Archive for July, 2011

Did you know ISAF has been carrying out air missions to destroy Taliban radio towers? You do now, thanks to Thomas Wiegold’s blog. Specifically, Task Force Palehorse includes UAE Apache Longbow attack helicopters and American Kiowa Warrior reconnaissance helicopters, plus (according to comments) German ELINT specialists. And they go out and identify Taliban radio networks, and kill them.

There’s much interesting stuff for German-speakers in comments, notably that the technologies include old fashioned VHF, pirate GSM, and possibly other systems as well, that the relays are often solar-powered, and that the Taliban are significant users of IMSI-catchers – fake GSM/UMTS base stations used to monitor mobile phone activity.

So are the Germans, in order to prevent leakage from their own camps. The British have been using ruggedised, highly portable small cells for some time to stop soldiers using the Afghan GSM networks, for fear both of security leaks and also that (as in Iraq) their relatives in the UK might get nasty phone calls.


I have just been reading the catalogue for the Design Museum’s exhibition on Kenneth Grange. An interesting thought – he makes the very good point that the problem with both the matt-black Apple laptops and the iDevices is that they soak up oil and fingerprints and human grease in general. This is of course the case of all touchscreens – they’re reflective surfaces, so the filth shows, and people touch them. When I lived in Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Gasometer B development the management had placed some tablet PCs (it was just being a thing then) around the public spaces for people to fiddle with. Of course, the screens were practically black with gunk all the time.

As far as the matt black element goes, apparently he copied an idea from Braun and had the mouldings spun in a drum with walnut shells, slightly roughing up the texture and letting the walnut oil soak in, excluding anything else from going the same way. Not something to try with the touch screen, obviously.

So, I wonder, what would a post-iPhone user interface pattern be like? Also, oddly enough, in all his myriad projects over the years, Grange has never done a mobile phone. He did some really amazing designs for Reuters trader terminals, so much so that a casemod almost seems justified. But Psion in the 1980s, Ericsson or Motorola in the 1990s, or Nokia in the 2000s never apparently asked. It would probably have had at least one oversized orange GO button – a constant in his work.

Although perhaps not an extra large number 5.

I have to say the only surprise I found in this story was that the list of conditions GPs failed to diagnose didn’t include death. “I prescribed Mr. Smith antibiotics and told him to come back in a week’s time, but for some reason he wouldn’t leave the surgery. Thwack…Fore! I wonder if he’s still there? Anyway, hurry up, got to get back to the clubhouse in time for my afternoon pethidine bolus. Bottoms up!”

Of course, that would actually be caught by the typical diagnostic protocol the article describes – give’em a broad spectrum antibiotic, and tell’em to come back in a week. If they come back, refer’em if they insist, if they don’t, repeat the prescription. If they don’t come back, job done…one way or another.

This is why I stopped reading Dr. Crippen’s blog – it was OK as far as it went, but after that point it turned into the Internet wing of the British Medical Association’s golf committee.

Peter Oborne‘s piece on post-Murdoch Britain is interesting, although mostly for the sheer otherness of his thinking. He’s at least got the good sense or moral minima required to end up on the right side of the debate, but he gets there through some truly odd reasoning. Can anyone remember even one instance when any of the News International outlets ever ran an editorial arguing that a republican form of government was desirable? But he ascribes “a powerful republican agenda” to Rupert Murdoch.

I’d argue that Murdoch has a powerful Republican agenda, as in the American political party, but not a republican one. The only newspaper that professes republicanism is the Guardian, or perhaps the Andersonstown News, which isn’t the same kind of republicanism and is interested in a different republic. The only way I can get sense out of it is to assume that he’s talking about Australia, which seems a bit of a distant concern. Further, David Miliband knows Polly Toynbee socially, and we’re asked to believe that this is worth mentioning in the same breath as the whole Murdoch system of government, as he describes it. Also, he seems to think Michael Gove, Eurabia-pushing ex-News International executive, is still a credible cabinet minister.

It’s like reading a leader written by a giant squid. It’s intelligence. But not as we know it.

Of course, he’s right that what has been revealed is a system, a sort of parallel government. One thing Oborne is extremely unlikely to ever say is that there was a qualitative shift in the late 2000s in how it worked, although I think he’s vaguely aware of it.

