Saturday 23 July 2011

Utoeya: Is This How Muslims Feel?

Yesterday evening, as early reports came through of a bomb attack in Oslo, followed by young people killed on Utoeya Island, my initial horror and sympathy was modulated by a 'twitch' as the suspect arrested was described as a 'Christian Fundamentalist'. No true Christian would do such a thing, I thought. On reflection, and as the official death toll moves from the horrible to the near-unthinkable, and as details of the sheer evil of the man's actions are told, I find myself wondering if that is how ordinary British Muslims feel every time there is some atrocity, somewhere in the world, put down to 'Muslim Fundamentalists'. No true Muslim would do such a thing - is that their thought?

It has long been true, of course, that different ethnic groups use a cultural Christian label in self-description: 'Christian militias' in Lebanon, 'Protestants' and 'Catholics' in N. Ireland, 'Catholic', 'Orthodox' and 'Muslim' in the Balkans, and so on. But this is less a cultural label - although the young murderer does seem to have been a far-right racist - and more of an aggressive statement: 'Christian' in the sense of 'anti-Muslim'. Much as some hard-line 'Muslim' groups seem to define themselves more in terms of anti-Western feelings than in any positive religious sense.

Far-right, neo-Nazi groups calling themselves 'Christian' seems a very odd thing from a UK perspective. Yet it is commonplace in the US, it seems, and apparently not uncommon in parts of Continental Europe. Here all major parties have Christian elements in their roots, in particular the left-leaning Labour Party. Indeed when Margaret Thatcher's right-wing Conservatives were trying to dismantle civil society in the 80's, it sometimes seemed that the only major group standing up to her was the Church of England.

I'm two-thirds of the way through Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy (the final book arrived yesterday); Larsson was known as something of an expert on the Scandinavian far-right, founding an anti-racist, anti-extremist publication called Expo to try to counter its influence. Since his time it seems that the Swedish far-right has calmed down a little, whilst the Norwegian far-right has grown and become more organised. To me it is very sad that a group of countries with a long-held reputation for tolerance and openness - Sweden, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands - are instead becoming known for intolerant, racist minorities.

An appalling act, then, and a senseless waste of life. But also a reminder that labels are misleading and damaging, whether the label is 'Christian', 'Muslim', 'immigrant' or 'patriot'. We are all human beings, good, bad, and mixed-up, and we should all be treated as such: never dehumanised, never reduced to 'them'.

A final comment from Lars Helle, editor of the daily Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, which I rather like. He said: "we must avoid being preoccupied by fear, like the US was after 11 September 2001. Rather, we must look to Spain and England and how the people of those nations recovered their freedom after the horrible terrorist acts of 2004 and 2005". Amen to that.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Harry Potter & The King's Cross

We went as a family to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (a mouthful of a name!) at the Showcase Cinema in Winnersh yesterday. It was, like all of the HP movies, a fun watch: well-paced, visually dramatic, disjointed in plot, variously wooden and/or OTT in acting, and overall very entertaining. As with the other more recent HP movies it was also very sad in parts: as JK Rowling has said, if you want to fight evil there is going to be a cost.

I understand there are people who watch the movies without having read the books ... how on earth they manage to follow the plot I can't imagine. Maybe they don't; they just go along for the exciting ride. As the second part of what is really one story, this film is more incomprehensible than most. It's a year or two now since I last read the books (and about 9 months since I saw 'Part 1'), and I was feeling a little lost at times. Still, the film moves on so fast that it doesn't matter.

NB: There are spoilers coming.

When I was reading the books, waiting for the final instalment, one of the puzzles was how the climax was going to work out. The parallels with the Jesus story were already obvious, so Harry was very likely to end up sacrificing himself. But surely Rowling wouldn't be able to pull off a resurrection. Amazingly, in the book she not only pulls a resurrection off, but she also makes it obvious that this is the only way the battle against great evil could possibly be won. And she hammers the parallel home by having Harry meet Dumbledore at King's Cross station. I thought it was a masterful piece of writing. But not the sort of thing they could do in film, surely.

In fact the film handles this remarkably well, I think. Harry learns that the only way Voldemort can be defeated is if Harry offers up his own life, to be killed by Voldemort, in the final 'victory' of evil. So Harry goes to his death and is duly murdered. He carries Voldemort's evil with him down to King's Cross, then returns leaving it behind. About as clear an imagery of 'dying to sin and rising to new life' as one can hope for. Rather than fudging this, the film made it even more explicit, emphasising the 'man born to die' aspect in Snape's final gift of his memories.

The most poignant character for me, in both book and film, is Severus Snape, the Judas figure. The book gives more depth and detail, but still the film shows well how this unpleasant figure is redeemed by love, and given the courage to do what had to be done. As Harry Potter says to his son, many years later:
"Albus Severus, you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts. One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew."
My finishing quote, though, is from Albus Dumbledore himself:
"Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living and above all, those who live without love."

