SubScribe: October 2013 Google+

Friday, 25 October 2013

Prince George's christening: Independent, Mail and Telegraph take royal coverage to extremes

The Royal Family cost the taxpayer £33.3m last year. Branding experts say they brought in more than £20bn.

How you regard those figures and which you choose to highlight will depend on your view of the monarchy, a subject on which few of us are ambivalent.

And so it was this morning with newspaper coverage of the christening of Prince George. The Independent nailed its republican colours to the masthead by recording the occasion as the bottom nib on its last home news page. In so doing, it raised a few laughs and got a lot of free publicity. So in spite of themselves, even sceptics benefit from the Royal Family.

The Daily Mail went to the other extreme with a 15-page souvenir extravaganza that actually ran to 16 if you counted Bel Mooney's oped on how everyone loves a christening.

The Telegraph dropped the puff - something papers generally do only in the presence of monumental stories such as 9/11 or the death of a Prime Minister - so it could run a full-page picture of the sainted Catherine and her sprog. It was not sufficiently committed, however, to forgo the revenue afforded by the 10x7 ad at the foot of the page.

Who was right? republican or royalist, I'd say that all three were all wrong. They all misjudged the occasion and were all too tricksy for their own good.

For a start, this was a private event. There were only 22 guests at the Chapel Royal and there was no room for outsiders such as newspaper reporters or photographers. Neither the folk on the pavement in their Union Flag suits nor the true blue Press grasped this. The Mail had cleared buckets of space, but there was little to report and few people to see, so it had to resort to twin full-page pictures on 2 and 3 of the Duke and Duchess holding their baby - the full OK Hello monty.

It struggled to keep this going all the way to the comment section, which meant that the first news story - the Merkel phone-tapping claims - did not appear until page 21.

Journalists at the Telegraph, whose coverage ran straight through to page 5 before starting real news with Cameron and the green tax on 6,  must have envied the Mail its acres of newsprint. The accountants will have been delighted, however, that every news page was jam-packed with ads. Were those guys in suits at the bottom of page 3 christening guests or blokes trying to sell designer clothing? Nothing could breathe. The picture choice was poor, the prose uninspired.

The paper had sent the chief reporter Gordon Rayner. The chief reporter, for heaven's sake? Chief reporters are in the business of covering  - and, even better, uncovering - hard news stories; the ones that are difficult to pin down, the ones where the leading players don't want to be questioned about their darkest secrets.

The leading players yesterday didn't want to be questioned about their darkest secrets, nor even about their lightest moments - and this wasn't the day to ask them. Every piece of information published this morning, apart from the chats with the faithful on the street, will have been available in some handout or press release. In essence there was nothing to say.

And when there is nothing to say, papers need to bring out their finest voices (often to be found in the features or sports departments) to say nothing in 1,500 words of panache, elegance and wit.

There were ten areas to be covered yesterday:
  •  did the baby cry?
  •  the choice of godparents
  •  the guest list
  •  what the Duke and Duchess said
  •  what the baby wore
  •  what everyone else wore
  •  what the Archbishop said
  •  the order of service and who read the lessons
  •  random details such as the font, the water, the cake, the chapel
  •  what the crowd thought

All of that could satisfactorily be packed into a 500-word story with a picture - as the Guardian proved with its page 3. But this was the christening of 'our future king' and statements needed to be made, not in words, but in space.

Just before  the Prince of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 a pithy memo was circulated at The Times:

Please do not refer to Lady Diana Spencer as the future Queen of England.

In those days memos came in paper form and were pinned to notice boards in between the holiday homes for rent and announcements from on high about the chessboard shuffling of specialists. It remained, yellowed and curling, on the one near the loos and the sandwich machines until the paper did its moonlight flit to Wapping five years later.

It was a wise instruction. Diana was not destined to become our Queen. Prince George may be fourth in line to the throne, but it is not a given that he will get there.

Most of us would not wish him, his father or even his grandfather ill, but life has a habit of not conforming to plan. When George's great-grandmother was christened, nobody expected her to become Queen. When her father was christened, nobody thought he would become King.

English history is paved with stories of accidental monarchs. It's asking a lot to believe that by the turn of the next century  the succession will have moved smoothly from Elizabeth II via Charles and William to George VII. Yet almost every paper stuck with the fairytale.

They also found it difficult to avoid the mush trap. There were lots of Gorgeous Georges - but isn't he the MP for Bradford West? And there were lots of pictures of a baby with three hands, one of which was ten times the size of the other two. This alien child featured on the front of the Times, Sun, Mail and Express and inside the Guardian.

The Telegraph and Mirror wisely chose a picture of mother and baby - while the Times kept a foot in both camps by using Kate on one of its stylish wraparounds. Since the success of the Olympic innovation, the paper has produced wraparounds at the drop of a hat. On days such as today it's quite a good move: it preserves the sanctity of the 'real' news front while looking attractive enough on the newsstands to pick up a few extra casual sales.

