Monthly Archives: September 2014

Interview with the Laura Janes on Youth Justice

Interview with Laura Janes on Youth Justice
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2008

In his 1938 study English Juvenile Courts, Winifred Elkin referred to “the view so often expressed by the writers of letters to the Press, that the courts have become over-lenient.” Seven decades later it seems little has changed. The 2000 British Crime Survey (BCS), for instance, found that 75 per cent of respondents believed the courts treated young offenders too leniently.

In radical contrast, the latest report from the Howard League for Penal Reform – Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across Europe – finds that rather than being soft on young offenders, England and Wales actually has the harshest youth justice system in Europe. The study notes that with around 3,000 detained at any one time, England and Wales imprisons far more children than any other country in western Europe, and, at ten years, it has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe.

After welcoming me in to her home in west London, Laura Janes, the Children’s Legal Team Leader at the Howard League and the report’s author, tells me about her recent visit to Belarus, a country that has the dubious distinction of often being referred to as ‘Europe‘s last dictatorship‘. “Even in a country like that they were very shocked about some of our practices in terms of the age of criminal responsibility”. In Belarus, she explains, “there is a maximum sentence for children, whereas we are quite content to give children indefinite sentences in this country, which is virtually unheard of in Europe.”

As a Solicitor who represents children in custody, 30-year old Janes works on telling cases that are rarely seen in a media typically more interested in heightening the general public‘s fear of youth crime. “I have one child who is in custody for cutting up some papers on her headmasters desk”, she relates. “She then threw a pair of scissors. Obviously it’s not good to throw a pair of scissors and thank goodness it didn’t hit anyone or hurt anyone. And it’s not admirable behaviour. But I don’t see that it’s behaviour that warrants custody.”

For Janes this incident is indicative of a culture that is too quick to criminalise children. “When it comes to children we take their liberty much less seriously than adults”, she says. “They have much less control over their lives and much less opportunity to object, and much less power and ammunition to fight back.”

Asked to explain the UK‘s punitive attitude to young offenders, Janes admits that the murder of James Bulger in 1993 produced a significant shift in government policy. However, she argues that this didn’t have to be the case, pointing to a similar incident in Norway at the time that produced a very different response. Janes is referring to the killing of five-year old Silje Raederg by two six-year old boys in the northern city of Trondheim in 1994 – an incident largely unknown in Britain. Whereas the trial of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables at Preston crown court attracted a baying mob clamouring for vengeance, the two Norwegian culprits were treated as victims rather than killers, and returned to school a couple of weeks after the event.

This welfare approach is mirrored throughout other Scandinavian countries and also in Italy, which now has just 500 people under the age of 18 in custody at any given time. But wouldn’t a more lenient youth justice system in Britain lead to a higher level of crime? “The overwhelming evidence is that a punitive approach certainly does not reduce crime. In fact it may be the reverse”, she forcefully replies.

“Lots of young men in adult prisons were children in children’s prisons”, Janes notes when I ask about the long-term consequences of Britain‘s harsh youth justice policy. “We are creating generations of criminalised people who have missed the opportunity to grow out of committing crime or to reshape their lives in a more positive and constructive way.” On an individual level, she argues “we are creating children who are utterly institutionalized, who effectively miss out on their childhood. That is something they will never be able to make up for developmentally.”

In October the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published a damning report on Britain‘s legal and social shortcomings regarding the welfare of children. Unfortunately there is little evidence to suggest our Government is taking the report’s 150 recommendations seriously. “Under Tony Blair we were very punitive, lots of ASBOs, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’”, Janes says. “The idea was that under Gordon Brown we would be thinking more broadly about the welfare needs of young people”. She explains that this progressive change has yet to materialise, with the youth justice system currently being jointly managed by the punitive Ministry of Justice and the more welfare-based Department of Children, Schools and Families. “There is a very strong tension”, she points out. “You see that when you look at the recent Youth Crime Action Plan” which “is actually something that is very punitive in its tone.”

Janes herself would like to see the Government take a stronger welfare approach to youth justice. In addition she would like custody to be used only “in the absolute last resort”, the age of criminal responsibility to be raised significantly and the Government to fully comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. “What the public want to hear from the Government is that we are dealing with the core problems of these young people through investing in social services, mental health provision and constructive activity, so they are not committing crime.”

Returning to British attitudes towards children in comparison to the rest of Europe, most of all Janes says she “would like to see a culture that takes the liberty of children exceptionally seriously, which is what you see in other countries.”

Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across Europe is available from, priced £5.

Protest works (often frustratingly slowly): The anti-Iraq War movement and Syria

Protest works (often frustratingly slowly): The anti-Iraq War movement and Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
14 February 2014

The argument the 15 February 2003 anti-Iraq War protest in London was a failure is a common one on the British Left. “The Stop the War march in 2003 was so huge and monumental and it did absolutely nothing”, noted left-wing activist Ellie Mae O’Hagan in 2011 about the biggest demonstration in British history. Two years later on the 10th anniversary of the march author Tariq Ali – who spoke at the rally in Hyde Park on 15 February 2003 – said “It was a huge show of anger but that’s about it. It left no lasting legacy”.

