Rape on a busy street in Birmingham – why did no one intervene?

Daily Telegraph, 25 August 2015

It is an extraordinary piece of film: a man in a red t-shirt and jeans crosses a road, nonchalantly carrying a near-unconscious woman in his arms. At one point he almost drops her, heaving her upwards as though he’s holding a sack of potatoes. He’s purposeful and intent, and doesn’t look remotely like a Good Samaritan. Moments later, out of sight of the CCTV cameras, the woman is raped.

The incident happened in Birmingham city centre last October but the video has just been released by West Midlands Police, with the victim’s agreement. ‘She hopes that these new images may jog someone’s memory and that their call may make the difference to her attacker being caught or left to roam the streets’, explained Detective Constable Danette Calvey. ‘I implore people to take a good look at the CCTV and focus on the man.’

Allowing the CCTV images to be publicised was a brave thing for the victim to do, not least because seeing herself in such circumstances can only have been extremely distressing. She may also have been aware that the public is not always sympathetic to victims of serious sexual assaults, especially in cases where they have been drinking. Sure enough, some people who viewed the footage apparently thought it more important to focus on her behaviour than that of the man who scooped her off the street in the early hours of a Sunday morning.

We hear these frankly inhuman responses time and time again. But this video demonstrates vividly that ‘why did she allow herself to become so vulnerable?’ is always the wrong question. The incident happened at 4am when people were leaving nearby bars and clubs, not in an isolated country lane; the police wouldn’t have decided to release the images if they didn’t believe that members of the public were in the area and might have seen something. It’s clear even from the slightly indistinct CCTV images that the man was carrying the young woman without any concern for her welfare.

The question of intervention is at the forefront of all our minds after three young Americans, a Frenchman and a British man disarmed a man with an AK-47 on a train travelling through Belgium last week. Obviously it’s easier to recognise malicious intent when someone is carrying a weapon, but surely the sight of a man hurrying across the road with a near-unconscious woman in his arms should ring alarm bells? He doesn’t look like a paramedic, so why did no one challenge him? At the very least, where was he taking her?

The woman who was attacked is 25 years old, which means she belongs in exactly the age group (16 to 34-year-olds) which is most often targeted by sex attackers. Her age, combined with her obvious helplessness – at one point in the CCTV footage, her left arms trails down – should have been grounds for unease.

But research published earlier this year shows that more than a quarter of the public believe that women who are drunk at the time of an assault are at least partly responsible for what happens to them. The research, published by the Office for National Statistics, showed that teenagers and the 55 to 59 age group are less likely to be sympathetic to victims of sex attacks who have been drinking. Bizarrely, among these censorious people, a woman who has committed no crime is held to a much greater level of personal responsibility than the man who takes advantage of her vulnerable condition.

The same people often display a fuzzy and outdated grasp of the meaning of consent. Even though the law is clear that a woman incapacitated by alcohol cannot agree to sex, they persist in claiming it is an issue even in cases where the victim couldn’t possibly give meaningful consent. No sensible person viewing the CCTV footage of the Birmingham incident could imagine that the woman was in a state to agree to anything, which is another reason why the brazenness of her alleged attacker is so shocking.

It has been clear for some time that public attitudes towards sexual violence lag behind those of people working with victims and in the criminal justice system. The latter know that rapists are often both organised and opportunistic, deliberately seeking out places where they are likely to encounter vulnerable women. Far from acting on a momentary surge of lust, they plan ahead and know exactly what they are doing. Mistaken ideas about rape work to their advantage.

What’s highly unusual about this assault is that the moments immediately beforehand were captured by CCTV cameras. The police hope the footage will help catch the alleged attacker, but it should change public attitudes as well. A young woman who’s been drinking heavily is vulnerable and needs protection, not cruel comments from strangers.


Dementa: what they don’t tell you…

Independent on Sunday, 23 August 2015

… is to eat healthily, exercise, and stay mentally active – it’s not a cure but it can make a significant difference

Good news about dementia is in short supply. There is no cure as yet, and so many new cases have been predicted that it’s been described as an epidemic. I’ve seen its devastating effects on my mother, who suffered from dementia for the last three-and-a-half years of her life, and another relative has recently been diagnosed with a mild form of the condition. So has one of my closest friends.

