Selective evidence: an ugly political game

Commentary surrounding the horrific Rochdale case speaks more for the critics than the victims.

As a polemicist, you’re faced with a choice when something as horrific and complicated as the crimes in Rochdale comes along. Do you research it, investigate it, look into it, and then arrive at your conclusions? Or do you simply see everything on the table as being evidence that you’ve been right all along? 

Look, I am a polemicist myself; here I am, writing this blog. And there’s a temptation to see a big news story, especially a shocking one like this, as something that can be scavenged for easy reaction. 

But this isn’t any ordinary news story: it’s a story about sexual predators and young people in care. It’s a story that involves lives being shattered and vulnerable people having been abused. Is it really the time to be picking over the evidence and looking for things that prove you right so you can stick two fingers up at your opponents? 

Julie Bindel writing in the Guardian sees the story as evidence that the media would rather focus on the ethnicity of the offenders than the fact that young girls have been preyed upon. Melanie Phillips, in the Daily Mail, says that this was a consequence of the "Islamophobia witch-hunt".  

Reading through blogs and opinion pieces from the usual suspects, it’s clear that a lot of disparate people with frequently opposing views have all found something to take from these crimes and claim as proof that they’re right. 

Of course they may all be right; they may all have focused on different aspects of the whole picture. Or they may all be wrong, focusing just on the things they want to see. But it’s interesting to see how this case, this shocking case in which real people’s lives have been ruined and wrecked beyond almost all comprehension, should have coincidentally proved so many commentators right about the things they believed before the trial took place. 

The guilty verdicts came in, and the keyboards started clicking. You and I could have predicted with a fair degree of certainty what was going to be said before it was said – some of these things just write themselves, after a while, and don’t even need the author’s byline there to give it credibility. Just feed the data into a machine and it’ll come out nicely and neatly arranged in the same predictable pattern. 

The thing is, what have we actually learned from these crimes, these wrecked lives and this whole miserable affair? Some conclusions were probably already drawn before the verdicts were delivered. Nick Griffin, of course, chose to make gleeful political capital out of it, before two of the convictions had even been decided upon – though anyone on a jury who could possibly be influenced by a Nick Griffin tweet shouldn’t be serving on a jury in the first place. 

I found myself increasingly frustrated when reading commentary on this episode. Some people were desperate to downplay whatever racial or cultural element to the crime there had been; others were determined to show that there was, and that their political opponents were somehow in part responsible for these men’s actions. It was not an entirely edifying spectacle, and the victims didn’t seem to be at the forefront of many writers’ concerns. 

Cheap political capital: a member of the BNP demonstrates outside the Liverpool Crown Court. Photo: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue