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News

Feb 12, 2009

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Politics

Feb 12, 2009

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Clive Small, former assistant commissioner of the NSW Police, has delivered a stinging criticism of Finance Minister Joe Tripodi in his book, Smack Express, which landed in book stores this week.

Co-authored with Tom Gilling and published by Allen & Unwin, Small gives a devastating account of his time as a senior investigator during the rise of organised crime in Australia.

In the opening chapter on the late “Ozzie” Bob Trimbole, the Riverina-based cannabis overlord, Small reveals that, prior to the 1995 state election, the NSW Labor Party planned to nominate Pasquale “Pat” Sergi for the south-west Sydney seat of Fairfield.

Sergi had been outed by the Woodward Royal Commission as members of the Trimbole syndicate involved in “the distribution of the product and the channeling of finance back to Griffith”.

Sergi’s bid for a parliamentary career was cut short when, according to Small, a police report threatened to expose his connections with the Trimbole network.

Small writes:

With Sergi’s support, his close friend, Joseph “Joe” Tripodi, became the Labor nominee for the safe Labor seat and was elected.

A year later Tripodi went into business with Sergi and others buying and selling government land and Department of Housing properties in Sydney’s western suburbs for significant profit.

He has been quoted as saying that he owned less than 2 per cent of the shares and had no management role.

In his inaugural speech in Parliament on 30 April, 1996, Tripodi paid tribute to his supporters saying:

During my election campaign I made many new friends in the local Italian community who assisted me, namely, Michael Daniele, Sam Romeo, Roy Spagnolo, Tony Mittiga and Pat Sergi. These people are friends I intend to keep for a long time.

When Sergi’s Trimbole connection was raised by The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, Tripodi insisted:

I was unaware that Mr Sergi had been named by the royal commission until last week. He has been a prominent member of the local community and we met through his charity work.

Tripodi’s factional soul-mate, former Treasurer Michael Costa, leapt to his friend’s defence, saying coverage by Fairfax journalists was a “bloody disgrace”.

“All those articles you’ve been writing about Joe and others … We’re in politics, we meet all sorts of people, you can’t hold people accountable for the fact their job leads them to talk to a whole range of people and then draw spurious connections and make unfounded implications,” said Costa, now a weekly columnist for The Australian.

Small remarks acidly:

Perhaps not, but you can expect a Labor politician to be aware of a person’s background when the person has been named by a Labor-instituted royal commission as having been involved in drug trafficking, money laundering and membership of an international crime society. That crime society has been implicated in numerous murders.

Despite continued claims by The Australian, The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald, Tripodi and his factional accomplice Eddie Obeid have lost their influence in the Parliamentary Labor Party and their Terrigal sub-faction is a dead duck.

Only people with the bizarre political intuition of Oz columnist D D McNicoll believe that the Tripodi-Obeid power duopoly is still functioning.

It’s almost as if they need to have “bogey men” like Tripodi and Obeid to keep their three-ringed circus coverage going.

Small’s revelations will only hasten Tripodi’s political ostracism.

Crikey Says

Feb 12, 2009

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Senator BOB BROWN — Once again, the Greens do not endorse the notion that question time should be set aside because of the bushfire crisis. In fact, it is our belief that, when there are times of great national tragedy or other matters of great national moment, question time is all the more relevant. I think there is a concern that there could be some untoward behaviour during question time which would reflect on the chamber at this time of national tragedy. That is a matter for senators to properly address themselves on. We believe question time should proceed …

And we believe that Senator Bob Brown is absolutely, dead right. More than that, the fact that both houses of the Australian Parliament have found it necessary to set aside Question Time at this moment of national urgency, disaster and despair is as stinging a condemnation as you could imagine of their routine conduct. It is a sure sign that the pursuit of pure political advantage, rather than the broad public benefit, is the routine and sole focus of our elected representatives in their Parliamentary deliberations.

Why could they not behave themselves in Question Time and address the real issues raised by the current difficulties? Why would this not be the perfect forum? That they cannot meet without descending into point scoring and petty abuse is to their shame. It is a disgrace. And proves pretty much conclusively that Question Time has only marginal benefit to the effective administration of the nation.

News

Feb 12, 2009

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The Winners:Seven’s 6pm News was the top program with 1.583 million and its extended news from 6.30pm averaged 1.544 million. Today Tonight at 7pm averaged 1.331 million. Seven’s 7.30pm program, Australia’s Got Talent averaged 1.328 million. Nine News (from 6pm to 6.30pm) averaged 1.263 million, A Current Affair (it’s really Nine’s extended news coverage from 6.30pm) averaged 1.242 million. Seven’s 8.30pm program, Criminal Minds averaged 1.234 million and Nine’s Two And A Half Men was actually A Current Affair at 7pm and it averaged 1.079 million viewers in 8th spot. House was 9th at 8.30pm for Ten with 1.079 million viewers, Nine’s The Farmer Wants A Wife returns at 7.30pm and averaged 1.074 million. (I thought it would have done better). Spicks and Specks on the ABC averaged 1.072 million people with 1.072 million. Ten News had its third million plus audience of the week with 1.030 million from 5pm to 6pm, Seven’s 9.30pm program, Gangs of Oz averaged 1.028 million (a sort of thinking viewer’s Underbelly in recent Sydney criminal history). The Dance Australia program at 7.30pm averaged 963,000 on Ten. The Biggest Loser, 982,000 at 7pm for Ten.

The Losers: Lost on Seven at 10.30pm, 405,000, beaten by Nine’s Cold Case with 593,000. Life on Ten at 9.30pm, 752,000, The Mentalist on Nine at 8.30pm, 930,000 (again, its better than that), Flashpoint on Nine at 9.30pm, 669,000 — stinker. Nine has a hole Wednesday nights from 8.30pm, based on last night, which is a pity given the quality of The Mentalist compared to the tired old House on Ten. House lost viewers from its return last week. But it still did well, topping all the key viewer groups.

News & CA: Seven News had more viewers than Nine’s extended hour, but Nine News had more viewers in Melbourne. Today Tonight had more viewers than ACA at 7pm. Ten News has been the big gainer of the week with its three million plus audiences from 5pm to 6pm. Bill Woods has shown he’s a solid host. He’s the one Nine should have tried to get for the 6pm slot. Ten’s late News/Sports Tonight averaged 382,000. The 7pm ABC News averaged 942,000. Lateline, 305,000, Lateline Business, 142,000. SBS News, 129,000, 248,000 for the late edition. 7am to 11am Sunrise, 377,000. 7am to 11am Today, 345,000. 7am to 9am Sunrise, 422,000, 7am to 9am Today, 345,000.

The Stats: Seven won All People 6pm to midnight with 30.9% to 25.9% for Nine, 23.0% for Ten, 16.0% for the ABC and 4.9% for SBS. Seven won everywhere but Melbourne where Nine won. Nine leads the week 32.3% from Seven with 29.0%. In regional areas a win to Prime/7Qld with 29.6%, from WIN/NBN with 27.3%, Southern Cross (Ten) with 20.1%, the ABC with 15.6% and SBS with 7.4%. Ten says it won the commercial share battle with Seven and Nine in 16 to 39 and 18 to 49.

Glenn Dyer’s comments: The hour news of Seven and Nine again disrupted the early prime time last with, with Today Tonight and ACA airing at 7pm to around 7.30pm (closer to 7.35pm for ACA). The 7.30 Report again out-rated the 7pm ABC News and has done so for much of the week. Having the two current affairs programs at 7pm has made life tougher for the ABC News, but not for The 7.30 Report. Apart from that, a night of good choices.

The Farmer Wants A Wife established the series last night, now for the build up in URST that is the real driver (will he/she, did he/she etc?). The Mentalist isn’t pinging viewers as it did on Sunday nights last year. That’s sad. Nine has to kill off Flashpoint after promoting it to the point of boredom over summer. It’s not up to scratch. Criminal Minds on Seven an hour earlier and The Mentalist offers viewers their nightly “cop fix”.

TONIGHT: Nine’s bushfire appeal with Eddie McGuire and the team from the AFL Footy show hosting from 7.30pm. Seven has Ghost Whisperer, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice. Ten has Law and Order SVU, Life on Mars and before that, The Biggest Loser and Bondi Vet. The ABC has Q&A back at 9.30pm. Before that a profile of Barry Humphries. Unfortunately SBS is again repeating Austrian Rex at 7.30pm and Carla Cametti offers us her final chance for to disappoint.

