Human rights: ethics isn’t on the Foreign Office map

Independent on Sunday, 4 October 2015

A senior mandarin has admitted that promoting human rights abroad is no longer one of the Government’s priorities 

In a little-noticed exchange towards the end of July, the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, was asked by a Labour MP whether there was any truth in the rumour that his department’s annual human-rights report was being “drastically” cut back. Hammond responded without hesitation: “Yes. I don’t think it is a rumour.” He added that the change should be seen not as a cutback but as an attempt to make a “very lengthy document” easier to use.

Publishing an annual human-rights report was one of Robin Cook’s initiatives when he became Foreign Secretary in 1997. It quickly came to be regarded as an invaluable resource, providing reliable summaries of countries where torture and other abuses were rife, but it was also a measure of the Labour government’s commitment to promoting democracy. Here is the opening line from the foreword to the 2003 edition, which happens to be on my bookshelves: “A concern for the victims of human rights abuses lies at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy”.

Compare that statement with the evidence given last month by the top civil servant at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon McDonald. In only his second week in the job, McDonald was relaxed and assured when he appeared before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Asked by the same Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, whether human rights were now a lower priority at the Foreign Office, McDonald acknowledged what amounts to a dramatic shift in policy: “Well,” he began, “answering as Permanent Secretary, I say that although it is one of the things we follow, it is not one of our top priorities.”

Pressed by Clwyd, who suggested that human rights are now “pretty low” on the agenda compared with trade and industry, McDonald said he “would dispute that it’s low down but [not] that right now the prosperity agenda is higher up the list”. The exchange sheds a fascinating light on George Osborne’s trip to China, which resulted in the spectacle of a senior British minister being praised in  China’s state media for his reluctance to confront his hosts about their ruthless suppression of dissent.

This year’s edition of the human rights report lists China as “country of concern” but the tone reflects what can now be seen as the new priorities. “China’s economic growth continued in 2014, leading to further improvements in the social and economic rights of many of its citizens,” the section begins. It goes on to acknowledge that civil and political rights remain restricted, but the contrast with the language of earlier editions is striking. The 2003 edition opens with a bald catalogue of abuse, including torture, arbitrary detention, “extensive” use of the death penalty, psychiatric abuse, mistreatment of prisoners, and deprivation of religious and cultural rights in Tibet and Xinjiang.

I don’t believe that China has become a nicer, more democratic country in the 11 years separating the two reports. But we now have a Conservative Government whose disdain for the idea of universal human rights has been signalled in ministerial speeches about “British values”, not to mention a manifesto commitment to get rid of the Human Rights Act. The latter has been under unremitting assault for years in the right-wing press, where “yuman rites” are regularly mocked by Daily Mail columnists.

Substantial numbers of people now appear to believe that the Human Rights Act confers unfair advantages on foreigners, instead of establishing mechanisms to ensure that everyone is treated fairly under the law. The Act was one of the most significant achievements of the Labour government elected in 1997, along with Cook’s declaration of an “ethical dimension” to British foreign policy. The record of Tony Blair’s government has been overshadowed by the disaster of the Iraq war, which led to Cook’s resignation as Leader of the House, but his original speech is still worth reading.

“Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves,” Cook said. The speech caused outrage in Tory circles, something I fully understood only when I heard two of John Major’s former ministers complain about the implication that they hadn’t cared about democracy and human rights.

Cook’s vision turned out to be too radical for Tony Blair, who sacked him as Foreign Secretary when he won his second term as Prime Minister in 2001. Blair’s approach to human rights was an incoherent mess: he intervened to stop abuses in Sierra Leone and Kosovo but held out the hand of friendship to two of the world’s worst dictators, Colonel Gaddafi and President Assad. Blair’s willingness to do business with Assad, with whom he appeared at a press conference in Downing Street, is a prime example of foreign policy failure; Assad went on torturing his opponents and suppressing dissent, ensuring that any attempt to overthrow him would be brutal and prolonged.

The preference for “stability” over promoting human rights is one of the reasons why the Middle East is in such a dreadful state today. No dictatorship lasts for ever, but the outcome is likely to be much worse if legitimate forms of dissent have been crushed. British governments have made the same mistake time after time, shoring up nasty regimes and then throwing up their hands when the result is bloody and horrible.

