Violence renewed

How the cowardly slaying of two soldiers and a police officer in Northern Ireland has been covered o

Responding to murder

It's been more than ten years since peace in the country has experienced such violent hiatus – and the murders of army and police personnel by republican terrorists in Northern Ireland has dominated the blogosphere this week.

John Wright, writing on Socialist Unity, was unsurprised by the Antrim attack, believing that it exposed underlying flaws in the peace process.

“It involved throwing money at the communities involved in a clear attempt to buy their support,” he wrote, “hoping that in time the contradiction that lies at the root of the conflict – namely partition – would recede in importance in line with a peace dividend in the form of prosperity and a boom in consumption.”

Wright believes that as darker economic times come upon us, the divisions that characterise the country are inevitably re-emerging.

There was a tangible hardening in of condemnatory rhetoric amongst republicans following the killing of a police officer in Craigavon, an act claimed by the continuity IRA. Former government advisor Conor Ryan regarded Martin McGuinness' press conference with DUP leader Peter Robinson and Hugh Orde as a sign of the “penny having dropped” among Sinn Feinn politicians, writing that McGuinness “expressed himself with unprecedented emotion and feeling”.

South Armagh republican Chris Gaskin was less than mournful at the death of British soldiers – but at news of the police murder, he wrote “I'm starting to feel slightly angry at the moment and I never thought I would ever feel that reaction in relation to the death of a peeler”, going on to say that: “these people cannot succeed in allowing this country to slip back into chaos, they just can't!”

On the leading blog for coverage of Northern Irish politics, Slugger O'Toole's Turgon examined the question of whether Sinn Feinn's initially “stuttering condemnation” of the army murders amounted to a missed opportunity for the party, which, he argued, should be using the airwaves and internet to call on constituents to assist the police.

Northern Ireland Tory Seymour Major wanted us to spare a thought for former DUP MEP Jim Allister, now representing 'Traditional Ulster Voice'. Allister, he blogged, is puzzled by unionist support for McGuinness' stance following the attacks – and is now keenly seeking to make political capital from Sinn Feinn's rejection of stepped up security.

Finally, the silent protest against violence, led by the trades union, was captured beautifully by Belfast photographer Phil O'Kane.

What have we learned this week?

That the government has apparently abandoned any pretence of sanity, decency or consistency, by granting Hezbollah's Ibrahim Moussawi the right to enter the UK, just weeks after refusing the same to Geert Wilders.

Around the World

Riyadh-based blogger Ahmed Al-Omran commented this week on injustice in the Saudi judicial system. He blogged about the elderly Syrian woman in the KSA, who was lashed and deported for having two men who were not relatives come to her house and sell her bread. Ahmed considered it “a slap in the face” for the country and welcomed news that human rights lawyer Abdul-Rahman al-Lahem is to take on the case, “not just for the sake of the old woman and the two young men, but also for the cause of justice and human rights in this country”.

Video of the Week

Watch footage of the president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Patricia McKeown, address the crowd at Belfast peace protest, courtesy of WIMPS, a Northern Ireland website dedicated to improving youth engagement with public representatives.

Quote of the Week

“So as well as a return to recession we have the return of people who think that murdering working class teenagers is a good and noble thing.”

John Gray on Labour List

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder