- RSS Channel Showcase 5257193
- RSS Channel Showcase 3400692
- RSS Channel Showcase 3999539
- RSS Channel Showcase 6461596
Articles on this Page
- 09/12/13--01:49: _Sometimes a politic...
- 09/12/13--02:00: _Who will pay for La...
- 09/12/13--02:01: _Business quote of t...
- 09/12/13--02:03: _Books in Brief: And...
- 09/12/13--02:21: _I was a fly on the ...
- 09/12/13--02:22: _An Armenian Sketchb...
- 09/12/13--02:35: _Brazil's protests h...
- 09/12/13--02:43: _The best things in ...
- 09/12/13--02:45: _How Italians are ke...
- 09/12/13--02:50: _High Alpine meadows...
- 09/12/13--02:54: _Planning for a pay ...
- 09/12/13--03:00: _On Simon Schama's S...
- 09/12/13--03:09: _Cat Sense by John B...
- 09/12/13--03:41: _Jim Murphy brands T...
- 09/12/13--03:45: _Why a rape trial sh...
- 09/12/13--04:23: _There is no great s...
- 09/12/13--05:14: _Telegraph Men: Isn’...
- 09/12/13--05:20: _Is the internet kil...
- 09/12/13--05:48: _Egypt is facing a n...
- 09/12/13--05:54: _Mark Carney: spendi...
- 09/12/13--02:00: Who will pay for Labour's next election campaign?
- 09/12/13--02:01: Business quote of the day: pensions
- 09/12/13--02:03: Books in Brief: Andrew Lycett, Robert Calderisi and Tom Cheshire
- 09/12/13--02:21: I was a fly on the wall in Assad’s office
- 09/12/13--02:35: Brazil's protests have subsided - for now
- 09/12/13--02:45: How Italians are keeping priceless artefacts out of private hands
- 09/12/13--03:41: Jim Murphy brands Tim Farron a "sanctimonious little plotter"
- 09/12/13--03:45: Why a rape trial should never be called a 'witch-hunt'
- 09/12/13--04:23: There is no great stigma attached to being a rapist
- 09/12/13--05:14: Telegraph Men: Isn’t that just the Telegraph?
- 09/12/13--05:20: Is the internet killing gossip?
- 09/12/13--05:48: Egypt is facing a new Islamist insurgency
- 09/12/13--05:54: Mark Carney: spending cuts have been "a drag on growth"
David Cameron didn't get his way with Syria. It may seem counterintuitive, but this won't reflect badly on him.
Ed Miliband has now sacrificed millions in donations, as well as one of his party’s main bargaining chips, without securing any concessions in return.
“Tackling a problem on this scale will take many years”.
“Tackling a problem on this scale will take many years and a range of measures”
Steve Webb, pensions minister, writes in the FT that Britain’s pensions gap is worse than was originally thought.
Three new books you may have missed.
If I were in Bashar al-Assad's office as Obama's speech at the White House was televised around the world, I think I would hear the following.
As he connects with Armenian peasants, we are reminded that this ill, suffering man, far from home, is one of the great writers of his time.
The nationwide protests of the summer have mostly petered out, but Brazil's police and government still have a lot to answer for.
At the end of August, as Brazil’s population reportedly passed the 200-million mark, the hashtag #OGiganteAcordou (“the giant has awoken”), used during June’s wave of protests, flickered briefly to life again online. The tag, a reference to the national anthem, in which Brazil is imagined as a colossus reclined on a tropical shore, was the strapline of a striking 2011 Johnnie Walker TV ad, in which Rio’s dark coastal mountains stirred into life and rose up to form a giant.
Over two months on from the protests, the suggestion that Brazil's historically placid population was finally stirring into action now seems hopelessly optimistic: less an insurrectionary “Brazilian spring” than an ephemeral June bug. Small, sporadic protests smoulder on, including a spate of actions by a newly emerged anarchist black bloc, but the majority of June’s protesters have now dispersed.
Despite historic inequality, Brazilians have tended towards non-confrontation. It’s one of the things that makes Brazil such a thoroughly pleasant country to live in; but it also means that in the years since the end of the 1964-85 dictatorship, although smaller, under-reported protests over issues such as police violence, indigenous rights and housing have been a fact of life in the country's marginalised periphery, the social peace has mostly remained undisturbed.
The last time Brazilians took to the streets in large numbers was in 1992, when thousands marched against President Fernando Collor de Mello, who resigned as his trial for corruption was about to commence. Corruption was again an issue this June, as the protests’ initial focus on the cost of public transport broadened to include it along with such things as perceived over-spending on the 2014 football World Cup.
Corruption is a sensitive subject in Brazilian politics, since it apparently touches every party. In the “mensalão” trial currently taking place in the Supreme Court, a string of leaders from the governing Workers Party (PT) has been convicted of paying monthly bribes to opposition Congress members, in return for support for Lula's government. Politicians routinely appear to close ranks to protect their own. In a secret ballot held on 28 August, Congress voted against impeaching the incarcerated congressman Natan Donadon, notwithstanding his 13-year sentence for stealing £2.6m in public funds. (A week later, Brazil’s lower house, assailed by criticism after the Donadon vote, rushed through a proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban secret ballots in government. The amendment will now make its way through the Senate.)
In the Senate, Renan Calheiros currently presides as leader of the house, despite his forced 2007 resignation in a corruption scandal. And at state level, in July, a multimillion-dollar racket came to light when the German company Siemens provided details of its part in a 20-year price-fixing scheme around contracts for metro construction, supply and maintenance. Those implicated include the powerful current and former governors of the state of São Paulo.
