, the civil liberties of our children.

2 From an article entitled “Serco thunders down the tracks: Traffic lights, rail services, atomic weapons, the time of day. This secretive company manages them all” by Heather Tomlinson published in the Independent on Sunday on Sunday 10th March 2002 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/serco-thunders-down-the-tracks-653444.html

3 From an article entitled “Happy, touchy-feely and driven by God: The Serco chief Christopher Hyman is unusual for his values of doing business, with staff and customers coming first and profit last” by Jane Martinson, published in the Guardian on Friday 24th February, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2006/feb/24/columnists.guardiancolumnists

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