Be afraid…be very afraid, because 2015 is the year of the cyber pirates

AS in New Years gone by, I’m full of good intent, with a stack of resolutions to change my errant ways and be a better, healthier – and, if at all possible – wealthier person.

In all likelihood, as in previous turns of the year, most will wither on the vine, a particularly apt expression in my case, since the vow to reduce plonk intake to a slurp or two only every other day is already a busted flush.

However, there is one resolution I’ve already started and am resolved to keep up for safety’s sake and my own peace of mind.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a chore, but one I strongly advise anyone with a computer, smart phone, iPad, Tablet or any gizmo linking them to the internet should adopt, too: change your passwords and PIN numbers every month or so with Jesuit-like zeal.

Because the ‘in’ crime of 2015 will be cyber-hacking. And it won’t just be the usual suspects – like Hollywood belle Jennifer Lawrence, Downton Abbey’s Jessica Brown Findlay, model Kate Upton or Olympic gymnast, McKayla Maroney, all of whom had raunchy, private photos snatched and given a public airing – who are in the hackers’ sights.

HACKERS' VICTIM: Saucy photos of Jennifer Lawrence were stolen by cyber pirates and given an online airing

HACKERS’ VICTIM: Saucy photos of Jennifer Lawrence were stolen by cyber pirates and given an online airing

Neither is it just governments, who get hit by tens of thousands of hack attacks a day, nor global corporations, like Sony, recently forced to pull their movie, The Interview, after the North Koreans took umbrage at it spoofing their Glorious Young Leader, Kim Jong-un.

Using the nom de cyber guerre, Guardians of Peace, their response was to filch 100 terabytes – 10 times the entire printed collection of the US Library of Congress – from Sony’s internet server and selectively release some of their haul.

The raid near-crippled the studio, drew accusations amounting to ‘cowardice’ from President Obama – a man who knows a thing or two about leading from the back – and left company execs writhing with embarrassment (especially the producer who emailed his opinion that Angelina Jolie was a ‘minimally talented spoiled brat’).

That Sony ‘reinstated’ the movie didn’t mitigate their shame, further compounded on Christmas Day when a bunch of cyber cowboys dubbing themselves the Lizard Squad blitzed the company’s PlayStation server – along with that of Microsoft’s Xbox – with so much junk they collapsed, denying millions of gamers the chance to play one another online.

However, there’s nothing vaguely sinister about the bunch who skulk behind the image of a monocle, top-hatted reptile to play havoc with other people’s fun.

Outed as unsophisticated, self-serving, publicity-grubbing kids, they’re sea scouts in the murky ocean of hacking piracy, but that’s what makes them especially dangerous.

WEB WRECKERS: Cyber cowboys hiding behind the odious reptile monker, Lizard Squad, ruined millions of gamers' Christmases

WEB WRECKERS: Cyber cowboys hiding behind the odious reptile monker, Lizard Squad, ruined millions of gamers’ Christmases

Because if little-league smart alecs like Lizard Squad can wreak such damage on mega- corporations, like Sony – thanks to the easy availability on online spyware – what chance does the average iPhone user or family with an internet modem stand?

The problem is most naïve Web users don’t realise how vulnerable they make themselves by posting seemingly innocent messages on platforms like Facebook or Twitter, which reveal an awful lot about them, their families and their lifestyles.

Cyber pirates adore these social network sites, because they can ID people from photos on home pages and, if a date of birth is posted, there’s more than an odds-on chance it will be the golden key to a password or PIN (personal identification number) and a veritable treasure trove of secrets.

So a word to the wise: if you’re thinking of taking a holiday which your online friends would love to know about, keep the info hush-hush until you return, because your friendly, neighbourhood housebreaker would also be delighted to learn when your home is unoccupied.

And who hasn’t slagged off their boss, spouse or partner in an email or accessed an X-rated site. It might be nobody’s business except your own, but if it’s tucked away safely on ‘the cloud’ – a mobile storage database that lets users access messages wherever they may roam – hackers with a passing interest in blackmail will be out to snaffle it.

And, if you don’t think they can, just ask Miss Lawrence or Miss Brown Findlay what they think about this amazing on-the-hoof ‘app’, because apparently that’s from whence their saucily compromising photos were purloined.

Another ‘app’ embarrassed that its info was leaked online is Snapchat – particularly popular with teens, who like to send nude selfies, which are automatically deleted after a few seconds.

That sounds devilishly clever and failsafe, but mystery surrounds how over 100,000 images from Snapchatters suddenly found their way into the public domain. Answers on a postcard please, not via email.

SURF SECURELY: There are steps to take in making sure your Web info is properly protected

SURF SECURELY: There are steps to take in making sure your Web info is properly protected

Meanwhile, on the subject of email – and at the risk of sounding nerdy – if you log on in a café using the establishment’s wi-fi, make sure its connection doesn’t start with ‘http’, but ‘https’, which is an encrypted and secure protocol.

So, I hear you ask, how can I combat the menace of cybercrime?

For a start you could carry out a basic ‘stocktake’ of your gizmos’ security, like refreshing you passwords and PINs.

This glaring oversight was exposed in the Fleet Street phone-hacking scandal of 2011, when police were gobsmacked at the ease unscrupulous journos accessed cellphone voice mail messages. All that was needed was the targets’ PINs and these transpired to be mostly untouched factory settings, like 0000 or 1111, and family birthdays.

