With Alan Henning’s death, the media finally stop playing the terrorists’ tune

Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014

It took the death of the British aid worker for papers not to publish images of Isis’s brutality

Yesterday, for the fourth time in just over six weeks, the media had to decide how to respond to the brutal murder of a hostage. Alan Henning, a taxi driver who went to Syria purely for humanitarian reasons, was forced to take part in a video before being beheaded by a masked jihadist.

When news of the killing began to circulate on Friday, there were immediate appeals on social networking sites not to show stills from the video. With a couple of exceptions – notably the online versions of the Daily Mail and Daily Star – most newspaper editors complied. Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the Mirror titles, tweeted that stills from a video of the aid worker David Haines had appeared on most front pages. “We decided not to do that again,” he wrote. “They can’t win.” The Sun published a leader, declaring that “we refuse to give his absurd killers the publicity they crave”.

I can’t help thinking, “At last.” Why did it take so long for some sections of the media to recognise the huge ethical problems inherent in showing pictures, taken by perpetrators, of human beings undergoing extreme psychological torture?

When a video of the beheading of the first Western hostage, the American journalist James Foley, was released in August, the reaction was very different. The Sun, along with many other British newspapers, used a still from the video on its front page. The paper’s online edition initially included a link to the video, under the heading “Islamist terrorist beheads missing US journalist”. The New York Post, also owned by Rupert Murdoch, published a photo of Mr Foley with the murderer’s knife at his throat. The chief executive of News Corp Australia, Julian Clarke, later claimed that “hiding the brutal reality” was not in anyone’s interest.

So why has Mr Henning’s murder brought about a change in editorial policy? It has to be said that the New York Postbehaved as badly as ever, using a still of Mr Henning on his knees along with a hideously graphic description of the video’s content. But it seems to have dawned on other editors that one of the purposes of these videos is to torture friends and relatives of the victims. Publishing stills causes unimaginable pain, denying loved ones the choice not to view them. It also, crucially, comes close to colluding with torture.

Isis wants us to see these pictures. It has no intention of sparing anyone’s life, which is why sending an audiotape to Mr Henning’s wife was so cruel. We have a responsibility as journalists to report these murders, but we don’t have to reproduce slavishly the most horrific propaganda. That’s what these images are, and I’m sorry it’s taken the murder of poor Mr Henning for some sections of the media to recognise it.

When did ‘human rights’ become a source of shame?

Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014

It has replaced ‘political correctness’ as the dinner-party phrase designed to appeal to right-wing prejudice

It used to be “political correctness”. You only had to say the words to set a coalition of right-wing columnists, Tory backbenchers and patriotic Englishmen (sic) seething with rage. Respecting the rights of gay people, women, the disabled or foreigners was loudly condemned as “political correctness gone mad”, which was one step worse than PC on its own. What is the country coming to when you can’t make jokes about loony left-wing councils banning Christmas? (Not that they ever did.)

Now David Cameron needs a new bogeyman to rally wavering voters. So it’s goodbye to political correctness, and hello to the dire threat to our way of life known as “human rights”. Actually, that should be the “human rights industry”, as I expect it’s known at dinner parties attended by right-wing cabinet ministers. Other key phrases in the lexicon are “Abu Qatada”, “votes for prisoners”, and the soppy idea that we shouldn’t deport people to countries where their private parts might be hooked up to electric wires. Such absurd claims are contrasted by Conservative politicians with violations of “real human rights”, which are to be found in North Korea.

Another word senior Tories are fond of is “crazy”. Last week the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, branded some uses of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European convention on human rights in domestic law, as “crazy” and “unacceptable”. A day later, Cameron grabbed headlines by confirming he would scrap the Act if the Tories win the next election. Their vocabulary on this subject is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Daily Mail, which gleefully reported that the party would give MPs and judges the power “to ignore the European Court and its crazy decision making”. The paper proclaimed “a triumphant week for British values” – and that was before Grayling caused shockwaves by suggesting that the Tories might withdraw from the European convention if they fail to get a veto over judgments at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Well, I have to say I’m outraged by this attempt to hijack “British values”. What the Tories are doing is highlighting a few decisions they dislike by the ECHR, as though they amount to a special imposition on the UK. This is nonsense: no country should expect to win every case that comes before the court. As for the endless complaints about Abu Qatada, this self-proclaimed opponent of human rights merely exposed his own hypocrisy by using the law to delay his deportation. I like the fact that even the Home Secretary has to follow due process.