All of these women are a generation older than me. Last week’s rare piece of positive news, which shows that the number of people now living with dementia is levelling off in Western Europe, comes too late for them. The other headline finding of the latest study – that a healthier lifestyle in middle age appears to have protective effects – doesn’t have obvious relevance to people who have already been diagnosed with the condition.

The study shows that the expected increase in the number of dementia cases since the 1990s hasn’t materialised, casting doubt on the validity of the “epidemic” label. A review of five large epidemiological studies suggests that figures from the 1980s which have been used to predict an upward trend are out of date. In four European countries there was no increase in prevalence and the UK actually showed a drop; there were 22 per cent fewer people aged over 65 with dementia in 2011 than had been predicted in 1990.

The experts think this may be because middle-aged people have adopted healthier lifestyles, reducing known risks such as having high blood pressure and high cholesterol. “This evidence suggests that attention to optimum health early in life might benefit cognitive health late in life,” the report observes drily. For my generation – the baby boomers – that has meant giving up smoking or avoiding it altogether, taking up running or going to gyms, and eating healthier food. We are very different from our parents’ generation, who missed all the modern messages about what constitutes a healthy lifestyle.

My mother grew up at a time when no one talked about the importance of physical exercise and a healthy diet. She smoked when she was younger, I don’t think she went to an exercise class in her life and she didn’t do much walking either. Like many women of her generation, she lived to a ripe old age but suffered from failing health for years before she died. I worried about her sedentary lifestyle but she lived at the other end of the country and it wasn’t a priority for the health professionals she consulted.

This isn’t an unusual situation but it has dreadful consequences. There were more than 800,000 people with dementia in the UK in 2013 and the impact of the diagnosis on their lives, not to mention the emotional strain on families and friends, is enormous. My mother died last year after a harrowing period in which she suffered delusions and auditory hallucinations; she accused friends of stealing from her and was convinced she could hear men trying to break into her first-floor flat in the middle of the night. Eventually she was unable to look after herself and had to move into a care home.

Dealing with such problems is a huge challenge for the statutory services, which have been criticised for the way they respond. Two years ago, the Care Quality Commission said bluntly that the health and social care system was struggling to care properly for people with dementia.

Here’s an example: even before the latest research confirmed the benefit of exercise and a healthy diet for the middle-aged, evidence existed that changes in lifestyle are beneficial for people who already have dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society is unequivocal on this point, insisting that “leading a physically active lifestyle can have a significant impact on the well-being of people with dementia”. But none of the elderly people with dementia that I’ve known have been encouraged to take more exercise – now I think about it, that applies to virtually all the elderly people I know.

Care homes organise visits from hairdressers, chiropodists and singers but I’ve never encountered one which has exercise equipment or promotes the benefits of regular physical activity. Whether they live in residential care or at home, my relatives’ immediate needs have been met but they’ve been left sitting in chairs most of the day.

When my relative was told she had dementia earlier this year, I hoped things might have improved since my mother’s diagnosis in 2011. This elderly lady has bouts of confusion and forgetfulness, but she’s quite capable of walking if she has someone with her; when I stayed with her last month, I took her to the cinema and we even went on a boat trip around the Farne Islands. But she hasn’t been offered any advice about how she might stimulate her brain, and no one has offered to help her increase the minimal amount of exercise she gets.

Obviously we can’t avoid every case of dementia, especially as more people live beyond the age of 85; around 40 per cent of that age group is estimated to be affected. But with evidence mounting that lifestyle changes in middle age can reduce the risks, it makes no sense that only 5 per cent of research funding is spent on prevention.

At the same time, I’m sure we could make life more comfortable for elderly people who have already received this terrifying diagnosis. It’s too easy for GPs to write a prescription for anti-depressants when what these vulnerable individuals need is emotional support, mental stimulation and gentle physical exercise.

Prince George and the paparazzi: deferring to the long arm of Buckingham Palace

Independent on Sunday,16 August 2015

Few of this country’s institutions retain the power to cow the media. Neither politicians, clerics nor prize-winning novelists can expect to have their pronouncements treated uncritically, which is on the whole a good thing. The one exception is the monarchy, which flexed its muscles to dramatic effect last week.

Two members of the royal family have let it be known that they are furious, a state of affairs so shocking that it led news bulletins. Royal correspondents spoke in sonorous tones about the distress suffered by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge when people take photographs of their son, Prince George.