Ditto with internet accounts, which tend to be alpha-numeric – i.e. a mix of letters and numbers – so that ABC123DEF became one of the most popular codes in everyday use.

What’s more, people will use the same one multiple times (go on, admit you do).

On a lighter note, the probability of most folk falling victim to cyber pirates is low, though it’s a growing menace in the near future.

So ask yourself: would I go to bed with the house key in my outside front-door lock?

Neither would I. And I’ll hold that thought, since it’ll prompt me into changing my passwords and PINs regularly throughout 2015.

If all do likewise we’ll have a happy, hacker-free New Year.

Silence isn’t so golden if we’re driven to keep our mouths shut out of fear

THE other day an email arrived in my inbox, accusing me of being a ‘neo-con’.

I’ve been called far worse and really didn’t take it as the insult intended, largely because the missive spewed such far-Left drivel, it might have been lifted from the Socialist Workers Party’s hymn sheet.

Just for the record, the sender ended by advising me to ‘keep your neo-con views to yourself.’

‘Nuff said. Except the post slated by whoever hides behind the nom de plume, DemoFan, was my call for Britain’s politicos to emphasise the positive side of immigration and stop playing the UK Independence Party at its favourite game.

By any measure my piece was ‘neo-lib’, perhaps a reprise from my days as a Gucci socialist (failed) and hardly ‘neo-con’, an Americanism that came to prominence as a barb aimed at President G. ‘Dubya’ Bush’s cronies.

But what got my goat was being told to shut up by someone, I guess, who’d take to the barricades at the drop of a Stop The War Coalition hint or an invite to a CND jamboree in Trafalgar Square, if, indeed, there are still enough members left in it to fill the fountain.

LET HIM SPOUT: So-called hate preachers, like Andjem Choudary,  should be given air time to condemn themselves from their own mouths

LET HIM SPOUT: So-called hate preachers, like Andjem Choudary, should be given air time to condemn themselves from their own mouths

Clearly, DemoFan’s versions of democracy’s saintliest virtue, the freedom of speech, is that it was okay to say what you liked, so long as its mantra echoed his. And any philosophy falling short of that is taboo, fascist or – as in my case – ‘neo-con’.

Yet, if I were to categorise myself it would be as a ‘free-thinker’, hidebound by politically correct rules imposed on Western society by the real fascists: a hardline, censorious liberal elite who have strangled public debate in ways more reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984 vision of Big Brother’s Thought Police.

That notion occurred last week when I read a YouGov survey, which reported that 41% of Brits don’t feel free to air their opinions and that Britain, home to the Mother of Parliaments, has developed a ‘culture of silence’.

Of course, I realise that stat includes headbangers who believe Hitler should be beatified as St. Adolf, others on a day out from the funny farm and a few, token Flat Earthers. But it also encompasses many with mainstream opinions on techy topics, such as immigration, religion, ethics and their political preferences (admittedly, it takes some guts to fess up to voting Lib-Dem nowadays).

For the record, the poll also said 40% felt they could sound off at will and 17%, who reckon there’s too much freedom anyway.

Nonetheless, in a so-called free society, it’s worrisome that two out of five citizens keep their thoughts to themselves out of a dread they may hurt someone’s feelings, perhaps prompt a Twitterstorm and get their Facebook page trolled.

The largest proportion of the self-censored (38%) said they feared speaking up in case they uttered something illegal, while 28% stayed silent because they couldn’t stomach criticism. A further 10% thought airing their ideas might damage their careers prospects.

However, of all those polled, an overwhelming majority (77%) agreed on one point: too much protection is given by officialdom and the media to religious believers from ideas and arguments which might offend them.

In its summary of the survey, the New Culture Forum, which commissioned it, pointed a particularly scathing finger at universities, where it claimed free speech ‘is carefully monitored, not by the state or the campus administration, but by the students.’

It added, ‘Student unions now see the mental wellbeing of the student body as a reason to ban anything from a pop song to a reading group.’

ON THE LEASH: The report rapped students' unions for the control they exercise on campuses

FREEDOM TO SPEAK? The report rapped students’ unions for the ‘mind’ control they exercise on campuses

Since today’s generation of undergrads – many of whom love nothing better than a juicy demo and a chance to kick those fascist lackeys, the police – will deliver tomorrow’s leaders, I can only surmise more Big Brothers are rolling off the production line.

So, while we quite rightly have laws banning hate speech and incitement to racism, we’re in danger of stifling legitimate argument, not because it might cause actual bodily harm, but because someone, somewhere might be offended.

Britain once had a proud tradition of allowing people to speak their minds, often a shrewd ruse to suss out the real odium peddlers, who’d damn themselves from their own mouths.

But when the BBC announced that British National Party leader, Nick Griffin – a real, live neo-Nazi – was to appear on its flagship political forum, Question Time, a tidalwave of outrage nearly quashed the broadcast.

To their credit, the Beeb bravely stuck to its script, the BNP nasty duly appeared and got the pillorying his despicable views richly deserved.

That example is one of the exceptions rather than the rule, because invariably received wisdom is to gag debate, which is Home Secretary Theresa May’s policy, as she seeks to ban extremists from TV, like the so-called hate preacher Anjem Choudary.