That’s one of the things enshrined in the European convention. It also outlaws torture, punishment without law, slavery and forced labour, while protecting free expression and respect for private and family life. What’s wrong with any of that? I can see it would go down badly in North Korea, Syria or China, but that makes it all the more astonishing that the Tories are turning their loathing of “human rights” into a central plank of their election platform.

Don’t be taken in by the spin that they’re just replacing a messy piece of legislation with a sensible British Bill of Rights. Since Cameron’s speech in Birmingham, headlines have focused on proposals to turn the ECHR into an “advisory body” whose judgments are no longer binding on the UK. This would set a precedent for countries with terrible human rights records, including Russia, which has lost many more cases before the court than the UK. But that’s not the half of it. The Bill would apply only to British territory, according to a policy document published two days ago, so allegations of human rights abuses by British forces serving abroad could no longer be heard in a British court.

Viewed in conjunction with an intention to redefine “degrading treatment”, this looks like an attempt to limit the ability of British courts to hear cases which might reveal complicity in torture or extraordinary rendition. Most far-reaching of all is an apparently anodyne clause promising to amend the Ministerial Code to “remove any ambiguity… about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament”. Some lawyers say this would amount to removing the British Government’s obligation to comply with international law and treaties. Are the Tories really crazy enough to do this, with all its dire implications for Britain’s standing in the world?

The answer appears to be that they are; what’s more, they’ve been planning it for some time. That’s why ministers have been softening up the public with speeches caricaturing the effect of human rights legislation, faithfully reported in The Sun and Daily Mail.

Then there was the mysterious sacking in July of the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, a barrister by profession and one of the few Tories almost everyone likes. At the time Grieve said he didn’t think his dismissal was linked to his opposition to the UK withdrawing from the ECHR, but added that it was “possible”. Last week he became one of the fiercest critics of the proposals, describing them as “almost puerile” and saying they would “damage the UK’s international reputation”.

Cameron’s demonising of human rights law marks a significant shift to the right. It is also calculated, an abandonment of wiser heads in his own party in an attempt to fight off the threat from the Ukip. It’s hardly surprising that a Tory leader who couldn’t win an outright majority against Gordon Brown should live in terror of Nigel Farage, a man who reduces politics to populist slogans. But the result will be incalculable damage to the country he claims to love, inflicted by a prime minister so desperate that he is prepared to turn “human rights” into an insult.

Hostages to Misfortune

The Sunday Times, 5 October 2014

Reporters are used to dealing with other people’s pain. Few are used to being the centre of an international incident, which is what happens in Liza Marklund’s outstanding Borderline, translated by Neil Smith (Corgi £7.99/ebook £4.48). Journalist Annika Bengtzon is covering the murder of a young mother in Stockholm when she gets shocking news. Her husband, Thomas, who works for the Swedish ministry of justice, has been kidnapped in Kenya.

Annika’s day job is pushed to one side as she desperately tries to find out who is holding him. Marklund has always written about newspapers with an insider’s eye, and the reaction of Annika’s boss offers a sardonic commentary on the modern media. A ransom demand for $40m sends her into despair, and things get worse when one of the other hostages is butchered. The novel delivers an emotional punch rare in contemporary crime fiction.

Journalistic ethics feature again in Good Girls Don’t Die (Quercus £6.99/ebook £6.99) by Isabelle Grey. Her detective, Grace Fisher, is starting a new job in Essex after being hounded out of her last post for “grassing” on a corrupt colleague. A student disappears after a night out, and it isn’t long before the body of another young woman is discovered on a building site. Feeling isolated, Grace turns to her old friend Roxanne, but she is working on a local newspaper and a conflict of interest looms. This fast-moving novel combines clever plot twists with a surprising delicacy of feeling.

In Kristina Ohlsson’s Hostage, translated by Marlaine Delargy (Simon & Schuster £12.99/ebook £6.49), her detective, Alex Recht, is called in to help security services when a bomb threat is found on board a jumbo jet; all the passengers will die unless a Moroccan man, who is about to be deported, is allowed to stay in Sweden. Recht has a personal interest in the case — his son is the co-pilot — but there are plot weaknesses and the novel doesn’t live up to Ohlsson’s usual high standard.

The wars in former Yugoslavia continue to haunt the characters in The Skeleton Road (Little, Brown £18.99/ebook £9.49) by Val McDermid. Someone is killing war-crimes suspects before they can be tried in the Hague, but no one knows the identity of the assassin. When a skeleton is discovered at a disused building in Edinburgh, Scottish detectives uncover a trail that leads back to the siege of Dubrovnik and a missing Croatian general. McDermid fields a cast of police officers, war-crimes investigators and academics, but plot takes precedence over character and the novel slips into melodrama.

