SubScribe: August 2013 Google+

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Syria: how the Press helped to put the brakes on bombing bandwagon

 Updated Thursday, August 29
Moreton Morland's view in The Times today

There is a strong chance that American air forces will be bombing Syria by the weekend.   There is also a strong chance that this desperate pitch for peace could again end up embroiling the West in another country's war.

America, Britain and France all stand ready to punish President Assad for a deadly chemical weapons attack last week and there has been much talk in the past couple of days of their 'moral duty' to act, with or without UN backing.

David Cameron yesterday chaired a meeting of the National Security Council, which he said had unanimously backed action against Assad and considered potential strategies. Today he will address MPs who have been summoned from their holidays to debate the possibility of air strikes.

He had hoped that this session would give him the authority to join the American action - but that idea was scuppered by Ed Miliband yesterday afternoon, an event that not only reduced the risk of an immediate war but also demonstrated that Malcolm Tucker's alter ego is alive and well and working at Tory Central Office.  Tucker manque brazenly described Miliband as a f****** c*** and a copper-bottomed s***.

Until yesterday the wheels on the bombing bandwagon had been turning ever faster as it hurtled down the hill to conflict,  Tony Blair cheering it on from his Mediterranean yacht. When Ban Ki-moon stepped into its path  like a latter-day John Lennon chanting 'All we are saying is give peace a chance', he seemed more likely to be mown down than to bring it to a halt. But, amazingly, he did at least manage to slow it down.

UN weapons inspectors have been in Syria since Monday and have examined the site of last week's attack. That they are in the country at all is a result of pressure on President Assad and they have more work to do before they can determine what caused the deaths. They are expected to be ready to report next week.

Many are questioning why, after two years of inaction, it has suddenly become so urgent to attack Syria now, this minute. Russia has mocked the West for behaving like a monkey with a hand grenade. What harm would it do to wait a few days? But until last night, there seemed little hope of convincing anyone in power.

These are serious times and the echoes of Iraq are everywhere - right down to the pleas that UN weapons inspectors be given time to do their job. So what have the papers made of it?

This is not the first time that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, but the attack last Wednesday was in Damascus and Assad's forces were immediately in the frame as the perpetrators. Up to 1,300 people were said to have been killed - many of them children.

The story led the Guardian, Independent, Times and Mirror on Thursday. A photograph of a man leaning over a baby among white-shrouded bodies was the most widely used image, but the Mirror's front was the most dramatic with a photograph of nine dead children who look as though they have been safely tucked up in bed for the night.

The Mail devoted an inside spread to the atrocity, as did the Telegraph, which also found room for it downpage on the front under a three-col picture of a beautiful woman who had had a leg amputated after being knocked down by a New York taxi.

With the sun shining for the bank holiday break - interrupted by flooding on Saturday - there were obviously more pressing concerns for some, but most papers have adopted a serious tone. The Mail, Mirror and the i joined the Times, Guardian and Telegraph in splashing on Syria on Bank Holiday Monday and even the Sun gave it a presence on the front.

The Indie took the conflict off the front on Tuesday, and the Mail pushed it back yesterday, but the Times, Guardian, Telegraph, Mirror and the i have been relentless.

For most of the week no one seems to have doubted that there was an attack of some sort that had killed 1,300 people - although the Guardian was cautious in its Thursday splash head, which referred to 'an apparent gas attack' - and Assad was assumed to have been behind the massacre.

The Obama Administration appeared confident on Tuesday night that it had proof both that chemical weapons had been used and that Assad was responsible for deploying them. Such proof could be said to legitimise military intervention under the 1925 Geneva convention. It would also allow the UN to justify action under its R2P - responsibility to protect - rules. These rules were were established after its peacekeepers stood by while Bosnian Muslims were massacred in Srebrenica.

It is rare for accurate casualty figures to emerge on the day of any disaster, no matter how many reporters and trusted sources there are on the ground. So the 1,300 could never have been a reliable number. Medecins Sans Frontieres, which has been working with hospitals in Syria, has said that about 3,600 people were affected, of whom 355 are known to have died.

Thus the deaths of 355 people in a civil war that has killed at least 100,000 are to become the tipping point: the end of the tutting and the 'something must be done' muttering; the start of a dangerous venture into the unknown.

President Obama is expected to show his hand today. Cameron, William Hague, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are singing the Moral Chorus in four-part close harmony - which is just as well, since there is no orchestra or backing choir in sight.

Polls suggest that 60 per cent of Americans and up to 75 per cent of Britons are against any kind of military intervention. The only surprise there is that American antipathy isn't greater.

Nor is the British Press humming along. Every national paper ran a leader on Syria yesterday, but only The Times offered Cameron anything like the kind of support he would have wanted.

Coverage over the past two days has been thorough.  The Independent, for example, gave the story a splash, five inside pages, plus a leader and an oped yesterday and similar space today. Barely a tree has been spared to ensure that there is enough newsprint to examine the case for war - and still plenty to spare for Miley Cyrus and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

It was serious, restrained stuff. The Sun and the Mirror may have stuck with the tabloidese that insists on 'ammo' and 'tyrant' even when there's room for 'ammunition' and 'President', but there was no jingoism, no 'We're off to war to save the world'. Ten years after Iraq, at least some lessons have been learnt.

The Independent built on its Heir to Blair splash yesterday by looking at the parallels between Iraq and Syria: was intervention legal, were weapons inspectors given enough times, was Parliament properly consulted, was public opinion behind action and was Britain behaving like America's poodle.

Steve Richards draws further parallels on the leader page spread today, while the news pages carry an analysis by Patrick Cockburn of the threat to the rest of the region and a big-name voxpop.