I’d say: bring them on and let’s hear their obnoxious ravings, so we’re all aware of what degree of danger they pose.

The Establishment, though, doesn’t subscribe to the view people are capable of making up their own minds, so silence is foisted on them.

PUBLISHED & DAMNED: Instead of defending Salmon Rushdie from a death sentence fatwa, Britain's Establishment attacked the writer

PUBLISHED & DAMNED: Instead of defending Salmon Rushdie from a death sentence fatwa, Britain’s Establishment attacked the writer

Such was the case when Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses hit the bookshelves in 1988, provoking a fatwa death sentence from Iran’s then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Yet, instead condemning a gross and medieval assault on a long-prized Western freedom, the great and good cravenly attacked Rushdie.

Nor did the fabled, fearless British Press cover itself in glory, when not a single Fleet Street newspaper dared reproduce the ‘Mohammed Cartoons’, after an obscure Danish daily sparked worldwide debate on whether founders of the great religions could be satirised.

Yet, when a ComRes poll early last year asked what freedom people prized most, freedom of speech topped the list by a country mile.

Clearly, the public subscribed to the notion, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ – a quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire and actually the words of his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall – and that is a plucky and noble sentiment.

More’s the pity, then, the Establishment is too cowardly to share it.

How others see us: we’re bad boozers, can’t eat – and Mr. Bean is one of the greatest Brits

FROM long experience I’ve developed a healthy scepticism about polls, surveys and, particularly, ‘vox pops’ – you know, those street-corner tests of public opinion the media loves to indulge in, where most answers are predictably politically correct.

Unless they are headbangers on day release from a nearby psychiatric facility or have an ardent view on the topic – anyone for fracking, capital punishment or FIFA? – people’s kneejerk reactions tend to parrot mainstream opinion, even if they’re lying through their pearly whites.

After all, who wants to be damned from their own mouths for being a racist, anti-environmentalist, male chauvinist pig…or, worse still, a UKIP supporter.

To continue the theme: how can we be certain eight out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas? None of mine did and nobody is told the total number of moggies ‘surveyed’ or what other brands were sampled.

And if Carlsberg claims to be ‘probably’ the best lager in the world, why doesn’t it refresh ‘the parts other beers cannot reach’, as Heineken supposedly does?

Yeah, yeah, I know these are just examples of admen’s creative thinking and aren’t taken any more seriously than those who believes Wonga is a not-for-profit organisation and bankers deserve even more humungous bonuses.

Nonetheless, such claims have an impact on our buying habits.

Similarly, if the ditty that wins the European Song Contest is so darned good, why doesn’t it become an instant, Top 20 hit? Or, maybe Molitva, sung in Serbo-Croat, or Sweden’s Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley soared up charts and I didn’t notice.

SIMPLY THE GREATEST: Wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, topped the 2012 BBC poll to find The Greatest Briton

SIMPLY THE GREATEST: Wartime leader, Sir Winston Churchill, topped the 2012 BBC poll to find The Greatest Briton

But you don’t need to consult Graham Norton or Terry Wogan for explanations why Eurovision is a stitch-up, with groups of mutually back-scratching nations taking it in turn to vote for each other. All know the PR payback in terms of national prestige is worth chicanery more redolent of elections for the presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Back in 1999 – in a campaign orchestrated by the Press and the nation’s leading politicians – the Turks tried to ‘fix’ the vote for Time’s Person of the 20th Century by balloting in their millions in favour of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

While he might be lauded locally as the founder of modern, secular Turkey, Ataturk is hardly a household name in Llandudno. Yet, briefly at least, he led in every category the prestigious magazine listed…warrior, statesman, scientist, artist and entertainer, even if his stand-up didn’t feature overmuch at Istanbul’s Comedy Central.

It was only when Turkey’s long-time foes, Greece and Cyrprus, rumbled the fiendish plot – and voted in their droves to counter it – that Ataturk’s stock plunged, to be variously replaced by the Sir Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan and Albert Einstein, the eventual winner.

For the record, Ataturk made the Top 100, but so did mobster, Lucky Luciano, who, Time said, ‘modernized the Mafia, shaping it into a smoothly-run, national crime syndicate, focused on the bottom line.’

A survey less tainted by gerrymandering is the BBC’s 10-yearly quest to find The Greatest Briton.

The 2012 edition attracted 30,000 votes and Churchill, the nation’s indefatiguable wartime leader, came top, squeezing out engineering genius, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and – presumably based on enduring sentimentality – Princess Di into a highly creditable third.

A GREAT BRIT? Many foreigners see bumbling clown, Mr. Bean, as the epitome of Britishness

A GREAT BRIT? Many foreigners see bumbling clown, Mr. Bean, as the epitome of Britishness

However, the other day another poll lit up my eye: how we Brits are viewed by others. Or, to quote Robbie Burns’ Ode to a Louse – which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t yet been adopted by Scots Nats as a commentary on the English  – ‘to see ourselves as others see us’.

More than 5,000 people from the US, China, India, Brazil and Germany were asked to summarise their views of us and give an example of a person they most associate with British culture, without being offered a list of options.

On the whole Britons emerged with a decidedly contradictory reputation.