A nationwide day of action against corruption and impunity in public office was called for Brazil’s Independence Day, on 7 September. But low turnouts on the day, despite a blast of sound and fury from the black bloc protestors, seemed to confirm that it will take more than corruption to stir Brazilians back to the level of outrage that fuelled June’s largest protests. Those were triggered by a night of ill-judged police violence against a peaceful demo on 13 June, which burst onto TV screens and Facebook, scandalising the watching multitude. While the usual victims of police violence - a problem throughout Brazil - tend to be the poor, the difference this time was that many protesters were better off, well-educated and media-savvy.
The protesters were widely described by international as well as local media as being mainly “middle-class” Brazilians - and many of them were, in the sense of the term as most often used in Britain and other rich societies. Yet these people should not be confused with Brazil’s much-feted “new middle class” - workers who have recently emerged from poverty and gained access to credit, a slightly higher income, or a job in the formal economy. Although their prospects have improved as Brazil’s economy has grown, they do not benefit from access to a decent education (in Brazil, private schooling) and the kind of well-connected background that gives access to the best jobs.
Such people are Brazil's real “sleeping giant”, but it remains to be seen whether the effects of the current economic slowdown will finally bring them on to the streets. It might. A rampant crime rate and sharp rises in the cost of living affect those at the lower end of the income scale most acutely, and if something has changed since June, it's a new sense that street protest is valid, possible behaviour for ordinary citizens. And more than ever it is being reported, including by a flourishing new strata of independent media collectives such as Mídia Ninja, whose members routinely make their way to places such as Grajaú, an immense neighbourhood on São Paulo’s periphery that is currently experiencing a wave of occupations and protests.
The government, under the leadership of Dilma Rousseff, has kept a relatively low profile since the start of the protests. This stance, coming from a nominally left-wing administration, has made it look increasingly out of touch. In an interview published in Folha de S.Paulo last week, the head of Goldman Sachs in Brazil, Paulo Leme, raised concerns about serious problems in the Brazilian economy - and about the government’s ability, political capital o r will to tackle them: “It’s not hard to conclude,” said Leme, “in the light of the protests, that orthodox economic adjustment would not be a welcome sight on people’s TVs on the eight o’clock news.”
A parked Bentley with the number plate I H8 TAX summarises everything that's going wrong with our beloved Heath.
As the recession bites, state funding for Italy's museums and galleries has disappeared, and Italians are coming up with inventive forms of common ownership, to challenge power from the bottom up.
To the right of the grand staircase leading up to the circle at the Teatro Valle in Rome is a plaque that says the theatre hosted the premiere in 1921 of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Now regarded as a modernist classic, the play shocked early audiences and was greeted with shouts of “Manicomio!” (“madhouse”) on its opening night. Today, the plaque is complemented by a more recent message, spelled out in pink stencilled lettering in English on the staircase: No Violence, No Homophobia, No Sexism, No Racism – repeated like a mantra as the steps stretch up into the darkness. “That’s from an event we did for Rome Pride,” says Valeria, my guide. “But we liked it so much, we decided to keep it.”
Built in 1727, and located up a narrow street halfway between the ancient Forum and the Pantheon, Teatro Valle is the oldest theatre in Rome. It has long been known for promoting innovative work – but now the building itself is home to a bold social experiment. In June 2011, after Rome’s city council threatened to close the theatre, actors and employees occupied it in protest. This was not an unusual step as such: as the eurozone crisis drags on, Italy’s cultural assets – referred to as petrolio italiano (“Italian crude oil”), because of their economic importance – have become a flashpoint for discontent. Art gallery and museum workers have been particularly restive as state funds have declined – and the Colosseum has become a focus for strikes.
But what began as a symbolic protest at Teatro Valle rapidly grew into something more. The occupation drew endorsements from some of Italy’s leading cultural figures, as well as thousands of messages of support from members of the public. Instead of leaving after three days as they had originally planned, the occupiers decided to stay and to keep the theatre running.
Valeria explains that they have tried to make the venue as welcoming as possible. “Older ladies come and bring us lunch, or newspapers,” she says. “People who would never dream of entering a squat come in. It’s created a centre of community in central Rome where there was none.”
Decisions are taken collectively: once a week, an open assembly is held in the theatre café, a room with tall glass windows that look on to the street, so that members of the public can see what’s happening and join in, if they want to. There, they discuss everything from the cleaning rota to the programming. “The point we are trying to make,” Valeria says, “is that there are things that cannot be managed by the public or the private. Some things cannot be privatised – schools, hospitals. But when the state cannot manage them properly, I the citizen should have the right to run it.”
August in Rome is usually a time of mass exodus, as city-dwellers escape the oppressive heat and head down south to the coast or up into the mountains of central Italy. At the start of the month, roads leading away from Rome are jammed and the emergency services work overtime to deal with traffic accidents. But, as a recent edition of Italian Vanity Fairmournfully reported, those days “no longer exist”.
Italy is mired in its longest postwar recession and has suffered eight consecutive quarters of negative GDP. Fewer people are going on holiday, and those who do go away take shorter stays in cheaper hotels. In the past year, apartment purchases fell by a quarter nationally. Four million fewer phone calls were made, and 3.4 billion fewer litres of petrol were used. Above all, the unemployment rate has soared to more than 12 per cent. Personal savings – or, for younger Italians, 42 per cent of whom are out of work, the option of returning to live in the family home – have provided a cushion of sorts in recent years. But as an Italian friend told me, “This year, for the first time, we’re starting to see the savings run out.”
