If Ed Miliband is useless, why are some newspapers so scared of him?

Independent on Sunday, 15 February 2015

As prime minister, the Labour leader would revisit self-regulation, and that terrifies the right-wing press

Why do they hate him so much? If Ed Miliband is as useless as right-wing newspapers want us to believe, why are they so eager to pour buckets of vitriol over him at every opportunity? Not since the 1992 general election and the monstering of Neil Kinnock have I witnessed so vicious and personal a campaign against a Labour leader. It’s almost – perish the thought – as though they’re scared of something.

Every day brings a new smear, whether it’s an attack from a business leader who doesn’t even live (or pay taxes) in this country or a frankly bizarre claim that Miliband once burnt a hole in someone’s carpet. What next? He tripped over a constituent’s labrador? I keep thinking we’ve reached rock bottom but then a new absurdity heaves over the horizon. The latest is a “storm” over one of Miliband’s aides supposedly describing the row about tax avoidance as another “Milly Dowler moment”.

Milly Dowler is the murdered schoolgirl whose mobile was hacked by the News of the World, exposing the phone-hacking scandal. Keep those words “phone-hacking scandal” in mind, for Miliband’s opponents are desperate to divert attention away from the criminal and unethical practices that were habitual in some newsrooms. They accused his aide of exploiting a dead schoolgirl, a claim that fell apart when it became clear that the phrase wasn’t a direct quote from anyone in Miliband’s office. The person who actually used the girl’s name was the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, who included it in a tweet, without inverted commas.

In a febrile pre-election atmosphere, when the urge to damage Miliband has gone way beyond the bounds of reason, even a non-quote is enough to produce gleeful headlines: “Storm over Labour aide who compared tax scandal to Milly Dowler’s murder”, shouted The Times. “Fury after one of Ed’s senior aides calls tax row Milly Dowler moment that could be exploited for political gain”, raged the Daily Mail. In a sentence that should have been prefaced with the words “We hope … ”, The Daily Telegraph claimed that the aide’s comments “could badly damage Mr Miliband”.

Seldom has a politician been attacked so roundly for something neither he nor anyone close to him actually said. That speaks volumes about the corrosive atmosphere of suspicion in which the Labour leader is operating, but it’s also a very good example of wishful thinking; the papers who ran with this story wanted to link it in the public mind to a murdered girl, not to the News of the World’s abuse of power. Press regulation isn’t an issue in the election campaign, but don’t let that fool you: the papers which are attacking the Labour leader mercilessly are also the ones which have the most to fear if he becomes prime minister.

Less than a year into his leadership, Miliband decided to ignore convention and challenge the unfettered power of Rupert Murdoch. In doing so, he broke with his predecessor Tony Blair, and with the received wisdom, that holds that it’s too dangerous for a mainstream politician to criticise the press. Miliband was the first of the party leaders to call for what became the Leveson inquiry, a bold move that marked a high point in his time as leader. It was this decision that one of his aides referred to, reasonably enough, during the row over tax avoidance; standing up to a press baron and confronting tax avoidance by influential people both require guts.

It should not be forgotten that the Murdoch papers, along with the Mail, Mirror, Express and Telegraph titles, are currently defying Parliament by refusing to join an independently audited regulator. That was a key recommendation of the Leveson inquiry, which wanted to see an end to a cosy system in which newspapers were allowed to regulate themselves without independent scrutiny. Instead of complying, some newspaper groups have set up their own regulator, Ipso, which is financed and controlled by the press. (Several newspapers, including the Independent titles, have not yet joined.)

The crunch will come after the general election when, as seems likely, an independently audited regulator is set up and big newspaper groups refuse to join it. Unlike David Cameron, who seems to be taking a back seat on press regulation, Miliband gives every sign of being determined to see the Leveson process through to the end. If Labour forms the next government, on its own or in some form of coalition, there could well be another showdown.

Self-interest is a powerful motivation and I’m sure it explains the seething animosity – sometimes I would describe it as deranged – towards the Labour leader. Clearly the hope is that enough mud will stick to fix the idea in voters’ minds that Miliband is incompetent, unpopular and weird. But the experience of 1992, when the Murdoch press bragged about its supposed role in keeping Kinnock out of No 10, is instructive. Polling evidence from the period suggests that The Sun overestimated its influence; John Major had a higher approval rating than Kinnock, but researchers concluded it “was probably worth no more than one percentage point to the Tory share of the vote”.

