Give the viewers a break, Paxman

You can’t hear some presenters without wishing they’d shut up

The Independent, Thursday 28 June 2012

So, Jeremy Paxman, do you know what day it is? Do you? It’s a simple enough question. On Tuesday, during an interview on Newsnight with the Treasury minister Chloe Smith, you asked: “What’s happened between the 23rd of May and today, which is what, the 25th of June?” Mr Paxman, shouldn’t a presenter on a salary most of us could only dream of know what day it is? Every child in the country knows that Tuesday was the 26th of June. Pathetic!

No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. I’m just sick of interviews conducted in a style more appropriate to the Colosseum than a civilised country. On Newsnight and Radio 4′s Today programme, presenters swagger into interviews like lions about to devour cowering Christians. Paxman is the retiarius of interrogators, casting a net over his victims and giving them repeated jabs with his trident while they’re tangled up in words.

I think Smith did rather well to keep her temper in the face of a performance – I use the word deliberately – whose chief purpose seemed to be her humiliation. Paxman began with a question she was clearly not able to answer and kept repeating it, with all the incredulity of a prosecution lawyer confronting a wife-beater. It would have been mildly interesting to know when the Government made its decision to postpone an increase in fuel duty, but Smith’s reluctance to reveal confidential conversations wasn’t nearly as incriminating as Paxman made out.

Confrontation has become the dominant style of current-affairs programmes. I know and like John Humphrys but it’s impossible to listen to him, Paxman or Jonathan imbleby interrupting yet another politician without wishing they’d shut up. Often the interviewee is on the verge of saying something interesting when the interrogator decides it isn’t the answer he wants, and we get another fusillade of interruptions. It doesn’t make for a stimulating or informed debate.

But then I don’t think that’s the purpose. Gladiatorial contests are about one person coming out on top, and the interviewer has all the advantages. He doesn’t have to worry about breaking confidences or letting down colleagues, while appalling rudeness is excused as fearless pursuit of the truth. “That’s absolute tripe!” Paxman told the Italian journalist Annalisa Piras on Monday, dismissing her views on the Eurozone as though he were a Nobel-winning economist.

If Smith is smarting from her experience, she might want to consider this. When presenters harrumph and cut someone off mid-sentence, they think they’re showing intellectual rigour. But it’s really a boorish form of populism, which is just what the Colosseum audience loves.

When families fall out…

Going public is a sign of impotence, says Joan Smith

The Independent on Sunday, 24 June 2012

By the time you reach a certain age, a certain amount of messy emotional baggage is inevitable. Parents fall out with adult children, people have affairs, new partners live in a state of resentment towards old ones and vice versa. Some of these feuds are resolved, others turn into life-long estrangements, but the modern world offers unprecedented opportunities to take it all to a higher level.

Look at Jimmy Carr, who has spent the past few days trying to calm down a storm about his tax arrangements. Just when it all seemed to be working, the comedian’s estranged father popped up yesterday, writing a long article for the Daily Mail. Jim Carr said he had “watched with great sadness as my much-loved middle son was forced to issue a humiliating apology” about a tax scheme that enabled him “to pay as little as 1 per cent tax on his vast earnings”. No hard feelings there, then.

At the same time, France’s new President, François Hollande, has had his commitment to gender equality in government overshadowed by the behaviour of his current partner, Valérie Trierweiler. She is a journalist and should be a bit more media-savvy, but she recently urged voters to support a political rival to the mother of Hollande’s four children,
Ségolène Royal, who was fighting a difficult parliamentary seat. Royal duly lost, and now Trierweiler has published a book about Hollande’s presidential campaign. Writing about an event when Hollande and Royal appeared together at a rally, she mused on “the François-Ségolène reunion” in terms that suggested she was anything but relaxed. I can’t imagine that’s going to make life easier at the Hollande-Trierweiler breakfast table.

Meanwhile, a new front has opened in the saga of the marriage split of a wealthy couple, Ben Goldsmith and his wife, Kate Rothschild, who owns a small record company. I’d never heard of them until they exchanged hostilities on Twitter a few weeks ago, and I should think it was a relief to everyone concerned when they agreed to sort out their problems in private. Two days ago, however, a rapper called Jay Electronica, who is said to have had a relationship with Rothschild, appeared to blunder into the dispute via the micro-blogging site. His tweets were so parodic, including a threat to “come see you” if Goldsmith didn’t stop talking to the press, that I wondered if his Twitter account had been hacked. Certainly it won’t have helped a fraught situation, which involves the couple’s three children and an allegation of domestic violence.

