P D James: the warm, inspirational woman I knew

Independent on Sunday, 30 November 2014

She confronted moral dilemmas with seriiusness and a sense of responsibility

I first met the novelist P D James, who died last week at the age of 94, almost three decades ago. Phyllis was in her mid-sixties at the time, and I had been reading her avidly since coming across her novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman in a public library. She was about to publish one of her best books, A Taste for Death, and I had been asked to write a profile of her. I arrived at her west London house slightly early, feeling a little nervous.

I needn’t have worried. Phyllis turned out to be a warm, almost motherly woman with old-fashioned good manners. The contrast with her latest novel, which opened with the bodies of two men being found in a west London church with their throats cut, was striking. She offered me tea, which came on a tray, and we settled down to do the interview.

I asked my first question – “When did you know you were a novelist?” – and something quite unexpected happened. Phyllis looked at me and asked a question of her own: “Do you write fiction?” I said I had just finished my first novel and she nodded, observing that only another novelist would have phrased it like that. The next thing knew, I was telling her about my book, A Masculine Ending, and the fact that we had the same publisher. Phyllis immediately offered to read the manuscript, which she duly did. She suggested small amendments to the plot and offered an endorsement to go on the cover.

Phyllis must have known how much that meant to a first-time novelist, but she did the whole thing matter-of-factly. It was the beginning of a long friendship, cemented by the fact that for a while we shared the same editor, my great friend Rosemary Goad. Rose, as she has always been known, started at Faber & Faber as one of T S Eliot’s secretaries; long after she retired, she went on editing Phyllis’s novels, including her Jane Austen pastiche, Death Comes to Pemberley, three years ago.

In the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about that first conversation with Phyllis. She didn’t start publishing until her early forties, when she realised that if she was going to write fiction, she had better get on with it. At the time, she had two small children and was the family’s main breadwinner; her husband, a doctor, had been a Japanese prisoner of war and came home profoundly damaged. He was found dead a couple of years after her first novel, Cover Her Face, was published in 1962.

Phyllis was a private person and we didn’t talk much about that very difficult period of her life. But she did tell me, when I asked if she had any regrets, that she was sorry that certain people were not around to enjoy her success as a writer. Something else that stayed with me is what she had to say about motive in crime novels. Her books are full of all kinds of murders, but she told me she couldn’t imagine writing a novel about a psychopath; she just wouldn’t find someone like that interesting.

Phyllis carried on the golden age tradition of applying logic and reason to crime fiction, and it’s hard to imagine her caring for the endless diet of gory serial killers offered by so many contemporary authors. She knew a great deal about forensic science from her time at the Home Office, but she never allowed it to dominate the plot or take precedence over character.

I wish more modern writers displayed the sense of moral purpose I associate with Phyllis, not because she was a Conservative peer – politics was never an issue in our conversations – but because she insisted that human beings have moral choices. Born in 1920, she was a young adult during the Second World War and maybe it was that experience, of human nature at its worst, that led her to confront moral dilemmas with seriousness and a sense of responsibility. She was a one-nation Tory and an Anglican, although I wondered if she was talking about herself when she told me that her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, was someone who wanted to believe more than he actually did.

One passion we shared was women’s rights. I always thought Phyllis was a little bit in love with Dalgliesh, but she introduced a younger female detective, Kate Miskin, in her later novels. She told me that she would have liked Dalgliesh to be a female character, but it was simply unthinkable to have such a senior woman at Scotland Yard when she started writing.

Some of my happiest memories of Phyllis are from the birthday parties organised for her by her publisher. At one of them, I remember talking to the wife of a former Archbishop of Canterbury; at another, I sat next to Austen Kark, a charming man who later died, tragically, in the Potters Bar rail crash. Those parties were a reminder of her ability to make and maintain friendships with very disparate people.

I cried a little when I heard about her death. Phyllis had a long and successful life, but I shall miss her warm, inspirational presence in the world.

Crime fiction: when bitter rivalries get out of hand

The Sunday Times, 2 November 2014

Scientific controversy rarely features in crime fiction. The best-selling author Sissel-Jo Gazan proved it could be done in her acclaimed first novel, The Dinosaur Feather, which went on to be hailed Danish crime novel of the decade. Her second, The Arc of the Swallow (Quercus £16.99), translated by Charlotte Barslund, tackles another disagreement among scientists, this time about the possible side-effects of immunisation programmes.

A distinguished biologist, Kristian Storm, is found hanged in his office in Copenhagen after carrying out hugely controversial research in Africa. Storm’s observations in Guinea-Bissau appear to suggest that a widely-used vaccine might actually harm children in developing countries. His assistant, who is being treated for breast cancer, refuses to believe Storm has killed himself. Soren Marhauge, the tormented detective who featured in Gazan’s first book, agrees with her.

