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Friday, 27 June 2014

Something is rotten ...


What do you call an organisation, originally based in Sicily, that uses bribes and threats to buy influence and power?

Here's a clue: it begins with the letter M.

Here's another question: Whom did the Labour MP Tom Watson, at a parliamentary select committee hearing in November 2011, call "the first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise"?

Again, the answer begins with the letter M. That's M for Murdoch. In this case, James Murdoch, the hapless son hung out to dry.

Forget Andy Coulson. If you can, forget phone-hacking. The real scandal is how senior politicians -- and police officers -- allowed themselves to be used by a ruthless media tycoon for his own commercial ends. And if you think it's all over, it's not.

Why is Michael Gove still palsy-walsy with Rupert Murdoch, who used to employ him in his days as a journalist on The Times? Why did Ed Miliband pose for that idiotic photo holding a copy of the Sun? The answer is simplicity itself: because they fear the power of Murdoch, and the damage he could do to their political careers.

I do not claim that either Gove or Miliband, or any of the other politicians who have snuggled up to Mr Murdoch, are doing, or have done, anything illegal. But it is frankly a disgrace that even after everything we've learned about the poisonous impact that the Murdoch empire has had on British public life, men such as these cannot resist the lure of the Murdoch imprimatur.

Two Labour prime ministers, Blair and Brown, a Conservative prime minister and a Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, Cameron and Osborne, have all succumbed.  Two years ago, even Mr Cameron had to admit, in the House of Commons: "We all did too much cosying up to Rupert Murdoch." (He meant politicians on all sides, and he was right.)

So when you ask how the industrial-scale phone-hacking at the News of the World could go on for so long, undetected and unpunished, here's your answer. Murdoch and his minions had bought immunity. They paid police officers for information, they hired former police officers as highly-paid columnists, and they gathered dirt on senior politicians with which they threatened to ruin careers. With cover like that, who needs to bother about the niceties of the law?

The Labour MP Tom Watson, who appears not to know the meaning of the word fear, defined the mafia during his questioning of James Murdoch in 2011 as "a group of people who are bound together by secrecy, who together pursue their group’s business objectives with no regard for the law, using intimidation, corruption and general criminality."

He asked Mr Murdoch to agree that it was also "an accurate description of News International in the UK." James Murdoch replied: "Absolutely not. Frankly, I think that that is offensive and it is not true."

The evidence, alas, is on Mr Watson's side, not Mr Murdoch's. What's more, even if Andy Coulson, former Murdoch editor and former Cameron media supremo, does end up in jail, the capo di tutti capi, the boss of bosses, is having the last laugh.

As the hacking scandal detonated beneath the Murdoch media empire, the boss was asked what his priority was. He turned to Rebekah Brooks and said: "This one." So when the jury acquitted her on all charges on Tuesday, he would have been entitled to gloat. Mission accomplished.

According to Nick Davies of The Guardian, the indefatigable reporter who did more than anyone to blow this sordid scandal wide open, the millions that the Murdoch empire spent on defending both Brooks and Coulson bought so much lawyer power into the courtroom that "lawyers and court reporters who spend their working lives at the Old Bailey agreed they had never seen anything like it, this multimillion-pound Rolls-Royce engine purring through the proceedings."

More than two-thirds of the estimated £100 million-plus cost of the legal proceedings were paid by the Murdoch machine to defend his former executives. And yet -- get this -- in the words of a Financial Times headline on Wednesday: "Murdoch comes out on top despite lawyers' bills."

The FT reported that the share price of News Corp stock actually rose in New York after the Old Bailey verdicts were announced, and that, according to Forbes magazine, the Murdoch family's net wealth has risen from $7.5 billion before the hacking crisis broke to $13.5 billion this year. How depressing is that?

So where does this leave Sir Brian Leveson, his inquiry into press standards, and the regulation of the press? To me, the entire Leveson process was designed to provide the wrong answer to the wrong question. The hacking scandal wasn't primarily a failure of press regulation -- it was, above all, a dismal failure of policing.

The police knew what the News of the World was doing, and turned a blind eye. It's hard not to conclude that the reason is that too many of them were far too close to the Murdoch papers. David Cameron himself was warned of the stench emanating from News International -- and he ignored it. It cannot be said too often: it was journalists, specifically on The Guardian and the New York Times -- who blew this thing wide open, not the police, not the judiciary, not our elected representatives at Westminster.