The other papers that opted for the three-handed boy in a dress presumably did so on the premise that readerswould want to see the clearest picture possible of the young prince. Looking at other people's baby pictures is a duty of friendship. Looking at this baby's picture in the hope of finding some likeness to Diana, Victoria or Genghis Khan goes beyond duty and into the realms of masochism. He's a fine enough chap, but the photograph tells me nothing other than that he's a three-month old baby.

We can hope for something more meaningful tomorrow morning when we see the official portrait of the Queen and her three direct descendants.

Friday update: the Sun and the Telegraph got the point of the four generations photograph, the Times, Mail, Express and Mirror all kept the oldsters out and ran with Wills, Kate and George. An odd choice - and goodness knows why the Times thought its readers needed two duchesses on its front.

And what about the words? The Guardian's Caroline Davies did a neat job and sustained her theme of first, second, third and finally fourth estate nicely. Thankfully, the space ran out before Benedict Cumberbatch could put in an appearance.

The tabs were much of a muchness, with a couple of spreads each, apart from the i, which restricted itself to a picture and extended caption -  probably not enough for a readership that includes a lot of young and elderly readers who buy it because of the price. Many in these groups are quite avid royalists.

The Times, with a class team of Valentine Low, Lucy Bannerman and Patrick Kidd, was way out ahead of the field in the text stakes - although the fashion editor Laura Craik stumbled in saying that the christening robe was designed by Angela Kelly. It was a replica of one that had been used for generations, so there wasn't much designing to be done.The paper also got the balance right with a front-page picture, a proper news splash and four ad-constrained pages from 6-10. The headline-writing was sharp.

There were surprises, too, with the Express outperforming the Mail on almost every measure and the Mirror giving the event more space and with more style than the royalist Sun.

The Star, which returned to the killer spiders for its splash,  meanwhile came up with a puff that would stop any casual reader in their tracks.

'Jordan wets the baby's head'.

As the asterisk pointed out, the Jordan in question was the river rather than the model.

Nice one.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

We'd love to find Maddie, Ben and all the missing children. But Romas have a right to family life too

What is it about blonde, blue-eyed girls that makes people go gooey in the brain?

Last week Greek police raided a Roma camp in search of drugs and guns - and came away with the little girl above because she had blonde hair and blue eyes. They also arrested the couple who said they were her parents and charged them with abduction.

Inspired by the story, a public-spirited citizen in Ireland called the TV3 television station to report another blonde moppet living with a Roma family in West Dublin. And not only was she blonde, but she also spoke much better English than the rest of her family.

The Garda, never knowingly slow off the mark where child safety is concerned, went to the given address on Monday afternoon and took the little girl away from her family. Even though she was apparently healthy and well cared-for, health workers applied for an eight-day care order.

A 'source close to the police investigation' told the Mirror:
'The girl had light skin and blonde hair – she stood out like a sore thumb from the rest of the children in the house.'
The Garda's action came as part of what the Mirror describes as the 'high alert in the international hunt for child trafficking' sparked by the Greek case. Indeed the Irish police were so motivated that they went on to take a blond-haired, blue-eyed toddler from another Roma community in Athlone at ten o'clock last night.

The little boy was also taken to a health centre, where he was given a DNA test, and was placed in the care of the Health Services Executive pending the results. The lad was returned to his parents at lunchtime today after the police announced that they were 'satisfied about his identity'.

Well that's all right then. So long as the police are satisfied, all's well with the world. And what about the parents left distraught and crying as their baby was taken from them? And their other child, who was 'confused and crying for her brother'?

And now tonight we learn that the little girl from Dublin has also had a DNA test which shows that her parents are her parents. Well you really can't be too careful, can you, when a child's welfare is at stake. There isn't a moment to be lost - not a moment to notice that other members of the family also have blonde hair, for example.

The Greek case has really stirred the pot. The little girl from Farsala - who may be four, five or six - was delivered into the care of the charity Smile For The Child, which issued some photographs as part of an international appeal to discover her true identity.

In this case, at least, we know that the couple who care for her are not her natural parents. They submitted to a DNA test and have given a variety of explanations of how she came to live with them. These include that she was left with them wrapped in a blanket at birth and that they had taken her into their family as an act of kindness to a Bulgarian woman who said she could not look after her.

Weekend update: A Bulgarian woman came forward after seeing the charity's appeal and offered to give a DNA sample, saying Maria was her daughter. Sasha Ruseva said that she had been working as an olive picker in Greece when the child was born in 2009. Mrs Ruseva and her husband are believed to have ten children, of whom five bear a strong resemblance to Maria. She said that she had given the baby to the couple charged with abduction because she was too poor to look after her. She denied suggestions that she took any payment. The DNA test proved that she was indeed Maria's natural mother.

The charity's appeal resulted in calls from between eight and ten thousand people, and at one point it thought it had eight serious leads as to her identity. For the time being she is known simply as 'Maria' or, inevitably, the 'blonde angel'. Goodness knows why she is called either, no newspaper or website has offered any explanation, nor said who created these sobriquets.

Eight thousand calls is an awful lot. On the night of the Crimewatch special on Madeline McCann, which attracted 6.7m viewers last week, the police were ecstatic with the respond from the thousand callers.

This doesn't, of course, mean that 8,000 people had any idea of who the child might be. But a lot of them were hoping that she might be theirs. People like Jeremy Irwin and Deborah Bradley of Kansas, whose daughter Lisa was abducted in the middle of the night two years ago this month. Lisa was 11 months old, so going by age alone, she was unlikely to be the same girl.

It does, however, give an indication of how many parents there are out there desperately hoping to be reunited with missing children. The McCanns and the Needhams (Ben Needham disappeared, aged 21 months, while on holiday in Kos in 1991) are not the only ones.

Asked for their reactions to the Greek case, the two British families' representatives said it proved that they were right to keep hoping. This is particularly so for the Needhams, given that Ben was taken on a Greek island and the fact that they have consistently expressed their belief that he was probably living with a Roma family. You have to admire both families for their determination, even though it would again have been refreshing had they taken the opportunity to offer support to others in their position.

The Desmond papers lost no time in making the link to the McCanns - this is the intro on the Express's page nine lead on Saturday:
'The parents of missing Madeleine McCann were given new hope last night after a girl aged four who had been allegedly abducted was rescued from a gypsy camp.'
Talk about parochial. The Star, meanwhile took a break from its killer spider hunt and instead 'found' two 'Maddies' in four days:


Saturday's front is particularly egregious. Look at that sub-head. 'Stolen girl turns up safe at gypsy camp'. Turns up safe? We still don't know who she is. What we do know, because the paper tells us, is that the little girl in Farsala is not only known as Maria and the blonde angel, but also as the 'Greek Maddie'. While the girl from Dublin is, naturally, the 'Irish Maddie'.

Which could make it a bit tricky if Leighanna Needham is right. The Star's inside spread on Monday gloried under the heading:
'I'll prove she's Ben's tot' 
 In fact, she doesn't say any such thing. Leighanna is Ben Needham's 20-year-old sister and she says that she would like to give a DNA sample to see whether she is related to Maria. Ben would be 24 next Sunday, so Leighanna is working on the assumption that he grew up in Farsala and has fathered at least one child.

She builds that assumption on an alleged sighting at the camp in 1996 - when she would have been 3 - and a suggestion from someone there that the blond boy in question had come from Kos.  The sighting was never followed up by police, she says, because they were too scared to go into the camp which was home to 'bad gypsies'.
'We went in ourselves and there were guns and all sorts pulled out and they said "If you don't get out of this camp there'll be trouble". That just shows they've got something to hide.'
Most papers mention the McCanns and Needhams, and it does seem reasonable to ask them for quotes, but most are quite restrained in making the link. The Mirror went for a  'Madeleine' splash on Saturday, but the text was quite measured. Today it pointed out early in its coverage  that there was nothing to connect the Irish and Greek cases. What a pity it spoilt it all by running a full-face picture of the little boy from Athlone - although someone recognised the error as he is pixilated on the website.

There are laws, rules and guidelines on publication of photographs and other information about children, all designed to protect them. Clearly, when a child is missing, it is in everyone's interests to show what he or she looks like, what they were wearing and anything else that might light a spark in a bystander's mind. 

With 'Maria' in Greece, there was some reason for using the pictures released by Smile for the Child. But with the two children in Ireland, there was no appeal to discover who the children were - thank goodness, since they turned out to be exactly who their parents said they were. So there was no justification for using any material that might identify them. That includes pictures of the children themselves, their relatives or where they lived.

It could be argued that even naming the part of Dublin in which the girl was found went against best practice, given that her looks were so extraordinary in that context that police felt she could not legitimately live there. As they said, 'she stuck out like a sore thumb', so working out who was the child in the story would have been a piece of cake.

OK, so our laws may not apply in these cases as they are outside the United Kingdom, but that doesn't mean that the guidelines should be discarded. Remember we are talking about three very young children who have been taken from the only families they have ever known on the basis of their hair colour.

Once again newspapers have allowed themselves to suspend common sense and good judgment because the police said it was all right. When Peter Sutcliffe was arrested, Yorkshire police were so beside themselves with glee that they merrily called a press conference announcing that they had caught the Ripper. Newspapers got carried away and found themselves at odd with the laws of contempt.

It doesn't matter whether information  comes from the chief constable, the Prime Minister or the Archbishop of Canterbury, if there is a rule that such material should not be published, then it should not be broken without very good reason. And 'The policeman said so' doesn't count as a very good reason.

The whole tenor of the coverage of these stories leaves a sour taste in the mouth, starting with the quotes from the Greek police chief, Vassilis Ilalatsis: 'It is obvious that we are faced with a very well-organised racket, and it is certainly not the only one.' Costas Yannopoulos, director of Smile of the Child, agreed. He said evidence so far pointed to 'Maria' having been trafficked. 

