Friday 26 October 2018

Why we must confront, not silence, racists and bigots

If I had been a journalist in Germany in the 1930s, would I have interviewed Adolf Hitler?

If I had been in Russia, how about Stalin? Or Mao in China in the 1950s?

Answer: Yes. Of course. Loathsome mass murderers though they were, a journalist’s job is to report on who, and what, shapes the world.

As it happens, I have actually interviewed a loathsome mass murderer. His name was Radovan Karadžić, and he is now serving forty years in prison after being convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity during the war in Bosnia in the early 1990s.

Did I want to interview him? Frankly, no, I hated the idea. As I recount in my memoir, Is Anything Happening?:

            I told my colleagues that I did not relish the prospect of interviewing a man whom I regarded even then as a war criminal. But they were insistent, so we reached a deal that would enable me to live with my conscience while still doing the job for which I was being paid.

‘Show him into the studio and then call me,’ I said. ‘I won’t shake his hand, and I won’t make small talk. I’ll go into the studio, I’ll do the interview and then I’ll say, “Thank you” and walk out.’

That is what we did. I challenged him as hard as I could when he denied that his forces were firing indiscriminately into a heavily populated city and I hoped that listeners would understand that he was lying. I was persuaded, reluctantly, that they deserved a chance to be able to make up their own minds, but I hated doing it.

And that is how I would have dealt with Hitler, Stalin or Mao. It is also how, if I had the chance, I would deal today with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Why do I raise this now? Because there seems to be a growing belief, especially on the left, that people with objectionable views should not be questioned in the media or allowed to speak from public platforms.

Steve Bannon, self-appointed standard bearer of ultra-nationalism? Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, formerly of the British National Party and the English Defence League? To put them on air, or to allow them on a platform is – so it is argued – to ‘normalise’ their arguments and by doing so, to increase the risk that more people will follow them.

I don’t agree. I remember when Nick Griffin, the then leader of the BNP, appeared amid much controversy on the BBC’s Question Time programme in 2009. It was an unmitigated disaster for both him and his party – by 2014 he had lost his seat in the European parliament, been expelled from the party and declared bankrupt.

I also remember Margaret Thatcher banning the voices of Irish Republicans from the air waves in 1988. That wasn’t a huge success either, its main effect being to provide useful work for Irish actors who were hired by broadcasters to read the words that had been spoken by the banned IRA or Sinn Fein spokespeople.

Thatcher’s view was that the media must deny people whom she regarded as terrorists the ‘oxygen of publicity’. I believe the opposite: that the oxygen of publicity is the best disinfectant available when toxins threaten to take hold in the body politic.

So yes, the BBC’s Newsnight programme was absolutely right to broadcast a carefully made film about Tommy Robinson and the roots of his support two weeks ago (full disclosure: the reporter, Gabriel Gatehouse, is a friend and former colleague). And yes, the editor of The Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, was perfectly entitled to interview Steve Bannon as part of the magazine’s Open Future festival last month.

As she put it in a statement: ‘The future of open societies will not be secured by like-minded people speaking to each other in an echo chamber, but by subjecting ideas and individuals from all sides to rigorous questioning and debate. This will expose bigotry and prejudice, just as it will reaffirm and refresh liberalism.’

Similarly, Nicola Sturgeon was, I think, wrong to withdraw from a conference to be held in Edinburgh next month at which Steve Bannon was due to appear the following day. She did not want, she said, to ‘be part of any process that risks legitimising or normalising far right, racist views.’

A couple of days ago, a group of academics attacked plans to hold a debate on the topic ‘Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?’ It was, they said, ‘framed within the terms of white supremacist discourse. Far from being courageous or representative of the views of a “silent majority”, this is a reactionary, opportunistic and intentionally provocative approach …’

The academics insisted that they were not trying to shut down debate: ‘We are simply asking that we do not give yet more ground to those who seek to shift the blame for systemic failures onto communities who are already subject to oppression and hostility, and legitimise hate and scapegoating as if that is analysis.’

This is dangerous territory. Yes, of course organisers of this kind of debate must be sensitive about the way they frame the question – in fact the title of this particular event has now been amended to ‘Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?’, which at least gets rid of the problematic word ‘threat’.

 The Times columnist David Aaronovitch, who is scheduled to be one of the debate participants, was not impressed: ‘Ironically and tragically, this idiocy by the liberal left allows the far right to pose as the champions of free speech and therefore as champions of true British aspirations. And that’s at a moment when the whole direction of the pro-diversity argument should be that a multi-ethnic, tolerant Britain is the best embodiment of our national values.’

 Which surely is the key point, because if there is one way to add fuel to the pernicious bigotry peddled by white supremacists, nativists and extreme nationalists, it is to pretend that they don’t exist. Much of their appeal, after all, is based on the argument that they are ignored, belittled and shut out of the hated mainstream media.

 It would be the height of stupidity to prove them right.

Friday 19 October 2018

Why a second referendum is not the answer to Brexit

It is a fundamental principle of all democratic activity that losers – as well as winners – accept the results of choices made. (Unless you are Donald Trump, who, as you will remember, said he would accept the result of the 2016 US presidential election on one condition: that he won.)

In my view, the principle applies to referendums as well as to elections, which is why – among many other reasons – I remain unpersuaded that Remainers are right to push for a second Brexit referendum.

Here are three more reasons:

1. There is no clear evidence that the second referendum (strictly speaking, the third if you include the one held in 1975) will produce a different result. The opinion polls (yes, I know their track record is not exactly without blemish) suggest that very few people have actually changed their minds since 2016. Some people who didn’t vote last time round now say they would vote Remain if given another chance. Whether they do or not is, of course, highly uncertain.

2. The risks of deepening the divisions already exposed by the last referendum are substantial. If you think ‘everyone’ would now vote to stay in the EU if given the chance, it’s probably because you are a ‘confidently multi-cultural’ university-educated city-dweller. If, on the other hand, you believe that EU membership has turned the UK into a dumping ground for immigrants (even if very few of them live where you do), you probably live in a post-industrial town where you feel forgotten and ignored, jobs are scarce and poverty levels are higher than the national average.

3. Even if there were to be another referendum – and if it were to produce a pro-Remain majority – what do you think would happen next? The people who voted Leave would be incandescent; support for ultra-nationalist and anti-elite political movements would rise dramatically; and – of course – there would be an immediate campaign for yet another referendum. As Robert Shrimsley put it in the FT the other day: ‘If the previous campaign was ugly and divisive, imagine the next: a full assault on every institution of political stability with added venom for foreigners. From there a descent into pure populism is a small step and the next group of leaders will be less loveable than Nigel Farage.’
The former British ambassador to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, put it even more starkly in a recent lecture (it’s well worth reading in full, by the way). ‘The fact that the European question has helped turn our political debate both somewhat, indeed sometimes seriously, mad and increasingly polarised and toxic should, I think, worry us all. It’s hard, in my view, to think of anything that would toxify it more than a further referendum.’
So what should we Remainers do? First, I think, much as we regret it, we must accept that Britain will leave the EU. Our duly elected representatives, members of the House of Commons, voted to hold a referendum, and the government committed itself to abiding by the result. (‘This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide.’)

Yes, I know that strictly speaking, the referendum was ‘advisory’, but the words quoted above come from an official government document. To go back on them now would not be a good look in an era when populism is already on the march.

But Remainers do have other options. Brexit does not have to mean Jacob Rees Mogg’s Brexit. I would much prefer to see soft Brexiteers in all the main parties form a united front, put together a reasoned case for a Norway-type post-exit relationship and then vote down whatever Theresa May’s ramshackle Cabinet might at the eleventh hour be able to agree to recommend to parliament.

Bring down the government? Force an election? Yes, if that’s what it takes. Hit the pause button on Article 50 and go back to square one. When push comes to shove, I’d rather see Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry and John McDonnell conduct the Brexit negotiations than any of the current bunch. (You’ll have noticed that there’s a name missing from my list of Labour names. I hope I don’t need to spell out why.)

If ever there was a cause that merited the risk of party splits, surely Brexit is such a cause. But a softish, Norwayish Brexit would not be the end of the world. And although the principle of unrestricted immigration from the EU would remain in place, I’m pretty sure the EU would be prepared to allow the UK to invoke the ‘emergency brake’ clauses (articles 112 and 113 of the European Economic Area Treaty permit immigration restrictions to be imposed if ‘serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties’ might otherwise result).

Like it or not – and I don’t – a majority of those who voted on 23 June 2016 voted for the UK to leave the EU. Yes, the campaign was a disgrace; yes, the Leave campaign broke the law; yes, there’s good reason to suppose that President Putin was up to his old tricks. But democracy means nothing if it does not mean accepting results you don’t agree with.

Much better, I think, to work for a better Brexit – a People’s Brexit, even – than to try to turn back the clock. What happened on referendum day in 2016 was a revolution – and life after a revolution can never be the same as it was before.

So I won’t be on the ‘People’s Vote’ march tomorrow – because we’ve already had the People’s Vote. We lost.

Friday 12 October 2018

Murder most foul?

A journalist walks into a diplomatic mission – and disappears. Soon, the stories start flying: he has been brutally tortured and killed, his body cut up into pieces and then smuggled out of the country by a hit squad sent specifically to murder him.

Did it happen? In Turkey, government sources say it did, and that they have the evidence to prove it. The journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was probably one of the best known commentators and analysts in the Arab world, a Saudi living in self-imposed exile in the US who for many years had been close to, and trusted by, the Saudi royal family, but who more recently had become a critic of the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

He entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October – by appointment, to sort out documents for his planned wedding to his Turkish fiancée – and was never seen again. Hence the story that he was murdered.

But hold on a minute. These are murky waters. If the Turks do have evidence for their gruesome theory of what might have been happened to Khashoggi, they have yet to provide it. And they are really in no position to come over all outraged over the ill-treatment of journalists, having imprisoned at least a hundred and fifty of their own. Turkey is not exactly the first country I would turn to when looking for someone to defend the free press.

What’s more, the Turkish version of events has changed since officials first aired the murder theory. After a Presidential adviser said on 7 October: ‘My sense is that [Khashoggi] has been killed’, a pro-government newspaper later reported: ‘He is not dead, but abducted.’

And if, as has been reported, the Turks have now agreed to a Saudi suggestion that they should set up a ‘joint working group’ to investigate what has happened to Khashoggi, it may be that both governments have decided that they need to find a way to defuse the row.

To add to the confusion, the online news site Middle East Eye has quoted ‘a Turkish source with direct knowledge of the investigation’ as saying: ‘We know when Jamal was killed, in which room he was killed and where the body was taken to be dismembered.’ (The Saudis have claimed that Middle East Eye is financed by its Gulf rival Qatar, which it has always denied.)

And according to the Washington Post, for which Khashoggi was a regular columnist, the Turkish authorities have told US officials that they have ‘persuasive and gruesome’ audio and video recordings from inside the consulate that prove that he was killed.

I suspect that until this story broke, you had never heard of Jamal Khashoggi. He was (is?), however, a well-known figure among those who follow events in the Arab world – for many years, he was one of the few Saudi journalists permitted by the authorities to talk to Western media on behalf of the royal family. (I interviewed him many times during my time at the BBC, and he was always worth listening to.)

So why should you care about his fate? Because Saudi Arabia is a key Western ally in the Arab world, and its supposedly reformist crown prince is best buddies with Donald Trump’s Middle East plenipotentiary – and son-in-law – Jared Kushner.

And because Turkey is a member of NATO, and, like Saudi Arabia, heavily involved in Syria. They each have their own interests on that blood-soaked battlefield, which means that the future relationship between these two regional rivals matters to many more people than just the friends and family of Jamal Khashoggi.

If the Saudis have indeed murdered him, they won’t have been the first to kill off dissidents, opponents and critics in foreign lands. President Putin of Russia has a particularly grim record in this regard, and in the past, Israel has similarly murdered many Palestinians around the world whom it regarded as ‘terrorists’. It also kidnapped the nuclear weapons whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu in Rome in 1986.

(And while we’re on the subject, let’s not ignore the so-called ‘extraordinary renditions’ carried out by the US and its allies after 9/11, which were, after all, no more than illegal abductions by another name.)

Until now, the Saudis seem to have preferred abduction to murder. Last March, a prominent campaigner on behalf of women drivers in Saudi Arabia, Loujain al-Hathloul, was grabbed in the United Arab Emirates, and the Saudi poet Nawaf al-Rashid was seized in Kuwait. 

So what’s going on? The Saudi crown prince is a young man  -- he’s only 33 – but he is a man in a hurry, with little taste for opposition or criticism. He wants the world to believe that he is a genuine reformer – after all, didn’t he allow women to drive? – while waging a vicious war in Yemen in which tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and thousands more face death by starvation or disease.

If Jamal Khashoggi has been murdered, or if the Saudis are unable to furnish a credible explanation for his disappearance, Western governments must react as decisively as they did against Russia after the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.

It simply won’t do to repeat the old mantra: ‘We need the Saudi royals on our side, because if they fall, what comes next will be even worse’.

No more arms sales. No more red-carpet treatment for Saudi royals in their gold-plated limousines and outsize yachts. And a clear denunciation of a brutal regime which still thinks it is indispensable to the West.

Mind you, it won’t come from the White House. Although President Trump has acknowledged that ‘what happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened’, he went on to add that he didn’t like the idea of halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia because, after all, ‘this took place in Turkey and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen.’

What’s more, nearly two years after he took office, he still hasn’t got round to appointing ambassadors in either Ankara or Riyadh. Who needs ambassadors when you have a son-in-law? And it may not be entirely irrelevant that in the past, Trump has done some highly advantageous deals with the Saudis.

Nearly four years ago, when the Prince of Wales and David Cameron rushed off to attend the funeral of King Abdullah, I called the Saudi royals ‘not the kind of people we should be doing business with.’

Crown Prince Mohammad has tried to persuade the world that he represents a new, reform-minded, forward-looking Saudi Arabia. After the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, his handsomely-remunerated PR teams are going to have to put in many more hours before we’re convinced.