This raises the counter-intuitive possibility (for the press, at least) that voters are more interested in policies than personalities. Whether or not that’s true, newspapers should think hard these days before giving an impression of trying to subvert the democratic process. Since the Leveson inquiry, I’m not sure the public has much appetite for editors who boast about their ability to destroy decent politicians. This time it couldn’t be more vicious or personal, dating straight back to the summer of 2011 when Ed Miliband stood up to the world’s most powerful press baron.

Joan Smith is executive director of Hacked Off

The Birth of the Pill: one giant leap for womankind

The Observer, 8 February 2015

It liberated millions worldwide. Now the oral contraceptive gets its own life-affirming history in Jonathan Eig’s vivid account of the four Pill pioneers

In June 1957 something happened that was to change the lives of millions of women. Regulators in this country and the US approved a new drug which appeared to mimic pregnancy in women’s bodies, preventing ovulation. For the first time in history, women would be able to have sex without fear of an unwanted pregnancy. So it is a remarkable fact that the Pill, as it would soon become known, was not licensed as a contraceptive in the first instance.

Even more remarkably, Enovid (Enavid in the UK) was actually approved as a treatment for infertile women who were assured by its manufacturer, Searle, that it would regulate their menstrual cycles and help them get pregnant. Like almost everyone else involved in creating that first Pill, Searle knew perfectly well that Enovid’s most significant effect was to prevent pregnancy, but few dared say so. The company’s calculation was that word would quickly spread among doctors and patients, preparing the ground for the news that the world now had its first oral contraceptive.

One man who didn’t want to wait for a belated announcement was Gregory Pincus, the brilliant but maverick scientist who developed the Pill. Pincus spoke at a conference in Sweden and boasted that he had come up with “an almost 100% effective pill for preventing pregnancy”. His colleague John Rock, a Catholic doctor who had played a key role in testing the new drug, immediately despatched a telegram. “Suggest buttoning up,” Rock warned.

Pincus, Rock, and two remarkable women – the birth control pioneers Margaret Sanger and Katharine McCormick – are at the heart of this brilliant book by American journalist Jonathan Eig. It opens with a meeting in New York between Sanger and Pincus in 1950, when they discussed developing an oral contraceptive. Pincus was 47 and looked like “a cross between Albert Einstein and Groucho Marx”; Sanger was 71, worn out after spending most of her life campaigning for women’s rights, and convinced that the lack of reliable contraception was the biggest obstacle to equality. She came from a family of 11 and her mother had died of tuberculosis at 50; financial support from two of her elder sisters, who worked as a maid and a governess respectively, had allowed her to get the education they had missed.

Sanger had the arguments and the determination to drive the campaign forward but she needed scientists and a financial backer. The latter came in the shape of McCormick, who was slightly older than Sanger and recently widowed; in a chapter heading Eig characterises the two women ironically as “the socialite and the sex maniac”, reflecting the hostility of the time towards women who argued for birth control. McCormick was one of the first women to graduate with a science degree from MIT, and it was the tragedy of her personal life – her fabulously wealthy husband was diagnosed with a severe mental illness shortly after they married – that turned her towards funding medical research.

This was the 50s: in a traditional division of roles, Sanger was the advocate and McCormick the philanthropist, while men did the science. Pincus was daring, innovative and a self-publicist, a trait which cost him his grant at Harvard early in his career; he did much of his work on hormones at the Worcester Foundation, the laboratory he founded in a factory town 40 miles west of Boston. After their meeting, Sanger wrote to Pincus offering a grant of $2,000 from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which she had helped to found. “The amount was ludicrous,” Pincus recalled later, “but I at once replied, ‘Yes’.’

Pincus accepted because so few people were willing to be associated with his research. In retrospect, it seems an extraordinary failure on the part of mainstream scientific institutions and drug companies that they did not see the Pill’s potential. This was partly because of anxiety about the Catholic church, which – despite John Rock’s sterling efforts to argue that the Pill did not contravene doctrine – would eventually ban it altogether in 1968. But it is also a striking example of the inability of male-dominated institutions to spot what women urgently need and want. Eig quotes heartrending letters from mothers desperate not to get pregnant again, some of whom wrote directly to Pincus. A mother of six from Indianapolis wrote. “When I read this article I couldn’t help but cry, for I thought this is my ray of hope… I beg you please help me if you can.”

Pincus benefited from this neglect, carrying out hair-raising clinical trials that would not have been countenanced in mainstream institutions; he tried out his compounds on inmates of a mental hospital and a group of nursing students, who were told to take it as a requirement of starting their course, before giving it to women in the slums of Puerto Rico. Despite all the setbacks, it took only seven years to develop Enovid and have it approved for menstrual problems; three years later, in 1960, it was licensed for use as a contraceptive, a momentous piece of news which appeared on page 75 of the New York Times. Soon 400,000 American women were using it for birth control, prompting its appearance on the cover of Timemagazine, which claimed it had “liberated the sex and family life of a large and still growing segment of the US population”. The magazine predicted it would one day do the same “for much of the world”, reflecting the long-held view of birth control pioneers that an oral contraceptive would solve the problem of over-population.

In the event, the Pill was adopted most enthusiastically by middle-class women who didn’t mind having to take it every day. I was one of them, taking it for the first time as a student; my generation grew up with the knowledge that we didn’t have to have children if we didn’t want to, a change so massive that Eig rightly calls it a revolution. His book often reads like a thriller as funds runs out, clinical trials stall and politicians, including John F Kennedy, shy away from the hot potato of birth control.

But Sanger never lost sight of her visionary understanding of the possibilities that would be unlocked by oral contraception; Eig’s book shows her constantly chivvying and driving the research forward, even after she suffered a series of heart attacks. For all the criticisms levelled at it in later years, the Pill’s philosophical impact has been as significant as its physical effect. Its advocates deserve this vivid and life-affirming history.

The Birth of the Pill is published by Macmillan, £14.99


Male power and a sense of impunity is at the heart of all child abuse rings

Independent on Sunday, 8 February 2015

Rotherham is high on Ukip’s target list, and it has tried to make political capital out of the scandal

Why have so many men of Pakistani origin been involved in sexual abuse of under-age girls? It’s a fair question, as long as we also ask why sexual abuse flourished among famous men (all of them white) in the entertainment industry in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. In the case of Jimmy Savile – famously photographed with Margaret Thatcher, the Prince of Wales and the Beatles – it took decades for his crimes to be exposed.

In Rotherham, only a handful of men have been convicted of abusing girls despite a report last summer which identified 1,400 victims. Last week, the Government sent in commissioners to run the town, after a second damning report identified a culture of bullying, sexism and cover-ups at the council.

Also last week, the former glam rock star Gary Glitter was convicted of sex offences, including the attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl. Savile is the most prolific of the group of celebrity child-abusers, with a list of at least 450 victims. His friend and fellow-DJ Ray Teret is in jail after being convicted last year of assaulting girls as young as 12. Several other famous men from the period, including Rolf Harris, are also serving jail sentences.

It’s clear in retrospect that these men exploited power and treated their victims with contempt, while considering themselves untouchable. Much the same could be said of men of Pakistani origin who abused under-age girls much more recently; they had greater status than their victims and went unchallenged in a political culture which feared accusations of racism. Labour is at fault here for embracing men who manifestly don’t support gender equality, leaving it to Asian women’s organisations to challenge the misogyny endemic in some British-Pakistani communities.

What makes this issue toxic – and some people on the left reluctant to discuss it even now – is the anti-immigration rhetoric of the popular press and Ukip. Nigel Farage turned up at his party’s office in Rotherham on Friday to “cut a ribbon”, which isn’t a ceremony that happens frequently in the town. Rotherham is high on Ukip’s list of target seats and it isn’t the first time the party has sought to make political capital out of the child sex scandal; last year a Ukip poster suggested there were “1,400 reasons why you should not trust Labour again”.

Child sexual abuse used to be hidden but victims (male and female) are now emerging in staggering numbers, along with a realisation that certain conditions allow it to flourish. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed by the inquiry into historic allegations of a Westminster paedophile ring. What unites these men is gender, power and a sense of impunity, a combination that can turn up anywhere. Despite what Ukip wants you to think, sexual abuse is about culture, not race.

Putin is a dangerous psychopath – reason is not going to work with him

Independent on Sunday, 1 February 2015

A secret war in Ukraine, murder in London, incursions into others’ airspace. His behaviour is getting worse

Everyone knows the saying about people who fail to learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat it. It’s a slight misquotation, but the idea that we should be able to avoid making the same mistakes by studying the past is undeniably attractive. So what does history tell us about the behaviour of Europe’s biggest country, Russia, which is currently fighting an undeclared war with its neighbour, Ukraine?

