In the Murdoch morality tale, Rupert always wins

The latest twist in an extraordinary saga of corporate rehabilitation suggests that the indignities of the phone-hacking trials and Leveson are clearly in the past

The Guardian, 30 January 2016

It’s the news they couldn’t wait to announce: James Murdoch has been reappointed chairman of Sky TV, proving beyond doubt that one of the world’s most powerful dynasties has got its mojo back. The news comes in a stunning month for the Murdoch clan, following swiftly on the announcement that James’s father Rupert is engaged to the former model Jerry Hall.

It’s a far cry from the dark days of 2012, when Murdoch’s younger son stepped down from his job running Sky in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. James had been chairman and chief executive of News Corp, the parent company of News international, during a period when intercepting mobile phone calls – including mine – was rife at the News of the World.

After the Murdochs gave evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating the hacking, MPs accused News Corp of “wilful blindness”and said its directors, including James and Rupert Murdoch, “should ultimately be prepared to take responsibility”.

Almost four years later, James Murdoch was the only candidate put forward to the Sky board. His appointment as chairman was announced by Sky’s chief executive, Jeremy Darroch, during a conference call with the media, despite the fact that it’s hard to think of a more insensitive moment to reveal Murdoch’s return. This week, the family of Milly Dowler, the murdered schoolgirl at the heart of the phone-hacking scandal, had to deal with the distressing news that Levi Bellfield had finally confessedto the abduction, rape and murder of 13-year-old Milly in 2002.

Her parents, who gave evidence at the Leveson inquiry, said in a statement that the news of Bellfield’s confession was “devastating for a family that already had to endure so much”. It was the Guardian’s revelation that Milly’s phone had been hacked by someone acting on behalf of the News of the World that led to calls for a public inquiry in the summer of 2011.

For the Murdochs, it seems phone hacking and all the scandals that went with it are clearly in the past. Those awful days when James and Rupert had to appear penitent, shaking their heads over the failure of minions who inexplicably withheld crucial information from them, must feel like a bad dream. It’s not even as if James is the only one who’s got his job back: Rebekah Brooks was reinstated as chief executive of Murdoch’s British publishing business, News UK, in September last year.

All that embarrassment about the close links between Murdoch’s senior people and David Cameron – who now remembers her text offering a “country supper”? – is ancient history. Next time the Murdochs gather en masse, they could raise a glass not just to Rupert’s impending nuptials but one of the most successful PR strategies in living memory. The resignations, the displays of contrition, Rupert’s dramatic announcement about the “humblest day” of his life: they were what was expected and they were what we got. We should have known it wouldn’t last.

Those of us who had believed for years that the press was too powerful, concentrated in the hands of a tiny group of tycoons with the power to make or break governments, thought that the day of reckoning had finally come. How could any organisation survive the sordid revelations that emerged at the Leveson inquiry, costing the Murdoch empire millions in compensation and legal fees, along with the closure of a flagship title?

That’s why so many people who had suffered from intrusion were willing to appear before Leveson. Giving evidence about very personal matters is daunting, and most of us did it because we believed in the possibility of change. Now it feels as if we were hopelessly optimistic, failing to realise that the inquiry would be undermined by a process of attrition and a lack of political will. I still think it was worth it, but it’s hard to believe that so little has come out of a scandal that caused so much distress to so many people.

James Murdochhimself told us that the bad old days were over. Under questioning from the Leveson inquiry’s softly spoken interrogator, Robert Jay QC, he rejected the idea that power lay with the media during an election campaign. “I just don’t think that there’s that kind of old-fashioned power of big media proprietors being able to dominate the landscape,” he insisted.

Subsequent events tell a different story. Those politicians who tried to hold the Murdochs and other press barons to account have all but disappeared from view. The prime minister, who was bounced into setting up the inquiry by Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg, now has a parliamentary majority and doesn’t need to worry about an enfeebled opposition.

Along with George Osborne, Cameron headed the guest list at Rupert’s Christmas party in London last month, where they were joined by half the cabinet. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder who – Cameron or Murdoch – actually won the 2015 election.

