Revenge Porn. It’s criminal…except when it makes a good front page

Hacked Off

16 October, 2014

At the beginning of October, The Sun launched a campaign against what has become known as ‘revenge porn’. A number of famous people have been victims of the practice, which consists of a former partner publishing intimate material without their ex’s permission. More recently, it has come to light that young women and even teenage girls are being targeted, a fact which prompted the former culture secretary, Maria Miller MP, to call for revenge porn to be made a specific offence.

The Sun joined the campaign, lambasting what it called ‘ex maniacs’ and calling for them to be jailed. The paper published interviews with victims, describing how they had agreed to pose for intimate photographs or videos, only to be horrified when the relationship ended and their former partners made them public. Others said they had been blackmailed into posing for more pictures, after being told that earlier material would be published if they didn’t comply. The Sun thundered that revenge porn should be made a crime, with prison sentences of up to three years.

There is no doubt that revenge porn is a serious problem. Very young girls are being manipulated into posing by ‘boyfriends’, who subsequently use the images to humiliate them. Gay teenagers are also at risk, especially in schools where homophobic bullying is rife. The practice is a clear breach of privacy, as well as violating the trust which is usually assumed to be an essential part of a consenting sexual relationship.

The government’s response to Miller’s lobbying, which had the support of feminist organisations, was swift. On 12 October, the Sun on Sunday hailed the success of the campaign, crediting The Sun with bringing about the government’s crackdown on revenge porn. ‘Jilted lovers who post sexually-explicit photos or videos of exes online will face two years jail,’ it declared.

So, out of interest, what appeared on the front page of the Sun on Sunday that same day? Sexually explicit ‘selfies’ of two men, one a Conservative MP and the other a Premiership footballer, which they apparently sent to women they met via social networking sites. The MP was Brooks Newmark, who resigned as a junior minister two weeks earlier after being caught in a sting published by the Sunday Mirror. Next to him was a ‘topless’ picture of the footballer, which the paper claimed he had sent to two women without his wife’s knowledge. Newmark promptly announced he would step down as an MP at the general election, marking the end of his career in politics.

‘Sleazy Tory MP Brooks Newmark poses naked in one of a series of sex pictures sent to a second woman which led him to quit last night,’ the Sun on Sunday article began. Inside, on pages 4 and 5, the paper used a larger version of the page-one photo, and declared that others he had sent to the same woman were ‘unfit to print’.

The next day’s Sun published a slightly different selfie on its front page, showing Newmark’s naked chest and shoulders. Inside it described his affair with a ‘young mum’ in detail, published a photo of him sliding off his boxer shorts, and printed extracts from a series of texts he sent to her. Unlike the Sunday Mirror expose, in which the MP was revealed to have sent explicit pictures of himself to a male journalist pretending to be a young woman, the Sun story was about an affair with a real woman, even though her name was withheld.

In much of the press, the response to the latest revelation was muted, but some commentators claimed it vindicated the Sunday Mirror sting two weeks earlier; the logic appeared to be that the expose of the alleged secret affair justified the journalist’s use of subterfuge to get the original story. But the charge against the Sunday Mirror wasn’t that the politician had not behaved unwisely for someone in his position; it was that the story seemed to be the result of a trawl targeting several MPs in the hope that one of them would take the bait. The two ‘relationships’ appeared to differ in a number of crucial respects, as an interview with the woman who spoke to the Sun on Sunday made clear. ‘We had a full-on relationship for over two years,’ she told the paper. ‘I was in love with him.’

Indeed Monday’s Sun suggested that the affair ended as a direct result of the Sunday Mirror revelations: ‘The mum finally ended their affair two weeks ago after she discovered he had sent photos to the journalist’. So how did Newmark’s nude selfies, taken for private use and in the context of an intimate relationship, end up on the front page of a popular newspaper?

The answer appears to be that they were given to the paper by his ex-lover, without his knowledge or consent – a classic example, on the face of it, of revenge porn. And while Newmark has said that he blames no one but himself, the impact on the MP, his family and his career has been little short of catastrophic.

Risk-taking on this scale is foolish, especially in a public figure, but Newmark’s friends have said they feared he was close to a breakdown even before the revelations. After the Sun on Sunday story appeared, he announced that he would shortly begin residential treatment psychiatric treatment. As Newmark’s colleague, Maria Miller, has rightly observed: ‘The impact [of revenge porn] can be horrific, with victims losing jobs, self-respect and confidence’.

