To prove Breivik's sanity, they rolled out the crazies

A deft piece of courtroom theatre in the Breivik trial.

It was one of the weirdest days of the trial so far. They thought they had been given the chance to blow the whole conspiracy wide open. Instead the extreme right-wing obsessives called to testify for the defence in the Anders Breivik trial were exposed to the contempt and bafflement of the ordinary people they typically lionise.

After weeks and weeks of horror, even the survivors of Breivik’s 22 July massacre laughed in the court as the politically marginalised took the stand and relished their moment to finally preach their truth. Each of the unpleasant foursome had their jealous ideological niches – the ever-fractious far-right always will - but each agreed on the existence of a left-wing conspiracy deliberately preventing their popular views from reaching the masses.

In a trial where the only question is over the sanity of a confessed murderer of 77 people, it seems wrong to indulge in reductive pop-psychology. But the temptation is irresistible: in order to prove his sanity, Breivik’s defence had rolled out the crazies.

Ronny Alte, former leader of English Defence League spin-off, the Norwegian Defence League, moaned to a court packed with teenage survivors of a holiday island massacre, how his views means he must fear for his life. Arne Tumyr, chairman of Stop the Islamisation of Norway, complained furiously that the Muslims in his country meant “Winnie the Pooh’s friend, Piglet, is now considered an impure animal.” Tore Tvedt, leader of irrelevant Neo-Nazi organisation, Vigrid, blamed the ever-guilty Jews. Ole Jørgen Arnfindsen, initially adding a sheen of academic authority before descending into unfathomable conspiracy theorising, blamed… It was impossible to know who he blamed.

Each condemned the murders. Yet each still believed they had been called to his defence to legitimise those elements of Breivik’s philosophy where their own obsessions overlapped. They had not. In a deft piece of courtroom theatre, Breivik’s defence counsel, Geir Lippestad, gave them just enough room to show that being a sad, lonely, obsessive may make you a crackpot. But it does not necessarily make you mad.

Each one of these men could have been excused from testifying. A string of witnesses, including Carl I Hagen, the former leader of Norway’s mainstream anti-immigration Progress Party, and Mullah Krekar, Norway’s most notorious Islamic fanatic, were exempted despite originally being on the defence list. Most were able to argue that being called to defend Breivik would put them in an unsafe and morally unbearable position. Lippestad said he had no desire to force them.

Those who did appear were either unfailingly committed to the Norwegian judicial process or saw their appearance as an opportunity to break through the conspiracy and finally be put in front of a receptive public. The fact that they were literally laughed out of court should, but won’t, have dented their belief in a deliberate campaign to ensure their marginalisation.

Breivik complained in his 1,500 page manifesto that he mailed to 8,000 email addresses on the morning before his attacks, that he too had been ignored. He had written twice, we learned, to the influential Oslo daily Aftenposten to complain about its Islam-biased coverage of international affairs. His letters were never published. Hilde Haugsgjerd, the paper’s editor-in-chief said well-written contributions likely to appeal to more than a handful of people were favoured.

Anyone who has struggled through his manifesto, will know Breivik’s missives were deeply unlikely to have met either of these criteria. Yet in some dark corners of the internet, his heartfelt views and pseudo-academic justifications were swallowed and, no doubt, even admired. For the political marginal there is always a constituency and in the shouty internet such constituents can evidently make you feel mainstream.

Arnfindsen is the editor of honestthinking.no, a site aimed at people who don’t realise that websites which evoke truthfulness and honesty should be regarded with the same scepticism as restaurants that testify to their cleanliness. On his site he has hits and acclaim. Shorn of his online echo chamber he and everyone else was shown why he is marginalised. Unable to construct a logical argument, incapable of properly weighing evidence, and flinging out unsubstantiated allegations like a small child playing Cluedo, he like the other nuts who testified to Breivik’s sanity were exposed for what they are.

Breivik wishes to be considered sane. It is galling that these people's testimony could help him to achieve his aim. But there must also be satisfaction in exposing these crackpots as the fairy tale villains they are. Raymond Johansen, general secretary of the Norwegian Labour Party so loathed by Breivik, said it was important their views should be heard. “If a troll comes out into the sunlight it will burst,” he said. “If it remains in the dark it will grow.”

Mark Lewis is a freelance journalist reporting from the Breivik trial in Oslo. He tweets as @markantonylewis.

Norwegian right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik sits on 6 June, 2012 in the courtroom in Oslo. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.