Labour leaders in the 1990s reacted to the power of the Murdoch system by trying to accommodate themselves to it. This is as good a way as any to define “The Project” – an effort to accommodate the party to the realities of the Murdoch system and to manage a transactional, bargaining relationship with it. The key figures in this effort – Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Powell, and Alistair Campbell – prided themselves precisely on their ability to manage the relationship, to negotiate a degree of freedom of action. The terms of business between NI and Labour can easily be criticised – would a Martian journalist dropped on a street corner between 1997 and 2007 have noticed that the Sun supposedly “supported Labour”? I think not. The paper didn’t actually call for a vote against, but it did pour abuse on Labour ministers, opposed basically all its policies except invading Iraq, and offered the Tories a sympathetic hearing.

By the end of the Blair era, this relationship was strained – the original breakdown might be traced to Iraq, in fact, and the exit of Alistair Campbell from No.10. In fact, what was under way was more fundamental than that. We might call it The Project 2.0.

This would involve the Conservatives rather than Labour, and critically would go much further than the original Project. Rather than a transactional, bargaining relationship with the Tories, mediated by powerful media managers belonging to the party, the Project 2.0 foresaw something very different. Whereas Alistair Campbell’s role was as “Emily” Blair’s bulldog, guarding the gate at the interface between the prime minister’s office and the press, alternately wagging and barking as seemed expedient, this new project would integrate News International’s men into the machinery of government.

Part of the legacy the original Project was the enlarged status of the government’s press officers at every level. In fact, it is unfair to blame this on New Labour. It is a great strategic trend that has been going for many years. Sir Bernard Ingham is not, I think, remembered for presenting an even-handed account of the Thatcher government’s record or acting with total equanimity towards critics and sycophants alike. Sir Gerald Kaufman, Joe Haines, Philip De Zueleuta – they all served their prime ministers in the dark art of propaganda and earned a reputation of sinister efficiency and great influence. Arguably, this goes all the way back to Lloyd George’s secretariat. Labour’s innovation was to bring in outsider professionals, and much else was up to the force of personality of those involved.

Another important trend was their integration with the core executive, the hard centre of the state centred around the prime minister, the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the intelligence services, and the Ministry of Defence. At the top level, these strands all wind together in the prime minister’s office (which, I notice, has grown a domain name,, recently). As a result, the prime minister’s official spokesman now has a sort of parallel management-information system that runs into the departments via their press officers, in much the same way the Treasury’s MIS extends into the departments through the system of public-service agreements. The two phenomena are quite closely linked, in fact – departments’ priorities are fixed through the comprehensive spending round and the PSAs, with reference to the political/press strategy defined on the PMOS’s network. Then, their success or failure is monitored via the Treasury reporting system and the No.10 policy unit, and the political response to it coordinated through the PMOS net.

One Blairite contribution to this which is unique was its militarisation. The Blair years turned out to be ones of war, and the emerging press-management network was heavily used in support of the wars, with the result that intelligence was increasingly redistributed from the intelligence-administrative complex into the press-political management system. At the same time, the military’s public affairs function was integrated into the system, with a common line for the civilian and uniformed spokesmen. Alistair Campbell’s invention of the Coalition Information Centre (a still under-reported creation) gave this an international dimension.

The Project 2.0 consists, then, of reversing the process. Rather than the politicians selecting press managers to control the interfaces between the political management network and the media, News International selected them and made recommendations to politicians, who incorporated them into key locations in the system – the very top at No.10, the Metropolitan Police, ACPO, and to be frank, who knows where else? We know that George Osborne recommended Andy Coulson to David Cameron, and that Rebekah Brooks thinks she recommended him to Osborne. Dick Fedorcio claims he can’t remember who recommended Neil Wallis to him, but he did admit that the motivation was to influence No.10 Downing Street, rather than to influence the press. (And who reckons Tom Watson wouldn’t have asked him if Brooks made the recommendation if he didn’t know the answer?)

Where Campbell bargained with NI and Mandelson cooperated with them, the situation in May, 2010 was more like Field-Marshal Montgomery’s remark that “I banned all talk of Army Co-Operation. There were not two plans, Army and Air, but one, Army-Air. When you are one entity you cannot cooperate.”

Now, Oborne is as I said, sort of aware of all this. A few weeks ago he surfaced the fact that there is an identifiable Murdoch caucus in the Tory Party, around George Osborne and Michael Gove, opposed to a Telegraph one. It is common knowledge that David Cameron’s first priority as Tory leader was to short-circuit the party’s internal procedures in order to flush in a lot more new candidates, the so-called A-list. One wonders if the list was pre-approved. And there seems to be an identifiable historical break point – when Michael Howard ran for prime minister in 2005, he brought in a pretty ugly character to run a pretty ugly campaign, Lynton Crosby, but at least he appears to have picked him himself.

My final question, then – with the dilution of the Tory Party with new candidates, and the integration of Murdoch’s political officers into key nodes, does David Cameron actually exist politically? Is he, y’know, a thing? What fuckery is this?

