Goodbye to a marvellous racket

Stephen Bates welcomes the end of duty-free and sees in it a rare victory for social justice over th

This Easter, as you idly stroll the marble halls of some duty-free emporium while waiting for your holiday flight, pondering your last chance to choose between a bottle of that strange-coloured local liqueur or Old MacSporran's oak-cask-matured 25-year-old malt whisky, pause just a moment for quiet reflection. Even if it means you will no longer be able to weigh yourself down with a bottle of something you would never otherwise have thought of buying, you may still be able to derive limited satisfaction from the abolition of duty-free sales, for it reflects an increasingly rare victory for the European Union over the power of corporate lobbying.

That it has come about with no thanks to our government, which backed the corporate case, should produce a sobriety that not even MacSporran could dispel.

Duty-free - that long-established wheeze by which airports and ferry operators, airlines and terminal owners tempt passengers into buying at least partially tax-free goods such as drink, cigarettes and electrical goods supposedly cheaper than they can buy them in local shops - will end on 30 June this year for travel in the European Union. (It will remain for transcontinental travellers.)

It was a deal done and dusted eight years ago by the governments of the EU. To have reopened the issue would have required not just majority consent but unanimity from all 15 member states. Now there is no chance of that happening, though the duty-free lobby was still clinging to that hope this week.

Far from being a time-hallowed perk of sailors and air crew, duty-free is a commercial lure to part passengers from their money. It dates all the way back to 1947 when Shannon airport, desperate to win a piece of the transatlantic trade, introduced cheap sales. It has become big business. It is now worth £12 billion a year worldwide, nearly £5 billion of that in Europe, £1 billion in Britain alone. Those figures have doubled since the EU decided to phase out duty-free in 1991. The industry itself estimates that 140,000 people depend on such sales for their jobs and that over 80 per cent of all duty-free goods sold across the world are made in Europe.

The arguments for getting rid of duty-free are largely practical. The practice currently amounts to a subsidy of about £1.4 billion a year to duty-free companies; that is the amount they do not have to pay in excise and tax on their sales. The European Commission wanted to end it because it is an anomaly in the EU's supposedly single market, which is meant to preclude unfair competitive advantages between member states and companies. It is also a form of commerce that benefits only those who travel and disadvantages those who do not, who have to pay higher prices for the same products in their local shops because of it. The more you travel abroad, the more you're subsidised: business travellers most of all. Furthermore, it does not benefit all travellers equally - you can buy duty-free if you catch a plane to Paris but not if you go by bus or train.

As travellers know, not all duty-free sales are the bargains they seem and, because tax rates and discounts vary, that cheap bottle of ouzo you bought while waiting for the ferry may actually be cheaper in the shops when you get to your destination. And, if you want to be really po-faced about it, duty-free encourages people to buy more alcohol and cigarettes than is good for them, or at least than they otherwise would.

The European Union originally wanted to end duty-free in 1993, but it was postponed until 1999 to give the industry a chance to adjust gradually. Instead it has used the past eight years to build ever larger duty-free shops and shopping malls in the airports and terminals of Europe, to expand sales - and to lobby remorselessly and expensively to stave off the change. This week it was complaining about a "sudden" decision.

It has been a powerful campaign, costing millions (why stint when there is so much potential gain?), spearheaded by the owners and assisted by trade unions representing workers in the travel industry. In Brussels the lobbying has been masterminded on behalf of the International Duty Free Confederation by John Hume, son of the saintly Northern Ireland peace campaigner.

The industry has a case in saying that, as the European single market is still far from completion and there is no agreement on what duty should be levied on goods bought in transit, abolition is likely to leave an unsatisfactory vacuum. As you travel from Britain to France you will pay British rates of VAT; in the opposite direction, French rates. In mid-Channel, excise rates will change, which means you had better make your purchases on the French side of the line. If you sense a Commission ambition to harmonise excise duties and VAT you would not be mistaken.

More tendentious has been the argument that the end of duty-free means fares will rise and airports will lose investment. It beggars the question why these companies have been investing in their airport shopping malls these past few years. Are they really expecting to have to close them down? Or will they find another way of enticing passengers in?

The industry has naturally based its arguments largely on the effect the end of duty-free will have on employment rather than profits. It has claimed that more than a third of jobs may have to go, that half the airports of Europe will have to close and that ferry services will be decimated. It has been sad to see disconsolate ferry seamen and air cabin crews bussed to Brussels to complain that they are likely to be thrown out of work, with the connivance of the very employers who are about to sack them. As the driving rain drips remorselessly off their placards, they look like troops being prodded over the top by staff safe in their nice dry billets behind the lines at corporate headquarters. The Commission's study this week found claims of job losses were much exaggerated.

This time last year there wasn't a prayer for a postponement of the end of duty-free, no chance of the unanimity among the 15 member states required to reprieve it. When Ireland's finance minister Charlie McCreevy fought for the issue to be re-opened last May, he looked to be on his own. Britain's Gordon Brown dismissed the suggestion brusquely as something that had been already decided.

Slowly, however, duty-free seeped back onto the agenda. It started with Gerhard Schroder's election campaign in Germany where, to garner votes along the Baltic coast, he came out in favour of a review of the effect of the ban - there is a profitable trade in Baltic shopping cruises. Then the French premier Lionel Jospin commissioned an MP, fortuitously from Calais, to conduct a survey on likely job losses.

With France and Germany on board for a review, the British government also jumped ship. In December, at a meeting in Brussels, Brown suddenly discovered that he had always been in favour of a review, too. So unexpected was his discovery that, the evening before, officials in Whitehall had been briefing journalists that the government saw no reason to reopen a long-decided issue. Now suddenly the original decision was all the fault of previous Tory ministers. Brown even had the nerve to chide journalists for getting the government's position wrong.

The source of this Damascene miracle was not hard to find. It was the week the Sun dubbed Oskar Lafontaine, the German finance minister, the most dangerous man in Europe for his ideas on tax harmonisation. The tabloids were also beginning to make menacing noises about the loss of "our" duty-free. A couple of weeks later at the EU summit in Vienna, Tony Blair, who might otherwise have been under the newspapers' cosh over Britain's budgetary rebate or the tax harmonisation wrangle, was suddenly also claiming to be battling for duty-free. Heads of government spent an hour discussing the issue instead of the anticipated two minutes. Other member states reluctantly agreed to ask an even more reluctant European Commission to carry out a review of job losses. Blair told the Commission president, Jacques Santer, that he wanted a significant postponement because abolition would lead to "higher fares and much popular unhappiness". Note the emphasis.

Duty-free now looks likely to be abolished this June, but there has been an almighty behind-the-scenes row in the Commission over whether a delay might not after all be expedient. Last week I caught up with a very senior bureaucrat in a Brussels restaurant. He mused: "With all our other problems is this something we really want to go to the wall over? People want it, don't they?"

This week, the duty-free lobby was complaining, of all things, about a lack of democracy in the decision. For once, a limit to the power of corporate lobbying, more like.

Stephen Bates is European affairs editor of the "Guardian"

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.