Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Ugly Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 30 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/ugly-truth

This is a review of a book by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang called An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. The book gets its title from a memo written in 2016 by Andrew Bosworth (Boz), a vice-president who had been at Facebook since the early days. The memo, entitled “The Ugly”, was leaked to BuzzFeed after the Cambridge Analytica revelations. “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is de facto good.”  The memo was circulated the day after the death of a Chicago man was shown live on Facebook.

Inside Dirt

The authors claim to have conducted over 1,000 hours of interviews with 400-odd people, including Facebook executives, former and current employees and their families, friends and classmates, plus investors and advisers to Facebook, and lawyers and activists who have been fighting the company for a long time. There have been many books about Facebook, and I have read quite a few of them. Do we need another one? This one is better sourced than all of its predecessors in the genre and I found it a gripping read which made me think deeply about the bizarre world that Facebook (along with Google, Apple and Amazon) have placed us in and what they have done to our heads.

The villains of the drama are Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer. In late 2007, Zuckerberg met Sandberg at a Christmas party.  A marriage made in hell. Sandberg was then working at Google where she was responsible for online sales of Google’s advertising and publishing products. During her time at Google, she grew the ad and sales team from four people to 4,000. In March 2008, Facebook announced the hiring of Sandberg as COO. Frenkel and Kang believe, “they sensed the potential to transform the company into the global power it is today. Through their partnership, they methodically built a business model that is unstoppable in its growth—with $85.9 billion in revenue in 2020 and a market value of $800 billion—and entirely deliberate in its design.” 

Mendacious from the Start

Zuckerberg launched the Facebook social networking service from his Harvard dormitory room on February 4, 2004. It was originally targeted on colleges but expanded rapidly beyond that, reaching one billion users by 2012. Even in the Harvard days, there were complaints that Zuckerberg was behaving unethically and producing something different from what he claimed. Even at the very beginning the site was ostensibly about connecting people but its main purpose was data-mining.

Extraction Industry

On November 6, 2007, Zuckerberg announced Beacon, a social advertising system that enabled people to share information with their Facebook friends based on their browsing activities on other sites. The program came under scrutiny because of privacy concerns from groups and individual users. To quote Frenkel and Kang: “Zuckerberg had not asked permission from Facebook account holders to use them as sales agents; Beacon enrolled them automatically. Facebook was widening its data net, exploiting insights about its users in ways that crossed ethical lines.”

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and author of Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy. Chester was quoted in the New York Times describing behavioral advertising as a “digital data vacuum cleaner on steroids.” Everyone knew to be wary of the government’s reach, but in Chester’s estimation the danger wasn’t what the public or law enforcement knew about you. It was what commercial enterprises and advertisers did. It was what Facebook knew. He claimed that Facebook’s business model hijacked attention for commercial purposes, “inducing people to give up their autonomy.”

Open Graph was a program that allowed outside app developers to gain access to Facebook users’ information. In return, Facebook got users to extend their sessions on the site. In the first week after Zuckerberg announced the creation of Open Graph at the F8 developers’ conference in San Francisco,50,000 websites had installed Open Graph plug-ins. Facebook offered the apps access to users’ names, email addresses, cities of residence, birth dates, relationship details, political affiliations, and employment history.

Disconnection, Discord and Deceit

Profit seems to entail secrecy and unethical practices, suppression and punishment of whistleblowers. In 2012, operations manager Sandy Parakilas, alerted senior executives to the dangers of Open Graph which left users exposed to data brokers and foreign state actors. Parakilas later noted in a Washington Post op-ed that in his sixteen months working at Facebook, he never saw “a single audit of a developer where the company inspected the developer’s data storage.” He believed the explanation for lax enforcement was simple: “Facebook didn’t want to make the public aware of huge weaknesses in its data security.” The executives scoffed. “Do you really want to see what you’ll find?”

Shoot the Messenger

It is ironic that the Frenkel and Kang’s book shows us that the reality of a company whose stated mission is to create a connected world of open expression, is a corporate culture which demands secrecy and unquestioning loyalty. There was a corporate atmosphere which made people unwilling to bring the leaders bad news.

For an organisation that is predicated on communication FB has a tin ear for how it is itself perceived. Zuckerberg seems to be on an autism spectrum.  Sandberg does not know how to conduct herself appropriately. When she appeared before important committees, she tucked her feet underneath her and chatted casually as if she were having a chat with friends. For all the talk of her vaunted political instincts, time and again, she misread situations and revealed herself to be curiously oblivious and overconfident.

Alex Stamos

Alex Stamos had a reputation for blunt speech and high standards. When he left Yahoo to join Facebook as Chief Security Officer in 2015, it was seen as a sign that there was something deeply wrong at that company. His move indicated that he saw something at Facebook worth working for.  However, it did not turn out well for Stamos. The book gives us a fly-on-the-wall access to a shouting match at a Facebook board meeting over Russian election interference. There was resistance to a proper investigation. Stamos and his team had filed report after report about Russian activity on Facebook, but no-one responded. Stamos got no kudos for his findings. When the issue hit the fan, he was blamed.

Conclusion

“None of the revelations so far of Facebook’s foibles have harmed the company financially; in June, it became the fastest-ever company to reach $1 trillion in market value, validating Zuckerberg’s grow-at-all-costs strategy. We may be concerned about Facebook, we may even be fatigued by the amount of anger-inducing information we’ve learned about Facebook, but we still use its products.”

Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff wrote, Facebook’s success “depends upon one-way-mirror operations engineered for our ignorance and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity.”

One gets the feeling that we have lived with and for Facebook forever and it is part of our natural world immoveable and indestructible. I remember my history teacher, Mike England, commenting in 1963, that the Russian socialist project had withstood so many vicissitudes over 46 years that it would probably endure forever. By 1991, it had gone. Facebook has been with us for only 17 years and it seems unlikely that it will endure forever. However, even if regulators, or Zuckerberg himself, decided to one day end the Facebook experiment, the technology and the warped thinking and behaviour they have unleashed upon us is here to stay.

More next week about how Facebook has warped us.

Helping the Covid Poor

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on July 21, 2021. It is on Page 7 of the E-paper

Giving Is Good

Easy Giving

The philosopher of ethics, Peter Singer, recommends giving a sort of tithe to charities along the lines of religious organisations such as the Mormons. Of his book, The Life You Can Save he says, “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.” The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of Singer’s normal subtlety of thought and is an example of the fallacy of false analogy. Just because I choose to forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body claiming to be engaged in philanthropy does not guarantee that anything better will happen to “the poor”. The most likely result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from donating.

Poverty in Sri Lanka

The problem of poverty in Sri Lanka had eased considerably until recent times. The per capita GDP improved rapidly from below US $1,000 in 2003 to a peak of US $4,081 in 2018 before dipping to $3,853 in 2019 (World Bank). Both the Department of Census and Statistics and the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) recorded a sharp decline in the actual numbers of the ‘poor’ from the late 1990s up to 2016.

Blows to the Sri Lankan Economy

The Coronavirus pandemic has a devastating effect on Sri Lankan livelihoods. The Easter Sunday bombings severely damaged the Lankan economy and also exposed serious flaws in political management. There was insufficient time for the economy to recover from the shock of Easter Sunday before the pandemic hit.

The first case of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka was detected on March 11th, 2020. The initial response by the government was stringent and effective. However, the unfortunate by-product of government measures to contain the spread of the virus was further severe damage to the economy. When the economy is damaged there are many who are not cushioned from the impact. Many of those serving in the Sri Lankan economy are what Professor Guy Standing has called the “precariat”. Lockdowns result in reduced incomes and higher prices which are hard for many to bear.

Many Sri Lankan workers lost their jobs in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. Statistics indicate that the total number of jobs in the economy contracted by 160,996 in the first quarter of 2020. Even skilled workers who help to maintain our own living standards through their construction, electrical and plumbing expertise tend to be paid on a daily basis and have little scope to build up protection against unforeseen contingencies. Life is far more precarious for those who are unskilled and rely on casual manual or domestic labour. This is very difficult when movement is restricted.

After the lockdown implemented in Sri Lanka between March and June 2020, overall unemployment increased to above 6% in the second quarter and conditions continue to worsen for many workers, especially the precariat.

Inequality

Even in the good times, the spread of wealth was uneven, with the heavily urbanised Western Province accounting for almost 40 per cent of the national GDP. Central Bank data shows that in 2019, There are large pockets of people in all parts of the country still below the poverty line, malnourished and stunted children, substantial numbers of unqualified youth and unemployed, under-employed or only seasonally employed people. This situation fuels drug addiction, alcoholism and general social discontent.

Direct Giving

Whatever about government disaster management or the contribution of INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) and local NGOs, Sri Lankan people have a good record for responding to natural and other crises. I witnessed for myself the efforts of ordinary people to help out after the tsunami.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilize funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them.

Private Initiatives

A recent private response to covid poverty involved the distribution of 400 packs of dried goods to needy communities in the Aluthwatta area near Kandy. The organiser wishes to remain anonymous, but she said this about what motivated her: “I saw a heartbreaking video of starving people and felt that, how can some people not have a grain of rice to cook when we have three square meals a day!”

The video clip was shot in the Ambakote area near Kandy. This lady is very well-networked and managed through her many contacts to communicate with the vice-president of a women’s organisation in Ambakote. It became clear that the publicity had been beneficial to Ambakote, and the local people had had their suffering relieved somewhat. A nearby village had been having similar problems, so the project was now targeted on Wijayasirigama, Aluthwatta.

Each pack included five kg of rice, one kg each of dhal, sugar and potatoes and a 400 gr milk powder packet. The organiser sent a WhatsApp message to family and friends who then passed it on exponentially to their own contacts. The original aim was to collect a 100 packs. “I got calls from people all over the world, most who helped and some who didn’t. But what was amazing was the giving spirit of the people!” Some people, such as a cancer patient, were generous from limited resources. One individual generously provided funds for 80 packs.

Within a week funds were available for 400 packs. “This would not have been possible if not for the friends, family and mostly total strangers who called from all over the world to say, ‘we need to do something for our country’ and who placed their trust in me to do this with honour and integrity.” The distribution was done on an ecumenical basis from Gangaramaya Temple, Gangapitiya, Lighthouse Church, Wijayasirigama, Masjidul Noor Jumma Mosque and Shri Kali Amman Kovil, Gangapitiya.

The person who organised the Aluthwatta initiative would not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. This is not about saintliness but about examples to encourage others of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving. Whatever Peter Singer might claim, the main function of NGOs has long been to provide a career for the ambitious rather than a vocation for the idealistic. Andrew Carnegie wrote: “[O]f every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.” Before his death on August 11, 1919, Carnegie had donated $350,695,654 for various causes. “Humanitarianism” has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy speaking an impenetrable language. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV. NGO links with the World Bank can lead to even more lucrative careers in inter-state organisations.

Active charity is more effective than passive giving. Singer recognised that one could not always know how one’s donations were being spent. It seemed to me that this form of delegated compassion makes more of a difference to the giver’s self-esteem than to the welfare of the needy. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO.

Those of us with less wealth than Carnegie and co. can also benefit from giving. We can perhaps benefit more, because we can have the satisfaction of giving to the hand and looking in the eye. Clinging to material goods makes people selfish, struggling to satisfy insatiable desires with transitory pleasures.  When we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving. Giving is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.

You do not need to be as rich as Bill Gates is or as well-connected as Bono. You do not have to send money abroad. You do not even have to give money. Awareness is the most important thing. Look around your own area, talk to religious leaders and doctors, talk to your neighbours. They will advise you who is in need. By giving of your heart as well as your money, you can save yourself, make a difference and improve someone else’s life, by giving with wisdom.

It’s a bargain!

James Hadley Chase

A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on July 8, 2021. For some reason, the editors decided to remove the links I provided to enable readers to sample the works of James Hadley Chase free of charge.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/james-hadley-chase

Yuppie Nightmare

I have returned to the work of James Hadley Chase and found it rather impressive. The particular novel I have just read has the kind of lazy and meaningless title that many of this author’s books are lumbered with. You Must Be Kidding tells you nothing about the book itself. Nevertheless, it is tautly written with not a word wasted. The plot reminds me of those Yuppie in Peril movies that were all the vogue in the 1980s and early 1990s. I am thinking here of Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction from 1987, Alan J Pakula’s Presumed Innocent from 1990, Brian de Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities from 1990, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours from 1985. All these works show how easy it is to step outside the seemingly secure boundaries of a comfortable life and fall into an abyss.

Paradise City

 

You Must Be Kidding was published in 1979. It opens with that old TV sit-com cliché, “Hi Honey. I’m home”. This is shorthand for safe domestic and marital bliss. Ken Brandon is a successful insurance executive in Paradise City (“the billionaire’s playground: the most expensive, lush-plush city in the world”) not far from Miami Beach. His wife, Betty, also has a successful career, (working for an abortionist) earning more than Ken. “The Brandons had been married for four years and those years hadn’t blunted Ken’s feelings for her.” The fact that she earns more than him rankles a little and makes him ambitious and possibly a little greedy for more, but he was happy that “her earnings made it possible for them to live in a modest style which they both enjoyed, with two cars, a nice bungalow in a good residential district and they were able to save for the future.”

Things fall apart when Ken’s boss, Jefferson Sternwood, offers him a “promotion”, heading a new branch in Secomb, which he believes has a huge untapped source of profit – untapped because the people are poor. This is a foreshadowing of the later attempts by the “financial services industry” to make profits out of poor people through toxic packages based on sub-prime mortgages. Secomb is a working class district, mainly black, unlike the rich clients Brandon is used to dealing with. In Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy’s comfortable world falls apart when he takes a wrong turn on the expressway and finds himself in the “war-zone” of the South Bronx. Ken Brandon’s world is not destroyed by the black residents of Secomb. His troubles arise because he succumbs to the wiles of Sternwood’s daughter, Karen, who is assigned as his office assistant. Unfortunately for Brandon, she is “a superb, sensual young animal.” There is another sultry Sternwood, played by Lauren Bacall, in The Big Sleep.

After Brandon succumbs to Karen, they stumble upon the corpse of a girl brutally murdered. The police find a distinctive golf ball button at the scene of the crime. It matches one missing from Brandon’s jacket. One lie leads to another and detective Tom Lepski is pretty sure Brandon is the culprit.  I will not go into too much detail about the plot in case you want to read the book yourself. It is available, as are many of Chase’s books, on free PDF:

The Taking of Miss Blandish

Chase’s first novel, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, which he wrote in 1938, caused a sensation and is still shocking today. The first time I read it must have been in the 1950s. It was strong meat for a small boy. My father was a member of Foyle’s Thriller Book Club and a number of crime books published in 1953 were arrayed on a bookshelf next to the armchair I usually sat in. I would dip in from time to time to these thrillers. Most were fairly bland (Agatha Christie, Eric Ambler, Earl Stanley Gardener) but Blandish was on a different level and not at all bland. The story goes that Chase wrote it for a bet to out-do The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. Gene D Phillips of Loyola University of Chicago confidently asserted that the plot was indebted to Sanctuary by Nobel laureate William Faulkner (who contributed to the confusing screenplay of The Big Sleep) and that Slim Grisson was modeled on Faulkner’s Popeye, a Memphis-based criminal who rapes Temple Drake and introduces her into a criminal world which corrupts her. Slim sounds a bit like Prabhakaran: he gained power “by the simple method of killing anyone who opposed him, until the gang finally settled down and accepted him as their leader.” Even in 1938, Chase spotted a now well-documented trait of psychopathic serial killers: “It did not come as a surprise when he caught him cutting up a new-born kitten with a rusty pair of scissors.”

Chase’s book deals with the accidental kidnap of an heiress by a gang of small-time crooks who are out of their depth. They lose their catch to a much more efficient and vicious mob. Riley’s gang lose their prize to Ma’ Grisson and her sadistic, sexually deviant son Slim. There is violence, creepy sex, gothic horror, evocative description and smart dialogue. “It began on a summer morning in July. The sun came up early in the morning mist, and the pavements were already steaming a little from the heavy dew. The air in the streets was stale and lifeless. It had been an exhausting month of intense heat, rainless skies and warm, dust-laden winds.”