Aristocratic detectives are a dying breed. Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler, who lives in the English cathedral city of Lafferton, has often seemed to belong to an earlier era of crime fiction. Hill casts all that aside in The Soul of Discretion (Chatto £18.99/ebook £9.98), in which a mother wakes at 4am to feed her baby, only to spot a naked toddler in a garden across the road. This disturbing discovery sets the scene for a graphically violent novel, plunging Serrailler into a dangerous undercover role as a convicted paedophile.


ISIS beheadings: the hideous return of execution as public spectacle

Independent on Sunday, 28 September 2014

Clicking on a link, or even viewing a photo from before the killing, is not far removed from attending a Tudor beheading

It is hard to think of a greater affront to reason than the decapitation of a helpless human being. Actually, it is an affront to many other things as well, including the dignity of the victim and the feelings of family members. But I grew up in what seemed a new age of reason, when scientific discoveries held out the prospect of making the world a better place; the last thing I expected was that a few years later I’d be forced to look at images of men being beheaded by sadistic killers. I can’t imagine I’m alone in feeling almost literally sick when I hear that another video of a beheading has been placed on the internet.

The murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines are a horrible reminder that the barbarism of earlier stages of human history has not gone away. In fact, we’ve known this for some time, at least since the beheadings (in 2002 and 2004) of two American hostages, Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg. In the most recent videos, it is not clear whether the masked British jihadist actually carried out the murders, but we’re invited to make that assumption. At any rate, the theatrical brutality of the act is a rejection of an evolution of human values, over centuries, that places such atrocities beyond the pale.

Whether individual members of the group fully understand the symbolism is unclear, but the head is the seat of reason. Murders staged in this fashion are an attack on the Cartesian proposition cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), which has had such a profound influence on how we think about our identity. They are also an assault on the notion of human progress, challenging assumptions about empathy and compassion. That was, I think, the purpose of the gruesome murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was hacked to death and almost decapitated outside his barracks in Woolwich, London, last year.

For most of my life, beheading was something I associated with Tudor kings. I read with bemusement that Henry VIII imported a French swordsman to execute his second wife Anne Boleyn, a gesture explained as more appropriate to her status than being despatched with an axe. Two-and-a-half centuries later the French devised the guillotine, which was designed to provide an instant and painless method of execution. Unfortunately it came into use in 1792, just in time to mechanise mass murder during the Terror.

In England, the last public execution – a hanging – was carried out outside the walls of Newgate prison, now the site of the Old Bailey, in 1868. Public executions were staged events, spectacles devised to terrify and impress; beheadings in particular emerged from warrior culture, in which leaders demonstrated their ruthlessness through a willingness to despatch opponents with their own hands. Salah al-Din (known in the West as Saladin) defeated a Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 and personally beheaded one of his prisoners, Renaud de Chatillon, with his sword.

Saddam Hussein came from Salah al-Din’s home town, Tikrit, and modelled himself on the Kurdish general; in 2001, paramilitaries controlled by Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, beheaded more than 200 Iraqi women and left their severed heads on the doorsteps of their families. The women were accused of being involved in prostitution, but many had professional jobs and were probably opponents of the regime. Indeed, it is sobering to realise how often women are the victims of beheadings. Astonishingly, three women have been decapitated in London this year alone; the most recent was Palmira Silva, 82, who was killed in her garden in Edmonton at the beginning of this month.

Despite these horror stories, capital punishment had been abolished across most of Europe by the end of the 20th century. The name itself is a reference to beheading (from the Latin caput, a head) and its abolition marks a significant change in the relationship between the state and its citizens. These days, the only state which regularly beheads convicted criminals is Saudi Arabia, creating an uncomfortable paradox for Western politicians; the Saudis are now our allies in a bombing campaign against the self-styled Islamic State in retaliation for the beheading of Western hostages.

Outside Saudi Arabia, the decline of capital punishment has created a situation in which beheading has been almost entirely privatised. The decapitation of innocent people in videos can be seen as terrorist groups appropriating a power which modern democratic states have voluntarily given up, reinforcing the notion that jihadis aspire to the most brutal form of statehood. Equally troubling is the way in which they have revived the practice of execution as public spectacle, reaching a potential audience far larger than ever turned out for a beheading in the distant past. Clicking on a link to a video showing the murder of a journalist or aid worker isn’t much different from turning up at the Tower of London to watch the execution of a Tudor queen. Personally, I don’t even want to see still pictures from the moments before the killing, which show men undergoing unimaginable psychological torture.

