John Pilger on President Obama: Don't believe the hype

Barack Obama is being lauded by liberals but the truth about him is that he represents the worst of the world's power.

My first visit to Texas was in 1968, on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy in Dallas. I drove south, following the line of telegraph poles to the small town of Midlothian, where I met Penn Jones Jr, editor of the Midlothian Mirror. Save for his drawl and fine boots, everything about Penn was the antithesis of the Texas stereotype. Having exposed the racists of the John Birch Society, his printing press had been repeatedly firebombed. Week after week, he painstakingly assembled evidence that all but demolished the official version of Kennedy's murder.

This was journalism as it had been before corporate journalism was invented, before the first schools of journalism were set up and a mythology of liberal neutrality was spun around those whose "professionalism" and "objectivity" carried an unspoken obligation to ensure that news and opinion were in tune with an establishment consensus, regardless of the truth. Journalists such as Penn Jones, independent of vested power, indefatigable and principled, often reflect ordinary American attitudes, which have seldom conformed to the stereotypes promoted by the corporate media on both sides of the Atlantic.

Read American Dreams: Lost and Found by the masterly Studs Terkel, who died on 31 October, or scan the surveys that unerringly attribute enlightened views to a majority who believe that "government should care for those who cannot care for themselves" and are prepared to pay higher taxes for universal health care, who support nuclear disarmament and want their troops out of other people's countries.

Returning to Texas, I am struck again by those so unlike the redneck stereotype, in spite of the burden of a form of brainwashing placed on most Americans from a tender age: that theirs is the most superior society in the world, and all means are justified, including the spilling of copious blood, in maintaining that superiority.

That is the subtext of Barack Obama's "oratory". He says he wants to build up US military power; and he threatens to ignite a new war in Pakistan, killing yet more brown-skinned people. That will bring tears, too. Unlike those on election night, these other tears will be unseen in Chicago and London. This is not to doubt the sincerity of much of the response to Obama's election, which happened not because of the unction that has passed for news reporting since 4 November (eg, "liberal Americans smiled and the world smiled with them"), but for the same reasons that millions of angry emails were sent to the White House and Congress when the "bailout" of Wall Street was revealed, and because most Americans are fed up with war.

Two years ago, this anti-war vote installed a Democratic majority in Congress, only to watch the Democrats hand over more money to George W Bush to continue his blood-fest. For his part, the "anti-war" Obama voted to give Bush what he wanted. Yes, Obama's election is historic, a symbol of great change to many. But it is equally true that the American elite has grown adept at using the black middle and management class. The courageous Martin Luther King recognised this when he linked the human rights of black Americans with the human rights of the Vietnamese, then being slaughtered by a "liberal" Democratic administration. And he was shot. In striking contrast, a young black major serving in Vietnam, Colin Powell, was used to "investigate" and whitewash the infamous My Lai massacre. As Bush's secretary of state, Powell was often described as a "liberal" and was considered ideal to lie to the United Nations about Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Condaleezza Rice, lauded as a successful black woman, has worked assiduously to deny the Palestinians justice.

Obama's first two crucial appointments represent a denial of the wishes of his supporters on the principal issues on which they voted. The vice-president-elect, Joe Biden, is a proud warmaker and Zionist. Rahm Emanuel, who is to be the all-important White House chief of staff, is a fervent "neoliberal" devoted to the doctrine that led to the present economic collapse and impoverishment of millions. He is also an "Israel-first" Zionist who served in the Israeli army and opposes meaningful justice for the Palestinians - an injustice that is at the root of Muslim people's loathing of the US and the spawning of jihadism.

No serious scrutiny of this is permitted within the histrionics of Obama mania, just as no serious scrutiny of the betrayal of the majority of black South Africans was permitted within the "Mandela moment". This is especially marked in Britain, where America's divine right to "lead" is important to elite British interests. The Observer, which supported Bush's war in Iraq, echoing his fabricated evidence, now announces, without evidence, that "America has restored the world's faith in its ideals". These "ideals", which Obama will swear to uphold, have overseen, since 1945, the destruction of 50 governments, including democracies, and 30 popular liberation movements, causing the deaths of countless men, women and children.

None of this was uttered during the election campaign. Had that been allowed, there might even have been recognition that liberalism as a narrow, supremely arrogant, war-making ideology is destroying liberalism as a reality. Prior to Blair's criminal warmaking, ideology was denied by him and his media mystics. "Blair can be a beacon to the world," declared the Guardian in 1997. "[He is] turning leadership into an art form."