Once again I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot in case you have the stomach to read it for yourself. It is unrelentingly bleak and do not expect a happy ending. It is available as a free download.

https://manybooks.net/titles/chasejother08Blandish.html

International Success

Chase published 90 novels. I have many of those books in a series I bought from MD Gunasena’s bookshop in Colombo. Chase’s books were very popular in India and Sri Lanka. The books I bought were published by Master Mind Books of Bangalore. It looks as though they are still available.

https://mastermindbooks.com/111-james-hadley-chase-books

Chase’s best market was France (more than 30 books were made into movies) where all of his ninety titles were published by Éditions Gallimard in their Série noire series. At least 50 of Chase’s books were made into films in various countries. I saw one of those films, Eve, in the 1960s. Joseph Losey studied in Germany with Bertolt Brecht and then returned to the United States. Blacklisted by Hollywood in the McCarthyite 1950s, he moved to Europe where he made the remainder of his films, mostly in the UK, some in collaboration with Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. Most were critically acclaimed.

Joseph Losey’s Eve

Eve was not acclaimed. The original book was a psychological study of a prostitute (Chase, with his wife’s blessing, had picked out a “lady of the night” and offered her £5 and a good lunch if she would let him pick her brains). Chase’s 1945 novel was set against the background of the Hollywood film industry, and deals with Clive Thurston, who has swindled his way to fame, and Eve, who is beautiful but lethal. Losey’s version was transposed from Hollywood to Venice and starred an intense Stanley Baker as a Welsh writer obsessed with a cold-hearted femme fatale, Eve (Jeanne Moreau).

Losey said the producers made cuts without his permission and the film was a disappointment to him. It was described as the most traumatic disaster of Losey’s career.  There was a positive review from Derek Winnert who wrote that “Losey’s dark thriller is really rather effective and underrated, and the actors are spot on in tailor-made roles.”  There was a 2018 French version directed by Benoît Jacquot, starring Isabelle Huppert which was generally regarded as a stinker.

René Lodge Brabazon Raymond

Chase’s birth name was René Lodge Brabazon Raymond, and he had many pseudonyms, including, James L Docherty, Raymond Marshall, R Raymond, and Ambrose Grant. He was born on 24 December 1906 in London, the son of Colonel Francis Raymond a veterinary surgeon in the colonial Indian Army. His father intended him to have a scientific career and sent him to at King’s School, Rochester, Kent. During World War II he served in the Royal Air Force, achieving the rank of Squadron Leader. He edited the RAF journal with cartoonist David Langdon and had several stories from it published after the war. After Chase left home at the age of 18, he worked in sales, primarily focusing on books and literature. He sold children’s encyclopaedias, while also working in a bookshop. He also served as an executive for a book wholesaler. In 1932, Chase married Sylvia Ray, and they had a son. In 1956, they moved to France and In 1969, to Switzerland, living a secluded life in Corseaux-sur-Vevey, on Lake Geneva. Chase eventually died there on 6 February 1985.

HRF Keating did not visit India until ten years after he started writing about Bombay and Inspector Ghote. Chase wrote his books without any direct experience of the USA. He visited Miami and New Orleans a couple of times and quite late in his life. Most of the author’s knowledge of USA has been derived from encyclopedias, maps and dictionaries. During World War II, Chase became friendly with Merrill Panitt (subsequently editor of TV Guide), who provided him with a dictionary of American slang, detailed maps and reference books of the American underworld. 

Expiry of McAfee

This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 2 2021.

 

I did not know a thing about John McAfee until I read the news of his demise. I was surprised to learn that he was born not far from my birthplace. I was born in Gloucester, UK in 1946 and John McAfee was born in Cinderford, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, on 18 September 1945. He made two bids for the US presidency which is a bit ambitious for a lad from the Forest. I thought the job was only open to people who were born in the US. Perhaps it made a difference that he was born on a US Army base (of the 596th Ordnance Ammunition Company), to an American father, who was stationed there, and a British mother.

The Forest of Dean had a certain reputation with us city-slickers from Gloucester for primitivism, in-breeding and strange customs. Anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Franz Boas and possibly our very own Michael Roberts would have found ample material for study in the Forest. The picture that we had of the area was similar to areas of the US depicted in films like Southern Comfort and Deliverance. One of the Forest’s famous sons was record producer Joe Meek, England’s answer to Phil Spector and just as mad – like Spector, he threatened session men with a gun. As well as winning fame and acclaim for innovative records such as Telstar, Meek also gained fame by shooting his landlady dead and then himself. Another son of the Forest was  controversial playwright Dennis Potter who wrote dark television masterpieces about incest and corruption and fear in the Forest of Dean. Littledean Jail in the Forest of Dean was built in 1788 and is now a gruesome museum of crime. The museum’s dark exhibits include the spade, shovel, trowel and knife used by notorious serial killers Fred and Rose West – as well as Fred’s tie. Fred was born in Much Marcle not far from the Forest.

John McAfee escaped the Forest at an early age, but his life was as weird as any Dennis Potter play about his birth territory. McFee was mainly raised in Salem Virginia but considered himself as much British as American. When he was 15, his father, an abusive alcoholic, killed himself with a gun.

McAfee received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1967 from Roanoke College in Virginia and began working towards a doctorate in mathematics at Northeast Louisiana State College but was expelled, in 1968, because of a relationship with an undergraduate student, who became his first wife. From 1968 to 1970, McAfee worked as a programmer for NASA on the Apollo programme. He did various jobs as a software designer and operating system architect and in the 1980s, while working at Lockheed, he began developing software to combat viruses. He wrote the first commercial anti-virus software, founding McAfee Associates in 1987 to sell his creation. he warned the public of the Michelangelo virus, which he said could wreak havoc on 5m computers, though only a few were actually infected. He was accused of trying to generate sales through fear. He claimed that he had never used virus protection software himself.

He resigned in 1994 and sold his remaining stake in the company. He had no further involvement in its operations and frequently criticised what they had done with his creation, calling it “the worst software on the planet.” In June 2013, McAfee uploaded onto his YouTube channel a video titled How to Uninstall McAfee Antivirus in which, while being stripped by scantily clad women he snorts white powder and denounces the antivirus software.

He dabbled in other tech ventures, including one of the first instant messaging services, before retiring to Belize in 2008.

He frequently touted conspiracy theories on social media. Amy Emshwiller, the teenage ex-prostitute he lived with in Belize, describes him: “He’s sweet, generous. He likes to like adventures. He’s serious and usually he has a dark sense of humour. He’s generally a sweet guy. He just doesn’t like to be [expletive] with.” One night, Emshwiller took McAfee’s gun, aimed it at his head, and pulled the trigger. She missed.

After a number of diverse but lucrative business ventures, McAfee’s personal fortune declined to $4 million from a peak of $100 million according to a New York Times report in August 2009. His life was full of incident. In 2012, there were reports that he was in hiding in Belize after police had identified him as a “person of interest” in the murder of a neighbour, Gregory Faull, a 52-year-old businessman from Florida, near his beachside compound on an island off the Belize coast.

McAfee had moved to Belize to avoid taxes. Neighbours became annoyed with him because of  his eleven dogs. Four of the dogs had been poisoned. Faull had filed a complaint about the dogs, though McAfee said he didn’t think Faull would have killed them. McAfee told the tech site Gizmodo he believed there were several plots on his life, and he had protected his Belize compound with armed guards in response. “So there have been, in the last year alone, 11 attempts to kidnap or kill me.”

A US federal judge in Florida ordered McAfee to pay $25 million in damages to Faull’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit by Faull’s daughter which claims that McAfee paid $5,000 to have Faull killed. McAfee refused to pay, saying he was innocent and had no assets.

Hours after the Spain’s highest court approved McAfee’s extradition to the United States, he was found dead in the Brians 2 prison near Barcelona. McAfee’s lawyer told the Reuters news agency that McAfee had apparently hanged himself in his prison cell. He was wanted on tax-related criminal charges that carry a prison sentence of up to 30 years. Tennessee prosecutors had charged McAfee with evading taxes after failing to report income made from promoting cryptocurrencies. He himself claimed to make $2,000 a day cryptocurrency guru.

