It’s big in Japan

A huge hit in Asia – and a game-changer for detective fiction

Sunday Times, 28 February 2016

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama, trans Jonathan Lloyd-Davies

Fourteen years have passed since a seven-year-old girl was abducted and murdered in a provincial city in Japan. The crime has never been solved, an outcome damaging to the reputation of any police force but especially so in a country where saving face is important. When the head of the national police in Tokyo suddenly takes an interest in this tragic cold case, his impending visit to City D provokes a ferocious power struggle among local detectives.

Six Four is the code name of the case, as well as the title of Hideo Yokoyama’s superb novel, which is something of a sensation in Japan and has already sold 1.3m copies there. The murder takes place in the 64th year of the Showa period, otherwise known as the long reign of the Emperor Hirohito, which ended with his death in 1989. The code name is an acknowledgment of the shame felt by detectives who failed to catch the perpetrator, prompting them to make a defiant promise to “drag the kidnapper right back into the 64th year of Showa”.

Such glimpses into the collective mind-set of the police force in City D are both strange and fascinating. If the detectives are acutely aware of their status, so are members of the press, who have their own room in police headquarters and display a sense of entitlement that might surprise British crime reporters. Yokoyama used to be an investigative journalist before he began writing fiction and his portrait of how the Japanese press operates is unflattering, posing questions about the potentially devastating impact of this intense scrutiny on officers and operations.

Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami, currently head of media relations at police HQ, was one of the detectives who sat with the kidnapped girl’s parents during the tense negotiations with the abductor in 1989. Unknown to the reporters who believe he’s unnecessarily withholding information on a series of cases, Mikami’s teenage daughter has run away from home. He has just returned from a four-hour trip by bullet train to view the body of a girl who turned out to be a stranger, the third time in three months that he has had to steel himself for such an ordeal.

Mikami suspects that the chief police’s visit to City D is a PR exercise rather than a genuine attempt to revive the investigation, but it is his job to notify the dead child’s father. Yoshio Amamiya is a widower, living next to a shrine to his daughter, and the parallels between the two men’s lives torment Mikami. When he begins to dig into the old case, speaking to colleagues who were involved in the botched ransom drop, he stumbles across a fatal error at the heart of the original investigation.

This is gripping stuff, fast-paced and involving endless conflicts of loyalties, but Yokoyama has something unexpected up his sleeve. A classic plot about a decent cop painstakingly uncovering corruption suddenly turns into one of the most remarkable revenge dramas in modern detective fiction. All the clues are there, in retrospect, but in a kind of shadow plot that will leave even the most observant reader gasping.

Quercus £16.99

 

The Morning They Came For Us – unsparing account of Syrians’ suffering

Janine di Giovanni’s reports of life under the Assad regime during the civil war are nightmarish, but unflinching

The Observer, Sunday 28 February 2016

When I first visited Syria, about 20 years ago, it was outwardly calm but with an atmosphere of underlying unease. After I gave a lecture at a university in Homs, I met a group of postgraduate students for coffee and was bombarded with questions about everyday life in a western secular society. I thought I’d been careful to avoid politics but when I got back to Damascus I discovered I’d been banned from speaking at the university there. A mukhabarat informer had been in the coffee shop.

A few years later, when I chaired an English PEN committee that campaigned on behalf of imprisoned writers, I heard first-hand about the torture that went on in the country’s prisons. One of the most notorious jails was close to Palmyra, where opponents of the government had their joints ripped apart on a horrific instrument of torture called the “German chair”. I used to wonder what would happen when decades of this brutal repression became intolerable and ordinary Syrians rose against Assad.

The answer turned out to be an extraordinarily savage civil war. It is a story that encompasses a massive refugee crisis and a whole series of war crimes, including rape of the regime’s opponents, male and female alike, and the use of chemical weapons. Now Russia’s entry into the conflict appears to have turned the odds in President Assad’s favour, while causing significant civilian casualties.

