The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 30th, 2007

Sorry, Suu Kyi, but love won’t topple the junta

Almost everyone seems to need heroes. There may be a few excessively rational beings who think they don’t or people who can never help noticing the clay about the feet of even the noblest. But the rest of us long for some incarnation of goodness and courage.

For most of us, it is genuinely inspiring to know that we are alive at the same time as someone who behaves outstandingly bravely and nobly in the face of great fear and hardship; that such people are not only characters of myth and legend, but flesh and blood and clay like us. They might make us better; they remind us of better things. At times when people feel oppressed by their own cynicism, they are signs of hope.

Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma is undoubtedly one of the world’s great heroines. In the past few terrifying and inspiring days in the streets of Burma, her name and her example have been on everyone’s minds, though she herself is not free to join the people in their marches: she has been under house arrest for most of the past 18 years. So I was sorry to discover that several young adults I know had never heard of her. It is rather as if they had not heard of Nelson Mandela.

It was not easy to explain quickly what is remarkable about her. To me the most astonishing thing is that of her own choice she sacrificed living with her much loved husband and two sons in England in favour of life – a half-life for nearly 20 years – under house arrest in Rangoon.

She could have seen her young boys grow up, she could have been with her husband during his last illness and death, she could have had an interesting and happy life in the West among friends and fellow academics.

This ought not to seem more poignant just because she is beautiful – she dresses exquisitely in the Burmese longyi, often with an exotic flower in her hair – and talented – she plays Bach in her captivity – and delicately charming. But because of the clay in our nature, it does.

She made this terrible sacrifice knowingly and deliberately and modestly for her people in Burma. As she said in 1988, when she first went back to Burma from family life in England, “I could not, as my father’s daughter, remain indifferent.”

Her father was Aung San, a leader of Burma’s struggle for liberation from colonialism. He was assassinated when she was only two, and afterwards she lived and studied abroad for many years, being much influenced by Gandhi’s ideas of ahimsa and satyagraha – love for everyone, including one’s opponents, and nonviolent opposition – exactly what the Buddhist monks have demonstrated in the streets these past few days, until they were violently suppressed.

Aung San Suu Kyi came back to Burma in 1988 to nurse her dying mother and was immediately drawn, her father’s daughter, into politics. She headed a political party, the National League for Democracy, which won a general election with an enormous majority, but other leaders were jailed and she was put under house arrest. Otherwise, she would rightly be the prime minister of Burma. Instead it is run, or rather being destroyed, by a vicious group of genocidal, incompetent militaristic kleptocrats, backed by China and Russia.

What is particularly heroic is that Aung San Suu Kyi could have gone back to her family and to freedom at any time. The generals did not dare kill her. They only dared isolate her in her house, and she feared that if she left Burma they would never let her back in.

So the years have passed, with her children’s youth, her own youth, her husband, and all for something uncertain and fragile. It is all for the idea that truth and love and peace have overriding power against evil, and will prevail without violence. Truth and love and peace will set her country free.

This is difficult stuff for the western sceptic. All around the world, now and in the past, it seems that violence does indeed prevail, and turning the other cheek is, to say nothing harsher, distinctly quixotic. Tilting at windmills may be admirable, in a way, but it is futile. There is a big gap between Asian and western thought on this. Only yesterday Maung Zarni of the Free Burma Coalition published an article in The Times under the headline “‘Loving kindness’ will beat the generals”, and spoke of a new dawn on the Burmese horizon.

He wrote proudly of his Burmese great-grandmother who told him of a bloody encounter in the 1930s in Mandalay between the forces of the British Raj and some peaceful, unarmed Buddhist monks and nuns who – just as today’s “loving kindness army” of monks and nuns – stood up to them on behalf of Burma’s poor. Just as today they were shot and beaten down in pools of blood, unsung heroes but heroes nonetheless.

My response to that story is that the British Raj did not leave because of this noble protest, but for all kinds of other, unrelated reasons, many economic. One was the loss of the will to power, which had much more to do with necessities in Britain than with protests on the spot. The British wanted and needed out of empire, so voluntarily they left and then freedom didn’t follow anyway. Strictly speaking, I suspect, the brave Buddhists died in vain. The monks weren’t winning then, and I am afraid, despite the hopeful comments of Maung Zarni, and the long sacrifice of Aung San Suu Kyi, they aren’t winning now.

I don’t really believe that peace and love will prevail over the evil generals in Burma. I don’t really believe that the forces of heroism prevailed in South Africa, or in Northern Ireland, though they must have made a mark, where they were not ignored, forgotten and generally unsung. What brings change finally are political and economic forces. No amount of heroism will bring peace and plenty to Darfur, Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan, and the worst of the African states. The only thing that might is the clout of foreign powers, and even that is doubtful. So with Burma.

I don’t mean to sound entirely pessimistic. Aung San Suu Kyi, and heroes and heroines like her, remind us of all that is best. They remind us what real courage is, and encourage us towards it, and that alone is enough to make them truly heroic.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 23rd, 2007

Too late to speak the truth about immigration

In our repressive world of thoughtcrime and guiltspeak, it now takes great courage to tell the truth, even when it’s obvious. Fortunately there are a few brave people prepared to do it, and Julie Spence, the chief constable of Cambridgeshire, is one of them. Last week she courageously said the unsayable and pointed out that the large numbers of recent immigrants are causing serious problems in her manor.

Dangerous crime, such as drink driving, human trafficking, credit card fraud and knife crime, has gone up substantially and her officers are now having to deal with people speaking nearly 100 different foreign languages. The cost in translation fees for Cambridgeshire is close to £1m a year.

Some people might discount the claims made by Spence and her detailed report into the impact of immigration on her force as a crude way of getting more money out of the government. Others might say that the police all too often use their resources badly anyway, and what’s needed is probably better management rather than more money. But all that is beside the point. What she has made clear is blindingly obvious – a large and sudden influx of immigrants, whatever advantages they might bring, will inevitably come at very great cost, in many different ways. What’s true of Cambridgeshire is true of the country as a whole, and not just in policing. How strange it is, and how late, that it is beginning to be possible to say such a thing without being denounced as a neo-Nazi.