One journalist who interviewed McAfee many times described him a “master manipulator” who lies and deceives. He continues to manipulate after death. Conspiracy theories about his death already abound. “He didn’t kill himself. Who did he piss off?” Expect a movie about his life soon.

The Mysterious Death of Daniel Morgan -Part Two

This article was published in Ceylon Today on June 25, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/daniel-morgan-s-mysterious-death

the criminal/ media/political nexus – Gordon Brown

 

Daniel Morgan was found dead in the carpark of the Golden Lion pub in Sydenham at 9.40 pm on 10 March 1987 with an axe in his head. Morgan was a private investigator operating an agency called Southern Investigations based in Thornton Heath near Croydon in Surrey. Despite five police investigations, still no-one has been convicted of the murder. Morgan’s family have been waiting 34 years for some answers.  An independent inquiry, the Daniel Morgan Independent Panel (DMIP), chaired by Baroness Nuala O’Loan, into the Metropolitan Police’s investigation of the murder was set up eight years ago. The panel also investigated “the incidence of connections between private investigators, police officers and journalists at the former News of the World and other parts of the media, and alleged corruption involved in the linkages between them”. The report was published without redactions on June 15, 2021.

Rees at the time of the murder.

The main suspect in the case was Morgan’s business partner Jonathan Rees. Because of horrendous procedural failures by corrupt and/or monumentally incompetent Met policemen, Rees is still a free man, living with Margaret Harrison, the Thornton Heath estate agent whose affections he shared with Daniel Morgan back in 1987.

Rees and Margaret Harrison today

Rees was convicted in 2005 of planting drugs on an innocent woman. Rees had used email hacking to expose an undercover agent in Northern Ireland and Derek Haslam who had been penetrating Southern Investigations for nine years. On his release he was paid handsomely by Andy Coulson to do dirty work for the News of the World. In one year alone, the News of the World paid Rees £150,000. Andy Coulson was later paid handsomely to do dirty work for Tory leader David Cameron.

Andy Coulson

Andy Coulson was the editor of the News of the World from 2003 until 2007.  Coulson got on well with David Cameron (who became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005) and his former Bullingdon Club buddy George Osborne (who became Chancellor of the Exchequer when Cameron became prime minister in 2010) despite publishing stories about them taking drugs. A PR man had said that one of Coulson’s most useful attributes was his ability to “screw you over and make you feel good about it”.

When current prime minister, Boris Johnson, was running for mayor of London in 2007, Coulson helped with the campaign but still wrote about Johnson: “for a posh bloke who went to Eton, he has an uncanny popular touch. He also has an uncanny habit of cheating on his wife.” Coulson cheated on his own wife with Rebekah Wade (now Brooks) when she was his editor at the News of the World.

Coulson resigned the editorship following the conviction of one of the News of the World’s reporters for phone-hacking. Despite this, David Cameron saw fit to give Coulson a £140,000 a year job as his communications director. Coulson did eventually lose that job when he was sent to prison. In June 2014 at the Old Bailey, Coulson was found guilty of a charge of conspiracy to intercept voicemails (phone-hacking).  One of the phones hacked was that of Milly Dowler, the thirteen-year-old girl who was brutally raped and murdered by Levi Bellfield. Coulson was sentenced on 4 July 2014 to 18 months in prison. He only served five months.

Coulson copped

Rebekah Brooks

Brooks was born Rebekah Wade. She married actor Ross Kemp (who played the thuggish Grant Mitchell in the teledrama EastEnders) in June 2002 in Las Vegas, while she was editor of The Sun.

On 3 November 2005, it was reported that Brooks had been arrested following an alleged assault on Kemp. She was released without charge, and the police took no further action. The Sun had been running a campaign against domestic violence at the time. She married former racehorse trainer and author Charlie Brooks in 2009. The couple are key members of the so-called Chipping Norton set, which includes David Cameron.

Brooks has something in common with our beloved CBK – in her entry in Who’s Who, she claimed, to much amusement, that she had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. Brooks joined the News of the World in 1989 as a secretary. She became a features writer and then deputy editor. In 2000, she became the UK’s youngest editor. She prepared for an interview with James Hewitt, a lover of Princess Diana, by bugging his hotel room.  She oversaw the News of the World’s campaign of “naming and shaming” suspected sex offenders launched in the wake of the murder of Sarah Payne. As part of the campaign the phone of Sarah’s mother was hacked. The campaign was described as “grossly irresponsible” journalism by the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire, Tony Butler. 

In March 2003, Rebekah Brooks, then editor of The Sun, and Andy Coulson, editor of News of the World testified together before the Commons media select committee. Brooks responded to a question about payments to the police saying that the organization paid the police for information in the past. Asked if she would do so again in the future, her answer was pre-empted by Coulson who stated that, if there is a clear public interest, they would continue with that practice. It was pointed out to Coulson that it was always illegal to pay police officers, regardless of public interest.

In September 2015, Brooks was confirmed as CEO of News UK, the renamed News International, re-establishing the working relationship with News Corp founder and chairman Rupert Murdoch. Brooks and Murdoch’s daughter, Elizabeth, were frequent guests at David Cameron’s Chipping Norton home.

Phone Hacking

By 2002, British newspapers were making frequent use of an organised trade in confidential personal information acquired by Illegal means. The tabloid press routinely used information illicitly gained from hacking private voicemail accounts on mobile phones and hacking computers.

Employees of the News of the World were accused of engaging in phone hacking, police bribery, and exercising improper influence in the pursuit of stories. It seems likely that reporters were engaging in illegal activities as long ago as 1987, when Daniel Morgan was killed, even though mobile phones as we know them did not exist then. (Morgan did have a car phone.) Between 1999 and 2003, several reporters were convicted for crimes including drug distribution, the theft of drugs, child pornography, planting evidence, corruption, and perverting the course of justice.

Press Intimidation

During the fourth investigation into Daniel Morgan’s death, the senior investigating officer, David Cook, told Rebekah Brooks, that he and his family were under surveillance by News of the World journalists.

Cook’s wife, also a police officer, alleged that there was a campaign of intimidation against them. The staff involved were promoted not reprimanded. The DMIP report says,  “the circumstantial evidence suggests very strongly that intrusive activity suffered by DCS Cook, his wife Jacqui Hames, and their family was arranged by former DS Sid Fillery and Alex Marunchak.”

Jacqui Hames on Crimewatch

 

Alex Marunchak was the star crime writer at the News of the World, who became an executive.

He was the main point of contact at the newspaper for Rees and Fillery. It was alleged that Marunchak commissioned surveillance by shady investigator Glen Mulcaire on Cook in order to “subvert” the detective’s investigation into Morgan’s murder.

Mulcaire was the lowlife who hacked Milly Dowler’s phone. He was jailed for hacking in 2007.

Millie Dowler

Cook has been described as the only policeman the Morgan family trusted and has been described as a scapegoat by many commentators on the Morgan case, but the DMIP report is harshly critical of his actions and say they have information which makes a strong case for him being prosecuted.

According to the Guardian, two executives at the News of the World set up a business registered at Southern Investigations’ address. Former senior Met officers were given jobs writing columns in Murdoch’s papers. Lord Stevens, the former Met commissioner, went on to write for the News of the World after his retirement in 2005.

A witness told detectives that Morgan was in discussions with the News of the World to sell a story about police corruption. News UK, the company that owns Murdoch’s British newspapers, including the august Times, as well as the gutter Sun, declined to comment.

The Death of Daniel Morgan Part One

 

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on June 18, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/daniel-morgan-s-unsolved-murder

Daniel Morgan was found dead in the carpark of the Golden Lion pub in Sydenham in 1987 with an axe in his head. Three blows had been delivered with the blade of the axe to the back of the head followed by a final blow to the side. The murder weapon was a £45 Chinese-manufacture Diamond Brand chopping axe.

Morgan’s family have been waiting 34 years for some answers.  An independent inquiry chaired by Baroness O’Loan was set up eight years ago. The panel started work formally on 17 September 2013 and expected to report within a year of “the documentation being made available”. The final documents were not received from the Metropolitan Police until March 2021. Publication of the panel’s report, which was due on May 25, 2021, was further delayed, because the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, insisted that the report be handed to her for vetting before publication.

