Really, it’s as if Leveson never happened

Independent on Sunday, 17 August 2014

Lurid coverage of suicides, police alerting media to a search of a celebrity’s home – all this was supposed to be behind us

One morning last week, I woke to the solemn tones of the right-wing commentator Anne Atkins on Radio 4, offering her reflections on the suicide of the actor Robin Williams. Atkins opened with an anecdote from 1806, describing how a man consulted a doctor in London and asked for help with depression. The doctor’s advice was simple: go and see the great clown Grimaldi, who was appearing in pantomime in Covent Garden. According to Atkins, the man’s reply – and I think we need to imagine violins here – was “I am Grimaldi”.

In other versions of this story, the clown’s name is given as Pagliacci, which is the title role in an opera by Leoncavallo. The fact that both versions were repeated last week is evidence of the power of stereotype, showing just how many people want to believe that comedians are inherently sad. Existential angst featured heavily in Russell Brand’s Guardian column on Williams’s suicide, which displayed the comedian’s usual species of sixth-form analysis: “Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?”

Williams was not the only celebrity who made headlines for the wrong reasons in recent days. Reporters and a BBC crew were already outside an apartment in Berkshire belonging to Sir Cliff Richard when it was searched by police on Thursday, following an allegation of historical sex abuse at a rally in Sheffield in 1985.

The singer, who was out of the country, denied the allegation and issued a statement which accused the police of tipping off the press in advance. This practice was criticised in the Leveson report, which said such leaks “are not in the public interest” and that briefings to the press should be handled “through open and transparent procedures”. A day later, South Yorkshire Police issued a curiously worded statement admitting it had decided to work with an unnamed “media outlet” on being told that news of the raid had leaked to journalists.

Not for the first time, some sections of the press are behaving as though the Leveson inquiry never happened. The former boxing promoter Kellie Maloney has revealed that she went public about her new life as a woman only after two newspapers threatened to expose her. And it is only five months since several national newspapers were roundly criticised for providing too much detail about the suicide of the designer L’Wren Scott, including a Daily Mail column which offered a macabre fashion detail about the method she used to kill herself. Scott’s death promoted a raft of speculation about why this glamorous woman had ended her own life, citing the state of her finances and supposed tensions in her relationship with Sir Mick Jagger.

The same thing happened after Williams’s death, despite advance warnings to newspapers from the mental-health charity Mind and the Samaritans. When celebrities kill themselves, there is an obvious risk that vulnerable people will draw comparisons with their own lives and make copycat attempts. Yet the Daily Mirror’s front page threw caution to the winds and announced that Williams “hanged himself when money worries pushed him to despair”. The Daily Mail’s front page declared that Williams was “facing bankruptcy” and asked whether “money troubles” tipped him over the edge. Both The Sun and the London free newspaper, Metro, described on their front pages how Williams killed himself.

This lurid coverage involved so many apparent breaches of the Editors’ Code of Practice that it was hard to keep track. The code says that publication should be handled “sensitively” in cases involving grief or shock, while a clause on reporting suicide expressly advises against “excessive detail about the method used”. The chief executive of Mind, Paul Farmer, condemned “salacious speculation” about the cause of Williams’s suicide and offered this succinct summary of why journalists need to exercise caution: “In short it’s to keep people, who may be struggling with their mental health, safe.” Someone else put it even more starkly, declaring that editors have a duty not to kill their readers.

It was only a matter of time before all these voices urging caution were vindicated in a particularly grim manner. What none of the amateur psychologists knew when they produced a slew of sensational headlines was that Williams had been told he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The devastating diagnosis was revealed on Thursday by his wife, Susan Schneider, who said he was in the early stages of the degenerative condition. According to her statement, the actor was “not ready” to make the diagnosis public but his “sobriety was intact” at the time of his death, scotching rumours that he had starting drinking again.

Pictures then emerged of the actor at a reception at an art gallery in San Francisco last weekend, taken weeks after a widely published “last photo” of him posing with an employee at an ice-cream parlour in June. The Daily Mail described the photographs as “heartbreaking” even though one of them, taken from behind, simply showed the actor in a short-sleeved black shirt and trousers. A sculptor called Mark Jaeger, whose work was on display at the gallery, recalled that Williams was in high spirits, talking and laughing with other guests. Clearly, mental-health charities are right to warn that suicide has complex causes.

Williams’s premature death is tragic. He had suffered from depression in the past but a diagnosis of Parkinson’s would be hard for anyone to cope with, no matter how psychologically robust. Sadly, the revelation produced a fresh round of stereotypes, recasting Wednesday’s frail victim of addictions and money problems into Friday’s heroic patient “battling” a dreadful disease. Heartlessness and sentimentality go hand in hand, as sections of the British press never cease to remind us.

For confidential support call the Samaritans in the UK on 08457 90 90 90, visit a local Samaritans branch or click here for details

Joan Smith is executive director of ‘Hacked Off’

The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell

Sunday Times, 10 August 2014

Hutchinson £18.99/ebook £9.99 pp288

Ruth Rendell is one of the world’s leading crime novelists. Since her first book was published in 1964, she has won dozens of awards, seen her work adapted for tele-vision and cinema, and become a life peer. This summer, she has chosen to mark her half century as an author with a novel — her 65th full-length one — that takes her back to her Essex roots.

Although her best-known novels are set in the fictional Sussex town of Kingsmarkham, Rendell has always been a superb observer of the suburbs. The Girl Next Door is set in Loughton, on the edge of Epping Forest, where she went to school. It is one of those liminal places, not quite London but not the “real” countryside either, which she writes about ­brilliantly. Her other great strength — small changes in language that reflect big changes in social attitudes — is on show in a novel that switches between the 1940s and the present.

The book opens during the Second World War. Some of the characters could easily have been Rendell’s school friends, and she effortlessly recalls the close-to-careless ­attitudes towards children in wartime. As adults come and go, a group of children play in a series of tunnels, not realising that they are the foundations of a half-built house. Rendell gets a couple of murders out of the way at the beginning, employing stark prose that reflects the casual ­dispatch of a wife and her lover by her psychopathic husband. The killer takes a gruesome souvenir, the couple’s severed hands, and conceals them in a biscuit tin that he buries in the children’s tunnels. The girl next door, Daphne Jones, sees the husband carry two heavy bundles into a summerhouse and set fire to them, but she is too scared to tell anyone what she has seen.

Seven decades later, the tin is found by builders and the police open a desultory inquiry. The investigation is an excuse to bring together the kids who played in the tunnels, most of them now grandparents or great-grandparents. They don’t think they have much to tell the police, but the reunion sets off dramatic events. One of the men is so bowled over by meeting Daphne again that he leaves his wife for her.

Rendell understands the difference between how people appear to outsiders and their turbulent inner worlds; it is this disjunction that leads to so many of the crimes in her fiction. She has always been acutely aware of the passage of time, and never more so than in this novel.

Rendell herself is in her mid-eighties. Fifty years on, the girl from Essex has become the unchallenged crime queen of suburbia. Her powers of observation are as acute as ever, and she writes about old age with as much gusto as any of the subjects she has tackled in her long career.

Priority for caregivers, not shareholders: why campaigners support a ban on Roche’s new cancer treatment

Independent on Sunday, 10 August 2014

Nice had ‘no option’ but to reject Kadcyla at its current price

Most of us know someone with breast cancer. Some of us have friends or relatives who have died of it. So any controversy about a new drug therapy is bound to raise strong feelings, especially if the headline news is about women in the late stages of the disease being denied treatment on grounds of cost. It happened again last week, when the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) announced that a “revolutionary” new drug called Kadcyla was too expensive to be made available on the NHS. Nice said that the cost of the drug – £90,000 per patient – was prohibitive.

For the patients who would benefit from Kadcyla, this is disastrous news. It has been shown to extend life expectancy by six months in women in the late stages of the HER2-positive form of the disease. Some of them will almost certainly die while the row between Nice and the drug’s manufacturer, the Swiss-based pharmaceutical giant Roche, rumbles on. It doesn’t help that Nice has previously made questionable decisions, such as initially limiting access to another breast cancer drug, Herceptin, to women with advanced cancer.

Herceptin (also made by Roche) is much cheaper than Kadcyla, costing the NHS around £22,000 per patient per year. After a flood of appeals and the threat of court action, Nice did the right thing, changing its guidance and making Herceptin available to women who have just been diagnosed. Kadcyla contains the same ingredients as Herceptin but it also contains a chemotherapy element which acts directly on cancer cells, avoiding damage to healthy cells and causing fewer side-effects.

Even so, there is a great deal more to this story than the cash-strapped NHS making a mean decision and condemning desperate patients to a premature death. Roche would certainly like the public to believe that; it went on the offensive last week, making its arguments on news programmes and to health correspondents. It pointed out that Kadcyla has taken 30 years to develop and said that other European countries, including Switzerland and Austria, have not baulked at the enormous price tag.

What it didn’t talk about was the economics behind the company’s pricing decisions, which can be summarised quite starkly. Four of its five top-selling drugs are for cancer and they are showing healthy growth: sales of Herceptin are up by 6 per cent while Avastin, a treatment for several different cancers, is showing growth of 13 per cent. Hence a slew of headlines along these lines in the trade press: “Roche cancer drugs drive healthy sales rise” and “Sales of cancer drugs soar once again at Roche”.

The crucial thing about Kadcyla is that it is likely to be of use to far fewer patients than Herceptin. Every year, almost 50,000 patients are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK and around 11,500 die of it. But Kadcyla would benefit only 1,500 British women per year, according to some estimates. This is not to question whether women with aggressive forms of breast cancer should in principle have access to the most modern and effective drugs. It is to raise questions about the corporate social responsibility of big pharmaceutical companies, which have a duty to patients as well as shareholders. Roche’s own code of conduct includes a commitment to maintaining “high ethical and social standards in our business dealings”. But the company’s “commitment to society” comes after this unequivocal statement: “We aim to continuously create value for our stakeholders and to achieve sustainable, high profitability”.

Nice has been negotiating with Roche over Kadcyla since April and the company says it offered a lower, but so far undisclosed, price in recent weeks. In the past, doctors and charities have criticised Nice for decisions which deny life-extending drugs to sick people, but this time the response has been markedly different. Sally Greenbrook of Breakthrough Breast Cancer described Kadcyla as a brilliant drug but said it was “incredibly expensive”. She credited Nice with going “over and above their usual processes” to try to approve it and called for the price of life-extending drugs to come down. Mia Rosenblatt, head of policy and campaigns at the Breast Cancer Campaign, said she was “hugely disappointed” by the decision but recognised that Nice had “no option” but to reject Kadcyla at its current price.

Mother country: the harrowing truth behind ‘fertility tourism’

Independent on Sunday, 3 August 2014

A surrogate Down’s syndrome baby, abandoned by an Australian couple, exposes the First World’s double standards

The websites show state-of-the-art equipment and laughing parents with babies. The couples are white, without exception, for the websites are aimed at Australians and Europeans who want to have fertility treatment in Thailand. The services on offer include not just IVF but treatments which are illegal in many developed countries, such as commercial surrogacy and gender selection. ‘Women in Thailand are the perfect candidates to become surrogate mothers’, promises one website, suggesting that clients might even like to combine treatment with a holiday. A ‘vacation with benefits’ is how the clinic describes it, but critics use harsher words. They call it ‘fertility tourism’.

According to an organisation called Families Through Surrogacy, there are usually about 20 Australian couples awaiting the birth of their child in Thailand at any one time. Surrogacy is legal in Thailand only when a married couple ask a blood relative to carry their baby but the law has not been widely enforced. The country has become an attractive destination for Australians who are unable to have children, including same-sex couples.

Last week, the result of one such arrangement between a Thai woman and an agency – not the one mentioned above – made headlines around the world, even though the details have not been independently verified. Pattaramon Chanbua, who lives about 60 miles from Bangkok, told reporters that she was struggling to look after a seven-month-old baby with Down’s syndrome after his Australian parents abandoned him. She said the couple took the boy’s twin sister, who was healthy, but left him behind when they returned home to Western Australia.

The circumstances of Chanbua’s pregnancy and its aftermath, as she tells them, are certainly harrowing. She is poor, works on a food stall and, at the age of 21, already has children aged six and three. She agreed to act as a surrogate for the Australian couple only because she needed money. She says: ‘I asked the agency, did I have to sleep with the man? The agent told me, “We are going to make a glass tube baby”, but I didn’t understand. My husband agreed because we didn’t have money to pay our debt and I didn’t need to have sex with another man’.

Her throwaway remark about preferring surrogacy to prostitution is telling. Thailand is notorious for its sex trade, which draws tourists from all over the world, as well as acting as a hub for trafficked women and girls from nearby countries. Sex tourism has now been joined by fertility tourism as a way for poor women and girls to make money, although it isn’t presented like that by the agencies which offer it. They paint a rosy picture in which surrogates ‘are mostly middle-class women, which [sic] view surrogate motherhood…as a way to safely and comfortably earn extra money’. The clinics present commercial surrogacy as a free choice, assuring potential clients that surrogates lead a healthy lifestyle and live in ‘ecologically clean neighbourhoods’.

It is disconcerting to hear young women described as if they were racehorses or pedigree dogs, but there is an occasional burst of candour; one clinic acknowledges that ‘the main focus of this medical clinic is of course the European customers’ who are attracted by the ‘affordable prices’. No wonder that little thought seems to have been given to the impact on young women of carrying a child to term, handing it over to strangers and never seeing it again. In this latest case, the Australian parents have remained anonymous and we don’t know why they took the extraordinary decision to separate twins.

This is not the only case in which a baby has been rejected by biological parents on grounds of health or disability, a circumstance which confirms the mercantile nature of the trade. Thai officials have now cracked down on illegal surrogacy, saying that anyone who tries to remove a child to another country without permission from the government is violating Thailand’s human trafficking laws. This may seem harsh to people who can’t have children but it puts the surrogacy business in a wider context, highlighting the way in which impoverished south-east Asian women are regarded by some foreigners simply as a useful resource. It is one thing for a woman to agree to carry a child for a close friend or relative, but quite another when the parties don’t know each other and there is an imbalance of wealth.

Many wealthy families in the Gulf States and Europe don’t give a second thought to employing Filipina women as domestic servants or nannies, assuming that they will leave their children at home to be cared for by relatives. I’m not sure that renting the womb of a young Thai woman is any better, but both practices say a great deal about the first world’s double standards towards motherhood.

Behind Closed Doors

Sunday Times, 27 July 2014
A terrific debut set in an isolated town in the Ozarks opens our crime round-up
The Ozarks are an area where some of America’s most isolated communities live,
and Laura McHugh’s first novel, The Weight of Blood (Hutchinson £9.99/ebook £9.49), is set in a small town there similar to the one where she spent part of her childhood. McHugh felt like an outsider in a place where everyone was related, and she was horrified when she heard the true story of a girl who was sexually exploited for years behind closed doors.
McHugh’s protagonist, Lucy, is a teenager from Henbane, Missouri. She has never felt she belongs, mainly because of the conspiracy of silence surrounding her mother. Lila was an orphan who arrived in Henbane to take a job on a farm owned by a local man. Soon after, she married his brother, had Lucy and disappeared. When one of Lucy’s friends is murdered, she begins to wonder about this small town where bad things happen to women. The Weight of Blood is an outstanding debut.
Hakan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels have always been humane and intricately plotted. These days, Van Veeteren has given up being a detective to run a bookshop. But one case still haunts him and it returns with a vengeance in The G File, translated by Laurie Thompson (Mantle £16.99/ebook £10.99). Fifteen years earlier, a woman hired a detective to follow her husband, known as G to the police. Days later, she was dead. G was tried and cleared of her murder, but now, all these years later, the private detective disappears, leaving a note hinting he knows how G got away with murder. This is the final book in the series, but Nesser resists a showy finale, allowing his detective nearly to be outsmarted by an immensely clever criminal.
Stuart Neville’s Belfast detective, DI Jack Lennon, inhabits a world where corrupt cops are on the take from former paramilitaries and sex traffickers. In The Final Silence (Harvill Secker £12.99/ebook £7.99), Lennon is on sick leave, when an ex-girlfriend contacts him about a gruesome discovery at her dead uncle’s house. In a locked room, the man kept a scrapbook of trophies from people he seems to have murdered. When his ex takes Lennon to the house, the book has gone. But she gives him another souvenir, a photo of her father posing with paramilitaries. Shortly afterwards, she is battered to death and Lennon becomes the prime suspect. This plot twist is hardly novel, but Neville is a good enough writer to carry it off.
Deon Meyer made his name writing fast-paced murder mysteries set in post-apartheid South Africa. His latest, Cobra, translated by KL Seegers (Hodder £18.99/ebook £9.99), begins with the murder of two security guards at an isolated guest house. The man who hired them is missing and Meyer’s detective is called to investigate. Not long after, five more guards are shot dead and the plot threatens to turn into a blood bath. This is a departure for Meyer, taking him into the realms of international conspiracy, and it is lacklustre compared with his earlier novels.
Gary Disher is one of Australia’s most admired novelists. The main character in Bitter Wash Road (Text £10.99) is a smart, likeable detective banished to a rural outpost after blowing the whistle on corrupt cops in Adelaide. Hirsch has barely arrived when the body of a teenager is found, apparently hit by a truck. His investigation is hindered at every turn by colleagues who hate him, and Disher turns out to be a superb chronicler of macho cop culture.

Ed Miliband isn’t weird. But the press is mostly hostile

Independent on Sunday, 27 July 2014

The public has been softened up to believe any old nonsense about the Labour leader

I’ve just looked up the word “weird” in a dictionary. The meanings it offers are “strange, queer, incomprehensible”, none of which I’d apply to Ed Miliband. But here is the Sky News website, reporting Miliband’s speech (one of the most important he’s ever made) two days ago: “The Labour leader effectively conceded he was ‘weird’ – and at times appeared to encourage people to vote for David Cameron.” I was in the audience for the speech and I didn’t hear him say either of these things. But they are further examples of how the public has been softened up to believe any old nonsense about Miliband.

I’ve known him since he was first in Parliament and I don’t always agree with him; I still think he was wrong last year about military intervention in Syria. But almost nothing I read or hear about him accords with the warm, funny, intellectual human being I know. During last week’s speech he was relaxed, self-mocking, and articulate; he didn’t use the word “weird” but he did make jokes about his resemblance to Wallace and an unfortunate photo of himself eating a bacon sandwich.

Miliband admits he doesn’t always photograph well and he knows he can’t win an image contest against Cameron. He also knows, but didn’t say, that his enemies in the press delight in choosing pictures that show him in an unflattering light. Like most Labour leaders, he is operating in a hostile environment and now he’s embarked on a huge gamble, appealing to the public over the heads of political correspondents and the Westminster lobby.

It’s no surprise that some of them didn’t like it, reacting like children who’ve had their toys taken away when he demolished his image as a humourless policy wonk. They didn’t get his point about “photo-op politics” either, even though it was made in the context of a critique of the Prime Minister’s broken promises and image manipulation. According to Miliband, Cameron “hugs a husky before an election and then says ‘cut the green crap’ after it”.

It’s part of the day-to-day hypocrisy of sections of the media that they demand arresting pictures of politicians, then complain when they get them; if Miliband hadn’t been snapped with the US President last week, the story would have been “Obama snubs Labour leader”. The only way Miliband could satisfy this inability to distinguish between a “photo-op” and a “photograph” is never to appear in public again.

Miliband will have to meet an awful lot of people before the election if this tactic is to work. But he said something hugely significant on Friday, promising to fight for ordinary families against the banks, the energy companies and Rupert Murdoch. It was brave to name the media tycoon, but also smart. Most of the press hates Labour but ordinary people are outraged by the phone-hacking scandal. They may warm to a leader who refuses to be cowed by powerful editors and proprietors.

In modern warfare, it’s the civilians who suffer most of all

Independent on Sunday, 20 July 2014

From MH17 to Gaza, there’s no distinction between soldiers and non-combatants caught in the crossfire

One evening last week, two sets of terrible images dominated TV bulletins, news websites and social media. From eastern Ukraine, pictures emerged of wreckage and dead bodies, the latter sometimes pixelated, following the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane. At the same time, in Gaza, flares lit up the night sky as the Israeli army followed days of shelling with a ground assault.

