Alison Saunders is doing a good job as DPP. Of course she shouldn’t resign

Daily Telegraph, 1 July 2015

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is facing calls to resign in the wake of her U-turn over whether to prosecute Lord Janner for child sex offences. Joan Smith explains why this brave woman should stay in her job

A witch-hunt is under way.  The target is the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, who should resign, we are told, because she took the ‘wrong’ decision in the case of Lord Janner. On Monday, after a review by an independent lawyer, Saunders reversed her decision that the peer, who suffers from dementia, should not be prosecuted on ‘historic’ charges of rape and sexual assault.

‘Sack her!’ came the cry, as though Saunders had been caught out in a misguided personal campaign to let sexual predators off the hook. The fact that a great deal of legal opinion is on the DPP’s side seems not to count at all in such circumstances. Nor does the fact that Saunders has done her best to rebalance the rights of victims and perpetrators in cases of rape and sexual assault, to a point where she has been accused of showing too much sympathy for victims.

I can understand how upset Janner’s alleged victims were by Saunders’s original decision. I’m not a lawyer but the decision seemed to me finely balanced, pitting the right of victims to have their allegations aired in court against a medical diagnosis that says their alleged abuser does not have the capacity to defend himself. What is clear is that the peer’s behaviour should have been investigated more thoroughly years ago.

Saunders believes he could have been prosecuted on at least two occasions. It is those missed opportunities that should be under scrutiny now, not her rather brave decision to submit herself to a review process set up by her predecessor, Kier Starmer. Janner was still a Labour MP when the allegations first surfaced, and it should not be forgotten that he received robust cross-party support when he stood up to deny them in the House of Commons in 1991.

Equally striking is the fact that the grounds for demanding Saunders’s resignation this week represent a 180-degree turn on the previous (and equally strident) accusations against her. Five months ago, when the Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidelines on consent in rape cases, the reaction was almost as hysterical; Saunders was accused of being too sympathetic to victims in a slew of articles that conjured up the old stereotype of women who supposedly ‘cry rape’. She was called ‘politically correct’ and accused of being part of the ‘all-men-are-rapists brigade’. Her offence? The apparently outrageous assertion that men need to be able to prove that a woman had consented to sex with them.

Of course it is nothing of the sort. Everyone – women, men, police officers and lawyers making decisions about whether or not to prosecute – needs to be clear about the legal definition of consent. The guidelines spelled this out and tackled a series of rape ‘myths’ which have no basis in fact but discourage victims from reporting serious assaults. Those myths range from the unproven assertion that women accuse men of rape just because they changed their minds afterwards to the notion that silence can be taken for consent.

This was another brave move on Saunders’s part and it was met by shameless recycling of the very myths she sought to dispel. Her concern is the huge number of rapes – four out of five, according to senior police officers I have talked to – which don’t get reported because victims fear they won’t be believed. The number of reported rapes soared by 68 per cent from 2005/6 to 2013/14, but there was only a 17 per cent increase in charges in that period.

Saunders’ first move as DPP was to announce a campaign to target violence against women and secure more rape convictions. She’s lobbied judges to warn juries about rape myths and backed improved victim support (particularly in stalking cases) so that women know what to expect in court. Almost 100,000 criminal cases were launched against abusive partners last year – taking into account new definitions of abuse, such as revenge porn and coercive control – with a record 68,601 successful convictions.

In the 18 months she has been DPP, it has become clear that Saunders is not afraid of taking unpopular decisions or challenging powerful interests. She’s made a lot of enemies, in other words, not least among journalists angry about the way she defended the decision to prosecute tabloid reporters in the wake of Operation Elveden. It’s also clear that she’s shaking up the criminal justice system in ways her critics find uncomfortable.

Sometimes that means challenging ill-founded assumptions which stop victims of sexual violence getting justice. Sometimes it means taking into account whether a sick man is able to mount a proper defence, and getting that decision reviewed when it is challenged.

I’m sure Saunders didn’t set out to be popular but I’m disgusted by these attacks on her integrity – and her courage.

One of the purposes of terrorism is to magnify the terrorist

Independent on Sunday, 28 June 2015

Attacks such as last Friday’s target not only innocent people, but our sense of proportion, too

Over the past few years, the effects of shock have become all too familiar. There’s the initial jolt on hearing the news of another terrorist attack, followed by a sensation of dread: how many people have lost their lives this time? The speed with which pictures appear on television and social media means that we barely have time to prepare ourselves; as details begin to emerge, it’s impossible not to feel a mixture of powerful emotions, including anger, fear and a kind of helpless sympathy for the victims.

It’s happened again over the past couple of days. On Friday morning, police and camera crews rushed to an industrial site in eastern France where a severed head had been discovered on a fence. The President, François Hollande, hurried back from Brussels as other European leaders offered commiserations over the second terrorist attack in France in six months. This latest in a nightmarish series of beheadings created a sombre mood, and then news broke of further attacks in Tunisia and Kuwait. Within hours, pictures began to emerge of towels thrown over the bodies of holiday-makers on a tourist beach in Sousse.

The shock most people feel in the face of these events is justified; it is what divides us from the individuals who commit such atrocities. But shock can also be paralysing, creating a feeling of impotence. I was in a bar in Soho on a spring evening in 1999 when a nail bomb went off in a nearby pub, and I will never forget the scene in Old Compton Street shortly afterwards. I had nightmares and flashbacks for months afterwards; I couldn’t settle in an enclosed space until I had checked the position of all the exits. A fresh terrorist atrocity brings back some of those feelings, and each time I have to remind myself of the importance of emotional resilience.

Fear and paralysis are the point of such attacks; they aim to destroy our sense of proportion, exaggerating the power of organisations such as Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaeda. Isis has claimed responsibility for two of Friday’s atrocities but such claims should be treated with caution; it claimed to be behind the mass murder of tourists at the Bardo museum in Tunis in March this year but the Tunisian government believes that an al-Qaeda splinter group actually carried out the attack.

Islamist terror organisations resemble a franchise that individuals can buy into at different levels. Some followers are actively recruited in mosques or online but an overarching ideology of sadistic violence also attracts psychopaths, the mentally disturbed and people with grudges. The Kouachi brothers, who murdered 11 people inside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in January, were radicalised through familiar channels, including the influence of several well-known Islamist clerics. Their route to terrorism was very different from that of Man Haron Monis, the lone gunman who demanded an IS flag after taking hostages at a café in Sydney last December. Three people died when the siege ended, including Monis himself, who had a long criminal record and was suspected of involvement in the murder of his wife.

Empathy is one of the reasons why we are so shaken by the stories of people caught up in these dreadful events. It was hard to listen to the harrowing stories of individuals searching for missing family members in Sousse without imagining ourselves in the same situation. But empathy is exactly what the jihadists set out to destroy, appealing to those darker currents of human nature that civilised societies do their best to suppress. Last August, when a video of the beheading of an American journalist appeared on the internet, I suggested that the media shouldn’t publish stills from it. I have no desire to watch anyone being tortured but I was also convinced that Isis was engaged in a calculated exercise of escalating visual shocks, which has since proved to be the case. As well as beheading videos, it has produced footage of a young Jordanian pilot being burned alive and, only last week, a slick underwater video of desperate men drowning in a cage.

Isis will go on producing this kind of horrific propaganda as long as it has an audience, and among its viewers will be some young men who are as excited by sadistic violence as they are by religious extremism. The organisation has a range of offers, in other words, from an eschatological ideology that promises a shortcut to paradise to the chance to indulge in an orgy of unrestrained cruelty.

I have no doubt that David Cameron was as shocked as any of us on Friday but it didn’t help that he went on to automatic pilot, describing Islam as a “religion of peace”. The reality is that religions consist of competing wings, and followers of both Christianity and Islam have on occasion claimed scriptural authority for murder and torture. Last week, a leading jihadist and spokesman for Isis, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, released an audiotape threatening a “calamity for kafirs [non-Muslims]” during Ramadan. That was only three days before Friday’s multiple terrorist attacks.

On this occasion the dead include holidaymakers, worshippers at a Shia mosque and the manager of a French transport company, who could never have imagined he would be the target of such barbarism. Previous Islamist attacks this year have claimed the lives of several cartoonists, a Muslim police officer, Jewish shoppers, a Danish filmmaker, Nigerian villagers and Egyptian Christians. I don’t think we should ever stop being horrified by such events but we need to be clear-headed about the nature and scale of the threat. The jihadists hate everybody but they aren’t Nazi Germany. They will fail because all they have to offer is cruelty and death.

