Monday, 25 September 2017

Caesar wins Nuremberg Human Rights Award 

Ken Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, explains the significance of the Caesar photographs:

One irony of the Syrian war is that while the Assad government flouts the most basic rules of international humanitarian law, it never openly admits doing so. It denies that it barrel bombs or gasses civilians. It pretends that it lets necessities reach people in besieged areas. And it bars independent access to the worst of its detention facilities where the bulk of the torture and execution takes place.

It is in that context of denial that the Caesar photos are so important. No one seeing the photographs of more than six thousand brutalized corpses can deny that something utterly inhumane has been taking place inside that closed prison system. Survivors can describe that hell on earth, but the photographs speak with an unimpeachable directness that compels us to understand the utter cruelty of the Syrian detention system.

Roth’s full remarks merit reading. I was honoured last week that my documentary, ‘Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad’ (which I co-produced with director Sara Afshar), was screened in Courtroom 600 in Nuremberg, where the Nuremberg Trials took place. The film played in the same spot where images from the Holocaust were presented to the courtroom over 70 years ago. This launched the programme leading up to the presentation of the award to Caesar for his courage in delivering essential evidence to the outside world. His courageous act deserves more than awards. It demands action to prevent the continuing deaths in detention and to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The media lost this election 

As the UK election results were announced, I marvelled at the waning power of the press. Voters defied the press’ predictions and exposed their failures. As Monbiot writes:

The rightwing press threw everything it had at Jeremy Corbyn, and failed to knock him over. In doing so, it broke its own power. Its wild claims succeeded in destroying not Corbyn’s credibility but its own.

This is particularly significant because, as Monbiot notes, the rightwing press tends to set the news agenda for the broadcasters. I have written about this before, drawing on my own experience at the BBC.

I was interested to see George Osborne acknowledging the power of press, as he recently told Nick Robinson:

I do think newspapers in Britain in particular set the tone, if I may say so, partly because we have the BBC as a big, very impartial in its charter, state broadcaster and as a result I think quite often the BBC follows a newspaper agenda a bit because it doesn’t necessarily want to go out on a limb itself… So I do think newspapers create a climate in which the election takes place.

The BBC must consider how it can better represent the public and shake off the shackles of a skewed media field.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Negotiating Brexit 

Thanks to John Oliver’s show, my attention was drawn to Boris Johnson’s description of the UK government’s approach to Brexit:

Our policy is having our cake and eating it.

And to Donald Tusk’s riposte:

I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.

There will be no cakes on the table, for anyone. There will be only salt and vinegar.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Steve Hilton exposed 

Decca Aitkenhead perfectly skewers David Cameron’s former advisor Steve Hilton in this interview by exposing the limits of his thoughtfulness. And for a man who fashions himself as a blue-sky thinker, this is doubly embarrassing and revealing.

I urge you to read the interview in full, but here is where the exquisite cognitive dissonance begins:

And then I ask one simple question, and the whole story he tells about himself unravels. Do he and his family deserve their wealth? He stares at me in surprise.

“Er … I think we definitely both work really hard.” Sure, but do they deserve their level of wealth? “Well … such a good question. I’m just trying to think.” He falls silent for 11 seconds, searching his mind for an answer that doesn’t undermine everything he’s been saying.

This continues for a painfully long time, with Hilton grasping for an answer. Aitkenhead says he becomes ‘unquotably inarticulate’.

But do they deserve their wealth? “I don’t even think that’s the right way to think about it.”

A perfect illustration of Upton Sinclair’s quote:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The hellish search for Syria’s Disappeared 

I wrote this for the Guardian about the documentary that I’ve made with the filmmaker and director Sara Afshar.

Please read it and watch the film Syria’s Disappeared: The Case Against Assad on Channel 4.

Tens of thousands of Syrians are currently missing in President Assad’s detention centres. It is a humanitarian crisis, hidden from view.

Survivors tell of horrific torture in detention and are haunted by those they left behind. Mansour al Omari says:

I still remember their last words to me: ‘Please don’t forget us’. This rings in my ears every day like church bells, like a daily call for prayer.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Prescient Political Plays 

Earlier this year Out of Joint presented a collection of short political plays at the Arts Theatre in London. The texts are now freely available online and make stimulating reading.

David Hare’s offering, Ayn Rand Takes a Stand, imagines a conversation between the philosopher novelist and George Osborne, whom Rand calls Gideon (that being his original name). It’s a playful meditation on the serious contradiction at the heart of the Tory party right now – the idea that you can have a free market without the free movement of labour.