A comment pulls me up for inventing the Labour statesman “Nye Bevin”. Whoops. But this gave me an idea. Labour mashups! Take the front half of one significant socialist and match it with the back half of another, and see what you get. For example, Harold Cripps is obviously a 1960s trade union leader. Tony Brown, for his part, was clearly a slightly louche early 80s radical London borough councillor, always as ready with a firebrand speech against the evils of patriarchy as he was with a crafty hand on the thigh at the Labour club afterwards.

To mark the death of Nye Bevin, we have a special guest contribution from Alistair Rusbridger, who I’m sure is familiar to you all and who knew him well.

Nye Bevin, of course, was one of the towering figures of the century, as TGWU general secretary, as Minister of Labour and National Service in the Churchill coalition and personnel chief of the wartime command economy, as architect of the NHS, and as Foreign Secretary. He combined the roles of a tribune of the people and a master bureaucrat with a facility few will ever equal.

A product of his times, he lived the age of the managerial revolution and the mass organisation. We remember his role as an unlikely ally of Lord Beaverbrook’s Ministry of Aircraft Production in getting the TUC’s agreement to dilution and the entry of women on the shop floor. His name is remembered in the phrase “Bevin Boys”. Who else would have created the third largest employer in the world in the rationed, financially exhausted Britain of 1948? His remark that he wanted the clang of a dropped bedpan to echo through Whitehall is now deeply unfashionable in an age of New Public Management and the Big Society. But, as Winston Fisher said of Jacky Churchill, he made the vast organisations he headed hum like a great ship at its highest speed. As his goggling and awestruck permanent secretary at the Foreign Office said, there were only two jobs in the department he could have had – doorman, or foreign secretary.

Within the Labour Movement’s internal politics, he played an ambiguous but always vital role. On the one hand, he spoke from Tredegar mountain and said “This is my truth: tell me yours”. On the other hand, he said, socialism was what a Labour government did, taking a sort of brutalist approach. The point was to control the government, from which civil service line management could deliver a better society. He could always be criticised from the Left as a man of government, and from the Right as always having one foot at the rostrum. But, in fairness, that control of Whitehall was always founded in the bedrock of working-class organising, where he’d started as a dockers’ shop steward in South Wales all those years before.

Few people will contest his achievements during the Second World War or as Health Secretary. His tenure of the Foreign Office, however, is much more controversial to this day. As a passionate Atlanticist, he offended plenty of people in the Labour Movement with his commitment to NATO, the transatlantic alliance directed at the Soviet Union he helped to create. Less well-known beyond specialists is his concurrent contribution to the beginnings of European integration, through projects such as the OEEC, set up to manage the distribution of Marshall Aid, something he also had a major role in bringing about.

He can be accused with justice of not practising exactly what he preached here – on the platform, he was loudly suspicious of the Same Old Gang behind European economic integration while working hard to bring it about in the corridors of King Charles Street. Similarly, he played to the pacifist strand in Labour while quietly chairing the Cabinet committee that managed the British Bomb project. (Yet another vast bureaucratic project.) His anti-communism was ferocious, born of years fighting for power in the union hierarchy with them. Unlike many of his intellectual critics, though, he was never deluded about the totalitarian nature of Stalinism.

His foreign policy was even more controversial, if that is possible, outside Europe. It fell to him to manage the UK’s exit from India and Palestine and the agonising economic negotiations with the United States, as well as the beginnings of the Cold War. Given the circumstances, it is fair to say he avoided most of the possible disasters. Like many of his peers, he saw the key issue as the fight to maintain any distinctive British independence from the Americans.


This blog raised the question of Coulson’s vetting. It demanded that Dick Fedorcio be called in. It demanded an audit of telecoms intercept logs.

So here’s another question. A timetable for defence vetting processes can be found here. A request for developed vetting, i.e. a top secret clearance, or what Andy Coulson was meant to be getting when he quit, takes 70 days under normal conditions.

Now, we might want to know who told the papers everything was great to start with. Eh.

Anyway, if he was “undergoing vetting” in January as a result of a decision in November as the official line says, we can rule out the 30 day expedited process. There are too many days. But a date in the middle of November would hit off Coulson’s resignation perfectly.

I thought I’d put together a list of things that upshot from the Murdoch hearings and immediately afterwards.