The big names have been out in force across the Press - Tony Blair in The Times, William Hague in the Telegraph, David Owen in the Mirror, Hans Blix in the Guardian to name but four. Then there are the military experts, the clergy, not to mention the everyday pundits.

Nearly everyone has predicted that there would be up to 48 hours of cruise missile attacks in an 'arm's-length assault'. But then what? Syria isn't going to roll over. As the Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem, quoted in the Telegraph, said:

'We have two options: either to surrender or to defend ourselves with the means at our disposal. the second choice is the best. We will defend ourselves. We have the means to defend ourselves and we will surprise everyone. The strike will come and go. We get mortars every day and we have learnt to live with them.'

In the Independent, Kim Sengupta wrote that General Martin Dempsey,  chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said that air strikes 'would not be militarily decisive, but would commit us decisively to the conflict'.  Sengupta also reminded readers of the laws of unintended consequences and painted various scenarios that could make things even worse for ordinary Syrians.

There was not even consensus on the objective of airstrikes. Obama may have a vision of a future Syria that is 'peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate and tolerant'.  But even I can see that that won't be achieved by a weekend of bombings.

Some papers believe the intent is to force Assad to a new round of Geneva talks - that when he realises the American ships in the area aren't there just to take in the sun, he will see reason. Er yes, he's bound to with a Russian missile cruiser and anti-submarine ship steaming towards the Med.

We have also heard the dreaded phrase 'regime change'. To what? The 'rebels' are no longer the ordinary protesters who set out to secure democracy during the Arab spring two years ago. They are now, as Robert Fisk points out in the Independent, backed by Al-Qaeda, raising the bizarre notion that America and the terrorists behind 9/11 could find themselves on the same side.

And what would be the targets of these air strikes? Again, all the Press could do was speculate. Roger Boyes in The Times yesterday went through five possibilities. These range from a simple show of force that could lead to peace talks to attacks on helicopters and Scud missile sites that could lead to all-out war. It made sober and sobering reading. Today he is more forthright in saying that 'clinical' airstrikes are less than useless and that the only feasible objective of any action is to get rid of Assad:

'So here is what is missing from the decision to use “stand-off” weapons against Syria: a determination to confront an evil regime. In my old-fashioned view, you either go to war, or you don’t. 
Cruise missiles cannot be used as a kind of high-tech pigeon post to send messages to dictators set on killing their own people. If you punish Assad without defeating him, the only message he will understand is that he remains invincible. That is how it will look from the President’s underground hideout. 
The goal has to be to topple Assad.'

His colleague the recently ennobled Danny Finkelstein argued that that the fact we don't know how what air strikes might lead to is no reason to do nothing. In his view, inaction is not an option, whereas by doing something Assad may be forced to talk:

'No one can be certain that acting will produce this outcome or that the outcome will be desirable. No one can say for sure what the end game is. Once we start the whole thing is open-ended. But the point is that if we don't start it is open-ended too, and no one knows what the end-game of that inaction is either.'

On the other hand, Seamus Milne in the Guardian saw no possibility of any good coming from airstrikes. He urged the West to seize the moment to give the UN the authority and backing it needed to secure chemical weapons dumps. But he was not hopeful and concluded:

'Even if the attacks are limited, they will certainly increase the death toll and escalate the war. The risk is that they will invite retaliation by Syria or its allies - including against Israel - draw the US in deeper and spread the conflict. The West can use this crisis to help bring Syria's suffering to an end - or pour yet more petrol on the flames.'

Ah yes, Israel. Hezbollah. It's frightening. Israel, which has been asked to keep quiet, can probably look after itself if it comes under attack. But what of the rest of the region?

The Arab League has said that it is convinced that Assad was behind the attack last week; Turkey agrees that Syria should be punished. It has some defences in case of retaliation, but Jordan, which is seeing a stream of refugees fleeing the conflict, has a way to go, even with the allies offering reassurances that  it will be protected.

Few need telling that one false move in the Middle East could lead to conflagration, but how many understand the intricacies of the relationships between the countries? The Sun should be congratulated for its attempt to spell out the various positions in this series of factboxes.

The Sun, Guardian, Independent and Telegraph leader writers all counselled caution yesterday, mostly with a strong hint that military action might not be a great idea. The Mail and Express went further. The Express editorial, headlined An entirely inappropriate use of our military power, pointed to the rebels' Al-Qaeda links and urged MPs to vote against air strikes.

On the same page the political commentator Janice Atkinson wrote that Blair's intervention should be enough to convince anyone that bombing Syria was not a good idea: 'Putting Blair in charge of the Middle East is like putting Harold Shipman in charge of the elderly.'

Stephen Glover on the Mail's leader page was even harsher. Under the heading 'This warmonger is the very last man we should listen to'  he wrote:

'Here is the wild-eyed Tony who once told a Labour Party conference that he would re-order the world. "From the threat of the Iraqi regime to the pulverising of Syria," he declares, "to the pains of the Egyptian revolution, from Libya to Tunisia, in Africa, Central Asia and the Far East, wherever this extremism is destroying the lives of innocent people, we should be at their side and on it."
'Golly, Tony Blair is going to have us fight a lot of wars all over the place.'

The second leader alongside the Glover piece was equally appalled:

'Isn't it hard to imagine any more dangerous advice from this perma-tanned fantasist - the incongruously styled Middle East peace envoy - who led Britain to war in Iraq on a lie?
Indeed it is precisely because Mr Blair so fatally undermined public trust in the Prime Minister's office that it is vital for MPs to scrutinise all the facts before we blunder into another bloodbath.'

