Everyone stressed how “unprecedented” it was. Several times each. And to an extent it was – the first ever joint public appearance of the heads of Britain’s three intelligence agencies, in front of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee.
More to the point, it was ‘literally’ based on a particular scene from the movie Skyfall, although markedly less dramatic.
Sir John Sawyers (MI6), Sir Iain Lobban (GCHQ) and – living proof that you don’t have to have a title in order to hack Angela Merkel’s mobile – Andrew Parker (MI5) assembled in Westminster for some hugely rigorous public scrutiny from a group of MPs and peers, the gist of which was summed up by a New Statesman columnist as, “Is there anything you’d like to tell a grateful nation?”
Proceedings were broadcast with a time delay so that if anyone was so unprofessional as to say something of interest to the public, Peter Firth could jump in and cut off the feed.
Committee chair (…Sir) Malcolm Rifkind, played by Ralph Fiennes, showed his tough attitude by asking Parker, “Do you sometimes worry that the intelligence agencies are too powerful?”
Some might argue that this question should really have been put to the slender majority of the population who are not director-general of an intelligence agency; but it was nevertheless a relief to hear that the three chiefs are rarely kept awake at night by worries about being too powerful.
George Howarth MP asked if the 2005 London bombings represented an intelligence failure. Howarth has sat on the Intelligence and Security Committee since before 7/7, regularly questioning members of the security services in private – but presumably he simply never thought to ask such a question until last week, when the press just happened to be present.
The Director of GCHQ, recently implicated in the Guardian-exposed ‘let’s read every email in the world’ scandal, was asked by Hazel Blears MP if he used his relationship with America to circumvent British law.
What a look he gave her. The scene came straight out of a spy novel…
Blears repeated the question, eyes alight as if she was certain to be ‘on to something’. Lobban looked at the tiny red-haired woman with contempt. He knew everything about her, from her O-level results to how much she spent on her last pair of shoes (£60, give or take).
Buried deep in a filing cabinet in his office in Cheltenham, he even had three glorious photographs from her time in the Parliamentary belly-dancing troupe.
He briefly considered using them now, but eventually decided that their leverage would be more effective later… in the interrogation.
In fact, though, he gave the clear and absolutely unambiguous answer, “We are subject to the law.”
So there it was: three senior public-sector employees dodging politicians’ planted questions, playing up to the media.
One of them had a dog
The other hearing of the yearing was taking place in Brighton Magistrates’ Court, where the trial of Alex Cline continued, on the grievous charge of calling an MP a ‘coward’.
Three staff of Hove MP Mike Weatherley were called as witnesses. They described their arrival at Sussex on That Fateful Day, a year ago on Thursday.
“Most of the people didn’t look like typical students,” said parliamentary researcher Michael Ireland, who gave his evidence with a particularly unattractive, unflinching smirk. How did he arrive at this conclusion? “They had no bags, and a lot of them had long hair.”
“Are you saying students have short hair?” asked an amused judge.
The questioning continued. “What was their demeanour?” asked the prosecutor. “Well, one of them had a dog,” said Ireland. How is it possible for a (Sussex-educated) parliamentary researcher not to know what the word ‘demeanour’ means?
Owen Greenhall, defending, made mincemeat of this line of argument. “It’s not possible to tell from somene’s age or appearance whether or not they are a student, is it?”
“Well, it depends… it’s hard to say with an individual, but as a group, they really didn’t look like students. Plus, one of them had a dog.”
[Greenhall quite rightly takes this as an invitation to humiliate the witness.] “There’s no rule against students owning dogs, is there, Mr Ireland?”
Turns out there isn’t! What do you know.
Office manager Robert Nemeth was up next.
“It was like being in a zombie film, you know, like in a shopping centre being chased by zombies,” he told the judge, who clearly did not identify with the phrase ‘you know’ in any way. Nemeth’s identity parade must hav been a strange experience for him.
On cross-examination, it turned out that he has a personal vendetta against Cline – which, the defence suggested, might explain why he claims to have seen Cline “forcefully” pushing the MP when nobody else, including the MP himself, noticed this.
The vendetta began a few months ago when Cline protested at a talk being given by Nemeth, by climbing onto the stage and pouring glitter over him, and Nemeth insisted on pressing charges – charges of (and this is a genuine quote) assault and battery with glitter. Nobody else pressed charges and the case was eventually dropped on the grounds of being completely stupid.
It also emerged that after this incident, Cline’s name and face found their way into a Nixon-style ‘enemies list’ maintained by Weatherley’s office, a dossier containing details of known local pro-squatting activists. Not entirely sure that’s how democracy’s supposed to work but there you go.
The final staff witness was Weatherley’s PA Rachael Bates. She explained that she’d seen Cline unscrewing the covers of noticeboards in a campus building so as to put up pro-squatting materials.
It was put to her that he was not being intimidating.
“Certainly he was, holding a screwdriver is intimidating!”
The judge intervened. “But he wasn’t using it as a weapon, was he? You said he was using it to unscrew noticeboards.”
Mr Greenhall: “So you can’t possibly characterise that as intimidating, can you?”
“It felt that way at the time.”
[Court considers the possibility that she should grow up.]
She also made another intriguing observation. Apparently, her experience was “like being in a zombie movie.” Everyone in the room snorted at this strangely familiar remark. Judge Ikram commented, “I’m intrigued by your phrase ‘like a zombie movie’. Hae you discussed this case with anyone else?”
She claimed that her use of exactly the same (stupid and meaningless) analogy her close colleague Robert Nemeth was a pure coincidence. A very convincing witness.
Yesterday was the third day of the trial, which – by the time it finishes this afternoon – will have cost the taxpayer over £4,200, in fact probably much more there’s a paid District Judge (“We got a DJ,” as Mr Greenhall was overheard explaining) rather than voluntary magistrates. But I guess it would be counterproductive to prosecute the CPS for wasting the court’s time…
An update will follow later today with the verdict!
A thirst-class degree
For a terrifying evening last week, the Sussex campus suffered its worst drought in decades.
University authorities cut off the entire water supply overnight on the instructions of Southern Water.
Most buildings were left without running water for the entire evening (though a thermal image produced by the International Space Station shows a mysterious oasis of hydration around the building housing the Vice-Chancellor’s office – pity it’s completely made up or I could sell it for big bucks).
Those left high and dry included the thousands of students living on campus, although some of them barely noticed the outage at all. Another victim of the tragic water shortage was the Library, which decided to close in commemoration of the moment. Not sure why but it’s the thought that counts.
The University apparently bussed in bottled drinking water, and wrote of the cost of this as “a drop in the ocean.”
Of course, being a cynical old so-and-so it did occur to me that this whole thing might just be a front for some sinister, deliberate move by the University management. They are several ways in which turning off the students’ water supply might benefit them.
So here’s a short vid wot I made about it…
Do you take this man (into custody)?
Jewish weddings always feature broken glass but it’s less common in other cultures. However, this week, government agents in bulletproof jackets crashed a suspected sham wedding in Camden. They detained the Chinese bride, the Italian groom, all the bridesmaids, and took them off into separate rooms for interrogation.
So smug was the Border Force that it even invited a few local journalists along to join them on the expedition. And those journalists had the unexpected opportunity to report on the authorities raiding a wedding which was – in fact – completely genuine.
The couple, who met while working at Harrods (bloody suspicious), did not give any impression of being shamsters other than the fact that they were damn foreigners. At sham weddings it is usual for everybody to be casually or poorly dressed, whereas these two were wearing tailored clothes and the bride had a Chanel handbag. They had a post-ceremony meal booked at an expensive restaurant, to be followed by a hotel room.
But how did this massive Border Force cockup happen, I hear you cry. Well… a Home Office spokesperson said it would be “inappropriate to comment,” presumably because it would make them look a bit stupid.
So. Farewell then, 1994 Group…
The 1994 Group, a post-trauma support organisation for universities who wish they’d got into the Russell Group, announced this week that it will be disbanding. Chaired by a well-known member of the Farthing family who’s based on the south coast, the group aims to “represent the views of its members on the current state and the future of higher education.”
But apparently it has “come to a natural end point” (rather like the career of its chair), whatever that means: perhaps it’s, erm, finished representing the views of its members?
Anyway, stiff upper lip to its dozen or so members. Our hearts go out to you at this difficult time.
Five of the best
- One ‘Gabriel Webber’: Israel the synecdoche – a superbly-argued, beautifully nuanced piece in flowing language which makes the mighty quail and the weak take succour.
- Buzzfeed: 17 phrases only journalists ever use – excerpts from a recently published ‘dictionary of journalese’, which also includes coffers: where organisations of which we disapprove keep their money
- BBC News: Bulmers left with hangover after advertising mishap – OK, so they accidentally used a photo of a famous Victorian teetotaller in their advert; we’ve all been there…
- The Telegraph: New Asbo plans are an assault on basic freedom, says former DPP – and it’s true; forcing people to use the word ‘IPNAs’ must surely breach some sort of human right.
- UK Human Rights Blog: Sexual liaisons by undercover police officers could be authorised – the Court of Appeal rules that sleeping with lefties is legally an acceptable intelligence-gathering tactic.