Incredible as it seems to right-wing politicians, foreign policy is an area where self-interest and principle point in the same direction. Robin Cook knew it, opposing the notion that “political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business”. That’s what this Government seems to be doing. I hope it comes back to haunt them

George Osborne’s visit to China is a new low

Independent on Sunday, 27 September 2015

The visit was a triumph – for Beijing, which won a propaganda coup and a nuclear foothold in the UK

China likes George Osborne. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who spent five days in the country last week, isn’t one of those rude foreign visitors who bangs on and on about the torture and imprisonment of dissidents. No, our George is a breath of fresh air, welcomed by Chinese state media for his pragmatic approach and his “modest manner”.

In case your heart isn’t already swelling with pride, an editorial in the Global Times described the Chancellor as “the first Western official in recent years who has stressed more the region’s business potential instead of finding fault over the human-rights issue”. Instead of making a song and dance about the country’s most famous political prisoner, Liu Xiaobo, our George was more intent on inviting the Chinese to take a major role in Britain’s nuclear industry.

Forget the fact that China isn’t exactly renowned for its expertise in nuclear technology. It would be sheer bad manners to question the wisdom of placing a key piece of infrastructure under the control of a foreign power whose interests, to put it mildly, might not always coincide with those of the UK. I can easily envisage a future in which British ministers might not show as much restraint on questions of human rights abuses or of cyber-espionage. Should we really place ourselves in the hands of a country that will be in a position to flick off the UK’s light switch? Getting Chinese investment in the UK trumps everything else, it seems – including our national security.

Britain isn’t the only country that’s extending a hand to China but it’s definitely edging ahead in the sycophancy stakes. The Prime Minister has refused to meet the Dalai Lama, who came to the UK last week, because he was so horrified by China’s furious reaction to their meeting in 2013; Cameron and Osborne don’t want to do anything that might upset next month’s state visit to London by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping. When he arrived in Washington two days ago, it was to a red-carpet welcome but there is said to be little personal warmth between him and President Obama. Last year, the US State Department said it was “deeply disturbed” by the death of Cao Shunli, a Chinese lawyer and human-rights activist who died in hospital after being denied medical treatment for several months.

The London visit promises to be very different, with British ministers hailed in the Chinese media for displaying “the vision of European politicians of a new generation”. The message is stark: Western leaders who want to do business with China need to shut up about democracy, free expression and the right to protest. The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to go along with this; China’s one-party state has changed a bit in recent years but nothing like enough to deflect criticism of its dreadful human-rights record.

According to Human Rights Watch, China’s government systematically curbs fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion. Since 2013, the country’s leadership has “unleashed an extraordinary assault on basic human rights and their defenders with a ferocity unseen in recent years”.

Bizarrely, this assault on fundamental rights has been accompanied by a mellowing in attitudes towards China. The Conservative Party is at the forefront, muting Britain’s critique of human-rights abuses until it reached last week’s historic low point. The Chancellor has played a key role in this process, which dates back to the autumn of 2013 when he led a trade mission to Beijing. “China is what it is,” Osborne said then. “We have to be here or nowhere.” He was accompanied by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who is another enthusiast for trade links between the two countries.

Even Prince Charles seems to have been brought into line. Six months ago his elder son, Prince William, pitched up in China and delivered an invitation from the Queen for next month’s state visit to London. It was widely seen as an attempt to repair relations between China and the royals, which have been rocky since Charles refused an invitation to a banquet with a previous Chinese president during a state visit in 1999. Last month it was reported that Charles would meet President Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, and attend a lunch with the couple at Buckingham Palace.

This change of heart will have come as another blow to the Dalai Lama. It was first signalled in July when he came to the UK and made a slightly surreal appearance at Glastonbury festival, without receiving an invitation to meet the Prince. It’s well known that China loathes the Dalai Lama, who remains, despite his occasionally erratic behaviour, a powerful symbol of Tibet’s aspirations to independence.

Last week he told the BBC he would welcome a female successor but she would need to be “very attractive”; such forays into gender politics seem a tad unwise; perhaps the 80-year-old monk is feeling the pressure. The list of people who have refused to meet him recently includes Pope Francis and ministers in several European governments, suggesting that his political clout has diminished since he met 11 heads of state in 2002. Last week he said Cameron was interested only in “money, money, money”.