Normal service has been resumed, in other words. In that sense, James Murdoch’s return to Sky is the final act in an extraordinary saga of corporate rehabilitation. It’s a morality play of sorts and one title fits: how are the mighty risen.


The Government’s pursuit of domestic violence victims living on benefits is cruel

Daily Telegraph, 28 January 2016

Every year, thousands of women in Britain suffer unimaginable levels of domestic violence. Even when they leave their partners, they are subjected to threats, harassment and physical assaults, sometimes in front of their children.

A single mother known only as A, who has just won a landmark ruling at the Appeal Court, is one of those victims – and her case exposes a troubling incoherence at the heart of the Government’s approach to domestic violence.

Up and down the country, refuge provision is being cut as local authorities slash their budgets. Women can end up moving several times, through no fault of their own, and find it hard to rebuild stable lives for themselves and their children. One alternative to a refuge place is a ‘sanctuary’ scheme, designed to protect victims in their own homes. In A’s case, the police spent thousands of pounds reinforcing the doors and windows of her council house, and creating a panic room with a link to the police station.

Her lawyers told the judges that she was a victim of rape, assault, harassment, stalking and death threats by her former partner. Without the panic room, she would have had to leave her house and put herself at risk (like many other victims of violent partners) of becoming homeless. Sanctuary schemes have existed since the 1990s and have allowed some women to stay in their houses or flats; by 2007, they were so successful that half the local authorities in England had put them in place.

Then the Coalition government changed the law relating to housing benefit claimants. Ministers said they wanted to tackle a problem of ‘under-occupancy’ and encourage tenants who had spare rooms to move into smaller accommodation; critics immediately dubbed it a ‘bedroom tax’ and highlighted a series of anomalies affecting vulnerable people, including the disabled.

The law was not aimed at victims of extreme domestic violence but it didn’t make exemptions for them either. Hence, the court heard that A had £12 a week deducted from her housing benefit because her panic room was treated as a ‘spare’ that she didn’t actually need.

Now her lawyers have argued successfully that the under-occupancy charge amounts to unlawful discrimination against women, and has had a particularly grave effect on victims of extreme domestic violence. It is estimated that 281 British households are in a similar situation and have had their benefits cut because of the change. A’s lawyers said she belongs to a “small but extremely vulnerable class of women and children who need the safety of a sanctuary scheme, while they try to rebuild their lives after surviving domestic violence.”

Campaigners for victims of domestic violence welcomed the judgement, calling on the Government to change the law and protect women who need sanctuary schemes. But the Department for Work and Pensions said it intends to appeal to the Supreme Court.

That means there will be no change to the ‘bedroom tax’ policy in the immediate future and hundreds of women in A’s situation will continue paying. Yes, the numbers in this particular situation are small. But what this suggests is a lamentable failure by Government departments to talk to each other about policy on domestic violence. Sanctuary schemes are expensive to set up, requiring reinforced doors, steel bars, panic buttons and other emergency measures.

But that has to be offset against the cost of putting a woman and her children into a refuge, often miles from home, and supporting them until they can be rehoused. A couple of years ago, on a visit to a refuge, I met a woman who had been forced to leave her home because of threats from her ex-husband. She’d moved to the other side of London to get away from him, which meant giving up her job and support from family and friends. She had to claim benefits, her children went to new schools, and the entire family lived in a single room for months. The disruption in such cases is enormous, and so is the cost to local authorities and Government departments.

Sanctuary schemes and panic rooms aren’t the solution in every case. But as more victims of domestic violence come forward, we need to think about how best to provide secure environments for women who are in fear for their lives.

Last year, the Metropolitan Police recorded more than 146,000 domestic offences in London alone, a 12 per cent increase on the figure for 2014. Almost a third of notifiable domestic offences involve violence with injury, leaving victims in terror of further assaults. In Britain, two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. A recent study by charity Agenda found that 1.2m women and girls in England are living with the impact of physical and sexual abuse.

Need is increasing, while resources are being stretched to the limit. Whatever you think about the change to housing benefit entitlement, it cannot be right that victims of extreme domestic violence are facing this petty charge – solely because they need to be safe.

Litvinenko inquiry: when it’s Putin, different rules apply

Unless events take an unexpected turn, the Russian president is unlikely to be held to account for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko

Independent on Sunday, 24 January 2016

In August 1940, Leon Trotsky was attacked at his heavily guarded home in Mexico City. His assailant, a Spanish communist called Ramon Mercader, gained access to the compound by pretending to be a sympathiser, but he was actually working for the Russian secret police, the NKVD. Once inside Trotsky’s study, where the exiled revolutionary was writing a biography of Stalin, Mercader pulled out an ice axe and struck him on the head.

Still conscious, Trotsky was rushed to hospital, where he died the next day. Although Mercader struck the fatal blow, Trotsky was in no doubt about the true identity of his assassin: three months earlier, after an armed assault on his compound, he had written an article entitled “Stalin seeks my death”. Mercader served a long prison sentence in Mexico, but Stalin showed his gratitude by presenting his mother with the Order of Lenin.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Last week, in one of the most extraordinary reports ever to emerge from a British public inquiry, it was claimed that the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko was probably murdered on the personal order of Russia’s head of state, President Vladimir Putin. As politicians reeled from the findings of Sir Robert Owen’s inquiry, David Cameron described the killing in the centre of London in 2006 as “state-sponsored murder”.

That was the accusation made by Litvinenko himself, in a statement published posthumously by one of his friends. The circumstances of his murder in are well known by now: the cup of tea with two former KGB officers, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, from whom he hoped to get private security work; the stomach cramps that got worse over the next few days; the shocking diagnosis of poisoning with polonium-210; the fact that his body was so radioactive that he had to be buried in a lead-lined coffin. What wasn’t expected, or not in such bald terms, was the inquiry’s conclusion that there was a “strong circumstantial case” that the Russian state was behind the assassination.

In a chilling parallel with Stalin’s behaviour towards Trotsky’s assassin, the inquiry highlighted Putin’s favourable treatment of Lugovoi in the years after the murder, suggesting it demonstrated the Russian state’s approval of the killing. Sir Robert’s exceptionally damning report claimed that the murder involved a conspiracy at the highest level, planned from as early as 2004. It said that the operation was probably approved by Nikolai Patrushev, then director of the FSB, which took over from the KGB in the 1990s.

The prospect of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear material and using it to kill civilians has worried the security services for years, with supporters of al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS) regarded as the most likely culprits. But the person accused of ordering the first assassination using radioactive material is a serving head of state; Russia is suspended from G8 meetings after Putin’s annexation of Crimea but Cameron, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and other world leaders meet him regularly at G20 summits. Can they really turn up for the 2018 World Cup in Moscow and exchange chit-chat with Putin about the prospects for their national teams, as though nothing has happened?

In the sober surroundings of the High Court in London, Russia’s head of state has been linked not only to the Litvinenko murder but to a pattern of state-sponsored assassinations: “Leading opponents of President Putin, including those living outside Russia, were at risk of assassination,” the report stated. The list of Kremlin critics who have met grisly ends is lengthy, even if only the most famous make international headlines: the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down at her apartment building in Moscow on Putin’s birthday in 2006; the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after being badly beaten; and the politician Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated on a bridge near Red Square last year.

What is different now is that the accusation comes from an unimpeachable source, after a year-long public inquiry that had access to secret intelligence. Following publication of the report, European arrest warrants were issued for Lugovoi and Kovtun, but Putin would undoubtedly claim immunity from prosecution as head of state. Unless events take an unexpected turn, he is unlikely to be held to account at home and Russia is not a member of the International Criminal Court. But the travel bans and asset freezes announced last week by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, are hardly commensurate with the gravity of the accusations against the President’s inner circle.

At the very least we need a British version of the Magnitsky Act, which was passed in the US in 2012 to punish Russian officials complicit in the lawyer’s murder. But something else is missing. When Islamists attacked Paris twice last year, world leaders showed a united front against international terrorism. The silence of the Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was striking last week, but where were Hollande, Merkel and other European leaders? Putin can stick two fingers up at a single government but EU-wide restrictions on all current and former FSB officers would be another matter.

Sadly, the French President chose Thursday, the day the Litvinenko inquiry published its report, to announce that he wanted closer cooperation with Russia in the fight against IS. The jihadists have seized headlines with sickening attacks on civilians in European cities and the Middle East. But they do not possess the apparatus of a state, including access to radioactive material from closed nuclear facilities. Putin does, and a head of state who stands accused of ordering political assassinations is as great a threat to international peace and security.


Church attendances are in decline as people search for community in outpourings of grief

Independent on Sunday, 17 January 2016

I suspect that many more people will listen to Bowie’s music than go to church this weekend, and that’s a good thing

As it happens, I know exactly when I last set foot inside a church. It was in Sicily last summer, when I went to see a painting by Caravaggio which hangs in a small Catholic church in Ortigia. I haven’t been inside an Anglican church for ages, and that’s something I share with the vast majority of the population. In a country where around three-fifths of us say we’re not religious, only 760,000 people attend Sunday services. That is according to the Church of England’s own attendance figures, which have just been published.

The church has been in decline for years, and it didn’t help matters last week when Anglican leaders made a desperate and discreditable attempt to appease conservative bishops who oppose homosexuality. With brilliant timing, it then emerged that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is joining talks with other Christian churches about a proposal to fix the date of Easter. This lofty announcement was accompanied by a warning that competing franchises (Anglican, Catholic, Coptic) have been arguing about this since the 10th century, so we shouldn’t expect an agreement any time soon.

There is a temptation to ask why they can’t get a move on – ecclesiastical time clearly proceeds at a glacial pace – but I’m wondering why it should be left to the church at all. At present, the date of Easter varies by up to 35 days, creating a logistical nightmare for schools, shops and people who work in the leisure industry. They would benefit from having a fixed spring break each year, so why is the government waiting passively for the churches to resolve an arcane theological argument? One of the things I like about the modern world is that employees have an entitlement to holidays, but that has more to do with recognition of workers’ rights than religion

The only time church attendance goes up is at Christmas – 2.4 million people went to a Christmas service in 2014 – and that says more about tradition and an impulse to do something together than belief in God. The monarchy, the other institution charged with meeting these needs, is doing a bit better, at least on the face of it, but that’s because it has managed to insert itself into popular culture in a way the church hasn’t. The younger royals appear endlessly in celebrity magazines where they share the same pages as pop stars and contestants on “reality” TV. There’s been a corresponding decline in deference, with their appearance subjected to the same critical scrutiny as that of Oscar nominees. Only this weekend, a Daily Mail writer lamented Prince William’s appearance, plaintively asking, “What has happened to the handsome prince of my girlhood fantasy?”

It’s not hard to see a blurring between royalty and celebrity here, with the royals well aware that it works in their favour, even if they don’t love it. It reached the height of absurdity recently when the TV presenters Ant and Dec conducted a fawning “interview” with Prince Charles, not long after rather more probing broadcasters revealed the lengthy contract he expects them to sign in advance. It’s all about control and media management, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the arrangements for the Queen’s 90th birthday raise questions about how much the Royal Family cares about its supposedly central role of bringing the country together.

The centrepiece is a lunch for 10,000 people in the Mall in June, invoking memories (for older people) of the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. “We hope that people in Britain and across the Commonwealth will dust off their picnic tables and join us in celebrating this very special occasion”, declares a website set up to promote the event. But the Patron’s Lunch is open mainly to individuals involved with charities supported by the Queen, and they will have to pay £150 each for the privilege of sharing a “hamper”. It features prominently on the website but the only thing I can tell you about what’s inside is that the food will be provided by the official sponsors, including Marks & Spencer. I’m quite fond of M&S but £150 is a bit steep to sit at a trestle table and nibble some of their ready-made hors d’oeuvres.

An exclusive bash of this sort misses the point, even by the monarchy’s standards. It’s been clear for years that even the most secular societies yearn for individuals and events capable of overriding the differences between us, temporarily at least. Politics can’t do it and religion certainly can’t, which is why the demise of a single well-known person sometimes has such a massive effect.

When people talked about the death of David Bowie last week, they were also talking about themselves and the culture they grew up in. These outpourings of grief are not an entirely benign phenomenon but they highlight a space left by the decline of organised religion, which a combination of humanism and popular culture are trying to fill. I suspect that many more people will listen to Bowie’s music than go to church this weekend, and that’s a good thing.


Cologne New Year sex assaults are a wake-up call: all women have the right to feel safe

If we can teach refugees our languages, we should be able to teach them about the importance of equality

Independent on Sunday, 10 January 2016

During a conference in Berlin last month, I asked a young German woman how she felt about Angela Merkel’s decision to open the country’s borders to more than a million refugees. She said she supported the Chancellor but the policy had caused painful arguments among her friends, most of them recent graduates like her. The issue they disagreed upon was the potential impact on Germany of mass migration from countries where women’s rights are barely acknowledged.

It would be easy to dismiss the anxieties she expressed as a covert expression of xenophobia, but I don’t think that was her motivation. Many migrants come from countries where women have low status and little legal protection; it is only two years since Morocco repealed a law that allowed rapists of under-age girls to escape prosecution by marrying their victims. I keep hoping that one of the benefits of mass migration into Europe will be an opportunity to empower women and girls, giving them the confidence to demand rights I take for granted.

A much more disturbing possibility – that some migrant men violently reject the idea of gender equality – is why the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve have caused such heart-searching. Other German cities, including Hamburg, reported sex attacks on a smaller scale, while a police chief in Finland made the startling claim that migrant gangs “had similar plans” to commit sex assaults in Helsinki. He said three asylum seekers had been arrested.

Cologne’s police chief stood down on Friday, after his force faced accusations of trying to conceal the fact that some of the men involved in the assaults were migrants. The slow police response is frustrating because, more than a week after the attacks, the job of identifying men who committed mass sexual assaults is increasingly difficult; I don’t think there’s much doubt that the police failed victims and made a bad situation worse by leaving the attackers’ identities in question. But I also don’t think we should query the accounts of women who say their assailants appeared to be migrants and the attacks were organised. A leaked police report described victims being forced to “run the gauntlet” between ranks of “extremely intoxicated men”.

It is this aspect of the Cologne assaults which has caused the greatest outrage. Rape and sexual assaults are not unknown in European cities but organised sex attacks by gangs in public spaces are a new and terrifying phenomenon. New to Europe, that is: there are striking parallels with what happened to women during mass demonstrations in Egypt during the Arab Spring. The CBS correspondent Lara Logan thought she was going to die after being seized and stripped by a mob, but most of the victims were Egyptian women who had rushed to join demonstrations against President Hosni Mubarak.

“I was completely sexually assaulted by groups of men, pulling on me, grabbing every inch of my body,” said one young woman who was attacked in Tahrir Square, in the centre of Cairo, in 2011. It was not an isolated incident: on a single day in 2013, more than 80 women were brutally assaulted by gangs of men during further demonstrations. In countries where women have few legal protections, some men behave as if they own the streets.

Even in Tunisia, which is widely regarded as having one of the best records in North Africa on gender equality, women describe sexual harassment as “our everyday experience”. In Egypt, where feminist organisations have existed since the 1920s, a recent UN report suggested that 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed. A study in 2008 by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Studies found that almost three-quarters of victims wore the veil, making a nonsense of Katie Hopkins’s sarcastic proposal in the Daily Mail that she might now have to “buy a burka and get it over with”.