Of a video in which she is seen dancing, he said: 'You can see her dancing round and round like a little trained bear. I believe they were getting money from exploiting the child.' The Mail writes about 'two upsetting videos'. The first, below, is of the girl with a dummy in her mouth dancing for the camera. She keeps going out of shot and is guided back to the spot by a woman. 

The second, said to have been filmed last month, shows her dancing with a young woman with long blonde hair and a young man. She seems a little lost at first but then joins in. It was Maria Dimitriou, the woman in the snippet, who released the film to a local TV station, so she obviously didn't feel it showed the community in a bad light. It was taken, she said, at a baptism celebration. 'Her mother sent her to join us on the stage. She liked dancing - she was not treated badly.'

Almost everything about the coverage - and the subsequent response in Ireland - seems designed to reinforce negative stereotyping. Oh, there is plenty of 'balance' in the form of 'we love her and she loves us' quotes from the girl's adoptive family, but there are also rather too many anonymous statements based on what 'sources', 'neighbours' and 'locals' said...'

Neighbours said the couple gave Maria special treatment because of her blonde hair.

The couple posed as parents to a blue-eyed girl known as Maria, seemingly to make money from her begging.

Neighbours suggested they could have purchased the girl for as little as £850.

Locals said Maria was seen begging in a market two weeks ago.

The crime-ridden Roma settlement.

Words such as 'camp' and 'settlement' create an image of a scruffy caravan site, but Maria and her family lived in a smart-looking bungalow. Pictures of her bedroom show toys lined up on the bed - but these, according to 'locals' or 'neighbours' were collected and placed specially for the cameras. Not only that, but the only bedroom and the only cupboard in the house were 'reserved' for Maria - the implication being that she was a valuable commodity that had to be cosseted.

Only the Independent and its sister the i tried to keep any real perspective with spreads by Nathalie Savaricas in which human rights experts are allowed to raise the question of racism by presumptuous authorities and to suggest that the parents are being prosecuted for abduction 'on the basis of appearances'. One points out that Maria does not feature on Interpol's list of missing children, nor has anyone put forward any evidence that she was kidnapped.

The parents freely admitted that she was not their natural child, and while there are inconsistencies in the various stories of how the girl arrived at Farsala, all talk of child-trafficking rings and of her being 'stolen' is pure speculation.

We do know that the couple claimed £7,000 a month in benefits for 14 children, registered as though they were all  born within a 10-month period. But again most papers choose to leave out the fact that only four children have been accounted for. Much simpler to leave the reader with a mental picture of a filthy home overrun with children.

Yes the couple are clearly benefit fraudsters, but that doesn't make them child traffickers or kidnappers. They may yet prove to be just that, but to start from that standpoint makes a mockery of the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty'.

The actions of the Irish police were, if anything, even more alarming: they removed two children from their families on the basis of a telephone tip-off and a stereotypical idea of what a Roma child should look like. If every police force behaved like that, every mixed race family would be at risk, any adopted or fostered child could be taken into care, any 'throwback' child whose forebears' genes had come through could be separated from his or her siblings.

Yes, checks would soon show where they belonged. But there has to be a better way than simply blundering in on the flimsiest excuse.



Friday, 18 October 2013

Grim parade of death: five centuries of botched executions and we've still learnt nothing

Iran and America. Two cultures with nothing but antipathy for each other. Two cultures with one common policy reviled by most of the world: an addiction to state-sanctioned murder.


The Americans favour death by injection -with its false overtones of the merciful euthanasia of putting a nuch-loved dying pet 'to sleep'. The Iranians stick to hanging.

We learnt on Wednesday that the two states have something else in common - an inability, even in the 21st century - to get it right.

The Americans' lethal syringe delivers three drugs: a sedative, a paralysing drug and a third to stop the heart. The sedative is injected first to limit the prisoner's suffering. The drug of choice is pentobarbital, but prisons are running short because the makers don't want their product used to kill people.

So on Tuesday, Florida executed William Happ substituting midazolam hydrochloride, an untried sedative that had previously been used only to tranquillise animals. It was injected at 6.02pm. Nine minutes later Happ's  head was moving back and forth. He died at 6.16pm.

Happ, 51, had been on death row for 27 years after being convicted of kidnapping, beating, raping and strangling 21-year-old Angie Crowley. He finally confessed to the killing in the execution room.

Happ may have been a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and no doubt he did not suffer the anguish of his young victim. But even the Americans accept that the punishment is death, not suffering. It is not the intention that a man should be strapped to a table and left writhing in agony for 14 minutes.

Over in Iran, a 37-year-old man called Alireza was hanged this month for smuggling and possession of a kilo of crystal meth. He was pronounced dead after 12 minutes and carted off to the morgue.

The next day a morgue worker noticed steam in the plastic cover in which Alireza had been wrapped. Closer examination showed that he was still alive and he was taken to hospital. His family were naturally delighted.

But the Guardian reported on Wednesday that Iran has ordered that Alireza should be re-executed once he has recovered sufficiently. The country's law is that convicts should be conscious and relatively healthy when they are put to death.

Mohammad Erfan, a judge with Iran's administrative justice court, is quoted as saying:
'The sentence issued by the revolutionary court is the death penalty … in such circumstances it should be repeated once again.'

The two stories emerged on Wednesday, which had been designated Blog Action Day. This year the theme was human rights. It seems to me that the most fundamental human right is the right to life - hence this delayed contribution to the collection.

Most people have entrenched opinions on capital punishment, so nothing written here will change anyone's view. But that doesn't make the arguments less worthy of rehearsal - if killing is wrong, then killing is wrong, full stop. It doesn't suddenly become right because it is ordered or sanctioned by the state.

The fact that the majority of people in this country claim to be in favour of bringing back hanging for certain crimes is horrifying and the one example where governments of all colours are right to override the public will and deny a fresh vote on the subject. Long may they hold out.

So given that  Blog Action Day was on October 16, let's focus on that date.

Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were devout and influential bishops during the reign of Edward VI, basing their teachings strongly on the Bible. But when Edward's sister Mary Tudor succeeded him, she was determined to return England to the Catholicism that had been outlawed after the schism that came with Henry VIII's divorce of her mother Catherine of Aragon.

The two bishops were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London shortly after Mary became Queen in 1553. They were eventually sent, with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, to Oxford for interrogation by the Lord's Commissioner at the university's divinity school. Neither was prepared to accept that the Roman Catholic Mass was a sacrifice of Christ or that the Pope was the heir of St Peter. They were sentenced to death.

On October 16, they were tied to stakes and the pyres beneath them lit. Both had tied gunpowder round their necks to hasten their deaths. But the wood on Ridley's fire was green and burned only as far as his lower body. Latimer died relatively swiftly, urging his fellow bishop. 'Be of good comfort, Mr Ridley, and play the man!' Ridley meanwhile cried out:
 'Lord have mercy upon me! I cannot burn..Let the fire come unto me, I cannot burn.'
 Eventually someone stepped forward to set fire to the top of the top of the pyre, which exploded the gunpowder and ended his suffering.

The execution of Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793 was at least more efficient than that of the two bishops. The guillotine is a swift, if dramatic, instrument of death. But whether it was any more just is questionable. 

The Queen was put on trial before the French Revolutionary Tribunal on October 14. She was convicted of trumped up charges and the sentence that had almost certainly been decided before her arrest in August was carried out within two days of her first stepping into court.

The execution required the ritual humiliation of cutting her hair, dressing her in a plain white robe and transporting her to the scaffold in an open cart so that the crowds had ample opportunity to jeer.

One of the most persuasive arguments against the death penalty is the risk of executing an innocent man. And there must surely be strong doubts about the guilt of William Rose, who was hanged in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, on October 18, 1891. 

Rose was tried and acquitted twice of killing his neighbour Moses Lufkin, who was shot in the back when he had his back to a window of his home. Rose was convicted at his third trial and sentenced to death. Lufkin was apparently an unpopular man and there were said to have been many who would have motives to kill him. Roses argued his innocence to the last.

The hangman arrived at the gallows equipped with two ropes because another man was due to be executed on the same day, but he was given a stay of execution by the governor.

As Rose was being hanged the rope snapped. He fell to the ground and was knocked unconscious. The deputies officiating were not sure what to do, but eventually, they lifted him back up, tied the spare rope round his neck and tried again. It took him between ten and twenty minutes to die.

The case is the subject of a book called Murder in Gales: A Rose Hanged Twice by Patricia Lubeck, who is the curator of the Redwood County Museum, which was established in the room where Rose spent his last night.

Rose was the first and only man to be hanged in Redwood Falls - which even today has a population of barely 6,000 -  so the executioner's ineptitude may be understandable. But when you have some of the most abhorred criminals of a generation whose trial has been followed by the whole world, you don't expect any slip-ups when it comes to the denoument.

The Nuremberg defendants stand for the verdicts that condemned 11 of those present to death
Twelve Nazi leaders were condemned to death at the end of the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Martin Bormann was convicted in his absence, the other 11 were sentenced to hang on October 16. Hermann Goering took a cyanide capsule two hours before his appointment with the gallows.

The executions took place between 1am and 3am in a gymnasium that had been used by American servicemen for a basketball game three days earlier. 

There were three sets of black painted wooden gallows, with the rope attached to a crossbar supported by two uprights on a small platform 8' high which was reached by 13 wooden steps. The 'drop' was concealed by black curtaining, so that once the trap was sprung the condemned man would dissappear from view. Two of the gallows were used alternately, the third was there as a spare and was not needed.

