The Queen and a reign of abject failure

Institutions have changed to reflect the modern world, but not the monarchy. And she is to blame

The Guardian, Wednesday 20 April 2016

The Queen is scheduled to take a short walk from Windsor Castle tomorrow, meeting the public and unveiling a plaque as she celebrates her 90th birthday. Such events are carefully orchestrated, evoking the history of the institution she represents, so it is unfortunate that her stroll will begin at the Henry VIII gate, named after a notorious uxoricide and probable psychopath.

Elizabeth II is not a direct descendant of her monstrous predecessor and the modern monarchy is very different from its Tudor counterpart. After more than six decades on the throne, the Queen has come to occupy a special role in the national psyche, if such a thing exists. She has come to represent continuity at a moment when the world seems more dangerous than ever.

These days she is a grandmotherly figure, and it is regarded as churlish to ask questions about how she has conducted herself as head of state. I am a republican, and I don’t believe in the monarchy but if you strip away the stardust, as royalists like to call it, it is hard to see her reign as a resounding success even on its own terms. Her personal popularity has fluctuated wildly: in the autumn of 1997, after the death of Princess Diana, the Daily Mail published a memorable front page, demanding: Time for the Queen to go? At that low point, an opinion poll suggested that “seven in 10 Britons” wanted her to consider abdicating.

The monarchy’s foundations are less secure than is often assumed, which is why royalists should be worried that the Queen will leave behind an institution as unreformed as it is undemocratic. There is a chasm between the UK’s constitutional arrangements and its commitment to equality: viewed from abroad, the royals are a strange bunch of people with little connection to the diverse country the family is supposed to represent on the world stage. Its inextricable connection to the archaic principle of primogeniture means that the next three heads of state will be stolidly monocultural: white, male and Anglican.

More to the point, the royal family has entrenched its position in a way that flies in the face of the dramatic changes other elements of the establishment have had to cope with in recent years. As elected politicians learn to exist in a much more open and critical society – the prime minister, chancellor and leader of the opposition have just published details of their tax affairs – the Queen and her immediate relatives are less open than ever to democratic scrutiny.

Senior royals now enjoy total exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Press releases crowing about how little the monarchy costs leave out the huge cost of security, even though taxpayers fund it. The office of an elected head of state would be cheaper to run – it is preposterous that there are something like 18 “working” royals on the public payroll. But that isn’t even the most significant objection to the monarchy’s opaque finances. The royals’ habitual secrecy makes a mockery of the accountability we expect of people who receive public money.

Their exemption from freedom of information requests came about because they had a moment of staring into the abyss, caused by the Guardian’s attempt to see some of the “black spider” memos from the Prince of Wales to politicians. The fact that he privately bombarded ministers with wheedling letters, contrary to his constitutional position, was an open secret but the government fought to keep the details under wraps. Understandably, because the man they eventually revealed is a nightmare: credulous, reactionary and gripped by the illusion that he is a radical thinker. In 2004 he wrote to the then education secretary, fishing for public funds for one of his pet projects that would challenge “fashionable” ideas about education. “Perhaps I am now too dangerous to associate with!” he boasted.

Dangerous, yes, but not in the way he intended. From a variety of sources, we know that Prince Charles has character flaws that imperil the future of the entire operation. For the second time in less than a century, the throne is about to pass to someone entirely unsuited to it. If you are a monarchist, this is surely one of the Queen’s greatest failures: she was in charge of the prince’s education and upbringing, yet she has been singularly ineffectual as a brake on his excesses.

What makes this so astonishing is that the Queen has more reason than anyone to be aware of the historical precedent. She was nine in 1936 when her uncle David, another manifestly unsuitable Prince of Wales, succeeded his father George V and lasted less than a year as Edward VIII. That near-disaster for the monarchy has always cheered republicans, and the parallels between then and now are striking.

Edward was in his early 40s when he inherited the throne but Charles is approaching 70 and likely to be a king in a hurry. He has let it be known that he does not intend to stop making what he calls “heartfelt interventions” – otherwise known as unconstitutional political interference – in national life.

For republicans, the prospect of this foolish, not-very-bright man ascending the throne is a dream come true. The present Queen’s legacy may look very different once the future of the monarchy is in the inept hands of her eldest son.

We are blind to an epidemic of domestic abuse

The Archers storyline is melodrama. The reality of an issue inflamed by political neglect is far worse

The Guardian, Friday 8 April 2016

When Helen Titchener stabbed her domineering husband in an episode of The Archers last weekend, it seemed as though everyone wanted to talk about domestic abuse. People who had never heard of “coercive control”, the kind of behaviour Helen has been subjected to in the long-running Radio 4 series, suddenly wanted to know what it was. Some listeners may even have realised, with a mixed sense of horror and relief, that it was an apt description of their own relationships.