Public anger has turned towards Italy’s political class, its image already tarnished by the scandals of the Silvio Berlusconi years. At the general election in February, discontent manifested itself in a huge vote for the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by the stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo. A few months later, Rome’s mayor, Gianni Alemanno, was kicked out of office after five years in power.
To many, Alemanno represented everything that was wrong with Italy’s political culture. Having begun his political career in the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement, he was minister of agriculture under Berlusconi from 2001-2006. Fascist salutes from a crowd of young Roman skinheads greeted his election as mayor in 2008 and there was a flurry of alarmed international press coverage. But his reign was less dramatic, even though it gave a stimulus to the various far-right fringe groups active in the city.
Guido Caldiron, a prominent political journalist and the author of a recent book on the extreme right, says Alemanno initially won support by exploiting anxieties about immigration and Roma gypsies, but he had no answers to the much more pressing economic problems. “He really did very little – there isn’t a single public initiative he undertook worthy of mention, while there are many shadows that accumulated along the way.”
Caldiron is referring to corruption – one of Alemanno’s close associates was arrested in March on suspicion of taking bribes. And so many former members of right-wing extremist organisations were given official jobs that the press named the influx into the city’s administration “fascistopoli”.
Meanwhile, many public assets were sold off to private developers or otherwise left to decay. When in 2011 the government, under Berlusconi, closed the fund that administered Italy’s most important theatres and handed over control to local councils, there was good reason to fear for the future of Teatro Valle. Already, two historic cinemas had been sold. One is now a shopping mall for the luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton; the other is slated to reopen as a casino.
Rome’s new mayor, the centre-left Ignazio Marino, has made encouraging noises about his commitment to culture in the city, but the immediate prospects do not look good. Nationally, politics has stalled. After the financial crisis forced Berlusconi from office in November 2011, Italy underwent a period of technocratic government, led by the economist Mario Monti, who imposed a programme of spending cuts and tax rises. This year’s elections, in which Grillo’s Five Star Movement came second, ultimately delivered a fragile governing coalition of centre left and centre right. Millions of Italians may have voted for change, but what they’ve got essentially is more of the same. Austerity continues apace and state funds for cultural projects keep on shrinking.
A few miles north of Teatro Valle, in a working-class suburb of Rome, I visited another occupied building. This one - now named Officine Zero, "Workshop Zero" - was a former train repair factory, sold to developers and then occupied by its workers with a little help from a student squat next door. On the afternoon I arrived, you could see how the place straddled the divide between two generations of the Italian left. In one of the workshops – surrounded by the dismembered carcasses of Trenitalia carriages – I saw a set of faded photos of the workers taking part in trade union demonstrations. Pride of place was given to a framed panoramic photograph of a huge rally in Rome in 1984: a sea of red flags, viewed from behind the head of a speaker on the platform.
In a tree-lined courtyard outside, some of those same employees seen in the photographs were sitting on plastic chairs in a circle, chatting quietly. The former train engineers have turned one corner of the factory into a recycling plant, and on the other side, office buildings have been converted into studio space by students, artists and writers. As Camilla, an Italian-language teacher involved in the project, explained to me, the recession has forced increasing numbers of young people into “freelance” employment, and working together like this is a way to overcome their isolation.
Italy has a long history of setting up squats and occupying social centres, but the financial crisis has helped them to flourish anew. In San Lorenzo, Rome’s university quarter, a sprawling network exists, little centres of community life. When I visited, one was hosting a swing dance class; another was providing study space for students shut out of university library buildings that now close early because of budget cuts. Shendi Veli, an activist with the long-running ESC Atelier social centre, explained to me that, “for many people, the only alternative to the crisis has been self-organisation”.
The occupation at Teatro Valle has tried to take this a step further. A few weeks after they first occupied the theatre, the activists invited the distinguished law professor Ugo Mattei to help them draw up documents that would give legal protection to their work – allowing them to continue running the theatre collectively. In 2007, Mattei had been a member of a commission of legal experts and jurists appointed by the government to make adjustments to Italian property law. They recommended a big change: to introduce a third category of property, neither public nor private, but “common”. When I contacted him by email, Mattei explained it was “based on access to and diffusion of power”; a challenge to the idea that the market knows best, .
His proposals, which he describes as “anticapitalist” but transcending conventional left-right divisions, allow groups of ordinary citizens to take over public services and cultural institutions to stop them falling into private hands. In 2010, for instance, Mattei masterminded the successful campaign for a No vote in a referendum on whether Italy should privatise its water supply.
With the help of Teatro Valle, this has become a growing movement. Activists have held meetings in cities around Italy at which participants are invited to discuss local problems that could be fixed with collective action. In Pisa, the people talked about factory closures. In L’Aquila, the mountain city partly destroyed by an earthquake in 2009, residents aired their frustration at the lack of progress in rebuilding – and the laws that ban them from doing it themselves.
After several years of ignoring the commission’s proposals, the Italian Senate has just reopened discussions about whether to adopt formally the principle of “common” property. “We don’t need the state,” Mattei told me. “We need people organised from the bottom up, and that is why power is so scared of us.”
To Valeria, the experiment at Teatro Valle points to a new way of doing politics. “People think that participation means ‘give my opinion’,” she told me. “But we have a strong belief that politics is made with bodies.” We were sitting on the main stage as we talked. Actors had just been rehearsing there, and through the lights I could just make out the rows of empty red velvet seats, overlooked by ornate baroque balconies. Valeria continued: “When people from other towns ask, ‘How can I help Teatro Valle?’, we say, ‘Occupy a theatre in your own town.’”