Today, merely insert "Obama". As for historic moments, there is another that has gone unreported but is well under way - liberal democracy's shift towards a corporate dictatorship, managed by people regardless of ethnicity, with the media as its clichéd façade. "True democracy," wrote Penn Jones Jr, the Texas truth-teller, "is constant vigilance: not thinking the way you're meant to think, and keeping your eyes wide open at all times."

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

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“I'm to blame”: Blunkett's indefinite prison sentences and the thousands still locked up without hope

Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences were ruled a violation of human rights.

It was around the time her parents split up that 14-year-old Charlotte Nokes, known as Charlie, the “fun, wacky, popular, sociable child”, started misbehaving.

Her older sister, Rachel, had noticed her getting into trouble but put it down to Charlie having more spare energy after she’d given up judo and football. By trouble, she means smoking, climbing out of the window when she was asked to stay in, normal antics.

OK, maybe “not that normal”, concedes Rachel, but the kind of stunts and petty crimes to be expected from a frustrated teenager living on Hampshire's Hayling Island railing against her small-town boredom.

Certainly not the type of crimes that would see her die in prison under a 99-year Indefinite Prison Sentence.

Maybe it started with Charlie’s new-found independence working in a local butcher’s, her younger brother Steven soaking up much-needed attention from her now-single mother. Maybe it was her GP’s failed attempts to secure her the necessary treatment for depression, which turned into an alcohol-turned-heroin-turned-crack addiction. Maybe that sent her off the rails?

“It’s the chicken or the egg thing really,” sighs Rachel. “It could’ve been there underlying and the drugs exacerbated it, but you don’t really know do you?”

It was 2007. Charlie was 29 years old and looking for her next hit. Sitting outside a corner shop in Portsmouth, she settled to her regular routine. Skeletal, desperate, she would beg until she scraped enough money together for that glorious hit of white gold crack.

When one woman refused to give her money, Charlie brought out a knife. Not close enough to stab her – but near enough to scare the life out of her. “Quite rightly this woman was fairly traumatised by it”, says Rachel.

On Charlie’s 30th birthday she was given an Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence and was due to serve 16 months at HMP Peterborough. Nine years later, in July 2016, she died in prison.

The IPP sentence

Introduced in 2003 by Lord David Blunkett, Imprisonment for Public Protection sentences (IPPs) were designed to detain serious offenders, mostly sex offenders, who were perceived to be a risk to the public. The Home Office initially estimated that they’d incarcerate just 900 dangerous criminals under the sentence.

Like a normal prisoner, criminals would be given a tariff, such as Charlie’s 16 months, but could be kept in prison indefinitely as long as the Parole Board believed they still posed a threat.

The Parole Board would assess the prisoners’ continued risk based on psychiatrist and prison guard reports at Parole Board Hearings that take place about once a year for each offender. Some of the hearings are oral, some of them written.

By 2010 there were approximately 10,000 prisoners serving IPP sentences, over ten times more than intended when they were first brought in under the Criminal Justice Act in 2003.

In 2012, the sentence was abolished under the Coalition government thanks to a European Court ruling that claimed it violated human rights.

However, its abolition wasn’t retrospective, meaning there are still 3,500 prisoners serving the sentence without a release date, costing those inside their sanity and the taxpayer approximately £131m per year.

Read more: Why we should stop locking up drug addicts and the mentally ill

Andrew Neilson, head of campaigns at the prison charity, The Howard League for Penal Reform, says: “We are largely now talking about people who are post-tariff. You’re in a tunnel with no light at the end of it.”

“It’s terrible,” adds Rachel. “It just seems so inhumane. The punishment is not suited to the crime. I’m not saying they’re angels. They’ve all done something wrong, but Charlotte was on a 16-month sentence and when she died she’d been in there almost nine years. You’ve just taken away the human element of hope haven’t you?”

Fifteen years since the IPP’s implementation, and five years since it was abolished, its creator Lord David Blunkett says he made a mistake. “I’m to blame for IPP,” he says in an exclusive interview, “and we would do it differently now.

“If I had my time again I would have ensured from the beginning that the IPP could only be applied for people with very substantial tariffs,” he says, quickly adding that the Treasury could have allocated more money for prison education programmes and that the Parole Board could have been more efficient with releasing the IPP prisoners once they no longer posed a perceived threat.

But Andrew Neilson says the Labour government “did have the money to throw at the prison system” in 2007-8 when the overcrowding and understaffing crisis hit. In fact, for him the crisis, which continues today, “was directly the cause of the IPP influx”.   

He believes the government “should have been much tighter in the offences that they defined as liable for getting an IPP” to avoid such extreme overcrowding.

But having agreed that the sentence should have only applied for those with substantial tariffs, Blunkett says this wasn’t really his fault, rather the judiciary’s: “The message from the judges at the time was, ‘well you might pass the law but sentencing should be left to us.’”

Lord Blunkett insists he does regret how the sentence was implemented, “if we’re into the blame game,” he says. “But I don’t regret the principle, which was to protect the public from extremely dangerous prisoners who, in several cases, admitted themselves they were likely to reoffend.”

The families left behind

The IPP Families Campaign was set up by Katherine Gleeson in 2003 after a relative was sentenced to the punishment. She remembers: “I set up a 24-hour desk at home and then started working straight away.”

Gleeson now receives hundreds of emails a day from families in need of support and has met with the chair of the Parole Board, Nick Hardwick, on several occasions to speak about IPP. However, he refused to comment on this article.

“You can’t really determine risk. I can’t say that every time I cross over the road that I’m going to get run over,” insists Gleeson, “I mean there’s no proof. None of the IPP prisoners are any more a risk than a normal prisoner and these IPPs actually have minor sentences compared to the rest of the prison population.” 

Katherine Gleeson

Gleeson’s relative Jason was a regular kid. He got in a fight and was given the maximum tariff of five years for ABH with intent, or in other words, common assault. 

“I remember getting a call from Jason and him saying ‘oh my god you’re not going to believe this, they’ve given me a 99-year sentence, a life sentence,’” she says, “I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

“You know, most of us have counselling and it’s just like living with a death that just keeps going. You don’t see any end to it. I had a mother just today who says she’s at her wits’ end and she feels like taking her own life,” she says. 

They were told that if Jason took the relevant educational courses, he might be released sooner and so Katherine and Jason started to work together to get him out. Katherine would scour the internet for the best courses, checking which prisons conducted them, and sharing all the information with him from the outside. 

Meanwhile Jason would apply to the Governor, asking to be moved to a different prison where a course was taking place. She says: “Then he got moved out to another prison to find out that the actual course was full so then we had to apply for another move and sometimes they would say the courses were there and they weren’t.”

“There is no light”

Unfortunately, another IPP prisoner who wishes to remain anonymous doesn’t have a family member like Katherine to help him. James* is currently nine years over his two-and-a-half-year sentence for aggravated burglary and has been refused release four times, after the Parole Board suggested each time he complete a specific course despite him having served his tariff. 

In one instance, James had already been accredited with a course, but it had since been re-named and so he had to take it again. In another instance he was asked to complete a course that he was later told he didn’t fit the criteria for. The most recent course suggestion is not even available at his current prison. 

In a letter to the Parole Board, James says: “All accredited offending behaviour programmes have submitted positive reports,” but “when I try to ask for help, I receive none. When I ask what I have to do, no one has given the answer. When I try to be assertive, I get ignored…If I become passive, I get told I’m not motivated.

“There is no light. Serving a twenty-year sentence, still with no light, for something I shouldn’t have served more than five years for isn’t justice. It’s just wrong."

Katherine Gleeson claims: “Nick Hardwick said they don’t even have to do the courses. The staff or agencies are undermining each other. They’re still saying you have to do this course with this course, so I don’t understand. They’re told they don’t even have to do the courses because they’ve served their sentence already.”

Andrew Neilson says it’s a “Kafka-esque situation” where “you’ve got people in the system who need to prove that they’re no longer dangerous but they have no means to do that because the availability of courses and interventions are still an issue”.

Katherine Gleeson’s relative Jason soon cottoned on to this subversive parole system. As he became more comfortable in prison, he started to interview the other IPP inmates. He quickly worked out that no one had been released after their first time applying for parole once they’d served their tariff.

Instead, he served his five years and then purposefully waited another year before going to the psychiatrist for his assessment and referral to the Parole Board for release. According to Katherine, his thinking was: “If he applied for parole and never got it, when he went to apply again they would say ‘Oh well why didn’t the other parole let him out? There must be something wrong there.’”

Jason’s plan worked and he was released just one year over his tariff. Katherine claims Jason’s fortune is extremely rare under the IPP sentence, as many others remain stranded behind bars.

Following a recent lecture given by Nick Hardwick, Andrew Neilson believes the Parole Board is taking significant steps to ensure more IPP prisoners are released, shown by the number of rising from 140 in 2010 to 715 in 2015.

Nielson says: “He’s [Hardwick] front-loaded his budget to recruit new Parole Board members and to get more hearings up and running and that is happening.”

However, due to continued prison overcrowding, Neilson says: “There were a number of Parole Board hearings scheduled and then a lot of them didn’t take place because there were staff shortages and they couldn’t get the prisoners out of their cells. The Parole Board can do what it can but it is dependent on the system being able to deliver and at the moment it’s struggling.”

But following a conversation with an IPP inmate whose release date has been set back by six months, Katherine Gleeson worries the prison system is purposefully holding IPP prisoners and blighting their chances of release.

Gleeson has received four letters from inmates claiming their release date has been pushed back thanks to offender managers filling out their pre-Parole Board hearing paperwork wrong. She suggests this is because of the scant availability of adequate aftercare resources, saying: “They haven’t got the hostels for them afterwards so they’re holding them.”

“Guantanamo Bay? That’s possibly a bit far, but in terms of it being a festering injustice that has not been properly dealt with then, yes,” says Andrew Neilson of The Howard League for Penal Reform, the IPP sentence is “comparable”.

A life licence “horror story”

Even upon release, IPP prisoners must live under a ten-year life licence.

This requires a former prisoner to report to probabtion services at regular intervals for ten years. If a former prisoner does not attend for any reason, including, as Gleeson points out, problems with time-keeping due to learning difficulties, which approximately 80 per cent of the prison population are living with, they can be re-incarcerated.

Kipp Bassett was originally given three years and four months on an IPP sentence for GBH with intent in 2008. He got into an alcohol-induced pub fight and glassed a man caught in the crossfire.

He says: “It’s obviously something I’m definitely not proud of and it’s something I really regret for myself and also for my family, especially my daughter.” He admits the incident came about because “I hadn’t dealt with certain issues around my drinking.” He was released six years over his sentence in 2013.

But it was only in December 2015, after Kipp had been officially released from prison, that he experienced the real IPP “horror story”. He had a shouting match in the street with a neighbour and was immediately recalled to prison, even though he wasn’t guilty of an offence. He remembers: “Even the judge was saying this is absolutely ridiculous.”

Kipp was held in prison for 11 months with no charge until September 2016.

He blames the Parole Board for his unnecessary incarceration. Kipp was meant to have a hearing two weeks after he went to court, but no one notified him or his solicitor that it was happening. So that date passed and he was given another date in April, but a member of the Parole Board couldn’t make the hearing, for one reason or another – he wasn’t really told.

“I was supposed to have another one in July and something else happened. In the end I got one in August,” Kipp says. Even though he was awarded £2,500 compensation from the Parole Board, he says: “That’s irrelevant, you can’t get back 11 months.”

Andrew Neilson says the issues of recall and life licences under the IPP sentence are particularly high on The Howard League of Penal Reform’s agenda, as they see more cases like Kipp’s occurring.

“We’re already aware of people under the licence being recalled to custody for things like missing appointments, not new crimes, but breaching administrative conditions,” says Nielson.

He continues: “They haven’t committed murder or very violent crimes; some of the IPPs, as well documented, are people who were prosecuted for arson because they set fire to a bin. Should someone in that circumstance, never mind get an indeterminate sentence, have a life licence when they get released?” 

Kipp must follow strict conditions to avoid being sent back to prison. He can’t leave the country for ten years and he must register each new romantic relationship with probation, despite the fact he has never been charged with a sexual or domestic offence. 

Sure, “it can be awkward with a girl”, he says, but the travel ban is Kipp’s main sadness. He says: “I want to take my daughter around the world. We want to go to Australia, but I can’t for another ten years”.

Kipp’s daughter has cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease that requires hours of physical therapy each day to move sticky mucus away from her lungs and digestive tract.  

 “You need to give someone some kind of hope,” says Kipp. “People pick up the Inside Time [prison] magazine and just read horror stories, horror stories, horror stories and then after a bit of time… that’s you.” 

 Kipp and Jason both got out of prison, but Charlie Nokes never did.

Good night, Charlie

Her sister Rachel remembers: “When she passed away everyone in the prison described the same Charlotte from our childhood.”

The “entertainer”, the kid who started bands and taught herself guitar, who cracked jokes and wore too many colours. “Sometimes I’d go and visit her in prison and be like ‘Oh my god what are you wearing?’ and she’d say ‘What? I look awesome’,” remembers Rachel, laughing. 

In fact, Charlie’s “amazing” creativity thrived behind bars. She would design and paint murals on the cell walls and all over the back of her door with art materials she’d been given by the Koestler Trust, a charity which encourages art as a form of rehabilitation.

Charlie’s artistic talent caused quite a stir in the "outside" art world as well. She would enter the Koestler Trust Awards each year, changing her style so no one could guess it was her. Her work was thought of so highly that one of London’s most prestigious art schools, Central Saint Martins, offered her an unconditional place to study there upon her release. Charlie was, of course, never able to take this up.

“After she died, we kept thinking ‘Oh I wish I could talk to her about that’, you know? I wish she’d spoken to us about it more when she was alive. Quite often her art was quite abstract and you’d see stuff and you’d want to go and ask her about it. But I can’t,” says Rachel. 

But Charlie’s “wacky dressing” and abstract paintings increasingly served to hide a darker, more tortured person, despite her efforts to stay positive in the earlier months of her sentence. By the end of her time in prison, Charlie had been diagnosed with multiple different personality and mental health disorders. 

Rachel remembers: “Every time she saw a different psychiatrist they gave her a different diagnosis and then stopped her medication all together. Then she would go off the rails because she just felt awful and then they would sort of punish her for that. I think that’s quite often why her IPP got extended and then they put her on another cocktail of medication and so on.”

She continues: “Last time we visited her, she was so medicated that she would just lose her thread while she was talking to us and just stare off into space. She was so heavily medicated by the end that she would fall over without realising she’d fallen over.”

At just 37 years old, Charlie’s mental health was deemed so poor that it was suggested she have her womb surgically removed to control her mood swings, with the operation to be performed by an NHS doctor.

Charlie officially consented to the hysterectomy. “But I’m not sure she was in the right place to be able to consent,” Rachel admits. “It’s something that bothers me and all of us really.” 

In this way, she believes that “most women on IPPs should not be in prison, most of them should be in mental health institutions or psychiatric wards”, and that the relevant facilities just aren’t available.

“We met a couple of others in prison, most of them are on wards because they were self-harming so badly and to be quite honest most of the women that were in the long-term wing that Charlotte was in shouldn’t have been in prison. A lot of women end up being put into prison and not treated properly due to the lack of spaces,” she says. 

A short time after her surgery, Charlie’s father came to visit her and she was feeling hopeful for the first time in years. The Home Office told her she could be transferred to a secure psychiatric facility, and she could finally get the proper treatment she’d needed since adolescence. 

At the end of July 2016, Charlotte lay back in her bed and rolled a cigarette, looking over the cell she had made her own over the nine years she’d been in prison. She closed her eyes and fell into life’s last sleep.

“I don’t think she tried to kill herself. There were just prescribed drugs in her system, that’s all,” says Rachel, who is now waiting on further toxicology and mental health reports to see if her sister was on the correct types and doses of medication.

“I got a letter a week before she died,” remembers Rachel, “and I hadn’t got a chance to reply to her. Since we were children really we were like chalk and cheese but she was saying that it would be nice to build a relationship and get to know my children. But now, she never will.”

“Charlotte wasn’t a horrible person. She was still my sister, Mum and Dad’s daughter. You get defined by your crime and your addiction, which is sad in itself. Then get put in a box and stop being a person in society.”

There remain around 3,500 IPP prisoners incarcerated across the country, with little hope of release and the prospect of future suffering if they are let out thanks to overzealous recall conditions.

The problem is, admits Lord Blunkett, “there are no votes in investing in prisons or prisoners”.

* Name has been changed

This article was amnended on 17 August 2017 to correct a reference which said legal aid was not available for those applying to a Parole Board for release, and to make it clear that post release prisoners must report to probation services and not the Parole Board. 

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania