John Pilger on Steve Bell and the cartoonist as true journalist

Steve Bell is a contemporary Hogarth, with a touch of Peter Sellers.

In its attempt to continue lawlessly spying on almost everyone, Britain’s “intelligence” and “security” establishment has launched an assault on the Guardian. Such is the rise of the totalitarian state that the secret police enter a newspaper to witness the smashing of computer hard drives, as happened at the Guardian, and the government, via a poodle MP, can call for the paper’s prosecution for treason. As if to prove its respectability, the Guardian has sought the endorsement of notables, including Nick Clegg, Harold Evans and other specialists in faint praise.

The most effective defender of the paper is not one of these. He has shaggy, dark hair and a beard – or he did when I last saw him. For more than 20 years I have reached for his work as you do for a first cup of coffee. He is outrageous, anarchic, brilliant, sometimes inexplicable and a bit mad (not really). For those who doubt the truth is subversive and often absurd, I point them towards two pages in the Guardian where he resides.

Only Steve Bell exposes consistently, fear lessly, the bullshit of “public life”. Indeed, his characters are often drowning in or waterskiing on the stuff. “Right! That’s it!” says the last governor of the Bank of England, Sir Mervyn King, to Gordon Brown, then prime minister, and Chancellor Alistair Darling. “Heads down, tea break over!!” They are up to their chins in a tank of turds.

Steve Bell is a cartoonist and a true journalist with few rivals. He is Hogarth and Swift with a touch of Peter Sellers and a sprinkling of Orwell. He is more of an English original than one of his prime targets, Margaret Thatcher, the former petit-bourgeois totem. Often using the wickedly all-seeing star penguin of his strip “If . . .” he rumbled both Thatcher and her protégé Tony Blair early in their criminal ascendancy.

While his Guardian colleagues swooned over Blair as a mystic of the “Third Way”, Steve Bell planted Thatcher’s crazed eye on Blair’s rictus mask. A print of that first appearance of the Thatcher/Blair eye, which he sent me, hangs in pride of place at home, though the gaze is disconcerting. Opening the Guardian news pages recently to find Blair boasting about his ability to absorb “the sense of pain” felt by others was like reading a Steve Bell cartoon.

If there was an authentic free press in Britain, newspapers would do as Steve Bell does; they would tear down the façade of a system in which the political parties have converged and democracy is a propaganda term. Labour is a conservative party whose new shadow minister for work and pensions, Rachel Reeves, formerly of the Bank of England, says an Ed Miliband government will be tougher than the Tories in cutting the benefits of ordinary people. Tristram Hunt, the new shadow education minister, says he “will not prevent” the opening of privatised schools. They are managerial Tories. Steve Bell refuses to play their game, which is designed to confuse and demoralise voters, especially Labour voters.

Unclubbable and unpredictable, he shines a white light on such betrayal and hypocrisy. He depicts all our rulers with the hilarious equanimity of his savagery. David Cameron, the former PR spiv, is perfect pink in his condom; Jack Straw, he who covered up the lies of Iraq and approved incarceration in Guantanamo, is sinister in outsized pebble glasses; Gordon Brown blusters about ending poverty while crawling into the colonic regions of the City’s fattest cats; and Clare Short. Ah, Clare Short. In 1999, having promoted herself as a feminist-of-the-people and Labour dissident, Short became one of Blair’s keenest warmongers in his “crusade” in the Balkans, the harbinger of his bloodbath in Iraq. The Nato bombing that triggered a human stampede and destroyed much of Serbia’s infrastructure launched Steve Bell’s inspired “armchair warriors”.

Flying across Balkan skies, formations of armchairs approach their targets: “We’re coming in, victorious . . . but eschewing triumphalism . . . you’d better believe it, Serb suckers!” In one large armchair sits Short: “I think the time has come,” says she, “for Pilger and his ilk . . . to show a little humility . . . and apologise for being so wrong . . .” Short, the then minister for international development had likened those who challenged the fraud of Blair’s war to Nazi appeasers. Steve Bell honoured her with a strip entitled “Armchair Cleansing for Beginners”.

Steve Bell was one of the first to expose New Labour and to satirise its creator, Peter Mandelson. “What are you doing up the tree, master?” asks the dog. “I am Man-dee, the one-eyed trouser snake . . . I am the keeper of the tree of New Labour knowledge. I know where the bodies are buried . . . I can destroy the Labour Party . . . Unless I am given an important cabinet post with immediate effect!!”

Visiting a comprehensive school, the disapproving education secretary, David Blunkett, demands “value-driven, faith-based targets . . . otherwise the [seeing-eye] dog gets it”. The headmaster, who happens to be the ubiquitous penguin, obeys and launches a new curriculum with this maths test: “Sixteen bishops are travelling to Synod. Six and a quarter per cent of them are arrested for indecent assault. How many bishops go free? You may use tambourines.”

As the Guardian has published Edward Snowden’s revelations and so drawn the ire of the Daily Mail, Steve Bell has welcomed the Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, into the dungeons of his “If . . .” strip. Resembling Sellers as Dr Strangelove, Dacre demands “ein bonfeuer of der red tape und der red everything!”. Even his proprietor, Lord Rothermere, looks alarmed, while the hollow-eyed death mask of Rupert Murdoch yells: “Free priss! Burn the tiny liftist Guardian!”

In the current issue of the Journalist, there is a Steve Bell cartoon that may turn out to be the image of our time – a journalist at work on his computer with a large jackboot bursting through the screen. Reminiscent of E H Shepard’s Punch cartoon “The Goose-Step” (1936), which famously warned of the rise of fascism, it is brilliant and not funny.

If there was an authentic free press in Britain, newspapers woudl do as Steve Bell does. Cartoon: Steve Bell for the Journalist

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.