Southern Investigations

Daniel Morgan had an exceptional memory for small details, such as car registration numbers. In 1984, he set up a detective agency, Southern Investigations, in Thornton Heath, southern Greater London near Croydon and ran it with his business partner Jonathan Rees. Morgan had some police contacts, and his work was mainly low-level. 

At the time of his murder, Morgan was having an affair with a woman named Margaret Harrison, an estate agent with two teenage daughters, and had met her at 6:30pm at Regan’s Wine Bar on Brigstock Road, in Thornton Heath shortly before the murder.

 

Before his body was found at around 9.40, Morgan had been drinking in the Golden Lion pub in Sydenham with Jonathan Rees. At 8.00pm on the evening of 9 March, the day before his murder, Morgan met Rees in the Golden Lion, a pub he did not usually frequent, and was surprised to find to find Detective Sergeant Sid Fillery of Catford CID with Rees. Morgan got into an argument with the other two because he thought dealing with corrupt policemen was bad for business.

After Morgan’s body was found, the detective assigned to take the lead in the investigation was none other than Sid Fillery. Fillery failed to disclose that he was moonlighting for Southern Investigations or that he and Rees were close friends. A month later, Fillery and two other Catford officers were arrested and questioned on suspicion of perverting the course of justice.

Jonathan Rees

Rees was married to a divorcée called Sharon, with whom he had two children. Sharon Rees had two brothers called Garry and Glenn Vian, described in a Crown Prosecution Service document as “part of the criminal fraternity”. The Vian brothers were employed by Rees at Southern Investigations as “security guards”. Three weeks after the murder, Rees, Fillery, the Vian brothers, and two other CID officers were arrested on suspicion of murder, but all were later released without charge. Garry Vian was jailed for 14 years in 2005 for drugs smuggling. Former Met constable Dean Vian, nephew of Garry and Glenn, said on camera for a TV programme, “My mum told me that Glenn had killed him, and he was paid by Jonathan Rees to do that. … Jonathan Rees and Daniel Morgan had a falling out because they were both with the same woman.” Alastair Morgan, Daniel’s brother, told the programme he absolutely didn’t believe the “love triangle”, Morgan/Harrison/Rees, had anything to do with the murder.

Glenn Vian died in June 2020.

Police Corruption

It seems likely that Morgan was about to expose a case of extensive drug-related police corruption implicating Rees, Fillery and other South London Met officers. Understandably Morgan did not trust the police to investigate; he himself had influential press contacts (among them, at the Daily Mirror, Alastair Campbell, who later became Tony Blair’s press secretary) and might eventually have decided to sell his story.

Morgan was prepared to be “flexible” about the law while pursuing his routine trade of debt collection and snooping on errant spouses. However, Rees seems to have operated at a different level of sleaze. Morgan had a low opinion of the police. Rees loved to socialize with Met officers at Masonic gala events in Croydon.

Failed Investigations

In April 1987, Jonathan Rees was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Daniel Morgan but was released without charge. Between Morgan’s death in 1987 and 2008, five police inquiries were conducted. There were allegations of police corruption, drug trafficking and robbery. Later, police arrested Jonathan Rees and several others on suspicion of murder, along with a serving police officer suspected of leaking information. In 2009 the trial began at the Old Bailey. In March 2011, the Director of Public Prosecutions abandoned the case, and the three accused were acquitted, including Jonathan Rees. The case involved some of the longest legal arguments submitted in a trial in the English criminal courts. Nicholas Hilliard QC, for the prosecution, said that defence lawyers might not be able to examine all the documents in the case (750,000 pages dating back over 24 years) in order to ensure a fair trial.

In 2017, four men sued the Met in the high court alleging malicious prosecution. Among them were Rees and his brothers-in-law, Glenn and Garry Vian. They denied charges of murder. Those three lost their case against the Met but won an appeal in 2018 and were awarded £414,000 between them. Sid Fillery worked on the first murder investigation. He had close ties to Rees, and he went on to replace Morgan at Southern Investigations.  A report by the Metropolitan Police Authority, the body that used to oversee the Met, said: “In the following months there were rumours and allegations of high-level police corruption and masonic links surrounding the investigation, but no charges resulted.”

Corrupt Journalists

It seems likely that reporters were engaging in illegal activities as long ago as 1987, when Daniel Morgan was killed, even though smart phones did not exist then. Between 1999 and 2003, several reporters were convicted for crimes including drug distribution, the theft of drugs, child pornography, planting evidence, corruption, and perverting the course of justice. When he was editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson hired Jonathan Rees after he was released from a five-year prison sentence in 2005 and paid him £150,00 a year for dubious services. Rees had been convicted of planting cocaine to incriminate an innocent woman. Andy Coulson later became David Cameron’s press secretary.

During the fourth investigation into Morgan’s death, the senior investigating officer, Dave Cook, told Rebekah Brooks, when she was editor of the News of the World, that he and his family were under surveillance by News of the World journalists. Cook’s wife, also a police officer, alleged that there was a campaign of intimidation against them. The staff involved were promoted not reprimanded. Brooks and her husband were frequent guests at prime minister David Cameron’s house.

David Cook

 

O’Loan Inquiry

An independent panel chaired by Baroness Nuala O’Loan was tasked to look at “police involvement in Daniel Morgan’s murder; the role played by police corruption in protecting those responsible for the murder … and the failure to confront that corruption”. The panel also investigated “the incidence of connections between private investigators, police officers and journalists at the former News of the World and other parts of the media, and alleged corruption involved in the linkages between them”. Morgan’s killing might be connected to his knowledge of extensive and high-level corruption within the Metropolitan Police and dirty dealings by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Former prime minister Gordon Brown coined the term “criminal media nexus”. Rupert Murdoch acquired the News of the World way back in 1969. News UK, the company that owns Murdoch’s British newspapers, including the august Times, declined to comment.

Where Are They Now?

Current home secretary Priti Patel was a guest at Rupert Murdoch’s 2016 wedding in London to Jerry Hall, former wife of Mick Jagger. Fellow cabinet minister Michael Gove was also an honoured guest.

Sid Fillery was subsequently convicted of child porn offences and now helps to run a pub in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk; Jonathan Rees lives with his mistress Margaret Harrison, yes that Margaret Harrison, in Weybridge, Surrey.

More on the “criminal/ media/political nexus” next week.

Careless People Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on June 2, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/category/print-edition/columns

“They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

Indolent, Shambling Greed

I am not the only writer to have used the phrase “careless people” in relation to Tory politicians. The philosopher John Gray wrote a scathing article in the New Statesman in which he said that the Greensill scandal illuminates a larger truth about David Cameron’s character: “It is not so much the spectacle of indolent, shambling greed that is remarkable; it was only to be expected that a life of mere affluence would fail to satisfy Cameron’s mammoth sense of entitlement. Instead, it is the credulity he displayed.” New Statesman editor, Jason Cowley, writes: “It was under Mr Cameron that the UK pursued destructive austerity, a doomed renegotiation with the EU, a botched reorganisation of the NHS, dysfunctional welfare reform, an unworkable net migration target and a delusionary ‘golden era’ with China. The bid to make Greensill Capital a virtual arm of the British state is but the latest fantasy that has unravelled.” Cameron was foolish enough to claim in a new foreword to the paperback edition of his memoirs that austerity left Britain better-prepared for the pandemic! As Cowley explains, “austerity enfeebled the state. Real-terms reserves for public health spending in England fell by 30 per cent from 2015 to 2019, while the prevalence of diabetes and obesity rose. Local authorities, which in less centralised countries were crucial to the pandemic response, lost an average of 60p in every pound of government grants from 2010 to 2020. Cuts to schools increased class sizes, making social distancing harder.”

Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian was also recently quoting the “careless people” passage from F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby, but he was onto this theme eight years ago. “The top 1% of Britons were taking 15% of all income received in the country. This cash is then turned into houses, shares and other assets so that now the top 1% hold over 50% of all Britain’s marketable wealth. And so, inequality is passed down the generations. Today’s headlines offer endless examples. The average London house now costs over half a million, or more than 19 times what the average British worker makes in a year.” 