This is a terrific novel, involving bitter rivalries among scientists, so it is a shame that Gazan’s ambiguity about its relation to real life raises unanswered questions. She insists at the outset that the novel is ‘pure fiction’, but cites research from a controversial Danish research project in Africa which casts doubt on the safety of a particular vaccine. This makes for uneasy reading in the UK, where an unwarranted panic about the MMR vaccine has led to measles outbreaks.

It is more than two decades since Patricia Cornwell began writing novels starring Dr Kay Scarpetta, who has since become one of the best-known characters in crime fiction. In the beginning, Scarpetta was a completely-unknown medical examiner in Virginia, where she was called in to help the police with plausible crimes involving perfectly ordinary victims. These days Scarpetta is a celebrity and the change in her fortunes is evident in Flesh and Blood (Harper Collins £20), which opens with the most pretentious first paragraph I’ve read in a long time.

Scarpetta and her husband are at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sipping coffees sweetened with ‘agave nectar’, when they begin to suspect they are being watched. Not far away, a music teacher is shot dead while carrying groceries into his apartment. At first it seems as though Cornwell is returning to what she used to do so well, pitting Scarpetta against the kind of apparently random killer who turns up so often in the US. But then it becomes clear that Scarpetta and her family are the real targets, exposing the narcissistic tendencies which have spoiled so many of the later novels in the series.

Dreda Say Mitchell’s new novel Vendetta (Hodder £6.99) has a classic opening scene: a man wakes in a seedy hotel room, with no memory of what he’s doing there, and discovers his girlfriend’s corpse in the bathroom. At first he’s terrified that he might be responsible, but then he realises that he has a head wound and someone – Russian gangsters, most likely – is trying to set him up. This is the first in a series of novels about undercover cops, but the cartoonish violence makes it hard to believe in either the plot or characters.

The murder of the Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme, is one of the great unsolved crimes of the second half of the 20th century. Palme was shot dead as he left a cinema in Stockholm in 1986 and the suspect who was convicted of the killing was later cleared. Now one of the country’s most admired crime writers, Leif G W Persson, has taken on the subject in a clever and sophisticated novel, Falling Freely, As If In A Dream (Doubleday £18.99), translated by Paul Norlen.

Persson is a psychological profiler and a professor at the National Swedish Police Board. Although this is fiction, he calls on his professional skills to analyse the evidence collected at the scene, using the pretext that a group of fictional cops has been tasked with reviewing the case files. It has the feel of a real investigation, carried out by convincing characters and shedding new light on this most perplexing of crimes.

Child abuse inquiry: children’s lives are destroyed by this culture of disbelief

Independent on Sunday, 2 November 2014

The fiasco surrounding the Woolf inquiry suggests that the Home Office still doesn’t grasp the size of the problem

How could this happen? Almost four months ago, the government announced a wide-ranging inquiry into explosive allegations of historical child abuse. Since then, two chairs have been appointed, both have resigned and the inquiry hasn’t even started work. The Home Secretary, Theresa May, will face uncomfortable questions from MPs when she makes a statement in the House of Commons tomorrow.

On Friday, the embarrassment spread to David Cameron when he backed Fiona Woolf, the current Lord Mayor of London, only hours before her resignation as head of the inquiry was announced. She lost the confidence of victims when it was revealed that she is a friend of the former Home Secretary, Lord Brittan, who was at the Home Office in the 1980s when, it is alleged, a dossier on child abuse compiled by a Conservative MP went missing. It emerged last week that a letter setting out her contacts with Brittan went through seven drafts.

The inquiry needs to be exceptionally wide-ranging, shining a light into just about every area of the establishment. Yet the Home Office seems not to have realised that the usual approach – announcing an inquiry and picking one of the great and the good to chair it – would be entirely inappropriate in this instance. Woolf’s predecessor, Baroness Butler-Sloss, had also faced questions about her connections to a senior political figure in the 1980s; her late brother, Lord Havers, was attorney general when reports of child sexual abuse were allegedly not examined properly.

It was Baroness Butler-Sloss, as it happens, who offered an insight into the process of setting up inquiries when she gave a lecture in 2003. When she was asked who instigated a previous inquiry into child abuse (which she chaired) in the late1980s, she made this off-the-cuff remark: ‘I think it was my brother actually as Lord Chancellor’. Butler-Sloss said her brother suggested a woman judge should chair the inquiry, and she was one of only three female judges at the time. The other two were unavailable so ‘I found myself doing it’.