Not the photos issued by the couple themselves, obviously. You know the ones I mean, showing George wearing the kind of smock top which had gone out of fashion even in the dim and distant days when I was a toddler. Those are good photos, you see, along with the carefully-posed images of George holding his baby sister, Princess Charlotte. Bad photos, to be clear, might look cute but they’re not because they were taken by unauthorised photographers. These pictures are so bad, in fact, that the police have warned anyone taking them that they risk being shot. Has everyone taken leave of their senses?

This story is a perfect illustration of the absence of journalistic rigour towards any claim made on behalf of the royals. ‘I could do that,’ I often think when a royal ‘expert’ is wheeled out to comment. I could stand in front of a camera, regurgitating the latest press release and adding a few unoriginal observations – legacy of Princess Diana, right to a ‘normal’ childhood, blah blah blah – of my own. I haven’t heard a single interlocutor ask for details of the more lurid claims made in an open letter to the media from Jason Knauf, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s communications secretary. Who are these young children who have been used to lure George into view at playgrounds? How do the couple know that children are being used in this manner?

Then there’s the unnamed photographer who created a ‘hide’ in his car to take pictures of George in a play area. It’s not how I’d want to spend a day but the point Knauf didn’t make (and neither did any of his willing echoes in the media) is that it’s not clear he had broken any laws. People are allowed to take pictures in a public place as long as their behavior doesn’t amount to stalking, in which case it could have been dealt with under the Protection from Harassment Act.

The Duke and Duchess have threatened to use the act in the past, warning a photographer called Niraj Tanna to ‘cease harassing’ George and his nanny after he was spotted by royal protection officers in Battersea Park. The photographer denied harassment, insisting he was entitled to take pictures in a public place, and nothing more was heard about the threatened injunction. The couple may fear a terrorist attack but that’s a reason for reviewing overall security, including the wisdom of allowing George to play in a public park.

What no one bothered to ask following publication of Knauf’s letter is what harm the Duke and Duchess have suffered. They are annoyed, but that’s different from being frightened, alarmed or distressed. It’s a distinction missed by one of their supporters, Hannah Weller, who successfully took the Daily Mail to court after it published photographs of her on a shopping trip with her infant children. You might think that was an adequate remedy but Weller was on yesterday’s Today programme, talking about her wrong-headed campaign for a change in the law to prevent publication of any un-pixelated images of children without their parents’ express permission.

Everyone is entitled to privacy when they are at home or somewhere the public is not normally admitted. The principle is clear and straightforward, and The Sun breached it when it published pictures of Prince Harry naked at a party in Las Vegas three years ago. That piece of bad behavior happened despite the fact that it was the targeting of his elder brother, Prince William, which brought the whole phone hacking scandal into the open. If the News of the World’s royal correspondent hadn’t decided to hack mobiles belonging to members of the Prince’s circle, we might never have had the Leveson inquiry or the Hacked Off campaign, which I ran until a couple of months ago.

With occasional exceptions, the British press is wary of upsetting the royal family these days. Knauf thanked UK publications for refusing to publish unauthorised pictures of the Cambridges’ children, blaming the problem on a handful foreign publications which buy paparazzi photos. Sadly, some British editors are not always as responsible when it comes to non-royal children: last summer The Sun published a picture of a four-year-old boy on its front page, making the preposterous claim that he had the mark of the ‘devil’ on his torso. The paper had the family’s permission, but that doesn’t alter the fact that the child was too young to consent to being paraded in this manner.

I know it’s August, notoriously a slow month for news, but that hardly applies when we’re in the middle of an unprecedented refugee crisis. I’m furious about lots of things, including the demonisation of people fleeing the world’s worst regimes, but the prominence given to this silly-season story about one privileged family takes my breath away. Deference is far from dead, and the royals haven’t lost their capacity to push genuinely important stories down the news agenda.

Joan Smith was executive director of Hacked Off until June 2015

Kids Company: not so much a business model as a recipe for disaster

Independent on Sunday, 9 August 2015

It survived as long as it did because of generous injections of taxpayers’ money

There’s nothing unusual about charities trying to attract celebrity supporters. Kids Company was no different in that respect, counting Damien Hirst, Rowan Atkinson and Coldplay among its starry donors. But its most generous celebrity supporter seems to have been one David Cameron, who was more than happy to share a stage and be photographed with its charismatic founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh.

