Stop all the clocks, a tyrant is dead

Independent on Sunday, 25 January 2015

What do you call the unelected leader of a state which beheads people in public, permits only one faith and exports an extreme form of Islam to other countries? If he happens to be Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, self-appointed caliph of the Islamic State, the answer is one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. If he is King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the proper form of address is ‘Your Majesty’. Are we all clear about that? Me neither.

Yesterday the Prince of Wales and the prime minister turned up in Riyadh to pay their respects to Salman’s half-brother, King Abdullah, whose death was announced on Friday. Abdullah’s demise, at the age of 90, unleashed a nauseating display of hypocrisy among world leaders. Flags flew at half-mast in Whitehall while David Cameron – sorry, pass-the-sick-bag moment coming up – praised the deceased despot’s efforts towards ‘strengthening understanding between faiths’. I wonder if the prime minister could show me any evidence that the Saudi regime, which does not allow distribution of non-Muslim texts and regards apostasy as a capital crime, is remotely interested in understanding other faiths?

This is the same David Cameron who joined a march in Paris two weeks in solidarity with the victims of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism. On that occasion, there was much talk about human rights and free expression, both of which get short shrift in Saudi Arabia. Barack Obama, who was a conspicuous no-show in Paris, found the time to praise the absolute monarch and hailed the US-Saudi relationship ‘as a force for stability and security in the Middle East’. His Secretary of State, John Kerry, tweeted that the dead tyrant was ‘a man of wisdom & vision’. He even – I’m sorry, but that sick bag is about to overflow – claimed that the world ‘has lost a revered leader’.

Funnily enough, none of these busy men had time to mention Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger whose flogging was postponed on the day Abdullah’s death was announced because he hadn’t recovered from the 50 lashes he received two weeks earlier. Badawi’s monstrous sentence has come to symbolise everything that is wrong with the democratic world’s response to the kingdom. Prince Charles never misses an opportunity to cosy up to the Saudi royals, making a complete fool of himself last February when he dressed up in traditional robes and took part in a sword dance in Riyadh. Six months later, Charles did not utter a squeak of protest when his Saudi mates executed more than 20 people in three weeks. Most were beheaded – not, I hope, with the sword Charles used for his little dance.

Few of the people hailing Abdullah as a ‘reformer’ said anything about the kingdom’s truly horrifying record of human rights abuses. Don’t they know that a video recently emerged of a Saudi police officer chopping off the head of a screaming Burmese woman in the street? In a symbol of the regime’s profound misogyny, two Saudi women who broke the bizarre ban on female drivers have had their cases transferred to a terrorism court. So what the hell was the IMF boss, Christine Largarde, thinking about when she described Abdullah as a ‘strong advocate of women’? Lagarde added ‘in a very discreet way’ – so discreet, in the view of most human rights campaigners, as to make no material difference.

Amid all these effusions, the most egregious omission was the absence of any acknowledgement that the Saudi royal family actively promoted the puritanical ideology that created al-Qaeda and its offshoots. The kingdom is the cradle of Wahhabism, the extreme form of Islam which put the Saud family in power and keeps them there. The Saudis are almost as enthusiastic about public beheadings as their mortal enemy IS, which shocked the world last year with a series of videos showing Western hostages about to suffer this awful fate. Where do people think IS got the idea? Both al-Qaeda and IS want to restore a mostly-imaginary caliphate which would be in many respects indistinguishable from Saudi Arabia.

‘Without us it would be worse,’ the Saudi royals warn, while systematically terrorising anybody who represents a legitimate form of opposition. They’ve spent years quietly assuring foreign allies that they’d love to bring in reforms, but the country isn’t ready for it. I don’t know why this isn’t challenged more often, given that the royal family maintains an iron grip on the armed forces and intelligence service.

The new king has been minister of defence and a member of the national security council; the crown prince, Muqrin, held senior positions in the air force before he was appointed head of Saudi intelligence; the deputy crown prince, Muhmmad bin Nayef, is the interior minister. In effect, the family uses the threat of a conservative backlash to scare Western democracies into putting up with an ally they should be ashamed to be associated with. It’s an unsubtle trick played on foreign leaders by the Saudi royal family.

Guys, it isn’t working. The rest of us know that Saudi Arabia sent Osama bin Laden and other young Saudi men to fight in Afghanistan, creating a worldwide jihadist movement. Since then, Wahhabist ideology has inspired horrific attacks on civilians in the Middle East, Africa, the US and a string of European capitals. Sucking up to the Saudis didn’t stop the 9/11 attacks, Madrid, the 7/7 bombings, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls or the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. Wahhabism is the problem and Saudi Arabia, with its two-faced royal family, is where it all started.


The sexual revolution made Page 3 possible. A feminist revolution ended it

The Guardian, 21 January 2015

The Sun claimed it was a pioneer when in fact it was reprising ancient gender roles. The trick couldn’t last

In November 1970, American troops were still in Vietnam, Salvador Allende was inaugurated as president of Chile, and former Beatle George Harrison released a triple album. It feels like a different world, an impression confirmed by another event from the same year and month, namely the introduction of bare breasts on Page 3 of the Sun. I don’t suppose anyone imagined that the pictures would become a cultural phenomenon – or that it would take 44 years to get rid of them.

