British woman faces death sentence

Should it be one law for “us” and another for “them”?

A British woman, Shivaun Orton, has been arrested in Malaysia for possession of drugs including cannabis, amphetamines and Ecstasy. The drugs were found when police raided the backpacker resort that she and her Malay husband run in the east coast town of Cherating. As the haul included over 15g of heroin, she faces death by hanging if convicted.

It cannot be long before the inevitable cries of outrage that a British national, the "daughter of a nuclear physicist" no less (code: she's middle-class, not some ill-educated scrubber with loose morals with whose fate the right-wing papers would be less concerned), might suffer such a fate.

No doubt the possible penalty, and by extension Malaysia, will be described as "barbaric" and "medieval", and every instance of courts in the country producing ludicrous, over-the-top judgments will be dredged up and presented as the norm, rather than the exceptions that they are. Oh, and there will also be no misgivings at all about the prospect of her husband receiving the same sentence.

I touched on this issue last year when two US citizens were freed from a North Korean jail after crossing the border illegally and when a convicted drug-smuggler, Samantha Orobator, was allowed to return to the UK from Laos to serve the rest of her sentence. As I wrote at the time:

The coverage of these cases, as so often when westerners are arrested in developing countries, focused almost exclusively on outrage at the conditions in which they were held and the sentences they faced. The garb of human rights hid a less pleasant, unspoken assumption: your laws shouldn't apply to us.

Even though, as I pointed out, "few will dispute that a state has the right to police its borders or impose penalties for drug trafficking . . . many westerners seem to think, 50 years after losing their empires, that they should still have carte blanche to wander the earth held to a different set of rules from those of the populations they deign to visit." Two examples then followed:

Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew made this point well in his memoir From Third World to First. "In 1993, an 18-year-old schoolboy, Michael Fay, and his friends went on a spree, vandalising road and traffic signs and spray-painting more than 20 cars. When charged in court, he pleaded guilty and his lawyer made a plea for leniency. The judge ordered six strokes of the cane and four months in jail."

Such sentences are common in the region; we hear nothing about them. But "the American media went berserk at the prospect of an American boy being caned on his buttocks by cruel Asians in Singapore", said Lee. Suggestions were made that the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation be moved from Singapore over this "barbarity".

The second example is particularly relevant to the Shivaun Orton case:

"Barbaric" was the very word bandied about by the Australian premier Bob Hawke when Malaysia hanged two of his countrymen for drug trafficking in 1986. But the more telling view was that of one of the defendants, Kevin Barlow. "Do you reckon they'll hang us?" asked his co-defendant, Brian Chambers. No, replied Barlow. "The Malaysians won't hang white guys."

Exchange the word "white" for "western" and you have, it seems to me, the real truth behind the protestations whenever one of our nationals gets banged up abroad for doing something they know they shouldn't have done. It's OK for them, but not for us.

As it happens, I don't think Mrs Orton will be hanged if she's found guilty – partly because she's a woman and the mother of two boys, and partly because the current prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, does not share the desire to take every opportunity to upset western sensibilities that characterised Dr Mahathir, who was in power at the time of the 1986 case.

Najib is from the old aristocratic, anglophile elite and was educated at Malvern College and Nottingham University. Whereas Dr M would have regarded David Cameron as colonising-class material and would have been very happy to irritate and embarrass him, Dato' Sri Najib prefers smooth relations and will not want the bad publicity that would accompany the hanging of a British national. If she is found guilty, pressure from the top will almost certainly result in a lesser sentence.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. Perhaps the commentariat will decide that UK citizens breaking laws abroad just have to take the consequences, like locals do. If there is an outcry, though, and calls emerge for David Cameron or William Hague to intervene, my question remains the same – how on earth do we justify the expectation that it should be one law for "us" and another for "them"?

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