My recent book The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003 is an attempt to counter this popular perception. For example, if you combine a careful reading of newspaper reports from early 2003 with recently published insider accounts a clear picture emerges of a prime minister under intense political pressure, a government in crisis and, most importantly, a government close to falling. The key date was 11 March 2003 – just over a week before the invasion. According to the Sunday Telegraph on this day the Ministry of Defence “was frantically preparing contingency plans to ‘disconnect’ British troops entirely from the military invasion of Iraq, demoting their role to subsequent phases of the campaign and peacekeeping.” A report in the Daily Mirror explained that the crisis had been triggered by a phone conversation between the then Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon and his counterpart in the United States, Donald Rumsfeld, in which Hoon “stressed the political problems the Government was having with both MPs and the public.”

One Peace News columnist called this argument “delusional”, while some of the people attending the talks I’ve given have been sceptical that the march came close to stopping British participation in the invasion in 2003. In contrast, many people in the audiences I have spoken to have pointed to the long-term effects of the march – its influence on public opinion, in particular.

This chimes with what the former Chair of Stop the War Coalition (STWC) Andrew Murray told me: “I think what we can say Stop the War has done is helped foreshorten the war in Iraq and raised the bar enormously for any such war ever being undertaken in the future. Sometimes if people ask ‘What war did you manage to stop?’ I say ‘The next one.’” Murray’s assertion was confirmed by the Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander MP writing in the New Statesman earlier this year: “Iraq has permanently raised the bar of public legitimacy for future interventions, whichever government puts them before Parliament. Today, the British public are more sceptical of the principle of committing British troops abroad, because they are more critical of the circumstances in which it could be justified.” A June 2013 Opinium/Observer poll adds further weight to this line of thinking, with 69% of those polled answering the UK should restrict the military to protecting UK territory and providing humanitarian aid in times of crisis.

This shift in public opinion was underlined last week, with the Guardian noting “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons” during the Syria debate.” 2003’s legacy was also prominent during Ed Miliband’s much discussed face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister in Downing Street that preceded the Parliamentary vote, with a source reporting “Ed said to the Prime Minister: ‘You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us’”.

What is missing from this coverage, unsurprisingly, is the role of the anti-Iraq War movement. Unsurprising because, as the former Respect leader Salma Yaqoob explained in my book, “We have to remind ourselves we are up against some very powerful interests and the last thing they want to admit is that they have been shaken by the anti-war movement. Don’t look for validation from the very people you are opposing.” While the elite has every interest in minimising and dismissing popular protest, it is important to remember it was the anti-Iraq War movement – headed by STWC, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain – that played the crucial role in highlighting the Government’s deceit in the run up to the invasion and helped to mobilize so many people on to the streets. As former STWC Press Officer Mike Marqusee told me: “Although it [the march] didn’t stop the war, it placed it under a degree of scrutiny that very few wars in British or US history have been”.

With the Government losing last week’s parliamentary vote proposing an attack on Syria by thirteen votes, at the weekend William Hague seemed to rule out any UK involvement in any future military action. “Parliament has spoken”, said the Foreign Secretary. “I don’t think it is realistic to think that we can go back to parliament every week with the same question having received no for an answer.”

In addition, David Cameron’s parliamentary defeat has played a key role in President Obama’s decision to give the US Congress a vote on military action. Congress returns from recess on 9 September, so any US military action will now be delayed until after this date – no small thing if you are living in Syria and preparing for, or trying to escape from, the so-called precision bombing. According to the New York Times Obama told his senior aides that one of the reasons he was seeking Congressional approval was “a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British parliament.” The report goes on to note “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for Obama.

It is clear, then that a direct line can be drawn from the massive anti-Iraq War protests in 2002/03 to the Government being forced to back down from military action against Syria ten years later. This in turn has led to a delay in the US timetable for war. And if Congress votes against military action and makes it politically impossible for Obama to undertake military action the influence of the British anti-Iraq War movement will have stretched very far indeed.

Make no mistake, the Government’s failure to win parliamentary support for a military attack on Syria is a huge victory for anti-war activism. Not so much for the anti-war protests that have been happening in the last few weeks regarding the proposed attack on Syria – important and essential though these are – but for the more than one million people who marched through London on that cold Saturday in February 2003.

‘It Never Happened’ – US Intervention in Syria

‘It Never Happened’ – US Intervention in Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
23 September 2014

Though it’s rarely mentioned in polite company, Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech continues to resonate nearly ten years later.

“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest”, Pinter explained about the death and destruction caused by the United States across the globe. He went on: “The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them.”

How can something not happen even while it was happening, you ask? Let me explain.

In June 2012 the New York Times, published a report headed ‘CIA Said To Aid In Steering Arms To Syrian Opposition.’ According to the report “a small number of CIA officers are operating secretly in southern Turkey” coordinating the delivery of arms to rebels in Syria, including “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons.” In March 2013 the New York Times published another report, titled ‘Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From CIA’. This report noted the arms deliveries had “grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes”. According to the New York Times the size of the arms transfers were such they “correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year.”

So, to summarise, in mid-2012 the most influential newspaper in the world reported the US was helping to arm the rebels – a fact confirmed by subsequent stories in the New York Times itself aswell as numerous reports in other mainstream news outlets around the world.

Contrast this publicly available, easily accessed information with these summaries from the mainstream media of the ongoing US role in Syria:

The Telegraph, 21 April 2013: “While Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both known to be
channeling arms to the rebels, there was no indication that the United States, Britain or other western allies might follow suit.”

New York Times, 4 May 2013: “President [Obama] seems to be moving closer to providing
lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months

The Guardian, 8 May 2013: “The US, which has outlawed al-Nusra as a terrorist group, has
hesitated to arm the FSA [Free Syrian Army]…”

The Guardian, 23 July 2013: “Obama, who has been reluctant to engage too deeply in the
Syrian conflict, changed [his] position on arming opponents of Assad’s regime last month”.

New York Times, 9 September 2014: “Mr Obama has resisted military engagement in
Syria for more than three years, out of fear early on that arming the rebels who oppose Mr
Assad would fail to alter the balance in the civil war.”

BBC Today Programme, 11 September 2014, Presenter Mishal Husein to US
Ambassador: “If you [the US] had helped the moderate Syrian opposition, the Free Syrian
Army, three years ago, even two years ago, we might well not be in the position that we are
now. President Obama’s reluctance to intervene and to take action on Syria has contributed
to what we are seeing now.” (1 hour 52 minutes in)

As Pinter said, “Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening”.

Why are all of these professional journalists – supposedly a profession made up of stroppy, questioning cynics – incapable of stating the most basic of facts about the US role in Syria?

The recent admission of former senior Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall may provide the answer. Describing Reuters’s Iraq coverage as “pretty useless”, the ex-Baghdad Bureau Chief explained “there is a certain discourse that becomes normalized, in which certain views are acceptable and others not.” In this atmosphere, if you make obvious factual statements “you are often marginalised as some sort of looney figure”, he notes. “It is through this process that the mainstream media basically becomes a tool of misinforming people, rather than informing people.”

Another reason is alluded to in a September 2013 New York Times article that noted “Saudi Arabia, quietly cooperating with American and British intelligence and other Arab governments, has modestly increased deliveries of weapons to rebels fighting in southern Syria”. The US and UK cooperation with Saudi Arabia is covert, the report explained, because “American and British intelligence and Arab Governments… do not want their support publicly known”.

By refusing to inform their readers that the US has been arming the rebels in Syria since 2012 the mainstream liberal media have done exactly what best suits the US and UK governments. And by so closely following the US and UK Governments’ preferred narrative, the media continues to minimise the US’s responsibility for the on-going carnage in Syria and the rise of Islamic State.

Comedians and advertising

Comedians and advertising
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2013

“Here’s the deal folks. You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story. You’re another fucking corporate shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang-bang… everything you say is suspect.” That was the late, great stand-up Bill Hicks’s colourful takedown of comedians who advertised consumer products.

Hicks may have won the moral battle but he lost the war. Today, our television screens are chockfull of comedians selling stuff. Chris Addison hawking Direct Line insurance, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant mooning in a Microsoft training video, Peter Kay clowning around for John Smith’s and Peep Show’s David Mitchell and Robert Webb selling Mac computers – are there any comedians today not doing adverts?

“I don’t see what is morally inconsistent with a comedian doing an advert”, Mitchell told the Telegraph. “It’s all right to sell computers, isn’t it? Unless you think capitalism is evil – which I don’t. It’s not like we’re helping to flog a baby-killing machine.”

Mitchell, who has built his career on being a kind of smug, privately-schooled know-it-all, can’t seem to compute that you don’t have to be opposed to all of capitalism to have a problem with advertising. As US dissident Noam Chomsky explains, “in a market society” adverts would simply have “a description of the properties of the commodity because then you get what are called ‘informed consumers making rational choices’”. Instead, what we get in Mitchell’s corporate-dominated ‘capitalism’ “is forms of delusion because the business wants to create uninformed consumers, who make irrational choices.” With markets often saturated with near identical products, sales are made on an emotional, rather than factual, level – which is where Mitchell and Webb come in. Humour can make a bank seem “approachable, create an emotional bond and break through the clutter”, explained Marc Mentry, the senior vice president of advertising at the Capital One Financial Corporation, in the New York Times in 2011.

To be clear, Mitchell and Webb – and other comedians who front adverts – are involved in a planned deception of consumers, tricking them into making irrational choices so they buy consumer products. This creation of new desires drives the consumer society that is the key driver of the climate catastrophe that will soon be upon us. That Mitchell can’t join these very simple dots is testament to the accuracy of muckraker Upton Sinclair’s famous truism that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Considering the profound social and economic changes of the last 30 years, it shouldn’t be surprising so many comedians now see advertising as a legitimate part of their professional life. Comedy, television, film, academia – all have seen a broad decline in serious political engagement in the face of corporate ascendancy and its attendant neoliberal ideology. Out has gone class-based analysis unashamedly trying to make the world a better place, replaced by individualism, detached irony and what Suzanne Moore calls the “apolitical vacuousness” of postmodernism. From music to parliamentary politics, the idea that society should and could be fundamentally changed is as rare as a working-class Labour MP.

However, there are comedians who seem to have consciously chosen not to sell out. Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Chris Morris and Frankie Boyle have, as far as I am aware, never done any advertising. Although they are a diverse group of artists, all of their work shares a strong (progressive) political core. All, I suspect, take their responsibility as a comic and public figure far more seriously than Mitchell, Webb etc. And, importantly, all are unencumbered by the contract clauses that the advertising comedians will have signed stipulating they will not criticise the product they are flogging. All, in short, have a moral core. A political and social conscience. History, I’m willing to bet, will be kinder to them than to those who have used their comedy fame to sell us shit.

Why does the UK public underestimate the number of Iraqi dead?

Why does the UK public underestimate the number of Iraqi dead?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
June 2013

“A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims”, note Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their seminal 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. In contrast “those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy.”

Iraqis have the dubious distinction of being able to embody this truism about the Western corporate media within their own nation’s history. The 5,000 victims of Saddam Hussein 1988 chemical attack on Halabja only became a concern of the West when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Hussein became the new Hitler.