Some of the masked men in these propaganda videos treat severed heads like props from a horror film. Ghastly as this is, neuroscientists have a prosaic explanation; they’re experiencing a bio-chemical high derived from a combination of testosterone and oxytocin. Thus science comes to our rescue once again, turning inexplicable behaviour into a question of hormones. Having too much testosterone is so much less glamorous than fighting to establish the Caliphate.

Alice Gross disappearance: murderers must stay on somebody’s radar

Independent on Sunday, 21 September 2014

‘The lack of an EU-wide register means even men with a dreadful history might appear unblemished’

A couple of Sundays ago, I walked along the Thames in west London. Every few yards I saw flyers pleading for information about Alice Gross, the 14-year-old girl from Hanwell who had gone missing 10 days earlier. It was a sombre reminder of the agony her family were – and still are – going through.

Last week police named a suspect, Arnis Zalkalns, a 41-year-old builder from Latvia. He was spotted on CCTV riding his bike along Brentford lock shortly after Alice took the same route. He disappeared six days later.

For obvious reasons, the police have been reluctant to say any more about Zalkalns, who has neither been arrested nor had the opportunity to give his side of the story. He may turn out to have no connection with Alice’s disappearance, but the information which has emerged since reveals gaps in how the criminal justice system deals with men who have been convicted of violent offences in other countries.

Zlakalns has a history of extreme domestic violence, culminating in the premeditated murder of his wife in Latvia. A year before the killing, Zalkalns shot 22-year-old Rudite in the stomach; she survived but he later lured her to a forest and bludgeoned her to death with a scaffolding pole. He buried her in a shallow grave which he had dug in preparation for the murder.

It is hard to understand why Zalkalns served only seven years for this appalling crime. In 2007, he came to the UK where no one, including border officials and the police, seems to have known his history. Two years later he was arrested on suspicion of a sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl, but released without charge.

Earlier this year a scheme known as “Clare’s law” came into operation, allowing women to ask police if a man has a history of domestic violence. Critics argue that an absence of convictions might offer women false reassurance; the British government’s effective decision to opt out of some measures, including an EU-wide criminal records system, means that even men with histories as dreadful as Zalkalns’ might seem to have an unblemished record.

Men who kill their partners are not treated as sex offenders unless they also commit specific sexual offences. So even if the UK authorities had known about Zalkalns’s lethal assault, he would not have been on the sex offenders’ register. This creates an anomalous situation in which men who have accessed paedophile images via their computers face restrictions that don’t apply to someone who has beaten his wife to death.

London police said yesterday that the inquiry into Alice’s disappearance is the biggest operation of its kind since the 7/7 bombings. The family’s ordeal can only have been made worse by the revelation of glaring inadequacies in the mechanisms that are supposed to protect women and girls.

Pistorius: Reeva Steenkamp was just a chapter in a scary story

Independent on Sunday, 14 September 2014

Pistorius is already on his way to rehabilitation in a country where three women a day are killed by a husband or boyfriend

The process of rehabilitation has already begun. The Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been cleared of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, who died behind the locked door of a toilet at his home in South Africa last year. He was convicted of culpable homicide and a separate firearms charge, but he is out on bail amid speculation that he could even get a suspended sentence when he appears in court next month.

These events are shocking but not surprising. From the outset, Pistorius was given an easy ride by much of the world’s media, who uncritically repeated his controversial defence that he accidentally shot Steenkamp after mistaking her for a burglar. This is what happens when events involving famous people are viewed in isolation, as riveting individual dramas rather than belonging to a wider narrative. Why would an internationally famous runner kill his girlfriend? He says it was a mistake, but the question needs to be seen in context: why did no fewer than 1,024 South African men kill their current or former partners in 2009?

This is not a country, in other words, where such events are rare. A woman is killed by a husband or boyfriend every eight hours, according to a study published two years ago by the South African Medical Research Council. This translates to three women a day, and the study actually showed an improvement on the situation in South Africa 10 years earlier, when four women were dying every day. It has “the highest reported rate globally of females murdered by shooting in a country not engaged in war”, according to an article published in the South African Medical Journal (SAMJ).

Unsurprisingly, South Africa is on the list of countries where femicide – defined by the World Health Organisation as the intentional murder of women [simply] because they are women – is practised. Most victims are mixed race or black and their deaths receive little publicity, despite the dreadful injuries inflicted upon them. In that sense, Reeva Steenkamp – white, beautiful and well-known as a model in South Africa – was a far-from-typical victim (though, of course, Pistorius was cleared of murder). Hierarchies of victims are uncomfortable to contemplate but it might at least have been hoped that her death, at the hands of one of the country’s most admired men, would finally shame South Africa into acknowledging the scale of its problem with guns and violence. Instead, Steenkamp has been sidelined in the reporting of her own death, overshadowed by a man who is obsessed with lethal weapons, but who appears to consider himself the principal victim of this sequence of events.

For all the unusual features of the case, Steenkamp’s killing appears to fit a pattern of crime repeated over and over in South Africa. Women’s organisations, doctors and a handful of politicians know that much more needs to be done to tackle a macho culture aggravated by the role of guns as status symbols. Gun ownership “is a means to demonstrate manhood”, according to the SAMJ. The article goes on to remark that women “are most vulnerable behind closed doors, where guns are used to intimidate, control, hurt and kill intimate partners”.

Judge Thokozile Masipa, who presided over the murder trial, decided to ignore messages in which Steenkamp talked about the athlete’s volatile moods and said she was sometimes afraid of him. But Pistorius’s former girlfriend Samantha Taylor says she was so frightened of him that she hid one of his guns, which he later used to kill Steenkamp. Ms Taylor’s claims go some way towards establishing a history of domestic abuse, including her account of the athlete’s “angry and possessive rages” – an accusation that will ring true to anyone who witnessed his furious reaction when he lost a race at the 2012 Paralympics. And while the judge dismissed two firearms charges last week, she found Pistorius guilty of firing a gun in a crowded restaurant, just weeks before he killed Steenkamp.

Within hours of the fatal shooting, the model was becoming a footnote in her killer’s tear-sodden melodrama. He sobbed and retched his way through his trial, bursting into tears again on Thursday when Judge Masipa cleared him of murder. It is not uncommon for victims of crime to break down when asked to recall traumatic events, such as being beaten or raped, but it is rare for an alleged perpetrator to indulge in such boundless displays of self-pity. Pistorius’s tears lent weight to the prosecution case that he was volatile – almost entirely devoid of self-control.

Pistorius shot Steenkamp through a door, using a 9mm pistol and hollow-point ammunition which mushrooms inside body tissue. Her injuries were so devastating that a forensics expert suggested that one shot to her arm would have acted “like an instant amputation”. In the most puzzling and controversial section of her judgment, Judge Masipa said the athlete’s intention was to shoot, not to kill, and the prosecution had failed to establish that he “accepted the possibility of killing someone”.  It is hard to believe that Pistorius, who had had weapons training, did not understand the damage that this ammunition would cause, regardless of who was cowering behind the locked door. “How can you shoot four bullets through a door and not foresee their death?’ a South African legal expert, Professor Stephen Tuson, asked.

Even so, shooting a terrified woman four times with expanding bullets is no obstacle to a successful sporting career. Within hours of the verdicts, the International Paralympic Committee announced that Pistorius “had done a great deal” for the movement and would be allowed to compete again. But he has already won the most significant contest of his life in a country where men, guns and violence are regarded as natural companions.

Ashya King: this story isn’t quite what it seems

Independent on Sunday, 7 September 2014

The five-year-old isn’t dying – but nor is he getting the urgent treatment he needs, despite Jeremy Hunt’s extraordinary offer

A British boy is dying of a brain tumour. His distressed parents discover a life-saving treatment, available only in another country. Heartless doctors refuse to refer the child to the foreign clinic. Instead, they insist on going ahead with conventional treatment which, the parents fear, will turn him into a “vegetable”. The distraught parents seize their son from the hospital and take him abroad. The UK authorities overreact wildly, issuing an international alert for the family. The parents are found in Spain and arrested, causing an outcry and interventions from leading politicians.

This sequence of events has been widely reported in the past week. It is what a great many people believe about the controversy over five-year-old Ashya King, who is currently in a hospital in Malaga. Many of them have signed internet petitions or written furious blogs, citing the case as an example of the authoritarian state or the arrogance of doctors. The problem is that the story I’ve outlined simply isn’t true, starting with this basic fact: Ashya isn’t dying. Despite headlines using the hugely emotive phrase, he isn’t “terminally ill”.

In fact, his chances of surviving five years are between 70 and 80 per cent, as long as he receives prompt chemotherapy followed by radiotherapy. His tumour, which is called a medulloblastoma, was removed at a major teaching hospital, Southampton General, just over six weeks ago. To maximise his chances of recovery, chemotherapy should have started within four to six weeks of surgery. It didn’t, because his parents fell out with doctors in Southampton. The treatment they want is available at a private clinic in Prague, but that isn’t where they headed when they left the UK. They actually returned to the south of Spain, where they have a holiday home, and where they were staying when Ashya first showed symptoms earlier in the summer.