Cameron Family Money

Cameron’s grandfather Donald was a director at the stockbroking house Panmure Gordon. When he died in 1958, he left £57,000, which would be worth a million today. David Cameron’s father, Ian, also worked at Panmure Gordon and was reported to have trousered £2m when the company was sold to an American firm. He set up Blairmore Holdings Inc in 1982. In 2009, his personal fortune was estimated by the Sunday Times as £ ten million. There have been credible allegations that he had large amounts buried in tax havens.

Cameron is now pleading hard times. “There isn’t really a roadmap for an ex-prime minister…particularly a young one …”   

Bullingdon Bullies

George Osborne and Natalie Rowe 1994

 

The grand old days of Osborne and Cameron’s austerity.

 

Cameron, his Chancellor George Osborne and current prime minister Boris Johnson were all members of the exclusive Bullingdon Club at Oxford. The Wisden Cricketer reports that the Bullingdon is “ostensibly one of the two original Oxford University cricket teams but it actually used cricket merely as a respectable front for the mischievous, destructive or self-indulgent tendencies of its members”. On 12 May 1894, after dinner, Bullingdon members smashed almost all the glass of the lights and 468 windows in Peckwater Quad of Christ Church, along with the blinds and doors of the building, and again on 20 February 1927. Today, the club often books private dining rooms under an assumed name, as most restaurateurs are cautious of the Club’s reputation as being the cause of considerable drunken damage during the course of their dinners. Andrew Gimson, biographer of Boris Johnson, reported about the club in the 1980s: “I don’t think an evening would have ended without a restaurant being trashed and being paid for in full, very often in cash. […] A night in the cells would be regarded as being par for a Buller man and so would debagging anyone who really attracted the irritation of the Buller men.” In December 2005, Bullingdon Club members smashed 17 bottles of wine, “every piece of crockery,” and a window at the 15th-century White Hart pub in Fyfield near Oxford.

Chippings off the Old Block

In 2012, The Daily Telegraph identified a number of people as being part of a “Chipping Norton Set”. The set included the Camerons, Rupert Murdoch’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband Matthew Freud, Rebekah Brooks, former CEO of Murdoch’s News International and her husband, old-Etonian racehorse trainer and thriller writer Charlie Brooks. Stephen Glover, columnist with the Daily Mail, first coined the term ‘Chipping Norton set’ to describe a privileged bunch of residents and their elite habits. The main protagonists quickly became synonymous with the public view of an out-of-touch ruling class, pandering to their own whims while the nation suffered austerity. Scott Fitzgerald would have found much material here.

Elizabeth Murdoch and former husband Matthew Freud

Rebekah Brooks and Rupert Murdoch

 

Hackers

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie Brooks arrive at the Old Bailey on March 3, 2014.She escaped jail and continues to flourish.

Brooks was involved in a phone hacking scandal for which News of the World editor Andy Coulson went to jail. These awful people hacked the phone of 13-year-old Milly Dowler who had been raped and brutally murdered.

In October 2013, it was revealed that Coulson had had an affair with Rebekah Brooks that lasted from 1998 to 2007. After David Cameron became Prime Minister in May 2010, he appointed Coulson as Director of Communications for the government at 10 Downing Street. His pay was £140,000, making him the highest paid special advisor. The judge hearing Coulson’s trial was critical of the prime minister, pondering whether the intervention was out of ignorance or deliberate, and demanded an explanation.

Private investigator Daniel Morgan was found dead in the car park of the Golden Lion pub in Sydenham in 1987 with an axe embedded in his head. His killing is thought to have been motivated by his knowledge of extensive and high-level corruption within the Metropolitan Police and dirty dealings by Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Former prime minister Gordon Brown coined the term “criminal media nexus”.

When he was editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson hired Morgan’s business partner Jonathan Rees after he was released from a five-year prison sentence in 2005. He had been convicted of planting cocaine to incriminate an innocent woman. Rees was a suspect in the Morgan investigation.

Current home secretary Priti Patel is insisting that the independent panel, chaired by Baroness Nuala O’Loan, investigating the murder of Daniel Morgan, hand its report to her for vetting before publishing it.

 

Baroness O’Loan

Publication of the report, which was due on May 25, eight years after the inquiry was set up, will be further delayed. Patel was a guest at Rupert Murdoch’s 2016 wedding in London to Jerry Hall, former wife of Mick Jagger.

 

 

Priti Patel, the poison dwarf, at St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street,  05 March 2016

More about the Daniel Morgan case next week.

Careless People Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on May 25, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/careless-people

David Cameron is under fire for his dealings with Lex Greensill

David Cameron was not the perfect guest when he visited Sri Lanka in November 2013. He tried to get the Commonwealth summit meeting to focus on human rights abuses and war crimes allegedly perpetrated by the Sri Lankan government in the closing stages of the successful campaign against the LTTE. He visited Jaffna and stirred up disaffected Tamils. I got the impression that his concern for the allegedly oppressed was not totally sincere.

Sincerity and a respect for truth are not notable elements of the Cameron character. Maverick Labour MP Dennis Skinner was expelled from the House of Commons for referring to him as Dodgy Dave. Recent events have proved the Beast of Bolsover to be accurate in his characterization.

Dodgy Dave Dodges Dodgy Questions

Cameron dodged questions throughout the hearings of two separate parliamentary committees (Treasury select committee and Public Accounts Committee) lasting a total of four hours on May 11, and May 13, 2021.The former prime minister was being grilled about his activities as a lobbyist for Greensill Capital, which involved him bombarding ministers and civil servants with needy pleas for favours for the dodgy company. Labour’s Angela Eagle said Cameron’s behaviour was “more like stalking than lobbying”. The opposition leader, Keir Starmer has had little to chuckle about recently, but he permitted himself a little joke at Cameron’s expense, describing him as “a former prime minister and now I suspect a former lobbyist”. Indeed, Cameron was not very good as a prime minister and pretty useless as a lobbyist, although he might have made money for himself. Dodgy Dave dodged questions about how much Greensill paid him for his efforts. He admitted it was more than his £150,000 salary as PM. He claimed that reports he stood to gain £60m were “absurd”. Labour’s Rushanara Ali told him, “It gives me no pleasure to say this, but your reputation is in tatters.”.

A Word in your Ear

In February 2010, Cameron promised to end the kind of corruption of which he is now accused. “We all know how it works. The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way. In this party, we believe in competition, not cronyism.” Eleven years on, how does that sound?

Honest Dave told the committee, “I have spent most of my adult life in public service. I believe in it deeply.” One can translate that to mean that he had never done a proper job in his life before he became the UK’s youngest prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812. Cameron became prime minister in at the age of 43 in 2010. He had been leader of the Conservative Party since 2005 when he was 39.

He enjoyed a gilded life. Born in London to an upper-middle-class family, he went to Eton and in 1988, got a first at Brasenose, Oxford (a source of bitterness to his former schoolmate Boris Johnson who only got 2.1 at Balliol).

He went straight from Oxford to the Conservative Research Department where he worked until 1993, at the later stages working for the Conservative prime minister, John Major. In 1994, before he became an MP, he went to work for Carlton Communications because believed a stint in the private sector would benefit his political career. He got the job through personal contacts such as Samantha Cameron’s mother who was married to William Waldorf Astor III, 4th Viscount Astor. Executives at Carlton Towers could eat gourmet meals in a private dining room, served by a butler summoned by pressing a button under the dining table. One senior business journalist who dealt with Cameron extensively describes him as “thoroughly unpleasant” and not a very efficient press officer. “Cameron’s affable demeanour is only skin-deep; he cultivated only those who could prove useful. “Cameron did this PR job until 2001 and this was the only work experience he had outside the cosy world of Westminster.

Human Rights

Although he made a show of distaste for the Sri Lankan government’s human rights record his own record is distasteful.

In 1989, while Nelson Mandela was still in prison under the apartheid regime, Cameron accepted a trip to South Africa paid for by an anti-sanctions lobby firm. A spokesperson for Cameron responded by saying that the Conservative Party was at that time opposed to sanctions against South Africa and that his trip was a fact-finding mission. However, the Independent reported that Cameron’s then superior at Conservative Research Department called the trip “jolly”, saying that “it was all terribly relaxed, just a little treat, a perk of the job. The Botha regime was attempting to make itself look less horrible, but I don’t regard it as having been of the faintest political consequence.” Cameron distanced himself from his party’s history of opposing sanctions against the regime.