He could also have pointed out that recent events highlight the incoherence of Conservative foreign policy. Five years ago, Cameron sent British planes to bomb Libya, arguing that he had a moral duty to protect civilians and to do nothing would betray people striving for democracy. Now he’s keen to do business with one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. Colonel Gaddafi must be turning in his grave; things could have been so different if only he’d offered to invest in the British nuclear industry.

Civil partnerships should be for everyone, including siblings and friends

Independent on Sunday, 13 September 2015

Dealing with the loss of a much-loved relative or friend is bad enough without having to put your home on the market

Giving tax breaks to couples who have sex? It doesn’t sound like mainstream Tory policy, but that’s the position (for want of a better word) that the Government has got itself into where civil partnerships are concerned. It admitted as much last week in the House of Lords, when a minister flatly refused to extend the current legislation to include brothers and sisters.

People in civil partnerships and married couples are exempt from paying inheritance tax when one of them dies. It confers a huge financial advantage: property values have risen dramatically in recent years, especially in London, and many homes are worth a lot more than the inheritance tax threshold of £325,000. Everyone else – siblings or unmarried friends, for instance – has to pay tax at 40 per cent on anything above the threshold.

Lord Lexden, who also happens to be the Tory Party’s official historian, has just tried to persuade the Government to remedy this injustice. He knows the present law creates anxiety for many elderly people, who face a potential tax bill running into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Often the surviving sibling has no option but to sell a home he or she has lived in for decades, placing the burden of a house move on someone who is already coping with a bereavement. Dealing with the loss of a much-loved relative or friend is bad enough without having to put your home on the market.

Lexden got short shrift from the minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, who confirmed that there are no plans to change the law. The conversation between the two is fascinating, not least because they’re both Tories but on completely different sides of the argument. Williams’s response revealed the blinkered thinking that has characterised official responses ever since civil partnerships were first proposed by Tony Blair’s government. Williams recalled that they were introduced for same-sex couples at a time when they weren’t allowed to marry. “Civil partnerships are the equivalent of a marriage: a loving union,” she went on, as if anything else was self-evidently excluded.

It’s tempting to respond with a lecture on the many faces of love, quoting a variety of Greek philosophers. Is the Government really claiming to recognise only one kind, between two people who have sex with each other? What about the deep affection between sisters who have lived together for 30 years or close friends who have pooled their resources to buy a flat? If love is the test, as the minister appeared to imply, a whole range of domestic arrangements could claim to qualify.

I don’t think that this or previous governments intended to discriminate against people in non-sexual partnerships, but that’s been the outcome. Of course, two friends who jointly own a house could get married, but it would be widely assumed that they’re in a sexual relationship; in that sense, the law encourages pretence, which is all the odder when you consider how keen the Government is to crack down on “sham” marriages in immigration cases. And there’s another anomaly: civil partnerships aren’t open to two friends of the opposite sex, whether or not their relationship is sexual, because only same-sex couples are legally able to become civil partners.

This is what happens when the law is altered piecemeal, instead of using equality and fairness as guiding principles. The Blair government introduced civil partnerships in 2004 because ministers didn’t dare legislate for same-sex marriage. In effect, and without intending to do so, they created an alternative which also appealed to some heterosexual couples. That was a no-brainer: if you don’t like traditional gender roles, “partner” is a much more attractive description than “husband” or “wife”.

Some of us argued that the new law should apply to everyone, but more than a decade later straight couples still can’t become civil partners. It’s incoherent, to say the least, and a heterosexual couple is seeking a judicial review of the ban. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan need to raise a substantial sum to cover their costs; being a modern couple, they’ve launched a crowd-funding campaign to pay for the case. Their legal action and last week’s intervention in the House of Lords are by no means the first attempts to remove the layers of discrimination built into the law.

Back in 2005, two sisters in their eighties argued that excluding them from a civil partnership was unfair as the surviving sister would have to sell the family home, which had previously belonged to their parents, to pay death duties. They didn’t get anywhere.

What’s beyond question is that the law governing adult relationships is a mess, for ideological reasons. It was the Conservatives – who are supposed to disapprove of social engineering – who recently introduced yet more discrimination into the system; from this April, married couples and civil partners have been able to claim a tax break which isn’t available to cohabiting partners – although only households on low incomes stand to benefit. So in another example of (I hope) unintended consequences, a couple where the husband abuses his wife could now be better off than an unmarried couple whose relationship is based on respect and equality.