Obviously, the diagnosis of a brain tumour in a young child is devastating for any family, and no one doubts that Brett and Naghemeh King want the best for their son. But it is possible, despite being an eventuality discounted by most of the people making inflammatory comments, that even the most loving parents will sometimes make bad decisions in moments of extreme stress.

In this instance, the Kings did their own research on the internet and read about a form of radiotherapy known as proton beam treatment, which isn’t available in the UK. There is no general ban on referring NHS patients to have this treatment, although it is very expensive; around 400 patients, most of them children, have been sent abroad to undergo it since 2008. In suitable cases, the NHS will pay for the family’s travel and accommodation as well as the treatment. But proton beam radiotherapy is recommended in only a tiny proportion of cancers – around 1 per cent, according to Cancer Research UK.

Ashya’s doctors insist they took a clinical (not financial) decision that it would not be better for him than conventional radiotherapy. Because his parents disagreed, the doctors referred his case to a body called the NHS Specialised Services Proton Clinical Reference Panel. The panel confirmed the hospital’s opinion that Ashya was not a suitable candidate, but even then his doctors in Southampton went on talking to the parents to try to establish what they would be happy with. The Kings suggested they would be able to fund the treatment themselves, by selling their holiday home, and discussions continued until just before they took him to Spain nine days ago.

Since they appeared in Spain, members of the family have made emotional videos and press statements denouncing the behaviour of doctors in the UK. Ironically, when Ashya first became ill, the Kings brought him back to England to be treated by the NHS. Now they’ve changed their minds, but it is worth remembering that they are desperate for good news. Last week, NHS Choices issued a clear warning about the marketing of “emerging” treatments, stating unequivocally that “some overseas clinics providing proton beam therapy heavily market their services to parents who are understandably desperate to get treatment for their children”. The statement added that it is “not clear whether all children treated privately abroad are treated appropriately”.

When the Kings first removed Ashya from hospital, it was widely reported that the family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. Southampton General Hospital denies releasing this information to the media, and it does not seem to have had any bearing on Ashya’s treatment to date. But the fact that his parents belong to a millenarian religious cult suggests that they might not be entirely open to rational argument. Maybe that is why they have not taken up an extraordinary offer from the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to fly an oncologist to Spain to reassure them about the treatment Ashya would receive in the UK.

British doctors say he needs to start chemotherapy as soon as possible. But Ashya is a ward of a British court, and he cannot be moved from the hospital in Malaga without the court’s permission. On Friday evening, a High Court judge decided that the Kings can take him to Prague, but his travel arrangements are unclear. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: a child who should be receiving urgent treatment isn’t getting it. Clearly, there is a great deal more to this case than emotive headlines about an uncaring NHS.

Motives for Murder

Sunday Times, 7 September 2014

Our crime fiction round-up features a terrifying novel about abductions in Sweden

The Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason has created one of the most accomplished series of detective novels in modern crime fiction. His last book, Strange Shores, seemed to mark an end to the series but Indridason is too interested in his gloomy detective, Erlendur, to let him go. Reykjavik Nights, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker £16.99), is a prequel to the series, set at the very beginning of Erlendur’s career.

Working mainly at night, the young Erlendur is called out to traffic accidents and burglaries. Always ready to offer an unofficial night in a cell to a homeless person, he is troubled when one of the recipients of his generosity is found dead in a quarry. ­Quietly pursuing his own investigation, Erlendur links the man’s death to the unsolved disappearance of a young woman. The novel fills in gaps in Erlendur’s biography, but the best thing about it is Indridason’s empathy with victims of crime.

Roberto Costantini writes huge novels, both in terms of length and the ambition of his plots. The Root of All Evil, translated by NS Thompson (Quercus £18.99/ebook £9.49), is the second volume of his Commissario Balistreri trilogy, harking back to when his detective was growing up in post-colonial Libya. Balistreri’s father was a successful businessman in Tripoli, involved in the machinations that brought Colonel Gadaffi to power.

The first book in the trilogy, The Deliverance of Evil, was set in Rome many years later and showed Balistreri making a mess of a murder investigation. He is hard to like —sexist and careless of other people’s feelings — but the new novel reveals he was traumatised by the murder of a neighbour’s daughter and the death of his mother in Libya. The plot races along, even if his female characters never really come to life.

The West Virginia coal mines were cramped places, leaving some ex-miners unable to stand upright. Julia Keller has used a true story, about a miner’s wife who tried to create a refuge for her husband under the kitchen table, in her powerful new novel, Summer of the Dead (Headline £14.99). Lindy lives with her widowed father in Acker’s Gap, where she has turned their basement into a replica of the mine he used to work in. Lindy works in a petrol station, but she reads avidly and does her best to cope with her father’s increasing dementia. When a couple of local people are murdered, her father becomes a suspect. Keller knows small-town life inside out, and the book is full of memorable ­characters and plot twists.