The BBC has done a public service in kicking off this conversation even though the scenario it highlighted – a woman snapping and trying to kill her abuser – has more in common with melodrama than real life. Domestic abuse causes fear, anxiety, depression, injury and death in the most extreme cases, but the victim is more likely to die than her abuser. What is extraordinary is not that we are talking about it, but that it hasn’t happened long before now.

According to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data, an estimated 1.4 million women in Britain suffered domestic abuse in the year 2013-14. (Men are targeted as well, but female victims outnumber them by two-to-one in ONS estimates and three-to-one in cases recorded by big police forces.) The figures are shocking, but they do not surprise me at all.

Ever since I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young journalist, I have been horrified not just by the kinds of extreme violence perpetrated against women but less widely reported forms of abuse. Serial killings, such as the murders of prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, deservedly get the  public’s attention. So, latterly, does the kind of sexual exploitation carried out by Jimmy Savile and other well-known men in the entertainment industry. But “everyday” abuse, which stops short of the kind of extreme violence catalogued in a BBC documentary last month, is a different matter.

Three years ago, when I became co-chair of the mayor of London’s violence against women and girls panel, I began to get hair-raising insights into the extent of the problem. The London figures tend to be worse – though not that much worse – than the rest of the country. One is that a third of violent crime resulting in injury in the capital is domestic in nature. Another is that the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls for domestic violence in London each month than they do for residential burglary.

Starting to get the picture now? I have plenty more figures where those came from. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London last year, each of them involving a victim, a perpetrator and in many cases children. Factor in the victims’ parents, siblings and friends, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of people affected by the problem. If half a million people are struggling to deal with the effects of domestic abuse in London, what is the figure for the whole country? More to the point, where is the outrage and the political will to do something about it.

The last Labour government, to its credit, took the issue of violence against women more seriously than any previous administration. A group of ministers, including Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Vera Baird, made significant changes in the law to tackle sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry. In opposition, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband made a groundbreaking appointment, naming Seema Malhotra shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. The case for having such a post in government, going beyond the brief of an equalities minister, seems to me urgent and unarguable.

Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the election for a new mayor of London less than a month away, domestic abuse has barely featured in the campaign to date. The winner will be in charge of a city where the police recorded a staggering 72,443 notifiable domestic offences – ones that are so serious that they have to be reported to the Home Office – last year. That total included 28 domestic murders. So why aren’t the candidates talking about domestic abuse as often as affordable rents or a third runway at Heathrow?

Both local and national politicians need to realise that we are at a turning point, which brings as many risks as it does opportunities. The exposure of Savile has encouraged many more women to come forward and report both rape and domestic abuse, defying national trends which suggest that crime overall is falling. But victims are putting their trust in a struggling criminal justice system: police and local authority budgets have been slashed, there is a chronic shortage of refuge places, and specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending.

Women fleeing abusive relationships are often forced to stay with relatives or move into refuges a long way from home, if they are lucky enough to find a place. Research carried out by Women’s Aid last year suggested that almost two-thirds of the women referred to a refuge in the capital didn’t manage to get a place; outside London, the situation is reported to be even worse. A report published last month by another women’s organisation, Solace Women’s Aid, exposed the extent of this hidden housing crisis: more than 60% of women who have a secure tenancy lose it when they enter a refuge, while almost 90% find themselves in another type of temporary accommodation when they leave. Housing officers frequently treat victims of domestic abuse as voluntarily homeless, sending them to the back of the queue for social housing. “Why did she go back to him?” people sometimes ask. The answer may be that she had nowhere else to live, especially if she is poor.

According to the ONS, women who live in the poorest households are three times more likely to become victims of domestic abuse. There is a debate about whether levels of violence really are higher in poorer areas – affluent women may have more choices – but the disparity in reported crime figures is striking. In London, you are much more likely to become a victim in Croydon or Tower Hamlets than in more prosperous Merton or Richmond-upon-Thames.

Discussion prompted by the Helen Titchener storyline is already moving from the wider subject of domestic abuse to the charges and sentence she might face. That is not the question facing most real-life victims, who have to deal with a toxic combination of housing problems, long-term psychological damage and inadequate provision by the state and local authorities. Prosecutions are failing, leaving perpetrators free to target other women, because of a lack of support for victims.

I don’t know whether the concern generated by a soap opera is enough to move this subject to the top of the political agenda. But the result, if women who report domestic abuse are failed by the public services they depend on, will be bitter and justified disillusionment.

Joan Smith is Co-Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board

The chillingly dark underside of celebrity

Sunday Times, 3 April 2016

It is rare for ordinary people to be invited into the hothouse world of celebrity. Oliver Harris’s detective Nick Belsey gets there by accident in The House of Fame (Jonathan Cape £12.99), when a pop star’s entourage mistake him for a new security guard and invite him into her palatial home. Belsey is suspended from Hampstead CID and facing disciplinary charges, so he decides he has nothing to lose by playing along.