Source: OzTAM, TV Networks reports

Politics

Feb 12, 2009

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Lance Armstrong went to Adelaide for a fortnight in January. While there he spoke to a few cancer charities, visited hospitals, charity fund-raisers and cancer victims, and schmoozed with Kevin Rudd, a fawning South Australian Premier Mike Rann, assorted SA Ministers and half the population of Adelaide.

Oh, and between schmoozes he rode around on his bike for seven days during the Tour Down Under.

For his troubles he trousered a wedge understood to be up to $AU3 million in cash.

As an anonymous tipster told Crikey in mid-January:

The SA Government are paying Lance Armstrong USD $1 million to appear at the Pro Tour. USD $500k has been paid up front, with the balance after the race. Think back a few months when it was announced somewhat prematurely that Lance was on his way.

Neither Rann nor Armstrong have denied the figure of $US1 million ($AU1.52 million). While Crikey was in Adelaide there were strong rumours among the media and others closely connected to the race that the figure was more like $US2 million ($AU3.05 million).

Armstrong and 186 other professional cyclists came to South Australia to ride in the Tour Down Under — Australia’s premier cycling road race event and part of the l’Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) Pro-tour.

That Armstrong would be paid at least $1US million large to talk about cancer research, a matter close to his heart, attracted a lot of attention, particularly within the world cycling community. Particularly when the wages of the peloton, the riders that make up the bulk of the pro-cycling community, are reported to have fallen by up to 40% in recent years.

The Boulder Report at the Cycling.com website noted:

…no one’s talking. South Australia Premier Mike Rann refused to discuss any negotiations, and other than saying that any money paid “will go to his charity,” Rann’s spokesman, Lachlan Parker, declined to discuss the matter further with reporters.

…Why’s this a big deal? Armstrong is an in demand public speaker, commanding at least $175,000 per engagement.

…It’s less the donation than the secrecy surrounding it that seems strange and excessive…But [appearance fees] made with taxpayer dollars, in an ostensibly democratic and open government, fit a different standard of disclosure.

Indeed.

But in South Australia, as is common in too many Australian jurisdictions, answers to questions about what should be publicly available information are deemed “commercial-in-confidence”.

The only way you or I will get any closer to the truth is via an expensive, and most likely unsuccessful, Freedom of Information application or if the Opposition asks the right questions during Parliamentary estimates. Neither is satisfactory in the short term or in keeping with the spirit of “ostensibly democratic and open government.”

Lachlan Parker’s story that the payment to Armstrong was a donation to charity, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, was soon given the lie by Armstrong himself.

As The New York Times reported, Armstrong:

…did not specify the amount of his fee but said Saturday that, contrary to what had been reported here last week, he was not donating the fee to his foundation but treating it as income, the same way he has his other speaking and appearance fees since retirement.

“It’s not simply showing up to a bike race and getting paid to race the bike,” he said. “I’m not being paid to race. Is there a fee for other things? Yes, but that’s not any different than what I’ve done for the last three years or four years, actually longer than that.”

The SA Government — i.e., the SA taxpayer – is the sole sponsor of the Tour Down Under.

Armstrong has provided an undoubted boost to the public profile of the Tour Down Under and to the worthy cause of cancer research in Australia. Whether his presence made any impact on the SA economy is but one of a number of outstanding questions about the overall cost of the event.

Other questions as yet unanswered include whether the SA economy really got the big ‘bang for its buck’ that Rann has trumpeted, the total costs involved in staging this year’s Tour Down Under and how much Armstrong, and others involved in the Tour, were paid to participate.

That last issue is what Crikey has been trying to confirm for the last week and half.

Crikey sent a brief list of questions to Rann and his media minder Lachlan Parker and to SA Tourism Minister Jane Lomax-Smith. We first sent the questions on 3 February, again on 6 February and again yesterday, advising that this story would be published today.

Up until late yesterday we’d received not a whisper in reply. After we’d advised we were going to run with this story today we finally received the following from Leah Manuel, Jane Lomax-Smith’s media minder:

Any payments associated with teams or cyclists taking part in the Tour Down Under are commercial in confidence. This has been the case since the inception of the race 11 years ago.

Another question that Rann and the Australian Taxation Office could be asked is whether the ATO got its slice of Armstrong’s income from the SA government.

As the Indian Cricket team found out to its horror in late 2007, the ATO is particularly attentive to earnings in Australia by foreign sportsmen and women.