Over the decades, Page 3 became the symbol of a culture that growing numbers of people no longer wanted to live in, and that is why its demise (in printed editions at least) is so significant. The problem with Page 3 isn’t just the sexism inherent in publishing photographs of the same type of woman – young, slender, large-breasted – every day. I’ve often wondered how men would feel, sitting on a bus next to someone staring at a photograph of a good-looking 20-something cradling his testicles.

My guess is that Page 3 is such a weird phenomenon, encouraging young women to display their breasts like something that doesn’t quite belong to them, that it will soon seem strange that it existed for so long. While it was always presented by the paper as a piece of harmless fun, the nasty assumptions underlying Page 3 became evident as soon as one or two brave women began campaigning against it. The Labour MP Clare Short was vilified in the most cruel and hurtful way, with the paper encouraging its “top glamour girls” to describe her as “fat and ugly”. The attacks may have been a reflection of the commercial importance of Page 3 to the Sun’s brand, but they also signalled the extent to which the paper had appropriated – and perverted – the ideology of sexual liberation.

Anyone who opposed Page 3 was characterised as sexually repressed and a “killjoy” (the word used about Short when  Rebekah Brooks edited the Sun), as though the only arguments against it belonged in a puritan tradition. In that sense, the paper was shamelessly trying to link itself to a social revolution from which it had long parted company.

Page 3 began only three years after the summer of love, when thousands of young people descended on San Francisco to celebrate a whole series of messages, including “free love” and opposition to the Vietnam war. Suddenly, newspapers were full of pictures of women in their 20s with long hair and bell bottoms, astonishing an older generation which remembered Christian Dior’s New Look.

There is no evidence that anyone actually burned a bra, but a year after the summer of love, at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, around 400 protesters threw bras, corsets, make-up and copies of Playboy magazine into a dustbin in a symbolic rejection of traditional femininity. It was an exhilarating gesture for young women who didn’t want lives like their mothers. Crucially, access to the contraceptive pill was becoming widespread, placing the possibility of having sex on the same terms as men within their grasp for the first time. These young women threw away their bras and embraced sexual liberation, even if the continuing inequality of the sexes would one day be the cause of bitter disillusionment.

An unintended beneficiary of this upheaval, for a short time at least, was Page 3: if rejecting bras was a political act, how could anyone object to photographs of women who seemed to be proud of their (almost) unclothed bodies?

Thus Page 3 was able to bask, for the briefest of moments, in its almost accidental association with hippie culture and the sexual revolution. It soon became evident, however, that it was part of an old patriarchal trick, just like Playboy magazine and its flagship club in London’s Mayfair. Playboy and Page 3 piggybacked the sexual revolution, persuading women that they were sexual pioneers when they were actually reprising ancient gender roles. One of the reasons they got away with it was the almost total exclusion of women from senior roles on newspapers and boards, allowing a chummy male atmosphere to flourish.

The message of Page 3 was never “strong” and “assertive”. It was “available” and “passive”. Short and her Labour colleague Harriet Harman weren’t afraid to say so, but the scare tactics worked on other women. Many remained silent, fearing they wouldn’t appear “fun-loving” if they objected to “topless” pictures. (Perhaps the end of Page 3 means we can also get rid of that euphemism, which deliberately desexualises pictures of women’s bodies.)

What made the difference was the internet, which allowed a new generation of women to articulate their opposition to Page 3 and support each other in the face of a backlash. It also seems likely that the numbers signing up to the No More Page 3 campaign had an effect, creating bad publicity for a newspaper group which had already been rocked by the phone-hacking scandal.

Page 3 always had a sell-by date, a fact reluctantly acknowledged by Rupert Murdoch in a tweet in which he called it ‘old-fashioned’. The reality is that a society evolving towards greater equality could never tolerate Page 3 in the long term, especially now we know so much more about the extent of violence against women and girls.

Rape and domestic abuse are widespread, and it is clear that boys’ ideas about sex are being warped while they are still at school; their fathers and elder brothers may like Page 3 but they can no longer pretend it exists in a vacuum. The presence of what is effectively soft porn in popular newspapers was singled out for criticism in Lord Justice Leveson’s report on the culture and ethics of the press.

In a little-noticed irony, Page 3 was not the only cultural phenomenon that made its entrance in 1970. In the same year, an Australian academic called Germaine Greer published a surprise bestseller called The Female Eunuch. Greer’s argument that women had become separated from their libido and sexuality was confirmed every day by the smiling, eager-to-please mannequins who appeared in the pages of the Sun. At the time, feminism seemed even more shocking to some people than Page 3 – but feminism won in the end.


How can a girl of 16 ‘groom’ a teacher?

Independent on Sunday, 18 January 2015

The judge who spared a deputy head from jail after he had sex with a pupil condoned the male fantasy eulogised in ‘Lolita’

It was like being transported back to the 1980s, though not in a good way. I’m sure there were some admirable things about that decade, but attitudes to rape and underage sex weren’t among them. I remember the judge who told a 17-year-old rape victim that she was guilty of “contributory negligence” because she had been hitch-hiking, and fined her attacker £2,000 instead of sending him to prison. Then there was the judge who told a girl of 12 that she had been “asking for trouble” when she was raped after going to a man’s flat for coffee. He didn’t go to prison, either.

Fast forward three decades, and grown men are still having trouble with teenage girls, according to a judge whose remarks rightly caused outrage last week. Mrs Justice Greenberg was passing sentence in a case involving a teacher who had sex with a 16-year-old pupil, who counts as under age in terms of the law governing sexual relationships when the adult is in a position of trust.