In the modern world, adults expect to choose the living arrangements that suit them, not the government of the day; it isn’t up to ministers to make value judgements about the quality of people’s unions by enshrining discrimination in the law and the tax system. Most people aspire to loving and affectionate bonds, but they won’t always be sexual. Weirdly, when they talk about love, it’s the Tories who appear to have sex on the brain.

Angelina Jolie is wrong – Islamic State’s use of rape is horrible but familiar

Daily Telegraph, 10 September 2015

Isil’s leaders would like us to think it is the most frightening terror organisation that’s ever existed, but they are by no means the first group of men to use mass rape as a deliberate policy

When Angelina Jolie speaks, people listen. Earlier this week a House of Lords committee was transfixed as the Hollywood star talked about the rape of girls as young as seven in war zones. Jolie is campaigning on the issue of sexual violence and peers listened intently as she accused Islamic State (Isil) of deliberately using rape as the ‘centrepoint of their terror’.

She described Isil as the ‘most aggressive terrorist group in the world today’ and said it’s aware that sexual violence is a ‘very effective weapon’. She recalled meeting a 13-year-old girl in Iraq who had been kept in a room with many other girls and raped repeatedly; even worse, according to the girl, was that the fact that she and her friends were forced to stand in rows and listen as potential buyers argued about what how much they were worth.

Harrowing stories about the sale of women from the Yazidi religious minority have been emerging from Iraq for some time. So has the fact that Isil has openly embraced rape as part of its ideology, encouraging followers to sexually assault non-Muslim women. Last month it emerged that the organisation’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, repeatedly raped the American hostage Kayla Mueller before her death and personally kept Yazidi girls as ‘sex slaves’.

Jolie’s call for a ‘very, very strong response’ to these horrors is welcome. She says the way in which Isil has made rape central to its policy is something quite new – it goes ‘beyond what we have seen before’. But history tells us otherwise: Isil’s leaders would like us to think it is the most frightening terror organisation that’s ever existed, but they are by no means the first group of men to use mass rape as a deliberate policy.

The distinction Jolie tried to make is between rape as a by-product of war and its conscious use as a means of humiliating a defeated group or population. The mass rape of German women as the Red Army advanced at the end of the Second World could be said to fall into the first category; the Russians even raped women inmates of Ravensbruck concentration camp, including communist prisoners and women who had themselves fought in the Red Army before capture.

For centuries, this kind of behaviour was tolerated by senior officers, even if some of them disapproved of it. But there have been plenty of instances of rape being officially sanctioned: according to Amnesty International, the Japanese army forced up to 200,000 women and girls into military brothels during the Second World War, where they were known by the appalling euphemism ‘comfort women’. Many were Chinese or Korean, and around three-quarters died as a result of multiple rapes and beatings.

The nature of war has changed markedly since the Second World War, moving away from conflicts between states to ones between religious and ethnic groups. It is this factor which accounts for an increase in the use of sexual violence as a deliberate policy. When people who have lived alongside each other for centuries go to war, they deliberately exaggerate differences between themselves and rival groups; it’s a method of dehumanising erstwhile neighbours who are suddenly recast as ‘enemies’. Rape is a method of ‘ethnic cleansing‘, terrifying civilians into fleeing from their homes and ensuring that they’re too scared to return. That is what’s currently happening to Iraq’s Yazidi population.

The second purpose of mass rape in civil wars is if anything more dreadful. It is a way of humiliating the enemy, using women’s bodies to undermine entire societies; in conservative cultures, women who have been raped are often rejected by their families. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, Bosnian Serb units set up ‘rape camps’ where thousands of Muslim women were systematically assaulted.

In 1993, a European Council report accepted that rape was being used in Bosnia ‘with the conscious intention of demoralising and terrorising communities’. Rape has been used for similar reasons in other recent conflicts, including those in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. But it was the Bosnian war that brought about a change in the law; in 2001, mass rape was finally recognised as a crime against humanity.

Against this background, the behaviour of Isil towards women and girls is horrible but familiar. What’s different isn’t the organisation’s deliberate use of rape but the extent to which members enjoy boasting about it. It’s an indication of the way they have embraced mass media, whether they’re publishing execution videos or telling would-be recruits that they’re allowed to rape non-Muslim women. Rape is central to their propaganda, but it doesn’t make them different.