What life is like for ordinary Syrians who have stayed behind is the subject of Janine di Giovanni’s heartbreaking book. It is an account of her travels in Syria during a six-month period in 2012. Wealthy Damascenes are still in denial, gathering around the pool at Di Giovanni’s hotel to drink beer while smoke rises from shelling in the suburbs.

She cuts from this scene to Latakia, a coastal city close to the birthplace of Hafez al-Assad, the president’s father, who held the country in a stranglehold for almost 30 years. A young woman called Nada, who carried medical supplies to opposition fighters and broadcast reports calling for a democratic Syria, describes how she received a panicked phone call from a friend, telling her he had been arrested. “Can you get here right away?” he begged. “They want to talk to you, too.”

It was a pre-arranged signal, giving Nada time to run, but she had nowhere to go. She destroyed anything that might incriminate her but it made no difference when the knock came in the early morning, two days later. Nada spent the next eight months being tortured and made to listen as other prisoners were stripped, beaten and forced to drink urine. She was also raped, something confirmed by one of her friends, although Nada herself is unable to talk about it.

Di Giovanni confronts the nightmarish subject of sexual violence as a means of terrorising prisoners early in this extremely harrowing book. Her account of rapes in Assad’s prisons is unsensational but unsparing, a tone she maintains when she meets Hussein, a student from Homs. Hussein was never a fighter but that didn’t stop him being arrested and his story about being tortured by men who described themselves as doctors is too graphic to repeat. He survived only because another doctor took pity on him, certifying him dead so he would be taken to the morgue, where a nurse helped him escape.

Di Giovanni has reported on many conflicts. “I swore to myself, after Bosnia, that I would never live through another war that would consume me,” she writes. But she cannot bear the feeling of standing by and doing nothing, even if the best she can do is to make a record of suffering. This is no small thing: it is individual stories, rather than victims counted in the millions, that reveal the terrible cost of leaving dictators in place for the sake of “stability”.

The Morning They Came for Us is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99)

 

How the BBC’s ‘macho culture’ allowed girls to be sexually abused

Daily Telegraph, Friday 26 February 2016

The BBC is one of this country’s best-known institutions. Most of us assumed it was properly run, which is why Dame Janet Smith’s review of the Jimmy Savile scandal is the equivalent of a hand grenade, tossed into the corridors of the corporation to devastating effect. Dame Janet doesn’t claim that senior management knew about Savile’s crimes but she has identified a ‘macho culture’ which allowed him to prey on teenage (and younger) children for almost half a century.

Ironically, the review has found that it was especially pronounced in Light Entertainment and at Radio 1, which was supposed to be the corporation’s flagship youth station. Dame Janet paints a picture of the BBC struggling to adapt to a brash youth culture and completely failing to reflect the modern world: the corporation had very few women in management roles and female staff found it hard to report sexual harassment.

In a staggeringly deferential and masculine culture, male DJs and presenters were treated with ‘kid gloves’ and regarded as ‘untouchable’. When a junior female employee at Television Centre summoned up the courage to complain to her supervisor that she’d been assaulted by Savile, she was told ‘Keep your mouth shut, he is a VIP’.

These revelations destroy the lame old excuse that a gender imbalance in the workplace does no real harm. It’s not as though male-dominated offices and factories were unusual in the 1970s and 80s, and in that sense at least the BBC was far from unique; male bosses were so much the rule that the occasional woman in a senior position was regarded, at best, as a novelty.

Women in more junior positions were made to feel like outsiders, expected to flirt with colleagues or prove that we were ‘one of the lads’ by putting up with so-called ‘banter’. In one of the first newspaper offices I worked in, the news editor asked me to make tea while I was in the middle of writing a story. When I suggested a tea rota, all the men turned up the following day with a thermos flask.

Politics was as male-dominated as the BBC. It’s often forgotten that Margaret Thatcher was one of only eight women on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons when she became prime minister in 1979. Female MPs who arrived in Parliament after an election were astonished to discover that the Palace of Westminster had a shooting range but no childcare facilities.