Those surveyed by IPSO-Mori, on behalf of the British Council, regarded us as ‘polite’, ‘friendly’ and ‘well-educated’, but also hard-drinking, xenophobic and afflicted with appalling eating habits (note: with all their slurping over bird’s nest soup, the Chinese are fine ones to talk).

When asked to list the best and worst characteristics, one way or another, British manners were by far the most common answer, cited by 46 per cent of those polled.

A quarter said the British sense of humour was a plus factor and as many as 37 per cent thought Britons to be ‘learned’.

But among less positive responses, 27 per cent said they thought the British ‘drink too much’, 23 per cent listed ‘bad eating habits’, just ahead of ignorance of other cultures and intolerance towards people from other countries.

The British Council’s John Worne said, ‘While there’s a lot to be proud of, some stereotypes still colour the way that we’re viewed overseas: boozy, bad eaters and ignorant of other cultures all figure in our worst characteristics.

‘At our best we are rated ‘polite’, ‘educated’ and ‘friendly’, and the English language, our cities, universities, arts and culture definitely make people want to visit, study and do business with us.’

So who did foreigners most associate with British culture? Literary giants, such as Chaucer, Milton or Burns?  Maybe national icons, like Churchill, The Beatles and Charlie Chaplin? Or great shapers of military history, as exemplified by Elizabeth I, Oliver Cromwell and Lord Nelson?

Not a bit of it.

While, predictably, The Queen and Shakespeare commanded the premier positions, David Beckham came third, while Churchill and the titans of English prose were relegated to also-rans behind…Mr. Bean!

It seems Rowan Atkinson’s fictional clown – with his tweedy togs, emblematic Mini and ability to overcome idiocy – is the epitome of Britishness.

There’s no doubt Bean’s antics transcend all language barriers, since he says nothing that makes any sense.

Maybe that’s where the likes of Chaucer and Co. went wrong.

PS: I wonder what the world would make of the French?

Gary versus Ade…Auntie BBC against ITV – now that’s what I call a World Cup crunch match

SHE thought it was all over when England scuttled home, but tonight it really is and my long-suffering wife’s World Cup widowhood comes to an end.

Mrs A has borne the burden of the great soccer fest manfully – okay, womanfully – but it has only served to underpin her belief sport needs a radical makeover.

Her contention, you see, is footie would be all the better a spectacle if reduced to penalty shoot-outs, golf to putting competitions and tennis to tie-breaks, though she reluctantly admitted to being as transfixed as I was by the electrifying Jokovik-Federer Wimbledon men’s final last Sunday.

And cricket? Well, that should be banned by the International Criminal Court on the grounds that it abuses spectators’ human rights with rules beyond comprehension.

For the record, though, let me fast-back to a conversation of a couple of weeks ago, when my fair lady asked plaintively, ‘With England out, why are you still interested in the World Cup?’

‘Because I like to see how top class teams perform and England aren’t one of them,’ I replied. ‘Only a starry-eyed optimist believed Woy’s Wonders had the ghost of a chance of reaching round two, let alone the quarter finals.’

‘Then why do you keep saying the English Premier League is the world’s best?’

‘It is, but that’s because it’s crammed with talented foreigners.’

‘Why doesn’t someone ban them, then?’

‘It’s all about money – and European Union rules, which allow for the free movement of people, including footballers.’

‘Luis Suarez [now Barcelona-bound] isn’t European; he’s from Uruguay. So what’s he doing playing for Liverpool?’

SOCCER SMOOTHIE: Ex-England star Gary Lineker, skipper of the BBC's World Cup pundit panel

SOCCER SMOOTHIE: Ex-England star Gary Lineker, skipper of the BBC’s World Cup pundit panel

Good shot, even if Mrs. A hasn’t quite got a handle on why World Cup referees were toting cans of shaving foam, when some – like England’s Howard Webb – are as bald as cue ball.

‘Can we have this conversation another day,’ I pleaded, feeling a tad sick as Steve Gerrard’s parrot, after Chewey Luis showed him the exit door with a brace of super goals, before acquiring a taste for Italian beefcake. ‘Besides, there’s an interesting game going on off the pitch.’

‘What game?’

‘The one between the BBC and ITV over who’s providing the better coverage.’

‘You can’t be serious.’

‘And you can’t be John McEnroe.’

Ah, well, back to re-reruns of Downton Abbey and Homeland on the spare telly for one member of the household – clue: not yours truly.

So, returning to the theme of who won the punditry teams joust and who was their better skipper: boyish smoothie, Gary Lineker, who knows a thing or two about soccer, fronting the Beeb, or Adrian Chiles, who know a thing or three about imitating a plank, in ITV’s hot seat?

Now I realise that seems judgemental. But, since Chiles’ ‘transfer’ from hosting Auntie’s The One Show to ITV’s Daybreak and That Sunday Night Show, it’s not gone unnoticed commercial telly has pulled both progs, apparently leaving Ade a £1M a year worse off.

KNOBBLY KNEES COMP? Chiles (right) with bare-legged ITV analysts (l-to-r) Lee Dixon, Glenn Hoddle and Fabio Cannavaro

KNOBBLY KNEES COMP? Chiles (right) with bare-legged ITV analysts (l-to-r) Martin O’Neill, Glenn Hoddle and Fabio Cannavaro

However, good for him, I say, in hanging onto Channel 3’s soccer coverage, despite a dreary presention style – possibly a result of being a life-long West Brom fan – even if ITV’s World Cup didn’t exactly get off to a champagne start.