Alistair Beaton’s The Accidental Leader is a brilliant romp through the internal arguments animating the Labour Party today. It presciently imagines a group of Blairites plotting a coup against their current leader – and it was written before the mass resignation of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet following the Brexit vote.

In it, Nina, a representative of ‘Impetus’ (it’s a thinly veiled satire) says:

Oh, I do love your centre ground. Sounds so reasonable, doesn’t it? The centre ground. But does the centre ground stay in the same place? I don’t think so. Blink and you miss it as it shifts to the right. Whoosh whoosh whoosh, there it goes.

There are too many good lines to quote. It’s better than all the op-eds I’ve read about the split within the Labour Party.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Corbyn: The Outsider 

Take thirty minutes to watch this Vice documentary which follows Jeremy Corbyn and his team behind-the-scenes for eight weeks.

Reporter Ben Ferguson says from the outset that he’s a Labour Party member who voted for Corbyn in the leadership election. This makes the film a more sobering watch.

Will Self’s impression after viewing the documentary was that Corbyn lacks sophistication and acumen and is ineffectual. He also said:

the astonishing thing about Corbyn is that he’s managing to cock things up entirely on his own terms.

Corbyn has many virtues, including his firm principles, decent values, and a genuine ease when meeting the public which he says keeps him ‘humble’. However it is excruciating to watch him miss the opportunity to attack Cameron when Duncan Smith resigns.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Naomi Klein: Let Them Drown 

This essay/talk by Klein applies Edward Said’s thinking to a warming world. It’s a worthwhile read. Here’s just one nugget:

We often hear climate change blamed on ‘human nature’, on the inherent greed and short-sightedness of our species. Or we are told we have altered the earth so much and on such a planetary scale that we are now living in the Anthropocene – the age of humans. These ways of explaining our current circumstances have a very specific, if unspoken meaning: that humans are a single type, that human nature can be essentialised to the traits that created this crisis. In this way, the systems that certain humans created, and other humans powerfully resisted, are completely let off the hook. Capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy – those sorts of system. Diagnoses like this erase the very existence of human systems that organised life differently: systems that insist that humans must think seven generations in the future; must be not only good citizens but also good ancestors; must take no more than they need and give back to the land in order to protect and augment the cycles of regeneration. These systems existed and still exist, but they are erased every time we say that the climate crisis is a crisis of ‘human nature’ and that we are living in the ‘age of man’.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Cameron admits benefitting from father’s offshore trust 

After days spent dodging the question (avoidance runs in the family), David Cameron finally admitted that he had benefitted from his father’s offshore trust and sold his shares for just over £30,000 before he became Prime Minister in 2010. He also acknowledged that some of the £300,000 he inherited from his father may have come from offshore sources.

Robert Peston has stressed that the sins of the father should not be borne by the son, and perhaps his sympathetic stance is why Cameron granted him an exclusive interview on the subject. Peston makes a fair point but only if Cameron takes the opportunity to distance himself from his father’s choices.

Richard Murphy deftly summarised the answer he hoped Cameron might give:

He could have said that much as he respects his father, much as he loves him and much as he is grateful for what he did for him he has to disagree with him on the use of offshore. This is what mature, responsible, children sometimes have to do: they have to say that they disagree with their parents. But Cameron has not done this. And now we know he won’t.

Cameron made a point of stressing the legality of his father’s offshore trust in his interview with Peston. But that avoids the issue. These offshore trusts are legal but they’re not moral. They help institutions avoid paying their fair share of tax. We need the law to change in order to clamp down on them and that requires the commitment of governments. This should be the role of our Prime Minister but for all his warm words on the subject, his actions speak louder.

In 2013 Cameron personally lobbied against EU efforts to reveal the beneficiaries of trusts. Other European politicians feared this left a loophole for tax avoidance. Why didn’t Peston ask Cameron about that?

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Richard Herring’s tireless work on International Women’s Day 

One of my favourite things about International Women’s Day is the comedian Richard Herring’s Twitter feed. He replies to every tweet he sees which asks why there is no International Men’s Day and explains that there is one and it’s on November 19th.

He says:

Whilst one person in the world assumes that there can’t be an international men’s day due to inverse sexism my work will not be done.