  1. NI was still paying Mulcaire
  2. Yates was told not to tell Cameron by Ed Llewellyn
  3. James Murdoch says it was all others’ fault, i.e. Hinton and Brooks
  4. Rebekah Brooks says George Osborne recommended Coulson
  5. 10 out of 45 Met press officers (Fedorcinos?) were ex-NI
  6. Dick Fedorcio knew nothing..he says
  7. He can’t say who recommended Wallis
  8. He blames Yates for things clearly in his responsibility
  9. He denies agreeing to Yates or Hayman meetingNI
  10. Neil Wallis worked for the Tories
  11. He may have been paid by NI
  12. He reported back to NI from the Met
  13. Alex Marunchak worked for the Met
  14. Alex Marunchak is a difficult subject for Rupert Murdoch personally
  15. David Cameron sort-of admitted being lobbied about BSkyB
  16. Andy Coulson wasn’t really vetted
  17. David Cameron won’t say if Control Risks vetted him for the purely Tory job
  18. Neville Thurbeck was a police informer
  19. Who had access to the Police National Computer
  20. Nick Raynsford MP claimed that a “senior officer in government service” was spied on
  21. Yates got Wallis’s daughter a job
  22. Wallis was hired because he could influence No.10 and Andy Coulson
  23. There will be an audit of lawful-intercept logs.

Some of those have moved on. Just to move things on further, it looks like Wallis was a walking Venn diagram – overlapping the Met, News International, the Conservative Party, and No.10 Downing Street. Dick “Scorchio” Fedorcio seems to have thought he was needed to exert influence over No.10.

You could mistake this for a parallel structure of power.

I expect there’s going to be a hell of a lot of ink spilled in the next few months about different schemes for “regulating the press”, how the very idea is an abomination and this has nothing to do with my column in some Murdoch rag, how this outrageous behaviour makes it utterly necessary for journalists to have to justify themselves to some sort of horrible post-Hutton BBC quangocracy, yadda yadda.

My position is this. Press regulatory bodies will probably be very much like “regulators” of all the kinds that have sprung up since the privatisation era. That is to say, they’ll either be impossibly bureaucratic or pathetically complicit or both. The problem with regulators, especially the post-80s, all mates together in an orderly market sort, is that they are a weak-sauce compromise.

Once you create a regulator, you’re doing two things: accepting that the forces of the market aren’t going to fix your problem, and withdrawing the forces of democracy in favour of the forces of bureaucracy. Compare the Home Affairs Committee’s vicious and pointed quizzing of Andy Hayman to, well, anything the IPCC ever gets up to. Nye Bevin’s crack about dropped bedpans echoing through the halls of Westminster was very much to the point. Everyone moans about ministerial line management, but when did you last vote for the OFCOM Director-General?

There’s a coda to this – over time, if you leave it to the departmental government, the temptation to fiddle and to indulge in recreational reorganisation will get progressively stronger. My point, however, is that very often regulatory bodies function either as a veiled form of ministerial control or else as a flak-catcher protecting the powerful from public scrutiny.

In this case, I would argue that any regulatory committee will be either complicit or floppy if it has to face up to something like News International. The problem is not one of processing complaints more efficiency, although that would of course be nice. It is one of power and only changing the realities of power will fix it.

The trust must go. We don’t need more quangology. We need a genuinely competitive and diverse media market. We need to break the bastards up and set the rules to prevent them reforming. And the agency to do this is the Competition Commission, one of the oldest regulators and one of the few that has the taste of saying “No”. But it is absolutely necessary to set its terms of reference so that it will have no choice but to break up the trusts. That means changing the law.

Dick Fedorcio is taking a little trip to Westminster to be quizzed. By Keith Vaz’s committee. How times change – Keith Vaz as the standard bearer of public integrity. It’s got to be more convincing to get your second chance after 10 years in the wilderness though.

Meanwhile, has anyone else noticed that the “#AskEdM” hashtag is a shamelessly obvious exercise in trolling? Think about it – how many people who aren’t either political obsessives following up a story or just looking for a fight, or else full-time rightwing howler monkeys, ever hang out in Paul Staines’s comments threads with all the coup fantasies and racebaiting and ZaNuLiebour and EUSSR? Nobody. Really.

So why not lure the torysphere out in the open, somewhere the majority can actually see them behaving in this horrible way? Like Twitter.

And if they notice it, they’ll get angry and look an even more repellent herd of shit-smeared zombies. It’s brilliant. As a side benefit, if Edelmans have managed to rig some network of semiautomated talking-points distribution bots, they’re bound to show up there so they can be identified. And if you were looking for a list of horrible spamming arsewits, Mike Gigglers trying to be hipsters but stuck at the brown-dwarf stage, ZaNuLiebour dittoheads, and other membrane fauna…well, here’s your chance to populate your blacklist. I added dozens. It was a lot of fun.