‘Welcome to Rio!’, Ade announced to viewers before the start of England’s pre-tournament warm-up game with Ecuador…the only flaw being the backdrop wasn’t Copacabana, but a strand of sand 4,000 miles north in Miami. But let’s pin that faux pas on jet lag.

Alas, similar leeway can’t be extended to pundit, Glenn Hoddle, in ITV’s pre-match pontification on Germany’s game ‘with Al Jezeera’.

You could practically see the ex-England manager’s tanned face blanch, as the producer was presumably shrieking into his earpiece, ‘It’s bloody Algeria – Al Jezeera’s an Arab TV news channel!’

Neither did ITV cover itself in glory by having Chiles and his World Cup brains trust sitting at a trestle table above a beach – this time it really was Rio – all clad in shorts, as if they were auditioning for a dads’ knobbly-knees contest at a Butlins’ holiday camp.

To add injury to insult, they then spent a small eternity discussing the pronounciation of Columbian striker, James Rodriguez’s name.

‘It’s Ya-mes,’said Chiles.

‘No it isn’t,’ insisted a bullish Ian Wright. ‘It’a Hah-mez.

The dispute was finally arbitrated by match commentator, Clyde Tyldesley, who resorted to the anglocised ‘James’, which reflected the player’s parents’ preference, since they’d named him after Ian Fleming’s 007.

HAND IT TO HANSEN: The veteran Beeb pundit is still the shining star of the sofa

HAND IT TO HANSEN: The veteran Beeb pundit is still the shining star of the sofa

Over at the BBC, where much emphasis was placed on sartorial elegance – loved Clarence Seedorf’s shirts, by the way – the game plan didn’t always follow Match of the Day’s seemless format, either.

A hiccup, before a ball was kicked, almost sidelined Robbie Savage, who turned up at Heathrow for the Brazil flight with his wife’s passport.

Then there was L-driver analyst, Phil Neville, droning monotonously like a superannuated country parson. Even by his own admission, he was an antidote to insomnia, which was about as funny as Phil got (suggestion to the former Man United and Everton star: Give Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast a go).

Meanwhile, quipster Mark Lawrenson went clearly OTT with a sexist remark that Swiss striker, Josip Drmic, ‘should have been wearing a skirt’ after a glaring miss against Argentina.

It produced 172 complaints and a yellow card from his Broadcasting House referees.

Further brickbats, too, were aimed at the Beeb for their employment of barely comprehensible, foreign soccer luminaries.

The taciturn Thierry Henry’s verdict on most games was measured on the Gallic Shrug Scale – the higher the shoulder blades, the worse it was – while Fabio Cannavaro was so linguistically challenged, all he could sprout sounded pure gobblygook.

This was understandable since the former Italian international only learned English two years ago…in Dubai. But you have to question who picked him to play for the BBC.

Inevitably, it fell to veteran Alan Hansen, marking his swansong from telly punditry, to act as bulwark of Auntie’s defence with tellingly concise, if the occasional tetchy observation that has been his trademark.

So which channel won the World Cup battle of the sofas? On cock-ups, I’d say it was a draw.

When evil men abuse their power, do we ignore the rumour mill at our peril?

IT was a huge PR coup in more ways than one. Roly-poly MP, Cyril Smith, was coming to my kids’ primary school speech day, to present prizes and glad-hand the award-winners.

Back in the naïve mid-1980s, the larger-than-life character, with a girth to match, was the Liberals’ darling – a bluff, northern charmer, deflecting the fall-out from the torrid, homosexual scandal that sank Jeremy Thorpe, the party’s former leader.

Yet, I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of Big Cyril’s road show coming to school. And, couched in as much tact as I could muster, I said so to a teacher, who, quite reasonably asked what my reservations were.

As a newsman, I was privy to a rumour mill that marked the 30-stone politician as having ‘form’, not that I could divulge, in plain English, to the teacher that what I knew was incendiary: the recurrent buzz that Smith might not be an appropriate adult to have around kids.

PARLIAMENTARY PERV? The public needs to know the truth about roly-poly MP, Cyril Smith's alleged abuse of young boys

PARLIAMENTARY PERV? The public needs to know the truth about roly-poly MP, Sir Cyril Smith’s alleged abuse of young boys

The satirical mag, Private Eye, had alleged in 1979 the Liberal Chief Whip – once Labour mayor of Rochdale – had put youngsters at a boys’ home across his knee, pulled down their pants and spanked them.

Plus, I’d heard from reporters covering Smith’s local patch, political contacts, even coppers of my acquaintance, all of whom whispered the same mantra…investigations into Smith’s ‘extra-curricular activities’ were shelved because of ‘pressure from above.’

Proof and hearsay, however hot, aren’t the same. And, apart from the Eye’s snippet, no journo had dared make public further innuendos, because none fancied a second career as a mini-cab driver.

Besides, it’s not always wise to assume where there’s smoke, fire rages. The Sun made that monumental boob when it accused Liverpool fans of picking the pockets and urinating on the bodies of some of the 96 supporters who died in 1989 Hillsborough Tragedy – which is why, even today, Britain’s best-selling tabloid remains a pariah newspaper on Merseyside.

