Our intrepid Harry Rafal delves into the depths of news to bring you the week’s five (actually six, but who’s counting?) stories that you may have missed.
The events that have unfolded in Norway last week rightfully occupied the headlines at the beginning of the week, supplemented as the week progressed with news of the demise of Amy Winehouse, the sluggish growth of the British economy and the stalemate in the US debt crisis, so here are the five news stories you may have missed if you were fretting over whether England would avoid France in the World Cup 2014 qualifying draw and if Zara and Mike’s big day would be everything they had ever dreamed of.
One: Cyprus has been drawn into the European debt crisis as Moody’s has downgraded their borrowing rating from A2 to Baa1. Whilst the levels of Cyprus’ debt are not comparable to those of Greece or Spain, primarily because of its size, the decision is a blow to hopes that the recent summit deal in Brussels would stabilise the European debt crisis. There has been no increase in the size of the European Financial Stability Facility and it will struggle to make a positive intervention in the Italian and Spanish economies should difficulties emerge before the European Parliament ratifies the changes accepted at the Brussels summit. The yields on Spanish and Italian bonds have been climbing raising the spectre of another dangerous rounds of EU bailouts. To resolve the situation the EU must provide proof against speculation that the economies in danger may default, a figure of upwards to £1.5 trillion may well be required to categorically achieve this; this would be the blank cheque that the German government have promised their electorate they will not provide.
Two: Police in China have instructed businesses in Beijing which provide access to Wi-Fi internet to install surveillance technology to track the sites accessed by users. Already in possession of a strict internet censorship and monitoring system this new weapon will allow further control and monitoring of the already tightly regulated internet cafes in the city. This links in to news here in the UK where a high court judge has ruled that BT has been ordered to block links to the website Newzbin 2. This is the first time an Internet Service Provider in this country has had to block access to a site providing links to pirated material but not hosting the material itself. Does it set a dangerous precedent? That is something only one personal opinion and time will be able to answer but it is unlikely to be as effective as the motion picture association which brought the motion hopes as new sites and new means will undoubtedly spring forth to fill the gap. One can’t help but feel that less repressive measures by the holders of copyright would likely result in the majority of us continuing to purchase legitimate versions of their material.
Three: The Information Commission has decided that documents revealing Margaret Thatcher’s discussions about the 1989 Hillsborough disaster must be released by the government. The original Freedom of Information request for the documents was made by the BBC two years ago and refused by the Cabinet Office on the grounds that disclosure would undermine the convention of collective responsibility and impact on the freedom with which ministers can engage in free and frank discussions. These arguments were rejected by the Information Commission on the grounds that there have been several governments since the time the documents were created and that “the subject matter of the discussions recorded within the information in question centred on a very particular set of circumstances that were no longer current at the time of the request.” The issue is important because the current decisions on ground safety are based largely on the events at Hillsborough and that there was a clear effort at the time to avoid criticism of the policing of the event. Should these documents reveal that a concerted effort was made to divert the blame of the disaster onto the fans and away from the poorly maintained of safety features inside the ground and the policing outside which directly contributed to overcrowding they will help shed light on the priorities of the government of the time. In addition they may well carry a significant weight in the attempts to secure arrangements for safe-seating stadia in this country.
Four: The Home Office has seemingly backtracked on last year’s coalition agreement where it was agreed that “the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database” would be adopted. Under the Scottish system DNA samples of innocent individuals are not retained. However, the change will see the samples of innocent suspects retained in forensic science laboratories anonymously where it would still be theoretically possible to identify a suspect from the code assigned to the sample but only where details of the sample were also provided by the police force which originally collected the sample.
Five: The Ministry of Defence has announced it will cut 7,000 more civil servants beyond the cuts announced in the strategic defence review. Other news involving the MoD has revealed it has spent close to £1 billion on department credit cards, a figure far higher than any other government department. In line with other departments the MoD has refused to provide a breakdown of expenditure meaning that it is impossible to verify whether the majority of items were appropriate. Under government rules individuals holding such cards are allowed to buy “low risk, low value” items costing up to £5,000 with the only other requirement being that the chosen supplier provided best value for money. Interestingly these figures were released in the midst of other high-profile news stories and come after revelations earlier this month that MoD staff stayed just under 400,000 nights in UK hotels at a cost of £65 million and a little over 125,000 nights overseas at a cost of £33million between the years 2008 and 2010.
Hardly breaking news but an update on the situation along the 240km Canal du Midi, which runs through the South of France between the Garonne River and the Bassin de Thau on the Mediterranean. Currently the plane trees along the canal provide a beautifully shaded canopy which enjoys Unesco Heritage Status. The 200 year avenue of some 42,000 trees has been hit by the invasive fungal pathogen Ceratocystis platani which has been spreading at faster and faster rates since it was first transported to the region in the 1940s, apparently in the rotten wood of American the crates of ammunition transported to the region during the Second World War. This year 1,000 trees will have been felled, next year an estimated 4,000 will have been felled. Little can be done to prevent the destruction of these trees. A small wound to the tree, such a weak bow brought down in a storm, is enough exposure to allow the fungus entry. Early treatment is difficult because infection cannot be detected from the ground but requires a high climber to ascend the tree, each ascent alone costs above £200 and this does not include any work undertaken on the tree. Ultimately we can expect to see this most scenic of environments to disappear in the next five to ten years perhaps a news story you don’t need to know but one certainly worth knowing if you ever wish to visit this unique area.
To read Harry Raffal’s other articles visit Harry Raffal’s Politics On Toast blog. This article is (C) Politics on Toast.