One of the most difficult tasks for a crime writer is coming up with an original motive. The Swedish author Lars Kepler (actually the pen name of writers, ­Alexander Ahndoril and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril) pulls it off in The Sandman, translated by Neil Smith (Blue Door £16.99). Jurek Walter is a serial killer, serving a life sentence in the secure wing of a hospital. His modus operandi was to kidnap his victims and keep them in excruciating conditions before they died or were dispatched.

The book begins with one of Walter’s victims, an emaciated young man, staggering across a bridge near Stockholm during a blizzard. The boy and his sister disappeared, presumed drowned, seven years earlier. Now it seems that the youngsters have been held in a concrete bunker all this time. Kepler’s plots are always thrilling, but The Sandman is one of the most hair-­raising crime novels published this year.

Anthony Quinn’s widely anticipated second novel Disappeared (Head of Zeus £12.99) is set in Northern Ireland. A former detective vanishes from the remote cottage he shares with his sister. Another man, who used to be an informer, is tortured to death. This is a tough yet lyrical novel, evoking a desperate period of Irish history when paramilitaries “disappeared” people they suspected of cooperating with the authorities.

Posing naked is one of the ultimate feminist acts

The Guardian, Wednesday 3 September 2014

It’s not always, or only, about sex. For me it was a liberation from the body anxiety that afflicts so many women

A few years ago, shortly after ending a long relationship, I asked a photographer to take some nude photographs. I know her well, so it was not as daunting as posing for a total stranger. It was not even the first time I had posed without clothes, but on this occasion it definitely had something to do with being single and not needing male approval.

Nude pictures, in other words, are not always, or not only, about sex.

There is a big difference between photographs taken for private and public consumption. This should not need to be said: pictures taken for a magazine or to publicise a film have a very different purpose from intimate photographs that are intended to be shared with close friends or partners. Our bodies are an important part of our identity, a fact that is often overlooked in a culture that is queasy about them; it is hard to imagine a moment in history when images of women’s bodies have been so plentiful, yet also the source of such extreme anxiety. If you are a woman, exploring your feelings about your naked body has seldom been more difficult. When you take your clothes off in front of a photographer, you risk deciding that you’re too thin, too fat, too pale, too brown, or just too old.

Amid this cacophony of critical voices, one reaction to the theft of “nude pics” – the tabloid shorthand makes them sound so much worse, doesn’t it? – has been to ask why any woman would pose naked. The implication is that the singers and actors concerned have “asked for it” if the pictures are stolen, which is as fine a piece of victim-blaming as I’ve heard in a long time. Apparently, the punishment for “vanity” is publication, and some newspapers that didn’t publish the stolen photographs offered a handy guide to where on the internet they had appeared.

This is not just to misunderstand the meaning of privacy. The body is a feminist issue, if ever there was one, and the struggle to own it is never-ending. I first posed nude in my 20s, when it seemed important to me to explore the meaning of nakedness. As a young woman, I was acutely aware of the vulnerability of the unclothed female body; a naked woman might be decorative, stretched out on a chaise longue in high art, but she might also be a potential victim of male violence. For a time I looked at men’s magazines, which appeared to be the only source of representations of women’s naked bodies, but all I found were pictures taken for the pleasure of male readers.

So I decided to pose nude myself, to see what it felt like. Could I take off all my clothes and feel not just unembarrassed but powerful? It was surprisingly easy, perhaps because I was reading so much feminist material and I felt as if I was throwing off years of conditioning. I didn’t do it for publication or any reason other than curiosity, but I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve escaped the body anxiety that is so common among women of all ages.

When I did it again, three or four years ago, I was a lot older and it raised different questions; I’m a size 12 but the body gets less elastic over time, no matter how often you go to the gym. It was about being comfortable in my skin as an older woman who continues to see herself as a sexual being, regardless of cultural messages to the contrary. This time I wore high heels for some of the pictures, something I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing in my 20s when I rejected many of the traditional trappings of femininity. I don’t think I’m supposed to say this, but I was delighted with the result.

There is another factor to consider here. On the one hand, commercial porn and Page 3 push images of women that are passive and degrading; on the other, reactionary religious leaders tell women they have to cover up. Somewhere in between, ordinary women and celebrities alike struggle to feel OK about themselves, worrying about showing too little or too much. Stealing intimate private pictures is a new front in this battle, but the women have nothing to be ashamed of. Posing nude, in my experience, is one of the ultimate feminist acts.