I salute his tireless and hilarious efforts. I’m sure Caitlin Moran would approve. She published a brilliant piece at the weekend offering advice for winning arguments online. She pointed out that one of the key hindrances to getting things done on the internet is the idea that if you talk about something then you must talk about everything. This is patently impractical; the most effective campaigners and change-makers tend to specialise.

Moran advised:

When you get accosted by someone going, “You cannot talk about BLAH unless you also talk about BLAH”, the best response is, “I know – you do BLAH and I’ll do BLAH, and then the world will be twice as improved! Thanks for volunteering! You’re a total mensch. On behalf of the rest of the world – thank you!”

Syrian demonstrations say ‘The Revolution Continues’ 

Kudos to The Telegraph for reporting the incredible demonstrations that flourished across Syria on Friday when people took advantage of a rare ceasefire to resume peaceful protests with the tagline ‘The Revolution Continues’.

Before talks resume in Geneva, this is a timely reminder to the world that Syria’s five year war started with a popular uprising calling for political reforms, inspired by the Arab Spring.

Despite nearly five years of conflict involving unimaginable brutality, these peaceful demonstrations show that civil opposition to the regime continues. The indefatigable bravery, courage and determination of the protestors should be major international news.

Time quoted a human rights advocate called Fadi al-Qadi:

War kills political space, but now there are no guns, why should it continue to kill political space? And I think the masses on the streets in these cities and towns and villages are proving this theory correct. No gun can take the place of the will of the people.

Reem Salahi, a human rights attorney, also wrote a personal piece for the Huffington Post which puts these protests in context and expresses their significance – well worth reading.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Is Simon Stevens one of the most dangerous men in public office? 

Dr Bob Gill, part of the Save Our NHS campaign, told George Galloway’s Sputnik programme on RT:

Simon Stevens, he needs to become a household name. He served the Blair government, he then went on to work for UnitedHealth – one of the biggest private insurers for healthcare in America. While he was there he campaigned against Obamacare – Obama’s reforms – then he went on to campaign for TTIP to include healthcare. And now he’s in charge of the NHS.

Simon Stevens, in my view, is one of the most dangerous men in public office.

This isn’t the first time that someone has raised concerns about Simon Stevens being responsible for the NHS after playing a key role in opening up the NHS to the market and working for one of the largest private healthcare firms in the world, but it’s an eloquent distillation of those concerns.

Here is a quick summary of Stevens’ career:

  • 1997 – 2001: Senior policy adviser at the Department of Health. Co-author of the NHS Plan.

  • 2001 – 2004: Tony Blair’s senior health adviser.

  • 2004 – 2014: Senior executive for UnitedHealth Group in the US. Started off as European President of UnitedHealth and became their President of Global Health in 2009. UnitedHealth helped found the ‘Alliance for Healthcare Competitiveness’ (AHC) and Stevens was one of the group’s press spokesmen. The AHC views healthcare providers like the NHS as an unwanted ‘market distortion’.

  • 2014: Became CEO of NHS England.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Special Branch Files Project 

After months of hard work the Special Branch Files Project website is live, publishing hundreds of Special Branch documents detailing the secret police surveillance of protest groups in Britain since 1968.

The provocation for the project was the fact that the Met Police refused to release documents under the Freedom of Information Act which they had released to another journalist (Solomon Hughes) in the past. I couldn’t believe that they could ‘unrelease’ information which they’d previously disclosed – but apparently they could.

Considering the fact that information released under the FOI Act is purportedly ‘released to the world’, the idea formed to get these documents from the journalists who received them originally and publish them in the public interest. I am so grateful to all of the journalists who shared their files.

It seems fitting to gather together some intelligence on the workings of the intelligence-gatherers.

I’ve written an article for OpenDemocracy introducing the project.

The website already has documents which show how the police spied upon protestors against the Vietnam War in 1968, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Wapping industrial dispute. There are also documents regarding the welfare policy for undercover police officers suffering from mental health problems resulting from their deployment.

The great thing about the website is that readers can view the original documents for themselves and read overviews analysing each set of files. We want to keep expanding the site, so if you know of files that we haven’t published yet, then please do let us know.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Why won’t Stop the War engage with Syrians? 

The Economist reports that the Stop the War coalition have been marginalising Syrian voices and accuses the organisation of being:

not anti-war so much as anti-West.

Labour MP Jo Cox wrote this week that the Stop the War coalition:

don’t seem to know or care that there is already a war in Syria and has been for many years. If they were really the ‘Stop the War’ coalition they would have been actively campaigning for resolute international action to protect civilians and end the war in Syria for many years.

Syria Solidarity UK released a statement explaining why they would not support the recent Stop the War demonstration, even though both organisations oppose airstrikes. They stated:

Syria Solidarity UK and Stop the War have very different concerns regarding Syria: Syria Solidarity is concerned with ending the suffering of Syrians under the Assad dictatorship; Stop the War with opposing any UK military involvement regardless of consequences for Syrians.

We oppose the British government’s proposal to merely mimic the American ISIS-only counter-terrorism war; not only do we believe it is immoral to fly missions in Syria against ISIS while leaving the even greater killer, Assad, free to bomb civilians en masse, we also believe that any war against ISIS that doesn’t put the needs of the Syrian people first will be a failure that can only prolong their suffering.

Stop the War similarly oppose British government proposals to bomb ISIS, but not because they would leave Assad alone; for Stop the War also oppose any action against Assad. This puts Stop the War against Syrians who are being bombed by Assad.

If Stop the War’s slogan “Don’t bomb Syria” is to have any meaning, let them demand the end of the regime whose bombs have killed so many.

If Stop the War oppose imperialism let them demonstrate their sincerity outside the Russian Embassy. Let them demonstrate with placards calling for Russia to stop bombing Syrian hospitals.

It’s right that Stop the War, as a western organisation, submits western propaganda to close scrutiny. Britain has done great harm in the world as well as good. But Stop the War should apply this same scrutiny, alongside its humanitarian values, to all people in all countries.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Vote tomorrow on British airstrikes in Syria 

I’m utterly confounded by the media’s focus on the internal divisions within the Labour party, rather than on the critical decision that parliament will vote on tomorrow.

All our energy should be spent questioning the Prime Minister about his plan. What is the logic of bombing ISIS and what will it achieve? Paul Mason wrote that the key questions are:

What is the world going to look like when we win?

What do we want at the peace conference, and what will our own society look like after the struggle is over?

Where is the long-term political plan for Syria? Why isn’t this the question dominating the airwaves? What do the Syrian people want?

Labour party politics may be an interesting side-story, but its a dangerous distraction.

Considering the fact that David Cameron looks likely to win the vote tomorrow in favour of military action, why aren’t his arguments being subjected to maximum scrutiny? Everyone seems to be interrogating Corbyn who is currently looking to be the weaker force. A bizarre misuse of press power.

It’s not only Labour MPs that are divided by this issue. Conservative MP David Davis, for one, has argued that he’s not yet convinced by the case for war because he doesn’t know the political endgame or the full military strategy. Peter Hitchens pointed out that the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mail have taken contrary for and against positions.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Crowdfunded podcast about Daniel Morgan’s murder 

The journalist and screenwriter Peter Jukes is seeking crowdfunding for a podcast series about the notorious unsolved murder of Daniel Morgan, a private investigator who was killed with an axe to his head in a pub car park in London in 1987.

The case is mired in allegations of police corruption, cover-up and press collusion. There is currently an independent panel investigating the murder and associated scandals.

I’m looking forward to seeing what a Serial-style podcast can do for this infamous case. Hopefully it will bring the long-suffering Morgan family closer to obtaining justice.

Met apologise to women deceived into relationships with undercover cops 

On the 20th November the Met Police finally issued an official apology to seven women who had been deceived into relationships with undercover police officers. A landmark moment.

Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt stated that the relationships were ‘abusive, deceitful, manipulative and wrong’. He also said:

I acknowledge that these relationships were a violation of the women’s human rights, an abuse of police power and caused significant trauma. I unreservedly apologise on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Service. I am aware that money alone cannot compensate the loss of time, their hurt or the feelings of abuse caused by these relationships.

Most importantly, relationships like these should never have happened. They were wrong and were a gross violation of personal dignity and integrity.

I can state that sexual relationships between undercover police officers and members of the public should not happen.

This apology has been hard-fought and represents significant progress. These relationships were not the product of rogue officers, they were systemic. The Met recognised in their statement that there had been ‘failures of supervision and management’. This apology states that such relationships won’t be allowed to happen again in the future.

However, this is just the end of the beginning. There are still many unanswered questions. One of the women, Kate Wilson, is continuing her case against the Metropolitan Police. She told Channel 4 News that she was demanding more information about the police officer that she had a relationship with, particularly how he accounted for his time when, for example, she was on holiday with him:

Were they targeting me? Were they using me to get to the people they were targeting? Was I just a perk of the job?

These questions can really keep you awake at night. The police have made no effort whatsoever to provide any kind of answers to those questions. They’ve apologised but they haven’t answered any of the unanswered questions that people have.

The Undercover Policing Inquiry led by Lord Justice Pitchford is an opportunity to obtain further disclosure and uncover the truth about how undercover police officers spied upon political activists. The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance has called for the police to publish the cover names of all the police officers who have spied on political activists, in order to identify all groups and individuals affected and give them the opportunity to hold the police to account.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

David Graeber explains a simple truth – Money is Debt 

Anthropologist David Graeber:

I’d like to talk today about the greatest taboo of all. Let’s call it the Peter-Paul principle: the less the government is in debt, the more everybody else is.

You may be objecting at this point: but why does anybody have to be in debt? Why can’t everybody just balance their budgets? Governments, households, corporations … Everyone lives within their means and nobody ends up owing anything. Why can’t we just do that?

Well there’s an answer to that too: then there wouldn’t be any money.

Money is debt.

Pounds are either circulating government debt, or they’re created by banks by making loans. That’s where money comes from. Obviously if nobody took out any loans at all, there wouldn’t be any money. The economy would collapse.

The whole article is worth reading in full. If you’re familiar with these facts then you’ll be delighted to see them so clearly expressed. If these ideas are new to you, then I recommend reading Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5000 years. I’ve previously written about the Bank of England explaining how money is created and what was said when parliament debated the topic.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Battle over tax credits gets constitutional 

Some politicians and commentators are claiming that the House of Lords’ refusal last night to pass the government’s planned cuts to tax credits amounts to a ‘constitutional crisis’.

That is nonsense for a number of reasons.

Firstly, as the journalist Peter Jukes observed on Twitter:

Osborne’s line about “unelected Lords” stopping #taxcredits is fatuous. Had he got his way “unelected Lords” would have approved them.

The real constitutional outrage here is the abuse of Statutory Instruments. As I reported back in 2013, the government used a Statutory Instrument to open up England’s NHS to unprecedented levels of competition through its Section 75 regulations. It’s a devious tactic to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny. I’m glad the House of Lords called the government out on it this time.

It is also a bit rich for the government to cry foul on democratic process when they’ve gone about implementing this policy in such an undemocratic fashion.

Lords generally respect manifesto commitments, but these cuts to tax credits weren’t in the Conservative manifesto before the election. Furthermore, David Cameron said that he had no plans for such cuts when challenged on the subject.

This point was forcefully made in the Lords debate yesterday by Labour peer Lord Campbell-Savours when he said that Cameron:

deliberately misled the British public and the British public would regard what he said now as a lie. A lie to win a general election. The British public are fed up with politicians who tell lies on that scale.

I believe that those lies trump all the constitutional niceties, whether they be financial privilege or the fatality of amendments.

Shocking conditions of pig farms 

The Daily Mail have published harrowing photographs of a pig farm that show pigs crammed into tiny wire cages and pregnant sows trapped in small farrowing crates where they don’t even have space to turn around.

Pork produced from this farm displays the Red Tractor logo.

As George Monbiot has previously pointed out, the Red Tractor logo shouldn’t assure any consumers that they’re buying quality meat products. The animal welfare standards required are minimal.

Viva’s website has filmed footage from the pig farm which makes distressing viewing. Yet the key point is that these nightmarish conditions are completely legal.

As Monbiot asked:

How is it that we, who regard ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, accept such terrible standards of meat production?

David Cameron’s former adviser Steve Hilton took issue with consumers of meat and dairy products being misled on a daily basis. Writing in his book More Human, he asked:

Why is it acceptable for my milk carton to feature images of cows meandering on grassy hills when they’re actually confined inside and fed unhealthy diets of corn and soy? Why is it acceptable for chickens certified as ‘free-range’ to be held captive indoors for half of their lives?

He proposed the following policy as a solution:

Any food product must have a reasonable proportion of its packaging devoted to showing the precise conditions it was made in. A pack of frozen chicken nuggets would have a photo of the actual farm the chicken came from.

He added the requirement that:

Every part of every facility of every factory farm and every food factory be live-streamed on the internet so people can see exactly what’s going on and track their food if they want to.

It’s only our blindness to the horrors of factory farming, and our disconnection from its reality, that allows the horror to continue. Honest and clear labelling could kickstart a consumer revolution.

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