The highest ground pulsates with life.
Take any path that leads upwards from a Swiss mountain village and you will find two distinct forms of meadow. The first, in clearings and open spaces below the treeline, has distinct flora, a lush mix of grasses and wildflowers that was once found all over Britain but is now mostly a fond memory (some estimates suggest that 80 to 90 per cent of our hay meadows was lost, in the space of about 70 years, in the shift from traditional farming to industrial agribusiness).
We have to concede that, in one sense, these hay meadows are artificial – they arose where native woodland was cleared to grow hay for livestock – but they are extraordinarily rich spaces, nevertheless, with a diversity and abundance of plant and insect life that most of us can only dream about. Here, the open ground is a brightly coloured tapestry of geraniums, hawkbits, bellflowers and daisies, while the dappled shade at the meadow’s edge offers sanctuary to diadems of Astrantia and that “queen of poisons”, Aconitum vulparia. Wherever you look, butterflies of every hue and pattern drift from flower to flower in seemingly impossible numbers.
These “artificial” meadows are a testament to what can be achieved when human culture dovetails with the natural world; they may result from our interventions, but they are havens for birds, bees and other wildlife and a perennial source of inspiration for painters, poets and musicians. That we have almost lost them demonstrates not only appalling carelessness, but also an astonishing stupidity on our part.
Continue that walk a few hundred metres further up the mountain, however, and you come to natural, or perennial, meadow, a terrain that is as old as the mountains themselves. Here, in spring and early summer, the ground is covered with clusters and carpets of gentian and saxifrage, Androsace and primulas, mountain asters and those fleshy clumps of sempervivum that, in flower, look like miniature krakens from some 1950s science-fiction movie.
The more you look, the more this natural variety and beauty become present to the eye. High Alpine meadows, like their near relatives prairie, desert and certain varieties of wetland, teach us to consider the world from a fresh perspective, to open our eyes and take account of what we have missed, reminding us that, in spite of our emphasis on the visual in everyday speech, we see so very little of the world. To appreciate these high meadows requires exquisite attention, but the exercise is salutary, considering how flabby our everyday awareness has become.
So, it is gratifying to know that, over the past few months, meadows have been in the news: Prince Charles, whose own garden at Highgrove contains a traditional hay meadow, recently set up a scheme to fund 60 “coronation meadows” across Britain. A few local councils have come to recognise the importance of permanent meadowland, with such projects as the Sanders Park initiative in Bromsgrove garnering huge support. And individual gardeners are beginning to forgo the joyless backyard monoculture of mossfree, manicured lawns for wild gardens that, however small they may be, offer way stations and refuges for insects and birds in cities and suburbs.
Any and all such projects, no matter how modest, are to be applauded, but we must always remember that, with regard to meadows, as with so much else, the elephant in the room is our continued tolerance of an agribusiness system that is both toxic and socially unjust.
Unless we change the very nature of our rural economy – first by breaking the hegemony of corporate subsidy-milkers, and then by supporting only those for whom farming is both a vocation and the expression of a living tradition – the diversity and abundance that makes for quality of life, in the fullest sense of the phrase, may never be regained.
The Low Pay Commission should consider setting out how the minimum wage would increase over time if the recovery is sustained.
How will the low paid fare should the economy move into a period of steady growth? This question is already creating interest across all three parties and looks set to become ever more central to the 2015 election - especially if living standards continue to decline at the same time as growth picks up.
So we can expect there to be more interest in the nuts and bolts of how the minimum wage is set and whether it is likely to rise much over the medium term. Given that the wage floor has already fallen back below the level it was at in 2004, there are some who would favour an immediate hike, perhaps up to the level of the Living Wage, regardless of the fragility of the labour market. Many others worry about the impact of a higher minimum wage on unemployment (even if it is falling a bit) and future job growth. Faced with these competing pressures, policy-makers remain locked-in to the status quo in which the Low Pay Commission (LPC) takes an evidence-based, incremental, and typically cautious look at the level of the wage floor every 12 months.
One possible route through this bind would be to set out how the minimum wage would increase over time if, and only if, the recovery is sustained. If this sort of conditional approach towards policy-making sounds familiar it’s probably because it echoes the much hyped ‘forward guidance’ for monetary policy which has been introduced by Mark Carney at the Bank of England.
In relation to low pay, forward guidance could mean the LPC setting out the path of future increases in the minimum wage over a number of years so long as the recovery is maintained and unemployment falls. If, however, the economy weakens the LPC would revert to setting the minimum wage a year at a time. This approach would mean a shift from the established pattern of annual uplifts but it wouldn’t be wholly exceptional (the LPC has in the past set out its intention to increase the minimum wage above average earnings over a number of years).
What might be the upside of this sort of approach? Well, it could give the lowest paid workers some much needed confidence that they won’t be locked out of any recovery. It would also give employers far greater certainty over the size of the wage pressures they would need to absorb over the medium term. And, politically, it would be used as a way of demonstrating that the low paid will share in growth whilst also providing an escape route should the economy flat-line again.
Easy, then? No – this would be tricky to get right.
There would be wage-disappointment, or more likely wage-rage, if the economy under-performs and the promised increases in the wage floor fail to materialise. A broken promise (as it would be seen) of a pay-rise that fails to show up may well be worse than receiving no such promise in the first place. Employer groups would doubtless blanch at what will inevitably look like chunky increases over the medium term. And, as Mr Carney’s critics have pointed out in relation to monetary policy, there is no such thing as a perfect proxy measure which can reliably be used as a good guide as to whether or not the recovery is robust.