That’s because the people who hold senior positions in organisations shape them, often unconsciously, in their own image. At the BBC, neither sexual harassment nor child protection was taken seriously because the men in charge didn’t regard other men, particularly if they were household names, as a potential risk. In one of the most damning phrases in her review, Dame Janet identifies an ‘atmosphere of fear’ which discouraged staff from complaining or raising concerns.

Even if they witnessed an assault, junior female staff would have known the consequences of making a complaint about someone as famous as Savile or the presenter Stuart Hall. We now know that the two men assaulted a total of 93 victims at the BBC.

What the Smith review describes is an extreme version of a lads’ culture in the very sections of the BBC that were designed to appeal to teenagers. If women who worked for the corporation felt unable to complain, girls who made up the studio audience for popular programmes stood no chance at all of being taken seriously.

Dame Janet records an occasion when two teenage girls complained that they had been assaulted by Savile on Top of the Pops, only to have their complaints ‘brushed aside’ and never passed on to management. ‘One girl was told to move out of the way of the camera and the other was ejected from the building and left on the street’, says the review.

It’s inevitable that the BBC should go through a period of heart-searching after such appalling failures. Senior executives may be tempted to believe that the corporation’s gender problem is in the past but it has faced persistent allegations of discrimination against older women in recent years, not least from the former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, who won an ageism case against the BBC. After the Smith review was published, O’Reilly tweeted that BBC staff were ‘still afraid to speak up’ and feared the ‘personal consequences’ of making complaints.

Dame Janet believes that Savile and Hall might have been exposed earlier had it not been for ‘cultural factors’ at the BBC. It’s tempting to think all that’s in the past and it’s certainly true that most organisations, including the BBC, have many more women in senior positions these days. But I don’t think we can assume that our leading companies and institutions are entirely free of the toxic assumptions that persisted in the workplace for decades.

 

 

 

 

 

Now we know: the BBC’s macho culture protected predatory men for decades

Male celebrities treated like kings, young girls dismissed as ‘groupies’ – this is a highly gendered sex scandal

The Guardian, Thursday 25 February 2016

The charge could not be more damning: we now know that one of this country’s most admired institutions allowed a hugely prolific sexual predator to flourish in its midst for almost half a century. Dame Janet Smith’s report into the crimes committed by Jimmy Savile in connection with his work at the BBC has identified 72 victims, beginning with the rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1959. The DJ’s last known assault occurred during a recording of Top of the Pops in 2006.

Savile was not the sole beneficiary of a culture that regarded celebrities as untouchable; another report has found that the presenter Stuart Hall abused 21 victims, the youngest of whom was just 10 years old, at the BBC between 1967 and 1991. There is no doubt that the BBC was (and is) in awe of what’s called “talent”, or that a culture of deference towards celebrity has a lot to answer for. But despite all the hand-wringing that’s gone on since Savile was exposed, I’m still waiting for an acknowledgement of the single most salient fact: like most scandals involving sexual abuse on this scale, this is a highly gendered phenomenon.

We are not talking about an atmosphere at the BBC in which well-known women used their power to abuse teenagers and children. Dame Janet’s observation about a “macho culture” is the closest anyone has come to recognising that the BBCempowered male celebrities, placing them in positions where they had unrestricted access to very young girls and boys. From the standpoint of the 21st century, it was a nightmare scenario in terms of safeguarding procedures, failing to consider even for a moment what unscrupulous predators might do with that opportunity.

How different those old Top of the Pops clips look now we know what was really going on. Back in the 1960s, pop culture – characterised by teenage girls in knee-length white boots bopping to the latest top 10 hits – used to appear both modern and benign; it was a welcome reaction against the drab postwar world of the 1950s, when punitive attitudes towards sex forced many reluctant couples into early and unwanted marriages. The darker side of that seemingly innocent world of grinning DJs, rakish pop stars and adoring fans was kept inside the industry, where roadies remained silent about band members who habitually had sex with under-age girls.

When it did come out into the open, girls who slept with pop stars were described dismissively as “groupies”, following an age-old double standard that excuses adult men from responsibility for their sexual conduct. “All kinds of things went on and I do mean young girls throwing themselves at [pop stars] in their dressing rooms, at concert halls, at gigs, whatever,” said the celebrity publicist Max Clifford in 2012. Clifford – who is currently serving eight years for indecent assaults – added that he had been contacted by dozens of big names from the 1960s and 70s who were “frightened to death” of being dragged into the Savile scandal.

Yet for all the talk of different times and attitudes, rape was as much a criminal offence in the 1960s and 70s as it is today. So was sex with girls under 16, the legal age of consent which has been enshrined in English law since 1885. The aim of that law was to protect vulnerable girls from predatory men, not the other way round, but pop culture created a free-for-all that held teenage girls responsible even for criminal behaviour.

In such circumstances, it was inevitable that victims would not be listened to, a prejudice that would surface in a different context – but with similarly disastrous outcomes – when very young girls were targeted by predatory gangs in Rotherham, Rochdale and other English towns several decades later.

Shocking though the Savile revelations are, they have to be seen in a wider context. His behaviour was enabled by a revolution in sexual behaviour that was supposed to liberate both sexes, but actually offered endless opportunities to unscrupulous men. Its effects were far-reaching, creating poisonous attitudes towards victims of sexual abuse that are still being recycled in rape trials today. But it has also prompted a feminist critique that is vital if we’re ever going to understand the context that men like Savile operate in, and stop them at an early stage in their criminal careers.

 

Junior doctors’ strike: this is about more than pay. It’s about what the NHS is for

Jeremy Hunt’s imposition of a contract on the junior doctors is only the start of an assault on the health service

Independent on Sunday, 14 February 2016

One day last week, I came out of a Tube station in central London to hear a cacophony of car horns. It was the sound of drivers tooting their support as striking junior doctors marched across Westminster Bridge, hands linked. Most of us love the NHS and the junior doctors, who are so passionate and articulate when they talk about their work, represent the best of it.

The very next day the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the House of Commons that he intends to unilaterally impose the contract at the heart of the bitter dispute. The doctors’ union, the British Medical Association, reacted angrily and so did opposition MPs. No wonder: it was a display of naked authority, signalling the imbalance of power between doctors and public opinion, on the one hand, and the Government, on the other. Within hours, Hunt’s claim to have the backing of “senior NHS leaders” began to look threadbare, as more than half of the supposed signatories to a letter of support distanced themselves from it.

Another politician, at another time, might have been embarrassed. But Hunt’s habitual expression of slight bafflement conceals a steely self-confidence that’s enabled him to emerge unscathed from what could have been career-breaking moments, including a difficult session (in his previous incarnation as culture secretary) before the Leveson inquiry in 2012. A message read out at the inquiry showed Hunt, who was about to become the minister responsible for overseeing a bid by Rupert Murdoch’s company to take control of the broadcaster BskyB, congratulating Murdoch’s son James as it cleared possible obstacles. Revelations about his chummy relationship with the Murdochs led to Hunt being described as “beleaguered”, an adjective used when journalists can’t quite believe that someone who is getting such terrible coverage is still in place. In the event, he was promoted to Health Secretary.

I’ve come to the conclusion, in other words, that Hunt is unembarrassable. For a government that’s impatient with the BMA and takes the view that doctors were treated much too generously by Labour health secretaries, that makes him the ideal candidate to take on a group of workers who have a special place in the public’s affections. I don’t think many people believe this is an argument about Saturday working, which is what Hunt says it comes down to, but I am also not sure that the BMA understands what formidable opponents it has taken on. It is hard to see what the doctors can do next, now that they have staged two one-day strikes to so little effect.

Unlike strikes and picket lines, which encourage a communal spirit, Hunt has created a situation where individual doctors will have to decide whether to sign the new contract. They will have to take into account their own circumstances, including how to pay the rent or a mortgage, which is why it’s hard to see Hunt’s move as anything other than deliberately divisive. The dispute has been dragging on for a very long time and junior doctors are already demoralised, with good reason. The signs are that some are already exploring other options, producing anecdotal evidence about hospitals in Australia and New Zealand being staffed by an influx of British doctors.