The late Princess of Wales went public when she could no longer bear her anger towards her husband’s family. If Twitter had been around then, I expect she’d have taken to it like a duck to water – @queenofhearts. But the satisfaction of putting your side of the story may be shortlived, as well as acting as a reminder that there’s another side to the story.

When Jimmy Carr’s father complains that he’s been banned from watching his son perform, it suggests there’s been a breakdown of relations on a pretty awesome scale. In his article, Carr Snr refers to a case in which he was arrested on suspicion of harassing Jimmy and his older brother Colin with abusive emails and letters, and taken to court. He reminds readers that the case was thrown out, but acknowledges it was “a hollow victory, because my sons remain estranged”.

One of the painful things you learn as you get older is that some estrangements can’t be mended. People aren’t always reasonable, or able to see beyond their own hurt and resentment. Going public feels like the nuclear option but it’s really an admission of impotence, a last resort when all other avenues have failed.

The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver

More damp squib than explosive device, this novel of journalists and terrorists fizzles out

The Independent, Saturday 23 June 2012

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel is set in Barba, a fictional peninsula which juts out (like a beard) from Portugal’s southern border. No one would take much notice of it but for the existence of a home-grown terrorist organisation, which has claimed any number of atrocities in the name of Barban independence. It’s also the reason why a group of foreign journalists is stationed in the dusty capital, Cinzeiro, quarrelling as they wait for the next bomb.

The latest addition to this little band is Edgar Kellogg, a rookie American foreign correspondent with a thin file of clippings. Kellogg has abruptly switched careers from corporate law to journalism. He gets a lucky break when a contact from school days, now a star reporter, puts in a word for him with the editor of the National Record in New York. The editor has a gap to fill after his Barban correspondent, Barrington  Saddler, has gone missing amid rumours that he’s been abducted or murdered.

The set-up – hapless hack arrives in backwater about which he knows next to nothing – is familiar. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is the prototype but Shriver’s novel takes aim at international terrorism as much as journalism. Her terrorists, the Daring Soldiers of Barba, attack targets all over the world while their political wing pours out the usual rhetoric about colonialism and liberation. Like any modern conflict it has religious and ethnic dimensions, with the Catholic terrorists calling for the expulsion of Muslim immigrants from North Africa.

The terrorists’ acronym, SOB, offers a flavour of Shriver’s tone in this tale of jaded foreign correspondents and ranting ideologues. So does the name chosen for the SOB’s political wing: O Creme de Barbear, which translates literally as “shaving cream”. It quickly starts to feel a trifle heavy-handed, but then this is not a novel that delivers subtlety or unexpected insights. Kellogg is a typically insecure reporter, but his assignment enmeshes him in rivalries with more successful men. The missing Saddler exists chiefly in Kellogg’s imagination, assembled from the anecdotes told by other hacks and the exotic possessions left behind in his palatial Barban mansion.

There hasn’t been a single SOB atrocity since Saddler’s disappearance, but it takes Kellogg an unconscionable amount of time to wonder whether there is a connection. Nor does he immediately grasp the significance of an oddly-shaped metal pipe and
the stack of surgical gloves he finds in Saddler’s mansion. Shriver revels in writing about her backbiting reporters but it’s hard to imagine a bunch of seasoned hacks proving quite so gullible.

The novel is poorly constructed, relying on stagey devices and a deus ex machina when the plot reaches what might otherwise have been an impasse. Shriver says nothing new about journalism or terrorism, and it isn’t a surprise to discover that the novel was actually written before the 9/11 attacks. It’s finally been published on the back of Shriver’s success with So Much For That and We Need To Talk About Kevin, but is a much less accomplished piece of writing. There’s nothing wrong in principle about writing a satire on international terrorism, but The New Republic misses its mark. Sadly, it doesn’t amount to much more than another novel about a bunch of pissed old hacks.

Why do we buy Julian Assange’s one-man psychodrama?

The Ecuador government will be a laughing stock if it takes the Assange death penalty sub-plot seriously

The Independent, Thursday 21 June 2012

Narcissism is the curse of our age. Celebrity is its more familiar manifestation, spawning countless magazines and TV shows, but its tentacles have spread into every area of public life. France has recently terminated an unhappy experiment with a hyperactive President, suggesting that its appetite for constant self-promotion has its limits. Now a similar proposition is being tested in the UK by the saga of the celebrity-hacker, Julian Assange.

The news that the increasingly eccentric founder of WikiLeaks had sought political asylum in Knightsbridge, of all places, was greeted with equal measures of disbelief and hilarity. The London embassy of Ecuador is convenient for Harrods, although I don’t imagine that was a major consideration when Assange walked into the building on Tuesday afternoon. His line is that he has been “abandoned” by his home country, Australia, which has failed to protect him from the threat of extradition to the US and the death penalty. The Australian government has a different story, but it’s all part of Assange’s riveting psychodrama, in which this fearless champion of human rights has been kept under “house arrest” without charge in the UK for 500 days. That is what Assange told Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, in a rambling TV interview last month.

The super-hacker appears to be relaxed about links with authoritarian regimes, presenting a chat show for Russia Today, a state-funded TV network, and seeking asylum in a Latin American country with a not exactly admirable record on freedom of expression. Assange quickly established a rapport with Correa, who teased him during the interview, waved a book about WikiLeaks and addressed him warmly as “Julian”. I’ve seldom seen such a feeble interrogation, but it did at least put paid to the risible notion that Assange is a journalist.

Now how can I put this politely? Assange is a fabulist, someone who stretches and distorts the truth to make himself look exciting in the eyes of his diminishing band of followers. He has never been under house arrest in this country, although his bail conditions, which he has now breached, require him to stay at the same address every night. He makes much of the fact that he hasn’t been charged with any offence in Sweden, but that is because he has employed every trick in the book to avoid going back to answer serious allegations of sexual misconduct. The Swedish authorities have accused him of one count of unlawful coercion, two counts of sexual molestation and one of rape, and they’ve been trying to question him for almost two years.

Assange’s supporters claim that the case is simply an excuse to get him back to Sweden, which will then allow the wicked American government to cart him off and execute him for sedition. This scenario might be less fanciful if the UK didn’t have its own extradition treaty with the US, and one which is repeatedly accused of being much too “soft”. In an era when conspiracy theories spread like wildfire on the internet, the  death penalty sub-plot has proved a useful diversionary tactic, but the government of Ecuador will be a laughing stock if it takes it seriously.

Narcissists are shameless in their promotion of themselves, but they aren’t noted for consistency. Assange’s politics are simplistic, amounting to not much more than a belief that governments cheat and lie and need to be exposed. They do, sometimes, but his preferred scenario of total transparency would be a nightmare, making relations between democratic countries and despotic regimes even more difficult. He doesn’t understand power, which can be exercised for good as well as selfish reasons, and by individuals – himself included – as well as governments.

It’s time his double standards were spelled out: Assange has used his hacking skills to turn himself into a worldwide phenomenon, and now he demands for himself exactly the same impunity he excoriates in politicians. The British courts are having none of it, and his latest stunt suggests he believes he’d get short shrift at the European Court, always assuming he could afford to go there.

Without coherent politics to explain his predicament, Assange has had to rely on two things: the gullibility of people who share his Manichean world view and a yearning for heroes. But even his most ardent fans are likely to have been startled by his casual disregard for the supporters who put up thousands of pounds in bail, and who were waiting yesterday to hear whether they’re going to lose their money. Selfishness is at the heart of narcissism but the public is willing to read it as something else, as long as the individual concerned doesn’t overstep the mark as Assange has done with this latest escapade.

Recently, even his singular appearance has started to work against him. He’s put on weight, his face is puffy and he didn’t bother to shave before his interview with Correa. The super-hacker is losing his glamour, and he’s reached the moment when psychodrama tips into farce. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this superb vignette: the people’s champion, shopping for human rights near Harrods.


Why is there no debate in Britain about the Falklands?