So if we want to ensure that future Murdochs have less power over future prime ministers and future police officers, we need to change the law on media ownership. Perhaps the dawning of the digital age will eventually destroy media moguls' power -- yet for the time being, I fancy a headline in the Sun or the Daily Mail still has more potency than a 140-character tweet.

Yes, journalists on the News of the World (and almost certainly on other papers, too) behaved appallingly and unforgiveably in ripping open the private lives of people who had every right to expect their private lives to remain private.

So yes, by all means let us improve the way people who are badly treated by newspapers can obtain redress. But surely it can't be right, even at arm's length, to involve politicians, the very people who have again and again showed themselves so easily tempted by the goodies available in the press barons' troughs, anywhere near the process.

As Suzanne Moore put it in yesterday's Guardian: "In a healthy democracy, the relationship between journalists and politicians should be one of mutual inquiry verging on disdain. You cannot legislate for that any more than you can vet people for integrity. We can, though, tell it like it is."

Oh, and if you think Mr Murdoch and his papers have finally learned the error of their ways, just pause for one moment to consider the Sun's triumphant headline the day after the acquittal of its titian-haired former editor.

"Great day for red tops." No change there, then.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

My "frontkämpfer" grandfather's thoughts on Germany and the First World War

 The following article appears in the current issue of New Statesman magazine.

History, they say, is written by the victors. Not always, of course, and there's no shortage of historical material from German sources reflecting back on the two catastrophic world wars of the 20th century.

Thanks to my grandfather, I can add a new personal perspective from the losers' viewpoint. He fought in the German army during the First World War -- and in 1943, 27 years after he was called up to help defend his country, while Europe was again engulfed in war, he sat down to write his memoirs.

They make a fascinating counterpoint to the current debate, representing as they do the viewpoint of a liberal-minded German businessman, a non-practising Jew, who by the time he was writing his memoirs, had fled from the Nazis and was living in exile in neutral Portugal.

The view of the education secretary, Michael Gove, is that the 1914-18 war was caused by "the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order."

My grandfather took a different view. "Without question," he wrote, "Germany was not guilty of starting the war and even less was she the only guilty party … At the outbreak of war, there were very few people in Germany, and none among the liberals and, particularly, among Jews, who did not believe that Germany was fighting in a just cause."

That cause, in my grandfather's eyes, writing as the former owner of a small textiles business who had long experience of competing, often successfully, against similar British companies, was the defence of Germany against British economic domination. Britain, he said -- or England, as he called it -- felt compelled to go to war against Germany to protect its economic interests.

"Imagine what was lost to the conservative English in big business, in railway construction, electrical installations, etc. [by increasing German competition], and you will agree that this war, waged with entirely fair weapons, must have contributed at least as much to England's annoyance with Germany as the latter's military re-armament. Personally, I had always been convinced that the war, when it eventually came, and it became more and more probable that it would in fact come, would be started by England for economic reasons."

By 1943, my grandfather had no reason to feel any lingering sympathy for the country in whose army he had fought a quarter of a century earlier. (As a businessman and employer, he had not been called up until 1916, at the age of 41.) Yet his cool -- even fair-minded -- appraisal of what had led to the earlier conflict is quite remarkable.

"Hardly anybody considered the war as one of German aggression," he wrote. "I am firmly convinced that it is incorrect to ascribe to the Kaiser plans for world domination, such as were nurtured by Hitler. Wilhelm was a romantic, and his enthusiasm for the sea and the Navy were more romantic than political in nature.

"I admit that he would have liked to have more colonies, but he would not have gone to war to obtain them, and even less did he have territorial ambitions on the continent of Europe ... The words of an English statesman -- I cannot remember at the moment who -- 'All of us slid into it together', seem to hit the nail on the head." [It was Lloyd George who said in a speech in 1920 that Europe had "glided, or rather staggered and stumbled" into war.]

My grandfather was not a historian, and he certainly didn't have access to the wealth of official documents that have become available over recent decades. From his memoirs, however, he emerges as both clear-sighted and perceptive -- and given the circumstances in which he was writing in 1943, extraordinarily dispassionate.