As the Explanatory Memorandum to the Taxation Administration Amendment Regulations 2004 (No. 1) notes:

Foreign resident entertainers and sportspersons who derive income in Australia are liable to pay income tax in Australia on that income … [t]hey are required to lodge an income tax return in Australia.

Dependent upon whether the SA government made the payment to Armstrong personally or to some corporate or charitable entity associated with him, it may have been required to:

…retain an amount and pay that amount to the ATO under section 255 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936.

But, regardless of how much, and to whom or what the South Australian government paid the money, Armstrong clearly saw that money as his own.

And, as Armstrong told the gathered press in Adelaide, he’ll be back for the Tour Down Under in 2010.

There are more than a few wondering what his fee will be next year.

Business

Feb 12, 2009

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Rupert Murdoch’s New Corporation is continuing its cost-cutting ways while intriguingly raising $US1 billion in US financial markets, despite the spin from last week’s profit announcement that the company was well cashed-up.

News Corp has sacked staff at US publishers, Harper Collins, in New York and there were also reports from London that jobs would go at News International, the UK newspaper group that’s home to The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, The News of the World and a host of local and suburban papers. Some reports claim between 100 and 200 editorial jobs could go. The sackings come a few days after 25 jobs went in the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal.

It has also revamped and cut the business model for MyNetworkTV which is a quasi-Free To Air TV network launched in September 2006. It will change from a broadcast network model to a “hybrid” service that would continue to supply programs to Fox TV affiliate stations in the US on a very low cost basis.

News Corp’s $US1 billion bond raising was the surprise. Murdoch had boasted last week that the $US3.621 billion cash the company had on hand was enough to pay interest on the company’s debt for the next seven years. It’s yet another example of not taking Murdoch at his word: when he says things are OK, expect something contrary to emerge from the company.

News Corp’s raising of $US1 billion in 10 and 30-year money was completed in two tranches and came at a hefty 4%-plus premium over the US Treasury bond yields.

The first tranche was $US700 million of 10-year, 6.9% priced to yield 410 basis points (4.10%) more than Treasuries of similar maturity, and $300 million of 30-year, 7.85% percent bonds that paid a spread of 437.5 basis points (4.375%) over the 30-year T-bond. Expensive money, but investors are obviously still prepared to lend to News, even though it was rated on the third lowest of investment grade ratings by Moody’s rating agency.

News Corp has been chopping across the company, and refusing to detail the extent of the cuts, such as in Australia where hundreds of jobs have gone, or are going in all papers.

Australian newspapers suffered in the December quarter with big drops in revenues and earnings in both Australian and in US dollar terms. But the real problem is in the US TV business where earnings are now approaching break-even or worse, hence the restructure of the money-losing MyNetwork this week.

Media

Feb 12, 2009

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There are two words which immediately spring to mind over the media’s coverage of the Victorian bushfires — mawkish and disproportionate.

Mawkish in the sense that there now seems to be a competition by media outlets to own the grief and suffering generated by the fires. Page after page, hundreds of hours of TV footage and hours of radio programs all dedicated to bringing to light one story after another of loss and destruction and the inevitable grief that is associated with it.

The Herald Sun’s front page headline this morning is cynical and manipulative. It reads, “The tiniest victims”, and includes a picture of a smiling baby. This picture and headline are designed to make you stop and buy a copy of the paper. Otherwise why put it on the front page?

And the Herald Sun website has a section called ‘Tributes to our lost’. Who is the “our” referring to here? It is as if the newspaper has assumed some form of proprietarial right over the victims of the fire. The Age is however no better. This morning its front page includes a quote from someone who compares the fires to Hiroshima.

There is a complete lack of proportion in this comparison and surely The Age knows this to be so. 220,000 people died when nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and radiation injured, maimed and killed people for many years after.

By the way, the ABC is no better. It has on its website a section where it encourages fire victims to “Share [their] experiences by text, photos, audio or video.” The term voyeuristic springs to mind here. The ABC is just as desperate to get the edge on its commercial rivals and asking for eye witness accounts and images are one way to do that.

Is it not time for the media to get out of the way of these fires, or at least scale back their coverage. Surely the survivors and communities of these terrible events need to be allowed to grieve and begin to rebuild away from the prying and always intrusive eyes of journalists and camera crews, all told by their editors to come back each day with tales and images that will give them an edge on their competitors?