This is very bad news for the NHS and all of us who use it as patients. While ministers try to present the dispute as turning on pay and conditions, it seems pretty clear that what is at stake is an idea about what the NHS is for and how it operates. At the beginning of their careers, doctors used to be attached to a consultant, accompanying him or her on ward rounds and seeing the same patients. There was continuity of care, support from other members of the team and a chance to see how patients progressed. Now junior doctors are basically shift workers, moved around to fill gaps on rotas, which isn’t good for them or their patients. It’s especially difficult for couples where both partners are doctors or have children who need childcare on weekends. The lack of continuity is frustrating for everyone, doctors and patients alike.

The Government’s grasp of the public finances looks increasingly shaky, and I don’t doubt that ministers are terrified by the rising cost of healthcare. It doesn’t want to shoulder the blame as people’s experience of the NHS gets worse, as it inevitably will if it continues to try to provide a universal service without funding it properly. Hunt is still trying to divert our attention, quoting alarming statistics about elevated death rates in hospitals on weekends, even though the reason more patients die on Saturdays and Sundays is that they are sicker than those who are admitted on weekdays. Hospitals already provide a seven-day service but extending clinics and routine appointments to weekends won’t just mean changes to how junior doctors work. It will require all kinds of support staff and diagnostic facilities, at a cost the Government hasn’t quantified.

Around the time of the last general election, I kept hearing people say they weren’t going to vote because it doesn’t make any difference. The result was not just a Conservative government but the destruction of Labour and the Lib Dems as an effective opposition, allowing ministers with a modest majority to govern as though they have won by a landslide. This is only the beginning: once they’ve dealt with the junior doctors, consultants and nurses will be next in the firing line.

Observing the warm public expressions of support for junior doctors up and down the country last week, I couldn’t help remembering the miners’ strike just over 30 years ago. Millions of people love the NHS but when the stakes are so high, love may not be enough.

 

Reporting a rape shouldn’t be treated differently from any other crime

Bernard Hogan-Howe’s plan to drop the presumption that victims are telling the truth risks taking us back to dark days of distrust

The Guardian, 11 February 2016

For many years, women and girls who told the police they had been raped faced an uncertain outcome. In Rotherham and other English towns, underage girls were not believed when they said they had been targeted by gangs, and the abuse continued for years. In London, serious flaws in the handling of allegations led to cases where extremely violent men remained free to commit further offences.

Now the Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has suggested a controversial change to reforms that were introduced after a series of damning reports by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The IPCC found that John Worboys, the black-cab driver who is believed to have drugged and sexually assaulted at least 85 women in London, attacked seven more women after he was arrested and released in 2007. One victim said she had been “lied to and laughed at” when she reported the assault.

Another IPCC report into the conduct in south London of the Sapphire sex crimes unit found that an officer encouraged a woman to drop a rape accusation against a man called Jean Say, who went on to murder both his children in 2011. The report said the Southwark team’s wider failure to believe victims was “wholly inappropriate” and criticised a lack of resources, describing the team as “under-performing and over-stretched”.

It was scandals such as these that prompted the Met to declare that rape victims would be believed in the first instance. This was a turning point in the history of sex crime investigation, finally placing reports of serious sex crimes on the same footing as other offences. You wouldn’t expect a police officer to laugh in your face if you reported a burglary or to suggest, without evidence, that your car hadn’t really been stolen.

That’s why I disagree profoundly with Hogan-Howe’s suggestion that the policy of automatically believing victims could be reversed. Let’s be clear about this: an initial response of belief doesn’t mean that the allegation shouldn’t be swiftly and thoroughly investigated, as with any other crime, and terminated if it turns out not to be credible. Historical allegations present special difficulties, but the successful prosecutions of Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris show that these are not insurmountable.

The discovery of further victims is a key part of the process, which is why I’m also unconvinced by Hogan-Howe’s suggestion that men facing allegations of sexual offences should be offered anonymity until they are charged. Some suspects won’t even get to that stage unless other victims come forward.

Hogan-Howe’s intervention comes at a time when he is having to respond to fierce criticism of Operation Midland, his force’s inquiry into historical allegations about an alleged VIP paedophile ring. Headlines demanding an apology or his resignation have continued for days, and Hogan-Howe has announced a review of the investigation. But one apparently mishandled inquiry into historical allegations is no reason to reverse reforms that were intended to address a much wider issue.

My personal view is this: the most serious problem about rape in this country is that the overwhelming majority of rapists get away with it. A Home Office study published in 2009 estimated that between 75% and 95% of rape offences in England and Wales went unreported each year, mainly because victims were too afraid or ashamed to go to the police.

The number of reports has risen substantially since then, but most rapes never even appear in crime statistics. The Metropolitan police recorded 5,410 rapes in London last year, an implausibly low figure for a city with a population of 8.5 million. That’s an increase of 9% cent on 2014, but it’s happening at a time when police resources are being cut to the bone.

Attrition rates in rape cases in London are above the average for England and Wales, and there is little support for victims. Most will never get to meet an independent sexual violence adviser, whose role is to support women through the gruelling trial process. Senior officers complain to me that London has far too few – with estimates as low as 25.

Those of us who work in the field of sexual violence already fear that the criminal justice system won’t be able to cope with the rising number of rapes reported. The risk is huge: if police and prosecutors don’t manage to bring more cases to a successful conclusion, we’ll go back to the dark days of victims automatically distrusting the police.

And if Hogan-Howe is serious about reducing horrendous levels of sexual violence, he should be arguing for more resources for his officers, greater support for victims and compulsory education in schools about sexual predators.

Egypt’s Arab Spring reverts to a winter of fear and torture

The horrific death of Giulio Regeni, an Italian PhD student, has turned the spotlight back on the state’s brutality

Independent on Sunday, 7 February 2016

When Egypt makes headlines these days, it’s usually for the same reasons as Syria and Iraq. Terrorist attacks by Islamic State (Isis) have not been so numerous in Egypt, but the destruction of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai peninsula, probably by a bomb, dominated the news last autumn. What gets less attention is a state of internal repression at least as relentless – some say worse – than the bad old days of President Hosni Mubarak.

The death of an Italian student, whose battered body was discovered in Cairo on Wednesday night, should challenge that habit of looking the other way. There is no doubt that Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old PhD student at Cambridge University, died a lonely and horrible death. Regeni went missing on his way to a birthday party in the centre of the city almost two weeks ago and his body was eventually found in a ditch in the suburbs.

A senior police officer tried to suggest that he’d been killed in a car accident, but marks on Regeni’s body, including what appeared to be cigarette burns, are consistent with torture. The student had cuts to his ears, appeared to have been beaten and was naked from the waist down, according to local reports. The Egyptian prosecutor in charge of the investigation said he suffered “a slow death”, an observation that has led to speculation that his killer or killers were trying to extract information.

The student’s research on Egyptian trade unions following the Arab Spring sounds inoffensive, but it could have put him in contact with opponents of the present government, which has cracked down on just about every strand of civil society. Even before Regeni’s murder, an Egyptian post-graduate student told me recently that he might have to change the subject of his PhD just to remain safe. But it emerged on Thursday that Regeni also freelanced for the Italian communist paper Il Manifesto, writing under a pseudonym to protect himself. Now that it appears he was murdered, there are fears for the safety of activists with whom he might have been in touch.

While the possibility of a robbery or a botched kidnapping has yet to be ruled out, critics of the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi point out that what happened to Regeni is far from unusual. Sisi is a former head of the army who overthrew his predecessor, President Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup in 2013. He won a huge majority in the following year’s presidential election, but the government has remained jumpy, especially in the run-up to the anniversary of the popular uprising on 25 January 2011 that forced Mubarak out. That was the evening Regeni disappeared, amid a huge police presence in Cairo.

Three days later, an Egyptian news website claimed that police had arrested dozens of Egyptians and foreigners in Giza during an operation against “fugitives and violators”. What happens to individuals caught up in such round-ups has been widely documented by organisations such as Human Rights Watch and indigenous Egyptian groups that collect testimony about torture, beatings and other abuses.

In December, only weeks before Regeni was abducted, the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) published a timely and shocking report on enforced disappearances. After talking to victims, families and lawyers, it documented 340 cases in a three-month period between August and November last year, with an average of three per day. Victims who were later released described undergoing various types of torture including electric shocks, hanging by the hands and threats of sexual assault.

The ECRF says that the blame for this litany of human rights abuses lies squarely with the Egyptian government, accusing it of allowing state security officers to torture people with impunity. Sisi’s administration says it is trying to find and arrest terrorists who threaten the security of the state, but many of the people affected have nothing to do with IS or the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, has pointed to unanimous agreement among NGOs that levels of repression “are extraordinarily high and perhaps even unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history”. He writes that, far from being targeted on Islamists, repression is directed against “all actors and political forces who directly challenge the regime and its interests, including those young, secular revolutionaries who we once saw… as the future of a new Egypt”.

This represents a dreadful reversal for the high hopes created by the daily demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that toppled Mubarak. It also suggest that Egypt’s Western allies are making the same mistake as they did with other hard-line leaders in the Middle East, putting up with appalling levels of state-sanctioned abuse in the name of “stability”. During a visit to Cairo last summer, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, warned that human rights abuses could undermine the fight against terrorism. That was just days after Washington announced it would deliver eight F-16 fighter planes to the Egyptian air force as part of a $1.3bn plan to revamp the country’s military capability.

A preliminary post-mortem report has established that Regeni died from bleeding to the brain following blows to the head, a finding that does nothing to clear up the mystery around his disappearance. The death of a clever and personable young man is a tragedy for his friends and family, but it has a political dimension which can’t be ignored. Suspicions about the role of the security services are a testament to the atmosphere of fear and anxiety that haunts civil society in Egypt, five years after everything was supposed to get better.

 

Julian Assange is nothing but a seedy egomaniac who believes himself to be above the law

Daily Telegraph, 4 February 2016

Men who are accused of rape are often scared, furious or both. Going through a police investigation is an unpleasant experience, but some allegations are so serious that they need to be tested by the criminal justice system. The same rules apply to everybody, whether they are an ordinary citizen or a global celebrity – and that’s the inconvenient fact that the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is frantically trying to obscure.

Assange’s latest wheeze – asking a UN panel to declare that he’s been ‘arbitrarily detained’ in the Ecuadorian embassy since 2012 – would be hilarious if there weren’t so many gullible people who will see it as a vindication of their hero’s desperate attempts to escape political persecution. The BBC is reporting that the UN’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will rule in favour of Assange when it announces its decision tomorrow, a development which – if the reports are true – will make it a laughing stock.

Assange chose to knock on the door of the Ecuadorian embassy of his own free will, begging to be allowed inside because he’d lost his case to avoid extradition to Sweden. It wasn’t just that he’d lost, either; he lost spectacularly at every English court he went to, including the Supreme Court. That’s the highest court in the land, and not known for being a patsy of the ‘dark forces’ supposedly conspiring to destroy the Australian campaigner for truth, transparency and international justice.

If Assange really is a campaigner for all those things, he needs to explain why the basic legal processes that apply to the rest of us should be waived for him. It’s now more than five years since two Swedish women – both of them, as it happens, supporters of WikiLeaks – made serious allegations against him. To be clear (and because it’s sometimes denied by his more irrational supporters), those accusations included a count of rape as well one of unlawful coercion and two of sexual molestation. Assange has now spent so much time hiding from justice (costing the British taxpayer more than £12 million) that the statute of limitations on the lesser charges has run out. His problem, and the most likely reason he has dragged the UN into his deluded crusade, is that the rape investigation is still going on and will remain live until 2020.

It’s worth recalling that Assange was first interviewed by the Swedish police in August 2010. He left the country shortly afterwards and has refused to go back for further questioning. If the accusations are as flimsy as he insists, it’s difficult to see why he didn’t return, confident that he would be able to provide satisfactory answers.  Other famous men have had to go through similar processes, including the comedian Bill Cosby who has just been told that prosecutors in the US can proceed with a sexual assault charge dating back to 2004.

Assange has tried every legal avenue and some pretty outlandish ones to avoid the citizen’s basic duty of helping the police with their inquiries. His alleged victims, meanwhile, have been left in legal limbo. They’ve also been subjected to out-and-out character assassination, including baseless allegations that Assange is the victim of a ‘honey trap’.

He and his supporters have repeatedly claimed that there is a conspiracy to lure him back to Sweden and extradite him to the US, where he would face trial for leaking state secrets. They have never explained why it is necessary to do this, given that it would actually be easier for the US to extradite Assange from the UK than Sweden, which prohibits extradition on the basis of a ‘political offence’. (Remember all those angry headlines about the UK’s one-sided extradition treaty with the US?) But Assange is such a charismatic individual, in some quarters at least, that his fans would rather believe almost anything than the sordid truth.

Assange is a fugitive from justice, a man with such an inflated ego that he believes himself beyond the law. It is almost four years since the Supreme Court upheld a European Arrest Warrant issued by the Swedish authorities, and the British police have a duty to arrest him if he steps outside the embassy.  Every move he makes, no matter how bizarre, is calculated to do one thing, which is to create a smokescreen over these awkward facts.

Claims of a ‘honey trap’, the flight to the Ecuadorian embassy, this latest appeal to a UN body: they’re all part of the same process. Assange understands the value of publicity, using the language of human rights and persecution to bolster his own personal myth. But behind each step is an increasingly seedy individual who is seeking immunity from the criminal justice systems of two democratic countries.

 

Violence against women takes different forms. What happened in Cologne is different from a night in Birmingham

It doesn’t help anyone to pretend that women everywhere face identical problems

Independent on Sunday, 31 January 2016

I like the Labour MP Jess Phillips. I’ve never met her but she is refreshingly outspoken, saying what she thinks without worrying about the party line. She has been in Parliament less than a year but already stands out from her colleagues, not least because of her robust response to fellow MP Diane Abbott during a row over the lack of women in Jeremy Corbyn’s first Shadow Cabinet. Frankly, anyone who puts the appalling Abbott in her place gets a standing ovation from me.

That’s why I’ve had to grit my teeth since Thursday evening, when Phillips appeared on BBC1’s Question Time and compared the mass sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve to the situation faced “every week” by women on Broad Street in Birmingham. Phillips should know this is complete nonsense because she used to work for a charity, Sandwell Women’s Aid, which offers support to victims of sexual and domestic violence.

Like me, she will be familiar with the statistics on violence against women in this country, which are bad enough but show a picture of individual perpetrators. What happened in German cities was on a different scale, involving gangs of men and hundreds of reported assaults. There were 821 complaints to the police in Cologne, including 359 alleged sexual offences, all relating to the same evening. Meanwhile, a total of 31 serious sexual assaults were recorded over the past 12 months in the centre of Birmingham. I know as well as Phillips that many offences don’t get reported to the police, but the figures are so different as to make comparisons meaningless.

So does the nature of the attacks. Mass assaults on this scale, apparently with some degree of organisation, are a new phenomenon in Europe but not in Egypt, where hundreds of female demonstrators have been brutally assaulted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Patterns of sexual violence differ from country to country, depending to a great extent on what is regarded as acceptable male behaviour, and it doesn’t help anyone to pretend that women everywhere face the same problems.

Unfortunately, that’s what Phillips has done. Instead of admitting that she made a rash remark, she told her local paper on Friday that there are groups of drunk men “in every city” and women have to “constantly worry about being felt up”. She still hasn’t acknowledged that what she’s talking about is very different from being surrounded by 20 men who – I’m sorry for being so graphic – try to thrust their fingers into your vagina.

Phillips is new to public life and the gladiatorial contests encouraged by programmes such as Question Time. But an injudicious remark is doing incalculable damage to her standing and the cause she and I both care passionately about. If Phillips can tell a fellow MP to “fuck off”, she needs to be resilient enough to admit her own mistakes.

 

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.