Saudi embarrassment

The killing or the homosexuality – which seems worse to the folks back home?

The news that a Saudi prince is on trial in London for killing an aide who was reputedly also his gay lover will be enormously embarrassing to the government back in Riyadh. Saudis dislike bad publicity intensely, and especially when it involves a case as horrific as an alleged princely murder — as we in Britain should know well. In 1980, the Saudi government expelled our ambassador and banned Concorde from its airspace after ITV screened Death of a Princess, about a young member of the royal family who was executed for the "crime" of conducting a secret relationship.

In the opinion of David Gardner, author of Last Chance: the Middle East in the Balance (and who wrote a fascinating essay on Saudi Arabia for the NS last year): "This prince has become a very hot potato for the Saudi ruling family. Though a minor princeling, he is the grandson of a king who has tried to project an image of austere probity, to limit the power of the clerical establishment and curb the excesses of the more wayward and corrupt royals.

"Then along comes this . . . which presses just about every Wahhabi button in its transgression: murder and homosexuality against a backdrop of phenomenal quantities of alcohol and drugs."

Shamefully, however, just as humiliating for the royal family will be the revelations that Prince Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir al-Saud, who is King Abdullah's grandson, is homosexual. The details of the case make this plain — something called the Spartacus International Gay Guide was found in his room, and two male escort agencies testified he had used their services since checking in to the hotel.

It is not as though homosexuality is unknown in Saudi Arabia. In a daring piece for the NS in 2007, Harry Nicolaides wrote of one attempted pick-up he experienced. (So daring was the piece, in fact, that at the time I couldn't believe his lack of regard for his own safety. My worries proved well founded, as Harry's bravery, or recklessness, was later to land him in jail in Thailand for violating lèse majesté laws.) And Robert Lacey devoted a section of his recent book Inside the Kingdom to an account of the prevalence of lesbianism in Saudi — a chapter to which some reviewers paid rather overenthusiastic attention.

But officially this "vice" is not tolerated, and sodomy is punishable by death. This is in line with a society that likes to insist on its version of the truth and airbrush awkward episodes from the official record. If you look up the country's second ruler, King Saud, for instance, on the kingdom's official government website you will not be told that he was an obese, lazy, spendthrift playboy who proved so incompetent that the almost unthinkable step of deposing him was taken in order to make way for his brother Faisal. No, you merely find a bland paragraph listing his "achievements" and dates on the throne.

The Saudi government, however, cannot control coverage of Prince Saud's trial. Surprise, surprise, if you try to look it up on the website of Arab News, a Saudi-owned English-language newspaper, the closest you get is a four-day-old story about Russia commending a different Prince Saud (the king's nephew) as a diplomat. But as this fascinating article in the Atlantic shows, internet restrictions are easily bypassed by the kingdom's citizens, not least by those logging on to gay dating sites.

Prince Saud's story will soon be known. Perhaps some of those reading it will shudder, and give thanks that nothing similar happened to them — after all, they may have met him online already . . .

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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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