She was quoted on page 21 of the Sun on Sunday. The next day’s Sun carried this appeal to readers: ‘Have you caught your partner sexting?’ It invited them to call the paper and ‘we’ll ring straight back’. It’s hard to see this as anything other than encouragement to invade the privacy of sexual partners by looking at their mobile phones, where they might have stored explicit texts and pictures. If this material is passed on to journalists for publication in a newspaper, surely that would amount to, er, revenge porn.

Will The Sun now campaign for itself to be sent to prison?


Isis in Kobani: why Turkey is allowing the town to fall

Independent on Sunday, 12 October 2014

A history of appalling brutality between the Ankada government and the Kurds is the key to President Erdogan’s priorities

In 1994, I was wondering around the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul when a bomb went off in the next street. At first I thought a cooking stove had blown up, bu then heavily-armed police and solkdiers poured into the building and shouted at us to leave. Later in the day, I discovered that two people had been killed and many others injured. It was my first visit to Turkey, and a shocking introduction to the armed conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Last year, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called for a ceasefire. By then, the conflict had been going for almost 30 years and killed around 42,000 people; most of the dead were Kurdish insurgents or civilians but the fatalities included more than 6,500 members of the Turkish security forces. This is the background to the otherwise bewildering behaviour of Turkey, which has tanks stationed within sight of the besieged Syrian town of Kobani. Last week, as mainly Kurdish fighters fought street battles with Islamic State, also known as Isis, Turkish forces watched and did nothing.

To an outside observer, it might seem reasonable to assume that Turkey’s leaders would be dismayed at the prospect of a swathe of Syria falling under the control of a group so extreme that it split from al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkey is a member of Nato and supports, nominally at least, US policy towards Syria and Iraq. It has the second-largest army in Nato and shares a long border with Syria, which puts it in a better position to intervene than most of the countries with a stake in the conflict.

But the Turkish government has a dreadful history of human-rights abuses, many of them carried out against its own Kurdish population. For decades, the Kurdish language was banned and its very existence denied by people who claimed that the Kurds were actually “mountain Turks”. Successive Turkish governments treated the country’s largest ethnic minority – around 14 million people, or 18 per cent of the population, although even those figures are contested – as if they did not exist. International human rights organisations reported the use of torture, extra-judicial executions and the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages, while the PKK’s response became equally vicious. Some restrictions on the Kurdish language were lifted when Turkey began eyeing membership of the EU, but the country’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has different priorities.

Now he claims that the PKK and Isis are “the same”, identifying them as twin evils. This is disingenuous, for his government – he was prime minister for 11 years before being elected president – has been accused of supplying Islamic extremists in Syria with weapons in the hope of them overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad. Last month, a former US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, even accused the country’s government of working with Jabhat al-Nusra. “The Turks, frankly, worked with groups for a period, including al-Nusra, whom… we’re not willing to work with,” he said.

Turkish officials angrily denied claims that the country helped an alliance of Islamist groups, including al-Nusra, to attack the Syrian town of Kasab as recently as March this year. But Human Rights Watch interviewed local people and said that Islamists crossed into Syria from Turkish territory.

Now the siege of Kobani, which is in an area of Syria heavily populated by Kurds, is reigniting Turkey’s conflict with its own Kurdish minority. The government reacted with alarm to an appeal last month from the PKK, which called on Turkish Kurds to join in the defence of Kobani. Turkish security forces have been preventing Kurdish volunteers crossing the border into Syria, prompting protests in half a dozen cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. Last week, at least two dozen people died when demonstrators were met with tear gas and water cannon.

Even before the latest deaths, it was clear that the current Turkish government is brutal in its instincts and partisan towards its own rural, conservative supporters. Last year, popular protests against a plan to turn Gezi Park in Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, Istanbul, into a shopping mall were met with similar brutality. At least four people were killed and 8,000 injured, including almost a dozen who lost an eye after being struck in the head by plastic bullets. Attempts to censor social networking sites met with widespread derision and were overturned by the courts, but Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism cannot be denied.

As news of atrocities filters out from Kobani, the town has become the focus of the struggle against Isis. Two days ago, the UN refugee agency said that more than 170,000 refugees had fled the town and the surrounding area, many of them crossing the border into Turkey. Kurdish fighters, assisted by American bombing raids, have put up fierce resistance but Turkey’s political crisis is growing. Erdogan faces civil unrest, pressure from his Nato allies and an explicit threat from the jailed PKK leader, Ocalan, of a resumption of hostilities if Kobani falls to Isis.

Turkey has responded with its own list of demands, including a no-fly zone inside the Syrian border. It says it can’t be expected to lead a ground operation against Isis on its own, blaming the Assad regime for instability in the region. There is some truth in this, but one of Turkey’s greatest fears is the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish enclave across the border in Syria.

At a moment when Nato needs the country to play a decisive role, Turkey’s dreadful record towards its own minorities has come back to haunt it. Those stationary tanks are a grim reminder that the Kurds, currently the West’s most effective allies in the conflict with Isis, still scare the life out of Ankara.


Gone Girl’s recycling of rape myths is a disgusting distortion

False allegations of rape and domestic violence are extremely rare. Ben Affleck should know better

The Guardian, Tuesday 7 October 2014

Like most people, I expect you go to the movies to be entertained. You might choose an action movie, with lots of special effects, or a dark thriller which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Right now you might choose Gone Girl, this autumn’s much-hyped mystery about the frantic search for a woman called Amy Dunne. Rosamund Pike plays the “girl” of the title – actually a thirtysomething wife – who has disappeared from her middle-class home in Missouri amid signs of a struggle.

Pike is English, and I can’t help wondering whether she or her co-star, Ben Affleck, is aware of a ground-breaking piece of research published last year by Britain’s then director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer. I’m actually tempted to send a copy to both of them, and everyone else involved in this travesty of a movie. Affleck in particular, with his left-of-centre politics, should know better; he directed and starred in Argo, a movie so keen to be fair-minded that it began with a potted history of Iranian-American relations.

For Affleck, some relation to reality is clearly important. So why doesn’t that apply to domestic and sexual violence? Admittedly Affleck’s character in Gone Girl – he plays the husband, Nick Dunne – is particularly bone-headed, but the actor isn’t, so why didn’t he demand a disclaimer? Affleck wouldn’t dream of suggesting that the US had clean hands in events such as its historic support for the Shah of Iran, but recycling the most egregious myths about gender-based violence is, apparently, another matter.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but one of its key themes is the notion that it’s childishly easy to get away with making false allegations of rape and domestic violence. The characters live in a parallel universe where the immediate reaction to a woman who says she’s been assaulted is one of chivalrous concern. Tell that to all the victims, here and in the US, who have had their claims dismissed by sceptical police officers.

There is a point towards the end of Gone Girl where one of the characters lies through her teeth at a press conference, only to have a law enforcement official intervene to protect her from questioning. This was the moment when my irritation towards a bad film, full of plot holes and cardboard characters, tipped over into something like disgust. I’m wondering why men who have seen the film aren’t up in arms – please tell me they are – about the portrayal of their sex as a bunch of credulous idiots.

I know Gone Girl is fiction. Gillian Flynn’s novel is quite cleverly done – the film is crude by comparison – but they both depend on a single plot twist. If you spot it in advance, the tension evaporates. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with Nick, Amy, his sister or her parents, while their relationship – shown in flashback after Amy’s disappearance – offers no clue as to why this unappealing couple ever got together. It fails completely as a portrait of a marriage, but that’s as nothing compared to the brazen misogyny of that plot twist.

When I started writing crime fiction, I was conscious that the genre was full of stereotypes. I thought many of the female characters were decades out of date, so I gave my protagonist a proper job – she’s an academic – and strong political views. Other writers were doing something similar, creating female characters who weren’t always admirable but behaved like real women. Gone Girl does the opposite, playing on what we now know about the behaviour of abused women and undermining the credibility of victims.

So let’s go back to that report I mentioned earlier, and what it had to say about false allegations of rape and domestic violence. Starmer described them as “very rare” and went on to say something that might have been written with Gone Girl in mind. “In recent years we have worked hard to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes that are associated with these cases,” he observed with a hint of weariness. Everyone who works in this area knows what he means, and foremost among those myths is the idea that victims can’t be trusted. It’s a favourite theme of the Daily Mail, which is always ready to clear its front page to highlight cases of men who have been acquitted of rape, without pointing out that false allegations are rare.