Of course this will not happen. The media will hang around this story until it has milked every last drop of emotion and suffering and then the caravan will move on to the next big tragedy. That is the nature of the beast.

There is a term for the behavior of the media this week — “grief p-rn.” As Rob Lyons, a writer with UK online daily Spiked, observed a few days after the London bombings in July 2005:

A mother’s grief, the stench of rotting flesh, the terrifying near-misses: did we really need to know? The London bombings started as a genuine, multi-faceted news story worthy of in-depth coverage. Not only did the facts of the incident need to be uncovered, but the reaction to the attacks provided us with insights into society. But now all we are left with is a desperate attempt on the part of news organisations to maintain this fevered state of interest – and the result is a p-rnographic focus on tragedy.

Just substitute the words Victorian bushfires here and you have an accurate assessment of what is happening in this country today.

Politics

Feb 12, 2009

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So yesterday there was some good news — very good news — for the construction industry. ABS data showed a sharp uptick in seasonally-adjusted housing finance and the purchase of new housing.

As noted last week, construction is one of the two large areas of the economy the Federal Government is clusterbombing with cash as part of its efforts to prop up employment. It did so through a boost to the First Home Owners’ Grant, and particularly a big increase for people buying new housing, and it will do so again through second stimulus package with its housing and schools infrastructure spending. Yesterday’s data, apart from being unambiguously good news, is yet further evidence of the effectiveness of the Government’s first stimulus package.

But you wouldn’t have got that impression from the media coverage, where it was contrasted with some recession p-rn served up in the “Westpac-Melbourne Institute Index of Consumer Sentiment” which “fell 4.6%” and “shows a level of pessimism equivalent to that of the 1990-92 recession.”

It wasn’t just The Oz. The SMH: relief for the housing sector “comes amid broader economic gloom”. The Age: “the good news was offset by an unexpectedly sharp slump in consumer confidence this month.”

There’s a regular drip of surveys like Westpac-Melbourne Institute one. There’s the NAB Survey of Business Confidence. The Dun and Bradstreet National Business Expectations Survey. The Hudson Employment Expectations survey. The Sensis Business Index. The ACCI Survey of Investor Confidence. The Melbourne Institute Consumer Inflationary Expectations Survey. And they’re just the biggest and most regular ones.

Notice something about them? They’re all branded. Regardless of their accuracy, they’re marketing exercises designed to promote companies, peak organisations or research bodies. The Westpac-Melbourne Institute survey was accompanied by suitably doleful commentary from in-house economist Bill Evans, and got a run everywhere as an insight into the imminent future of the Australian economy.

Even if it’s a PR exercise, the Westpac-MI survey is well-regarded. But compared to actual evidence from the real economy, it’s meaningless. Confidence may be one of the biggest problems facing the economy, but it’s what people spend in the real world that matters. Putting data showing the housing sector turning the corner on the same level as a consumer survey confuses hard evidence with, at best, speculation. The two do not belong together and cannot be comparable or “offset” each other.

There may be an excuse for the media when there’s no hard evidence coming out to treat surveys, forecasts and indices with all the reverence of ABS stats, particularly if an appropriately gloom-laden story can be crafted from them. That doesn’t apply in this case.

There’s further evidence from the real world today in the form of unemployment data. The consensus forecast from economists was 4.7%, the actual number 4.8%. Thus, “unemployment soared” and “exceeded expectations”. More confusion of evidence and speculation. The data continues to disguise substantial variations. NSW unemployment is now 5.4%, but Victoria, Queensland, WA and Tasmania all remain below 5%. In fact, unemployment fell in Tasmania, and on the back of a higher participation rate as well. And Western Australia continues to have full employment — 3.2%.

Any one of them is a number most major economies would kill for at the moment.

Business

Feb 12, 2009

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You have to look through today’s confusing Labour Force figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics to get a true sense of the worsening state of the labour market.

It’s definitely going sour, the sharp rise in the unemployment rate to 4.8% last month from 4.5% in December gives a clue. It was the biggest rise for some time. But there has been a sharper, 0.7% rise from January, 2008, when the unemployment rate was 4.1%.

Look back to the way the number of unemployed has risen in the 12 months from January 2008. The slowing pace of economic activity has definitely pushed the number of jobless up significantly over the year. Unemployment has risen by around 84,000 people from January last year to last month: from 456,100 to 540, 200 last month.