‘Man’s discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon to generate fear must rank as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times,’ the American feminist Susan Brownmiller wrote in Against Our Will. The book was published in 1975, anticipating Isil by four decades. I’ve no doubt that Angelina Jolie means well, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking there’s anything novel or unique about the use of sexual violence by Isil.

Refugee crisis: David Cameron’s idea of ‘British’ values is looking pretty hollow

Independent on Sunday, 6 September 2015

His harsh response to the suffering has left him wanting. This is the biggest test yet of the PM’s character

Talking to David Cameron about the refugee crisis is a bit like discussing human rights with your bank manager. He understands why you’re upset, he really does – his heart bled when he saw those awful pictures. But you’ve already made a generous donation to a refugee charity, so why not leave it to the politicians to get on with creating stable governments in Syria and Libya?

The Prime Minister is of course one of those politicians, even if he sometimes looks like a prosperous company chairman. His election victory in May suggests quite a lot of voters regard him as competent, at the very least, and it’s unlikely that the consequences of the war in Syria were high on their agenda. Until last week, that indifference allowed Cameron’s Government to remain remarkably unscathed by its attitude toward desperate refugees, which could be characterised as a classic exercise in Nimbyism.

The UK Government has given more than £900m towards maintaining refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and neighbouring countries, making it the second-largest aid donor, behind the US, in the world. But conditions in those camps are so dreadful, with families sweltering in summer and freezing in winter, that expecting people to subsist in tents in the Middle East isn’t any kind of solution. Against that background the British response – accepting fewer than 5,000 Syrian refugees since the conflict began four years ago – is pitiful, especially at a time when Germany is preparing to receive 800,000 asylum applications.

The only thing that can be said about the British Government’s stance is that it’s consistent, although consistent mean-spiritedness is hardly something to boast about. Last year, Cameron refused to participate in a UN programme to resettle 30,000 people fleeing Syria; instead, the Government set up a vulnerable migrants relocation scheme, designed to help the elderly, the disabled and victims of sexual violence and torture. Plenty of Syrians fall into these categories, but by this June just over 200 individuals had been admitted to the UK under the scheme. The Government has refused to take part in two EU programmes to relocate refugees in Europe, one involving 40,000 people and the other 20,000, arguing that providing legal routes would be a “pull factor”.

After getting away with a policy of naked self-interest for so long, this summer’s escalating crisis has left Cameron floundering. He looked uncomfortable when he had to deal with questions about the grim photographs of a boy’s body on a Turkish beach, tartly reminding journalists that he’s a father himself. That kind of response usually spells trouble for politicians, who are supposed to put policy before personal considerations. Two years ago, Downing Street had to deny that Samantha Cameron, who had recently visited a refugee camp in Lebanon, was influencing government policy on Syria.

It’s unusual to see the Prime Minister so exposed, teetering on the edge of outright irritation as he fends off claims that the UK isn’t doing enough. It’s also a lesson to populist politicians: of all the subjects that Cameron might have been worried about, tough attitudes to refugees must be the one he least expected to trip him up. Only last month it was business as usual, with the Prime Minister describing people trying to get to the UK as a “swarm”, and talking about not allowing them to “break into our country”. He sounded like an angry householder who might, if pushed, dig out that old shotgun he’s been keeping in the under-stairs cupboard.

Now even The Sun is urging the Government to let in more refugees, demonstrating that Cameron has misjudged the public mood. In a tight spot, he fell back on more of the same: he’s announced another £100m to support refugee camps on Syria’s borders, a policy that has already been shown not to work. He’s bowed to pressure and said that the UK will accept “thousands more” Syrian refugees from those camps, but he won’t put a figure on it. He’s also put himself at odds with key European leaders, whose support he will need when he goes into difficult negotiations over the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU.

It’s worth recalling that Cameron has spent years talking about “British” values. It’s a weaselly use of language, designed to appeal to Tory and Ukip voters who want to think of themselves as decent human beings without giving too much away to foreigners; “British” values are for people who think universal human rights are about silly things such as accusing UK soldiers of war crimes and giving council houses to terrorists. Now it’s threatening to rebound, with “British” values emerging as a distinct and lesser species of compassion. What it means, it seems, is paying aid agencies to ensure that people fleeing Assad’s barrel bombs and the black-clothed fanatics of the so-called Islamic State mostly stay away from our country.