The figures are stark. Starmer asked the Crown Prosecution Service to look at a 17-month period, during which there were 5,651 rape prosecutions and a staggering 111,891 for domestic violence. In the same period, only 35 women were prosecuted for making false allegations of rape and six for false claims of domestic violence. The standout finding was that occasions when a suspect deliberately makes a false allegation of rape or domestic violence “purely out of malice” are “extremely rare”.

That’s the premise of Gone Girl blown out of the water. Are you listening, Ben Affleck? Context matters in the movie business, whether the subject is geopolitics or the grim reality of gender-based violence.

With Alan Henning’s death, the media finally stop playing the terrorists’ tune

Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014

It took the death of the British aid worker for papers not to publish images of Isis’s brutality

Yesterday, for the fourth time in just over six weeks, the media had to decide how to respond to the brutal murder of a hostage. Alan Henning, a taxi driver who went to Syria purely for humanitarian reasons, was forced to take part in a video before being beheaded by a masked jihadist.

When news of the killing began to circulate on Friday, there were immediate appeals on social networking sites not to show stills from the video. With a couple of exceptions – notably the online versions of the Daily Mail and Daily Star – most newspaper editors complied. Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the Mirror titles, tweeted that stills from a video of the aid worker David Haines had appeared on most front pages. “We decided not to do that again,” he wrote. “They can’t win.” The Sun published a leader, declaring that “we refuse to give his absurd killers the publicity they crave”.

I can’t help thinking, “At last.” Why did it take so long for some sections of the media to recognise the huge ethical problems inherent in showing pictures, taken by perpetrators, of human beings undergoing extreme psychological torture?

When a video of the beheading of the first Western hostage, the American journalist James Foley, was released in August, the reaction was very different. The Sun, along with many other British newspapers, used a still from the video on its front page. The paper’s online edition initially included a link to the video, under the heading “Islamist terrorist beheads missing US journalist”. The New York Post, also owned by Rupert Murdoch, published a photo of Mr Foley with the murderer’s knife at his throat. The chief executive of News Corp Australia, Julian Clarke, later claimed that “hiding the brutal reality” was not in anyone’s interest.

So why has Mr Henning’s murder brought about a change in editorial policy? It has to be said that the New York Postbehaved as badly as ever, using a still of Mr Henning on his knees along with a hideously graphic description of the video’s content. But it seems to have dawned on other editors that one of the purposes of these videos is to torture friends and relatives of the victims. Publishing stills causes unimaginable pain, denying loved ones the choice not to view them. It also, crucially, comes close to colluding with torture.

Isis wants us to see these pictures. It has no intention of sparing anyone’s life, which is why sending an audiotape to Mr Henning’s wife was so cruel. We have a responsibility as journalists to report these murders, but we don’t have to reproduce slavishly the most horrific propaganda. That’s what these images are, and I’m sorry it’s taken the murder of poor Mr Henning for some sections of the media to recognise it.

When did ‘human rights’ become a source of shame?

Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014

It has replaced ‘political correctness’ as the dinner-party phrase designed to appeal to right-wing prejudice

It used to be “political correctness”. You only had to say the words to set a coalition of right-wing columnists, Tory backbenchers and patriotic Englishmen (sic) seething with rage. Respecting the rights of gay people, women, the disabled or foreigners was loudly condemned as “political correctness gone mad”, which was one step worse than PC on its own. What is the country coming to when you can’t make jokes about loony left-wing councils banning Christmas? (Not that they ever did.)

Now David Cameron needs a new bogeyman to rally wavering voters. So it’s goodbye to political correctness, and hello to the dire threat to our way of life known as “human rights”. Actually, that should be the “human rights industry”, as I expect it’s known at dinner parties attended by right-wing cabinet ministers. Other key phrases in the lexicon are “Abu Qatada”, “votes for prisoners”, and the soppy idea that we shouldn’t deport people to countries where their private parts might be hooked up to electric wires. Such absurd claims are contrasted by Conservative politicians with violations of “real human rights”, which are to be found in North Korea.