Friday 8 July 2011

News Corporation: How Stupid Do They Think We Are?

Yesterday's news that News Corporation are throwing the staff at News Of The World to the wolves by closing the paper is surely a new low in corporate cynicism. Few, if any, of those at the paper now were there during the time of the scandals, yet it is their jobs being sacrificied - presumably to protect the jobs of those who were there but are now part of the News Corporation management: Rebekah Brooks, James Murdoch and, of course, Rupert Murdoch. It's not as if the Murdochs are famous for being hands-off.

The most cynical part of the News Corporation ploy is the near-certainty that once the dust settles there will be a launch of The Sun On Sunday, or some such title, looking remarkably similar to the old NoW, and hoping to pick up the same old advertising contracts. Meanwhile this prospect is likely to help keep the old NoW staff from saying too much, as they will be hoping for jobs on the 'new' paper.

David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, is desperately spinning, hoping to avoid too much of the flak, whilst keeping his News Corp buddies as sweet as possible. I anticipate an intended end-game where the various inquiries decide that all of the British media has behaved badly, not  just the News Corp titles which led the 'race to the bottom' in newspaper standards in the first place; where News Corps gets given full control of BSkyB; and where nothing meaningful changes.

I hope for, but don't expect, rules restricting the amount of control one organisation - never mind one individual - has over the British media, with News Corp having to sell its shares in BSkyB; along with significant restrictions on cross-subsidies which distort the media marketplace (for instance, those manipulations which gave Murdoch his large stake in BSkyB in the first place). I also hope for a major clampdown on tax avoidance by large multi-nationals, such as News Corp, since these tax dodges give such organisations an unfair, and distorting, advantage over those organisations who do pay their taxes. In addition, I'd like to see nationality rules, such as those in the US (if they still apply?), restricting who owns major parts of the British media in the first place, but that's unlikely to happen.

One important question in the kerfuffle to come will be how effectively Andy Coulson has been silenced. He was editor of the News Of The World immediately after Rebekah Brooks/Wade, so it seems likely that he knows where some of the evidence is hidden. Since he is obviously being sacrificed by News Corp to protect her, I wonder why he should continue to keep her secrets?

Wednesday 6 July 2011

News Corp In "A Truly Dreadful Act"

Finally, the trickle of allegations about the involvement of News Corporation's paper The News Of The World in illegal phone hacking has become a flood. It has also moved beyond invasion of celebrities' privacy into allegations of tampering with evidence in cases of missing or murdered children.

Furthermore the timeframe of these activities has moved back from the time of Andy Coulson's editorship - Andy Coulson was subsequently hired by Prime Minister David Cameron as communications director - to the time when Rebekah Wade was News Of The World editor. Rebekah Brooks, as she is now known, is not only chief executive of News Corporation's British operations, but she is also in charge of their internal investigation into these affairs. So now she is investigating herself.

For several years it has been clear that News Corp. papers were involved in illegal activity, but they always denied that it went beyond their royal affairs reporter, and a private investigator, who had already been caught, and the Metropolitan Police refused to investigate further. Then, late last year, following reports in The Guardian and The New York Times, celebrities began taking out private prosecutions and subpoena-ing information. Suddenly News Corp. 'discovered' a limited stash of information concerning 'irregularities' which they handed over, and Rebekah Brooks/Wade took on the job of holding an internal investigation into what News Corp. has done.

I'm sure it's only because I'm a deeply cynical man that I expect her main role is more to do with covering up what can be covered up and delaying what can be delayed. Somehow I strongly suspect that she won't be revealing anything soon about what she, as editor in 2002, knew about the activities of those she was responsible for hiring. It is worth noting, as an indication of her interest in revealing the truth, that when she repeatedly failed to appear before a parliamentary committee last year, its members backed down from forcing her to testify because of fears that she would use News Corporation papers to have their private lives investigated.

Now it turns out the the News Of The World not only hacked (allegedly, as they say) into the mobile phone of missing teenager Milly Dowler, back in March 2002, but even deleted messages stored there. Milly Dowler was a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl who was abducted and murdered on her way home from school, on 21st March 2002. Her body wasn't found until September 2002, six months later. In the meantime her parents had their hopes raised because her phone messages had been accessed and changed; ironically they even gave an interview to the News Of The World about this. Today, further allegations are flooding out about people working for News Corp. hacking into phones in other high profile cases, such as the murdered Soham schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and the July 7th London bombings.

Worryingly, it seems that this information was in the hands of the Metropolitan Police back in 2006 when they decided not to continue investigations. The obvious conclusion is that strong political pressure was applied. Now that we have a Prime Minister with close personnal ties with News Corp, I don't suppose that political pressure will go away. It is only public outcry and private prosecutions which will keep things moving. Except that, with 40% of the British print media, plus Sky, controlled by News Corp, and with the BBC vulnerable these days to political pressure from the government, I can't help feeling there will be some other big 'spoiler' story coming along in the near future.