The law is quite right in this respect, no matter how much some men may protest; an adult has a duty not to act on inappropriate sexual feelings, because he (or she) understands the potential damage in a way the child does not.

Greenberg seems not to have caught up with contemporary attitudes towards child sexual abuse, which is all the more surprising in the wake of Operation Yewtree, the inquiry into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and others.

Many of the victims targeted by Savile and other adult men, including the entertainers Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall, were very young when the abuse happened. The pernicious assumption that underage girls could “consent” to sex with older men played a role in the failure to expose widespread sexual abuse in Rochdale and other northern towns.

Where, I wonder, was Greenberg when all this was happening? Her observations in the sentencing hearing had more in common with the theories expressed in Lolita, Nabokov’s appalling novel romanticising child sexual abuse, than with contemporary research on abusive relationships. In one of the novel’s most notorious passages, Lolita eventually seduces the narrator, Humbert Humbert, reflecting a popular fantasy among men who want to avoid responsibility for having sex with young girls.

The defendant in last week’s case, a teacher called Stuart Kerner, did exactly that, running a defence in which he claimed to have been stalked by an obsessive pupil before giving in and having sex with her. Kerner, who is 44 and used to be vice-principal at Bexleyheath Academy in south-east London, had been found guilty at an earlier hearing of two counts of sexual activity with a child.

What makes this particular case all the more shocking is that Kerner taught RE and ethics, yet the latter subject seems to have offered him no pointers on how to respond to the situation he claims to have found himself in. Teenage girls are sometimes attracted to older men, but the duty of the teacher in such cases is crystal clear: he should report the matter to the school and take steps to avoid being alone with the pupil in question.

Instead, Kerner did something rather astonishing: he started carrying a condom around with him in case the girl became “too irresistible”. (Frankly, that sounds like premeditation to me.) The first time they had sex, Kerner barricaded himself and the girl in a school store cupboard, jamming the door with a chair. A few months later, he invited the girl to his house and had sex with her again before giving her a lift home. At the time she thought the relationship was “special” but the girl, who is now 19, realises with hindsight that it was anything but.

You might think that a teacher who fears he won’t be able to resist having sex with a teenage pupil needs to reset his moral compass. The judge took a very different view, accusing the victim of “grooming” Kerner and placing all the blame on her shoulders.

“I saw no sign that you had encouraged [the victim] in any way,” she assured him, raising an interesting question about how the two of them ever got into that cupboard. “Were it not for her obsession with you, the offence would never have occurred.” She said Kerner had given in to temptation while he was “vulnerable” and described the case as a tragedy.

If anyone was vulnerable in this case it was surely the victim, who came from a “troubled” background and had a history of attention-seeking behaviour. Fixating on a teacher, if that is what happened, should have been a signal that she needed help, not an excuse for a middle-aged man to indulge his fantasies about teenage girls.

Campaigners against sexual abuse have criticised not just the judge’s remarks but the fact that Kerner’s 18-month suspended sentence means he has avoided going to prison. (I said it was like the 1980s all over again.) The tariff prompted complaints to the Attorney General’s office, where officials initially said they would consider reviewing it under the “unduly lenient sentence review scheme”, but later admitted that it doesn’t fall within the remit.

That’s a shame, but at least the case has caused shockwaves. In 2015, who would have imagined that a judge could seriously suggest that a deputy head had been “groomed” by a 16-year-old girl?

The Ched Evans case shows rape victim-blamers are getting scared

The footballer’s supporters are vitriolic in his defence because a shift in public attitudes to rape myths appears to be under way

The Guardian, 16 January 2015

Three years ago, few people outside the world of professional football had heard of Ched Evans. When the Sheffield United player was convicted of rape, in April 2012, the identity of his victim should have remained a secret, protected by a law that gives lifelong anonymity to complainants. Instead, she has repeatedly been named on the internet and forced to move home five times. It is one of the worst instances of victim-blaming ever seen in this country.

The attacks on the character of this young woman, who was only 19 when Evans raped her, have been cruel and shameful. Ten people, including Evans’s cousin, have been charged and convicted of naming her on social media.

Neither those cases, nor a decision by the court of appeal to turn down Evans’s attempt to challenge his conviction and sentence, have prevented further slurs. On the contrary, a man whose name now appears on the sex offenders’ register is being presented by his supporters as the victim in the case.

A website set up by Evans’s family and friends is currently under investigation by the attorney general and the Crown Prosecution Service for posting CCTV footage of the victim entering the hotel where the rape took place. Even though her features are blurred, the risk of further identification is obvious and an offence may have been committed.

In the latest twist, a man described on the site as a “true friend and supporter” of Evans turns out to have made abusive comments about the victim and posted a link to a separate site that names her. Until last week the Evans family site displayed a photograph of the man, Ciaran Goggins, wearing a “Ched Evans is innocent” T-shirt at an Amnesty International event in Ireland.

It is hard to think of another case in which the reaction of the convicted man’s friends has been so vindictive and hysterical. There is a reason for this: although it is the last thing any woman would choose, the victim in this case has become the symbol of a successful fightback against rape culture.

Evans’s conviction is a sign of changing attitudes in the criminal justice system, which is now prepared to prosecute ‘difficult’ and historic cases that would not have got to court in the past.

It also demonstrates that some, though by no means all, jurors are willing to put aside rape myths about how victims should behave. The impact on defendants who have in the past relied on those myths to escape conviction cannot be overstated.

Evans’s victim was drunk. When he went to the hotel in Rhyl where one of his friends had taken her, she was in no state to consent to have sex with a total stranger who had just walked into the room. The judge at Evans’s trial, Merfyn Hughes QC, was clear on this point: ‘The complainant was extremely intoxicated … She was in no condition to have sexual intercourse.”

In the harsh lexicon of victim-blaming, having sex with a drunk woman could not possibly be rape. It is up there in the top five excuses used by rape apologists, along with the idea that women “invite” attacks through their choice of clothes or behaviour. The whole point of victim-blaming is to draw attention away from perpetrators, whose behaviour has only very recently begun to be scrutinised as closely as it deserves.

Why would a man like Evans, with a promising career to lose, risk having sex with a woman who is too inebriated to give consent? The probable answer is, because so many men have done so in the past, laughing with their mates over what is actually a criminal assault.

Two developments – this case and the convictions of a series of well-known men accused of historic sex abuse – provide dramatic evidence that attitudes are changing. Rolf Harris, Max Clifford and Stuart Hall didn’t think anyone would believe their victims, some of whom were under the age of consent. It turns out they were wrong. And while there are still too few rape convictions in this country, the old excuses are being chipped away.

The consequences for men who refuse to modify their behaviour are terrifying. That is why they and their supporters are so angry: if this vile spasm of victim-blaming proves one thing, it is that they are finally losing the argument.

Paris attacks: these troubled men who project their self-hatred on others

Independent on Sunday, 11 January 2015

Murderers, like the Paris terrorists, are drawn to a toxic identity which equates masculinity with violence

In December 2012, a young man called Adam Lanza walked into an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and murdered 26 people. The killings ended when Lanza shot himself in the head, prompting an impassioned debate in the US about gun ownsership. But the feminist magazine Ms was struck by the absence of any analysis of the fact that mass shooters are almost always angry men. ‘Why won’t we talk about violence and masculinity in America?’ a headline asked.

I had a similar thought last week as I tried to make sense of the cold-blooded murders at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris. It never occurred to me that the killers of 12 people would turn out to be women; sure enough, they were quickly identified as two brothers, Said abd Cherif Kouachi. The brothers claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda in Yemen and talked a lot of nonsense about ‘avenging’ the Prophet. But I couldn’t help feeling that they were doing this to feel important. They flattered themselves that they were adhering to some kind of military code, claiming: “We don’t kill women”, while ignoring the fact that they’d just murdered a female columnist in the Charlie Hebdo office.

Insignificant for most of their lives, unemployed or doing menial jobs, the only way these angry men could get attention was by picking up guns. It may be that we simply take for granted the fact that mass killings are almost always carried out by men, whether they’re jihadists or unpopular high-school students, but that is strange in itself. Is it based on an assumption that men are inherently violent? If it isn’t – and I don’t think we should assume any such thing – why aren’t we asking what factors disinhibit the social prohibitions against violence? Most men don’t go out and kill people, except in war, and we urgently need to know why these men are different.

One evening last week, a friend from a Middle Eastern country described to me how her nephew became involved with Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organisation. He felt rejected by his family after his father took two more wives, marginalising his mother. He drifted to Lebanon, started attending a mosque and listened to radical preachers. “I had no one,” he told my friend when she remonstrated with him. “They were my family.” Perhaps Islamist networks perform this role for men like the Kouachi brothers, who grew up in children’s homes.

Chérif Kouachi delivered pizzas and wanted to be a rap star before he was radicalised and ended up in prison. That seems to be where he met Amedy Coulibaly, the terrorist who died after a horrific siege in a Jewish supermarket in Paris on Friday. Coulibaly was a petty criminal before he adopted radical Islam, with a psychiatric report describing him as having an “immature and psychopathic personality”. After their release from prison, Coulibaly and Kouachi visited a well-known Islamist, Djamel Beghal, who was under house arrest in southern France. Beghal used to be based at the Finsbury Park mosque in north London when it was controlled by the notorious preacher Abu Hamza, who is alleged to have radicalised the petty criminal and would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid.

During the two sieges on Friday, Coulibaly said he “synchronised” his operation with the brothers (that military fantasy again) but they evidently forgot to synchronise their stories; in a phone call to a TV station, Coulibaly claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda’s rival terror organisation, the Islamic State.

The French authorities are looking for a woman described as Coulibaly’s former partner, Hayat Boumeddiene, who is a suspect in the shooting of a policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe, in Paris on Thursday. But many mass killers are uncomfortable around assertive females, preferring to spend time with other men, and quite a few of them harbour resentful feelings towards women. Elliot Rodger, son of a second assistant director on The Hunger Games, murdered six people in California last May after making a video in which he ranted about his inability to get a girlfriend.

There is a pattern here of troubled men projecting their self-hatred on to other people: fellow students, women, novelists, journalists, Jews, Muslims. They display a sense of aggrieved entitlement which over-rides any possibility of empathy with their victims; acquiring an arsenal of Kalashnikovs and grenade-launchers offers a feeling of power which they seldom experience in their everyday lives. “Consider your man card re-issued”, read a sinister advertisement for a semi-automatic rifle used in the Sandy Hook massacre.