Smith, though, was far from stupid, as Simon Danczuk, author of the new book, ‘Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith’, claims.

‘Once you looked beyond the jolly clown…there was a sickening, dark heart,’ insists the writer. ‘This wasn’t just about abuse, it was about power – and a cover-up that reached from Rochdale all the way to the very top of the Establishment.’

Now Labour MP in Smith’s old seat, Danczuk alleges his predecessor – knighted for political services in 1988 – was part of a Westminster-based network of sex abusers, which Lib-Dems, police, even MI5, had been complicit in covering up for decades.

Danczuk says he has affidavits from eight boys abused by Smith at the Cambridge House hostel, in Rochdale, in the 1960s and they make for grim reading.

Smith, who had helped found the home, was seemingly given ‘free rein’ to administer punishments and is said to have taken pleasure in spanking boys ‘for their own good’, while conducting ‘medical examinations’ of the half-naked kids.

Up to a month ago 144 complaints had been lodged against Smith – a friend of serial sex-abuser, Jimmy Savile – some from victims then as young as eight.

And, incredibly, Lord David Steel, the former Liberal leader, admitted last week that when he’d quizzed Smith about the Eye’s report, the fat man agreed it was true.

So why didn’t Steel act?

LIB-DUMBS? Lord David Steel (left) and current leader, Nick Clegg, refuse to hold an enquiry into Smith

LIB-DUMBS? Lord David Steel (left) and current leader, Nick Clegg, refuse to hold an enquiry into Smith

‘These allegations were already very old,’ he insists. ‘They had been investigated by the police, as Private Eye stated, and no action had been taken. So there was nothing more I could do. He wasn’t an MP at the time of these allegations – he wasn’t even a member of my party.’

Meanwhile, while describing the charges against Smith as ‘repugnant’, current leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said that when all his MPs and peers were asked two years ago whether they’d heard of the abuse claims ‘no-one said they did.’

Given what I’d been told – three decades earlier – from a host of disparate sources, I find it inconceivable the entire parliamentary Lib-Dem mob hadn’t heard a murmur on their antenna, far more attuned to Westminster tittle-tattle than mine.

Political affiliations aside, Danczuk agrees with that assessment.

‘They are a party in denial,’ he asserts. ‘I find it incredible they are claiming that they didn’t hear the rumours about Smith.’

But, apart from what we northerners call ‘cloth-eared’ folly – for the benefit of ignorant southern folk, that’s a meld of selective deafness and a rebuttal of reality – among Smith’s old cronies, Clegg, Steel and Co. should know the law of unintended consequences takes no prisoners.

So, despite investigations being launched by Rochdale Council and Greater Manchester Police, the Lib-Dems’ refusal to hold their own probe into what’s inevitably being dubbed ‘Smithgate’ is a decision they might live to regret.

Child sex abuse – even the mere whiff of it – is no longer dismissed as a trifling deviation to be swept under the carpet, as it once was.

The Savile scandal and its devastating impact on the smug-as-a-mug BBC, again years after the culprit was dead, should concentrate Lib-Dem minds and demand a large dose of proactive humility, not a dead-bat, do-nothing defence.

THUMBS UP: But thumbs down from the jury who found showbiz power-broker Max Clifford guilty of sexually abusing young girls

THUMBS UP: But thumbs down from the jury, who found showbiz power-broker Max Clifford guilty of sexually abusing young girls

Similarly, in a week that’s seen showbiz power-broker, Max Clifford, stripped of his swagger and banged up for eight years for sex offences against young girls, it’s not unreasonable to ask who, in my own trade and close to him, knew what murky secrets lurked behind the slick façade of the man who made Fleet Street rumble.

Like Savile, Smith will never see the inside of a courtroom, but it’s likely his considerable political clout far extended anything the perv DJ or contemptuous Clifford could ever match.

And, though the fat man is – as yet – guilty of nothing more than being the posthumous subject of a swirling welter of allegations that he was a heartless, predatory paedophile, his activities deserve and demand thorough public scrutiny, especially by the Lib-Dems.

Perhaps, too, it’s time we all need a reminder of Edmund Burke’s sage quote: ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

 

 

‘Nightmare’ Nige’s UKIP mavericks could signal another mish-mash UK government

IF I were a betting man – and it’s odds-on I’m not – I’d wager that whatever constitutes the next United Kingdom government, post the General Election of May 7, 2015, it will be another hastily-cobbled coalition.

Labour may currently be a gnat’s nose ahead of the Conservatives, but they’re not dead certs to lead the field a year from now, especially after Finance Minister Osborne’s crafty budget unlocked pension funds and unashamedly played to Lamborghini-lusting wrinklies.

Meanwhile, showtime has kicked off with the warm-up acts slugging it out to determine which also-ran might be a junior partner, should the great British electorate again decide to inflict a plague on both houses of the major parties.

So, last Wednesday, Nick ‘Nicey’ Clegg, champion of the sagging Liberal Democrats, went head-to-head in a TV joust with the United Kingdom Independence Party’s Nigel ‘The Nightmare’ Farage for the second time in a week, keeping the chatterati so abuzz, a 1,000-volt charge could have been thrust up their bleached posteriors.