More specifically, if the LPC set out cash figures for the future level of the minimum wage over a number of years then this would effectively mean that the lowest paid workers in the land would be bearing the risk of inflation rising faster than forecast – hence the future increases might need to be set out as rises relative to inflation (which isn’t so easy to communicate). And, if it looked too much like the government was leaning on the Low Pay Commission, seeking to muscle it into increases that it didn’t want to make, then some members may walk away altogether, which could destabilise an institution that has served us well.
Yet for all these challenges, this and other ideas on how best to tackle low pay need to be very carefully looked at. Objections will be raised against any proposal that leads to an increase in the wage floor, many of them coming from the very same people who opposed its introduction in the first place. Fifteen years on, it’s time to consider where next for the minimum wage and to interrogate these and other ideas that could help make it relevant to the decade ahead (as a Resolution Foundation project is doing).
Despite the rhetoric coming from all sides, there is a real risk that interest in improving the plight of the low paid fails to translate into workable policy ideas that will improve the wages of many of those at the sharp end. As things stand, any recovery could all too easily pass them by. Maybe it’s time to plan for a pay-rise.
David Cesarani praises Simon Schama's erudite, playful and personal history reinterpretation of Jewish history.
After reading Cat Sense, you will never look at your cat in the same way again. You might wish you still could.
The shadow defence secretary is not impressed by the Lib Dem president's paean of praise to Ed Miliband in the New Statesman.
Ed Miliband is yet to respond to Tim Farron's paean of praise to him in this week's New Statesman, but shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy has let it be known that he's not impressed.
Farron told me:
I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock.
He went on to praise Miliband as a model progressive:
First of all, he’s a polite and nice person. I think he is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well. And they’re other things too. For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it.
He mischievously added:
And they’re other things too. For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it. He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.
As Farron knows, should Miliband refuse to form a coalition with Clegg in 2015, he could well end up with him again. It was this that prompted Murphy's Twitter put-down this morning.
I really like Tim Farron so don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the public who compare him to a sanctimonious little plotter.— Jim Murphy (@jimmurphymp) September 12, 2013
To which Farron gracefully replied:
@jimmurphymp There goes our friends forever collage....— Tim Farron (@timfarron) September 12, 2013
For the benefit of those who missed the interview (picked-up in today's Guardian), Murphy later added:
Appears twitter doesn't translate insider irony. You'd have to know what Tim Farron is up to in the New Statesman to u'stand my last tweet.— Jim Murphy (@jimmurphymp) September 12, 2013
We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this term appeared in a trial about rape and sexual assault; it isn’t the first time.
In case you hadn’t noticed the news blaring from what felt like every digital surface in the western world, Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell was this week found not guilty of charges relating to child sexual abuse. So far, so normal: the British justice system investigates crime, presents evidence, pronounces a person guilty or not according to the evidence at hand. But, but.
Something very important happened in the summary of the case which had little to do with Le Vell at all. In addressing the jury before their decision, top prosecutor Eleanor Laws QC asked whether the ‘world has gone mad’ over ‘celebrity prosecutions’. She then used the word ‘witch-hunt’ to heavily imply that after Jimmy Savile, the public are baying for the blood of their once beloved TV stars. Chief crown prosecutor for the north west, Nazir Afzal, hit back that he ‘absolutely detest[s] this word witch-hunt.’ And he certainly has reason to.
When people use the word ‘witch-hunt’, they’re obviously not talking black hats and broomsticks. A ‘witch-hunt’ is an unfounded instance of mass hysteria where everyone has got a little bit carried away and started identifying completely fictional bad guys. Witches, after all, don’t exist. People who believe in them are gullible and oversensitive. Meanwhile, everyone who had to suffer through GCSE teaching of The Crucible knows that the first accusers in the Salem witch trials were two deluded, attention-seeking little girls.
Charlie Brooker’s poem ‘Witch Hunt’ effectively satirised the frequency with which the tabloids will cry ‘witch hunt’, while often engaging in the act themselves. Yet, when a spate of prosecutions for murder or grievous bodily harm arise, the term ‘witch-hunt’ is never used. Rebekah Brooks used the term after being charged with phone hacking and another equally charming contributor to the media, Richard Littlejohn at the Daily Mail, used it to refer to both phone hacking investigations AND the Jimmy Savile prosecutions in one article (if there’s one thing to be said for the Mail, it’s that they never waste column space.) In both cases, the word was used in an effort to discredit the alleged victims of a crime, to imply that they were fantasising.
We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this term appeared in a trial about rape and sexual assault; it isn’t the first time. People often jump on their high horse about ‘witch-hunts’ where rape is concerned. According to data gathered by US charity The Enliven Project, only 10% of rapes are ever reported, a minority of these lead to actual prosecutions, and 2% of rape allegations are false. The Independent put this into UK numbers, showing 95,000 rape victims per year; 15,670 of these rapes reported to police; 2,910 cases reaching the courts; and 1070 rapists eventually being convicted.
You don’t have to have a Masters in Criminology to know that rape is widely unreported and under-convicted. One of the reasons that the situation stands is because people like Eleanor Laws throw around the tired old ‘witch-hunt’ phrase in the courtroom and the media like it’s the biggest trend since skinny jeans. The discussion whirs into action again about whether those accused of rape should be afforded anonymity, over and above anyone who’s been accused of murder, terrorism, or a slew of equally horrific crimes. Perhaps every suspect of every crime should be afforded anonymity until conviction. But marking out rape as the singular crime deserving of that treatment seems to imply that it carries with it a far greater likelihood of false accusation. The woman who accuses a man of rape from motivations of attention, greed, revenge or rejection lives large in the public imagination.