Another word senior Tories are fond of is “crazy”. Last week the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, branded some uses of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European convention on human rights in domestic law, as “crazy” and “unacceptable”. A day later, Cameron grabbed headlines by confirming he would scrap the Act if the Tories win the next election. Their vocabulary on this subject is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Daily Mail, which gleefully reported that the party would give MPs and judges the power “to ignore the European Court and its crazy decision making”. The paper proclaimed “a triumphant week for British values” – and that was before Grayling caused shockwaves by suggesting that the Tories might withdraw from the European convention if they fail to get a veto over judgments at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Well, I have to say I’m outraged by this attempt to hijack “British values”. What the Tories are doing is highlighting a few decisions they dislike by the ECHR, as though they amount to a special imposition on the UK. This is nonsense: no country should expect to win every case that comes before the court. As for the endless complaints about Abu Qatada, this self-proclaimed opponent of human rights merely exposed his own hypocrisy by using the law to delay his deportation. I like the fact that even the Home Secretary has to follow due process.

That’s one of the things enshrined in the European convention. It also outlaws torture, punishment without law, slavery and forced labour, while protecting free expression and respect for private and family life. What’s wrong with any of that? I can see it would go down badly in North Korea, Syria or China, but that makes it all the more astonishing that the Tories are turning their loathing of “human rights” into a central plank of their election platform.

Don’t be taken in by the spin that they’re just replacing a messy piece of legislation with a sensible British Bill of Rights. Since Cameron’s speech in Birmingham, headlines have focused on proposals to turn the ECHR into an “advisory body” whose judgments are no longer binding on the UK. This would set a precedent for countries with terrible human rights records, including Russia, which has lost many more cases before the court than the UK. But that’s not the half of it. The Bill would apply only to British territory, according to a policy document published two days ago, so allegations of human rights abuses by British forces serving abroad could no longer be heard in a British court.

Viewed in conjunction with an intention to redefine “degrading treatment”, this looks like an attempt to limit the ability of British courts to hear cases which might reveal complicity in torture or extraordinary rendition. Most far-reaching of all is an apparently anodyne clause promising to amend the Ministerial Code to “remove any ambiguity… about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament”. Some lawyers say this would amount to removing the British Government’s obligation to comply with international law and treaties. Are the Tories really crazy enough to do this, with all its dire implications for Britain’s standing in the world?

The answer appears to be that they are; what’s more, they’ve been planning it for some time. That’s why ministers have been softening up the public with speeches caricaturing the effect of human rights legislation, faithfully reported in The Sun and Daily Mail.

Then there was the mysterious sacking in July of the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, a barrister by profession and one of the few Tories almost everyone likes. At the time Grieve said he didn’t think his dismissal was linked to his opposition to the UK withdrawing from the ECHR, but added that it was “possible”. Last week he became one of the fiercest critics of the proposals, describing them as “almost puerile” and saying they would “damage the UK’s international reputation”.

Cameron’s demonising of human rights law marks a significant shift to the right. It is also calculated, an abandonment of wiser heads in his own party in an attempt to fight off the threat from the Ukip. It’s hardly surprising that a Tory leader who couldn’t win an outright majority against Gordon Brown should live in terror of Nigel Farage, a man who reduces politics to populist slogans. But the result will be incalculable damage to the country he claims to love, inflicted by a prime minister so desperate that he is prepared to turn “human rights” into an insult.

Hostages to Misfortune

The Sunday Times, 5 October 2014

Reporters are used to dealing with other people’s pain. Few are used to being the centre of an international incident, which is what happens in Liza Marklund’s outstanding Borderline, translated by Neil Smith (Corgi £7.99/ebook £4.48). Journalist Annika Bengtzon is covering the murder of a young mother in Stockholm when she gets shocking news. Her husband, Thomas, who works for the Swedish ministry of justice, has been kidnapped in Kenya.

Annika’s day job is pushed to one side as she desperately tries to find out who is holding him. Marklund has always written about newspapers with an insider’s eye, and the reaction of Annika’s boss offers a sardonic commentary on the modern media. A ransom demand for $40m sends her into despair, and things get worse when one of the other hostages is butchered. The novel delivers an emotional punch rare in contemporary crime fiction.

Journalistic ethics feature again in Good Girls Don’t Die (Quercus £6.99/ebook £6.99) by Isabelle Grey. Her detective, Grace Fisher, is starting a new job in Essex after being hounded out of her last post for “grassing” on a corrupt colleague. A student disappears after a night out, and it isn’t long before the body of another young woman is discovered on a building site. Feeling isolated, Grace turns to her old friend Roxanne, but she is working on a local newspaper and a conflict of interest looms. This fast-moving novel combines clever plot twists with a surprising delicacy of feeling.