Did the Kouachi brothers delude themselves that they were proving their manhood when they burst out of the print works on Friday afternoon, guns blazing, and died in a hail of bullets? The striking thing about such men is that they are drawn to a toxic form of identity which equates masculinity with violence.

At first sight, the puritanical form of Islam the Kouachis claimed as their motivation appears wildly at odds with popular culture, which encourages the consumption of alcohol, sex and consumer goods. But you don’t have to look far to see the link between masculinity and violence in rap music, movies and computer games; the mass killer Anders Breivik, who claimed to have been motivated by hatred of Muslims, claimed at his trial in Norway that he “trained” for the murders by playing violent computer games.

Angry men nurture grievances and look for causes. They are attracted to guns, a fact too many Americans refuse to recognise. In Europe, de-radicalisation programmes challenge Islamist ideology, but I suspect that inner rage, and a lack of stable masculine identity, come first. So it’s all the more astonishing that in the debates about the role played in the French attacks by Islam, colonialism and the Iraq war, I have yet to hear anyone talk about gender.

The message that urgently needs to emerge from this tragedy is that there’s nothing “manly” about shooting cartoonists, shoppers or a wounded police officer.

Men accused of rape musn’t be granted anonymity

Daily Telegraph, 7 January 2015

What is the truth about rape in this country? If you listen to some campaigners, you’d believe that innocent men live in fear of false accusations which will ruin their lives, even if charges are eventually dropped. They argue that men who face rape allegations should enjoy the same anonymity as the women or men who accuse them – a demand repeated, this week, after a Conservative MP, Mark Pritchard, was told that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with the case against him.

Pritchard was arrested last month after a woman went to the police and claimed that he’d raped her. Speaking outside Parliament yesterday, he complained about ‘false’ and ‘vindictive’ allegations made against him and insisted that his identity should have been kept anonymous (he also hinted at the identity of his accuser, drawing criticism from the charity Rape Crisis).

His stance has received support from another Conservative MP, Nigel Evans, who was acquitted last year after a trial on charges of rape and sexual assault.

But these accounts – given by well-known men with easy access to the media – overshadow the untold stories of thousands of women (and some men) whose traumatic experiences you will never hear about. They should be viewed in the context of a study published last year by the Crown Prosecution Service, which showed that false accusations of rape are ‘very rare’. The real story, far from being about unfairness to a small number of accused men, is about the denial of justice to thousands of victims of sexual violence every single year.

The truth is that our criminal justice system is failing to protect victims. And the reasons for that failure present a very powerful case against anonymity for those accused.

Most people have very little idea of how many women are raped in this country each year – or how few of these attacks result in convictions. In my role as Co-chair of the Mayor London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel – and during a career spent writing about the abuse of women – I have had access to those on the frontline and faced the stark reality of how rape victims are treated in Britain.

Last autumn, at a meeting with senior officers from the Metropolitan Police, I was told that more than 2,000 rapes and serious sexual offences had already been reported in London for 2014. One of the officers present said he believed that only a fifth of rapes are actually reported to the police; women’s organisations, who see many victims who dare not report their experience, think that the number is much higher. Few people working at a senior level in the criminal justice system believe that the number of convictions for rape – 2,333 in the year 2012-2013 – bears much relation to the actual incidence in this country.

Even if a case gets to court (and the vast majority don’t), defendants in rape trials stand a better chance of being acquitted than those facing other criminal charges. That is because the public perception of rape – that it is a crime committed by a stranger in a dark alley – is both wrong and stubbornly hard to shift. Most victims know the men who rape them; they are targeted by acquaintances, and current and former partners. It is a shocking fact, confirmed by senior officers I have spoken to. There is a 70 per cent overlap in cases of rape and domestic violence.

Many women fear that they simply will not believed if they go to the police, although attitudes at senior levels are slowly changing. But even victims tend not to realise one crucial fact: rape is usually a serial offence – and that is crucial when it comes to securing convictions. Prosecutions often fail because of a lack of witnesses, which means that the case turns on two people giving conflicting evidence. It’s one person’s word against another’s. What changes all that? The existence of other victims, often completely unknown to each other, whose evidence establishes a pattern of offending behaviour.

When a man (for it is usually a man) is first arrested and charged, it may be on the word of a single complainant. Publicity about the case, including the identity of the accused, gives other victims the courage to come forward. Take one of the most dramatic examples in recent history: police in London had no idea of the extent of the crimes of John Worboys, the ‘black cab’ rapist, until his arrest became public and more than a hundred women came forward.

A senior officer who worked on Operation Yewtree, the investigation into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and others, told me about his shock as the tally of Savile’s likely victims mounted, eventually rising to more than 450.

Even five years ago, the idea that the entertainers Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris would go to prison for sexual offences would have been unthinkable – in each case, the presence of multiple accusers made a conviction more likely. Hall initially faced three historical counts of sexual assault; after he furiously denied the allegations, more victims came forward, including one who accused him of rape. These cases are a very good example of the way in which publicity about charges can lead to a more serious legacy of crime being uncovered.

There is a scandal around rape in this country. But it isn’t about a handful of men who have been wrongly accused, no matter how justifiably angry they are. Compared to the number of cases that never see the light of day, their experience is, I’m afraid, a drop in the ocean. It is about the many thousands of victims who don’t get justice at all – and the main effect of giving anonymity to accused men would be to make that situation even worse.