It was an odd feeling, watching how quickly the tabloid coverage of this particular case switched from the lurid, unsavoury headlines which seemed to almost imply a sick titillation (The Mirror ran with the front-page ‘He put a teddy bear in my mouth and then raped me’), to celebratory crowing and photographs of Le Vell grinning widely and holding a pint. Which we suppose that is what one does, after one has been subject to a celebrity child rape witch-hunt and found ‘not guilty.’ Now that the tabloids have begun questioning whether or not the CPS should have ever taken the trial to court, the DPP (cough witchfinder general cough) has had to wade in and explain that, contrary to what certain corners of the media might suggest, the Crown Prosecution Service does not operate on the basis of rumour or conjecture, or at the behest of ‘hysterical little girls’, but because it believes there is a case to answer. In other words, as far as they’re concerned, there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.
So while those members of Le Vell’s family who chose to champion his cause tell the papers of their relief, of their enduring faith in his innocence, and of the vicious witch hunt which has destroyed the life of one man, it is worth remembering that there were people out there, professional people, expert people, who felt that the prospect of Le Vell being found guilty was realistic. They looked at the testimony and evidence before them, and concluded that there was good enough cause for a case. That the jury deemed Le Vell ‘not guilty’ does not undermine the importance of the CPS’ work in assessing the evidence for prosecutions. Nor is the principle of the 'not guilty' verdict difficult to understand; it means that the jury could not find the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.
The treatment and cross-examination of witnesses in sex abuse trials has recently resurfaced as subject of debate. We know that our legal system is not the most amenable to women wishing to report a rape, but much less discussed is the fact that the methods of gathering evidence seem to take much into account the effect that the reliving of traumatic events will have on testimony, often rendering it muddled and inconsistent. How the remembering of the terrible event over time can become more lucid or contradictory as new details surface. It’s in the nature of trauma. We should be focusing on these aspects too, rather than shining the spotlight on one particular case in which a man has been found not guilty and using it as an example to argue for the anonymity of rape defendants. The Le Vell case is over, but there are many other cases in which a ‘guilty’ verdict was delivered, and many others where one should have been but wasn’t.
In the meantime, we’d do well to remember that a trial ending in acquittal does not negate the need for a trial.
It’s called justice. Isn’t it?
On the contrary, our society is surprisingly tolerant of rape.
There is no great stigma attached to being a rapist. Of course, it’s not a word anyone wishes to see applied to themselves. We’d all hate to be called rapists, just as we’d hate anyone close to us to be accused of rape. But when it comes to committing rape - actually having sex with someone who is not consenting? It seems a lot of us are totally cool with that. Go ahead, rape away, just make sure no one calls it by that name.
A 2010 survey reported by Sky News revealed 46 per cent of men aged 18 to 25 do not consider it rape if a man continues to penetrate a woman after she has changed her mind. Last week a survey conducted by Rape Crisis and Reveal magazine showed a third of women do not believe a rape to have taken place if an alleged victim did not fight back. It’s only eight years since a poll by Amnesty International suggested 8 per cent people believe a woman to be totally - that’s totally - responsible for rape if she’s had many sexual partners. The truth is, an alarming number of people are very comfortable indeed with the idea of rape in certain circumstances. Like George Galloway, they merely see it as “bad sexual etiquette”. Rape doesn’t horrify them, not a bit; rape accusations do.
Take the case of the actor Michael Le Vell, who was this week found not guilty of 12 charges relating to rape, sexual assault and sex with a minor. During the trial, the press pored over details of Le Vell’s private life, caring not one bit for the reputation of a man who had not (and still hasn’t) been convicted of anything. And yet it’s only now, once the trial’s over, that we discover the true horror of it all: the fact that Le Vell was accused at all.
Soon after the verdict Phillip Schofield tweeted his outrage, proclaiming it “bloody ridiculous a mans [sic] life & reputation can be so comprehensively trashed in this way” (it’s probably churlish to mention Lord McAlpine at this point, but still). Calls were swiftly being made for anonymity to be granted to those accused of rape, with Christine Hamilton helpfully suggesting“it’s outrageous that we should know who the accused is but not the accuser, whom the jury obviously think is a serial liar”. Similarly keen on making up allegations about other people’s allegedly made-up allegations, men’s rights campaigner Peter Lloyd wrote in the Mail that “even UK charity Rape Crisis admit that almost 1 in 10 rape allegations are false” (Rape Crisis have of course refuted this false allegation). Amazing though it is, one acquittal has made it open season on rape allegations. Just what is going on?
Having no interest in his private life and no reason to question his acquittal I have a great deal of sympathy for Michael Le Vell. I don’t, however, feel I am in a position to call his accuser a serial liar (maybe the wives of disgraced Tory MPs have special instincts for these things). I pity all victims of rape whose credibility is undermined by insinuations such as those made by Hamilton, just as I pity the small number of men who are falsely accused of rape. It’s a mess. Yet what strikes me as particularly bizarre is that in a society so tolerant of rape, in which significant numbers of people believe many forms of assault don’t even count, it’s being suggested that rape defendants need anonymity because so much shame and stigma is attached to being a rapist. This is nonsense. We’re far less likely to excuse shoplifting or benefit fraud than we are rape. We’re fine with rape. We just don’t like those who accuse and we don’t like those who are accused, either.
Rape culture is so endemic that an actual rape trial doesn’t just put the accused in the dock; broader cultural attitudes are on trial, too. Unless we’re talking about the Yorkshire Ripper or John Worboys - those extreme, nowt-to-do-with-us types - an accusation of rape doesn’t just point the finger at an individual. It challenges the widespread assumption that sex without the consent of another person isn’t really a crime. I can’t help feeling there’s a serious amount of wilful distancing in our shunning of those on trial for rape. We might not have done the things they’re accused of, but we’re way too close to them for comfort.
Hence the stigma but hence, too, the relief and triumphalism following an acquittal. Phew! So it wasn’t them - it wasn’t us - after all! Even though a not guilty verdict does not itself demonstrate that a complainant was lying (sorry, Christine), in terms of the fury it releases it might as well do. A litany of entirely implausible reasons for making a false accusation - such as a need for attention and fame - pour forth, together with contradictory demands that the fame-hungry attention-seeker’s anonymity be revoked. Yet there’s little to be gained from “crying rape” (as it’s so tastelessly called). Four fifths of assault victims responding to Mumsnet’s We Believe You survey had not made a report to the police, with most feeling that the media, the legal system and society at large are unsympathetic to rape victims. Oddly, we seem to think that if those accused of rape are losing out, those doing the accusing must be winning. This is rubbish.
Attitudes to those accused of rape can be terrible but let’s not pretend for one moment that this is because we’re overly sympathetic towards those making complaints. We’re not. Both complainants and defendants face speculation, suspicion and dismissal. Whenever there’s reasonable doubt, rather than support those we believe, we denigrate those we don’t. This isn’t because we’re disgusted by rape. On the contrary, we just don’t like anything that reminds us how tolerant we are of something we ought to despise.
Does the Telegraph's new section A) aim to expand the boundaries of masculinity, or B) feature the same group of blokes whining about the same old rubbish?
The Telegraph has launched a new section exclusively for its male readers, Telegraph Men, with the tag line “Sharp opinion and expert advice for the modern male”. There was a swish launch party with lots of dapper looking lads and lasses at Rook & Raven on Tuesday evening, followed by a website and Twitter launch today.
The Mole cannot help but wonder at the logic behind this new development. The Telegraph is already strongly weighted towards the Y chromasome both in terms of its writers and the issues that it covers - if you'd like to test this out, visit their blogs page and scroll down - today I counted 18 men, not a single woman. Are we seeing the creation of a new platform on which to debate questions of masculinity, looking at the issues that really affect British men? Will there be space for gay and trans writers, or will everything that does not conform to a GQ-slick template of dark blues, suits, sexism and materialism? (And a vehicle, excuse the pun, for advertising expensive cars?)
The Guardian’s Hadley Freeman tweeted this morning:
Telegraph Men. For men who find the rest of the Telegraph too feminist.— Hadley Freeman (@HadleyFreeman) September 12, 2013
Clearly she is not prepared to give Telegraph Men the benefit of the doubt. But this Mole keeps an open mind. There is room in the media landscape for writing which takes a contemporary view of parenting, mental health, identity and masculinity – will Telegraph Men be it?
Social media lull us into thinking we’re whispering to a friend at a party, when in reality we’re shouting through a megaphone. But every time we hold back from dishing the dirt, we become a little bit less human.
Earlier this week the editor of Newsnight inadvertently reminded us that the internet can’t keep a secret.
In what he thought was a Twitter message only he and his friend could read, Ian Katz referred to the MP Rachel Reeves, a guest on his show, as “snoring boring”.
It was hardly inaccurate. But that he actually tweeted this to the world, including Reeves herself, was embarrassing for him, and for her (although I tend to think there’s an association between the capacity to drone on like that and the kind of skin that will keep a person warm through the bitterest winter).
What with Twitter’s tricksiness and Facebook’s deliberately confusing privacy policies, not to mention those twin traps “Reply To All” and “Forward”, the internet is an engine for social embarrassment. Social media lull us into thinking we’re whispering to a friend at a party, when in reality we’re shouting through a megaphone.
But every time something like this happens, we become a little harder to lull. Katz won’t be sending any loose talk via Twitter again. Like everyone else, he is learning that there is no such thing as an off-the-record electronic communication.
The lessons have been unavoidable. First, we know we’re prone to screwing up our messaging protocols, like Katz did. Second, various corporate and political scandals have revealed to us that “delete” actually means “save until it’s time to publish”; that even our text messages – is nothing holy, LOL – can be retrieved by others long after we have forgotten about them. Third, we now know that not only can our bosses read every email we send, but so can our governments. The message is sinking in: don’t write anything you wouldn’t be happy to see on the front page of the New York Times.
I will leave it to others to discuss what the internet means for freedom of speech. I’m worried about something else: freedom to gossip.
Gossip depends on a transaction best captured by the phrase “between me and you”. Rumours spread like wildfire through entire populations, which is why the internet disseminates them so efficiently. But gossip is inherently personal. It is passed on one person at a time, or circulated in small groups.
In the online world, there is no such thing as “between me and you”. There is only “between me and anyone who is reading this or who might do so at some point in the future…” The more we wake up to this, the more we resist the temptation to dish.
I’ve noticed that friends at work exchange less of the kind of salty backchat about their managers that used to form the mainstay of the day’s entertainment. Even hinting at an informal confidence about a third party, in a one-to-one email, is these days more likely to be ignored, or to summon a stiffly formal reply.
Gossip continues, of course, in the so-called offline world. Rather than saying what they think in email, colleagues are more likely to sidle up to each other and quietly suggest a walk outside, like they’re in a very low-stakes spy movie.