The fate of that inquiry, which reported in 1988, offers a fascinating piece of background. It came about because a Labour MP in the north-east, Stuart Bell, was outraged by the number of children who had been taken into care in his constituency following diagnoses of child sexual abuse. Bell painted doctors and child protection professionals in Cleveland as fanatics who saw sexual abuse everywhere; he even compared their behaviour to the Salem witch trials. Butler-Sloss was critical of the mechanisms used to take the children into care, but a TV documentary later claimed that nearly three-quarters of the diagnoses were correct. The feminist author Beatrix Campbell described the Butler-Sloss report as ‘compromised by Establishment guile and bad faith’.

From the standpoint of today, the Cleveland scandal looks rather different. In the last two or three years, a series of investigations has finally begun to demolish a persistent and very damaging state of denial about the extent of child sexual abuse in this country. Jimmy Savile, Rotherham, Max Clifford, Rolf Harris, Rochdale, Cyril Smith: the names have become shorthand for scandals involving vulnerable children and teenagers.

The Elm guest house in south-west London is alleged to have been at the centre of network of paedophiles with links to Parliament and Buckingham Palace, and is supposed to have featured in the dossier handed to the Home Office by the late Geoffrey Dickens MP. He caused an outcry in 1981 when he used Parliamentary privilege to name a former diplomat, Sir Peter Hayman, as a member of the notorious Paedophile Information Exchange. Hayman came to the attention of the police in 1979 when they raided a flat he used in west London and found a mass of material, including images of abused children. Hayman was let off with a caution.

Suspicions of an establishment cover-up have been fuelled by the BBC’s failure to recognise that Savile was abusing children on an industrial scale. Then there is the case of the Liberal MP Cyril Smith, who received a knighthood even though allegations about his abuse of boys were in the public domain. Back in 1979, the Rochdale Alternative Paper revealed it had sworn statements from young men who claimed to have been abused by the MP in a hostel for homeless boys in Rochdale in the 1960s. Private Eye repeated the allegations but Smith never sued.

Since then, the staggering extent of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church has come to light, while the Anglican hierarchy is being rocked by similar scandals. Last week a former Archbishop of York, Lord Hope, resigned as an honorary assistant bishop after a report found ‘systemic failures’ in the church’s response to allegations against a former cathedral dean. But it is not just establishment figures who benefited from this culture of disbelief.

Three months ago, the Jay report into sexual abuse in Rotherham caused shock waves when it suggested that at least 1,400 girls had been victims of rape and sexual abuse. I suddenly remembered sensational headlines from 2001, when it was revealed that a 12-year-old girl had become pregnant in the town. A salacious detail – that five men aged between 16 and 26 were facing DNA tests because she did not know who was the father – put the spotlight on the girl’s supposedly ‘promiscuous’ behaviour. Thirteen years later, I can’t help wondering whether it was an early warning that vulnerable young girls were being targeted by predatory men.

Sexual abuse of children has been going on at every level of British society for decades. The victims are crying out for a fearless investigation. But this fiasco of an inquiry suggests that the Home Office, at least, remains in denial.

A bit of contrition would help, but appallingly behaved footballers barely see a problem

Independent on Sunday, 19 October 2014

As sexual violence against women increases, football’s authorities should take the same stand they have taken against racism

Professional footballers tend to be glamorous, physically fit and wealthy beyond the dreams of their contemporaries. Whether or not they are role models, many people are fascinated by their lifestyle. But there have been enough instances of appalling behaviour, often involving footballers on a night out, to suggest that the game has a serious problem with sexual violence. The latest case to bring this into focus is that of Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United striker and Welsh international who has just been released from prison after serving half of a five-year sentence for rape.

Evans’s release has triggered a fierce debate about whether he should be allowed to play professional football again. It coincided with publication of the latest figures for reported rapes in England and Wales, which show a rise of 29 per cent on the previous year. Overall, crime is falling, and there is a debate about whether the figure represents an increased incidence of rape or greater willingness to report it. But Evans’s absolute refusal to acknowledge that he did anything wrong offers a startling insight into outdated beliefs within the game about women and sexual violence.

‘We’re footballers, we’re rich and we’ve got money, that’s what girls like’, Evans bragged to police after his arrest. He is not alone in this view. ‘Don’t you know who I am? I’m a millionaire.’ That was the Wigan Athletic striker, Marlon King, responding angrily to a young woman who rejected his advances in a Soho nightclub. In 2009, King was convicted of sexual assault and actual bodily harm after he groped the woman and punched her to the floor. He was jailed for 18 months but it didn’t prevented him from playing again after his release, most recently at Sheffield United. (He is currently in prison again, this time for dangerous driving.)