Hopkins is just as wrong when she suggests that “some Islamic and Arabic men” have no respect for white women. Men who commit such attacks have no respect for women, period, and are just as likely to be violent towards their wives, sisters and daughters. It’s sometimes forgotten that many migrants are women and children, and even more likely to suffer from the effects of deeply entrenched sexist ideas than European women. In that 2008 study almost 63 per cent of the Egyptian men interviewed openly admitted they had harassed women.

It would be naïve to assume that men with unacceptable attitudes towards women will undergo an instant change of heart on arriving in countries with a commitment to gender equality. The problem hasn’t been helped by a chaotic asylum system which has encouraged the survival of the fittest; some statistics suggest that a disproportionate number of asylum seekers are unaccompanied young men. But the problem can be managed through education and a direct challenge to views which are inherently sexist or homophobic. If we can teach refugees English or German, we can also teach them about the importance of equality and human rights.

What happened in Cologne and other European cities is a wake-up call, but not the one claimed by far-right organisations such as Pegida, which held a rally in Cologne on Saturday. Even Merkel hasn’t quite got it, talking last week about “the feeling women had… of being at people’s mercy”. The one thing we know beyond doubt about the people who committed sex attacks in German cities is that they were men, a fact which should move women’s rights to the top of the agenda.

A strong, confident Europe should be perfectly capable of doing two things: protecting people fleeing vile regimes while upholding the principle that every woman has a fundamental right to feel safe in public space.


Hate crimes, a locked-room mystery and some very modern murders

The Sunday Times, 3 January 2016

Increasing numbers of people are looking after disabled or elderly relatives, often without much outside support. In Eva Dolan’s stark new novel, After You Die (Harvill Secker £12.99), the police are called when a mother caring for her severely disabled teenage daughter gets abusive phone calls and discovers that her car has been vandalised. It is Dolan’s third novel based at a hate-crimes unit in Peterborough, where her detectives work on a category of offences that has only recently been recognised.

The mother, Dawn Prentice, blames the damage on local kids who resent the special treatment her daughter has received following a climbing accident. A few months later, Dawn is stabbed to death, leaving her daughter to die of neglect in her bedroom; it isn’t clear to DI Zigic and his team whether Dawn’s killer intended the girl to die or if she is an unintended victim of the frenzied attack on her mother. This harrowing plot requires all of Dolan’s skills as a novelist, confirming that she is able to tackle sensitive subjects without sensationalism.

Adrian McKinty’s thoroughly engaging crime novels are set in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s when paramilitary violence was a daily threat. His detective, DI Sean Duffy, is a scruffy cynic based in Carrickfergus whose idea of a good day out is volunteering for a bit of riot duty. In Rain Dogs (Serpent’s Tail £12.99), McKinty has had the brilliant idea of challenging him with a locked-room mystery straight out of the golden age of detective fiction.

A dead woman is discovered early one morning in the courtyard of Carrickfergus castle, where she appears to have thrown herself from the ramparts. The castle has been locked all night and there’s no evidence of foul play, but Duffy is worried by the fact that she is wearing the wrong shoe on one of her feet. His suspicions increase when he learns she is a journalist from London, in Northern Ireland to cover a visit by a group of Finnish investors. This is a classic plot with modern twists, but it is Duffy’s character — sexist and self-aware by turns — that powers the book to its inevitable conclusion.

Samuel Bjork is the latest Norwegian crime-writing sensation. His debut novel, I’m Travelling Alone, translated by Charlotte Barslund (Doubleday £12.99), has appeared on bestseller lists in half a dozen European countries. Bjork is the pen name of Frode Sander Oien, a well-known playwright and singer, who hid his identity for several months after the book was published in Norway two years ago.

The novel opens with a disturbing scene in which a dog walker finds the body of a six-year-old girl hanging from a tree; around her neck is a sign used by a Norwegian airline to identify children who are travelling without an accompanying adult. It is the first in a series of murders that perplexes his detectives, veteran investigator Holger Munch and his troubled protégée, Mia Kruger. For all the power of the opening, however, Bjork seems more interested in his detectives’ psychology than the plot, and the killings are too elaborate to be credible.

The title of Claudia Pineiro’s latest novel, Betty Boo, translated by Miranda France (Bitter Lemon £8.99), is also the nickname of her main character, Nurit Iscar, a novelist who has been reduced to ghost-writing other people’s memoirs after her last book was mauled by the critics. Down on her luck, Nurit feels she can’t refuse when a newspaper editor invites her to write about the killing of an Argentinian industrialist who lived in an exclusive gated community in Buenos Aires. This is a mordantly funny novel about murder, friendship and the state of journalism from an Argentinian writer who has been compared to Patricia Highsmith.


Refugee crisis: is anyone looking for the big idea to stop children drowning?

The West’s attempt to tackle the refugee issue is more about squabbling over numbers than visionary thinking

Independent on Sunday, 3 January 2016

It was one of the defining images of 2015: an apparently endless column of people trudging wearily along roads in southern Europe, clutching plastic bags and suitcases. Syria is emptying out, on a scale that invokes images of Biblical migrations, and there seems to be no end to the exodus.

Like most people in Western Europe, I feel aghast and helpless in the face of human suffering on this scale. I wasn’t alive during the Second World War but the parallels with the involuntary movement of people caused by the Nazis are as obvious as they are uncomfortable. In the late 1930s, the US and much of Europe closed its doors to hundreds of thousands of desperate would-be migrants who were trying to flee Hitler, refusing their requests for visas and condemning many to die in concentration camps.

No one should forget that Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in 1942 because they were what would now be called “failed asylum-seekers”. There was nothing inevitable about the death of Anne, who might be alive today if the world’s democracies had shown more compassion towards German Jews. Three-quarters of a century later, Western governments are still failing to provide safe, legal avenues of escape for people who face murder, arrest and torture at the hands of their own governments.

In the case of Syria, there is an additional threat from the religious fanatics of Islamic State (Isis) and groups sympathetic to al-Qaeda. But the root cause of this latest refugee crisis is once again a fascist government that is prepared to commit atrocities to stay in power. Bashar al-Assad’s Baath party was founded immediately after the Second World War by admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, and one of the main torture instruments in his prisons is known as the “German chair”.

The heart-rending columns of Syrian refugees are proof of a failure to act on promises made by the international community when pictures from the Nazi death camps emerged for the first time. There is no agreement, let alone anything approaching a big idea, about how to achieve what the vast majority of Syrians actually want: the possibility of returning to their country and resuming their lives in safety. It’s a failure of international governance (not a phrase you hear very often these days) on a grand scale.

So, where are the institutions which were supposed to prevent such horrors happening again? Where, to be more precise, is the UN? The scale of the international community’s failure to respond effectively to humanitarian crises was underlined last week by the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres. The Portuguese politician held the job for 10 years and pointed out that the number of displaced people had increased from 36 million to a staggering 60 million in that period. Guterres blamed this development on the international community losing much of its capacity to avoid or solve a “dramatic multiplication of conflicts” in the world.

That’s the UN’s job. But affluent countries are squabbling about who will take Syrian refugees – David Cameron has offered to take a paltry 20,000 over five years – while children continue to drown in boats that aren’t even seaworthy. The Prime Minister’s interest in foreign affairs is too inconsistent to deserve being called a policy; he got rid of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya but sells arms to the monstrous Saudi government, which is killing civilians in Yemen and executed almost 50 of its own citizens on Saturday. Last month, RAF planes joined the US Air Force in bombing Isis’s military forces and economic interests in Syria, while Russia appears to be using air strikes against the jihadists as cover to target Assad’s opponents.

I doubt whether many people are even aware that the UK held the rotating presidency of the UN’s most powerful body, the Security Council, in November last year. Cameron certainly didn’t seize the opportunity to come up with new ideas to break the stalemate created by Russia’s support for Assad. If that really is as great an obstacle as some commentators suggest – and even Vladimir Putin might be getting fed up with his onerous protégé by now – it means that the UN is simply not able to fulfil its primary role of maintaining international peace and security.

It seems unlikely that the conflict in Syria can be brought to an end without ground troops, and a UN force taking temporary control of the country under a Security Council mandate seems the best solution. The idea has been welcomed by some British MPs but why isn’t Cameron, François Hollande or Barack Obama pushing for it? If the UN’s structure means that a single country can prevent it from protecting civilians and intervening in conflicts as savage as Syria’s, then the  case for reform is unanswerable.

At the very least, the UN needs a permanent military force, ready to be deployed at short notice, instead of having to respond to crises on an  ad hoc basis. In November last year, the latest month for which figures are available, its entire peacekeeping force, drawn from its member countries, amounted to little more than 106,000 police and military personnel. They have to carry out all the UN’s current peacekeeping missions, and many more would be needed to deal with the different factions in Syria.

History shows that dictators are a perennial problem, causing huge suffering at home and creating refugee crises abroad. But the Syrian disaster confirms that even the leaders of democratic states, with a public commitment to universal human rights, are struggling to rise above narrow national interests. Instead of making the UN work, they’re repeating the mistakes that caused so many needless deaths in the 20th century.

Phone hacking: victims of press intrusion are still in the dark about what happened

It is a curiously unsatisfactory end to a protracted saga: is this how the phone hacking scandal finishes, with a lengthy statement from the Crown Prosecution Service? Four-and-a-half years after a storm erupted over allegations that the phone messages of a murdered girl had been intercepted by a tabloid newspaper, the CPS has announced there is no “realistic prospect of a conviction” in two long-running investigations related to the hacking of voicemails.

The decision follows a review of evidence collected in two police operations, Weeting and Golding. It concluded there is insufficient evidence to bring corporate charges against Rupert Murdoch’s company, News UK (formerly News International), or criminal cases against 10 individuals at Mirror Group Newspapers.

The CPS has been savaged for some of its charging decisions in another police operation, Elveden, in which a number of journalists were cleared in corruption cases while their sources were convicted. But its latest statement, while not unexpected, leaves victims of hacking in the dark about important aspects of the scandal.

No one doubts that a culture of intrusion, symbolised by industrial-scale hacking of voicemails, was rife in some newsrooms. Mirror Group Newspapers is appealing against £1.2m damagesawarded to eight victims of phone hacking in May this year. The CPS decision means that while some victims know they were targeted by Mirror titles, they are unlikely to find out how it came about.

All of this leaves unanswered questions: how did the practice of phone hacking take root in newsrooms? And why did no one blow the whistle on it? Even when the NoW’s royal editor, Clive Goodman, and Mulcaire were convicted in 2007 for intercepting voicemails, it didn’t start alarm bells ringing. Corporate governance isn’t a subject that exercises the public, but it’s vital to restoring confidence in institutions that appear to have failed to notice a scandal that was staring them in the face. When two police officers from Operation Weeting showed me evidence in 2011 that my voicemails had been hacked by the NoW, it had been in their possession for almost five years.

Part of the problem, for victims of hacking, is that the scandal has had so many twists and turns. It’s hard to recall now that it all seemed relatively straightforward in the summer of 2011, when the Guardian revealed suspicions about the NoW’s behaviour after the disappearance of 13-year-old Milly Dowler in 2002. Milly was later found murdered and the suggestion on the Guardian’s front page on 4 July 2011 that someone acting for the tabloid had hacked into her voicemails caused a sensation.

Everything seemed to happen very fast at first. The then leader of the Labour party, Ed Miliband, called on Brooks, by then chief executive of News International, to consider her position. A pressure group, Hacked Off, was created with the specific aim of demanding a public inquiry. Murdoch panicked and announced the closure of the NoW. David Cameron appointed a judge, Lord Justice Leveson, to chair an inquiry.

The inquiry opened in November 2011. Leveson’s report, a 2,000-page doorstopper, was published a year later. Yet more than three years later, most of the press is still regulating itselfwithout independent scrutiny, Brooks has got her job back and the scandal is fading from public memory.



The case of DJ Neil Fox hasn’t been handled correctly. It should have been heard by a jury

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 15 December 2015