It always seemed very odd that Saudi Arabia, a nation noted for a judicial system which included public beheadings and amputations and stoning of adulteresses, should be a member of the UNHRC which was condemning Sri Lanka for human rights abuses. According to WikiLeaks, Cameron initiated a secret deal with Saudi Arabia ensuring both countries were elected to the UNHRC. In 2015, Cameron’s government announced “firm political support” for the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen against the Shi’a Houthis, re-supplying the Saudi military with weapons and providing them with training.

Libya

The foreign affairs select committee, which had a majority of Conservative members, published a damning report in September 2016 on Britain’s disastrous intervention in Libya in 2011. Cameron refused to give evidence to the select committee. In one of his few reflections on the debacle, which turned Libya into a failed state exporting thousands of refugees, he blamed the Libyan people for failing to take their chance of democracy.

 

The result of Cameron’s decisions “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of Isil [Islamic State] in north Africa”.

The committee concluded that the intervention was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country. Sir Alan Duncan, a Foreign Office minister, is quoted as describing the plans for postwar planning as fanciful rot and an unrealistic desktop exercise. The report concurs with Barack Obama’s assessment that Britain’s intervention was “a shitshow”, adding that Cameron stopped paying attention and became “distracted by a range of other things”..

Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian, “It all adds yet more colour to the sketch history is likely to draw of Cameron. That he was hopelessly short-termist, too often acting for the moment, doing what he needed to get out of an immediate hole but failing to think things through. Sometimes, in the day-to-day tumble of domestic politics, that approach did little harm and served him well. It made him agile. But when blood and lives were at stake, it was a fatal flaw.”

The committee’s main charge was that Cameron allowed the original mission to creep into an undeclared pursuit of regime change in Libya. We in Sri Lanka are lucky that he did not get very with changing our regime.

More next week

Cursed Work

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on May 15, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/cursed-work

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

I have just finished reading David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs. Graeber makes a distinction between “bullshit” jobs and “shit” jobs. I have done both in my time but in my old age have the privilege of not having to work at all.

Adelphi

Graeber defines a bullshit job as “jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, to really do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers, or the sort of people (very familiar in academic contexts) who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.”

My most depressing job was in the luxurious environment of The Adelphi (an elegant art deco building just off The Strand in which much of David Suchet’s Poirot was filmed). I had a funny and congenial boss, friendly , witty colleagues and a glamorous St Lucian lady who took an interest in me and draped herself across my desk in fishnet stockings. In spite of all that I used to arrive at Charing Cross station every morning wondering if I should throw myself in front of a train. What was wrong with me?!

I regret that I do not have a photograph of the opulent lady in her fishnet stockings, but here is a picture of the opulent Adelphi instead.

 

David Graeber writes: “Once, while serving time in exile at a Siberian prison camp, Dostoyevsky developed the theory that the worst torture one could possibly devise would be to force someone to endlessly perform an obviously pointless task.”

The main problem at The Adelphi was that I knew, and all my colleagues knew, that overseeing staff training policy for Department of Social Security HQ was not a proper job for a grown man still possessed of most of his faculties . I was neither use nor ornament. There was nothing to do except draw up futile “memoranda of understanding” in which no-one was interested.  And to ogle Margaret in her fishnet stockings. The need for such MOUs had been created by the pointless fragmentation of public services through privatisation and outsourcing that was part of the voodoo philosophy of neoliberalism. I had been recommended for promotion a number of times and was usually able to make a good case to the interview board for the usefulness of the work I was doing at that particular time. I could not do that as overseer of DSS HQ training policy. That interview was a humiliating experience and a step on the way to the early retirement that liberated me.

Graeber writes: “A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Gloucester Royal Infirmary

One of the many shit jobs I did was hospital porter at Gloucester Royal Infirmary in 1969. The building had once been a brewery. It was built in 1755 from a design by Luke Singleton and was financed by gifts and legacies. The timbers were donated by King George II and came from the Forest of Dean. It was demolished in 1984. My duties including cleaning lavatories, scraping out the incinerator in which amputated limbs had been burnt, carrying patients up and down stairs when the lifts were being replaced, assisting at operations and postmortems, taking corpses to the morgue in the middle of the night by myself. On the whole, I enjoyed the job. I got invited to parties by doctors and nurses and was given a lot of leftover food before the pigswill man came to take it away. The main satisfaction was that it was a necessary job, and I could feel the direct satisfaction of the patients for my efforts. The hospital manager persuaded me to apply for an administrative job and was angry with me when I fluffed the interview. I sensed even then that he was trying to steer me into a bullshit job.

Stakhanovite

I lived and worked through that awful time in the 80s and 90s when you had to be a Stakhanovite and work all hours to the detriment of family and personal life.  One particular job I had involved travelling all over England staying in seedy hotels and missing meals, working long hours with little social contact. The awful nature of that life was eptomised by one incident. I was at home working on a report in the small hours of the morning. My bosses had given me a tight deadline which I was determined to meet. The phone rang. It was a nurse at Gloucester Royal Infirmary calling to tell me that my mother had died. I put the phone down and finished writing my report. When dawn broke, I set off for the station to go to Gloucester to make funeral arrangements. I stopped off at the office and placed the report on a boss’s desk. When I returned to the office about a week later after my mother’s funeral I was angered to discover that no-one had looked at my report.

My  first marriage broke up while I was doing that job. I cannot blame the job but it did not help. My boss at that time was a strange character who seemed to really like me on  a certain level. We were both working class lads from an Irish Catholic background who shared the same taste in music and politics. We often got on well socially but that did not stop him bullying me relentlessly and brutally when it suited him. He was very supportive when my wife left me. “Mikey Boy, it’s a good job your mother died, because this would have killed her.”

 

There was one good aspect to that job. We did not have mobile phones or iPads. We were not under constant surveillance. I recall downtimes when I could escape and wander around an art gallery and nobody knew where I was or what I was doing. Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming argue that work today exploits workers not only during their time in the workplace, but also but in their very lives: “our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness of the office, but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us.”

Passionate Overworkers

Miya Tokumitsu writes in Jacobin: “The ceaselessly productive worker, with little time for rest, let alone any need or desire for it, stands today as a heroic icon, particularly in the high-strung white-collar milieus of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The desired persona is one that transcends needs for sleep, care, relationships, and any other obligation that might distract from work and profit.” Journalist Sara Robinson traces this culture back first to the cold war defense industry and then to the tech industries in late twentieth-century California. By the 1980s, “passionate” overworkers like Steve Jobs became icons to the culture at large. We all had to try to be passionate overworkers but did not get the financial rewards of a Gates, Jobs, Bezos  or Zuckerberg.

We all know people who are tiresome in their constant boasting about how busy they are. As Tokumitsu puts it, “Passion is all too often a cover for overwork cloaked in the rhetoric of self-fulfillment.” Kierkegaard was only thirty when he wrote this: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.”

Less Pay for Useful Work

Health workers (other than doctors) seem to be thought of as people who should accept low pay because they get moral satisfaction from doing useful work. As Graeber writes: “There is a sense, it would seem, that an ethos of collective sacrifice for the common good should fall disproportionately on those who are already, by their choice of work, engaged in sacrifice for the common good. Or who simply have the gratification of knowing their work is productive and useful.” Lying politicians encourage the public to applaud NHS workers and then saddle them with what is effectively a pay cut.

Keynes

The economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that advances in technology and automation would lead to a situation where people would have more leisure time and work a fifteen-hour week. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher destroyed manufacturing industry so that she could emasculate  the trade unions. The UK does not actually make much anymore; that task is left to China, Japan and South Korea. Productive jobs have, as Keynes predicted, been automated or outsourced. However, technology has been exploited to make everybody work harder.