The Labour government, in its 10 years of office, has allowed more than a million new people from all over the world to settle in this country. That is little short of a social revolution. Twenty-five per cent of babies born here have at least one foreign-born parent. Several large cities will have a nonwhite majority within a few years. We have seen almost uncontrolled immigration – Labour has lost control of our borders.

Whatever the positive results of this astonishing change, there are some very spectacular negative ones. Big city hospitals are weighed down with masses of new patients who don’t speak English, or who won’t see male doctors or who cannot get GPs and clog up casualty departments. Local authorities, as in the notable case of Slough, find they have large numbers of immigrants for whom they cannot get extra money to meet the new costs of housing, social care, welfare and so on.

As for schools, I cannot understand why nobody makes the obvious point that standards in schools are bound to suffer when many tens of different languages are spoken among the schoolchildren; how can any child progress in reading, writing and talking English, and being acculturated as an English-speaking Briton, when the rest of the class don’t speak it?

At our local school in west London there are more than 90 mother tongues, and a high proportion of recent immigrants or asylum seekers – dislocated, confused and homesick as they must be. It is a perfect recipe for collapsing standards in education, which is what we’ve got.

If the broken society means anything, it means one in which the civil bonds between individuals, their families, their neighbours and their institutions are seriously damaged. It’s perfectly obvious that multiculturalism was bound to sever the ties that bind; too much diversity means not enough solidarity, and a broken society, as we have seen, and will see more. The babel and bedlam of Damilola Taylor’s estate in Peckham is a terrible example.

Even Trevor Phillips has now spoken of sleepwalking to segregation and even his own outfit, the Commission for Racial Equality (soon to become the Commission for Equality and Human Rights), published a grim and angry report last week about a “fracturing” society, growing ethnic segregation and growing extremism.

It’s good that such people recognise it, but it is absolutely maddening that they, who contributed so much to it themselves, don’t understand their own responsibility for it. It was also quite sickening to hear Liam Byrne, the minister for borders and immigration, cravenly welcoming Spence’s comments last week: “It’s because we want to hear voices like Julie Spence’s,” he said, “that I set up the Migrant Impacts Forum.” It is “vital”, he said, “to consider the social impact of immigration when making migration decisions.”

Indeed it is vital, and was vital 10 years ago, and 30 years ago, when all governments, especially his, failed to do so. And it’s laughable for him to talk about some damned “forum” on the impact of “migrants”; some proper research should have been devoted to it in 1997.

Of the complex problems caused by mass immigration one of the easiest to see and to quantify is in housing. We all know there is a housing crisis and a terrible shortage of affordable homes. On Newsnight last week Sir Andrew Green of Migrationwatch UK pointed out – and his figures, based always on government figures, are not challenged even by Whitehall – that we will have to build 200 houses a day for the next 20 years to meet predicted housing needs.

Apparently this came as a surprise to the presenter Jeremy Paxman. Liam Byrne then pointed out that Gordon Brown has promised to build 3m new homes. What did not emerge in the programme is that one-third of all new households are being formed by immigrants and, therefore, 1m of Brown’s promised 3m will have to go to immigrants.

Nor is the government very keen to quantify the net benefit to the economy made by immigrants. They may swell productivity but they also swell the population, and will also need schools and hospitals and housing, and care in their old age. According to Migrationwatch, the net effect of immigrant labour on GDP is £1 per week per person.

It is shocking that this massive, historic change was forced upon us without consultation and without our consent.

Who wanted it? Who is responsible for it? And why? In casting about for an answer, perhaps it’s worth considering the Mori survey into black and ethnic minority attitudes to voting and to politics at the 2005 general election. Of those who voted, 58% chose Labour, 10% Conservative. I hope that isn’t a thoughtcrime.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 16th, 2007

Madeleine, the detective story that grips

Stories are essential to us. Those who say our obsession with the extraordinary story of Madeleine McCann is shamefully prurient, sentimental or commercial may be partly right, but they are missing the point.

We need great stories, and have done so time out of mind, to enable us to understand the world and our places in it.

Our fascination with Madeleine’s unfolding story – most of it speculation and fantasy – has a great deal more to do with ourselves than with her or her parents. And her parents have deliberately awakened and fed this elemental appetite for a story, to the point where only the most high-minded or unimaginative can be indifferent to it.

Bruno Bettelheim, the psychologist who worked with damaged children, wrote a wonderful book called The Uses of Enchantment in which he discussed how fairy stories – some of them extremely frightening – enable children to confront their worst fears and anxieties. The tales enable children to measure themselves against them from a place of safety in the real world, as opposed to the dark forests and treacherous icy wastes of the world of the fairy tale. That is the ancient function of all stories.

Madeleine’s story is not enchanting in the ordinary sense, but it has cast the spell of the fairy tale over the public imagination. And the adult version of the fairy tale is the detective story, the thriller, the whodunnit. That’s why this story has brought out the Miss Marple, the Sherlock Holmes or the Kay Scarpetta in all of us.

We are all – apart from the most implausibly high-minded – trying to take control of this nightmarish, archetypal story by understanding it and measuring ourselves against it. The public response to it, no matter how mawkish and gossipy, is not necessarily frivolous, any more than it is frivolous to read Hansel and Gretel or The Silence of the Lambs.

Thrillers are moral puzzles in which good contends with evil. The reader is invited to accompany the detective, and often to become the detective, to puzzle out the truth of some great wrong and put it right. It is probably because this idea is so simple and because, in real life, wrong isn’t always put right or understood that thrillers are usually considered an inferior form of fiction – not “serious”. I don’t think they are necessarily inferior. I even wrote one, in the 1980s, called The Eye of the Beholder but no doubt it has long been out of print.

As an avid reader of detective stories I feel there is something both fascinating and serious about seeing events as moral puzzles; it’s not just a tabloid taste. Reading Agatha Christie or Elmore Leonard may not be as sophisticated as reading Dostoevsky, but it is not so very different; it is where many people get their sentimental education.

The McCanns’ story so far, with all possible respect to their feelings, is an extremely good thriller. At every new development, every new rumour, a new question emerges, a new challenge for our forensic or psychological skills, for our Miss Marple-like moral intuition.