The BBC debate was fiercer, more cuttingly personal than the previous, LBC/Sky TV  clash, but each produced only one winner – and it wasn’t the crestfallen Deputy Prime Minister.

Many, yours truly included, wondered why a Coalition Goliath like Clegg had thrown down the gauntlet to Farage, a self-styled David and, proudly by his own account, a ‘non-professional’ politico.

So, if it was intended as an exercise in rubbing the underdog’s nose in the doo-doo, it backfired monumentally.

Because hubris did for Clegg as he totally misjudged Farage’s gift of the gab and in both debates the second most powerful man in Britain reeled under a welter of verbal blows, the most withering being the accusation of ‘wilfully lying to the British people.’

The debates’ outcome have further signalled a radical shift in the UK’s political sands.

Even the ‘hung’ parliament of 2010, which gave the Lib-Dems their first a whiff of influence in decades, could be eclipsed by the bonfire of political vanities that threatens.

The cardinal errors the big battalions – Labour as much as Conservative, let alone Clegg’s political harlots – made were a) Trivialising UKIP as swivel-eyed, Little Englander loons [true, some are]; and b) Utterly underestimating Farage’s connect with non-metropolitan have-nots.

NO CONTEST: Nick Clegg (right) and UKIP's Nigel Farage locked in verbal fisticuffs - with 'Nightmare' Nige winning both times

NO CONTEST: Nick Clegg (right) and UKIP’s Nigel Farage locked in verbal fisticuffs – with ‘Nightmare’ Nige winning both times

This emphasises how divorced from reality the elite truly are, with rare exception all too comfy in their Westminster bubble, inured from life in the Siberia of the provinces.

Interestingly, a similar arrogance afflicts the commentariat, as a horde of talking heads demonstrated, disparaging Farage as ‘looking sweaty’ and praising Clegg for appearing ‘ministerial’ in the first face-off.

The YouGuv poll of real people saw it differently: feisty Nige licked lacklustre Nick 57% to 36% first time out, then bested him 68% to 27% in the re-match.

No wonder that snotty scribbler, Yasmin Alibhia Brown, of the fast-fading Independent, demanded furiously the media should be ‘controlled’ in giving coverage to Farage.

If Ms YAB’s remark didn’t smack of neo-Lefty fascism and a curb on free speech more redolent of serfdom than democracy, I don’t know what does.

What her witless ravings echo is how much fear the smiley man with the pint has instilled in the smug mugs, who believe they reign over Britain and Europe by divine right.

As a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Farage is a first-hand witness to the impotence of colleagues and the power wielded by a faceless, ruthless Europratocracy.

He’s utterly dismissive, too, of the unelected cabal of non-entities that rule the European Union (EU) roost, reserving special scorn for Herman Van Rumpoy (anonymous President of the European Council), Manuel Barroso (ineffectual President of the European Commission) and Baroness Ashton (vacuous Foreign Minister), all of whom he dismisses as political pigmies on the world stage.

Irrespective of an artificial currency strangling the Club Med countries, Farage has exposed the EU faultlines and the dire need to restructure the project around its original, core principles of a free-trade Common Market.

BAN NIGE: That's the opinion of neo-Left scribbler and talking head, Yasmin Alabhai Brown

CONTROL FREAK: Neo-Lefty scribbler and talking head, Yasmin Alabhai Brown demands the media should stop publicising the UKIP leader

In Eurosceptic Britain, his damning verdict will undoubtedly translate into votes in next month’s EU polls and UKIP’s nine MEPs are tipped to see their number swell dramatically.

Not that all who’ll vote for the party buy into their message of cutting loose from Europe or to Farage lauding the tyrant Putin for defying the West over Ukraine.

But there’s no denying, after the economy, immigration – and loathed Brussels diktats on the issue – is the most festering sore in British electorate thinking. The reality, though, is the UK opened its door too wide too long ago and the floodtide of Rumanian and Bulgarian incomers Farage predicted hasn’t materialised.

Nevertheless – for now, at least – the country’s voters admire Nige’s chutzpah in putting the frighteners on the vested interests, whose paucity of ideas and personalities is woeful.

The EU polls, then, will be the first chance since 2010 for the people to bash the Westminster clique and they’re practically salivating to register their disgruntlement with the mish-mash Coalition government and Labour’s lamentable opposition

However, General Elections tend to concentrate voters’ minds, so it remains to be seen how much of an X Factor UKIP will pose in a year’s time.

My prediction is they’ll pick up a few House of Commons seats for the first time, come the big day, and those could buy them some say in who holds power.

A greater spectre than Farage’s mavericks, though, looms with September’s vote on Scotland’s independence. And, should Westminster’s worst fears come true, Labour will lose its 41 Scottish MPs, the Lib-Dems their 11, but the Tories only one.

Still, if I were the gambling man I’m not, I’d place a wee wager on the ‘No/Stay Together’ campaign shading it, despite Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Alex Salmond’s brazen ballot-rigging that allows 16 year-olds to vote, yet bans ex-pat Caledonians south of the border from participating.

Assuming I’m right – that Britain remains a united kingdom and Nige nets a clutch of MPs, plus potential Tory defectors – a successive, ruling Coalition is certainly on the cards.

And I would bet on Squire Cameron and Red Ed Miliband sounding out the UKIP upstart over a pint of Tetley’s best British bitter to see which way his once swivel-eyed loons will jump.