The hangman was the American Master Sergeant John C. Woods, assisted by Stanley Tilles and Joseph Malta. Their first customer was the former foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Various accounts of the hangings strongly suggest that many of them were botched, possibly deliberately. Joseph Kingsbury-Smith of the International News Service,  who was present to represent the American Press, wrote a calm but chilling report of proceedings (including a cigarette break after the first two hangings). His only reference to  any hiccup related to Julius Streicher, editor-in-chief of the anti-semitic Der Sturmer newspaper:
'When the black hood was raised over his head, Streicher's muffled voice could be heard to say, 'Adele, my dear wife.'
 At that instant the trap opened with a loud bang. He went down kicking. When the rope snapped taut with the body swinging wildly, groans could be heard from within the concealed interior of the scaffold. Finally, the hangman, who had descended from the gallows platform, lifted the black canvas curtain and went inside. Something happened that put a stop to the groans and brought the rope to a standstill. After it was over I was not in the mood to ask what he did, but I assume that he grabbed the swinging body of and pulled down on it. We were all of the opinion that Streicher had strangled.'
In fact,  it is clear from Kingsbury-Smith's notes of the time that each man was declared dead that these were not 'clean' executions. For example, he states that the trap opened on Fritz Saukel at 2.26am and that there was 'a load groan under the gallows'. Afred Jodl was then brought into the gymnasium.
'At 2.34 am. Jodl plunged into the black hole on the scaffold. He and Sauckel hung together until the latter was pronounced dead six minutes later and removed.'
So even by Kingsbury-Smith's account, it took Sauckel 14 minutes to die. Other reports show that none of the ten died within ten minutes and that Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel struggled at the end of the rope, bleeding from eyes, nose and mouth, for 24 minutes.

Several of the men had battered heads or faces, and historians have noted that this was probably caused by the fact that the trap doors did not lock open, but swung back and forth, hitting the prisoner as he dropped.

Woods had openly relished the opportunity to hang the Nazis and Tilles was of the opinion that he botched the executions deliberately. In his book By the Neck Until Dead, Gallows of Nuremberg, he wrote:
'Woods adjusted the noose, but placed its coils off centre. This would not snap Streicher's neck and he would strangle. I realised instantly that this was Woods' intent and I saw a small smile cross his lips as he pulled the hangman's handle.'
Malta later admitted that the hangings were badly botched and needlessly prolonged. This did not trouble him, he told interviewers in the 90s that it had been a pleasure to take part in the proceedings and that he'd do it all again.

Woods had executed nearly 400 people before the Nuremberg ten. His services were not used again. He died four years later while checking an electric chair.

This may seem like ghoulish detail and few would have sympathy with leading players in a regime that tortured, starved and killed millions. But given the West's air of superiority after the bungling of Saddam Hussein's execution, it is worth remembering how these men met their deaths.

The word execution is generally taken as meaning a  killing as part of some kind of judicial process - although the Oxford dictionary refers merely to the carrying out of a death sentence passed on a condemned person. In each of the cases above there was a trial, however farcical.

In 1975, however, five journalists were killed on the orders of an Indonesian general and the truth of their deaths was covered up by governments for years. They became known as the Balibo Five.

Reporters Greg Shackleton and Malcolm Rennie, cameramen Gary Cunningham and Brian Peters, and sound recorder Tony Stewart died in the town of Balibo on October 16 as they investigated secret incursions in to the tiny state of East Timor by Indonesian forces. Indonesia went on to a full-scale invasion the following December and occupied the territory for 25 years.

The five were working for Australian news channels, although Peters and Rennie were British and Cunningham was a New Zealander. They had anticipated that an attack on Balibo was imminent but thought that as journalists they would be safe. When Indonesian special forces arrived in the town, Peters emerged from a house and approached them with his arms in the air, saying that he was a journalist. He was either shot or stabbed.

Soldiers then went into the house and shot Shackleton, Cunningham and Rennie. Stewart locked himself in the bathroom but he was discovered and stabbed in the back. The five bodies were laid out in the house, covered in mattresses, doused in petrol and set alight the next day. The Indonesians claimed that they had been shot accidentally in crossfire.

In December Roger East of the Australian Associated Press went to East Timor to discover what had happened to the Balibo Five. He was captured by the Indonesians on the morning of the invasion, summarily shot and his body dumped in the sea.

Both the Australian and American governments tacitly supported the invasion of East Timor and either actively covered up or failed to investigate the fate of the journalists. In 2007, however, a New South Wales Coroner conducted an inquest in to the death of Brian Peters and concluded:
'Brian Raymond Peters, in the company of fellow journalists Gary James Cunningham, Malcolm Harvie Rennie, Gregory John Shackleton and Anthony John Stewart, collectively known as “the Balibo Five”, died at Balibo in Timor- Leste on 16 October 1975 from wounds sustained when he was shot and/or stabbed deliberately, and not in the heat of battle, by members of the Indonesian Special Forces, including Christoforus da Silva and Captain Yunus Yosfiah on the orders of Captain Yosfiah, to prevent him from revealing that Indonesian Special Forces had participated in the attack on Balibo.
There is strong circumstantial evidence that those orders emanated from the Head of the Indonesian Special Forces, Major-General Benny Murdani to Colonel Dading Kalbuadi, Special Forces Group Commander in Timor, and then to Captain Yosfiah.'
In July 2009 Balibo, a film about the five,  had its premiere at the Melbourne Film Festivel. It was banned in Indonesia. The following September Australia announced that the federal police would conduct a war crimes investigation into the case.