Almost 300 passengers and crew were killed in the plane crash that day, while at least 24 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier died in Gaza.

The conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza are very different but they have this in common: as in almost all modern wars, the people who suffer most are civilians. The passengers on flight MH17 had no connection with the fighting 33,000ft below their aircraft; officials in Gaza say that three-quarters of the people killed since Israeli military operations began almost two weeks ago have been non-combatants. The Israelis counter that the deaths are the fault of the terrorist group Hamas, which places rocket launchers in civilian areas, but apportioning blame does not reduce the death toll among women, children and the elderly.

Modern forms of warfare are waged relentlessly against non-combatants. Just over a century ago, the ratio of military to civilian casualties was eight to one. By the 1990s, that figure had reversed. Think of a modern conflict – Iraq, Syria, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo – and the pictures that come to mind are endless columns of refugees and the debris-strewn bodies of women and children. In Sierra Leone a few years ago, I was shocked by the number of amputees I encountered, men and women in their twenties who mutilated by coked-up teenage “rebels” during the country’s savage civil war.

Spreading fear in civilian populations is a key element of modern warfare. Two world wars have created an understandable horror of large-scale conflict, but an unintended consequence has been the widespread adoption of tactics which make no distinction between soldiers and civilians. We have grown used to the idea that civilians may be attacked by non-state actors, usually terrorist groups, on the streets of New York, London or Madrid. But similar tactics are being used by some governments, usually through proxy militias, and Russia is one of the worst offenders. The Russian president Vladimir Putin is a master of double-speak, encouraging toxic forms of nationalism which have stoked ethnic conflict in neighbouring countries, while publicly condemning violence.

No one seriously believes that Ukrainian separatist groups would have been able to seize areas in the east of the country without substantial assistance from Russia. The separatists have shot down at least 11 Ukrainian military aircraft since June, using Russian-built surface-to-air missiles. It is hard to imagine that they would deliberately target a foreign airliner, and a more likely explanation is that they mistakenly believed it was a Ukrainian military transport plane. But while the mass murder of almost 300 civilians feels like a game-changer, Putin and his allies may have made a rapid calculation that they can sow sufficient confusion to get away with it.

Putin is a shameless user of propaganda and he has cowed much of the Russian media into toeing the government’s line. Russia was placed 148th in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders; the organisation has previously highlighted an “unacceptable failure to punish all those who have murdered or attacked journalists”. The murder of the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, who was assassinated in Moscow on Putin’s birthday in 2006, is a case in point; last month five Chechen men were convicted of the killing, but her family believes that the person who ordered the hit is still at large. No one has ever been charged in connection with the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a whistle-blowing accountant at a Moscow law firm, who died in dreadful prison conditions in 2009 after implicating police, the judiciary and tax officials in a massive fraud.

The coverage of the MH17 crash was too much for one journalist, a correspondent at the London office of the state-owned TV station, Russia Today. Sara Firth resigned in protest, claiming that the first rule of the station’s style book is “blame Ukraine”. Many journalists already shun Russia Today as a shameless propaganda outlet but it is worth remembering that the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, lent it respectability by presenting his own show on the station. His interviewees included Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, and Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa.

In Ukraine, at the site of the plane crash, Russian-backed separatists have been doing their best to conceal evidence of what is being described as a war crime. This is surely right, but it points to an uncomfortable fact: in recent years, as governments and human-rights organisations have pushed for international tribunals to punish war crimes, the risks to civilians have increased exponentially. Indeed, according to the academic Mary Kaldor, behaviour which used to be proscribed in war, including atrocities against non-combatants, now constitutes “an essential component” of modern warfare.

There is a danger, when so many civilians are dying – the total number of dead in Gaza rose above 300 yesterday – that it starts to seem inevitable. But it is happening because of a reluctance by the international community to restore and enforce the rule of law. Corruption, inequality and the return of nationalism are breeding grounds for conflict, and the events of last week demonstrate that none of us is immune from the ghastly consequences of modern warfare. It shouldn’t take mass murder in the sky over Ukraine to persuade our leaders that they need to identify and prosecute those who commit war crimes, no matter how important they are.