Breivik has not been given a platform

Television has exposed the mass murderer for who he really is.

Is a televised trial giving Anders Breivik what he wants? It’s one of those odd coincidences that the start of Breivik’s trial should happen in the same week that cameras were allowed in a British courtroom to see the sentencing of murderer David Gilroy.

Not for Gilroy the chance to be facing the camera or crying at his own manifesto; he was well out of shot while the judge sent him down for 18 years. But as ever, one of the fears about cameras in British courtrooms might be that attention-seekers like Breivik could commit atrocities to find a primetime TV platform to justify their despicable views and actions.

Breivik is one of those people for whom the phrase "the banality of evil" could have been designed. As he recalls, with calmness, the meticulous planning of ending other human beings’ lives, there seems barely a trace of compassion gutting in his eyes; he could be reading out a shopping list, or talking about the weather. Only when he saw his own hateful manifesto did he blub like a baby.

He looks like everyone and no-one; he could be your next-door neighbour or your friend. It’s only when you see the photographs of him in his military gear, or making that pathetic little man’s salute, that he steps out of the everyday. Is this trial, his time in the spotlight, giving him exactly what he has always wanted – to be the centre of attention, to have a platform for his noxious ideas, to coldly justify his atrocity on the grounds of politics?

Without courtroom television, his trial would have been very different: we would have had to have relied upon court sketches of Breivik rather than moving pictures; we wouldn’t have been subjected to that salute every day (although that has now been curtailed); we would only have had reports of his statements, rather than hearing them in his voice.

It must seem to some that Norway is bending over backwards to accommodate the wishes of this mass killer, and that television coverage is way in which he is spreading his message. But the case is of such public interest, such magnitude, that it seems too important not to be covered in this way – particularly when one of the key judgements to be made is in the mental competence or otherwise of the defendant. How else can the public be informed unless they can see? There are only a few limited places in court, most of which are taken by press and relatives.

Far from glamorising Breivik’s crimes, the televised proceedings have brought home the stark reality. He  is not getting a platform, he is just getting what anyone else would be entitled to, no more, no less. He is no-one special, even though he hoped he would become so through his actions.

The more I watch, the more uncomfortable it gets. It is hard for most of us to conceive of the "evil" that would wilfully cause such suffering, but there seems to be no evil surrounding Breivik. He has made a serious of calculated choices over a considerable period of time that led him to slaughter other people, to fight a war that no-one else was fighting. Seeing the trial is a sobering experience, but without seeing, how can we try and understand how these atrocities happen, and hope to prevent them in the future?

Perhaps putting cameras in courts is one way of taking the mystique away from criminals, and showing them for the people they really are. There for all to see is the banality of evil, the pathetic grandiose dreams of someone like Breivik. His "manifesto" of cobbled-together lies and distortion has been put out, but how many has he converted to his ignoble cause? And how has television done anything but exposed him for who he really is?

Right-wing extremist speaks during his trial at the central court in Oslo. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times