Harris enjoys himself writing about this surreal world, creating vignettes of the stylists, publicists and hangers-on who surround Amber Knight. But the book is heading somewhere darker, sending Belsey to a Mayfair club where he is one of the last people to speak to a waif-like young woman who is murdered shortly afterwards. Harris has a terrific sense of place, hurtling between the wealthiest and most-run-down areas of London. But the cleverest thing about his third Belsey novel is the way the plot unfolds in a chilling and totally unexpected direction.

Isabelle Grey has already distinguished herself with a series of police procedurals that combine attention to detail with a compassionate intelligence. Shot Through The Heart (Quercus £19.99) opens with the kind of mass shooting that’s more often reported in the US than rural Essex. Six people are dead and the first victim was a serving police officer, who had recently begun a relationship with the killer’s ex-wife.

DI Grace Fisher has little sympathy for the murderer but she wonders why what began as a domestic homicide escalated into mass murder. When she asks questions about where he got his arsenal of weapons, her colleagues close ranks and she begins to suspect a cover-up. Female detectives often feel isolated in crime fiction but Grey’s latest novel looks beyond sexism to a toxic male culture that’s existed for decades.

Kate Medina’s Fire Damage (Harper Collins £12.99) is set in the UK but the aftermath of war looms large over the characters. An army psychologist, Jessie Flynn, is back home after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan. She is treating a four-year-old boy who is deeply traumatised following an incident which has left his father, an officer in the Intelligence Corps, with severe and disfiguring injuries.

Flynn is still trying to win the boy’s confidence when a previous patient, a captain in the military police, asks for her help with an investigation into the suspicious death of a sergeant based at Kandahar airfield. Flynn’s approach is very different from that of a conventional detective and it is fascinating to watch her use her skills in these two cases, which have unexpected connections. Medina is a former Territorial Army officer and she writes about the horrifying consequences of war from the standpoint of a clear-eyed but sympathetic insider.

The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker £16.99) by Erik Axl Sund, translated by Neil Smith, is the latest international best-seller to come out of Sweden. Sund is the pseudonym of two writers, Jerker Eriksson and Haken Axlander Sundquist, who have both worked in the Swedish music industry. The novel is a one-off, taking readers on a break-neck journey through a plot of labyrinthine complexity.

The main characters are two very different women, a detective and a psychotherapist. They are thrown together when the corpses of severely abused boys begin to appear in Stockholm, but it isn’t clear whether their complex relationship is going to help or hinder the investigation. Sund boldly places dissociative identity disorder – a psychological state in which different personalities emerge in the same individual – at the heart of this very disturbing novel.

The Archers stabbing: making Helen the perpetrator is cheap and wrong

Daily Telegraph, 4 April 2016

Fiction always involves a negotiation between keeping the audience interested and what would happen in real life. If the balance goes wrong, the result is not just melodrama but an angry response from readers – or listeners, in the case of last night’s episode of The Archers on Radio 4. It was the culmination of a storyline about domestic abuse which has been running for months, ending with a cliff-hanger about whether Helen Titchener has really killed her horrible husband, Rob.

We will find out this evening whether he is dead or seriously injured. Either way, it is Helen who is now in serious trouble, with almost unthinkable consequences for her young son Henry and her unborn child. An arrest seems inevitable, and listeners know that Rob has already planted the idea that Helen is frighteningly unstable in the minds of her friends and relatives.

That aspect of the storyline has been both chilling and convincing, drawn out in a way that reflects the carefully-planned isolation of a victim by a manipulative man. But last night’s episode detached itself from real life, where Helen would have been at much greater risk of being seriously injured or killed than her abusive husband. The Office for National Statistics says that women are far more likely to be killed by current or former partners than men, and the figures support that conclusion. Almost half of female homicide victims fall into this category, compared with only seven per cent of male victims.

What is so disappointing about this decision is that the storyline had until then realistically demonstrated the mechanics of ‘coercive control’, a form of domestic abuse which became a criminal offence last year. To the outside world, Rob seemed like a caring if over-protective husband, but at home he changed moods so rapidly that Helen lived in fear of his outbursts. One of the few people to see through him was her best friend, Kirsty, who managed to persuade Helen to speak to a domestic abuse helpline and, crucially, Rob’s first wife, Jess.

That conversation provided Helen with confirmation that Rob had subjected another woman to an identical form of control. But it also did something else, forcing her to recognise that she was a victim of marital rape, a criminal assault women often find hard to name, even to themselves. Helen’s discovery that Rob had done the same thing to Jess was a turning-point, finally making her acknowledge the physical and mental danger she was in.

Having got to that point, it defies belief that Helen would voluntarily spend a final evening with her abuser, even making him a meal as a prelude to announcing her decision to leave. It’s plausible that a victim might not be aware of statistics showing she is at greatest risk of death or injury when she tries to escape, but the storyline had just revealed to Helen that she was dealing with a serial abuser and rapist.

Everything about the episode seemed wrong. Why didn’t Helen just pack her and Henry’s bags and leave with Kirsty, who had come to check on her in Rob’s absence? Leaving the bags half-packed upstairs, where he was likely to find them, felt like a device to ratchet up tension. Rob’s rant about never letting Helen go was pitch-perfect but what really jarred was the moment when he offered her a knife and told her to kill herself. Children are incredibly important to manipulative men and it’s highly unlikely that Rob would put his unborn baby – or himself – at risk of physical harm. The whole thing felt artificial, a clunky device to put a weapon in the hand of someone who would never have thought of picking it up on her own.

A much more realistic scenario would have been Helen leaving while Rob was at work and struggling to explain why she’d left an apparently loving husband. That would have been pretty difficult, given the amount of time he has spent grooming her friends and family, and it would have reflected one of the most distressing experiences victims go through. Not being believed is a nightmare, especially when someone has already suffered months of self-doubt, and that storyline would have helped real-life victims.

Instead, Helen has been transformed from a victim into a perpetrator. There have been a small number of cases where a woman has killed a violent partner, after years of abuse, but they are exceptional enough to become something of a cause celebre. We will find out tonight whether Helen is going to face a murder charge, something which would be unprecedented in the history of Ambridge. But it already feels like a missed opportunity, a swerve into melodrama when the series could have shown us the slow, delicate process of a woman freeing herself and trying to repair a badly damaged psyche.

Adam Johnson’s historic sentence shows our victim-blaming culture is decades out of date

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 24 March 2016

Thousands of people appear in court every day and many of them go to prison. But few trials get reported so widely as that of Adam Johnson, the former England footballer who has just been sentenced to six years in jail.

For once the massive coverage is completely justified. Not because of who Johnson is, but because his case is a landmark in this country’s treatment of sexual offences against children.

Earlier this month, when Johnson was convicted of carrying out a sex act on a 15-year-old girl, he was warned by the judge that he faced a sentence of between four and ten years. Even so, I’m sure his six-year tariff for that offence and two others, which he admitted on the first day of his trial, is now causing shock waves.

So it should. For far too long, people have defended people like Johnson, trotting out hoary old excuses for adult men who use their fame and status to target vulnerable victims. ‘She looked older than 15,’ they say, even though it is clear that Johnson knew the girl’s age and even made online searches about the age of consent. ‘It’s not his fault if girls chase him,’ they say, as though a man of 28 is entitled to be excused the standard of moral responsibility required of less famous mortals.

Well, that’s all over now.

The law doesn’t make excuses for fame or wealth; when someone is convicted, it looks at the damage that’s been caused and reflects it in the sentence. In this instance, the damage suffered by Johnson’s victim was set out in court in painful, forensic detail, and should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about how she continues to suffer.

That message needs to be seen by all those people who have abused the girl online, blamed her for what happened or broken the law by revealing her identity. It also needs to be heard by those Sunderland fans who responded to news of Johnson’s arrest last year by pumping their fists in the air and singing, ‘Adam Johnson, he shags who he wants’. They were crass, callous and above all wrong, as his conviction demonstrates.

A great deal has been said and written about the role of professional football in all this, and it’s certainly the case that the country’s leading clubs need to think about how they treat their pampered stars. Football is a very lucrative business and clubs put up with dreadful behaviour off the pitch, as long as their celebrity players bring home the trophies. Most of those players are working-class lads, often without much in the way of education, who suddenly find themselves earning jaw-dropping sums of money and being treated as minor deities.

All of that is true but the significance of this case goes way beyond football. At its core, it is about attitudes towards men and sex – assumptions of male entitlement, in a nutshell – which are years out of date. In a society based on equality, it is simply not acceptable for men to groom under-age girls, gaining their confidence in order to persuade them to perform sexual acts when they are not mature enough to understand the consequences.

More to the point, it is against the law, which is sometimes ahead of public opinion and exists in part to protect vulnerable individuals from predators. This is a landmark case precisely because it has done what the law is supposed to do - which is put aside fame and the other excuses made for men who believe they can do what they like.

They can’t, and this sentence speaks volumes about the importance our society now places on the protection of children.

Feminism shines a light on a world darkened by sexual slavery, mass rape and misogyny

Who would have predicted, when this column began, that a whole series of terrorist organisations was about to emerge, incubating a pathological loathing of women?

Independent on Sunday, 20 March 2016

In 1997, when I began writing a weekly column for The Independent on Sunday, Labour had just won a landslide election victory. I wasn’t a fan of Tony Blair, an antipathy that appeared to be reciprocated when I turned up at a party at No 10 a few years later, but Labour’s success changed the appearance of the House of Commons out of all recognition. There were suddenly 120 female MPs in the lower chamber and the vast majority (101, to be exact) belonged to the Labour Party.

That was still less than a fifth of the House, but back in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became the country’s first female prime minister, the figure was only 3 per cent. Labour’s 1997 intake was patronised as “Blair’s Babes” but it began to feel normal to see MPs who weren’t men in suits speaking about matters which affected half the population. If progress since then sometimes seems painfully slow, last year’s general election lifted the proportion of women MPs to a record 29 per cent, thanks in part to the success of the SNP.