So, to be fair, were Boris Johnson, Gordon Brown and Prince Charles. But when the charity collapsed last week, Downing Street was accused of over-riding ministers and civil servants who expressed reservations about its performance and management as long ago as 2012. The prime minister and Batmanghelidjh make an odd pair, but no one should under-estimate the yearning of politicians to be associated with funky organisations that speak the language of the street.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Cameron doesn’t talk much about the ‘big society’ these days but five years ago he was full of enthusiasm for it. His argument was that private philanthropy and voluntary work would fill the gap as the state drew back from funding all sorts of projects – always a dubious proposition, but the prime minister was adamant it wasn’t a cost-cutting exercise. He was right about that: Kids Company has received £37m of public money since it was set up 19 years ago, with just over £14m being handed over between 2011 and 2013.

The charity’s work force grew to more than 600, raising running costs to a point where it needed to use £800,000 of a £3m government grant last week just to cover one month’s salaries. Staff who lost their jobs when Kids Company closed were understandably upset, but the trustees had been warned that the charity was living beyond its means. Indeed the most substantial charge levelled at Kids Company to date – that it spent up to the hilt and failed to build up adequate reserves – is more or less admitted in its 2013 accounts. The organisation observed frankly that its business model was ‘to spend according to need, which is consistently growing’. That isn’t so much a business model as a recipe for disaster.

Charities haven’t had a good press lately and it is extraordinary that this one escaped critical scrutiny for so long. One of the effects of government spending cuts is that NGOs need to raise more cash; events like the war in Syria make ever-bigger demands on their resources, but charitable giving is static or declining. What are they to do? Earlier this year, telephone calls and begging letters from charities were blamed for the suicide of a 92-year-old woman, Olive Cooke, even though her family insisted that she was suffering from depression and insomnia. Then the prime minister entered the debate, describing the fund-raising methods of some NGOs as ‘frankly unacceptable’. Perhaps Kids Company didn’t need to use such methods because it could go direct to No 10.

Now the organisation is bankrupt and thousands of children and young adults have lost services they’ve described in glowing terms. Everything else is mired in sensational allegations, briefings from hostile sources and a highly emotional (some would say manipulative) fight-back from Batmanghelidjh. Two days ago, supporters demonstrated at the gates of Downing Street, but Labour is right to call for the National Audit Office to carry out a review of public funding to the organisation. The fact that people are angry doesn’t prove that it was well run or that the money it received was spent wisely.

At the same time, such a high-profile collapse is in danger of drawing attention away from the difficulties faced by the rest of the charity sector. It isn’t unusual for small NGOs to quietly close their doors without anything like the furore we’ve witnessed in the last few days, but with devastating effects on the people who depend on their services. In April, three day centres for people with mental health problems closed in Southwark, leaving hundreds of vulnerable individuals with nowhere to go; a month earlier, two leading charities said that the safety net for women and children fleeing domestic abuse was being ‘dismantled piece by piece’.

One lesson that emerges from this dreadful saga is that a disdain for administration creates exactly the kind of risk that destroyed Kids Company. Charities feel they have to make a point of saying how little they spend on admin – it has come to be seen as an almost wilful with-holding of cash from people who need help – yet effective governance (making sure an organisation is properly run, in other words) is essential to their survival.

Kids Company got into trouble not because it didn’t raise funds but because it spent the money as fast as it came in, assuming that the government would bail it out if it got into trouble. That was still going on as recently as last month, when two ministers over-ruled civil servants and told them to hand over the £3m they are now trying to get back. Not for the first time, an ideologically-driven conviction about the superiority of the private sector over public services has had a disastrous impact on vulnerable individuals and put taxpayers’ money at risk.

Private philanthropy is too piecemeal, and too inclined towards popular causes, to provide consistent services across the board. It has become a beauty contest in which those charities able to produce the most telegenic and articulate victims get more attention than the rest. A flamboyant, media-savvy chief executive helps, but there is an unmissable irony at the heart of this sequence of events. The very project that was supposed to embody the prime minister’s ‘big society’ survived as long as it did only because of generous injections of taxpayers’ cash.

Labour leadership race: Supporting Jeremy Corbyn is therapy, not politics

Independent on Sunday, 2 August 2015

The surge in support shows all the signs of magical thinking

Oh, how I hate to be proved right – on this occasion, at any rate. I pointed out last month that Labour is having a nervous breakdown after its shattering general election defeat, and everything that’s happened since has just confirmed my thesis. Supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign seems to have made quite a lot of people feel better, for the moment at least. But it’s therapy, not politics.

It’s a measure of the state Labour is in that the longest-serving MP among the four candidates has managed to present himself as the new kid on the block. Corbyn’s politics look pretty much the same as they’ve done since he was elected to Parliament in 1983, yet he’s suddenly being hailed as Labour’s future. I’m happy to accept he’s a nice guy, although I’m uncomfortable about his willingness to welcome “friends” from the Islamist group Hezbollah to a meeting in Parliament. I’d love to see Labour renationalise the railways and the utilities, but I’m not clear how Corbyn would pay for it.

Back in May, Labour failed to persuade sceptical voters that the party was economically competent, and I don’t see a Corbyn victory changing their minds. “The Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn, has just left Buckingham Palace after telling the Queen he is confident he can form a government ….” Does anyone seriously believe this is what we’re going to hear a day after the next general election?

It’s only three months since Labour’s hopes of getting back into power evaporated with a single exit poll. No one with an ounce of common sense could believe that this was a productive atmosphere in which to choose a new leader, and I always feared that old wounds would reopen with destructive force. The furore over how Labour MPs should vote on the Welfare Reform Bill brought to mind Freud’s famous phrase about the “narcissism of small differences”; Labour has five long years to suffer in opposition and this was not the moment for the party to tear itself apart. And while I’ve never been a fan of Tony Blair, my heart sank last week when the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, Dave Ward, talked about getting rid of a “virus within the Labour Party”.

Hitler notoriously used the “virus” metaphor to dehumanise Jews, characterising them as a sickness which needed to be eradicated from the body politic. Ward’s rhetoric, which went on to describe Corbyn as the “antidote” to the Blairite “virus”, has absolutely no place in democratic discourse.

One union after another has thrown its weight behind the Corbyn campaign, and it’s widely believed that thousands have joined the party just so that they can vote for him. I don’t suppose anyone knows if that’s true; opinion polls suggest he’s in the lead but I thought the last election had made us all a bit more sceptical about the accuracy of polls. I’ve talked to new members in my constituency party in west London and some are supporting Corbyn, but we nominated Yvette Cooper in a secret ballot.

Part of me wonders whether the Corbyn surge is real or is being talked up. The media always look for a line to inject a bit of excitement; in 2010 it was “The Brothers”, a Cain-and-Abel melodrama which did incalculable damage to Ed Miliband throughout his time as leader. The current contest looked even more unpromising at the outset but a slew of “Corbyn to win” headlines has livened it up no end.

What worries me about the Corbyn surge is that it shows all the signs of magical thinking. In this scenario, his disadvantages as a candidate – including the fact that most Labour MPs don’t support him – suddenly become positives. MPs, what do they know? Others have pointed out the illogicality of assuming that giving the Tories an outright majority is a sign that the country secretly wants a left-wing government; Miliband fought the election on a platform somewhat to the left of Gordon Brown, and the result was even worse for Labour than in 2010.

It’s bad enough that some people believe that Corbyn can win in 2020. Even worse is the argument that it doesn’t matter whether he can because restoring the party’s principles is more important than getting back into power. Leaving aside the fact that many of Labour’s principles are intact – its commitments to equality and eradicating child poverty, for instance – this is a species of political puritanism which has dire consequences for real people. Spiteful policies such as the bedroom tax will go on hurting the poor and disabled for as long as the Tories remain in government.

This brings me to the heart of Labour’s self-inflicted wound. What was supposed to be a contest to choose a new leader is in danger of becoming a protracted group therapy session. I’ll still be surprised if Corbyn emerges as the party’s leader next month. But if he does, an irrational feel-good factor will have eclipsed Labour’s will to win.


No children. No problem

Independent on Sunday, 19 July 2015

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is sometimes described as the most powerful woman in the world. She’s had a busy week, struggling with the Greek debt crisis, so she may not have noticed a magazine cover which shows her glancing regretfully at an empty cradle – empty except for a ballot box, that is.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who is on the same cover, did see it and was understandably irritated.  ‘Jeezo…we appear to have woken up in 1965 this morning!’ she tweeted. She later praised the accompanying article but described the image as ‘crass’.