Don't you love newspaper style that allows the leader writer to describe a former Prime Minister as a perma-tanned fantasist yet requires that he keeps his honorific.

Today the Mail follows up with a full-page leader telling MPs that if they have the slightest suspicion that airstrikes would cause more suffering than they could prevent, then they have a moral duty to vote no. It further questions what makes Syria different from other conflicts from which we have stood aloof, such as those in Zimbabwe, Congo, Darfur, and quotes an uncomfortable sentence from the Spectator over the distinction of using chemical weapons:

"We are, in effect, asking Assad if he would please kill his enemies using conventional means.'

It is just possible that, for once, the restrained approach by the Press managed to restrain the politicians. Perhaps emboldened by the public aversion to military action and the executive-chair generals' words of warning,  Ed Miliband called the Prime Minister yesterday afternoon and said he could not guarantee Labour's support in the Commons today.

Within a couple of hours, Britain had submitted a draft resolution to the UN, Cameron had agreed that no action would be taken before the weapons inspectors had reported, and MPs were promised two votes - one today and one at a later date - before Britain became involved in any attack on Syria.

Almost as quickly the story became, for the Press, an old-fashioned Westminster tussle instead of hand-wringing over the fate of people they don't really care about. The trusted words and phrases came bouncing back: 'mutiny', 'humiliating climbdown', 'forced into retreat', 'back from the brink'. The politicos could write the inside story of the comings and goings, how Miliband's stock has risen. And all just before the party conferences. Happy days all round - for now.

No one wants Assad to gas anyone, and certainly not his own people, any more than they did when Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds, But there is little public appetite for British involvement in another Middle Eastern conflict.

To put it bluntly, it frightens us. We are scared that if there is a third world war, it will probably start in the Middle East and we don't want to risk it.

The papers reflected that. Miliband took heed and Cameron recognised when he held a losing hand. The Americans may go ahead with the bombings at the weekend, but they will be without a faithful hound at their side - if you were so minded, you might think of it in terms of Dick Dastardly flying without Muttley.

Attacking Assad may eventually prove to be the right thing to do, but for now it is much-derided Fleet Street that has done the right thing. It has helped to persuade the politicians to pause and think.
It has cause to be proud.

And finally

Just for fun, here are some of the stories that challenged Syria when it came to choosing the splash this week. Assad obviously stood no chance against broccoli curing arthritis - and as for Gordon Taylor's debts, well.....

And even while reporting the imminent threat of war in the top lefthand corner, the Telegraph always has room for a picture of the Duchess of Cambridge on her way home from Waitrose, or a Hollywood marriage break-up. Well, it is still summer - just.

If you have the appetite for more Syria, you might enjoy these:

Please feel free to recommend more. There are bound to be many. Thanks for getting this far.

Thursday 22 August 2013

David Miranda's detention matters to us all, not just to the Guardian

Miranda and Greenwald on Sunday. Photograph by Getty

The Guardian has never been the most popular player in the Fleet Street squad. The wiry leftwinger is capable of charging through the opposition to score spectacular goals, but it rarely finds itself in the middle of celebratory team hugs.

When the Telegraph was on a roll with MPs' expenses, every other night newsdesk was on alert for the website tasters and the first editions, ready to cut, paste, analyse and curse that they had  no control over the only game in town.

When the Guardian accused News International of phone hacking, it was largely ignored. Time and again it raised its hand and cried 'Look! Look!' But no one was remotely interested until Milly Dowler found her way into the splash heading. From that day the British Press was changed forever.

On Monday, the Guardian splashed on the detention of David Miranda as he was passing through Heathrow on Sunday morning, an event that aroused little interest in other papers. But we may yet look back on it as the day that changed Britain's terrorism laws.

Miranda is the partner of Glenn Greenwald, who has been writing for the Guardian on material gleaned from Edward Snowden, the runaway US National Security Agency whistleblower/leaker.

Miranda is Brazilian and the couple live and work in Brazil. He was held on a stopover on his way from Berlin to Rio de Janeiro and questioned by half a dozen agents for nearly nine hours - the maximum time allowed. He was denied access to a lawyer for almost all of that time and was even apparently denied a pencil and paper to note down what he was being asked. His laptop, phone, camera and memory cards were confiscated - along with a games console and a couple of DVDs - and he was then allowed to continue his journey.

All of this happened under Schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act, 2000. This piece of the legislation allows the detention of someone in the no-man's land of an airport or port solely in order to determine if they are planning or engaged in an act of terrorism. There is no requirement that there should be grounds for suspecting the person of being a terrorist, and questioning can cover all areas of the detainee's life.

It's worth pausing over that. Anyone returning home from a family holiday can be hauled into a room and interrogated like this - you, your Auntie Sal, the next-door neighbour.

The Guardian obviously has its agenda and the decision to splash on the story was unsurprising. The BBC, ITV and Sky were all equally exercised by the sequence of events as to give the story top-billing.

Over the past three days David Anderson, who is responsible for reviewing terror legislation, has called for safeguards to prevent abuse of these powers.

The former Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer has said he believes that the detention was illegal.

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has asked for an explanation for the 'extraordinary use of anti-terror powers'.

Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, wants an investigation into whether the law was misused.

Conservatives, including David Davis, have also expressed concerns, although Theresa May has been robust in her defence of the police action.

We know that the Government told the US about plans to detain Miranda and that the Americans say that they did not instigate or request such action. We know that the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York has written to David Cameron asking for an investigation.

We have also learnt this week that Cameron, Nick Clegg, William Hague ordered the Cabinet Secretary to strongarm the Guardian over the Snowden material it already had in its possession and that GCHQ officials oversaw the physical destruction of computer hard drives in the newspaper's basement, claiming that information on them could find its way into terrorist hands.

Peter Capaldi, right,  as Rusbridger and Dan Stevens
 as Ian Katz in the film The Fifth Estate

The Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has written that the hard-drive battering came after a series of telephone calls from 'shadowy Whitehall figures' who told him: 'You've had your fun. Now we want our stuff back', and 'You've had your debate. There's no need to write any more.'

And from where have we learnt all this? Well most of it from the Guardian, of course. A great deal from the internet, a fair chunk from the Mirror and the Independent, rather less from the Times, and next to nothing from the Telegraph, Mail, Express or the Sun.

The Telegraph was actually first off the mark with a six-par story on page 4 on Monday, which was clearly a late-edition catch-up as it is spattered with the tell-tale 'The Guardian reported...'
This was followed by slim page 10 hampers both yesterday and this morning.

The Times ran a page 11 lead on Tuesday and a leader that boiled down to 'Let's hope this was an appropriate use of these powers'; there was a further page 4 lead this morning. The Mail also made Miranda its page 4 today - a story that is almost entirely sympathetic to the authorities with a couple of pars of counter quotes at the end.

Whistleblowing, leaking, call it what you will, is not an activity that is of intrinsic interest to readers. These are the mechanics of journalism. Readers want the facts and they will then be the judge of whether the means of obtaining them were reasonable. There is a particular audience for stories about the Assanges, Mannings, Snowdens - and it is far from mainstream. That may explain why the Miranda story has been treated as almost just another episode in the Guardian's personal drama.

But it isn't.

Here we are in the post-Leveson era when restrictions on the Press should be at or near the top of every newspaper's concerns. It it right that 'shadowy Whitehall figures' should be telling a national newspaper editor that he doesn't need to write any more on any given subject? Well at least one writer - Jay Rosen - sees the danger, although not in British newsprint.

Even more important, is this another assault on the freedom of the individual - that right so cherished by the Tories who have defended the police action? Remember, any one of us could be subjected to the treatment handed out to Miranda on Sunday.

The FT ran a leader on Tuesday headlined Britain's botched use of terror laws. It went live on the website at 6.46pm on Monday and spoke of the treatment of Miranda sparking a 'huge outcry'.
A huge outcry by whom?

The Guardian, certainly. But by that time only the Mirror seemed similarly concerned. It ran a leader headlined Freedom at stake which described Miranda's detention as unjustified and concluded  'Silencing journalists keeps you, the public, in the dark.' On the same page Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, reveals how commonplace the use of Schedule 7 turns out to be. Muslims are so used to being questioned under this provision that they routinely build extra hours into their journey planning to account for it, she writes. She then cites this case:

'Liberty has a client who was detained in November 201 0 with his elderly mother after they had flown back to Heathrow via Bahrain.
He is British. He was detained for more than four hours. He was asked about his salary, his voting habits and the costs of his Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
They went through his possessions with a fine-tooth comb; they made copies of his credit cards; they kept his mobile phone and SIM cards which were only returned eight days later. 
This man had never in his life been arrested or detained by the police.'

Shami Chakrabarti. Photograph: Jewish Chronicle
According to the terror law watchdog David Anderson fewer than 40 people a year are detained for more than six hours under Schedule 7. The figure is put forward to show how unusual the treatment of Miranda was. The Mail goes to the opposite end of that spectrum, pointing out that 70,000 people per year are stopped in this way, as though to undermine the suggestion that Miranda - who was carrying encrypted Snowden material - suffered anything untoward or undeserved.

Whichever way you look at it, it's alarming. Either that such vast numbers are stopped and questioned going about their everyday business, or that someone who is clearly not a terrorist is held for so long without being allowed the advice of a lawyer.

An infringement of press freedom or of individual liberty? Surely it's worth the debate? Aren't these the questions our newspapers - at least the broadsheet tendency - should be asking? Yet most leave the questioning to general columnists rather than to specialists or leader writers.

Rob Crilly for the Telegraph website has a good old go at the Guardian before concluding that the whole episode is frightening when the threat to the individual is considered.

Matthew Norman in the Independent describes the case as sinister and an abundant disgrace. He points to Britain's desire to do - or to be seen to do - the bidding of the Americans and the resultant growing authoritarianism: 'The politicisation of the police becomes ever more entrenched.'

Stephen Glover in the Mail also sees Britain turning into a police state. But he has few tears to shed for Miranda, Greenwald or the Guardian. Instead he almost rejoices in the schadenfreude that the paper whose work led to so many journalists to be arrested should now expect sympathy when such traumas land on its own doorstep.

Glover is not the only one to point to the aftermath of the hacking scandal - Claire Fox also likens the Miranda detention to the post-Leveson arrests, reminding us in the Independent that many journalists have been on police bail for more than a year and that none has yet gone on trial. Online Brendan O'Neill of Spiked is vitriolic in accusing the Guardian of double standards, given its role in the News of the World saga.

It's an easy way to get at the Guardian, the unloved team member, the holier-than-thou paper that brought Leveson and all its horrors raining down on us and yet is now trading in stolen classified information. What's the difference in doing that and hacking into someone's phone? They're both illegal.

But that isn't the point. This isn't about the legitimacy or otherwise of using Snowden material. It is about whether an individual - journalist or not - should be detained and questioned about the minutiae of their lives when there isn't a scintilla of evidence to suggest that they are anything other than upright and honest. That is not, I'm afraid, the same as arresting and bailing or charging someone suspected of a criminal offence.