The answer to the horror in Paris is more writing and sceptical laughter

What the gunmen who carried out the Charlie Hebdo atrocity hated most was journalism’s insistence on ridiculing intolerance

The Guardian, 7 January 2015

I am feeling sick and shaky. I have been writing all day with tears running down my face. I don’t suppose I’m alone in reacting like this to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, which is an assault on journalists and free speech. Like many people, I am trying to react to both aspects of the attack, thinking about the victims – human beings capable of feeling pain and terror – and the principle of free speech, which has to be defended at all costs.

It does not feel right now as though the pen is mightier than the sword, but I have to believe that the ideas of the Enlightenment will defeat hooded men with guns.

I have sat in many editorial conferences, places where ideas are kicked around and jokes cracked, not always in good taste. That’s what journalists do, and the idea of being interrupted by terrorists with Kalashnikovs is impossible to compute. They are at two poles: the wry, endlessly sceptical but passionate commitment of the journalist and the thuggish certainty of the extremist.

In the country of Voltaire, those men with a terrifying absence of self-doubt murdered an editor and his cartoonists in cold blood. I can hardly bear to think of the footage of them advancing calmly on a wounded policeman and shooting him dead. I know there’s no evidence that Voltaire said what many people believe he said – about defending to the death those he disagreed with – but it feels as if it sums up the vast gulf between journalists and terrorists.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo insisted on their right to laugh at things they found absurd, including religious intolerance. I’ve written at least one column about the paper in the past, defending its right to republish the Danish cartoons showing the prophet Muhammad. I don’t think people – myself included – have a right not to be offended. And one of the things I hate most is the assumption that people who are angry are justified. It’s a measly sort of blaming-the-victim that says: if you do X, don’t be surprised if someone does Y. In this case, X involves drawing a cartoon while Y happens to be mass murder. Whatever happened to a sense of proportion?

The thing I’m angry about, apart from the murders of 12 people in Paris, is a mealy-mouthed reaction that can’t quite bring itself unequivocally to condemn even the most egregious atrocity – it always reaches for some apparently mitigating factor.

I despised George Bush and opposed the war in Iraq; I hate inequality in my own country and the Middle East. But I don’t think that means I have to hold back from loathing those men who burst into a newspaper office with murder in their hearts. I don’t think I have to try to understand the rage of the men who murdered the American journalist James Foley, and published a video of the torture they put him through.

Extremists hate free speech. They hate writers and journalists, which is why so many have been murdered in recent years. They hate people who ask questions, challenge authority and use humour instead of guns and knives. The answer to the horror in Paris is more writing and more sceptical laughter, hard as that seems as this moment. Journalists have been killed but journalism is alive, and we honour their memory best by continuing to do our jobs.

Syrian migrants stranded at sea need more help

Independent on Sunday, 4 January 2015

With a second-rate search-and-rescue mission, the EU helps people-smugglers more than traumatised refugees on rusty boats

In the 1990s, I was invited to give a couple of lectures about 20th-century literature at the universities of Damascus and Homs. The students were knowledgeable and enthusiastic, asking questions about the influence of everyone from Aristotle to Derrida. Many of them, it turned out, had done postgraduate degrees at European universities; one young Syrian woman, who spoke English with a Welsh accent, had spent a year at Aberystwyth.

I can’t help wondering whether the students I met all those years ago have been wounded or are living in refugee camps, assuming they are still alive. More than 76,000 people were killed in Syria last year, blown up by barrel bombs, shot by snipers while foraging for food or tortured to death in Bashar Assad’s dreadful prisons. That’s why so many Syrians and Kurds are desperate enough to risk their lives on rusty old ships in the Mediterranean.

Perhaps one of those students was on the ship which was reported to have been abandoned by people-smugglers last week, with the auto-pilot fixed on a collision course with the Italian coast. The Moldovan-registered vessel was only 45 minutes from disaster when it was boarded by Italian commandos. The most worrying thing about the story of the Blue Sky M, and a second boat which got into trouble off the Italian coast later in the week, is that it seems to mark a dangerous new tactic on the part of the smugglers.

Last October, the Italian government closed down Operation Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue mission set up to try to save the lives of thousands of migrants. More than 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean last year, which is bad enough, but Operation Mare Nostrum saved many more. The statistics from the operation are staggering: the Italian navy covered 27,000 square miles of sea, engaged in 421 operations, seized five mother ships and arrested 330 alleged people-smugglers. The stand-out figure is that it rescued 150,810 migrants, an average of more than 400 a day.

The cost to the cash-strapped Italian government was enormous. Nine hundred members of the armed forces were engaged in operations on any single day, along with 32 naval units and two submarines working in shifts. The Italians decided they could not afford to carry on funding the operation and, to be fair, it is hard to see why a single country should have to shoulder the burden on its own.

The problem, as refugee organisations pointed out last autumn, is that the EU mission which has replaced it is much smaller in scale. Operation Triton’s budget is less than a third of Mare Nostrum’s and it operates within 30 miles of the Italian coast, leaving huge areas of sea uncovered. It also, as we saw last week, makes the Mediterranean a great deal easier for people-smugglers to operate in.