In Kristina Ohlsson’s Hostage, translated by Marlaine Delargy (Simon & Schuster £12.99/ebook £6.49), her detective, Alex Recht, is called in to help security services when a bomb threat is found on board a jumbo jet; all the passengers will die unless a Moroccan man, who is about to be deported, is allowed to stay in Sweden. Recht has a personal interest in the case — his son is the co-pilot — but there are plot weaknesses and the novel doesn’t live up to Ohlsson’s usual high standard.

The wars in former Yugoslavia continue to haunt the characters in The Skeleton Road (Little, Brown £18.99/ebook £9.49) by Val McDermid. Someone is killing war-crimes suspects before they can be tried in the Hague, but no one knows the identity of the assassin. When a skeleton is discovered at a disused building in Edinburgh, Scottish detectives uncover a trail that leads back to the siege of Dubrovnik and a missing Croatian general. McDermid fields a cast of police officers, war-crimes investigators and academics, but plot takes precedence over character and the novel slips into melodrama.

Aristocratic detectives are a dying breed. Susan Hill’s Simon Serrailler, who lives in the English cathedral city of Lafferton, has often seemed to belong to an earlier era of crime fiction. Hill casts all that aside in The Soul of Discretion (Chatto £18.99/ebook £9.98), in which a mother wakes at 4am to feed her baby, only to spot a naked toddler in a garden across the road. This disturbing discovery sets the scene for a graphically violent novel, plunging Serrailler into a dangerous undercover role as a convicted paedophile.


ISIS beheadings: the hideous return of execution as public spectacle

Independent on Sunday, 28 September 2014

Clicking on a link, or even viewing a photo from before the killing, is not far removed from attending a Tudor beheading

It is hard to think of a greater affront to reason than the decapitation of a helpless human being. Actually, it is an affront to many other things as well, including the dignity of the victim and the feelings of family members. But I grew up in what seemed a new age of reason, when scientific discoveries held out the prospect of making the world a better place; the last thing I expected was that a few years later I’d be forced to look at images of men being beheaded by sadistic killers. I can’t imagine I’m alone in feeling almost literally sick when I hear that another video of a beheading has been placed on the internet.

The murders of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and David Haines are a horrible reminder that the barbarism of earlier stages of human history has not gone away. In fact, we’ve known this for some time, at least since the beheadings (in 2002 and 2004) of two American hostages, Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg. In the most recent videos, it is not clear whether the masked British jihadist actually carried out the murders, but we’re invited to make that assumption. At any rate, the theatrical brutality of the act is a rejection of an evolution of human values, over centuries, that places such atrocities beyond the pale.

Whether individual members of the group fully understand the symbolism is unclear, but the head is the seat of reason. Murders staged in this fashion are an attack on the Cartesian proposition cogito, ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), which has had such a profound influence on how we think about our identity. They are also an assault on the notion of human progress, challenging assumptions about empathy and compassion. That was, I think, the purpose of the gruesome murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was hacked to death and almost decapitated outside his barracks in Woolwich, London, last year.

For most of my life, beheading was something I associated with Tudor kings. I read with bemusement that Henry VIII imported a French swordsman to execute his second wife Anne Boleyn, a gesture explained as more appropriate to her status than being despatched with an axe. Two-and-a-half centuries later the French devised the guillotine, which was designed to provide an instant and painless method of execution. Unfortunately it came into use in 1792, just in time to mechanise mass murder during the Terror.

In England, the last public execution – a hanging – was carried out outside the walls of Newgate prison, now the site of the Old Bailey, in 1868. Public executions were staged events, spectacles devised to terrify and impress; beheadings in particular emerged from warrior culture, in which leaders demonstrated their ruthlessness through a willingness to despatch opponents with their own hands. Salah al-Din (known in the West as Saladin) defeated a Crusader army at the Battle of Hattin in 1187 and personally beheaded one of his prisoners, Renaud de Chatillon, with his sword.