Greg Shackleton reporting from Balibo two days before he was shot dead

It may be that October 16 has been a particularly bloody day down the centuries - it was also the date on which Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Minister of Pakistan, was assassinated in 1951.

I suspect not.  But it has thrown up examples of innocent people being put to death, of show trials and kangaroo courts, of government cover-ups, of vengeance taking over from justice, and of  cruel ineptitude to this very day.

What price human rights?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Blog Action Day 2013


In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

And on October 16, he anchored in the Bahamas.

Three hundred and one years later Marie Antoinette met her end, aged 37, courtesy of the guillotine.

October 16 turned out to be quite a day for executions: the bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley had been burnt at the stake in 1555; in 1946 Joachim von Ribbentrop was hanged along with nine other senior Nazis at the end of the Nuremburg trials; and five years later Liaquat Ali Khan, the first Prime Miinister of Pakistan was assassinated. 

Lifting the gloom surrounding the date - to a degree, at least - Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was published in 1847. Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire had its premiere in 1912 and the Disney brothers founded their cartoon tudios in 1923.

Politics took a turn to the left as the Tories paid the price for the 1963 Profumo scandal and Harold Wilson won his first general election on October 16 1964, with an uncomfortable majority of four.

Still in Britain, the date will be engraved on Michael Fish's heart - for it was on 16/10/87 that the great storm arrived in spite of his assurance on television to the lady who rang to say there was a hurricane on the way that she was mistaken. (If you are tired with this timeline, perhaps you'd like to break off to listen to this comedy gold, which is genuine - and bound to cheer you up.)

America had other concerns that day. Wall Street was in free fall with the Dow dropping more than 100 points in a day for the first time, presaging the Black Monday crash three days later. The rest of the country - and much of the world - was in thrall to the running story of  Jessica McClure, an 18-month-old baby who was rescued more than two days after falling 22 ft down a well just 8 inches in diameter. 

Football fans in Guatemala City were less fortunate in 1996 when 47,000 tried to get into a stadium with a 36,000 capacity to watch the World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Puerto Rico. At least 83 died and 140 were injured.

So much for history. In 2007, Collis and Cyan Ta'eed joined with Leo Babauta to launch Blog Action Day, encouraging bloggers all over the world to bring a particular issue to attention by writing on a common theme on a single day. The first topic was the environment and more than 20,000 people took part.

The second year was less successful, but the EU did join in to write about poverty. The number of participants was down again in 2009 - but the 12,000 bloggers managed 30,000 posts on the environment between them. These included efforts by the White House and Gordon Brown. 

This year the subject has been human rights - and here's the catch. To mark the occasion, Gameoldgirl has been spouting off again the state of the clothing manufacturing industry in the Far East.

If you want to shut her up for a while, perhaps you might to click here.

(or click on the Bangladesh tab at the top of the page).

Thank you and good night.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Madeleine McCann latest: they're still looking

The rest of Fleet Street fell in line with the Express today, making the hunt for Madeleine McCann front-page news.

The Independent was alone in resisting, but even it kept its nerve only as far as page three. The release of a couple of efit pictures and the promise of more revelations on television tonight made the splash for the Express, Star and Mirror, the main picture for the Telegraph, Guardian and Mail, a top single in the Sun and  a teaser for the Times and the i.

The two computer-generated pictures are quite different but are of the same man. Metropolitan Police say he was seen carrying a child to the harbour at Praia da Luz on the evening that Madeleine disappeared from her holiday apartment as her parents dined with friends.

The man is described as between 20 and 40, with medium brown hair. He is of medium height and medium build. Clearly someone anyone would remember six years on.

The efits were issued to coincide with tonight's Crimewatch programme, which featured a 25-minute reconstruction of the day the child vanished and an interview with Kate and Gerry McCann. The programme will also be shown in The Netherlands tomorrow and in Germany on Wednesday. This is because the man in the pictures may speak German. It will not be aired in Portugal.

Police there are reported still to be of the opinion that Madeleine died in an accident in May 2007, and Goncalo Amaral, who led the investigation, is in the middle of fighting a £1m libel action brought by the McCanns following publication of his book on the case.

Today's press coverage is intriguing because it essentially says 'No news yet, but we haven't given up.' Is that worth a quarter to a third of the Telegraph and Guardian front pages?

 Detective Chief Inspector Andy Redwood said over the weekend:  'Our work to date has significantly changed the timeline and the accepted version of events that has been in the public domain to date.' We shall have to wait until 9 o'clock tonight to discover the extent of the changes. Since the 'accepted version of events in the public domain' has come largely from the McCanns and their friends, it promised to be interesting.

Up until now we had been told that the McCanns left Madeleine and her 18-month-old siblings in the apartment at 8.30pm and that Kate McCann discovered her daughter missing at 10pm. Redwood says that his team is focusing on those 90 minutes.

So far it has been reported that Gerry McCann checked on the children at 9.05pm and that a friend went to the apartment at 9.30pm but did not look in the bedroom. Another friend, Jane Tanner, has said from the word go that she saw a man carrying a child in pyjamas at 9.15pm. She says she thought nothing of it until Kate McCann emerged from the flat in a panic after seeing her daughter's bed empty. Tonight Redwood told Crimewatch that police had identified that man as a holidaymaker carrying his own daughter.

The new efit man was also apparently seen carrying a blonde girl aged about three towards the sea - but in a different direction and at a different time - about 10pm. The girl might have been wearing pyjamas, Redwood said. This was the 'significant change in the timeline'. It meant that the child might have been taken just before - or even as - her mother was in the flat checking on her.

Redwood also spoke about a spate of charity collectors, unusual in the resort, and a fourfold increase in burglaries in the weeks before Madeleine disappeared.

The police have been busy of late; checking the phone records of the 3,000 residents of Praia da Luz and as many tourists and seasonal workers as they can track down. This has led them to identify 41 'persons of interest', 15 of whom are Britons. Scotland Yard has promised further efits  and two more - of fair-haired men seen around the McCanns' apartment while they were on holiday - were shown on the programme last night.

There are two issues that trouble me about all this. The first is that so much effort is being devoted to a pretty white middle-class child when hundreds of thousands of other children have gone missing over the past five years - and most of us would be hard put to name one. (See the earlier SubScribe post  Missing: an opportunity.)

The second is that what we have today seen is not so much a significant advance in a long-running police investigation as one giant trailer for a television programme. 

It has been carefully orchestrated. First came hints from the police that they were making progress. Then snippets of the reconstruction were released, this morning we had publication of the efits, with Redwood promising that there are more to come. And finally David Cameron came out this afternoon to endorse the police efforts on a case that had 'touched the nation's hearts'.

Redwood is quoted in most papers as saying that detectives urgently want to trace the man in the efits. 'This man may or may not be the key to unlocking this investigation. Tracing and speaking to him is of vital importance to us.'

What a happy coincidence that in a hunt that has lasted for more than six years, two pictures created in 2008 should be ready for circulation on the very day of a Crimewatch special on the case. Surely the police wouldn't dream of holding them back for even a moment when they were so urgently seeking this man?

I do recognise that if you want maximum impact it makes sense to go for a big hit rather than Express-style drip feeding. And of course the BBC wants to promote its programmes, but was the release of two computer-generated images of an unremarkable-looking man of such national and international importance that it should lead the news hour after hour - on radio?

Most of us would be elated by a 'Madeleine found alive' headline and most of us would love to help to make the headline a reality. A police incident room was set up to deal with the response and, as expected, hundreds of people rang in. Some were on holiday in Praia da Luz at the same time as the McCanns and two are said to have put the same name to the man in the picture.

We can only hope that this is the lead the police were hoping for. But the chances of it leading to the discovery of the child remain remote. Whatever anyone says, everyone knows it.


Needless to say, there were plenty of people with plenty to say during and after the programme. Quite a few of Twitter's instant commentariat perceived a likeness between Gerry McCann and the man in one of the efits, above, although he doesn't look at all like the clearer of the two images.

Apart from those, the armchair detectives split into three camps.There was the gallows humour brigade with an endless supply of macabre and distasteful jokes. There were those who believed the McCanns were at fault for leaving the children alone, that Madeleine was dead and that the case was receiving disproportionate attention. And there were those whose hearts went out to the couple and still believed that their daughter would be found alive. Fleet Street Fox had a sobering message for all three groups on the Mirror website.

The Express has kept faith with Madeleine all through the years. She has appeared on the front page seven times in the past twelve days - six of them as the splash. In the weeks since SubScribe's analysis of Express news judgments in August, the paper has splashed on the McCanns nine times, used Madeleine as the front-page picture three times and put her in the puff twice. There are no prizes for guessing what will dominate the front tomorrow.

In the light of the paper's undiminished interest in the subject, it made perfect sense that it should lead on the story today - even though the copy went no further than the splash in its Sunday sister yesterday. But the across-the-board coverage smacked of news management - whether by the police, the BBC or the McCanns themselves.

Another view might be that editors aren't interested in real news; that they just print what they think will sell papers. It's an opinion that has been advanced frequently during the debate about press standards since the phone-hacking scandal.

That, of course, led to the formation of the Hacked Off organisation, the Leveson inquiry and the proposed royal charter to set up a new regulator for the Press.

Hugh Grant is generally seen as the celebrity face of Hacked Off, but another member stepped forward to argue the case for the pizza charter before Maria Miller's Commons statement last week: Gerry McCann.

It's comforting to know that at least one Hacked Off luminary should have had no complaints with Fleet Street today.