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King Obama? The media are going overboard, says Mehdi Hasan

The press coverage of the US president's state visit to Britain is bordering on the ridiculous.

I blogged in the weekend about Andrew Marr's soft interview with Barack Obama in the White House ahead of his state visit to the UK. There were plenty of journalists willing to take potshots at Marr's giddiness and obvious excitement at being in the presence of "The One".

But newspaper journalists, commentators, pundits, broadcasters and bloggers alike have been fawning in their coverage of the US president since his arrival on our shores on Monday night.

It's a point that hasn't been lost on the more Obama-sceptic press corps back home in the United States. From USA Today:

President Obama traded a cozy pub for a spacious palace Tuesday, but the reception was the same: he was treated like royalty.


After basking amid one of the most affectionate audiences of his presidency Monday in Ireland, Obama arrived here to be feted by a queen and three generations of princes.

He and first lady Michelle Obama were welcomed at Buckingham Palace, where they were given a six-room suite last occupied by Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton, on their wedding night.

They were fawned over at Westminster Abbey, greeted warmly at No 10 Downing Street and, finally, lauded at the first state dinner thrown here for a US president in eight years.

I never thought I'd find myself in agreement with the City AM editor, Allister Heath, who tweeted:

Why is the UK media treating Barack Obama's visit with such deference? Feels like being in some 1950s BBC newsreel on trip by royal family

Forget Afghanistan or Libya, climate change or Middle East peace -- the real issues have been table tennis and the Downing Street barbecue. Take the BBC, the voice of the establishment, which, on its live blog, notes:

Now the news you've all been waiting for. After the grandeur of last night's state banquet at Buckingham Palace, we are told the Downing Street barbecue is a little more down to earth. Guests are apparently tucking into British sausages, beefburgers, Kentish lamb chops, corn on the cob, Jersey Royal potatoes, with tomato, mozarella and basil salad, then summer berries and ice cream to top it off. Sounds tasty.

Doesn't the "leader of the free world", the president of the globe's only remaining superpower, the commander-in-chief of the mightiest armed forces on earth, deserve proper scrutiny? Rigorous and serious coverage? Yes, he is a great speaker and a cool dude. Yes, he isn't George W Bush. But he is a foreign president who has done some pretty dodgy things (from helping undermine Copenhagen to doubling the number of drone strikes inside Pakistan). Or are all these issues off-limits?

As I type this blog post, I'm watching Obama and Cameron on television, in shirt sleeves and ties, grilling sausages in the No 10 garden. This is what geopolitics has been reduced to; this is what the "special relationship" is all about. Gimme a break . . .

The cult of Obama, especially in the British media, is deeply dispiriting. Having said all this, I'm now off to Westminster Hall to see the US president address both Houses of Parliament on issues unrelated to ping-pong and barbecues and I'm sure I won't be able to stop myself from going all weak-at-the-knees when he starts speaking. Agh!

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.