I’ll come back to that in a moment but Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, singled out Russia’s military ambitions in a speech on Friday, describing 2014 as “a black year” for European security. He revealed that the alliance recorded more than 400 incursions into foreign airspace by Russian warplanes last year, around four times as many as in 2013. The previous day, British fighters were scrambled to intercept two Russian bombers over the English Channel, an episode that resulted in the Russian ambassador being summoned to the Foreign Office.

Around the time Stoltenberg was giving his assessment of the Russian threat to peace, the reality of the situation in Ukraine was brought home by the shelling of a cultural centre in Donetsk, killing at least six people. In theory, the conflict is between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists who have declared a breakaway republic, but no one seriously believes that Russia isn’t behind the fighting. More than 5,000 people are believed to have been killed since April yet public attention, which suddenly turned to Ukraine after the shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane in July last year, is focused elsewhere.

While the terrorist organisation Islamic State (Isis) is responsible for huge numbers of casualties, it has killed far fewer people in Europe than have died in the Ukrainian conflict. It could be argued that the spectacular type of warfare favoured by Isis has actually done the Russian government a favour, deflecting attention with a series of attention-grabbing atrocities. Russia’s tradition of covert warfare is long-established, and some Kremlin officials visibly enjoy the process of repeating denials which are bare-faced lies.

In a repeat of recent history, dead Russian soldiers are once again being returned to their families without any information about where they were killed. The names of more than 260 have been published on a website run by opponents of President Putin, along with a map of eastern Ukraine showing where they died. The Russian government denies involvement but 10 Russian paratroopers were captured in Ukraine in August. The mother of a Russian soldier, whose body was returned with his legs blown off, said he had phoned her to say his unit was being deployed to Donetsk.

When something similar happened during the second Chechen war, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya interviewed bereaved mothers and wrote about what was going on. She was assassinated in Moscow on President Putin’s birthday in 2006, a month or so before the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was murdered in London. At a public inquiry last week, Litvinenko’s death was described as “an act of nuclear terrorism on the streets of a major city”. Ben Emmerson, the QC representing Mr Litvinenko’s widow, said the trail led directly to Putin and called for him to be “unmasked by this inquiry as a common criminal dressed up as a head of state”.

This is a staggering statement. Some commentators are reluctant to accept it, arguing that Putin genuinely feels under threat from Nato; Greece’s inexperienced new government, led by the coalition of left-wing parties known as Syriza, is making friendly overtures towards Russia. No one wants a new cold war but the evidence suggests they’re making a mistake of epic proportions: what European leaders are dealing with here is  classic psychopathic behaviour. Putin displays a complete absence of empathy and is painfully thin-skinned; he found being mocked by the punk band Pussy Riot so intolerable that two of the women ended up in penal colonies. Even more alarming is his lack of fear and enjoyment of risk, which means he enjoys baiting people he sees as opponents.

All of this brings me back to the problem with learning from history. The leader-as-psychopath is far from unusual: Saddam Hussein displayed similar characteristics, although a closer parallel in this instance is Stalin. The question is what to do about it, and it would help if people who make excuses for Putin stopped fooling themselves about how dangerous he is. I’ve believed this ever since the assassination of Politkovskaya, whom I knew slightly, and I’ve watched the evidence accumulate: at least 29 journalists have been murdered in direct connection with their work since Putin came to power: opponents have had their assets seized and been sent to harsh prisons in Siberia; neighbouring countries live in fear of cyber-attacks, such as the one on Estonia in 2007, or military invasion.

The Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who chairs the Defence Select Committee, described last week’s incident over the Channel as “a symptom of a much bigger pattern which means we got Russia wrong”. I think it’s more accurate to say that world leaders got Putin wrong, treating him as an authoritarian who would nevertheless keep his behaviour within recognisable boundaries. Remember when George W Bush gave him the affectionate nickname Pootie-Poot? If history teaches us anything, it is that treating unstable psychopaths as if they are normal, reasonable people doesn’t work.

Psychopaths love attention, so allowing Putin to host big sporting events such as the Winter Olympics and the World Cup is a mistake. They like to feel important, so he shouldn’t be invited to attend summits with other world leaders. His behaviour is escalating as economic sanctions start to bite, which is why he is sending military aircraft to test the air defences of other countries. He isn’t going to give up power of his own accord, which means that keeping open  back-channels to people around him is vital. Europe didn’t pick this fight, but we should be in no doubt that Russia under Putin is an unpredictable rogue state.