Fast-forward to 2006 and a peer-reviewed study is published in the Lancet medical journal estimating that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the 2003 US-UK invasion and occupation. The deaths were a direct consequence of our own government’s actions. Therefore, as per Herman and Chomsky’s maxim, the UK government quickly moved to dismiss the study, with Tony Blair’s official spokesperson arguing the figure was not accurate.

Les Roberts, the survey’s lead author, must have been puzzled. In 2000 he had conducted a mortality survey of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) using the same tried and tested methods he used in Iraq. Blair, along with many others, unquestioningly cited the results of the DRC survey on several occasions to push for action. In addition, a Freedom of Information request uncovered the fact the Ministry of Defence’s Chief Scientific Advisor reported the Lancet study’s methods were “close to best practice” and the study design “robust”.

As is depressingly normal in times of war, the media closely followed the Government’s lead and largely ignored the Lancet study. Instead the Iraq Body Count’s (IBC) much lower figure – currently standing at around 120,000 Iraqi civilian deaths – became the most frequently cited figure. Run by non-specialists, the IBC has severe limitations because it uses passive surveillance, counting violent civilian deaths from media reports, supplemented by hospital, morgue, NGO and official figures.

More generally, images of death and destruction from Iraq were kept to a minimum on our screens and in the pages of our newspapers. The Sun newspaper surely won the award for ‘Best Channelling Of Government Propaganda’ when it published the following headline on the day of the invasion: ‘The First “Clean” War: Civilian Deaths Could Be Zero, MoD Claims’. Now, a new UK poll highlights the very real consequences of the media’s inability or unwillingness to honestly report the death toll from Iraq. According to the survey conducted by ComRes 74 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 50,000 Iraqi combatants and civilians had died as a consequence of the war. Amazingly, 59 per cent of respondents estimated that less than 10,000 Iraqis had died because of the war. Only 6 per cent of the poll’s respondents estimated the death toll to be over 500,000 Iraqis.

The results are “a damning indictment of the UK corporate media system”, commented the internet-based media watchdog Media Lens. “This is not an aberrant result, an accident; it’s a predictable result of a corporate media system that has evolved to deceive.”

For those interested in the topic a must read is John Tirman’s 2011 tome The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars. As the person who commissioned the 2006 Lancet study, Tirman argues that the US public has been ignorant of, and indifferent to, the mammoth number of civilians the US military killed in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Interestingly, he dismisses the argument that this indifference is connected to the mainstream media’s poor performance. Rather, he states that “greater information about” civilian deaths “does not change the dynamic of indifference” among the general public.

In contrast, Noam Chomsky argues the “citizens of the imperial power… do care, and I think that’s why they’re the last to know”. Indeed, why, if Western public opinion is unfailingly indifferent to the victims of Western foreign policy, does our government spend so much time and money on wartime public relations? “There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons”, a senior officer told the Telegraph newspaper in 2008. “If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”

As long as governments work to keep the public in the dark, it is the job of progressives to inform, and hopefully anger, the general public about the destruction caused by Western military power around the world. The new ComRes poll is an essential tool in this on-going struggle against US-UK imperialism.

Legal or illegal? The 2001 US-British attack on Afghanistan

Legal or illegal? The 2001 US-British attack on Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 April 2013

The Twitter equivalent of a bickering married couple, during one of their regular Twitter spats Times newspaper columnist David Aaronovitch and Huffington Post Political Editor Mehdi Hasan recently alighted on a point of agreement. The US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan was “UN [United Nations] sanctioned”, they both said. But are they right? With British forces formally handing over the military command of Helmand to US forces, it seems a good point to look at the legal status of the bombing and invasion in October 2001.

Written in 2010, the official House of Commons Library briefing paper on the subject provides interesting reading: “The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN, but was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter.” The paper goes on to explain that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. The accepted exceptions to this are where the Security Council authorises military action, or where it is in self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter.

As the paper alludes to, the United Nations Security Council did not authorise the military attack on Afghanistan. Furthermore, there is reason to believe the US and UK’s citing of Article 51 is suspect too.

Writing a month into the invasion, Marjorie Cohn, a Professor of Law at California’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former president of the US National Lawyers Guild, described the US and UK attack as “a patently illegal use of armed force.” The bombing was not a legitimate form of self-defence under Article 51 for two reasons, according to Cohn. First, “the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. were criminal attacks, not ‘armed attacks’ by another state.” Indeed, as Frank Ledwidge argues in his new book Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, “the Taliban certainly were not aware of the 9/11 plot, and equally certainly would not have approved even if they had been.” Cohn’s second criticism is “there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the US after September 11, or the US would not have waited three weeks before initiating its bombing campaign.” Michael Mandel, Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, is in agreement on the latter point, arguing “the right of unilateral self-defence does not include the right to retaliate once an attack has stopped.”

Even if one were to agree the West’s attack was legitimate under Article 51, the House of Commons Library paper notes proportionality is central to the use of force in self-defence. “It may not be considered proportionate to produce the same amount of damage” as the initial attack, the paper notes. Writing in November 2001, Brian Foley, Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, maintained “these attacks on Afghanistan most likely do not stand up as proportional to the threat of terrorism on US soil.” Having undertaken a systematic study of press reports and eyewitness accounts, Professor Marc Herold from the University of Hampshire found more civilians were killed during ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ than died on 9/11.