But even out in the street, they’ll be nervously checking their phone because, well, we’ve all heard the stories of accidental dials and overheard conversations. As the offline world shrinks, gossip is becoming laced with paranoia.
You might say that if gossip is in decline, that’s a good thing. Perhaps you are one of those people who quietly but ostentatiously withdraws from a group the moment that gossip begins. Gossip is certainly disreputable, ungenerous and frequently unpleasant. We all learn at an early age that it’s not nice to talk behind someone’s back; that it’s irresponsible to spread stories.
But here’s the (paradoxical) thing: if you don’t gossip, I don’t trust you. The moment I establish that a new acquaintance is alert to the pleasures of gossip is the moment I start to trust them.
I don’t mean, trust them not to speak ill of me (how could I?). I mean, trust that they see the world as I do: as a place where playfulness matters as much as rules, protocols exist partly to be subverted, and pleasures taken where they can.
We use gossip to monitor about the dynamics of our social circles: the quickest way to establish the politics of your office is to go for a drink after work. Gossip has a high compression ratio: it fits a lot of information into short conversations; they don’t call it “the good stuff” for nothing.
Gossip is great a leveller, too: that the people who would be happiest if you never gossiped at work are your bosses tells you something about its egalitatarian nature.
If we stop gossiping, we will become a little less human. Professor Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist, has argued that gossip was central to the development of early human communication. Apes and monkeys, our closest kin, spend a lot of time grooming each other, not for the purposes of hygeine so much as to cement bonds of trust and affection. Humans, says Dunbar, do the same, except we have always lived in larger groups, and it’s hard to stroke all of the people all of the time.
So at some point our ancestors worked out that social chatter was a more efficient method of bonding, as well as a great way to get the inside track on who was up, who was down, and who was screwing who behind the big rock. The conventional view of the origins of language is that it enabled males to coordinate hunts. Dunbar thinks that it evolved to allow us to gossip.
Let’s not allow the internet to turn us into poker-faced, strait-laced, inhuman dullards. Let’s stand up for gossip. And meanwhile, if you want to know what I heard about how the deputy editor of the New Statesman got her job, DM me.
Suicide bombings in Sinai and an assassination attempt on the interior minister are a sign that Egypt is facing a growing threat from Islamic extremists, and the violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood can only make things worse.
Yesterday six soldiers were killed in a double suicide bomb attack in Sinai and ten soldiers and seven civilians were killed in Rafah, near the Israel border, by bomb blasts. Less than a week earlier, on 5 September, Egypt’s interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, survived a bomb attack on his convoy in Cairo. A Sinai-based al-Qaeda inspired group later claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt.
If there’s anything unexpected about this increase in violence against government targets, it’s that it has taken so little time for militant groups to strike beyond their Sinai-stronghold and organise attacks in the capital. When the Egyptian military began its heavy-handed and short-sighted crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood last month, it could only expect a violent response from the extremist wings of Egypt’s Islamist movements. It’s worth remembering that the Salafists initially welcomed the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood in power, it was the army’s brutality that changed their attitude.
The Egyptian government should also expect that a new generation of Islamists will be radicalised and turn to violent confrontation, because the message the military has sent to the Muslim Brotherhood, its supporters and other Islamists is very clear: there’s no place for you in government and your vote doesn’t, and won’t ever, count.
I don’t say this because I support the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s ousted, and now jailed, Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi showed alarmingly authoritarian tendencies. I understand why liberals, women and Christian minorities worried for their future under an Islamic government, and why many early supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood grew disillusioned. But by killing over 600 protesters on 14th August, arresting thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and shutting down Muslim Brotherhood newspapers and TV stations, Egypt’s interim government has shown little patience for peaceful dialogue, and a concerning disregard for democratic norms.
Violence often breeds violence, and now Egypt faces the prospect of a return to the 1990s, when the military government faced a low-level Islamic insurgency focussed in Sinai. The difference is that Islamist insurgents will now benefit from greater instability in the region, and a ready supply of arms from neighbouring Libya. The present leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a member of the Brotherhood who became involved in international jihad as a response to state repression in the 50s and 60s. Egypt should beware its disenfranchised and disillusioned Islamist youth.
The Bank of England governor tells MPs what George Osborne doesn't want you to hear.
The most politically significant moment during Mark Carney's apperance before the Treasury select committee came when the Bank of England governor stated that "fiscal adjustment" (spending cuts and tax rises) "has been a drag on growth".
This might appear to put him at odds with George Osborne who in his speech on the economy earlier this week, derided the "fiscalists" who claimed that the cuts had been more damaging than expected. But the Tory Treasury Twitter account has responded by stating that Carney's comments are "consistent" with Osborne's argument that the OBR's 2010 fiscal multipliers (which measure the effect of cuts and tax rises on growth) were not too optimistic.
The Treasury did, however, refuse to concede that the cuts had, at least to some extent, depressed growth. As David Cameron was reminded by Robert Chote earlier this year (when he suggested that austerity had not hit output), the OBR's multipliers assume that "every £100 of fiscal consolidation measures reduce GDP in that year by around £100 for capital spending cuts, £60 for welfare and public services, £35 for increases in the VAT rate and £30 for income tax and National Insurance increases". Fiscal consolidation is estimated to have reduced GDP by 1.4 per cent in 2011-12 alone.
Cameron and Osborne are understandably reluctant to admit that the cuts mean growth has been lower than in normal circumstances. It allows Labour to argue that a less aggressive deficit reduction plan would have enabled higher levels of output. Which explains why you can expect Ed Balls and Ed Miliband to leap with glee on Carney's quote and the Tories to try and act as if they never heard him.