They are using rusty old ships which aren’t worth much – the Blue Sky M lost its safety certificate in recent months – and packing large numbers of people on board. There were around 800 migrants, most of them Syrian or Kurdish, on the ship when someone radioed for help, saying the crew had left the vessel. This may not have been true: in a fascinating twist, the Italian authorities have arrested four men whom they believe to be the captain and crew, suggesting they had disguised themselves as refugees.

Meanwhile a second vessel, the Ezadeen, was on a collision course with the Italian coast but ran out of fuel, leaving 360 refugees, including children and pregnant women in rough seas. The Ezadeen was built almost half a century ago and has been used in recent years to transport cattle, which is probably how the smugglers regarded the terrified people they left behind, assuming that they did actually abandon the vessel. The Ezadeen was towed to land by an Icelandic coast guard ship, the fourth such rescue it has been involved in since joining Operation Triton last month. In effect, the smugglers are “playing chicken” with the lives of the people on board; they’re making so much money that they can afford to abandon the odd vessel, forcing the Italian authorities to launch a rescue mission.

So much for the notion that Operation Mare Nostrum was “encouraging” migrants, an idea that now seems as wrong as it is distasteful; the real “pull” factor is the war in Syria and a permanent state of fear in the east African state of Eritrea. Those two countries together accounted for almost half the refugees who tried to cross the Mediterranean last year.

It is hard for us to imagine, sitting in our warm living-rooms, how desperate these “migrants” are – or how like us. Becoming a refugee is one of the most depersonalising things that can happen to human beings; they become part of a mass, no longer individuals that we can empathise with but symbols of a problem we don’t want to address. But the only thing that will stop the apparently endless flow of migrants is the ability to live safely in their own country.

When I think of the shattered streets and apartment blocks in Damascus and Homs, I’m reminded of the observation attributed by Tacitus to one of the Celtic chieftains who fought against the Romans: “They make a desert and call it peace.” That’s what the Assad family has done in Syria, and we shouldn’t allow the EU to respond with a second-rate search-and-rescue system that risks leaving traumatised people to drown.

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Independent on Sunday, 21 December 2014

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew The Interview but it’s not too late for it to take a stand

There is something inherently ridiculous about dictators. For anyone born after the Second World War, it is hard not to laugh at old newsreels of Hitler, with his slicked-back hair and toothbrush moustache. It is equally tempting to tell jokes about the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, who looks as if he’s been packed into a sausage skin – but only if you live outside the country and are not at risk of ending up in one of his horrific prison camps.

Kim may not have the power to drag us from our beds, but the FBI has accused North Korea of carrying out a cyber-attack on one of the most powerful companies in Hollywood. Sony Pictures Entertainment owns Columbia and TriStar, which between them made everything from the Spiderman movies to the critically acclaimed District 9. Columbia also produced Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial drama about the hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden. So it’s all the more disappointing that Sony has been supine in the face of cyber-terrorism.

Over the past month, a group with a Stalinist-sounding name, the Guardians of Peace, has hacked and published embarrassing emails between senior Sony executives. Instead of recognising the potentially devastating effects of this cyber-attack, many news outlets responded like sniggering teenagers, gleefully reproducing unflattering assessments of well-known stars. A picture of Angelina Jolie rearing back from Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal was widely published.

It was less amusing if you happened to work for Sony and found your private medical information had been posted online. Some reports claim that the company’s computer systems were wiped out, temporarily destroying its ability to perform such basic tasks as paying staff. That would have been bad enough, but then the hackers upped the threat level. Their target was a movie called The Interview, a “comedy” about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un, and the Guardians of Peace threatened a terrorist attack if the film was not withdrawn. Sony Pictures capitulated, cancelling the film’s Christmas release and claiming that the company had no choice because cinemas didn’t want to risk showing it.

Just about everyone, including Barack Obama, thinks Sony got it wrong, although the CEO, Michael Lynton, says the company has not backed down and hopes the film will still be shown. But it clearly felt isolated, turned into a laughing stock with little support from the industry or beyond. Like celebrities whose phones were hacked by tabloid newspapers in the UK, the company’s executives were treated to an outburst of victim-blaming that completely ignored the illegality of the cyber-attack and its terrifying implications. If hackers can do this to a film studio, what’s to stop them doing it to an airline or a hospital?

Privacy has had a bad press in recent years, thanks to organisations such as WikiLeaks. The argument that everything should be out in the open is little more than an adolescent spasm: would you like your medical records or your complete financial history published online? I don’t think many people would argue that desperate negotiations to free hostages should be carried out in full public view, but they take a more lenient view when someone’s dashed-off emails are stolen and published on websites. Hacking confidential information is a crime, whether it’s done via mobile phones or the internet.

In the Sony Pictures example, one of the few people who immediately grasped this fact was George Clooney, who accused “a good portion of the press” of abdicating its duty. He accused journalists of behaving “frivolously”, an apt description for articles that amounted to little more than exclaiming, “Wow! Look what Amy Pascal said about Leonardo DiCaprio!” Clooney also revealed that he tried to get his peers in the film industry to sign a petition backing Sony against the hackers, but every single person he approached refused. I couldn’t help comparing this behaviour unfavourably with that of the Hollywood Ten, a group of prominent writers and directors accused of communist sympathies, who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s.

There is an irony here: Hollywood is famous for action movies in which rugged male actors take on terrorists, aliens and dictators. Faced with a credible threat to the industry’s commercial viability, most of them were too scared even to sign a piece of paper. It’s as if Hollywood has only just discovered what human-rights campaigners have known for a very long time: dictators are nasty people and Kim Jong-un is one of the worst of the current crop. That isn’t a reason to avoid making films about North Korea, but you have to be prepared for the consequences.