The only annoying thing is that as far as I know, although Twitter has “lists” that let you group other users and subscribe to their collected output (yeah, like XMPP Collection Nodes) it doesn’t have the inverse operation. So you can’t easily replicate the Team Cymru Bogons BGP feed and automate the process, even if we’ve already got a serviceable darknet.

Elsewhere, I put together a quick network diagram of the top Met-NI interactions. Nothing very surprising except that the commissioner is always sought after, and that John Yates appears to have an independent following with them (surprise!). Of course, your man Dick was probably at all the meetings in this chart.

[hey wordpress! what is your problem with ManyEyes?]

Met commissioners - close to Murdoch Many Eyes

Finally, some music.

Let’s talk sheep dip. No, not drinking the stuff.

Sheep. Being dipped. In sheep dip

Spooks have another couple of uses for the word. One means to fix the admin when you borrow people or equipment from the real world. Another, and the one we’re interested in, is to arrange things so it’s not obvious to other people how you got hold of information. Typically, if you have a secret source of information you want it to stay secret. But there’s no point having the secret source if you don’t act on it. All the fun of secrets is telling other people about them, after all.

So you’ve got a problem – how do I make use of the secret without letting slip the bigger secret of how I got it? The answer is sheepdipping.

Here’s a second world war example. As basically everyone knows, the British had broken the Germans’ primary radio cipher, taking advantage of work Poland and France had begun earlier and eventually creating an industrial system to pull in radio traffic, break it, translate it into English, analyse it, and distribute reports based on it. In the process, Bletchley Park as good as invented the computer. It was a priceless source of information. So much so that serious precautions were needed to avoid giving the game away.

The answer was to make sure that you found out the information you already had from the code break before you did anything about it. So, once the ships and soldiers were already on the move, a reconnaissance plane would go out or a patrol would be pushed forward to look in exactly the right place. As well as disguising the real intelligence source, this was also an opportunity to check that the source was right.

So why are we indulging in ENIGMA kitsch? Well. The Sun denied vehemently that it got access to the medical records of Gordon Brown’s son. Actually it didn’t, quite. It denied that they were the source of the story they printed, and hid behind the PCC about the tax files and the bank account and his lawyer’s notes and God knows what else. But they found somebody who says he told them all about Brown’s son out of the goodness of his heart. As God will be his judge. Yeah, he really said that. Everyone say “Awww.”

He really said it; it’s in the Sun. Anyway, he swore an affidavit.

Here’s the sheep dip, though. Imagine if you’re a sweaty ‘bloid hack who’s just been listening to the chancellor’s voicemail. But, unlike the rest of them, you read books. What are you going to do? Take the risk of using the illegal secret surveillance as your source? What if some bastard with a Web site and a grudge goes through years and years of stories and pulls all the ones that are single sourced to conversations on the phone? You’re smarter than that.

So, you look up somebody who might be able to give you the story you’ve already got. This shouldn’t be that hard. You’ve already got more than enough information. That way, you’re covered. And you get to check the possibility that the whole thing is a nightmarish trap. And there’s a chance that they might provide some more juicy details if correctly handled.

The sheep goes into the dip, and comes out cleansed of its ticks and blowflies and worrisome legal problems, ready to be fattened up, shorn of its valuable fleece, and finally roasted and served with red-top jelly.

Alternatively, a slightly less underhand version. So this bloke walks into a bar. No.

So this bloke walks into a newspaper office. And he says to the barman…I’ve got this incredible story about Gordon Brown’s sick kid because mine’s as sick and I go to the same support group or clinic or whatnot. And you punch the conniving, insensitive Nosey Parker in the mouth and throw him out in the street. Right? I mean, who behaves like that?

No. This is a newspaper, dammit. You’re not going to turn a chance like this away. But there’s a problem. If his motives really are as nice as he makes out, what’s he doing hanging around the News International building? Perhaps it’s all bullshit. He’s taking you for a ride. Newspapers attract enough crazies as it is; look at the comments threads. Throw around money for stories into the bargain and you’re going to be beating them off with a side-handled baton, like the printers’ union pickets. It’s Brown’s kid because he knows that will get your attention. Hey, you’d prefer Ulrika Jonsson’s. But he’s probably crazy and crazy people like politicians.

So you need to check on him. Quick. And because you’ve got a human source, you don’t need to mention whatever you do to check up in the final story. Into the dip goes the sheep. Baa.

In my life I’ve had the pleasure of cleaning out not just a sheepdip but a cattle dip. It’s a long job. My advice is to drain off as much liquid as possible – keep checking the filter on the firepump – and then pressure-blast it with boiling steam. Accept no substitutes, and watch your feet.