Shirking

There is an old saying, “work is the curse of the drinking classes”. Graeber notes that the art of skiving has a long tradition in England “but proper shirking does seem to require something real to shirk. In a truly bullshit job, it’s often entirely unclear what one is really supposed to be doing”. The kind of people who complain about welfare benefit cheats generally assume that most people would be happy to be parasites and, like me, be paid to do nothing. I am certainly very comfortable with getting paid to do nothing but I am old and have served my time. . Graeber concedes that many are not cut out for a nine-to-five routine but, “Human beings certainly tend to rankle over what they consider excessive or degrading work; few may be inclined to work at the pace or intensity that ‘scientific managers’ have, since the 1920s, decided they should; people also have a particular aversion to being humiliated. But leave them to their own devices, and they almost invariably rankle even more at the prospect of having nothing useful to do.”

Precariat

I do feel somewhat guilty about my own current privileged position. It easy for me to revel in the fact that I do not need to work to earn a living. There are many today who are desperate to work and cannot do so because of the pandemic. I do my humble best to help out where I can. Employment is becoming increasingly unstable. Privatisation of government services, short-term and part-time contracts, temping agencies and low wages undermine job security. The British economist Guy Standing has coined the term precariat. Professor Standing argues that the dynamics of globalization have led to a fragmentation of older class divisions. The precariat consists of temporary and part-time workers, interns, call-centre employees, sub-contracted labour – those who are engaged in insecure forms of labour that are unlikely to help them build a desirable identity or career or guarantee them secure accommodation.

Automation has not made life pleasant for workers in Amazon’s warehouses. Workers are scheduled by algorithm, their tasks timed automatically, and their performance supervised digitally. Going to the toilet is seen as theft of company time. Workers are expected to produce more without expecting their productivity to be reflected in their pay or to expect any job security. The precariat has to endure the humiliation of demeaning work that does not enable them to secure a decent home or the welfare of their children, while the “risktakers” pile up obscene amounts of profit.

The idea of a post-work world has proved to be an elaborate con-trick. Collaborative human-friendly labour is part of what makes people feel they are valued and secure. The current order means fragmentation, passivity and political stagnation. The present order has brought us a distracted, demoralized culture of compliance. The global market, privatisation, the dominance of data-mining behemoths has reduced human workers to automatons staring into their smart phones.

Strategy of Lies

A shorter version article was published in Ceylon Today on May 10, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/a-strategy-of-lies

He wiffles and he waffles; he piffles and he paffles. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson seems incapable of giving a straight answer. Every week at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons, Boris bats away the questions of the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer, with a mélange of bluster and irrelevance and whataboutery. At PMQs on 28 April 2021, Johnson seemed to lose it completely as Starmer brought his forensic skills as a former Director of Public Prosecutions to the chamber. Johnson ranted and avoided answering the well-honed questions put to him.

Andrew Rawnsley in the London Observer wrote: “Those familiar with his pathology will know that he often dials up the bluster when he has something to hide. The worse the misconduct he is trying to conceal, the rantier he tends to get. He was very ranty indeed at the most recent prime minister’s questions.” Johnson has long played the buffoon and has often been mistaken for a Wodehousian silly ass. Johnson is Ukridge rather than Wooster. Ukridge is quick to blame his friends for his failures. Ukridge gets really angry when his friend refuses to injure himself for what Ukridge describes as the common good. Ukridge usually sees himself as the victim when his plans inevitably implode and blames fate or his friends – “It’s a bit hard…!” is a phrase that recurs often. Johnson’s fake buffoonery causes real distress to millions of real people. Ukridge is fiction. Johnson is ugly fact.

Here is Starmer’s first question, as recorded in Hansard. “It was reported this week, including in the Daily Mail and by the BBC and ITV, backed up by numerous sources, that at the end of October the Prime Minister said he would rather have ‘bodies pile high’ than implement another lockdown. Can the Prime Minister tell the House categorically, yes or no: did he make those remarks or remarks to that effect?”

Of course, we did not get a “yes” or a “no”. Starmer’s response was chilling: “I remind him that the ministerial code says: ‘Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation’. I will leave it there for now. There will be further on this, believe you me.”

Starmer followed up with another wounding thrust. “Who initially —and ‘initially’ is the key word here—paid for the redecoration of his Downing Street flat?” Johnson responded with a flurry of whataboutery, to which Starmer replied, “Normally when people do not want to incriminate themselves, they go, ‘No comment.’” Starmer followed up thus: “Either the taxpayer paid the initial invoice, or it was the Conservative party, or it was a private donor, or it was the Prime Minister. I am making it easy for the Prime Minister—it is now multiple choice. There are only four options. I ask him again: who paid the initial invoice—the initial invoice, Prime Minister—for the redecoration of the Prime Minister’s flat?”

There are now no fewer than three inquiries into how the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat was funded. “Cash for cushions” and “wallpapergate” are terms being bandied about.

I have been watching PMQs for a long time and I am able to discern the techniques that Johnson uses. He employs the same tricks when he appears before the select liaison committee. He never answers the question, which forces the questioner to keep repeating the question. Johnson then feigns frustration at the repetition and says something like, “I have already answered that question numerous times”. What he really means is that the question has been asked numerous times and he has avoided answering it numerous times.

Another trick is to hurl questions at Keir Starmer and berate him for not answering them. Starmer has drily pointed out that this is prime minister’s questions not leader of the opposition’s questions but if he wants to change places, he would be happy to do so. The speaker of the House, Lyndsey Hoyle, occasionally makes the same point but generally lets Johnson get away with his tricks.

There was a good example on April 28, when Ian Blackford, Westminster leader of the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party), speaking from his own home surrounded by DVDs and books, launched this missile. “Parliamentary rules stop me saying that the Prime Minister has repeatedly lied to the public over the last week, but may I ask the question: are you a liar, Prime Minister?” There was a stunned silence in the House. The speaker fidgeted uncomfortably and mumbled something about what Blackford had said not being out of order but being “unsavoury”.  Blackford’s question called for a yes or no answer. Johnson could not say yes, he was a liar. If he said, “No, I am not a liar” everybody would know he was lying and therefore a liar.

Johnson’s crimes are manifold. While Johnson was spending an estimated £200,000 on home decor, his government was pushing through a post-Grenfell fire safety bill that threatens ordinary leaseholders with financial ruin, saddling them with the cost of ridding their homes of potentially lethal cladding and other hazards.

As mayor of London, he wasted money on failed vanity projects and gave £126,000 of public money to his lover, Jennifer Arcuri, to whom the mayor gave a fast track to the taxpayer’s pocket. As prime minister he facilitated a VIP lane for ministers’ chums to make a profit out of the pandemic. There was a £276m contract that went to P14 Medical, run by a Tory donor, and the £160m deal with Meller Designs, also run by a Tory donor. Cronies like Dido Harding got the benefit of £37bn committed to a test-and-trace programme that never worked.

Strategic lying is a technique where a politician tells a deliberate lie with the purpose of shifting the news agenda onto his or hers preferred territory. Rebuttals are part of the plan because they result in the subject of the lie being amplified and kept on the news agenda.

The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. However, he was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force.

Once a lie finds a sympathetic ear, rebuttals, facts, will not persuade people that it is not true. To believe anything else would create a sense of cognitive dissonance. Memories of corrections fade rapidly, but the memory of the original lie remains. Goebbels had something to say on this subject. Media scholar Caroline Jack coined the phrase “unintentional amplification”, which in turn leads to another phenomenon which she identifies as “inadvertent legitimisation” – the act of giving credibility to “strategic lies” simply by repeating them.

Nick Cohen wrote in the London Observer: “Boris Johnson has a sense of entitlement where a sense of morality should be. Put a man like that in charge of a well-governed country and anti-corruption investigations follow. Put him in charge of this country and, instead of detectives with warrants, we have chums looking at chums, morally compromised arbiters and intimidated watchdogs.”

Philosopher Bernard Williams coined the term “Government House utilitarianism” to describe the moral philosophy underlying the practice of the British Empire that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use. In Truth and Truthfulness, his last published book, Williams focuses on what he identifies as the “virtues” of truthfulness, Accuracy and Sincerity. We can’t get along without trust (human flourishing creates a “need for cooperation” (b) but trust requires truthfulness, and (c) truthfulness presupposes that there are (at least some) truths. For Williams lies are pernicious for at least two reasons: (1) the liar betrays the trust of the dupe; and (2) the liar exerts power over the dupe, manipulating his or her beliefs and thus (potentially) his or her choices.

The results of recent elections indicate that the British people are happy to be dupes.

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