Switched, bothered and bewildered, I don’t think my new bank likes me

DID you know you’re more likely to change spouses or partners than your bank – as Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that.

According to the UK Payments Council, the majority account-holders stay with their bank an average of 17 years in contrast to most marriages, which survive a paltry 11.5.

It’s not that Brits are so besotted with the treatment meted out by the institutions claiming to look after their money. Far from it, because complaints against banks soared 15 percent in the first half of last year alone to 370,000.

No, the prime reason for customer loyalty is fear…dread that switching to a rival will likely result in a calamitous hiatus, so direct debits or standing order pay-dates are missed, the electricity, gas or water will be cut off and the tallyman will repossess the family motor.

This same reluctance to change stalks most of the West, despite the array of incentives banks employ to lure each other’s clients, Consequently, while four in 10 of us regularly switch car or household insurer, only one in 20 has changed their bank in the last two years.

But what if a bank switches you, which is happening in my case?

It’s not that I’ve done anything to upset them. I keep a decent balance in my account, make few demands, never forget to say ’Have a nice day’ and am on first-name terms with the counter staff.

The pleasantries are always returned and, for the several years I’ve banked there – no names, no pack-drill, but it’s an international offshoot of a UK high street bank – I’ve been treated with cheery efficiency, sage advice and made to feel a valued customer.

IN THE MONEY? Who knows when banking parlance is so complicated

IN THE MONEY? Who knows when banking parlance is so complicated

Suddenly last summer, however, I received a letter from them, saying as of mid-March, 2014, I’d be a client of another bank, a Spanish one, whose name meant virtually nada to me.

In other words, having sold out to a competitor, I was part of the goods and chattels.

This was a fait accompli in the hatching; Hobson had more choice than me…it was either go with the flow or dive into the minefield of the great, financial unknown.

It isn’t that I’ve a problem with the theory of changing banks, despite my innate sense of loyalty/fear and belief in better the banking devil you know than parking my cash in another Satan’s den.

Nor am I particularly concerned about a bank’s country of origin, so long as it’s regulated to international standards and not run by some philanthropic Nigerian, offering me 1,000% interest if I park the odd twenty thou with him for a month.

Because – at least now – banks almost everywhere no longer act like robber barons in pin stripes. Mostly, they’ve mended their errant, grasping ways, stopped lending recklessly and quit foisting junk products, like payment protection insurance, on duped punters.

So, in the hope my familiar counter-staff mates would be part of the takeover, I went along with the assurances that this would simply be a name-change and the transition would tick with the precision of a Swiss watch.

Except it didn’t and isn’t.

At the turn of last year I received a leaflet from the future custodians of my moolah, explaining a few ‘modifications of the contractual conditions of certain bank services’.

Very thoughtfully, they’d written it in English, but – such was its arcane terminology – it might as well have been Swahili or Serbo-Croat.

Despite the vast cesspool of trivia drivel I accumulated over a lifetime, comprehension of banking parlance isn’t floating on its surface, like an unsinkable cowpat.

BANK ON IT: Most people get divorced before they change their bank

BANK ON IT: Most people get divorced before they change their bank

So the €35 ‘fee for dunning of debt positions’ fell on glazed eyes, as did the ‘formula used for calculating the settlement of credit and debit interest on sight accounts’.

Was my debt position being ‘dun’ over then?  And would I need an optical test to have a ‘sight account’?

Then, after receiving a new debit card, a further piece of plastic landed in my mailbox. Mysteriously titled ‘a new distance banking code card’, the accompanying letter exhorted me to ‘ACTIVATE NOW’ (their caps) by going on line.

Dutifully, I did – immediately. Except the website told me to try again in four days. So, I did. And the website said try again in a week. So I did and the website said phone a number somewhere. So I did.

‘We’re experiencing website integration issues’, explained a polite lady at the other end of the line. ‘Try again in four days’

‘But I’ve be trying for three weeks,’ said I, plaintively. ‘Besides, you’ve had since last August to sort this out and you’re a bank, for heaven’s sake, overflowing with IT geeks.’

‘You have until March 15 to do it, so there’s plenty of time,’ replied the call centre agent.

‘So why, in January, did you send out the urgent ACTIVE NOW message?’

‘Oh, that was just in case you forgot.’

‘This doesn’t exactly inspire new customer confidence, does it,’ I noted rhetorically.

‘Well, send in a complaint,’ she suggested. ‘Here, I’ll give you the email address of who to write to. They’ll reply within four days.’

So I did – on February 6. And I’m still awaiting the courtesy of a response. Maybe it’s a hiccup with email ‘integration’. Who knows in this era of supa-dupa hi-tech.

Meantime, my pals at my old bank – the one that’s going to be eviscerated next month – managed to sort out my ‘new distance banking’ glitch, which I discovered is a bunkum euphemism for something simply known as ‘online banking’.

Ah, well, I sighed. At least that’s done and dusted…except every time I go online to check my balance I still keep being exhorted to ACTIVE NOW the ‘new distance banking code’, which I do ad nauseum, since it’s the only way I can access my account.

Maybe the computer that keeps saying ‘No’ doesn’t like me. Maybe I’ll send it a bunch of flowers as a sop.

Or maybe I’ll break the habit of a lifetime and switch banks.