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Leveson’s Punch and Judy show masks hacking on a scale you can barely imagine

An exquisite display of irony.

In the week Lord Justice Leveson published more than a million words about his inquiry into the “culture, practice and ethics” of Britain’s corporate press, two illuminating books about media and freedom were also published. Their contrast with Leveson’s Punch and Judy show is striking. For 36 years, Project Censored, based in California, has documented critically important stories unreported or suppressed by the media most Americans watch or read. This year’s report is Censored 2013: Dispatches From the Media Revolution by Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth (Seven Stories Press, £12.99). They describe the omissions of “mainstream” journalism as “history in the unmaking”. Unlike Leveson, their investigation demonstrates the sham of a system claiming to be free. Among their top 25 censored stories are these:

• The emerging police and prison state
Since 2001, the US has erected a police state apparatus including a presidential order that allows the military to detain anyone indefinitely without trial. FBI agents are now responsible for the majority of terrorist plots, with a network of 15,000 spies “encouraging and assisting people to commit crimes”. Informants receive cash rewards of up to $100,000.

• War crimes, al-Qaeda and drug money
The bombing of civilian targets in Libya in 2011 was often deliberate and included the main water supply facility that provided water to 70 per cent of the population. In Afghanistan, the murder of 16 unarmed civilians, including nine children, attributed to one rogue US soldier, was committed by “multiple” soldiers and covered up. In Syria, the US, Britain and France are funding and arming the icon of terrorism, al- Qaeda. In Latin America, one US bank has laundered $378bn in drug money.

Beyond bayonets

In Britain, this world of subjugated news and information is concealed behind a similar facade of a “free” media, which promotes the extremisms of state corruption and war, consumerism and an impoverishment known as “austerity”. Leveson devoted his so-called inquiry to the preservation of this system. My favourite laugh-out-loud quote of His Lordship is: “I have seen no basis for challenging at any stage the integrity of the police.”

Those who have long tired of deconstructing the clichés and deceptions of “news” say: “At least there’s the internet now.” Yes, but for how long? Alfred W McCoy, the great US chronicler of imperialism, quotes Barack Obama in a recent election debate. “We need to be thinking about cyber security,” said Obama. “We need to be talking about space.” McCoy calls this revolutionary. “Not a single commentator seemed to have a clue when it came to the profound strategic changes encoded in the president’s sparse words,” he writes. “Yet, for the past four years, working in silence and secrecy, the Obama administration has presided over a technological revolution . . . moving the nation far beyond bayonets and battleships to cyber warfare, the weaponisation of space [and] a breakthrough in what’s called ‘information warfare’.”

This is hacking on a vast scale by the state and its intelligence and military arms and “security” corporations. It was unmentionable at the Leveson inquiry, even though the internet was within Leveson’s remit. It is the subject of Cypherpunks (OR Books, £11) by Julian Assange with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Müller- Maguhn and Jérémie Zimmermann. That the Guardian, a principal gatekeeper of liberal debate in Britain, should describe their published conversation as “dystopian musings” is unsurprising. Understanding what they have to say is to abandon the vicarious as journalism and to embrace the real thing.

“The internet was supposed to be a civilian space,” Assange writes. “[It] is our space, because we all use it to communicate with each other and with members of our family . . . Ten years ago, [mass interception] was seen to be a fantasy, something only paranoid people believed in” – but now the internet is becoming “a militarised zone”. When everyone can be intercepted en masse, spying on individuals is redundant. The Stasi penetrated 10 per cent of East German society. Today, the cost of intercepting and storing all telephone calls in Germany in a year is less than €8m. More than 175 companies now sell the surveillance of whole countries. A whistle-blower at the giant US telecommunications company AT&T has disclosed that the National Security Agency (NSA) allegedly examined every phone call, every internet connection. The NSA intercepts 1.6 billion personal communications every day.

Public enemy

To the “national security state”, “perpetual war” is a given and the public, not terrorists, are the enemy. Google, Facebook and Twitter are all based in the US. In December 2010, Twitter was ordered by the justice department to surrender its clients’ personal information relevant to the Obama administration’s pursuit of WikiLeaks, no matter where in the world people lived. Obama has pursued twice as many whistle-blowers as all US presidents combined. This is why Assange and Bradley Manning are targets – along with those rare journalists who do their job and publish in the public interest. Like Assange, they, too, are liable to be prosecuted for espionage, regardless of what the US Constitution says. A whistle-blower at the NSA, William Binney, describes this as “turn - key totalitarianism”.

The iniquity of Rupert Murdoch was not his “influence” over the Tweedledums and Tweedledees in Downing Street, nor the thuggery of his eavesdroppers but the augmented barbarism of his media empire in promoting the killing, suffering and dispossession of countless men, women and children in America’s and Britain’s illegal wars.

Murdoch has plenty of respectable accomplices. The liberal Observer was as rabid a devotee of the Iraq invasion. When Tony Blair gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, bleating about the media’s harassment of his wife, he was interrupted by a film-maker, David Lawley Wakelin, who described him as a war criminal. At that, Lord Leveson leapt to his feet, had the truth-teller thrown out and apologised to the war criminal. Such an exquisite display of irony is contemptuous of all of us.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.