What’s even more extraordinary, bearing in mind the indelible stain placed on Tony Blair’s reputation by the Iraq war, is that Cameron hasn’t been called to account for his massive misjudgement over Libya. Once again, a British prime minister sanctioned military intervention without planning for the aftermath; it has created perfect conditions for people-smugglers, putting thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and African refugees at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean.

Cameron has always looked like a fair-weather politician: confident, smooth-talking and persuasive as long as things are going well. He’s staked a claim to values in the vaguest possible terms, but now they’re looking decidedly hollow. Few would have predicted it, but the refugee crisis is fast becoming the biggest test of his premiership – and his character. Whether he has the guts to disown his harsh rhetoric and show genuine leadership is another matter.

Alison Parker and Adam Ward murders: killers should not be allowed to set the agenda

Independent on Sunday, 30 August 2015

Victims best remembered before tragedy

When an angry man planned the murders of two former colleagues at a TV station in Virginia last week, he knew exactly what he wanted to achieve. The killer filmed the murders, posted a 56-second clip to his Facebook page and tweeted the fact that it was available. Then he killed himself.

The murders were not enough in themselves, in other words, but needed to be understood as the opening act in a process designed to gain the perpetrator worldwide notoriety. The Roanoke killer got what he wanted: thousands of people viewed the video before it was taken down, while anyone who had missed it could have seen stills on the front pages of several British newspapers.

Some showed the killer’s hand with flame emerging from the gun he’s holding; the barrel is aimed squarely at Alison Parker, the TV reporter who died seconds later, just before the killer turned on his second victim, a camera operator called Adam Ward. On its inside pages, The Sun published a horrifying sequence of pictures which showed Ms Parker’s mouth open in an “O” of terror as she realised the peril she was in and tried vainly to run. At least two British newspapers offered links to the killer’s video.

Other British newspapers, including The Independent, made a decision not to publish pictures of the murders. I think they were right: the killer’s modus operandi was an invitation to voyeurism, encouraging individuals with no connection to the victims to indulge a ghoulish curiosity. If one of my friends had just been murdered in this brutal way, I would be horrified to think that footage was being viewed by total strangers on Facebook alongside videos of cute kittens.

But there’s another and arguably even more powerful argument against providing links or publishing stills, which is that it allows the killer to set the news agenda. Last autumn, this newspaper took a stand against publishing images from a video showing the beheading of a British hostage, Alan Henning, by the organisation calling itself Islamic State.

In a memorable front page, The Independent on Sunday pointed out that Mr Henning had been killed on camera for the sole purpose of propaganda. “Here is the news,” it declared. “Not the propaganda.”

The issues raised by last week’s shooting are very similar. “It’s like showing those beheadings,” said Ms Parker’s father, Andy. “I am not going to watch it. I can’t watch it.” Mr Parker isn’t the first relative to highlight the additional anguish inflicted by the knowledge that a murder has been recorded by the perpetrator. The family of James Foley, the American photo-journalist who appeared in the first of a series of IS “beheading” videos last year, appealed to the media not to publish stills showing him in an orange jumpsuit. The impulse to remember loved ones as they were in life, laughing with colleagues and doing their job, is entirely understandable.

But the question raised by the IS videos and a series of mass shootings in the US goes beyond taste and the feelings of relatives. It’s about whether, by indulging the wishes of perpetrators, media outlets are inadvertently making further outrages more likely. The worldwide publicity given to Mr Foley’s murder, when some newspapers published links to the video of his beheading, created a horrible sense of anticipation. More murder videos were released over a period of weeks but IS’s strategists seem to have been prepared for the eventuality that their shock value would gradually diminish. Later footage showed a Jordanian pilot being burned to death and the drowning of a group of prisoners.

Media interest is absolutely central to these murders. In the US, several mass killers have prepared material for the media in advance of their crimes even though they knew they were unlikely to live to see publication. The man who murdered 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012 may have assumed that the massacre was sufficiently shocking to seize the attention he wanted, without having to issue a video “manifesto”.

But the Roanoke killer was perhaps the most media-conscious perpetrator to date, providing the first murders to be committed during a live television transmission.