Lessons from the Rotherham child abuse scandal: Asian women’s voices go unheard

Independent on Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Jay report showed the Labour Party’s willingness to listen only to male community leaders

Here is the story of a young woman who was abused in Rotherham. For six years, she suffered threats and beatings, using make-up to hide her injuries. She had no money, could not buy her own clothes and was not allowed to go out alone. She could not even go to the corner shop unaccompanied and was never permitted to use the phone. “Basically,” she said, “I lived like a prisoner.”

In a week when a report exposing the scale of abuse of children and teenagers in Rotherham has rightly caused shock waves, you will not have read about this young women or others like her. Most of the victims mentioned in Professor Alexis Jay’s damning report were white and their abusers men of Pakistani origin, who subjected them to almost unimaginable sexual torture. It is a dreadful scandal, exposing the failure of one agency after another which should have stepped in to protect vulnerable young people.

Between 2002 and 2006, the council failed to act on three reports about child sexual abuse, while another report published last week revealed that South Yorkshire police went out of their way to try to “disprove” allegations of rape and sexual violence.

But it would be wrong to frame this solely as a story about race. The young woman I’ve just mentioned is Asian, and she suffered years of abuse after being brought from Pakistan and forced to marry her cousin. Some men whose parents came to this country from conservative areas of Pakistan have grown up with appalling attitudes towards women, sometimes but not always connected to strict interpretations of Islam. They have ended up abusing both white girls and women from their own community.

The problem is about power and gender as much as ethnicity, posing difficult questions for the Labour Party in towns and cities with sizeable Asian populations. From Yorkshire to some areas of London, the party has embraced self-appointed “community leaders” without asking questions about their attitudes to women, gay rights and equality. Many of these men have suffered discrimination – the BNP won three council seats in Rotherham at one point – and Labour has always seen itself as the champion of victims of racism. Up and down the country, it has found allies in the Asian community, even though some of them are small-scale entrepreneurs whose values seem more in tune with the Conservative Party. Along the way, Labour seems not to have noticed – or turned a blind eye – to a different equality problem.

Six or seven years ago, when I first visited Rotherham with my then partner Denis MacShane (who was the town’s MP), I noticed that most of the British-Asian activists in the local party, and all the Asian councillors, were men. I didn’t think this was peculiar to Rotherham but it made me uneasy; on one occasion, I refused to go to a wedding reception for a councillor’s daughter when I discovered that men and women would be segregated. I don’t think separation by gender is any more acceptable than separation by race, and the fact that some people on the left tolerate or even defend it is profoundly shocking.

What this meant, in practice, was that crucial voices were missed in discussions about the extent of both domestic and child abuse in Rotherham. As the Jay report points out, women from a Pakistani background felt there was “wholesale denial” of child sexual abuse within their community, despite 12 cases of forced marriage coming to light in 2005, many involving young girls. The report has no doubts about how this came about: “There was too much reliance by agencies on traditional community leaders such as elected members and imams being the primary conduit of communication with the Pakistani-heritage community.”

Like other towns and cities with a sizeable ethnic-minority population, Rotherham has an Asian women’s organisation which could have provided a very different view of what was going on in the community. A few years ago I met Zlakha Ahmed, founder of Apna Haq, an organisation which helps black, Asian and Muslim victims of domestic violence in South Yorkshire. From her, I first heard about a network of Asian taxi drivers who hunt down girls who have run away from abusive families; this is what happened to 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed, who was murdered by her parents in Warrington. Her father, who is serving a life sentence, was a taxi driver.

The story of the Asian woman who is a prisoner in her own home appears on Apna Haq’s website. It lists forms of domestic abuse including beatings and rape, which happen in every community, but also types of behaviour specific to British-Asian families, such as being threatened with deportation and being told that “white women are much better”. It is a telling detail, debunking the widely held assumption that Asian men who abuse white girls behave better towards women in their own community. Of course, not all Asian men are abusers, but those who are despise all women; the difference is that their wives and daughters are subjected to forms of abuse associated with pernicious notions of “honour”. The common factor, whether they are keeping wives in isolation or taking part in a gang rape, is control.

The leader of Rotherham council, which is Labour-controlled, has resigned. The South Yorkshire police commissioner, who used to be a Labour councillor, has resisted calls to go. But the Jay report contains tough lessons for the Labour Party nationally, which has been far too ready to listen to male “community leaders” who don’t share the party’s commitment to equality. Patriarchal attitudes are incredibly damaging to women of all backgrounds. They have no place in a progressive political party.