Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 26 February 2016

Savile: how could the BBC not have known?

The conclusions of the BBC's review into sex abuse allegations against Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall are devastating. They are appalling, shaming, choose your own string of adjectives.

Everyone at the BBC who worked with the predators, or had any reason at all to suspect that they were committing crimes against children and young people, should be deeply, deeply ashamed.

How could Savile, described by those who knew him as 'weird, creepy, predatory, and loathsome' also have been regarded, in the words of the former head of BBC television, Will Wyatt, as 'really seriously important' to the corporation?

And if Dame Janet Smith heard evidence from no fewer than 117 BBC witnesses who said they had heard rumours about Savile's misconduct -- among them Esther Rantzen, Louis Theroux, Michael Grade, Nicky Campbell, Andrew Neil and Mark Lawson -- how in God's name was he allowed to carry on?

Anyone who admires the BBC will feel a sense of appalled betrayal when they read the Smith review's conclusions. The director-general, Tony Hall, was right to address the 'Who knew?' issue head on: 'It seems to me that the BBC could have known. Just as powerful as the accusation, "You knew", is the legitimate question, "How could you not have known?"' 

All this is bad enough. What makes it even worse is that, in my view, the BBC culture that as Janet Smith put it 'did not encourage the reporting of complaints or concerns', has not yet changed sufficiently. I have no way of knowing whether sexual abuse is still an issue, but bullying undoubtedly is; I know of a highly respected current affairs producer whose complaints against a senior colleague were never taken as seriously as they deserved to be and who eventually felt she had no option but to take 'voluntary' redundancy. She told me yesterday that she still feels that her experience ruined her entire career.

Sandra Laville of The Guardian has described the BBC that emerges from the Smith review as 'a hierarchical organisation, overseeing a climate of fear, where the overriding concern is to protect reputation rather than investigate the sexual abuse of children and young people.' But as she goes on to point out, it is not alone: 'The Church of England, the Catholic church, leading private schools, local authorities in Oxford, Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby, the police service and numerous other institutions in British public life have all exhibited these same traits.'

(As you may have seen, the Independent Police Complaints Commission has launched 55 investigations into alleged police misconduct linked to the sexual abuse of children in Rotherham and has received complaints against 92 named officers.)

The police and other investigating agencies sometimes try to argue that establishing the truth about allegations of sexual abuse is uniquely difficult. They veer wildly from ignoring victims when they have the courage to make a complaint, to accepting uncritically every allegation that is made. Now, after furious complaints from some public figures who have been named as alleged abusers, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, has suggested that the police may abandon their policy of 'automatically' believing victims' claims.

There is nothing wrong with automatically believing complaints, whether of sexual abuse or of bullying in the workplace. But nor is it wrong to say to a complainant: 'Yes, I believe what you say, and I am now going to try to corroborate it. I need to see if we can find more evidence so that we can take whatever action is appropriate.'

As for the BBC, it now needs urgently to satisfy both licence fee payers and staff that it fully understands what it has to do to rebuild confidence in it as an institution. Rona Fairhead, chairman of the BBC Trust, has made the right noises: 'The cultural change that must take place has to be both substantial and permanent. The BBC must engage fully with its staff, listen to its critics and submit policies and culture to external scrutiny.'

So here's my tuppence-worth: the BBC should appoint an external, independent complaints adjudicator to whom all staff, contributors, and guests can address any complaint. The adjudicator will have the right to interview all BBC personnel, examine any relevant documents and make public whatever findings may be made. There should also be a written guarantee that no complaint made by a member of staff or freelance contributor will result in adverse consequences for their future career or renewal of their contract. 

Like all institutions, the BBC's first instinct will always be to protect itself. That is why it so badly let down Savile's and Hall's victims. It must do better -- and be seen to do better -- from now on.



Friday, 19 February 2016

Thatcher's poisonous legacy


I feel the need to blame someone for the EU referendum imbroglio, so I'm going to blame Margaret Thatcher. She injected a poison into the Conservative party, and it has now spread to infect the entire body politic.

The poison produces a form of hysteria whenever the words 'Europe' or 'Brussels' are mentioned in the hearing of a Tory MP. That's because many of them are, politically speaking, Thatcher's children -- David Cameron was just 12 years old when she was first elected -- and they ingested with their mother's milk her deep suspicion of anything that carried with it a whiff of mainland Europe.

Like her, they boast that Britain has always stood alone in Europe, an island apart, stronger and more valiant than the rest of the continent. Look what happened to the Spanish armada, they say. Were we conquered by Napoleon? Or Hitler? Alone in Europe, we did not yield.

Thatcher spelt it out in her famous Bruges speech in 1988. 'Over the centuries we have fought to prevent Europe from falling under the dominance of a single power. We have fought and we have died for her freedom ... Had it not been for that willingness to fight and to die, Europe would have been united long before now—but not in liberty, not in justice.'

The countries of mainland Europe, she believed, have never really been Britain's partners; for most of our history, they have been our foes, to be vanquished, not embraced. (The exception is Portugal: the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, signed in 1373, is said to be the oldest alliance in the world still in force.)

Too few MPs of all parties have dared to point out that throughout its history, Britain has fought its wars in alliance with European partners. If it can adopt a pan-European identity in war, can it not also do so in peace? Or was the 1940s US secretary of state Edward Stettinius right when he suggested that the British would always be uncomfortable in any club that they did not lead?

MPs have utterly failed to shape a coherent debate over Europe. They were prepared to move ahead of public opinion on issues such as capital punishment, gay rights and race relations in the 1960s and 70s, but have too often pandered to populism and xenophobia when it comes to the EU. Too much of what many people believe about it is simply wrong. Our politicians, of both major parties, have quaked in Thatcher's shadow for far too long, and now they are reaping the whirlwind.

Sir Humphrey Appleby neatly defined the Thatcherite approach to Europe in the TV comedy series Yes, Minister, in 1980,  just a year after Mrs Thatcher entered Downing Street: 'Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians ... Why should we change now, when it's worked so well?'

What Thatcher's children don't seem to have noticed is that this approach is no longer fit for purpose. Of course Britain has a history to be proud of, but the challenges that we face now -- global economic fragility, the mass movement of refugees and other migrants, climate change, a resurgent Russia, terrorism, including cyber-terrorism -- are not challenges that can be met by Royal Navy gunboats or RAF Spitfires.

Desperate refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria will not stop trying to smuggle themselves into the UK just because we are no longer in the EU; indeed, I would have thought it must be obvious that our chances of finding a solution to the refugee crisis will be much diminished if we turn our backs on the rest of the continent. Do we really not want to be included in Europe's attempts to solve the crisis?

My generation, the post-war baby-boomers, were the first for hundreds of years not to face conscription into the armed forces to fight in a foreign war. Two world wars, fought on the battlefields of Europe as well as in north Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, led directly to a burning determination in France, Germany and the Benelux countries that there had to be a better way. Britain, despite its own grievous losses, thought otherwise: we still had an empire, after all, so why did we need to sign up with a bunch of unreliable Europeans?

So, yes, of course, our history is different. But no, our future cannot be splendid isolationism. The EU is not without fault, God knows, but we are, surely, in the words of the Scottish independence referendum campaigners, Better Together.

Incidentally, I am indebted to Alex Barker and George Parker of the Financial Times for pointing out that on the issue of child benefit being paid to EU workers whose children have remained in their country of origin, the maximum savings of the proposed reforms would be about £25 million, on a par with a recent government grant to fund research on driverless cars. That's how relevant this whole referendum charade has become.

And on the subject of numbers, not that anyone seems much interested in actual facts when it comes to the EU debate, here are a few more for your consideration (they relate to 2014): 85% of EU migrants to the UK have jobs; 32% of the most recent arrivals have university degrees; 37% are classed as managers or professionals. In other words, they are exactly the kind of people whom we should be welcoming to bring extra vitality to our economy and extra taxes to the exchequer. 

Surprisingly, given our chronic euro-grumpiness, our EU partners are still keen for us to stay -- although I rather liked the front page of the French newspaper Libération on Thursday: 'If it's yes, fine; if it's no, never mind.' If we do vote to leave, however, it's unlikely that our partners will be so forgiving, because the last thing they want to do for the next five years is get bogged down in endless, tiresome negotiations over their future relationship with the UK. If we think they'll be accommodating, I fear we'll be in for a very rude awakening.

You may have wondered, by the way, why I have not once used the word 'Brexit'. It's because to my ears, it sounds far too much like a particularly unappetising breakfast cereal, or a new brand of toilet cleaner. Or perhaps both.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Syria: history's verdict


I have been granted a sneak preview of a history book due to be published in 2061. In view of the latest headlines about a 'partial cessation of hostilities' agreement in Syria, I thought you might be interested to see it, so here's an extract:

'Fifty years after the start of the uprising in Syria that led to a devastating regional conflagration, the global effects of which are still being felt, it is now possible to attempt an assessment of the world powers' catastrophic failure to prevent the disaster that was unfolding in front of their eyes.

'The question that needs to be asked is why, with so much real-time information available to them, and with the unprecedented amounts of detailed surveillance data that they were able to collect from drones and satellites, world leaders did so little to contain the conflict. Indeed, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the actions they took fanned the flames rather than damped them down. Their faith in a succession of flimsy so-called ceasefire agreements served only to highlight the inadequacy of their response to what they all knew was a major humanitarian disaster.

'In 1920, the then British prime minister David Lloyd George said that Europe had "staggered and stumbled" into the First World War. The same could be said of the conflict that engulfed the Middle East after the start of the woefully misnamed "Arab Spring" in 2011. Regional powers, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, turned Syria into a battleground on which they fought for domination, and when President Putin committed Russia's air power on the side of the Assad regime in late 2015, the table was set for a war without end.

'To understand the reluctance of the other world powers -- especially the United States and the European Union -- to take early and effective action in Syria, it is necessary to acknowledge the deep trauma suffered by Western decision-makers after their disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011. In each case, intervention was seen to have done more harm than good. It is no surprise, therefore, that the brief flowering of the UN doctrine known as 'the responsibility to protect' (R2P), did not survive.

'In February 2016, the Washington Post published an article headlined "Syria, already a catastrophe, seems on the verge of an uncontrollable disaster", in which it quoted the then German ambassador to the US, Peter Wittig, as saying of the refugee crisis caused by the war: "The United States has been slow to recognize this is a much bigger thing than anything else we’ve experienced since the beginning of the European Union …We were totally unprepared."

'Coincidentally, on the same day, the Financial Times ran a piece by a leading Russian analyst, Dmitri Trenin, of the think-tank the Carnegie Moscow Center. After Russian warplanes had pummelled opposition positions in Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, he warned, there was a chance that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be tempted to commit their own troops to the war. If they did, he said, "With the US, Russia and regional powers directly involved, Syria can become the first battleground in the global competition for power and influence that has restarted after a 25-year hiatus."

'On 11 February 2016, the Russian prime minister Dimitry Medvedev, was quoted as telling a German newspaper: “The Americans and our Arab partners must think hard about [deeper Saudi military involvement in Syria] – do they want a permanent war? All sides must be forced to the negotiating table instead of sparking a new world war.” The warning could not have been starker -- yet it was ignored.

'Another analyst, Julien Barnes-Dacey, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, accurately forecast the next phase of the conflict: "A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides, and we’re likely to now enter a new, equally devastating, phase."

'We now know that this is exactly what happened. Each party to the conflict committed more military resources to the battlefield in the belief that a stronger position on the ground would strengthen their hand in negotiating a political settlement. It is impossible to overstate the wrongheadedness of this approach and the incalculable cost in human suffering that it caused.

'What makes any convincing analysis of European leaders' myopia so difficult is that by 2015, the impact of the Syria crisis was affecting them directly, with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war flooding across their borders. The net result, however, rather than encouraging them to seek a resolution of the conflict, was that they focused their energies almost exclusively on how to keep the refugees away from their borders and how to protect their citizens from what they mistakenly characterised as an existential terrorist threat. It was to prove a major error of judgement.

'The approach of the US President, Barack Obama, who had come to office on a promise to end wars, not start them, was one of extreme caution verging on paralysis. Towards the end of his eight years in the White House, he relied increasingly on his secretary of state, John Kerry, to keep alive the hope that negotiations could end the conflict. But after the inauguration of his much more hardline successor in January 2017, US military aid to the anti-Assad forces was sharply increased, resulting in turn in an increase in Russian military support for the regime and an intensification of the conflict.

'It is not as if no one saw what was coming. One of the US's most influential commentators, Tom Friedman of the New York Times, wrote in February 2016: "I am certain that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is deliberately bombing anti-regime Syrians to drive them into Europe in hopes of creating a rift in the European Union, strain its resources and make it a weaker rival to Russia and a weaker ally for America."

'The Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin wrote: "The Middle East has entered a period that will probably last a couple of decades, in which there will be little peace and a lot of fighting." He was wrong -- but only in underestimating the duration of the conflict.

'If there were an Inter-Galactic Judicial Authority -- and given the recent discovery of life forms far more advanced than ours elsewhere in the universe, such an authority may soon be established -- it would be fully justified in ruling that the political leaders on Planet Earth in the first half of the 21st century were culpably negligent in the way they mishandled the Syria crisis. The tragedy is that their successors have not shown any sign so far of learning from their mistakes. War has become the new normal.'