Why, for instance, did the grieving mother, the beautiful blonde mater dolorosa, wash Madeleine’s Cuddle Cat? Surely any innocent woman would want to cling to the last traces of the scent of her child; a guilty woman might want to hide forensic evidence. On the other hand, my dear Watson, perhaps the toy was just genuinely dirty, having been touched by so many superstitious wellwishers that any scent of the missing girl had long since disappeared as well. Is Kate McCann’s quiet self-control a sign of great courage, to which we should all aspire, or is it a sign of coldness? Would coldness suggest guilt?

Above all, this story tempts us to put ourselves in the McCanns’ place. What if, on one of those times when you or I left our children unsupervised, they had disappeared? What if, for that matter, in a moment of terrible bad luck I had accidentally killed my own child while in a hick town in Portugal? This story has made me realise that I would most certainly try to cover it up. I would almost certainly try to persuade my husband to help me. One does not have to be an ignorant xenophobe to find the thought of handing oneself over to the Portuguese criminal justice system unacceptable; one has only to look at the abysmal way in which the authorities there have handled Madeleine’s case to feel justified in doing almost anything to stay out of their clumsy clutches. Even in Britain the criminal justice system is not entirely reliable. My children’s and my husband’s lives would be ruined as well as mine in a nightmare of jail, foster care and disgrace.

The horrible suspicions surrounding Madeleine’s mother have made me understand that there are some circumstances in which I might feel entirely morally justified in trying to cover up such an accident. In the newspaper shop on Saturday morning a woman aggressively asked us all: “Innocent or guilty?”

In the real world such questions are, or ought to be, or used to be, impermissible in public. In the real world we must presume that the unhappy parents are innocent until proved guilty. I believe they are innocent, almost as wholly as I believe in the presumption of innocence. However, in the magical world of stories, people can and should imagine what they like. In this case they are doing exactly that. The swathes of speculation on the internet and the horrifyingly tasteless musical video tributes to Madeleine are nothing short of amazing.

It is the McCanns’ misfortune, and perhaps their miscalculation, that by seeking publicity and trying to manipulate it, by hiring media managers, raising money, starting a blog and encouraging others to meet in cyberspace, they shifted their predicament out of ordinary reality into the world of virtual reality – which is the unreal world of thrillers and fairy stories.

In virtual reality there are no rules; it is chaos, for us to make sense of as best we can. The internet is the Pandora’s box of our time. Nobody can shut it, but one of the many morals of this story is that anyone in trouble should stay well away from cyberspace.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 9th, 2007

You’re taking liberties with our DNA

There is a conflict, it often seems, between science and freedom. The more scientists discover about us, down to microscopic genetic tendencies we might have to aggressive impulses or early dementia, the less secure we feel in our liberties.

Our secrets are not safe, not even the ones we didn’t know ourselves. The more such things are understood and recorded and electronically shared, the more anxious we feel. This information is power, for better or worse, and people will be tempted to seize it. That is no reason to become a Luddite, but it certainly ought to make us all particularly watchful about our liberties.

So it came as a toast-dropping surprise to hear a distinguished appeal court judge recommend on the Today programme last week that every person in this country ought to be put on the criminal DNA database, along for good measure with every foreign visitor. One might expect some hanging and flogging judge (if there are any left) to take an authoritarian line, but Lord Justice Sedley is known for his interest in human rights.

One of his concerns is that ethnic minorities are overrepresented on the database, and that this is unfair. To make things fair, he thinks we should all be rounded up and have our mouths swabbed, man, woman and child, so things are equally unfair for all of us.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Stephen Sedley once belonged to the Communist party. Compulsory equality is at odds with personal freedom, and while Sedley is no longer a party member, he has grandiose ideas; he lists “changing the world” as an interest in Who’s Who.

Admittedly there might be a case to be made for having everyone’s DNA profile available to the police; it might help to solve more crimes. However, Britain already has the world’s largest DNA database, yet since it was introduced 12 years ago the rate of solving crime has remained unchanged.

Much more powerful is the case the other way. Putting the entire population on the database is an abuse of the freedom of the individual in itself. It offers terrible and so far unimagined abuses in the future; the better the DNA code can be read, the more complex and extreme the abuses could be. The risks of conspiracy would conspire with the greater risks of cockup.

We know that British bureaucrats and politicians have an appalling record with computers and personal information. The massive NHS database is a shameful case in point. Everyone in their right minds will try to stay off it. So too are the many errors of the tax and benefit system, which makes mistakes that are almost tragic when poor people suddenly find themselves in serious debt. Only last week the parliamentary public accounts committee found that a new subsidy due to English farmers had been grotesquely mishandled.

And these are the people – the politicians and the apparatchiks – that Sedley proposes to let loose on the intimate details of our DNA! If Whitehall cannot manage the details of a few farmers one dreads to think what the nomenklatura would do with about 90m new genetic profiles, or indeed with our NHS medical details. Even when they did not abuse, lose, confuse or accidentally reveal our secrets themselves, other people would most certainly steal them to abuse them, through hacking or corruption as well as inadequate security.

That is surely why the government proposes to remove details of the children of celebrities from an education database. It takes breathtaking ignorance of what happens to powerful information in the real world to suggest that everyone’s most sensitive details should be exposed to such serious risk.

Last week, for instance, it emerged that the Chinese are particularly good at hacking into other countries’ sensitive information, including our own military and Foreign Office computers. Ministers tried to play this down, much as they tried to ignore a Chinese cyber-attack on the House of Commons computer last year.

In view of these embarrassments, you might imagine the government would stand firm against Sedley. You might expect new Labour’s self-styled champions of human rights to cut back the criminal database, by about 1m, to remove everyone except those convicted of a crime. On the contrary, ministers are “broadly sympathetic”, to Sedley’s suggestion, according to Tony McNulty, the security minister. He said the government has no plans to put everyone on the database, but the truth is that the Home Office is planning to add to it considerably. A review will be published in February.