If I were pushed, I would probably have guessed that none of the four women on the New Statesman cover – the Home Secretary, Theresa May, and the Labour leadership candidate, Liz Kendall, are the other two – has children. But I certainly wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that, no matter what else they’ve achieved, they’re all secretly miserable.

Of course we will never see a bunch of childless male politicians looking glumly at a rocking-horse, even though it would be easy enough to put together. Luxembourg’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, who recently became the first EU leader to marry his gay partner, doesn’t have children, as far as I know; neither do the former Tory ministers, Eric Pickles and William Hague. But while statisticians collect masses of data on childless women in the UK – currently around one in five by the age of 45 – they’re not very interested at all in childless men.

Helen Lewis’s article in the New Statesman rightly identifies the greater pressure on women to have children or explain the fact that they don’t. She identifies a ‘motherhood trap’ that causes problems for both groups: working mothers are assumed to be less committed to their jobs, while childless women are accused of being selfish and less rounded.

But why is it ‘an uncomfortable truth’ that high proportions of successful women in politics are childless? Attitudes to motherhood vary dramatically, from women who passionately want children at one end of the spectrum to those who definitely don’t at the other. For centuries, this fact was obscured by the fact that sexually active women didn’t have much choice; my great-grandmother on my mother’s side had six children, my grandmother had four and my mother one. It’s a typical story of the impact of education and widening choices on women’s lives.

I don’t doubt that there are women who find infertility incredibly painful, while others don’t find a partner at the right time. But the picture is confused by an expectation that any woman who hasn’t had children should sound sorry about it, regardless of how she really feels; she’s supposed to say things like ‘I left it too late’ or ‘It just never happened’. It’s OK not to be a mother, in other words, but only if women express sufficient sadness about it.

Someone has to put a stop to this, so here goes: I chose not to have children, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment.

Tunisia attack: the West’s response to the atrocity in Sousse is in alarming disarray

Independent on Sunday, 12 July 2015

Could the UK have reacted more constructively by helping beef up security in Tunisia?

In recent days, British holidaymakers have been arriving home on hastily arranged flights from Tunisia. The UK Government suddenly told British tourists to leave last week, claiming that a further terrorist attack is “highly likely” after 38 people died in Sousse at the end of June. Thirty of the victims were British.

New intelligence came in less than 24 hours before the decision was made, according to some sources. It also appears to have been influenced by the assumption that some of the gunman’s accomplices are still at large. But Western governments are split on the nature of the threat and how to deal with it.

According to the State Department website, the US has issued no specific warnings since the attack. On Saturday afternoon, a map on the website of the French foreign ministry ranked the terrorist threat in Tunisia below that in Libya, Algeria and parts of Egypt. A spokesman confirmed that France had not called on its nationals to leave Tunisia, reiterating existing advice that travellers should be “particularly vigilant”.

France was the colonial power in Tunisia and is no stranger to terrorist attacks: three French tourists died in an assault on the Bardo museum in Tunis in March. Several European governments joined France in declining to follow the UK’s example; Ireland and Denmark advised their nationals to leave shortly after the British government did so.

When I asked the Foreign Office whether it believed British holidaymakers were more likely to be targeted, a spokeswoman told me: “We only issue travel advice to British nationals and we judge that the level of risk to Britons is unacceptably high.” She said it was up to other countries to make decisions about threats to their citizens.

More than 3,000 Britons have had to cut short their trips and some are not happy about it. Neither is the Tunisian government, which said the UK’s stance was “what the terrorists want”. Around 400,000 people work in the tourist industry and the mass departure is a huge blow to the economy.

Two weeks ago, the Government said it had no evidence that British tourists had been deliberately targeted. The FCO spokeswoman told me that the “intelligence and threat picture” had developed considerably since then. But the high proportion of British casualties in Sousse could be a reflection of nothing more than the fact that tour companies make block bookings; I once stayed in a hotel in the town where almost everyone else was Russian.

Governments have a duty to protect their citizens but the disarray among Western countries is alarming. It makes me wonder whether the UK could have reacted more constructively, perhaps diverting a portion of the international-development budget to beef up Tunisian security. It’s heartbreaking that this beautiful country, which needs our support, is currently a no-go area for British travellers.

Machetes fail to main this human spirit

Independent on Sunday, 5 July 2015

Rafida Bonya Ahmed survived a brutal Islamic extremist attack; her husband did not … yet she speaks of compassion as well as anger

When a slight woman with cropped dark hair walked on to a stage in a London hotel on Thursday evening, she was greeted with an immediate standing ovation. Four months ago, Rafida Bonya Ahmed and her husband, Avijit Roy, were attacked with machetes by Islamic extremists in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. Roy died and Ahmed was seriously injured, receiving deep wounds to her head.

At first glance, it is hard to believe that this lively and engaging woman has gone through such an ordeal. The only visible reminder is her left hand, which is missing a thumb after it was slashed off in the attack.

Ahmed travelled from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, to give the annual Voltaire Lecture, organised by the British Humanist Association – the first time she has spoken in public since the attack. The lecture took place, poignantly, opposite Edgware Road station, where six people died in an Islamist bombing 10 years ago.

Like her late husband, Ahmed is Bangladeshi-American. Last week, she described how the couple’s ideas brought them together when she was living in the US and Roy was doing his PhD in Singapore; he came to her defence after she posted a critical comment about religion online. Roy later founded the Mukto-Mona (“Free Mind”) website, which provided a forum for Bengali secular writers.

This February, Roy and Ahmed decided to visit Dhaka, where Roy’s father is a retired professor of physics. They were leaving a book fair at Dhaka University when they were dragged from a bicycle rickshaw in a crowded street. Police officers made no attempt to intervene as the attackers rained down blows. The only person who came to help was a young journalist, who somehow managed to get the badly wounded couple into a car and drove them to hospital.

Shocking photographs later emerged of Ahmed, drenched in blood. Four months on, she still hasn’t been interviewed by police or asked to give a statement. In a curious coincidence of timing, the Bangladeshi government suddenly announced on Thursday that it had arrested 12 members of an extremist group, Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (Aqis), suspected of involvement in Roy’s murder.

In May this year, the leader of Aqis published a video in which he said his group had targeted Roy and other humanist bloggers because they had insulted Islam. In an apparent reference to the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, the video was entitled “From France to Bangladesh: the Dust Will Never Settle Down”.

Ahmed speaks about the most horrific evening of her life with astonishing composure, pausing to gather her thoughts and explaining that she is still taking heavy-duty medication. Her husband is one of three humanist bloggers hacked to death in Bangladesh this year: Washiqur Rahman was murdered in Dhaka in March and Ananta Bijoy Das was killed in the city of Sylhet, in north-east Bangladesh, in May.

The killings began almost two and a half years ago with the murder of another blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider. Astonishingly, the Bangladeshi government reacted by cracking down on humanist blogs for supposedly “hurting religious feelings”, and arrested several bloggers. While it is clearly the bloggers who need protection, ministers have been under pressure from Islamic extremists who want a new blasphemy law and have published death lists. One such list contained 84 names, including the real identities of individuals who had blogged under pseudonyms for their own safety.

What is going on is a struggle over the identity of the modern state of Bangladesh. Its roots stretch back to the war of independence in 1971 when a number of influential clerics, including prominent members of the main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, were accused of siding with Pakistan and committing war crimes. Three million people died and the accusations ranged from rape and torture to genocide.

In 2009, a war crimes tribunal was set up and nine Jamaat-e-Islami leaders were eventually indicted. The party’s former leader, Ghulam Azam, was sentenced to 90 years and died in prison last year. Several other defendants, including its current leader Motiur Rahman Nizami, were convicted and sentenced to death. Controversially, some humanist bloggers supported both the trials and capital punishment for those convicted of war crimes. Posts on social networking sites suggested that Roy would be killed if he returned to Bangladesh but with the secular Awami League in government, the couple didn’t think they would be at risk. Last week, Ahmed described their decision to return as a miscalculation, and said they were still suffering from jetlag when they were attacked.

She spoke eloquently about her sense of loss and outrage, which has not shaken her commitment to humanism. “Don’t lose your faith,” the owner of a restaurant in Atlanta advised her recently when she ate there with her daughter. Ahmed pointed upwards and said: “I don’t see anything up there.”

Ahmed seemed almost bewildered by the warmth of her reception in London. She is thoughtful and generous, acknowledging the depth of her grief and rage but insisting on the need to have compassion for others. “It is not just ourselves, but each other, every trafficked slave, every murdered writer, every lost and lonely mind, that are important and have value,” she said.

She is still working out how best to continue the work she did with her husband, but it is hard to see such an extraordinary woman as a victim. With her quick mind and infectious laugh, Rafida Bonya Ahmed is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Alison Saunders is doing a good job as DPP. Of course she shouldn’t resign

Daily Telegraph, 1 July 2015

Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, is facing calls to resign in the wake of her U-turn over whether to prosecute Lord Janner for child sex offences. Joan Smith explains why this brave woman should stay in her job

A witch-hunt is under way.  The target is the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, who should resign, we are told, because she took the ‘wrong’ decision in the case of Lord Janner. On Monday, after a review by an independent lawyer, Saunders reversed her decision that the peer, who suffers from dementia, should not be prosecuted on ‘historic’ charges of rape and sexual assault.

‘Sack her!’ came the cry, as though Saunders had been caught out in a misguided personal campaign to let sexual predators off the hook. The fact that a great deal of legal opinion is on the DPP’s side seems not to count at all in such circumstances. Nor does the fact that Saunders has done her best to rebalance the rights of victims and perpetrators in cases of rape and sexual assault, to a point where she has been accused of showing too much sympathy for victims.

I can understand how upset Janner’s alleged victims were by Saunders’s original decision. I’m not a lawyer but the decision seemed to me finely balanced, pitting the right of victims to have their allegations aired in court against a medical diagnosis that says their alleged abuser does not have the capacity to defend himself. What is clear is that the peer’s behaviour should have been investigated more thoroughly years ago.

Saunders believes he could have been prosecuted on at least two occasions. It is those missed opportunities that should be under scrutiny now, not her rather brave decision to submit herself to a review process set up by her predecessor, Kier Starmer. Janner was still a Labour MP when the allegations first surfaced, and it should not be forgotten that he received robust cross-party support when he stood up to deny them in the House of Commons in 1991.

Equally striking is the fact that the grounds for demanding Saunders’s resignation this week represent a 180-degree turn on the previous (and equally strident) accusations against her. Five months ago, when the Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidelines on consent in rape cases, the reaction was almost as hysterical; Saunders was accused of being too sympathetic to victims in a slew of articles that conjured up the old stereotype of women who supposedly ‘cry rape’. She was called ‘politically correct’ and accused of being part of the ‘all-men-are-rapists brigade’. Her offence? The apparently outrageous assertion that men need to be able to prove that a woman had consented to sex with them.

Of course it is nothing of the sort. Everyone – women, men, police officers and lawyers making decisions about whether or not to prosecute – needs to be clear about the legal definition of consent. The guidelines spelled this out and tackled a series of rape ‘myths’ which have no basis in fact but discourage victims from reporting serious assaults. Those myths range from the unproven assertion that women accuse men of rape just because they changed their minds afterwards to the notion that silence can be taken for consent.

This was another brave move on Saunders’s part and it was met by shameless recycling of the very myths she sought to dispel. Her concern is the huge number of rapes – four out of five, according to senior police officers I have talked to – which don’t get reported because victims fear they won’t be believed. The number of reported rapes soared by 68 per cent from 2005/6 to 2013/14, but there was only a 17 per cent increase in charges in that period.

Saunders’ first move as DPP was to announce a campaign to target violence against women and secure more rape convictions. She’s lobbied judges to warn juries about rape myths and backed improved victim support (particularly in stalking cases) so that women know what to expect in court. Almost 100,000 criminal cases were launched against abusive partners last year – taking into account new definitions of abuse, such as revenge porn and coercive control – with a record 68,601 successful convictions.

In the 18 months she has been DPP, it has become clear that Saunders is not afraid of taking unpopular decisions or challenging powerful interests. She’s made a lot of enemies, in other words, not least among journalists angry about the way she defended the decision to prosecute tabloid reporters in the wake of Operation Elveden. It’s also clear that she’s shaking up the criminal justice system in ways her critics find uncomfortable.

Sometimes that means challenging ill-founded assumptions which stop victims of sexual violence getting justice. Sometimes it means taking into account whether a sick man is able to mount a proper defence, and getting that decision reviewed when it is challenged.

I’m sure Saunders didn’t set out to be popular but I’m disgusted by these attacks on her integrity – and her courage.