It’s essential to record these milestones because the world in 2016 sometimes appears to be a very dark place, and especially so for women. The late 1990s, when Sex and the City sparked conversations about everything from the pleasure of sex to coping with sexually transmitted diseases, now feels like a lost moment of innocence. Who would have predicted, watching Carrie Bradshaw and her friends roam New York in four-inch heels, that a whole series of terrorist organisations was about to emerge, incubating a pathological loathing of women?

I knew that Japanese soldiers had forced thousands of foreign women to work in military brothels during the Second World War, but I didn’t expect to see sexual slavery being practised in my lifetime. It is impossible to feel anything but horror as Yazidi women who have escaped the clutches of Islamic State (Isis) talk about mass rapes and being sold as sex slaves. Something similar has happened, I assume, to the schoolgirls kidnapped from a school in northern Nigeria by fighters from another Islamist organisation, Boko Haram. With the second anniversary of the mass abduction approaching next month, more than 200 girls are still missing and their desperate families can only guess at what might have happened to them.

The deliberate targeting of women and girls by terrorist organisations isn’t just a resurgence of barbarism. It flies in the face of a belated recognition by the international community that sexual violence, far from being an accidental by-product of war, is a deliberate and unacceptable feature of conflict. In 2001, a war crimes tribunal sitting in The Hague ruled that the mass rape and enslavement of women are crimes against humanity, a charge second in gravity only to genocide; in a landmark judgment, three Bosnian Serbs who had been convicted of the rape, torture and enslavement of Muslim women in the Bosnian town of Foca were sentenced to a combined total of 60 years in prison. I can only hope that the Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is said to have repeatedly raped Yazidi captives and the American aid worker Kayla Mueller, one day meets a similar fate.

Two decades ago, no one talked much about female genital mutilation (FGM), even though it has been illegal in this country since 1985. Now, thanks to campaigning by young women such as Nimco Ali, founder of the anti-FGM organisation Daughters of Eve, it has moved close to the top of the political agenda. While there has yet to be a successful prosecution in this country, police in Bristol last month used new powers to prevent three girls who were considered at risk of mutilation from being taken abroad. FGM protection orders were introduced last year as part of a raft of measures to stop the practice, which is now widely recognised as a form of child abuse. Last week an Australian judge sentenced three people – a retired nurse, a mother of two girls and a community leader – to 15 months in prison at the end of the country’s first FGM prosecution. The victims were just seven years old when they were cut.

None of this would have happened without feminism. A generation of women and men whose mothers were feminists, including the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, are relaxed about applying the word to themselves and calling publicly for greater gender equality. That’s why I think feminism is robust enough to weather attacks from some trans activists, who seem unable to disagree with distinguished figures in the women’s movement without trying to turn them into hate figures. I disagree with Germaine Greer on various issues, including prostitution, but The Female Eunuch remains an intellectual challenge and an inspiration. Personal attacks and calls for “no-platforming” have no place in one of the world’s great human rights movements.

The world we live in today is far more polarised than I could ever have imagined in 1997. A couple of weeks ago, on a trip to Paris, I saw soldiers on the streets and was reminded that the city has suffered two devastating terrorist attacks – one of them against journalists – in less than 12 months. Writers, liberals and women are targets of choice for people inspired by reactionary ideas, which often turn out to have misogyny at their heart.

I have tried to challenge those ideas in my columns for The IoS, and I want to thank the paper’s readers for staying with me for almost two decades. Not goodbye, I hope, but au revoir.

EU referendum: who cares what the Queen thinks about Brexit?

We now know her intervention in the Scottish referendum was planned to the last detail

Independent on Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Queen is a meddler. She’s better at it than her eldest son but that just means she’s smarter than the Prince of Wales (not hard) or has better advisers. Crucially, she knows she doesn’t have to say anything incriminating because most of the press can be relied on to “interpret” her remarks in the right way, while repeating the lofty fiction that the monarch is politically neutral.

Nothing could be further from the truth, which is why The Sun’s story about the Queen supposedly expressing strong Eurosceptic views over a lunch in 2011 sounds plausible. The Palace has complained to the press regulator IPSO on what appears to be a rather technical ground, claiming that the “Queen backs Brexit” headline was inaccurate because the term hadn’t been coined at the time.

But the more interesting question is why someone broke ranks and passed on the Queen’s allegedly critical remarks about the EU at this point in the referendum campaign. The Queen has survived as long as she has, with her reputation mostly intact, because of the omerta that surrounds her conversations. It’s unusual for her political views to be repeated in public, which may be why she offers them without apparent reluctance or hesitation. When I heard her say at a Buckingham Palace party that she didn’t want Turkey to join the EU for a long time, she didn’t seem remotely anxious about offering a political and indeed unconstitutional opinion in front of numerous witnesses. If it really was the first time she had been so forthright at a social event, it’s a remarkable coincidence that she did it in front of a committed republican.