It is wonderful to know so much about genetics. The risk that this knowledge might be abused must always be weighed against the advantages it offers. Here what is needed is practical evidence, not arguments of principle. In the criminal DNA profile case, the risks quite clearly outweigh the rewards. Nobody can guess at what DNA profiles will soon reveal and how that knowledge could be abused; having some criminals at large is one of the many prices of freedom.

However, in the case of hybrid embryos, which aroused fury last week – much more, oddly, than the DNA database – the risk-reward relationship is the other way around. It is alarming to think that geneticists are going to create embryos that are part human and part animal; terrible things might conceivably happen. If one distrusts Whitehall, why should one trust the men and women in white coats?

The answer is purely practical, based on experience. Scientists have a hugely better reputation than politicians or bureaucrats for intelligence, integrity, competence, truth-telling and sticking to the rules, especially when they are independent of the state. The hybrid experiments will not affect everybody; in fact they won’t even affect individual people. They may help to heal people with terrible diseases, and if they don’t the only loss will be minute quantities of living tissue and a great deal of time, effort and hope.

It is conceivable that knowledge discovered in these experiments might somehow be used against persons unknown. But the conflict in such matters is not between science and freedom, but between freedom and the abuse of science.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 2nd, 2007

Pushing mothers back into work is wrong

A photograph of a nasty-looking woman called Geraldine Rama appeared in a newspaper last week; she made the news because she had bitten a 10-month-old baby boy in her care “with considerable force”, according to medical evidence. It emerged that both his legs were broken as well.

Naturally, social workers were at first inclined to blame not the gruesome Rama but the baby’s unhappy parents and he was placed on the “at risk” register. Things were sorted out, after six months, and Rama has at last been taken off the childcare register, but the story is a terrible warning. You leave your babies and little children with childminders and crèche workers at grave risk — to them, to yourself and to society at large.

Not every child carer, I admit, is driven by fell impulses to savage infants. All the same, the nightmarish Rama had her moment of notoriety on the day when an Ofsted report announced that thousands of babies and children were at risk from “inadequate” childminders. About 20,000 children are left with carers who neglect them, leaving them crying and hungry, and a further 125,000 are left in care no better than “satisfactory” and with scope for improvement. I can’t help feeling dubious; if Ofsted’s assessment of schools is anything to judge by, I would be very sceptical of its notion of what is satisfactory or better than satisfactory.

Be that as it may, Ofsted has found that standards are declining significantly in an industry that has sprung up rapidly to look after children whose mothers and fathers are working. One in 12 workplace crãches was found inadequate as was one in 14 of the extended schools, which take in children before and after school hours. Standards are falling, particularly among childminders.

This comes when women feel unprecedented pressure to go to work, whether they want to or not; more than half of all mothers of children under five do so, leaving 0.5m children in daycare. What this means, often and even in allegedly satisfactory situations, is leaving children in their most impressionable and formative years in the care of poorly educated, poorly paid, poorly qualified or unqualified women, who come and go at a high rate.

Ofsted’s report came only a day after a six-year study by Durham University found that the government’s early years policies have been a £21 billion waste; Labour’s Sure Start scheme — along with its early years education and childcare — have had no impact.

This wasn’t news to those who have been following this fiasco. Two years ago a report by Birkbeck College in London found the same thing — and something worse as well. Not only did researchers find no discernible difference in children’s development, language and behaviour between those in Sure Start areas and those elsewhere. It also showed that some children of teenage mothers did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere — no mean feat.

Adding to this dazzling list of failure, it emerged last week that standards in the three Rs among seven-year-olds have dropped to their lowest level for seven years despite huge government spending in primary schools; one in four boys fails basic writing standards. Standards among 14-year-olds are dropping and employers complained recently that they have to retrain semi-numerate and semi-literate recruits. All this was overshadowed by discussion of knife and gun crime among feral children from malfunctioning families, one of whom murdered Rhys Jones.

Does one have to be a right-wing bigot to see a connection between these things? If mothers feel forced to rush out to work, many of their children will be seriously neglected and many seriously neglected children become damaged and destructive adults. Politicians bleat about good affordable childcare as the solution. But good childcare is in short supply and it is not affordable for most people, even when it can be found, without state subsidies. The result is predictable — bad childcare, or childcare that isn’t good enough.

If you leave your children to the fitful attention of strangers and take chances on the quality of care, you run the risk that they will be badly brought up and will do badly. We live in a society of state-driven and state-subsidised child neglect, promoted by Gordon Brown and his tax and benefit policies and his wraparound educare. He was a child-neglect chancellor for 10 years and he is now a baby-farming prime minister. The consequences are turning out to be disastrous.

There are many pressures on mothers to go to work, even when they have young children. Women both need to work and want to work and I would hate my sex to be shackled to the pushchair and the washing machine. All the same, the people who grumbled decades ago that feminism would destroy the family had a point.

Family life needs time and attention and so does raising a sensible, capable child; working life takes up time and attention, to the point where there’s not enough left for family life. The difficult job of socialising children has been abandoned by many women; along with it have disappeared the traditional functions of stay-at-home mothers — home-making, neighbourliness, elder care (as we have to call it now), charity work, community work and all the many things that make up civil society.

I don’t have any instant solutions. The irresistible force of a mother’s need and longing for work constantly comes up against the immovable force of her child’s need and longing for her. It also comes up against the demands of family life.

It is wrong to pressgang mothers into work with massive tax and benefit incentives; those incentives should be offered in the opposite direction — to mothers (or fathers) who stay at home to bring up children and who take on community work and charity work. Family life would become affordable; wider good works would become possible.

Some way would have to be found to discriminate against — yes, I mean it — the welfare queens who would have babies to avoid work. But if there were a will there would be a way. Then family life and family childcare and all the little kindnesses that make a good society would be — I can’t think of a better word — reincentivised.
At least the risk of baby-biting might decline.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 5th, 2007

Fatal mistake of a deluded film-maker

Film-maker Paul Watson’s protestations of innocence are unconvincing – as is his relationship with reality

‘Am I a manipulative sod?” asked Paul Watson, the documentary maker, last Sunday. He was giving an interview to this paper at a time of uproar surrounding his ITV film, scheduled for this Wednesday, about the death of a man with Alzheimer’s. “Am I a manipulative sod? I am,” he answered, “because that’s what editing is about. That’s where you play God, and if you don’t play God truthfully, there’s no point.”

In the light of what has followed, this was an unfortunate confession. At that time almost everyone who took any interest in his film – Malcolm and Barbara: Love’s Farewell – believed that viewers would see Malcolm departing this life on screen. Many people disapproved. I wrote a column in the same edition arguing that there is something of the snuff movie about even the most delicately filmed death rattle; a man’s death should not be a television spectacle.

The public had every reason to believe Malcolm’s death was to be broadcast. Those who saw the film preview thought so, the ITV press release of July 20 said so clearly – Watson spoke in it of “filming to the bitter end” – and for days there had been a huge amount of publicity driven precisely by the rights or wrongs of filming real live death, as ITV no doubt expected. Neither the film-maker nor the widow said anything to disabuse us, and there was an odour of sanctimony about them; both he and she spoke heart-warmingly of the film helping people to overcome their fear of death.

So it came as a surprise when the dead man’s brother Graham wrote a blog on the Times Online website on Sunday evening (in response to my column) that Malcolm did not die on screen; he died several days later, after the end of filming and after Watson’s departure.

This put many people, starting with Watson, in an awkward position; if he hadn’t filmed Malcolm’s death, why had he let us think he had? Why had he not contradicted the impression that he had? Why does the film clearly suggest it? Watson’s response has been to take an adversarial stance of self-justification; on Wednesday he said on Radio 4 that his “crime” was that he hadn’t compiled the ITV press statement himself and hadn’t read it “sufficiently clearly”.

Now there’s a thing. He expects us to believe that an experienced media man like him, who has spent 11 years working with the Pointon family, at the end of all his impassioned creative input does not bother to read or try to influence the publicity introducing his own magnum opus. That isn’t easy to believe, to put it mildly.

Then there’s the matter of the alteration to the film that occurred to him so belatedly; he says he asked ITV last Monday to let him insert five words into the film “to explain that the picture you are looking at, at this moment, is not Malcolm’s death”, but that they initially refused. Why at that late date did this experienced director suddenly feel the need to insert “five words” to his long-considered, carefully completed and crafted film?

Are we to suppose that this hugely important moment, this “bitter end”, suddenly needed a bit of tidying up? Or should we, perhaps, make a different inference? We may never know, though ITV and a furious Michael Grade have started an independent inquiry. I have a curious piece of evidence of my own, which may interest readers who find this story as deliciously sanctimonious as I do.

Assuming the Times Online computer records are correct, Graham Pointon did not post his blog until 8.25pm last Sunday. At 7.24pm – before anyone could have seen Pointon’s damaging revelation – Watson sent an e-mail to me at my Sunday Times address. And in view of what he has said subsequently, it is rather astonishing.

It’s astonishing in what it leaves out. For nowhere in his strange, self-justificatory ramble does he say or hint that he did not film Malcolm’s death – he clearly suggests he did. Yet he had not, and this would have been the perfect knockdown defence against my column. He chose not to tell this truth. And nowhere does he complain to me of misleading publicity, or the need for clarification, which began to bear down upon him so forcefully a few hours later. I do not think he could have written to me as he did had he been aware of Pointon’s blog.

Nowhere does he suggest in his e-mail (as he has since) that the film “has been turned into something where it looks like I am trying to pass off a shot as a death scene . . . I was not there for the moment of death, quite deliberately”.

Last Tuesday he said in self-defence that “if anyone had bothered to call me I would have told them the situation”. But he didn’t tell me “the situation” in the e-mail he wrote to me, a journalist, two days previously. Indeed, almost the first thing he said to me was that he had filmed the moment of death before; last November he transmitted a film in which two alcoholics died in front of his camera, but nobody from “the usual suspects” or officialdom had complained.

“You must also know,” he went on, “that I lecture around the country against the insidious harm to ‘truth’ and the documentary form and indeed to ourselves by the ‘get rich quick’ formats of RDF, Endemol and others.” Words fail me. I cannot think of a character in fiction so preposterously self-contradictory.

I am not a lawyer but I do at the least think that Watson has been economical – or is it in this case generous? – with the actualité. I could go further and say Watson has an eccentric relationship with reality, and an arrogant one too. “You are right,” he wrote to me, “about the slight removal of reality (in a documentary) by my being present. But like grit in the oyster my presence can kill or produce a pearl.” This vaingloriousness prevents him from understanding that an audience doesn’t want the polished encrustation of the director’s embellishments; we simply want the real oyster.

The trouble with the enormous power of documentary television is that it tends to corrupt; it tends to produce manipulative sods playing God, quite often untruthfully. At the same time it tends to corrupt both truth and reality. I wonder whether Watson will continue giving lectures on the insidious harm to truth. God knows, I suppose.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 29th, 2007

A man’s death is not a spectacle for TV

The problem with reality television is its invasion of privacy and modesty without being true to life or even truthful

There is no more awesome reality than death. That is why it was bound to appear sooner or later, despite the taboo surrounding it, on reality television.

It has already appeared once on British television, in a 1998 documentary by Professor Robert Winston, which showed the very minute at which a man expired. Now it is about to be seen again, in a forthcoming ITV documentary made by Paul Watson, in which a man with Alzheimer’s dies in the presence of his wife and a television crew. Programmes like these, which are generally agreed to be high minded and well made, are not usually called reality television. The phrase “reality television” is now almost a term of abuse.

But that is surely what these rather superior films are. Anyone who is interested in privacy and truth must find them alarming, or at least a depressing reminder of a general loss of the sense of intimacy.

There is a case to be made for Paul Watson’s film. He is a long-standing and trusted friend of the dying man and his wife, Malcolm and Barbara Pointon, and had already made a film about them, when Malcolm’s Alzheimer’s was first diagnosed. With that film and in the years since then, Barbara Pointon has campaigned gallantly and effectively for better treatment of Alzheimer’s. She and Paul Watson both feel that this film will continue their work.