His experience in the German military was mercifully uneventful. As a conscript much older than most of his comrades -- an "old gentleman" in Army parlance -- he was mostly kept away from the front lines, although in July 1917, when he was in Flanders, less than 10 miles south-east of Ypres, he reported: "The English batteries opposite us were firing with enthusiasm, and even as we arrived, some shells hit the ground close to our position."

Oddly, after the Nazis came to power in 1933, my grandfather's army experience was briefly recognised as he was designated a former "Frontkämpfer", a fighter on the Front. Jews who qualified were, for a short time, exempt from some of the Nazis' anti-Jewish laws, a concession that afforded him some wry amusement.

"In retrospect, I'm quite glad that I served in the army and was sent to the front," he wrote. "My military experiences did not give me any real advantages during the Third Reich, but I am pleased that the Führer has expressly acknowledged the fact that I fought at the front by awarding me a special medal, and that he has thereby compromised himself."

My grandfather eventually made it to London in December 1946 but immediately fell ill and died five months later. I never met him.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Amira's story


Every night, when Amira goes to bed in the crowded room that she shares with her five young children, she lies awake, frantically worrying about what the following day has in store for them.

Will she be able to find food? Will the children be safe if they venture out, into streets where gunmen, bombs and bullets are a constant threat?

Amira's husband disappeared more than six months ago. He may have been arrested, or kidnapped, or murdered. She has begged and pleaded for information in hospitals, police stations, army barracks -- but everywhere she has been met with the same dead eyes, the same blank stares, the same cold indifference.

"What makes you so special?" they ask her. "There are thousands like your husband. No one knows what has happened to them. Go home and look after your children."

Sometimes they taunt her, or grab at her. "What will you give us if we help you? Will you give us what you gave your husband?" And they leer at her as she bursts into tears of fury and runs back out into the street.

Amira no longer lives at home. In truth, she no longer knows whether her home still exists. The country in which she grew up has been destroyed. In its place is chaos, anarchy, and fear.

As a child, Amira was bright: she did well at school, went to college and trained to be a teacher. Her mother could barely read or write; her father, who died when Amira was still a child, had been a trader, hardly able to earn enough to support his nine children.

But he believed in education, for his daughters as well as for his sons -- and Amira will always honour him for that. They all did well, but now both her parents are dead and she has lost touch with her brothers -- some, she knows, became fighters. Perhaps by now they are dead too.

Amira sometimes finds it hard these days to believe that she still has a future. All she sees around her is death and destruction -- and suspicion. She doesn't know whom she can trust, so she trusts no one.  Her aunts, uncles, and cousins have scattered to the four winds. Some have managed to move abroad, others are in squalid camps for "internally displaced people".

Soon, Amira and her children will probably be in a camp too. The half-destroyed apartment building in which they have found shelter is dangerous and unsafe. The windows have been blown out and there are no safety rails on the stairs. But the water truck, when it comes, stops nearby, and there's a still functioning baker at the end of the street. Bread and water -- the necessities of life. That's what it has come down to.

But Amira refuses to give up. When the anti-government protests started, she rushed to join them, confident that there really was a chance that her generation could sweep away the old corrupt political elite and start to forge a new future for their country.

Night after night, she joined her friends in the main square, chanting their slogans, singing their songs. At first, the police stood by and did nothing. Some even joined in. But then the mood changed. Protest leaders were arrested, some disappeared, terrible tales of torture emerged from deep inside the system's jails. And then the men with guns appeared, and everything changed.

The rumours spread like a plague: foreign powers -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, Turkey, the US, Israel -- were said to be flooding the country with cash and arms, stirring up tribal and sectarian rivalries in pursuit of their own regional self-interest. No one can prove anything, but everyone believes the rumours anyway. Amira is dimly aware that far away there are important-sounding meetings of important-sounding men -- in New York, Geneva, Paris. They issue their communiqués, and in her street, more people die.

Yet despite everything, somewhere deep in Amira's soul, a spark of that old confidence in the possibility of change still flickers. In the stillness of the night, when the silence is punctured only by the occasional rattle of machine-gun fire, she repeats to herself, over and over: "I will not let them win. I will not let them win."

She worries that she will forget the English that she used to teach, the English she loved listening to on the BBC, that she loved reading in her books. And she worries that she will forget the hope that was in her heart when the old order started to fracture. So a few nights ago, she sat down and wrote, in English, in a tattered exercise book.