It’s also an opportunity to think again about freedom of expression, a subject that causes a great deal of confusion these days. I’ve worked with writers from all over the world who have suffered for claiming this fundamental human right, facing imprisonment, exile, even death. It’s about telling the truth, exposing corruption and challenging abuse of power; it emphatically isn’t about hacking commercial information or publishing nude photos to embarrass female celebrities.

Even now, it isn’t too late for Sony Pictures to change its mind. The long history of attempts to censor controversial books and films offers a way forward: when Penguin faced death threats after publishing The Satanic Verses, a group of British publishers got together and brought out Salman Rushdie’s book in paperback, sharing the risk. Sony could make a powerful argument that the threat against The Interview is a denial of free speech, invite cinemas in the US and Europe to show it simultaneously, and offer an indemnity against claims in the unlikely event of a terrorist attack.

I’d be at the top of the queue to see it. It doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I don’t want my choice of movies controlled by dictators or cyber-terrorists.

In Ukipland, there’s a pint waiting for Russell Brand and Nigel Farage

Independent on Sunday, 14 December 2014

They like to think they’re opposites but when it comes to women, I can’t help thinking they;d find common ground

I’ve been thinking lately about “Greeneland”, the term used to signify the imaginary world created by the novelist Graham Greene. Greeneland is an unsettling place, characterised by shifting identities and the fear of betrayal. It’s not so very different, in some respects, from Ukipland, a fictional country where the old values are no longer respected and people yearn for vanished certainties.

It is also a place, we learned last week, where a man called Mr Bird met a woman called Ms Bolter – I kid you not, to quote Nigel Farage – with farcical consequences. Bird & Bolter sounds like an old firm of solicitors where the senior partner has just stepped out for lunch at his club. Mr Bird does indeed have a club, the Oxford and Cambridge in Pall Mall, to which he invited Ms Bolter for dinner so they could continue an interview earlier in the day to assess her potential as a Ukip parliamentary candidate.

Sadly, when Bird invited her to dinner on a later occasion, she was wearing the wrong clothes. He gallantly offered to buy her a dress and shoes to replace the jeans skirt and Dr Martens she was wearing, a detail which makes me wonder if she ever quite got the Ukip thing. Her Cinderella-like transformation was such a success Mr Bird was able to pay her one of the highest compliments in the Ukip lexicon: “Now you look like the sort of girl that can get into a taxi.” In Ukipland, even the taxis have dress codes.

It’s a universe where men are men, and the lady wife cleans behind the fridge before joining hubby in the lounge bar. It’s not, at first glance, the kind of place where Russell Brand would fit in, and Farage couldn’t hide his disdain when the two men met on Question Time. Brand uses chapstick, something a real chap would never do, and Farage mocked the comedian’s “personal make-up artist” in a column he wrote after the event. He even described Brand as “limp”, implying the comedian had failed to meet Ukip’s exacting but traditional standard of masculinity, despite the sexual exploits for which he has been feted in the popular press.

Baiting Brand was no doubt a welcome diversion from the problems Ukip’s Bird was having with Bolter, who had decided his behaviour was a bit too masculine and accused him of sexual harassment. It was a far cry from the heady days of the Ukip conference in September when Bird, recently appointed as the party’s general secretary, introduced Bolter as one of its star candidates. So keen was he to characterise her as a poster girl for diversity that he read out chunks of her CV, including the claims that she read PPE at Wadham College, Oxford, and “nowadays teaches at a local comprehensive school in east London”. She was even, to top it all, a defector from Labour.

Not for the first time, it turned out that Ukip had failed to do the most basic due diligence. As Bird released squirm-making texts between himself and Bolter, claiming they had been in a consensual relationship for all of two weeks, Oxford University denied that she had even been one of its students. Barking and Dagenham council weighed in, saying she had not worked at any school in the borough since September 2013. Then it emerged that Bolter’s Labour party membership had lapsed when she failed to pay her subscription.

Eighteen months ago, Farage admitted that the party had not checked the background of all 1,700 people who put themselves forward as candidates. Among other embarrassments, Ukip hopefuls have appeared in a Jimmy Savile mask, blamed the Holocaust on Jews, and been photographed giving a Nazi salute; according to Farage, the latter gesture was misunderstood and the candidate was “imitating a pot plant”. Then there was the former MEP Godfrey Bloom, who complained that women don’t clean behind the fridge properly, criticised aid to “bongo bongo land” and resigned after calling female activists “sluts”.

Bird, who denies sexually harassing Bolter, appeared before a Ukip disciplinary committee on Friday. Around the same time, reports began to circulate that Richard Desmond, owner of Express newspapers, is to donate £300,000 to the party. Until he sold them in 2004, Desmond published a string of porn magazines; he still owns several “adult” TV channels. The donation brings closer the possibility of the Express titles endorsing Ukip at the election.

All of this points up the irony of some people hailing Brand, a four-time winner of The Sun’s Shagger of the Year contest, as modernity’s counterblast to Ukip. True, he challenged Farage on immigration last week, but he called women MPs “love” and kept talking over them. Brand and Farage like to think they’re opposites but when it comes to the fair sex, I can’t help thinking they’d find common ground over a pint in Ukipland.