That, according to the ABS, was a rise of 18.4% from January last year, to last month.

Growth in the labour force has slowed from well over 2.5% to just 0.9%. Australia needs growth of around 2.3% a year to stop unemployment from rising. Federal treasury last week said that unemployment was expected to grow by around 300,000 over the next 18 months and peak around 7%.

Looking at the jobless numbers over the 12 months gives a better understanding of the way the economic slowdown is affecting employment, despite what again appears a skewed result from the ABS’s latest figures (using a smaller sample).

The ABS said that overall employment last month “increased by 1,200 to 10,742,100. Full-time employment increased by 33,700 to 7,670,700 and part-time employment decreased by 32,600 to 3,071,400.”

Unemployment “increased by 36,800 to 540,200. The number of persons looking for full-time work increased by 29,900 to 381,300 and the number of persons looking for part-time work increased by 6,900 to 158,800”

The participation rate rose to 65.5 in January, up 1% as more people seemingly looked for work. This doesn’t quite sit properly with yesterday’s consumer confidence figures which fell for a second month, and remain negative.

With the 0.3% rise to 4.8% in the unemployment rate, the male rate was higher; 4.9%, than females on 4.7%. More females were employed in January, compared to January, 2008 and slightly fewer men were in employment.

The market had been expecting a loss of jobs in January: most forecasts had centred on a fall in total total employment of around 18,000, a jobless rate of 4.7% and a participation rate of 64.9%. Inexplicably the ABS says 1,200 jobs were added.

Still even at 4.8%, the Australian jobless rate is still significantly less than the 7.6% in the US. Japan’s rate has started surging, hitting 4.4% in December, from 3.9% the month before. Rates in Europe are well over 7 and 8%, in Spain it’s double digit.

Politics

Feb 12, 2009

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“I don’t agree with the film myself but I want to provoke debate.”

The speaker is Mal Pearson, sorry Malcolm Everard MacLaren Pearson, Baron Pearson of Rannoch, of Bridge of Gaur, a fastbucks reinsurance tycoon elevated to the House of Lords in the dying days of the Thatcher era. Pearson is the prime mover in getting a showing of the controversial short film Fitna at the House of Lords tomorrow, prior to a discussion by various Lords and Ladies — the equivalent of an AV club half-day bludge when there’s no lesson prepared.

Fitna is a film essay by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, arguing that there is no such thing as moderate Islam, that the Koran is of a moral equivalence with Mein Kampf, and should be banned in the West, to “stop the Islamist invasion of Europe”.

Wilders was an unremarkable political staffer for the Dutch liberal VVD party for years, before setting up his own outfit called The Freedom Party, and taking on most of the policies pioneered by the murdered anti-immigration gay Foucauldian Leninist Pim Fortuyn in the early 2000s. If you think there’s something strange about a Freedom Party calling for book banning then ha ha ha you don’t understand Dutch politics.

In any case Wilders has now hit the jackpot, with the Home Office excluding him from entry as a person likely to disturb community harmony, which guideline should really rule out half our fellow countrypeople turning up at Heathrow with a Rabbitohs t-shirt, a slab and a “Free Face Rides” baseball cap. The Dutch government has vigorously protested this attack on free speech, particularly as it interrupts their prosecution of Wilders for erm “disturbing community harmony”.

Two hundred and seventy people have been thus excluded since 2005, many of them simply for their ideas and arguments, but the Wilders case has become a cause celebre for the trans-atlantic right. However, any defence of him is prefaced by the ritual “I don’t agree with his point of view, but…” which is necessary because the man’s a nutter.

Quite aside from the contradiction of the Freedom Party urging the banning of a book, Wilders’s other commitments to liberty include a proposed ban on Muslim headscarves in public — chemo patients will presumably have to carry a letter from their doctor — and the use of the army in civil policing. Wilders supporters, like Mad Melanie Phillips, taking a break from reintroducing measles to the UK*, have been more circumspect in their support for Wilders, partly because they were so badly burnt by the Theo van Gogh experience.