So far, so good, and one can only feel admiration and gratitude. It was brave, and it must have been hard, to let strangers see some of the distress that this terrible illness inflicts on all concerned. Perhaps it was less hard to let them record some of the good experiences, but it may have been helpful to many viewers who also face Alzheimer’s.

To see tenderness and courage in the face of illness and approaching death, to see enduring love – the Pointons were married for more than 40 years – must surely be encouraging to other people, whether in fiction or in fact, when it is skilfully represented. By general agreement, this lifts the programme to the moral high ground.

However, at this point the case breaks down. Showing the moments of Malcolm’s death is another matter entirely. Death is one of the most solemn and most intimate moments of life, and there are good reasons for the traditional feeling that strangers have no business there, least of all millions of total strangers who are simply whiling away an idle evening with the goggle box.

That doesn’t mean that nobody should be present at the hour of death or that it should be shrouded in mystery, or that we should be shielded from it. Doctors and nurses and priests may be needed and wanted, and so may wider family and friends, as well those who are most loved.

There are many traditions surrounding death beds, often including many people, and they all exist to mark the solemnity of death and to give comfort to the dying and to those who are about to be bereaved. None of them exists to allow the curiosity of strangers, still less to excite it. Death is not a moment for rubbernecking; there is something of the snuff movie about even the most delicately filmed death rattle.

The film-maker has said that he doesn’t want people to be frightened of death. Apparently Malcolm Pointon’s death was surrounded by peace and tenderness, and was, despite his earlier suffering, perhaps the death that we might all hope for. All the same we cannot possibly know what kind of death is waiting for each of us. The idea that that one can domesticate and demystify death by broadcasting one particular good death – seems to me absurd.

Besides, we should be frightened by death. Death is a fearful thing. The fear of it defines our lives, as we lead them, and its enormity gives us plenty of reasons to examine our lives before the appointed hour arrives. Insofar as we are able to contemplate death, we have constant opportunities to do so. We have the deaths of those around us, and the entire discussion of death in literature, art and music and of course in religion. It’s not necessary to invade the privacy of a total stranger to reflect seriously on death.

It is a racing certainly that when respectable television breaks the taboo about showing real live death, so to speak, it will not be long before less respectable television feels free to break it too. And what’s wrong with reality television – all of it – is not just that some of it is trivial, tasteless and sensational. It manages to invade people’s privacy and modesty and exploit people’s prurience without being real at all – without being either true to life or truthful in the way fiction can.

People do not behave in front of the camera as they do in real life. The presence of the camera drains everything of reality. Directors have to keep staging, restaging and selecting things. Anyone who’s worked in documentaries, as I have, will know there’s usually no other way of getting the good stuff in the can: “Could you just pick up the phone and receive the bad news once again, love” is the stuff of documentary making.

Almost everybody understands this now and is complicit in it. What they are doing when they agree to appear on reality television of any kind, from worthy to unworthy, is to present a reality that they prefer, to manipulate the reality of their experiences and their characters as far as possible, for one motive or another. Sometimes it’s just the simple need for attention. Often the motives are more sophisticated or more commercial.

That’s perfectly obvious from watching Big Brother; everyone is trying to play a starring role in the drama of his or her own life, as they would wish it to appear, often for commercial reasons.

The same applies to the proverbial fly-on-the-wall documentary. Nobody actually forgets about the fly’s television eye; its presence changes the reality it is supposed to be recording neutrally.

Everyone involved is trying to use television to control other people’s perceptions. Reality – which is to say unself-conscious, unmotivated, uncontrolled self-revelation – is the last thing on the participants’ minds, whatever they may persuade themselves.

The solemn reality of death has no place in the manipulative unreality of reality television.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 22nd, 2007

An unlovely display of Tory cynicism

Politics is about what you stand for, not about policies, according to a senior Conservative I talked to recently who represents Project Cameron. We have plenty of policies, he explained – that is true and it’s also true that voters and journalists seem usually to ignore Conservative policies unless there’s any chance of a pratfall – but what matters is what people believe you stand for, who you are.

That is, of course, largely an emotional question, but perhaps politics is always about emotion. A recent book by Drew Westen, now being avidly read in Westminster, argues persuasively that voters, even the most analytical of them, think about politics with the touchy-feely part of their brains, rather than the rational.

This can have come as no surprise to snake-oil salesmen of every kind, such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who have always understood it instinctively, or to public opinion gurus such as the American Frank Luntz, who first identified David Cameron’s impressive emotional appeal. It is not something that politicians can afford to ignore. The people’s feelings must be engaged – wooed, earned, won, seduced, manipulated, via the mass media.

The clumsiness and the cynicism with which most politicians have tried to touch up our feelings have been one of the most depressing and demoralising aspects of the Blair era. Countless images of Blair as mood-maker spring to mind, grieving for us, saving the world for us, making Britain a young country for us and ending with his infamous claim to being a straight sort of a guy. However, I suspect that the public is at long last beginning to be tired of this clumsy groping and is becoming much quicker to see it for what it is.

If the Conservatives want to do something new and inspiring, they should find a way of avoiding it. They would be mad, obviously, to ignore the voters’ emotional brains, but they should try to demonstrate that they wish to avoid, and will avoid, insincere public relations stunts of every kind. It would distinguish them clearly from Labour and its tainted history. In such self-denial they would luckily be helped by the fact that Labour now has a leader who is incapable of making emotional contact with voters at all.

Unfortunately, the Conservatives seem to be giving in to the usual temptations. Last week’s two by-elections were not in themselves disastrous for the Tories. In both cases they actually gained a few votes and Labour’s share of the vote went down by 14 points in Blair’s former constituency and by seven points in Ealing Southall. If this is the Brown bounce, the Conservatives have little to fear. What was disastrous for them was the whiff of opportunism and cynicism that hangs over them.

It was bad enough that their boy in Ealing, the Asian Tony Lit, was found to have given money to Labour only a month ago and had been photographed shaking hands with Blair. Indeed, he joined the Conservative party only a few days before the start of his election campaign. This suggests all too embarrassingly that the Tories were so desperate to have the PR coup of a high-profile ethnic-minority candidate that they just grabbed at the man without knowing much about him or his convictions.