Whether these killings are by a disgruntled individual or an IS assassin, the motive is the same: publicity. One type of murder is an expression of extreme narcissism, the other a piece of propaganda which may also satisfy the vanity of the perpetrator. But the fact that a murder video may be available for a while on websites doesn’t lessen the responsibility of editors and journalists. Precisely because there is an editing process, which determines what is and isn’t important, news bulletins and front pages confer status. And while I have disabled the “autoplay” function on my Twitter account, I couldn’t avoid front pages showing Ms Parker’s murder in my local Sainsbury’s.

This is not about suppressing legitimate stories or even self-censorship. Governments, politicians and multi-national corporations would rather that certain material isn’t published, and it’s the job of editors to resist their efforts to bury bad news. But what’s going on here is an attempt to stage deliberately shocking spectacles and determine how they are reported.

To put it bluntly, some editors are being manipulated into publishing horrific material that furthers the aims of people intent on atrocity. As the IoS wrote last year, the correct word for that is propaganda. We have to report these sickening events, but it isn’t the job of journalists to dance to the tune of merciless killers.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

David Lagercrantz, translated by George Goulding (MacLehose Press £19.99)

Sunday Times, 30 August 2015

An over-complex, insecure sequel to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy fails to get under our heroes’ skin

Stieg Larsson is one of the world’s best-selling authors. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to enjoy the success of his Millennium trilogy of crime novels – beginning with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – which was published after his death in 2004. The frustration of publishers and readers alike is not hard to understand, and it’s resulted in a Swedish novelist ‘continuing’ Larsson’s Millennium series.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web sounds like a Larsson title and the cover, which has a young woman peering over her bare shoulder, is an obvious visual reference to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These marketing devices are a clue to the weight of the task faced by David Lagercrantz, who has had to work with another author’s characters, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the hacker Lisbeth Salander, and the expectations of millions of Larsson fans.

Larsson was able to give his imagination free rein not exactly from a position of anonymity – he was well-known as a journalist in Sweden – but without any of the history that bears down on Lagercrantz’s book. It was always clear that the Millennium trilogy had a political purpose, based in Larsson’s left-wing sympathies and his loathing of misogyny.

Lagercrantz tries to incorporate these elements, reminding readers about the dreadful abuse Salander suffered as a child and serving up a plot about the topical (and fashionable) subject of state surveillance. For reasons that aren’t clear until the end of the novel, Salander has hacked into the computers of the US National Security Agency, an organisation made famous by the revelations of the former government contractor, Edward Snowden.

Salander has also been doing some top-secret work for a Swedish professor and expert on artificial intelligence, Frans Balder. He has just returned from the US, where he worked for one of the biggest firms in Silicon Valley. Balder contacts Blomkvist, offering him a sensational story, but he’s murdered on the night they agree to meet. A mute boy who turns out to be a mathematical genius is the only witness, making him a target for the Russians gangsters who are also after the professor’s secrets.

The plot is hopelessly over-complicated, while Lagercrantz’s lengthy expositions on prime numbers suggest he’s trying to compensate for an insecurity about his role as Larsson’s successor. Largercrantz isn’t a bad writer when he’s dealing with his own material; his novel about Alan Turing, Fall of Man in Wilmslow, is a sensitive piece of fiction. But The Girl in the Spider’s Web lurches from dry mathematical formulae to noisy shoot-outs, creating a sense of manufactured urgency.

Most jarring of all is the careless sexism that runs through the novel. Most of the men are suckers for a beautiful woman, going weak at the knees over female characters whom Lagercrantz struggles to describe. Here is Blomkvist, responding to a stranger who picks him up on the street: ‘She was the most wonderful creature he had ever met, and from time to time she gave him a smile that made every paving stone, every breath, sound out a promise that something wonderful and overwhelming was happening’.

Blomkvist’s frequent conquests were a slightly irritating feature of Larsson’s novels but the journalist was never a complete idiot. It’s certainly hard to imagine the original character hearing about a plastic surgeon who sexually assaulted one his female patients and responding with the single word: ‘Oops’. Then there’s the excruciating moment when Salander, escaping from an assassination attempt in the back of a stranger’s car, whips off her shirt to make a bandage and reveals ‘breasts which stood straight out’.

Stepping into a dead man’s shoes was always going to be a challenge. The fault with this attempt is that Lagercrantz sticks so closely to the original formula, never managing to inhabit Larsson’s imagination and fatally inhibiting his own. Reading this book is a bit like buying a designer handbag, only to discover that it’s a carefully-crafted imitation.