But that is only my opinion. It would be good to see people with full understanding of the law debating these issues in newsprint. Some hooe. Our papers haven't got as far as considering whether the use of Schedule 7 was legal. David Allen Green spells out his view on his blog, and attracts one of the most intelligent comment threads you'll read in a long time. But the papers have simply quoted Teresa May as saying it was and Falconer as saying it wasn't.

Without being rude to Glover, Norman and Fox, where are the really informative pieces by heavyweight experts? Nick Cohen writes trenchantly in a blog for the Spectator, but what about the dailies?

Where is the explanation of the law and how it came into being - after the Troubles and before 9/11?

Where is the examination of how its use in fishing expeditions can be avoided if police can stop anyone and require them to answer questions on limitless subjects?

Where is the analysis of the tens of thousands so stopped?

Where are the case studies, the examples of those Muslims who have to allow extra journey time to compensate for that lost in interrogation?

Where are the numbers and case studies of terrorists apprehended or deported as a result of Schedule 7?

We have the Prime Minister, his deputy and the Foreign Secretary approving the destruction of a newspaper's computer hard drives - a situation the White House said it could never envisage - and yet the political editors and commentators are silent.

And the tech writers? In the face of cries of 'how could you acquiesce?' Rusbridger pretty well states that this was all just pantomime nonsense - how many spooks does it take to smash up an Apple Mac?

 The material wasn't lost to the Guardian, there are copies safely stored outside of the country. But was the Government right in suggesting that the computer network was not sufficiently secure and that dangerous information could get into terrorist hands? What sort of encryption systems are necessary to make our computers safe? Indeed, given Whitehall's record on computer security, is the Government in any position to cast aspersions about anyone else's gatekeeping?

But no, the mentality appears to be 'It's just the old Grauniad on one of its hobby horses. Nobody reads it anyway. Why should we care?

We should care because it is an important issue of individual and Press freedom versus state control and authoritarianism. And the biggest journalistic stars should be playing out that match in front of a capacity crowd - in print.



Friday 16 August 2013

A-level successes are a cause for celebration, not a new battle of the sexes

An honoured tradition or a cliche? If you win the Open you are likely to appear on the front pages kissing the Claret Jug.

If you pass your A levels with top grades, you are likely to appear on the front pages jumping in the air and waving a sheet of paper.

What's not to like? A sunny summer picture of happy young people celebrating the fruits of hard work and dedication.

Except the pictures tended to feature pretty girls in spaghetti straps. So the cry went up: 'What about the boys?'

What about the boys? We don't see pictures of the runner-up or token women with the Claret Jug do we? We see the winner. And that's what we were seeing with the A-level girls. They were outperforming the boys and getting the best grades. They were the brightest teenagers in the land - who also happened to be photogenic.

For some reason the fact that girls were doing better than boys at school was regarded as a 'problem'. Goodness knows why, but all the 'experts' said that it was important for the country that boys did better . It was vital that they were motivated and encouraged. That one annual picture of girls jumping for joy was unfair, discriminatory and making boys feel neglected.

Oh dear.

And why were the girls always pretty and blonde? What about the plainer Janes? Why were they always white?

A case of not seeing is believing. Not all  the girls were magazine cover material. But intelligent young people have bright eyes and enthusiasm that shines in their faces, especially when they are happy. They can't help but look lovely. Always white? No. Girls of African or Asian origin are among our most academic students and when their schools were featured, some took their place in front of the camera. Most chose not to.

Photographers all over the country have continued to ask students to leap into the air and the results are almost always enchanting, but they have been banished from the front pages.

Yesterday the papers went into overdrive with A-level coverage on their websites from 7am. There was barely a spagehetti strap to be seen (too chilly), but there were plenty of skinny jeans and naked midriffs. The Telegraph tried to have a bit of fun with the cliche, posting galleries of girls jumping for joy and boys jumping for joy. The trouble was, the boys weren't that keen on the idea and those who gave it a go weren't very good at it.

The comments thread made depressing reading:

'Your attempts at balance are laughable. How many boy photos have you featured compared to girls?  You should be ashamed'

'Girly swot photos are so predictable'

'Why is it always swotty girls? No wonder boys feel alienated from the academic process'

'I think it would be good to see some pictures of heartbroken youngsters looking despondent too. Just for the sake of journalistic balance'

And on the boys' gallery:

'Well done DT, you've got a sense of humour'

'DT joy jumping results: girls 13, boys 6'

'Now the plain ones who failed please'

'Please grow up Telegraph'.

Two other comments on the girls' gallery pointing out the lack of coloured faces seemed justified - but what a shame. Is it so wicked for a paper to indulge in a bit of self-mocking irony?

[As it happens, the Times did once try to escape the stereotype by using a front-page picture of a girl who had failed to get the grades she needed. She was happy to pose and spoke about her disappointment. But when the first editions came up the Times looked so cruel in comparison to its rivals that the night team ordered  flowers, chocolates and champagne to be delivered to her first thing the next morning.]

The Telegraph team must have felt bruised by the response to its bit of nonsense, for today's print edition went with a hamper splash on A levels and a photograph of the Olympic opening ceremony stuntman who was killed yesterday. The inside coverage was restricted to a spread of two half-pages and the small photographs are all case studies, including Alastair Herron, a 7 A* pupil rejected by Oxford, the Narnia actress Georgie Henley, the diver Tom Daley and the Zanzibar acid attack girls.

Back on the website today, the jumping galleries were left to skulk, unpromoted, in the background. There were still pretty girls, though, and this was the illustration for  a story about the resurgence of tougher subjects over 'soft options' such as media studies.

It was captioned 'Students took to Twitter to tell how they have been offered places despite seemingly falling short of offers'.

Oh dear. These girls are clearly not tweeting - and if they were it wouldn't be about falling short of their offers. Eloise Davies and Jess Moxom of the girls' high school in Chelmsford are both off to Cambridge, having each achieved a handful of As and A*s.

MailOnline ran dozens of pictures of smiley girls and hardly gave the boys a look in. But those who did break through were pretty special. There was 12-year-old Andrew Ejemai from Brentwood, who got an A* in maths, and Zohaib Ahmed, who is off to Southampton University in October after getting an A in physics to go with the A* in maths and further maths he achieved three years ago, aged 10. Then there was Daniel McBride, a cancer sufferer who won a double scholarship to the Royal School of Music, and Jeremy Budd, who secured a place at Cambridge with 4 A*s, in spite of having to be taken to his  exams in an ambulance.

Like the Telegraph, the print edition was photographically restrained. The front was an A level-free zone and the main picture on the inside spread was the young Georgie Henley as Lucy in Narnia. That was coupled with an inset shot of the actress as she is now, preparing to read English at Cambridge. After that it was small shots of the same case studies - Alastair Herron, Tom Daley and Andrew Ajemai, plus the dyslexic Penny Banks, who is heading for Cambridge, and a pair of identical twins about to be separated for the first time.

The contrast between exuberance on the web and restraint in print was in evidence across most of the papers. The Express was alone in running a ladies a-leaping picture, while the Independent rather cruelly sliced Gem O'Reilly, a bedroom musician taking a gap year to bid for stardom, down the middle across the gutter. The Times, which these days publishes pictures of comely women at the drop of a hat, went for a clutch of boys from Bristol doing a Usain Bolt on the front - a South Wales News Service photograph that scored for being both jolly and a neat twist on an old formula.

So much for the pictures, what of the words? These, too, tend to follow a formula - grade inflation, too easy, the exam you cannot fail etc. This year, however, there were real news stories in the statistics:

*A new rule allowing universities to take as many students as they like, so long as they have 2Bs and an A, means that half of the 24 Russell Group universities have joined in the clearing game instead of remaining aloof. There are therefore far more places on offer than usual, so that many students may be able to 'trade up' to better courses or better institutions.

*Students are abandoning subjects such as communications studies and PE, and going back to traditional academic disciplines, so there has been an increase in the numbers sitting economics, maths and physics.

*By yesterday lunchtime more than 400,000 people had their university places sorted, a record for the first day after publication of the results.

These three elements, each reflecting on the others, could very usefully be woven into a single story - as the Guardian did with its splash:

Universities' £1bn bid for students

Others gathered random facts and statistics into great rambling narratives that combined the percentage increase in the number of passes, the percentage drop in the number of As and A*s, the decline of modern languages and the widening gender gap in the choice of subjects studied.

Ah, the gender gap. More girls are taking English, more boys are taking maths and physics. Panic stations, everyone! This cannot be allowed to continue if we are to have more women engineers. Teachers must be stereotyping. Terrible. Terrible.

There is no concern about the boys who have moved away from English, mind.

And the poor boys who were being alienated from the education system by all those pictures of pretty girls seem to have recovered for they now reign supreme. On one measure at least: 7.9 per cent of male entries resulted in an A* compared with only 7.4 per cent of female entries.

This excited the Independent papers


And the Mail website and the Express

First a little point of style. It is easiest for the reader to understand if papers adopt a style of using A-level adjectivally (A level is fine for the noun). The principle is particularly helpful if the words come at the start of a sentence.  'A level gender divide'? Is that like a level playing field - or rather an unlevel playing field?

So we are back to the old-fashioned battle of the sexes. OK, so be it. If that's what is required, here are a few numbers to throw into the mix:

*In 2010 there were 416,000 18-year-old boys and 392,000 girls in the UK. The Office for National Statistics predicted that by this year the respective numbers would be 387,000 and 367,000. Even if the projection was a bit off beam, there would still be more boys than girls.

*This year there were 389,550 A-level entries from boys and 461,202 from girls. So even though there are fewer girls, they took more A levels.

*7.9% of male entries resulted in an A*, giving a total of  30,774.

*7.4% of female entries resulted in an A*, giving a total of 34,129.

*The total number of A-level entries was 850,752. Of these, 0.0362%  resulted in A*s being awarded to male candidates;  0.0401% resulted in A*s for female candidates.

See, you can make numbers say almost anything you want.

Much more clear cut is the difference in the numbers achieving As and A*s. As you can see from the Joint Qualification Authority's chart above, the girls beat the boys in every subject except maths, chemistry, Spanish, French and German. Across the board, 26.7% of girls' entries resulted in an A or A* compared with 25.9% from the boys. Not an enormous difference is it?

So with GCSE results on the way on Thursday, how about we forget about the battle of the sexes and just celebrate the achievements of our teenagers?

Well done to all of them. It's enough to make you jump for joy.

Friday 9 August 2013

The paedophile, the 'predatory' victim and the Press

Updated August 12

When a man pushing 40  has sexual contact with a girl of 13 there is one person who is absolutely in the wrong. And it isn't the girl.

She can look as vampish as Mata Hari, pout and prance like Lady GaGa and slink as sinuously as Gypsy Rose Lee. But underneath she remains a child and the man needs to keep his trousers zipped and his hands to himself.

Neil Wilson failed to obey the rule and is lucky not to be in jail.

As you may know, Wilson was given an eight-month suspended prison sentence at Snaresbrook Crown Court last Monday after pleading guilty to intentionally touching a child under sixteen sexually and to being in possession of extreme pornography.