Even worse is the Rwanda stunt. A gaggle of Conservatives, including Cameron, are flying off to Rwanda tomorrow to launch their global poverty action plan, or whatever they call it. Admittedly they seem mostly to be paying their own air fares, but this has all the integrity of Blair’s own constant picking at “the scar that is Africa”, to display his own humanity. The Conservatives should not be doing it.

Hardly anybody is impressed any more by pictures of politicians pressing starving flesh, or posing with amputees, or priming village pumps. Hardly anybody believes it means anything at all, even though good things may in fact be going on. Like obscenely expensive international humanitarian gabfests, the spectacular failures in Africa of pop star philanthropists, as well as of self-serving politicians, have bred deep cynicism. Such PR jaunts do still arouse powerful emotions, but these days they are the wrong ones – distrust and contempt. Perhaps this helps to explain why the Conservatives are now seven points behind Labour in the opinion polls.

Exciting political loyalty and interest need not necessarily be a matter of manipulation and deceit. When all else fails, why not try integrity? Genuine, seal of Good Housekeeping, A-grade integrity still has enormous brand appeal. Admittedly, Labour is also trying to flog it to the electorate in the person of Gordon Brown, but this is doomed to failure.

First of all, the unlucky man is entirely lacking in that innate emotional charisma that Cameron has in almost Blair-like quantities. Secondly, Brown’s record must undermine any claim he might make to integrity. One is spoilt for choice in looking for examples, but perhaps it is enough to mention his reneging on Labour’s election promise to hold a referendum about any European constitution. No one who has behaved as he has, over this alone, can have any serious claim to integrity.

Cameron still has the relative innocence of untried opposition. He could, perhaps, try a style of emotional appeal that is traditional and very British – that of understatement. It is not insincere, or untruthful, but on the other hand it has highly developed powers of persuasion. It tries to convince by its unwillingness to try to convince, so it is not and never has been entirely innocent of the black art of manipulation. But it does have the advantage of being truthful, of being literally true.

It corresponds neatly with Conservative philosophy – not trying to hatch vain empires, not intruding into people’s private lives or promising a new Jerusalem but, instead, modestly trying do useful things where possible and letting people get on with their own lives as much as possible. The Conservative world view is understated – aiming at less government, but not at less concern for the unfortunate. Cameron’s policies do fit this model. He is a proper Conservative. What he needs is to take a proper Conservative approach to public relations.


July 15th, 2007

Princess Margaret: A Life Unravelled

By Tim Heald. Self-conscious discretion is not what one wants in a popular biographer

“Poor brute,” wrote Cecil Beaton of Princess Margaret in 1973, “I do feel sorry for her. She was not very nice in the days when she was so pretty and attractive. She snubbed and ignored friends. But my God has she been paid out! Her eyes seem to have lost their vigour; her complexion is now a dirty negligee pink satin. The sort of thing one sees in a disbanded dyers shop window.” Princess Margaret was 43 at the time, a hard drinker, a heavy smoker and about to be a divorcee.

For all Beaton’s notorious spite, this is, on the evidence of Tim Heald’s biography, a fair enough summary of the princess’s story. The pretty and charming Princess Margaret Rose turned fast into a pocket monster, whose adult life was as much farce as tragedy, and ended in extreme ill health and loneliness. She had always been rather surplus to royal requirements, becoming obviously so after the birth of her nephew Charles and her niece Anne when she was barely out of her teens.

It must have been hard to be unnecessary, especially for a young woman brought up with a great sense of her own importance, plus the mixed blessings of beauty, wealth and extreme social status of a kind that is barely understood these days. All this was compounded by her lack of any particular intelligence or talent and her total lack of education. This explains, perhaps, if it does not excuse, her unpleasant and erratic behaviour; however, many aristocratic women then and since (including her niece Anne) have dealt much more gracefully with their lot, and Princess Margaret began to attract, from an early age, a remarkable kind of dislike, as did the man she married, the photographer Tony Armstrong-Jones.

“Such a symbol of the age we live in,” wrote Kingsley Amis at the time of their wedding, “when a royal princess, famed for her devotion to all that is most vapid and mindless in the world of entertainment, her habit of reminding people of her status when they venture to disagree with her in conversation and her appalling taste in clothes, is united with a dog-faced tight-jeaned fotog of fruitarian tastes such as can be found in dozens in any pseudo-arty drinking cellar in fashionable-unfashionable London. They’re made for each other.”

Although Heald never writes so brilliantly or cruelly of Margaret himself, he quotes many such comments, some of them gruesomely funny. And there is little in his account to contradict them. He paints a portrait of a vain, spoilt woman who is overaware of her position and whose adventures are often absurdly at odds with such hauteur. In 1981, for example, she was sent to Swaziland for the 60th anniversary of King Sobhuza’s accession. As Heald writes: “Princess Margaret was a useful emissary for occasions such as this where a royal presence was desirable but not one that was royal enough to suggest that the British were taking it quite as seriously as they might.”

The king was a huge, jolly 80-year-old who had reportedly sired 600 children and went about escorted by lots of bare-breasted women. When the princess was to present him with the KCMG, “he turned up wearing little more than a loincloth, a tiger-tooth necklace and a feathered headdress”.

Margaret had somehow to get the KCMG sash over his befeathered head and find somewhere for the Grand Cross; not easy, because there was only a thin band of goat’s skin to which it could be attached, and “the princess had to be very careful indeed not to plunge it into the king’s chest”. Resourcefully, she hung it on his necklace. “I’m never, ever going to give a medal to a man in a loincloth again,” she said later.

Perhaps it was the tragicomic farce and the tedium of such royal duties that drove her into the arms first of an unsuitable married man (Peter Townsend), a difficult and unsuitable husband (Armstrong-Jones), an unsuitable landscape-gardener toy boy (Roddy Llewellyn) and a rackety, jet-setting life. But happiness eluded her as much as popularity or respectability. Twice in this account, Heald asks himself Brian Redhead’s excellent question for a biographer – “Do you feel better for having known her?” His answer is “a sad ‘not really’”, and so is this reader’s.