Moreover, the House of Commons Library briefing paper inadvertently highlights the crux of the issue: “The USA might conceivably have gained specific legal support from the Security Council for its action in Afghanistan, but in the end did not seek such a Resolution.” With much of the world standing in sympathy alongside the US, why didn’t the US try to get UN Security Council authorisation for their attack on Afghanistan? “An immediate need after 9/11 was to recover imperial prestige swiftly and decisively”, argue Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls in their book Bleeding Afghanistan. Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. Speaking just after the bombing had started the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance leader Abdul Haq concurred with this reason for the attack: “The US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world.” The last thing a nation attempting to “recover imperial prestige” would want to be seen doing is asking the United Nations for permission to act – a sure sign of weakness to the watching world.

The likely illegality of the 2001 attack on Afghanistan remains one of the biggest secrets of the so-called ‘war on terror’. No overt censorship is needed – just an intellectual culture and corporate-dominated journalism that has (often heated) discussion within a narrow set of factual and ideological boundaries. But while it is perhaps right to be forgiving of those who lost their critical faculties during those days of high emotion immediately after 9/11, how should we judge the ignorance of two award-winning journalists repeating the official deception 13 years later?

Football’s Dangerous Masculinity

Football’s Dangerous Masculinity
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
21 May 2013

As the UK’s unofficial national sport and with the season running for nine months a year it often seems like it’s impossible to escape from football. It’s the default conversation topic from the office to the barbershop; the latest Premier League happenings round off television news broadcasts and large portions of our newspapers are dedicated to reporting and discussing every minute detail of ‘the beautiful game’. This cultural supremacy has been demonstrated by the recent retirement of Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United for the last 26 years. Treated in a similar manner to the death of a member of the royal family it was the top story on the BBC website and splashed across the frontpage of all the next day’s newspapers. Even Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, felt the need to comment, gushing that Sir Alex was the “greatest living Briton”.

However, considering football’s importance to many people and society more broadly, progressives have remarkably little to say about it. Certainly there is ongoing concern about the ever increasing capitalist nature of the game but what is almost completely lacking is an honest discussion or critique of the ideology of the game – in particular football’s relationship with men and masculinity. As Mariah Burton Nelson notes in her 1994 book The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports, “We need to take sports seriously – not the scores or the statistics, but the process. Not to focus on who wins, but on who’s losing.”[1]

As Men’s Studies scholars have noted about sport generally, the hierarchical and highly competitive world of football is one of the key sites for the construction and reproduction of masculinity today.[2] Through playing and watching the game boys learn what it means to be a man – which values and behaviour are manly and which are unmanly. “Be tough”, “be strong”, “play to win”, “get stuck in”, “don’t be intimidated”, “don’t cry”, “don’t wimp out” – all are common encouragements and admonishments to young footballers. And when they return home to watch Match of the Day they hear commentators praising their idols for “dominating” their opponents and “controlling” the game. Those players that play through great pain are heralded as heroes and those, like Roy Keane, who intimidate and revel in the violence and hyper-aggression are feted by fans and awarded with trophies. “I’d waited long enough. I fucking hit him hard. The ball was there (I think). Take that you cunt. And don’t ever stand over me sneering about fake injuries”, wrote Keane in his autobiography about his premeditated revenge take down of Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Haaland in 2001, which effectively ended the Norwegian’s career. “My attitude was, fuck him. What goes around comes around. He got his just rewards. He fucked me over and my attitude is an eye for an eye.” A subsequent investigation led to Keane being banned for five matches and fined £150,000, although sceptical readers may wonder how long a prison sentence Keane would have received had the incident occurred outside of a football stadium. Three years later Keane was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame.

While Roy Keane was Manchester United’s enforcer on the pitch, Sir Alex ran the club like a dictatorship. “Fergie’s rule was absolute”, notes Channel 4’s John Anderson. “Loyalty was a quality to be demanded and repaid in equally unswerving fashion, and his word was law.” Pundits marvelled and chuckled at his ability to discipline his players and play macho psychological mind games with his opponents. On several occasions he has been banned and fined for using abusive language to match officials. In a widely reported dressing room incident he kicked a boot in anger that hit David Beckham in the face, requiring stitches. Never mind that this bullying management style would get him immediately sacked from every other workplace in the UK – Sir Alex, we have been told repeatedly in the last week, is the greatest manager ever to have graced the English game. His “achievements demand not just respect, they deserve to be studied and learned from”, argued Robinson. Tony Blair’s own enforcer Alastair Campbell may look up to Ferguson, but what has any of this got to do with those working for democracy, justice and equality except to serve as a guide about how not to behave?

As these representative examples show (I could easily have cited countless others) the type of masculinity constructed and reinforced in the footballing world shows football to be an important, highly conservative influence on contemporary gender relations, largely working to reproduce existing inequalities in society.

And nowhere is football’s resistance to contemporary gender norms more obvious than when talking about the total absence of openly gay players in the professional game. The first openly gay footballer was trailblazer Justin Fashanu – also the first one million pound Black player. “A bloody poof!” was how his manager at Nottingham Forest football club, Brian Clough, described him. Justin’s own brother disowned him when he came out in 1990. “He has come out publicly and stated his sexual preferences, so now he will have to suffer the consequences. I wouldn’t like to play or get changed in the vicinity of him”, said John Fashunu. John went on to present the hit TV show Gladiators. Justin killed himself in 1998.