The prosecuting counsel, Robert Colover, told the court that the girl was 'predatory in all her actions',  'sexually experienced' and that she had forced herself on Wilson. Passing sentence, Judge Peters also used the word 'predatory' and said that the 'facts' showed that she had 'egged Wilson on'.

The language was brought to the attention of the Ending Victimisation campaigners and a petition was set up on Tuesday morning, asking Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, to investigate. By Wednesday evening 45,000 people had signed, Mr Colover had been suspended from handling sexual abuse cases for the Crown Prosecution Service and his profile had been removed from his chambers' website.  His choice of words was censured by the CPS, by Mr Starmer and by David Cameron.

Wilson was back in front of Judge Peters at Southwark Crown Court this morning  (Monday 12 August), not for another offence or as a result of the outcry, but because of a technicality over the sentencing. Two community orders imposed last week for possession of indecent and extreme images  could not run at the same time as the suspended prison sentence. They were therefore rescinded and the jail term was increased to 12 months, but it remains suspended for two years.

It's a troubling case. Troubling because of Wilson's behaviour. Troubling because it is apparently a blatant example of victim blaming. Troubling because it is strange that these words should have come from the prosecuting counsel. Troubling that the judge should have repeated them. And troubling because mainstream journalists seem to have been behind the curve all along.

Only scant details of the court case have been published in the national papers, with most focusing on the petition and the general outcry by various charities and individuals over the word 'predatory'.

The Independent gave the story the most prominence, splashing on it on Wednesday, with the intro:

Equality activists have condemned a judge for letting a man who admitted having sex with a 13-year-old girl walk free on the grounds that his victim was sexually "predatory".

The story then goes into the DPP's promise of a review and comments from assorted campaigners before returning briefly to events in court on the page four turn. The judge, it said, had accepted the suggestion that the girl was complicit in the abuse and had told Wilson:

'You have come as close to prison as is imaginable. I have taken in to account that even though the girl was 13, the prosecution say she looked and behaved a little bit older. On these facts, the girl was predatory and was egging you on.'

The next paragraph gives the terms of  the suspended sentence and mentions almost in passing that  Wilson had eight images of child sexual abuse and eleven involving horses and dogs on his computer.

The article then turns its attention back to the protesters, including one woman's account of her own experiences of abuse, before closing with confirmation that the Attorney-General would be examining the case to see if the sentence was unduly lenient and a statement from the CPS condemning the barrister's language.

But while this was by far the most prominent coverage of the story, it was flawed. The pair did not 'have sex', nor did anyone say that the girl was sexually predatory. Wilson was, in fact, charged with one count of sexual activity with a child, two counts of possession of an indecent photograph or pseudo-photograph of a child and five of possession of extreme pornographic images.

The reader is left in complete ignorance as to what happened, why it happened, how it happened, where it happened - indeed how it ever came to court. The two people involved were hardly likely to approach the police. We are told that the campaigners were angered by Mr Colover's remarks - but we aren't told what he said. There is, however, room on the front page for a recap of the Twitter abuse saga.

The Telegraph - which had been the only paper to report the case on Tuesday morning -  made the story a top nib the next day, focusing on the key Colover quote and the CPS response. It would have been a perfect update had the reader been given the full story the day before.  

The Times has its own child abuse agenda and with serendipitous timing, its award-winning Andrew Norfolk had come up with a splash about a plan to hand-pick judges for sex abuses cases (shame about the juxtaposition of  Petra Ecclestone in a bondage-style dress). The Wilson story made a basement on page 4 under a backgrounder. Again, the text was restricted to the abbreviated quotes from the judge and barrister, the voice of protest and the official response.

So what's the problem then? Sex abuse cases are two a penny, this one's different only because someone made a fuss about the victim-blamey language and now the top brass are taking a look.

But didn't it strike anyone as odd that this description of the child as being 'predatory in all her activities' was put forward not by the defence in mitigation but by the prosecution? Indeed, Mr Colover went to far as to say:

'There was sexual activity but it was not of Mr Wilson's doing. You might say it was forced upon him, despite being older and stronger than her.'

The Court News UK service recognised that it was unusual, and sent out this tweet at lunchtime on Monday, while the hearing was proceeding:
Once sentence had been passed, the service sent out this follow-up:
This stirred the interest of at least two journalists:

...and of this tweeter, who alerted the @EVB_Now team:
The agency's Twitter link led them to this:

So by 5pm on Monday Court News UK had made available more quotes, some detail of the circumstances of the offence and the fact that a friend of the girl had gone to the police.

The agency and Jane Fae had both shown surprise that it was the prosecution who suggested that the victim was in some way culpable. So did End Victimisation.

Jo, the group's founder, told SubScribe that they had come to expect that sort of language from defence lawyers, but not from prosecutors. She said they had checked the facts carefully while simultaneously working with John Coventry of to prepare a petition. It went live on Tuesday morning. 

But newspapers, whose job is supposed to be to point up the unusual, weren't interested. The Telegraph's  single-column story on Tuesday  was pretty much the same as the Court News UK version, but nobody else touched it.  Even the local papers - Metro and the Romford Recorder - didn't post it online until Tuesday afternoon, 24 hours after sentencing.

By Wednesday 45,000 people had signed the End Victimisation petition and won a promise of action from Mr Starmer, who wrote: “The language used by the prosecution counsel in this case was inappropriate. In particular, the use of the word ‘predatory’ to describe the 13-year-old victim is of great concern to me...I will be reviewing this case to decide what action is necessary.” 

Almost all the national newspapers had by now woken up - although they were far more interested in the outrage than the event that provoked it (a too-common failing). The scant detail from the hearing did readers a disservice as they were in no position to reach their own conclusions beyond their personal prejudices - 'vulnerable child' v 'little scrubber'.

Why had Mr Colover apparently sought to absolve the man he was prosecuting? Was there a defence lawyer in court? What did he or she have to say? What was the justification for saying the girl was 'predatory in all her activities'? Had she entrapped Wilson? Was she perhaps planning to blackmail him? Had anyone on any newsdesk gone back to the agency to ask for more information - or was everyone so caught up in the protest movement that they didn't care about the case itself?

The Mail showed why, for all its many faults, it is still the slickest paper in the game with this spread pulling together the Snaresbrook and the Times stories. The Wilson story was split into two, with the lead focusing on the row and the second using all the material available from Court News UK to give the most complete account yet of the court case. The right-hander has a swift catch-up on Andrew Norfolk's story and a retrospective of the dreadful treatment of abuse victims in other courts.

At last we learn that Snaresbrook Crown Court was told that the girl had been cadging cigarettes in Romford town centre while playing truant on March 6 last year. Wilson bought her a whole packet, they got talking and she went with him to his flat. Over the next two weeks, Wilson was said to have bombarded her with phone calls and texts and they met several times at his home.

On March 20 she again went to the flat and Wilson claims to have told her that they had to stop seeing each other. He said that her response was to ask if she could change out of her school uniform. Wilson said that he had left the room and when he returned she was sitting on a sofa wearing only a T-shirt. She had then started kissing him and touching his genitals, but he had pushed her away.

These were the 'facts' of the case that were agreed by the prosecution and defence and which led to Wilson's guilty plea. The girl and her friend were interviewed by the police, but the court was told that the girl did not want to make a complaint and she took no part in the proceedings.

Having been alerted by the friend, the police visited Wilson's flat and found the indecent images. The former policeman Mark Williams-Thomas claims in his blog that they included pictures of the girl in the case - although this was not mentioned in court.

If there were pictures of the girl on the computer, they may have had some bearing on Mr Colover's response when the judge asked for clarification of the relationship between Wilson and the girl. The barrister had conferred with the officer in the case before uttering the fateful phrase about her being predatory.

By reading all the tweets, blogs and various newspapers, it becomes possible to piece together some of what happened - but most of the country is still in the dark. Why on earth would a prosecutor say such a thing and almost exculpate the defendant? Why would a judge reinforce the view?  Are our senior lawyers still stuck in the 18th century? We have also yet to hear from the (official) defence. Maybe with such a sympathetic prosecutor it doesn't matter. But it does.

Somebody must have asked the question because Court News UK sent out this tweet on Wednesday - 48 hours after the hearing.

The Mail quickly updated its online story, changing the heading and including this from the defence counsel Rebecca Blain: 

Police came to his house and he made lengthy admissions. 'He said he watches pornography and then told police he does watch hardcore porn but he had deleted them as they were not on his computer. He poses some risk but not an imminent risk and his treatment should be in the community and not in custody.'  

It would be interesting to know why this was not included in the original report sent out by Court News UK. Judging from his Twitter thread, the reporter, George Pavlou, was dismayed by the attention his story was getting and frustrated by what he saw as misreporting. 

It was two hours after this last tweet that Court News UK sent out the update with the defence quotes. By 7 o'clock Pavlou was exasperated:

The next morning he commends a blogpost by the barrister Matthew Scott as brilliant and factually correct. It is a calm and reasoned piece explaining sentencing policy and has this gem on the role of a prosecuting counsel from Mr Colover himself in a video art installation last year:

People often say 'You’re the prosecuting barrister, you’re representing the victim, and the victim’s your client'. No, that is wrong, the victim is the state’s witness as to what happened but they’re not represented by the prosecution barrister.

Crime stories pour into newsdesk computer feeds like rain, and journalists have always had to be sharp-eyed to spot those that are going to have wider ramifications. In this case the pressure groups were swift to react to the almost jokey initial tweet from Court News UK. But not even the local paper was on the ball, let alone the nationals.

Understandable, perhaps, given the mountain of stories about bullying, abuse, suicide. We can't publish only gloomy news. And this screen grab shows how fast the stories flow, even in August:

All this serves to demonstrate that newspapers are not only struggling to set the agenda - they are also struggling to keep up when someone else sets the bandwagon rolling. Politicians, film stars, musicians, scientists have all realised that they can reach directly to the public - and interact with interested people - without having to issue press releases or subject themselves to newspaper interviews. Special interest groups are also catching on fast. They can spot a gap, set themselves up and build a reputation fast. 

As SubSist noted last month, Jo had the idea for Ending Victimisation in May, started building the website on the 21st and went live on the 24th. Less than three months later she was able to muster 45,000 supporters and secure a promise of action from the DPP in less than three days.

Should we celebrate that, or worry about kneejerk politics? Should we despair that most of our newspapers have still told us only half the Wilson story or say 'it doesn't matter, he's just another two-bit paedophile'?

There is much resistance to the Twitter society. It is ridiculed as a middle-class playground. Newspapers loved the trolling story, yet consistently failed to make the link between what was happening to the feminists and what has been happening to vulnerable teenagers for the past five years.

This isn't Facebook. It is public and it has astonishing power to get people motivated, for good or ill. 

Old-fashioned news organisations know that Twitter is important - reporters and online staff are required to tweet out puffs and links to their work constantly -  but they don't 'get' Twitter. If they did, they would by now have recognised that their newsrooms are inadequately staffed if they do not have a Social Media Correspondent.

Have you seen such a byline yet?

No, neither have I.