By contrast, the Queen’s public interventions are so subtle that they might best be described as gnomic. Thus she never actually said, at a key moment in the Scottish independence referendum, that she wanted the Scots to stay in the UK. She didn’t have to: she simply made some anodyne remarks to “well-wishers” outside Crathie Kirk, the parish church where members of the Royal Family worship when they stay at Balmoral, four days before the ballot. Her entire utterance amounted to 11 words – “Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future” – and avoided any mention of the referendum. The Daily Mail swung into action, as it was supposed to do, reporting her remark as a “stark warning” about independence.

Was the Queen planning a similarly sphinx-like intervention close to the EU vote in June? Thanks to The Guardian, we now  know that her intervention in the Scottish referendum was orchestrated to the last detail after No 10 went into meltdown at the prospect of a “yes” vote. The wording was decided during negotiations between the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, it was designed to make her support for the union clear without actually saying so.

I can’t help wondering whether last week’s leak to The Sun, if that is what it was, amounted to a pre-emptive strike, designed to prevent the Queen taking sides (in a non-partisan way, of course) in the crucial week leading up to the EU referendum. At the same time, I also can’t help thinking that this way of doing things – political interference with zero accountability – is profoundly inimical to democracy. It offers the monarch boundless influence without ever having to justify herself or engage in anything as low-rent as a debate, which carries the risk of upsetting people. She never has to commit herself to anything in public, a privilege denied even to candidates for parish councils.

That she is allowed to get away with it is in some degree a habit, stretching back to a time when most of the country showed automatic deference to authority figures. But it’s also a reflection, I think, of a corrosive cynicism towards elected politicians, who are at least open about their allegiance and even, on occasion, willing to risk offending voters. The result is a credulity that leads people to put their faith in individuals who belong to the much-derided Establishment, even when their opinions are no more deserving of respect than those of someone sitting next to you on the bus.

Barely had the furore over The Sun’s “Brexit” headline begun to subside when another self-appointed opinion-maker entered the fray. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who shares with the Queen the privilege of holding a constitutional position without having had to do anything as vulgar as stand for office, explained in an interview with The House magazine that there is no “correct Christian view” on the EU referendum.

Even if you believe the UK is an imperfect democracy, the answer doesn’t lie in giving oracular status to the Royal Family and religious leaders. We need more accountability, not less, and the number one target should be the Queen’s clandestine political influence.

Protecting children means telling them about the world as it is

The government has rejected calls for compulsory sex and relationship education, but denying children essential knowledge puts them at risk

The Guardian, Thursday 10 March 2016

The myth of childhood innocence dies hard. Many parents hope that their kids won’t have to deal with the complex world of sex until they are in their teens, keeping childhood as one of the last places untouched by adult desires. But such hopes seem illusory in the face of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse in this country is much greater than we previously believed, and is increasing due to technology.

A rise in prevalence, as opposed to reporting, is the development that everyone working in the area dreads. Following the exposure of Jimmy Savile, police forces were inundated with reports of rapes and sex attacks, almost universally believed to reflect a greater willingness of victims to go to the police. It was widely welcomed, not because a woman revealing that she has been raped is ever good news, but because confidence in the criminal justice system is essential to stopping rapists.

Now, though, one of the country’s most senior police officers is saying something very different about the increase in recorded cases of child abuse. Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for child protection, believes that technology has made it easier for predators to search for victims online, driving an increase of more than 30% in recorded cases last year.

According to the NSPCC, a total of 45,456 child sexual offences were recorded in the UK, with some victims aged five or under. Shocking though that is, the figure is low compared to estimates contained in a report last year from the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield. It suggested that there had been between 400,000 and 450,000 victimsof child sexual abuse in England alone between 2012 and 2014.

There is always resistance to such estimates, which are based on different types of evidence including surveys of adult survivors, while the apparent mishandling of historical allegations against some well-known individuals has led to claims of a witch-hunt. But the NSPCC’s figures represent recorded cases of child sexual abuse and Bailey says that the police are seeing “exponential increases” year-on-year. He doesn’t believe that there has been a rise in the proportion of the population with a sexual interest in children, but technological advances have vastly expanded opportunities for paedophiles.

No one would argue that it is possible or even desirable to keep children away from the internet. But we are already living in a different universe in terms of child sexual exploitation: in 1990 it was estimated that there were approximately 7,000 indecent images of children in circulation in the UK and predators had to take enormous risks in order to share them. In 1978 a former diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, was investigated by the police after he left a package of paedophile material on a London bus.

Now it is believed that there may be as many as 100m indecent images of children in circulation. There is so much material, in fact, that the police have been accused of unacceptable delays in getting round to interviewing people who have been flagged up as suspects. In 2014, Essex police were criticised for waiting nine months to question a deputy headteacher from Southend, who was later discovered to possess more than 400 films and still images of children undressing at his school and a local swimming pool.