While sports scholars like Ellis Cashmore and Jamie Cleland argue homophobia among football fans has significantly decreased since those dark days the lived experience on the ground gives less cause for hope. In January 2012, Robbie Rogers left Leeds United by “mutual consent”. A month later he announced he was gay. In a statement Rogers said that remaining in football after declaring that you were gay was “impossible”.

Football is also stuck in the stone age when it comes to women. This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider sports scholars have long explained that professional, organised sport as we know it emerged in the late 19th century in response to a number of challenges to men’s traditional power, not least the rising consciousness and power of women in society. As Michael Messner, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, notes:

Sport was a male-created homosocial cultural sphere that provided men with psychological separation from the perceived ‘feminization’ of society, while also providing dramatic symbolic ‘proof’ of the natural superiority of men over women.[3]

More than a century later and “the locker room” continues to be “the last preserve of the all male world”, according to Michael Kimmel, Professor of Sociology at State University of New York.

Football’s endemic sexism hit the headlines in 2011 when the Premier League’s top commentating team, Sky Sports’s Andy Gray and Richard Keys, were caught making disparaging and sexist comments about a female linesman and to a female colleague in the studio. In another incident Keys, off air and talking about Jamie Redknapp’s former partner, lewdly comments “Would you smash it [have sex with her]?… You could have gone round there any night and found Redknapp hanging out the back of it”. Gray and Keys were dismissed by Sky Sports, but it’s important to note their behaviour only became an issue when a (presumably disgruntled) colleague leaked the footage to the media.

What should be clear from all these examples is that the type of masculinity promoted reproduced in the footballing world is not an aberrant masculinity which can be dismissed as the way other men – criminal and psychopathic men, perhaps – act. Rather, it encapsulates many of the values and behaviours that make up mainstream, perhaps even the dominant, form of masculinity today.

The problem, as Cynthia Cockburn and Ann Oakley cogently argued in 2011, is that these “widespread masculine traits and behaviours are dangerous and costly both to individuals and society.” According to Government figures, in 2009-10 men were the perpetrators in 91% of all violent incidents in England and Wales: 81% for domestic violence, 86% for assault, 94% for wounding, 96% for mugging, 98% for robbery. 2009 Ministry of Justice figures show men were responsible for 98% of sexual offences, 92% of drug offences and 89% of criminal damage. 99% of child sex offenders are male. On the road men commit 87% of all traffic offences, 81% of speeding offences, 97% of dangerous driving offences and 94% of motoring offences causing death or bodily harm.

To summarise, the sport that so many of us support financially and emotionally, and the players we idiolise and cheer on, promote a highly conservative version of masculinity that is damaging, sometimes deadly, to women, children and society more generally. Where, then, are the progressive and feminist voices raised in protest and anger at the gender politics of football? Where is UK Feminista? Where is the Fawcett Society? Where are the critiques in the Guardian’s women’s pages? And where, most importantly, are the men who say they are feminists who want more equality between men and women? As chef and Norwich City fan Delia Smith once shouted: “Where are you? Where are you? Let’s be having you! Come on!”

Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The march that shook Blair: An oral history of 15 February 2003 published by Peace News Press. and

[1] Mariah Burton Nelson, The stronger women get, the more men love football. Sexism and the American culture of sports (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), p. 8.

[2] For example Michael Messner, ‘Boyhood, organized sports, and the construction of masculinities’, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, January 1990, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp-416-44.

[3] Michael Messner, Out of play. Critical essays on gender and sport (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2007), p. 92-3.

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom

Chemical weapons in The Newsroom
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2013

Much like Matt Santos’ Obama-like bid for the White House in the Aaron Sorkin-penned television drama The West Wing, the sarin gas attack storyline in The – also Sorkin written – Newsroom prophesised events in the real world. But it’s not the Syrian Government who is accused of using chemical weapons by the staff of fictional news network ACN but the American Government itself. Led by Jeff Daniels’ charismatic anchor Will McAvoy, the news team believe they have uncovered a massive cover-up by the US military.

During the discussions about whether to run the story, White Phosphorus (WP) is mentioned, with ACN’s president Charlie Skinner noting in passing that if US forces “shot White Phosphorus into an enclosed area that alone would be chemical warfare.” His remark is ignored and the narrative soon moves on. The story (spoiler alert!) turns out to be false. There was no government cover-up.

Sorkin, seen as one of the smartest guys working in television, seems to be unaware that there is no need to explore the issue in a fictional context: The US has fired WP in an enclosed area – in Falluja, Iraq in 2004, with many arguing this constituted the use of a chemical weapon. I’m not aware of any reliable figures for how many Iraqis were killed by the US use of WP in Falluja. However, a Red Cross official noted that at least 800 civilians were killed during the November 2004 US assault on the city. During the attack the US targeted medical buildings, cut off the water and electricity supply, refused entry to aid agencies and refused exit from the battle zone to males aged 15 to 55 years old.

Initially, when questions were raised the US military denied using WP as a weapon. However, in 2005 bloggers uncovered evidence showing the US had indeed deployed WP as a weapon. “WP proved to be an effective and versatile munition”, noted the March 2005 edition of the US army’s Field Artillery magazine about the US attack on Falluja in November 2004. “We used it for screening missions at two breeches and, later in the fight, as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes where we could not get effects on them with HE [High Explosive]. We fired ‘shake and bake’ missions at the insurgents, using WP to flush them out and HE to take them out”.

Speaking to the BBC a spokesperson for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) stated that “If… the toxic properties of white phosphorus, the caustic properties, are specifically intended to be used as a weapon, that of course is prohibited, because the way the [Chemical Weapons] Convention is structured or the way it is in fact applied, any chemicals used against humans or animals that cause harm or death through the toxic properties of the chemical are considered chemical weapons.”

For me, a lay person, this quote seems to show the US use of WP in Falluja in 2004 should be considered a use of chemical weapons. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot agrees, telling Democracy Now! In 2005 “The US Army was acting in direct contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It committed a war crime.” However, the chemical weapons experts I contacted for clarification were far from certain. Dan Kaszeta, a former officer in the US Army’s Chemical Corps, noted “WP falls into a grey area and opinions” vary widely. Alastair Hay, a Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, noted the OPCW definition above “requires a lawyer to interpret it.” Another expert who declined to be quoted explained that if used as an incendiary WP is not a chemical weapon, although if it is used for its toxic properties then it could be considered a chemical weapon.

While the experts stress the complexity of the issue, it should be noted the Pentagon has no problem making a clear statement on the subject. A declassified US Department of Defence document from 1991 reports that “Iraqi forces loyal to President Saddam may have possibly used white phosphorus (WP) chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels”.

All this is important when one considers how the possible use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Government in August 2013 caused an avalanche or moral outrage in the media. Taking her cue from the US and UK governments, the day after the chemical weapons attack Channel 4 News′s Sarah Smith asked “Syria chemical weapons horror – is it time for intervention?” Over at the Independent the front page headline on 26 August 2013 was ‘Syria: air attacks loom as West finally acts’. The Indy’s use of “finally” speaks volumes.

In contrast, although the possible use of chemical weapons by the US government in 2004 received some attention from the mainstream media, it was often reluctantly covered following pressure from concerned viewers and readers. There was, and continues to be, a noticeable lack of moral outrage outside of a couple of honourable exceptions like Monbiot and John Pilger. And there has been a distinct lack of further journalistic investigation, which if the experts’ uncertainty is anything to go by, is desperately needed to uncover the truth.

Arguably, Sorkin, along with many contemporary conspiracy theorists, fundamentally misunderstands how modern day propaganda works. The most effective, most insidious thought control is not based on huge cover-ups involving tens, maybe hundreds of people. After all the US use of WP in 2004 did receive some coverage in the mainstream media. But importantly it has been quickly forgotten and certainly didn’t inform the political debate about how or who should respond to the Syrian Government’s possible use of chemical weapons. War crimes happen and war criminals get away with it because the historical events are refracted and therefore shaped by non-conspiratorial journalistic and academic processes such as omission of key facts, framing, sourcing bias, subservience to power, careerism and adherence to the dominant ideology.

As with many things, George Orwell explained it best. “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”, he wrote in the suppressed preface to his 1945 classic novella Animal Farm. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” How? “At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

The continued silence of the vast majority of UK journalists, columnists and editors clearly shows it is currently “not done” to say the US may well have used chemical weapons in Falluja in 2004. Or that the US helped Iraq to use nerve gas during the Iran-Iraq War, as Foreign Policy magazine recently reported. No doubt many journalists in Syria have also stayed silent about the many crimes of the Assad Government. And for good reason – reporting inconvenient truths in Syria today could well be life-threatening. What excuse do journalists working in our supposedly free and combative media have for their silence?

Ricky Gervais and our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals

Ricky Gervais and our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 May 2014

As a man who seems to take immense pride in his own rational and scientific view of the world, the comedian Ricky Gervais will no doubt be surprised to learn that he encapsulates our confused and hypocritical relationship with animals.

Let me explain. Speaking to the Guardian recently, Gervais said his cat was his most treasured possession and that “that one thing that really depresses me is animal cruelty.” This concurs with his many tweets on the subject and also an interview he did with GQ magazine: “I love animals. Growing up, the two things that made my blood boil were religious intolerance and animal cruelty. I’ve never understood it. I can’t stand to have an animal in pain. I’ve got to get it out of my head. It makes me angry, I want to cry, I want to stab someone.”

Like Gervais, we are, as the oft-repeated saying goes, a nation of animal lovers. And like Gervais, most of us eat meat. Now, call me old fashioned, but elementary logic suggests you can’t love animals and be a meat-eater at the same time. What with killing and eating them and everything. For example, if I was writing a list of things I wouldn’t do to someone or something I love I’m pretty sure the first thing on the list would be “not eating it or them.” I love my partner, for example. This means, among many other things, that I wouldn’t eat my partner. At best a meat-eater is someone who loves animals that are fortunate to be loved by a human being. Cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, rabbits, goats, deer, horses – far from loving these animals, meat-eaters are one of their main enemies.

Claiming to be an animal lover while eating animals is especially bizarre considering one doesn’t need to eat animals to live a healthy life. In fact the weight of scientific evidence suggests a vegan or vegetarian diet is healthier than a meat-rich diet. And it’s better for the planet too. Gervais and many other people claim to love animals. But what could be crueler than killing an animal and eating it when one doesn’t need to do so to live a healthy life?

This next bit will be even less popular, but I want to go one step further and ask whether keeping animals as pets, as Gervais does, is compataible with being an animal lover.

I’ll put aside the fact Gervais recently starred in an advert (he needed the money, you see) in which he encouraged people to buy Audi cars, even though the leading cause of early death for domesticated cats is road accidents. What I’m interested in is whether Gervais and the millions of other people who keep cats and dogs as pets really keep them with the animal’s best interests at heart.

