Hard News by Russell Brown

The other scandal

The only good thing that can be said about the skimming and scamming we now know to have taken place within the UN Oil for Food programme is that the UN has commissioned what appears to be a genuinely independent inquiry. It remains to be seen whether what may turn out to be far greater corruption in the business of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq will be accorded the same scrutiny.

As Paul Volcker made clear in his interim report, the Oil for Food rorting did not involve the billions of dollars claimed; although influence was traded to the tune of tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some money from the programme also went directly to Saddam, which was precisely what was not meant to happen.

The billions of dollars in illegal Iraqi oil sales, on the other hand, took place outside the scheme, and with the knowledge of all the major players. The US and UK did push to cut off the sales, but not very hard, and Russia and France were among those who resisted action.

But, as George Monbiot shows in The Guardian, there may be rather grander problems than that hovering over the first year of the occupation in Iraq.

We have known for some time - since at least October 2003, when the British agency Christian Aid blew the whistle - that a great deal of money, much of it belonging to Iraqis, was unaccounted for by the CPA. The agency was not mollified by the time of the handover, last June. It now appears that nearly $9 billion is missing from the books, and, according to Monbiot, there is evidence that $500 million was illegally diverted from Iraqi oil revenues to the CPA.

And further:

Last week a British adviser to the Iraqi Governing Council told the BBC's File on Four programme that officials in the CPA were demanding bribes of up to $300,000 in return for awarding contracts. Iraqi money seized by US forces simply disappeared. Some $800m was handed out to US commanders without being counted or even weighed. A further $1.4bn was flown from Baghdad to the Kurdish regional government in the town of Irbil, and has not been seen since.

Perhaps this is not what it seems. But it would take a real investigation to tell. Don't hold your breath.

In Outsourcing Torture in this week's New Yorker, Jane Mayer describes the "secret history" of America's "extraordinary rendition" programme. There's also an online-only Q&A with the author.

A Pentagon report confirms the use of sexual humiliation and torture at Guantanamo. The story was broken by the Washington Post, but has been more widely reported in the Arab world.

Not online, but worth a trip to the newsagent, is a story by Donovan Webster in this month's Vanity Fair, in which he interviews "the man in the hood" captured in the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs. More disturbingly, he also talks to a 15 year-old Iraqi boy who was picked up, imprisoned without charge and eventually released with a couple of hundred dollars and an apology. In the interim, he was subject to sexual torture including, but not limited to, digital penetration. And this happened in July last year, months after the Abu Ghraib abuses become public. If you believe that the practices employed sprang from the fevered imaginations of a few hick prison guards, you will, frankly, believe anything.

(The same issue of Vanity Fair also features an intriguing interview with Bob Guccione, a mind-blowing backgrounder on the British boy who tried to incite his own murder, the Beverly Hills burglary spree [if you worry about emergency calls responses here, just be glad you don't live in West LA] and the dirt on the Disney dispute. The Star Wars cover story is as arselicky as you'd expect. )

Meanwhile, a torture-themed reality TV show on Britain's Channel 4.

No Right Turn has commentary on the New Yorker's torture story, and raises a salient point about our own Terrorism Suppression Amendment Bill (No 2).

The Point Turn's Manu identifies similar overreach in new provisions aimed at those distributing child porn. He speculates that "you could soon face a jail term for owning a copy of 'Manhunt' or 'Postal 2', computer games deemed too dangerous for NZ consumption. The maximum sentence for owning an banned game could soon be ten times greater than that for possession of heroin."

Dog Biting Men have been too lazy to post for a whole week. Are they working or something?

It appears that one reason for Microsoft's delay in releasing the .NET source code is the presence of unfortunate programmer comments in said code. Whoops.

Star turns on radio: Jon Gadsby is much funnier in Linda Clark's week-end wrap-up than Jim Hopkins. Is it permanent? And occasional Close Up host Mark Sainsbury (or "The Sainzer" as he has been dubbed) has been in cracking form as a guest with Jeremy and Steve on 95bFM's Saturday Special. Give the man more work.

A number of readers have been in touch to thank me for turning them on to the prose delight of Deborah Coddington. Always happy to share it around, folks. Matt Heywood was among them:

Having never come across Ms Coddington's Liberty Belle newsletter before, took a peek. All I can say is, wow! And thank God Debs is out there to protect us; striding all single-minded and Elliott Ness-like through the dark, dangerous city to protect the innocent (read, wealthy conservative) individual from danger.

I didn't know people still wrote like that. It reads badly, but can you imagine her saying this stuff, hammering it out in a breathless and spittle-flecked, vein-popping tirade to a three-legged dog and two diseased pigeons on a windswept hustings? Christ, it makes me want to race home and hug my children. Debs' particular style of pretentious diction would lend itself beautifully to the propaganda of 18-year old wannabe Marxist revolutionaries still living at home with mum & dad in Howick. Clearly, Ms Coddington is so convinced of the rightness of her message that she's lost the power of self-criticism, and just accepts any old crap as it lands on the page. Like a late-career McPhail & Gadsby skit, it just goes on too long.

Yeah, but isn't it great? Perhaps we could make her a cult figure. But that might be going too far …

I've been meaning to link to Chris Barton's excellent story on apparent cultural differences between New Zealanders and Australians. It looks at a marketing study whose conclusions are roughly what I came up with myself when I wrote the "culture and identity" chapter in the current Lonely Planet guide.

Whose truth is this? New Zealanders love the land. They love being in it, doing things on it. New Zealanders go barefoot or in jandals because they want to be as close to the land as possible. They love the outdoors so much that when they invite you into their house they immediately take you outside again. They like to run on the streets.

For New Zealanders the land represents everything that is pure and authentic. It's. the essence of who we are. We love it so much that we fear losing it which is why we get so upset about foreign ownership and Maori claims to the foreshore.

But Australians see the land as something to be tamed. The relationship to the land is more rugged, in the Marlboro Man tradition. The land is something to be observed, or crossed, not something to integrate with. Australians have a fear of the land because it's much more harsh and hostile. In Australia it's the people who create the land, the big continent. Australians have a psyche of populate or perish. They don't fear growth.

The observations about the role of women in New Zealand culture are on the money too. I recall once, many years ago, being told by an Englishman in a bar in Istanbul, that: "you decide to go and see some ruins at the top of a mountain and you stagger up in the blistering heat, and when you finally get there, you're knackered … and you find two New Zealand girls up there, calmly having a beer."

Right. That'll do. Is anyone else struggling with the back-to-work transition, or is it just me? The reality of my workload seems a bit daunting. Was I really doing all that? Was I manic or something? I actually hit the wall a bit last week, what with kids starting school and all, and have since been cancelling a few things for the good of my health. On the other hand, there's work in train on the next two Public Address events, three people have more or less advanced business propositions to me, and I still can't think of much that I want to give up. But not today. It is the time of lunching, and if you need me, I'll be at SPQR.