For the avoidance of doubt, I should clarify that the history book from which the above extract is taken has not yet been written. I wish I were more confident that it never will be.            

Friday, 5 February 2016

Refugees? Or referendum?

Ten billion dollars? That's an impressive-sounding sum of money to be spent on helping Syrian refugees -- until you compare it to the $9 billion that, according to The Economist, Germans spend on chocolate every year.

Beware of big numbers. Yesterday's London donor conference on Syria made all the right noises -- they always do -- but if past experience is anything to go by, the right noises rarely translate into ready cash. Meanwhile, the Turkish government says up to 70,000 refugees are heading towards the Turkish border after renewed fighting near Aleppo, Syria's largest city.

Still, I did think it made a pleasant change to see David Cameron grappling with a real crisis, rather than wasting his time negotiating meaningless changes to the EU's rulebook for the sole purpose of keeping his backbenches quiet.

The details of the pre-referendum deal that he is trying to sell us are of no real consequence. I cannot imagine that there is a single person anywhere in the country whose decision on how to vote will be based on the precise wording of whatever document is finally presented to us. It is a gigantic waste of everyone's time, not just Mr Cameron's -- and it is the risible result of Mr Cameron's pressing tactical need three years ago to spike UKIP's guns. To misquote Aesop's fable, he has laboured mightily and brought forth a mouse.

I have no great love for the EU, but I still think Europe is a better place with it than without it, and that the UK is a better place in it than outside it. The same goes for the United Nations, which, like the EU, is far better at staring at its own navel than at the world around it, and far happier organising conferences than tackling the world's most pressing problems.

The faults of the EU and the UN are, in reality, the faults of the government leaders who make the decisions. Last year's unprecedented flow of refugees from Syria to Europe was a direct result of a catastrophic shortfall in funding for the camps in Turkey and Jordan -- and the responsibility for that shortfall lies with donor governments.

So too does responsibility for the failure to agree on a burden-sharing deal that would relieve the pressure on Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden, which have borne the brunt of the crisis. If the EU is meant to enable Europe's leaders to come up with common solutions to common problems, well, excuse me, but what is the refugee crisis if it is not a common problem? And if it is impossible for EU governments to agree on a common solution -- which is obviously the case -- then we need to ask serious questions about some governments' commitment to the EU project.

To be specific: are the governments of, for example, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic prepared to accept the responsibilities of being members of the club at the same time as they enjoy its benefits? They like the fact that their citizens are free to seek work anywhere in the EU (and send their family allowances back home) and they like the open border trade arrangements that enable them to sell their goods in Germany and elsewhere tariff-free. But they don't like the idea of accepting their fair share of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

The (relatively) painless and peaceful end of Soviet domination in central and eastern Europe was one of the miracles of the post-war era. The fragile flowering of multi-party democracy in the region owes much to the blandishments offered by the EU in return for an acceptance of basic democratic norms. The people of the former Warsaw Pact countries have much to thank the EU for, as do the rest of us. But they need to be reminded that they signed a deal, and they need to stick to its terms.

There is a growing fear in European capitals that the refugee challenge is threatening to overwhelm Europe and destroy the EU. As Gideon Rachman pointed out this week in the Financial Times, if the UK leaves the EU, weakened as it is, it could even hasten its collapse. 'Given Europe’s bloody past and troubled present, helping to destroy the major vehicle for European co-operation cannot be a good idea.' EU-haters may welcome the prospect, but they would be wrong.

For one thing, the refugees will not stop coming just because the EU is in pieces. For another, Russia will be even more likely to nibble dangerously at its neighbours if they have no alternative power bloc to call on for help. Ask the governments of Latvia or Ukraine how they would feel if the EU were to collapse. And then remember why first the League of Nations and then the UN and the EU were born from the ashes of two world wars and built on the graves of millions of dead.

So the sooner this wretched referendum is out of the way the better. And if, as I hope, the UK votes to remain in the EU, perhaps Mr Cameron will then devote more of his attention to helping it come up with a more effective and more humane solution to the refugee crisis. He and Angela Merkel, who despite her falling poll ratings is still the most powerful leader in the EU, seem to have developed a decent working relationship. It is time for them to work together on something more important than how to keep Boris Johnson from snapping at the prime minister's heels. 

Ensuring that the governments represented at that donor conference on Syria make good on their pledges would be a useful start.