Take the neutering of cats and dogs. This is an invasive and brutal operation which helps human society but seems to take away a fairly fundamental part of being an animal – procreation. How many dogs and cats try to neuter themselves before they are sent for the snip to the vet? Have you ever come home to find your puppy fumbling with one of your kitchen knives trying to sever its own bollocks? Or caught your kitten trying to dial the number of the local veterinary office on the cordless? People often put bells on their cats to stop them being successful hunters. Dogs are made to obey humans and are fed and exercised according to our timetable. Dogs and cats are often left in the house, sometimes in one room, often alone, while we go about our human business. As I mention above the RSPCA (aswell as anecdotal evidence) shows that the motor vehicle is a great danger to cats. Yet millions of people continue to keep cats in urban areas.

Clearly, then, pets are looked after and loved to the extent they fit in with our often busy human lives and all too human peccadillos. In short, human interest overrides animal wellbeing if the two clash. This is because we keep pets primarily for our own wellbeing, not for animals benefit. This is implicit in the first statement on the BBC Ethics webpages looking at keeping pets: “Keeping pets gives many people companionship and great happiness.”

To be clear, I’m not claiming the moral high ground. I’m not a vegan and have been known to get emotionally attached to domesticated animals. And I’m not making light of Gervais’s important work on animal welfare – I support all progressive activism, reformist or radical. However, I do think it’s important to think critically about a subject that is pretty much taboo today. With the environmental impact of keeping pets and eating meat so high perhaps the existential threat of runaway climate change means it is a good time to start a conversation about our mixed-up relationship with animals?

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun   
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
15 September 2014

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the blackest days in British newspaper history. Though almost entirely forgotten, on 15 September 1964 the popular Labour-supporting Daily Herald newspaper was re-launched as The Sun that we all know and loathe today.

The Herald was founded in 1912 by a group of radicals including union leader Ben Tillett and Labour politician George Lansbury. Fighting to establish its name in an industry with prohibitively high capital costs, money was so tight in the early days that at one point the paper came out in pages of different sizes and shapes after some discarded paper supplies had been found. Between 1914 and 1919 financial troubles forced the paper to temporarily publish as a weekly to survive. Luckily, the paper’s politics were built on firmer ground. According to James Curran, Professor of Communications at Goldsmith’s, the Herald was a “freewheeling vehicle of the left, an important channel for the dissemination of syndicalist and socialist ideas”. It gave strong support to industrial action, the suffragettes and Russian Revolution, while opposing the First World War and its attendant conscription.

Taken over by the Trade Union Congress in 1922, the paper’s rebellious independence was neutered, though it continued to provide an alternative analysis and vision of society to the rest of the Tory-dominated press. In 1933 the Herald became the largest circulation daily newspaper in the Western world, topping two million copies a day, despite the hostility of the political class. However, the paper had an Achilles Heel – its readership was overwhelming working-class, older men with little purchasing power.

Why was this a problem? Ever since the repeal of advertising duty in the 1850s, newspapers had become heavily reliant on advertising revenue, as they still are today. Therefore, the key was to attract readers with money to spend. As Sir Charles Higham, the head of a large advertising agency, noted in 1925, “A very limited circulation, but entirely among the wealthy… may be more valuable than if circulation were quadrupled”. This cold economic reality was a disaster for the labour-orientated Herald. “Our success in circulation was our undoing”, Lansbury, then the Editor, said in 1919. “The more copies we sold, the more money we lost.” Previously, governments had tried to restrict working-class and radical publications by levying newspaper stamp duty and taxes. In contrast, Professor Curran believes the Herald’s problems with advertising highlights how “Market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed in conscripting the press to the social order.” The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, who recently argued that it was advertising that led to the independence of the press, should take note.

After the Second World War, the Herald’s money problems continued, the paper moving from one crisis to another. These difficulties shouldn’t be confused with unpopularity. In the Herald’s last year of publication it had a circulation of 1.2 million, more than five times the circulation of The Times, and a readership of over 4.7 million – double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian combined. However, even though it achieved 8.1% of national daily circulation, the paper only received 3.5% of net advertising revenue.

In an effort to secure the future of the paper, in the 1950s the Herald’s management turned to market research (which found the paper had the most devoted readership of all newspapers). Informed by the results, the Herald was re-launched as The Sun in an attempt to diversify and ‘upgrade’ the readership – to produce a “more representative make-up essential to advertisers”, as an internal memo put it. Writing in his diary at the time, Tony Benn described the transformed paper as “appalling… basically the same minus the Herald political content.”

Increasingly commercial and politically directionless, the paper staggered on until 1969 when a then little known Australian newspaper owner called Rupert Murdoch bought it and the sexist, celebrity-obsessed, news-lite, Thatcherite Sun was born.

It was a hugely ironic ending for a paper that had been a consistent voice for the working-class and labour movement. Continuously undermined by market forces, Professor Curran notes it had the indignity of being of being “converted into a paper which stood for everything the old Daily Herald had opposed”.

The Herald’s loss is especially noticeable today. The majority of the national press continue to tack to the political right, and is far to the right of the general public on many major issues. Even The Guardian, generally considered the most liberal and left-wing national daily, has shown great hostility to trade unions on occasion.

So 15 September 1964 was a dark day indeed. Perhaps we should wear black armbands in remembrance next year?

This article was inspired by and largely sourced from James Curran and Jean Seaton’s Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting and the New Media in Britain and Huw Richards’s The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left.

*An edited version of this article was published on Open Democracy.