Then there is the case of Tesfaye Bramble, who played for Football League clubs and is the brother of a well-known Premiership player, Titus Bramble. Three years ago Titus, who then played for Sunderland, gave evidence during Tesfaye’s trial for rape; he said he assumed that ‘when a girl’s coming back to a hotel after the club it’s for sex’. Tesfaye Bramble admitted climbing on top of his 19-year-old victim, who had fallen asleep in a single hotel bed after a night out in Newcastle, and deciding to ‘try my luck’. He was convicted of rape and sentenced to four-and-a-half years.

The most striking common factor in the Evans and Bramble cases is complete ignorance of the importance of consent. Evans went to a hotel room in North Wales in the early hours of the morning after getting a text from his mate, the Port Vale player Clayton McDonald, telling him he’d ‘got a girl’. He found McDonald having sex with the woman, who was 19 and very drunk, and decided to do the same when his mate had finished. (McDonald was charged with rape but acquitted.)

Evans said the woman ‘was moaning and groaning like she was enjoying herself’, apparently unaware that groaning is often a sign of distress. His self-absorption has not been dented by his time in jail, as a statement posted on his website makes clear: ‘Chedwyn Evans maintains his absolute innocence and his family, friends and many who know the true facts of the case believe that his conviction was a gross miscarriage of justice.’

Juries do not lightly convict men of rape: CPS figures show that the conviction rate was 60.3 per cent in 2013-2014, compared with an overall rate of 79.8 per cent in crown courts. Evans had his application to appeal against conviction and sentence turned down by three judges, who could see ‘no basis’ to interfere with the verdict. But he has engaged a new legal team and made an application to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. He has also promised to publish a ‘very personal and profound statement’ in the next few days.

When I asked the FA about Evans’s future, a spokesman said any club which signs an individual convicted of such crimes is ‘duty bound’ to liaise with the probation and prison authorities to identify what ‘rehabilitation work’ has taken place in prison. He said it is ‘also important to work to integrate the player back into the club and society’. But what if the player flatly refuses to acknowledge that he’s done anything wrong? The FA’s statement effectively gives the green light to clubs to sign players who are unrepentant about their crimes towards women, as long as they comply with probation conditions.

The FA also told me it is promoting the involvement of women in the game and ‘reporting procedures to women to tackle sexism’. But this is not just about sexism or behaviour on the pitch. It is about a footballing culture which trivialises sexual violence, as though someone’s ability to score goals is all that matters. Since Evans’s conviction, his supporters have repeatedly used social networking sites to abuse his critics, including his victim and a woman who collected more than 150,000 signatures on a petition calling for him to be blocked from returning to Sheffield United.

Football’s authorities have rightly adopted a tough line on racism. I can’t understand why they haven’t taken an equally clear stand on sexual violence, unless it’s the fact that the highest level of the game is a multi-million-pound business. The FA says rape and sexual violence are ‘appalling crimes’, so why doesn’t it tell clubs to bring in experts to educate players about gender equality and the meaning of consent? No matter how talented they are, men who don’t accept these basic tenets of decent behaviour have no place on the pitch.

Revenge Porn. It’s criminal…except when it makes a good front page

Hacked Off

16 October, 2014

At the beginning of October, The Sun launched a campaign against what has become known as ‘revenge porn’. A number of famous people have been victims of the practice, which consists of a former partner publishing intimate material without their ex’s permission. More recently, it has come to light that young women and even teenage girls are being targeted, a fact which prompted the former culture secretary, Maria Miller MP, to call for revenge porn to be made a specific offence.

The Sun joined the campaign, lambasting what it called ‘ex maniacs’ and calling for them to be jailed. The paper published interviews with victims, describing how they had agreed to pose for intimate photographs or videos, only to be horrified when the relationship ended and their former partners made them public. Others said they had been blackmailed into posing for more pictures, after being told that earlier material would be published if they didn’t comply. The Sun thundered that revenge porn should be made a crime, with prison sentences of up to three years.

There is no doubt that revenge porn is a serious problem. Very young girls are being manipulated into posing by ‘boyfriends’, who subsequently use the images to humiliate them. Gay teenagers are also at risk, especially in schools where homophobic bullying is rife. The practice is a clear breach of privacy, as well as violating the trust which is usually assumed to be an essential part of a consenting sexual relationship.

The government’s response to Miller’s lobbying, which had the support of feminist organisations, was swift. On 12 October, the Sun on Sunday hailed the success of the campaign, crediting The Sun with bringing about the government’s crackdown on revenge porn. ‘Jilted lovers who post sexually-explicit photos or videos of exes online will face two years jail,’ it declared.

So, out of interest, what appeared on the front page of the Sun on Sunday that same day? Sexually explicit ‘selfies’ of two men, one a Conservative MP and the other a Premiership footballer, which they apparently sent to women they met via social networking sites. The MP was Brooks Newmark, who resigned as a junior minister two weeks earlier after being caught in a sting published by the Sunday Mirror. Next to him was a ‘topless’ picture of the footballer, which the paper claimed he had sent to two women without his wife’s knowledge. Newmark promptly announced he would step down as an MP at the general election, marking the end of his career in politics.

‘Sleazy Tory MP Brooks Newmark poses naked in one of a series of sex pictures sent to a second woman which led him to quit last night,’ the Sun on Sunday article began. Inside, on pages 4 and 5, the paper used a larger version of the page-one photo, and declared that others he had sent to the same woman were ‘unfit to print’.

The next day’s Sun published a slightly different selfie on its front page, showing Newmark’s naked chest and shoulders. Inside it described his affair with a ‘young mum’ in detail, published a photo of him sliding off his boxer shorts, and printed extracts from a series of texts he sent to her. Unlike the Sunday Mirror expose, in which the MP was revealed to have sent explicit pictures of himself to a male journalist pretending to be a young woman, the Sun story was about an affair with a real woman, even though her name was withheld.

In much of the press, the response to the latest revelation was muted, but some commentators claimed it vindicated the Sunday Mirror sting two weeks earlier; the logic appeared to be that the expose of the alleged secret affair justified the journalist’s use of subterfuge to get the original story. But the charge against the Sunday Mirror wasn’t that the politician had not behaved unwisely for someone in his position; it was that the story seemed to be the result of a trawl targeting several MPs in the hope that one of them would take the bait. The two ‘relationships’ appeared to differ in a number of crucial respects, as an interview with the woman who spoke to the Sun on Sunday made clear. ‘We had a full-on relationship for over two years,’ she told the paper. ‘I was in love with him.’

Indeed Monday’s Sun suggested that the affair ended as a direct result of the Sunday Mirror revelations: ‘The mum finally ended their affair two weeks ago after she discovered he had sent photos to the journalist’. So how did Newmark’s nude selfies, taken for private use and in the context of an intimate relationship, end up on the front page of a popular newspaper?

The answer appears to be that they were given to the paper by his ex-lover, without his knowledge or consent – a classic example, on the face of it, of revenge porn. And while Newmark has said that he blames no one but himself, the impact on the MP, his family and his career has been little short of catastrophic.

Risk-taking on this scale is foolish, especially in a public figure, but Newmark’s friends have said they feared he was close to a breakdown even before the revelations. After the Sun on Sunday story appeared, he announced that he would shortly begin residential treatment psychiatric treatment. As Newmark’s colleague, Maria Miller, has rightly observed: ‘The impact [of revenge porn] can be horrific, with victims losing jobs, self-respect and confidence’.

She was quoted on page 21 of the Sun on Sunday. The next day’s Sun carried this appeal to readers: ‘Have you caught your partner sexting?’ It invited them to call the paper and ‘we’ll ring straight back’. It’s hard to see this as anything other than encouragement to invade the privacy of sexual partners by looking at their mobile phones, where they might have stored explicit texts and pictures. If this material is passed on to journalists for publication in a newspaper, surely that would amount to, er, revenge porn.

Will The Sun now campaign for itself to be sent to prison?


Isis in Kobani: why Turkey is allowing the town to fall

Independent on Sunday, 12 October 2014

A history of appalling brutality between the Ankada government and the Kurds is the key to President Erdogan’s priorities

In 1994, I was wondering around the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul when a bomb went off in the next street. At first I thought a cooking stove had blown up, bu then heavily-armed police and solkdiers poured into the building and shouted at us to leave. Later in the day, I discovered that two people had been killed and many others injured. It was my first visit to Turkey, and a shocking introduction to the armed conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Last year, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, called for a ceasefire. By then, the conflict had been going for almost 30 years and killed around 42,000 people; most of the dead were Kurdish insurgents or civilians but the fatalities included more than 6,500 members of the Turkish security forces. This is the background to the otherwise bewildering behaviour of Turkey, which has tanks stationed within sight of the besieged Syrian town of Kobani. Last week, as mainly Kurdish fighters fought street battles with Islamic State, also known as Isis, Turkish forces watched and did nothing.

To an outside observer, it might seem reasonable to assume that Turkey’s leaders would be dismayed at the prospect of a swathe of Syria falling under the control of a group so extreme that it split from al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkey is a member of Nato and supports, nominally at least, US policy towards Syria and Iraq. It has the second-largest army in Nato and shares a long border with Syria, which puts it in a better position to intervene than most of the countries with a stake in the conflict.

But the Turkish government has a dreadful history of human-rights abuses, many of them carried out against its own Kurdish population. For decades, the Kurdish language was banned and its very existence denied by people who claimed that the Kurds were actually “mountain Turks”. Successive Turkish governments treated the country’s largest ethnic minority – around 14 million people, or 18 per cent of the population, although even those figures are contested – as if they did not exist. International human rights organisations reported the use of torture, extra-judicial executions and the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages, while the PKK’s response became equally vicious. Some restrictions on the Kurdish language were lifted when Turkey began eyeing membership of the EU, but the country’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has different priorities.

Now he claims that the PKK and Isis are “the same”, identifying them as twin evils. This is disingenuous, for his government – he was prime minister for 11 years before being elected president – has been accused of supplying Islamic extremists in Syria with weapons in the hope of them overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad. Last month, a former US ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, even accused the country’s government of working with Jabhat al-Nusra. “The Turks, frankly, worked with groups for a period, including al-Nusra, whom… we’re not willing to work with,” he said.

Turkish officials angrily denied claims that the country helped an alliance of Islamist groups, including al-Nusra, to attack the Syrian town of Kasab as recently as March this year. But Human Rights Watch interviewed local people and said that Islamists crossed into Syria from Turkish territory.

Now the siege of Kobani, which is in an area of Syria heavily populated by Kurds, is reigniting Turkey’s conflict with its own Kurdish minority. The government reacted with alarm to an appeal last month from the PKK, which called on Turkish Kurds to join in the defence of Kobani. Turkish security forces have been preventing Kurdish volunteers crossing the border into Syria, prompting protests in half a dozen cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. Last week, at least two dozen people died when demonstrators were met with tear gas and water cannon.

Even before the latest deaths, it was clear that the current Turkish government is brutal in its instincts and partisan towards its own rural, conservative supporters. Last year, popular protests against a plan to turn Gezi Park in Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, Istanbul, into a shopping mall were met with similar brutality. At least four people were killed and 8,000 injured, including almost a dozen who lost an eye after being struck in the head by plastic bullets. Attempts to censor social networking sites met with widespread derision and were overturned by the courts, but Turkey’s descent into authoritarianism cannot be denied.

As news of atrocities filters out from Kobani, the town has become the focus of the struggle against Isis. Two days ago, the UN refugee agency said that more than 170,000 refugees had fled the town and the surrounding area, many of them crossing the border into Turkey. Kurdish fighters, assisted by American bombing raids, have put up fierce resistance but Turkey’s political crisis is growing. Erdogan faces civil unrest, pressure from his Nato allies and an explicit threat from the jailed PKK leader, Ocalan, of a resumption of hostilities if Kobani falls to Isis.

Turkey has responded with its own list of demands, including a no-fly zone inside the Syrian border. It says it can’t be expected to lead a ground operation against Isis on its own, blaming the Assad regime for instability in the region. There is some truth in this, but one of Turkey’s greatest fears is the prospect of an autonomous Kurdish enclave across the border in Syria.

At a moment when Nato needs the country to play a decisive role, Turkey’s dreadful record towards its own minorities has come back to haunt it. Those stationary tanks are a grim reminder that the Kurds, currently the West’s most effective allies in the conflict with Isis, still scare the life out of Ankara.


Gone Girl’s recycling of rape myths is a disgusting distortion

False allegations of rape and domestic violence are extremely rare. Ben Affleck should know better

The Guardian, Tuesday 7 October 2014

Like most people, I expect you go to the movies to be entertained. You might choose an action movie, with lots of special effects, or a dark thriller which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Right now you might choose Gone Girl, this autumn’s much-hyped mystery about the frantic search for a woman called Amy Dunne. Rosamund Pike plays the “girl” of the title – actually a thirtysomething wife – who has disappeared from her middle-class home in Missouri amid signs of a struggle.

Pike is English, and I can’t help wondering whether she or her co-star, Ben Affleck, is aware of a ground-breaking piece of research published last year by Britain’s then director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer. I’m actually tempted to send a copy to both of them, and everyone else involved in this travesty of a movie. Affleck in particular, with his left-of-centre politics, should know better; he directed and starred in Argo, a movie so keen to be fair-minded that it began with a potted history of Iranian-American relations.

For Affleck, some relation to reality is clearly important. So why doesn’t that apply to domestic and sexual violence? Admittedly Affleck’s character in Gone Girl – he plays the husband, Nick Dunne – is particularly bone-headed, but the actor isn’t, so why didn’t he demand a disclaimer? Affleck wouldn’t dream of suggesting that the US had clean hands in events such as its historic support for the Shah of Iran, but recycling the most egregious myths about gender-based violence is, apparently, another matter.

I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but one of its key themes is the notion that it’s childishly easy to get away with making false allegations of rape and domestic violence. The characters live in a parallel universe where the immediate reaction to a woman who says she’s been assaulted is one of chivalrous concern. Tell that to all the victims, here and in the US, who have had their claims dismissed by sceptical police officers.

There is a point towards the end of Gone Girl where one of the characters lies through her teeth at a press conference, only to have a law enforcement official intervene to protect her from questioning. This was the moment when my irritation towards a bad film, full of plot holes and cardboard characters, tipped over into something like disgust. I’m wondering why men who have seen the film aren’t up in arms – please tell me they are – about the portrayal of their sex as a bunch of credulous idiots.

I know Gone Girl is fiction. Gillian Flynn’s novel is quite cleverly done – the film is crude by comparison – but they both depend on a single plot twist. If you spot it in advance, the tension evaporates. I wouldn’t want to spend five minutes with Nick, Amy, his sister or her parents, while their relationship – shown in flashback after Amy’s disappearance – offers no clue as to why this unappealing couple ever got together. It fails completely as a portrait of a marriage, but that’s as nothing compared to the brazen misogyny of that plot twist.

When I started writing crime fiction, I was conscious that the genre was full of stereotypes. I thought many of the female characters were decades out of date, so I gave my protagonist a proper job – she’s an academic – and strong political views. Other writers were doing something similar, creating female characters who weren’t always admirable but behaved like real women. Gone Girl does the opposite, playing on what we now know about the behaviour of abused women and undermining the credibility of victims.

So let’s go back to that report I mentioned earlier, and what it had to say about false allegations of rape and domestic violence. Starmer described them as “very rare” and went on to say something that might have been written with Gone Girl in mind. “In recent years we have worked hard to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes that are associated with these cases,” he observed with a hint of weariness. Everyone who works in this area knows what he means, and foremost among those myths is the idea that victims can’t be trusted. It’s a favourite theme of the Daily Mail, which is always ready to clear its front page to highlight cases of men who have been acquitted of rape, without pointing out that false allegations are rare.

The figures are stark. Starmer asked the Crown Prosecution Service to look at a 17-month period, during which there were 5,651 rape prosecutions and a staggering 111,891 for domestic violence. In the same period, only 35 women were prosecuted for making false allegations of rape and six for false claims of domestic violence. The standout finding was that occasions when a suspect deliberately makes a false allegation of rape or domestic violence “purely out of malice” are “extremely rare”.

That’s the premise of Gone Girl blown out of the water. Are you listening, Ben Affleck? Context matters in the movie business, whether the subject is geopolitics or the grim reality of gender-based violence.

With Alan Henning’s death, the media finally stop playing the terrorists’ tune

Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014

It took the death of the British aid worker for papers not to publish images of Isis’s brutality

Yesterday, for the fourth time in just over six weeks, the media had to decide how to respond to the brutal murder of a hostage. Alan Henning, a taxi driver who went to Syria purely for humanitarian reasons, was forced to take part in a video before being beheaded by a masked jihadist.

When news of the killing began to circulate on Friday, there were immediate appeals on social networking sites not to show stills from the video. With a couple of exceptions – notably the online versions of the Daily Mail and Daily Star – most newspaper editors complied. Lloyd Embley, editor-in-chief of the Mirror titles, tweeted that stills from a video of the aid worker David Haines had appeared on most front pages. “We decided not to do that again,” he wrote. “They can’t win.” The Sun published a leader, declaring that “we refuse to give his absurd killers the publicity they crave”.

I can’t help thinking, “At last.” Why did it take so long for some sections of the media to recognise the huge ethical problems inherent in showing pictures, taken by perpetrators, of human beings undergoing extreme psychological torture?

When a video of the beheading of the first Western hostage, the American journalist James Foley, was released in August, the reaction was very different. The Sun, along with many other British newspapers, used a still from the video on its front page. The paper’s online edition initially included a link to the video, under the heading “Islamist terrorist beheads missing US journalist”. The New York Post, also owned by Rupert Murdoch, published a photo of Mr Foley with the murderer’s knife at his throat. The chief executive of News Corp Australia, Julian Clarke, later claimed that “hiding the brutal reality” was not in anyone’s interest.

So why has Mr Henning’s murder brought about a change in editorial policy? It has to be said that the New York Postbehaved as badly as ever, using a still of Mr Henning on his knees along with a hideously graphic description of the video’s content. But it seems to have dawned on other editors that one of the purposes of these videos is to torture friends and relatives of the victims. Publishing stills causes unimaginable pain, denying loved ones the choice not to view them. It also, crucially, comes close to colluding with torture.

Isis wants us to see these pictures. It has no intention of sparing anyone’s life, which is why sending an audiotape to Mr Henning’s wife was so cruel. We have a responsibility as journalists to report these murders, but we don’t have to reproduce slavishly the most horrific propaganda. That’s what these images are, and I’m sorry it’s taken the murder of poor Mr Henning for some sections of the media to recognise it.

When did ‘human rights’ become a source of shame?

Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014

It has replaced ‘political correctness’ as the dinner-party phrase designed to appeal to right-wing prejudice

It used to be “political correctness”. You only had to say the words to set a coalition of right-wing columnists, Tory backbenchers and patriotic Englishmen (sic) seething with rage. Respecting the rights of gay people, women, the disabled or foreigners was loudly condemned as “political correctness gone mad”, which was one step worse than PC on its own. What is the country coming to when you can’t make jokes about loony left-wing councils banning Christmas? (Not that they ever did.)

Now David Cameron needs a new bogeyman to rally wavering voters. So it’s goodbye to political correctness, and hello to the dire threat to our way of life known as “human rights”. Actually, that should be the “human rights industry”, as I expect it’s known at dinner parties attended by right-wing cabinet ministers. Other key phrases in the lexicon are “Abu Qatada”, “votes for prisoners”, and the soppy idea that we shouldn’t deport people to countries where their private parts might be hooked up to electric wires. Such absurd claims are contrasted by Conservative politicians with violations of “real human rights”, which are to be found in North Korea.

Another word senior Tories are fond of is “crazy”. Last week the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, branded some uses of the Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European convention on human rights in domestic law, as “crazy” and “unacceptable”. A day later, Cameron grabbed headlines by confirming he would scrap the Act if the Tories win the next election. Their vocabulary on this subject is virtually indistinguishable from that of the Daily Mail, which gleefully reported that the party would give MPs and judges the power “to ignore the European Court and its crazy decision making”. The paper proclaimed “a triumphant week for British values” – and that was before Grayling caused shockwaves by suggesting that the Tories might withdraw from the European convention if they fail to get a veto over judgments at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Well, I have to say I’m outraged by this attempt to hijack “British values”. What the Tories are doing is highlighting a few decisions they dislike by the ECHR, as though they amount to a special imposition on the UK. This is nonsense: no country should expect to win every case that comes before the court. As for the endless complaints about Abu Qatada, this self-proclaimed opponent of human rights merely exposed his own hypocrisy by using the law to delay his deportation. I like the fact that even the Home Secretary has to follow due process.

That’s one of the things enshrined in the European convention. It also outlaws torture, punishment without law, slavery and forced labour, while protecting free expression and respect for private and family life. What’s wrong with any of that? I can see it would go down badly in North Korea, Syria or China, but that makes it all the more astonishing that the Tories are turning their loathing of “human rights” into a central plank of their election platform.

Don’t be taken in by the spin that they’re just replacing a messy piece of legislation with a sensible British Bill of Rights. Since Cameron’s speech in Birmingham, headlines have focused on proposals to turn the ECHR into an “advisory body” whose judgments are no longer binding on the UK. This would set a precedent for countries with terrible human rights records, including Russia, which has lost many more cases before the court than the UK. But that’s not the half of it. The Bill would apply only to British territory, according to a policy document published two days ago, so allegations of human rights abuses by British forces serving abroad could no longer be heard in a British court.

Viewed in conjunction with an intention to redefine “degrading treatment”, this looks like an attempt to limit the ability of British courts to hear cases which might reveal complicity in torture or extraordinary rendition. Most far-reaching of all is an apparently anodyne clause promising to amend the Ministerial Code to “remove any ambiguity… about the duty of ministers to follow the will of Parliament”. Some lawyers say this would amount to removing the British Government’s obligation to comply with international law and treaties. Are the Tories really crazy enough to do this, with all its dire implications for Britain’s standing in the world?

The answer appears to be that they are; what’s more, they’ve been planning it for some time. That’s why ministers have been softening up the public with speeches caricaturing the effect of human rights legislation, faithfully reported in The Sun and Daily Mail.

Then there was the mysterious sacking in July of the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, a barrister by profession and one of the few Tories almost everyone likes. At the time Grieve said he didn’t think his dismissal was linked to his opposition to the UK withdrawing from the ECHR, but added that it was “possible”. Last week he became one of the fiercest critics of the proposals, describing them as “almost puerile” and saying they would “damage the UK’s international reputation”.

Cameron’s demonising of human rights law marks a significant shift to the right. It is also calculated, an abandonment of wiser heads in his own party in an attempt to fight off the threat from the Ukip. It’s hardly surprising that a Tory leader who couldn’t win an outright majority against Gordon Brown should live in terror of Nigel Farage, a man who reduces politics to populist slogans. But the result will be incalculable damage to the country he claims to love, inflicted by a prime minister so desperate that he is prepared to turn “human rights” into an insult.