Labour is having a breakdown

Independent on Sunday, 21 June 2015

David Cameron’s likely successors must be thrilled by the lacklustre shortlist

If the Labour Party were an NHS patient, it would be on the waiting list for counselling. The symptoms are there for all to see: anxiety, irritability and self-doubt, punctuated by bursts of absurd optimism. Any competent therapist would diagnose depression and advise strongly against taking big decisions over the next few months. Don’t change jobs or move house, in other words, and don’t even think about looking for a new partner.

Political parties are hopeless at psychology, of course, and Labour is doing the exact opposite. At a moment when morale among supporters is at rock bottom, it has rushed into a completely unnecessary leadership contest which is already proving painful to watch. Whatever their qualities as individuals, I can’t picture a ballot paper featuring Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn without the words “none of the above” coming to mind. I certainly don’t think for a moment I’m looking at the next prime minister but one.

The Tories manage these things better, on the whole, and David Cameron’s likely successors must be thrilled by Labour’s lacklustre shortlist. Can anyone seriously imagine any of the four candidates on offer beating George Osborne or Boris Johnson? The deputy leadership line-up is marginally more interesting, but that’s not saying much.

Why is Labour even doing this now, with the next general election five years in the future? One of the advantages of fixed parliaments is that a snap election is highly unlikely, giving parties the luxury of time to assess potential leaders. In 2005, when Michael Howard lost the election, he agreed to stay on as Tory leader for six months; in that time he brought several newcomers into the shadow Cabinet, allowing Cameron to emerge as the front-runner. I don’t like his politics, but he’s just begun his second term as prime minister.

What Labour is doing, by contrast, is having little flurries of excitement over things that don’t matter. As the deadline for nominations approached last week, speculation began to bubble about whether Corbyn would get sufficient support from Labour MPs to ensure his place on the shortlist. He got 35 nominations in the nick of time, even though he’ll only have a chance of winning if thousands of mischievous Tories decide to pay three quid and register as “supporters” to vote for him. Labour goes in for this kind of gesture politics, as though getting someone from each wing of the party on the ballot paper is all that’s required for a meaningful contest.

It’s telling that two candidates, Mary Creagh and Chuka Umunna, had already withdrawn, with the latter citing his dismay at the degree of press intrusion which followed his declaration. After the onslaught suffered by Ed Miliband, I couldn’t help wondering where Umunna had been for the past few months. Labour’s defeat was shattering, but it was also preceded by the most ferocious attacks on a Labour leader since Neil Kinnock in 1992. Many people in the party seem to have a blind spot about this, as though vicious personal abuse from the right-wing press is just one of life’s little hazards.

This is nonsense, for two reasons. First, I don’t think anyone should underestimate the impact of waking up every morning to cruel jibes, including mockery of your appearance, and having to put on a brave face in front of your children. It’s a reminder that whoever becomes the next leader will need an almost inhuman degree of emotional resilience, and so will their friends and family. Since Miliband’s defeat, I’ve been shocked to hear some of the press’s nastier remarks repeated within the party, contributing to an atmosphere which has more to do with recriminations than good judgement.

At the same time, I don’t think any of us should be relaxed about a misuse of power by some sections of the press which threatens to undermine democracy. Each time I hear someone talking nostalgically about Tony Blair, I can’t help recalling that he courted editors and proprietors who later turned out to have presided over a near-total collapse of ethics in popular journalism. Miliband doesn’t get enough credit for challenging this behaviour, which earned him the undying hatred of newspapers with millions of readers. Some of his mistakes during the election campaign, including the farcical “EdStone”, seemed to me a consequence of trying to circumvent them with stunts that were badly conceived or which misfired.

After such a mauling, I can understand Miliband’s impulse to walk away from it all on the morning after the election. But his resignation last month didn’t mean there had to be an immediate leadership contest; his deputy, Harriet Harman, has been acting Labour leader before and she is perfectly capable of doing the job for the next few months.

There isn’t even agreement yet about why the party failed so badly in Scotland and its target seats outside London, and there isn’t likely to be until activists, defeated MPs and disappointed voters have all had time to recover. Low self-esteem and fear of the future are not a winning combination, and they certainly don’t assist decision-making.

On second thoughts, what Labour actually resembles is someone who’s just emerged from a failed relationship and can’t wait to start dating again. Staging a leadership contest right now is like trying to find love online, with a tendency to grab the first presentable bloke who turns up with flowers and a box of Milk Tray. I’m sure he’s a nice enough chap, but I don’t want the party to wake up in September and find itself married to Andy Burnham.

Honours system: have a gong and leave your principles at home

Independent on Sunday, 14 June 2015

It’s a world where traditional ‘British’ values – snobbery, deference and minute degrees of distinction – exist in defiance of modern principles of equality and social justice

It’s that time of year when “ordinary” people are supposed to express their everlasting gratitude for being given titles that have no place outside a pantomime. Part of the deal is fielding questions from smarmy broadcasters who think nothing of tossing out questions like this one: “Did you ever imagine, when you were growing up on a council estate, that you would one day be Dame This or Sir That?”

The correct response is self-deprecating laughter and a joke about whether it comes with land and a castle (the comedian Lenny Henry did this when news of his knighthood was leaked last week). It’s also correct form to say you are “chuffed” – a nod to your chirpy working-class background – or that you are really accepting it for your Mum. What you mustn’t suggest, even if you secretly believe it, is that you’ve worked hard all your life and deserve to be recognised by the state.

The class system, in other words, is alive and kicking. It’s a world where traditional “British” values – snobbery, deference and minute degrees of distinction – exist in defiance of modern principles of equality and social justice. The system is flexible to a degree (women did well among this year’s “lower” awards) but manages to preserve the privileges of white men. Thirty-three men got knighthoods, compared with seven new “dames”.

The list prompted the usual, well-founded complaints about the use of honours to recognise political donors. But the most cogent objection is the way it subtly co-opts individuals, persuading them to endorse a structure  which appear at odds with their values. This year, two feminist campaigners, Caroline Criado-Perez and Laura Bates, have been honoured for services to equality, diversity and promotion of gender equality. One has become an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – words I find hard to write without bursting out laughing – and the other accepted the British Empire Medal.

Like any card-carrying liberal, I can live with a bit of cognitive dissonance. But the honours system is so entwined with colonial history and privilege – the posher you are, the bigger the bauble – that it can’t be reconciled with egalitarian principles. It’s based on a fantasy of the UK as a god-fearing country that rules the world (the OBE motto is “for God and the Empire”).

While decent individuals go along with this nonsense – only 2 per cent refuse – nothing will change. And that’s dispiriting, because people shouldn’t have to compromise their principles to have their achievements recognised. The same is true of those who hold its major offices; I’m still reeling from the discovery that some Labour ministers (including Andy Burnham) apparently felt the need to abase themselves in correspondence with Prince Charles.

Our laws and treaties express an admirable commitment to equality and social justice. Let’s get off our knees and make it mean something.

Oscar Pistorius may soon be out of prison. Should we really be surprised?

The Guardian, 9 June 2015

Male violence is deeply entrenched in South Africa, where three women are killed by their partners every day. Reeva Steenkamp was a victim both of one man, and of a grim culture

Reeva Steenkamp died alone and terrified. She was 29, and should have been able to look forward to many years of life. Instead, she died behind a locked toilet door that could not protect her from a man armed with a powerful weapon.

It has now been revealed that her killer, the Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, is likely to be released from prison in August this year, after serving only 10 months of a five-year sentence for culpable homicide. This turn of events, while hardly unexpected, speaks volumes about attitudes towards male violence in South Africa. That Pistorius could be released so soon also says a great deal about the capacity of celebrity to obliterate other narratives, even in a country where three women are killed each day by their husbands or boyfriends. Many observers have noted the danger posed to women by a culture where guns and masculinity are perilously entwined.

Steenkamp’s parents have condemned the decision by the parole board to release their daughter’s killer to house arrest. The fact that the athlete shot his girlfriend has never been in doubt, although Pistorius has always claimed he mistook her for a burglar in the early hours of the morning. He was cleared of murder last autumn.

Once he is moved to house arrest, Pistorius could even be allowed to start training again. It has always been clear that the relevant authorities do not regard his conviction for culpable homicide as a disqualification for an international sporting career, with the International Paralympic Committee announcing immediately after the verdict that he would be allowed to compete again, although not until 2019. There is a potential obstacle in his way, however, with the prosecution’s appeal against his acquittal on the murder charge due to be heard in November.

The case remains controversial for very good reasons. From the moment news of the killing broke in February 2013, Pistorius was given a sympathetic hearing by much of the world’s press. Long before the case came to court, reporters uncritically repeated his defence, framing the story as a piece of tragic news involving a world-famous athlete and divorcing it from any wider context.

That context is very well-known to doctors and campaigners against domestic violence. So many women are killed by their husbands and boyfriends in South Africa that the crime is regarded by some commentators as amounting to femicide – the intentional murder of women simply because they are women. Many observers have commented on the danger posed to women by a culture where guns and masculinity are perilously entwined. According to an article published in the South African Medical Journal in 2010, the country has “the highest reported rate globally of females murdered by shooting in a country not engaged in war”. Most of the victims are poor and either black or mixed race.

 

Prince Charles is a prolix pesterer of government departments

Independent on Sunday, 7 June 2015

His correspondence is full of straw men whose purpose is to portray their author as a radical thinker

When a batch of letters from Prince Charles to government ministers was published last month, I couldn’t help wondering why some of his pet subjects barely featured in the documents. Now the Cabinet Office has released a second tranche, confirming the extent of his lobbying on behalf of his charities – he’s always trying to get ministers to turn up at events – and his attempts to interfere in the NHS. Did someone hope we weren’t looking?

The second batch of correspondence shows him approaching the then health secretary, Alan Johnson, in 2007 on the subject of “complementary” medicine. He complains about a threat to close NHS homeopathic hospitals and presents himself as the victim of “waves of invective… from parts of the Medical and Scientific Establishments”. I wonder if that includes experts such as Sir Mark Walport, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, who has dismissed homeopathy as “nonsense”?

The new letters also reveal the Prince complaining to the culture secretary, Ben Bradshaw, in 2009 about “unscrupulous owners” who don’t look after historic buildings. Perhaps the Prince should have a word with the people who run the royal household, castigated by the Public Accounts Committee in 2012 for “not looking after nationally important heritage properties adequately”. Charles likes to visit the Queen Mother’s Highland retreat, the Castle of Mey, which  had to be bailed out by the Emir of Qatar’s cousin.

No less astonishing is his correspondence in 2007 with housing and planning minister Yvette Cooper on rural poverty. Charles says he has seen the problem for those on low incomes of finding an affordable home, without mentioning the grotesque inequality that people like himself, with several large houses, are happy to perpetuate.

The correspondence would be hilarious if it were not the case that Charles often seeks to influence government policy or extract public money for favourite projects. In letters released last month, he expresses dissatisfaction with the teaching of English and history and claims his summer schools for teachers are “challenging the fashionable view that teachers should not impart bodies of knowledge”.  I have no idea who holds these views, but then his correspondence is full of straw men whose purpose is to portray their author as a radical thinker. “Perhaps I am now too dangerous to associate with!” he flatters himself in a 2004 letter to  education secretary Charles Clarke.

However our Government tries to spin the Prince’s meddling, it is there for all to see in his densely written letters, full of poorly disguised self-regard; it’s as though he has unconsciously adapted his writing style to mimic Private Eye’s long-running parody, “Heir of Sorrows”. Sadly, this prolix pesterer of government departments is not a figment of anyone’s imagination.

Girls in the West must be taught that there’s nothing romantic about life in Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’

Independent on Sunday, 31 May 2015

The phenomenon of teenage girls lured by the prospect of meals by candlelight and bathing in the Euphrates

Just over a year ago, an Australian woman called Tara Nettleton flew to Malaysia with her five children. From there she made her way to Raqqa in Syria, where she was reunited with her husband, an Australian jihadist called Khaled Sharrouf. Last summer, Sharrouf posted a photograph on Facebook of the couple’s seven-year-old son holding the head of a Syrian soldier. Their daughter, Zaynab, was 14 when she was married to her father’s friend Mohammed Elomar, a former boxer from Sydney.

Last week, reports in the Australian press suggested that Ms Nettleton is trying to return to Australia with her children. According to a police source, her decision to leave Syria is linked to harsh living conditions in Raqqa, a fact which certainly isn’t reflected in her daughter’s online pronouncements. A couple of months ago, Zaynab posted a picture of five veiled women posing with guns in front of a white BMW. The caption read “chillin in the khalifah [caliphate], lovin life”.

Zaynab is not the only Western schoolgirl who appears to have turned her back on gender equality to live under the “caliphate”. According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which has just published a report called “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part”, around 550 women and girls from Western countries have been recruited by Isis. Many have ended up as teenage widows, boasting about the deaths of their husbands in messages posted on social media. “The Islamic State treats us sooo full with love and respect,” a young British widow posted on Twitter.

It isn’t always the case that girls run away to become brides, but it’s what happens to many of them. The family of a teenager from east London, who disappeared to Syria with two school-friends in February, revealed last week that they had heard from her; the girl said she was safe and well, but little else is known about her fate or that of her friends. The disappearance of the girls – two aged 15, the other aged 16 – caused astonishment when their images were captured on CCTV at Gatwick airport. They flew to Turkey and took a bus to the border with Syria, where they were met by a female member of Isis who has since defected. Last week, she described the girls as naive and said they were unprepared for life under Isis, where “you cannot have a mind of your own”.

Some commentators have suggested that girls who run away to join Isis know what they’re doing and have only themselves to blame. But the phenomenon of teenagers being lured from their homes by a terrorist organisation is not something we should regard with indifference; apart from anything else, it suggests a worrying ignorance or distrust of conventional news sources. Human Rights Watch published two reports last year, describing how Isis fighters repeatedly raped hundreds of Yazidi women captured in northern Iraq. And just over a year ago, the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a terrorist group which has now affiliated to Isis, was widely reported in the West.

Can teenage girls heading off to join Isis really be unaware of these dreadful events? It seems more likely that they have been offered an alternative narrative by people they have come to trust, as last week’s report confirms; it describes how young women have been lured by the prospect of sharing meals by candlelight, bathing in the Euphrates and admiring each other’s new-born infants. At one level, it is a modern version of the “mysterious” East which inspired hundreds of Victorian paintings, but with the addition of what the authors call a “warped” form of feminism. Isis uses female recruiters who target girls who feel alienated from Western culture, romanticising the role of wives and mothers and assuring them that women are valued by Isis.

This is a perversion of the truth, which is that many Isis fighters appear to have been attracted by the opportunity to carry out rape on a grand scale. It suggests there’s an urgent need to teach children how to spot jihadist propaganda online instead of reading it uncritically; they also need to be told the truth about conditions in areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by Isis, which have been described by Yazidi women who managed to escape as harsh and violent. Sadly, some teenage girls in the West are too young and inexperienced to recognise that far from the romantic notions they are being offered, they will face tough lives as widows and single mothers in a culture dominated by ruthless men.

The jihadists do their best to prevent this reality appearing on social media, but it is beginning to emerge as female recruits become disillusioned and try to leave. MsNettleton is a case in point, with some of the Yazidi women held captive by her husband and son-in-law reporting that she found life in Raqqa hard to bear. They say that far from “loving” their new roles, Zaynab Sharrouf and her siblings begged to go back to Australia, lending credence to reports that the family is trying to negotiate a return.

While the children may be regarded as victims of their father’s brutality – photographing boys with severed heads and marrying off underage girls is clearly child abuse – their mother’s role in taking them to Syria may open her to charges. But the family’s disillusionment, if genuine, could help answer questions about the apparent ease with which girls living in the West have been radicalised.

Perverted ideas about female solidarity and motherhood can be countered but that requires very different messages from the anti-radicalisation programmes currently directed towards young men.

 

Theresa May’s threat to broadcast freedom is staggering

Independent on Sunday, 24 May 2015

Leaked letter shows that the Home Secretary was planning TV censorship

The hypocrisy is breath-taking. In January, David Cameron was one of the world leaders who marched through Paris in protest at the slaughter of eight journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Some of the other participants had a questionable record on human rights but the sentiment – that free expression was under attack and must be supported – was widely applauded.

Just two months later, it turns out, a leading member of Cameron’s government was proposing new powers to enable the communications regulator, Ofcom, to censor “extremist content” on TV and radio before broadcast. This staggering revelation is contained in a leaked letter from the then Culture Secretary, Sajid Javid, who found Theresa May’s proposal hard to stomach.

Javid was clear in his letter to the Prime Minister that this would mean changing Ofcom’s status from post-transmission regulator to censor. He pointed out that other countries with a pre-transmission regulatory regime “are not known for their compliance with rights relating to freedom of expression”.

It is ironic, in the circumstances, that it was Ofcom that stood up for broadcasters in the row over Channel 4’s controversial documentary Undercover Mosque, in 2007. In the film, extremist clerics were shown advocating the murder of apostates, British soldiers, gay men and Jews. West Midlands Police responded, bizarrely, by investigating the film-makers for broadcasting material “likely to stir up racial hatred”. When they were advised there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, they complained to Ofcom. The regulator sent them off with a flea in their ear, but the episode demonstrates the risks run by journalists intent on exposing extremism.

There has been speculation that May’s proposal to introduce an element of “prior restraint” goes back to the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby two years ago, when she questioned the BBC’s decision to broadcast a recorded interview with the Islamic extremist Anjem Choudary. It seemed a perverse reaction, even at a time when feelings were running high, given that Choudary hardly did himself any favours on Newsnight. In any case, anyone who wants to know what Choudary thinks can follow him on Twitter, where he is currently “justifying” the destruction of archaeological sites in Syria and Iraq.

More significant, perhaps, was another Newsnight interview, this time with a friend of one of Fusilier Rigby’s killers who claimed that Michael Adebolajo had been tortured in Kenya and harassed by MI5. The friend was arrested by counter-terrorism officers as soon as he finished the interview.

It is hard to avoid contrasting May’s plan to censor TV shows with her government’s unenthusiastic (to say the least) approach to the Leveson report. Lord Justice Leveson didn’t recommend any form of prior restraint; he just thought, reasonably enough, that an independent body should cast an eye over any regulator set up and run by the press.

That’s been widely misrepresented in some quarters as an unprecedented threat to press freedom. Now that the Prime Minister appears to back May’s proposal to censor broadcasters we can see what a threat to freedom of expression really looks like.

 

Isis threatens Palmyra, the ancient city that stands for both empire and resistance

Independent on Sunday, 17 May 2015

The art and architecture express something which speaks to us centuries later

I arrived in Palmyra on a cloudless morning after a drive through the desert from Damascus. It is an astonishing sight, the ruins of one of the great cities of antiquity rising against a background of low hills. Walking along the colonnaded main street, with temples and the foundations of shops to either side, it is possible to imagine the bustling life of this oasis city almost 2,000 years ago.

Last week, fighters from Islamic State (Isis) reached the gates of Palmyra, prompting fears that the city will be subjected to the kind of wanton destruction witnessed at archaeological sites in Iraq. Palmyra was occupied for a few months in 2013 by fighters who oppose the country’s dictator, President Assad, but they did not share the fanatical iconoclasm of Isis. Its fighters have already behaved with customary barbarity, seizing nearby villages and murdering more than two dozen civilians. At least 10 were beheaded.

The thought of Palmyra in the hands of these nihilistic thugs is too awful to contemplate. Cities are not just inanimate objects, fascinating though it is to see buildings that are thousands of years old. They are the work of human beings who used art and architecture to express something about themselves which speaks to us centuries later.

In this instance, Palmyra represents both the power of the Roman empire and resistance to it, incorporating Graeco-Roman and eastern culture in an extraordinary amalgam of styles. The emperor Hadrian visited in AD129 and declared Palmyra a free city but in the 3rd century its widowed queen, Zenobia, led a revolt against Roman rule. She was defeated by Caracalla and taken to Rome, where the emperor’s decision to parade a captive queen through the streets in gold chains caused disquiet in the Senate.

When I visited Palmyra two decades ago, it wasn’t a great tourist destination because of the Assad regime’s political isolation. I was able to walk round without meeting many other tourists but there was a surreal moment when a plane landed and Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, stepped out. We exchanged a few words and he was hurried around the site by American diplomats before his plane roared off into an expanse of blue.

I don’t think I knew at the time that the modern town of Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic, was home to one of Assad’s worst prisons. A few years later, I met a Syrian poet who had been incarcerated there in conditions so horrific that people said “the person who enters is lost and the one who leaves is born”. The juxtaposition of a great cultural site and a torture centre didn’t worry the regime, which has never valued anything but its own survival. Before the current conflict, Syria was one of the most culturally rich countries in the world. It is tragic that so many people have been murdered or forced into exile, but Assad’s myriad crimes against his own people include his failure to protect their astonishing heritage.