Children cannot possibly be expected to anticipate this kind of behaviour from someone in a position of trust. That is why they need to be told about warning signs, making sure they know what to look for and who to tell if they are worried by someone’s behaviour. The obvious place for that to happen is in schools but a vociferous lobby exists, dedicated to opposing every attempt to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education on the ground that it would unnecessarily “sexualise” kids.

The truth is the opposite: denying children knowledge about the world puts them at risk from paedophiles who may inflict lifelong damage. But the present government flatly refuses to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) mandatory. Last month the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, rejected another call for compulsory PSHE, despite a campaign by MPs, peers and a coalition of 100 concerned organisations.

I regularly sit in meetings with senior police officers who deal with the horrors of child sexual abuse on a daily basis. They can’t say so publicly but they are tearing their hair out over our society’s failure to teach children how to spot predators. I’m afraid that childhood innocence may be something we can no longer afford if we’re serious about protecting kids from dangerous people.

 

Adam Johnson: men like the disgraced footballer rely on misogyny to operate

The no-holds-barred condemnation of the former England international feels like an unconscious attempt to compensate for past ambivalence – to put it mildly – towards the player and his sexual history

Independent on Sunday, 6 March 2016

Every time a public figure is exposed as a sexual predator – and it seems to happen with alarming frequency these days – the condemnation that follows is swift and merciless. Men such as Rolf Harris and Jimmy Savile have been transformed overnight from popular entertainers into “perverts” and “paedophiles”, heaped with as much as calumny as they previously received plaudits. The latest big name to undergo this process is Adam Johnson, who was characterised as a “Paedo in his Speedos” on the front page of The Sun last week, next to a picture of the disgraced footballer in a pair of swimming trunks.

Whether it was an appropriate image to publish the day after Johnson was convicted of a sex offence against a 15-year-old girl (he was cleared of another charge) is another matter. The former Sunderland winger and English international has been warned by the judge to expect a “substantial” custodial sentence after pleading guilty to two lesser charges at the beginning of his trial. He faces going to jail for between four and 10 years for grooming the girl, kissing her and for sexual activity in his car.

It is not clear whether the use of an explicit image was intended as mockery of Johnson’s pride in his physique or a reference to his reputation as a stud. But as is often the way, today’s no-holds-barred condemnation of Johnson feels like an unconscious attempt to compensate for past ambivalence – to put it mildly – towards the player and his sexual history. I am not defending Johnson, who was described by his own QC, Orlando Pownall, as “immature, arrogant [and] promiscuous”, but not for the first time I am disturbed by an inexplicable (to me at least) tolerance of predatory  attitudes towards women and girls.

Sunderland AFC’s officials dealt with Johnson every day. “The only time he had to fend for himself was on the field, cheered on by thousands of adoring fans”, Pownall said during the trial. Didn’t the club notice his immaturity and arrogance, especially where sex was concerned? And weren’t they worried by the vile misogyny of some Sunderland fans, who responded to news of his arrest in March last year as though it was a tribute to his sexual prowess? Just days later, they were filmed, fists pumping, singing “Adam Johnson, he shags who he wants”.

Sunderland suspended him for all of two weeks, then allowed him to go on playing (and earning almost £3m) for the best part of a year. Only days before his trial, he was photographed signing autographs for young fans at the club’s Stadium of Light. Johnson wasn’t sacked until the first day of his trial, when he pleaded guilty to the two lesser offences.

Officials say that was the first they knew of his intention to put in the guilty pleas, but Durham police insists the club’s chief executive was told at the time of his arrest that he had allegedly texted and kissed the under-age girl. The club knew a year ago about the serious nature of the charges and it knew that Johnson had a devoted following, including very young girls. “I absolutely idolised Adam,” his victim said in a statement after the trial.

Few teenagers are mature enough to understand that hero worship can be dangerous, which is why organisations such as football clubs and the BBC have a safeguarding responsibility towards fans. When Dame Janet Smith’s report on Savile’s crimes at the BBC came out 10 days ago, there was much talk of different times, as though his activities would not be tolerated today. But Savile was never arrested, and Sunderland’s support for a star who had been charged with serious sexual offences suggests things have changed less than we imagine.

The other thing that hasn’t gone away is victim-blaming. Johnson’s victim has been viciously attacked on social network sites; she has been described as a “slag” and a “slut” and accused of trying to make money out of the player. In her statement, she talked about the effect of the “horrible” names she had been called, saying she sometimes felt “broken”. It’s very similar to the abuse heaped on the woman assaulted by Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United player and Welsh international who was convicted of rape four years ago. Evans has always maintained his innocence and his case has just been referred back to the Court of Appeal, but nothing can excuse the shrill misogyny of the campaign against his victim.

What lies behind all this, I think, is an inexcusable tolerance towards attitudes that demean women and are distasteful to more thoughtful, modern men. Bragging about the size of your sexual organ, as Donald Trump did in a TV debate last week, isn’t illegal and it doesn’t make someone a sexual predator. But the fact that it didn’t instantly destroy his credibility as a presidential candidate shows that primitive versions of masculinity appeal to alarming numbers of people. When macho attitudes are so widely tolerated, no wonder some men think they can get away with behaving extremely badly.

Trials should not cause victims extra pain – time after time, their characters and integrity are ripped apart in court

The Rotherham sex abuse case shows that little has changed since the death of Frances Andrade in 2013

Independent on Sunday, 28 February 2016

Arshid Hussain needs to use a wheelchair after being shot in the abdomen. When he was named as a defendant in a trial which was going to take place 40 miles from his home in East Yorkshire, a video link was installed in his house so he could follow the proceedings from his bed. The case began in December but he turned up in person on only one occasion and decided that he was too unwell to give evidence.

On Wednesday, as the verdicts in the case were being read out, Hussain’s wife called an ambulance. He was rushed to hospital in Scunthorpe, a development described by a prosecution lawyer as an apparently deliberate attempt to frustrate the judicial process, before being released and taken into custody that evening. On Friday, Hussain, 40, was sentenced to 35 years in prison after being found guilty of 23 serious sex offences.

I wouldn’t normally make a song and dance about the way a defendant has been treated during a criminal trial. But the contrast between the special measures put in place for Hussain and the ordeal his victims were subjected to in court is almost unbearable to contemplate. Like the case of Frances Andrade, the professional violinist who died of an overdose in 2013 after a bruising experience on the witness stand, it raises questions about the extremely adversarial nature of trials involving serious sexual offences.

Andrade was accused of lying by the barrister acting for her former music teacher, Michael Brewer, who labelled her a “fantasist” in his evidence. She died the following day and never knew that she’d been vindicated: Brewer was convicted of five charges of indecent assault and jailed for six years. The coroner at her inquest said that Andrade was “extremely traumatised” by her experience and demanded new rules to ensure that vulnerable witnesses are given greater support.

It’s hard to imagine a more traumatic experience than giving evidence against the Hussain brothers and their accomplices, whose horrific abuse of 15 vulnerable girls in Rotherham emerged during their trial at Sheffield Crown Court. Hussain’s younger brothers Bannaras (who pleaded guilty in December) and Basharat were sentenced to 19 and 25 years respectively; their uncle, Qurban Ali, got 10 years. Karen MacGregor, who lured girls to her home and pimped them out, was jailed for 13 years. Shelley Davies, who stayed at MacGregor’s house, argued that she too was a victim and received an 18-month suspended sentence.

The charge sheet, which included rape, forced prostitution, assault occasioning bodily harm, indecent assault, conspiracy to procure prostitutes, conspiracy to rape, and forced imprisonment, doesn’t come close to conveying the damage inflicted on the victims. The trial followed publication last year of a report which concluded that 1,400 girls had been abused in Rotherham over a long period.

Between 1987 and 2003, Arshid Hussain used very young girls for sex, passing them on to his brothers and prostituting them to other men. When one of his teenage victims tried to end contact with him after having his baby, he held her by the throat and threatened to throw her from a balcony at Rotherham market. She says she reported the assault to the police but was ignored, one of many claims which are now the subject of an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Chilling statements from the victims were read out in court on Friday. One girl described the Hussain brothers urinating on her like “a pack of animals” while the sister of another victim characterised her as a “broken human being”. The prosecutor, Michelle Colborne QC, said that the victims had felt “dirty, ashamed and guilty” since they were teenagers. She listed lasting effects of the abuse they suffered, including eating disorders and self-harm.

When Colborne visited one of the witnesses at home before she testified, she found her shaking and “almost physically sick” at the prospect of giving evidence. Her fears were justified: the victims were repeatedly accused of lying in order to claim compensation from the police and the council. Unlike the jury, defence lawyers knew that Bannaras Hussain had admitted a string of offences against almost half of the witnesses. But they went on to accuse four of the women of inventing evidence against the other defendants.

A Sheffield newspaper, The Star, reported that one of the women “was scratching her arms in anguish during a break in proceedings and required a social worker to sit with her for reassurance”. Another defence barrister was asked to tone down her cross-examination of the same witness after both the judge and the prosecution expressed concern that the lawyer was shouting.

Is this really how a civilised country treats women who have been multiply raped from the age of 13 or 14? The 2009 Coroners and Justice Act introduced special provisions for adult complainants in sexual offence trials, including allowing video-taped statements as evidence. After the Andrade case, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced three pilot areas where prosecuting barristers would use new guidance to support victims but its provisions – meeting witnesses in advance and explaining the defence case – still don’t address the core problem.

Time after time, victims have had their characters and integrity ripped apart by defence barristers who will stop at nothing to get an acquittal. “They’re just doing their job,” we’re told. Meanwhile, judges are reluctant to intervene in case they’re accused of obstructing justice.

Frankly, I’m sick of these high-minded excuses. And I’m ashamed of a criminal justice system that appears to believe that justice can be achieved only by further humiliating deeply traumatised women.