Independent on Sunday, 17 June 2012

When the entire political class speaks with one voice, I feel nervous. When MPs from all parties repeat the same platitudes, I worry about the absence of dissent. And when a British prime minister who’s just had one of his worst days plays the patriotism card, I get cross. So you can imagine how I felt last week when David Cameron, who’d just suffered exquisite personal embarrassment at the Leveson Inquiry, issued a stern warning to Argentina about the Falkland Islands.

Argentina is no longer a military dictatorship. General Galtieri is long gone and the country’s current leader, Cristina Kirchner, is a popular President who’s won two elections. She went to New York on Thursday, after it was announced that the Islanders will have a referendum next year, and told a UN committee she would like to sit down with Britain and open talks over sovereignty of the Islands. ‘Can someone in the modern world deny that possibility and say they are leaders of the civilised world and defenders of human rights?’ she asked.

Yes they Cam – I mean can. Kirchner’s remarks seemed reasonable compared to Cameron’s a few hours earlier, when he flatly ruled out any negotiation on the future of the Falklands. At a reception in London commemorating the war, the prime minister ramped up the rhetoric, declaring that Britain is ‘ready and willing to stand up for the Falkland Islanders at any time. As long as they wish to remain a British territory, that is the way it will stay’.

I can’t help wondering, as I did 30 years ago, about proportionality. I thought the loss of life on HMS Sheffield was tragic and I felt the same about Argentinian casualties, most of whom were young conscripts. The loss of just over 900 lives to regain the Islands
for a population of slightly more than 1,800 didn’t make sense to me, any more than the idea that the Islands were ‘British’. I know the Islanders insist that’s their identity but they’ve chosen to live on the other side of the world, and I don’t think they can reasonably expect a blank cheque from British governments in perpetuity.

It would make a great deal more sense to open negotiations with Argentina while guaranteeing Islanders the opportunity and means to settle in the UK, if they aren’t happy with the outcome. It’s not even as if British governments uphold the idea of self-determination across the board: in 1971, the last of the Chagossian Islanders were removed by the Royal Navy from their archipelago in the Indian Ocean after the UK agreed to allow the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia. The Chagossians now live for the most part miserably in Mauritius and the Seychelles, and diplomatic cables leaked in 2010 show that the British government is still resisting any possibility of a return.

There are double standards at work here, and they make the absence of a political debate about the Falklands all the more puzzling. At a time of economic hardship, when so many people are struggling, shouldn’t we be talking about the cost of defending these far-away islands – and the alternatives? The Falkland Islanders have had plenty of opportunities to air their views, and I wonder when the debate will be opened to the rest of us.


We wine and dine dictators who should be deposed

The choice in Syria may be military action or civil war

Independent on Sunday, 10 June 2012

Day after day, evidence of fresh massacres emerges in Syria. On Friday, journalists finally got access to a village in the province of Hama where they found evidence of a bloodbath, but this region is no stranger to bloodshed. The current president’s uncle launched an all-out assault on the city of Hama 30 years ago, bombing it from the air and killing many thousands of civilians. Those who survived were finished off by troops who advanced into the shattered city, just as Assad-supporting shabiha are accused of doing in village after village in recent weeks.

In the past few months, Syria has hardly been out of the headlines, but the 1982 Hama massacre attracted little attention outside the country. The old dictator, Hafez al-Assad, was left largely to his own devices, except when he became a little too generous in his support for international terrorism, while his son Bashar was feted in Downing Street by Tony Blair in 2002. It was one of a series of initiatives in which Blair tried to build cordial relations with Arab despots, in the mistaken belief that treating them like legitimate heads of state would persuade them to amend their behaviour. It didn’t work with the younger Assad or Colonel Gaddafi, who continued to torture and murder his own people until he was overthrown with the help of a Nato bombing campaign last year.

Given David Cameron’s role in that mission, it is surprising that his government hasn’t yet learnt from Blair’s kid-gloves treatment of leaders with poor human rights records. Last month, ministers didnothing as the Queen unwisely lunched with the King of Bahrain at Windsor Castle. Last week at a lunch in London she met the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is accused of presiding over grotesque human rights abuses by government forces in the final days of Sri Lanka’s civil war, including the discovery of bound and stripped female bodies, almost certainly rape victims. Protesters jeered Rajapaksa’s car as it arrived in Pall Mall, and he was forced to cancel a keynote speech in the City of London for which guests had paid £795.

Downing Street swiftly released an account of Cameron’s conversation with Rajapaksa, insisting that the Prime Minister had raised the question of human rights abuses, but the damage was done. Appearing at events such as the jubilee is a PR gift to heads of state with poor human rights records, giving the impression that they’re just like any world leader. It also encourages a sense of impunity, as Fred Carver, director of the Sri
Lanka campaign, pointed out last week. “It is likely Assad learnt some lessons from the way the international community tolerated civilian casualties in Sri Lanka,” he said. “What lessons will Assad learn from seeing how quickly the international community rehabilitates those responsible?”

It’s a lesson the younger Assad learnt a long time ago. After a brief experiment in relaxing his father’s harsh regime, Bashar quickly reverted to type. Political prisoners were hideously tortured in prisons on the outskirts of Damascus and at Tadmur, while his glamorous British wife provided a diversion for a largely uncritical foreign press. The new president made so many enemies that it was a near-certainty that his own people would one day turn on him, with extremely bloody consequences. What we’re witnessing is a fight to the death between a hardened cadre of Assad loyalists, who have benefited from his profoundly corrupt regime, and a brave but divided

We feel like helpless observers as news of fresh atrocities emerges. But public anger is ineffectual as long as the UN is hampered by the intransigence of Russia and China, and the danger of a regional conflict involving Iran can’t be brushed aside. It’s also difficult for democratic nations to know which factions of the opposition to support when
most are unknown quantities. Two days ago, a Foreign Office minister, Alistair Burt, called on opposition groups to unite, but it’s not easy to see how this clearly desirable end can be achieved. Some are religious, others secular, and a single unifying leader has yet to emerge. Western governments are in a frustrating situation; they know that millions want them to do something to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but they simply don’t know enough about what’s going on inside the country.

There’s now a powerful argument for heads of government with poor human rights records to be ostracised, instead of invited to grand lunches and dinners. It’s good news that British ministers will not attend the initial stages of Euro 2012 because of Ukraine’s treatment of the  jailed opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, but the Government should announce a boycott of the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka unless President Rajapaksa cooperates with an independent investigation into alleged war crimes in the country. There needs to be a great deal more democracy-building in UK foreign policy, which involves identifying future leaders and helping to build an effective opposition inside or outside despotic regimes.

Western governments have spent too much time appeasing nasty governments. It’s clear that Assad has no plan other than killing as many opponents as possible, and the best hope may be that China and Russia realise he’s fuelling a sectarian conflict and ditch him. But the choice may come down to international military intervention or civil war.


Forced marriage: the shocking truth can be ignored no longer

The treatment of some women from ethnic minorities is a disgrace. Also: thoughts on New Look and sexism

The Independent, Friday 8 June 2012

Astonishingly, it is not a criminal offence in this country to force someone to get married. We know that families use threats, emotional blackmail and pressure from religious leaders, but they’re not breaking the law unless they resort to violence. That seems set to change, with an announcement expected today that ministers intend to make forced marriage a crime.

The Government’s Forced Marriage Unit dealt with 1,468 cases last year. Women’s organisations report that “scores” of women and girls contact them every week, saying they fear they’ll be beaten or killed if they resist. Karma Nirvana, the organisation set up to help victims by Jasvinder Sanghera after she ran away from a forced marriage, gets 5,000 calls a year to its helpline.

I don’t think we should look away from what forced marriage involves. Most of the victims are women – 78 per cent, according to the Forced Marriage Unit – and it exposes them to repeated rape by men they haven’t chosen and quite possibly despise. It’s common for girls to be married to much older men or relatives, but what’s beginning to emerge is a scandal about the targeting of the most vulnerable people in our society. Government statistics show that 56 of last year’s cases involved victims with learning
disabilities, while another 10 identified themselves as gay or lesbian.

The Labour government acknowledged that forced marriage was a problem but introduced “forced marriage orders” in the civil courts instead of criminalising it. Historically, there’s been a reluctance to “stigmatise” the communities where the practice takes place, and a tendency to listen to “community leaders” who are usually male, conservative and elderly. As Labour found to its cost in the Bradford West by-election, such people aren’t representative, and that’s especially true on matters to do with gender.

There are now many organisations representing black and ethnic minority women, from the long-established Southall Black Sisters to Karma Nirvana and Imkaan. Imkaan recently produced a shocking report on the extent of “harmful practices” – forced marriage, “honour-based” violence and female genital mutilation – in London. Its director, Marai Larasi, suggested that these weren’t being properly addressed because of fears of being labelled “culturally insensitive”.

Not all women’s organisations agree that forced marriage should be criminalised, but Sanghera has campaigned to toughen the law. A government consultation has already suggested that breaching a forced marriage order should become a criminal offence, but David Cameron is expected to go further and announce a specific crime of forcing someone to marry.

I hope he does, but I’d also like to see a shift in thinking. “Harmful practices” affect women in ethnic minority communities, but the underlying issue is control. Politicians should condemn forced marriage as unequivocally as any other form of domestic abuse, which is what it really is.

No lion rampant, but rampant sexism

I gather some sort of international football event starts today, and fans are worried that the players may face racist chants on the terraces. So I have to congratulate the high-street retailer New Look for reminding us all about the other problem in sport, which is rampant sexism.

For only £12.99, you can be the proud owner of a “fantasy football” T-shirt which shows a woman with a football between her splayed legs. She’s blowing a whistle and wearing a black-and-white striped shirt, though I’ve never seen a real-life referee with quite that much cleavage.

I wonder why New Look thinks this kind of thing is amusing. Professional football is a male domain in this country, but lots of girls and women play the game as well. They might think twice in future about buying clothes from a company which appears to believe a woman’s role on the pitch is as the butt of sniggering sexist jokes.


No sycophants, please, I’m British

Independent on Sunday, 3 June 2012

A couple of days ago, I spotted an open-topped sports car which was flying the Union Jack. It shot past at a fair old lick, and I wondered whether the driver had suddenly noticed the complete absence of demonstrative patriotism in my street. I’m told there are events – one this weekend, another at the end of next month – which are supposed to make us glad to be British. But what on earth has that got to do with flags, torches, medals, pomp and ceremony?

I’ve always considered myself fortunate to have been born in this country, in the second half of the 20th century. Few women have enjoyed as much freedom as I have, and they still don’t in many parts of the world; girls aren’t even allowed to go to school in areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, and a woman has just been sentenced to death by stoning in Sudan. Hanging is barbarous enough: I’m just old enough to remember this country’s final executions, and one of the many things I love about the UK is the fact that it no longer operates the death penalty. Under the last Labour government, the Foreign Office actively campaigned to persuade other countries to abolish capital punishment; the FCO also set up a committee, which I sat on for a couple of years, to look at ways of promoting free expression around the world.

A commitment to human rights and equality is what being British means to me. I’m thrilled that I live in a society where gay people are able to celebrate their love for each other in civil partnerships, and I hope one day soon they’ll be free to marry. I believe civil partnerships should be open to heterosexuals – a lot of us aren’t keen on marriage – but at least we’ve got rid of the shame that used to attach to having sex outside marriage. And women in this country don’t have to continue with an unwanted pregnancy or risk illegal abortions, as they do in Poland and Chile.

None of this would have happened without a successful challenge to the influence of religion, and one of the things I cherish most about the UK is that it’s a (mostly) secular society. We’ve still got an established church, which is an anachronism, but most of us don’t live in fear of God, hellfire or interference from clerics. One of the principles I’d go to the wall for is secular law, and the protection it offers to women and minorities.

I’ve never felt nostalgia for George Orwell’s England of old maids cycling to Holy Communion in the morning mist, although I can see why it appealed to John Major. I’ve never voted Conservative in my life and what I like about this country is its modernity, imperfect though it is in some respects. I’m proud that the UK was a prime mover in setting up the International Criminal Court, and that British governments intervened on humanitarian grounds in dreadful conflicts in Sierra Leone and Libya.

I didn’t have to give much thought to turning down an MBE when it was offered a few years ago. In the last few days, I’ve been driven nuts by constant interviews with people who’ve turned out to see an Olympic torch or once shook hands with Princess Anne. I love my country, but I don’t need to prove it with flags, uniforms and bunting.