WikiLeaks and diplomats, Derby and the Daily Mail

Are ambassadors worth it? Should I become a consultant? And what use is the <em>Mail</em>?

Well, is that it? When I first heard WikiLeaks had a lorry load of US diplomatic cables, I looked forward to something remarkable. Like this from London (circa 2002): "Don't forget to post those cheques to Tony, Jack and Geoff. They'll do exactly as we tell them and, at that price, it's a bargain. Even with the diamonds for Cherie." Or from Islamabad: "Just back from The Cave. Osama says it's cold and he's fed up with being the fall guy." Or from Nairobi: "Found the birth certificate and put it in a maximum-security box in the vaults of a Swiss bank."

Instead, we learn Prince Andrew is a bit of a plonker, the Arabs hate the Persians, Kim Jong-il of North Korea needs to work out, the Afghan government is corrupt, and everybody worries about terrorists getting their hands on Pakistan's nuclear stuff.

Sensational stuff, I suppose, if you've been away on a trip to Mars for the past dozen years. Only the news that China favours a reunified Korea took me by surprise. I didn't know Colonel Gaddafi went around with "a voluptuous Ukrainian nurse", but I can't say I care much, though if I were a patriotic Libyan I might ask why our pure and beautiful Libyan sisters aren't good enough for Brother Leader.

I do know at least a dozen male Labour former ministers who could be described as "hound dogs" where women are concerned. It would take a pretty dozy diplomat not to spot at least one of them.

I write this after just the first two days of "revelations", so perhaps, by the time you read this, more exciting news will have emerged. But the vast majority of routine diplomatic cables - WikiLeaks doesn't have the higher-grade ones - comprise nothing more than what embassy staff read in local newspapers or hear on the party and lunching circuit. Diplomats, like journalists, try to find out what's going on and then make sense of it.
If most of the WikiLeaks cables read like snippets from the gossip colums or, in the more thoughtful examples, pieces from an upmarket newspaper's comment pages, that's probably because they've been lifted from the papers or because journalists get much of their material from off-the-record diplomatic briefings.

Surely the big story that WikiLeaks unearthed is that most diplomats are a colossal waste of money.

Millions like us

I'd be more impressed by the US authorities' claims that the WikiLeaks disclosures risk irreparable damage to international relations and even endanger informants' lives if the cables were not already available to 2.5 million people on SIPRNet, the US department of defence network. They didn't seriously believe that the contents of all these documents could remain completely secure, did they? They just didn't bargain for anyone snaffling the lot. Governments instinctively hoard information and restrict its circulation, even when it's relatively routine and banal. Keeping material away from the unwashed masses denies opportunities to set an alternative agenda, and debate issues that politicians would rather ignore.

Oh Mandy

Peter Mandelson, it is reported, is setting up an "international consultancy". Clearly, consultancy expects no diminution in demand for its services even in these hard times. About half the people I meet these days claim to be consultants, though they are often vague about who consults them on what.

I've never understood what consultants are supposed to do, but a City man of my acquaintance has given me a clue. Though well aware that I have spent my adult life in newspapers, he invariably asks how my "consultancy work" is coming along. I tell him that, since I left the New Statesman editorship, I've become a freelance hack, not a consultant. He looks at me as though I have claimed to be the Duke of Edinburgh and asks sympathetically: "Is your consultancy not going well?"

Asian fixation

You may have read about the nine Derby men recently jailed for "grooming" schoolgirls for sex. If you followed the case, as I did (I happen to know Derby well), you probably understood, without thinking much of it, that eight of the nine were Asian and 22 out of 27 victims were white. But the Daily Mail devoted a double-page spread to what it called "a sinister taboo". BBC Radio Derby, it lamented, had reported the case but "barely" mentioned the racial origins of those involved. The local paper printed the gang members' names, "but failed to use the word Asian once".

Leave aside exactly how often a radio station should mention the accused's race in a criminal case. Leave aside, too, whether the good folk
of Derby might not have spotted a clue in the names of the gang members, who included Mohammed Liaqat, Faisal Mehmood and Abid Saddique. Can anyone explain - the Mail certainly didn't - why it is so important that we should have it lodged firmly in our minds that these criminals were (mostly) Asian and their victims (mostly) white? And can anyone tell me why we should not keep reminding ourselves that, in the 1930s, the Daily Mail supported Oswald Mosley's Fascists?

No, no, no

Some of you may wonder why, given its unpleasant opinions, hatred of lefties and unreliable information, I bother reading the Daily Mail. The reason is that it provides a quick but always infallible guide to two or three troubling issues each day.

The rule I follow is that the answer to any leading question posed in a Mail headline is always "no". So, from one recent day: "Will Camilla have to curtsey to Kate?", "Will it [the coalition] last five years?" and "Is wifi frying our brains?" No, no and no. Sorted.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.