"I am Amira. I am a strong, educated woman. I believe in progress and in democracy. I believe in our country and that it can have a better future. I believe in the power of people, acting together, to force change. And I believe that women must be a part of that change, to insist on equal opportunities of education, health care and employment."

So who is Amira? The truth is that she doesn't exist, except in my imagination and, now, I hope, in yours. Yet this story, or a story very like it, is the story of tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of women. Amira could be Iraqi, or Syrian, or Libyan. She doesn't exist, and yet she does.

She is the Everywoman of the Arab world.



Friday, 13 June 2014

Iraq -- The End?


What folly. What crass, indescribable, unbelievable folly it was to invade Iraq in 2003. I wonder what George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Tony Blair think now as they read of the latest disasters to befall that wretched land.

Do they still say that Iraq is better off than it was under Saddam Hussein? Do they? Really? As half a million terrified people flee from their homes to escape a jihadi group so extreme that even al-Qaeda has withdrawn its backing?

Guess, by the way, who said this, referring to their support for the invasion in 2003: "I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn't alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple."

It wasn't Bush, Rumsfeld, or Blair -- but you knew that. It was Hillary Clinton, in her just published memoirs, clearing the decks for a run at the US presidency in 2016. Even if it is carefully-calibrated political positioning, I can't help wishing more leaders would say something similar.

The invasion of Iraq may well turn out to have been the most disastrous military adventure since the German army marched into Poland in 1939 and triggered the Second World War. Did Hitler still believe, as he prepared to die in his bunker in 1945, that invading Poland had been a good idea? Was he as crazily delusional as Bush, Rumsfeld and Blair?

Perhaps, despite the lightning advance of the Sunni jihadi fighters over the past week, Iraq will somehow survive. Perhaps not. Perhaps it's about to join such unhappy nations as Somalia, Syria and Libya as yet another failed state, ruled by a nightmare patchwork of brutal militias, loyal to no one but their own commanders and with no interests other than those that are narrow, sectarian and tribal.

In 2003, there was no al-Qaeda presence in Iraq. Now one of its nastiest off-shoots controls vast swathes of the north and west of the country, extending across the border into Syria as it starts to build its trans-national Caliphate. It's not exactly what the US-led invasion was designed to achieve.

In the pantheon of those to blame for all this we must include Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister whose incompetence, corruption and Shia sectarianism has encouraged the country's Sunni minority to join, or at least acquiesce in, the jihadi insurgency. It seems even Saddam loyalists from the former Ba'ath party have joined them -- how's that for irony? With a different man at the helm as the US pulled out the last of its troops, it's just possible that disaster could have been averted. But it was not to be.

What has happened has happened. The Kurds in the north are buttressing their defences; their forces are ready to fight back if the Sunni Arab insurgents dare to threaten their hard-won autonomy. The Iraqi army appears to be disintegrating -- so much for the countless billions of dollars spent on training a new national force.

In its place, various Shia militia groups are forming, or re-forming, to defend what they regard as essential Shia interests, including the Shia shrine in the mainy Sunni city of Samarra. The shadow of a renewed civil war looms frighteningly large.

In the words of the US Republican senator Lindsey Graham, after having been briefed by the Pentagon on Thursday: "What I heard today scared the hell out of me. The briefing was chilling … Iraq is falling apart."

And it's not only the fate of Iraq that is at stake: the regional ramifications are seriously worrying. To the west and to the east, in Syria and Iran, the latest developments will be causing deep anxiety. President Assad will be watching with alarm as the insurgents snatch arms and ammunition from abandoned Iraqi army armouries and start shipping them across the border into Syria. And in Tehran, they'll be less than thrilled to see their Shia allies in Baghdad under threat.

So there's a strong possibility of even more bad-neighbourly intervention, never forgetting Turkey's nervousness at any sign that the Kurds may be consolidating their claim to statehood. (Strange, isn't it, how the US and Iran find themselves on the same side as the main backers of al-Maliki?)

This is a deeply uncertain time, but there is one certainty: neither the US nor the UK, which did so much to unleash the forces that are now destroying Iraq, will send their own troops back in again.  Good thing, too: Western military intervention would simply make an already terrible situation even worse. And that includes the drone strikes that President Obama is reported to be contemplating -- they haven't exactly done wonders for pacifying either Pakistan or Yemen, have they?