A great deal is left unexamined by this book. Although Heald had access to papers in the royal archives at Windsor, he seems to have discovered little that casts new light on his subject, and his chatty, superficial tone doesn’t suggest deep analysis. Something or someone has inhibited him; there is so much he ignores. “She had a brief but passionate liaison with the society photographer Robin Douglas-Home,” he writes, “who subsequently committed suicide.” And that, astonishingly, is all he has to say about that. Rarely can a biographer have hinted at so much and said so bathetically little. Nor does he manage to bring the Townsend affair to life or add to our understanding of it. In his epilogue, he admits that he has said little about the princess and sex, and nothing about cocaine, although both featured largely in her life: “At this point,” he confesses “a certain weariness overcomes me.”

The reader, at this point, feels overcome by a certain indignation; it may be gentlemanly to refuse to speculate about royal sex, and it may be true that outsiders can never be sure of the truth of what has gone on, but such self-conscious discretion is not what one wants in a popular biographer.

PRINCESS MARGARET: A Life Unravelled by Tim Heald
Weidenfeld £20 pp368

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 15th, 2007

Lucy’s death illuminates a drug nightmare

When a young woman is brutally and meaninglessly killed, it must be tempting for people who loved her to look for something meaningful to blame.

Lucy Braham, a dearly loved fashion designer, was hacked to death in her parents’ home by a family acquaintance, 23-year-old William Jaggs. When the killer was sentenced last week to an indefinite stay in Broadmoor maximum security hospital, Miss Braham’s father blamed Harrow school and Oxford University.

It is easy to sympathise with him. Jaggs had been drinking heavily and taking drugs since he was a teenager at Harrow, starting with cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine, and going on to other drugs including LSD and crack at Oxford. “Drink and drugs appear to be readily available at Harrow,” Mohammed Khamisa QC said in mitigation, and of course the same is true at Oxford and most universities. The court heard that Jaggs suffered from borderline personality disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, partly brought on at Oxford by crack cocaine. He was mentally ill when he killed Lucy.

Her father blames the public school drug culture at Harrow and the “despicable drugs fraternity at Oxford University”. Most people would be inclined to agree that drinks and drugs probably played a large part in this terrible killing. All the same, it is impossible to know quite what causes what. Many doctors and psychiatrists are inclined to think that recreational drugs, not least cannabis, can trigger or perhaps even cause serious mental illness, including psychoses.

But the subject is controversial and it is true that Jaggs might have developed paranoid schizophrenia even if he had never done drugs at all. The reference to personality disorder, and other evidence in court, suggests a character who was always badly disordered. And conversely the overwhelming majority of people who abuse drugs, or who are mentally ill, or both, do not commit atrocious killings.

As Lucy’s father says, we cannot know whether Jaggs’s schizophrenia was induced or triggered by years of drug abuse. However, what is striking – and one can share Mr Braham’s anger – is the inexplicable failure of those in authority at Harrow and Oxford to pay proper attention to a young man who was clearly becoming more and more disturbed, and openly drinking and using illegal, dangerous drugs. Despite many warnings about him, Harrow failed to act, beyond asking him to leave a boarding house after indecently assaulting a younger boy. Oxford merely suspended him.

When I was a student, my university was supposed to be in loco parentis (a position abandoned when 18 became the age of majority). My school most certainly was. What has happened, in these supposedly caring and risk averse times, to these august institutions’ sense of pastoral care?

Contemporaries of Jaggs at Harrow have spoken of a drug culture founded on boredom and money. “If you wanted to use drugs you could get them – there was little to stop you. If you wanted to do ecstasy or coke you could just walk into someone’s room . . . I used to get sent down town to pick up pills or coke . . . We’d have [covert] parties at his parents’ house [Jaggs’ father, like Lucy’s, was a teacher at Harrow] where we’d do coke.”

This is true not only of Harrow. Every public school I know about has a drug problem; proved by the old joke of the public schoolboy, asked whether there’s a drug problem at school, who says confidently, “Oh no, not at all. You can get any thing you like here.”

One boarding school I know of has two night patrolmen out, with dogs, one for drugs and one for alcohol – despised and fooled by the children. I would like to think most public schools would do a great deal better than Harrow with mental illness such as Jaggs’s, but I don’t think many do better with drugs.

I just don’t understand why today’s schools – and indeed why my own entire generation of parents – are unable to stop our children taking drugs. We know drugs are illegal and most people accept that most of them carry some risk – perhaps a high one – of damaging our children’s brains, even if they don’t actually send them mad. These days only hardened deniers continue to insist there is absolutely no risk. So why this bemused inability to stop our children damaging themselves? Why this toxic laisser faire? It is an extraordinary failure of will and of moral authority.

Part of the answer must be that for so long my generation and later ones just didn’t know how dangerous drugs can be. The information wasn’t there and there was quite a lot of puritanical disinformation around as well. Many people still don’t entirely admit the risks, or feel they have escaped harm themselves. I myself thought drugs were only harmful to a very unlucky few, with addictive tendencies.

I didn’t realise the serious risk of long-term damage for most people and that of psychosis for some. Many of us thought drugs were fun, more harmless than alcohol and nicotine. I remember a university friend saying not long ago that the only problem with her children smoking weed was that it introduced them to tobacco.

The whole of London is lightly covered in a thin film of the devil’s dandruff, to use one expression for cocaine. It’s said there are traces of it on every banknote and not all users are young, by any means. Quite a few of my friends and acquaintances still smoke cannabis and are, of course, unable to keep this from their teenage and adult children. One carefully brought up teenager I know very well, on smelling his dad’s cannabis in the house, merely said to his sister: “I hope he hasn’t taken any of mine.”

What moral authority, then, have parents of all classes who’ve enjoyed drugs themselves to tell their children not to take any? What authority have teachers in much the same position? The problem is compounded by a general loss of authority, or perhaps by the general abandonment of authority by generations of parents and teachers since the 1960s.

Lucy Braham’s death, and William Jaggs’s crime, is surely due to a forsaking of moral authority and of pastoral care that extends far beyond Harrow and Oxford. If it shocks us into recognising that, perhaps it will not have been entirely meaningless.