Saddam Hussein came from Salah al-Din’s home town, Tikrit, and modelled himself on the Kurdish general; in 2001, paramilitaries controlled by Saddam’s eldest son, Uday, beheaded more than 200 Iraqi women and left their severed heads on the doorsteps of their families. The women were accused of being involved in prostitution, but many had professional jobs and were probably opponents of the regime. Indeed, it is sobering to realise how often women are the victims of beheadings. Astonishingly, three women have been decapitated in London this year alone; the most recent was Palmira Silva, 82, who was killed in her garden in Edmonton at the beginning of this month.

Despite these horror stories, capital punishment had been abolished across most of Europe by the end of the 20th century. The name itself is a reference to beheading (from the Latin caput, a head) and its abolition marks a significant change in the relationship between the state and its citizens. These days, the only state which regularly beheads convicted criminals is Saudi Arabia, creating an uncomfortable paradox for Western politicians; the Saudis are now our allies in a bombing campaign against the self-styled Islamic State in retaliation for the beheading of Western hostages.

Outside Saudi Arabia, the decline of capital punishment has created a situation in which beheading has been almost entirely privatised. The decapitation of innocent people in videos can be seen as terrorist groups appropriating a power which modern democratic states have voluntarily given up, reinforcing the notion that jihadis aspire to the most brutal form of statehood. Equally troubling is the way in which they have revived the practice of execution as public spectacle, reaching a potential audience far larger than ever turned out for a beheading in the distant past. Clicking on a link to a video showing the murder of a journalist or aid worker isn’t much different from turning up at the Tower of London to watch the execution of a Tudor queen. Personally, I don’t even want to see still pictures from the moments before the killing, which show men undergoing unimaginable psychological torture.

Some of the masked men in these propaganda videos treat severed heads like props from a horror film. Ghastly as this is, neuroscientists have a prosaic explanation; they’re experiencing a bio-chemical high derived from a combination of testosterone and oxytocin. Thus science comes to our rescue once again, turning inexplicable behaviour into a question of hormones. Having too much testosterone is so much less glamorous than fighting to establish the Caliphate.

Alice Gross disappearance: murderers must stay on somebody’s radar

Independent on Sunday, 21 September 2014

‘The lack of an EU-wide register means even men with a dreadful history might appear unblemished’

A couple of Sundays ago, I walked along the Thames in west London. Every few yards I saw flyers pleading for information about Alice Gross, the 14-year-old girl from Hanwell who had gone missing 10 days earlier. It was a sombre reminder of the agony her family were – and still are – going through.

Last week police named a suspect, Arnis Zalkalns, a 41-year-old builder from Latvia. He was spotted on CCTV riding his bike along Brentford lock shortly after Alice took the same route. He disappeared six days later.

For obvious reasons, the police have been reluctant to say any more about Zalkalns, who has neither been arrested nor had the opportunity to give his side of the story. He may turn out to have no connection with Alice’s disappearance, but the information which has emerged since reveals gaps in how the criminal justice system deals with men who have been convicted of violent offences in other countries.

Zlakalns has a history of extreme domestic violence, culminating in the premeditated murder of his wife in Latvia. A year before the killing, Zalkalns shot 22-year-old Rudite in the stomach; she survived but he later lured her to a forest and bludgeoned her to death with a scaffolding pole. He buried her in a shallow grave which he had dug in preparation for the murder.

It is hard to understand why Zalkalns served only seven years for this appalling crime. In 2007, he came to the UK where no one, including border officials and the police, seems to have known his history. Two years later he was arrested on suspicion of a sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl, but released without charge.

Earlier this year a scheme known as “Clare’s law” came into operation, allowing women to ask police if a man has a history of domestic violence. Critics argue that an absence of convictions might offer women false reassurance; the British government’s effective decision to opt out of some measures, including an EU-wide criminal records system, means that even men with histories as dreadful as Zalkalns’ might seem to have an unblemished record.

Men who kill their partners are not treated as sex offenders unless they also commit specific sexual offences. So even if the UK authorities had known about Zalkalns’s lethal assault, he would not have been on the sex offenders’ register. This creates an anomalous situation in which men who have accessed paedophile images via their computers face restrictions that don’t apply to someone who has beaten his wife to death.

London police said yesterday that the inquiry into Alice’s disappearance is the biggest operation of its kind since the 7/7 bombings. The family’s ordeal can only have been made worse by the revelation of glaring inadequacies in the mechanisms that are supposed to protect women and girls.