What the West can do -- should do -- is arrange urgent help for the civilians whose lives are being destroyed. And once the picture is a little bit clearer, they might try to encourage neutral mediators like Norway or Sweden to start a talks process aimed at turning the clock back to post-invasion 2003 and charting a new constitutional course for Iraq.

I fear it may already be too late. I've just looked at the diary I kept during the 2003 invasion; the last entry, written after the fall of Baghdad, reads: “I think Iraq is going to be a violent, messy, angry place for a long time … I’ll probably be talking about Iraq until I retire."

I should have added one more line: "And beyond."

Thursday, 5 June 2014

D-Day and Bergdahl: thoughts on forgotten casualties


Twenty years ago today, on the 50th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I was standing on a cliff-top overlooking the Normandy beaches on which so many men had died half a century earlier.

It was a deeply moving experience, looking down at the immaculately-choreographed ceremonies, and trying to imagine the carnage, terror and mayhem of the landings themselves. There can surely be few more total contrasts than between the reality of a battle and the commemoration of it so many years later.

By definition, those who mark these anniversaries are the survivors -- and that means not only those who survived physically but also those who survived mentally. For every veteran proudly wearing his medals and remembering fallen comrades, there are others who wish they could forget. They are the ones whose war wounds are invisible.

When in years to come, US military veterans gather to remember the war in Afghanistan (2,000 US dead, 20,000 wounded), Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is unlikely to join them. He's the US soldier who was freed by the Taliban last weekend after nearly five years in captivity in return for five Taliban detainees freed from Guantanamo Bay.

According to the US military, "there are legitimate concerns about Bergdahl’s physical and mental health" -- so much so that even his family have been warned that he's in no fit state yet for a reunion. Judging by the video of his handover released by the Taliban -- and with all the caveats about not making medical diagnoses based on sketchy video evidence -- he may well be deeply traumatised by his ordeal.

Sgt. Bergdahl is reported to have walked away from his unit in Afghanistan on 30 June, 2009, five days after his battalion suffered its first casualty, a man to whom Bergdahl was reported to have been close. According to a report in the New York Times, "he left behind a note in his tent saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life."

The Washington Post yesterday quoted villagers who live close to the base where he was posted as remembering him walking through the village in a haze. "To them, it’s clear something was wrong with the American. And he seemed to be deliberately heading for Taliban strongholds, they say."

Is Bergdahl a deserter? A traitor? Is he, as some critics in the US have implausibly suggested, a real-life incarnation of Nicholas Brody of the TV series Homeland, a captured US serviceman who may have switched sides? Or is he one more casualty of war, a man whose wounds can't be seen but are real nonetheless? It's perfectly possible, of course, to be both.

In 2012, more serving members of the US military committed suicide than were killed in action. Even more appallingly, 6,500 former military personnel committed suicide in the same 12-month period. In the UK, more British soldiers and veterans took their own lives in 2012 than died fighting in Afghanistan over the same period.

Post-traumatic stress is now a recognised medical condition. The military know the dangers, and, in so far as they can, they try to offer support for servicemen and women who need help. Even so, in both the UK and the US, it's estimated that more than one in 10 people who are homeless are military veterans.

Until relatively recently, the long-term human cost of wars to those who fight in them was something that both political and military leaders were anxious not to confront. It is harder to convince a country of the need for war if people know that even those who escape death or injury by bomb or bullet may still be scarred for life.

That's probably why there's been such an outcry from President Obama's political opponents over the deal to free Sgt. Bergdahl -- it is an unwelcome reminder that wars are messy, nasty and cruel, and that they can often lead to good people doing bad things.

So should all wars be opposed, on principle? Are we all pacifists now? Or do we need to ensure that on those rare occasions when all available alternative policy options have been tried and failed, the men and women who are sent into harm's way are properly cared for, both on and off the battlefield?

Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote "Dulce et decorum est
pro patria mori" (It is sweet and honourable to die for your country). In 1917, in a poem using Horace's aphorism as its title, the First World War poet Wilfred Owen called that a lie. Addressing the reader, he wrote that if you had seen, as he had, the horrendous effects of a gas attack:

"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori."

I shall be thinking of those lines today as I watch the 70th anniversary D-Day commemorations -- and as I ponder the fate of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.