Van Gogh, maker of the short film Submission, (ostensibly from a script by Ayaan Hirsi Ali though the film bears little relation to what she wrote), was murdered by a Muslim Dutch citizen angered by scenes in which parts of the Koran were written on a woman’s body. Van Gogh became an unambiguous hero to the Right who weren’t aware that the man was a nihilist provocateur, whose anti-Islamic enthusiasms were simply a continuation of his earlier anti-Jewish tirades.

“Auschwitz smelt caramel when they burnt diabetic Jews,” he told a magazine in 1991.

When a female historian objected, he accused her of “wanting to f-ck Dr Mengele”. Oh, a great standard-bearer for European civilisation.

They haven’t made the same mistake this time, but the strategy is the same, which is to find the most extreme obsessive, disown the content of his views and then promote the crap out of him. The object is to take a debate that should be complex and nuanced — the character of Islam, how a pluralist society deals with groups that profess literal beliefs in a single Truth (Christian as much as Islam), etc etc — and push it to the point where people have no choice but to cleave to their fundamental loyalties.

As with the Mohammed cartoons controversy, there’s a fundamental and wilful misunderstanding of the role of offensive speech in an open society — one should be willing to cause offence if it’s necessary to making a substantive argument (including satirical or comic ones), but make an effort to avoid it, if the only purpose is offence itself. Free speech carries a responsibility to be serious about its exercise. Wilders of course believes that it is legitimite to ban people and texts for the common good, so he has no real comeback to his own banning — except to say “not me, them”.

Fitna, Submission and the Mohammed cartoons having nothing much more to say than “we’re being provocative”, fail the seriousness test (though they should not be banned). Mind you, they meet their match with the UK and Dutch governments, both desperate to suck up to their own multicultural voting blocs.

The champion of banning Wilders from entry is Lord Ahmed, a Labour peer, who managed to get an earlier attempt to show the film blocked on a parliamentary technicality, allegedly describing the move as a “victory for the Muslim community”**. His Lordship’s beliefs in the limits of judicious speech were less on display in 2005 when he hosted a book launch by a Swedish Islamic convert named Israel Shamir (ne Joran Jermas) to speak on the “Jewish appetite for empire” (sic).

On Radio 4, at the end of a debate about the issue, Lord Pearson — a member of the loopy UK Independence Party, largely composed of grumpy little Englanders — yelled “free speech!” and Ahmed parried, “what about my free speech?”, at the end of a half-hour nationally broadcast publicly-subsidised radio programme. It’s the proverbial Collingwood/West Coast game — somehow, you’d like them both to lose.

*Phillips, embarrassingly for her “anti-Green voodoo, etc” fanbase, continues to argue that the MMR “triple-jab” vaccine may cause autism, even though the argument has been thoroughly discredited, and now looks like a case of outright scientific fraud. The populist campaign against the triple jab has so reduced vaccination levels in the UK that measles has returned in force. For the record, I’m not suggesting she goes round infecting people.

**The necessity for governments to nominate scads of life peers to maintain power in the Upper House leads to some interesting news reports. The usual practice of old left Labour members was to use their full name as their title — thus in the 60s George Brown, changed his name to George George-Brown, so that when he became Baron George-Brown, he could still sign himself George Brown, and not, as a Lord does, simply “Brown”. Current adoptees of this pratice include Baronness Lola Young, a young black Glaswegian social activist, something I always find hilarious — a sort of equivalent of Viscount Les Twentyman, or Lord Gary Foley of Fitzroy — a reaction which many Britons, inured to the absurdity of it all, find racist.

The surname trick doesn’t always work — witness the elevation of a Cypriot-Briton Labour activist who now rejoices under the title Baron Adonis, which makes him sound like a DC comic superhero — all the worse since he’s a plain and weedy little man. Baron Black of Crossharbour is less an evil half-orc prince, than Canada Prison system inmate #41233112, Conrad Black. He, like Lord (Jeffrey) Archer and other convicted criminals continue to have the power to block legislation that a majority of elected representatives have passed.

Labour peers usually take their home suburb as their locale — Lord Ponsonby of Tooting Bec, etc etc — but you can take anywhere in the world. Thus a WW2 senior military figure became the splendid Lord Ironside of Archangel, in memory of the Russian port, where he had spent happy times waging war on the Bolsheviks in 1918. This is actually a hereditary peerage. As was that of Clement Attlee, first earl Attlee, who had sworn to abolish the system. His grandson third earl Attlee, still sits in the Lords — as a Conservative.